What is Embodiement?
There are many ways to describe it, but in essence it is being present in your body, having a connection between your mind and your physical body. When we have a sense of embodiment, we can notice what we are feeling (awareness) and can make a choice as to how we respond to this state physically. It ultimately mindfulness. It is a sense of our bodies as ‘I’ rather our bodies as ‘it’. Embodiment is coming home to our physical being and coming home to ourselves. These things sound simple, but in the frantic world we live in, with our wide and varied life experiences, they aren't always so obvious.
Mark Walsh, founder of ‘The Embodiment Conference’ and generally ‘Mr Embodiment’ defines it as a combination of the following integrative arts:
Mindfulness; yoga; bodywork; theatre/improv; dance; both eastern and western somatic (body) awareness practices; and martial arts.
‘Learning is experience, everything else is just information’ (Einstein)
Cognitive learning isn’t everything. In fact, I could have an IQ of 120 but if my body was out off-kilter I would not be able to perform. Further, no teacher or therapist could help me unless they could first help me to regulate my body first.
Working on embodiment rather than thoughts is a much easier way to make changes!
When I was at school and didn’t understand something, it was the teacher who used a calm tone, open body posture and brought things back to me that helped me to progress, not the teacher who yelled how to solve the problem practically speaking.
Embodied intelligence- a key to success
A child might learn that if they punch another child, they get a much quicker reaction than if they try to reason with them. Their physical impulse is to fight (or flight). They haven’t paused and noticed what they are feeling and/or don’t have a range of other responses to draw from. Embodied intelligence is the ability to notice what is going on in the body and mind and then make a choice as to whether this needs changing, and if so how. The broader our range of options to choose from, the more flexible we can be in our responses to situations.
How can we broaden our range?
This is so easy but so neglected! Practice. When we practice certain physical states, our body remembers them. When we practice them in context, even better! Here are a few:
Play: when a child or adult practices playing, the body experiences laughter and taking things lightly.
Yoga: the body experiences what it is like to be calm, then to move to flow and faster heartbeat but then to calm again.
Breathwork: the body learns how certain breathing bring a sense of balance
Being in the presence of a calming other: we are like sponges, we have ‘mirror neurons’ which mimic the way those around us are (this is why ‘Simon Says’ is so challenging, we all want to do what we see not what we hear!) Here, the body experiences a relationship as being validating, safe and pleasant.
The more these are practiced, the easier it is to draw on them when the body begins escalating. The more we practice noticing how we are, the faster we can choose to keep going or to use a strategy to change our state.
But how do we learn to notice?
Again, noticing can be taught as a discrete skill. Most of us develop self-awareness as children, but different life events can impact upon this, including leading some children and adults to shut off self-awareness as it is too painful. Supporting noticing in includes:
Creating a safe space where the body can be relaxed
Exploring what happens to the body in different situations and with different thoughts and feelings (‘body clues’)
Experiment with different physical postures and discuss how they influence feelings (e.g. making yourself small and tense vs big and open)
Breathing and grounding skills
Here's an example
Think about what you do when you get stressed. I know personally sometimes I might try to escape the feeling (a glass of wine?), sometimes I might become it (snap at a loved one?) but other times I might notice it, have some time out (a walk, a nice bath) and then revisit the situation that caused the stress. I am only able to do the latter at all because I have learnt how to breathe, check in with my feelings and then decide from a range of strategies what is best to do next. Act on impulse (not usually!) or do something to change my physical state. If I stay tense, no amount of positive self-talk will help. And I’m sure I don’t need to ask you if you think it is better to be able to notice earlier or later when the body is becoming dysregulated…
Embodiment work in my practice
You may have got a hunch that this is integral to all of my practice. It weaves through all of my work and is at the core. If a child is experiencing anxiety, they won’t be able to access logical thought until they are back in their body. And it works both ways, because if I don’t have a sense of embodiment, I can’t expect any relational work I do to be successful.
I am naturally a very open, playful person and often wondered if this was why people found it easy to open up to me. After studying embodiment, I realised it was, that I had naturally developed an interest in this area because I know how good it feels to do things that make me feel physically in the present moment. Also how good it feels to be able to express myself truthfully without hiding from scary of ‘embarrassing’ feelings. In my work, I bring years of experience and academic titles working in wellbeing and development, but most importantly I feel, is that I bring myself. In holding embodiment true, it doesn’t really matter what technique or method is being used to support someone, what it ultimately comes down to is whether they feel connected to themselves and connected to me as the bringer of this support.