What is Embodiment?
The word embodiment pops up a lot these days, but what does it actually mean, and how do we become more embodied?
The dictionary defines embodiment as ‘a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling’.
For me, this means bringing our thoughts and feelings out of our mind and into our body. It means removing the idea that our mind and body are separate, and instead, learning how to bring them together as a whole.
What embodiment is (and what it isn’t)
Most of us understand the term ‘body language’ – it’s a series of tell-tale movements we make when we’re communicating. These movements are often unconscious and may include facial expressions, hand gestures or changes in posture.
The key word here is ‘unconscious’. We don’t realise we’re making these movements, so there’s a disconnect between what we’re thinking or feeling, and how our body is moving.
When we’re unaware of the connection between our physical feelings and our thoughts and emotions, we ignore, resist, or misunderstand these physical sensations. We might experience pain in the body without understanding that the root cause stems from an emotional response.
We end up chasing our tails, trying to stop the pain with painkillers or by ‘correcting’ that part of our body in some way. We make the pain worse by resisting it and insisting it shouldn’t be there. By ignoring the messages our body is trying to send, we develop holding patterns that lead to chronic pain.
If, instead, we can embrace the wisdom of our body and invite all sensations without judgement, we can allow those sensations to come and go, flow through the body and be released when they’re ready.
The poet, Rumi, put this beautifully in his poem The Guest House:
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
By honouring how our body feels, we remove resistance and open ourselves up to a state of ease and flow.
What is embodied awareness?
Our bodies are designed to move. Even when you’re sitting still, your body is in a state of constant movement as your heart beats and your breath flows in and out.
If you look at the movements of young children, you’ll see embodiment in practice. They sing, they yell, they jump for joy and roll down hills – just for the heck of it. Their movements are unfettered and carefree.
Unfortunately, society quickly teaches us to behave in certain ways, to tone down our exuberance, to only move in ways considered appropriate, that certain feelings are ‘bad’. Our culture prizes the development of the mind, with movement being an afterthought. We learn at an early age to ignore the needs of our body and, instead, to sit still and listen.
As adults, we sit at desks, in cars, on the couch. We stare at screens while we work and when we relax at home, resulting in movements that are repetitive and rigid. Even if we do exercise, we often do it with a specific goal in mind – to win, or ‘get fit’. Many sports activities have a strict set of rules, teaching us the right and wrong way to move, rather than allowing us the joy of spontaneous movement.
To become embodied, we need to explore how our body wants to move in any given moment. It starts as something as simple as consciously connecting with the breath to notice which parts of our body move when we inhale and exhale.
We can begin to notice what physical sensations our feelings produce. When you feel anxious, does your chest feel tight? Do your shoulders hunch over to make you less conspicuous? When you’re angry, is your jaw clenching? Does your breathing get faster, or do you hold your breath?
Bringing conscious awareness to your body’s physical responses is the first step to embodiment. It stimulates new neural pathways and literally rebuilds that connection between body and mind. The more you do it, the stronger the neural pathways become. You’ll reach a stage where you’re no longer just noticing how your body responds (which still implies a disconnect between body and mind), but your awareness will sink down and become a part of the body itself.
You can discover embodiment in any way that encourages joyful movement:
- Free-flowing, intuitive dance, such as belly dancing, African dancing, or sensuous dancing.
- Singing – this connects you deeply with your breath and the physical sense of sound.
- Mindfulness – mindfulness practices bring you out of your head and into the physical senses during daily activities, allowing you to be more present in how your body is feeling.
- Feldenkrais – this gentle movement practice teaches how to bring consciousness back to your physical body and the way you move on a daily basis.
Finding true embodiment, dissolves the line between mind and body, so they become one. It allows us to enjoy a deeper connection with ourselves but also with the world around us. By learning to inhabit the body you’re in, you can heal, and find a greater sense of peace and joy in your life.
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