What is an embodied practice? Considerations for Pilates, yoga, training and rehabilitation.

The term “embodiment” is trending widely through the movement, psychology and emotional wellbeing fields at present, and movement professionals in multiple professions have been quick to claim it as a benefit of their practice.

Often promoted as mind-body practices, do Pilates and yoga have anything to offer in the embodiment space? Is there anything to say about embodiment in rehabilitation and training?  In truth, any form of movement work can be an embodied practice, but conversely, any practice can miss that mark. The defining factor is in the method of delivery, not the content.

With an increasing understanding of the combined effects of exteroception (the perception of sensory input from outside the body), proprioception (the sense of where my body is) and interoception (the sense of how my body is), insightful teachers can guide their clients and students beyond the learning and performance of techniques, to the sense of experiencing themselves deeply through movement.  An embodied practice emerges.

How is this achieved?

A practitioner’s intention for the session is key. When planning the session, the first decision will be whether the session purpose today is “mind over matter” or “mind in matter”.  This will shape the language used, moving from instruction to invitation. This in turn will influence whether the client must process the information in the cognitive, problem solving part of the brain (mind over matter), or via the sensory processing regions (mind in/arising from matter). When we speak about “mind-body”, already we can see more than one possibility.

At the next level of intention, a practitioner may choose whether to direct the person to work with awareness, or with focus. It may seem a fine distinction, but in that subtlety lies a world of difference in the experience of the client.

Awareness allows someone to encounter what is present in their bodies. Rather than searching for what they “should” encounter, they become aware of what they actually do encounter. Expectations and self-judgement are suspended, allowing curiosity to emerge. When adequately supported by the teacher, many clients experience this as something of a revelation – they are frequently surprised by what they sense, or don’t sense, and how it is influenced by the movements that they are performing. This insight is often carried over into their everyday lives, and they frequently report their own discoveries at their next session. It is a rich and interesting process, but an unusual one for many people whose training has previously and more conventionally been focus oriented.

When we invite someone to encounter the floor beneath their back, their exteroceptive system senses the flesh settling on its surface, their proprioceptive system notes the shape of their spine, and the interoceptive system reports how that feels. From here, the person has the opportunity to notice what changes as the movement of an arm or leg is introduced, and with guidance, perhaps make new choices. The mind waits and watches as the sensory story unfolds.

Where awareness has indistinct boundaries, focus narrows and sharpens the attention. The emphasis shifts to the cognitive processing part of the brain as the mind applies itself to the task. An element of mind over matter is introduced, with attention being withdrawn from the wider body landscape and channelled into the area of consideration. For example, when we instruct a client to focus on maintaining a floor contact with the spine during a movement, the mind steps forward to direct the process, and the intention shifts from exploration to attainment of a specific outcome.

Have you ever found yourself saying “Focus on your breathing” as a technique is performed? When we discern between awareness and focus, it is possible to see how this instruction creates a conflict that the client must negotiate. Focus directs us to concentrate our attention, in this case to the act of breathing. If we focus successfully, we have relatively little processing bandwidth left to deal with the movement task. For a relative novice, it is a hugely demanding cognitive challenge and the task becomes mind dominant. If however we are asked to remain aware of our breathing, we can hold that attention much more lightly and flexibly, allowing it to wander from our breath to our movement and back again, learning to check in with ourselves as our skill develops sufficiently to permit the breathing to continue comfortably throughout the movement.

Similarly, if you have ever heard yourself say “try to…” or “try not to…”, be aware that those innocuous words shift a person’s consciousness from their felt experience in the body back to the mind as they direct their focus with increased effort to fulfil the instruction you have just given.

The confidence of the practitioner can play a part here. Command style instructions (“Do this, now do that) are reassuringly concrete, but leave little space for a client to sense their own responses. They create a binary framework, with outcome choices of correct or incorrect; good or not good; can do, can’t do. This keeps the interaction relatively predictable and the cues readily reproducible, and for some clients this can be a reassuringly familiar format. This is a form of practice, but it is not an embodied practice.

Conversely, cuing an invitation allows for variation, surprises, and most importantly, collaboration. Phrases such as “What/where do you notice…?” or “Does anything change when..?” can lead the client into their body, engaging their curiosity and involving them in the process. Comparison can be an ideal strategy; for example, is there a difference in the sensory experience of the body’s ability to lengthen when connecting to the feet, or to the fingertips? Classes or individual sessions where this approach is used demand more flexibility and imagination from the teacher, a skill expansion that develops over time for those with an interest in engaging their clients at this level. It is effort which is richly rewarded – empowering people to understand the language of their own body sense enables them to share their discoveries with you with increasing insight and accuracy. This is a meaningful source of inspiration and learning for a teacher, while challenging them to become more responsive and creative.

For those clients who attend for the pain and injuries, this approach is particularly meaningful. I see many clients who have learned from their rehabilitation or class to fear a “lack of control”, and who keep their body parts locked in fixed relationships that they have understood to be “safe”. These people learn a coping strategy, but not to transcend their injuries. It is very different when someone has come to understand their sensations, their responses and the logic of their own bodies. These people are not dependent upon their movement practices or practitioners, but empowered by them.

Any of the movement practices have enormous potential to be an embodiment experience, if that is your interest as a practitioner. As a start point, remember that awareness and focus each have their place, and both are useful and appropriate when a movement professional has the clarity to distinguish between them. Awareness, when supported by the practitioner, can suspend self-judgement, creating space for curiosity to emerge. And finally, the sensory experience of a movement, one of inhabiting the body in the moment as opposed to dominating it with the mind, allows someone the wonder of discovering themselves through movement.

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