For the last 20 years I have been devoted to conscious embodiment practice. By which I mean, exploring with both my body and mindful awareness toward psycho-spiritual and personal development, emotional regulation, physical healing, and ultimately wholeness. I can trace the origins of this path in two ways. For one, I have always been fascinated with having a physical body and expressing through its form. I danced right out of the womb and never stopped.
What ignited a truly conscious embodiment path was a sacred wound, the sudden and tragic death of my first love and long time friend at age 21. This was a heartbreak too unfathomable to fit into any map of understanding that I possessed so I embarked on a quest to meet the mysteries of life and death. It would not be an understatement to say that the resources I have developed through somatic practices have saved my life on numerous occasions. While I do mean this in a literal sense, I also mean it in a much larger metaphorical sense. Learning to live more fully in my body is the gift of meeting life fully. And falling in love with living both an incredibly joyful and deeply painful human experience. The regular, steady rhythm of practice grounds me in the center of the highs and lows.
Recently I had two significant invitations to reflect on this path. In graduate school, I took a Leadership Embodiment Practices course. This offered the opportunity to bring an academic lens to both my personal practice and my work as a somatic practitioner (which you know I loved!) while also a deepening into these practices. .
I also facilitated a weekend retreat, Undomesticated, which was the most explicitly erotic, emergent and experiential group container that I have facilitated professionally. One of my biggest take-aways from that weekend was that it was also probably the safest container I have ever held. This had me reflecting not only on my learning through my personal path of embodiment coupled with 20 years of teaching experience, but also on all of the resources that the participants that attended the retreat had developed along their embodiment journeys.
As I reflected more on the meaning of the words somatic and embodiment, in both my passion for these paths and how they inform my work, I found myself in a labyrinth. I realized that while I speak these terms from an intrinsic bodily sense of them, I did not have a strong, clearly differentiated definition for these terms. I wanted to know their origin stories, what I really meant when I used them and, particularly, to have a very clear way of speaking about them to anyone. So here is what I discovered and where I arrived after a relatively short research rabbit hole on these bodies of work.
My understanding of the roots of the term embodiment is an evolutionary pulse in response to the 17th century Cartesian notion of the disembodied mind. René Descartes author of the phrase, “I think therefore I am,” grounded philosophy into a new and rigorous scientific method that prized the strategic, rational mind above all else. It also seems significant to mention the initial exile of the body with the spread of monotheistic religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the Middle Ages. This mind/body split that occurred with the development of, and later emphasis on, the rational mind birthed modernity and became embedded in the west’s socio-cultural fabric and institutions.
Both the terms somatic and embodiment seem to have taken root in their current contexts through new therapeutic modalities and literature coming out of the 1970’s. This signifies a surge of body awareness that arose in the collective western consciousness coinciding with the spread of the eastern practices of yoga and meditation.
Currently, embodiment and somatics are best understood through a complex multidimensional and interdisciplinary lens that includes relatedness as well as “contradictions, tensions, and epistemological incoherencies”. Don Hanlon Johnson, founder of the Somatics Graduate Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies, calls both somatics and embodiment “generative concepts.” He states that the function of somatics:
is to create possibilities of collaboration among communities that otherwise stand isolated from each other, often in competition and conflict . . . Now with the help of this new paradigm, we can see how each can augment and make more effective the practice of the others.
Johnson relates somatics to bodies of work such as “cognitive science” and “ecology.” Somatics is the unifying center of a wheel with many spokes.
At its essence somatics derives from the Greek word soma, defined as “the living body in its wholeness” by Thomas Hanna. Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen says that somatics is, “the study of the body through the personal experiential perspective.” While somatics is often oriented toward subjective experience, its early origins in the school of phenomenology founded by Edmund Husserl aimed to create a science of somatology that bridged objective, what we are observing outside of ourselves, and subjective, or personal, perspectives. Across disciplines somatics shares the common impulse of reclaiming bodily intelligence through sensory awareness and the restoration of self-regulation. Self-regulation speaks to the body’s innate capacity to heal, restore and return to center. We see self-regulation in action when an animal shakes vigorously or a toddler has a spontaneous emotional release and then continues on playing.
Somatics as a field lives in relationship to, and under the umbrella of, embodiment. Johnson says that as a generative concept, “The notion of embodiment . . . comprises a robust inquiry among scholars and practitioners of many disciplines including Somatics, Phenomenology, contemporary Psychoanalysis, Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Biology, Meditation practices, Ecology.” Embodiment is both about the body and also more than the body. Embodiment points to an organism in relationship.
My primary yoga teacher, Shiva Rea, defined embodiment in her master’s thesis as,
the deepening of interior awareness, sensation, and kinesthetic consciousness as a way of knowing how all of the dimensions of the self—emotional, cognitive, spiritual, and physical—intersect in their bodily expression.
Embodiment seems to describe a way of knowing, or understanding, that describes communication between, and integration of, wholistic body and mind, or bodymind. Inherent within this integration is experiential learning where, quite literally, new neural pathways are formed within the nervous system. The nervous system is the master communication system of the body that transmits signals for every thought, action, instinct, and emotion. Embodiment is the expression of a quality or, in other words, the living wisdom of a body.
Amanda Blake summarizes both the multidimensional aspects of embodiment with its learning process “embodiment training really shines when it includes the body and integrates embodied learning with mental, spiritual, emotional, and behavioral learning.” Embodiment encompasses full being awareness, learning, development, and change. And this is what I mean when I refer to embodiment in relation to my work.
When I use the term somatic in relation to my work I am describing the nature of sensing and perceiving from the body—including the nervous system. I view somatic practices as those that foster sensory awareness, embodied consciousness and self-regulation. What is emerging for me is a sense that somatic holds more qualities of mindfulness, or embodied awareness, and spaciousness. Somatic practice creates the conscious conditions for the bodymind to enter its innate capacities to unwind patterns, decouple associations, discharge stress, express its story, and alchemize polarities. Somatic practices help to bring the organism back to tabula rasa, a clear slate. Some examples of somatic practice might be breathwork, mindful free-form movement or noticing sensation.
Whereas embodiment practices are about the development and learning of something new in the organism. While both somatic and embodiment practices are dynamic in nature, there is something inherently more active about embodiment practices with the creation of neural pathways and new ways of being. As Blake says, “Embodiment is about what emanates from you and what emerges naturally and automatically from the inside . . .” Learning a physical practice with specific forms like yoga may be an embodiment practice as well as learning an instrument or how to stand more confidently while giving a presentation.
Both somatic and embodiment practices are tools for resourcing and regulation. Both also develop embodied consciousness and wholeness by exploring the relationship of differentiated parts and inviting their dance of communion. I am playing with somatics and embodiment through the image of yin and yang in that they both hold elements of one another. Shiva Rea states that, “Somatic modalities are practices of embodiment.”
Embodiment practice can be engaged in a way that attempts to maintain the status quo of who we are by focusing on the relief of feeling better or achieving a goal. Or embodiment practice can be transformative, revealing more of our true essence through uncovering the unconscious impulses that came from early emotional development and predominant familial and cultural narratives. When embodiment practice supports us to disrupt our habits and patterns, we begin to have more choice within our actions, behaviors and within our lives. As we discover the instinctual and wild human animal of our body, we awaken to our profound relationship within nature. Through embodiment we discover that we are much more than our thoughts and attune to phenomena that are beyond our mental capacities. We can re-inhabit wonder, play, imagination, curiosity and surrender our rational minds to the great mystery of it all. As we realize the complexity that lies within our embodiment, we awaken to the interrelatedness of all things, and find ourselves humbled by our unique place in this web of life.
What I have learned on the path of embodiment is that it is ever-unfolding and evolving. There are always more revelations, more heights, depths, nuance, layers, and maps for sense making—especially as new science and ancient spiritual practices continue to inform one another and even merge. There is nowhere to get. Embodiment doesn’t make life easier, it allows us to feel more of everything—there is no golden carrot (or esoteric secret). However, I do believe that inhabiting our bodies more fully might make life more meaningful and further actualize what it really means to be human.
Are you a somatic and/or embodiment practitioner? I would love to hear the ways in which you make sense of and practice these concepts. Please leave your comments below!
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1. Margherita De Giorgi, “Shaping the Living Body: paradigms of soma and authority in Thomas Hanna’s writings.” Brazilian Journal on Presence Studies, v. 5, n. 1, (Jan/Apr 2015): 54-84.
2. Don Hanlon Johnson, “Somatics,” http://www.donhanlonjohnson.com/somatics.html (accessed November 10, 2018).
3. Thomas Hanna, The Body of Life: Creating New Pathways for Sensory Awareness and Fluid Movement. (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press 1979).
4. Margherita De Giorgi, “Shaping the Living Body: paradigms of soma and authority in Thomas Hanna’s writings.” Brazilian Journal on Presence Studies, v. 5, n. 1, (Jan/Apr 2015): 54-84.
5. Don Hanlon Johnson, “Somatics,” http://www.donhanlonjohnson.com/somatics.html (accessed November 10, 2018).
6. Don Hanlon Johnson, “Somatics,” http://www.donhanlonjohnson.com/somatics.html (accessed November 10, 2018).
7. Shiva Rea, “Hatha Yoga as a Practice of Embodiment.” (MA in Dance, UCLA 1997).
8. Lara Catone, Nurture Course Manual. (The Artemis School 2016).
9. Amanda Blake, Your Body is Your Brain. (Trokay Press 2018).
10. Amanda Blake, Your Body is Your Brain. (Trokay Press 2018).
11. Shiva Rea, “Hatha Yoga as a Practice of Embodiment.” (MA in Dance, UCLA 1997).