What is Embodiment?
Within the mind-body community, there is a term that is dropped often: “embodiment”. Embodiment practices. Embodiment community. But what IS it?
There is a great definition here: https://zengarland.org/zen/embodiment-practice Essentially, embodiment is the cultivation of physical, energetic, and mental health through practices that, rather than work to escape or shut down the body or, in opposition, elevate the body above all, instead work to unite body, mind, spirit, such as yoga, tai chi, qi gong, active forms of meditation, sound bathing (or music making in general), and shamanic practices. Embodiment is the shunning of dualistic thinking and the uniting of mind, body, spirit, beyond. Yoga is likely the most commonly practiced embodiment technique, and yet, books on yoga do not typically define embodiment directly.
“To darkness are they doomed who worship only the body and to greater darkness they who worship only the spirit…They who worship both the body and the spirit, by the body overcome death, and by the spirit achieve immortality” (Upanishads of India as quoted by Matthew Fox)
From my years of practice in yoga and energy healing: Embodiment is the coming home (or as I like to say hOMe) to your body. It is the recognition of the divinity within your physical form, the inherent power and majesty of your physicality, and the mirroring of your body to the earth, your body to other beings, your body (microcosm) to greater dimension (macrocosm). Embodiment practices therefore cultivate self-acceptance and love and compassion toward self and all.
“To be home in one’s body is to be at home everywhere. Embodiment is about being at home. It is about being present, being here, and wanting to be here….Being fully present in the now and in the body go together. This in turn overcomes fear and anxiety. Body and soul reunite. What we believe in becomes embodied in the work of our bodies. As Jung put it, ‘The difference we make between the psyche and the body is artificial. It is done for the sake of a better understanding. In reality, there is nothing but a living body. That is the fact; and psyche is as much a living body as body is living psyche: it is just the same’” (Matthew Fox, 147)
Embodiment and Dis-ease or Altered Ability
Embodiment does not expect perfection. Rather, embodiment expects that you show up in all your glorious “flaws”, “failings”, or “mistakes”, however that is defined culturally. Embodiment is loving your body when it is in the process of dis-ease or has altered levels of ability, again in the context of cultural norms and expectations.
I fit the culturally-defined “flawed” model in many ways. For example, I have two autoimmune disorders, one of which is an “invisible disability” according to the American With Disabilities Act (ADA). My body, if not properly fed and cared for, is hell bent on self-destruction and harm, killing off self, hearth, home in a battle that no one could possibly win. As a teenager, I self-harmed, practicing self-cutting and cultivating an eating disorder, disdaining and shrinking my self-perceived flawed form for reasons that I am still contemplating today. There is an irony at the reversal of roles – me harming my body in the past replaced with my body currently simmering in wrath, waiting to harm in return.
Yoga, running, swimming, biking, meditation, repetitive physical practices of strength and endurance (martial arts, obstacle training), gardening are embodiment practices that I utilize regularly. Coming home to my skin and savoring my form through physical challenge, breathwork, and the bringing of the mind to the moment are all revolutionary acts after years of trying to escape myself. I honor that my body can complete these activities, in spite of my disease and my history of harming, and see my movement as a form of prayer – a thanks to the potential and ability of my form and to the breath and fire of life within.
I have worked on and off in traditional and less traditional healthcare settings, rehabilitating bodies following pain, injury, and/or acute or chronic, progressive disease. I am familiar with and sensitive to the internal body struggles of others. I know that there can be incredible grief tied up in a healing body – a mourning of what was and could have been. I recognize that I can never be truly empathetic to another’s struggle that I have not endured. However, when working with others’ bodies in healing, I occupy a space of compassion, which means “to suffer with” – I will never know the complete Truth and experience of their journey, but I hold space for them and honor their humanity and divinity. Embodiment asks that I do this for myself as well – hold space of compassion, divine love, and mirroring of myself to the greater – the me to the we, the individual to the Earth. I also recognize and hope to remind those that I work with that grief is expected when healing. The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, mentions that where there is grief, there is love – you are grieving something because you loved it, and the depth of grief reflects the depth of love.
Embodiment in the space of dis-ease or altered ability requires support, innovation, and self-exploration. It requires a re-framing of tragedy and suffering to accommodate potential –The Book of Joy speaks of this: experiencing joy requires one goes through and transmutes suffering, rather than going around it, and there is something to be gained from a shift in perspective, a sensing of potential in the burden. Kat Duff, who suffers from chronic illness speaks of similar sentiments in her book The Alchemy of Illness. She uses illness as an initiation onto a new path of Being. Matthew Sanford’s book Waking does the same, using the tragedy of paralysis with the found body-appreciation (embodiment) of yoga to stop fighting a body and reclaim it as home. All of these books examine dis-ease and altered ability in the framework of healing rather than curing; that is, these individuals cannot rid themselves of these alterations in form and function, instead, they use the change as fuel, as refirement, as claim and novel path to coming home to the self.
Embodiment and Interconnection
Embodiment practice recognizes that you are the stuff of stars, earth, and ancestors, the now and the past:
“Our bodies are where the cosmos and our conscious self meet…..our bodies contain atoms from the cosmos itself, atoms cooked in the original fireball 14 million years ago, atoms cooked in supernova explosions 4.5 million years ago. Our bodies also contain the DNA of our ancestors, all of them, so each one is a meeting place for the entire human race. Our bodies are marvelous, and therefore miraculous, since the principal meaning of “miraculous” is that which makes us marvel, that which inspires awe. Every body is worthy of our awe and wonder and marveling – yours and mine and everyone we encounter. Do we meditate on this, on the holiness of our bodies?......Considering this, we can treat everything we do as a living and ongoing meditation on our connection to the cosmos. We can befriend, love, care for, and feed our bodies in ways that honor Spirit and cosmos. By keeping ourselves healthy we are actively and directly keeping the universe healthy. It also follows that we are meant to admire the beauty of our bodies – and everyone’s body is beautiful, everyone’s body is sacred. Community is enhanced by beauty and beauty calls us to admire it” (Matthew Fox, 132)
This recognition of being made of stardust assists one in contemplating how our bodies are not only made of earth, but mirror it as well.
“Our physical body could also be considered an Earth body. Our bodies are in many ways the bodies of Mother Earth, of her soil and her nutrients, her flowers and her trees, her grains and her grasses, her animal and fowl. The clay of the Earth is so much like the clay of our bodies. And one day we will return to the Earth; the great mother who fed us in our lifetime will swallow us up at the end and feed other beings with our physical, Earth bodies. No wonder we are instructed to dance on the earth now, while we are alive, to celebrate and thank the Earth by exercising our knees, our feet, our heart, our lungs, our sweat. And to defend the Earth when it is badly treated. All this is a thank you for Mother Earth and her love of our bodies, and our love of our bodies” (Matthew Fox, 149)
We mirror the earth and like the earth can be appropriated and harmed. A whole person (here: wild woman), one who is united in body, mind (feeling), spirit, and instinct (i.e. embodied), will not fall prey to this taking.
“The body is like an earth. It is land unto itself. It is as vulnerable to overbuilding, being carved into parcels, cut off, overmined, and shorn of its power as any landscape. The wilder woman will not be easily swayed by redevelopment schemes. For her, the questions are not how to form but how to feel” (Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, 227)
The recognition of your Self as mirror to the Earth is embodiment, and it changes our relationship to Earth and the environment. The destruction of Earth becomes more intolerable as we learn to see and experience ourselves as Earth. I speak more to our relationship with nature for healing here: http://wildwomaninthesuburbs.com/about/ and http://wildwomaninthesuburbs.com/what-is-nature-therapy/
Embodiment and Self-Love
Embodiment is a finding peace, divinity, and love within your body. True practices of embodiment will cultivate these feelings and will work towards negating lack of diversity and acceptance of bodies in many fashions and forms.
“Divinity finds and ‘image and likeness’ in each of us. That is why we are so many and so diverse. Because Divinity is so rich and diverse and needs many images to even begin to express itself. Divinity expresses itself in our creativity and in our works of compassion in particular……It is part of the task of the spiritual warrior today to deconstruct negative teaching about the body that still informs Western culture. This dualism…that separated matter and spirit, praising the latter and denigrating the former…..All healthy warriors have to stand up to this dangerous teaching. Such teaching results in the kind of hatred or indifference that humans now hold against the Earth and our bodies, and against women and animals” (Matthew Fox, 151).
Speaking to the genius of the body as empowered and multilingual being and a redefining of beauty:
“To confine the beauty and value of the body to anything less than this magnificence is to force the body to live without its rightful spirit, its rightful form, its right to exultation. To be thought ugly or unacceptable because one’s beauty is outside the current fashion is deeply wounding to the natural joy that belongs to the wild nature. Women have good reason to refute the psychological and physical standards that are injurious to spiritu and which sever relationship with the wild soul. It is clear that the instinctive nature of women values body and spirit far more for their ability to be vital, responsive, and enduring than by any measure of appearance. This is not to dismiss who or what is considered beautiful by any segment of culture, but to draw a larger circle that embraces all forms of beauty, form, and function.” (Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes 214-215)
Self-love, coming home to your body, is a much needed act of subversion in a culture that profits from self-hatred and escapism. I have written additionally about radical self-love and body diversity more here: http://wildwomaninthesuburbs.com/radical-self-love-on-body-diversity/ (contains additional references and resources)
Embodiment and Shadow
There is shadow side to embodiment – that is, an impairment or limiting aspect to this work. Matthew Fox mentions it (136) when referencing the body as a temple: literally, this might cause an exultation of the body, a dualism, or a lack of utilization of the body as only house for spirit. The purpose, however, of embodiment is to eliminate the separatist thinking of mind-body.
Additionally, within the embodiment sector, there is a lack of body diversity. Many yoga practitioners are white, heterosexual, cis-gender, physically small or fit beings. Embodiment practitioners are questioning this manifestation, and groups are working to diversify yoga and other eastern mystical, embodiment traditions (see recommended resources below). People need safe spaces and representation to feel comfortable, including within these embodiment spaces.
My own perspective and experience bring an awareness and an additional explanation to the lack of diversity. Yoga teacher training and training for other embodiment practices are not cheap. My own yoga teacher training approximated $4k for base RYT200 with an additional $3-4k for yoga therapy training (bumping me into the RYT 500 category). There are yearly dues, insurance coverage to purchase, CPR certifications to maintain, and continuing education/certifications needed – all of which cost money. There is the childcare necessary to pursue any of these (the training and certifications), the time off of work needed and lost pay from that absence. Further, the payment that yoga teachers receive, outside of the few celebrity instructors, is paltry at best and disturbing at worst. I know of instructors that make $11/class; my range of payment was $15-25/class when working at a fitness facility, which did not cover the childcare I needed to teach, plus travel time to and from class. Though they are separate entities, race and class do interact. I suspect that part of the lack of diversity is the burden of access and privilege needed to approach trainings in embodiment practices, yet this is rarely discussed when attempting to dismantle homogeneity.
(For more information on the meaning of Shadow, see: http://wildwomaninthesuburbs.com/what-is-shadow-work/ )
- What does embodiment mean to you?
- What are your favorite embodiment practices?
- How do you practice self-love?
- How does your body mirror the Earth? Others? The macrocosm?
- How do you define beauty of the body? – does it accommodate diversity in representation, look, ability, age?
Suggested embodiment (earth-based) rituals, for our upcoming new moon in Virgo (an earth sign) 2018:
- Rest on the Earth or garden, placing bare skin in soil, or walk barefoot on the earth
- Sit in contemplation outdoors
- Challenge your physicality, with body respect: move, wheel, walk, run, ride, swim, have someone move you; meet your abilities with adoration and challenge
- Perform other version of self-care – bathe, lotion application, massage, foot soak, etc.
- Eat fresh food that makes your body feel blessed by the earth
- Bless fresh food and feed someone else
- Practice a more traditional embodiment practice: yoga, tai-chi, qi-gong, walking meditation, sound bathing or immersion, shamanic practices (ex. journeying)
- Contemplate beauty – how you limit it, how you access it, how you can change the parameters
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT)
RYT 500, reiki master
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please do not copy this material. All writing is copyright protected.
Waking by Matthew Sanford (also see his company Mind-Body Solutions)
The Book of Joy by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama
The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff
Women Who Run With the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes
- Also see her book The Joyous Body
The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine by Matthew Fox
The Body is Not an Apology: https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/
Toko-Pa Turner’s (author) take on embodiment: https://toko-pa.com/2018/03/16/embodiment-is-the-new-enlightenment/
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
People doing work, diversifying yoga:
- Chelsea Jackson (we attended the same RYT200 training): http://www.chelsealovesyoga.com/
- Yoga for My People, on Instagram and Eventbrite
- Black Girl Asana, on Instagram
- Abundance Yoga Studio: http://abundanceyoga.net/
- Mind Body Solutions: http://www.mindbodysolutions.org/
- Jessamyn Stanley, on Facebook and http://jessamynstanley.com/