This writing is based on my experience and observations of being both participant and practitioner in somatic learning. It is based on a process that I believe is common when there is a sustained commitment to learning and developing embodied awareness.
I believe the common factor is the integrity of the student. Although having good teachers and guides can be invaluable, this is a process which I believe may manifest whether there is one, many, or no formal teacher.
What I present here is not intended to be considered as a universal process, nor a linear one. While these stage are commonly seen in this sequence, it is a simplification. The stages overlap, spiral round, repeat, go backwards, skip forwards, and each stage is seen within all the others.
My intention in writing this is to provide a map within which you can orient yourself and, in doing so, feel confident to explore freely and spontaneously whatever is arising organically within your body-mind processes, in whatever circumstance or learning relationship you find yourself.
Embodiment is not a fixed point where we are arrive. It is an ever changing, dynamic process that is a continual dialogue between our inner landscape and outer environment, our conscious awareness and our unconscious integration.
Cultivating Awareness of the Body/Releasing Unnecessary Tension
In the first stage, we focus on becoming consciously aware of the body. We feel its shape, volume, density and structure. For many, this stage alone can be a daunting but transformative process. We develop the beginnings of our awareness of our habitual patterns, and begin to the feel the first inklings of the felt unity of body and mind. We begin, even momentarily, to switch off our psycho-physical “autopilot” which we are accustomed to, planting the seeds for a new curiosity about ourselves.As we do this, we become aware of patterns of holding and restriction held in the muscular system. With this awareness, we naturally begin to soften and release this tension.
This is usually an ongoing process.
Breathing and other aspects of physiological self-regulation
Here we become aware of our breath – how it is constantly flowing in and out of our bodies, with greater or lesser degrees of freedom and ease. We feel how our breathe isn’t limited to our lungs but is a rhythm of expansion and condensing that encompasses the entire body. The metabolic exchange progresses from the lungs, via the fluids, in and out of every cell. The body’s process of softening deepens.
As this happens more ease-fully and efficiently other-body systems start to self-regulate more effectively. The Autonomic Nervous System (which governs all internal physiological processes and stress responses) begins to settle, lowering the level of stress hormones released by the Endocrine System.
The body begins to repair and rejuvenate at the level of all tissues and every cell, creating a positive feedback loop of wellbeing, and reducing the tendency to get caught in a feedback loop of stress. Health at this stage improves – sometimes gradually, sometimes dramatically.Usually, however, once we start to encounter the stresses of our lives, we may revert back to the familiar stress cycles. It takes time, practice and patience to deeply integrate new ways of being and well-being.
This takes us into the next stages.
Movement and Posture
We are not inert beings, but dynamic and kinaesthetic ones. Our bodies, we have begun to notice, are constantly in motion, even when we appear to be still. We begin, naturally, to become curious about how we move – how we stand, walk, sit, work and play. We discover both our agency to move our bodies and also the sensation of movement happening of itself – we find ourselves both “moving and being moved”.
Movement becomes more soft and fluid, as well as more powerful and efficient. Here we find that any discipline we practice which requires skilful use of the body – such as dance, yoga, sports, manual work etc – improves spontaneously; we discover new layers of subtlety and our performance is enhanced.Just as we have habitual ways of holding tension and breathing, we also have habitual ways of moving. As we explore, we become aware of the origins and qualities of these patterns. We begin to open to new, unfamiliar ways of movings. We explore how we shape our bodies – how we align our postures with our bones, joints, muscles and organs in relation to the earth and gravity. We explore – consciously or unconsciously – new spatial pathways, movement qualities, and even early infant movement patterning such as primitive reflexes and whole body movement patterns like rolling and crawling.
Body-Mind Integration and Expression
As we expand our choices in how we move, breathe and hold ourselves, we naturally begin examining where this belongs in the wider context of our lives. As we begin to feel our bodies more clearly and experience different qualities of motion, we naturally find ourselves inhabiting a broader spectrum of thinking and feeling.
We begin to ask questions about the relationship between our life-choices, our history and our state of embodiment. At this stage, we find ourselves exploring our new psychophysical repertoire in relation to our circumstances: what does it mean to centre and yield into a difficult conversation? What does it mean to expand and reach for a new goal or aspiration? How do we stand our ground in relation to an injustice? etc.We commonly find ourselves yearning for creative expression. Our homes and studios can become filled with oil pastels, creative writing and choreographies – sometimes bold, sometimes tentative.
Many let go of activities, attitudes, and even the relationships which are no longer healthy for them. Some find themselves discovering buried dreams that they wish to revive. Others find a desire to connect with a spiritual practice.At this point it is common to seek additional structures to ground and support this unfolding, including art and dance classes, recovery groups, spiritual or religious instruction, or the support of a psychotherapist or coach.
This stage frequently includes an emotional overlay of a mixture of celebration and mourning, as there is a transition crystallising from an old to a new way of being.
The learning is no longer so new. What was once difficult and daunting now becomes second nature. We let go of tracking so that “when you eat eat, when you sleep sleep”. The focus becomes less about internal processes and more about how and who we are in the world. The questions become: What do I embody? What do I stand for? How do I maintain and take care of my embodiment so that I can be present and available for others?
We increasingly find that embodiment is our natural state of being and a resource we can turn to in times of turmoil.We select, devise and refine the practices that will ultimately anchor us as we continue along life’s path. Commonly at this stage our focus shifts into the contribution we are making in our families, communities and societies; how we can continue becoming more compassionate, loving and skilful in our words, actions and embodied presence.
Finally, all the stages flow into each other and dissolve. The end of one cycle is the beginning of the next deeper cycle. We can choose to awaken our embodied awareness consciously or let it support us unconsciously.
Fluidity and naturalness simply become part of who we are, without the need for reference or justification in anything outside. As Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen put it – “the more skilful we are, the simpler we become.”Consciously or unconsciously, we begin to pass this on to others. We do not have to do anything to make this happen. When we embody embodiment, we do not do to, we are it.