What is Embodiment?
Within the mind-body, sexuality, and body justice communities, there is a term that is often mentioned: “embodiment”. As in, embodiment practices and embodiment community. But what IS it?
Embodiment is a return to and the valuing of the body, after centuries of collective denigration of and escape from the body in favor of mental and spiritual pursuits. This escape from the body is inherited from supremacy culture – as a requisite and as a survival mechanism when the greater culture devalued marginalized bodies. This return to your body then is a coming home (or as I like to say hOMe) – it is bodyfulness, being present in and aware of sensation in the body, feeling how and where your body processes emotions, feeling movement in your body, feeling spiritually in tune, full within your body, and leaning into the inherent value of your body, even if it is/was marginalized.
Embodiment taken further is the cultivation of physical, energetic, and mental health through practices that work to unite body with mind and spirit, such as in yoga, tai chi, qi gong, active forms of meditation, sound bathing (or music making in general), and shamanic practices. In this way, embodiment avoids dualistic thinking (ex. body vs mind) and instead unites all elements of a person, in the moment. Practices of creating and connecting to community, particularly around similar body identities, is an embodiment practice as well, as is the promotion of body diversity.
Embodiment is the recognition of the divinity and life force (eros, kundalini, chi, etc) within physical form, the inherent power and majesty of physicality, and the mirroring of body to the earth, body to other beings, body (microcosm) to greater dimension (macrocosm) – your body and that of others. Embodiment practices therefore cultivate self-acceptance, empathy, 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 these are defined culturally. Embodiment is accepting, affirming, perhaps even 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.
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 author’s accident and resulting paralysis with newly found body-appreciation (embodiment) of yoga to stop fighting his body’s current situation 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, refirement, and claim of a novel path to come home to the self.
Taken further, embodiment practices allow the collective/culture to recognize disease and disability as a regular part of the human experience (ie the radical disability model). The cultural shift to affirmation rather than assimilation and fixing is a greater form of embodiment practice and removes some of the work from the individual.
Embodiment and Interconnection
Embodiment practice recognizes that you, we, are made of the stuff of stars, earth, and ancestors, the now and the past. Made of earth and cosmos, our bodies also mirror them, the beauty and multitudes of possibilities and galaxies. We are interconnected beyond human and sentience to rock, soil, stardust, past millennia as well as to future.
We are experiencing a climate crisis and the destruction of our planet, perhaps because of our forgetfulness of what we are made of and were we come from. But our mirroring of the earth suggests that, like the earth, we can be appropriated and harmed (those with marginalized identities know this). This mirroring 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. A whole person, one who is united in body, mind, spirit, earth, and cosmos, will recognize and resist this taking. However, it is on all of us, together, to reaffirm our embodiment and relationship to the earth – this movement is not sustainable by individuals alone.
I speak more to our relationship with nature for healing here: http://ignitewell-being.com/about/ and http://ignitewell-being.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.
“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 spiritual 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; the gendered language in this passage is a bit problematic – feel free to insert “people” instead of women to serve a more expansive reading of this passage).
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://ignitewell-being.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 movement, there is a lack of body diversity. Many exalted yoga practitioners reflect supremacy culture: white, heterosexual, cis-gender, able-bodied, pretty-biased, and fit beings. Embodiment practitioners are questioning this manifestation, and groups are working to diversify yoga and other embodiment traditions (see recommended resources below). People need safe spaces and representation to feel comfortable participating in these embodiment spaces.
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. Finances, caregiving needs, time, and transportation may restrict access to trainings, classes, and professional memberships (such as maintaining one’s registration as a yoga teacher).
(For more information on the meaning of Shadow, see: http://ignitewell-being.com/what-is-shadow-work/ )
Culture and embodiment
Embodiment is a form of social justice: living into and valuing the diversity of the body in a culture that designates limited body acceptability. It is a both/and – self and collective work; if the move towards a more embodied state fell entirely on the individual, the work would be isolationist and exhausting. For example, hustling to live an existence that aligns with supremacy culture will keep a person busy – contorting themselves to harmful standards rather than living into the body and existence that they have in the moment. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Audre Lorde). The living into and valuing the multiplicity of the human experience would undermine many systems of oppression.
Embodiment as a social justice practice aligns with the “theory of the flesh” (see This Bridge Called My Back), which is, in part, the understanding of how intersections of identities show up in the body – race, sexuality, ability, economics, land of origin, religion, etc. The appreciation of where interesectionality meets body via affirmation of diversity, lived experience, and stories that counter the collective narrative of one truth or ideal way of being IS both/and embodiment and an embodiment practice.
Self-Reflection Questions for the Reader:
– 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:
– 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, sexuality counselor and educator.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please do not copy this material. All writing is copyright protected.
If you found this writing piece helpful to your journey, please consider supporting me on Patreon as a form of reciprocity: https://www.patreon.com/ignitewellbeing
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
Additional Suggested Resources:
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/