Embodiment and the Limits of Language

October 15, 2020 — 2 Comments

One of the books I have ‘on the go’ at the moment is ‘Affluence Without Abundance’ by James Suzman, subtitled ‘The Disappearing World of the Bushmen: What We Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Civilisation’. One of the ideas from the book that has delighted me the most is the frustration of Portugese sailor Vasco de Gama at the Bushmen’s disinterest in trading. The Bushmen knew that they already had everything that they needed and had no desire for anything that the sailors had to offer. The very foundation for the voyage, for the European drive to build empires, meant nothing in southern Africa and was incomprehensible to the people there.

I’m sure most of us have grown up in a society that regarded trade, commodities and avarice as entirely normal and it is fun but also very hard to imagine not understanding those things at all. They are woven into my existence at every level. (Perhaps this is why practicing ‘gratitude’, particularly for the natural world, seems to be such a powerful tool for many of us now).

I think of this because it makes me reflect on the beliefs and unconscious dogma that influence my perception of myself and other people as living organisms. It is well documented that a number of what have been unfortunately referred to as ‘primitive’ tribes or cultures have a different sense of ‘self’ than we do. In some cases individual pronouns might be rarely if ever used – so ‘we’ will be used as if an individual is so closely tied to his/her tribe that they naturally speak for the group. Alternatively, ‘I’ might be used as a collective term for the whole tribe both in the present and historically (there is an example of a warrior referring to a battle with another tribe before he was born and saying ‘I defeated [other tribe] in that place.’) I’ve written previously about the idea of ‘the long body’ in native American societies – meaning that self includes the surrounding environment. There is a less clearly defined boundary between a person’s physical body and their habitat. 

We live in a culture where many ideas and beliefs are accepted as reality, as absolute truth. We have been able to both take apart ourselves and other creatures, to see the exact physical make up both with the naked eye and powerful magnification; and to look inside by means of all sorts of scanning/X-ray/imaging devices. When we are able to ‘know’ so well what is observably there it is easy to  reject any concepts (meridians, chakras for example) that are not visible. This bullet-proof knowledge permeates our language and reinforces our perception of ourselves. It becomes very logical to perceive the ‘body’ as a distinct part of our ‘self’ (and serving as a “brain taxi” as Mark Walsh says). How challenging then is it to experience self as a unified whole, with no boundary or separation between physical body, soul and consciousness/mind? Do we have the words or language to express this idea of wholeness without using terminology that is elitist or alienating? And how does this fit into teaching Pilates, or any other movement practice?

One of my primary goals in teaching movement these days is to guide people toward an embodied experience. I believe that the bar should be no lower for me than to do whatever I can to help people to reach their potential – and as author Scott Barry Kaufman describes, not their potential as an individual but their potential as a part of society, in relation to others. (For the Maslow fans this means ‘transcending’ self-actualisation – not typically included in the misleading pyramid that is associated with his hierarchy).

I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone directly that this is my intention, not least because it’s not an easy thing to describe. If I have to describe it to a ‘civilian’ (from hereon shorthand for someone who is neither a teacher nor a movement professional) then I would talk about the value of their increased awareness of their own physicality.

Already I’m aware that I’m deliberately looking for an alternative to ‘awareness of their own body’ because I feel that language is already starting to fence in, or steer the conversation back to a notion of separation. I find the idea that Pilates, as a movement practice (exercise system, if you prefer), represents the union of ‘body, mind and spirit’ to be problematic, not because I see Pilates existing without mind or spirit but because the idea itself is reinforcement of separation between these three. We do not exist outside of this union because the three linguistically reinforced notions of ‘body’, ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’ are a part of creating a separation that is as convenient as it is misleading.

I understand that I am, and that an organism is, a process rather than a thing but feel that I lack the vocabulary to share this notion/sensation/understanding. Perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough for alternatives but at the moment one of my greatest challenges is to articulate the sense of being that I would like to feel and engender in the people I teach without slipping into the ‘old’ language or sounding entirely foreign. Maybe I haven’t experimented with it enough but phrases like ‘biointelligent tissue’ (heard from Liz Koch) don’t feel right to me.

To devise new words, to somehow codify the concept seems to undermine it. How can we guide people toward an embodied experience without them needing to learn a new language in order to have the experience? My clearest experiences of self as process have come during workshops which are much closer in content to contemporary dance (yes, I’m talking Fighting Monkey, again…) than Pilates. Does embodiment belong in Pilates at all?

Can we teach the feeling of embodiment? Can we teach the feeling of embodiment without inventing a new language that may still be dictating a particular sense or feeling from their movement? It seems to me more and more that the art, or skill of this is to be able to move out of the way. To offer an exercise, drill or movement sequence and ‘hold the space’ for whomever we’re teaching to have their experience. For me this doesn’t mean not teaching, or cueing at all but rather being careful about how I guide them so that I’m helping them in how to feel rather than what to feel.

So this is a request for help – if you teach movement from an embodied perspective, or with an intention of promoting an embodied experience have you faced the same challenge, and how have you overcome or worked around it?

(with gratitude to Wendy Leblanc Arbuckle for her generosity and conversation, and to my wife, for her love and patience)


2 responses to Embodiment and the Limits of Language


    Mike, I noticed one of your favorites is Ido Portal. Have you encountered Jon Yuen on the interwebs yet? Similar to Portal but I think he’s working at the embodied movement concept too. You might want to check him out. Here’s a link to some of his writing: http://www.yuenjon.com/articles/2019/9/16/zsla29lydmwj3dcao0j5odrknidwcs


      Hi Chris, I’m a Jon Yuen enthusiast – both his movement/courses and his writing, but somehow I had missed this article, or completely forgotten it, so thank you for sharing.

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