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26 October 2012

Bringing somatic practices into a learning space---how and why?

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

Taking a brief hiatus from specific somatic practices to support developmental shifts, I want to take a step back and introduce the idea of how bringing somatic practices into learning programs changes and (I think) enhances participants’ learning.

In his book, Dubliners, James Joyce made the famous statement that “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.”  So many of us do.  And yet, I’m constantly surprised by how few people I run across who would argue that there is no value to paying attention to the whole body as a source of wisdom and learning.  Sure, being asked to stand up, center, breathe, reflect, and possibly even notice particular sensations in one’s body tends to make many people a bit uncomfortable—and at the same time, it’s amazing to me how people are willing to do it.  And so often they are grateful for the opportunity to have done so.

At Cultivating Leadership, it’s been quite some time since we’ve offered any program, for leaders or for coaches, in which we don’t include some sort of body-based practices.  We do this for both philosophical and practical reasons.  The philosophical is that we believe leadership and coaching require the whole self; neither of these is a cognitive-only activity.  For example, a core skill required for both leaders and coaches is that of deep, curious listening.  It is impossible to listen fully when you are not present.  In fact, to listen fully is to be fully present with another person.  And just try being present without the assistance of your body.  When a child says to her mother, “mommy, you seem like you are not really listening,” it’s as likely as not that what she’s noticing is your lack of physical presence.  She cannot actually see into your mind, but she surely can see if you’re fidgeting, looking somewhere else, doing something else, or are somehow physically removed.  Even if she cannot put her finger on exactly what it is, she knows—sometimes more accurately than you do!  If you need more evidence that leadership and coaching are full body experiences, think of how many times you’ve heard someone referred to as “rock solid,” “having his feet squarely on the ground,” “nothing if not flexible,” “having her head is in the clouds, “ or “seemingly spinning out of control.”  Each of these descriptions is not only a physical metaphor but in a way, actually makes reference to a physical way of being.  The way we show up physically contributes enormously to our emotional and interpersonal way of being.  What we spend time practicing is what we’ll spend time being.  And so in our programs, we introduce and spend time in practices that can contribute to the ways we want to be.

 So that’s the philosophical.  The practical came more as a surprise to us.  What we have found is that integrating full body (or somatic) practices into our programs often changes participants’ felt sense of their overall experience.  Most of our programs involve very hard emotional and cognitive work, work that can leave people exhausted.  When we integrate simple somatic practices into the program, not only do participants walk away with helpful practices for themselves and their clients, but they find themselves feeling more centered and less tired at the end of the program.  Who knows exactly why this is, and it may be different for everyone, but perhaps it’s because they bring their whole integrated selves to the work, rather than asking all of it to be absorbed by just their heads.

Here’s a list of the basic practices we do—some of which have already been described in other blogs and some of which I’ll describe further in subsequent ones.  If you’re interested in anything in particular, please leave a comment!

  • Centering—stand (or sit), orient physically around your center (vertically and horizontally), scan your body and notice where you tend to be off center and/or hold tension.  Reposition those places and see what you notice.
  • Grounding—center, move your attention from your head down to your heart center and further down to your belly. Now see if you can move your attention all the say down low in your body.  Feel the weight in your legs, but don’t tighten your muscles.  Feel yourself connected to the ground.  If you have someone with you have them try to push you before you center and ground in this way and then again once you’re grounded.  Notice the difference.  Do the same with you doing the pushing of the other person.
  • Extending—get with a partner.  Put your arm straight out and without any particular resistence, have your partner try to bend your arm.  Notice what this feels like for you.  Now have your partner try to bend your arm but resist strongly.  What does that feel like?  What does it feel like when they let go (you’ll probably lurch forward).  Now imagine a line of energy extending from your heart center through your arm and out through your finger tips—all the way to the wall, beyond the wall, possibly even into the distance to something you care about.  Now have your partner try to bend your arm.  How does that feel different?  What does it feel like to extend your energy without having to over-push or be over-pushed?
  • Moving with another person—get with a partner.  Move in a simple dance step back and forth around each other.  Notice how you show up in relationship to the other person.  How does what she does affect what you do?  What energy do you notice between you?  Where are you holding tension?  See if you can drop your attention down from your head to your heart center or even to your belly?  How does this change the experience of moving with another person?

I’ve written previously about centering and breathing.  In future blogs, I’ll explore the others further.

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