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Experiential anatomy and embodiment

Experiential Anatomy and Embodiment

Illustration by Lydia Kegler, Visual Arts & Yoga major.Illustration by Lydia Kegler, Visual Arts & Yoga major.


“I see the body as being like sand. It’s difficult to study the wind, but if you watch the way sand patterns form and disappear and re-emerge, then you can follow the patterns of the wind or, in this case, the mind…Mostly what I observe is the process of mind.”—Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen

One of the many unique gifts that Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen has contributed to the field of movement and somatic education is the expression, through imagery and awareness practices, of the different qualities, or “minds,” that the many tissues and systems in the body have. As somatic psychologist Susan Aposhyan says, inherent in this is the “uncompromising belief that consciousness pervades all the body.”1 Practically speaking, the ramifications of this view are that when we feel our bodies in movement or in a particular posture, we also experience a particular consciousness unique to that movement or posture. If we can directly experience our organs, bones, fluids, and muscles, these tissues of the body will express their unique qualities based on their function and form. For instance, when we can feel and locate in our awareness the actual anatomical heart, we experience the unique feeling, emotion, and wisdom embedded in the heart’s tissues. This practice of embodying anatomical structures is one of the primary somatic techniques for effecting change in our body-mind.

Experiential anatomy is the study of the embodiment of all the major systems of the body. While each system has its unique role to play in the functioning of the body, each system also has a unique part to play in the practice and embodiment of meditation and the meditation posture. The skeletal system provides us with a strong structure and the proper alignment of our bones with the forces of gravity, while the muscular system supports the bones in a continual dance of contraction and release. The organ system enhances our posture through a sense of inner volume and softness, connecting us to organic authenticity and emotional vulnerability. The nervous system and endocrine glands regulate, organize, and integrate our entire body-mind into a cohesive whole. The circulatory system brings us a continual sense of flow, refreshment, and renewal. Our posture and ability to focus and stay present is a reflection of the balance or imbalance of all these systems.

Illustration by Lydia Kegler, Visual Arts & Yoga major.Illustration by Lydia Kegler, Visual Arts & Yoga major.

The practice of experiential anatomy combines a cognitive, conceptual understanding of anatomy with direct subjective experience of the tissues that make up the body systems. The specificity and precision of this objective-subjective exploration helps unlock the knowledge inherent in our cellular, energetic being. When we bring awareness to an anatomical system or a specific tissue of the body, we are simultaneously contacting and affecting the energetic system. Our entire world, from the micro to the macro, is made up of energy. Some is visible, like light, and some is too subtle for our senses to perceive. In The Subtle Body, energy healer and author Cyndi Dale makes a number of connections between the physical body and the energy body, beginning with the statement that energy can be defined as “information that vibrates.” She goes on to state that “In some respects, every cell and organ within the body is an energy body. Each receives energy.

Each breaks down, metabolizes, and disseminates energy.” In this way, “understanding subtle anatomy depends upon knowledge of physical anatomy…the physical body you will learn is an extension of the energetic body.”2 As you contact the various tissues of the body through the exercises in this book, you will have the experience of the physical quality of the tissue, the mind of the tissue, and the energy that radiates or vibrates from the tissue. An experience can dawn that is beyond habitual patterns, concepts, thoughts, and projections of our body-minds. True embodiment dissolves our perceived limitations and psychophysical habits, opening us to a creative river of limitless perceptions and feelings.

One of the principal techniques of Western somatic practices is the practice of visualization and the use of imagery. In the visualization practices of Body-Mind Centering, anatomical imagery is employed to affect the tissues of the body to respond in specific ways. While visualization practices have long been an integral part of many Eastern meditation techniques, the West has only more recently tapped into the power of mental imagery to affect the body-mind.

Visualization is a powerful technique to change habitual patterns.In the 1930s, physical education teachers and researchers Mabel Elsworth Todd and subsequently her protégé Lulu Edith Sweigard, used the term “ideokinesis”3to refer to the practice of visualizing through creative imagery in order to affect the body’s sensory and motor pathways.4 Through experimentation, they discovered that simply visualizing the body moving in specific patterns, without perceivable muscular effort or movement, could reprogram muscular responses—thereby releasing tension as well as creating more efficient movement patterns. More recent research via brain-imaging technology has revealed that mentally practicing a particular movement utilizes the same brain regions as the actual execution of the movement.5 In the sports world today, ideokinesis and visualization techniques have become standard techniques to improve performance.6 Visualization is a powerful tool to link mind and body and to program more efficient action.

While sports research has focused on performance and physical actions, ideokinesis has also been used to change habitual patterns of tension and imbalance in the body. By refraining from movement, we are inhibiting habitual body-mind responses and cultivating the possibility of new feelings, sensations, and movements.7

Somatic educator Irene Dowd led a functional anatomy class at Naropa University in an extended visualization practice intended to release the chronic holding and strain in our backs, which many of us dancers suffered from at the time. While we rested on the floor, Irene instructed us to imagine that our torsos were inside a slightly rumpled suit. We were to slowly and methodically iron out the wrinkles in the suit, putting our imaginary iron to work on every surface of the jacket. My back melted as muscular tension gave way to warmth, a tingling sensation, and a deep feeling of relaxation.

Embodiment is a being process, not a thinking process.Visualization focuses the awareness and is a primary practice of directing intention. It changes habitual patterns of response in the nervous system, opening new pathways of experience and perception.

While visualization is a gateway to a direct experience of the body, the act of visualizing is not necessarily the actual experience itself. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen makes a distinction between the cerebral cortex informing the bodily tissues that they exist through visualization and the bodily tissues informing the brain. She refers to this experience of direct sensing and feeling of one’s bodily tissues as “somatization.”8 For example, the toe does not need the cerebral cortex9 to know and feel its “toeness.” While visualization can evoke a particular somatic experience, it is also possible for us to focus our awareness directly on the body’s tissues and experience the consciousness embedded in those tissues.

According to Bonnie, “Embodiment is a being process, not a doing process, not a thinking process. It is an awareness process in which the guide and witness dissolve into cellular consciousness.” By using the term “cellular consciousness,” Bonnie is bringing our awareness to a kind of ground zero, an acknowledgment that all our cells are awake and consciously present. In fact, she goes on to say:

Embodiment is the cells’ awareness of themselves. It is a direct experience; there are no intermediary steps or translations. There is no guide or witness. There is the fully known consciousness of the experienced moment initiated from the cells themselves. In this instant, the brain is the last to know. There is complete knowing. There is peaceful comprehension. Out of this embodiment process emerges feeling, thinking, witnessing, understanding. The source of this process is love.10

When Cohen uses the word “love” to describe the essence of the embodiment process, she is pointing to the nonaggression and gentleness that is fundamental to the psychophysical makeup of all human beings. Chögyam Trungpa and other meditation masters call these our “enlightened genes” and the Shambhala Buddhist tradition calls the experience “basic goodness.”

Gentleness and nonaggression are intrinsic to the body-mind.At this time in the West, we live in a culture with deep-rooted patterns of self-loathing, judgment, and negativity related to our physical bodies. We have a habit of constantly thinking that we are too fat, too thin, too ugly, and too old. Contentment and love are not necessarily qualities that come to mind when we relate to our bodies, if we relate to them at all. The practice of meditation and the development of the felt sense cultivate the nonaggression and gentleness at the core of our beings.

When we access the body directly through awareness, we feel more. We feel more physically and psychophysically. While the five sense perceptions of touching, hearing, seeing, smelling, and tasting are heightened and awakened through awareness, Buddhist psychology recognizes a sixth sense, the mental field, that coordinates and organizes the other five. This is also where you experience thoughts and emotions.11 Body awareness can become a conduit or pathway to a greater variety of emotional textures and energies that enrich us as feeling, sensitive human beings. Through patterns of fear, distress, and trauma, many of us have closed off sensation to parts of our bodies, even to our physicality as a whole, in a vain attempt to numb ourselves to emotional feeling and the deep pleasure and pain of sensation.

As we meditate, we come back over and over again to the feeling of our bodies, our posture and the quality of our breath. When we can rest in the immediacy of sensation, we find some relief from the constant churning of discursive thoughts and the body becomes a powerful anchor for awareness practice. Chögyam Trungpa says in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior:

Sensing the body directly increases our access to feeling and emotion.You sit down and assume your posture, then you work with your breath; tshoo, go out, come back to your posture; tshoo, come back to your posture; tshoo. When thoughts arise, you label them “thinking” and come back to your posture, back to your breath. You have mind working with breath, but you always maintain body as a reference point. You are not working with your mind alone. You are working with your mind and your body, and when the two work together, you never leave reality.12

The practice of meditation is at its core an embodiment practice. By suffusing the body completely with awareness, every bodily tissue and cell has the potential to become fully present and conscious. Working with our meditation posture becomes a deep and subtle journey toward full embodiment. naropa mini seal for end of article

An excerpt from Sitting: The Physical Art of Meditation, by Erika Berland, instructor, MFA Theater.

Erika Berland has been guiding meditators for more than twenty-five years. An early student of Chögyam Trungpa, she is a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. A pioneer in somatic movement education, she is a founding faculty member of the MFA Theater: Contemporary Performance program at Naropa University, where she integrates meditation practice and view with performance techniques.


Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Sensing Feeling, and Action, vii.

2 Cyndi Dale, The Subtle Body, 3, 235, xxii.

3 See Lulu E. Sweigard, Human Movement Potential, 7.

4 Sensory nerves bring information to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and motor nerves that exit the central nervous system, allowing us to respond to that information.

5 See T.H. Mulder, “Motor Imagery and Action Observation: Cognitive Tools for Rehabilitation,” Journal of Neural Transmission, 114, no. 10 (October 2007): 1265–1278.

6 Sports psychology research has shown that visualizing an action pathway and the subsequent desired goal of that action readily coordinates the neuromuscular details of the movement (the muscular recruitment, sequencing, timing, and force requirements). See Tony Morris, Michael Spittle, and Anthony P. Watt, Imagery in Sport.

7 Although the neuromuscular system has been the prime focus in idiokinetic practices in Body-Mind Centering, visualization is applied to all the tissues and systems in the body.

8 Cohen, Sensing, Feeling, Action, 1.

9 The cerebral cortex is the primary intellectual processing area of the brain.

10 Cohen, Sensing, Feeling, Action, 157.

11 Chögyam Trungpa, The Path of Individual Liberation, 276–278.

12 Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, 40