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The Power of Embodiment: Bringing the Body into Coaching

  • POSTED ON JULY 10, 2024
Young woman portraying embodiment with gratitude

Bodies. A body is the one aspect of humanity that we all share.  

I came across a blog post title the other day that really bothered me: We Are Divine Beings: Dumbed Down Into A Human Body.”  

As I read this, I felt the hair on my neck stand up, and my stomach tightened. I found my face flushing, my forehead and nose wrinkling, my head wagging in disagreement with this sentiment. 

I actually believe the opposite is true: We Are Divine Beings: Made Possible With Wildly Intelligent Human Bodies.

I wholeheartedly reject the perspective that we are captive souls riding around in skin vehicles awaiting our freedom. I hold that our bodies are an endless fount of wisdom, if we can only learn to drink of our own knowing.

In our Co-Active coaching model, the only two words that repeat are “whole” and “person.” So, dear colleagues, how are we as Co-Active coaches including embodiment to hold ourselves and our clients as whole?  

Embodiment plays a critical role in the conversation towards wholeness. 

What Does It Mean to Be Embodied?

Embodiment is a state of being in which the division between mind and body dissolves.

You feel connected and attuned to your body and senses, and instead of the mind telling the body what to do, the mind listens to the body.  

The word was first introduced in 1821 by Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish born thought-leader. (Fun fact: Carlyle was also responsible for introducing the word “environment” to the English language!) When introduced, the term embodiment meant being in, associated with, or having a body. 

The concept of embodiment has radically developed in the last 100 years, particularly as the fields of therapy (in the 1940s) and anthropology (in the 1970s) began to incorporate concepts of embodiment into their foundational theories.

As Co-Active coaches, we are continuing to evolve and expand how embodiment affects the evolution of consciousness through our work with clients every day.  

“Embodiment is living within, being present within the internal space of the body. It’s something quite different from being aware of the body.” Judith Blackstone

We All Know Embodiment

I was leaning against a tree reading in a park the other day and looked up to the sound of bright laughter. Thirty feet from me, in the freshly mown lawn was a little girl — maybe four or five years old. She was spinning in circles. Her little yellow dress flared like an upside down buttercup. Her bare arms stretched out as she twirled, and her brown ponytail spun straight outward behind her. Her feet were bare and her eyes were closed. She was laughing and shrieking as she spun and lurched on the grass. A woman (her mother?) sat quietly on a picnic table bench and watched her. 

The woman and I locked eyes and smiled as we witnessed this pure expression of embodiment together. There was joy and sadness in our shared exchange. As we celebrated unbridled embodiment in its most innocent form, there was also a sadness between us. Sadness that, with age and conditioning, we had both lost touch with our experience of this whole-bodied expression of exuberance. 

The truth is, we have all been that spinning child at some point in our lives. And it’s never too late to re-enter the world through our senses, to play in our bodies, to move without being led by thought, to learn to be from the inside out.

“When I feel the steadiness of ground beneath my feet, the wind in my hair, the warmth of a fire, snowflakes melting on my nose, I recognize that I’m more than just a brain, more than my thoughts or self-definition. Instead of defining myself narrowly, I begin to expand.”

Amanda W. Jenkins

Take a moment to recall a moment of embodiment. Even just a mere moment when you knew connection and alignment through your body. This recollection of this deep freedom lives on inside of you. Let yourself relive it and notice joy, sadness, and/or inspiration that arises as you turn towards the wisdom of the body.

Compartmentalization: Why Do We Keep the Body Separate?

As we are well aware, the story of separation is all around us. Most people alive today are severely disconnected from experiencing themselves as a “whole person.” Beginning as small children, we sit at desks to learn from the head up for 12-17 years, then we typically roll into jobs that largely employ the mind, only to wake up to our bodies only when we must. 

All this time, we are learning to treat our bodies as vehicles to get us around: calories in, calories out, move to stay healthy, blah, blah, blah. Many, nay, most of us default to the spectrum of disassociated to contemptuous in experiencing our bodies. 

We have learned to over index on the brain and under index on the wisdom of the body.  

Even as I type these words at my standing desk, I can feel the top-heavy way that consciousness is residing in my mind at the moment for the most part dismissing the vast resource of the body. (It’s as though my mind is mind-splaining the role of the body to itself through my fingers!).

To speak of embodiment by contrast is always to speak of a subject that variously inhabits, or captains, or is coextensive with, or even is imprisoned within, a body.” Justin E.H. Smith

Even the language that we use to describe our physical experience compartmentalizes our physical form.

Watch how many times a day you identify your body as being separate from the rest of you. Go ahead. You will be stunned.

It’s time to shift this cyclical (and unfulfilling!) relationship with the body with intention, through our thoughts, our words, and our deeds.

Perspective Is EVERYTHING

As in all things, the way that we think about it shapes our experience. The relationship that we as coaches have with the body impacts our coaching and our ability to inspire wholeness in the people around us, including our clients.  

I have worked with many coaching clients on the topic of their bodies, including weight, illness, increasing physical health, pregnancy, sex, eating disorders, aging, just to name a few. Often when clients bring up their bodies, it’s as if the physical essence of themselves is separate from other, more elevated aspects of the self (specifically the aspects of self that we refer to as mind & spirit).

It is our role as coaches to bring a more holistic context to support our clients to expand from. But we can’t bring to our clients what we haven’t done first ourselves. 

Take a moment to check it out. What is the current perspective that you hold about the role that bodies play in our lives?

What might be a more empowering perspective that welcomes wholeness through embodiment? 

An Adventure Into Embodiment 

This past February, I was fortunate enough to travel to Costa Rica for a 10-day embodiment experience.

I wasn’t sure what I would find, but I knew that it would be a step towards embracing myself as whole. Here is an excerpt from my journal while in the jungle:

“The moist warm air of the jungle caresses me as I move. The birds call to each other just outside, free and flying. But inside of this temporary temple we are exploring this new/old way of the embodied tribe. Inside of the rounded Malocca, I move with 50 other bodies in seemingly endless spirals of expression. The undulating handmade stucco walls hold us within a focused container. Thick lines of thousands of bamboo stalks pull upwards towards the circular opening to the sky above. Under our bare feet and visible within the earthen floors is the sacred geometric shape of the Merkaba, the alchemical symbol for union and balance. Lines of copper, a conductor of energy, are inlaid in these wooden strips as well as surrounding the perimeter of the structure to ground the energy into the Earth. I can feel all of this embodied intention as the sacred container that holds our movement as prayer.  

We are dancing outside of time. We come from 13 countries, speak 18 languages, and no one cares. We are different ages, colors, sizes, genders, and no one cares. The only thing that matters is the dialogue of movement. We have been in this body conversation for six hours now. The only proof of time is the evening light that slants through the music, bathing our sweating bodies in gold. I am breath. I am movement. I am the medicine that comes from movement. I am a clean and willing vessel for consciousness to move through me. Sometimes moving “my” own story and emotions. Sometimes I am dancing other people (some I know, some I do not). Sometimes I am dancing  stars, mountains, and the fertility of the rich Earth that holds us. I am breath breathing me, I am the inhalation and the exhalation. My mind is resting somewhere soft and safe, dreaming deeply. My body is well used, sore to my very core and tired beyond what I have ever known. And my spirit, you ask? Well, she has never been more awake.”

So … If this level of embodiment and wholeness is possible, why would we ever resist it?     

Resisting Embodiment

After the illusion of body separation is revealed, and the promise of wholeness is experienced, the time has come to step into embodiment.   

“When you know better, do better.” 

Maya Angelou

So, why is it so hard for us to practice embodiment? Here is the hard (and obvious) truth: It’s not easy living with a human body.

Like all places of resistance, refusing embodiment boils down to comfort bias. 

In our culture, wholeness has become synonymous with feeling good. As we know from applying the Co-Active principle of Process work in our coaching and in our lives, “what we resist persists.” And, as you know, fellow human, there are soooo many reasons why we resist being in our bodies! 

Here are my top 8 personal favorites::

  • It hurts
  • It’s hard
  • It takes time
  • It’s unfamiliar
  • There is unprocessed grief and trauma (that we fear)
  • I feel shame and/or self-criticism for neglecting my body
  • I am lazy
  • Add your own…

“When we feel ourselves as we wish to be, we say that we are whole.” — Thomas Carlyle

What about feeling whole when we are not feeling how we wish to be? This feels like a much more radical place to stand.

It is much harder to open up to the body’s wisdom when there is pain. I have never met a human who has not experienced challenges with their body. And sometimes that is what is needed.

I suffer from a back injury that happened 10 years ago. I have tried everything to “make the pain go away.” Embracing wholeness means that instead of trying to escape my discomfort, I have developed practices to be open to accept my physical state, regardless of pain level. I invite the experience as information, as wisdom, and as a critical path towards my wholeness. Not easy, but it’s a physical practice I return to daily.

“The body tells the truth regardless of if we speak its language or not. ... Often my practice has focused on trying to meet my body where it is, instead of constantly trying to get it to meet me where I am.”

Lama Rod Owens

Also on the list of other possible reasons to resist embodiment is this one:

  • I don’t know how 

Steps Towards Embodying Wholeness

We don’t know what we don’t know. It seems that all humans suffer from varying degrees of spiritual dementia of connection with wholeness in which we lose touch with our agency and flounder in the void. Don’t worry. This happens to us all. In fact, after having a peak experience of embodiment in Costa Rica (captured above), I have had to work hard to sustain access to my agency and commitment to embodied wholeness. And some days are better than others.

So, if you haven’t intentionally engaged in embodiment for a while (or ever) and want a few ideas to try, here are some ideas of places to start (or return to):

Free dance (eyes open or closed)

Playing in a swimming pool

Crawling on the ground

Rolling down a gentle slope

Grounding

Forest bathing

Walking backwards

Following along with a toddler or young child 

Anything that prioritizes letting the senses lead (smelling flowers, listening deeply to music, singing, tasting something new)

Blindfolded anything

Breathwork

Spinning!

You will be amazed how quickly your body remembers how to lead.

“Are you disciplined enough to be a free spirit?” 

Gabrielle Roth 

Becoming a Disciple of the Body

As coaches, we understand the need to create accountable practices that help with embodiment. Embodiment requires discipline. 

It feels weird to have to practice being embodied. And yet, so much of what is needed to become more embodied requires the process of unlearning.  

In 1992, I recall enrolling in a college course called “The Art of Play.” I figured it would be a breezy, easy A. To my surprise, the class wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Even in a classroom of 20 year olds, I felt painfully awkward at the beginning, and it took a concentrated effort (and letting go of my ego of  “looking good”) to drop into my senses and loosen my judgments of self and others as we returned to the basics of play. By the end of the quarter, sure enough, I was playing again like a child. 

Are you ready to become a student of your body? 

Developing Embodied Agency 

As coaches, all we want for our clients is to empower them to build their agency towards their highest timelines.  

Bottom line: When we are embodied, we have greater agency.

In his highly regarded book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk explores the body’s elephant-like memory of storing all experiences that we have had in our lives.  All of it the good, the bad, the ugly. All of these experiences are stored like personal (and often emotional) books on a shelf in the library of our tissue, bones, organs, and blood.  

“Agency starts with what scientists call interoception, our awareness of our subtle sensory, body-based feelings: the greater that awareness, the greater our potential to (be responsible for) our lives.” 

Bessel Van Der Kolk 

How do we create this courageous agency for ourselves and our clients through experiences of embodiment?

Returning to Wholeness

Now more than ever it is time to come back home to the landscape of our own sovereign body intelligence. It is time to connect to what feels good and to reclaim our power, our joy and our vitality. It is time to remember all of who we truly are. To “re-member” our wholeness.

How can we possibly engage our wholeness without embracing the physical container that makes us all possible?

By embracing embodiment, we open up the conversation of true wholeness for ourselves, and for our clients.

As poet Mary Oliver implores, “...You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

It’s time to embody. Step in.

Abigail Prout Profile Photo
Written By

Abigail Prout

Abigail’s dream is to inspire deeper relationships with the Earth, ourselves, and each other. Specializing in spirit-led leadership through online courses and in-person retreats (Spiral Leadership), Abigail believes in the power of creativity to grow conscious evolution. With a background in therapy, she has worked as a professional leadership coach for the last 25 years and has spent the last 8 years as faculty for the Co-Active Training Institute, teaching coaching and leadership courses. Abigail won the 2021 Homebound Publications Poetry Prize, and her first book of poetry, Walk Deep, has won the Nautilus Book Award and is nominated for a pushcart prize. She offers classes on the art of leadership through creative writing. She lives on the small island of Lopez where she grew up in Washington State, with her husband, Clive (also CTI faculty), their two children, Iona and Jax, and her silky black lab, Bella.   

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