Everything you do, any movement you make can be ‘just’ an exercise or it can be an embodied practice that invites growing awareness, more choices and presence.
There are a few pointers that help you identify what kind of practice you are engaging in. Especially if you are into personal growth and learning, this could be a helpful way to choose what your focus is.
- you and your body are the object
- intentional, with focusing attention
- experiential, intended to increase awareness
- you and your body are the subject
An exercise is what we typically do in the gym, what you learn growing up in physical eduation. You make specific movements and the goal is to do it correctly, to build muscle or achieve a certain state of bending or flexibility. Depending on how they are done, all exercises may be beneficial for your health. They can strengthen your cardiovascular system and keep the body fit.
Very often, exercises are also focused on achieving a certain outcome: such as a number of repetitions or a certain level of muscle strength. The goals can often be measured with metrics.
If you are exercising there is a chance that you treat yourself like a machine, an object that should function as intended and if something is not working properly, your system (read: body) is at fault. German neurobiologist Gerald Hüther talks a lot about the importance of people being treated like people not objects. And that real learning and growth can only happen when you are seen and treated like a subject, not an object. And that also goes for how you treat yourself.
Embodied Practices are about experiencing yourself in the moment, strengthening your felt sense of self and building awareness so you have more choices in responding to life (instead of getting stuck in reactive states where you only see one, or at the most two options).
The key elements of an embodied practice are intention and attention. You set an intention before you start your practice. This could, for instance be:
- I want to check-in with my body and reconnect with my physical self.
- I want to learn about softness or flexibility.
- I want to increase my ability to breathe freely.
In any case, an embodied practice doesn’t work when you try to impose how you should feel afterwards. You might do a breathing practice of which you know it improves your lung capacity. If, however, you think (possibly the mind taking over) you know how you should feel afterwards, you are taking away the possibility of your body showing you what it needs, its current limitations, or new ways of being or sensations that are connected to this ability.
By being attentive to your body or specific body areas during the practice, you consciously influence where the energy goes. It leads to increased awareness. You can regain sensations, strength, calmness, aso. by focusing on a body area or quality that you’d like to strengthen. The energy blocks, tensions or pains you will encounter, are showing you the way. There is nothing wrong with you, but you can assume that there are areas where energy is blocked that you can learn to access and tranfsorm.
And embodied practices are based on kindness with yourself. Every time you engage in an embodied practice, you make a choice of listening to your body and taking care of yourself. It is a discipline of self-care that, in my opinion, adds tremendously to self-confidence and overall health. Being kind to yourself is a prerequisite of being able to have empathy with others.
When you do embodied practices with an intention, there is no wrong. You will in any case always learn something about your self.
Embodied practices are not better than exercises. The two just serve very different purposes. For me, embodied practices add more value to my experience. They are never boring.
Even weight lifting in the gym can be an embodied practice. Just like chopping carrots in the kitchen and writing emails.
Once you’re aware of the difference between exercises and embodied practices, you can make an informed choice. This can change everything in your felt experience.