What is Embodied Yoga?

Updated: Feb 10

"The work of embodiment, in any form, has to be about transformation." - Julie Martin, Founder, Brahmani Yoga

I always find the question, 'what kind of yoga do you teach?' a difficult one to answer. Now that more and more people are taking-up yoga practices, whether in studios and gyms pre-pandemic, or at home and online during lockdown, the term 'Vinyasa Flow' is largely recognised and understood.


However, when I throw the word 'Embodied' in there, it often causes confusion. And that's not surprising - the work of embodiment and the science that backs it up is only really starting to gain notice.


It's impossible in one blog post to reference all the brilliant teachers, thinkers and researchers out there doing this work - and I'm not going to get too deep into the science of embodiment, but I will offer links to useful and thought-provoking articles and research, if your interest takes you in that direction.


Rather, I want to lay out in my own words what I understand embodiment to mean when it comes to yoga; how I first encountered this new approach, and the benefits I've felt since bringing it into my practice and teaching. My understanding is always evolving as I keep studying, learning and finding new ideas and experiences - so I will no doubt re-visit this post and write updated versions of it as time goes by.


Let’s try embodied yoga together right now...


Because embodiment is best experienced first-hand in the body, rather than rationalised via thought, let's do a short and easy practice before we go any further:


· As you’re sitting here reading this sentence, bring your attention to your feet.


· Become aware of how your feet are touching the floor, and try to feel any sensations that might be present in the soles of your feet.


· Wiggle your toes a little to focus your attention and then let them rest quietly in place again.


· Now focus on the tops of your feet and the skin across this area. What sensations do you feel here? It could be the temperature of your feet that you feel or the texture of the socks you’re wearing. Perhaps you can feel quite subtle sensations, like tingling, vibration, or throbbing?


· Whatever’s there, just notice it without trying to change anything. And if you really can’t feel anything – just notice the absence of sensation.


· Finally, notice your breath. Take a moment to feel the next in-breath as it travels through your body and the out-breath that follows.


· How do you feel now, in this moment? Notice your shoulders, arms and neck - is there anything your could do to help these areas to relax? Let the answer come not in words but in the first-hand experience of your body.


Watch [your body], listen to it, observe its needs, its requests, even have fun. Play with it as children do, sometimes it becomes very alert and swift. To be sensitive is to be alive.' - Vanda Scaravelli


What happens during an embodied yoga class?


So, hopefully something that short exercise did (other than making you feel good) was to demonstrate a key element of embodied yoga: bringing attention to how you feel when you’re in a pose or doing a particular movement.


Perhaps this seems like stating the obvious? Surely every yoga class is about bringing awareness to our body and how it feels? Not necessarily. I've attended my fair share of disembodied yoga classes, where little or no reference was made to how our body felt as we were doing something. Instead, the practice felt like something we were just doing in order to do something with our body. I certainly felt I'd got a good stretch and workout at the end of these classes, but something was missing...



Luckily, early on in my yoga journey I found an 'Embodied Flow' class led by Gabby Byrne at my local studio in Liverpool. Gabby's classes felt different. For one thing, when we took pauses in child’s pose – a time when, in other teachers’ classes, we’d just about recover our breath before moving on to another gymnastic work-out – Gabby would ask us, ‘notice how you’re feeling, right now - how does it feel to be here?’


I’d never been asked that before in a yoga class. The language of ‘noticing’ was woven throughout her teaching: ‘notice if you’re trying too hard – could you do less?’; ‘notice how you’re responding to this challenge – could you run towards it, instead of away?’; ‘notice how your feet feel on the floor as we move.’


This attention to noticing sensation had ripples beyond the work I was doing on the mat each week. By bringing the felt sensations of my body into consciousness – ie. being aware that I was feeling something – I began to expand my ability to recognise how I was feeling in the rest of my life, too.


One of the best things a yoga student can say to me is that coming to my classes has in some way enabled them to start ‘feeling things’ in their bodies that they weren’t aware of before. To me, this is where the process of transformation begins.


This is the kind of ‘bottom-up’ processing that Peter Blackaby advocates in ‘Intelligent Yoga’:


"Modern living has muted our ability to sense things well… Yoga is extremely well placed to facilitate this [reconnection with ourselves], particularly if it means paying attention to things we have previously left unacknowledged and that we take for granted."

Most importantly, embodied yoga allows us to let go of the idea of doing the asanas (postures) in the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way. Embodied yoga, as opposed to some forms of traditional or gymnastic and aerobic yoga, emphasises moving in the right way for your body.


Embodied yoga also provides the freedom to explore. In a class, you will move through different ranges of motion, as well as natural and primal movement, and possibly free movement. As my yoga teacher and mentor Julie Martin says, embodied yoga helps you ‘investigate your own experience. Find fluidity and strength in a practice that offers invitations, not rules.’


Not only does this freedom and creativity make deeper connections between the mind and body, but it allows us to develop an intimate relationship with ourselves.


In more practical terms, the variety of movement and lack of rigidity is also a great way to avoid injury whilst increasing strength and suppleness.



Embodied yoga encourages us to trust and be true to ourselves and our direct experience. How do you experience movement in your mind, body, breath, and emotions?


I believe that embodied yoga offers us a unique path to self-discovery because of its emphasis on enquiry as the means of learning. By being invited to ask questions about what we are experiencing at any given moment in a practice, we gain the ability to move our body in new ways and decide whether what we’re doing is right for our body and our self. Surely this is a vital skill in all aspects of life.



Further Reading, Resources, and Classes!


The body of academic research into embodiment continues to grow, and there are many wonderful teachers, leaders and writers doing the work of bringing this area more into the mainstream. Below I've listed just a few of the places I've found information and inspiration on this topic.


Of course, if you'd like to try an embodied yoga class yourself, I offer a range of weekly embodied yoga classes, where you can dip your toe in! If you want to read more in-depth about a specific topic, then check out my blog posts on yoga and breathing, yoga and the nervous system, and the physical benefits of practicing yoga.


Whatever your journey with embodiment becomes, I hope you enjoy it. Add comments below with your own experiences, any questions you might have about what I've written here, or if you'd like any further guidance in finding an embodied practice that is right for you.


All the love,

Charley x


Articles/Blogs:

https://www.brahmaniyoga.com/blog/the-bodys-intelligence


https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00875/full


https://www.intelligentyoga.co.uk/info/articles/


Books:

Peter Blackaby, Intelligent Yoga: Listening to the Body’s Innate Wisdom. 2018, Casita Press: London.


Vanda Scaravelli, Awakening the Spine. 2017, Pinter and Martin: London.


Podcasts:

https://embodiedfacilitator.com/the-embodiment-podcast/


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