The Art of Embodiment

How would it feel to say ‘fuck yeah!’ to life? What do you need to say ‘no’ to? How would it to be to take up as much space as you need out in the world, and then to come back home to yourself in a space of loving kindness? Are you more comfortable with giving, or receiving?

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I said ‘fuck yeah!’ to Mark Walsh’s Embodied Yoga Principles workshop. I was attracted to the emphasis on creating personal insights and making yoga transferable for pragmatic life benefits, as that’s exactly what I do with my own students and clients – help them find yoga tools for life. Mark stressed that there would be lots of social interaction, and that it might be emotionally challenging – we were advised to arrive well-rested and to let him know if we’d had any recent trauma. I’ll admit, that did make me wonder – was this going to be someone pushing my buttons for the hell of it? Or would it be a genuine self-study exploration, and Mark was simply being responsible in letting us know that we’d be going a little deeper?

Happily, as soon as I met him I realised that it was very much the latter. With an honours degree in psychology and extensive experience in leadership training with organisations like the UN, the House of Lords and the NHS, Mark has worked on conflict resolution and stress management projects in the Middle East and the slums of Brazil, and is an internationally recognised teacher in the Japanese martial art of Aikido with 20 years of yoga experience under his black belt. We were in safe and responsible hands. A gregarious and enthusiastic character who bears a distinct resemblance to Gary Barlow, Mark greeted each of us warmly and made it clear that we could participate as much or as little as we liked, and that individual experiences would be entirely confidential. It was sounding good!

We gathered into a friendly huddle as Mark explained that Embodied Yoga Principles is a mindfulness-based practice which draws on life-coaching, body therapy, yoga and martial arts. Postures and group exercises are used to explore our tendencies and reactions, and focus our attention on the different emotions that arise.

We kicked off with the life-embracing ‘fuck yeah!’ pose – a simple standing backbend with one foot in front of the other and hearts lifted high. How did it feel? What did we want to say ‘fuck yeah!’ to, in our lives? Mark encouraged us to call out our responses, as he and his excellent co-teacher, Ady Griffiths (resembling Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham – they make quite the rock star team!) moved around the room and suggested enhancements to our physical expressions. Then the opposite of that – in a Warrior-like stance, we explored what we need to say ‘no’ to – a powerful embodiment of healthy boundaries. Whilst the postures were simple, this was a process of going deeper and exploring the mind-body connection – does our ‘no’ really look like ‘no’, or are we a bit wishy-washy in real life? After holding each pose for a couple of minutes it became more challenging physically, and it was interesting to note which embodiments felt natural, and which were emotionally uncomfortable. After each pair of opposite postures, we were given one minute to turn to a neighbour and share our experience. As Mark put it, this would be ‘an introvert’s nightmare’, but having done partner work a lot over the years I can vouch for how healthy it is to step out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves. Take it from me, as someone who would rather have chewed her own head off than do this stuff 10 years ago, it makes you grow like nothing else!

We continued in this pattern, exploring embodiments of self-promotion, self-care, giving, receiving, support, asking for what we need, and sharing our discoveries. Confidence grew, and connections were made. This embodied yoga felt good, and most importantly, felt incredibly relevant to life in the outside world.

The one thing we can all say with absolute certainty about our bodies, is that one day they will die. We embody that at the end of every yoga class when we lie down in Savasana (corpse pose), but this Savasana was much deeper…. Mark skilfully guided us into a meditation on our own death. This is a fascinating exploration which is widely used in schools of Buddhism, and it was beautifully, sensitively and un-sentimentally handled. Mark concluded this practice by asking us: what did we want to do with the rest of our lives?

Obviously it would be ill-advised to finish on this introspective and vulnerable note and send us back out into London life, and that was accounted for. Our final challenge before re-entry to the world was something you don’t often come across in spiritual circles – a yoga competition! Yes, after all that we yogis knew about turning attention inwards and cultivating a non-competitive state of mind, we were being invited to do the antithesis of all that and have a plank-off! Hats off to Mark and Ady, this exercise really blew me away – far from being an aggressive, ‘win-at-all-costs’ vibe, my plank partner and I found that the friendly rivalry sustained our ability to hang in there for far longer than we would have managed alone!

I took several useful discoveries from my afternoon of embodiment. Turns out that a little friendly competition can actually be supportive and nourishing – and amazingly, it’s ok to ask for help. Who knew?! And I loved the healthy boundaries warrior stance – I’ll definitely be using that as a reminder not to take on too much!

So if a little challenging self-exploration sounds like it could help you – and I believe it would help most people – then this is a great way to spend an afternoon. If you have the opportunity to attend one of Mark Walsh’s Embodied Yoga Principles workshops – I highly recommend that you say: ‘fuck yeah!’

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