Bodies, Language, & Life

I'd like to extend the idea that challenges in your life may be reflected in your body.  In fact your body is often the canary in the coal mine.  Issues of pain, mobility, and tension might be harbingers of a broader array of problems in your life.

In this article we'll explore the links between body, language, and life.  This is an idea I've been chewing on for quite some time now, and in writing this piece I'm hoping to clarify my understanding of it as well.  

Before we dive in please know that this isn't a definitive exploration.  It's based on my experiences as a somatic coach and a growing understanding of the available research on embodied cognition and psychological development.

There's a lot to digest here ; )

Let's start with the basic idea that we are more than "body plus mind".  We are what is often referred to as a soma.  Our lived reality is experienced--in part or in whole--through our body by means of its sensory-motor pathways.

I'd like to stretch that idea further and say that there is in fact a link between our bodies, our language, and our lives.  A few examples from my coaching practice can illustrate.  After all we learn quite a bit through story:

Example #1

I was working with a coach in Austria who wanted to deepen his understanding of movement and overcome some of his own limitations as well.  In our first discussion of his challenges he mentioned difficulty in handstands and pull ups.  

Despite his deep understanding of the principles of strength training he just couldn't seem to make headway on these movements.  He said (and this seems both relevant and important) that he felt as if he was holding himself back in his training.

Out of curiosity I asked him where else in life he might be holding himself back.

The clear answer for him was in his professional life.  He was taking steps to full time coaching, but he felt as if he weren't giving his all to it.  He was--in his own words--holding himself back.


Example #2

A yoga teacher here in the US came to me for help dealing with chronic back pain.  She was finishing up a teacher training program and was stumped for what to do next.  No amount of stretching, asana, or pranayama had helped.

An assessment showed that she had limited spinal mobility and ankle dorsiflexion.  We developed a mobility training program and began some somatic movement explorations as well.  She said that she just couldn't let go of the tension in her back, and as in the example above I asked what else she couldn't let go of.  

Her first response was her marketing job.  She had been thinking of leaving for years, but kept holding on to it because she had poured so much time and effort into it.  It's "what [she] always wanted," but it was making her miserable and stressed.  The realization shook her, but it gave her a clear direction.

She continued on with her mobility practice, submitted a 90-day notice of resignation, and has been totally free of back pain ever since.

Also interesting. It's still anecdotal evidence, but n=2 is a start.

Example #3

A former student, another yoga teacher, first came to me with challenges in her overall mobility, particularly in her spine.  As she put it:

"After years of stretching, releasing and opening, I still had such limited mobility in certain areas of my body. I couldn’t understand why...I figured I’d overstretched from all the yoga, and I felt a little betrayed by my practice."

So we worked through a gradual process of restoring mobility using principles of somatic education and Functional Range Conditioning.  The combination seemed to work, and by the end of our time together she had found major improvements in her controlled range of motion.  And in an offhand comment during one of our final calls she said, "I feel like I've grown a backbone."

More and more interesting, in my opinion.

There are dozens of other examples along these lines, but I feel like you'll understand the general frame by now.  These students--and many others--have an eerie relationship between their physical challenges, their lives, and the words they use to describe each.

It's not every person every time, but it's an interesting thread to pull.

I was skeptical at first, but based on a bit of digging into the available research on embodied cognition, it seems that it's not just "woo woo" coincidence.

Embodied Cognition

In case you aren't familiar...embodied cognition is a growing paradigm in cognitive research.  It essentially posits that cognition is an emergent phenomenon stemming from the complex interactions of an organism and its environment.  It's an interdisciplinary approach drawing from cognitive science, robotics, philosophy, and psychology.  

Put simply: bodies came before thought.  Thought requires a body.

Our thoughts and cognition are grounded in bodily states, meaning that psychology and physiology are inextricably linked.  

Psychotherapists in the tradition of Wilhelm Reich have been exploring this link between mind and body in mental health treatment for quite awhile.  And somatic practitioners have been coming at it on the other side, bringing in awareness of mind and body to help facilitate physical changes for just as long.  

As mentioned at the beginning we're working with the idea of the soma, the more-than-unity of body and mind.  In the practice of Ecosomatics we look at the soma in dynamic relationship to its environment, including the people and places around it.

In other words, life.  And the stuff of life.

What the above examples point to is a link between body, language, and life that appears to bridge the gap between the worlds of psychotherapy and somatic education.  I should clarify at this point that I'm not a psychotherapist, but the coaching world can learn some lessons from the field as we've talked about before.

How might this relationship play out?

Where Language Fits In The Puzzle

As a growing body of research points out: language is an abstraction of embodied phenomena.

To get a working understanding of this consider that we intuitively understand what it means to take a stand, hold your tongue, have the weight of the world on your shoulders, and so on.  There isn't much conclusive research looking at metaphors like this, but it gets the wheels turning for us.

Where we do see evidence building up is in the neurophysiological activation based on sentence meaning.  For example the phrase "close the drawer," which implies action away from the body, seems to "prime" the body for that action (Aravena et al, 2010), making it more difficult to perform contrasting actions.

As Glenberg and Kaschak state: "the meaning of a sentence is given by an understanding of (1) how the actions described by the sentence can be accomplished or (2) how the sentence changes the possibilities for action" (Glenberg & Kaschak, 2002).

We make meaning based on physical function.  Our conception of words is based on their physical roots. 

We see this abstract/concrete link elsewhere too, particularly in learning numbers.  We learn the abstraction of a number through sensory-motor association with objects (Wynn 1990).  Numbers are abstractions drawn from visual engagement with objects in the physical world.

What Does This Mean?

It means that words aren't just words.  They're directly rooted in our subjective experience of the physicality of life.  They come from the world we live in, and they shape the world we live into.  

Words matter.  

As I've written about before a simple linguistic reframe can shift perception, which in turn allows for a whole new world of actions and performance.

The language you use to talk about your body can highlight obstacles and opportunities elsewhere in life.  Bringing awareness to our bodies and our language can shape how we live our lives.  Shifting our physical experience of our bodies opens new doors...sometimes.  It seems to be the case for the examples above and countless others, but it's by no means an obvious, clear-cut relationship.

I've seen students turn their lives around and grow into new possibilities through a thoughtful approach grounded in movement, conversation, and awareness.  I think this speaks less to the work than to the amazing complexity of the human organism.  

If things are "stuck" in your life, you may look to your body for clues.  In my experience--personally and professionally--our problems stem from rigidity or fixation (in body, in mindset, in ways of being).  When we're able to open up and trust the flux, we can engage in a more productive, more creative, more meaningful life.  

As I mentioned before this is a rough sketch of a pattern that keeps coming up in my coaching practice.  Feel free to comment below with thoughts or questions.

Works Cited:

Aravena, P., Hurtado, E., Riveros, R., Cardona, J. F., Manes, F., & Ibáñez, A. (2010). Applauding with closed hands: neural signature of action-sentence compatibility effects. PLoS One, 5(7), e11751.

Glenberg, A. M, and M. Kaschak. (2002). Grounding Language in Action. Psychnomic Bulletin & Review, 9 (3), pp. 558–65.

Wynn, K. (1990). Children's understanding of counting. Cognition, 36 (2), pp. 55-193.