“Knowledge is only a rumour, until it’s in the muscle.” – Saying from the Asaro tribe, Papua, New Guinea.
In the last few months, as part of my attempts to get fitter, I’ve been working with a personal trainer. He’s introduced me to boxing, something that I’ve discovered I really love. It’s challenging and a great work-out, but it’s also helping me to learn more about myself and how I interact with life.
The other day, during my session, my trainer gave me the feedback that I was very good at attacking but not so good at defending. He’s right, my punches are good and strong, but I don’t hold my ground well and am not always prepared for his counter-punches. As I reflected on this afterwards, I thought about how that might apply to other areas of my life. It wasn’t difficult to see – I have strong opinions which I don’t always back up with facts, so can easily be out-argued by people who are smarter, or more careful, than me. In the past, I would flare up easily at trivial things and be very ineffective – ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ as Shakespeare put it.
I’ve been involved in personal development for the last twenty-five years both personally and in my work, and I’ve studied with a lot of teachers and read a lot of books. I’ve learned a lot, of course, but what I’m now aware of is how much more I’ve been learning in the last few years from a regular Iyengar yoga practice, and now through boxing training. There’s something about being in the body that takes learning to places that mere books and theories cannot reach.
We live in an age where we see learning primarily as the gathering of information – we read books about leadership, or we develop complex models and theories to explain organisational and human behaviour. These theories have their place of course, but they don’t teach us anything about the experience of living. Life teaches us about living – being in the ring, practising and experiencing, making mistakes and learning from them. And the primary experiencer is the body itself.
Even though we pay so much attention to academic, rational, learning, we innately know that the body is important. For example, we will use our somatic experiences of others to make assessments about them. Imagine, for instance, that you were interviewing me for a job, and I turned up telling you all about how much of a dynamic self-starter I am, boasting about my CV, etc, whilst at the same time I was slumped in my chair and looking at the floor. It’s unlikely that would hire me to lead your new sales development programme! As the Alice Miller book title has it, “the body never lies”; it reveals something about who we are, even if our words say something different. How we show up in our bodies impacts others, even when they think their decisions about us are purely rational.
So, it’s important that we pay attention to our bodies and the somatic impact we have on others. Sometimes we get feedback from others – from trainers, for example, but we can also build our own awareness of this. I might notice, for example, that when I get impatient with slow people in supermarket queues (as I do all too frequently), my body tenses up, my shoulders come up and I start to ‘lift’ my body away from the ground. When I notice this, I can then remember the Iygengar yoga ‘mountain pose’. I place my feet firmly on the ground and start to relax, and my impatience passes. The more we practice, the more we learn to notice our bodily reactions, and the more quickly we can intervene and calibrate.
If you’re not getting what you want in life, one place to look is the body.
How do you show up when you play sports, or when you’re walking down the street, or at a business meeting? You can ask others for feedback, or you can just start to notice what happens to you when someone interrupts you, or someone cuts you up when you’re driving.
You could also look in the mirror and see how you normally – do you stand in a confident way, holding your ground? Are you leaning forward, shoulders hunched up, etc? What do you see in your eyes?
As you identify some of your somatic habits, you can also explore trying different habits – for example, if you want to become more assertive, maybe something like Iyengar yoga or boxing might help. If you want to become softer and more open, then you could try Tai Chi or simply sitting in silence and meditating. We learn new ways of being by moving differently – we can literally rewire the brain and our structure by new somatic habits.
And, as a final tip, you might explore listening to different types of music and see what impact they have. We all know what it’s like to be feeling very tired and then some lively music that we love comes on and we feel energised by it. What impact would soothing music have on you when you’re impatiently driving home, for example? Or what would listening and moving to upbeat expansive music bring you when you were feeling unconfident?
As always with these reflections and practices, try to see them as something about which to be curious, rather than trying to get it right or come up with ‘the’ answer.