The Body of Learning

“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.

Conditioned Tendencies

”Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl

Like anyone else working in the world of human development and learning, I regularly take the time to refresh myself with workshops and courses. I’ve been especially lucky to have studied with some great teachers, including Richard Strozzi Heckler, the somatic coaching master, and founder of Strozzi Institute, from whom I have learned a huge amount.

One of the most significant things I’ve learned from him has been the notion of conditioned tendencies*, the patterns of reacting to the external world that we all have, developed from a very early age, and which become ingrained and automatic to us. These reactions are primarily embodied, but we will also experience them as thoughts and emotions.

In many ways, these tendencies serve us well – they help us to deal with stressful situations or with interruptions or threats in our daily lives. However, because they have become automatic through years of habit, they tend to have us, and we become at the effect of, rather than in control of, them.

Like anything else that’s automatic, we have little choice about how we respond to situations when we react from our conditioned tendency. To live more effectively, and to build mastery in our daily lives, we need to be more than just our automatic selves. We need to build a range of responses, and more critically, we need to be able to discern the appropriate path in any situation. That requires space and awareness.

If we are to build range, and to develop the capacity for greater choice about how we deal with the challenges of life, then we need to get to know how we automatically react to the things that trigger us – we need to have some skill at observing ourselves, or ask the advice of others as to what they see in us. For example, a coach might point out that whenever you speak about your boss you lean forward in your chair, your breathing becomes shallower and your neck muscles tighten. Those somatic changes will impact how you interact with your boss – for example, they might be a sign of tension that shows up in your not standing up for yourself, or feeling resentful in your relationship with her. Or you might notice that when you are asked to do something you don’t want to do, you freeze. That might be related to a need to be liked, or a fear of having to stand up for yourself, resulting in an inability to say ‘no’ leading to over-commitment or exhaustion. This isn’t about how we would like to react, nor about how we respond when we are centred and balanced, but about what happens when we are caught off-guard and the automatic self is in charge.

This isn’t about judging ourselves – our reactions aren’t good or bad, they are just what we have learned – but about building the capacity to be less automatic, and developing the ability to respond differently. For instance, one of my conditioned tendencies is to react very quickly to things: my breathing becomes shallow, my shoulders rise and my head moves forwards and up, and my body tightens as if I become super-alert and feel as if I “have” to deal immediately with whatever has triggered me. One way it shows up for me is that I reply very fast (sometimes too fast!) to emails and text messages. Through practice, I am learning to take a moment to breathe more deeply, relax my shoulders, and then reflect on whether I need to respond immediately or whether, as is usually the case, I can take my time, or just get on with whatever else I was doing.


Take the time to notice and discover your own automatic, conditioned, reactions. Life is full of triggers so it shouldn’t be too hard to do some research here – how do you react, for example, when someone pushes in front of you in a super-market queue or in traffic? How do you react when your boss challenges you, or when your partner disagrees with you?

And then, as you begin to discover your conditioned tendencies, you might start to practice bringing more awareness to your everyday life. Training the attention, the theme of my previous newsletter, is a big part of this. You can begin to notice how you get triggered in stressful situations, and try to catch yourself reacting in the moment.

The next stage is to practice building new responses. For instance, returning to the example of your reaction to your boss above, you might notice your reactions to her earlier than before, and sit back in your chair, breathe deeply and relax your neck muscles – what new behaviour might this lead to? What new outcomes might follow?

From my years of experience of working with people, I know that the body is a very powerful place of learning. We can only benefit by becoming more conscious of our own bodies and their automatic reactions, and learning, through awareness and practice, how to show up differently in life.

*You can watch Richard Strozzi Heckler explaining conditioned tendencies, and their impact, here.

Making life less difficult for others

“What do we live for if not to make life less difficult for others.” – George Eliot

When I first shared the above quote on Twitter, someone suggested that a more noble aim might be to make life more meaningful, richer, more joyful for others. I agree, but right now, I’d settle for just trying make life less difficult. It’s often a lot more manageable to aim for that, than for trying to change the world (although I want to do that, too!).

It’s not hard to see how difficult life is for so many people in the world today: migrants trying to escape desperate situations; people dying from avoidable diseases, or because they don’t have enough money, or are unlucky enough to live in the ‘wrong’ part of the world; homelessness; poverty, etc. Even in our relatively comfortable lives in Britain or the US, life can be very difficult at times – too many people trying to get through their lives in the face of bureaucracy and spending cuts; hospital staff being too over-worked or put upon to provide support to anxious patients. And then there are all the everyday annoyances we all complain about – call centres, bad driving, rudeness, poor customer service.

I often find myself wondering about what the world would be like if we used kindness as a core guide to foreign and domestic policy, and as a basis for running our organisations and institutions – if, instead of focussing mainly on efficiency or profitability, our world was organised around the simple idea of making life less difficult for others, especially in times of hardship. We might then see a world where everyone had access to decent health care, shelter and food, and no one had to sleep in the rain.

Even someone as idealistic as me knows that this utopian vision of the world isn’t going to be realised any time soon, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do.

Even in the most mundane areas of life, it’s possible to make the world a slightly better place for others. It’s not hard to see that behind a lot of the small things that irritate us lies a lack of care for others, often because we are too pre-occupied with our own lives to see beyond them. For example, one of my pet hates is bad parking – parking that takes up a space and a half. I’m sure that people who park in such a way aren’t doing it deliberately to annoy others. People who drop litter or aren’t necessarily wanting to spoil the landscape. Often such annoyances are simply down to a lack of care or awareness.

But if we were thinking about smoothing the path for others in our lives, about making their lives easier, we might pay more attention to how we go about our lives – how we drive or park, for example, whether someone is coming through that door behind us; we might notice the human being who is serving us in the super-market, or doing her best to deal with a full waiting-room in A&E, or even the human who is bugging us with yet another annoying unasked for tele-marketing call – all people trying to get through their day, and not needing us to add to their difficulties by being rude or brusque.

Many of these are only small things of course, but even how people park can make a difference to others. Opening doors for others; being polite and kind to people, rather than taking your bad day out on them; cleaning up after yourself – the list becomes endless.

It’s a constant practice to remember that who I am, how I behave, how I show up, has a direct impact on others. And then it becomes a question of reflecting on how I can make life a bit smoother for those people I come across, and what I need to do to stay in good enough shape to honour my values.

I’d invite you to take some time to be curious about what you might do to make life less difficult for others, to smooth the path of the people you encounter in your everyday life. And, how might you taking better care of yourself allow you to show up in a kinder, more compassionate way?

How were you trained?

“We shape ourselves to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.” David Whyte

In the introduction to Peter Senge’s book Presence, there is a powerful story from a leadership workshop Senge was running in South Africa in 1990, in the last days of the Apartheid system. During the workshop, which was for both blacks and whites, the participants were shown a video of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, which had been banned in South Africa, and which many of them had never seen before.

After the video was shown, one of the participants, an Afrikaans business-man turned to one of the black community leaders, Anne Loetsebe, and said to her: “I want you to know that I was raised to think you were an animal.” And then he started crying. Anne just held him in her gaze and nodded. (You can read the full story here.)

Similarly, Estella, the adoptive daughter of Miss Havisham in Dickens’ NovelGreat Expectations, is depicted as being unable to love, because she was brought up to spurn all men by her mother who had hated men after being jilted at the altar.

Stories like that illustrate that people aren’t “racist” because they are fundamentally evil or bad, nor are they “unable to love” because they are inherently unemotional. We are the way that we are because that’s what we have learned. And that things that we assess as character “deficiencies” might simply be things we have or have not learned.

When I work with people, in all kinds of contexts and situations, I frequently hear statements like “That’s just the way that I am” or “I’m really bad at asking for help”, or “I’m never going to be any good at leadership”. On further exploration, we usually discover that, at some point in their early lives, they were trained to be in a certain way, or not trained in a particular competency.

Suddenly, what initially seemed to them as a character flaw, becomes simply a recognition of a lack of learning or training, and then a different kind of possibility occurs – the possibility to train in a different way, to learn a new way of being.

Of course, as with the stories of the Afrikaner businessman or Estella above, this realisation can bring with it a lot of pain, maybe regret over what we might have missed, or sadness over not having realised this earlier. There are so many things I wish I’d known when I was twenty, rather than having to wait until I was thirty or forty or fifty, to discover!

But, once we realise those things, then there’s a new kind of freedom, as well as a compassion that sets in when we realise that we’re not intrinsically flawed, but that we have been trained to live, or to think, or to be, a certain kind of way. And, then, we can be available for learning – for re-training – in a way that we were not before this understanding. That awareness can bring about a powerful shift in our mood – we’re not doomed to be the way we might have been all of our lives. We can learn something new – in much the same way as we are not doomed to only being able to speak our native language because that’s what we learned growing up, so we are not condemned to being unable to love, or to not being able to ask for help, etc.

Simply put, once we understand that who we are is to a large extent who we have learned to be, we can learn to be something new.


You might like to take a look at “who you are” – at your characteristics and personality, and reflect on how you might have learned to be that way.

If you have aspects of yourself that you see as ‘flaws’, can you see them as simply ‘things you have learned’?

What do these reflections open up for you?