embodied learning

The importance of embodiment, arts expression and deep ecology in education

Towards Integral Education Part 2: The Body in Education

These pages are being constructed as a theoretical and practical resource for teachers who wish to incorporate more of the body,  deep ecology and the arts into their teaching work. They are based on my own training in these fields and productive discussions with:

Llewellyn Wishart, Lecturer in Early Childhood Education, Deakin University and Certified Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner,  


Alex Nicolson, my partner and master teacher of the Alexander Technique.


continued from Part 1…


The Body in Education

Chances are high that if you’ve come so far in the education system as to be reading this page, you may have been one of those who do quite well in an education system with a strong emphasis on cognitive learning: learning based on a type of memory called “semantic” which enables us to recall facts and concepts.

 You might be wondering what we mean by “embodied” learning – since we all “have bodies” surely we all by necessity engage in this? I’m going to describe an approach to education you may not have come across, called “somatic education” – so I’m asking at the outset for your patience because I am using a cognitive/ linguistic modality (the words on this page) to communicate ways of knowing that are not based on words. 


Pause for a moment…

 Consider your relationship with your body:

How would you describe your school experience in relation to your body?

How do you currently feel about your body?

Can you sense your whole body and your posture while reading these words?

Is your relationship with movement and posture easy or associated with fatigue/pain?

How would you describe the location of what you refer to as “I”?


Common misconceptions relating to the body in education

Misconception 1: The body is separate from the mind:

 When we teach children that they have a “mind” and a “body”, we are actually, perhaps inadvertently, continuing a philosophical lineage often attributed to Descartes. Such “Descartian dualism” lives on despite its refutation by both embodied philosophy and neuroscience. Mark Johnson (2007, p.4-6) discusses several factors which reinforce our illusion that “mind” and “body” are distinct entities and make it difficult for us to give up such dualistic thinking:

– “Focal disappearance” of the sense organs in the process of perception:

“We are aware of what we see, but not of our seeing”;

– “Background disappearance” of non-conscious processes behind perception and movement (eg, body schema);

– “Recession of the internal organs and processes” – visceral, endocrine & neural processes underlying metabolic, physiological homeostasis and emotional experience occur below the level of conscious awareness.

(I’ll come back later to ways in which somatic education addresses these factors.)

This dualistic split permeates our everyday metaphors and expressions and has led to the elevation of cognition over other ways of knowing associated more with the “body”. However, much of our conceptualisation is permeated by metaphor (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003), and metaphor itself originates primarily in embodied experience (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). Metaphor is described by Davis as “the principal means by which humans elaborate their primal bodily experiences into more sophisticated, abstract understandings” (Davis, 2004, p.207) – “even the most abstract of thoughts can be demonstrated to be rooted in one’s physical engagements with the world” (Davis, 2004, p.213).

Johnson (2007) uses the term “eviscerated intelligence” (p263) to describe what happens when a discipline (philosophy) “fails to address our most basic existential concerns” (p263) due to the pervasive influence of “behaviourism and positivism that eschewed ‘meanings’, ‘experiences’ and ‘mental states’ ” (p.270). In redefining “the body” he says “Any naturalistic view…cannot speak of ‘the body’ and ‘the mind’ for that would simply reinstate the mind/body dualism” (p. 274). He suggests that using Dewey’s term “the body-mind” helps, but a broader definition of “body” is preferable: the body is not merely an object-thing, but is a lived body, Merleau-Ponty’s “phenomenal body”.


Misconception 2: The body is an object:

We study “the body” in biology, we move “our bodies” in sport and dance, and we might even do some practical and experiential learning.

“Knowledge about the body is not necessarily embodied and the engagement in bodily practices does not alone guarantee the construction of an embodied subjectivity.” (Markula, 2004, p.74)

If children are taught to think of their bodies as objects, to be viewed from the outside as 3rd person observers, is it any wonder they lose touch with their 1st person embodied experience?


Misconception 3: We have five senses

 What do somatic educators mean by the words “embodied” and “body”? The word “soma” was used by Thomas Hanna (1980) for the root of “somatic education” to refer to a first person perception of oneself as embodied to distinguish this from simply observing “the body” as a third person “object”. It is the proprioceptive (literally “self-sensing”) sense which makes the difference. This sense has unfortunately been relegated to the “general senses” and thus is missing from the readily listed “five senses” taught to us as children.

More recently, there has been a move to re-unite the senses of touch and proprioception as one “body” sense: the somatosensory system. However, this is not in common usage. (The word “kinesthetic” (our sense of movement) is in popular usage but is often associated with the gross motor movements of sport rather than finely tuned bodily awareness and viscero-emotional perception.)


Proprioception: a sense gone missing

Proprioception, like any other sense, can be greatly deepened and developed through focused awareness and practice. It includes our sensations from joints, muscles, and other internal bodily receptors that give us our appreciation of bodily position, tension and release, and bodily movement (kinesthesis). It gives us the physical experiences of subtle feelings and emotional states; it gives us our whole-bodied interiority and is bounded by our sense of touch.

This sense has been undervalued even in disciplines in which it plays a major role. In dance education, the mirror feedback (how the dancer will appear to the audience) objectifies the dancer’s body and supersedes and overrides her internal sensing, even of pain. In sport, the “no-pain-no-gain” performance emphasis takes us away from pleasurable and healthy movement practice. Proprioception is actively discouraged by the didactic teaching of other subjects when they focus (“concentrate” our attention) exclusively on the senses of sight and hearing.

The disappearance of proprioception, not only from our general vocabulary of the senses, but also from our focus and attention as we go about visually and verbally dominated “educational” experiences, has resulted in a form of sensory-motor desensitization (termed “sensory-motor amnesia” by Hanna, 1980): children and adults with very poorly developed abilities to sense the way in which they go about organizing their daily movements, and a reduced capacity to self-monitor in social situations. The consequences of this are:

–   a population plagued with movement related chronic pain, misuse injuries and reluctance to exercise;

–   a disembodied state of “normality” in which self esteem is based on externals (mirrors and praise) rather than an internal felt sense of presence and self support;

Current trends toward digital-based education and the ensuing sedentary, audio-visual-focused learning not only exacerbates the above issues, but again privileges the types of knowledge which already dominate education.

 Embodiment may be acknowledged (of course we are embodied beings) but it is not generally appreciated as a potentially profound, deep, subtle experience akin to the richness and discriminatory fine-tuning of the experienced wine taster, artist or musician. Even when mindfulness practices are incorporated into physical education, there are powerful forces at work toward disembodied interpretations:

“As bioscientific knowledge tends to objectify the body to the gazing researcher, to seek for (verification from bioscientific knowledge in order to be taken seriously) seems to disconnect mindfulness from its embodied roots.”… “It is (apparently) more beneficial to align mindful exercise with these (bioscientific) discourses than challenge the premise of medical knowledge as disembodied and unsuitable to judge the benefits of mind-body forms” (Markula, 2004, p.73).


Factors that undermine natural poise in children

We’ve all observed the way in which small children seem to carry themselves with ease. However, children soon learn by imitation to adopt postures of older children and adults around them, who have lost their postural buoyancy through the use of chairs and couches, who have learned to ignore their proprioception and pain, and who override their natural movement patterns with learned ways sitting, standing and walking. Because we cannot see inside our bodies and our proprioception is dulled, we can form inaccurate neural schema or “maps” of where our joints are and how our bodies move, termed “mis-mapping” in Alexander Technique (Conable & Conable, 1998).

Even when a parent or teacher notices poor posture and body use in a child, the commonly used correctional approach is doomed to fail. The dual organization of the neural control of human movement and posture into conscious cortical and automatic subcortical systems (Juhan, 1987) makes instructions to “sit up straight” not only useless but counterproductive.

Try this exercise for yourself: notice your own posture and adjust it to “sit properly”. How long does this last?

When we tell ourselves to sit or stand straight, we employ a conscious neuromuscular organization built for gross movement. Then, as soon as our attention goes elsewhere, our unconscious neuromuscular system takes over and we slip back into our old habits.


Somatic education methods and principles

Somatic education addresses dysfunctional movement habits at these deeper brain levels. It involves experiential learning with a focus on bodily self awareness during processes of attending, sensing, intending and moving.

The field of somatic education (“somatics”) is represented in Australia most commonly by the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method, although many other related methods, including Body-Mind Centering® (Cohen, 1993), have a significant Australian presence. Such methods are more established in the North America and Europe (Knaster, 1996), and their influences can be traced to somatic practices from non-Western cultures (Eddy, 2002).

Somatic education methods have often arisen through painstaking first-person empirical investigations by individuals committed to solving sensory-motor problems in themselves and others (Don Johnson, 1995). Alexander discovered his methodology in the early 20th century in the process of working with his own movement habits. Although the Alexander Technique is often primarily thought of as a postural correction method, it’s essence, fully appreciated by John Dewey (a student with Alexander), is as an educational path toward more freedom from ingrained habits of all kinds. It has been incorporated into some forms of education, especially in the arts and physical education, but remains largely outside mainstream education, often only discovered by adults when they reach the point of unsustainability. Although such first-person methodologies have tended to be marginalized by dominant medical and behavioural models, they have recently been adopted and validated by embodied cognition theorists such as Francisco Varela (Varela, Thompson & Rosch, 1991; Varela & Shear, 1999).

“Many critical events in the 20th century were triggered by the eccentricities of individuals who strayed from beaten paths, pursuing personal obsessions that only a few could imagine would prove so influential. In other words, the collective intelligence of any society is rooted in the eccentricities – literally, the off centredness – of its citizens” (Sumara & Davis, 2007, p.81)


The body/mind split revisited

Somatic education counters the three factors cited by Mark Johnson (2007) as contributing to the body/mind split (referred to earlier):

– Its emphasis on detailed self observation of sensing and attending during movement, resensitizing the “lost sixth sense” of proprioception, serves to counter focal disappearance of this sense and its domination by vision. An “open focus” attentional field is cultivated in which all senses including proprioception combine into a sensory Gestalt.

Open focus vs concentrated attentional field

– Somatic education highlights the background disappearance of perception and motor processes, by:

–   correcting “body mis-mapping” and using kinesthetic imagery that influences the way we organize movement;

–   working to strengthen innate reflexes and natural movement patterns;

–   bringing to conscious awareness the moment of intention prior to movement;

–   closely examining habitual movements and postures during daily activities.

– Somatic methods such as Body-Mind Centering and the Alexander Technique develop our ability to counter recession of internal bodily processes to enable sensing and influencing of body systems on a very subtle level.

Harnessing intention toward spinal integration

Somatic Intelligence

The terms “somatic intelligence” and “somatic literacy” (Linden, 1994) have been used to describe a cluster of abilities such as (Faire, 2002):

–   sensitive and accurate proprioception (bodily awareness) and body mapping;

–   the ability to use open focus attention;

–   optimal neuromuscular degrees of freedom at all joints;

–   freedom of the head-neck joint allowing primary control of postural reflexes;

–   well-developed postural integration of the spine as a self supporting column;

–   interlimb co-ordination and integrated whole-body movement patterns;

–   freedom from unnecessary muscle tension and related pain;

–   awareness of one’s habitual reactions and postures;

–   the ability to inhibit and redirect habitual responses;

–   integrated mental, emotional, physical and spiritual experience;

–   an openness to new information and the potential for change.

Although there is some overlap with Gardner’s (1993) “kinesthetic” and “intrapersonal” and Goleman’s “emotional” intelligences (1995), the term “somatic intelligence” implies a subtle level of self-observation and regulation skills obtainable through somatic disciplines.


How could contemporary educational practices change to be more embodied?

Let us be guided by the pragmatic subjunctive: “If indeed this were so, what difference would it make in practice?”

The diverse nature of current approaches to teaching means that some schools and some teachers are already fostering embodied learning. The following framework, modelled on a somatic education procedure from the Alexander Technique called “inhibition“*: it involves firstly becoming aware of those habitual teaching practices (including our own body use) which do not support embodied learning in our students, and then taking time out to rethink and reshape them.

*A more recent version of such first-person methodology, called “suspension“, has been developed by Varela and colleagues (Varela & Shear, 1999;  Depraz et al, 2000). A similar process can be found in body psychotherapist Stanley Keleman’s somatic-emotional education (Keleman, 1987). 


What might we still be doing as teachers that discourages children’s embodiment?

–       Instructing children to sit still for long periods with attention on the teacher, computer screen (exteroception) at the expense of self-sensing (proprioception)?

–       Over-focusing on visual and verbal information?

–       Teaching concentration skills at the expense of open focus attention skills?

–       Individual cyber-tuition at the expense of personal contact and live group interactions?

–       Role-modeling postural habits that engender tiredness and pain?

–       Passing on conceptual assumptions about body/mind separateness?

–       Assuming that teaching “about the body” in designated classes produces embodied learning?


 What can we intend and enact more fully/differently in terms of embodied learning?

–       “time-out” for being as part of the being-doing cycle; teaching metaphors of time (such as radiating time) which counter prevalent linear conceptions; encouraging “rest & digest” parasympathetic mode; stillness as an antidote to constant “doing” and an opportunity for self awareness and reflection; “centering” practices, mindfulness, “non-doing”, breath awareness;

–       encouraging self-observation/mindfulness in activity (both teachers and students); cultivating the ability to stay present to embodiment and feeling while thinking, reading, computing, playing an instrument, playing sport and conversing with others;

–       learning to discriminate healthy dynamic posture from suboptimal habits;

–       self-care practices (integral practices) as part of all learning;

–       languaging embodiment as a process-system rather than the body as an object;

–       teaching and modeling being comfortable with not-knowing stage of the knowing-not-knowing cycle (as a natural part of our system allowing itself to be perturbed and reforming);

–      pattern interruption throughout classes: not “sit up straight” just bring awareness back to symmetry “wiggle up” and start over. Repeated reminders of mindfulness.


Next page: “Towards Integral Education Part 3: Nature in Education”



Cohen, B.B. (1993) Sensing, Feeling, and Action: the experiential anatomy of Body-Mind Centering, Northampton, MA: Contact Editions.

Conable, B.H. & Conable, B.J. (1998). What every musician needs to know about the body: the practical application of body mapping and the Alexander Technique to making music. Columbus Ohio: Andover.

Davis, B. (2004) Inventions of Teaching: A Genealogy, Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Depraz. N., Varela, F. and Vermersch, P. (2000). ‘The Gesture of Awareness: An account of its structural dynamics’ In M. Velmans (Ed.) Investigating Phenomenal Consciousness. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Eddy, M. (2002) Somatic Practices and Dance: Global Influences, Dance Research Journal, 34(2): 46-62.

Faire, R. (2002), ‘Even Smarter Bodies? Increasing the Somatic Literacy of PDHPE teachers’, ACHPER Healthy Lifestyles Journal, vol 49(1): pp16-20

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Keleman, S.  (1987) Embodying Experience: Forming a Personal Life, Berkeley, Center Press.

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Markula, P. (2004) Embodied Movement Knowledge in Fitness and Exercise Education, p.61 in L. Bresler (Ed.) Knowing Bodies, Moving Minds: Toward embodied teaching and learning, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Sumara, D. & Davis, B. (2007) Subjunctive spaces of curriculum: On the importance of eccentric knowledge. Curriculum Matters, 3(1), 79-91.

Varela, F.J. (1999) Ethical know-how: action, wisdom, and cognition. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press.

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Varela, F.J. & Shear, J. (Eds) (1993) The View from Within: First-person approaches to the study of consciousness, Thorverton, UK, Imprint Academic.


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