“I was raised with my head on a stick”Oct 12, 2020
Mark Walsh shares his journey from being “raised with my head on a stick” to becoming one of the most outspoken voices of the embodiment movement.
By Mark Walsh
“What the f**k is embodiment?” would have been my response as a first-year psychology undergraduate had I been asked about the subject. When I walked out of the university careers convention in tears at the lack of options that had any meaning for me, I hadn’t heard the word. Now, 20 years later, embodiment is my life. Back then, I was a heart-broken, alcoholic, walking brain. I was disillusioned with academia, having excelled in the Western version of education from an early age, then found it severely wanting, and was just becoming intimate within the martial art of aikido.
This was the door.
Aikido freestyle practice – jiyu waza aikido – with my friend Gavin Darcy
Like a drowning man to a life-raft
At my first week of university, I figured a martial art might be helpful (I was involved in some illegal activity) and walked into the local aikido club. I immediate fell in love with the graceful yet powerful movement, the embodied ethics and discipline I so obviously needed, and the promise of deeper insights into the human condition than books could offer. A voice inside took one look at aikido and said: “You need this!”.
I clung to aikido like a drowning man to a life-raft, despite finding it very very difficult. I was a cerebral person who’d been brought up to believe that sports were fine to keep your “brain taxi” working (a phrase my colleague Francis Briers coined later), but that the body had little else to offer except basic health.
I’d been raised by a family of teachers to think that learning about things was what matters. At school I was told I had an IQ in the top 0.1% and yet by my teenage years was suicidal, addicted, and had utterly failed in both multiple driving tests (important when you live in the country) and in my first real romance.
“If I’m so smart, why am I such a screwup?”
After a near mystical embodied sexual opening that I came down hard from, I faced a cerebral world bereft of vitality. I felt I’d been lied to about what mattered and where knowledge lay. I thought, “if I’m so smart, why am I such a screwup?“.
My embodied journey began with near-fatal failure, a microcosm I now see of the failure of our society to live from the neck up. It was no surprise then really that I dived into aikido when I found it, with the enthusiasm of someone who felt the only alternative was suicide and was trying that the slow way with alcohol. I ended up getting more and more involved with martial arts, doing my dissertation on the psychology of aikido, and it’s no exaggeration to say aikido saved my life.
What I discovered is that I was reinventing the wheel trying to combine aikido and psychology, and many others had already realized the body is an integral part of who we are as people. This is one definition of embodiment. I realized that the “head on a stick” I’d been raised with as an ideal, was actually a common but deeply pathological condition. I woke up to both my own visceral life and the fact that there’s a growing movement to re-embody the world. I realized that a number of both Eastern and Western fields existed that viewed the body in its wholeness – as an aspect of “I” and “we”, and not as an ‘it”.
Training Across Borders – a life-changing project.
Having come to regard both higher education and mainstream employment as largely worthless, after university I pursued embodied arts with a passion, often on the road and usually in poverty. I slept on the sweaty mats of aikido schools around the world, worked in outdoor education with children and got by any way I could. I did this for some years until an event called Training Across Borders on the UN “Green Line” in Cyprus changed my life.
The Green Line is the bullet-scarred no-man’s-land dividing north and south Cyprus and this event was literally in it. I volunteered on this project as it was using aikido and other embodied arts as a tool for peace among countries in conflict. People were there from USA, Iraq, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, and many others.
Seeing movement bring people in conflict together, stirred hope, and my vision for what was possible with embodiment opened massively. I always knew there was more to it than simply fighting, stretching and dancing to look good, and now I could really see that in action in an inspiring way. A sense of purpose and direction started in my life. On Cyprus I would meet a number of mentors such as Paul Linden, Richard Strozzi-Heckler and Don Levine, as well as colleagues who I’d end up working with in such places as the slums of Brazil (school with bullet-holes pictured), The Middle East (embodied peacebuilding), and with a circus and “peace dojo” in Ethiopia! This event deepened the embodied adventure for me and opened doors that I walk through today.
Working in Ethiopia and in the slums of Brazil
Bringing it all together
For a few years, I worked for the organization that arranged the Cyprus event – Aiki Extensions – and was their “man on the ground” in various colorful locations. Eventually, though I returned home somewhat traumatized and burnt-out from living out of a bag in often dangerous places, I knew I wanted to do something with embodiment but wasn’t sure what.
Happily, my friend sat me down in front of Bill Myers interviews with Jo Campbell (of the hero’s journey fame) and I decided to start a business – Integration Training. The word “integration” is still critical for me – the bringing of things together that have been separated. I decided to convert my skills into working with business in leadership, team building, and stress management training.
This was a whole new challenge to me as much of what is fine in more “alternative” or humanitarian communities doesn’t go down well in a suit. I learned though and have since done embodied training with many global corporations such as Unilever, Shell, L’Oreal, Virgin Atlantic, American Express, etc.
I even did a short talk in the House of Lords which convinced my family it was a proper job!
What I have found is that if presented in an accessible way, embodied learning is profoundly useful for people working in organizations of all kinds. Reading books and getting an MBA, for example, will not alone make someone a charismatic leader, able to handle pressure or communicate effectively.
I consistently find business people human beings and don’t shy away from pointing to the roots of the corporate-sponsored disease of disconnection, which is leading to personal, interpersonal and planetary annihilation. I like helping people generally with embodiment, and working with this group has effectively sponsored all kinds of other less lucrative projects.
Embodiment online, really?
Embodiment can be taught in a very abstract way but I find what works in business is having clear aims and operational (task-based, not metaphoric) language. Now I just think this is just good practice actually – business has forced a rigor on me that I recommend.
I tend to use a skills-based model of “embodied intelligence” now, which can clarify what for example, in a yoga class is actually being taught as transferable life skills – e.g. using a difficult posture to teach better self-regulation.
As a third-generation educator, and teacher of other teachers in London and Moscow on The Embodied Facilitator Course for the last five years, I’ve tried to move the standards of the field forward. I’ve also found online mediums to be (almost ironically) helpful in spreading embodied work and have founded various communities on social media (e.g. Open Embodiment Group on Facebook) and grown a Youtube channel to a surprising size, making embodiment resources available to millions of people worldwide free of charge.
More generally I’d say it’s true of the current generation of embodiment teachers coming up that we’re often more at home with technology than the first wave of 1960’s teachers, and this will lead to interesting things.
“How can be we embodied online?”, is a critical question for the 21st Century and running away to yoga classes and retreats won’t answer it, we need to combine the old and the new!
Talking in the House of Lords convinced my family I had a proper job!
Embodiment and trauma
I’ve also continued to do some embodied peacebuilding work and became a specialist in trauma education. This has lead me to lead trainings for major NGO’s such as Oxfam, Warchild and Save The Children, with Moscow LGBTQ groups, and in places like Afghanistan, Sierra Leone (pictured) and Ukraine.
I met my wife Daria in the latter place who was my interpreter while training therapists there, so I owe embodiment my sweetheart too! Two days before our wedding I was called into the local veterans group in Daria’s hometown and I distinctly remember the look of hope in a group of traumatized ex-soldiers eyes as I described the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and potential treatments.
Embodiment can not only provide useful skills to people in intense environments or suffering from trauma, but can also interrupt the vicious cycle of numbing and violence that so much of the world sadly suffers from (see the body peace and trauma video). As well as contributing where it really makes a difference, for me it has always been necessary to test embodied work “at the sharp end” and I’ve now worked with every group I once thought might be difficult, from senior police to doctors to chefs with anger management issues!
Working with trauma treatment in Sierra Leone. My wife Daria and I during our wedding.
Embodiment without limitations
Now taught well, aikido is fabulous, but it is not everything, and after about ten years of study, I realized that my interest lay in embodiment more generally. I recognized that other arts would aid me in broadening my embodied knowledge.
When I started doing tango, for example, I explored embodiment through musicality, aesthetics, and sensuality, in a way not easily available in a martial arts dojo! Freeform dance was well… freeing, meditation retreats took the mindfulness deeper, improv developed spontaneity and humor, cage fighting fierceness etc.
Over the years I let go of my initial first love (and we all have one), which had really become a severe and limiting attachment. I became disillusioned even (again, very common) and found a wider appreciation of how different embodied arts fit together. This really helps with recommending practices to students too – aikido or yoga or whatever is not for everyone!
Despite trying to give it up I still love to practice aikido, but don’t get on the mat as much these days, and now spend more time doing yoga for practical reasons (it travels well) and because it’s an easier package to bring embodiment to people in.
I’m not so provincial about form, the deep underlying principals of embodied arts are all the same and that’s what matters to me. This is what I teach students now who come to me from diverse backgrounds and are often very experienced in one or more arts already.
We offer a multiple perspective approach where strengths and weaknesses are both recognized, diversity encouraged, yet deep standards of practice refined and commitment to community encouraged. I regard this as a more mature approach than the guru model blindly imported from the East which inevitably ends in abuse and isn’t suitable for most people I meet, or the postmodern swamp of anything goes shallow sweetshop practice consumerism.
I am lucky/obsessed enough to have tried hundreds of arts, and dedicated a decent amount of time (1000 hrs+) to a handful. I meditate daily as a consistent practice and as a foundation. I have tried to round out my understanding and own embodiment of course, as any art can easily lead to lop-sidedness, even neurotic caricature-like behavior. We certainly all have a warped lens of this field. Consider your own.
I would highly encourage all readers, especially professionals, to develop both breadth and depth (still dig a couple of deep wells). It’s quite easy in many places today, we’re very lucky…spoilt perhaps.
“The yoga world started to seem more and more shallow.”
What happened to yoga?
Yoga is something I grew up with as my mum is a practitioner, and I tried it even before aikido (my main aikido style includes lots of mindful stretching too). Over my years in embodied arts yoga’s popularity however grew and some WEIRD things started happening to it.
The world’s best hope for re-embodiment began to be twisted into either superstitious new-age nonsense (sticking feathers up your arse does not make you an Indian chicken), or body-beautiful consumerist exercise, stripped of depth and disguising a very mainstream body exploitation, under a sickly sweet faux -spiritual veneer.
The yoga world started to seem more and more shallow and frankly part of the problem of a world obsessed with appearance, unhealthy demands to be skinny and celebrity culture. Modern yoga is sick. More generally some illnesses have begun to take hold in Western “alternative” culture more generally.
Upsetting yoga people
After some years of ranting, upsetting many people and getting thrown out of various yoga groups etc., I decided to offer something constructive in the yoga field. I’d had yoga teachers coming to my courses for some years and worked with them to create a Western but deep approach to yoga that can fit with almost any style and helps practitioners get yoga “off the mat”: Embodied Yoga Principles.
We do some very unusual things such as innovative postures (e.g. no posture), “micro-postures” to take asana into daily life, yoga competitions (silliness and plank-off competitions shown), and much more. The practice incorporates elements of coaching, body therapy, martial arts, etc.; and dare I say it, sheds light on some of yoga’s blind spots. I’m hopeful that EYP can make a contribution specifically, but more generally I see the yoga scene waking up to some of its political blindness and pathologies, and more cross-fertilization happening with other arts.
Meaning, money, and mating
People mostly care about two things: work and love. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that two other areas I’ve done a lot of coaching around are attraction and purpose – what to do with this one wild and precious life and who to spend it with?!
What I found is that embodiment connects people to values so helps people find and stay on purpose, as well as can be used to address some of the barriers that can come up in this area (see this purpose coaching session for an example).
It turns out that the intolerance of a wasted empty meaningless life that meant I left my university careers fare at aged 20 in tears, and embarked on the harder but more satisfying joinery into embodied purpose, is now more common. People are waking up to meaning at work and embodiment is a great tool to help this, reconnecting to self-being at the core of this central life challenge.
Embodiment also makes people more attractive – being in your body, confident and empathic for example, is just… well, HOT! I kept seeing this as a by-product of courses and kept hearing feedback like, “my wife likes what this course is doing to me!”.
So after some years denying this link (business is very afraid of this area so at first, I kept some distance), I eventually started helping people in ways that were pretty obvious to me as an embodied trainer. Beyond surface notions of merely physical attraction the media tries to enforce, what really makes people sexy, deeply and with integrity, is embodiment, and this can be developed. I LOVE helping people with this area now and am regularly coaching shy guys, middle-age women coming out of divorces, people with trauma in this area, etc.
Somewhat astoundingly to me, another thing that started happening was people began asking my advice about money, business and marketing. I’m certainly no millionaire but I do have my head around the basics of these areas and it turns out this is unusual in alternative body circles.
I’ve been making a decent living for some years now in a pretty unusual field doing what I love if nothing else! What I’ve found is that a lot of my friends and students – lovely and very talented people – get in their own way and spend their lives broke and stressed despite having a lot to offer. In the business domain, often just reframing ethical marketing is enough for people, learning business basics and of course looking at the embodied side of it too.
The lack of comfort many people show around fighting (the start of my journey), fucking and finances, could be viewed as differing expressions of the same things – denial of our basic nature, and the separation of power and love. This separation is at the heart of many of the modern world’s ills and a central theme of my main mentor Paul Linden’s work. If I look back on my first twenty years in embodiment this seems the heart of the divide I work with in various ways.
Integration. Love and power are not opposites but in embodied terms, different sides of the same thing. If that’s a bit abstract, here’s Paul demonstrating.
The future of embodiment
So where are we going with all this? On a personal note, I will continue to explore my own playground and extend the work professionally. Embodiment is something that just keeps opening out and one lifetime isn’t enough to exhaust the potential learning. And in conclusion, here are my predictions for the general embodiment world over the next ten years:
• The word embodiment will continue to trend as people look for what brings related arts together, peak as a fashion leading to all sorts of ghastly bullshit, badly-trained teachers and cash-ins, then stabilize
• As the baby-boomer teachers die off a new style of teaching will emerge, more rigorous, more at home with business and technology, and incorporating more perspectives from different arts
• Science will continue to validate the field
• Trauma understanding will become common-place
• Yoga will grow up incorporating free movement, anatomy, politics and Western psychology. The obsession with selfies and athleticism will fade… If the back-lash against yoga and mindfulness that’s begun doesn’t kill it all off of course
• The guru-led style of practice we’ve inherited from Asia will fade and democratization of practices will begin. European depth will trump American show business (more of a hope that one)
• Frozen pizza will never be any good
Mark Walsh, Brighton UK
This is an updated version of a blog post originally published on www.bodymindlove.com on Nov 20, 2017.
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