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Focusing anthropology’s methodology on the soma could help us understand human being more keenly. What can we discover by engaging ourselves in our interior bodily experiences?

How to bring the anthropological enterprise into the soma, that specific internal experience of the human body?
―Fieldnotes, June 4, 2019

Ethnography starts with immersion in settings, experiences, and people. For me, currently, such immersion proceeds from the rubbery tread of a lavender-colored yoga mat. I wonder if it is possible to engage our interior experiences of our body as a kind of “somatic anthropology.” Might I conduct an ethnography of the inside of my body, to seek the stories and experiences of my own internal bodily being?

I find this question agitating. Interestingly, the root of “agitate” from the Middle English agitat borrowed from Latin agitāre is to set in motion, to move, drive ahead, arouse, or disturb. It captures the forward thrust of airline travel and the ah-ha moment of a new thought, discovery, or insight. The story begins at the onset of this agitation.

I am engaging the possibility of turning anthropology’s methodology to the soma in order to understand more vividly. Could it be that everyone is an ethnographer of “the field” of the human body? I’ve come to understand that these somatic experiences are never devoid of anthropology, in all its rich capacity to agitate human stories and meaning. The tales we tell ourselves and each other—particularly about the body—create meaning, lasting and naturalized.

Soma on the move

Agitation begins when we are just about to do something.
What’s the beginning of the story? What happens when we move our bodies with the attention to the internal experience of that movement (soma)? What is anthropological here? Mostly anthropology has reminded me to practice and deepen the act/capacity/phenomenon of noticing.
―Fieldnotes, June 3, 2019

I begin by focusing on what has come forward in the experience of movement. First there is a sense of preparatory movement―muscles in a state of persistent low-level contraction. In some places in my body (my abdomen, quadriceps, and pectoral muscles) the muscular contraction is a more acute bracing, gripping, or holding. This feeling of being just about to do something is an agitating feeling. Then there is a fluidity or release even in fully making a movement, stepping out wider and lifting my arms parallel to the floor into hatha yoga’s Warrior II pose. I notice that the preparatory movement of low contraction or bracing relaxes as I engage a fuller movement. Yoga is supposed to be relaxing, but in this state of anthropological attentiveness on my yoga mat, I find that being still is definitely not as relaxing as moving. Getting myself into Warrior II is much more fun, pleasant, and relaxing than staying in it. It’s much harder to notice anything once I am in the pose. Is it actually easier to move than to be still? What’s the story here at the beginning of the story?

After three falls, two spinal disc herniations, and one impinged spinal nerve, I’ve become very protective of the layer of my being commonly referred to as “my body.” This protective comportment is habitual. Before coming to my yoga mat, I brush my teeth and suddenly notice my shoulders hunch and my upper back curves, my abdomen tucks in, my abdominal muscles in a low state of consistent contraction. None of this is required to get my teeth clean. I even reach for the toothpaste with my upper body curved inwards, the back of my neck contracted, and my head carriage leaning forward past my body and over the sink. I move my shoulder blade away from my spine so that I can reach the toothpaste in the medicine cabinet and still maintain this comforting hunch. But ultimately, it’s not comforting at all. My neck hurts, my shoulders end up tight and painful, even my lower back gets sore. And my hip flexors get angry, triggering the same muscle spasms in the big muscles of my legs that occurred during my disc herniations. A scary reminder. So, I hunch even more. None of this is particularly conscious.

Now that I am studying yoga and somatic movement, I start to track my comportment, my bodily sensations, my movements. My skills as a cultural anthropologist seem commensurate with this new noticing of the inner workings of my body that my yoga teachers call interoception.

Entering liminality

Sometimes I have the wherewithal to ask myself, So, what would it feel like to notice the energetic field from your tailbone to your crown?
―Fieldnotes, June 3, 2019

I feel my feet more firmly planted on the floor. Or if I’m sitting, I notice my sit bones making contact with the chair. I can even press my feet and my sit bones down a little bit to get that sense of connection to the chair, the floor, the earth. Usually there’s a heavy sigh. Suspiration. And… everything is softer. Wow. The back of my neck is softer, my shoulders have glided down, my lower back is eased, my abdominal muscles are softly engaged. This is so much more comfortable! Why don’t I do this all the time?

When you fall, you engage the most powerful parts of your nervous systems. There are parts of our bodies that are designed to protect us, to keep us alive, and they don’t always turn off when we decide we might be done with them. While I think the worlds of somatic health care practitioners can get scientistic, I have also learned more about the inner workings of my body in these last five years than in all the 52 years before that. And it’s not just that I was ripe for an anatomy lesson. This engagement with interoception as a regular practice, brought me into the body directly and clearly, in a way that I had never experienced.

And I still get scared. Last autumn, when muscles in my right leg and hip started to spasm again, threatening to lock up, I called on my yoga therapist. She didn’t persuade me not to be scared or reassure me with platitudes; she brought me back to the mat and to movements I was familiar with. She guided me slowly, softly making the movements smaller, visually connecting parts of my body that had become disjointed from fear. In the process, she used the word “balm,” and I began to cry. Tears running down the sides of my face as all the muscles in my legs and hips softened. No more spasms. She showed me that I could take care of myself. That I could soothe and care for the wounded parts of myself.

In polyvagal theory, the ventral vagal system engages through connection with others. Others who share their vagal system with you through their facial expression, tone of voice, eye contact. You know you are safe when the person or people near you are smiling, speaking in soft or easy or fluid or low tones of voice, making engaging eye contact, perhaps even offering a light touch on the hand or arm.

That session with my yoga therapist and teacher occurred over Zoom. I couldn’t see her eyes sparkle, but I could hear her voice―steady, kind, full of compassion, but not particularly emotional. When she said the word “balm” it was almost an afterthought. As she spoke, I wasn’t even looking at the computer screen, just listening with my gaze softened and my eyes sometimes closing. But there is resonance. From her house five miles away to my little quarantine home yoga studio and office. Through a laptop. Technology mediates but doesn’t control the connection that allows her ventral vagal system to resonate with mine. And perhaps this resonance is also built from memory. I remembered her eyes sparkling during yoga therapy sessions before the onset of pandemic restrictions, her hand on my shoulder, her voice asking me as she applied light pressure, “Can this soften even further?” Even now as I write this, I experience that softening.

In the liminal space

Quiet the body (posture, breath, progressive [body scan style] relaxation)
Quiet the breath (low & slow, awareness at the nostrils, sense withdrawal)
Quiet the mind (concentration, mantra, “witnessing”)
―Fieldnotes, June 4, 2019

On the first day of the three-day therapeutic yoga workshop, I find myself laying down on a heavy rubber yoga mat laid over a sparkling clean hardwood floor. My knees are bent, my feet flat on the floor. I am with a group of 10 women, representing every decade of life from 40 to 80. This particular training is not oriented towards turning us into yoga teachers. It’s called SomaYoga CPR and it’s a sort of emergency medicine approach to yoga. We are all tired, in some degree of pain, and have spent swaths of time in our lives in the service of others. We are teachers, nurses, social workers; we are mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties; and we are lesbian, bisexual, and straight. We are mostly white, mostly middle-class women with $300 to spend on a three-day workshop in this northern Minnesota town.

Our instructor cues, “Close your eyes or soften your gaze. Sense where your pelvis is in relation to your spine. Notice the curves of your spine―where is it touching the mat and where not? Sense your breath flowing. Arch your low back a little. Soften back to neutral.”

“Wait a minute,” I think, “What is neutral?”

She mentions a sense of comfort, but before I can wonder what comfort feels like in this position, other cues from the yoga instructor: “Press your tailbone down into the mat. Notice your lower back muscles contracting. Now release that contraction, slowly and consciously soften those muscles.” I follow along and suddenly notice that the fairly consistent pain in my lower back has disappeared. I didn’t know I could do that; interesting to consciously contract and then consciously release that contraction, to soften the muscles that I didn’t even know I had. Now she cues us to tuck our tailbone upwards by curling the pelvis, softening the low back, and drawing the navel down towards the spine: “What do you sense as you open up these glands and tissues?”

Credit: Charlotte Corden
Illustration of four people in different poses

Later the instructor talks about a kind of amnesia. It seems that there is a forgetting that goes on in the body and therefore I couldn’t connect with parts of my body when I first laid down on the yoga mat. Our instructor describes the habits of modern life that make possible a kind of forgetting of the trunk of the body. This particular yoga training process invites us to engage in moving from the periphery to the core of our body. Our instructors discuss digestion, of not only foods, but of actions, thoughts, emotions. The phrase “rest and digest” is embodied fully in action as we begin to familiarize ourselves with the slow movements of the extensor muscles of the back body, followed by the core or abdominal muscles of the front body. This “arch and flatten” movement is ideally combined with breath awareness. 

Then we move on to “arch and curl,” a bigger movement with elbows and shoulders involved. The teacher begins her cues here focused on the curl originating with movement of the abdominal muscles, which causes my head to start to come up. We hold the curl, then focus intently on the slow release back down. I find that making the arch that follows this curl to be a continuation of the release and when I let that arch go and fully relax, I hear myself audibly sigh.

After the mat practice, we sit together in a circle and talk about what we found in our exploratory quest.
“I met my shoulders.”
“After working on my shoulders, I could stretch my stomach muscles and hips.”
“Increased awareness.”
“Release of hypervigilance, my eyes feel softer, no longer watching [out].”
“All of the nurturing attention made me want to cry.”
“My feet felt nourished with a sandbag.”
“Taller, I feel thoracic freedom!”
“Unmasking, connected to source/spirit.”
“Softer, surrendering to that middle space.”

But agitation is difficult too. Many of us also spoke about a headache or feeling nauseous after practice. Some felt cold and wrapped themselves up in an extra sweater or blanket. Some of us noticed a kind of amnesia and could not feel the body parts to which the instructor cued our attention. Some noticed emotions such as sadness or experienced exhaustion after the practice.

By the end of our workshop, we learn that the specific movements from these practices are pandiculations―conscious contractions that involve moving the origin and insertion points of a muscle closer together, on purpose, then very slowly and consciously moving them back into a relaxed, supple state. The longer certain habits have held sway (like crouching over a computer screen, for example), the more pandiculation practice and time it takes to release the constant state of contraction (bracing, holding) that we have trained our sensory-motor systems (our body) to engage. Interoception is key to bringing a new mode of being to the body.

I especially like this concept of pandiculation because it makes such a juicy metaphor. Ethnography from the inside out agitates the ethnographer into a state of interoception, of discovery within this new field of the soma. Then those discoveries can be considered, cogitated, discussed, and engaged (cf. agitated!) by consciously contracting into the tensions―pandiculating. This is a metaphor for many things: for how we learn, for how we teach, for how we make something new, for how we begin a new practice. If you are trying to hit a ball with a racket, pedal a bicycle, dance a tango, or bake a cake for the first time, you will be learning movements in a specific order, with a specific precision―perhaps entire new movements that you have never done before. This is the means whereby a body accomplishes something in somatics: each small step that builds the cake, moves the bicycle, dances the tango, gets the ball precisely where you want it to go. Perhaps this great big agitating metaphor for discovery, change, new learning, supports the possibility and ground of a somatic anthropology, within which each of us is an ethnographer of our own human bodies.

Integrations

How can we lay claim to what is our own already, returning ourselves to agency around our own human, gendered, aging, thriving, stumbling, shining bodies?
―Fieldnotes, June 5, 2019

At home after the workshop, I lay down on my back on my yoga mat. Taking a slow, low breath, I close my eyes and focus inward on the specificity of the body. What does it mean to be in this body, right here, right now? What do I notice, turning my attention inward to the soma at hand? Pain in my right hip, sharp, persistent. Constraint in my lower back that eases if I bend my knees. My neck feels stiff. Where are my shoulders? An odd feeling that I can’t find my shoulders. My feet are gone too. I remember the instructor encouraging us to press our feet into the mat and I try it. And just like that my whole body comes into the field. I find I miss the others, the voices, the bodies around me, nestled into their own mats and blankets and bolsters. What is it about needing an other―someone to cue the practice, to speak the balm to bring us back into a welcoming house of the body that is a birthright no matter the battering that body has taken at every turn of life. What is it to feel the us-ness of others surrounding us, agitating the same process of discovery, of change? For healing, for growth, for relationality, for trauma resolution, we agitate together. We consider, occupy ourselves with, bring up for discussion, deliberate.

We discover what happens if we apply the ranging, exploratory, questing joy of discovery to our own relationships with our frayed, fragile, stalwart, and sometimes disappointing bodies. Let us enter the field of human bodily being. Beginning, perhaps, on a soft day when curiosity beckons, with our own somatic experience, and in the solidarity of companionship.

Illustrator bio: Charlotte Corden is an illustrator and fine artist whose work often centers around what it is to be human. She has an MA in anthropology from University College London and has studied at the London Fine Art Studios and the Arts Students League of New York.

Authors

Mitra Emad

Mitra Emad is a yoga therapist in training and the associate dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Cite as

Emad, Mitra. 2022. “Somatic Agitations.” Anthropology News website, September 14, 2022.

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