Woman standing in sports clothes

The body knows the way

In Mind and Movement, Yoga, Dance and Movement by LivingNowLeave a Comment

Certain rigidities of posture make it impossible to feel. So the posture is adopted to eradicate the possibility of feeling. Often, of course, this is because, there is some emotion there, so painful or traumatic that the person cannot afford to feel it, and so cuts off all feeling. Becoming muscle-bound is a good way to suppress feeling.


I went to see an amateur production of Michael Gow’s play Away – a comedy of manners about Australians on holiday. The production was enjoyable enough, but there was nothing really memorable about it except for a young actress playing a schoolgirl who was embarrassed.

She was so good at it. It stood out as the best thing in the play, the only real thing. Fortunately, the character was required by the script to be frequently embarrassed. So we had many opportunities to enjoy the rendition of this emotion by the actress.

For instance, she would be talking to her boyfriend and her mother would come and say something crass and she would be intensely embarrassed. She was able to convey embarrassment by many elements. Some of these being a downcast glance; another glance with eyes rolled upwards in exasperation; a kind of sigh. Or a hopeless slump of her shoulders; having her arms folded across her breasts, or standing on one foot with the other foot resting on top of it and her knee pointing in towards the other leg, with her body twisting around this fulcrum.

There was a feeling of happy coincidence between the actress and the character. One felt that the actress was easily embarrassed and she brought this quality to the play. It shows up two interesting, almost opposite, meanings of the word ‘acting’. First, acting in the sense of pretending. Secondly, acting in the sense of doing, being. We use the word acting to mean these two entirely different things.

Later, I met this actress and she asked me if I would help her with an audition piece she was preparing, a speech of Rosalind’s from As you Like It. This is a great speech, emotionally rich and relentlessly logical. Shakespeare writes such a rich stew that it makes everyone else seem thin and weak. And no other playwright before or since has had the ability to create woman characters of such force, dignity and intelligence.

Anyway, I was coaching Libby and in the middle of the speech she went into one of her embarrassed postures, stood on one foot with the other foot on top of it. Of course, this was an entirely inappropriate gesture for Rosalind who is a powerful, direct, commanding character, never embarrassed.

It was clear that Libby was not using the posture but the posture was using her. Libby did not have freedom of choice about it. The posture – the configuration of psychological forces behind it – was driving her, rather than her commanding of the posture. This is, of course the nature of any bad habits, addictions and compulsions.

We all have a characteristic movement that is ours. If we think of our friends, there will be a stance, a movement, a way of walking that is unique to them, that is them. (Isn’t it extraordinary that of the billions of human beings all equipped with the same basic physical elements, two legs, two arms, two eyes, etc., each of us can have an absolutely unique physical signature.)

For several years I studied psychodrama. One good trick you discover is that by adopting someone’s ‘signature’ movement or pose – they way they walk, hold their head, how straight or crooked is their spine – you can become that person. Adopt their posture and you know what it is to think and feel like them.

You understand for example how certain rigidities of posture make it impossible to feel. So the posture is adopted to eradicate the possibility of feeling. Often, of course, this is because, there is some emotion there, so painful or traumatic that the person cannot afford to feel it, and so cuts off all feeling. Becoming muscle-bound is a good way to suppress feeling.

Since the work of the psychologist Wilhelm Reich and all who have come after him in the field of bio-energetics, we now understand very well how psycho-spiritual conditions are stored and expressed in our bodies.

Characteristic postures and gestures define not only individuals but also whole cultures. A good way to experience this is to practise the folk dances of different cultures. You will find that every culture has a basic step that is their unique step. Elaborate and complex patterns can be built on top of that, but that particular step, gesture or posture is always the foundation. When you do that step, you feel that culture. You feel like an Arab, or a Jew or a Croatian, and you realise that in some part of your mind you always knew that about Arabs, Jews or Croatians.

Of course you can buy books about body language, and cross-cultural differences are also well documented. However, I distrust any simplistic, blanket application of formulae (as one distrusts simplistic interpretations of dream symbols – such and such a dream symbol always means such and such). No, every individual case, personal or cultural, has to be interrogated to yield the full richness of its meaning.

Anyway, getting back to Libby, postures of embarrassment were her fundamental physical signature. So we decided to interrogate Libby’s posture of embarrassment to try and understand why she did it and what it meant. I guess we were working in the psychological field called Gestalt in which you question aspects of the person.

We began by identifying the basic posture and having her adopt it: it was standing with one foot on the other with leg turned inward, her body twisted around itself. It was shy, awkward, rather charming, girlish and virginal. There is a famous kitsch painting of a beautiful nude woman in this posture standing in an alpine lake at dawn. There is something very sexy about the pose in a vulnerable way. It is a posture of such intense modesty it is extremely sexual, calling attention to what it seeks to conceal by the intensity of the concealment

I asked her why she liked this posture. She said it was comfortable. She said that with her body twisted like this she felt comfortable, protected. However, when I tried to adopt it, it was a struggle to keep my balance. It wasn’t comfortable at all!

I asked her why she folded her arms across her chest. She said it was to protect her breasts. Interestingly, she said that this was something her mother also did and they had once talked about it. So we see how sometimes these physical signatures are passed from generation to generation, perhaps genetically, perhaps learned.

I asked her to feel what the embarrassment posture actually did to her body. Usually she blocked out of consciousness the actual physical sensations engendered by the twisted pose, but when she directed her consciousness to actually feeling what it did to her body she realised it was painful. Her ankle felt crushed and her leg was squashed. It was not comfortable.

This reveals two meanings of the word ‘comfortable’. On the one hand she says it is ‘comfortable’, meaning it is psychologically comfortable, secure and protected. But from the point of view of physical ‘comfort’ it is not comfortable. It engenders pain, but this pain is usually suppressed.

This is an example of how we can ask the body questions; interrogating movement, posture and gesture yields information.

Another thing which came up with this actress was that her voice came from her head. This meant not only that her voice was high-pitched and squeaky but that it had no power and also that her delivery was too fast. We lowered the source of her voice to her solar plexus which made her voice deeper, slowed it down dramatically, and made it more powerful.

We often ask ourselves why people go through life repeating the same mistakes over and over again and possibly we even note this tendency in ourselves. Why does the woman who had an abusive, alcoholic father always engage in painful and unsuccessful relationships with abusive, alcoholic men? You would think she would want to avoid such situations, wouldn’t you?

People will say that it is precisely because of what happened in childhood that she wishes to recreate that situation. But this doesn’t answer the question. Why, why, why would we want to repeat a painful situation?

There is a story about a little girl whose spine was crooked. Her mother took her to the doctor to have her spine straightened. The doctor straightened it successfully, but when the mother came to collect the little girl, she ran to her mother saying, “Mummy, Mummy, this man made my back crooked”.

This shows how we are comfortable with what is familiar and prefer it to what is unfamiliar even when what is familiar is extremely painful and bad for us. We accustom ourselves to one kind of discomfort for the comfort of what we are used to, and we resist at all costs the discomfort of change.


Harris Smart is a freelance writer living in Melbourne. He has also been a TV producer with the ABC and the director of the social welfare agency, the Centre for Creative Ministries, which brought together healing, spirituality and the arts.

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