The moving body. A phenomenological view

OTTAWA MAY 3rd 2017
Gunn Engelsrud & Anne Leseth
The Moving Body. A phenomenological view

Introduction/contextualizing myself. Good morning, and thank you for including my paper in this session. I work with an anthropologist, Anne Leseth, who saw the announcement for this conference. Both of us immediately wanted to participate, due to our mutual interest in and research on movement. Unfortunately, she was not able to attend, but I am very happy to be here in Ottawa to learn from and be inspired by the stimulating papers and keynote speakers. This paper has changed slightly from what appears in the abstract – but I hope in an even more interesting direction.

“The moving body” is a concept with a variety of meanings in the social, political and experiential world. From a broad perspective, movement can be problematic for some people, while for others movement is a solution, an “escape” from problems. In today’s globalized world – as represented by this conference — we witness bodies moving across borders. At any moment, millions of people are on the move to find shelter; to be included; to be connected; to find rest or peace. Sadly, many of them instead experience suffering and marginalization. In this paper, I will take the situation of people in flight as a starting point, as my primary purpose here is to argue from a phenomenological perspective that on an ontological level everyone belongs to the same body and we are always (intentionally) directed towards something (others/the world). Ontologically, then, people fleeing from war and destroyed homes are the flesh of the world. We at this conference cannot regard ourselves as distinct from their bodies. Neither can we base our understanding of bodies in general as separate. Drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty and examples from yoga, I will argue that rooting our perspective in the body and recognizing the bodily resonance between people and the world enables us to problematize the
general tendency to think about movement primarily as something a person has, rather than as something, that links people/us. Cohen (2009, page 26) asks ‘how did we come to believe that as living beings, “the body” separates us from each other and from the world rather than connects us”? I concur with other phenomenologists (particularly Fuchs), who asserts that feeling connected and living in “a mutual incorporation” (2016, page 194) is where human sociality begins. However, as Peter Thielst (1992) notes, there is also a long-established tradition of regarding the body as a separated thing-like entity. As the author Siri Hustvedt has reminded her readers (2017, page 385), however widespread concepts like embodied mind, body mind, etc. have become. The mind-body problem is produced on a cultural level, and thus tends to survive in daily language use, as well as in practice and in the general tendency to separate us from them — a tendency well known in anthropology.

Two cases from modern yoga

Drawing on my 20 years as yoga practitioner in addition to being a researcher on movement, I have recently begun conducting some research on yoga. Here, I will use this work to illuminate tensions in the understanding of the body. As Elisabeth De Michelis has noted, although yoga itself is quite ancient, modern yoga is still in its infancy and few studies have been completed examining its actual practice. I would add that this deficiency includes how teachers teach and what kind of speech they employ when they teach. In addition, as Morley has observed, traditional (especially Tantric) yoga practitioners have been resistant to developing an academic discourse. Rather than theorizing on yogic traditions, philosophies and cultural roots, my interest has been in examining the use of speech in yoga practice, where language and social position (teachers/gurus) play a central role. I began with several questions: How do yoga teachers speak about teaching yoga? Do they speak about yoga as a practice that connects people to the world and each other? What kind of world?
Based on preliminary interviews, I have constructed two contrasting cases.

Case 1: Linda (Norwegian yoga teacher, 45 years old):
The approach of many teachers I’ve observed reminds me more of preaching than teaching. It seems like a religion, in which yoga teachers need gurus, and pick and interpret ideas from old texts and Sanskrit, as if yoga is something that could “rescue people” from this world and their feelings, thoughts and sensations. I’ve heard teachers tell students to “clean up” their addictions and stop clinging to ego. It is as if yoga is an escape from problems and from the world. I have very little contact with other teachers now. In my classes, I teach what I feel and perceive based on what I see a student do, not preconceived ideas – I teach and connect with people and feel them through my skin.

Case 2: Anna (Norwegian yoga teacher, 35 years old)
I don’t work with the physical body alone. Yoga is more than that. The physical body only engages in exercise, and yoga is about energy and the mind. The body is a “vehicle” to reach deeper layers. The physical body is “the temple” of the soul. In yoga, you plant seeds that can change everything. The goal is an enlightened mind. You have to “go beyond” and get rid of “false selves.” The truth is not what you see; the world is just an illusion. The real world is behind the social reality. We have to go beyond what we feel and sense – our senses are lying, they are not real. All you experience is illusions. You have to withdraw from your senses. True reality is the enlightened mind.

Preliminary analyses

These two examples draw on different ontologies and give the body different meanings. Linda teaches and guides her students using a sensory connection. She perceives the other and “feels the other through her skin.” Anna, in contrast, views the physical body as something that does not count. In fact, it is in the way: Our senses and feelings are deceiving us. This is not unlike the philosophy of Plato, who taught that the body is the prison of the soul; freedom and free existence are completely separate from the body and have nothing to do with it.

We can contrast this perspective with that of people fleeing extreme danger or disaster. Their feeling bodies are not illusions and expressions of false selves. Comparing crossing borders in flight from war and crossing borders in yoga allows us to illuminate different meanings of the body. For people on the run, seeing the world as an illusion is not an option. Their movement toward others is based on a hope that they will be recognized and accepted.
According to Merleau-Ponty, one cannot perceive the world and others except as a bodily anchored perceiver in-the-world-with-others. To perceive or imagine is to be in some kind of spatial-temporal orientation to the perceiver’s body. Yoga teachers rarely employ this concept of the “lived body”. Although the concept or word physical forms a central part of their vocabulary, they commonly invoke it to suggest something that is “not about truth,” and has a lower status than the mind. In essence, the term “the physical body” found in transcendental idealism remains dominant in yoga practice.
In contrast, as already noted, we have Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh of the world, indicating the connection between people and the world. This
signifies that we are always moving to get an optimal grasp of the world and ourselves. To obtain a better grasp of our basic condition, in his late writings Merleau-Ponty studied the work of Cezanne, examining how the painter was able to portray nature by lending his body to the world. To Merleau-Ponty, the idea that artists can understand the world/the other while separating themselves from the other/nature/world is inconceivable. On the contrary, he argued, understanding and being able to portray the world in a painting is not an act of copying nature, but of transforming it. The artist’s body is immersed in and made of the same stuff as the world: to touch, one must be tangible, and to see, one must be visible, according to Merleau-Ponty (OEE: 16/353). He characterizes this as “intertwining” or “overlapping” — the artist’s situated embodiment is the other side of its opening to the world. No sharp division exists between the sensing and the sensed, between body and things. They are one common “flesh,” and painting emerges as an expression of this relationship.
Applied to yoga, the vocabulary of phenomenology can be used to characterize the relationship between sensations and experience in the same way Merleau-Ponty uses it to analyze Cezanne’s paintings. Yoga emerges from the relationship between the teacher’s bodily presence and his/her words. One choice is to separate herself/himself from the bodies of the others, telling them to withdraw from the senses, sensations, energies and feelings that arise in and between practitioners. Another choice is to be present with them. People in flight and their constant movement is an expression of what emerges in the interaction between a war situation and the environment that surrounds them and their movement. They are lending their bodies to the world; connecting with our own bodies and the bodies of others allows us to experience each other as part of the same flesh.The perspective of James Morley in his article Embodied Consciousness in Tantric Yoga and the Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty is also relevant here. In taking an embodied approach to spirituality, Morley cites Edmund (2008: page 152), the originator of phenomenology, in particular his assertion that the experiential body is a corporal “zero point,” the clear bearer of the “here and now” and the bodily “on earth.” The premise is that the living body is at all times and in all situations the vessel of present meaning. It later serves as the basis for speech, but at the same time continues to be a source of unspoken, nonverbal communication throughout a person’s life.

The body as speech, speech as body

Morley (2008) is preoccupied with the limitations of language in coming to terms with the lived body.
With reference to Merleau-Ponty’s Themes from the Lectures, he argues for “an opening toward that which we do not have to think in order that we may recognize it” (Theme 130, Morley 2008: 152). However, he then observes that despite phenomenology’s recognition of the limits of language, it remains paradoxically trapped in an abstract representational methodology while pursuing its goal of articulating corporeal experience. Merleau-Ponty’s attempts at elucidation must rely on language and interpretation because, as one writer has noted, “it is the only game in town” (Fish, 355); Morley, 2008:160)

Morley’s perspective opens the door to exploration of the interesting and complicated relationship between the experienced body and the limits of language in coming to terms with one’s lived body. I would suggest that we do so by exploring the contrasting roles of the subjectivity of the body in speech and the subjectivity of speech in the body. This subject is highly relevant in yoga movement practice, in which the teacher/instructor takes a leading role and
directs her/his body toward others. As already noted, some yoga teachers may suggest that practitioners’ speech about themselves and their ailments is merely a reproduction of general knowledge, lacking any manifestation of the body’s surplus, life-giving meaning. That is, surplus in the sense of signifying practitioners’ subjectivity of body; its presence and whatever feeling and thought occurs for the practitioners is in flux and will change. The practice of yoga will take on different directions, depending on whether or not those sensations are acknowledged or rejected as illusions – and if the real goal is an “the enlightened mind.”

In his article “The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis,” (2003: 33-125), Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) makes a distinction between “filled speech” and “empty speech.” Empty speech merely reproduces the general meaning of language. Filled speech produces surplus meaning in others. An example of empty speech might be, “We are more than our physical body.” Filled speech might be to encourage practitioners to acknowledge their body in fundamental ways and find their word from what they sense and feel. From a phenomenological perspective, balance and instability, body weight and sensory perception are productive, albeit ambiguous sources of meaning (Abram 1999).

To conclude:

We might ask, as Lesley Green, tomorrow’s keynote speaker, has suggested, what would modern knowledge have become if movement and the lived body had been central concepts in the debates? Further, what would our understanding of yoga movement practices be if teachers taught from a phenomenological perspective? What does such a perspective and vocabulary imply for our understanding of the experience and expression of the subject in motion in relation to others? How might a perspective encompassing relatedness and connections provide a new understanding of people in flight?

I began this discussion with a reference to people in flight, and advocated for considering their situation as an example of movement as a form of connection and sameness, and the body as the flesh of world. My goal throughout has been to show the relevance of a phenomenological approach that views all of us as bodily human-beings-in-the-world, directed toward others through our movements. People in flight are often perceived as a phenomenon representing movement as a problem; they are regarded as distinct from and not related to us. What I argue for is understanding their sameness.

The opposing perspectives — that in movement we are present with others and that we remain separate and distinct — stem for very different ontologies. My vision is to consider the feeling and sensing body and the relationship between bodies as a starting point, and thereby challenge people to be present in the world together. Phenomenological concepts can make a valuable contribution to our understanding of both people in flight and yoga practice. The world — all of us – would benefit from a language and perspective that support movement as connection, and belonging as the primary relationship between us.

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Cohen, E (2009) A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body. Durham: Duke University Press.
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