by Simon Migaj

Self (-exploration, -discovery & -knowledge) from a movement perspective

As part of a whole, we are nonetheless singular embodied narratives. Any experience we live, any knowledge we develop is embodied. Understanding this principle gives me a clue about self, how I learn and inhabit the world.

The topic of self is present in various degrees to our consciousness. We most likely perceive it through our cultural, social, territorial, economical, spiritual, and educational lenses, to cite a few. For instance, the East and the West historically show more diverging ways of embracing self. From the notion of collectivism to individualism, from modeling the world as a seed (grown) or a piece of ceramic (made), from cultivating embodiment to promoting mind, we have seen, heard and even experienced core principles and traditions of eastern and western ways of “self-ing”.

As a Caribbean embodied narrative, historically and partially shaped by eastern and western culture, one of the first things my moving body taught me is to live from the intention of self-unravelment rather than self-improvement. The feeling that “I am enough” is a foundation that roots itself once I accept my body as teacher for the topic of self. The teaching happens often during three interchangeable stages of my learning process: exploration, discovery, knowledge.

How can movement contribute to clarifying what self means for learning and education?
I will propose definitions of the terms “exploration”, “discovery” and “knowledge”, and proceed in challenging these terms from a movement perspective.

Keywords: #self #learning #education #unravelment #exploration #knowledge #discovery

Exploration

Exploration is a widely used term. In order for us to be on the same page, I propose the following definition of exploration as in “a thorough examination of an unfamiliar area, subject, question or resource.”
Now when applied to the self, exploring can take many routes from physiological, psychological, mental, socio-cultural, genealogical, spiritual, and many more.

Let’s take the example of your scrolling hand and the way it moves. As much as you know it and see it everyday, if you start paying attention to how it actually articulates movement, you might notice the sturdiness or shakiness of your finger nerves, their ability to fold and unfold while reshaping your skin, the relational limitations of your hand parts. You might even recognize patterns of movement that you see your parents do. These patterns are the foundations of our “kinaesthetic DNA” or movement signature. Being aware of this singular signature can allow one to accept, transcend and/or tailor how he/she experiences the world. From learning to unlearning, from empowerment to trauma, the awareness of one’s movement signature is a beacon to come back to, with confidence. This is valuable especially in times when our interactions with tech-driven environments are efficient choreographed realities where one is confined in a set of product-based and task-optimized gestures. Typing, scrolling, swiping are indeed enabling efficient forms of standardized communication, but the downside is it polishes away a huge part of what makes us.

In an ever-globalizing and digitizing world embracing productivity, entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant says :

“It isn’t 10,000 hours that creates outliers, it’s 10,000 iterations.”

We become experts of this scrolling gesture, until the next one comes in. The digital era simplifies bodily involvement till a point where we specialize highly quickly. It can contribute to making us lose a sense of creativity and making us overlook a panel of inner dynamics of understanding things that are inherent parts of the explorative process, as well as the discovery and knowledge ones.

On a schooling level,

“Researchers are discovering that learning is easier, quicker and more long-lasting if lessons involve the body as well as the mind — whether it’s gesturing with the arms or moving around a room.” — affirms science writer and editorial consultant Colin Barras.

The notion of self-exploration alongside prior knowledge (which we will see in the last part) is a catalyzer for learning, anything. Incorporating movement in onsite, online or hybrid learning and education has track records of improving understanding and retention of new information, since its meaning is now embodied.

As Writer, researcher, editor and academic Lara Dotson-Renta insists :

“Research has shown time and again that children need opportunities to move in class. Memory and movement are linked, and the body is a tool of learning, not a roadblock to or a detour away from it.”

Imagine now you are a teacher and you are not allowed to move. Would you be engaged in teaching? Perhaps the recent pandemic made more visible to you the freedom of movement gap that happens between teacher and student. Then, why not let children express their learning through movement? Whether it is the loss of control, potential chaos in the classroom, or even losing track of the program, how much does it justify the current model from which mainstream schooling is built? How much does it deteriorates a student’s learning process which will affect his/her entire life?

Movement is essential for maintaining the vitality of curiosity we are born with, it is freedom, freedom to explore and discover.

Discovery

When thinking of discovery, I have a cloud of associated pictures and words coming to me. From land to spatial conquests, from anthropological research to technological innovation, it all seems to represent long-term and heavy endeavors. Again, to be aligned on the term, I propose the following definition of discovery as in “a process of finding and revealing what is hidden, unknown or ignored.”

Ivorian artist and fashion designer Laetitia Ky
Ivorian artist and fashion designer Laetitia Ky

When applied to the self, it could mean one finds out about an unwanted pimple in their irritated left nasal, an unsuspected talent for creating sculptures out of one’s own hair, or even a repressed childhood trauma translating into an unresolved urge for tactile attention. Self-discovery brings one in the spectrum of uplifting to confronting realizations.

Getting back to our scrolling hand, discovering more natural pathways in which one interacts with a medium is one important aspect of movement practice in education. If you were not able to only scroll, tap and swipe but instead could design the gestures for which your devices would recognize and activate a commands in response to your gestures, how would you open your weather app? How would you pump up the volume? How would you switch off your device? When Imogen Heap and her team designed the MiMu gloves — allowing one to make music from hand gesture recognition — they made evident that the process of creating computer generated music did not necessarily require the usual tools of expression such as keyboard, mouse, screen and more. Imagine, you can step in, put on these gloves, calibrate a specific range of gestures to how you understand the sound of bass or drums, move in the space to affect the reverb or BPM, and so on and so forth. How would you move it if you could design your daily interactive process?

I remember vividly I once invited a friend of mine to a party where most of the crowd was composed of dance-lovers and dancers. For those who remember that time before the COVID-19 pandemic..! Well, my friend does not identify herself as a dancer at all, she enjoys watching it, but all there was to do at this event was moving to the music. So she did, as everyone did. At some point I found her alone crying on a seat. I went to check on her, to understand what was happening. After taking a minute to catch her breath and collect herself, she said:

“It’s the first time in so long that I feel I can be myself. I’ve always loved dancing but always felt weird and judged for it.”

This, back then, made me realize how movement and dance can strikingly empower one to discover ways of being and recognizing self.

When choreographer and director Akram Khan says:

“You can say things through your body that you can never say through your words.”,

he is well aware that the body processes and knows an event before the mind can even create a narrative for it. Things that are unbiased by societal standards.
Nevertheless, as much as the mind can trick itself and the body, the body actually never lies. Energy flow, movement, posture, facial expression are opportunities for many professionals to study people without them verbalizing a thing. Breathing exercise, meditation, collective dancing are opportunities for anyone to study themselves in accurately meaningful ways. A trust in revealing what the body knows is an essential path to self-knowledge, at any age.

One of my favorite pedagogical inspirations is Anji Play, a philosophy and approach that “redefines the relationship between learners (from 3 to 6) and systems of learning through reflective systems founded on the discovery of the true capacity of the learner.” Initiated in 2003 by doctor Cheng Xueqin and now supporting more than 14.000 children in China and around the world, the approach relies on 5 core principles: Love, Risk, Joy, Engagement and Reflection. It comes down to enabling children to build trust in their ability to express themselves, play, create, connect to others and solve problems, in a format where body and mind are fully involved, synchronously, and where prior knowledge can easily interweave with discoveries.

An Anji Play school in eastern China

Knowledge

Philosopher, speaker and writer Jiddu Krishnamurti says :

“There is no existence without relationship, and without self-knowledge every relationships, personal or collective, are causing conflicts and pain.”

What is then self-knowledge?

As usual, I propose the following definition of knowledge as in “a conscious and/or unconscious ensemble of facts, information and skills acquired through experience or education.”

by Ahmad Odeh

When applied to the self, it could mean that continuous self-exploration and self-discovery through time build a repertoire of observations, confirmations and contradictions of life events, enabling one to grasp what is the core of their being. Not only what they respond to, what they get into conflict with, what they did not notice, what gives them energy, but also how and why.

As a natural kinesthetic learner myself, I understood later on in life schooling hasn’t necessarily been built for me. In fact, one can argue it hasn’t been built for most types of intelligences, although the particularity with kinesthetic intelligence is that it cannot be shut down, unless there is trauma or disability. Even when we stand still or sleep, we move.

From an occidental perspective, knowledge is often associated with science, mathematics and philosophy, three fields mainly using literature as a means to convey information. Growing up in such socio-cognitive construct blurs out the possibilities for anyone with other predisposed types of intelligences to confidently trust their own cognitive abilities as different as they can be. Thinking about the body becomes a standard in a society influenced by Descartes. Even health becomes a mind-dominated sprint to choose what is best for the body-machine.

“[…] thinking about the body is not sufficient to improve health. Rather, directly feeling one’s own embodied experience (including emotions and sensations related to the inner state of the body) activates the nervous system to improve regulatory functions (including sleep, weight control, emotion regulation, digestive, respiratory, cardiovascular and immune systems) that then improve health and well-being. When we truly listen to ourselves through Embodied Self-Awareness — feeling sensations such as pain and muscle tension and emotions such as fear, sadness and joy in the moment — it shifts our whole neurophysiology; we relax and parts of the nervous system are activated that promote regulation and repair throughout the body.” — highlights trauma specialist Darren Maguire.

It is a process of acknowledging how particular is the response of our body towards life events and how our mind copes with it. It has to do, in great part, with what happens before verbal language formalizes your perception of the world. I love saying that we are breakdancing on the floor before we can even say “Papa” or “Mama”. This is how we are, this how we feel, this is how we learn: we move.

In fact, “When we are first born, before we can speak or use language to express ourselves, we use our physical sensations, our “body sense,” to guide us toward what makes us feel safe and fulfilled. As we develop into adults, it becomes easy to lose touch with these crucial mind-body communication channels, but they are essential to our ability to navigate social interactions and deal with psychological stress, physical injury, and trauma.” — says professor of psychology Alan Fogel.

As mentioned earlier, confronting realizations are part of self-discovery therefore they lead to self-knowledge. Trauma expression is a great medium to understand such notion. In that regard, I like to highlight the outstanding work of dance therapist Maria Rivera whose Afro-Caribbean dance healing system enables one to gain a sense of connection, meaning and power through four pillars: self-body power, collective power, socio-political power and spiritual power. She says:

“I simply want to facilitate a process in which people can understand, accept, and trust who they are in their bodies…tapping into their reservoir of health to find compassion and truth.”

Indeed, trauma is not the only motive for self-knowledge. Skills learning is a major one too. Just like all the parts of your body, your scrolling hand is a phenomenal learning-house. While reading this article, if there was a way for you to simply experience scrolling with more intention such as : one finger is needed to scroll through part 1, two fingers are needed to scroll through part 2, three fingers are needed to scroll through part 3, there a very high chances that your information retention ability gets much better since visual-spatial memory is now catalyzed by movement memory.

CMA (Classical Mental Arithmetic) International is a mathematics educational centre established in 1984 by master Tai Chiang Ching of Taiwan that specializes in the two-hand abacus mental arithmetic, a powerful method to learn counting. It then developed across Asia, and especially in Singapore.

CMA Philippines Students doing their Mental Arithmetic Skill demo

The double-handed ability to count of these girls is impressive. It is inspired by the way of operating the Abacus, a mathematical calculation tool invented more than a thousand years ago in China. CMA methodology is a great example of how an embodied experience of Mathematics through intentional gesture contributes to active learning.

Once self-knowledge is taken at heart and is growing, one can approach any life event as a means to learn from it. Incorporating the body is central to the process and I believe should be central to schooling too. Teacher and writer Nicholas McKay says:

“In short, it’s about using the human body as a learning tool. […] The classroom rarely allows for the use of prior knowledge. Embodied pedagogy changes this.”

Just like Anji Play shows it, this pedagogy involves prior knowledge and activates it through bodily re-enactment. Have you ever wondered: “why do I never unlearn how to ride a bike?” When you learnt how to ride a bike, it is stored through a kind of memory called procedural memory. This kind of memory is part of your long-term memory. It is the same memory that operates as you open your fridge, or type on a computer. With embodied pedagogy, schooling facilitates the space for one to explore, discover and activate cognitively body and mind in the pursuit of learning any desired topic. It emphasizes both on the levels of meaning and memory.

Furthermore

  • Through the lens of movement, I share experiences to educators, parents, researchers and people in general interested in incorporating the body in their practice, in the hope that the youth benefits from it too.
  • I view the body both as a teacher and as a tool. As a teacher that shows us how we are shaped by life events so we can ask the questions we need in order to learn and grow. As a tool we can operate to experience life in a more holistic manner, to shape the realities we live in.
  • Tell me in the comments: what would you like to learn next? Imagine a way to learn it that involves the body. How would that be like?

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Alvin Arthur

I believe humans need to move in order to engage, play & create.