Body Decolonization: Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?

When our mind is disconnected from felt-experience of our body, we have little sensitivity to what others feel.
— Manish Srivastava

In a recent blog post entitled Decolonizing the Collective Wisdom of Our Bodies, SPT core teacher Manish Srivastava posits that the mind is a colonizer that “controls, exploits and uses the body to meet its ego needs.” This is important because it’s a microcosm of the social divides in our world: “This is the way our mind colonises the body. And this is how powerful social actors (intellectual authority) colonise the free agency and wisdom of the collectives (social body).” Srivastava goes on to explain, in part, the mechanism of this: “When our mind is disconnected from felt-experience of our body, we have little sensitivity to what others feel. This lack of empathy disconnects us from the social body. We feel lonely and vulnerable to the institutional narratives of hatred, greed, fear and helplessness.” The task, then, is to re-connect to the felt experience of our own body, and then to re-sensitize and re-connect to the social body - the collective bodies of those around us.

Right now in my life I’m privy to the development of two new and exciting forms of embodied practice, both of which aim to re-sensitize and re-connect us to our bodies to improve the interactions between our bodies and those in the social field around us.  One places the mind in the driver’s seat on this journey to decolonization, the other places its trust in the body to drive. Where should I put my trust? 


Mind in the Driver’s Seat

Resmaa Menakim’s Cultural Somatics help us witness our body’s responses and provide resources to keep our bodies able to remain Socially Engaged.

The first is based on the work of Resmaa Menakim, detailed in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands, and built upon by his associate, Rachel Martin - both of whom bring a trauma therapy background. Resmaa, a black man, has developed a set of “Cultural Somatics” practices. The idea is that to move forward we must abolish white body supremacy and the traumas it has encoded in each of our bodies. Resmaa considers this to be true for black bodies, white bodies, bodies of indigenous people, of other people of color, and police bodies of any race. Rachel, who is white, concentrates on getting white-bodied people to build consciousness and culture that are coherent with our oft-stated desire to be anti-racist. She calls this work “Cultural Coherence.” In a nutshell, both work to build awareness of the fight/flight/freeze responses that arise during cross-racial interactions, and even in interactions among white-bodied people regarding race. These responses occur subconsciously, due to stored trauma, but can be brought to consciousness and stewarded in a more skillful way. Resmaa’s Cultural Somatics Skills can help anyone experiencing a fight/flight/freeze response to get grounded, become aware of their body sensations, and lean in to them long enough to allow some constructive social engagement. Doing this can also help us begin to “metabolize” our body-encoded traumas, thereby increasing our nervous systems’ capacities to stay socially engaged. 

Although trauma may have originally been perpetrated on either an individual or a community and certainly plays out across communities of all racial groups, it is stored in our individual bodies. Hence the work of Cultural Somatics and Cultural Coherence necessarily is situated at an individual level. And, though this method is focused on racial traumas, its methods also apply to healing the wider realm of social wounding.


Body in the Driver’s Seat

Arawana Hayashi’s Social Presencing Theater helps the body to speak its intuitive wisdom more confidently, and to sense that of other bodies in the Social Field.

The second emerging embodied discipline, Social Presencing Theater (SPT) begins in individual practice but always with an awareness of the “Three Bodies” - the Individual Body, the Social Body, and the Earth Body. This consciousness shift, called “Ego to Eco,” is the aim of SPT, developed by Arawana Hayashi at the request of Theory U author, Otto Scharmer. Scharmer, a white man who grew up in Germany, understood that by sensing into a shared space with others (“Social Presencing”) we can discern the seeds of the future to enact systemic change. He asked Hayashi, a Japanese American master teacher of both dance and Shambhala Buddhism, to develop movement practices that could serve as a holding space (“Theater”) where the invisible and intangible wisdom of the body could become visible and palpable. SPT has been used to spark systemic change toward economic, health and environmental justice as well as racial justice. What she created is a blend of movement improvisation, ensemble sense and mindfulness practice. She is clear that it is less like a psychotherapeutic practice that looks to heal the past, and more like a Jazz rehearsal, an art of connectedness and spontaneity that seeks to create a future based in collective awareness. And yet, those of us who have practiced it have moments of healing as we find our limiting concepts dissolving and our stuck places transforming. 

So how can we reconcile these two approaches?

Cultural Somatics and Cultural Coherence practices engage individuals or triads in observing internal and external changes in the body during various mental tasks - role plays, remembered interactions, imagined conversations. In this way, we learn to sense and think “on our feet” - hopefully before taking reflexive action. In these practices, the mind is in the driver’s seat, but it is listening for the body’s suggestions, alarms or alerts. And, there’s witness in the back seat corroborating what the body has to say. 

SPT practices put the body in the driver’s seat, with the mind riding along as an observer. The tasks are primarily physical: Move, rest, sense, repeat. They can be either solo, in duets, small groups, or with an entire “Village.” This trains the body to speak its intuitive wisdom more confidently so it can be heard more readily. In addition, many practices ask the body to sense out in to the room, into the social field. This is direct training in sensing one’s impact on those nearby - something desperately needed in white culture, where a high value is placed on individuality to the detriment of collective sensing. 

And yet - having drunk the kool-aid of the colonizer mind my whole life, can I really trust my body? Particularly knowing that my body is both carrying intergenerational trauma and triggering it in others? Looking again at Manish’s post, the real question is, how can I trust my mind if, “most of the time, our mind controls, exploits and uses our body to meet its ego needs.” This rings true to me. When my body heads into fight, flight or freeze, it’s my ego that is screaming for protection through my body, not the other way around.

That said, it strikes me that we need both approaches, because we are re-training both our mind and our body. Cultural Somatics and Cultural Coherence practices bring awareness to our trauma-based responses with a specific focus on race, while Social Presencing Theater re-sensitizes us to our intuitive wisdom and that of those around us. This combination is the perfect prescription to build a healthy, co-created racial justice community. 

For information on our monthly Body Decolonization Group, email or click here to sign up.

Shoulders I’m standing on for this post:

Resmaa Menakim,

Rachel Martin, (coming soon)

Arawana Hayashi,

Otto Scharmer,

Manish Srivastava,

And, many thanks to Ernesto Yañez Castillo for metaphors, gestures, and other coaching around these ideas.

Rie Gilsdorf