Embodiment in the Post-Pandemic University: The Benefits of Mindful Movement for Learning (A Tribute to bell hooks)

Lisa Clughen

‘‘We do not have bodies; we are bodies. (…) I am smart precisely because I am a body. I don’t own it or inhabit it; from it, I arise’.”

How are you? No, really. I mean it, so I invite you to take some time to savour and answer that question right now. Have you moved your body today? And have you moved for a least a few minutes every hour? What about resting? Have you rested during your tasks? One thing the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore is the centrality of the body to life and the importance of caring for and moving the body in our day-to-day activities. What does all this have to do with pedagogy, though?  Well, maybe the pandemic has also provided the urgency for the body to be a central consideration for educational establishments. Maybe the body should also be at the forefront of day-to-day pedagogic activities. Students are, after all, embodied learners.

During the academic year 2021-22, I was funded by the Trent Institute for Teaching and Learning (TILT) at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), UK, to conduct some exploratory research into the embedding of mindful movement in the classroom. My argument is that movement, rest and other matters of the body are not just longed-for adjuncts to education, but core to its endeavours. 

Cognition, the very stuff of academia, and the body are wholly imbricated. How we are in the body impacts on how we think – hence my questions at the start of this piece.  Thinking is not just ‘brain work’ – it’s full body work, as researchers such as Shapiro and Claxton in the field of ‘embodied cognition’ have been demonstrating. Foregrounding and caring for the body is therefore not something that should be relegated to the end of the academic day or even to the end of class as the body is the key to what happens in the classroom. It is ever present.

The question for educators, though, is, as body-mind dualisms have been devastated intellectually across the disciplines, how has the BodyMind unity been translated into pedagogic practice? How far are somatic approaches to pedagogy core concerns in curriculum development?  Almost three decades ago, bell hooks wrote her pioneering text Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.  In it, she drew our attention to the tendency to enact mind/body dualisms in teaching, lamenting that ‘individuals enter the classroom to teach as though only the mind is present, and not the body’, a lament that continues in current pedagogic research.

Even physical movement, the subject of my own research, fares no better than general embodiment in terms of being a widely adopted pedagogy, despite notable attempts to advocate for its use in the classroom (as in kinesthetic learning or ‘Total Physical Response’ approaches to learning where gestures are used to learn vocabulary) and the greater use of movement in pre-tertiary education globally. Indeed, Claxton pointed to a wider educational culture in which movement is actively discouraged: ‘We design (…) classrooms in which physical movements and reactions are treated as disruptions, subversive of the serious work of the mind’. Recent research into university student perceptions of moving in class wherein ‘social acceptability’ was deemed a barrier to movement integration indicates that this continues today. In other words, movement in class is a cultural other in HE – it is just not ‘the done thing’. 

It seems, then, that academia still has far to go to catch up with the idea that embodiment is an essential concern in learning and teaching and constitutes a practical and exciting concept with which to guide teaching philosophies and practice.  

My work on mindful movement and movement in the classroom offers a way of doing precisely this. 

Concerned about my sedentariness when teaching went online during the pandemic, I signed up for qigong classes with the qigong grand master, Brian Simpson, and the expert in mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Shamash Alidina. The benefits were so great that I took a short course with Brian and Shamash to enable me to teach the movements to others. The course adapted qigong movements from Tai Chi Qigong Shibashi Set 1 for the purposes of ACT, a mindfulness-based therapy or training that promotes greater psychological flexibility as a route to a more meaningful life. I became interested in the potential of these movements for Higher Education and applied for a mini-sabbatical to explore this potential.

There is a great deal of evidence for the positive benefits of movement, not just mindful movement, for the sorts of challenges that face students and staff in HE. Movement does not only benefit us physically, it can have positive impacts on a whole host of issues such as: stress, anxiety, resilience and wellbeing; community-building, co-operative learning and social communication; improved executive functions such as memory and focus; knowledge acquisition and knowledge exploration and production and even, though less conclusively, academic achievement and outcomes. 

Academic life is one of high cognitive demand and physical activity (PA) is a much-vaunted resource for improved cognition. Recent work offers three key reasons for the positive links between movement and cognition: 1. Improved blood flow to the brain which increases oxygen and glucose in the brain and brain activity along with this.  2. The release of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters. 3. The development of neural circuits that improve executive functions. A further aspect of movement that is of great interest to educators is the positive impact it can have on class cohesion, student engagement and motivation. Movement brings people together – it’s fun and creates a sense of energy in the classroom.

Persuaded by the research on the benefits of movement for physical, cognitive and mental health, in the research project, I embedded a series of the mindful movements from my ACT-based Mindful Movement course into my level 1, online Spanish classes and researched student responses to them with colleagues from the Department of Psychology at NTU. 

Having read, written and spoken about the positioning of the body as a cultural other in HE, I felt the same nervousness about foregrounding the body that is reported by other writers and teachers who advocate movement pedagogies. In fact, I entitled my sabbatical research ‘Embedding Mindful Movement Practices into the Curriculum: A Move too Far for Higher Education?’ as I thought the students would refuse to participate.  Thankfully, I was wrong.

Another concern about embedding movement and embodiment techniques in HE is how to ensure that they are inclusive. In this regard, I’d like to emphasise the fundamental importance of negotiation and choice on behalf of the learner and also of diversifying movement activities when embedding movement into the curriculum and especially into the classroom. All teaching and learning must be inclusive and, although the WHO encourages physical activity (PA) for people with disabilities, if PA is not available for a student, it can be highlighted, as Harvard researchers amongst others highlight, that the health benefits of breathing and shifting the focus to deeper, calming rhythms or even thinking about movement, as in ideokinetic approaches to movement, can also be invaluable for the body. Mindful movement provides a structure for this as it connects body, mind and breath and can be done standing, sitting, lying or in the imagination.

We hope to publish the results of the research soon, but I’d like to reissue and respond to hooks’ call for education to be ‘a practice of freedom’ and suggest that the body and embodied pedagogies may be a route to this goal. That a sense of freedom can be found in/through the body and gained through mindfulness practices like mindful movement is a perspective that is often advocated by mindfulness teachers, spiritual leaders and embodiment coaches. 

The relationship between embodiment and freedom is especially current given the consequences for mental health that have been mentioned so frequently in the wake of Covid and the implications for learning and teaching in Higher Education that these carry with them. Embodied practices such as mindful movement can offer a much-needed resource in the context of mental health. After all, anxieties and mental strife are experienced as the mind flits between past troubles and future worries, whereas the body is only ever located in the present. It is as a material anchor in the present that the body offers a potential refuge, a freedom (however temporary) from mental troubles.  Freedom through the body – feeling ‘free’ – was precisely the term used by one of my research participants in relationship to their experiences of the mindful movements:

‘After completing the moves, lisa my body felt physically lighter. my mind feels free and I feel like I’m at my full potential for my lecture, or when it comes to assessments’.

If ‘freedom’ is a goal of education, then embodied pedagogy is, perhaps, the pedagogy par excellence to take us towards this goal.  

My research into the use of mindful movement in HE has convinced me of its benefits for all sorts of educational concerns. This has spurred me on to conduct further research and to continue to advocate for mindful and other movement and, more generally, for the importance of embodiment in the HE. I have produced a guide to embedding movement into Higher Education and have been awarded an NTU TILT sabbatical for the academic year 2022-23 to produce mindful movement clips that HE professionals can use within their practice. 

I will end this piece where I started my own work on embodiment in learning and teaching: in conversation with bell hooks. She may not be here physically, but may we continue in dialogue with her. Her dismay that the body was not discussed in teaching: ‘No one talked about the body in relation to teaching’ and her question to educators to stimulate such discussions: ‘What did one do with the body in the classroom?’ are still relevant, vital foci for future, post-pandemic pedagogies that seek to nurture bodymind approaches to learning and teaching.

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Lisa Clughen is a Senior lecturer in Spanish at Nottingham Trent University, UK. She established and ran the School of Arts and Humanities’ Academic Support Service and is a multi-award winner for her contributions to teaching and learning in Higher Education. She is co-editor of the book Writing in the Disciplines: Building Supportive Cultures for Student Writing in UK HE

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