Wendy Palmer is the founder of Conscious Embodiment, a somatic process that is informed by aikido and mindfulness. Conscious Embodiment builds upon these traditions to offer simple yet deep techniques that bring awareness of the mind and body’s reaction to pressure and an alternative of responding with presence, confidence, and compassion. She works with leaders on presence, empowerment and cultivating center under stress. Wendy is a sixth degree black belt in aikido and author of two books, The Intuitive Body and The Practice of Freedom.
Wendy Palmer has been practicing martial arts since she was in college. She took to it immediately, because her spirit just knew it was the right path for her. That was in the 1960s. Over the years she’s practiced aikido, a Japanese, nonaggressive martial art form, and has culled from this practice the techniques she now teaches in Conscious Embodiment (CE). CE teaches people how to use body, breath, and movement to reconnect with the self. The self being, in that large way, the essence of who we are as opposed to the set of habits or beliefs we call our own.
Wendy developed the CE technique because of what she was experiencing in her aikido practice. She says, “I didn’t plan or vision the CE work. It evolved from my interest in the dimension of effortless power I was seeing and experiencing in aikido. I wanted to understand how to tap into this effortless power, not only on the mat but also in other parts of my life. I was invited to teach the principles that inform aikido, and those classes led me to begin to develop the CE process. Aikido is a complex, vigorous martial art, and I wanted to simplify the practices so that they would become more accessible to a wider range of people. I was fascinated by some of the subtle exchanges going on in our exchanges on the mat. Slowing the exchange down and simplifying the movement allowed me to discover what was going on inside the exchange.”
Aikido means “way of adapting the spirit.” It was developed by Morihei Ueshiba in Japan in the 192os. It wasn’t until the ’50s that the practice was introduced to the West. Since then, students from all over the world have taken it up, and in each location different techniques have developed.
Aikido is not just about attacking one’s opponent or defending one’s self. Because Ueshiba was influenced by the Omoto-Kyo religion, the practice incorporates the philosophy of “extending love and compassion especially to those who seek to harm others. Aikido demonstrates this philosophy in its emphasis on mastering martial arts so that one may receive an attack and harmlessly redirect it. In an ideal resolution, not only is the receiver unharmed, so is the attacker (source: Wikipedia).” Unlike other martial arts, “aikido enters and blends rather than resists. Aikido redirects and unbalances instead of doing damage. Aikido controls the situation or simply throws it away and goes on to something else. All the while, you are supposed to keep the body relaxed and the mind calm. You do not “make” aikido work; you follow natural patterns and principles and “let” aikido work.” (source: Aikido Journal)
One of the dimensions that few folks travel thoroughly in our contemporary, go-go-go modern world is that of the body. Sure we go to the gym, jog, watch our diets, challenge ourselves physically, but few people, even athletes, allow themselves to listen to the subtle signals our bodies are constantly giving us: slow down, breath completely, listen to your heart. Unless those prove to be big feelings or thought signals, we tune out those hints that are given almost intuitively. And the truth is we can’t think our way out of things, try as we might. The habits we have for dealing with crises, large and small, are in our bodies, not in our heads, which is what most of us (including therapists) believe. As Wendy points out in The Practice of Freedom: Aikido Principles as a Spiritual Guide, “Aikido itself can provide…an experiential grounding in spirituality: I have found the body to be the most revealing and rewarding focal point for exploring the ecumenical nature of the spiritual path, for it is through the body that an individual manifests the ideas or inspirations of this path.”
I asked her in our online interview if she thought it was possible to free ourselves from habits without doing work rooted in the body, which is the way most of us do such work. She responded by, for one thing, quoting Bruce Lee who said, “Under duress we do not rise to our expectations, we fall to our level of training.” We do what we’ve trained ourselves to do.
Wendy says, “Statistics [say] that it takes anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 repetitions to establish an alternative response under pressure. The odds are that without giving the body–limbic and central nervous system–an alternative pattern to the impact of stress, our bodies will revert to the response that has been (as George Leonard says) “mediated by countless feedback loops.” Understanding that we need to relax and stay interested when we are criticized is very different than being able to do it at the moment of criticism.” We need to constantly be practicing being who it is we most want to be. This is especially important when there’s a low level of stress or criticism.”
Of course, one of the reasons we decided to talk to Wendy is because of her interest in taking her work into social justice arenas. She believes CE could be a great skill for activists. “From the point of view that an activist is an advocate, the capacity to stay strong and open in the face of opposition is crucial. Hard strength only increases the power of the opposition. A more pliable and buoyant strength can ease and absorb some of the edge in the opposition. Being able to advocate by moving toward your intention is more skillful than advocating by moving against the opposition. Taking a stand for justice also means that at times you may have to stand alone.”
This takes into account much of the work of the transformative social change movement and the many organizations that are moving away from old techniques for activist work, i.e., the belief that those who oppose you are your enemy and the battle for justice is a not so subtle form of warfare, a form that is still in the language we use: “in the trenches,” “on the front lines,” etc. But the essence of aikido within CE could allow all of us to go beyond that into something so deeply rooted in who we are that there is power, not just because of what we do, but there is also power behind and within it because it reflects our true selves.
I asked Wendy why she stuck with the practice of aikido as we so often just let things go because they take up more time than our lives can afford or we simply lose interest. However, she says, “I have never lost my fascination with the underlying principles of mindfulness and aikido. Over the past 40 years, I’ve continued to discover new layers of insight about the same basic principles. I feel inspired to develop new ways to make these universal principles accessible to a wider range of people. The practices have helped me minimize my negativity and increased my feelings of competence and happiness. I am delighted to offer the same possibility to others.”
Lucky for all of us.