Please note that I’m not a medical professional or a certified somatic practitioner. The practices below are not meant to replace medical advice or other ways to address DEI-related issues. Instead, it’s a resource to help us move through our work as changemakers. I ask that you read this blog post as a resource and not a prescriptive order of how you might integrate somatic and embodied practices in your life and the workplace.
As diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioners and advocates, it’s important to consider all aspects of DEI work. While we often focus on the intellectual dimension to address inequities in the workplace, we may be overlooking the importance of the somatic and embodied aspects of DEI work. In DEI Work is More Than Intellectual Exercise- Part I, I shared why I think it’s important that those interested in DEI, social justice, or change management work should consider integrating somatics and embodiment in our approach and efforts. As someone who has been facilitating for a decade about topics related to oppression, privilege, or power, and also living in a culture that has historically deemed me as less than, uncivilized, or not human (read: being Black, Muslim, and a Woman), the idea and practice of somatics isn’t entirely new to me.
I’ve had to learn (and continue to learn) how I’ve shape-shifted and numbed myself so that I may be seen as “enough,” “smart,” “put together,” etc. I’ve also had to learn (and continue to learn) how to release myself from narratives and expectations that no longer serve me so that I may feel what it means to be fully human. Using the body as a focal point of my healing has been transformative. On a personal level, it has been hard yet liberating. On a professional level, I’ve gained a tremendous amount of wisdom about how difficult change is, how and why resistance may show up in our bodies, words, and actions towards DEI work, and how it’s still possible to be hopeful and with joy even amid challenges and grief.
So in this blog post, I come to you as a student and a practitioner rather than an expert. I will be sharing various practices that I’ve used and/or have witnessed that have been beneficial to those of us working to support and co-create change in our workplaces through DEI.
1. Pay attention to your bodily sensations during DEI-related conversations.
When we engage in DEI conversations, we may experience various emotions and physical sensations. Paying attention to these sensations can help us understand our own biases and reactions. For example, if we notice our body tensing up during a conversation about race, we can use that as a cue to explore our biases, traumas, internal narratives, and more.
2. Encourage others to pay attention to their bodily sensations.
In addition to paying attention to our sensations, we can encourage others to do the same. This can help create a more compassionate and inclusive environment. For example, suppose someone is feeling overwhelmed while working on a DEI strategic plan or feels like there isn’t enough leadership buy-in and therefore is frustrated. In that case, this could be a moment to explore where the frustration comes from and be curious about what is needed and who can support or help create a shift within the organization. Pausing to check in allows us to move away from the productive and hustle culture and invites us to take a moment to be with ourselves (and each other) to witness whatever is arising. From this place, we can support each other during tough decisions or moments. We may even begin to explore a different way of being or doing our work because we’ve taken the time to pay attention and attend to the matters of the heart and the body, as well as the mind. Of course, this isn’t always feasible in our current processes or structures we have in the workplace, but if and when there is a chance to practice this, be open to what is possible.
3. Incorporate movement into your day-to-day tasks and conversations
Movement can be a powerful tool for exploring somatics and embodiment. Incorporating movement into DEI work can help us connect with our bodies and emotions more deeply. For example, we might incorporate a brief movement exercise at the beginning of a DEI training to help participants connect with their bodies. Or, when discussing hiring efforts or plans to diversify the candidate pool, we can ask our bodies what they need at the moment and, if possible, respond to what is being asked of us. Maybe we feel tense because we lack confidence in the current hiring process. That may be a moment to pay attention to our shoulders (where many of us hold stress) and focus on taking a deep breath and dropping the shoulders down. Moving our bodies can also look like jumping, shaking, or dancing after a meeting or conversation that makes you angry, hopeful, or excited. Sometimes it can be as subtle as placing your hand near your heart or gently rubbing your legs when something comes up and you desire comfort, affirmation, recognition, etc. The goal here isn’t to stop yourself from taking action or thinking about what to do next. Instead, it’s an opportunity for you to align more with yourself and to honor whatever comes up to feel integrated in whatever you do next.
4. Use embodied language in DEI conversations.
There is a common misconception that having emotions, feelings, or sensations about a topic or issue means we’re weak or primal. Therefore we should ignore them or automatically shut ourselves out from feeling emotions in the professional world. While managing our emotions is a social skill, it doesn’t mean our emotions, feelings, and sensations disappear. There is a space in our professional world for logic and emotion to appear at any given time, and it’s up to us to explore this space and practice. One way is by using embodied language when having discussions. For example, instead of saying, “I understand how you feel,” you might say, “I feel the weight of what you’re saying in my body.” Or, if you feel stressed, worried, or uncertain about a decision being made, perhaps you can share something like, “My heart is slightly racing about what we’re talking about, and here is why…” instead of “I think we should do…” How we express ourselves gives the next person a sense of how certain decisions may impact our ability to converse, interact, or engage. However, because emotions can be seen as dramatic or unprofessional, this practice can only thrive in a workplace environment that is open to this and that creates a safe enough space for most people to express not only what they think but also how they feel.
5. Explore the intersections of embodied experience and identity through awareness
Because oppression is traumatic and we’re all (at varying degrees) affected by oppression, there are subconscious and learned behaviors, movements, and thoughts that influence who we are and how we engage with each other. If you are a DEI practitioner, it’s important to understand the implications of your social identities and to be curious about the ways you may have internalized narratives of inferiority or superiority and how those narratives may come across in the way you lead, communicate, interact, or make decisions. You may also want to be curious about how others perceive or experience you. How might your experiences of privilege and power or lack thereof be embodied in how you approach DEI work and navigate the workplace? It’s important to note that our body movement and reactions can also be influenced by our cultural upbringing, neurodivergence, and other non-identity-based trauma-related experiences that may not always be attributed to privilege, power, or difference (or lack thereof).
Finally, despite incorporating embodied approaches into DEI work in the workplace, there can still be pushback, resistance, and burnout for DEI practitioners. Various factors, including resistance to change, fear of the unknown, lack of understanding or buy-in from leadership, and systemic barriers to equity and inclusion, can cause these challenges. It’s important to address these challenges head-on and provide support and resources for employees and leaders. In addition to using an embodied approach to address burnout, resistance, pushback, and other challenges, we need inclusive cultures, policies, and practices that align with creating sustainable change. It isn’t enough to just breathe, move, or stretch out of systems of oppression in our workplace. That’s only one part of the work.
If you’re interested in learning more or having an opportunity to practice one of the methods above, join us on September 19 for a free webinar on Integrating Embodiment and Somatics in your DEI work.