by Dominik Arkuszewski
Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology Institute,
Adam Mickiewicz University (Poland)

As Thomas Csordas proposed, the body can be seen as the existential ground of culture (1997). This postulate can have a revolutionary impact on social sciences. Why? The answer lies somewhere between the lived body, embodiment paradigm and senses, particularly the senses of touch (Paterson 2007). As Andrew Strathern claimed turning embodiment in the direction of the senses can lead to the revitalization of ethnography itself (1996: 200). David Howes coined the term “sensual revolution” to elaborate a ” ideological move that has turned the tables and recovered a full-bodied understanding of culture and experience” (Pink 2009: 21) Sarah Pink puts her two pennyworth in saying that “it is generally agreed that it is time to attend to the senses” (Pink 2009: 19).

We, as anthropologists, can theorize the body in terms of having/being dialectic or switch to focus on what bodies can do and become. Phenomenologists’ notion of a lived body reveals it as alive, dynamic field of sensations, not just a flesh object deferred to brains’ control. The ambiguity of human experience, where we mutually are and possess the body still remains in the spotlight. The notion of practices, which enable and coordinate the doing, can add a transformative factor to the above. This transformation can be put into healing terms and affect all the body’s dispositions.

The following text describes a research related to my MA thesis. I had spent nearly three years with the taijiquan/qigong group in Poznan, Poland. Firstly as a participant and later as a researcher. The formal orientation of the group is rather vague. In other words, many different approaches (spiritual, martial, psychological or therapeutical) can be distinguished in the course of subsequent meetings. The group was created five years ago by one man and includes 8 to 16 people depending on the season. During the classes taijiquan is presented in a fairly classical way while qigong exercises are taught using more unconventional methods, as I will elaborate below.

The word “qigong” has two elements. Qi stands for life energy, which pervades both, the human body and the world. Gong means to perfectly master something, which usually takes a long period of time and arduous work. There are many sets of qigong exercises but their application is more important. In a nutshell, qigong is addressed to daily life, but “from the inside”. What does it mean? It is all about reflexivity.

One can be reflexive towards one’s thoughts and different inner phenomena: emotions, affects, drives and perceptions, all reflected in one’s body in a variety of sensations. The ability to perceive our own thoughts and sensations as internal phenomena belies the division between subject and object. What is perceived by who after all? If we look deeper, the answer turns out to be problematic. Nevertheless, every person will have a personal answer. People can adapt available propositions or create their own ones. It usually occurs automatically through socialization. It seems to be necessary to everyday functioning, including relating to emotions and other sensations, organizing thoughts (assigned or rejected from the self) and much more.

What does this have to do with qigong? In my research I found that the answer lies in the body and embodiment. Touch can provide a different kind(s) of knowledge, which are relevant in relation to self and others. When it comes to touch multiple senses can be distinguished, such as external touch but also proprioception, kinesthesia or vestibular sense. These senses are turned inward and play a crucial role in qigong practice and experience. They are responsible for the orientation in space, relating to other bodies and objects, keeping balance while being still and in-move and feeling the body from the inside. And this feature deserves special attention. As Elisabeth Hsu claimed, the peculiarity of a touch and the tactile (both inner and outer) experience is based on a dialectical relationality; “whatever you touch, touches you too” (Hsu 2000:252). Does it include relationship with ourselves too? And what does it have in common with reflexivity?

I will examine these questions by examples taken from the meetings of the group. However, the elementary theoretical elaboration seems to be necessary before. Nowadays we see a spread of manifold psychophysical techniques taken from, mostly, Eastern religions or designed by psychologists, coaches, gurus and other specialists. Robert Sharf’s term “spiritual technologies” can be partly useful in this context. Spiritual technologies are “intended to induce a transformative experience of the absolute in the mind of the practitioner.” (1998: 271). Obviously, modern techniques are not only devoted to religious sphere, but also to control stress, enhance productivity, improve male-female relationships, be more mindful or focused and many more. Thus, therapeutic culture offers a customer various techniques like visualisation, imagination, body scan, numerous meditation practices, conscious breathing and so on. For example, Olivia F. Cabane, coach famous for working with chief executives proposes not just books on charisma, but also workbooks including exercises and practices. The common factor underlying all above is a discovery of possibility to manipulate mental and somatic dispositions by given methods to be practised on one’s own. Thanks to reflexivity one can now confront one’s dispositions and affect them. Mind or habitus appears to be plastic.

Cohen (1985), drawing from Lienhardt (1961) work titled “Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka” gives an interesting example of this kind of activity taken from tribal environment. The “thuic” practice described in the chapter “Control of Experience” involves a “knotting a tuft of grass to indicate that the one who makes the knot hopes and intends to contrive some kind of constriction or delay” (1961: 282). As Lienhardt puts it, “the man who ties such a knot has made an external, physical representation of a well-formed mental intention” (1961: 283). In other words, the purpose of this practice is to manipulate mental intentions by parts of the physical world in “purely technical” (282) way.

Below I would like to give a few examples of such techniques trained in my group. Many of them are based on everyday actions, but taken “from the inside” as I put it above. Every exercise illustrates many dispositions engaged into the task, which need to be trained simultaneously. For example, participants train the ability to release from their hand being gripped by their wrist while staying aware of the surrounding sensory stimuli. The attempt to release oneself needs to be effortless, relaxed and thoughtless. Instead of grappling with exercise’s partner one needs to divert attention away from the hand and distract it on the perceptual environment. In order to emphasize the felt difference between focus and distraction one shifts from one to another repetitively. When the attention gets attached to the hand (which makes slipping out impossible), one can focus on some detail in environment or think about something neutral. All these tricks are used to gain control over focus in order to get detached from the conflictious sense of situation. Getting attached to somebody or something is crucial here and many exercises are directed to break the attachment.

Another exercise involves two people staring at each other in silence. The “active” partner is trying to generate acceptance towards the “passive” one just by looking. Afterwards the acceptation changes to aversion. Is it possible to feel this shift without any facial signs? This exercise has another variation, which is approaching someone and handshaking (with negative or positive attitude alternately). One needs to stay conscious to both the other person’s signals and one’s own personal bodily sensations at the same time. This exercise creates sort of testing environment where particular reactions can be vividly experienced. The somatic aspect of previously described exercises cannot be underestimated. The ability to “train” certain dispositions becomes possible thanks to being embodied in the sense of generating feeling straight “from” the body.

Following exercises explore the body-in-move and a very important factor namely subject-object dialectic. One of them includes being directed by other person in means of automatic following the sensed stimuli. Both partners in exercise feel level of sensitivity; an active partner is feeling the receptivity of a passive one who is searching for the deepest possible surrender. In order to feel the difference a passive partner is withstanding an active one from time to time. Hence both partners can feel the alternation of flow, resistance and everything in-between. There are also manifold exercises consisting of taijiquan techniques, like tui shou, cloud hands and complex classical forms where participant can feel rich sensations accompanying mere moving. During in-depth interviews participants were describing the above in a creative and diversified way. They were reporting the sense of electricity or density in/of the air, tingling, rubbing or flowing. All of these sensations are experienceable thanks to the very subtle cognitive switch where body is perceived passively, like “something else than me”. This way of experiencing is revealing both inner and outer sensations occurring on skin, inside of the body, between the hands and concomitant with interhuman interactions. For instance, moving the hand close to other’s body and holding it just above it (without touching) or waving a hand intuitively around one’s body generates a variety of subtle sensations which are integral part of relation itself. Anyone interested in further investigations on this topic should get familiar with Csordas’ notion of “somatic modes of attention”. One of the exercises practiced regularly on the meetings involves asking for guidance, searching for the sense of being led and doing everything in accordance of this feeling. The state concerned shares many similarities with possession, participants are trying to find a feeling that their body conducts rather than obeys to their will. I suppose that most of these exercises are founded on the subject-object or active-passive alternation occurring within the experience. Training of switching between these two may give a flexibility resulting in a deeper feeling of body at ease, release of tensions and sense of relaxation lasting for a few days. Thanks to the embodiment daily usage of the body feels pleasant and smooth, while mere moves appear to be interesting. What is more, body is felt like empty inside and suffused with energy wandering through. The tensions appear to be crucial; their intensity determines the depth of embodiment. As I personally noticed, the experience of being at ease with one’s body is much more vivid than even the strongest tensions. One can live highly charged with tensions and not feel it till the moment of a strong release. In other words, tensions are “slipping into” the body, which results in disembodiment. According to other participants, tensions are returning in the period of two-four days, armouring the body with tensions. When I am asking for the reason they return, the participants say: it’s lack of acceptance and attachment.

Many medical anthropologists already pointed out the troublesomeness of Cartesian dualism. The split between the body and the mind is deeply grounded in social theory, but can we say the same about its “social applicability”? In other words, how the body-mind dualism affects relations to self, others and the environment? T. Csordas elaborated the term “embodiment” as a theoretical paradigm. In my research it can also be understood as a healing process of restoring the relation with one’s body. By classical anthropological methodology (participant observation, in-depth interview) and unconventional tool excerpted from the sensory anthropology (sensory enhancement training),I investigate the process of embodiment and ask about its possible benefits and transformations which eventually could refer to the whole society.


Csordas Th.[ed.] 1997 Embodiment and Experience. The Existential Ground of Culture and Self Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Csordas Th., 1993, Somatic modes of attention. Cultural Anthropology 8:2.

Cohen A.P. 1985, Wspólnoty znaczeń, w: M. Kempny, E. Nowicka (ed.), Badanie kultury. Elementy teorii antropologicznej.

Hsu E., 2000, Towards a science of touch, part I: Chinese pulse diagnostics in early modern Europe in Anthropology & Medicine, 7:2

Lienhardt G. 1961 Divinity and experience: The religion of the Dinka, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paterson M. 2007 The senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies, Oxford and New York: Berg Press.

Pink S. 2009, Doing Sensory Ethnography, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, Singapore: Sage Publications.

Sharf R., 1998, Rhetoric of experience and study on religion. Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 7 11/12.

Strathern J.A., 1996, Body Thoughts, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.