Mapping the Moving Body: Diasporic and Disciplinary Crossings

In Part 6 of the Moving Bodies takeover, Arya Thampuran explores the role of embodied movement, cultural memory, and mental health through a decolonial prism.

In the final phases of my PhD in 2021, I was privileged to be part of the Black Health and the Humanities Network, a cross-disciplinary, cross-sectoral community of academics and activists. The network itself was born of a call to address the asymmetrical affordances of wellbeing for minoritised Black communities, historically-entrenched systemic injustices that become all the more palpable and pressing in their persistence, particularly in the wake of COVID-19 and the racialised carceral violence. This community came together to work through issues of access in both healthcare and health-related research in Black health. Nany of our discussions centred on questions of what health means and whose bodies are deemed worthy of care.  

In my personal research and as PI of the network now, I am particularly interested in questions of race, space, and place. For instance, how are the boundaries between the individual and collective body collapsed, and how do we express this relational encounter? I work in the field of narrative. I’m interested in how we can meaningfully attend to distress and healing in ways that dignify their particularity of experience and expression. This means thinking about these practices in their own register and on their own terms, resisting the impulse to categorise and classify through psychiatric/biomedical schemas. In much of the work I have engaged with across literary, visual, and performance spaces across the Afro-diasporic context, the body is a mode of knowledge and a medium of connection. What I have encountered is a somatic logic that defies containment through a singular method of meaning-making. I am struck by what the moving body may express that evades the verbal or written word, and how movement and the (moving) body are never purely aesthetic and apolitical.  

Re-languaging Movement 

In the Medical Humanities and Sport & Exercise Sciences: An Invitation to Dialogue workshop, I was also struck by the cross-disciplinary diffusion of conversations about how movement is mapped onto different spaces like performing arts, sport, and healthcare. What was excitingly expressed was the momentum towards non-institutional modes and metrics for understanding the social and cultural salience of movement: the body was understood as a medium of meaning-making. What was also striking was how much of the participants theoretical work drew from lived experience, including the different forms of movement we have encountered, like dance or walking, and how our work has been formed by this movement. This workshop modelled how we can generatively move between the personal, the professional, and the political, and think about how our orientations and affiliations towards movement are themselves informed by our particular positionalities. On a personal level, I’m interested in exploring how movement can be re-languaged and re-formed as a counter-current to neoliberal mandates of movement, and tap into its politically-emancipatory potential.  

This interest partly stems from my work in narrative practices within healthcare. It is also rooted in my own practice of yoga and recent yoga teacher training (largely set in the UK). As a South Indian woman raised in Singapore, I’ve been fascinated with the cross-cultural circulation of the practice and its precepts in the West. Disconcertingly, it is often framed as an insular form of exercise (like in the recent ‘yogalates’ trend) or mindful movement, uprooting it from its cultural contexts and social salience within South Asian storytelling practices. Indeed, (mandated/mandatory) movement can become prescriptive and performative when they come to signal an investment in our own wellbeing (Godrej 2016). The sense of healthcare through movement, while couched in the discourse of personal empowerment, can become co-opted into a conservative, capitalist orientation that demands movement as a form of self-management, while effacing the structural imbalances that make access to, and movement within, certain spaces, harmful rather than healthful.  

As a corollary, healthcare is often packaged as ‘self-care’, an individual orientation that displaces responsibility from the institution, and fosters a form of individualism that functions well within a neoliberal culture of (over)work. Indeed, in his book McMindfulness (2019), Ronald Purser cautions against the decontextualisation of Eastern practices like mindfulness, arguing that individualist focus of Western therapeutic model fundamentally “endorses neoliberal assumptions”. For Purser, this alignment colludes with the broader ethos of privatisation: that we are ‘free’ to choose how we respond to, cope with, and ‘flourish’ in the face of stress (2019, 11). But as Purser rightly warns, “living in harmony with the world means accepting capitalism as a given” (26). This has particular ramifications in its intersection with racial and sexual politics: according to Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad, it is predominantly middle-class (white) women who are held as models of the “idealized bounce-backable resilient neoliberal subjects, an idealization that in turn renders ‘non-resilient’ women redundant and disposable” (2018, p. 494). This vision of the healthy self is underpinned by the values of elasticity and agility, symptomatic of the inward “turn to character” which has gained traction in what Gill and Orgad suggest is the “increasingly psychological turn within neoliberalism” (494).  

I wonder if we might need to move the dominant discourse on movement away from the individual to the collective, to consider not the moving body but the collective body – communities of practice with a body of knowledge and beliefs, thinking about our relationship to movement as something that is quite fundamentally relational. I have vivid memories of being taught South Indian practices of yoga and the classical dance form bharatanatyam, in ways that are embedded in a rich, communally-created body of storytelling, where poses are believed to channel the qualities of mythological figures, rather than an expression of personal physical prowess. I often think about how this re-centering of the collective can express a decolonial commitment to re-centering historically-devalued forms of knowing and being within minoritised communities.  

The Body Remembers 

Pressingly, this re-centering of the collective can also be a critical act of social justice. I often recall the experience of watching Black British artist Heather Agyepong’s performance of The Body Remembers in Brixton House shortly after lockdown was lifted in the UK, at a time when we were all perhaps more sensitised to the effects of restricted movement and connection. The Body Remembers is inspired by Agyepong’s practice of Authentic Movement, a therapeutic modality that involves “moving the body through impulse, in order to release stress and tension” (Agyepong 2011). In this piece, Agyepong moves against the backdrop of an immersive soundscape, which features interviews with twenty Black British women recounting their experiences of trauma and healing. Layered in this way, the performance – and indeed the theatre space itself – collapses the boundaries between the personal and collective. Agyepong (‘The Mover’) and the audience (‘The Witness’) are not so much in an asymmetrical dynamic of performer-spectator, but intimately enfolded into a process of shared healing. The soundscape makes the audience feel like they are “inside the body” and “holds [them] inside something” (Agyepong 2011). Here, Agyepong draws on her personal experience of how posttraumatic stress disorder expresses itself somatically, often without conscious awareness of the trauma one’s body holds. The performance is at once deeply ‘cathartic’ for Agyepong and is intended to culminate in a “mass release” for the audience (Agyepong 2011).  

Dawn Estefan, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist working on the project to support the women involved, resonates with Agyepong’s focus on how trauma ‘sits in the body’. She reflects that many classical theoretical approaches treat mental health as something contained within the ‘head’. Estefan instead advocates for a more ‘holistic’ approach, where “the head actually meets the body” (Estefan 2011). What is striking here is the resistance towards a Eurocentric psychiatric rationality. Indeed, co-creator Imogen Knight asserts “there are some things that there are no words for,” but in this absence, the body has a “language” (Knight 2011). What is striking to me here is how embodied movement figures as a valid mode of expression and conduit for connection, exposing the structural fault lines in the systemic violence experienced within the community.  

Regenerative Stillness 

In much of my work, I have tried to find a space for medicine and mythology, mind and body, individual and collective to co-exist within the same space, not positioned in polarity, not as counter-discourses but co-emergent ones, particularly in a globalising world where patterns of physical movement and migration necessarily lead to a diasporic diffusion of knowledge and belief systems. I’d like to conclude by thinking about stillness, not as the antithesis to movement, but as generative of the momentum to address and redress the systemic issues unpacked here.  

Within the Black Health and the Humanities network, we have often had to sit with intractable issues surrounding healthcare, coming from different disciplinary and experiential positions within our community. More recently, as many of us are looking to move beyond our postgraduate research, we have grappled with questions of asymmetrical access within research spaces itself, of how institutional time mandates forms of academic momentum – productivity for progression. This has led many of us to rethink the politics of place within the academy, and indeed, what the space of stillness, what sitting with difficult material and intractable issues, pausing and reflecting, rather than moving on, might afford for healing.  

Pressingly, in a moment where demands on the body are disproportionality experienced by and expressed in historically-marginalised communities, this opens a critical set of questions about the sociocultural valuation of the moving body, and how we might begin to shift our methods and metrics in our narratives around movement. It was heartening to be in community with a group of similarly-oriented scholars in the Moving Bodies workshop, who view this critical engagement with movement across academic and activist spaces as an urgent issue of social justice. Drawing from these different disciplinary and activist approaches seems to be a generative way of collectively working through these complexities to mobilise change within and beyond institutional spaces.   

About the author 

Arya Thampuran is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Medical Humanities at Durham University, where she is developing a decolonial strand of work in the Narrative Practices lab. She is also the PI on the Black Health and the Humanities Network. Her research sits at the intersection of medical and environmental humanities and critical race studies. She has a particular interest in non-biomedical expressions of mental health and healing in African Diasporic contexts. 

References 

Agyepong, Heather. 2021. The Body Remembers. Documentary.

Agyepong, Heather, interviewed by Greg Stewart. 2021. “Interview: Heather Agyepong on The Body Remembers.” 11 Oct. 

Gill, Rosalind, and Shani Orgad. 2018. “The Amazing Bounce Backable Woman: Resilience and the Psychological Turn in Neoliberalism.” Sociological Research Online 23: 477–495. 

Godrej, F. 2016. “The Neoliberal Yogi and the Politics of Yoga.” Political Theory 45: 747-903. 

Pallaro, Patrizia. 1999. Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 

Purser, R. E. 2019. McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. London: Watkins Media. 

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