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Zoom burnout is teaching us that learning is not possible without embodiment

Mirrors and computers can really mess with that.


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Clare Maxwell

3 years ago | 5 min read

Body schema and self image have profound effects on our ability to learn, grow, and develop. Mirrors and computers can really mess with that.

I am a dancer and teacher of movement. I spent many neurologically formative years as a teenager staring at my body in a mirror which created an almost permanently distorted self image. Mirrors lie, and so do computer cameras.

Both flatten your perception of self and the world. I’m not even talking about “body image” or how one feels emotionally about oneself. I’m talking about body schema or ones sense of physical volume and the size of different inter-related body parts.

These two separate issues can come together, especially for dancers, in a pretty toxic way.

I ended up simultaneously creating a stick-figure self image, yet thinking that I was too fat even though I weighed only 89 pounds. Even though dancing is the study of self in space and time, the powerful effect of the mirror on my self-perception merged with intensely emotional self-scrutiny, negative self-judgement, and a need for control.

All of these elements conspired to rob me of personal volume. Thankfully I rediscovered the fact of my three-dimensionality at the age of twenty six when I took my first Alexander Technique class, and I have never looked back since.

The Alexander Technique had the effect of re-calibrating my body schema and re-setting my relationship to space, gravity, and time. Many performers rely on it as a technical base for their work. Still, my old ingrained self image did not go away permanently.

Years later, I assisted as an Alexander teacher on a life drawing class where we moved for two hours without a mirror in the room, and then spent the last hour drawing models from life.

I made a startling discovery in that class — I was still thinking of my body as a flat stick figure! I could see it in my own sketches. Drawing someone else’s body made me realize more deeply the importance of volume, and from that day forward a new, adaptable sense of self began to form.

I had a breakthrough period in developing my work as a teacher when I spent 4 years memorizing the human dermatome map and using it as a reference for warming up and dancing.

The dermatome map shows which cranial or cervical nerve brings sensation to each area of skin, and it wraps around the body in beautiful, three dimensional strips. In exploring the highly sensitive surface of my own body, I began to develop a more voluminous, detailed body schema.

I went on to create a way of teaching the Alexander Technique that cultivates awareness of specific points on our skin that link our skeleton, musculature, and nervous system together.

I call it Mobilignment™. Use of this system helps you access an adaptable sense of self in relationship to space in movement or any activity. I discovered that it was quite easy to help my students experience fluid movement and appropriate postural tone with out using my hands to convey the experience.

It was their own developing sense of internal and external spatial relationships that brought about easier coordination of movement and an adaptable relationship with embodiment that is very useful for teachers, who are constantly multi-processing and thinking on their feet.

Now that many dance and movement teachers are learning how to work on Zoom, I’m seeing how difficult it is to get perspective on the distortions caused by the computer’s camera-eye. I’m also aware that after teaching online myself for the past 4 years, I know how to stay fully embodied and easy in my self. I don’t feel burned out, and I don’t want you to feel that way either!

This recovery of your own volume, sense of the length, depth, and width of your own body in space really is really important, and it’s possible for everyone.

If I forget that I am standing on the earth — which I do when I’m sucked into the image on my computer — I get disoriented, distressed, and upset. I can’t connect emotionally with others when I’m in this state, because I’ve lost my sense of self again — just like those many years ago I lost myself in the mirror.

The distress that the computer causes is the source of the solution. If you are feeling distress, it’s telling you that you need to include your body in what you are doing — in a way that you may have taken for granted, or felt you don’t have time to “think about”.

The skills I want to share with you are almost like pre-school. It’s something you knew as a kid, but forgot about entirely.

Here are three very simple ways that anyone can tap into this voluminous, spacious, and lively sense of self while working with others online. These simple techniques are easy to use if you are leading or participating in a class or seminar, or simply just trying to connect with your friends.

1) Knowing where the horizon is outside your room, where the ground is, where “up” is in relationship to where you are sitting, standing or moving will orient your whole body easily and prevent you from getting sucked into the computer. It’s ok to take your eyes off the screen in order to orient this way periodically, and you can still hear what is being said.

2) Knowing that what you see on the screen is actually what the camera of your computer sees, not total reality, will give much needed perspective. What you see of others is also seen from the “body” of a computer camera that has a limited aperture. You can allow the camera to see you in your space, where you actually are in all your volume, without pushing your body into the camera.

3) Knowing that your body has volume beyond what your own eyes can see is key. It is round and three dimensional. There is a back as well as front to your body. The parts of you that are not seen still exist and are there as a resource at all times.

It only takes a minute or two to try these suggestions. It may slow you down a little bit, but not taking that time is contributing to visual fatigue and body burnout. Burned out people can’t learn, and they can’t connect with each other. We are going to be working, teaching, and communing on Zoom and other online platforms for a long time.

Many educational institutions are going to be relying on them for the remainder of the year, if not longer. It’s not going to work unless we accept that embodiment is actually the basis of all learning, and that we cannot thrive as teachers and learners until we know how to access it even in these very challenging circumstances


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