A personal physical signature. Photo credit: Leonora Oppenheim

Use Your Body As a Research Tool

Why an embodied practice can help our creative thinking

Leonora Oppenheim
11 min readMar 17, 2022


The I-body relationship

Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. My body has almost entirely left the scene, as my presence reduces itself to a pair of eyes and a brain, manically reading and absorbing information. Giving my undiluted attention to unfolding current events is driven by a sense of not wanting to abandon my fellow humans in their suffering, but I don’t think I’m even aware of the tension building up in my muscles anymore.

Now that many of our lives have become primarily screen-based we consider our bodies less and less, as our gaze is sucked into our devices during both work and leisure time. Only when they are hungry, when they hurt, or when they stop working perfectly do our bodies grab our attention again. In writing this essay, I want to remind people that the physical frame is not just a vehicle to transport our mouth to the fridge.

The question is, can we take the time to listen to the internal sensory experience when there is so much external noise all around us. If I take just a few seconds to shift my focus away from the screen, I will notice my shoulders are hunched, my knuckles are white, and my heart rate is elevated by the content I am ingesting.

Our bodies are constantly communicating with us, they have deep wells of information that we’re not tapping into. They hold all our life experiences, both joyful and traumatic. The body is a creative resource, it is a research tool, and through my work I am encouraging people to engage in that dialogue with themselves.

Workshop participants experiment with physically supporting each other. Photo credit: Leonora Oppenheim

Physical awareness

My drive to reconnect with the knowledge in my own body has illuminated the wider need for creatives to be given dedicated time and space to use their bodies as sites of enquiry. Body as a Research Tool is a phrase I’ve been using as a title for workshops with designers, creatives, strategists and facilitators, where they investigate their thinking through physical exploration. Through intention and attention, embodied practice gives us access to a whole new avenue of tacit knowledge; a creative resource that can reinvigorate our work.

In 2017, after a 15 year career as a designer, my MFA at Trinity Laban was introducing me to the quirks and capabilities of my body through drawing performances. As I placed myself physically at the centre of my creative practice, it occurred to me that never once during my design education did we talk about the concept of the body as a research tool. This gave me the idea of taking embodied practice, usually the domain of theatre and dance, into design studios.

The design industry is a world of work that makes products and services primarily for the human body. In this notably broad discipline, with so many areas of study, whether it’s jewellery, fashion, ceramics, furniture, architecture, or transport design, it seems strange not to talk about how the human body works, or to engage with it specifically as a source of information. If we are designing for the body, why are we not designing with the body?

Taking inspiration from the embodied practice education we were receiving at Trinity Laban, I began creating activities for designers in collaboration with my MFA colleague Emma Hoette, an alumna of Parsons Design School in New York. We took our first proposal to my alma mater, Goldsmiths Design, who were very receptive to our plan. Now, over four years later, we regularly teach Body as a Research Tool workshops at a range of universities. While I am based in the UK and Emma is based in The Netherlands, we still work together, sharing our experiences of teaching and developing new activities for workshops.

Last year I started offering these workshops to professionals, knowing there is a need for people exhausted by the last two years of pandemic life to find a new creative resource within themselves. Zen teacher and writer Ed Espe Brown was a participant in a conversation I recently had with a group of facilitators in which I posed the question, “What does the phrase Body as a Research Tool mean to you?. He responded with the reflection that not many people think of their bodies as sites of enquiry. Here’s Ed’s imaginary dialogue with his body:

“We sometimes think, ‘Well, I don’t really use my body as a research tool, I use it as a vehicle and I’m going to tell it what to do. I’m going to sit there and say, let me do my work at the computer. Now we’re going for a walk, you’re on board with this right?’ So often we’re not conducting research. If we haven’t been using it as a research tool, when you go back to the body it says, ‘You’ve just been bossing me around all these years and I hurt. Maybe you could listen to some of the information I’ve been collecting all this time. I’ve got it all available anytime you’re ready.’”

Emma Hoette teaching embodied practice to Goldsmiths Design students. Photo credit: Leonora Oppenheim

The self-conscious body

Over the last few years, my work with designers has demonstrated how freeing it can be when we are given permission to be creative with our whole body. The BA and MA students are often taken aback by the notion that physical experimentation can give them insight into their design practice. I’ve witnessed groups dissolve into embarrassed giggles at the start of a workshop. They are paralysed with self-consciousness. They feel exposed. Being asked to stand in front of their classmates without a desk, screen, or even an idea to hide behind is uncomfortable for them. As I wrote about in my essay On Being Seen, I know how they feel.

I start every embodied workshop with a shaking exercise, specifically to help lower the cortisol spike of stress that is occurring for people who are feeling self-conscious. I want everyone to begin by feeling loose and relaxed in their bodies, warmed up, and physically present. Most importantly, I want them to be able to feel their heart beating in their chest and their breath in their lungs. We are more than brains on sticks; our living, breathing bodies help us navigate our way through the world with our felt senses.

Witnessing a design studio abuzz with exploration is truly a delight. One of my favourite activities is inviting participants to explore a single object with their whole body for 30 minutes. Now, as you would expect, most people get bored with a single object after 30 seconds. But when you leave them to it, all sorts of creative imaginings begin to emerge.

A quick snapshot of a scene from the studio looks like this: I see one person determinedly pushing a cardboard box along the floor with their nose, I see another person entwining their legs with the legs of an upturned chair. In the corner, two more people are facing each other, pressing the ends of a broom between their chests. Across from them, someone is balancing a chair on their back, and another person is modifying plastic wrapping into a type of headscarf.

After 30 minutes, I gather the students to talk about their interactions. One asks, “Why did I feel so incredibly weird pushing the cardboard with my nose? I felt so self-conscious.” The answer I gave was this, “One, because you’ve never done it before, it’s a new sensation. Two, because it’s an unfamiliar use of your body and a surprising point of view. Three, because it allows you to see the world differently, which is what being a designer is all about.”

This activity, as quirky as it may seem, is a good reminder that we relate to materials, objects, and spaces more profoundly through our tactile intelligence. Feeling their properties physically generates a kind of sensory understanding we can’t access through images on a screen. As David J Linden writes in his book Touch:

“…touch information is subconsciously combined with inputs from vision, hearing and proprioception (a sense of where our bodies are located in space that comes from nerve endings in our muscles and joints) to give rise to rich, nuanced perception.”

Workshop participant, Guillermo Cárdenas, exploring a chair. Photo credit: Leonora Oppenheim

Evolutionary instincts

What I learned by making work in a dance studio at Trinity Laban, is that when I get blocked in my process of developing an idea, sitting and thinking about it doesn’t help. Only by sensing movement in my body do I manage to get unstuck. This sensation will be familiar to anyone who knows when to stop banging their head against that metaphorical brick wall. Many of us innately understand that if we get up and take a walk around the block, or go for a run, something about changing our perspective, moving our bodies, and refreshing our vision helps propel our thinking forward.

As Adam Day, strategist, facilitator and craftsman, told me when I asked him about the phrase Body as a Research Tool, many of us do understand that doing something physical can help us process complex problems. He shared why he loves working with his hands:

“I know my metal and woodworking practice is good for processing. I feel like I’m taking the language out of my questions and putting them back into my body. Then they come back later. The reason you have an idea is because you’ve stopped thinking about it and you’re physically doing something else. You’ve put the problem somewhere and you don’t even know where it is. I’ll be working in my workshop for a few days and then something comes back up and I realise that’s what I should do, but I can’t explain how that was processed and I don’t even know if it was processed with language. So that idea of physicalising or hiding questions, putting them somewhere is interesting.”

During the last two years of the pandemic, when screen-life became even more dominant, I started thinking about the stuckness and stagnancy people must be feeling in their bodies. The technology that allowed many to keep working and studying from home was a huge advantage for those who weren’t front-line workers. However, I regularly heard the frustration from many friends who were exhausted from conducting all their meetings over Zoom. The strange disembodied sensation of staring at their own and others’ talking faces for hours on end was having a negative impact, even as we were briefly entertained by funny filters.

In having our movement restricted by outside forces, it became ever clearer how vital it is to our health and wellbeing. Our mobility as humans is crucial to our survival. As hunter-gatherers, humans developed incredible speed, agility, and fine sensory detection for good reasons. In their 2020 TED talk, Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle, Emily and Amelia Nagoski explain why so many of us experience burn out in our busy working lives. They say it is because we no longer complete the stress cycle during our day-to-day living. When a hunter is chased back to the village by a predator, their survival is celebrated with dancing and singing, a ritual practice common in many indigenous communities today.

If an office worker has a stressful day at work, gets in their car to drive home, then collapses on the sofa to eat dinner in front of their favourite show, when does that human being get to shake off the build-up of adrenalised stress during their day? They don’t. Consequently, they have cortisol rushing around their body making it difficult to sleep or achieve quality rest. They then wake up tired and begin the cycle again, which inevitably leads towards exhaustion and possible burnout.

Workshop participants creating interactive physical signatures. Photo credit: Leonora Oppenheim

A personal physical signature

In the workshops I offer, I am showing people how important it is to think, sense, and interpret through their physical bodies. We are using movement both as a way to release stress and a way to untangle knotty problems. An embodied practice invites people to directly physicalise a question rather than sit still and think it through. How can engaging with the sensory experience of living in our bodies help us think more creatively?

One workshop I regularly run invites participants to develop a personal physical signature for use in times of stress or pressure. This activity is a riff on the idea of power poses, which are effective but generic. I want each person to develop a gesture that is purely theirs and no one else’s, to support them at pivotal moments of their life (e.g. public speaking, project pitches, job interviews) to become more embodied in their presence. The process is designed to build gradually towards an essential form of embodied self-expression. Improv teacher and Professor Emerita at Stanford University, Patricia Ryan Madson, described her experience:

“The progression of the exercise was interesting, how each activity led to a greater understanding of your whole purpose. It was as if when we got to the final incarnation of the gesture/phrase we were looking through a clearer lens. The ‘embodiment’ part was new and surprisingly instructive.”

Participants are invited to get up and walk away from their screen. I watch as they move around their room, improvising gestures they are associating with key descriptive words. Hesitant at first, unfamiliar with the activity, soon I see them loosen up and become more expansive in their bodies. The words become louder, the gestures become bigger, the strides become longer. A form of expression is emerging from the body that has unknowingly been held in.

When discussing the process afterwards, the overall impression I get from the participants is the importance of being given dedicated time and space to break their usual rhythms. As Alex Carabi, executive coach and co-founder of Yellow, shared:

“It was interesting being given the time, space, and gentle prodding to actually embody these things. Feeling into the shape, gestures, and physicality of my self-description was incredibly useful. I could actually feel what I was writing, or what I want to write.”

Too often we are rooted to the spot by the unfolding drama on our screens. I don’t want people to turn away from either the human suffering, or the human entertainment, that is delivered through our devices, but I do want us to find a balance between the eye-screen relationship and the I-body relationship. As much as moving our bodies is good for our mental and physical health, it is just as important for our creativity and problem solving. Engaging our senses in an embodied exploration brings a new creative tool into the workplace, reminding us that there are other ways to pay attention.

Now that you’ve reached the end of this essay, take a moment to shift your focus to your body. Do a quick scan from your head to your toes. Are you warm or cold? Where are you holding tension? How deep or shallow is your breathing? What is the texture like under your fingertips? Can you release your shoulders? When you have a good sense of how you are feeling, I recommend getting up and shaking it all out before starting whatever you need to do next.

Leonora Oppenheim offers Body as a Research Tool workshops both online and in person. Please get in touch if you’d like to explore an embodied practice with your team. leonora [at] elio studio . com



Leonora Oppenheim

Visual artist & narrative designer. Body as a research tool — movement & mark-making.