A young woman wears a white costume.

Tehya wears gloves knitted by Charlotte Wilmot

adrienne maree brown and Prentis Hemphill On Restoring Our Rhythm

Interview by Willow Defebaugh

Set and Prop Design by Clarisse d’Arcimoles

Photographs by Toby Coulson

Styling by Nathan Klein

What does it mean to rewild ourselves? Emergent Strategy and Pleasure Activism author adrienne maree brown and therapist and somatic healer Prentis Hemphill speak with Atmos about embodiment, the power of ease, and restoring our natural rhythm.

Willow Defebaugh

Prentis and adrienne, embodiment is a central praxis to both of your offerings. Can you explain for our readers what it means to each of you, in your own words?

Prentis Hemphill

The way that I hold practice with the word embodiment is that it points us to this reality that our bodies and our lives are much more than we get told in this current moment—that our bodies are much wilder and more wise than we are trained to know them. And the experience of being in or being a body actually connects us up to all living beings and all life here. I define it in a few ways: some of it is the awareness of being in a body and becoming awake to the textures of our experience. Some of it is becoming aware of what we have learned and made habit that we no longer recognize—the things that we practice that have gone under our cognition but which we have embodied. The third part of it is this opportunity to be intentional about what it is that we do, act, risk—how we connect. It’s the awareness of the real subtleties of how we feel. It’s the awareness of what we’ve stored and learned and then the promise of what we can be when we really center the body.

adrienne maree brown

I love that, and it feels so orderly, so it makes me want to respond with a little chaos. Lately, I’ve been experiencing myself as: the spirit is what I am, and then the body is how that massive spirit relates to this planet and to others. My relatedness is my body. That’s how I know the people I came from, and I carry the relationship of my ancestors through that DNA, through that memory.


I also think there’s something about embodiment that is how my spirit learns to be under pressure and learns to be in the experience of being a human being. I’ve recently been going through a stressful moment of growth, and under pressure, I turn to pizza, I turn to ice cream. My body was like, “That’s what we do. We comfort you, we build you up, we bulk you up, we comfort you.” And then having to be like, “Wait, that’s an old embodiment. That doesn’t actually recenter me right now. It doesn’t actually comfort me right now. It actually makes me very uncomfortable right now.” What else could I do under this pressure? And it’s like, “Swim harder, ask for more help, hug people longer.” What are other things I can do?


The other day, someone hurt my feelings, and in real time, tears came to my eyes—and my body is great at pushing them down. Just from some other state, from the mindfulness or the spirit state, I was able to notice how quickly that happened and then dignify myself by being like, “Hey, that really hurt my feelings.” And I know that from my body. So to me, embodiment is that whole thing of: the tears come, they get pushed down, and then I speak up using my vocal chord magic. All of that to me is embodiment.

A person with wooden fingers and a wooden head stands in a forest.
Elsa wears Strongthe coat and pants


I love the idea of the body as being relational.


I often feel like, “Why am I in a body?” And it’s like, “Oh, to figure out how to be in a relationship with others.” Which is not what we’re told. I feel like the decolonial practice right now is: my body is not to lure in my mate. My body is not to impress men. My body is not to be starved or controlled or waxed or perfected in some way. My body is actually not really about the visual imprint I have on other people. My body is to be in relationship to those other people, which may include fashion, which may include other things. But my body is not for my suffering; it’s for the whole experience. And then my body is also part of how I can recover from the experience. Embodiment is also about what we practice, what we’re taught to practice, what we begin to practice, what we choose to practice.


adrienne, what you were saying about the way we’re taught to view our bodies makes me think about how the system that we’re all in feels so expertly made to distance ourselves from our own bodies. And so much of the healing of that trauma is not linear. What kind of rhythms have you both found to your own healing and your own journeys of embodiment?


The first thing that made me think of was “Rhythm Nation” but also “Control” by Janet Jackson. I love this question! We’re actually wild, but we’ve been taught to control these bodies and to lose our natural, organic rhythm of how we relate to the sun and the land around us and our needs and our communities. So for me, the rhythm of embodiment and learning, it almost always starts with what I would call a “mistake.” Something where I feel like, “Oh, that’s not how I wanted to be doing life, or doing a relationship, or changing, creating a process of change.”


The training says that you should be ashamed, you fucked up, you don’t deserve to live, and you probably need to go buy something right now. The training is sending me away from the body and into consumption and into giving someone else control. To me the practice is: can I get curious about what I just did and why? What is the lineage of that choice, and what was happening in that moment? Curiosity almost always leads me to compassion, both for myself and for others.


I’m trying to make the gap even shorter, but there’s a space where my mistakes now almost always lead me into a very exciting territory where I’m learning something new. I always quote Prentis around this, that perfectionism was a commitment to habitual self-doubt. That self-doubt was my comfort zone, and perfectionism was my practice. And now, I feel like I’m in this other rhythm where it’s like, “I’m not perfect, and that’s not even on the table.”

Models wear skirts and boots from the Fashion Archive London, recycled laundry bags provided by Laundrette, Sydenham


I feel very alive when I talk with adrienne, and I want to name that right now. I love talking with you. And I love this question about rhythm because I think about it a lot. I guess I’ll start where I was going to end. I think about it a lot because the worldview that we’re living inside of is so anti-rhythm. Think about the kind of profit scale and the never-ending acceleration, accumulation. Think about all the extraction of resources, the way that we use and exploit bodies—all these things are really rhythmless actions.


Rhythm and cycles are kind of disallowed in this worldview that we live in. It does not reward, or incentivize, or even perceive of the cycles—of the places to step back, to let go, to stop, to wait, which are a part of rhythm, of dancing. Dancing is as much the moves you make as the ones that you don’t make, the places where you pause and just listen. So I think about rhythm a lot because we are kind of trapped in a rhythmless nation. I said it—I wasn’t going to do it—but we are.


[Singing] Janet, we love you, thank you.


So much is shaped by all these things we impose on the body and society. But I’m really curious about how we build from the sound of a heartbeat and how two heartbeats can sync up. That’s what a lot of our cultures have had inside of them. I just want to be clear, I don’t romanticize anything at all. I don’t want to romanticize any point in history. But I think there are some things that we have done better at certain times than we do now. And some of that is ritual. In ritual, people aren’t just doing things for the sake of doing them; it’s for the sake of syncing or expressing or honoring or readying.


There is something in our ritual and ceremony space, a kind of knowledge about how we connect, how we can connect, how we can find each other, how our rhythms can sync. Now if you prepare for birth or battle or death or any kind of transitions or change in your life, you have a ceremony where you sync, and you enter the portal together, and you change together. And that really emerges from a connection to breath, to heartbeat, to rhythm, and the communication of that across the body.


I love the notion of ceremony as syncing, not just to ourselves or even to each other but also to nature and to this wider realm that we’re a part of. Prentis, I also wanted to talk a little bit more specifically about your work with movement and somatic healing. And in talking about embodiment and rooting out where trauma lives in the body, I’m curious what that evolution has been like within your work.


I’m really holding this healing question. It feels less and less linear to me, what I’m even doing besides listening. It’s becoming sturdy enough, present enough, so that whatever needs to happen can happen, and I don’t need to get in the way of that. More and more, I am relinquishing outcomes, what it will look like when someone has unraveled or let something go. I think about this on a social level too, as someone who has been involved in movements and has really focused on supporting Black people in particular around somatic healing. We are often so fixated on the outcomes of who we’ll be when we are healed, what we’ll be able to return to or become. And I’m just staring in the face of: can we become who we are?


So that’s what I have to say about healing and trauma in the body. It is magnificent to me, the ways in which stories can become embedded and lodged in tissues. There are stories I have that I’m like, “This is my traumatic story, this is it right here.” And it’ll be some random thing like that time I was on the playground, and it doesn’t even feel like anything. But it’s still somewhere lodged in me, still something my body stored. It’s about getting to know ourselves, not about this pursuit of perfection or becoming unblemished. I look at my child, and I’m like, “You haven’t experienced a trauma.” Is this what we’re trying to get to? This infant state of purity? I don’t find that idea as interesting as I was trained to or once did. I’m much more interested in getting to know ourselves and allowing who we are now.

Tehya wears Chloé coat, boots from the Fashion Archive London
Ringo wears boots from the Fashion Archive London, recycled laundry bags provided by Laundrette, Sydenham


You said something about the sturdiness of being able to be present, and what immediately grew in me was, “Yeah, but sturdy like a river.” Sturdy like something in motion that is also changing and that requires the balance of the world. The river can dry up if there’s not the balance of the world. Sometimes the best way I can be with my community, or with someone who’s on a healing journey, or with my own healing journey is to actually return my attention to the larger balance of the circumstances that we’re in.


When I think about movement work, we can listen to each other and be with our individual hurting, but actually we need to restore a much larger balance, so that this river can be flowing again for all of us—this river that has been run dry by these ideas of control and separating ourselves from the Earth. This process of returning to the Earth sometimes happens in a moment of returning to each other and being like, “I’m going to be with you in your pain.” The tears we’re going to cry are also part of the river, and the ideas that we have in this lifetime are also part of that river. Through our traumatic experiences, that’s how we develop ideologies that take us elsewhere. What in this river can nourish something else becoming possible? 


And so, it’s not just the individual I’m with ever. I’m with one cell of the species of the Earth. There’s this whole thing that’s showing up in this person, and then through this person, something could change that could impact the whole, as well. You spoke about the heartbeats syncing up, and to me that’s the fractal nature of all things. We come into the small, we come back out to the huge, we come into the small. And the flow is nonlinear, but we’re moving together towards something.


I’ve noticed in my own life and my own journey, if I start experiencing a contraction, I’m at the point where I can say to myself, “Okay, I know that there’s going to be an expansion and that’s just how this works.” When we’re early on in our respective journeys, we think, “I’ve done the contraction, now I should just be in the expansion.” And the reality is: it’s just the endless heartbeat, and it keeps going.


It’s the aliveness. I thought that I was going to get to a point and just be peaceful like Toni Morrison. In my mind, Toni Morrison was the living embodiment of peace. I thought, “She does not seem perturbed by any of this.” And it’s like: no, she had her things I don’t know about. She was still in her journey of figuring these things out. She got upset by things, and I’m doing that in my way. Because I’m human. And humans, we don’t get anywhere other than being human. And the wisdom is not to get beyond it but to accept and find a way to dance with it—to find the rhythm.


I’m still thinking about and loving the point about whether healing really is just going backward. Is the goal to be who we were when we were children? Or is it also moving forward? How can it be both of those things?

From left: Marni wears Moncler top, boots from the Fashion Archive London. Tehya wears blazer, shirt, pants, and tie by Kenzo, boots from the Fashion Archive London


I love that because I’m like, “I don’t want to go back.” There’s no moment in my previous life that I would trade for the one that I’m in now. The delicious privilege of getting to live 44 years is that I love all that I’ve experienced. Maybe moving outside of linearity helps, so that it’s not a back or forward but an expanding out—just as the universe is expanding out still. And so as a being of this universe, I am also still expanding out and figuring out what exactly I am and how the scale of myself works.


I thought I was a moon person, but I was just in a moon phase of my life. I was all about reflecting the light of others and getting pulled into the tides of others. And now, I’m in a sun phase of my life where I’m like, “There’s something in me that is shining, and it’s not a reflection of something else; it’s from inside.” It might have always been there, but I was taught it was not possible that someone like me could be shining. I’m Black and I’m queer and I’m fat and I just don’t fit into whatever shining is. And yet, I’m shining, and I’m surrounded by people who are also shining in spite of what we were told. I suspect maybe everyone is shining, and that’s what trauma does: contour and hide from us that we are these light beings. What does it mean to actually be constructed of stardust in the most literal sense? What does that mean?


I don’t want to shrink that. I don’t want to return to anything. I want to keep expanding, and then what’s inevitable is expanding into my relationships. My niblings were just visiting, and I’m like, “I am responsible for supporting your first kiss, and your first period, and your first comedy show, and your first TikTok dance. I’m expanding out, but I’m expanding in such a way that you can also expand.”


You mentioned the word “pleasure,” adrienne, which we must talk about with you in the room. In this conversation about embodiment, what role do joy and physical pleasure play in this process beyond our ideas about uprooting trauma being this purely gnarly process that’s meant to feel horrible?


I used to be a hardcore futurist, and I’m still pretty geeked out about the future, but I’ve been becoming much more of nowist, in the sense of now versus utopia, versus heaven, versus joy and pleasure only being something you experience in the future when you’ve earned it after a lifetime of suffering. Or if someone checks you off on a list and says you did good. I’m actually a nowist, and pleasure is almost always available in the now, even in moments of immense grief. Joy is always with us, it’s always walking with us. 


It’s just true. Go to a funeral, especially a Black funeral, go to places where people who have been deeply oppressed are gathering to deal with our pain, and joy is there, and we are singing, we are dancing, we are turning it into a celebration, because the truth is life is a celebration. Life is a nonstop ceremony of wonder, and we are just distracted right now. 


Pleasure is simple. In her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Audre Lorde offers the idea that something that simple can also be that powerful. That once I reclaim even that moment of pleasure—once I reclaim my body, even just for the one cycle of the orgasm—once I have experienced that, it makes it much harder for me to settle for anything less than that. The power of that is why we don’t just give up agency over our bodies. It’s why we don’t just say, “Yeah, sure, you can take my rights.” It’s why we don’t give up bending gender. It’s why we don’t give up being ourselves, because it’s like, “No, the power of that, you cannot take that from me.”


Speaking of power and agency, obviously attacks on bodily autonomy and reproductive rights are at an all-time high right now. How do you both stay centered and connected to your own sense of power and agency?


I think about what adrienne was sharing about shining and letting that be the truth. And I think a lot about the effortlessness actually of shining. It’s not actually an effortful thing to do. But it takes us a long time to figure that out. It may take a whole lifetime, or a couple, but I feel my most powerful when I am relaxed. That’s one of the principles that we are taught in somatics: a relaxed body is the most powerful body that you have. And partly that’s because a relaxed body can choose what to do.


If your body is a body of constant defense, you may encounter a situation where you can’t figure out how to choose something else. A relaxed body is a choiceful body, and it’s very powerful. The tensions that I hold in my body are the stories of my not being good enough or right for this world. But it actually takes a lot of energy to hold onto those stories every day. We may have gotten very good at it, it might not feel like effort, but the truth is your power is an effortless experience that’s waiting for you to know that it’s there. We’ve created a system that is now beyond us and out of control and creating these pressures on our ability to be powerful. But the thing to remember is that the power is always in the ease, and the complexity and contractions that are being offered to us are actually the lie and the burden.


Something in the environmental movement that is continuously part of the conversation is whether we should be focused on individual or collective transformation. Is it about our individual carbon footprints? Is it about organizing to change policy? And what I love about both of your works is they both point to how this is such a false binary. I’m just curious: in either of your own words, to what extent can healing really happen in isolation and how can we move beyond this binary?


When I’m doing healing work, it usually means looking at something in its wholeness. Healing is about wholeness always. It can never happen in isolation. It’s always in relationship. It’s even being able to recognize the binaries are false. To me, that’s one of the most healing things that’s happening in this generation: we’re looking at all of these binaries and being like, “We don’t have to split ourselves like this; we actually can allow ourselves to be more complex and whole right now.” 


That is healing, and that was not available. The children that my sister and all my friends have, the wholeness that is already available to them because of who they’re being parented by, it is so healing that it moves me to tears when I really sit with that. I’m like, “You’re nine and ten, and you already are getting to self-determine who you are on the scale of gender, on the scale of your sexuality, on the scale of personality. You’re like, I’m different. Yes you are. You’re all fucking different. A whole generation of people who are excited to be different.” And now, something totally different is going to become possible that is healing in all directions. That heals me to be around. Because I’m like, “You’re not going to have to fight, punch the box out for the first 20 years. You just get to start already outside of that box. God, what are you going to get to do and be because that’s not what you’re fighting for?” So we have to recognize it’s also generational.


For me, this question points to the way that we’ve constructed our reality, that we could somehow imagine that healing wouldn’t have an effect on every scale from the community, family, individual—whatever an individual even is. Because if we look at our individual cells really closely, we’ll see that there’s lineage and microbes—you contain multitudes also. There’s been such a compartmentalization of all the aspects of what it means to be a living being, and a living being of our species, that this question reveals the splits that we’ve created. One makes the other more possible, and one collapses with the absence of the other.


There’s one little thing that I wanted to say about authentically being in that space of healing. My way of living is to be like, “This is the right way. Oh wait, no, this is the right way. Nope, something else is actually the right way, and I’m going to get there imminently.” So something that I’ve been relaxing into is: all that matters is the authenticity of you being where you are. And if you are in a moment where you can’t handle more processing or more healing, and that’s really authentically true to where you are, then be there and eat your pizza and smoke your weed and watch your movies and fucking be there. 


And then if I’m in a place where I can deep dive into healing, and I’m in a community that can hold me, and I can unravel some shit that happened when I was two, and I can be in relationship around that and integrate more into myself, and I have the authenticity to do that with myself, then I can be there. If we started focusing more on that, I think we could let a lot of the rest fall away. 


I have tried to turn down my real self in order to fit better into the world in so many different ways. Now I feel like part of what the shine means for me is that I’m not trying to “effort” or turn myself up or turn myself down anymore. I’m not repressing it anymore. I’m not tucking it away. I’m just being like, “This is how I actually feel in this moment about this thing, and this is who I actually am right now, today. And that’s what you got. And you know what? It might disappoint you. It might disappoint me, but that’s who the fuck it is.” This is the reality. And I know that if I’m with that, truly with myself, more becomes possible for the whole universe. Because everything in the universe—I think that’s all we’re supposed to do. All everything is supposed to do is be itself.

Josiah wears Bethany Williams jacket and pants, gloves knitted by Meg Coulson, boots from the Fashion Archive London
From left: Josiah wears Thom Browne blazer and skirt, Pariah shirt, gloves knitted by Meg Coulson. Tehya wears Thom Browne coat and dress. Marni wears Thom Browne blazer and shorts, Gant top, gloves knitted by Charlotte Wilmot, boots from the Fashion Archive London.
Paul wears custom look by Kate Tabor, boots from the Fashion Archive London
Paul wears Erdem coat, Pariah pants, Strongthe knitwear, boots from the Fashion Archive London

TALENT Tehya Elam (Premier), Josiah Caluori (Wilhelmina), Alice Bailey, Lola Birchall Hoille, Rosie Blackwell, Mahni Clear, Lola Gillespie, Elsa Mudge, Serena Smale, Ringo Vaughan-Hughes, Izzy Yeoman, Magnolia Morrall, Primrose Morrall, and Paul Vooght MAKEUP AND HAIR Maki Tanaka PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT Abiella Aland STYLING ASSISTANT Colin Zuill, Elena Scanagatta, and Art O'Neill SET DESIGN ASSISTANT Sofia Caselli RETOUCHER Sipke Visser SPECIAL THANKS Nick Rangecroft (KEVICC Community College), Marc Gregory (Sands School), Troy Fearn, Paul Vooght, Meg Coulson, Charlotte Wilmot, 2DM Management, Rapid eye

This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 08: Rhythm with the headline “Born Wild.”

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