Tarot as a Path of Healing | Embodying (part 2)

Tarot as a Path of Healing is a practical, in-depth series from herbalist Alexis J Cunningfolk, exploring tarot as a tool of healing beyond a focus of plant medicine. 

The first time I learned about body-centered tarot spreads was through tarot Goddessmother, Rachel Pollack.

Pollack is a prolific writer and her classic tarot book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot revolutionized how cards were understood and read. One of my favorite books of hers is Complete Illustrated Guide to Tarot which I picked up at a bargain bin at my local book store in college. It’s illustrated, concise without losing inspiration, and really accessible to both new and practiced tarot readers. One of the spreads that Pollack shares is a body spread who she credits to a Danish tarot reader, Anita Jensen. The spread requires a person to lay on the floor and cards are placed on their body at specific points to be interpreted. Along with the Celtic Cross, I’ve been teaching the body spread since day one of my classes and students love it. It’s such a fun spread to do with a group of people and is a great exercise for community-led interpretation of the cards cast. Of course, it can be done solo to great affect, too, which I’ll discuss. 

There is something powerful and vulnerable lying down and having cards placed on you while one or many folks begin to speak about what they see about you and your story via the cards. It’s a far different energetic exchange than a traditional reading set-up but when done conscientiously (i.e. explaining what is going to happen, getting consent for placing cards on the body every time a card is placed, and knowing that it’s perfectly alright for the reading to stop at any time), it can be really healing. I’m going to share Jensen’s body spread below and then share the healing techniques I’ve added to it over the years in my own practice.

Anita Jensen’s Body Spread

from Complete Illustrated Guide to Tarot by Rachel Pollack

Card 1 is placed on the forehead and represents Thinking or our current thoughts and preoccupations.

Card 2 is placed on the mouth and represents Speaking or what someone is saying, trying to say, or wanting to say (especially when inverted).

Card 3 is placed on the heart and represents Feeling or what someone is feeling or intuiting at the heart level.

Card 4 is placed over the solar plexus or gut and represents Knowing or their intuitive sense and gut knowing – that wisdom buried down deep that’s trying to come to the surface. 

Card 5 is placed over the groin area and represents Desire or what they want in the world, from themselves, and others. Pollack is explicit that this is not just about sexual desire but our desires in general.

Card 6 is placed over the non-dominant hand (the one you don’t write with) and represents Holding Back or what someone keeps to themselves, doesn’t allow themselves to do or share or other ways that they create boundaries that might feel restrictive.

Card 7 is placed over the dominant hand (the one you write with) and represents Giving or what you give freely to others whether or not that beneficial (i.e. giving away too much of your time and concern versus giving of your services and gifts in appropriate ways).

Card 8 is placed on your non-dominant foot and represents where you are Coming From or experiences from the recent past that you’re just stepping out of.

Card 9 is placed on your dominant foot and represents where you are Going or a peak into your upcoming future, highlighting where you’re headed.

You can, of course, do this spread on your own, touching the cards to each part of your body as you pull them. But if you do have an opportunity to do this spread with one other person or, even better, a supportive group, it’s an amazing sort of magick. Once the cards have been cast, interpretations can be offered. And that can be it – but if you have the time and need this spread can become a more in-depth healing session. 

For every card the group can offer an interpretation, but they can also offer a remedy or healing suggestion. For a mixed crowd of folks who might not be familiar with tarot, it can be helpful for an oracle deck with keywords or sentences in addition to the tarot, pulling a healing companion card for each of the original nine tarot cards. Energy work can be offered to each of the nine areas of the body/life, stones placed on the body, songs sung, prayers offered, charms whispered. When all of the cards had been read and remediating energy offered, everyone can offer an affirmation of the power and wisdom they see in the person being read for. 

Say, that the Visionary (Queen) of Swords lands on the non-dominant hand which is the position that represents what we hold back. The interpretation might be of someone who holds vast truth within them, but worries that their words are too harsh or cutting to be received. They feel removed and isolated from their community even though they have stories they want to tell. Energy is offered to create a pathway between their stories and their community. Sodalite stone is placed on their palm and someone offers the charm, “May your words run sweet like honey, carrying the truth of bee sting that wakes us up, but also the murmuration of the hive which unites us in harmony.” At the end, when affirmations are being shared about the person being read for, someone might say something like, “I see the wordsmith, story-teller, sharpener of surety, and someone who speaks up confidently to clear confusion and let wisdom shine brightly.”

As with any spread that comes your way, there’s always room for alterations and additions. You might want to add cards that deal more explicitly with difficult traumas that get trapped up in the body, such as a card on the hips that deals with trapped emotions or on the knees for the effects of oppression in one’s life (including microaggressions and the many -isms any one of us deals with) or over the lungs for unexpressed grief. Other cards focused on strengths can be added, too, such positions on the arms for inherent gifts or the belly button for life purpose. Get creative, cast for what you need, and edit the rest.

Becoming cards

Having spoken of the ways we can cast cards to connect back to our bodies, it’s time to talk about how we become the cards themselves. Embodying the energy of a card can help us try on a new possibility, invoke the gifts or powers of a certain card, and help us get out of own way when it comes to our healing. 

Becoming a tarot card means we act out what we see in a tarot card including mannerisms, positions, clothing, and more. The first step of embodying a card is giving yourself permission to do so. Some of you will think that this is a great idea and can’t wait to try it out (hello, my drama students and improv kids) where others may think that this is ridiculous or too embarrassing to consider. The thing about embodying the cards is that it’s one very concrete way of pulling a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional experience which tarot is supposed to be helping to inform. 

Start by pulling out your favorite card in the deck – it helps to start with a friendly card that you like a lot. Mimic the position of any characters in the card (if there is more than one card choose the one you’re drawn to most to act out first). I love the Page of Swords and the way that they seem to be in the midst of a dance step, their sword held up gently, their face turned into the wind. It’s an easy position for me to replicate and when I’m in it, I feel a sense of expectation and excitement, which is what the card means to me on a personal level. So, mimic your card and feel what comes up for you. If you’re feeling extra ambitious you can  mimic the clothing, colors, and scenery of the card, too. Imagine that you’re trying to ace an interview or land a freelance project but are lacking confidence so you set out to embody the Three of Pentacles – a card which shows us successfully presenting our work and skills to the world. Becoming the Three of Pentacles means that that you have to play at being confident, too, and hopefully, having tried it on and acted it out, you can bring that energy to any interview or online exchange that requires it. 

What I’ve described is a form of glamoury and to help bring your glamoury with you to an interview or similar situation, you can even choose a piece jewelry of item of clothing to charge up with the energy of the card. In fact, I use Beth’s four elements necklaces for this all the time, but anything that you have can work. Celebrate your resourcefulness! 

I also find it useful to embody multiple cards in a spread when I’m having trouble understanding how they relate to one another. I begin with one card, feeling and speaking (out loud or in my head) what it is they are trying to say. I respond by embodying another card and so on until I’m feeling the spread like a living conversation rather than a set of disparate riddles. I realize that I also like this technique of card embodiment because I am a bit of a kinesthetic learner. If you lean kinesthetic in your learning and have been struggling with what seems like endless memorization required to learn the tarot, you might find embodying the cards to be a wonderfully beneficial technique. 

If you happen to have a group of other tarot enthusiasts around, it can be really fun to have an evening of embodying cards from acting out cards in a charades like game, to group interpretation of a spread by acting it out together, and even trance techniques where someone aspects a card and delivers oracles to individual querents. Card embodiment can be silly or serious and both approaches yield a great deal of information. We can get very serious about our healing and spiritual practices, forgetting that many of us are doing this work because we want to feel better and be happier – all of which requires a certain amount of playfulness. 

Whether or not you ever act out tarot with a group of friends, next time you pick up your cards ask yourself what if it was just a game? How would you play it? How does your body change positions and feel when it’s less about serious self-development and more about playful self-joy? Both techniques are needed because it all gets us to the same place at the end but we tend to value the serious over the playful mirroring our cultures valuing of the abstract over the physical. Change it up, get grounded, and feel your way through a reading.

Let me know how you’re embodying your tarot practice in the comments below and please share any body-centered tarot practices you have – the playful, serious, and all in-between! Next month I’ll be sharing ways we can create altars dedicated to our well-being that incorporate the magick of tarot. 

Read part 1 of ‘Embodying’ here!

Decks Featured: Slow Holler Tarot, The Shining Tribe Tarot by Rachel Pollack

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