Giving directions – To do or not to do? Is that the question?

Why it is not enough to do the right shape or to try to relax?

In the context of Contact Improvisation, somatic work and contemporary dance most people are probably familiar with phrases like ‘the spine floats upwards’ or ‘the tale can hang, the sacrum rests, the sternum softens downwards’ …

I am very used to hearing and saying those phrases, suggesting the body a direction, usually without moving into this direction. I have these moments when I wonder ‘what am I actually doing when I say theses things?’ and ‘why do I do it?’

People from Alexander Technique or Ideokinesis wrote probably many books about it. But as I use tools that where developed in those schools I’d like to give account for what I actually do when I work with giving directions and what I imagine my students to do or not to do.

A fundamental concept behind giving directions is, that we invite this direction to somehow happen in our body. When I say ‘the sacrum rests between the two halfs of the pelvis, the tale bone is dangling down, the pubic bone is gently lifted upwards’ I make quite a mental effort. Can’t we just tilt the pelvis forward into the right position? No.

My body wouldn’t feel taken serious. We don’t change a deeply ingrained habit by just doing it suddenly different. These bodies are too intelligent to be treated like this. Of course they could do it for you, but it wouldn’t give anything good to the body.

No, bodies are intelligent living things. Giving directions includes that my body knows something that I don’t have conscious access to. Giving directions is a way to tell my body that I care for it (him? her?) and that I am making a suggestion to make the body find easier and healthier ways to stand sit or move.

Most of us have postural habits that are not working in the best way with our physical structure. (For the question ‘why?’ you can read many books about socialization, body images that are put on us, living and working environments that force us into unhealthy habits …)

To assume that our mind knows what is best for our body makes me want to cry or scream. The body is sooo much too complex and intelligent that only a listening, patient and humble mind will find a way for a healthy dialogue that supports a healthier body.

Like the mind the body tries to survive and to do its best to deal with the world he or she is living in. Ignorance, arrogance or well meant force from the mind to the body will never work.

Anyway … Giving directions: When I say or imagine ‘the sacrum rests and I allow the pubis to float upwards’ I basically try to inhibit the counter direction. I personally tent to unconsciously contract (and/or collapse) in my lower back and so my pelvis tilts backwards, the pubis sinks and the belly pops out a bit. ‘the sacrum can sit or rest between the two halves of the pelvis’ is an invitation to release tension in the lower back, so that the muscles and other structures in that area can find more length by letting go of tension.

The suggestion ‘relax your lower back’ wouldn’t work for me though. ‘Just relax!’ puts pressure on me. I should relax more and better. I have to do this really well, I am not good enough to let go properly. ‘Just relax!’ is an invitation for the mind to contract and for the body to get lost.

A direction is a gentle proposal from the mind to the body. The mind listens curiously to the answer of the body. Maybe something is changing slightly already. How do I notice a change on a physical level? How does it feel in terms of physical sensation? Often it is a rather subtile change, not so easy to notice.

I find it more and more satisfying to work with ‘giving direction’. It stays a delightful miracle for me, how it actually works. The changes or adjustments that happen in my body are happening kind of by itself. I only need to give consciously this moment of ‘holding in’, sensing what’s going on in different areas of my body. The rest is ‘un-doing’ – allowing my body to shift and adjust more or less by itself, only supported by a thought of a direction. I still have a sense of ‘Wow! This is crazy! Amazing!’ Things change to the better without me doing it, just by giving space for the intelligence of my body.

My ability to sense what’s happening in my body is increasing through the years of mindful work with my body. Little changes feel bigger, stronger or more satisfying than they used to. Christoph Schütz, a colleague of mine who is exploring a lot the fascia-web in the human body (formerly known as connective tissue) says, that the more awareness we bring to perception in a certain area, the more we can sense, what’s happening there and the better differentiated. One remarkable reason for this is that through the use of our awareness, more nerve endings are created or differentiated from a waiting mode into different receptors. So, on a physiological level there are changes happening, new receptor cells are emerging, sending information to the brain. I always thought I am just getting better in listening to the information that my body provides, but my body is actually providing more and more information. I find that astounding. Mindfulness makes my body create new cells to perceive myself.

On the other hand: Sometimes we can’t sense anything or not enough. At the moment I am rather busy with a part of my upper thoracic spine, which feels like a gap in my inner landscape. I personally like to bring awareness to the focussed area. I help myself with touching this area, also by playing with the effect of the breath. Inhalation might invite more volume there, exhalation more length by letting go, the breathing pause can help to let go on a slightly deeper level. I am also happy to sometimes play with micro-movements in the area to not get stuck in too fine listening. Movement is – next to touch – the main tool to experience oneself.

Usually giving a direction influences other body parts, which don’t have the main focus. If the lower back can lengthen, widen and soften by thinking the direction sacrum rests, tale dangles, there might be a slight toning up happen in the front, lifting the pubis up and allowing the sternum to sink.

Everything is connected, of course. Maybe ‘pubis floats upwards’ can be the better direction for a better supported lower back. And which directions works for oneself can also change.

The horrible thing is that we maybe never really know which directions are the ‘right’ ones. I was partly so confused and frustrated with these damn directions, which can be different from technique to technique. How should one ever be able to stand ‘properly’ when they all say something different. Alone, how the feet should be placed on the floor! Klein-Technicions know how to stand, so do Feldenkrais practitioners and I guess also Alexander Technique teachers. Everyone knows it – and I swim lost in a sea of contradictory wisdoms and drown in the chaos of knowledge.

At the moment I have my directions rather clear. Pain can help to be reminded that a position or movement we are used to is not the best possible one. I could imagine that one finds directions that works kind of for ever. The miracle of the adjusting to thinking a direction will hopefully stay. And how it feels right now from the inside will probably always be a tiny bit different. A sensation is nothing fixed. Following a direction is an alive process. Each day or hour or minute our body might come from a different state… Maybe the direction becomes more precise, or the sensation of more spaciousness goes along with even less muscular effort. Keeping the alignment might include more and more availability for movement…

A last thought: Giving Directions is not everything. I am happy to have all the work on a juicy center as a balance or maybe even more like an underlying support. A strong juicy center that is happy to move just for the sake of movement, that can support any direction. Less thinking, more animal, more pureness of experience and eventually more power.

And a very last though: I consciously work with the separation of mind and body even though I am looking for a sense of wholeness. But to just imagine a oneness of mind and body seems to create more of a blurry brown than the clarity that I am looking for. A nice theme for another text…