The human body is designed as a complex psychophysical system to make it possible to perform actions with a minimum of attention to detail. As a result, most of our actions become habitual and stereotyped so that, even though we exercise a certain degree of voluntary control over our actions, we nevertheless perform them at a largely habitual level.
Understanding how the body is designed to produce actions makes it possible to increase awareness by, first, enabling the individual to use the musculoskeletal system in a balanced way; and second, by raising the process of performing actions to a more conscious level. This process is based on an understanding of how the organism functions in action and, as such, represents an educational as opposed to therapeutic approach to the problem of awareness that can be applied to everyday activity.
Mind and Body in Action: A New Field of Discovery
It is one of the great ironies of our time that, in a world so full of luxuries, leisure time, labor-saving devices, and technological advancements, we suffer from greater stress than at any time in human history. Getting to work, using a computer, interacting with people in stores—even these simple tasks seem nowadays to be difficult. We have higher expectations and more demands on our time than ever before, and are faced constantly with images that project expectations and hopes that few of us can ever hope to fulfill.
The generally accepted cause of stress, among both the public and experts in the field, is that modern life is more demanding than it once was. Our grandparents, and certainly their grandparents, had relatively stable lives, but life today is in a state of continual flux. We move more often, work longer, have more to think about. We have far more gadgets in our homes, spend more money, and interact with more people. Modern life moves at breakneck speed and it seems impossible to keep up with it.
In response to these demands, a huge number of stress-reduction and wellness methods have appeared, all promising mental, physical, and other benefits. These methods are backed up by impressive research and often make far-reaching claims. But how do they work and, more important, why do they work?
Why should we expect to be healthy, why do we become, but what they don’t do is to show how we are designed to function, what goes wrong with our functioning, and how to rectify these wrongs through an educational process that is intelligent and educational. The human organism is complex indeed, which means that there are many ways of approaching it and many ways to assist functioning. But no method, however impressive its rhetoric or scientific claims, can hope to offer real solutions to the problems rooted in physiology and mind and body, if it cannot describe how we are physiologically designed, and how, in practical terms, our mental functioning is linked with this physiology.
On this page, I would like to present a new approach to the study of tension and stress based on an understanding of how the body works in action, how this links with mental elements, and how to gain control of this system in practice.
Tension is normally regarded as a manifestation of stress caused by the conditions of modern civilized life. As a result, it is generally believed that, if it is possible to reduce tension—through relaxation, meditation, and other related techniques—we can live in a more relaxed way, reduce stress, and achieve health. But anyone who has seriously suffered from problems relating to stress and tension knows that, however dramatic the changes that may be produced through relaxation, such changes, if not accompanied by an awareness and control of one’s own behavior, are always temporary. To be complete, a technique of awareness must make it possible to see what one is doing in action, and to gain a control of this activity in process. In short, a stress-reduction technique must make it possible to prevent the problem of tension and stress through conscious awareness and control.
To be able to accomplish such a task is not as easy as it may at first appear. Many stress-reduction techniques have popular appeal because they are easily applied and yield immediate results, but this does not mean they address the cause of the problem. To be valid, a technique must identify how the body works in terms which are physiologically sound—that is, based on a practical knowledge of the physiology of movement, action, and reaction. It must then show how these physiological elements are related to activity, and how to become more aware in action. This requires the articulation of new subject matter, not simply practical techniques that promise solutions without actually addressing the problem of how we function.
Awareness in Action
My own work in this area began with my efforts to solve a back problem I developed in college. I had played a lot of sports during high school and also took up mountaineering and long-distance running. These activities were very strenuous on my back and gave me no trouble until, one day, during my first year of college, while I was stretching before a run, I pulled a back muscle. From that time onward I suffered from recurring back spasms which became so severe that I was forced to give up rock climbing, running, and all the activities I loved.
Because I was tense and lacked flexibility, my first approach was to try to stretch my muscles. I took several dance classes and studied release techniques. When this failed to help, I tried corrective and postural exercises. Convinced that I suffered from chronic and deeply-rooted tensions, I tried progressive relaxation, which aims to put you into a deep state of relaxation by relaxing muscles one by one, but this only made my problem worse. I tried yoga and meditation, but nothing seemed to help. I began to wonder whether there was some underlying cause for my problem that was related either to deeper emotional issues or some kind of deeper connection between mind and body, so I investigated methods that dealt with this, including body-oriented psychotherapy, but virtually all of the methods were based on crude forms of stretching or tissue work, and I soon became skeptical of the claims being made. What, for instance, could be the meaning of a supposed link between mind and body, if the method in question could only ask you to chant or to visualize energy in your body? Surely there was more meaning to the question of mind/body unity, and I wanted to know what this was.
I began searching in the literature for methods that dealt with kinesthetic awareness and control of the body; here, I thought, there was at least a possibility of becoming aware in activity in a way that might promise more than crude treatments or putting myself into a trance while lying on the floor. There were, at the time, two main theorists who wrote on this problem, Moshe Feldenkrias and F. Matthias Alexander. Feldenkrais had been a student of judo and also had a science background, and he developed a method, called Functional Integration, for teaching greater awareness, as well as a series of awareness exercises designed to heighten kinesthetic awareness and improve coordination. I read his books with interest and practiced his method diligently, and they gave me some slight relief. One day, however, I looked in the mirror and realized that my back, which was very tense, was not only not improved but seemed, if anything, to be worse. Feldenkrais’s theory was based on various neurological mechanisms that, he said, would help to relax chronically tightened muscles, but I wondered whether the theory was sound and why my own kinesthetic awareness didn’t seem any more accurate than before.
F. Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) was an Australian actor who had experienced recurring bouts of hoarseness which threatened to ruin his career. Forced to solve his vocal problem or else give up the stage, he made a series of detailed observations of his vocal use and in this way was able to identify and prevent the harmful actions which interfered with his voice and to restore normal vocal function.
Alexander made two particular claims that interested me. First, he observed a pattern of tightening the muscles of his neck and throat, pulling back his head, and tensing in the trunk that, he said, was associated with his vocal problem. When he was able to restore a more natural relationship of the head, neck, and trunk, this, he claimed, helped to restore vocal function and constituted a basic and fundamental physiological principle that explained how the body is organized in movement. Second, these wrong tensions came into play as a result of an instinctive process of activity that could not be described as wholly mental or wholly physical; to solve his problem, Alexander said, it was imperative to understand what this meant in practice by learning to prevent this total pattern of activity and to act more consciously.
Intrigued by these claims and determined to test them out, I decided to study the method on my own and went to a teacher who could demonstrate the principles involved. The teacher asked me, to begin with, to sit in a chair, and then placed his hand at the back of my head. He then asked me to stand, and as I did so, he asked me if, by feeling the movement of my head against his hand, I could notice any muscular tension I was making. At first I could not; I could only see that, in order to move forward, I had to move my whole body over my feet. After several more tries, however, I realized that, although I was moving my body forward, I was tightening the muscles of my neck and actually pressing my head backward against his hand.
My teacher explained that this neck-muscle tension, which I had just perceived for myself, was not limited to my neck but took place throughout my body, and constituted a pattern of misuse that interfered with how my movement system was meant to work. He explained that, because it is so habitual, we don't normally notice this tension, but by using my kinesthetic awareness—the “muscle sense” that makes it possible to detect weight, position, and movement—I could learn to detect this tension for myself. The next time I stood up, I could distinctly feel that I was not only tensing my neck muscles but also tightening my legs and arching my back—clear proof that I was using tension in excess of what was required under the circumstances.
What was even more surprising, however, was how profoundly these patterns of tension had interfered with the natural functioning of my body. When I moved, I could now begin to see with increasing clarity that I wasn’t simply tensing my back muscles or moving badly; the pattern of tightening was part of a larger pattern of shortening and constriction in my neck, chest, back, and legs, and was responsible for a deeper pattern of chronic tensions throughout my body. I wasn’t simply tensing muscles, I was quite literally shutting down this natural or reflexive system—a rather disturbing thing to find out, and hard to believe possible in so simple and innocuous an action as standing up from a sitting position.
Furthermore, this pattern was not simply physical; it was a kind of response that would come into play, against my will, whenever I performed an action. When the teacher made adjustments, I found that, at the moment I was asked to move, I would grip and constrict, uncontrollably, throughout my body. Even when, after asking me to stop and not do anything, he would then move me again, I found that at the moment he did so I would become preoccupied with what he was about to do and stand automatically, without even realizing it was happening.
More interesting still, this pattern of misuse seemed to be directly related to stress. I had found, for instance, that if I was sitting calmly, I would instantly lose this calmness if, say, someone expressed an opinion I disagreed with, or if I began to think about something that was worrying me. I had thought stress was something that was caused out “there,” so I was surprised that it was happening, as I could now see, as a result of my own reactions, and at a level of which I was completely unaware.
Even more disturbing, however, was that I had it at all. I had already practiced stress-reduction technique, so I didn’t think I was under stress or needed to relax. Now I was finding that I had been susceptible to stress and didn’t even know it. I began to realize that my own pattern of responses was largely unconscious, and simply relaxing the body—even at the deeper level that I was now able to achieve—simply couldn’t give me control over these reactions.
What I had thought was a back problem, then, was in fact far more complex and extensive—a pattern of muscular response that was interfering with the normal working of my muscles, my stress level, and my body as a whole. The body, I realized, had a system of internal postural support—or reflexes—that permit us to move and support ourselves in whatever we do, without having to think about what muscles we use. In animals, as well as in young children, this system is normally working well; but with time, the pattern of tension in many adults interferes with this system to such an extent that it literally cannot work properly, forcing the body into a compensatory arrangement that makes various parts of the body become rigid and tense and others collapsed and weakened, resulting in discomfort, pain, and dysfunction. In my case, the muscles of my back had become so overworked that they literally could not function normally, operating for the most part in a state of spasm and chronic tension.
The problem, I realized, was not simply that the body was malfunctioning but that it operates, when we are actually using it, according to an instinctive process that simply isn’t within our control. It was not enough, then, to change the bodily condition; the process of action itself must be held in check, so as to create the possibility of learning a new response to the "stimulus” of doing something. Only by doing so, by focusing instead on the process, or means by which we do things, would it be possible to overcome this habitual pattern. By learning to "direct” the head and back, and then to "inhibit” the instinctive or habitual desire to use my body in the way that had become customary, I soon learned to focus more on myself, while postponing the "end” toward which I was working; the action would then take place with surprising ease and effortlessness. The result was a constant improvement in how I performed tasks and an increasing sense of enjoyment in doing things and learning skills that had become laborious and painful.
Action and the Link Between Mind and Body
Even after receiving months of professional help, however, my problem was not entirely removed. Although I could, by this time, bring about an improved working of my body, I found that when I engaged in the activities which had given me the most trouble, such as playing the piano or typing, I was not able to maintain the improvements. After a period of even a few minutes, I could clearly detect a return to an overall condition of tension.
At first, I attributed this deterioration to the simple fact that my original chronic tensions had still not entirely disappeared; it seemed natural, therefore, that they would reappear when I performed the sorts of actions that had originally caused them. I became determined to continue making physical changes, hoping that through this process my condition would improve to such an extent that the chronic tensions would finally disappear.
But this did not occur, and I began to question what could be the cause of this persistent tension. Even after having a course of lessons and intensive training in the Technique for over a year, I was still subject to the same tensions that I had originally suffered from, albeit to a diminished degree. Could the method I was using be defective, or could my physical condition have deteriorated to the point that I could never expect to be entirely free of my original complaint? At first, I was inclined to answer both questions in the affirmative. My physical condition had been far from ideal; perhaps no method in the world could ever reverse such a problem.
Through the process of working on myself, however, I began to realize that there was a discrepancy in my reasoning. I had, by this time, become sufficiently capable of making changes in my physical condition that, within a matter of a few minutes, I could bring about an improved condition, even if I had become considerably tense while typing or playing the piano. If I could so definitively reverse the harmful condition of tension, and if, after playing the piano or typing at a keyboard, the problem returned, I could then improve my condition again, where exactly was the problem? The piano was an inanimate object; clearly it could not cause me to become tense. And clearly the problem wasn’t in my body, since I was able, each time it went wrong, to reinstate an improved condition. The problem, I concluded, mustn’t be in me or in the piano; it must still be in what I was doing, if only I could find what that was.
So I began the process of sitting at the piano and, while playing a few notes, compared my improved physical condition to the harmful condition in which I later found myself, to see if I could identify what caused the deterioration and exactly when it occurred. At first, I could not detect the presence of any harmful tensions, or when they came about; whatever activity was causing my problem was happening at a level of which I was unaware. However, after several more sessions sitting quietly at the piano and bringing about the improved condition, I began to perceive that at the moment I got the idea to play I tightened the muscles of my neck, back, and legs, and that this faint and almost undetectable pattern of activity began in direct response to my mental involvement in, or thought of, playing the piano. Whatever problem had existed physically, it was now clear, was perpetuated at a subconscious level by an activity that, at its root, had nothing whatsoever to do with my body per se, but was fundamentally rooted in the habitual nature of my own voluntary action.
The Problem of Conscious Control
The most remarkable aspect of this phenomenon, however, was that it was a pattern of reaction that could not be described in purely mental or purely physical terms; it was, in fact, a total pattern of activity that was triggered subconsciously by an idea and then occurred automatically in response to that idea. This was not only unexpected and baffling but also daunting, because here I was, faced with my own actions, and I realized that, in virtually everything I did, this pattern was operating, and it was the real problem underlying my back problem, and had been all this time. If this pattern was operating when I was observing and trying to exert control, imagine how much more powerfully this factor must be operating during my normal daily activities.
What this meant, of course, was that no amount of treatment, no amount of improvement, would solve my problem, because the problem was caused by my own actions, or more specifically, by the fact that my own actions were mainly unconscious. Virtually all the methods I had studied treated tension and stress as a condition that could be rectified by being passively worked on. They said this in the name of education, although the actual techniques employed are almost all therapeutic. At the deepest level, however, my problem wasn’t about a condition that could be treated but about my own unconscious action. The only way I could solve my problem was by learning to raise the process of behavior itself to a more conscious level.
I realized that, in order to solve my problem, I would have to paradoxically learn to maintain the improved condition and play a note while somehow avoiding the idea of playing which triggered this subconscious response. Through a process of sitting quietly, away from the piano, and consciously attending to my physical condition, I began to challenge myself to walk to the piano but to notice if at any point in the process I actually had the idea of playing. After some time, I found that if I sat quietly, the idea to rise and go to the piano would literally disappear from my mind; if I then decided to get up, I could detect when the mental involvement began, and when the subconscious pattern began. By recognizing this normally unconscious event and stopping each time it occurred, I found that I could make my way to the piano by degrees until I was sitting quietly in front of the keys. By this time, I could actually perceive the subconscious idea as it occurred, and in this way I could eventually allow my hand to rise and strike a note without actually having the idea of playing. Through this process I was slowly able to replace my normal habitual process of playing with a conscious one. The final step was being able, while sitting at the piano, to play an entire piece in a state of heightened awareness in which I was able, by stopping and waiting, to replace my normally unconscious actions with actions consciously performed.
Once I became aware of this deeper behavioral pattern, my physical symptoms disappeared entirely (not permanently, but for as long as I maintained this awareness), and I was able to perform actions in a new and effortless way, with an increased sense of control and awareness. As I said earlier, I had been convinced all along that my problem was with my body; I now realized that, although my physical condition had to be sorted out in order to perceive what I was doing in action, the process of action itself was the real cause of my difficulties. Underlying my back problem and the cause of the stress I had experienced for many years was a far more profound issue—the pattern of behavior itself.
A New Field of Discovery
I could now see that there were two fundamental areas of functioning that needed to be articulated to explain problems such as my back trouble, and that all the methods I had studied had failed to address them because my back worked as part of a larger physiological and psycho-physiological system, and these methods didn’t have the knowledge required to identify this system and what was wrong with it. The first area was how my back problem was part of a holistic physiological system, and it was crucial to understand how this larger system worked and how specific parts, such as the shoulder and back, are dependent on it. The bodywork methods I had studied, for instance, were so focused on relieving specific tensions in the back that they missed the fact that the back is completely related to the muscles of the legs. This meant that, to fully understand the importance of this discovery to health and prevention, it would be necessary not simply to advocate methods for treating, strengthening, relaxing, or stretching muscles but to articulate how this larger system worked, and to establish this subject on scientific grounds. Even kinesthetic methods were too focused on the help that could be provided by teachers rather than understanding how the system worked; this shifted too much attention toward the method and away from the need to understand, both pedagogically and scientifically, the principles on which this help was based.
The second problem was how the body worked as part of a larger behavioral system. This topic, I realized, was one of the most complex and misunderstood issues in the field of stress. Many methods are based on the “mind/body connection,” demonstrating how various physical problems are linked with emotional states, or how changing one’s mental attitudes or practicing mindfulness can produce physiological changes. But these links between mind and body, interesting though they are, miss a much more fundamental connection between mind and body--namely, how ideas and motor functions operate as part of a behavioral system to produce action. Mind and body, I realized, do not simply interact but form a unified system that operates, in all of us, at a largely instinctive level. Once we understand how this system works, it becomes clear that one cannot reduce stress simply by tapping into the mind/body connection but only by learning how to raise the process of action to a more conscious level—a much more fundamental and far-reaching way of approaching the problem.
In order to do this, however, this challenge of improving one’s health must be conceived, not as a method, but in terms of the fundamental need to raise habitual action to a more conscious level. Virtually all the methods I had studied promoted the idea of awareness without fully articulating the underlying elements that needed to be addressed—for instance, reducing tension without actually seeing what we do to create it, or learning to relax muscles without understanding the connection of muscle tension to everyday activity. For awareness or consciousness to have any meaning, or for any method to have significance, it would be necessary to identify the subconscious operation of ideas, and the link between these ideas and the motor acts that issued from them, which was a psychological principle that had nothing to do with methods but had to be articulated theoretically as an educational problem representing essentially a new field. Such a problem required a new vocabulary—a conception of how the mind and body function as a unified whole in activity. If only I could find this vocabulary, I could articulate a fundamental problem in behavior that had profound implications for our understanding of conscious growth and in particular for education.
To do this, I had do find a way to articulate the concept of subconscious functioning. Precisely because it is voluntary, normal everyday action is taken for granted as a subject area; voluntary behavior is seen to be the victim of deeper causes and is not treated as a subject worthy of attention in its own right. But when we understand that voluntary behavior is largely subconscious, that the illusion of voluntary action masks a complex involuntary process, it then becomes clear that the study of action is a vital subject with vast implications for psychology. Because voluntary behavior masks habitual, instinctive functions over which few of us have any real control, understanding this aspect of functioning is crucial to a truly educational, as opposed to clinical, conception of human behavior.