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The Developmental Movement Project: The Principle of Non-Doing

The Principle of Non-Doing

Although many of us believe we can address tension by stretching or actively trying to relax our muscles, it is essential to recognize at the outset that we cannot establish proper muscle length by performing actions, correcting what we think is wrong, assuming postures or positions, or by forcing the body in any way. We must learn to be quiet and to stop doing anything, so that the body can naturally right itself, which it is designed to do if we give the muscles a chance to lengthen. This requires an attitude of non-doing.

But what is non-doing? Sometimes people speak of non-doing as if it is a form of relaxation, which of course is true to the extent that we are stopping and giving ourselves time to do nothing. But the goal of practicing non-doing is not simply to relax or quiet down but to give muscles a chance to release into length, which is quite different from relaxation because it requires a certain kind of energy, a toning up of muscles that cannot be achieved through relaxation.

But there is another reason that non-doing is crucial, and that is that unless we stop our habitual activity, our muscles cannot release into length. We think that, when we are relaxing or doing nothing, our muscles are inactive, when in fact they are often contracting unconsciously. The only way to prevent this is by coming to a full stop and, by lying or sitting in a supportive position, to remain quietly alert, to allow the muscles to let go, and to make sure we are doing nothing, so that this muscular activity can cease.

This cessation of activity, however, cannot happen immediately but takes time. When we lie down, at first it will seem as if nothing is happening because muscles that are chronically shortened do not want to let go. It is only when we have been lying quietly for some days, patiently asking for things to happen, that muscles will begin to release; when this happens, we begin to realize that we are actively tightening muscles and that our job is to stop doing this. This requires an attentive attitude because, whenever we forget to prevent tightening, our muscles will begin to tighten again, and our job is to notice that our attention has wandered, to notice that our muscles have tightened, and to remind them to let go.

Anyone who has engaged in this practice knows that non-doing is a subtle art that runs counter to all forms of doing, bodywork, and exercise. When we work on muscles, stretch or play with them, we aren't really stopping. We may get release of some kind, we may produce changes that make us feel better, but the underlying chronic activity that keeps muscles from truly releasing, from letting go into length and from allowing the postural neuromuscular reflex (PNR) system to work as a reflex system, will persist. To overcome this chronic, unconscious activity, we have to make sure that we stop worrying, holding, and tightening in muscles. For many of us, this is a difficult step to take because we want to change things, to work at things, to do something to make things better, whereas non-doing requires that we stop trying to change things and, instead, allow things to work entirely by themselves. This is a practice that takes time; if we don't do it every day and with real clarity of purpose, we can't expect to command the working of the PNR system as the foundation upon which this work is based.

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