The longer I teach, the more bizarre the exhortation “listen to your body” seems to be, to me. Of course, I understand why teachers of movement might say this, or rather, (I think) I understand what they would like to convey. Autonomy and personal responsibility are terrific ideas to be reinforcing when teaching but there seem to be two significant problems with “listen to your body”.
The first is that it reinforces a Cartesian notion of mind and body as distinct entities. Perhaps this is a problem with Joseph Pilates’ philosophy – the very notion of integrating mind, body and spirit through movement relies on the possibility that they are separate to begin with. I first heard “I do not have a body, I am a body” spoken by Jaap van der Wal. I’m not sure if he’s quoting someone else – I’ve seen it attributed to Christopher Hitchens as well. Whoever said it first, this phrase jolted me into attention – the idea of humans having hardware and software is attractive in its simplicity but is false – your brain is not a computer, nor is it distinct from the other organs and tissues of your structure. I was reminded of this recently while watching the video of the Q&A session following the London premiere of ‘Ido Portal: Just Move‘, in which Ido says “I do not listen to my body, I am my body”.
I may well be labouring the point by now but this seems to be a crucial idea for a movement practice. An animal moving through the savanna is engaged in being, a system of systems, all inter-related. To reduce their movement to instructions from the brain is to grossly oversimplify the processes occurring, not least because all the other organs and tissues are integral to the brain’s activity. (For more on internal communication try this). While we may have made huge modifications to our environment (mostly for the sake of moving less, or in less complex ways) we are still animals: human beings.
The second problem is that the people that seem most in need of this sort of instruction – to listen to their body – may well be those who we might say are the least embodied, who have ‘weaker’ proprioception. I think, if we say “listen to your body” what we really mean is “accurately decipher the information your brain receives and respond appropriately”, which immediately sounds more complicated.
I imagine we might say “listen to your body” to someone we suspect might find some movements frightening, or painful. The trouble is that they are probably the ones who are least able to make good sense of their nervous system’s inputs. You probably already know this intuitively – that proprioception and nociception are inversely correlated – when one goes up the other goes down. If we have compromised proprioception we are more likely to interpret sensory information as pain, and vice versa.
“Listen to your body” might be easily said, but if you’re a teacher it might be the most difficult instruction that you give in an hour long class. So what to do? What outcome do you want from the “LTYB” instruction. As I alluded above, I think that it’s an invitation or encouragement to feel personally responsible in a class – to not act blindly and do whatever the teacher says, but to self-evaluate and participate in exercises to a level that fits with that evaluation. In other words, “Trust your instincts”, though we might also mean “Please don’t hurt yourself”, which we could reframe as “Please don’t do anything foolish.” I suspect that “trust your instincts” sounds more familiar than “listen to your body”.
If you’re asked to “listen to your body” and you have no sense of what that really means, wouldn’t you feel incompetent, or out of your depth? Would that make you more or less likely to voice any anxiety or uncertainty? “I don’t understand what you mean” might take a lot of courage – in my experience it takes a confident person to voice that in class.
I tend to think that, if a student doesn’t understand me, it’s invariably my fault. That’s to say, it’s my responsibility as the teacher to find an appropriate way of communicating for that student (and all the others). They are responsible for their own actions in the class, and I am responsible for facilitating their self-actualisation. Instead of telling them to listen to their body, I must try to teach them how. I think we (Pilates teachers) can too easily fall into the habit of giving instructions – engage your powerhouse/core/centre; stabilise your spine; engage your glutes etc. – without telling people how. I’m inclined to think that this is lazy teaching, gives people a distorted impression of how to move, and fails to give people tools for becoming independent (it’s probably worth a separate post). These kind of instructions seem to me to be trying to mould unconscious reflexes into conscious actions and I’m not at all sure that this is a good idea. Instead, we should be creating environments/situations which stimulate the reflexes to stabilise, and to move.
What are the tools we can use, and share with the people we teach, to help them know themselves better? To have greater awareness of their physicality? I’m sure there are many, and I’m sure you know plenty already. Could we more usefully use these and avoid the need to say “listen to your body”?
Image from seniroplanet.org