Some thoughts on trusting the body...
Have you ever had the thing where someone articulates something for you that is not in itself entirely new but is expressed in such an entirely new and illuminating way that the heavens kind of open up and angels sing and you think, “Yes! I have had this vague, amorphous feeling inside that I haven’t been able to find words for, but THAT’S IT EXACTLY!”
Or is it just me?
In any case, that happened to me earlier this week while I was interviewing Tina Margareta Nilssen for the podcast. Tina is a pianist based in Oslo, Norway and is the creator of a fascinating system of movement education for musicians called Timani. We were talking about all the things that body awareness and healthy movement can give us (beyond obvious stuff like improving co-ordination and preventing injury) when Tina described how, when she began learning to move according to the design of the body, her performance anxiety went away. She had assumed for years that her performance anxiety was a mental problem but discovered that, when she learned to move her body with ease and efficiency, her feelings of security and safety during performance increased dramatically. In her words:
I would say that 80% of that perceived mental insecurity was actually because I wasn’t using the muscles I should use when I was playing.
I had never thought about it in quite that way, but it most certainly reflects my own experience and helped clarify for me why I have felt such a strong pull to integrate mindfulness with movement and nervous system education. Working with the mind is really not separate from working with the body.
I can think of several reasons why one might experience greater overall safety and security as a result improved movement quality. When the brain doesn’t understand what the body is doing or when the map of the body in the brain is fuzzy or incomplete, it (the brain) freaks out a bit and sends out warning signals. Those warning signals can take a number of different forms. For some of us, they show up as pain or stiffness. This is the brain’s way of saying, “I’m not convinced you know what you’re doing here so, for your own safety, I’m going to prevent you from moving with too much freedom.” For others, I think the warning signals show up as anxiety or mental insecurity. Comprehensive education about the body is simply not a part of most musicians’ training and I think many of us intuitively know that we are missing something important. Of course we feel insecure going out on stage to do this highly complex thing that we only partly understand! Or, to think about it another way, when a there is a lack of clarity in the brain about what the body is doing — for example, when co-ordination is poor or when motor tasks are being accomplished inefficiently — a feeling of “something isn’t quite right” is often present. I suspect that anxiety (or worry or rumination) might be one way that our thinking selves explain or rationalize that vague sense of dis-ease.
Now, this is just a hypothesis (albeit one that is informed by neuroscience, movement science, and pain science), but during the course of writing this post I have a accumulated a pretty hefty stack of books and articles, so I suspect some fleshing out will be coming down the pipe in the coming weeks. For now, though, I’d like to propose a different way of thinking about that oft-heard injunction to “trust the body.” A couple of years ago I wrote a post describing my frustration following years of failed attempts to learn to trust my body a la The Inner Game of Tennis, Zen and the Art of Archery, and Yoda.
As a student, this sort of advice was so compelling to me and I longed to lift that metaphorical X-wing out of the swamp using the power of my intention. But I couldn’t do it. For me, it was all trying, all the time. I had a strong sense that, physically, things weren’t working as efficiently as they could, but I was trained in a tradition whose guiding ideology was that detailed examination of the physical aspects of playing would inevitably lead to “paralysis by analysis” which, as far as I could tell, was the brass player equivalent of getting the cooties. (Aka probably nonsense but best avoided just in case.) So, I re-read the Inner Game and re-doubled my efforts to trust my body.
Now, a couple of decades later, I am starting to feel that trusting the body (or Self 2 in Inner Game speak) is, for some of us, not something fruitfully pursued head-on. Instead, it is something that occurs naturally as a welcome side-effect of nurturing a friendship between the body and mind…and maybe even going as far as giving up thinking of them as two separate agents. When the body and mind are in harmony — and this can manifest in something as concrete and learnable as using the body the way it was designed to be used — trust naturally arises and it can be felt physically, mentally, and emotionally. This can have a powerful impact on the confidence and security we feel in performance.
I think it’s high time we de-mystified the body. Is it complex? Yes. Is it rocket science? No. If we can handle post-tonal theory, we can definitely handle a little anatomy, biomechanics, and neuroscience! And the pay-off, I believe, is improved technical fluidity, greater expressive power, and more confidence and connection on stage.
My interview with Tina will go live on November 20! Check it out — she is incredibly inspiring, thoughtful, and articulate. (Incidentally, she also offers the best take on the whole paralysis-by-analysis thing that I have heard to date.) If you don’t want to wait that long for some juicy body nerdery, check out the interview with Body Mapping virtuosa Jennifer Johnson that I posted earlier this week. You can listen here on the website or on SoundCloud, Stitcher, iTunes, or Spotify.
Thanks for reading!