Your Body Knows
Kinesthetic awareness is a significant part of bodywork. Luminaries in the field of somatic education, including F.M. Alexander, Moshe Feldenkrais, Mabel Todd and Charlotte Selver, have emphasized the fundamental importance of kinesthetic awareness to physical well-being and human potential. Still, the depth of its importance remains largely unrecognized. In this article we will take a look at what kinesthetic awareness is, what happens when it is dysfunctional and how it is relevant to bodywork.
Kinesthetic awareness is how you sense your body. It is what gives you a sense of presence and of being embodied. The word “kinesthesia” comes from the Greek words kines (movement) and aisthesia (feeling)—so it literally means “movement feeling.”
Kinesthesia is your internal awareness of your body. Kinesthetic receptors in your muscles, tendons and joints inform your brain about the position, shape, effort and direction of your body’s movement. This information is processed continuously, creating what amounts to an ever-changing kinesthetic awareness, as if it were a feeling and moving picture. This picture gives you an awareness of how a part, or all, of your body feels at any given moment—the position of your limbs, the tension in your shoulders, the amount of space your body occupies, the distance your feet are from your waist, and so on.
Over the past century, somatic educators have observed that the kinesthetic sense can become dim or distorted. This condition is not the result of neurological damage, but rather, it is a perceptual problem. It is a learned insensitivity to the body. I refer to this phenomenon as kinesthetic dysfunction, because that is literally what it is.
Kinesthetic dysfunction is the inability to sense your body accurately. F.M. Alexander, the developer of The Alexander Technique, referred to this many years ago when he wrote, “there can be no doubt that man on the subconscious plane now relies too much on a debauched sense of feeling or sense-appreciation for the guidance of his psychophysical mechanism, and that he is gradually becoming more and more overbalanced emotionally, with very harmful and far-reaching results.” 1
When there is kinesthetic dysfunction, you cannot accurately sense whether certain muscles are relaxed or tensed; you cannot correctly sense how much effort your muscles are making. As a result, tensed muscles remain tensed, and sooner or later the tension becomes painful. And as long as your kinesthetic awareness is dysfunctional, you cannot improve the way you carry and use your body.
I have observed that kinesthetic dysfunction commonly occurs in people with chronic muscle tension from pain reactions, injuries, poor body alignment or prolonged psychological stress. Thomas Hanna, the developer of Hanna Somatics, referred to this same condition as “sensory-motor amnesia,” stating it “describes a category of health problems that has not been recognized until now. Even so, this category probably accounts for over half of all human ailments.” 2
Kinesthetic dysfunction cannot be detected with an X-ray, MRI, blood test, nerve-conduction test or muscle-strength test; however, it can be uncovered by asking a person if he is able to sense the effort and relaxation of muscles and then testing whether or not his perception is accurate.
Since kinesthetic dysfunction is a lack of awareness, you do not know it is happening—because you can’t feel it. How can you notice something you cannot feel? This is the fundamental predicament of kinesthetic dysfunction: You don’t know why you have muscle pain because you cannot sense the degree of effort your muscles are constantly making. When this is happening, a person may mistakenly conclude that pain is the result of a mechanical problem in his body, such as torn cartilage, arthritis or a maladjusted vertebra, when in fact there is no mechanical problem at all.
Meir Schneider, the founder of the School for Self Healing in San Francisco, California, says many people have poor kinesthetic awareness because “we have been numbing ourselves.” He goes on to say that “a major cause of poor kinesthetic awareness is fear. We are afraid to feel. We don’t tune in to what the body really wants because we are afraid of what we might find. Yet, the sense of who you are comes largely from the body, from the kinesthetic sense.”
There are two aspects of kinesthetic awareness that are relevant to a bodywork practitioner. One is the kinesthetic awareness of the client, and the other is her own kinesthetic awareness. Let’s look at both more closely.
The client’s kinesthetic awareness
A client’s kinesthetic awareness, or dysfunction, will affect the success of a bodywork session. As Schnieder states, “Lacking kinesthetic awareness is like being blind to the inside of your body.” This internal blindness will make it difficult, or impossible, for a person to relax his body when it is being massaged. Kinesthetic awareness is the key to being able to relax.
Fortunately, bodywork has the potential to improve a person’s kinesthetic functioning. This can happen in three ways (two are presented here, and the third way is covered later in this article). In some instances, sensory stimulation, improved circulation and relaxation of a hands-on treatment, such as massage or myofascial release, can be enough to remind a person about where her muscles are and what they are doing. When this happens, the muscles relax and she has a greater feeling of being “in her body”—not unusual for someone who has just received bodywork.
When kinesthetic dysfunction is more severe, however, a manual treatment alone is not enough. In that case, the person needs to become conscious of the effort and relaxation of a muscle area. One way to accomplish this is to have him mindfully move in ways that break him out of habitual movement patterns. This creates different (nonhabitual) sensory stimuli, which reawakens the natural, accurate, kinesthetic sense.
Applications to the bodywork practitioner
Not only does your client’s kinesthetic awareness make a difference in the outcome of the treatment, but yours makes a difference as well. The kinesthetic awareness of a bodywork practitioner can be transferred to a client. While a client is receiving treatment, her body is listening to the body of the practitioner. Consciously or unconsciously, a client will sense the ease of movement of her practitioner.
A few years ago I was a clumsy beginner in a tango class.
After struggling for a number of classes, I had the opportunity to dance for a few minutes with the instructor. After dancing with him, I discovered I had learned something new about the tango by feeling how he moved. This was not something I had “figured out,” it was the result of communication between his nervous system and mine. You could say his kinesthetic sense taught mine.
The same thing can happen with bodywork, which Shneider also points out. “Your inner direction, your process, your kinesthetic awareness is conveyed to someone through your hands, when you touch him. This is a very important part of what happens during a massage. Increasing your kinesthetic awareness will deepen your client’s experience.” It is your sense of presence and kinesthetic awareness that will inform your client about ease and relaxation. You need only to attend to your own kinesthetic awareness, and the positive influence on your client will happen automatically.
Begin with yourself
Kinesthetic awareness, both yours and your client’s, is an integral part of the bodywork process. By making your clients aware of kinesthetic awareness and dysfunction, you are giving them a practical education they can take with them wherever they go. Not only will they learn how to relax and reduce pain, they will regain a fundamental way to be in touch with themselves.
Before considering your clients, though, begin by observing and improving your own kinesthesia. Taking a walk, practicing yoga or doing any other kind of movement exercise is an opportunity to consciously be in your body. Then you can bring your somatic presence into your work.
When you are with a client, expand your field of awareness to include your own kinesthesia as well as what is happening with your client. This means you can be aware of the space in and around you while you are tending to someone else. Bodywork is a movement art on many levels. The key to that movement is kinesthetic awareness.
Kinesthetic Awareness: A Case Study
Edith had severe neck and right-arm pain for months after a car accident, even though X-rays and an MRI showed no structural damage or nerve impingement. During her first appointment, I had Edith lie on her back while I attempted to gently move her head. I asked her to let me move her head without any muscular effort on her part. No matter the direction I moved her head, she resisted the movement. I asked if she could sense her resistance, and she said she could not.
Then I sat at Edith’s right side and began slowly moving her right arm. I asked her to relax her arm and allow me to move it for her. Again, she unconsciously resisted my attempts to move her. I asked Edith if she felt relaxed, and she said, “I think so.” I then asked her to close her eyes, and with my hands under her arm, I raised the arm to about a 45-degree angle, so that her hand and elbow were well off the treatment table. I slowly removed my hands from under her arm, yet her arm remained suspended in mid-air. I asked if her arm felt relaxed, and she said “yes.” She had no clue her arm muscles were hard at work. When she opened her eyes she was surprised to see she was lifting her arm off the table. With kinesthetic awareness so unreliable, there was no way she could relax her neck and arm muscles. Because of this kinesthetic dysfunction, none of the previous therapy she’d received from other practitioners had any lasting effect.
Edith told me her pain problem was a burden, and she just wanted to get on with her life. I told her that her awareness was her life, and she could only get on with her life by being where she was. Of course, she didn’t like where she was, in pain, and wanted to be somewhere else. I did not expect her to enjoy being in pain, but she needed to become aware of her body if any treatment was going to be helpful to her.
Edith soon realized she had been afraid to let herself sense her upper-body movement since the accident, because she thought it might make the pain worse. This fear prevented her from doing the one simple thing that would help her get better: regain her kinesthetic awareness. She made the important discovery that feeling pain and feeling tension are two different things. At this turning point, it became clear to her that she had been avoiding pain by ignoring her bodily sensations altogether. She quickly regained her kinesthetic awareness. She learned to relax the muscles that had been contracted since the accident, and the pain eventually disappeared.
Craig Williamson is a massage therapist and occupational therapist. In the early 1980s he studied bodywork at the Lomi School in Mill Valley, California, followed by years of investigating movement therapy, neuromuscular and myofascial treatment, and mind-body psychology. In 1990 he consolidated his muscular-retraining techniques and self-designed exercises into a method called Somatic Integration. He works in private practice in Portland, Maine, addressing a wide variety of pain issues. He is also on the faculty at the University of Southern Maine and Bowdoin College, where he teaches Somatic Integration movement courses. He is the author of Muscular Retraining for Pain-Free Living (Shambhala Publications, 2007).