Mindful Movement: A Q&A with Theodore Dimon
Categories: Bodywork & Somatics
In his new book, Neurodynamics, author Theodore Dimon explores the principles and practice of mindfulness in action. We caught up with him to get a better sense of how we can build a better working understanding of our own bodies; how integrated, mindful movement can improve our overall health; and how to apply this knowledge to our everyday lives.
North Atlantic Books: How can people become more conscious of their movements and mindful of their bodies?
Theodore Dimon: The first thing we have to do is to restore a natural and balanced use of the musculoskeletal system in action, since it’s no use trying to be aware if your system is working incorrectly. The next thing is to learn to maintain this in simple actions—in walking, sitting, using our hands to do things. This gives us the basis for becoming more mindful in all of our activities.
The trickiest part of this problem is that, when the system as a whole isn’t working well, our ability to be mindful and judge what is right and wrong is also impaired. When harmful patterns of use become habits, they feel right and normal, and only the painful symptoms that result from those habits can help us realize that something is wrong. To become more mindful, we must first spend time in a quiet state of non-doing and give ourselves a chance to restore both the natural, balanced use of the musculoskeletal system, as well as our kinesthetic sense of that system. Once we’ve experienced this restored system, we can begin to recognize what we’re doing in day-to-day activities that are problematic.
NAB: Can you talk about the communication between our nerves and our muscles, and how nerve signaling works? Why is that important to know for our practical lives?
TD: The nervous and musculoskeletal systems are tightly linked, and together they form the motor system for carrying out movement. Every time you move, you are sending messages to muscles all over your body and receiving messages from your muscles, tendons, and joints. If you are tightening muscles unnecessarily, that means that the wrong messages are being sent and that the motor units as a whole (both neuron and muscle fibers) are overactive. When this happens, we must learn how to stop sending these faulty messages before we can begin to send new ones at a more conscious level. This is why acting on muscles with stretching and strengthening exercises doesn’t address the real cause of tension.
NAB: How is muscular activity connected with ideas? How might we become more aware of, and foster, this connection?
TD: We often speak of the connection of mind and body, as if they are two separate domains that need somehow to be connected. But we don’t have a mind simply to think with; we think in order to act, as when we are thirsty and walk to the sink to get a cup of water. Actions are tied to ideas and cannot be separated. What this means is that we don’t need to connect mind and body because they already work as a unitary system. When we treat our bodies as defective and in need of treatment, we are blaming only one half of the system. If, instead, we look at how these two systems are miscommunicating, we can restore a state of balance to that unitary system.
NAB: What’s the ideomotor system? What is its relationship to stress, and how does it manifest in our day to day lives?
TD: Ideomotor action is the activity that results when we have ideas that result in habitual motor acts. All actions are ideomotor actions, and all thoughts have some kind of motor output. What this means in practice is that, if we practice a relaxation method or get a massage, those relaxed muscles will tighten the moment we stand up again and walk out of the massage room. This is because ideomotor action ensures that we go right back to standing and walking the way we always have done, with tense muscles. Our idea of walking is linked to our habitual execution of the activity. It also means that, if we are experiencing stress, we must learn not only to reduce the stress but to gain more conscious control over our actions so that we are not just passively reacting to outside stressors. The body and mind work inseparably in action at a mostly unconscious level; our job is to raise this process to a conscious level as the basis for a new and more integrated way of living. This is our psychophysical system, and why understanding it can empower us.
NAB: What is the Postural Neuromuscular Reflex (PNR) system and why is it important?
TD: We have a marvelous, natural machinery for standing and walking and supporting ourselves against gravity with a minimum of effort. This natural, inborn system of movement is designed to work effortlessly when we don’t interfere with it. It coordinates how we sit upright, for instance, or walk over constantly changing terrain, so we don’t need to think about all the small adjustments necessary from moment to moment that keep us balanced. This is the PNR system: the basic muscular/reflex system that maintains postural support in the field of gravity, based on muscle length and our natural tensegrity design, and thus organizes muscle tension throughout the body.
The PNR system is important because it is the foundation for vital, natural action and healthy muscle tone. We think muscles are designed to contract and, if they get too tense, we simply have to release them, which is what most bodywork and exercise methods are trying to achieve. This is actually a very negative approach because it reflects the idea that the best we can do with our faulty bodies is to fix them piecemeal when they break down. Trying to correct muscles reflects a kind of arrogance, because nature does a far better job of organizing muscle tension than anything we can do to treat muscles. But because we haven’t fully appreciated this, we continue to rely on stretching, treating, and massaging muscles. “Treating” muscles may give us relief from pain or improve muscle tone, but what these approaches miss is that muscles are designed to naturally lengthen when the PNR system works properly. What good does it do to stretch, relax, or strengthen muscles if we do not know how these muscles are actually designed to function and how to restore their natural function? To be sound, a method must be based on scientific knowledge of how the musculoskeletal system works, on the role of proprioception in gaining awareness and control over this system, and on the process of becoming more conscious in action so we can avoid interfering with the system in the future. That’s why the PNR system is so important. The body has a natural design, and understanding this design is far more important—and useful—than anything you can do to try to correct the body through stretching, exercise, or manipulation.
NAB: Other than obvious ill health and unpleasant symptoms, why should we strive to reduce stress levels?
TD: Learning to live without stress is not just a matter of lowering harmful stress but of establishing conditions that are foundational to healthful living. Mindfulness practices aim to reduce stress, but the problem goes deeper than this because we use our entire psychophysical system in an unconscious and uncoordinated way and, along with this, live and function in a slightly agitated condition much of the time—just look at how the average person performs simple actions and you can see how uncontrolled and preoccupied and tense they are. It is only by restoring real balance in our neuromuscular system that we can learn to be truly vital and alert in everything we do. This is fundamental to living in a balanced way, to fully enjoying life, and to maintaining a healthy approach in living.
NAB: Is neurodynamics a method of treatment or of prevention? Is it both?
TD: Neurodynamics is first and foremost a way of preventing the wrong habits that interfere with how our bodies are meant to function naturally in movement. To prevent our harmful habits, we have to first restore the natural functioning of the muscular system, and this first step can be construed as a treatment. But the main point of restoring the system is to learn to prevent the harmful actions and tensions that interfere with this natural system.
NAB: How is neurodynamics different from other practices that combine mindfulness with meditative exercise, such as yoga and qigong?
TD: Neurodynamics is not an exercise or movement technique but a system for being aware of yourself in everyday actions. It is based on how the body is naturally designed to work in movement, and on how we can become aware of this design at a more conscious level. Qigong and yoga may have benefits, but it is hard to translate them into everyday activities; neurodynamics is not an exercise system at all, but a path to becoming aware in your everyday movements as an educational principle. We are so busy trying to exercise and correct that we forget that we possess a marvelous natural design. We have to understand this design first, and then learn to be more conscious in all our actions as a new principle in living, which is far more powerful and profound than anything you can do to stretch or exercise muscles.
NAB: What does neurodynamics offer practitioners that other types of exercise or mindfulness do not?
TD: It is essential to exercise to maintain cardiovascular health and to keep muscles toned and healthy. But exercise cannot make the body work properly and will tend to exaggerate whatever problems—tensions, malcoordinations, etc.—we already have. Neurodynamics is based on the principle of non-doing, of stopping the harmful things we are doing and establishing natural, coordinated conditions of the body as the basis for every other activity.
Mindfulness practices are forms of meditation and are not designed to address the practical question of how to become aware of ourselves when performing actions. The moment we stop meditating, we’re back to the same old stress and tension we’ve always had. Neurodynamics is not a form of meditation but a practical way of becoming aware in action—a kind of action-based mindfulness practice that can be foundational to all other forms of mindfulness practice because being aware in all our actions is the necessary foundation for higher levels of mental and psychological awareness.
NAB: Could you describe the differences in how the musculoskeletal system might age for people who have integrated neurodynamics into their lives compared with others who have not?
TD: As we age, we tend to become heavy and collapsed, incapable of sitting or moving lightly on our feet. We usually attribute this to age, but much of this deterioration is due not to age but to the way we interfere with the musculoskeletal system over time. If you understand how the musculoskeletal system works—which of course is what neurodynamics is about—you can maintain the light, free, and coordinated working of the muscular system even into old age.
NAB: What inspired you to write this book?
TD: I have written a number of books, but I had never felt ready to state my own theory and practice in concrete terms because some of the theoretical issues were too complex. When I made sense of the PNR system as a natural system and could articulate how it worked, I realized that I was ready to write a book that put down my theory and practice in concrete terms. Many of my ideas have been drawn from the work of F. Matthias Alexander, who made a series of discoveries about how the body works in action that made it possible for the first time to become conscious of what we’re doing in activity. After teaching his work for many years, it slowly occurred to me that the subject lacked a coherent theory and curriculum and was, in this sense, incomplete. For instance, Alexander made a critical discovery about how the body works, but neither he nor anyone else has explained how this system works in scientific terms. His discoveries also apply to education, yet it is not at all clear how they fit in with current work in the field of child development. I wrote this book in order to develop and expand the implications of Alexander’s work, to ground it in science, and to provide a theoretical and practical explanation that forms the basis not just for a method but for a truly educational theory of how the mind and body work in action.Tags: Theodore Dimon