Teach Your Body Some New Moves

By Shirley Vanderbilt

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2006.

Humans are creatures of habit, and one of our most enduring habits is the way in which we move our bodies throughout the day. Generally, we move without even thinking about it. This can be a good thing, in that we don’t have to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. But moving mindlessly, without conscious body awareness, also allows us to perpetuate dysfunctional movement patterns that can negatively influence our health and well-being.
Slouching over a desk, always standing with weight on one leg, even habitually carrying a purse on the same shoulder or reaching with the same arm to lift objects—these repeated patterns can take a toll. Daily mental stress also impinges on movement of muscles and joints, adding to the development of holding patterns to ward off intrusions, whether perceived or real. Sometimes we can get stuck in a way of moving that served us well at one point, but, perpetuated, no longer allows our body the freedom it deserves.

Massage therapy offers many benefits for pain and stress reduction, as well as stimulation of circulation and promotion of overall relaxation and good health. But once the therapist’s work is done, the client she’s just treated will go on about her day in the same holding patterns that brought on discomfort in the first place. Getting the body unstuck from these detrimental patterns is the goal of bodywork modalities generally referred to as movement education or movement therapy. While each has its own unique features, they share some basic principles.

Educating the Body

In contrast to massage therapy, where you passively receive while the therapist’s hands do their magic, movement education and movement therapies invite you to become an active participant. Because body awareness is an integral part of the process, you as the client are encouraged and guided to consciously recognize and feel the patterns you are using as you move your body. Once those patterns are pinpointed, you are empowered to make better movement choices that promote increased flexibility and range of motion, as well as proper body alignment. With increased awareness and commitment to change, you can reduce the physical stress your body experiences on a daily basis as more beneficial patterns are ingrained into habit.

In addition, these therapies focus on the relationship of body-mind in terms of rigid holding patterns we develop to protect ourselves from emotional or physical pain, or both as the case may be in trauma and abuse. Some of these postures can block the full expansion of breath, so learning to breathe more efficiently and fully is another part of the process.

Movement modalities can serve as highly beneficial complements to receiving regular massage, whether for addressing chronic pain and dysfunction, increasing athletic performance, or simply enhancing your physical and emotional well-being. Following is a sampling of movement therapies, along with some closely associated bodywork modalities that incorporate movement education.

The Feldenkrais Method was developed by Moshe Feldenkrais, a physicist whose scientific background and research led him to overcome a disabled knee and learn to walk again. Recognizing the potential humans have to learn new movement patterns, he established an educational approach based on enhancing function through awareness of the self in relationship to the body. In Awareness Through Movement classes, generally conducted as a group session, the Feldenkrais instructor verbally directs students in gentle moves of increasing range and complexity. The idea is to give students an opportunity to sense differences and compare movement patterns in order to discover what works better for their bodies. Some of the movements focus on ordinary daily activity while others delve into the connected relationship of body parts. In contrast, individual private lessons of Functional Integration offer hands-on instruction using gentle, noninvasive touch to guide the student through this same body awareness and discovery of what produces easy, comfortable, and beneficial movement.

The Alexander Technique, another movement education approach, combines manual guidance and verbal cues given by the instructor to help the student improve posture and movement patterns. This technique was developed by Matthias Alexander, an Australian actor whose own chronic laryngitis plagued his performances. Through self-observation, he noticed movement patterns that actually restricted his ability to speak and sought to correct this with more properly aligned head and neck postures. His success led to a more fully developed technique where much attention is paid to keeping the head and neck free from tension while engaging movement in other parts of the body. With the proper forward and upward positioning of the head, the spine is lengthened and the body naturally releases any extra muscular effort and painful holding patterns.

Aston-Patterning, developed by Judith Aston, is an educational process combining several formats. The bodywork portion enhances tissue change and tension release, providing a freer body ready for new movement options. As with the other modalities, clients are instructed in more beneficial movement patterns to sustain those changes. Added to this is a look at ergonomic factors and situations that have contributed to detrimental movement and postural patterns, such as choices in shoes or seating arrangements. Aston fitness training tops it off with loosening, toning, and stretching exercises that also neutralize tension and bring stability where it’s needed in the body.

Structural integration is a form of hands-on bodywork that stretches fascia, a plastic-like sheath of connective tissues wrapped in layers around the muscles—a kind of body stocking that holds everything together. Poor posture, injuries, and even emotional stress can shorten and tighten the fascia, leading to problems in alignment with resultant pain and discomfort. The ten-session series of treatments, utilizing manipulation and movement awareness, reorders major body segments back into proper alignment. Structural integration was created by Ida Rolf—you may have heard the term Rolfing—and has lead to a number of offshoot therapies that emphasize supplementing this type of bodywork with client
participation in body-mind awareness through instruction and dialogue. These approaches are based on the idea that once the tension in the fascia is released, there is still work to be done in addressing emotional or postural issues that have contributed to the problem.

Hellerwork, named for founder Joseph Heller who trained with both Rolf and Aston, extends the structural integration and movement education work to include dialogue between therapist and client focused on awareness of emotional issues contributing to dysfunctional patterns. There is an emotional theme for each segment of the process related to developmental issues and movement patterns that have emerged from the body-mind connection. Within this tri-fold treatment, a change in movement patterns can be influenced through work with the body, movement, or emotions, and in turn effect a corresponding shift in the other areas. For additional information on Hellerwork, see the feature on page 32.

Pilates and yoga are also activities you can incorporate into your daily routine to enhance the benefits you receive from massage therapy and bodywork. As with movement therapies, these practices emphasize postural strengthening, flexibility, and the importance of full, unrestricted breathing.


Whatever approach you choose, you can become an active agent of change in achieving your full potential of wellness. You just have to teach your body some new moves.