Parasitic Movements

Is your movement infected with parasites? Is the skill of movement related to the skill of self discipline? Is there a reason the word "motion" sounds a lot like the word "emotion"? Other than it makes for lots of good disco song lyrics? Read on and find out.

Movement skill is movement inhibition

One of the primary ways that we can improve the efficiency of our movement is to inhibit unnecessary muscular contractions. I have discussed this idea here and here. The basic idea is that skilled movement depends just as much on the inhibition of muscle activity as it does on activation.

In fact, inhibition of neural activity is a higher order skill then activation, which tends to spread or irradiate from place to place without any help. Imagine the movements of an infant. Any intention to accomplish a movement goal tends to activate all the muscles in the body. Reaching for an object gets the legs kicking.

Or consider the uncoordinated movements of someone learning to do a complex activity for the first time, such as salsa dancing or hitting a golf ball. Every muscle gets involved in every movement, even the tongue and the facial muscles. Is this the cause of white man's overbite? 

So developing movement skill is largely a matter of inhibiting the spread of neural excitement rather than extending it. In this sense, learning better movement is more like sculpture than painting. You improve your art by taking things way, not adding them.

Movement Parasites

Moshe Feldenkrais had a very nice phrase to describe the undesirable physical movements that we need to chip away from our movement sculptures. He called such movements "parasitic", because they become so attached to the "host movement" that they can't be separated. So the intended movement will always activate the parasitic movement, until it becomes like a reflex, a movement over which we have no control at all.

For example, some people will raise one shoulder a little bit, every time they inhale. The shoulder lifting is now parasitic on inhalation. There is no ability to inhibit the movement, no freedom to avoid it, and perhaps no awareness it is even occurring. This may remain true even though the constant lifting is creating fatigue, discomfort and pain. This is just one little example, and all our movements are similarly infected. Any movement that is less than world class in its efficiency is probably infected with thousands of parasitic movements, in the hands, the face, the abdomen, everywhere. Ooh gross, parasites!

Of course this is not the end of the world, and we do not need infection free movement any more than we need bodies completely free of bacteria. (Quick factoid - did you know that nine out of ten cells in your body does not belong to you?) But just as we can benefit from good body hygiene, we can also benefit from getting rid of some of our more troublesome movement parasites.

The Feldenkrais Method tries to eliminate parasitic movements in several ways. Movements are done very slowly and mindfully to create awareness of unnecessary tension. Students are encouraged to pay attention to exactly what parts of the body participate in particular movements and how much effort is involved. Many of the movements are done with constraints to prevent unwanted movement in certain areas.

The hopeful result is greater awareness of movement, and more ability to inhibit unnecessary movements. The goal is essentially freedom to choose the movements in your body. As the man said, if you know what you are doing, you can do what you want.

Mental Parasites

Here's a very interesting question that is the subject of the next post.

Is there a relationship between inhibiting unwanted movements and inhibiting unwanted thoughts or emotions? Are there emotional parasites? And can working on movement get rid of them? Feldenkrais thought so, and in the next post I will discuss some interesting research which seems to bear on this question.