Lilian Jarvis
Family Practice
December 1993

 

In a previous article, a distinction was made between cardiovascular fitness, which results from activities, and “fit”-ness, which is a condition in which the body is ready for activities. It was also pointed out that “bodywork” is the way to get into proper working condition and that it addresses such faults as tension, tight muscles, stiff joints, misaligned posture and inadequate weight support.

But what exactly is bodywork and how does it accomplish its goals? Is it exercise or something else?

In its broadest sense, bodywork can cover many different alternative health methods such as chiropractics, massage, reflexology, polarity therapy, breath work and anything else that improves the body’s functioning in a natural, holistic way. These methods are self-identifying. The narrower definition of bodywork, however, relates to exercise, and exercise is a word that has attached to it a very specific meaning: activity of one form or another, be it sports, jogging, or cleaning house. Since the kind of exercise that relates to bodywork has nothing to do with activities, a new word to identify it had to be found.

Briefly, the difference between the two kinds of exercise is that the kind relating to activity is something you do with your body — to stimulate cardiovascular processes – whereas bodywork is something you do to your body – so it functions easily and efficiently from a “mechanical” and structural point of view.

And what does that entail?

Just as a mechanic must be thoroughly knowledgeable about his trade and about differences in cars, bodywork requires general knowledge about the body – how it is physically designed to work – and, specifically, knowledge about one’s own body – finding out where and why it doesn’t work as it ought to. The former is a matter of instruction in one or another bodywork technique, while the latter is a question of developing “body awareness” and gaining conscious control of one’s body.

The way this is done is by focusing on individual body parts and using exercises both as a means of discovering where one is weak, tight, or stiff, and as “tools” to change those conditions. This is a necessary prerequisite to changing established holding patterns, for unless the internal make-up is sufficiently altered for the separate body parts to move – and to stay moved – into new positions, it will be impossible to achieve or maintain realignment of the body.

Such changes do not come about quickly. Whether a tightly knit or stiff body is an innate characteristic or the result of long-standing neglect to keep it flexible, changing its structural pattern on a permanent basis requires the same ongoing commitment as does aerobic activity.

Yoga is the oldest form of bodywork, although, not to disparage it, it is not always a suitable method to begin with, as many of the positions used are, for many people, extreme. (Tai Chi might be included here but, because it is oriented more to movement than to exercises, it would fall into the category of activity.) Over the last 100 years, other bodywork techniques have been developed, some of which include hands-on treatment as well – to name some, the Alexander, Feldenkreis, Bartenieff, Pilates and, in the more recent past, Trager and BioSomatics, the latter being that of this columnist. Most have evolved through personal experience of a revelationary nature, which accounts for differences in approach, however, the underlying goal of movement facilitation and postural improvement is consistent with each.

This is no small coincidence. Experience has shown that the process of working toward postural improvement produces benefits that affect all aspects of one’s being: improved appearance, conscious bodily control and better performance in activities, significant increase in flexibility, freer movement, less tension, fewer aches and pains, fewer injuries, better health and a more positive and confident state of mind.

It has been said that true uprightness is the final stage of man’s physical evolution, but that the simpler and more common an action is, viz. walking and standing, the longer it takes in evolutionary development. Perhaps this explains why the teaching of correct postural development has not yet found its way into our educational or health systems. And a pity it is. What could so much more easily be accomplished in young bodies, paving the way to so much richer a life a later years, becomes, with advancing age, increasingly difficult. If the knowledge needed for it has thus far been lacking, it is no longer the case; bodywork techniques are well established and can now provide the necessary guidance.

The clarion call of this century’s final decade is, “Take responsibility for yourself.” In the present economic state of our health care, it has become an imperative. There is still much that materia medica must do for us; doctors will always be needed. But there are some things that can  only be done by each of us alone. Putting our bodies “right” is one of these.