The Problem with Movement Practices
Note: This is a rough, first attempt at thinking through this problem. But I wanted to get something published online now to start a conversation. Let me know what you think here or on Twitter.
There are many reasons why people choose to do a movement practice.
But a common theme is to “heal the mind-body split” – both at the level of the individual practitioner and the Western tradition as a whole.
The problem is most Western practitioners have unexamined assumptions about the role of a movement practice, and this leads to practices which contribute to the mind-body split rather than heal it.
So in this essay I want to bring to light these hidden assumptions.
The method will be to look at the main responses to the question of “finding a good movement practice” and see what connects them all together.
“Find a good movement practice”
Based on what I see in the culture, here are the main responses to the question of finding a good movement practice:
Ignore the issue. We can imagine a philosopher studying the mind-body problem, hunched over his desk, movement practices are seen as irrelevant to him personally, unaware that he himself has become his most interesting mind body problem.
Use Western methods. Our philosopher decides he needs to improve his “body” so he goes to the gym, or starts running, or just outsources the whole problem to somatic therapists, medical experts, or even to inanimate objects like ergonomic chairs and posture devices.
Import existing practices from other traditions and cultures. Our philosopher tries Yoga or Tai Chi classes and starts his own daily practice at home, but he keeps his own western “theory” while limiting the use of foreign concepts and beliefs to the bare minimum required to do the practices.
Join another tradition and take on the whole range of practices and ”theory,” including philosophy, concepts, religion, customs, etc. Our philosopher goes East – physically or just mentally – and immerses himself in the whole culture and tradition, and discards the Western “theory” for a more complete system.
Take up “embodiment practices,” often a hybrid of western and eastern methods, as well as some forms of natural movement/fitness. Our philosopher eventually comes back to the West seeking meaning in his own tradition but can’t find a built-in movement practice like they had in the East, so uses these embodiment practices as a counterbalance to the Western theory.
What do these different responses have in common – what are the unexamined assumptions hidden behind each which connects them all together?
A. They all seem to presuppose that “intellect” and “movement” are in separate realms of life, and have no direct influence on each other. The thinking, reasoning parts of the person are split off from the moving, feeling parts of the person.
B. And if intellect and movement are in separate realms of life, then they must be trained separately – in different ways and at different times, even in different places. Speech and action are not integrated, you can think about movement before or after the “movement practice” of course, but not during the movement.
C. Therefore a movement practice has nothing to do with “intellect” or reasoning and must only be about directing your attention on sensations, feeling the body more deeply, trusting to intuition – and in general, going in the opposite direction away from concepts and reasoning.
The image is of a river, with two sides of the river going in parallel lines, facing each other but never meeting. Intellect and theory on one side. Movement and practice on the other side. You can either walk down one side of the river or the other, but not both at the same time. The best one can hope for is to get them going in the same direction.
What is interesting about these hidden assumptions is that while most Western practitioners recognise a “mind-body split” in our culture and in themselves – and this is often the precise reason they choose to do a movement practice in the first place – it looks like most solutions to the problem are part of the problem.
When solutions are part of the problem
So let us look again at the above five responses, to see how these unexamined assumptions lead to practices which contribute to the mind-body split rather than heal it.
“Head in the sand/books.” Ignoring the issue is an obvious symptom of being deep in the mind-body split. You can read a thousand books on philosophy but at the same time your “body” won’t do what your “mind” tells it to do – you sit for six hours a day deep in thought but don’t know how to sit in an intelligent way. You spend all day carefully organising invisible concepts in your head while unable to organise the visible parts of your body.
“Cure culture.” The western solutions like going to the gym, somatic therapists, and buying devices, medical help etc are all focussed on finding specific cures to specific problems. The “body” is split from the “mind” so when it goes wrong you need to go and get it repaired, or give it a service - just like a vehicle (for your soul?) So you “outsource” the solution to others because it is assumed that there is no intelligent, reason-based way to solve a body-based problem.
“Spiritual raiding.” Non-Western solutions involve extracting a practice from a living tradition (often Eastern) and importing it into the West – usually stripped of both the “theory” and all the supporting practices that were developed organically alongside the movement practice. There is the assumption that intellect and movement are separate, so you can simply extract the practice you like without losing important benefits, reasons and meaning.
“Theory swapping.” Some practitioners aren’t satisfied with just extracting the practices from another tradition, they “go all in” and join that tradition. This is interesting because the person recognises the unity of theory and practice. The problem is they presuppose you can just throw away the western theory, which is part of their being, and take on another system and it will be the same as for natives of that tradition. So it is a more subtle version of the same mind-body split. It can work at the individual level, but not for a whole culture.
“Get out of your head” The unexamined assumption is that because sensations and feelings arise during movement, then movement is only about increasing the range and depth of sensations and movements: so just “listen to your body, get out of your head.” Movement keeps the body healthy for thinking, or might generate insights for later, but during movement your reason is not involved, and maybe it is better to not even think at all during your practice!
So – all of these responses assume, in one way or another, that western “theory” can be dispensed with when it comes to movement in general, or when choosing a movement practice. The practitioner can just pick the one he likes most and add it to his “ecology of practices.”
All of these unexamined assumptions are symptoms of the same mind-body split we are trying to heal.
In my next essay I will offer an alternative model that does not split the intellect from movement – and opens the way for the Western philosophical tradition to (re)discover its own movement practice.
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