Updated: Nov 7, 2019
A friend of mine was musing over his New Year resolutions. He was looking for something more than just the ‘Dry January Experience’ or a new fitness fad. He wanted something that would make a difference - something that would help him develop personally. He asked me for some suggestions.
My reply was that it didn’t really matter what he chose but whatever it should be enjoyable, and develop Conscious Body Awareness.
Hopefully the advice that whatever we do should be enjoyable is pretty much common sense. The reality appears to be, and most current neurological research suggests, we learn new habits (beneficial or otherwise) much more effectively if we find the process by which we learn them enjoyable and stimulating.
However, what is Conscious Body Awareness?
For the last thirty years I have been coaching people from all works of life in the development of impact, presence, and communication skills - I am also a practicing voice coach and musician. Whilst I have a plethora of different psychological, learning models and exercises I can share with them, the one thing underpinning all my work with my clients (whoever they are and whatever they are seeking to attain) is the development of Conscious Body Awareness - for me (and many others) it is the key to personal development.
Consider the following question - as you read this sentence are you aware of your feet, the position of your legs, the weight of your body on the chair (if you are sitting down), the placement of your arms....?
It is a question I generally ask when I am working with someone for the first time. More often than not the answer is no. Likewise I may ask - ‘we have been talking for the last five minutes, during that time have you been aware of what you have been doing with your hands and feet?’ Again the answer will invariably be no and I will then gently point out some of the things they have been doing - scratching various parts of their body, playing with their hair, picking at their lips, playing with objects on the table, etc. Of course you may say you never do anything like that - in reply I will suggest that unless you are using Conscious Body Awareness how do you know what you are doing with your body from one moment to the next?
You could then reasonably ask - why is that so important? Well firstly, from my experience, when my clients consider what they have been doing, they would all agree that the meaning of their communication becomes diluted - when you are trying to win a multi-million pound contract, or succeed in an interview for a new job, it really doesn’t help your pitch to be observed scratching your ear or picking your nose. Secondly, and more importantly, this lack of connection can prevent you from responding appropriately within your daily interactions with others - instead of responding you may react.
“reaction - an action that occurs without a conscious intention.”
When my ‘teacher’ explained this to me some thirty years ago he used the following model. He said imagine that all the functions of the brain and central nervous system belong to one of three separate centres - the thinking centre, the movement centre, and the emotional centre. In the developed human - he explained - the centres work together with a common aim. However, without conscious effort they generally work independently without regard for the other. He described this state as sleep walking. Bearing in mind that research has showed 50% of people in the workplace our thinking about something other than what they are doing (Killingsworth, M A and Gilbert, D T (2010) ‘a wandering mind is an unhappy mind’) he doesn’t seem far off the mark. The thinking centre believes it is in control and can operate without the other two centres. The body does things without the awareness of the thinking centre, and the emotional centre (operating at a much faster speed) frequently hijacks the the operations of the other two centres. This is what happens when we ‘lose the plot’ and react rather than respond to an emotional situation - i.e. those events where we regret our behaviour afterwards and wish we had done something else.
Conscious Body Awareness is not a new idea - the theory has been kicking about in one form or another for thousands of years. For example - the horse, chariot, driver and warrior analogies in chapter 3 of the Katha Upanishad and repeated within the Bhagavad Gita. The horses represent the emotions/senses, the chariot the body, the driver the intellect and the warrior is the ‘self’, the potential co-ordinator of the three.
Conscious Body Awareness is essentially the link that enable the three centres to work together, i.e. the reins by which the horse, chariot, driver and warrior are able to enter into battle.
It is a specific way of experiencing one’s self in the present moment by maintaining sensation of your body in relation to your surroundings. Sensation is the material from which the reins are made. However, sensation should not be confused with thinking or watching what your body is doing, and whilst we all experience sensation when part of our body hurts, the sensation we are seeking here is more subtle.
Sensation is difficult to explain if you haven’t experienced it. Fortunately many people have. There are a great many people who have Conscious Body Awareness in spades and yet who don’t realise what they are doing or that they are using it. You can generally tell who these people are - they are the people you sense when they walk into a room - the people who instantly command attention without saying a word - the people who exude the elusive quality of presence - the people who for some reason seem to attract respect.
I have met many of these people and had the privilege to interview them. They all shared the common ability to switch Conscious Body Awareness on or off at the switch of a button. It is so natural to them that many didn’t realise they were doing anything special and assumed everyone else had the ability. What was also striking is that virtually all of them have undertaken or been subjected to some form of body work. One group of people who display Conscious Body Awareness are those who have been in the armed forces. Conscious Body Awareness (although it is not identified as such) is literally drilled into recruits. Others have been elite athletes. Another group practise martial arts (especially Tai Chi), and yet others (though a smaller number) practised a variety of disciplines relating to the body, for example, Yoga, Alexander Technique, The Feldenkrais Method, to name a few.
So my advice to my friend was to take up a regular class that worked with the body. Of course there are many disciplines - martial arts, yoga, Alexander Technique. There are also mindfulness classes and meditation groups that will help develop the technique of sensing your body. Naturally, having studied the Feldenkrais Method for three years I have my own bias.
All the disciplines can help you develop Conscious Body Awareness - however, Conscious Body Awareness is not generally recognised as one of the aims of these practices, it is almost certainly a recognised by-product, however, its relevance and importance to daily performance is often not acknowledged and plays a subservient role to such aims as - ‘developing ease of movement’, ‘becoming more flexible’, ‘developing muscular tonus’, etc. So, develop sensation through any method you like and then enjoy the challenge of using it to maintain Conscious Body Awareness in your everyday life.
Some of these ideas are explored within the first three chapters of The Feldenkrais Method for Executive Coaches, Managers, and Business Leaders. If you would like to discuss this article or are interested in any exercises that use Conscious Body Awareness please feel free to contact me.
The Feldenkrais Method for Executive Coaches, Managers and Business Leaders by Paul Ogden and Garet Newell is published by Routledge Focus and available from Amazon.