What They're Really Saying Is ...
"You're right. There's so much to feel!"
That was my canned response for a long time. I'd see my client's eyes glazed over, brow furrowed, shoulders tensing, and a general feeling of distance between me and them ... them and the exercise ... then they'd say it: "There's so much to think about!"
I'd politely look them in the eyes and assure them that there wasn't as much to think about as there was to feel. I didn't get it. I wasn't really listening. I took in the words they were telling me - there's so much to think about (I'm processing this as hard as I can, kind teacher), and I redirected the experience (based on my previous like experiences) where I thought it should go - feeling. All this pre-programming aside, and ironically, when I move I tend to work from a sense of feel ... so why can't everyone else!?! I'd barely given them any cues, and certainly nothing to "think" about, so why the hang-up?
Then one day I actually heard what was being said. There's so much to think about = I don't trust I'll do it correctly. I don't know how, and so I'll be wrong.
It was a while longer before I had the words to express (somewhat intelligently) what I'd just heard. Beside the nagging self-talk, it was the influence of top down vs. bottom up processing. I'm pretty in tune with my bottom up processing (aside from the hundreds of blind spots I'm sure I don't yet know are there) ... it's not difficult for me to feel the way my body moves in space, the way it feels on the floor, and at the same time the way the joint dis/likes the movement I'm doing, and all that informs the way I choose to do a movement. I tend to gather sensory information (sensations of internal and external feel), and that informs how I organize my actions and responses. I guess you could say I tend to move intuitively and from a sense of curiosity rather than an attachment to right/wrong.
A top down process works differently. In top down processing we start with a perception (or idea) of how something is going to, or should, take place (based on previous experiences/information) and those cerebral thoughts guide the way we strategize through a movement (and life). We reference and re-reference, and formulate, and then direct the body to produce what we think it needs to produce in order to achieve our perceived goal. The process is thoughtful (and arduous), and can easily lead to the impression of being right or wrong if what you're trying to do does/n't exactly match what you thought you should be doing.
In real-talk it's the difference between jumping as high as you can, versus placing the feet, thinking of how deep you need to squat, where your arms should start and swing to, and how much knee extension do you need to jump as high as you think you can. Not that both cueing types aren't relevant, it's just that one is "a lot to think about" and leaves as much room for error as it does success. The other is simply something you do ... jump ... high.
Most people have lost the ability to be the self-confident kinesthetically-aware natural-movers they were born to be. Modern life intervened and give us all shoes, desks to sit behind (sedentary behavior for YEARS), television to occupy our attention, restrictions on what an adult should/n't do (what do you mean I shouldn't roll down a grassy knoll and play on swings), and labeled the thinking jobs as the GOOD jobs. Then the fixes we were given stripped us of all our personal power ... medications to depend upon, professionals to guide us, gym equipment to move on (this one works my quads, this one works my hamstrings, this one does my shoulders, ...), and so on.
People have forgotten (or never learned) how to feel and take ownership of their body. So, yeah, when you introduce a new movement the perception of doing it is scary! Especially if they're mode of thinking dictates a wrong/right outcome. You mean you want me to lie here, put my feet into those straps, pull up and down, breath rhythmically, and take ownership of the rest of my body too? Sounds silly if you've done it a few thousand times. Sounds silly if you know what it feels like to lie on your back and do a movement with your legs and stabilize your trunk simultaneously. Sounds silly if you've practiced somatic awareness for years. Most people haven't. To ask a new client to pull that thing with their legs, lift that heavy thing while also doing XYZ, or simply do a planked versus articulated bridge is daunting. It's laboriously thoughtful. They don't know how to use that sense of feel (it's been acculturated out of them), and they have no frame of reference (perception) of how to do it, and it's quite possible their instructor is overwhelming them with even more cues (now don't forget this is where you inhale ... here's an exhale ... ribs, don't forget the ribs ... lengthen ... shoulders ... shoulders ... push but also pull ... pelvis ... blahblahblah).
When I recognized the truth (so much to think about = I'm fearful of being wrong), I changed my approach. At that moment they don't need more cues ... even my "clever" feeling cue. What they need is permission to express what's really going on, and a chance to problem solve their way through the experience. So I ask them, "Are you worried you'll do this wrong?" (I try to stay away from the afraid word ... had a nasty experience with a client who truly was afraid flipping out on me for bringing it to her attention. Live and Learn). Often the answer is YES. Regardless of the answer asking a question, instead of cueing more, allows a dialogue to begin that will undoubtedly bring that distanced client a little closer to the present moment. If the answer is YES, I'm concerned about getting _____ wrong, then I'll inquire about what seems to be the most important portion of this exercise to them? What's the hardest part? What's their favorite part? Least favorite? Does it feel like they need more steps before they go there? What would make the movement right or wrong? What would be the worst thing about getting it wrong today?
Then I'll try to relate it to something with which they do have experience. Can they feel how this movement is like kneeling, or sitting into chair? Can they feel how this new exercise is similar to that exercise we've done before? Isn't this a lot like reaching for something on a top shelf? Not only are we realizing that external cues (reacting to environment and reaching/pulling/pushing for something rather than cueing the internal cue of creating a reach/pull/push) have a greater increase in performance output, it's also less to "think" about, and it brings clients closer to what it FEELS like to interface and move within an environment (hopefully better and well).
Maybe something important to reflect upon is: Top down processing is NOT a bad, or less desirable, thing (in fact, it often saves our lives - you better plan how you're gonna climb down that ravine before you do it), but what are you missing because you're top down processing too much? In your movement and in your teaching? Personally, I've had many more interesting teaching moments since I've started consciously reacting to my clients rather than cueing canned responses.
by James Crader