I grew up dancing. I danced before I could read full sentences or think through and put my feelings into words. I just felt them. My muscles did the “thinking” then, and later on my thoughts took over. Dancing was and remains my first love, and it has often saved me from the tyranny of my thoughts. It balances me by grounding me in my body after a long day of being (mostly) in my head, and in other people’s internal spaces. As a psychoanalyst, I spend much of my time in intimate contact with others. I surrender myself to the experience of being with them and the others in their world. In my view, psychotherapy demands that, and most of the time I am happy to oblige. But it is always restorative to get back to myself through dance and through my body. The body never lies, and movement (as its language) is a powerful conductor of emotions. It is honest. In fact, the body is the conductor of emotion. Through its sensations and feelings, the body gives us constant feedback that then gets articulated in language and thought about in words. And voilà! Feelings become emotions through a loop of kinetic sensation that is translated and decoded through thought. Emotions are thus complex mixtures of feelings and thoughts, attached to memory through intricate neuro-circuitry.
It turns out I am not the only psychoanalyst that believes that the body must be involved in any psychotherapy – and that it leads the way, mapping out the emotional territory ahead. Jack Wiener, dancer, psychoanalyst, and movement teacher, believes that by making physical adjustments to the body, which realign it, we also release emotions associated with the way we hold ourselves and move. Yes, this involves body memories – those of us who work with trauma have always known this – but there is much more to it.
While the idea of the body holding memories and emotions is not new, Jack Wiener’s approach is. He picks up where Freud left off, initially focusing on the body itself and the way it moves, instead of on the thoughts that one has about how one moves or is. The physical adjustments Wiener recommends free the body and release sensations and feelings that can then, and only then, be captured in words and talked through, adding understanding and insight as to how such patterns evolved. In his book, The Way of the 4th Toe: Into the Feeling Body (2011), he talks about re-aligning your body so it can be freed from the oppression of your thoughts. So that you can re-experience your muscles, and how they would prefer to be holding you, as well as how they have been willed into submission by your mind. Aha. Believe it.
Wiener began his career at Julliard, where he studied and danced with Jose Limon, Anthony Tudor, and Laban notation with Ann Hutchinson and Lulu Zweigard – to name but a few. As a dancer he pushed his body and molded it into positions, steps and choreography that captured the particular aesthetic that was needed, often moving beyond his physical limitations in his attempt to convey the feeling of something. Like many dancers, Wiener was trained to convey beauty and general artistic expression, which in his view, enlists emotions such as idealization, jealousy and envy through everyday admiration. It also pulls one out of one’s body and into one’s head. This process of idealization and physical entrapment begins early on, and in the world of dance, is enhanced by the constant feedback from the mirror, which “validates” an internal image that is based on visual perception rather than internal sensation. The mirror deludes us into thinking that sensation itself is an imagined reality – it is what we see reflected back to us. And so the quest to be a particular version of oneself may rob one of a solid, tactile premise for feeling and decoding the information that is being sensed. Wiener began his musings about the nature of physical sensation and psychic representation in the world of dance and of mirrors, music and choreographed movement, and later came to psychoanalysis to put thought to body and decipher bodily inscriptions.
As a psychoanalytically informed creative movement teacher, Wiener uses improvisation to liberate the unconscious flow of impulses and feelings. His intention is to foster physical connection based on discovery rather than the traditional repetitive teaching method used in all dance classes. He moves beyond the steps and beyond technical knowledge. He brings it back to the body: your body. His method fosters the immediacy of sensing your feet through your entire body. Form thus becomes a byproduct of the interplay of muscles in the body, and through this system, the organic development of motion releases the unconscious flow of feelings through the body. Feelings (as distinct from emotions) arise out of this interplay of muscles. Musculature and its intricate system of connectedness become the royal road to one’s feelings, of unconscious gesture that can finally become symbolized. How does this happen?
It would take a dancer to know and understand this muscularly. Kinetically. Somatically. It would take a psychoanalyst to think it through. To put words to it. To process it verbally and communicate it. And it would take a teacher to impart it to others. Jack Wiener is all of the above. In his 55 years of teaching mostly non-professional adults and children, he incrementally corrects physical habits and corresponding emotional judgments that get in the way of moving freely and with feeling. He begins with the observation that it is the body that naturally feels and experiences sensations, expressing feelings easily, but over time begins to defend against disturbing emotions in an effort to control and contain them; in an effort to survive environmental and relational demands. Our ego or observing mind abets this process to help us control and “deal” with all sorts of situations. Our culture and society encourage mind over matter. The psyche privileged over the soma. For Wiener, the “control of the racket, ball, needle, business deal, becomes a flag to be followed regardless of what is sensed, what is felt. In dance, what is followed is the music, the motion, the rhythms, the impulsive gesture, the conscious imaged shape; the memory of how one wants to feel. These organizing rituals overshadow the clarity of the muscular motion through the body.”
Most people are concerned with what they need, or wish for, or have to do. Physical sensations and connections are usually relegated to the background, unless injury or illness comes into play and highlight them. And even then, the sensations tend to be localized and disconnected from the wholeness of the muscular motion throughout the body which Wiener talks about. We treat the body as an envelope, which contains us and is supposed to follow along and do what we want it to do. Or so we think. Or perhaps we just act like that. From the time we are toddlers, we begin to enjoy the increased awareness and control over our bodies and begin to privilege our thoughts about it and what we can and want to do with it. We begin to dissociate from our physical selves and our physical experiences early on and quite unconsciously. While many of us may engage in physical activities, few of us continue to be in touch with our feeling body. Instead, we lose ourselves in what we imagine or see ourselves doing, and our body follows. Yet, it is the body that communicates information to us. Think of the fight/flight response and its physical derivatives – the body cringes, muscles contract and tense, and we prepare for action on the basis of those physical sensations. Although it happens automatically, we have learned to superimpose our thoughts onto our somatic experience. We have needed to do this in order to filter external information and make sense of it internally, and in the process, we have disconnected from the very source.
As a dancer, Jack Wiener shares his understanding of alignment in terms of physical adjustments that immediately make a difference in your experience of your body in relation to space. They constitute the framework for his book. You might want to try them as you read, and try to feel it as happening through your whole body:
1) Step over the 4th toe line of the feet,
2) Narrow your stance to make it easier to sense staying over the 4th toe line of both feet, and
3) Shorten your stride – that guarantees consistently stepping over the 4th toe line while walking.
Here is the kinesiology of it as Wiener outlines it:
“Standing over the fourth line of the foot supports the arch and aligns the forty muscles and twenty-seven bones in each foot. This very specific alignment makes it easier to perceive the sensation of contact in the muscles that affect the outside of the ankle rising into the calves. Once this is sensed the continuity into a rotation through the outside and back of the knees doesn’t take long. That sensation then goes up the long thigh muscles that naturally attach under the buttocks. The natural torque of muscles, once the 4th toe placement is clearly perceived makes the continuity not so difficult. We are so unused to this kind of specific perception of tactile sensation that the description seems belabored.”
Psychoanalysts like to differentiate experience into primary process – that which comes naturally to us in the form of sensations, feelings and affects, and is the language of dreams and raw experience; and secondary process, which involves our ability to observe, think through, associate, label and articulate inner experience. Wiener’s system has found a way of physically connecting the two. By focusing on the feet and the contact with the ground he returns the focus inward through the grounding of our physical being. There is safety there, a primacy that conveys we are made of flesh and, in this case, muscle, and this connects us to the world. It grounds us to the earth. Our associations to our physicality become part of our secondary process, and constitute the realm in which much of psychoanalysis takes place. Unless of course, like Jack and myself, you are connected to your body and its ways of speaking – this, as they say, is a game changer.
Wiener’s physical adjustments constitute the basis of a self-correcting process that can be continuously tweaked by perceiving the tactile sensation of our muscles. It requires consciousness and intention, attention to the sensation(s), to the interplay of muscles in movement and in holding. Ah yes, consciousness, the requirement for experiencing emotions, feelings, sensations and intimacy. The kind of intimacy that can only come from being fully present – no dissociation here. When you watch dance that moves you from the inside, you are witnessing direct emotional expression that touches those places that are known only to you. Intimacy.
The idea that re-integrating bodily experience, through movement and an awareness of the connection to our muscles, helps not only to correct physical alignment but also to release emotional mis-alignments that have been dissociated or exiled from consciousness because of their experiential weight makes inherent sense. In fact, Wiener’s contention is that this is what Freud was after when he began theorizing about impulses and drives and their primacy in constructing our psyche. In the Wiener system, impulses are nonverbal, physical associations and gestures that are spontaneous and uninhibited. Their lack of emotional sequencing often reveals areas of dissociation. Wiener follows the gestural symbolization of impulses and attempts to link it to language and thought by asking his dancers to speak about their experience as they improvised a dance. Dancing, in his system, becomes a form of (physical) free association because of his emphasis on connection to physical sensations instead of ideas or thoughts. I think Freud would want to come to Weiner’s class. I went, and I was immediately in touch with my stuff. Mostly, the stuff of my thoughts. After a warm up period during which I had to restrain myself from stretching as far as I wanted to, adjusting instead to the ways that my body tightened and tensed, and following Wiener’s instructions, we began to move to music while attempting to feel our muscles. I wanted to follow the music and quickly found that my attention left my muscles and went to the rhythm of the sound. I found that staying in my body and connected to my musculature required enormous concentration on my part, much more than what I need to remember steps or choreography. Different than what it takes for me to write an article or read a book. And yes, unalike what it takes to follow my patients into their internal labyrinths.
Being in touch with your muscle sensation is a forgotten/dissociated skill. While initially we are wired to remain connected to our body, to return to it requires conscious intent. To return to it and not our idea of it. The good news is that the body remembers, and if allowed will do the work for you. Focus inward, move, feel, remember the 4th toe alignment as it travels through your whole body, and you have arrived. This kind of embodied movement reveals a naked self in its multiple representations and the fluidity of our feeling life. No wonder we envelope ourselves in thought – it provides coverage, where connected movement strips it away. The price of freedom? Well worth it I say.
Wiener believes that most of us are so mind focused that we assume that to acknowledge this relaxes the body. Or that relaxation equates with the body resuming its original flow and that such flow automatically re-aligns our insides – but this is not so. While relaxation is something that all of us need, and can in fact help to open up experiential readiness, the kinesthetic flow that comes about from muscular alignment restores internal connectedness so that one can experience oneself fully, connected to understanding that is implicitly known and felt.
For Jack Wiener, we hold the key to our self-analysis through the awareness of the interplay of muscles in relationship to the ground. His system offers to return us to a physical alignment that concerns itself with internal connectedness and results in undivided presence and the possibility of intimate contact that is “graced by aliveness”.
Jack Wiener, LP, NCPsyA, CDMT lives and works in New York City. He maintains a psychoanalytic practice and teaches movement classes at the Kaufman Center. He is the author of numerous articles, and the book: The Way of the 4th Toe: Into the Feeling Body (2011). Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.