Psychophysical Education is a mindful, educational approach to everyday activity that enhances wellbeing and can help reduce chronic pain and improve clinical symptoms. It is based on a holistic concept of human function, and an understanding of our sense of self.
What do we mean by a holistic concept of human function?
Though we all acknowledge the vast number of different components, physical and psychological, that make up a person, few of us recognise their profound interdependency when addressing health and wellbeing concerns. Study of Psychophysical Education enables us to look at how we are doing what we are doing in real time as both executor and impartial observer. It helps us to see how parts of our organism that don’t necessarily seem related to each other interact to affect our function. For instance, even the movement of your fingers will affect muscle tension at the bottom of your spine, and a flat foot can lead to headaches. So a specific problem perceived in one area may well be caused by something happening elsewhere in your body but because coordination happens on such a sub-conscious plane, we are not aware of this. If we decide to move our arm we just do it without being aware of the physical and mental processes that actually enable the movement to happen. Psychophysical Education helps us to understand the complexity of these mental and physical – or psychophysical – pathways: we start to see how we allow things to go wrong with ourselves, and when we actually see this happening, we can do something about it.
How should we be functioning?
Effortless movement usually involves innately coordinated reflex activity. This can be shown to depend upon the quality of the working relationship established between our head and spine that enables upright posture to occur. The natural weight of our head, which balances slightly forwards as it sits on the first spinal vertebra, is sufficient to establish a complete pattern of upright postural support. When this pattern is working well it is characterised in a balanced, lengthened, stance, employing primarily the deeper extensor muscles in back, whilst enabling freedom in the breathing mechanism and limbs. Information received from postural reflexes evokes on-going minute adjustments, changing the neuromuscular upright support pattern in infinitesimal ways so that this delicate balance is constantly maintained. This pattern is epitomised in the poise of a very young child whose learnt behaviour has not yet compromised the delicate holistic balance involved in effortless upright postural support. The child’s muscles are toned and lithe, enabling its musculoskeletal system to work in a coordinated way, using innate reflexes and gravitational forces. Very few adults are able to function in this way, having, since early childhood, learned patterns of movement that interfere with innate coordination.
All these patterns of movement, learned and innate, work at an unconscious level so we are not aware of them. They form the basis of daily activities that are so commonplace and habitual that we find it inconceivable to consider that they might be harmful, or that it is possible, or necessary, to do them differently. We only start to notice harmful patterns when they cause pain or malfunction – that is when they have developed to the point that they can be recognized and defined as clinical symptoms.
How does Psychophysical Education enable us to become more attuned to what we are doing?
Psychophysical Education takes into account the fact that we possess a crucial sixth sense, the proprioceptive sense, that enables a person to have a sense of self – a sense of how, rather than what, we feel. This sense is so much a part of us that the greater part of what we perceive through our proprioceptive receptors in muscles and joints is processed at a wholly unconscious level – which is partly why we are so often unaware that it exists. We have known since the early 1960s that purely thinking about muscles affects muscle tone and function and it is this new kind of thinking that we learn when we study Psychophysical Education. Practised regularly, this new thinking leads to increased proprioceptive sensibility which is then used to reinforce new coordinated movement patterns that a Psychophysical Education teacher will help you to learn. These result in a positive effect on both our physical and psychological state, which we perceive experientially as an improvement in our health and wellbeing.
What happens in a Psychophysical Education lesson?
A teacher of Psychophysical Education works with students in two main ways. Firstly the student is taught how to study the new pattern of thinking. This pattern has two main aims: i) to separate thought from action by not equating a movement with the idea of doing it, and ii) to reinforce innate patterns of coordination. Secondly, with your permission, your teacher will move you vicariously – that is s/he will ask you to let yourself be moved without helping or initiating the movement. We do this in order to explore innate pathways of movement that are not necessarily how you would usually perform simple actions.
Is Psychophysical Education a mindfulness practice, and if so, how can it help me?
Mindfulness practices of all types are generally characterized by the fact that they engender a thoughtful approach to behaviour that increases wellbeing. Psychophysical Education comprises such a thoughtful approach to activity in a way that is on-going. As such, it is not something that is performed for a period of time each day and then left behind when a person continues their daily routine. Rather it becomes part of the daily routine, so that it is reflected in overall behaviour. Ironically, pain-free people tend not to want to engage with this practice as they cannot see the point of it, but as anyone with chronic pain knows, pain is difficult to forget. So people in pain seem to be able to incorporate Psychophysical Education more easily into their life and reap the benefits of improving their coordination patterns, which can lead to substantial relief. If being mindful stops the pain, it becomes much easier to be thoughtful in our daily activities – because if we aren’t mindful the pain returns.
What is the relationship between Psychophysical Education and Alexander Technique?
Psychophysical Education encompasses the principles laid out by F. M. Alexander for the practice of his well-known Technique. However, the scientific discoveries which underpin the theory, comprehension, and pedagogy of his method only started to emerge half a century after his death. These transformed his legacy into a new field of study – Psychophysical Education. This new approach to health and well-being continues to challenge the boundaries of our understanding of ourselves, whilst at the same time offering a transformative life skill that anyone can learn.
Psychophysical Education and Alexander Technique is available with Miss Serena Woolf at One Ashford Hospital.
To learn more on Miss Woolf, please click here