Body Mapping

by Stacy Gehman

"Body mapping" is the term given by William and Barbara Conable to the process of constructively applying an understanding of anatomy to improving how we move. Barbara has provided an excellent introduction to this work in her book How to Learn the Alexander Technique. If you are new to this work, I strongly recommend reading this book, and also obtaining a book with good anatomical pictures - my favorites are Grant's Atlas of Anatomy, by Anne M.R. Agur, Williams and Wilkins, and Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain.

The importance of having an accurate understanding of how the various parts of our body fit together lies in one of the basic tenets of Alexander Technique work. I like to state it as "If you change what you think, you can change how you move. And if you change how you move, you will change what you feel." Body mapping works directly on the "thinking" end of this equation - the only end with any real "leverage" for making changes. By changing our conceptions of how our parts fit together, we can change how we move them. The accompanying feeling can be one of enormous relief - and fascination with the wisdom underlying our creation.

The study of anatomy has an interesting history in the Alexander Technique. When someone would suggest to F.M. Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique, that he might learn a lot by studying anatomy, his reputed reply was something like "I have met several anatomists, and it was clear that their knowledge did them no good" (not a literal quote). We could take this attitude of Alexander>s as discouraging the study of anatomy, or we can take it as a warning that simply studying anatomy in the conventional way will not necessarily help us improve our use of ourselves. The usual study of anatomy is looking from the "outside in," i.e. by looking from the outside into a cadaver, or at pictures or drawings made from the study of a cadaver. To make anatomical knowledge into anatomical wisdom, we need to know it from the "inside out." The transition from knowing how to name the various parts of a cadaver (or drawing) and locate them on someone else, to understanding anatomical implications for movement within our own selves is by no means automatic.

Every Alexander teacher who has worked with the process of body mapping can provide humorous examples of failures to make that transition - for example, a chiropractor who, when asked to point to where his head rests on top of his spine, points to the back of his head; or the physician who points to the callous pads on her palm when asked where the palm side of her knuckles are. Each, when asked to locate the same parts on someone else, would typically be very accurate because their usual application of their knowledge is from the "outside in." My purpose in this essay is to provide you with guidance in how to make that transition to an "inside out" view. I will not attempt to recast all the valuable information in Barbara Conable>s book, nor will I provide extensive anatomical detail, but instead hope to help you apply the knowledge gained from those sources to your own movement.

My favorite joint for introducing the ideas of body mapping is the knuckle, in particular the large knuckle near the proximal (closest to the body) end of the index finger. Look at the back of your hand, and with your other hand, touch the knuckle of the index finger - feel back from the knuckle toward your wrist, along the bone (the metacarpal) in your hand that leads up to the knuckle and feel how the knuckle is actually a lumpy enlargement at the distal (farthest from the body) end of the metacarpal. Now feel how the long bone of the index finger (proximal phalanx) itself also flares out as it approaches the knuckle. By feeling around while moving the index finger slightly, you will probably be able to feel a groove-like indentation that indicates the area where the bone of your finger (phalanx) meets the bone of your hand (metacarpal).

Now look at the palm of your hand. Where is the palm side of that knuckle you were just exploring? Touch that spot on your palm, then look at your hand from the side, so that you can see the back side of the knuckle and the palm side at the same time. Most people (who have not done this exploration before) point to a spot near the callous pad. But the callous pad is actually 3/8th to 1/2 inch out along the finger (phalanx). The palm side of the knuckles is actually close to the lines that run across the palm of our hand. Place the fingers of your other hand along those lines, and feel what happens when you move your fingers to fold them towards your palm, to open them and to wiggle them.

Now think about what you have discovered, and move all of the fingers of the hand you are exploring. Do your fingers suddenly feel very long? (If you are one of the fortunate who already have an accurate map of these joints, you may not feel much difference with this or the following explorations. However the process, if you have not already discovered it on your own, may help you to become more conscious of how you move, and can be useful when applied to joints that may not be as accurately mapped.)

You have just remapped one set of joints in your hand. Note that by paying attention to one joint, what you learned was quickly applied to the other similar joints in the same hand, and even (if you try it out) to the joints of the other hand. By changing how you thought about those joints, you were able to change how you moved them, and that changed the way the movement felt. Please pay careful attention to the order of these events. Now let>s suppose that in a few days your fingers are back to feeling like their old stubby selves. But you remember that nice long feeling of your fingers that you had as a result of the process outlined above. You might (if you are like 99.9% of the people, including myself on occasion) decide to try to recreate that feeling by imagining your fingers to be longer while moving them.

I predict, in that event, that your chances of success are slim at best, and that your fingers will feel stiff instead of freely moving and long. But if you will take a moment to renew the thinking that we just did, even by just touching the palm of your hand along those lines that run across your palm and then wiggling your fingers, you will find the movement of your fingers again feels nice and long. For some reason almost everyone>s first instinct when trying to make a change is to go for a feeling - perhaps because the feeling is what we enjoy.

What Alexander>s work teaches us is that if we want to make a change, we need to rethink what we are doing so that the changed feeling is a result of the change in our way of moving. But also note that it is the nagging feeling that everything is not as we would like it that leads us to rethink what we are doing. Thinking, feeling and doing all have their useful function in our lives - in fact it is necessary to use all three in a coordinated way if we don>t want to get lost in any one of them. We need to learn how, when and for what it is best to use each of them.

There is one more aspect of the way our joints work that I would like to explore with you. Please return to feeling around the knuckle of your index finger, until you again locate the groove-like indentation that indicates the area where the bone of your finger (phalanx) meets the bone of your hand (metacarpal). Assuming that your finger is more or less straight, watch and feel what happens as you fold the finger towards your palm, then back to straight. With a little persistence you will be able to follow the movement of that groove as it moves around the big lumpy thing (head) at the distal end of the metacarpal.

Take a little time to really get a sense for how the bone of the finger (phalanx) slides over the head of the metacarpal. The flared out end of the phalanx that meets the head of the metacarpal is somewhat cup shaped, and mates with the rounded head of the metacarpal. You can>t observe the cupped shape of the phalanx directly, but you can feel the rounded surface of the metacarpal head, and you can infer the cupped shape by delicately using the other hand to move the phalanx from side to side, and even to twist it slightly, as well as folding the finger closed and open. Note the distance through which the phalanx moves as it slides over the metacarpal head, and also the three dimensional quality of the experience. Now open, close and wiggle all the fingers of your hand, while thinking about this new understanding of how this joint works.

Observe how open the palm side of your hand can feel as your fingers straighten, then how long the outer surface of your fingers feel as they curl towards a fist. Note that there is no hinge, no center, no axis or pivot about which the joints rotate, but instead there are two bony surfaces, one sliding over the other. It is possible to imagine a center for rotation of the phalanx as it moves by extending an imaginary line through the phalanx and seeing where those lines intersect, but that center is located in the mass of bone in the head of the metacarpal. Thus the "center" of the movement cannot move, nor can a good deal of the bone around the "center", because it is part of the metacarpal. For this reason, I prefer to think more directly about the bony surfaces that slide over one another.

Please note that there are two parts of the above process. The first locates the joint in space. That alone can produce remarkable changes in the way a movement is coordinated. The second part looks at the movement in a bit more detail to find how one bony surface moves over the other. All of our joints have this aspect to them, i.e. of one surface sliding over another. The various surfaces of each joint vary a great deal, constraining the movements that can be made by any particular joint.

Some of the shapes are extraordinarily complex, such as in the ankle, wrist and between our vertebra and ribs. In those cases it is probably impossible to image them exactly within ourselves. My experience is that exact imaging is not necessary (thank Heaven), but allowing the multiple bones of our wrist (for example) to glide over each other as we bend our wrist can make a big difference in how it moves. If you are able to work through a movement of your wrist like this, you will notice changes, if you allow them, in your whole arm, and perhaps even in your torso.

If you are new to this kind of work, this may seem like much more than you ever wanted to know about a joint. I chose the knuckle of the index finger, because it is easily accessible for palpation, and its surfaces and movements are reasonably simple. Because it was so easy to get at, we didn>t need pictures to assist our investigation. As you begin to explore other joints, you will notice that most aren>t as easy to get at - that>s why a good anatomy book is invaluable in the process. But a picture is only a starting point - it is still "outside in" information.

Once you have an idea of what the joint you are interested in looks like, move it within yourself, feeling around with your hands (to the extent possible) to get an understanding of how the movement works. Spend some time going back and forth between the picture and sensing your movement, and ask yourself as many questions as you can think of about why it feels the way it does. Can it feel differently? I suggest, as you experiment, that you occasionally review this article to make sure you are clear about the process that is being suggested. We have habits about the way we organize our thinking, as well as our movements, and we tend to revert to them if we don>t pay attention.

One of the powerful things about working with body mapping is that it is very quick to convince students that thoughts are real; that we have ways of thinking that are so established that we don>t even remember or notice that we are doing them; and that the thoughts have consequences. The positive side of this picture is that when we really pay attention to what we are thinking, we can make real changes, and those changes have far-reaching benefits in how we move and feel.

One of my favorite quotes from F.M. Alexander comes from George Trevelyan>s diary of his experiences on the first Alexander Technique teacher training course for Dec. 8, 1933: "We work to undo something and to feel out what change can be made. If we know beforehand what we are going to do we are lost. If the pupil does the thinking he will not slip back quite to the point he was before. But the trouble is none of my pupils will believe that all they need to do is to think and that wish for the neck to be free will do the trick. I could now with my hands make any alteration in anyone, but none will trust to the thought. We are so brutalized by our belief in doing and muscular tension."

If paying attention to the way a knuckle or other joint works can make such a profound change in how it moves and feels, then perhaps investing enough trust in Alexander>s idea to occasionally give it a go would be worth our time.

Before I close, I would like to add a few caveats. Body mapping is essentially an analytical process - i.e., it is a way to examine our parts in detail. If we had to consciously keep track of each our joints as we move, we would be in big trouble. It is, therefore, important to remember to return to Alexander>s basic principles when you move into activity. Briefly put, "I wish my neck to be free, so that my head can move easily, and my body can follow in freedom." If you have done some detailed body mapping activity, then go back to this basic idea, you will find that the understanding you gained from the body mapping will easily inform how you do the movement.

It is especially important to remember to work easily as you explore your joints. If the new movement is not easy, but feels forced, then you haven>t really changed your basic assumptions about how the movement can happen, but have only added a competing idea which manifests as a feeling that using force is necessary. In a case like this, rethink what you are doing, or take a break and forget about it for awhile. I hope you have fun with these ideas.

I would be very happy to receive your comments, discoveries, suggestions, or questions. (Email


Stacy Gehman teaches the Alexander Technique and Tai Chi in Seattle, Washington.

Stacy Gehman's web site can be found at: Exploring Movement

Barbara Conable's web site can be found at: Bodymap

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