Thinking with the Body


Thinking with the Body

Chandler Stevens


It only took us 400 years, but we’re finally remembering that the body is the foundation of our cognitive function, meaning that our mental health and performance is developed from the bottom up.

Perhaps more significant: the way that you carry yourself (that is, what you do with the body – how you sit, stand, walk, and talk) shapes how other people treat you. A feedback loop is quickly established, in which your behavior influences theirs, influencing how you feel, influencing how you behave, which influences how they…on and on.

However, if we can create a change in the way that you carry yourself (beyond “proper posture”), then you’d be amazed at how quickly it influences your relationships.

People gravitate toward — and respect — those who convey a sense of security.

And security has EVERYTHING to do with your relationship to the ground.

For example, if you were my client, there are a few things we would take a look at from the outset…

I’d ask you to start in a standing position and take a few moments to explore the baseline awareness questions of Ecosomatics: How are you? And how do you know? And what does that ask of you? This would allow you to recognize how your body is communicating moment to moment and would give you firsthand experience of how easily you could meet its needs.

Most people are amazed at how quickly they can experience a greater sense of relief – just from this short practice.

I’d also ask you to come up with a few adjectives to describe the sort of person you are. This is a way for us to map out some of the basic cognitive structures you use to evaluate yourself and the world around you. Each of those adjectives stands in contrast to another, and those pairs form what’s known as your “constructs” of the world.

You might, for example, have base constructs of “friendly — unfriendly,” “reserved — flamboyant,” “stressed — relaxed.”

What’s particularly interesting is that each of those is associated with a particular pattern of muscle contractions that your body makes as you engage in your day to day activity. You “wear” your character through muscular activity. If you want to use movement to create a change in your mental and emotional development, then it’s essential to take into account how your body is organized. Many people are vaguely familiar with this through the concept of the “power pose,” in which they stand like a “confident” person for a couple of minutes.

However, that reliably fails to make a long-lasting change.


For the same reason that thinking about “proper posture” doesn’t work. It is a top-down solution based on an external standard. A far more effective alternative is to create situations in which your body can perceive differences that *it* thinks are important.

And that always comes down to function.

One of the basic functions of the body is orientation. You have to know up from down in order to do much of anything else you’re going to do. And there are many different sensory pathways that your body utilizes in order to orient effectively.

So I might then ask you to notice where it is that you feel like gravity is winning. There are inevitably places within yourself where you notice tension or strain, pressure or shearing. These are clues that you’ve not yet found a better strategy for organizing your posture. Each is essentially your body’s request for better support.

Here’s where a lot of people waste their energy.

They prop themselves up by “engaging the core,” or “squeezing the glutes,” or any other of these abstract, top-down cues they’ve heard. They brace themselves, adding more tension to an already overly-tense system.

In my world we work from the bottom up. We reduce the demands of the situation to allow those overworked muscles to disengage momentarily, usually by changing the body’s orientation in space (sitting in a chair or lying down, for example). When we’ve created conditions where the muscles can “turn off” for a bit, then we have the opportunity to teach your body new ways of doing the work that those muscles were doing.

The magic phrase when it comes to the body’s ability to learn is “task-oriented, exploratory activity.”

The focus is on biologically relevant tasks (e.g., developmental movements, progressions from the ground to standing, movement in relation to the environment), done with an intention of “exploration” rather than “performance.” This creates neurological conditions that make your system light up, allowing for rapid changes to take place through the nervous system. When we create situations that invite the body to refine its perception and make use of its evolutionarily-conserved, reflexive pathways, we allow the old, time-tested systems of the body to take over the work so that your newer systems (that is’ your conscious attention) can take a break and be put to better use.

That partially explains how improving the quality of your movement can make a world of difference in your mental and emotional wellbeing. When we make your body easier to use, your mental resources aren’t so wrapped up in “dealing with it.” Instead they can be deployed elsewhere, like improving your relationship with your partner or kids, or thinking through how to break that plateau in your business.

Cognition is built from the bottom up: from sensory-motor processing, to affective processing, finally to intellectual processing. That means that if you want to reduce overwhelm and increase your performance, it’s important to start with your movement, then turn to your emotions, and only then worry about thoughts, beliefs, that sort of thing. Otherwise you’re working with an inverted pyramid that risks toppling over at any moment.


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