Body Mapping

Lately I’ve had a few students who are professional musicians and one of them handed me an article about a new method called Body Mapping.

Here is a description by David Vining of what they think they are doing:
The body map is one’s self-representation in one’s own brain.  The breakthrough of body mapping is the realization that we move based on how we think we are put together rather than how we are actually constructed.  If the body map is accurate, movement is good; an inaccurate body map causes inefficient or injury-producing movement.  In body mapping, one uses self-observation and self-inquiry to gain access to the body map.  By carefully examining what one believes to be true about his or her body and comparing it to accurate information, one can recognize fallacies in the body map and correct and refine this representation to become more efficient.  During this process, accurate information may be provided by kinesthetic experience, mirrors, books, pictures, medical models of body parts and teachers.  Through body mapping, one can recognize the source of inefficient and harmful movement and replace it with movement that is well-organized and cooperates with the reality of how we are actually built.

Let me start by saying it is wonderful to find a system that recognizes the importance of mind in movement training.  And it is a rare treat to find someone I fundamentally disagree with expressing themselves so clearly and precisely.  The statement “we move the way we think we are put together”  is mistaken.  We actually move by a process of changing spacial imagination.  If you are imagining your anatomical body moving in space, it will seem like “we are moving the way we are put together,” but that is just one of an unlimited number of options.

An Alternative Body Map! An Alternative Body Map!

The therapeutic application of Body Mapping is a big improvement over what I usually see recommended by Physical or Occupational Therapists (but those fields are changing fast and allow for a fair amount of experimentation so it’s possible to find a PT with 30 years of Tai Chi under her belt.)

I believe Body Mapping as a method works!  In practice I would expect it to relieve many of the stress injuries musicians get from practicing all the time.  In many cases musicians are practicing with an image of their body which has become a distinct and repeating shape. In the martial arts world we call this “stale qi,” in the Body Mapping community they think of it as a “false map.”  This “stale qi” is usually a small concentrated shape (less than five inches in diameter) and either inside the body or near the surface.  Getting the musician to acknowledge the shape (it is usually unconscious) and to dissolve it while playing their instrument will relieve the stress.  I’m not saying this is easy, people can be stubborn about their routine uses of the mind, and it can disappear one day and snap back into place the next.  Just feeling the ‘false map’ and dissolving it into vast emptiness is what internal martial artists do.  If Body Mapping did just this, it would be enough.

But the Body Mapping advocates then seek to replace the “false map” with a “true” or “truer” map.  This is an unnecessary step. However, it is likely to be helpful in the short term because movement based on an analysis of anatomical structure tends to be efficient movement.  But eventually that too can fail from over use (again, stale qi).  It is also impossible to get a truly accurate map. Our mind is just too good a creating short cuts and simplifications.  Who has the patience to visualize every single anatomical soft-tissue structure, much less every molecular interaction!  Still, some knowledge of muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and fascia can be very useful as a teaching tool, especially for beginning students.

If I say, “Don’t think of a carrot,” did you think of it? You probably did because that’s just what our minds do.  It happens really fast.  It happens at mind speed, the only speed which really counts in a fight to the death or a virtuoso solo on a musical instrument.  Now, imagine you are a carrot and turn the carrot!  I am not a carrot, but there is no reason to believe that imagining that I am one will make my movement less efficient, or cause injury.

When you play a musical instrument you want your imagination to be free.  We want you to have an excited and totally active spacial mind.  There is certainly a place for “concentration” in the learning process, but I want my musicians' minds playing with the currents of air on the edge of the grand canyon, or the darkness at the bottom of the ocean--not stuck in their instrument or their anatomy.

What the Body Mapping advocates are saying is that if you are playing a trombone and you unconsciously think one of your arms is actually coming out of your neck, over time you will develop inefficient movement which will eventually become debilitating.  They are correct about that.

They go on to say that if you replace that “false image” with an “accurate” structural kinesthetic experience of your arm and neck, you will move more efficiently.
They are correct about that too.

Structure may be a sensible way to teach efficient movement to musicians, but I suspect that at least at the higher levels, music teachers have very strict rules about how structure, alignment, and especially “fingering” should be. I would be warry of messing with that. If I was teaching martial arts and music to a teenager I would consider Body Mapping all his finger movement to the spine so that his movement is always structurally strong and efficient.  Such a practice would most likely have to be done separately from the practice of music and then applied to it because most instruments use each hand differently.  I also wouldn’t want to leave students at that level, having only taught them structure with out freedom! Especially if they plan to be professionals--it is important to reach the heart-mind emptiness levels of performance.

To summarize this article for regular readers:
The body must be inside the mind. Do not put the mind inside the body!

(Also see Zhuangzi chapter 3, On Nourishing Life....)


One of the consequences of the false contextualization of martial arts as “for fighting only” is the obscuration of the obvious fact that professional musicians and theater artists were both part of the same families and performed together.  Since theater in all of China was “physical theater,” and its training was in fact the movement tradition we know today as “martial arts,” it is almost inconceivable that there were any top quality professional musicians who didn’t have at least some martial arts training embedded in their art.
In fact, I could go further and say that powerful operatic singing is one of the important sources of Chinese internal martial arts.  How could a person sing for 4 hours to a huge outdoor audience without being “internal?”  Italian operatic singing technique may be the closest thing to Tai Chi in all of Western Civilization.


I sincerely hope that in the future martial arts will be taught with music and theater, and that professional musicians will see martial arts as a resource for how to dance with their instrument.

There is lots of material about Body Mapping on the web.  The Berklee School of Music in Boston is promoting it here.  I see this as a positive trend moving in my direction.  In the article the author makes the point that performing music is a movement  art.
And here is a book about Body Mapping that looks pretty interesting, I just ordered it.