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The Idea of Ideokinesis

Lulu Sweigard’s Concept of Imagined Movement

Julie Grinfeld, Spring 2002


If a person has a high degree of body intelligence, it usually means that he or she is very skilled at some physical activity. A person with a lot of body intelligence might be an Olympic swimmer, a marathon runner, or a well-known dancer. Many might assume that these trained individuals have a good deal of control over their bodies, and that they have intentionally learned to perform the desired actions.[1]All of us have some level of body intelligence, but some, naturally, have more than others.

An alternative interpretation of body intelligence eliminates the role of intent and even consciousness in body movement. Why is it that our shoulder muscles get tight when we are under a great deal of stress? Why do we inadvertently hold our breath during a scary scene in a movie? The body naturally responds to specific situations in specific ways, without requiring consciousness of these responses.[2]

These unconscious movements are indications that the human body can respond tacitly to the conditions of its environment. In the article “The Nature of Ideokinesis and Its Value for Dancers,” movement practitioner Pamela Matt suggests that many of these “neuromuscular habits” develop through trial and error, formation of stimulus-response associations. As infants, we learn specific movement patterns that become more efficient and ingrained with practice.[3] This way, we do not have to think, for example, about which muscles to move when we want to lift our heads. As we get older, however, we learn new neuromuscular habits that often subtly combine to impact negatively the efficiency of our bodies. The kind of clothes we wear, the furniture we use, our daily stresses and emotions, our preoccupation with our looks, and images in the media all contribute to a habitual body alignment which is “tiring, inefficient, and ultimately injury-prone.[4]

A number of kinesiologists, or movement scientists, have developed different approaches to kinesthetic re-education. The goal of these approaches is better postural alignment and more efficiency in movement. Dancers and athletes require efficient body movement in order to increase their skill levels and prevent injury. Others may simply want to learn how to live a more relaxed, stress-free, and well-aligned life. Ideokinesis is one powerful approach to kinesthetic education and re-education.

A Definition of Ideokinesis

The term ideokinesis was coined by Dr. Lulu Sweigard, a researcher at the Dance Division of The Julliard School in New York.[5] In her classic and influential book, Human Movement Potential, Sweigard writes that ideokinesis, or imagined movement, is “the idea of movement occurring within one’s body in a specific place and direction, but not being voluntarily performed.”[6] Sweigard continues her definition by explaining the literal meaning of the term ideokinesis and by suggesting that any attempt at voluntary control of alignment is actually inefficient. She explains:

Kinesis is motion, here defined as physical movement induced by stimulation of muscles and characterized by qualitative and quantitative positional changes of the skeletal parts. Ideo, the idea, the sole stimulator in the process, is defined as a concept developed through empirical mental processes. The idea, the concept of movement, is the voluntary act and the sole voluntary component of all movement. Any further voluntary control only interferes with the process of movement and inhibits rather than promotes efficient performance. Imagined movement is best defined as an ideokinetic facilitator.[7]

Ideokinesis has also come to mean, more loosely, “using the imagination to effect body movement without specific intent or volition.”[8] An example of this process comes from Eric Franklin’s Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery (1996):

Go for a stroll and imagine that your walking movement powers a bicycle chain that moves up the front of the body and down the back. You can also use the image of an energy flow or a conveyor belt. Now try imagining yourself running to power the bicycle chain. Keep the chain moving smoothly up the front and down the back.[9]

The idea of ideokinesis is that by imagining your body as, for example, a bicycle chain, your skeletal and muscular alignment will improve and your muscles and bones will work together with greater efficiency. You will use less effort to move, and many of your unnecessary “holding patterns,” or places of tension, will be greatly reduced or even eliminated. The images used in ideokinesis can be just about anything, as long as they reflect scientific knowledge of the mechanical workings of the body. Each person must find those specific images that work best for him or her.

According to Sally Fitt, author of Dance Kinesiology (1996), the ideokinetic approach falls into the category of somatics, or “bodily based access to information about the whole system and its interactive patterns.”[10] Instead of concentrating on one aspect of our beings, ideokinesis encourages us to “tap into the inherent wisdom of the body.”[11] It is a unified, interactive method, where the body and mind inform one another. One might even go as far as to consider somatics to be a field where the body and mind are seen as one coherent entity.

A Brief History of the Idea of Ideokinesis

Sweigard was not the first to think of using the imagination to enhance alignment and movement potential. At the turn of the century, a pianist in Munich named Heinrich Kosnick created a system of mental imagery that he called the “psycho-physiological” method. His goal was to enhance the skill of his students by creating images for them, and he found his method to be quite effective.[12]

Around the same time, Mabel Elsworth Todd was developing her ideas about using imagery as a teaching method. In 1906, while studying voice at Emerson College, Todd realized that problems with vocalization were often due to bad posture.[13] Todd began to study the mechanics of the skeletal structure. She ultimately determined that the goal was finding balance, as opposed to “imposing upon our bodies a fixed position of any part which we feel to be the ‘right,’ ‘correct’ or ‘ideal’ one.”[14] In order to accomplish this goal, Todd believed that concentrating on a picture would result in “responses in the neuromusculature as necessary to carry out specific movements with the least effort.”[15]  Like Kosnick, Todd called this process psychophysical or psychophysiological. By the early 1920’s, Todd had created two studios of “Natural Posture” in New York and Boston to teach her theories, and later taught at Columbia University’s Teachers College.[16] Todd applied her ideas to the teaching of both physical education and dance, and wrote two influential books, The Thinking Body and The Hidden You.[17]

Lulu Sweigard was one of Mabel Todd’s students.  Sweigard was responsible for organizing Todd’s work in imagery and creating new visualizations in the teaching of dance and in postural alignment.

The Birth of Ideokinesis

While Mabel Todd conceded that her psychophysiological technique, “may sound silly, but it works,” Sweigard conducted empirical research. In 1929, Sweigard set out to determine whether ideokinesis “could re-coordinate muscle action enough to produce measurable changes in skeletal alignment.”[18] Sweigard studied two-hundred 20-50 year-old female students in 30-minute sessions for 15 weeks of a semester. She used a posturimeter, as well as a stadiometer, tape line, and wooden calipers to “determine the vertical and horizontal position of various skeletal parts.”[19] Sweigard hypothesized that prolonged training ideokinesis would lead to specific changes in skeletal alignment. When the results were analyzed, Sweigard found that indeed her hypothesis was correct.  She reflected, “Comparison of measurements taken before and again after the semester of teaching showed that significant changes in postural alignment had occurred in all subjects.”[20] Most significantly, some specific changes, such as the placement of the rib cage, occurred for a majority, or even all, of the subjects. Sweigard classified these changes as nine lines of movement.[21] Sweigard summarizes her findings as follows:

The [postural] changes, found in almost all subjects, indicate unequivocally that change in postural alignment through the use of imagined movement as an ideokinetic technique of teaching, uncomplicated by any voluntary holding or positioning of parts of the body, is feasible. The results indicate that ideation (ideokinesis) is accompanied by subcortical patterning of muscle coordination, and that movement occurs in response to ideas. It is, therefore, postulated that ideokinesis is an effective means of producing measurable changes in postural alignment.[22]

Lulu Sweigard’s findings revolutionized the way people, especially dancers, thought about their bodies. Before Sweigard, the prevailing theory was that weak muscles were the cause of poor posture, and that strengthening these muscles by putting, holding, straightening, and tightening would produce the desired effects. In opposition to these widely accepted practices, Sweigard demonstrated that “envisioning movement occurring within the body without contributing any effort to its performance” brought the body into efficient mechanical equilibrium.[23] In effect Sweigard shifted the focus of movement initiation from the body to the mind. As long as an appropriate image was visualized, the body would move “all by itself” into the correct alignment. Relaxation and ability to imagine became the key ingredients for success.

The Neurological Basis for Ideokinesis

As a concept, ideokinesis may seem fanciful.  Actually, the underlying mechanisms of the phenomenon are based on well-defined neurological principles. At heart, Sweigard was a scientist, and she believed that only with accurate knowledge of the workings of the body could expert teaching and significant improvement be realized. Thus, Sweigard did not neglect to explain the biological basis for her theories.

Sweigard begins by describing the nervous system as divided into a voluntary system and an autonomic system. The voluntary system, as the name suggests, controls voluntary muscle function, such as waving your hand. The autonomic system controls the smooth muscles, which include the cardiac muscles. What differentiates these two systems is the degree of control a person has over the muscle function. It is relatively easy to stop chewing. It is relatively difficult to stop digesting food.[24]

Movement, however, is not an either/or phenomenon. Movement in daily life is, as Sweigard concludes, “integrated activity of the entire nervous system – the voluntary and the involuntary . . .modulated by innate and conditioned reflex activity and feedback mechanism.”[25] In other words, learned movement, although at first highly voluntary, can become mechanized and autonomous through repeated practice. Some movements, like walking, become so habitual and automatic that the mover feels almost no need to use any conscious effort to maintain balance. At this stage, the nervous system has developed what Sweigard refers to as subcortical patterning, or the coordination of muscle action on an unconscious level. Take, for example, a gymnast walking on a narrow beam. With information from the proprioceptors, the subcortical system strives to automatically maintain balance. It would be very difficult for the gymnast to achieve balance if he constantly had to think about how to move his body to stay upright. The subcortical system provides immediate, involuntary response to the immediate situation.

Sweigard surmises that since all movement, and especially postural positioning, has a subcortical basis, changing these fundamental patterns requires access to the subcortical system. She goes further to suggest that imposing voluntary control actually inhibits movement. She writes that voluntary control “tends to interfere with the automatic operations which proceed in accord with the innumerable sensory reports which alert the nervous system to the changes needed in the patterning of neuromuscular coordination as movement proceeds.”[26] Thus, Sweigard offers ideokinesis, visualizing movement, as the primary way to access and affect the subcortical system. Through visualization, the subcortical system can coordinate numerous, interrelated, minute muscle movements that are too fine and complex to be controlled voluntarily.

The Principles of Ideokinesis at Work

Sweigard not only developed the idea of ideokinesis; she also put it into practice. Based on her research, Sweigard created two fundamental techniques for helping people, primarily dancers, gain better alignment and flexibility. These two techniques are the Constructive Rest Position and the Nine Lines of Movement.

The Constructive Rest Position

As mentioned above, every person has learned and ingrained movement and postural habits. In most people, these habits are inefficient, due to a variety of factors in the environment. Sweigard postulated that, in order to alter these habits, a person must begin by using no muscular effort whatsoever. Although this may seem easy it is actually quite difficult. Sitting in a chair requires the back and abdominal muscles that keep us upright. Lying flat, the weight of the legs tends to pull the pelvis forward, curving the spine (see figure below).[27] Sweigard found the most relaxed position to be what she named the Constructive Rest Position.[28] In this position, the subject lies flat on the floor, but with knees bent at a 90-degree angle. The arms are folded over the torso, and the neck may be supported by a small pillow.[29] Once the body is in an optimally relaxed state, the subject concentrates solely on a given image. The images allow the body to subtly and tacitly reorganize its alignment.

The Nine Lines of Movement.

When Sweigard conducted her experiments, she found that the most pronounced changes in postural alignment occurred along nine dimensions. Upon further investigation, she concluded that each of these dimensions was a line of movement between specific skeletal parts. As the skeleton moved into greater mechanical balance, the muscular groups around them did less work in order to maintain posture. Although a detailed explanation of the nine lines of movement here would be too lengthy, one particularly telling line of movement is the lengthening of the spine downward.[30] Due to any number of factors, most people’s postural habit is to tilt the pelvis forward. This causes an increase of the curvature in the lower back, which in turn often causes unnecessary lower back pain. Through ideokinesis, Sweigard’s subjects were able to reduce this curvature.

Note that it would be impractical and most likely impossible to change this neuromuscular habit explicitly. Few people would want to walk around “reminding” themselves to tilt their pelvis forward, and even if they did, they would probably overcompensate and strain their muscles. With an image, such as imagining the pelvis as a crystal bowl filled with sand that is draining out of the sacrum (the lowest part of the spine), the subcortical processes create the change in the direction of the line of movement.

What’s Tacit about Ideokinesis

It is important to note that in ideokinetic exercises, there is a certain degree of intentional awareness. The subject must intentionally relax and concentrate on the image. The more effectively the subject can accomplish this, the more easily the subcortical system will produce the physical changes that bring the body into greater balance.[31]

Best Uses of Ideokinesis

The goal of ideokinesis is to alter the body’s underlying structure to bring it into greater equilibrium. Unlike other movement techniques, which stress intentional movement, ideokinesis requires trust in the body’s ability to move at the unconscious level, without intentional movement.

Perhaps the best use of ideokinesis is in the reduction of muscular and mental tension and stress. Since ideokinesis is a somatic approach, it brings the body into more efficient alignment by bringing the imagination and the body into a working relationship.  In this situation, efficiency means “producing the desired effect without waste.”[32]

Ideokinesis allows for change with a minimal amount of effort. It also allows the body to use minimum muscular force to retain its posture by bringing the structural elements, the bones and joints, into mechanical balance.

Many people are so accustomed to muscular tightness that they are not even aware they have it. Through ideokinesis, people can eliminate their ingrained neuromuscular habits of holding or tightening certain muscle groups, and when they do, they notice how relaxed, free, and flexible they seem.[33] The process of relaxation and reducing tension in the body also services to reduce tension or stress in the subject’s intellectual and emotional life.

Of course, ideokinesis also leads to better posture. Better posture may improve digestion, improve appearance (people like to see straightness), and create a more beneficial impression (no slouching!!). Ideokinesis increases greater body awareness gently, easily, and naturally.[34]

Ideokinesis allows dancers and others who do physical activity, such as athletes, to attain a higher level of skill. It does this by making bodily movements more streamlined. More energy is conserved, so the dancer turns faster and the athlete can jump higher. The tacit nature of ideokinesis means that mental and physical energy can be used to train the particular skill, like learning a phrase of choreography, instead of on postural alignment. A dancer can more easily do a pirouette if she thinks of herself as a spinning top than if she thinks “neck up, shoulders back, rib-cage down, arms out, back wide, pelvis forward, and toe to knee.”

Injury may be prevented through ideokinesis. Often injuries such as sprain, strains, pinched nerves, tendonitis, and even fractures and dislocations occur because the neuromuscular habits prevent fluidity of motion. If a person goes one way and his knee goes the other, he is likely to tear a ligament. Instead of explicitly forcing muscles to do certain actions or strengthening them unnecessarily to compensate, ideokinesis corrects those underlying skeletal functional imbalances that are likely to cause injury.[35]


As we grow up, we develop neuromuscular habits that are ineffective and often cause us a great deal of stress or discomfort. Ideokinesis is the process of using mental imagery to tacitly affect the body’s postural alignment in order to bring it into greater equilibrium. Building upon the work of Mabel Todd, Dr. Lulu Sweigard conducted research which showed that postural alignment could be altered through repeated relaxation and focus on imagery, rather than intentional movement. Sweigard concluded that, with the body relaxed, the subcortical system would unconsciously make the necessary changes within the skeletal and muscular system. In order to make the best use of ideokinesis, Sweigard developed techniques such as the Constructive Rest Position and imagining along the Nine Lines of Movement. Although Sweigard’s work is mainly used with dancers, ideokinesis continues to be a powerful and effective way for everyone to reduce tension, increase flexibility, prevent injury, and eliminate pain in the body.

According to Elizabeth Bergmann, a student of Sweigard’s and the director of the Dance Program at Harvard University, Sweigard’s work revolutionized the dance world. No longer were dance classes about “making your body do something.” Instead, one would see dancers relaxing and achieving the desired movement with more grace and ease. Bergmann goes as far as to suggest that Sweigard fundamentally changed the concept of what the dancer’s body was supposed to be and to do. Today, it is rare to find a dance teacher who does not use some form of ideokinesis. The idea of ideokinesis has spread far and wide, and has allowed many people to lead more relaxed, meaningful, and efficient lives.





[1] Schrader, C.A. (1996). A Sense of Dance  Exploring Your Movement Potential. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 105.

[2] Ibid, 106.

[3] Fitt, S. (1996). Dance Kinesiology (2nd Ed.). New York: Schirmer Books, 335.

[4] Ibid, 336.

[5] Matt, Pamela. (1996). The nature of ideokinesis and its value for dancers. In Fitt, S. Dance Kinesiology (2nd Ed.). New York: Schirmer Books, 338.

[6] Sweigard, L.E. (1974). Human Movement Potential: Its Ideokinestic Facilitation. New York: University Press of America, 6.

[7] Ibid, 7.

[8] Franklin, Eric. (1996) Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 4.

[9] Ibid, 66.

[10] Fitt, S. (1996). Dance Kinesiology (2nd Ed.). New York: Schirmer Books,304.

[11] Ibid, 304.

[12] Franklin, Eric. (1996) Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 4.

[13] Matt, Pamela. (1996). The nature of ideokinesis and its value for dancers. In Fitt, S. Dance Kinesiology (2nd Ed.). New York: Schirmer Books, 337.

[14] Todd, M.E. (1972). The Thinking Body. New York: Dance Horizons, 245.

[15] Sweigard, L.E. (1974). Human Movement Potential: Its Ideokinestic Facilitation. New York: University Press of America, 6.

[16] Franklin, Eric. (1996) Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 5.

[17] Matt, Pamela. (1996). The nature of ideokinesis and its value for dancers. In Fitt, S. Dance Kinesiology (2nd Ed.). New York: Schirmer Books, 337.

[18] Sweigard, L.E. (1974). Human Movement Potential: Its Ideokinestic Facilitation. New York: University Press of America,187.

[19] Ibid, 188.

[20] Ibid, 190.

[21] Franklin, Eric. (1996) Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 5.

[22] Sweigard, L.E. (1974). Human Movement Potential: Its Ideokinestic Facilitation. New York: University Press of America,191.

[23] Ibid, 223.

[24] Ibid, 157.

[25] Ibid, 168.

[26] Ibid, 169.

[27] Franklin, Eric. (1996) Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 59.

[28] Ibid, 59.

[29] Ibid, 60.

[30] Sweigard, L.E. (1974). Human Movement Potential: Its Ideokinestic Facilitation. New York: University Press of America, 237.

[31] Franklin, Eric. (1996) Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 43.

[32] Fitt, S. (1996). Dance Kinesiology (2nd Ed.). New York: Schirmer Books, 305.

[33] Ibid, 307.

[34] Matt, Pamela. (1996). The nature of ideokinesis and its value for dancers. In Fitt, S. Dance Kinesiology (2nd Ed.). New York: Schirmer Books, 341.

[35] Fitt, S. (1996). Dance Kinesiology (2nd Ed.). New York: Schirmer Books, 381.








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