Interview with Kevin Mackay

Interview with Kevin Mackay

Kevin Mackay is a voice in the world of “health-improvement” that doesn’t quite fit in. He marches to the beat of his own drum. In a field dominated by prescriptions for supplements, Kevin offers his services as a guide to synthesising a solution for yourself, rather than adopting an out-of-the-box solution from the outside.

We sat down with Kevin to explore his approach to training posture and movement, and how it differs from the established methods.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, how you became interested in posture?

The inciting incident was waking up in a London hospital in 2007 with a smashed up face. I’d had a violent seizure on the street, and although had no history of epilepsy, I now found myself going around specialists for the next year, mostly being offered medication I didn’t want. I was constantly twitching and contorting my body, my posture was terrible, and was terrified when traveling anywhere alone in case it happened again. I was basically a psychophysical wreck.

Then for some reason I had the intuition that what I needed was some kind of “mind-body” movement practice to get the seizures under control, rather than prescription drugs. So I tried various western and eastern methods, and combinations of them, but nothing seemed to work until I found the Alexander Technique. Within four days most of the main “physical” and “emotional” symptoms had gone. Mostly through releasing muscle tension and inhibiting unwanted movements and reactions. Then I did some more MRIs and other tests and they said it now looked fine. So I was now convinced in practice that you can’t separate your brain from your movements and your emotions, and the aim should be to (re)integrate yourself. Since then I’ve been experimenting with different psychophysical techniques and teaching people how to self-regulate their posture.

What led to you starting writing about posture and movement?

I first started writing for my own understanding and so joined Twitter as an experiment not really expecting anyone to care, but this lead to offering online lessons and then more writing. The purpose of my newsletter “Let’s get psychophysical” was to tie together some ideas that were bouncing around in my head, which weren’t really suitable for 1-to-1 lessons (which are more practical and specific to each pupil) but not exactly book-shaped either.

I also noticed that there was a split between the “gym bros’” overly physical approach, and the “spiritual types’” overly psychological approach to posture and movement. So someone needed to take a third way between and beyond them. I’m an inbetweener by nature so I knew there must be others like me who don’t fully identify with either side. So I’ve landed on the phrase psychophysical to describe my worldview and method. I’m told this is called a niche! I will never be mainstream so the writing is also a good way to “find the others.” Some former pupils are now good friends.

There are some fundamental differences between the way you talk about training posture and movement and the typical faire. You place a much bigger emphasis on using reasoning to guide movement, and specifically the reasoning and conscious control of the person making the movements. What led you to developing this methodology, and what advantages does it have compared to the usual approaches?

I don’t consider myself a health and fitness writer at all. For me, this is a form of education and I am a teacher. Or if I want to sound cool, it is applied philosophy.

So far there have been two main approaches to the posture problem. One side focuses on the “body” and the other on the “spirit.” But what they both leave out is the “mind”. On the “body” side we have methods like weight lifting, surgery, posture devices, chiropractic, even standup desks. The idea is that if you improve or adjust specific physical parts then eventually they will all add up to good posture. But the problem is the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and people only fundamentally change as a whole.

On the spirit side we have methods like yoga, Tai Chi, zen meditation, relaxation techniques, and most somatic therapies. The idea is that if you learn to feel the body more deeply and become very aware of all your movements, then you will get back to a natural good posture that you have lost. The problem is that awareness of the whole will not magically rearrange the physical parts all by themselves.

In both approaches they rely on guiding movements according to how they feel, and then judging the movements according to how they felt. If it feels better, then it must be better. However, all the lesson I have given show this belief to be a delusion. For example, you might feel you are falling backwards, or leaning to the side, but on video it clearly shows you are objectively straight and balanced. This can really shocking and frustrating because our feelings are so intimate and convincing, whereas some guy on the internet with a weird Scottish accent not so much so… until you watch the video of course…

Guiding movements by feeling and instinct is what animals do. But there is also another way to move, unique to humans. We can use the higher cognitive functions to guide and control our movements. We can use reason and language and mental models to direct our movements and create new postures. The fascinating thing is you can deliberately do new movements that you don’t feel. And you can prevent unwanted movements that you also cannot feel. You can only see them on a video or with the help of a teacher. You don’t feel them but you can do them anyway. So another part of your brain, a more recently evolved part, is directing these movements according to a plan you had reasoned out in advance. This is the cutting edge of evolution.

How does it work in practice? Posture is made of movements. Many sub-movements all happening together on autopilot. The goal of the lessons is to consciously synchronise these movements in a new way to change the anatomical structure as a whole, and so bring into play the elastic structures of the back and use them as “springs.” These springs will do lot of the work your muscles are currently having to do. This is why you can’t sit for very long without fidgeting and leaning.

But you can’t engage these “springs” with physical exercises alone. And no amount of releasing muscle tension will make it happen either. You need to use higher cognitive functions, e.g. reason, language, geometry, working memory, focussed attention, and conscious intentions – “the mind” – to plan and command synchronised movements that create a new organisation of the whole. This process of psychophysical self-experimentation is what I teach in the 1-to-1 lessons.

Touching on these themes, recently you made a tweet that says “Prescription for bipedalism”. Can you elaborate?

I’m paraphrasing an old book called “Prescription for Rebellion” by a psychoanalyst who thought a lot of illnesses and symptoms would go away if people stopped trying to adjust to society and instead followed their natural instinct for creative rebellion. In the same way i think that a lot of illness – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual – would go away if we stop trying to adjust to sedentary life and follow our natural instinct for moving around on two legs. This also means lots of running which is out of fashion these days.

Bipedalism is not just about instinct and physical activity, an error many of the paleo and natural movement people make. Bipedalism evolved alongside rapid brain growth, fire, cooking, language, tool use, weapons etc, so it is all a lot more complex than just what you are doing with your legs. For example, persistence hunters run for long distances in the sun chasing down an animal to exhaustion. But they say the most difficult part is not the running, it’s the tracking. Tracking is an intellectual activity that requires abstract thought, and both these capacities must have evolved together for a long time, and both still live inside us now.

So the “prescription” might help get in touch with this more integrated psychophysical way of living. Long walks with your philosophical notebook is a modern version of this. 

In your emails you draw on a wide variety of ideas from fields that aren’t usually applied to training athleticism — philosophy, religious scripture and spirituality, neurology, etc — why do you think these ideas can be applied to training posture, and why aren’t they usually used to do so?

The real question is why were these fields seen as separate from posture and movement in the first place? All of those things exist together in, say, ancient Hindu yoga, or in hunter-gatherer dancing rituals, or as I’m discovering more and more, the Ancient Greeks, who have left traces of an integrated method in their sculptures, art and writings. But you need to look with psychophysical eyes – you won’t find it in university departments. One set of experts look at the sculptures, another studies the words of Plato, another reconstructs the athletics. For me, these are all parts of a living whole, which our culture and education system have split apart. Look at how many different subjects school kids have to study separately – each with their own specialised rooms. Whereas, the postural technique I teach would have to be a combination of physical education, science, maths, philosophy, English and others. So all this subject gets is a Zoom room!

Each of us has internalised this mind-body split from our fragmented culture and it plays out in our posture. As without, so within. Obviously we need to specialise to some degree to go deep in a subject. But reductionism should be the middle phase in a process, not the end point. We need to take what we’ve learned in each subject and bring it back to the whole. This is the role of people like me.

What do you think of disciplines like dancing or martial arts as far as training movement and posture? Dancers in particular are known for good posture. Also, what about other “traditional” ways of training posture, such as the old walk with a book on top of the head method? How do these disciplines/methods contrast with your approach?

I don’t think they deal with cause of the postural problem. But dancers are excellent at synchronising multiple movements in precise ways, which is a necessary part of changing your posture. And martial artists are great at controlling reactions and making specific movements when faced with a strong stimulus. This is essential for overcoming the force of habit and changing your posture.

Both those disciplines require doing movements that cause bad posture in the technical sense, in that they shorten and narrow the torso in ways that prevent the elastic structures working as “springs.” Sports and dance in general usually require some degree of sub-optimal posture to train and perform in such a specific way for a long time. But I’m not a fundamentalist – this can be a legitimate tradeoff for your art or sport. Usain Bolt has scoliosis and poor posture. If you can catch him, tell him I said so.

Right now you work one on one with clients over Zoom calls analyzing their posture and movement. How does this work? Do you have any ideas for how to expand in the future?

The next level for me is creating a series of videos explaining the theory and practice off what I do. I might even start a podcast alongside this – not interviews exactly, more like conversations we make public. Let me know if you want to chat!

The best way to find out how the 1-to-1 lessons work is just to book an initial posture consultation and “body audit” on Zoom. Tell me you came from Hyperion Magazine and it will be free for you.

Thanks for your time, Kevin.

For more information, head to psychophysical.org. You can follow Kevin on Twitter here.

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