The Passive Sequencing Work is a set of exercises and a strategy for cultivating higher levels of proprioceptive awareness and physically meaningful and functional presence. Primarily done in partners, the work is a fun way to become more easy in the body, more relaxed in physical relationship with others, and more softly powerful in our movements. This power comes from more intelligent and adaptive movement, rather than from cultivating muscle mass or nervous reactive speed. The exercises begin with quite and subtle investigations, which then facilitate speed and 3 dimensional articulation in movement.
I started to develop this work back in the early 90s. While it continues to evolve, I already had the primary training exercises and functional ideas worked out by the late 90s and the theory behind what it is I was doing by about 2001 or 2002. It comes out of practices and theories I have been taught from Alexander technique, Tai Chi, Klein and Skinner based release techniques, and the repatterning/trauma work and theory of Peter Levine, as well as from my own personal experimentations working off of contact improvisation exercises using manipulation, surrender.
The basic premise of the work is to study how we use our bodies, to note the subtle-seeming unconscious glitches in our movements, and to practice inhibiting these glitches to allow for a greater freedom and ease of motion and greater moment to moment functional presence with the physics of our movement. The name comes from some of the primary exercises where one partner manipulates the other while they attempt to be passive or non-reactive and allow the manipulation to cause a sequencing of movement through the joints. In these passive sequencing exercises, glitches are exposed in the inability to remain non-reactive. In daily movement, these little glitches often lead to gross level inefficiencies of motion. We effectively work against the things we are trying to do. The more effort we put in, the harder we work against our intentions.
Peter Levine frames these glitches as ‘trauma’: movement patterns that dysfunctionally keep firing based on reactions to stress in our past (Levine, 1996). In his early work researching trauma, he watched films of animals that had gone into freeze state after being attacked by other animals. What he noticed was that if they were not killed and were given a chance to escape, they would shake as they came out of freeze. In slowing these films down, he saw that the shake was actually a rapid reassembly of the reflex patterns out of which the action they had been engaged in just prior to the freeze was composed. He theorized that humans have somehow evolved a strange capacity to bring ourselves into motion without this process of coming out of freeze. We are perpetually ready for freeze under the same circumstances, and this set of reflex actions keeps trying to reassemble or ‘complete’ itself, causing the dysfunctional reaction patterns typical of the trauma response.
Trauma in this sense is not unique to severe physical or emotional events. If we slow our movement down, we see within in it many of these uncontrolled glitches disrupting the efficient organization of our movement.
Levine’s strategy for dealing with trauma is ‘completion’: finding the moment of glitch, encouraging it to move further, and trying to allow space for the completion of the action that happened just before the initial freeze state that is being repeated. A wonderful thing about this work is that it does not necessitate an understanding or memory of the initiating event. The process is purely physical.
The Passive Sequencing work uses the same kind of theory, but the strategy is inhibition rather than completion: inhibit the glitch, rather than complete it.
The word ‘inhibition’ has gotten a bad rap from Freud. However, Freud conflated two different processes which we can differentiate as ‘suppression’ and ‘inhibition’. Suppression is the process that Freud (and many others through the centuries) rightly criticized: there is a process that is happening and then we block the process from continuing with resistance. In this way, the process is still happening, and we have just added a second process (the resistance) on top of it, so it is not allowed to manifest in a gross way. We can call the freeze state a temporary suppression in that the action is still highly primed underneath the freeze state. Trauma is a more long term suppression, when the action/freeze is cultivated as an ongoing response pattern.
The idea of ‘inhibition’, coined by F.M. Alexander but identical to certain traditional practices in Tai Chi and other internal martial arts training exercises, is to notice the glitch beginning and learn to simply not do it (Alexander, 1932). A gross analogy is that in suppression, one is pushing and then you add a pull, while in inhibition, one simply stops pushing. What inhibition means in practice is noticing the subtle shifts in body organization just before the glitch happens, and then track these part of the body in this moment and volitionally not reorganize oneself in this way… keep the breath moving, decline to tense specific muscles, etc..
Many schools of healing or movement repatterning fall into one or the other of these camps of ‘completion’ or ‘inhibition’. Completion schools might include Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing, Arnie Mindell’s Process Oriented Psychology, Orthobionomy, shamanic practices, and the paratheatrical work of Jerzy Grotowski (particularly les exercise plastiques and plastiques river). Inhibition schools would include Tai Chi training practices, Alexander technique, Skinner and Klein release techniques, Feldenkrais technique. It is my feeling that both of these basic approaches are very useful and can bring the individual to similar territories, if not to the same exact place.
What is that territory? It is a place of what Kumar Frantzis refers to in his writings on the internal martial arts as ‘speed of presence’(Frantzis, 1998). I have found Frantzis’s way of describing the situation in the martial arts to be relatively easy to understand, so I’ll parrot it here, but the same sorts of issues apply to all movement, not just fighting practices. Francis talks about 3 kinds of speed in the martial arts. Ranked from crudest to most refined, they would be ‘speed of movement’, ‘reaction speed’, and ‘speed of presence’.
‘Speed of Movement’ is how fast I can get my fist from point A to point B. All other things being equal, the fighter who has a great speed of movement will have more impact and get their punch through the other’s blocks. A certain amount of it is necessary, but in all but the most brutish fights, it is not what decides who wins. ‘Reaction Speed’ is how fast I can react to new information. In other words, when I see the punch coming, can I react fast enough with a block and counter punch? Most fighting systems stress this kind of speed, cultivating a wide array of movement vocabulary pieces and training in being able to pull them out of the bag of tricks more rapidly. The most refined type of speed, however is the ‘Speed of Presence’: how many times per second I can change my mind about what I am doing. The problem with cultivating simple reaction speed is that you are still basically throwing a blind action. Someone who has cultivated a greater speed of presence will be able to see the fixed blind action and change their mind about what they are doing in the split second before the other wakes up. The block/counter-punch combination is seen and the original punch turns into a joint lock and throw. The person who can keep changing their mind can out-adapt the other, often times while actually moving more slowly. To someone who has not trained this kind of speed of presence, it seems like magic, but it is just being more present in a very simple, material way.
An analogy would be watching a film. While in the ‘glitch state’, one might be seeing the world in 2 or 3 frames per second. It seems like a continuously observed reality, but one only has the chance to actually make one or two choices per second. When the glitch fires, a whole second of black-out can happen in which no choice is possible and action is blind and non-adapting. By learning to inhibit the glitch, not only is one not doing the dysfunctional reaction, but one’s perception opens up. One sees in more frames per second if you will and is able to make a dozen or more choices in the same second, adapting one’s movement as one goes. While Frantzis discusses the situation in martial practice, the same issues of presence and perception apply in all movement.
These are not ‘woo-woo’ esoteric issues, but phenomena that can be straightforwardly physically demonstrated in some relatively simple exercises. Toi Shou (Tai Chi push hands work) is an amazing practice for the study of this phenomena. The passive sequencing work is my attempt to show in relatively straightforward physical exercises these phenomena and to give a framework for working on them.
One of the advantages that something like passive sequencing work or Toi Shou has over a practice like Alexander technique or Klein technique is that it works directly with a partner, addressing one of the primary sources of trauma patterns in the body, stressful interaction with other people. In passive sequencing work, we expose and have a chance to work on interpersonal triggers related to fear reactions, hyperactive sense of responsibility, etc.. Because we are working with another person in physical contact, our triggers are activated and we have a chance to work on them.
Toward the beginning of this writing, I used the phrase ‘subtle seeming’ rather than ‘subtle’. ‘Subtle’ is not a quality of the phenomena being observed but of the observer and observation process. We call something ‘subtle’ when it is on the boundary of our being able to perceive. For most people, this is how this work begins, as something very subtle. However, over time, it becomes more and more obvious and we learn to see how it has gross level implications for how we move and live. I also use the word ‘trauma’, borrowed from Levine’s work. I hesitate to use the word, because it can come with a lot of emotional and conceptual baggage that I don’t mean to imply. I use it because of the convention from Levine’s work and because it does emerge out of observations with people dealing with trauma. I think the less loaded term ‘glitch’ might be more useful and so will use them interchangeably. It is good to drop the baggage so we can just watch what is actually happening, rather than construct of it something based on our concepts of trauma.
Finally, a note about contact improvisation. I’ve been teaching contact improvisation work since the mid 80s, and the passive sequencing work emerges out of my practice, though it is not characteristic of CI generally. It can be incredibly useful for anyone doing contact improvisation, allowing for more fluidity, soft power, intelligence in movement, and moment to moment freedom and physical pleasure. Contact improvisation is also a fantastic venue for the exploration of the principles and strategies of the passive sequencing work. Moreover the passive sequencing work can help enormously with the prevention of some of the knee and back injuries that happen with long time contact improv practitioners. It leads to a clearer sense of proprioception and ability to read one’s own and other bodies, and to a more easy relationship to movement and power, things whose usefulness extends well beyond CI.
Alexander, F. M. (1932). The Use of the Self. New York: E P Dutton.
Frantzis, B. K. (1998). The Power of Internal Martial Arts. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Levine, P. (1996). Memory, Trauma & Healing. Journal of Bio-Synthesis.