by Owen Lipstein January/February 2009
Stepping into David Brown’s Bodycode Studio in Hudson, New York, is like going back to the future. Over the years, he has collected, refurbished and handcrafted from scratch Pilates machines that appear ancient in design but operate with the straightforward simplicity of modern contraptions. The copper and mahogany equipment is used to stretch and align the bodies Brown has been decoding for more than 30 years.
With a background in dance, movement, Pilates and gyrotonics, he uses manual therapies, passive stretching and dynamic postural assessment to help people integrate their muscle use, correct dysfunctional breathing patterns, and balance body with mind. The neurological re-education Brown offers at his small wellness center—where you’ll also find a massage therapist, an acupuncturist, an aesthetician, an infrared sauna, and natural body- and skin-care products—is a holistic approach that goes beyond just physical fine-tuning.
Owen Lipstein has been working with Brown for several months.
Owen Lipstein: Tell us a little bit about your background as a dancer and a healer.
David Brown: Well, you know, first I’m going to call you on the “healer” thing. It’s a word I do not use—don’t aspire to use. I’m quite suspicious of it, in a way. Because I would imagine healing is so open-ended, and that term is so closed and defining. If [healing] is a result of what happens, great, but it cannot be the starting point for me, mostly because I feel like I immediately get in the trenches with somebody and it’s their body that’s going to heal.
But anyway, when I was a child, my sister danced in Jamaica, and I used to go into class and watch her. Then when I was 15, I was playing percussion for a dance class in Toronto. At one point I thought, How come they’re not really getting this? I’m giving them a really clear beat and people are missing it. So what’s the connection here?
And then I thought, in that moment, I’ll start dancing.
So I went on the other side of the drums, and started dancing. I realized that it’s one thing to have clear information; it’s another thing to translate it—and translate it into our bodies. It was much later that I started thinking about that more deeply.
I joined the [Martha] Graham [Dance] Company when I was 21. I was a principle dancer with Martha. I loved it, because one of the nice things about working with someone like Martha Graham is they can see to a tee what you’re doing. They witness what you do, so their response really has meaning.
OL: And how did your work as a dancer translate into the work you do now?
DB: I was riding a horse during a tour in Egypt and I tore both my hamstring muscles. I was 24, and couldn’t dance any more. I went to a Pilates teacher, Kathy Grant—one of two people certified by Joe Pilates, and a woman of wonderful precision. We had a dance company called Monte/Brown Dance. In 25 years, we toured over 45 countries. I’ve worked with very fine-tuned bodies, and the systems of the body became more and more interesting to me. It’s hard to really watch movement—especially up close, with a discerning eye. Visually I learned a lot.
OL: When I first came to see you, you were listening, but it wasn’t so much to what I was saying. You were really looking at me, at my movement. Watching closely. Is that part of your technique?
DB: Well, that’s interesting. But the approach is not about technique. I’ll use anything under the sun to work with the body: dance, Pilates, gyrotonics, yoga. Anything that I have studied. I think that when I see somebody—just because I’ve looked so much and I’ve had that as a starting point—the body tells it all. I’m just getting to a point where I can begin to articulate it. I’m not saying that it’s so terribly special, what I’m doing.
Here’s what I do think, though: There is nothing new in the work. There is a new approach, but the emphasis is not about the technique.
OL: There’s a phrase in [T.S. Eliot’s] Four Quartets, “concentration without elimination,” meaning that usually when you concentrate, you have to eliminate stuff. But you’re looking at the whole thing. To me, that’s your technique.
DB: Concentration without elimination.
OL: Utter focus. When I walk in there, I feel for this moment in time that I have this remarkable person who’s completely concentrated on me…
DB: …on seeing what you’re doing.
DB: And helping you to see it.
OL: And you feel naked and vulnerable, but also very helped.
DB: You know why the concentration is there? Because the body is constantly shifting. And to see that, you’ve got to ride it. You have to pay attention. It’s out of necessity, Owen, not out of any special thing I’m bringing to it. The job demands it.
I [also] have to model that kind of attention for the person to call onto themselves. Most of us are not called on to concentrate, even professionals. We think in bullet points. We think in these amalgamated, conceptualized moments, whereas a body is a steady, maintaining stream. That’s what’s interesting to me.
OL: You’ve gone from working with professional dancers, people who by definition are attuned to the nuances of their bodies, to working with very clearly mortals—myself included.
DB: We do assume that people who work with their bodies—dancers, especially—are more fine-tuned. For me, the difference—when I look at a body—is not that huge between somebody who’s a dancer and somebody who’s not. One’s like a racing car, and the other one is not geared up for that, but…
OL: I sort of think of myself as a racing car… Just kidding.
DB: Anyway, what is intriguing to me is the depth. In order to change anything in our body-mind relationship, we first have to see it. And dancers—even though they’re highly tuned—can be equally blind. Maybe even more so, because there is a greater usage of their bodies. But the usage part started to bore me, like: “A few more inches…turn a little bit faster.” That started to lose interest for me, the goals that limited.
I have a very eclectic group of clients—different socio-economic strata, different physical abilities, ages 8 to 80 years old, men and women. They’re all trying to bring something into balance. It may be chronic pain, an old or recent injury, or just a desire to be more in alignment with their own movement.
OL: How do you describe the process that happens when somebody new walks in?
DB: For me, there’s a sense of responsibility to begin to intrigue a person with themselves. To actually engage them—not with what they want to do, or what their goals in coming to the studio are. I want to hear their history, and I want to hear them articulate it. As it starts to come out, it’s the body’s history that’s being charted. The body tells it all.
What’s really interesting is when parts of the body start to move and come awake and the person will say, “Oh my God. I fell off a ladder eight years ago, and I hurt my right rib. That’s why.”
I do process, for quite a while, a new person coming in. They’re in my bloodstream somehow. And then, through a series of subtle adjustments and guiding, I start making suggestions to the body—trying to bring the person into an awareness of how their body is organized.
OL: I was trying to explain to someone why, for example, I trusted you.
DB: I immediately start to become an advocate for the body. That’s what I feel I’m being engaged for, what my teaching’s about. [The body] is the teacher I’m working with, and [I] represent the body to [my clients.] I think that’s why people trust me: They feel, maybe, that I am talking on their [bodies’] behalf.
OL: I think that’s right—that there’s this thing that we walk around in, and you’re kind of representing its interest. A body that’s a work in progress—you talk about it, and you pay attention to it in a slightly different way than I’m used to.
DB: If you ask me what I think people are turned on about, it’s a sense of, “Wait a minute. I’m beginning to navigate this damn thing. I’m beginning to steer it, and make choices with it.” Whatever trajectory our bodies are on, that’s what they’re going to continue doing. Sometimes I think it’s not in the best interest of the person—physically, and some of the things that go along with that mentally—to continue down that path.
OL: So, you try to change the outcome from how it might otherwise evolve?
DB: Right. Most of us take that idea of the new start—new promise, new energy—and it gets thwarted, because we try and add on without checking the foundation. Most people think about putting additions on their homes. But I start with the basement: What can this foundation sustain?
If you’re engaged in creating your own internal architecture, automatically your ability to pay attention increases. This builds mental as well as physical strength. It’s remarkable—people’s bodies and minds begin to stabilize.
I think it is about being mindful. The hard part about working on our bodies is that it is so incredibly familiar to us that we do not see it. We do not see our habitual usage of the body.
OL: You taught me that we don’t see a whole lifetime of habits in ourselves, like the way I hold my shoulder.
DB: We don’t see our habits. I mean, habit almost means it’s parallel to not seeing. The very first thing is to pay attention to what we’re doing. It sounds like an easy statement. But trust me, it’s not. In most scenarios, a good teacher is helping you to see yourself.
OL: That’s sort of your thing, right? “You’re doing this, this and this. Do you want to keep doing this? You can. But we can change it a little bit.”
DB: I pay attention to what is not moving—the moving part is obvious.
OL: But when you say “not moving,” you mean what? Not changing, not evolving?
DB: Some of us move our hips and our body, our shoulders, chest and head more than others. But our primary connections are through peripheral extensions: arms, feet, fingers. That’s how we interact with the world. And yet, the real strength of the body is not in the hands, the feet, the legs. It’s in the core: the stable place where the movement originates from, or should originate from.
OL: How do you explain your fanatical following? Is there a common denominator?
DB: Fanatical following? I think it’s because I’m fanatical about them. I am devoted to the people I’m working with. I’m [currently] working with a brain-damaged fellow. He’s the ultimate metaphor for the code being buried in the body. He had a car accident 15 years ago [and] was in a coma for six months.
When I first touched him, I had an instant feeling that all of his pathways—his nervous system—[were] rooted correctly. But he could not direct the traffic through his system. He had to learn to walk [outside] of the hospital, and no one really focused on [helping him] put that together in an organized manner.
My goal with him is 100 percent rehabilitation of his body. So he and I are on the quest.
OL: But when you’re working with someone, the body has the knowledge, right?
DB: Yes. Function is inherent in the form. If it wasn’t, nada mas—you cannot do anything, in my opinion. The body’s very smart: It will teach itself.