The Shen Tao Approach to physical conditioning is an artistic, scientific, and therapeutic process of mind-body communication. It is grounded in the principles of cybernetic theory, neuro-linguistic programming, motor learning theory, sports psychology, hypnosis, and self relations. Its application was developed through interviews with hundreds of professional dancers, gymnasts, athletes, and martial artists. The result is a practical approach to attaining a state of peak performance.
Bill Hedberg developed Shen Tao over a thirty year career as a contemporary dancer and movement educator. Bill performed nationally and internationally with a number of companies, including Elise Monte/David Brown, the Erick Hawkins Dance Company, Douglas Dunn and Dancers, and the Tunisian National Ballet.
Bill's career as a movement educator began with pilates and gyrotonics as well as teaching contemporary modern dance technique. Bill holds degrees and/or certifications in the disciplines of anatomy and kinesiology, Laban movement analysis, neuro-linguistic programming, ericksonian hypnosis, myofascial restructuring and deep tissue massage.
I spoke with Hedberg at the Shen Tao Studio — a large loft on Park Avenue that houses a complex collection of his equipment, all hand crafted by Hedberg himself. We spoke about this unique approach to movement training and therapy.
In this age of decreasing physical activity and overworked brain activity, how do we come home to ourselves in the most efficient and effective manner? How do we train intensively without self violence? How do we efficiently harness our cognitive and somatic selves in service of a healthy vibrant life?
KC: What are some of the similarities and differences between Shen Tao and other exercise modules like gym-training, pilates, or gyrotonics?
BH: Shen means the body; Tao is the flow of life. Essentially, we are studying how life works within the confines of our own bodies.
One of the missions of the Shen Tao Studio is to contribute to a shift in values in the current personal training industry. Personal training should be considered a service industry. Its not supposed to be all about the teacher, the name brand, the title, such as "Pilates is better than yoga'"or "his is the correct way to align your spine." This sectarian view can alienate practitioners from different disciplines and make potentially valuable information inaccessible.
Although all movement educators must make a living, when we focus primarily on profit within these dance education systems [like dance therapy, reiki, yoga], it's possible to loose sight of how delicate, and potentially sacred our work can be. We are, after all, dealing with matters of the soul. I love watching people's eyes get shinier when they discover new things about their process and bodies. When they feel empowered, when they find agency in relationship to their work and their lives. I love to see them awaken to a potential that they didn't know existed, watch how they manifest their dreams.
For this reason, I aim to make Shen Tao an approach that puts the authority into the students' hands. I do my best to mediate the relationship between somatic and cognitive minds. I seem to contribute to people becoming their own masters. My goal is to patch the conscience mind into the soul (somatic self), thus creating a self-regulating system where authority and ownership belong to the individual. When this process is happening, we create the proper conditions to love, create, and be human at a potentially soulful level.
You have a rich history as a professional dancer and performer. Can you speak to the challenges that performing artists face in terms of accessing their full potential?
Imagine someone taking a dog out on a leash for a walk. Your mind is equated to the owner who is leading this enormous dog, your somatic (soul) self. There are three metaphoric relationships: when we train from an "exercise'"state, this equates to the owner dominating the dog with abusive and violent control. In martial arts this is referred to as "holding too tightly." We drag the dog, growling and biting, to the treadmill. On the opposite spectrum is the option of the dog dragging the owner down the street. Under these circumstances, we can compromise our self-discipline, technical facility, the potential to dance our physical potential.
The question is: how can we create the proper conditions through training in order to have our bodies both to teach us how they want us to move and receive guidance from the conscience mind? If we do that effectively, the body will be hungry for more movement. In a perfect world, our bodies would want to initiate and collaborate in the physical conditioning.
Shen Tao strives to find this balance by emphasizing several sensory-based distinctions: quality of movement, phrasing, dynamics, timing, and rhythm. The sophistication is in the epistemology underlying the exercise vocabulary — there are many similarities in the high-end movement styles like gymnastics, ballet, or martial arts. But it's really the emotional piece that seems to be most relevant. You can train or exercise from anger, but the subtler emotions don't often have a place. I'm curious about how to weave emotional expression into physical conditioning.
Can you speak to how the principles of Shen Tao can be applied to achieving our full potential?
If there is something vital to what I'm offering, it would be the approach to self in order to reach one's potential. The suggestion is to do one's practices, whatever they are, be it in relationships, physical conditioning, or performance art as deeply as possible. How do we organize our internal process (thinking), internal state (emotion), and external behavior (technique or action) in such a way that they support each other?
Moving towards the cutting edge of our potential is a key value — cutting edge in relationship to our personal goals –whether it is traveling the world, dancing at the highest possible level, or loving with the least defensiveness. Whichever context of life you choose to focus on, you will need to think effectively and clearly and you will need to cooperate with emotions, whether it is destabilizing sorrow or joy.
This sounds great. How do we delve into this journey with Shen Tao?
That is the organizing question that has shaped my explorations over the last thirty years. How do we patch the mental intelligence into the somatic self? How do I utilize attention effectively in terms of how I think, feel, and sponsor my body so that I get the most benefits every second of training? It is really about efficiency.
Whenever possible, I suggest there is great value in going deeper into kinesthetic attention. Kinesthetic information contains far more information than imagery or internal mental dialogue.
Once we establish an efficient cognitive/somatic self interface, we then focus on a physiological level. We work to open, coordinate, strengthen, and traction our bodies, to find the most efficient way of moving.
What are proper conditions for opening flesh and muscular blockages? We must shift our conscience awareness to the kinesthetic representational system, feeling and staying present.
The proper conditions for coordination include learning how to sense gravity and to have clear visual imagery where our body parts are in space. This is accomplished by translating kinesthetic sensation into visual imagery using what is called the proprioceptive system. If you can't feel where your body parts are, it is hard to organize them to arrive at a specific place/time.
If we've opened the joints and coordinated the body, we've created the proper conditions for strength training. If you take your joints from one end of their range to the other in a coordinated manner, under stress, you will gain strength, muscular efficiency, while keeping the tissue open.
We can create a state of traction by dragging or drawing bones away from each other. Stretching is muscular; tractioning is skeletal. Muscular/tendonous tissue must be warmed up prior to tractioning the bones.
Any approach to training that doesn't address all of these principles will not give you grace and power out in the world. Any system that stretches your muscles but makes us rigid out in the world will not lead you to your full potential.
What are some techniques you use in class that help to do this?
There are numerous sub-intelligences within the ecosystem of the human psyche. One example that is rarely recognized is the intelligence of the immune system, which makes distinctions like "this is a bacterium, this is not."
We begin class with the suggestion that both intelligences (somatic and cognitive) have separate but mutually dependent roles as well as a collaborative relationship to one another. Shen Tao draws on specific techniques from the disciplines from hypnosis and meditation.
When I was studying these techniques, I wondered how you organize the internal perceptual systems like pictures, words, in order to access that relational presence. Of course this process varies, but systems like neurolinguistic programming [a discipline that maps out how we use the eye system, the internal sound processing system, and internal dialogue] and hypnosis offer cues or clues.
The goal is to create what my mentor, Stephen Gilligan, refers to as the "relational self." This requires a shift of the role of the cognitive mind away from dominance into a shared intelligence.
When I was doing my initial interdisciplinary training, this capacity seemed to be the difference that made the difference in terms of peak performance. This awareness was surprisingly similar to what some athletes call "the zone."
In order to create the proper conditions for this "zone," it can be helpful to tone down our "monkey mind." One technique is to incorporate techniques like rapid blinking combined with sharp exhaling [similar to kapalabati].
Your machines are so intricate and complex. Mini trampolines and ladders and levers and pulleys mixed with massage equipment and weights. Why the variety?
The soul is like a two-year-old. My question is how do we keep it interested in class? We approach each exercise in a variety of tempos (super slow to fast) and textures in order to create the environment where your body wants to learn. My machines and techniques are inroads into embedding the body's longing to change on a somatic level into the body. We want to work in a focused but playful environment.
Any culture or community in which the subjects of that community obey the laws in fear or in respect of the laws or penalties of that community (for fear of consequence) — its civilization is already doomed. . However, if the individuals of that community stear not from the external circumstances, but from internal dialogue, it will be okay.
This world is full of minds that are making decisions that are isolated from the compassionate center. If this work can do any part to patch people into their own self-regulating conscience place, we will know how to react from a more present, compassionate place. Like the poet Rilke says: "Anything will reveal its secrets to you if you love it enough."
Shen Tao Studio has classes for all levels of experience. Please check their schedule at www.shentaostudio.com