Moshe Feldenkrais once said that he wasn’t after flexible bodies, but flexible minds. I had a recent experience of that you might enjoy hearing about that has some bearing on our current situation.
In recent training, we had an exercise in which we had to tackle a tricky problem — moving through space in order to dodge, evade, or be in harmony with people who were, for the point of the exercise, coming through our own space. And to do that we were provided with a very specific tool — one particular piece of footwork, which worked brilliantly when performed well, and which fell apart when done poorly. At a certain point we each got to be the people weaving in and around those coming through our space, in order not only to make it easier for the group to manage it, but also to observe how we reacted to the people coming towards us.
This exercise made it very explicit that the incoming people were a living metaphor for “the difficulties one faces in life,” and the particular technique in stepping was a way to keep moving forwards (without getting crashed into). In other words, that technique allowed one to “swim upstream” rather than simply retreating in the face of difficulty. It was a great stepping technique, and I’ve already begun to steal it for my fencing class. But there are useful insights all around us that we can draw, and most of the best ones come from all the times we failed to step in just the right way. Things went wrong, and we could see ourselves and our fellow trainees react to “things gone wrong” in very different ways.
“Never let a crisis go to waste.” — old political proverb.
The world is in pandemic. We’re “living through history” as one wag put it, and there’s some real truth to that. With the incoming difficulties coming our direction, do we have the tools to keep moving forward? Or do we need to retreat, avoid, consolidate, or do something other than “making progress?” More specifically, with tempers occasionally fraying and all the partisan nonsense of an election year, what tools do you see your peers and neighbors using to solve their problems?
You can guarantee that in the face of serious difficulty, your friends and neighbors have picked the best tool they know how to use. If they’re failing, and especially if they’re being aggravating in the process, is that because, as my daughter calls it, they’re “being butt-cakes” that day? Or do they not have the tool for the job in their quiver? And how much better could their lives be if they had options available that let them move forward with less strain and dependence upon willpower?
It’s a lot easier to be sympathetic to people when you can recognize “oh. He’s not being a jerk on purpose. He’s suffering because the only way he knows how to handle the current situation isn’t working for him.”
Awareness Through Movement classes such as I’m teaching online Tuesday nights are a lot like that. They’re “movement puzzles,” so to speak, where you try to follow the given directions, and sometimes it’s just a fun piece of cake. But most of the time, they’re tricky and difficult, especially if we’re trying to perform them well. The real learning then comes in, as we recognize our interior selves reacting to the spectre of failure, and looking for what our next choices might be. We might strain. We might move faster, or with less attention. We might stop. We might pause, and try again much, much more slowly.
Specifically, it’s the crisis of having to change your go-to plans and go-to habits that creates the opportunity for growth!
And the better you get at being able to switch gears and find the best approach to your situation, one which lets you prosper and thrive regardless of the circumstances around you, the better it becomes for everybody else sharing your world. Instead of “do the thing, but just do it faster and harder and more,” we can choose to do the same thing in a different way, or to try new approaches entirely. We’re developing more flexible minds, and with it, perhaps more patience for those who are doing the best they can, with the tools they know how to use, when those tools aren’t the best for the job.
Would you like to see it in action for yourself? Come join our online class on Tuesday nights. 🙂
Let’s talk about flexibility again in a deeper way. Particularly for people who find themselves getting frustrated easily — especially those of us who are trying to be high-achievers and are stereotypically hag-ridden by Impostor Syndrome.Flexibility is also ease, poise, and the ability to change shape. That’s not just “can I yank on my muscle fibers to lengthen them.”
It’s also “oh, I had three clients cancel this week and my kids want to go to the park on Sunday,” can I leave my valid aggravation where it sits, rather than staying in “frustration-land” and taking my grown-up frustrations out on a bunch of kids who just want to play and have fun?
Being “off balance” is no fun for anybody, but it applies emotionally as well. The neat trick about our nervous system, though, is that it doesn’t distinguish between the two.Really.Try this. The next time you get frustrated by “that time adulting wasn’t much fun,” right before you go to do the next thing, just close your eyes and very gently teeter-totter left and right until you can clearly sense “what’s left,” “what’s right,” and how they’re different from “what feels like neither left nor right.”If you do that, it becomes, like magic, much easier to remember the things for which we’re grateful, rather than the things that make us want to go chew on a lamp-post.
What’s happening is that you’re talking to the nerves that control the multifidis, a set of muscles alongside your spine. And in doing so, you step OUT of the nervous system pattern/organization of “frustration” and back into the one called “balanced.”
If you remove the frustration pattern, where does the frustration go? Nowhere. It’s just a pattern that you experience emotionally. Long-time Awareness Through Movement students develop the ability to do this almost-instinctually, and have a MUCH easier time shrugging off stress than their peers.
Give it a shot!
6 Fridays, 6-7 pm, March 13 through April 17 – $100
Poise: Balance. Grace under Pressure.
Get it, Keep it, Refine it.
Why do some people seem to roll with all the world’s sudden changes, and perform effortlessly in front of others, and other people have trouble “getting out of their own way?”
The secret is breath and balance, and those secrets can be unlocked and learned — more easily than you might believe possible! Rediscover just how easy it can be to stay calm, centered, and ready to perform at your very best — whether that’s on a stage or in the office.
Open to adults and children: Great Hearts students especially welcome.
Sign up for the series HERE.
To try out class on a one-off basis, schedule a drop-in attendance HERE.
(On rare occasion RBR must bump classes for special events — in this case we will reschedule for a following Friday)
A three-credit CEU course for Massage Therapists (for only $100!)
Monday, March 9, 2020 at 12 PM – 3 PM
Held at: Warlord Combat Academy, 1915 Peters Rd., Ste. 108 Irving TX 75061
You learn proper stance in massage school. But what you *don’t* get taught is how to use a stool. Stools are an invaluable tool for any massage therapist who wants to extend his or her career and perform with greater finesse. This class teaches when and why a therapist would use a stool. It will also teach you how!
You’ll learn the body mechanics of using a stool to keep your body in alignment and in good working order, whether standing, sitting or in between.
Fore more details please see the event page here:
(Or, why “fast twitch and slow twitch” might not mean what you think they do.)
I work with a lot of people who have strain injuries of one sort or another. A strong number of those are people who blow me away in almost every physical category, yet who I can either toss around at will, or else who are desperately trying to avoid becoming a wreck as strain injuries they don’t know how to handle gradually pile up.
After seeing a lot of people who have worked really hard while being blatantly mal-trained (as, to be clear, I was myself during ten years as a savateur), a lot of the problem seems to be a culture floating around the physical fitness industry regarding “fast twitch” vs “slow twitch” muscle fibers. The athletic world and the world of “movers” in general (athletes, martial artists, dancers, etc) puts a LOT of emphasis on explosive movement, and hence on “fast twitch” muscle fiber. And that’s because it’s instantly and intuitively obvious that without the ability to move explosively, your ability to participate is greatly limited.
And in an athletic contest where one person can move explosively and the other cannot, the outcome is a foregone conclusion unless the latter has a huge experience/training advantage (in my world of fencers and fighters, what we call “scary old man syndrome”).
The problem is that while most competent trainers know the difference between these muscle fibers, not all of them understand the neurology of their use and why they exist in the first place, and thus there is a huge over-emphasis on explosive-movement training, at the expense of carefully-detailed movements.
Again, to be clear: competent personal trainers know this stuff. And quality teachers know this stuff (I worked last week to help an older gentleman who runs a dance company — you had better believe he knows the difference between smooth and explosive, and which belongs where!)
But the Internet has a habit of repeating things in a sort of dumbed-down way, and a lot of people are absorbing mis-stated information in a way that’s resulting in injuries.
You have two basic types of muscules: postural muscles, and phasic muscles. If you cook a turkey, the postural muscles are the “dark meat,” and the phasic muscles the “white meat.” (Look at where that meat sits on a turkey… it becomes pretty obvious why each is where they are pretty quickly!)
The postural, aka “slow twitch” muscles are weaker — dramatically weaker — than the “fast twitch” phasic muscles. But “fast twitch” doesn’t mean “faster to execute.” The “Twitch” in these fibers’ names is in regard to how quickly they exhaust. “Slow twitch” fibers are called that because they may not be strong, but they’re long-lasting, and they come into action before the phasic muscles do.
No vertebrate could survive out of water with rapidly-exhausting postural muscles.
Easy example: postural muscles work all the time to counter-act gravity, mostly without any conscious awareness on your part. But ever accidentally exhausted the muscles in your jaw? Wasn’t that fun?
So why does this matter, and where does the Feldenkrais Method come in? Well, put simply, for you to avoid injuring your joints with explosive movements, you need to be able to get yourself into an alignment where you can muster your awesome athletic and artistic forces properly. The slow-twitch fibers are actually the first to be recruited once you have an idea of the movement you intend to do, in order to get your skeleton into position to “do the thing” properly so that you can jump, throw, swing, twist, dive, etcetera, easily, fluidly, and without strain.
Otherwise, even if you’re not in a squat rack, performing these activities with bad alignment tears up your body just as surely as would trying to perform a heavy squat or deadlift while standing knock-kneed. Anthony Bourdain, before he passed, used to lament the long-term damage he’d done to his hand just using a whisk. And any string musician can tell you what “bad form” will do to your wrists and elbows.
Conversely, strenuous, explosive actions look and even feel easy, when you have “good form,” that is, when your skeleton is properly aligned to express the work that the phasic muscles are about to bust out (on your opponent, in your performance, etc).
From an actual conversation I had just last night after I was riding a beginning fencer on his lunge form and talking about why I did so with a couple of veteran bystanders:
Me: “It’s like that old fencing joke….Ouch.
‘What do you call a fencer with good knees?’
Fencer 1: laughs and shakes his head
Fencer 2: “Non-existent?”
One of the places where The Feldenkrais Method excels is in helping people to get a better grip on just what they’re doing with their postural muscles, so that when they do “bust the moves,” they suddenly find that they’re not having to work so darned hard to do it. So comfort improves, endurance improves, and repetitive strains diminish.
As an athlete or “mover,” you don’t have to endure all that constant pain. By working with your breath and balance and how you prepare yourself to perform any given activity, you can rediscover what it’s like to move freely and easily, so that even after strenuous activity, you can enjoy “the good sore,” not “the bad strain pains.”
Practice doesn’t make perfect: in the words of Loris Beckles, “practice makes consistent.” Whether that’s “consistently pleasant” or “consistently painful” is up to you.
As a side note, if that discussion about fencers and knees hit a little too close to home, check out Basic Body Mechanics for Martial Artists, a book written by somebody who’s been there, for those who would prefer not to be.
Stumbled onto a great little article about stretching and yoga, entitled “Stretching doesn’t work (the way you think it does).” One of the “money quotes” I’d like to discuss this week is the following:
She discovered this idea – that if we stretch more and stretch harder that our tissue will change – was untrue. In reality, we are not lumps of clay that can be molded by persistently tugging on things. This is because our nervous systems are running the show.
This is exactly correct. Even massage fundamentally is not about taking clay and mashing on it until the client magically becomes “relaxed,” but introducing changes into tissue so that peoples’ nervous systems can recognize the change and make adjustments.
The author to which the blogger is referring is dead on the money, and the people who aren’t improving aren’t gaining flexibility as they stretch because their nervous systems have them on “lockdown.” And that happens for very, VERY good reasons. There’s a part of you I call “the cash register” that knows the exact status of every muscle — and muscle fiber!– in your body, and it will not allow those muscles to lengthen if doing so would threaten your balance. Because we are bipeds and for us, balance is literally synonymous with survival.
So if you’re a yoga practitioner who wants to get into an asana, or a yoga instructor who wants your clients to be able to get into and then stay in an asana long enough to reap its very deep benefits, the first thing you have to recognize is that you’re not an assembly of mechanical joints needing oil – that old mechanistic vision has been outdated for decades now.
No. You’re a thinking, breathing being making thousands of assessments per second about how tight or loose you need to be for a given situation — you do not want to be super-flexible and hyper-mobile when squatting three times your bodyweight!
The great strength of The Feldenkrais Method is that we go straight to the source and teach the nervous system directly. And the great news about that, is that the better you get at learning, the more that learning generalizes and the less and less you have to be trapped inside a box where one of these two fitness pictures strikes you as “I can do that!” but the other one is synonymous with “no wayyyyy.”
Want to know more?
No, not the CIA thing where people imagined themselves drawing pictures of enemy infrastructure. It would be a very different world if we could imagine what our friends and loved ones were doing throughout the day…. accurately. Maybe it would even be a better one, though I suspect most of us would consider it a markedly creepier instead.
In this case, I’m referring to a lovely article demonstrating that we handle tools as if they really were “extensions of ourselves,” in spite of the face that said tools don’t have any nerves with which to help us sense with them. We can tell how things make contact with inanimate objects we’re holding. How cool and weird is that?
As a fencer, it’s common to say “the sword is an extension of your arm.” And that’s more or less accurate. (It would be more accurate, and also more confusing, to say that the sword is an extension of your feet!)
Turns out, it’s super cool….but not at all weird.
You see, your bones don’t have nerves, either. So all our sensing of what happens with our bones is indirect and “through a mirror darkly.” That’s why descriptions of bones cooperating in traditional cultures frequently fall back on ideas like “chi flow” (e.g., if you’re a Tai Chi player, peng, ji, lu, an). If you’re well-organized, you can feel something moving around and providing support out to your head or hands, but… “what is that darned thing I’m feeling?”
And if you’re sore as heck and not sure why you’re sore as heck, figuring out what it is you’re feeling gives you better access to those bones, as well as whatever tools you happen to be holding at the time, and how to use all of them better.
It’s a win win.
sneaky clever nervous system…!
As I get into middle age, I find that I’m not afraid of the usual stuff. Death? Been (almost) there, (almost) done that. Everybody’s story has a beginning, and everybody’s story will have an end. Disease? Meh. Kind of the same thing. You do your best and make your choices.
No. What I fear, is fear. Times change, and every year is different from the last, and my fear is that I will find myself retreating to the sterile comfort of the familiar, while the completely amazing world continues to beckon with beauty and opportunity. People to see, things to do.
That’s a big part of what attracts me to Awareness Through Movement classes, and why I teach them.
In Awareness Through Movement, we might say that we do these strange movements not because they’re hard (that would be Classical Gymnastics and Pilates, where you become strong by trying to function from a position of outright mechanical disadvantage), but precisely because the movements are strange to us. I love Awareness Through Movement and honestly believe that it can be pursued as a form of “enlightenment practice.” And anybody who knows me can tell you, I’m not into fluffy words, so I don’t use the word “enlightenment” lightly.
I don’t think that’s for all the myriad physical benefits that one can gain using the Feldenkrais Method, but because of the nature of the Method itself. Moshe Feldenkrais created something truly unique, using movement in order to get to something much more profound.
In a class, we have something like the following:
- You’re invited to do something with your body, usually something a bit unusual.
- You’re not shown how to do it, but reminded to take care of yourself while you give it a shot.
- You try to do it, while having your attention brought to various parts of the process.
- Somehow a miracle occurs, and like magic, you learn. And after a while of doing that, you hurt less, and you can do more, with more ease. Put simply — your life gets easier.
Most of the time when people refer to the benefit of these group classes, they focus on Step Four, Where Students Become Awesome(tm). But what if we took it right off the top, instead?
How many times have you been confronted with some action or activity and had a reaction that can be summarized as “Oh, I can’t do that?” Our habits of mind fall into a rut, and anything outside of that becomes threatening to our self-image. I’m no stranger to that. Pushing fifty, I’m keenly aware that I don’t relate to technology the same way that my child does.
What would your life be like, on the other hand, if, when presented with some new and unexpected or novel activity (whether that’s calculus, painting, surfing, home repair…insert list here), we were able to try doing new things in a state of complete emotional ease, without hint of strain or anxiety? What if we could entertain new ideas (or old ones!) without being imprisoned by the ideas, skills, and habits that we currently say are “ours,” but which can be our prison just as easily as they can be our capacity?
I am not after flexible bodies; I am after flexible minds.-Moshe Feldenkrais
To begin with, the Internet would be a much more pleasant place.
In Awareness Through Movement classes, we are, literally, learning how to pay attention to ourselves, and thus take better care of ourselves in order that we can happily outgrow ourselves, and become the kinds of people who can embrace every opportunity we desire, rather than recoiling in inner turmoil at the (very real) terror of living better lives in a better world, because the price tag of learning how to do that is more than we know how to pay.
In Awareness Through Movement, we aren’t just getting more relaxed or limber. We’re not even just “learning how to learn.” We’re learning how to learn easily, so that when we’re confronted by the ever-changing, ever-accelerating world, the price of curiosity is something we can pay out of our emotional pocket-change. Opportunities and responsibilities move to feeling more like “fun and adventure,” and less like “stresses, strains, and burdens.”
Who would you like to be, if this were you?
Who could you become?
(Would you like to find out?)
“When you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”-Moshe Feldenkrais
I’m sitting on my bench at my table this morning, writing a blog post. I’ve notice that I have a couple old injuries saying hello today, but nothing serious or able to slow me down (which is nice). And I’m thinking about a scan that I’m using this month for classes, that I’d like to share with you (on the assumption that if you’re reading this, you’re into all that “self-improvement stuff”) because if you were never to work with me, but ONLY did this once a morning, I think you’d find yourself having an easier time with things. Or, conversely, if you’re thinking about working with me but wondering whether I’m a nut-job, you could try this on for size.
[Narrator: He was indeed a nut-job. But he was a nut-job in their favor.]
A “scan” is shorthand for a way in which one encourages students to check in with themselves before and during lessons, to sense what’s happening in their bodies.
It’s very simple. Our bodies are “tensegrity structures,” which is a five-dollar way of saying that if you pull on any one part, you’re pulling on all the parts, and thus changing its shape, in exactly the way a marionette moves and a rock doesn’t.
So this week I’m asking my students to chill out on their backs and notice, as they breathe which parts of themselves want to move as their diaphragms change their shape, and which points are Rated R for Rock, or even U for Unknown, by the Moving Body Association of How Do You Feel Right Now While Breathing?
(I recommend that ALL of my students breathe daily. Weird, I know…)
And then, in the very next breath, I’m asking them to be happy with whatever they find. Because the part of us that thinks isn’t the same part that determines the levels of ease and tension found inside our bodies. We have to move in order to sense, and we have to use words in order to think. That’s pretty amazing. As an infant, you sensed, but for the most part, thoughts as we adults know them weren’t a thing. So you can call the part of you that gets ideas about things your “Word Processor.”
“Can you back that up/walk your talk” is a phrase for a reason. You can’t, unfortunately, word your way into being awesome at playing the violin, dunking on people, or reigning supreme among your fellow nerds at lightsaber dueling.
(In case there was any doubt, yes, I am a member of The Nerd Tribe)
There’s a different part of your brain, a more primitive part, which takes over when there’s an emergency, that I call the Cash Register. Like the cash register in a giant grocery stores that knows exactly what’s on sale across 20+ whole aisles of produts, your motor cortex/”Cash Register” knows exactly how much contraction and de-contraction there is in every single muscle spindle and fiber in your body.
The Cash Register is really, really good at doing all the movement you take for granted all day long. It’s really lousy at writing sonnets. So the first thing you want to do if you’d like to improve yourself and be better at doing things (or better at doing them while hurting a lot less, and with my injury history, believe me, I’m sympathetic to that), is to recognize not what you want yourself to be, but what your pattern of ease and tension is, and to be grateful for all the stiff spots we’d usually grump at.
Counter-Intuitive? Yes, and that was one of Moshe Feldenkrais’ incredible insights. Those spots rated R for Rock and U for Unknown are part of protective patterns that your Cash Register has set stiff, because unlike the “sale items” that are “set to move” (yes, I went there), it knows where all your difficulties are, where you’re in balance and out of balance, and where you’ve just plain gotten injured, and has set the stiff muscles stiff for your protection and that’s usually, to be entirely frank, so that you don’t fall on your ass.
The first step isn’t to try to turn yourself into a robotic, “idealized” version of who you think you ought to be, but to get much, much better at noticing who you actually are. When you get better and better at noticing “oh, I’m doing THIS,” your balance will improve (it’s hard to be balanced if you don’t know where you are, after all), and you’ll also get better and better at refining whatever “this” is so that it’s a lot more simple, elegant, pain-free, and fun. The “Store manager” (that’s your pre-frontal cortex, for those of you who are into the applied neurology) will notice things that could be put on sale, and say “hey, discount the tension on Quadratus Lumborum 15% today.”
You might need to do more than that to get really good at whacking your friends with lightsabers, but you might be truly amazed at how much you can improve just by actually noticing what you’re already doing.
So what’s it like to be you today? More Marionette, or Really Rocky?
In which places?
Got stiff legs that feel like they’re in prison, no matter how much you stretch?
That was me in high school. I was a Navy Brat and moved a lot, and when we lived in Rhode Island I worked out a lot at night just because winters were so cold and rainy that it was hard to do any socializing.
I got better at pushups.
I got better at sit-ups.
I never got better at the splits.
Not only didn’t I do the splits, but no matter how much I stretched my legs, I never made any progress getting them “loose” at all. I tried yoga stretches that worked like a charm for my back (I could nap in the Plough, for example), but no horse stance or hurdler’s stretch, or anything else seemed to loosen up the bricks I had for legs. I felt like a total failure, and figured that being flexible just wasn’t for me.
Fast forward thirty years. Now I’m pushing fifty years old, with a hilarious laundry list of “well-earned” training injuries …. and can kick chest-high with no warm-up or preparation at all. And I never stretch.
Wait… how’s THAT work?!
It may be that you’re “on lockdown” because your intentions and your nervous system aren’t on speaking terms. You’re off-balance without realizing it, and your nervous system doesn’t trust you not to fall down.
So your nervous system has Job One, and that’s “don’t let doofus fall down and crack his melon.” Because that’s literally fatal and as bipeds, that’s our number one problem we have to solve in order to function in the world. Ever seen a baby instinctively throw its arms out when it doesn’t feel properly held? That’s “fall anxiety,” and your nervous system has it in spades as soon as you’re off-balance.
Don’t take my word for it. You can test this in the comfort of your own home – just stand up and gently sway backwards and forwards at the ankles. The moment you sway forwards enough to go off-balance, your toes are going to engage. They have to, or else you’d fall down. Same thing going backwards — sway back far enough, and the muscles along the back of your legs and maybe up into your back are going to lock up. They have to, because you’ve got a twelve-pound coconut up top that has to be protected.
If you stretch and stretch and stretch but never seem to get anywhere, it can be really demoralizing, especially if you’re in dance or martial arts, or any other game or sport where being graceful is a big deal.
But you’re probably not “stiff.” You’re probably just off-balance without realizing it, and a Feldenkrais Method instructor can help you with that.