So on a personal note, I did a headstand this Friday, for the first time in a decade. It was easy and effortless, and I could have stayed up in the air for a while.
On Wednesday it was an utter impossibility.
With my laundry list of injuries, I had grown flexed through the spine, and had forgotten how to go into extension through a significant part of my back. I knew intellectually how to do it — and quietly railed against the loss of capacity, since I used to have complete individuation of my entire spine and could wiggle around any vertebrae you put a finger on. Those of you who’ve had me teach fencing who have heard me say that I’m a pale shadow of my former self….I’m not blowing smoke. There’s a lot that I used to be able to do that’s still “nope (not yet).” Fortunately, there’s also a lot of stuff I couldn’t do that I’ve learned since then, too!
But intellectualizing my way back to extension so that I could balance my body over my head without a resounding THUMP …. didn’t work. Just having an abstract intellectual idea of “Thoracic 4 does this” doesn’t give you afelt sense of what the vertebrae should be doing in order to choose where the feet should go to maintain your balance. That goes double if you don’t have a felt sense of what said vertebrae can be doing. That meant that I had to do the work to (re)gain it.
Unfortunately, for those of us who have been injured and want to claw back your fundamental capacity, just putting the blocks together intellectually isn’t going to cut it. You’re going to have to work from the patterns that you have now. That means a lot less abstraction from what it felt like to be an athlete or “mover” twenty years ago, and a lot more “what does this feel like, now?”
It’s just going to take some careful paying-attention, diligence, and willingness to slow down and stop to take care of yourself along the way rather than “forcing it” through willpower.. The good news, however, is that we’re lifelong learners. You can get that function back, and keep it well into old age.
If you’re where I was and want it back — you can get it back. If you know somebody else in that position… please let me know. Helping other people rediscover the joy of “I can do the thing!” is a huge part of why I run this practice, rather than something else valid and entertaining like a fusion Hungaro-Texan taco truck. 🙂
There was a nice little article in Psychology Today last week titled “Why you can’t think your way out of trauma.” It’s a pretty nice little background piece describing how Somatic Psychology is slowly gaining a foothold over a purely cognitive-based approach.
After seventy years, the field is finally catching up to Moshe Feldenkrais’ seminal work, “The Body And Mature Behavior.” Feldenkrais wrote The Body and Mature Behavior in 1949 as an explicit rebuttal to Freud’s thesis that catharsis is necessary to recover from emotional trauma, and that rebuttal has stood the test of time. That’s part of why the federal NAICS (job description) code for the Feldenkrais Method is 62133, “mental health practitioners other than physicians.”
Wait. What? The Feldenkrais Method is classed as a Mental Health Discipline?
How does that work?
Awareness Through Movement students improve their physical and emotional well-being when they practice observing the patterns they express. That’s because Moshe Feldenkrais connected some very important dots early in his career: Western Civilization makes a distinct difference between the body and the mind, which makes intuitive sense, yet is not supported by neurology. (Nota bene, this is not a “diss” on religion: thebody versus the soul is a different matter, one which by definition cannot be addressed by science.) The nervous system operates in such a way that it can only have a single “pattern” running at any given time, and that pattern encompasses the organization of ALL OF YOU.
There is no creature on planet earth which can think “yes” and “no” at the same time. And the physicality of your emotions works the same way – you can’t be joyful and depressed simultaneously. Neither can you be curious and anxious at the same time.
So when you are anxious, there’s a physical feeling that comes with anxiety. When you’re curious, there’s a feeling which comes with that, too. When you’re depressed, fearful, enraged, there are physical feelings which come from those. And in their proper place, all of those are really useful feelings to have (see below for a couple real-life examples). Where we get in trouble, though, is that the pattern you express in trauma can wind up becoming your go-to way of organizing your body. You can wind up identifying with the traumatic pattern, creating an insidious and compulsive habit of suffering, without knowing how to escape it (and as many in this situation can vouch, the “not knowing how to get out” is frequently as traumatizing as the suffering itself).
To get out of that, what you need to do is to break the pattern and outgrow it as a response, so that it’s there if and when you need it, but you don’t have to engage in it. You don’t need to go back and relive it over and over again. (I once had a serious claustrophobia attack from watching Naked Lunch — it’s a good movie, but re-watching it wasn’t the key to breaking the claustrophobia!)
Personal Example: I suffered un-diagnosed but apparently quite severe depression for the better part of twenty-five years. It cost me many opportunities and ruined more than one relationship. My eventual ability to cope with it, prior to involvement with the Feldenkrais Method, was the realization that it came with physical symptoms (a lumpy, heavy, clay-like feeling in the body and the sensation of having a wet wool blanket directly over my brain). And one night, strolling rather tipsily through downtown San Francisco after knocking back a couple beers with my twin (yes, I’m a cheap date), I realized that it wasn’t that different, in practice, from “thinking clearly and walking with control while tipsy.” The tipsiness was a condition, not a summary of me as a person. If depression came with physical symptoms, then, I told myself, logically speaking, the emotional component of the depression was itself also simply a symptom. I cannot tell you how liberating it was to be able to class my depression symptoms along with migraine headaches as “this is a really irritating thing I have to deal with,” rather than “this is an inescapable life sentence which defines my life (in misery).” I didn’t yet have the tools to get out of it, but I could at least stop identifying with it.
I don’t know why I became depressive. And it doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that I have become able to recognize that pattern. Once I can physically sense the “depression pattern” peeking in, I can shift to a different pattern that is a lot more pleasant for me and my loved ones. And while I’m Very Seriously Not Saying(tm) “go throw away your medications,” you can learn to mitigate that suffering just like I did, and in a lot less time for not having to figure it out from First Principles. I’m in no way special or unusual.
Anybody can do this, and I’ve helped a number of folks to do so — making distinctions and choosing is part of our fundamental birthright as human beings.
If a specific trauma leaves you “triggered,” than what does that mean? It means that you’re reacting to a certain, specific thing, in a certain, specific, usually unpleasant way. That’s a good thing, in the short term — that reaction is what permitted you to survive.
I’ve been at gunpoint. I was in real danger. It wasn’t much fun.
Going to “high alert” was a completely appropriate response to being at gunpoint. If you (God forbid!) find yourself in that situation, you need that response! But I wouldn’t want to go to full-adrenaline “my life is in peril” pulse-pounding high alert every time I saw a firearm, either. I mean, I live in Texas. I will have a much more pleasant life as a Texan if I respond to a firearm the same way I respond to any other specialized and hazardous tool in my environment – with curiosity, respect, and appropriate caution. If you can do that, then regardless of what your story is, you can relegate the “triggering” circumstance to being simply a story in your life, rather than the story which defines your life.
“When you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.” In other words, awareness helps turn compulsion into choice.
By learning what you’re doing with yourself, you learn how your patterns don’t have to be life-sentences imposed upon you, but can instead be choices you get to make. When I recognize depression symptoms, I change my pattern to one that’s lighter — and the depression is gone. When peers get anxious, they focus on their balance and the quality of their breath — and the anxiety abates. Instead of “fighting” the suffering as I did for actual decades, you can choose to do something else.
“If you get rid of the pattern for anxiety, where does the anxiety go?”
Freud was wrong. There is no impersonal, tyrannical energy of emotion that gets pent-up and needs to be “released.” We’re not the prostrate victims of impersonal forces outside of our control — though sometimes we do find ourselves stuck in some extremely unpleasant and damaging ruts. Rather, we’re expressing ourselves. And by recognizing what we’re doing, we can catch less useful and less-happy patterns early on, and shift them. Learning how we can choose to express ourselves helps us to regain our fundamental dignity as a human being who make choices and can care for themselves.
I have a client who, when hearing that I’m offering classes to people, will regularly chime in on Facebook to say some version of “his hoodoo works.” He calls it “hoodoo” because how we work in the Feldenkrais Method is unique, and even though he intellectually understands the process, he’s regularly stunned at how changes happen from doing “basically nothing” for forty-five minutes or so. Especially for a guy whose other gains are built around Moving Heavy Objects With A Solid Work Ethic.
But there’s a reason why it works, and that reason is also what makes the work different from every other Method out there. We don’t stretch and pull on the body: we train brains. Moshe Feldenkrais realized early on, based on reading the neurology of his day, that the nervous system operates as a unified entity, rather than one which sub-divides processes.
In simple words, if you’re drinking coffee and tapping your toes (while doing eighty other things you’re not consciously aware of), your nervous system is engaged in One Movement Pattern. Now, obviously, the pattern is less complex if you’re lying in bed getting ready to sleep, and more complex if you’re “the Unipiper” playing flaming bagpipes while riding a unicycle…
Or, you know, upgrading to “droid mode.”
But each time you do something, you’re still creating one complex movement pattern, and it’s a much more complex pattern than we can hold entirely in our conscious attention. That’s why we have a motor cortex after all — so we don’t have to!
And that means that every time you can refine any part of your pattern, you refine everything you do with your body, because what you’re actually improving isn’t the strength or flexibility of muscle X or Y, but your ability to create “movement plans” which involve less strain. Sometimes that movement is a conscious “aha! I’m doing this silly thing when I breathe! And sometimes it’s something that your motor cortex has figured out “way under the radar,” and you know that you feel different, somehow more relaxed, somehow more fluid, but can’t say how.
The “hoodoo” still works, because at some level, you’ve learned. This month, we’re working on what are ostensibly “breathing lessons,” because anybody who gets Covid-19 is likely to benefit from as refined breathing as they can get. But during that time, we’re also leveraging the role of the Intrinsic Core in regulating both breath and balance. And the more you refine either of those, the more relaxed and capable, and less stressed and anxious, your movement patterns will be.
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?
This is not the face you want to take to the swimming pool and swing-sets.
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.
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.
(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
‘What do you call a fencer with good knees?’
Fencer 1: laughs and shakes his head “Yeah, right.”
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.”
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.