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to recognize is that you’re not an assembly of mechanical joints needing oil – that old mechanistic vision has been outdated for decades now.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.
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 flexibleminds.
To begin with, the Internet would be a muchmore 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?
“When you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”
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?
A dramatic re-enactment of what my legs felt like — and what they did to my self-esteem as a martial artist.
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.
In fact, MOST of the time, we don’t want to be relaxed. Because “relaxed” doesn’t get things done. What we usually mean when we say “relaxed,” is Not Straining. We only strain when we try to do something that we don’t know how to do easily, and so we substitute “efforting” and will-power in place of ease and power.
Here’s a real-life example.
I know a gent I used to work with who was a true master of the heavy garden shears. You know, those big over-sized scissors-from-hell that you use to lop tree branches off with?
He can lop branches for hours. But he’s no muscle-bound hulk. Holding the nozzle to a power-washer? Oh, no, buddy. Holding the nozzle to a power-washer? That’s exhausting!
Doesn’t seem to add up, does it? On the one hand, hard manual labor. On the other, literally no harder than watering your lawn.
That’s because it’s not really about relaxation. It’s about how well-organized you are to perform a specific task. I mean, let’s be real — nobody chops through two-inch thick branches while relaxed. As anybody who’s gardened can tell you, that’s work. But my friend can do it with no perception of strain or effort. He’s effortlessly powerfulwith heavy garden shears.
You can have relatively high levels of muscle tone for a long time, so long as your body isn’t fighting mixed signals. That’s why you see people who do heavy manual labor (warehouse workers, furniture movers, construction workers), who then go and work out or play sports in the evening, because they have plenty of energy and feel lazy if they don’t.
They’re well-organized for their daily tasks. And that means they bring more of themselves home to their friends and family at night, not because they haven’t worked…. but because they haven’t STRAINED.
If you want to feel relaxed, yet be powerful enough that you totally own all the things you need to do in your day… you need to learn to take the strain out. And I’ll be happy to help you learn how.
When you’re stiff, sometimes stretching is the solution. But it’s not always the solution.
In many cases, stiffness is a case of “muscle’s busy doing one thing, can’t do both at once.” This is very common, especially because a lot of the time we fall into a habit that uses more muscular effort than we really need. We have muscles theoretically “making coffee” that don’t need to be making coffee.
So when you’re turning your neck to make sure traffic’s clear and that annoying space between the shoulder blades isn’t helping, And when your brain turns to That Annoying Space (TAS), and says “hey, cooperate, why are you so STIFF!” all the space can say is “hey, sorry, I can’t loosen up, I’m still making coffee.” But it’s 4pm and you don’t need to make coffee. What you need to do is to make a U-turn without courting fiery vehicular death.
One of the big advantages of the Feldenkrais Method is that by helping you to recognize how you’re organizing your body, we can help the nervous system to talk to the involved muscles and bones so they go “oh… done with making coffee, now we’re on U-turns? Okay, U-turns it is.”
It’s not an instant process. But the end result is that you stay loose without having to go through a daily stretching routine, and as your ability to self-organize improves, the improvements not only become permanent, but become steps to even better organization in the future, while keeping the old patterns “filed away” for times when you might need to fall back on them.