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. 🙂
(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.