Remote Sensing is Real

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…!

The Cash Register vs The Word Processor

“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.

Not a Rock.

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?


Making U-Turns

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.