Awareness: an alternative approach to core strength and stability

Painful Sit-up
Many students say to me at their first private Functional Integration lesson something like “I know I need to strengthen my core.” (This is almost as common as “I know I have bad posture”). Sometimes they refer to their own experience, telling me that they feel weak, or that they tire easily, but more often their personal experience is simply that their back or neck hurts, and they heard from someone (often a skilled Physical Therapist or yoga teacher) that the pain in their back is due to weak “core” muscles.

When I help them feel what they’re actually doing, it usually turns out that they’re tightening those “core” abdominal muscles all the time. No wonder they feel weak! If a muscle is always engaged, it has less strength to engage further -- its potential is already in use. They would do better to learn to relax their muscles, engaging them only when they need to.

Why are my students doing this? Ultimately, I think it’s because they are not really aware of what they are doing. Read More...
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Less is More

Zenstone3

LESS:  effort, strain, pain, injury, stiffness, stress, suffering….

MORE:  ease, power, agility, creativity, flow, flexibility, pleasure, satisfaction…


These claims are made by Feldenkrais teachers (including myself), and teachers of pretty much any mindfulness-based approach to self-improvement. But how exactly is it supposed to happen?

Here’s how it works in the Feldenkrais Method®.

Less effort = more awareness


Imagine yourself at a train station, trying to hear someone speak while a train goes by. Now imagine that you are holding the same conversation by a quiet lake. Of course your nervous system will have a much easier time taking in your friend's words in the quieter environment.

The same holds true when the "noise" is your own effort, and the "words" you are attending to are the sensations in your body. Read More...
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Walking and Wholeness

Note: I wrote this post yesterday, and didn’t upload it for technical reasons. As I write now, a drama is unfolding only a few miles away in Watertown, where several friends of mine live, and where I have my office for private lessons (I was supposed to be teaching there this morning). The post seems all the more relevant in its small way as my neighbors and I are asked — in some cases ordered — to stay at home while the authorities try to apprehend the suspects in Monday’s bombings and the further violence in the past 24 hours. I can feel in my body the sensation of being cooped-up from the outside, and also pulled inward by fear and anxiety. Thinking about walking, even if I can’t get out yet, helps me feel more free and alive.


walking meditation

This spring, the theme of my Feldenkrais workshops and weekly Awareness Through Movement classes will be walking and running. Sitting down to write about my teaching, I found myself uncomfortable at first talking (more specifically, advertising) about running so soon after a celebration of this human capacity turned to horror at the marathon on Monday. But then I realized that in the midst of this shattered moment, our responsibility — to ourselves and to the world around us — is to find wholeness. And that is, after all, what I teach.


There is something very wholesome about walking.

Read More...
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Dynamic Sitting: a Feldenkrais® look at posture

One of the most frequent requests I get in my private Functional Integration® lessons is for help with sitting. My students tell me they have trouble finding a comfortable position to sit in, or that they can't make it through a work day or meditation session without discomfort. They have lower back pain or RSI, hand pain, tight neck and shoulders... you get the idea. We all sit a lot, and we all face these challenges.
"I know I have terrible posture," they often say. Or else "I try to sit up straight, but I get tired," or "I keep reminding myself to sit up, but the next time I check, I'm slouching again." Often their idea of "good posture" is to stiffly pull the shoulders back and tighten their belly, which is usually counter-productive. They are coming to me to help them find a better way.
While private FI lessons are well-suited to addressing this sort of question, I thought it would be useful to spend some time exploring the topic of sitting in my classes and workshops. I'm sure it will come as no surprise to you that we will be looking for solutions to the problem that have to do with movement and awareness, rather than the usual approaches of proper alignment, ergonomics, and core strength.
We’re all pretty familiar with this problem:
Camscanner0
Or, put another way:
evolution-man-computer

We certainly did not evolve to be sitting creatures, especially not sitting in chairs and staring at a computer screen. Yet so many of us spend so much of our time doing just that, and most of us know that we don’t do it in an optimal way. We don’t need a physical therapist or a mom to tell us that our posture is all wrong, we can feel it in our aching backs and sore shoulders and necks. (That said, we may need a professional to point out to us that our so-called repetitive strain injuries are also linked to the way we work at our computers).

So, what’s the solution?
Read More...
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The Answer is Always The Pelvis

I’m teaching a 6-week series of Awareness Through Movement® classes starting this week, which I’m calling (not all that imaginatively, I confess) Integrating Hips and Pelvis. I wrote a bit about the hips a few months ago, for a workshop I did on spirals. I thought it might be good to have a few words on the pelvis, too. Here’s the description I use when I teach a workshop on the pelvis:

       

The Answer Is Always The Pelvis: Learning to use your center


We like to joke in the Feldenkrais community that there are no quizzes in our studies, because the answer is always 'the pelvis.' (Well, either that or 'it depends....'). In this workshop you will discover what we mean.

The Pelvis is the largest and heaviest bone in the body, it is centrally located, supports our most vulnerable organs and is traversed by our largest muscles; our nervous system identifies the pelvis as the center of our selves. Developing awareness of the pelvis leads to centered, graceful movement and is an essential element in the alleviation of any musculoskeletal discomfort.

As with so much
Feldenkrais work, you are likely to find this centeredness extending beyond the quality of your movement to your mood and state of mind.

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Breath, Sleep, and the Rhythm of Life

I am generally against breathing exercises in the commonly accepted notion of breathing exercises where I would be teaching someone that they must breath like this or like that. It is exactly as if you told someone they must say this or that, If you meet with a woman you must talk a little about politics, a little about the weather, or love, etc. You know what results from such instructions - an idiot results. It is the same thing if you tell someone how he needs to breathe. The instructions usually destroy his breathing.


- Moshe Feldenkrais, Alexander Yanai lesson #17 “Breathing”

Make no effort to breathe deeply, or in any special way.


-Michael Krugman, Guided Natural Breath


There are so many breath techniques out there, promising this or that benefit (just google “breath technique” or, better yet: “breath insomnia”), that it is a huge relief to many of my
Sounder Sleep students to be invited to notice their breath without any conscious attempt at manipulation.

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Spirals

There are spirals throughout the body, and learning to take to feel these spirals and take advantage of them is a major theme in the Feldenkrais work. Realizing the flow and ease that come from moving with spirals has been one of the most enduring lessons I have learned in my own movement -- one of those things that doesn’t go away even when I’m stressed and fall into all my old habits. This is why my Spirals workshop is one of my favorites, and why it’s one of the three of four themes I like to teach in my summer retreats at the World Fellowship Center.

One of things I don’t get to do all that much in my workshops, though, is to explicitly examine the anatomy which we so clearly learn to feel in our Awareness Through Movement classes. Nowhere are the spirals clearer (in both experience and anatomy) than in the hip joint. Usually we Feldenkrais people think in terms of the interaction of bones and joints, but take a look below at how evident the spirals are in the ligaments and muscles as well.

Take a look at the thigh-bone (femur) itself:
Femur copy
Well, this isn’t the best picture (an actual photo would be better, but this is what I found online), but you can probably see right away how the head of the femur rises from the shaft like a basketball player jumping up from under the basket.


Let’s zoom in to the hip join, and take a look at the structure of the ligaments. Note how they continue and amplify the spiral in the femur on a smaller scale:
Pasted Graphic

Now take a look at some of the muscles that surround the hip joint. See the same line continuing?
Psoas
When these muscles contract, they slacken the ligaments; when they relax and lengthen, those ligaments balance prevent the leg from over-extending backwards (along with lots of other muscles we’re not looking at here).

By the way, these muscles also happen to be some of the largest and most powerful muscles in the body. My teacher Jeff Haller pointed out to me that the spiralic action of the hip joint is involved in practically every powerful action in sports or martial arts (just think of a pitcher’s wind-up or a golfer’s swing), or in more mundane movements such as walking, running, or, to be more seasonal -- raking leaves or shoveling snow.


Of course there are lots of spirals in the rest of the body too. Take a look at this collar bone:
Clavicle
And think about how it translates twist in the spine into a twist in the arm. There’s a particularly great ATM that explores this which we tend to call “fencing”.

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The Sphincters (Development series, installment 2)

Humans, it turns out, are born with more than the skull incompletely formed. Apparently our digestive tract (despite being part of the earliest independent differentiations of the embryo*) is immature at birth, and we have to figure out how to use it. I hadn’t realized this until someone pointed out to me that this was the reason for all of Noam’s staining and grunting when he was just a few weeks old.

Here he is at about two months:


(Sorry the flash takes a while to load.... Anyone know how to force this thing to buffer?)

Notice how his whole body gets involved in the act of digestion? Check out his lips beginning around the 15th second. You can see that the lips are clearly a sphincter, and that for him they are not completely differentiated from the rest of the digestive process yet. Because he’s swaddled, you can’t see how his hands clench and unclench, but you can see the ripple through the whole system. Truly we have so much in common with the lowly worm!

I owe the observation that we have more sphincters than we usually think about to the work of Ruthy Alon. I put this lesson together with help from a lesson of hers I did a long time ago as well as some of her more recent Bones For Life work.

I’m happy with the way it came out. The experience was quite profound for several of my students. Try it out, and let me know what you think!



Coming soon: the diaphragm!

*Myers, Thomas. Anatomy Trains pp. 36-39. Anyone want to find me an online citation?
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Suckling (Development series lesson 1)

We started the series the way Moshe Feldenkrais started his last professional training in Amherst -- with a lesson exploring the lips.

Why the lips? Here’s what Moshe had to say about the infant’s evolving knowledge of itself and the world in his book Awareness Through Movement (p. 13):

The infant’s contact with the external world is established mainly through the lips and mouth; through these he recognizes his mother. He will use his hands to fumble and assist the work of his mouth and lips, and will know by touch what he already knows through his lips and mouth. From here he will gradually progress to the discovery of other parts of his body and their relationship to each other, and through them his first notions of distance and volume. The discovery of time begins with the coordinating process of breathing and swallowing, both of which are connected with movements of the lips, mouth, jaw, nostrils, and the surrounding are.



Interesting ideas, no? But why bother with this whole exercise in the first place? Well, the most important answer can be found in the experience of the lesson itself. To quote one participant in this particular lesson:

I’m Amazed at the effect my lips are having on my pelvis and my legs..... During the exercise I felt my lower back letting go. I came here because I wanted to work on my lower back, and I thought ‘oh the lips, ok.’ But then....



But for those looking for a more theoretical answer, Feldenkrais goes on to discuss the experience of the infant in terms of its self-image:

Were we to mark in color on the surface area of the motor cortex of the brain of a month-old infant the cells that activate muscles subject to his developing will, we should obtain a form resembling that of his body, but it would represent only the areas of voluntary action, not the anatomical configuration of the parts of his body. We should see, for instance, that the lips and mouth occupy most of the colored area. The antigravity muscles -- those that open the joints and so erect the body -- are not yet subject to voluntary control; the muscles of the hands, too, are only just beginning to respond occasionally to will. We should obtain a functional image in which the human body is indicate4d by four thin strokes of the pen for the limbs, joined together by another short and thin line for the trunk, with lips and mouth occupying most of the picture.



Note that Moshe’s primary interest is in the “muscles subject to [the infants] developing will”. To my understanding, the whole point of the entire method is to learn how subject one’s muscles to one’s will. The paragraph above, and hopefully also the lessons below, provide nothing short of the the theoretical neurology underpinning Moshe’s adage that “if you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”

Lesson number 1: Suckling






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Baby pictures 1

OK, I know you’re looking for pictures of Noam - and trust me, there will be plenty here in good time!

But first I promised in my newsletter a video of a baby which illustrates the relationship between infant development and the Feldenkrais Method. This video comes curtesy of Irene Gutteridge and The Next 25 Years - a project dedicated to making high quality videos that effectively demonstrate and explain the Feldenkrais Method.



If you’ve had any experience with Awareness Through Movement, you’ll see right away how Moshe Feldenkrais used the process by which babies learn to move as the foundation for the process with which he taught adults to re-learn how to move.
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