Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Front of Your Spine

Many of my clients are incredulous when I tell them they can feel the front of their spine by pressing in on their belly (on an empty stomach, on an exhale, press in from the side). The spine has a dimensionality that most of us do not know on a gut level (pun intended).

Why is this? I think it is cultural. Growing up, we were taught that the spine was that row of bones on our back - the back bone, or spine. We forgot to remember that the spine is three dimensional, it has depth, including a front and back side. Also, our culture has a superficial aspect, where the  superficial appearance of objects or people is highly-valued. Hence, we are well acquainted with the front of our face, our body, and the skin on the back of our body (to a lesser degree) but we are not as much encouraged to sense or consider what is beneath all that superficial anatomy. Perhaps we think such knowledge is only for the medical doctors. True, we don't need to know all those details, but we can certainly know certain basic facts that will make our lives easier, and even keep us out of pain and trouble, over the long term. 

For example, last night I asked a client to tell me what she thinks about when she uses the word "spine".  She said, as most people do, "It is in my back, it is made of vertebrae that hold me up. It is my backbone".  Then I asked her to visualize the front of her spine, while lying on her back. She got a curious, fascinated look on her face - this was obviously something new to her - that she had this tube like apparatus going down through her torso, and not just along the back.". I asked her to explore moving her torso and hips both ways - small movements, first with the ordinary concept of the spine - as she described it nicely - and then while including the dimensionality, front and back, left and right sides, like a 3 dimensional snake. After a few minutes she told me "When I think of my spine as I usually do, my torso does not move. It is like the backbone is there holding everything in the right posture or something. That is how I was raised. When I think of the front of the spine, I can move my torso really easily - it is amazing".  

It is wonderfully helpful to  think about, or sense, our spine from the front or the back, or from either side. Why not? If you live your entire life thinking your spine is that thin row of funny bones on the skin of your back (with perhaps some mysterious things called vertebrae behind them), your movement patterns will tend to be stiff and distorted; You likely won't be living as productive, as creative and fully-dimensional a life as you would if you had a more  realistic or complete body image. Our static body image not only influences our movement patterns, but how we think and feel. I think that is a more or less accepted premise of anybody who works in the movement arts, simply because it becomes so very obvious when observing people. I am constantly struck by how chronic pain is almost always related to distorted movement, and distorted movement is always related to a distorted body image, in some way. 

The spinal vertebrae get larger as you go from the neck to the low back. Your lumbar vertebrae are probably two or three times larger than you could have imagined. Go ahead, poke your belly. You may be shocked to see how large your lumbar vertebrae really are. 

As I write these blogs it is always with a sense of slight frustration, because I well know that to fully embody these ideas, time and practice is needed. You can only get a hint from reading a few paragraphs. The right kind of learning environment, lots of guided movement lessons,  and the right kind of teacher is needed. That is one way to describe a four year Feldenkrais Training Program. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

About Chairs

Of course, it would be better to sit on the floor, as they do in other cultures, and make that a regular habit, to eat, or meditate, watch TV etc. Prolonged chair sitting, as practiced today, can lead to many troubles. We'll benefit by learning more about how to optimally use chairs. 

In The Feldenkrais Work we believe - and experience confirms - that the central issue is not that chairs are a problem, but that we have not learned how to sit! The problem is our lack of learning, not chairs.  A sage in ancient India named Patanjali has written about the 8 steps to follow on the upward spiritual path. Each of these steps requires dedication, understanding and long practice. The third step is called asana - and it means learning to sit comfortably in meditation posture for a long time. Does that mean just stiffening to be erect, doing yoga stretches, or using a back rest and lumbar support?  Those "short-cuts" are actually dead ends. Would Patanjali have listed it as the third step if it were so simple? It can take years of learning and exploring, to arrive at comfortable - no stiffening or tight back muscles - erect sitting in a chair. There is a lot to learn. 

In standing our feet are the contact points between us and the earth. In chair sitting, that job is given over to the sitting bones. When we can clearly feel the sitting bones, and they are free to move (meaning, the chair has a hard, flat surface with not too much cushioning, it is not too soft or like a bucket seat, which immobilizes the pelvis) we have a chance to learn how to sit erect without tensing the back muscles.

Any physical therapist, MD or chiropractor can tell you that when you keep your arm in a sling too long, you are prone to get "frozen shoulder" meaning the immobile shoulder muscles will tend to tighten up. Later, it can take a lot of work to rehabilitate the shoulder. The arms and shoulders are built for movement; when held immobile the body automatically tenses everything related to that, because to the body, artificial immobility means muscle-lock-down.

What we fail to realize is that chairs with bucket seats create a sling for the pelvis. Car bucket seats create a hammock for the pelvis - more fixity. Soft sofas create compression and immobility of the pelvis - how can the pelvis move when there is not any solid support from which to create movement? Too soft bed mattresses likewise create fixity. We take this fixity into our daily lives - everybody does this. It has reached epidemic levels. If I see a person with a mobile, intelligent, responsive pelvis, I am shocked. It is almost not permitted nowadays. It has nothing to do with sexuality or being attractive or anything like that. It has to do with good movement, it has to do with being able to initiate movement from the pelvis, not always consigning the pelvis to being the "slow responder" or the "disabled child" or the "retarded child" of the body. That is the way the pelvis is, for most adults today.

Yoga, stretching, exercise, sports, working out at the gym - none of these will address the problem. What is needed is somatic movement work - slow, conscious exploratory movement lessons relating to sitting particularly. Also, mentoring is definitely needed to take that learning  into standing and walking.  Most people walk with the legs swinging from the pelvis, and the pelvis is like a stiff board, and the hip joints are like fixed hinges. It should not be this way. The pelvic bones, internal bones of the pelvis, can  articulate to assist walking and standing. 

When your pelvis has been held in a sling for your whole life, imagine the tension! Imagine the compression of the hip joint! And then people wonder why God created the body so that the hip joints wear out, and we need to get hip replacements!   

Because we have spent so long sitting with an immobile pelvis, sitting up straight and stiff,  or collapsing into a backrest, it can be a difficult learning curve to even come to accept the premise that our pelvis is "dead to movement, to balance and dynamic support" and that to rehabilitate it, can take a lot of work. Again, it is called The Feldenkrais Method. If it were as simple as telling people to
a) Take a belly-dancing class
b) Start doing Tai Chi
c) Learn martial arts
d) Do Qi Gung or Yoga

then I would be telling people those things. I've tried telling clients those things, it never works. One issue is, somatic learning is context specific. To learn to sit easily erect on a hard, flat wooden stool or bench with no backrest, comfortably (as I encourage all my clients to do - starting small, just do it 20 minutes a day at first) takes hours or practicing and learning about how to do that while sitting in a chair. 

Even before that, lots of work is needed to sense and move "more or less independently" the pelvis. Independent, intelligent pelvis movement must first be learned "out of gravity" on the back or face down, doing movements any healthy baby is doing much of the time. The Feldenkrais Work is very clear on this point - which is a missing piece in many other kinds of healing or rehabilitation work: filling in missing developmental pieces. 

Because most of us think of posture as some fixed position, we cannot think clearly about chair sitting. To sit without a backrest, comfortably erect, there obviously must be dynamic, independent, automatic (not consciously controlled) continual minor adjustments and movements of the pelvis relative to the chair. It is a dynamic process, not static, even in immobile sitting (of course cross legged or lotus pose is a great advantage since stability and lumbar support is provided automatically). If we have spent years teaching our pelvis lazy immobility in chair sitting, we can almost certainly expect to encounter lots of internal resistance when we start to do the important work. It will seems like we are just not built to sit in a chair. 

Sitting in a chair, motionless for hours during meditation - we want finely attuned balance with minimal muscular effort. Rigid holding will not work, long term. 

Also, without clear connection to the tailbone, the pelvis is unwieldily, unresponsive, and a source of hip pain, back pain and other troubles. We can immediately sense our right thumb. Just a thought, instantly there is full awareness of that thumb. We should be able to do the same with the tailbone - at any moment of the day or night that we think of it, there ought to be full awareness. The problem is, of course, that many of us have unfortunately associated our pelvis with negative thoughts, emotions or ideas of uncleanness.  

What is your predominant thought or emotion when you think of your own pelvis? I would suggest you start to move in the direction of more tailbone awareness. This definitely takes practice and mentoring, long term, since most of us have injured our tailbones at some time, and soft chairs - for too many years - have compressed and deadened our tailbones, freezing it into immobility. If you've trained your pelvis and tailbone to be like that for 30 years or more, it might take some patience, and the learning curve may be a little steep at first. When you sit on a hard, flat wooden stool, the sitting bones lift the tailbone above the level of the chair, so it is free to move. When I sit in a soft chair, nowadays, at first I relish the comfortable feeling. But within a few minutes I get restless, like a caged animal. It is not natural to immobilize the pelvis. 

Also needed is an ability to roll the pelvis forward in sitting with a somewhat relaxed belly - creating a lumbar arch - without also tensing the back and stiffening the chest. Almost everyone does this. 

Also needed is an understanding that the brain, the body and nervous system is build for adaptation and challenge - not for unrelenting immobility, comfort and security. There has to be a balance. Any chair that is perfectly molded to your body - like an expensive, custom made "Orthopedic Surgeon Designed Chair" - is actually like prison to the body. Such a chair will feel good in the beginning, but later old troubles will re-emerge, with a vengeance. I often tell my clients "a swivel office chair is a total disaster, somatically speaking. Just look! You plant your feet on the floor, you go spinning. You can't get grounded and stable. There is no incentive to turn the head, turn the eyes, or do anything with the pelvis. You are like a blob sitting there. Any kind of work you do sitting like that, will be of poor quality, compared to what you could do if most of your nervous system was not preoccupied with "surrender to immobility and comfort, do as little as possible, don't worry about being adaptable, just be lazy, sit here and do nothing. Let the chair do all the work.  That is the message a swivel chair gives to your body".  "The Body is the Brain" is a popular Feldenkrais saying, which seems pertinent here. 

While using a hard, flat wooden stool may seem a bit primitive or not civilized, It's not. It is extremely intelligent,  it makes good sense.  One of my clients, about 2 years ago, came for a session carrying her wooden stool - so enthusiastic! Telling me: 'Steve, I can do it! It feels SO GOOD. I can sit on this and - like you promised me - it feels MUCH BETTER than any other kind of chair I have ever used." She had been working at it for about 3 years. 

With mentoring, with a little time each day sitting on a hard flat chair-no backrest (with perhaps an inch of foam), and regular Feldenkrais sitting Awareness Through Movement lessons (or private sessions), within a year or two - such is my experience - your sitting will be totally transformed. Back and neck pain due to sitting will be just a bad memory. You'll even be able to create comfort in a chair that is poorly designed or too soft. You'll know how to create support using cushions, wedges, and rolled towels. Of course, the first few weeks, that stool will feel pokey and painful and your body will balk. 

I tell my clients who drive a lot, "get a car board - plywood to fit in your car seat. That way, your sitting bones have a 'hard landing" and while it may seem pokey/uncomfortable, you'll drive for many more hours without your usual fatigue or back pain. Fatigue in driving is mostly due to the bucket seat, that compresses the tailbone  and immobilizes the pelvis. Then sitting erect and steering is a muscular act without clearly perceived skeletal support. That is guaranteed to create undue fatigue."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Where is the Top of the Neck?

Correct understanding of this little detail can have a huge positive impact on your life. This is basic, functional anatomy that we should all know. If you think the top of the neck is at chin level, you are mistaken. Remember, the jaw just hangs from the skull like an appendage. The lower jaw is much lower than the base of the skull, or the top of the neck. Actually, the lower jaw is about at the middle-of-the-neck level, it is a long way from the top of the spine. 

The top of the spine (or base of the skull, top of the neck, same thing) is located exactly halfway between the ears. 

It is really easy to see this when a person nods their head "yes". The axis of rotation, the way of hinging, is as if there is an imaginary rod between the ears - not lower.  Even though we have all seen people nod their head thousands of times, still we did not figure out that the top of the neck has to be between the ears to allow this kind of movement. I'll confess that for the first 45 years of my life, I was like that. It took a Feldenkrais Training to straighten me out. It marked a turning point in my chronic neck pain, and my constant habit of "cracking" the neck. I could not even do that now if I tried, and I have, because my neck is so comfortable, so decompressed and relaxed - compared to how it used to be.

I know, it looks impossible that the spine actually goes up so high, to ear level. It seems as if that would put it right in the middle of the head. Again, that is because we are confused about the chin being part of the skull - it is not, it just hangs down from the skull. 

Of course, if you have had anatomical training you always knew where the top of your neck was. But, unless you have also been doing somatic or movement education work, chances are high that functionally your body does not fully understand it. Please see my prior post, from this same day, for an interesting side-light on that issue. 

If this comes as a surprise to you - congratulations. From this moment forward, you'll start to use your head and neck more intelligently. Lots of trouble can come from not being clear about this little detail. 

Just one example: People who meditate often concentrate on the spinal chakras, spiritual centers of life and energy in the spine. If their "top of the spine" was actually "middle of the neck" due to fuzzy understanding of the anatomy - probably they are not getting the results they could be getting. In my opinion, such an unfortunate misconception and faulty practice can result in an inability to experience higher or deeper states of meditation. If you spend half a lifetime practicing wrongly in that way, it is not such a little detail. 


Side-Wagging the Head - a Cure For Whiplash?

It is amazing what other cultures can teach us. In particular, I am discovering that India has built into its culture many things that are extremely intelligent.  How they gesture with their head is one example. We have all seen people from India do this "side wagging" movement the head. I think it comes from their dance tradition. It is like there is a hinge (actually there is) right between the ears and the head is side-bending at that hinge. The chin swings left and right, the ears go up and down, and it is as if the head is pivoting on an imaginary rod going from a point between the eyebrows directly to the back of the head. As body language, it communicates "I hear you, I am with you, yes, I am present and flowing with what you are saying". It does not necessarily mean either "yes" or "no" - so my friends from India tell me. 

Why do I encourage this movement from India, but not the way some Americans tend to nervously wag their head around? It's because:

1) The top of the spine, C1 and C2, has an easy capability to side bend. I've noticed that as Americans age, side bending, particularly right there at the top of the spine between the ears becomes frozen. This negatively impacts neck mechanics, blood flow to the brain, balance and much more. In my opinion, easy side-wagging of the head, hinging at C1/C2 between the ears, would probably correlate to higher intelligence, compared to a population of people who don't do it. I am waiting for that study to confirm my intuition about this. 
2) It's a human movement, the neck is built for it; the weight of the head remains entirely supported by the spine, not by overworked neck muscles. It does not resemble a whiplash.
3) The nervous habit of random hyper-velocity head-wagging as a constant conversational gesture makes the head goes in any direction, and it is like a constant mini-whiplashing; the head is being man-handled by the poor neck. It's too fast, and hard on the eyes to even watch it. It hurts!  On the other hand, side-wagging is restful, easy and visually soothing to watch if it is done properly. It communicates mental suppleness, willingness to bend and adapt and flow. 
4) When that movement is not there, when it is not available, what is communicated is "I am stiff necked. I do not fully hear you. I am stubborn, but I am not quite aware of it". While this is not a deliberate body communication, unfortunately, it is there, for those who can read it. 

If you've ever had a whiplash, the muscles that bind the upper neck to the skull (sub-occipital muscles and others) often become tightly locked, more or less permanently. And then, there is a lifetime of adaptation, neck compression, pain and poor circulation to the brain - unless you get skilled somatic intervention.  

Many persons have noticed that  "after my whiplash was when all my health problems began". Most commonly, the thinking is that nerves were pinched, discs were torn, vertebrae are out of joint, other tissue was damaged, and that is the cause of all the trouble. Very few understand that the somatic aspect is also crucial - meaning that after a whiplash, chronic muscle tension, neck compression, rigid protective holding patterns, adaptive movement, impaired balance, inefficient movement becomes the norm. During the injury and tissue-healing stage this may serve a useful purpose (stabilize and protect the neck and head), but eventually it is just a collection of bad habits that creates inflammation, further tissue damage, and a more pain. 

These well-practiced bad habits obviously cannot be corrected by traction, manipulation, medication, adjustments, surgery, massage, stretching, or strengthening. I believe that is why I see so many clients who say "I've tried everything, nothing is helping my neck pain". When their pain is gone they think a miracle has happened; actually all we did was very basic movement educational protocols. So,we need to simply re-introduce the proper movement habits and practice them until they become the norm. Usually this takes some weeks or months of intensive, skilled somatic mentoring, along with willingness on the part of the client to actively explore and participate. 

Changing habits requires patience and commitment, as we all know; unfortunately, many of us (due to medical treatments that require little active involvement on our part) are unable to make this leap when it comes to neck pain or back pain.  Plus it can be a little daunting to face the truth, and see how much time and work might be needed to restore function back to fully normal. It is really much easier to go the medical route.  You'll need to find someone who has studied human movement, not just anatomy and physiology and various interventions. In my own case, it took at least 3 years of a Feldenkrais Training (but then I had a very serious full extension, high-impact whiplash to contend with)

The good news is that healing is possible, even if you have been told nothing can be done, or that nothing can be diagnosed that is responsible for your pain. Medical diagnosis, as good as it is, cannot diagnose poor habits of movement and posturing, which often underly chronic pain of any kind. Medical doctors and even physical therapists too often have negligible training in movement education. 

If you've had a whiplash, there is an easy way to tell if you are still holding too much tension in the upper neck. That area will feel overheated, even hot, and any experienced body-worker will feel it as soon as his/her hands go to that area. That increase in temperature is caused by continual muscle exertion. It can overheat the low brain, and possibly set the stage for chronic metabolic disturbances or chronic diseases such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, MS or other auto-immune disorders.  See "What is Really Wrong With You" by Griner, for more information on this topic. Are you very uncomfortable in hot weather? This may be one reason. Remember, the low brain is mostly what orchestrates what goes on in the body. You don't want to stick it in the oven! While ice-packs to the upper neck and body (some folks with MS actually do this) can help, somatic intervention can also greatly help. And side-wagging the head is an easy first step. 

While this movement is long ways from being a complete cure for "whiplash neck lockdown" it can go far to create healing and normal movement if you do it in a relaxed, unhurried fashion.  

I recommend that everyone learn this movement and do it many times a day. If you don't care to be seen imitating people from India, when talking to friends,  do it when you are alone, say a few moments before you brush your teeth, before meditation, or while you talk on the phone at home.  Make it a habit (a little now and then, every hour or two)  as you sit working at your computer. You need to start easy, go slow, relax into it, and give yourself some days or weeks to get the hang of it. 

Please, please, don't force this movement. Your neck muscles are most likely already too tight, preventing the movement, and force will create further damage and bad habits related to neck usage. Unless  you can fully relax into it, you will only get a grotesque kind of muscular overwork, and you'll be quickly discouraged from doing it by pain or out-of-joint vertebrae. This is why somatic interventions and "miracle cures" are seldom, if ever, produced just from reading a book or a blog and practicing what is written there. It really takes an experienced teacher to see where you are holding too much tension, how to bring that to awareness, along with how much work is too much, the best approach to reeducation of lost movement patterns, etc. These are intuitive, creative judgement calls customized for each client - then the magic happens, usually not before. If you really can't get the hang of it, then see a Feldenkrais Practitioner, show him or her this post. Or you could start hanging out with Indians, and maybe you'll get it by osmosis. 

Friday, May 16, 2008

Gesture With Your Hands, Not Your Head

By keeping the neck quiet, the head relatively motionless as we talk to people, we help reduce compression and pain in the neck vertebra. The hands are better able to express with gestures than our neck and head - the head is heavy! Almost as much as bowling ball. Just try holding a bowling ball in your hands and move it around, as if gesturing with your head. Even thinking about that makes my arms tired. 

This little trick has helped many of my clients move out of neck pain. It is the first thing I look for with a new client, who complains of neck pain. At first it takes an act of conscious will to keep the head from gesturing as we talk to people. As you persist in practicing this, you'll gradually learn to simply relax the neck, instead of tensing it to avoid moving it. Then you'll know the pleasure of having a "quiet neck." It was such a relief, when I first learned that. 

Gesturing with the head, nodding "yes" or turning the head to say "no" is OK if it is done gently, slowly, and not habitually while talking to someone. The problem comes when it gets to be an unconscious habit, and the head is constantly in motion while talking to people.  That's a nervous habit, and very damaging. It seems to be something that is supposed to communicate "I hear you, I am paying attention to you, I am responding to you so intensely that I am even abusing my own neck just for you". That is probably not the body language we intend to communicate but that message is definitely there if the head is over-active during conversation. As I tell my clients, if you don't know how to gesture with your hands, just watch any Italian - they are masters!

A quiet head and restful neck communicates poise and confidence. A pointlessly busy head and neck communicates just the opposite. 

Thursday, May 8, 2008

"But I Need My Lumbar Curve"

It's OK to slump while sleeping! This strange advice is practically guaranteed to give some relief from back pain or trouble. It can even change your life! It costs nothing, is very easy and pleasant, and has no downside. But of course you need to understand it thoroughly first, and practice it for a few weeks. Then you'll do it automatically, since it feels so good. This is a longer post, so please bear with me. 

As a Feldenkrais Practitioner I often tell people (if they have back pain, and sleep on their side) "It's helpful to curl into fetal pose - slumping while lying on your side - and be sure to have a good pillow (preferably down) under your head and under your top leg." While this may seem counter-intuitive, the opposite of good posture, surprisingly it offers relief from back pain, and people feel more rested, refreshed.

Many are resistant to this, thinking it will interfere with good breathing, it will create a tendency to slump, the internal organs will be compressed, or "I need my lumbar curve" as a client recently told me. Other therapists have explained to her the importance of a good lumbar curve. So she wanted more explanation for my strange advice. So I launched into one of my Feldenkrais explanations, as I love to do.  

Would it make sense for you to keep your fist clenched all day long, because in the evening you are going to work out with a punching bag? Of course not. A lumbar curve is needed for weight bearing, in erect sitting or standing particularly. You don't need a lumbar curve while side lying in bed. You don't need a lumbar curve while resting on your back, either. Some folks keep their lumbar muscles so tight, I can feel their heat with my hand. Muscles can't and don't fully relax until they are encouraged and allowed to lengthen. 

Lumbar back muscles cannot lengthen unless you explore rounding out the lumbar curve. Sleep is a good time to do that. Let those muscles rest then, and they will work better for you for the rest of your life. But if you keep vigilantly tensing them, to keep your "proper" lumbar curve, eventually they will get so fatigued, or go deeply into rock-hard spasms, that any sudden or over-strong movement in that area will over-stretch the ligaments. Or more commonly, the entire back is recruited to take the place of the lumbar curve, which should be down near the sacrum. This stiffens the entire back, creates an elevated or lengthened lumbar curve and destroys the natural curves of the spine. That's a high price to pay! That describes so many people. Then you'll have lots of movement challenges and compensation and possibly  chronic back pain. I've seen too many cases of low back surgery, where the patient is left in chronic pain. Get smarter before you need surgery (That's not to say that there are not good back surgeries, I just never see those people). 

We need supple, intelligent, strong and responsive body parts - with nothing being held obstinately, unresponsively stiff all the time. Body parts need to cooperate, coordinate with each other. If you have any ideas of holding yourself in any "correct" posture, you create havoc with body part coordinations. It is useful to consider posture in the context of movement - after all, posture comes from movement, and is a dynamic (not static, as many believe) process, as scientists are confirming today. 

This very desirable, human-birthright natural level of functioning is not found in repetitive or corrective exercise, stretching or yoga, or practicing holding yourself in a particular way. It takes a variety of creative, challenging, yet safe, movements in a comfortable learning environment for that.  That is one way to describe Awareness Through Movement. 

For instance, in walking the lumbar spine does (or should do) something different on the left vs the right side, with each step we take. Holding the spine and pelvis stiff, as most do, will prevent this, overworking the hip joints - i.e. compensation areas take over - such as Lumbar 1, which is a trouble spot for most everyone. It's not the fault of Lumbar 1. It's doing the best it can. If you keep correcting Lumbar 1 (or wherever) with chiropractic, yoga, stretching  - you name  it - without dealing with the underlying issue, you'll have L1 trouble for life. And, because of constant manipulation or adjustment of the lumbar spine, or wherever,  the ligaments there can eventually become unstable; then your troubles multiply. 

In Awareness Through Movement (ATM) classes you'll spend hours exploring various concepts - such as the pre-curser infant movements to walking, where you actually practice differential activation of the lumbar spine. Or maybe you'll do something apparently completely unrelated to the lumbar spine, yet, after the hour, you stand up to stand and walk, and it is like you have a new lumbar spine. It is not something you can acquire any other way, as far as I know. We have to slow down, feel, be adaptive, creative and  playful (yet focused)  to create this kind of organic learning (like a baby does). It is so different from exercise or yoga that group classes are extremely helpful. On our own, alone at home, with a ATM tape, we too easily revert to our old patterns - obey instructions mindlessly, be goal oriented, work too hard. When everyone in a group is actually not doing those things, it is much easier.  

Will curling up into fetal position cause restricted breathing? Perhaps, but you don't need much air as you sleep, so shallow breathing is appropriate. Plus, the curling will gradually encourage relaxation and breath movement in the upper, middle and lower back (instead of the front) - a new concept to most people who are overly frontal in their body image. Abdominal breathing, for most, is too frontal, with the belly going in and out. Lots of people believe abdominal breathing is good, but don't do it for this reason. Who wants a large belly? So instead the belly is continually held too tight, and the poor lumbar spine has to work much harder to keep us erect. Unopposed belly tension means slumping, and we vigilantly prevent this by tensing (hard!) the lumbar spine - and upper and middle back. This tension is aggravated by harmful emotions (we over-tighten the belly) - which is why emotional clearing work can help back pain. This creates a scenario that Thomas Hanna called "The Dark Vise" where the lumbar spine is like in a vise. Discs get damaged, nerves get compressed, etc. 

When we breathe more to the back and sides of the abdomen, and not just the front, we begin to feel relief,  pleasant feelings. Relaxed fetal position is one way to teach yourself that.

Will curling up into fetal position cause compression of the internal organs? Certainly, but this kind of compression is beneficial, if you don't overdo the rounding at first. There is a breath rhythm, and no weight bearing, so the process is gentle. WIth compression, toxins can be squeezed out, like with a sponge. Many spend hours  doing yoga, to compress and flush out toxins, and provide the internal organs with fresh blood. For instance, if you always keep your chest lifted (even while sleeping) , as in "good posture" when will the front part of the lungs ever be squeezed (like a sponge) to eliminate their toxins? Never.  

By side-lying in fetal position, we take the legs out from under us, as they are in standing. This gives our brain a message to relax the back extensor muscles, which always must tense to hold up upright in standing. This neurological release of back tension can be felt immediately. A rounded back while sleeping means the back muscles can lengthen and relax. 

Also - consider that a martial artist in ready-position, a baseball player receiving a ground ball, a tennis player in ready-position - is curled up into "slumped posture".  It is actually a very functional stance - lots of movement choices, lots of power, like a coiled spring. If one of these persons were instead to stiffen their back, as in "good lumbar curve" or "proper erect posture" their athletic performance would suffer.  It's obvious that Nature never intended that we should never slump. 

Why shouldn't we consider that sitting is a form of athletic activity, that requires some mentoring?  Truly, it does. Consider that sitting or standing stiffly erect is not stable - you could be pushed over backwards very easily (hence, the popularity of lumbar supports and back rests). Can unstable sitting be good? 

When I first heard these arguments, I was taken aback. It contradicted much of what I thought I understood about posture, but I could not deny the truth of it. 

All this is not a recommendation to slump instead of having good posture. Experienced Feldenkrais students don't inappropriately slump when sitting. Yet, neither do they have rock-hard - painful to touch -  back muscles, like almost everyone else. They spent years learning how to do this. 

Slumping has a proper time and place, like anything else. If you want to learn to sit or stand without stiffening the chest and back, a good choice would be to get involved with the Feldenkrais Method, find a practitioner, or take ATM classes. There is a surprisingly lot to learn, and weekly Awareness Through Movement classes, for your entire life, is the cheapest, easiest way. 

To sum up this strange Feldenkrais advice:
  • Take 3-5 seconds as you lie in bed to adjust your body, "chin in, knees to to chest, soften the ribs - put a pillow under the upper leg." and perhaps once or twice during the night if you waken.  It's easiest in side-lying but can also be done lying on the back with pillows under the knees, and a small cushion tucked under the lower part of the pelvis, to round out the lumbar.
  • If you use a body pillow or sleep on your stomach, still you can round slightly and keep the chin slightly more in, etc.  Whatever you can do is fine; gentle persistence is the key. 
  • Start slowly, relax into it, never use force. Force can over-stretch ligaments, making joints unstable, especially when muscles are still tense.   
In a few weeks, this can be a reliable habit, then you won't need to even think about it again. When you wake up and go about your day - forget all about this, just be normal. You don't have to keep doing anything at all. By doing this, life will be easier for you. Relaxation will become more accessible, you'll be more gentle with your co-workers, and yourself. Your breathing will naturally be easier and fuller. This simple protocol is pure magic, in many ways. You'll never give it up if you explore it in a gentle, easy manner. 

Actually, you can forget all these details, and simply remember "it's OK to slump while sleeping" and that is all you need to know.   


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Low Neck Pain and Suitcases

If you travel a lot, this may help. How do you pick up a heavy suitcase? Of course, it is best to use wheels or a cart. But there are occasions when we have to heft a heavy bag. 

Three ways to do it. First, for most of us, we tense and lift the shoulder towards the ear while gripping and lifting the bag. The shoulder tension stabilizes the joint, which is good. But the lifting of the shoulder yanks up the upper ribs (particularly the first rib) -  a prime cause of chronic neck and shoulder pain. Even if, later, you relax your shoulders fully, the pain is still there because those first ribs are now locked in place, elevated. We want to avoid doing this. 

The opposite extreme would be to keep the shoulder fully loose, relaxed as you lift a heavy bag. This would over-stretch the ligaments and tendons in the joint - not a good thing. Intuitively we would never do that. 

Best is the middle ground. Picking up a heavy suitcase, let it pull the shoulder down, creating a nice stretch between the shoulder and the neck. Like that, tense and stabilize the shoulder. This will not cause an elevated first rib, in fact it can even bring it down to normal position. I have alleviated my own neck pain while traveling by using this trick. 

Friday, May 2, 2008

Slumping is Good?

My clients continue to teach me. 

Yesterday, a client with back pain, and an abusive boss, did role playing with me. She pretended to be her boss, I was her. She yelled at me while I stiffened my back (like she does). Her words were sharp, cutting - it's what naturally came out of her mouth. Then I softened my posture, relaxed my chest, slightly slumping. Her words became softer, kinder, in a natural way. 

She said "Oh, now I see why my boss yells at me like that, I need to stop stiffening."

Something hypnotic can happen when talking to a person with a stiff chest. Something human can happen when talking to a person with a softer posture - maybe even a slump?

For years I have been showing clients how stiffening the spine to sit up straight causes tight back muscles and other physical trouble, and that the solution is not slumping, or endless searching for the "right" chair,  but getting smarter about a whole lot of things relating to sitting and good posture. It's called The Feldenkrais Method and it can involve a lifetime of joyful exploration, insight and discovery. Most people would rather take the shortcut, and just stiffen the back to sit up straight, but the price is high. This aspect was a new insight for me. 

Sitting up stiff is what we do when we are afraid of someone, or something. Physically we are not over our center and can easily fall over backwards. We tense the muscles around our heart, making people unconsciously prone to yelling at us, abusing us, because we are not open. It's apparently body language for servility, and if we posture like slaves, tyrants are drawn to that.