Thursday, June 12, 2008

Rib Cage -A Fresh Perspective

Learn this one, and you will never be the same again.  Your life will sparkle with joy, love, spiritual advancement, compassion, people will love you and you'll get RICH!! (OK I may exaggerate, but you move in this direction). A lot of our self-image lives in our chest region and our somatic anatomical self-image has a lot to do with how this area moves, and how it continually re-creates or affirms our self-image. If we think people are talking behind our backs, we stiffen our backs. We forget to remember the ribs can be supple, and they can relax after stiffening.  If we feel shamed or diminished in any way, we tighten (and perhaps slump) in the chest. How long do we hold that tension? We've all been told that we should lift our chest while sitting or standing in order to have good posture. We do this and forget to relax now and then. We even sleep with our rib cage and hard as a brick. We've all learned that our rib cage is built to protect the fragile heart and lungs - a strong, protective cage. Once we know that, we think that is all there is to know. Well, there is more to the story. 

For starters, your ribs on the left are separate from those on the right. They can actually move independently. Can you even imagine such a thing? Probably not. Well, you could, if you were taking an ATM class regularly, or seeing a Feldenkrais Practitioner

From today forward, as you exercise, walk, do yoga or sit quietly - if you can have in the back of your mind that your ribs can be soft, that there is an independent left and right side to the rib cage - then you will be slowly progressing in the right direction. Most folks, because they don't understand this, are moving in the wrong direction. The older they get, the tighter becomes their rib cage. And also, the more their pain (shoulder, neck, hip and knees  - the major joints that overwork when the rib cage is like a brick), their long-held resentments, their anger will be increasing. It is an unfortunate way to grow older, yet very common. 

We need soft ribs to be human and kind and open hearted, but we also need (always available) hard ribs, lifted chest - in those moments when we need to set a boundary, or when we need to muster extraordinary courage or will power, or when we need to be physically strong in the ribs, as when we are carrying a backpack.  That is normal and healthy!  Actually we need to have many choices available as to how we configure our rib cage, moment to moment. It is not so simple as soft vs hard. But in this blog I am writing about both extremes, mainly, since the concepts are more easily understood (by contrast) that way. But there are many shades of grey.

Life is hard today, it is like a cement mixer. If ever there were a time where boundaries need to be set, to protect our own well-being and comfort - it  is today. Just look at the world! So it is almost inevitable that most people end up with rigidly held rib cages. We put that on, like a costume, in order  to survive, and "be tough".  It is not wrong to have a rib cage like that. Better that than to be run over by life, by others, by circumstances! The main point is that we need more choices than just that one compulsive behavior. 

So many people today are turning to meditation, to acts of charity, to yoga postures that "open the heart" and to other spiritual practices. If they were to add to all that a little somatic work, they would get quicker and more lasting benefits for their efforts.  

There is an aboriginal tribe that actually can hold objects, like a wooden spoon, between two ribs. That is normal in their culture. What is normal in our culture is to consider the ribs like a sturdy cage, unmoving, held stiff in good posture. Trouble is, that reduces circulation, muffles or deadens heart feelings, creates insensitivity to the suffering of others, and more. 

Everytime you use the words rib cage or hear them spoken, you reaffirm the concept of rigid holding of the chest. I propose that everytime your hear or read the words rib cage - from this moment forwardyou replace it with a more functional concept, such as:
  • Rib accordion
  • Rib slinky
  • Just plain ribs
  • Supple chest or supple upper back
We tend to think of a military chest as admirable. Well, you need to have a chest like that to kill people. That's a fact. F.M. Alexander, the founder of The Alexander Technique was a somatic  pioneer in the early 1900's. He was teaching people how to have effortlessly erect posture, with a relaxed and lengthened spine, soft ribs and easy breathing. He was also one of the early teachers of  Moshe Feldenkrais, founder of The Feldenkrais Method (You can't go wrong if you study the Alexander Technique, I recommend that to anyone who wants better posture). Well, when he visited England he found an opportunity to teach some soldiers (with the permission of the British Military) his method of standing  tall. He was horrified at the usual military methods: Lift the chest, pull the shoulders back, keep the chin in and level - and now stay that way forever! What happened? Well, his experiment was successful - the soldiers had wonderfully elegant and tall posture -  but ended quickly. The British military did not like soldiers that no longer had the killer instinct.

True strength is like a blade of grass in a storm - it will survive, while the oak tree will fall. A person with authentic strength has a supple rib cage. They can take a blow - physical, mental or emotional - and absorb or roll with the punch. A person with a stiffly held rib cage (whether in chronically stooped posture or admirably erect, it does not matter), will be damaged. When life deals a hard blow, he will suffer much more than a person with a supple rib cage. 

A little child can do a forward roll - and adults usually cannot,  unless he/she learns to move again like a little child (not as hard as it may seem). Stiffening the chest is part of being "adult" and I'd even guess it is a major factor in aging. For sure, I can say that when a client learns to soften their chest, they look many years younger.  When an adult learns again to soften his chest enough to do a forward roll, his life will improve in amazing ways. I learned this from a Dr. Brady, who  wrote a book about 1953 summarizing his life work as a medical journalist (I can't remember the name of the book). One whole chapter of the book was dedicated to forward rolls  - he said that whenever a patient learned to do this (using lots of pillows on a large soft bed) many of their symptoms went away - including even serious diseases, mental depression, and more. 

Few persons today have supple ribs. Some little kids do, before they learn to read, before they go to school - provided they have not been using video games, watching TV, using the computer, and have not been abused in any way. That is rare, today. Long time students of the Feldenkrais Method have fluent rib cages - able to soften or harden as appropriate or anything in-between. Any person with deep emotional sensitivity, with spiritual advancement, who also knows how to set boundaries, with real practical compassion  - all have  supple, intelligent rib cages (not hard like bricks). Just look around and see if it is not true. Mother Theresa was such a one. Even a small gesture with her hands, her rib cage responded like a soft sponge. When she reached with a hand, her heart was in her hand, somatically speaking. In other words, her ribs participated in the arm movement of reaching. Most people with "better posture" hold their ribs completely rigid when reaching out an arm. Although she was hunched, she nonetheless had good movement in the ribs. 

When the ribs are tightly knit, tensely held, our self-image of that area and all our movements becomes severely distorted.  We even forget we have ribs (that always happens when a body part is held unrelentingly tense for decades). When you lie down on your back or on your side, is it immediately clear to you that your torso is supported by (resting upon) your rib cage? For me it was not. When I first consciously sensed my ribs while lying on my side, about 16 years ago, during an ATM class,  I was shocked. How can this be? I was, up to that moment, always thinking of "my back, my chest, my torso" and never the ribs. I knew the ribs were there, intellectually, but somatically there were gone. Or, consider abdominal breathing: with tightly held ribs, for sure you are going to get a distended belly from that practice. The ribs need to participate appropriately, no matter what kind of breathing you do. 

You'll find soft and fluent-to-many-configurations rib cages more often amongst women than men. But if you find an emotionally mature man with a rib cage like that, he will be extraordinary - combining the best of the feminine qualities like compassion, understanding and love with his masculine nature. Such men are exceedingly rare. 

Imagine a married man with a wife and two young children. He loves them, but, alas, he has fallen in love with a very beautiful 18 year old woman, who just graduated from high school. She also loves him - and his money!  He intends to divorce his wife, leave his kids, take the money, sell the house and move, leaving his previous family destitute.

How would he go about preparing to actually execute such a deed? By going 4 hours a day to the health club, doing all those exercises with a stiffly held, rigidly lifted rib cage. 

This actually happened. I heard the story from a Feldenkrais Trainer - the man came to him, before the divorce, because  he was having pain (I think in the shoulders). The Trainer was struck by his very tight, military chest, and was also puzzled as to why he was working out so many hours at the gym. Later he understood, when he found out what the man had done. It made perfect sense.  And by the way, a stiff chest is almost always the "foundation" for chronic shoulder trouble, for chronic heart disease, for chronic emotional troubles, for breathing issues and lung trouble. But this information is almost like a closely guarded secret amongst the somatic community. One only hears this in private conversations between practitioners - vague suspicions that have not been proven. We don't want people to think we are unscientific, or on the lunatic fringe, so we keep it quiet. Yes there are good ways to treat these issues, with therapy, medicine, diet, etc - but if they are combined with somatic education you'll get better results, quicker and longer lasting. 

When I see a person with "admirable" posture, a stiff and lifted rib cage - I think to myself:  He/she is not feeling his deepest, truest feelings. He does not know who he really is. Poor man, he thinks good posture is the main thing. He  has sacrificed his humanity for that. I don't care how much money he has, how much power he has, how much others admire him - he is really a very poor man. Probably he does have money and power - but look at what he has sacrificed!

So what does this have to do with left and right sides of the rib cage? Well, if you able to keep thinking that way, and exploring movement that way (guided movement classes like ATM are good for this purpose, and also see a practitioner privately for some sessions) amazing things begin to happen:
  • Your image of the rib cage softens.
  • Mysteriously, shoulder pain will diminish, as will knee, hip ankle and back pain. 
  • You begin to be able to actually move left and right sides independently. 
  • Spiral movement - the best, most organic kind of movement - opens up to you. A brick-like rib cage cannot participate in spiral movement. All the other joints suffer for that.  
  • Life becomes easier. 
  • You'll  be more emotionally intelligent (this is a very elusive, difficult quality to acquire without some kind of somatic intervention)
  • You will become more soft-hearted, kinder, personal relationships will smooth out. 
As with all other somatic concepts, this one requires practical application over a prolonged period of time to be fully embodied. There is a whole lot more to learn, and sense and embody, than what I have covered here. You'll be amazed at everything that is involved in learning to soften the rib cage. Early developmental movements need to be revisited. Many challenging movement-learning situations need to be confronted, and more, to fully soften the ribs. A four year Feldenkrais Training Program will give you the opportunity to experience those things. In fact, Moshe Feldenkrais once said "Soften the ribs, differentiate the pelvis" was a good concise definition of his work. That covers a whole lot of ground.   

The truth is, you'll get minimal benefit just by reading material like this, then forgetting all about it. The only way to understand The Feldenkrais Method or any other kind of somatic work is to get involved. Sign up for a class. Find a teacher. This is not only because the concepts may be strange or difficult to learn. Mainly, it is because we acquired our habits of tension and holding (usually) when we were very young, while we were interacting with our parents, siblings, teachers and others.  It is how we thought we had to be, in order to survive. These habits are very deeply etched - it is who we think we are. What has been learned in a social setting - as a matter of survival  -  will most easily be changed only in another, more helpful (meaning safe, comfortable, pleasant) social setting. 

Another way to say this: during an ATM class, if everyone is learning to soften their ribs while doing a specific movement, the group energy will help you to give yourself permission to do the same thing. You'll get breakthroughs and insights you could never acquire alone, at home, even if you were on the floor everyday doing your very best to do ATM lessons from a recording.

And, while it is true that yoga classes have many postures that help to make the ribs more supple, there is a difference between yoga and somatic work. I love doing yoga, this is not a criticism of yoga,  I am just drawing a distinction.  In somatic work you are continually presented with strange new movement or postural challenges and situations. You get very good at creatively finding solutions, within your own  body.  You develop a natural facility to create comfort, to reorganize your body appropriate moment-to-moment no matter what is happening. It is not quite like that doing yoga. where you are learning specific postures, with specific directions. How easily does that transfer to daily living? True, there is some transference, but if somatic work is combined with yoga classes, results will come more quickly. It is like the best of both worlds. That is how I like it. 

Consider backwards bending. In yoga you will perform perhaps dozens of postures like that. In an ATM class, over the years, you'll explore thousands of variations - spirals, sitting, standing on the knees, cross legged, in early developmental configurations of creeping and crawling, one legged, standing, lying down, chin in, chin out, in chairs, lying on your side, head turned left or right, eyes up or down, combined with side bending, dancing, reaching up, holding the breath, reverse breathing, normal breathing - the variations are endless. The focus is not on developing flexibility or the ability to backwards bend, as it may be  in yoga. It does happen, but the focus is instead on being functional,  being alert, supple, adaptable - becoming more mature, more fully human. At the same time you learn to not be invested in holding on to inappropriate movement patterns or tensions acquired in the past.
In yoga, for example, you might always be looking up as you backbend - that sort of makes sense, because it makes the back-bending easier. In real life, however, you might need to look down while back bending. So, in an ATM class we practice that also.  You never know what is coming next in an ATM class, so you learn to be on your toes. You develop that facility. Is that true for your yoga class? In a well-taught ATM class, you simply cannot zone out, you will be left behind, and you'll feel a little embarrassed. You quickly learn to pay better attention. You become amazingly intelligent, facile, at arranging your body to meet the needs of the moment that way. 

In 1988 I had a full extension whiplash; I  was rear-ended at high speed by a big, lunky old Chevrolet driven by a distracted mother on drugs (going to pick up her child). I was looking up into my rear view mirror just before the collision.  So, I learned in that moment to have stiff and guarded ribs while looking up. So what do you think would happen, if all I ever did was yoga back bending, while looking up? Questions like these get you thinking in a somatic fashion. 
Let me say that a yoga class is a wonderful place to relax, to feel nurtured, to give the body helpful and restful movements, to calm and slow down the mind, to work out kinks in the muscles, to strengthen the muscles, to improve balance and flexibility, to reacquire the natural breath rhythm and much more. I myself take a yoga class regularly. I love it. But it is helpful to be clear about the  distinction between ATM and yoga. Somatic work is like seasoning on food - if you add it to yoga, gym workouts, sports - it makes it more palatable. You'll get better results, you'll have less trouble with your body. You won't hit any dead ends.   

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