*Disclaimer – I am not going to be as diplomatic about this stuff as I usually am in class…
I have been playing around with the idea of dynamic stability, but apparently Alan Watts – spiritual powerhouse that he was – suggested dynamic instability was the key to living life to the full. I like it much, much more – our high centre of gravity makes instability our birthright, it is the “core” of our adaptability and agility of mind. Because we are a dynamic and adaptable animal my theme is not core strength, but core resilience.
Having a resilient core means that…
The muscles of your torso are working in natural synergy
Your breathing is full, responsive and effective
You balance with ease whatever is going on under your feet
You can sit comfortably for long periods
Walking is light and fluid, and your legs and your head both weigh less
Your movements are effortlessly graceful and strong
I’ve been focussing recently on those bits of us that are very sensitive and aware – eyes, ears, face, lips, tongue and hands – for my bodymindfulness workshop. Now is a good time to turn our attention to the healthy functioning of a well-organised ‘trunk’, a part of our self that is much less sensitive and aware – for good reason. Our senses help us decide what we want to do next – eat, sleep, play, run away – our hands are amazing tools for moulding the world around us to satisfy our desires, but the torso is the workhorse that enables us to translate our desires and intentions into action; to do what we want to do automatically and spontaneously. The torso muscles are a complex of interrelated and overlapping functional structures that organise us for balance, action and load bearing in all three dimensions. Any well-organised action by a limb is initiated deep within the torso, where our most powerful muscles are housed, however, we do not usually activate these muscles consciously – when they are functioning well they coordinate and organise themselves, and we simply act; getting out of bed or out of a car, sitting and leaning towards or away from our work, getting down onto the ground and up again, mostly stuff we figured out how to do when we were too young to bother to analyse the process. And this process is very much what Awareness Through Movement is based on – engineering, physics and judo were all important influences on Feldenkrais, but if you look at any child under the age of two, particularly before they can speak with any fluency and you will be watching the sort of thing that goes on in Feldenkrais workshops all the time.
In the last 20 years or so it has become an accepted idea that we should control some of these muscles consciously in order to protect ourselves from back pain, particularly the chronic sort. There have always been dissenting voices, but exerting control over our muscles is an idea that we ‘get’, as is the deeply ingrained belief that if we want to be well /good people / successful we should be actively working hard at it. You see this way of thinking about posture all the time – that it is something you should be doing properly and therefore if your posture is poor then you are just not trying hard enough. Western culture is particularly keen on the value of trying hard, and many, many people are testing these ideas – and therefore themselves (or at least their knee and hip joints) – to destruction. An exercise culture has built up around an unnatural level of control over the abdominal muscles with a particular emphasis on the transversus abdominis actively stabilising the spine, with a side order of rigid six-pack-style rectus abdominis muscles for people who really like to strive. Hard muscles may look impressive to some, and that hardness may feel like strength and engender a feeling of power and achievement, but the evidence with regard to relief of and protection from back pain is questioned by many, and this excessive level of holding and stabilising makes it very difficult to breathe in the deep, full spontaneous way that is necessary for good health.
Rediscovering the kind of breathing that is free, deep, fluid and full requires that we let go of the unconscious holding that is the foundation of our culture’s idea of emotional maturity – so it certainly does not help to add an extra layer of intentional, conscious holding to the mix!
In his long, well-argued article The Myth Of Core Stability, Professor Eyal Lederman (an osteopath who specialises in treating back pain) trawls through a huge pile of research into core stability exercises and their effect on back health, and comes to these conclusions:
“Weak trunk muscles, weak abdominals and imbalances between trunk muscles groups are not pathological, just a normal variation. The division of the trunk into core and global muscle system is a reductionist fantasy, which serves only to promote CS [Core Stability].
Weak or dysfunctional abdominal muscles will not lead to back pain.
Tensing the trunk muscles is unlikely to provide any protection against back pain or reduce the recurrence of back pain.
Core stability exercises are no more effective than, and will not prevent injury more than, any other forms of exercise. Core stability exercises are no better than other forms of exercise in reducing chronic lower back pain. Any therapeutic influence is related to the exercise effects rather than CS issues.
There may be potential danger of damaging the spine with continuous tensing of the trunk muscles during daily and sports activities. Patients who have been trained to use complex abdominal hollowing and bracing maneuvers should be discouraged from using them.”
He then goes on to say…
“Many of the issues raised in this article were known well before the emergence of CS training. It is surprising that the researchers and proponents of this method ignored such important issues. Despite a decade of extensive research in this area, it is difficult to see what contribution CS had to the understanding and care of patients suffering from back pain.”
If you would like to see why he came to this conclusion and to have a look at the research for yourself you can read (and download) the full article here.
Feldenkrais was still alive – just – when our current attitude to fitness and physical health was being formed. Before the explosion of aerobics and gym culture in the 80s, if you wanted to get fit you could take up swimming, jogging or some other kind of sport, learn to dance or find yourself a martial arts class. There were gyms of course, but for the majority of people the natural option was to go and learn to do something well with your whole body – your mind too, if you found a good teacher. I remember the arrival of Jane Fonda on the scene, I did her workout most mornings for a year and a half, until boredom drove me out to look for something more satisfying, and by then my muscles were hard and well-defined, and I believed without hesitation that the way to health was to “go for the burn”. Years later I realised that it was when I tried to make my hard muscles do something more complex – I joined a dance class – that I started to injure myself and to develop chronic pain. I think a live teacher was part of the problem, I always tried very hard to please teachers and do well, I certainly didn’t know how to pace myself or respect the pain signals my body was sending me – anyway it was supposed to hurt, wasn’t it? After the class the endorphins would kick in and I felt great – Moshe called it “cardiovascular masturbation”. Steve Shafarman – Feldenkrais teacher and author of Awareness Heals shared his experiences of touring a gym with Moshe a few years before he died:
“He [MF] often denounced sit-ups, push-ups, and other exercises that seek to stretch or strengthen individual muscles. Real strength, he taught us, involves all of the muscles working harmoniously with relatively low even tone. Any muscle that’s tighter than necessary – six-pack abs, for example – impairs movement overall, and results in weakness, not strength.” You can read the whole article here.
It is pleasing to realise that graceful movement comes from an agile torso. We resist the force of gravity not by making ourselves more solid but more responsive. In Japan, where the ground is particularly unreliable, early architectural engineers discovered the way to keep a building from falling down every time there was an earthquake was to design them to be unstable – it is amazing to watch these buildings withstanding earthquakes due to their flexibility rather than their rigidity – dynamic stability in action!
Imagine how these enormous structures shift, as they adjust to the moving ground, and then imagine trying to control the necessary adjustments manually. We make the same kind of complex shifts to stay upright on a moving bus – now imagine trying to activate your torso muscles in the right sequence consciously!
You can sense this constant internal shifting easily – just stand, and close your eyes, bring your attention inside and “listen” to yourself as you maintain your balance. After a while, tense something – lock your knees, or brace your shoulders – and notice how the tension begins to spread to other parts of yourself. Let go again and see if you can find even more places to let go that you thought. This is very simple and portable Feldenkrais, you can do it anywhere if you have a spare five minutes.
The next workshop directly addressing this theme will be on February 18th, 2018
Tongue, Throat, Ribs, Diaphragm & Psoas – Freeing Yourself From Your Core Outwards
The Sunflower Centre, SE4
This workshop will be ideal for anyone wishing to give their combustion engine a tune-up, and particularly useful for anyone whose current focus is voice, breathing, presence, increasing vitality, and/or improving posture.
2.00 – 6.00, £60 / £50
Many of my workshops address these themes – click here for upcoming dates.