Breathe, & Reorganise your Energetic Spine

I teach approaches to breathing from many different angles: I am a Feldenkrais teacher, so breathing in a free and fluid manner is a core element of every lesson I teach. I sing – to myself,  along with the radio, in public, in my head etc. etc. – and I teach singers and other voice users of all sorts, whether professional or ‘amateur’; I am steadily learning to rid myself of a range of respiratory allergic reactions. While I do not claim to be cured, my condition has improved enormously as a direct result of changing my behaviour and particularly my inefficient and dysfunctional breathing habits.

I use breathing techniques from many sources – Feldenkrais, Tai Chi, meditation, and yoga – to help my clients to undo the habitual neuro-muscular patterns of anxiety and hyperarousal that disrupt natural breathing rhythms, and many other aspects of healthy human functioning. None of this is controversial or likely to surprise you – most of us are aware that breathing well fuels the voice, that meditation and mindfulness practises are built on a foundation of breath awareness, and that better breathing means better nervous system functioning, which in turn means greater resilience throughout the whole of our chemical/hormonal self-maintenance system. Then recently, while experimenting with a sequence of lessons from early in the development of the Feldenkrais Method, I experienced how breathing can be used to reverse postural deterioration in the neck, spine and upper back. As I have been practising the Method for 30 years this was not surprising in itself, but it was unusual to experience a change in the muscular tone of my neck and upper back that was so immediate and so extensive.

This process appears to have opened ‘energetic channels’ through the length of my spine, triggering physical sensations more usually associated with concepts such as qi, prana, kundalini, and the chakras (or ‘energy centres’). I have been exploring qi work for many years so this was not too startling, and in fact I was rather pleased to have a spontaneous experience of ‘energy’ moving up the spinal column, just as the concept of kundalini suggests. Nevertheless I am not unaware that these concepts remain as controversial in ‘western’ medicine as they are ubiquitous in ‘eastern’ medicine. Outside the somewhat inflexible boundaries of modern science and ‘evidence-based medicine’, there are huge numbers of health practitioners worldwide focussing their efforts on systems-orientated approaches that are designed to tackle the underlying causes of ill health and thereby enable the ‘patient’ to return naturally to a more resilient, healthier condition. Feldenkrais is also designed to teach people to improve their own functioning, and it is one of a small but growing number of techniques that teach healthier ways of doing and being, instead of attempting to ‘fix’ a structural issue. To bastardise a familiar saying, ‘force a joint to move further and it will usually revert back to its familiar range of motion in a few days, teach a person to move better and they will move better for life’.

The diaphragm - inside and out! © Carla Drayton

The flow of energy as defined in these esoteric, synergetic health systems is always founded on, and facilitated by, a well-organised spine. Moshe Feldenkrais – not just an engineer and physicist, but also a judo master – stated that:

“General features of proper self-use can now be formulated. The head should remain absolutely free to float riding on the top of the spine. All tension in the neck and the throat interferes with the motion of the head and makes coordinated action more or less imperfect. …the head is being balanced in the standing position without voluntary tension anywhere in the body from the pelvis upward.”

Moshe Feldenkrais; The Potent Self.

– however he did have 20th century physicist’s scorn for the use of the word ‘energy’ as a metaphor for any sort of human ‘bio-field’ or ‘channel’, so I am sure that he would be disgusted with me for my previous paragraph, and I am sad he is no longer around and I have never had the chance to argue the toss with him on this subject. The subtle but distinct sensation of whatever-it-is between the hands takes very little practice to sense for yourself, and as it feels really similar to the static electricity emanating from an old-fashioned television, crossed with the sensation you feel when you attempt to connect the matching poles of two magnets, energy seems a really natural word to use! Fortunately, just as science is developing ever more enormous machines to confirm the existence of ever more miniscule sub-atomic ‘particles’, it is developing equipment sensitive enough to detect subtle magnetic fields of the sort produced by living matter.

My Breathing Intensive workshop is founded on the excellent tools for enhancing the learning process that Feldenkrais developed from his years and years of teaching – strategies that are consistently verified by current research in how the brain learns, and how best to relieve chronic pain and improve human ability:

Moving slowly, attentively and “mindfully”. Active encouragement to find an alternative way of moving to the effortful, forceful, striving behaviour that is common to most forms of exercise, and much of human activity; behaviour that is a major cause of injuries of all sorts, from sprains, tears and spasms, to more chronic conditions such as RSI, Tennis Elbow, Housemaid’s Knee, etc.

Pausing regularly to rest and completely let go of all activity – which enables us to fully access our brain’s neuroplastic ability to learn, and thus to constantly upgrade our individual ‘software’, by increasing the contrast between doing and not-doing. This also enables us to develop our ability to recognise what it feels like to come to a full stop, and thus unlearn habits of excessive muscular vigilance which can prevent us from relaxing fully even when asleep.

…and also to clarify the–perhaps unique–concept at the heart of Feldenkrais work that, when a particular action gets easier, it does so at the onset of motion rather than at the end, so your range of motion may increase but the most significant change is that you have lessened any sensation of resistance, or cross-motivation, so there is less and less sense of overcoming inertia and the feeling of resting easily in neutral becomes more and more familiar to you. You are no longer getting in your own way, and thus your subtler feedback mechanisms become more familiar.

The human finger can detect something as small as 13 nanometers in width, as long as the surface it is resting on is smooth enough. Bring yourself into a state of quietude and you can feel your own heartbeat, and register your subtlest emotional shifts as they occur, allowing you to be more spontaneous, or more discreet, as you choose. “When you know what you are doing you can do what you want”, and when you know exactly how you are feeling you can begin to act more in alignment with your own instinctual self.

This workshop will be beneficial for:

Martial artists and Qi Gong practitioners

Dancers and athletes

Asthmatics and COPD sufferers

Reversing ‘Dowager’s hump’, curvature of the spine, and other postural issues

Energy workers, and meditators of all kinds.

I have two upcoming workshops on this theme:

The Sunflower Centre, SE4, Sunday April 29th, £60/£50 – full details here.

The Skylight Centre, Highbury & Islington, N5, October 13th & 14th – Early Bird fee £130 / £150 after July 31st – full details here.

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