National Public Radio (NPR) recently did a story on the “lost art” of bending over. Spoiler: it’s only been lost in the West; other cultures still practice it.
Photo: Jean Couch.
If you’ve had private lessons with me, you’ve worked on this in nearly every lesson: re-discovering how to bend over, how to come from sitting to standing. Essential!
“. . . when you hip hinge, your spine stays in a neutral position. The bending occurs at the hip joint — which is the king of motion.” — NPR
Please note: this requires time and practice to re-discover as an adult. Please go slowly. Begin by thinking, “I’m taking my sit bones back. And my spine is like a pendulum. My head’s at one end, my pelvis at the other.”
Which Letter of the Alphabet is Your Spine Making?
You can use the alphabet to help discover your pattern. Are you making a C-shape (rounding) as you bend over?
Or are you maintaining an L-shape with your spine and hips?
As You Practice Bending
If you’re practicing bending over, it’s key to understand, to feel, where your hip joints are located (about 15 centimeters above the crease at the top of your pant leg). Also essential: to realize that your pelvic girdle has three moving parts.
To see this principle in action, watch elite athletes. Speed skaters, surfers, weightlifters. No way you can lift 100 pounds or more overhead without damaging yourself, unless you take full advantage of your pelvic opportunity.
Practice every time you need to bend over. You’ll be so glad!
If you have back or hip pain, the more you understand and can bend over in this way, at your hip joints, the less pain you’ll have. And if you don’t have pain, you’ll lessen the chance of creating it.
The first part of the book focuses on what doesn’t work. Heartbreaking. Luckily, you can skip like I did to the second part, which focuses on solutions, including the Feldenkrais Method®.
Jakobson Ramin writes: “Well before you finish reading Crooked, you’ll understand that the pain in your back (or your hip or your leg) also exists in a political, psychological and economic context that greatly influences how you’ll be treated – and if you’ll recover. You’ll know which approaches are likely to reliably bring you some relief, and exactly what’s involved in each.”
What’s effective for relieving back pain
One thing all the effective modalities, including Feldenkrais, share: the client must actively engage in shifting the patterns which cause pain. None of these modalities are quick fixes: they require ongoing practice leading to self-empowerment and transformation.
The force of habit
ATM® student explores how her spine moves. Photo: Henry Biber.
We create chronic pain through habits of self-use. Because they’re habits, they’re hard for us to identify ourselves: we often need help from an expert. Even once we identify movement patterns which are harming us, they’re difficult to correct. Moshe Feldenkrais writes, in Awareness Through Movement: “For both the fault and the way in which it appears in action must be corrected. We need a great deal of persistence and enough knowledge to enable us to move according to what we know rather than according to habit. . . . Some conscious mental effort must be made until the adjusted position ceases to feel abnormal and becomes the new habit.” (p. 60)
Resources for back pain solutions
A Feldenkrais lesson with Angela Alston, GCFP. Photo: Henry Biber.
Jakobson Ramin has provided an invaluable resource: online sources for back pain solutions. She adds this note: “Unlike most back pain websites, there are no advertising dollars at play here: No resource paid to appear on these pages, and none ever will.”
The New York Times has just published an article about the Feldenkrais Method®. After two hours of lessons, columnist Jane E. Brody describes herself as “walking on air,” freed from her chronic pain.
She acknowledges up front a reluctance to investigate Feldenkrais: “I had long refrained from writing about this method of countering pain because I thought it was some sort of New Age gobbledygook with no scientific basis. Boy, was I wrong!”
Brody began to understand how the method is effective:
“The slow, gentle, repetitive movements I practiced in a Feldenkrais group class helped foster an awareness of how I use my body in relation to my environment, and awareness is the first step to changing one’s behavior.”
If you’ve personally experienced the benefits of Feldenkrais already, and have a friend or family member who you think would also benefit, an article like this could be a great help in convincing them. If someone like that comes to mind, please share this article with them.
We humans are born poised for learning. But we don’t necessarily know how to learn what doesn’t come easily to us.
For years after I finished college, I had a recurrent nightmare. I was sitting down to take a final exam, and I realized I hadn’t even opened the textbook. As you might guess, I’d had a rocky time in college. It was a liberal arts school where the ideal was to be studying all the time. Our workload reflected that. I literally got every grade you can get, from A+ to F.
A lot has changed since then, but one thing hasn’t: I’m still curious about myself and the world around me. I love learning. So when I stumbled across a reference to “learning how to learn,” I immediately clicked on the link.
It lead me to a New York Times article about an online course taught by Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowski. Oakley had failed science and math in high school. She decided in her twenties to get an engineering degree and taught herself how to learn the material which didn’t come easily to her. Now she’s an engineering professor.
When I read that, I signed up for the course immediately. Hey, it’s free! (Unless you’d like a certificate: then it’s $49.) And the info’s invaluable.
The material, backed by research in neuroscience—with plenty of supplemental material if you want to dig deeper—complements what I’ve learned, from a different perspective, as a Feldenkrais teacher.
A Pomodoro kitchen timer. “Pomodoro” means “tomato” in Italian.
Today one of my clients came up to standing after a Feldenkrais® lesson and said, “It feels like my left foot is in front of my right foot.” He looked down and saw that, in reality, his feet were in line with each other. This was a novel relationship for his feet: his pattern typically is to have his right foot a little forward. His perception was different than reality.
It takes time to become incorporate new patterns into your self-image.
When you find something new in a lesson like a different place for your foot to be in standing, you can play with that. Take one foot a bit forward, shift weight back and forth between the back and front foot. Take the other foot forward, again shift weight. With feet side by side again, observe your perception now of where they are with respect to each other. Feel it, look at them.
Can you make it a game?
Later in the day, check in again. Stand and observe. How are your feet now placed?
Waiting in line at the grocery store becomes an opportunity for self-investigation. Or pushing your shopping cart, you can observe how you transfer weight between your feet. Standing at the kitchen sink, you can check in to see how weight is distributed between your feet. Not changing or correcting anything right away, just observing. Then you can begin to look for what feels most efficient, testing theories about function we’ve begun investigating in class.
It’s particularly illuminating to discover where some familiar pattern of self-use expresses itself as discomfort.
Although I’ve been clarifying and improving my walk for the last three years, when I garden my old pattern re-emerges. After two hours of transplanting and weeding this spring I felt a familiar pain in my lumbar spine. I hadn’t yet brought new movement patterns I’d learned in the context of the walking into bending and bearing weight. Now I have a new goal for self-study: improving how I lift.
Moment by moment, we have the change to discover ourselves in movement. To perfect our self-images.
Learning More about Awareness Through Movement
If you’re curious about the theory behind ATM, read Moshe Feldenkrais‘ book Awareness Through Movement. He wrote it for the general public. The first part presents his ideas about functional movement and learning. The second leads you through 12 lessons, including one entitled “Perfecting the Self-Image.”
Another way to learn more about ATM, come to a class or workshop here in Dallas. Click here to find a class near you.
We humans are experts at learning. We don’t need to show babies how to learn. As soon as they’re born, they begin.
Movement is key to learning. The Feldenkrais Method® works by inviting us to attend to small differences between movements and assess which are preferable: which use less energy, are more direct, and feel better. At any age we can notice these differences, learn, and improve.
Neuroplasticity: More than Just a Buzz Word
Literally our brain grows new neural connections: dubbed neuroplasticity, this ability of our brain to change has become a buzz word. Buzzy or not, it’s still true we can learn and improve. It’s pretty darn cool.
Feldenkrais teacher Rich Goldsand just produced a nice video demonstrating with several clients how the method helps them. Watch it below.
So, after six years of teaching, I follow my hunches when planning what to teach. I listen to my private clients, to students in my classes. I continue with my advanced study. Patterns emerge. Something comes into the foreground.
Now it’s hip joints which keep presenting themselves to me.
Connecting with Your Strength
My ongoing interest remains uncovering innate strength. And clarifying use of our hip joints is key. The pelvis is our power center. Those bones are the biggest we have. The lumber vertebrae are enormous, compared to our cervical vertebrae.
The head of the femur is spherical, almost. It has the potential to rotate in almost any direction. Yet most of us use only a fraction of the potential. Watch a dancer or gymnast to see the hip joint exploited to its fullest.
Most of us don’t have hypermobile joints like acrobats. Yet we can still find more range of motion than we’re currently taking advantage of. We can find, for example, the top of our hip joint, that place around which we can pivot freely and discover what Moshe Feldenkrais called good posture: the ability to move in any direction without preparation.
Why Study Anatomy?
I’ve been going back to the transcripts of the lessons Moshe Feldenkrais taught years ago in Jerusalem. We have roughly 600 of these lessons, from the time he spent teaching on Alexander Yanai Street. I’m finding gems in his comments to students. He says repeatedly that we don’t know where our hip joints are. We can’t accurately locate them on ourselves. We think our hip joints are located where our pants crease at the top of our legs. They aren’t. Because we move from a faulty understanding of our anatomy, we damage our hip joints and low back. Moshe said that 60 years ago, and it’s still true today.
The heads of the femurs point towards your sacrum. Your hip joints are located where they can direct ground forces up and into your spine on either side to help you stand erect and move your spine freely.
When you stand using your skeleton clearly, without unnecessary activity in your core, you’ll feel support flowing up from your heels to your hip joints, all the way to the crown of your head.
It’s literally a heady feeling.
So why do so many of us lack or forget that connection? Many reasons: injury, prolonged sitting, inactivity in general. I also think the English language doesn’t help.
Basic Pelvic Anatomy
We have one word, “pelvis,” for what are actually three bones: the sacrum in the middle and an ilium/ischium on either side. To add to the confusion, we don’t have one word for the hip bones on either side of the sacrum. Each is composed of three elements, the ilium, ischium, and pubis. These are separated in newborns and become fused by adulthood. The three elements form a deep socket called the acetabulum where they meet. The acetabulum articulates with the head of the femur. In front, the pubic bone on either side is connected by cartilage. So each of these three parts of your pelvis has the potential to move independently. To see that potential exploited to its fullest, watch a skillful belly dancer.
Why isn’t study of basic human anatomy required? How we’re put together is fascinating. When kids meet my skeleton Heinrich, they can’t stop touching him, moving his bones around, asking questions. It’s absurd and a profound disservice to allow children to reach adulthood in ignorance of how their physical selves function. (Of course, public school would probably find a way to make anatomy boring. But that’s another story.)
The point is, understanding and clarifying function of our hip joints is key to improving our movement and self-use. This spring, that will be the theme throughout my classes. I hope you’ll join me.
Going Deeper with Anatomy
If you’d like to study human anatomy on your own, there’s no better place to start than Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain. Her analysis focuses on function, not the study of anatomy for its own sake. She’s a dancer and physical therapist. The book is full of great illustrations. It’s organized so you can easily pick it up and simply read the section dealing with the pelvis. Or go cover to cover, if you like.
Practicing Feldenkrais is about cultivating curiosity about your physical (and mental) self. Here’s a great example from Seth Dellinger. He’s a Feldenkrais teacher who continues to expand his horizons, looking for opportunities to play beyond the studio.
Playful practice: John Cedric Tarr with friend.
John Cedric Tarr guided Seth recently in a parkour exploration. Parkour is a training discipline using movement that developed from military obstacle course training.
One rule: you start with something simple—ridiculous—and gradually increase the level of difficulty. You play at the boundaries, just like you do in an Awareness Through Movement lesson.
Seth writes: “The main thing isn’t being a daredevil, but yes, you must face your fears. So, start small, where everything is entirely safe! Jumping from one ledge to another is no different than jumping from one line on the sidewalk to another. So start practicing your precision jumps where the height of the jump doesn’t pose any danger. And start with short jumps . . . there’s no hurry!”
Another practical tip from Seth: “One of the key ingredients to turning the environment into my playground is making decisions.
I look around for something to do.
I decide: I will jump over that bench.
I decide how I will jump over that bench: I will put my hands right THERE in order to support myself and swing my legs over.”
I’m hoping John and Seth will both come teach at Dallas Movement Lab this year.
Learning demands that we make mistakes repeatedly. It’s impossible to improve without error. It sometimes seems counter-intuitive, but to approach perfection, we must embrace imperfection. How many times does a baby fall before her first step?
But it’s SO hard to allow ourselves fail. Many of us are perfectionists, or were raised by them. We’ve been punished for failing. Or we punish ourselves. Negative self-talk can be a constant companion.
Show & Tell
Feldenkrais and violin teacher Lisa Burrell recently wrote a moving reflection on the value of modeling imperfection. She shares an anecdote about one of her students struggling with demanding parents and teachers.
Lisa’s own mistake in playing a passage became a pivotal moment in a lesson. “I was kind of dumbstruck that the simple act of admitting my mistake would be so powerful in this relationship.” The student’s demeanor changed markedly.
Lisa writes: “In this world of increasing competition and emphasis on getting the right answer, we need more than ever to be guides to what real learning is, not just in our language, but by sharing our own ongoing processes and revealing our own powerful vulnerability.”