If you’re an adult, you likely have had back pain or you know someone who does. It’s a sad fact of contemporary life.
Even folks you’d think would be pain-free, like elite dancers and athletes, may be moving through it. Someone told me a couple of years ago that half the first-year students at one of the best US dance programs come to campus with back pain. And these students are professional caliber. Heartbreaking! And unnecessary.
We can talk for quite a while—and if you’ve been in one of my classes, you know I do!—about why back pain is endemic in our society.
In 2017,investigative reporter Cathryn Jacobson Ramin published a groundbreaking book on the “back pain industry”—a disgusting phrase if ever I heard one. Her own pain led her to look for help. She found a whole lot of stuff which doesn’t help, and can harm. And she found some modalities which do help: the Feldenkrais Method® is one. (If you’ve not read Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery, do! Aside from the great info, it’s a good read.)
It turns out that Cathryn has practiced Feldenkrais continuously since publishing Crooked. She was interviewed recently for the Feldenkrais website. She said: “I’ve sent countless people to Feldenkrais. I mean it is my ‘go-to,’ absolutely… it is a matter of gaining confidence that you can move and you will not die. And that is what Feldenkrais does: to actually tell your brain that you are in no imminent danger and things will improve.”Read the full interview here.
If you know someone living with back pain, share the interview with them. Or visit the Crooked website, which is chock-a-block with resources to help change their trajectory.
The takeaway: we don’t have to live in misery. We don’t have to suck it up, or push through, or grit our teeth. If we choose, we can move away from pain.
What do you think of when you hear the word “balance?”
Do you immediately think— “I wish mine was better.”
Join the club!
It’s hard to stand on two legs. It takes us about a year to learn it, to build the muscles necessary.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace
“. . . The human body is badly suited for standing. Statues of human figures have to be strongly connected to a heavy base to prevent them from toppling over at the slightest disturbance.”— Moshe Feldenkrais, Body & Mature Behavior
Humans start with a disadvantage: we stand on two feet. We’re top heavy: our trunk and head are on top, and our base is tiny. In Body & Mature Behavior, Feldenkrais writes: “A Martian visitor would not hesitate to conclude that the human body is the closest to an ideal frame designed for movement and the least suited for standing motionless.”
We humans are always seeking to be in balance. Whether in standing, so we don’t fall over. Or in dealing with a psychological challenge. What’s interesting: balance is inherently unstable. When we seem to be in balance we’re actually constantly moving, making tiny adjustments in response to our changing environment. We’re afraid to lose balance, yet we’re continually losing and finding it again. Just watch a baby learning to stand up! The only way to develop the ability to stand is to fall repeatedly.
Maybe losing our balance as grown-ups could be no big deal, too.
What are tools you can use to clarify your balance?
Your muscle system
Ready to Lose Balance?
The only way to walk a slack line: lose balance & find it again!
For six weeks, we’ll focus on using these tools. Finding balance, losing it, and finding it again. Join us! The series begin the week of Sept. 9. Find details here.
Insane view of the Flatirons from this parking lot! Yes, this is after my spill.
I’m just back from Boulder. What a beautiful place!
I hiked, walked, and took an electric bike tour. The bike ride gave me a fabulous opportunity to do what I’d been learning with Feldenkrais®. Coming around a curve, I saw gravel on the path. No time to go around, knew I’d skid. Fell beautifully! I caught myself on four points: both hands and both knees. Yes, my left knee was skinned. But I broke my fall and my forehead hit only lightly. You bet I was wearing a helmet! (Note to self: when the guide offers to take your back pack, accept!)
How is learning different from doing?
How could I fall so well? I’ve spent hours learning. Going slowly. Pausing frequently. Allowing a gesture to unfold piece by piece. Failing repeatedly, in as many ways as I could think of. That’s what a Feldenkrais lesson is. So when the rubber met the road (or not, in this case), I was ready. I could shift from learning to doing without hesitation. “In life an act must be accomplished at the right speed, at the right moment, and with the right vigor.” (Moshe Feldenkrais, The Elusive Obvious)
Ready to discover how Feldenkrais can help you meet whatever life brings? Join us for weekly classes!
“For successful learning we must proceed at our own rate. Babies repeat each novel action clumsily at their own rate until they have enough of it. This occurs when the intention and its performance are executed so that they are just one act which feels like an intention only.” —The Elusive Obvious
The next Feldenkrais® series are just around the corner, and they’ll be shorter than usual: four and five weeks.
At the end of June, I’m going to the annual Feldenkrais conference for five days. Count on my coming back with a bunch of new ideas we’ll play with in class, as I’ll be training with my mentor Jeff Haller, as well as several other deeply experienced teachers. The theme this year is “Discover Ease: Finding What Already Exists.”
Interested? The conference has workshops open to the public. These include:
Your Vagal Nerve System, Why the Feldenkrais Method Is So Important, with Elinor Silverstein
Two Masters and One Nerd, with Moti Nativ, Jeff Haller, and Roger Russell
Jump Forever Rhymes with Young Forever, with Moti Nativ
The conference is in Boulder, CO, which has been on my bucket list for years, so I’m taking some additional time to explore and perhaps do a short retreat in July. Classes will likely begin again the second or third week of July.
The focus in my May and June classes will be shoulders, arms, and hands. Most of us have injured our shoulders, or dealt with Carpel Tunnel or another repetitive-motion issue. We all benefit from understanding more clearly how to mobilize this area. (How often do you find your shoulders up by your ears?)
More about Your Shoulder Girdle
“Nearly every bone in the trunk, from occiput to pelvis, furnishes surfaces for the attachments of muscles which are also attached to some portion of the shoulder apparatus. . .”—Mabel Elsworth Todd, The Thinking Body: A Study of the Balancing Forces of Dynamic Man.
Todd points out that our shoulder and arm muscles have a wheel-like distribution. She writes, “The muscle power must be applied so as to operate through as many arcs as the range and direction of movements require. This is accomplished by a wheel-like design whereby muscles attached through great distances over many surfaces of the skeletal framework converge about the shoulder joint. . . . It is this wheel-like arrangement of lines of muscle force through all planes which gives such enormous power to the arms and hands, not alone in doing heavy work. . . but also in the control of delicately centered movements of the hands and fingers.” (Ibid)
Russ Mitchell, fresh from the latest segment of his Feldenkrais training, will teach five classic lessons on Sundays. You can bet I’ll be there! Register for his series here.
Do Saturday mornings work best for you? Consider coming to Patterns Lab, 11:30 am-1:30 pm. Prerequiste: at least one series of classes or package of private lessons with me, or previous experience with the Feldenkrais Method®. Please email me if you’re interested in joining.
A recent study showed that children who tend to go barefoot have better motor skills than those who habitually wear shoes. The barefoot kids had better balance, among other advantages. When you consider how many shoes restrict the foot‘s ability to move, the results make sense.
Also, I wonder, do barefoot children just tend to move more in general?
Clients often ask me, “What kind of shoe should I wear?” My answer, “The one with as little support as is comfortable for you.”If you’re currently using arch support or orthotics, don’t suddenly stop using them.
Could you practice walking at home, five minutes at a time, barefoot? Or in flat shoes with no built-in arch? Or can you practice walking with your orthotics, without collapsing your feet into them, but using them as a point of reference to organize your feet around?
And yes, we can practice using our feet and entire skeletons so that your arches awaken. I was diagnosed with flat feet as a child. I can now distinguish support in my two longitudinal arches and the one transverse arch; of course, that’s clearer with one foot than the other.
One simple movement to play with: stand with your feet slightly further apart than usual, barefoot if possible. Shift yourself a little left and right. Imagine that your whole skeleton is like a pendulum above your feet, so you lead with the crown of your head.
Feel how you’re using your feet. Do they collapse as you shift weight? That is, does the contact of the standing surfaces of your feet with the ground change as you shift from side to side?
Imagine now that, as you shift your skeleton left, it’s your right foot that sends you. As if you’re distancing the crown of your head from your right foot. Let your left foot send you right.
Do this a few times. Stop and observe yourself. How did your awareness of your feet change?
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.
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.
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.
My mentor Jeff Haller, PhD, first pointed me in this direction. It’s the central theme of his advanced training program. He said, “if I train myself in any exercise system, and I’m sloppy in the way I provide support for myself, all I will do is train muscles based on supporting myself the way I am accustomed to.”
In other words, if I don’t improve my relationship to the ground, I’ll strengthen habits of self-use which don’t serve me and might actually harm me—which is how I sprained my ankle playing squash. (By the way, I then got up and finished the game: don’t do that!)
Recently I’ve begun reading an excellent book which delves into the question from a slightly different angle: how do we define fitness? Author Edward Yu answers the question in depth. He looks at how the West has defined health, fitness, beauty, and the human body over a period of centuries, to see how we’ve arrived at the point where for many these are synonymous. As a martial artist, runner, and Feldenkrais practitioner, he asks, what are we fit for?
He writes: “If I am considered fit enough to be on a magazine cover, does that also make me fit for the rest of life, which occurs outside of the confines of 8 1/2 x 11 inches? Should Albert Einstein, who probably never performed a single push-up, be deemed unfit?”
How we came to equate our physical selves with machines (thank you, Descartes!) is key to Edward’s analysis of the contemporary conflation of fit/health/beauty.
Read the prologue to his book, The Mass Psychology of Fittism: Fitness, Evolution, and the First Two Laws of Thermodynamics, here.