Once you realize most of the furniture we humans have designed to sit on has nothing to do with promoting good function, you can begin to customize your sitting solutions. For example:
Sit on a jacket
Carry a wedge-shaped cushion
Use a short stool for your feet
Forget about ever using the back of the chair: designers created the shape of the back of most chairs without reference to the human spine and pelvis. Typically, chairs (plus car and airplane seats) invite users to collapse into the cashew shape I’ve referred to before. Recipe not only for back and neck pain, but also digestive problems!
When you’re improvising your solution, remember your goal is to create clear support for your sit bones and have your feet completely in contact with the floor. Your shoulders will be slightly forward of your sit bones. This position is new to many of us, so it won’t feel “natural” at first.
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.
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.
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.
Often we think of strength from the physical perspective. When I searched for stock photos showing “strength,” what came up were dozens of images of bulging muscles and effort.
We can certainly appreciate the skill required to evoke strength at an extraordinary level. Witness the remarkable weight-lifting of Taner Sagir.
Of course we all want physical strength. We want to be strong enough to lift our children easily, lift groceries, practice yoga, or garden. Some of us want to be strong enough to practice an instrument for three hours and then play a concert. Or to run a marathon.
That was the kind of strength I was expecting to investigate during four days of advanced training last month at IOPS Academy (Ideal Organization & Profound Strength). But in his first talk our instructor, Dr. Jeff Haller, spoke of emotional strength.
Jeff described a client who’d experienced abuse as a child and has been living with its emotional weight for much of their life. That client is discovering a different way to inhabit their body, from the ground up, with clear contact of their feet, open chest, and unrestricted breath. The client can now feel the difference between this new pattern and the former. He’s gaining the tools to choose consciously between living in the past, with all its weight, and in the present with its relative ease, based on being aware of these patterns.
Group investigations that week allowed us to experience how we physically express fear. As they progressed, we were guided toward finding different responses—becoming pro-active, rather than reactive, assertive rather than cowering, calm rather than wary. In other words, Jeff invited us to discover emotional strength in ourselves, and observe its physical manifestations.
Above all, he invited us to be kind to ourselves.
I realized that I’ve held back from articulating publicly that there’s an emotional component to the Feldenkrais Method®. When a new client comes to talk about relieving physical pain, I’ve thought—oh, they’re not expecting to talk about the emotional side. So I’ve left it unstated. But when you discover limiting patterns of movement, you’ll inevitably discover related patterns of thinking and feeling.
In Body and Mature Behavior, Moshe Feldenkrais writes: “Every emotion. . . is associated and linked in the cortex with some muscular configuration and attitude.”
As you learn new choices, you learn new ways of thinking and feeling. Instead of being at the mercy of your past, you can choose what to keep and what to discard. You might literally feel more buoyant.
Strength is an evolving idea for me. A goal to move towards, sometimes approaching via the physical realm, sometimes the mental: two possible approaches to the same goal. I think human strength is synonymous with maturity. As we move through our lives, at each moment we have the choice between falling into old patterns or choosing the new. We can choose to relish our ability to thrive in uncertainty. As we uncover our inner strength, we can trust that we have the resources to respond without hesitation. We can aspire to anti-fragility.
You probably first researched the Feldenkrais Method® because you wanted to change. Maybe you wanted one of your knees to be more reliable in walking. Or to diminish back pain so you could run with pleasure.
You might have an explanation about why the problem exists. Like your age. Or because you have a particular skeletal pattern like scoliosis. Or because your gym teacher said you weren’t athletic.
Feldenkrais practitioner John Tarr wrote an excellent blog, “Growth Mindset and Movement,” about the importance of believing you can change. Which means letting go of those explanations, your familiar stories, and creating space for something different with a growth mindset. He writes, “. . the march of time and fate do bring about irreversible changes, but often we are not fully using the potential we still have.” We can investigate this potential by cultivating curiosity, enjoying investigation and discovery the way we did as children.