My friend gave me a flower one morning. I kept it on my bicycle, and by the time I’d arrived at my destination, through 20 minutes of heavy Chiang Mai traffic, it was, as expected, more withered, but still beautiful. In Buddhism, flowers are placed on the alter to remind us that all things are impermanent. The freshness, fragrance, and beauty of flowers do not last. They will become withered, scentless and discolored. But this is how nature is. It is a reminder that we should value what we have now and live in the present.The withered flower is beautiful in it’s honesty, its representation of the world we live in.
Pain is like the flower…
This one is personal.
This is for those of you who are nurturing injuries or in a healing process.
For months I had this pain in my left posterior mediastinum. When I took a deep inhalation, expanding the area, I experienced a sharp, tight sensation that would radiate around my scapula.
It was oddly comforting. It reminded me that I had something to work for- To become pain free.
It was guidance. Information. It was pain but I didn’t think of it as “bad”, and I respected it by not pushing its boundaries. Instead I explored its limits and played within them.
Then one day it was gone. And I missed this pain!
It was a point of reference for so long. When I breathed into the area, I FELT something, and I missed that with each inhalation I could feel myself and knew that I was alive.
The pain reassured me that I was expanding posteriorally with my breath, something that I had been working so hard to achieve. And now my reference of it was gone. Was all my hard work gone, too?
Shouldn’t I have been happy? Wasn’t to eliminate pain what I wanted?
But instead, I missed it. I wanted my reference back. I wanted the daily reminder that there was a goal I was working towards: Becoming pain free, which, ironically, felt empty. But now there was no reminder. I got what I wanted… But was it really what I wanted?
Did I want to be pain-free, or did I want to feel that I was alive? Did I want to get rid of something, or did I want reassurance that something important was present in me?
And then, months later, the pain came back! Was I happy to be reunited with the “friend” I had missed? No. I was annoyed. I thought I had dealt with this! I thought I had learned this lesson. I had finally let go and found new points of reference unrelated to pain.
I had to question: So now am I moving backwards and not forwards?
But time only moves forwards.
To experience something similar to what has been in the past is not to regress, but just to feel something different. This was not the same friend as before. I felt less attached. Less reassured by its presence, and more assured that I could, at last, let it go.
And a few days later, the pain was gone, again. Just like that.
A funny relationship to have with pain. To become so attached to it while simultaneously wanting to let go of it. And then when let go, unsure what to do without it. Upon its return, to have a completely different relationship. That is the transient nature of pain- We can never fix it (also a pleasant reminder that we are never broken).
This reminds me of the times rehearsing heavily when it felt foreign not to be sore. How being sore reassured me I was still a dancer because we are told that to be a dancer is to be in pain.
Here’s the fallacy: All those who are dancers may experience pain and soreness, but not all those who are sore and in pain are dancers.
A suggestion: Let us not judge pain, for it can be a great reference and guide. We can explore pain, for it is an incredible source of information. Let us not get too attached to it or make it an integral part of our identity. Remember that we can decide to let go of pain when it is no longer necessary as a reference or a guide. And when it is gone, we do not need to keep looking for it.
Let it go, and carry on living.
Understand that all life is volatile like this. Pain comes and goes. You can gain or lose from volatility. You can gain or lose from pain.
Pain is volatile. There one day, gone the next. What can you gain from volatility? What can you gain from pain?
Over several years of movement screening, I’ve noticed a common pattern with nearly every (but not all) dancer: Missing spinal flexion, meaning, being unable to round your back (note that I’m referring primarily to the aspiring/pre-professional, college level, or competition dancers, which is also the world I come from).
The most relevant example of spinal flexion from the dance world is the Graham contraction, as pictured to the right (complete with contraction hands!) —> Check out the position of her lumbar spine. That’s some nice looking flexion!
In particular, it is quite common to see difficulty flexing from the lower back (lumbar spine).
Check out these forward bends. Can you see what’s missing?
And here is my particularly un-FLEX-able spine…
Can you see the chunks of spine that aren’t rounding, but remain completely straight? Ideally, we would like to see a uniform, round curve of the spine, whether you’re able to touch the floor or not.
Because of the coveted spinal extension dancers train for (backbends like Svetlana), if flexion is not also trained (or it is avoided), it can become forgotten and denied.
But you can get it back! And don’t worry, training flexion will not affect your ability to back-bend, in fact, it will probably enhance it.
Consider that you need to experience both ends of the spectrum– flexion and extension, to increase your total range of motion and have a happy body with happy joints and unlimited potential for movement.
Flexion and extension are two sides of the same coin, but there is a third side of the coin which is the world of unlimited movement possibilities that opens up when you can see this.
Much of the teachings and literature on how to train the spine and “core” (ugh that word I hate!) is dedicated to stability– Keeping things still, preventing movement, bracing, controlling, tightening, engaging, etc.
What if we flipped that upside down. What if having the ability to move to both ends of the spectrum with your spine- flex and extend equally (in the sagittal plane), you wouldn’t need to try so hard to stabilize because your body would have the information it needs to react according to the given situation.
Take a lawyer in a trial, for example. Imagine if the lawyer hadn’t read the chapter of the lawyering text book that he needed for this particular case. He would have to stop time, read the chapter, and then proceed with caution, thinking his way through it very carefully (and probably quite stressfully), and it would be anything but effortless. If this lawyer had had the opportunity to explore the missing territory before the case, things would flow much more easier, with less thought and tension.
Your spine is craving to read the chapter of the book on flexion.
Think of spinal mobility as a prerequisite for stability.
Stability is a result of mobility. Stability is an illusion created by perpetual motion. Just look at the world around us, and one can see that complete stillness is impossible. Should we be training our bodies to deny the inherent behavior of the natural world?
Your spine has 33 joints which move through 3 planes of movement. Would you agree that our spines were designed for movement? Put another way, do you think your spine has 33 joints because it was designed to be rigid?
What else in life is made of many small parts that, as a whole, compose something that was designed for movement?.
Does a bicycle chain come to mind?
A bicycle chain is made of many small links. Each link needs to have full mobility to articulate with its two neighbouring “joints” in both directions, and if even one link in the chain gets jammed, you’ll notice. To get the chain links unstuck you can manipulate the stuck links and restore movement and bike function. Sounds like a spine to me.
I was amazed at how much more effortlessly I could ride my bicycle after I mobilized a stuck link in the chain (I lied, I got a friend to do it for me because I’m useless with tools and bikes).
Just as with a human body, we can a bicycle faster and, with increased speed, we seem to feel the stuck link in the chain less, and happily ignore it- “I’ll deal with it later”. It is also easy to ignore to chunks of vertebrae that don’t move, go faster, and dissociate from it instead of taking the time to address it.
What a spine in need of segmental mobility really wants is for you to slow down, feel the missing movement, and claim it back (more on how to do that a bit further down).
Also consider the verbiage many dance teachers and personal trainers are drawn towards when speaking about the alignment and use of the spine:
On the left, words we use that limit potential movement by asking dancers to contract muscles, and on the right, words we can consider using to encourage dancers to move, allow muscles to lengthen, and explore new ranges of motion. A different perspective on “core training” for some folks, perhaps.
Flexion, when missing from a movement in which your spine should flex is not ideal. However, if flexion is present in a movement in which it shouldn’t happen, or it happens too soon or too fast, this is something to be aware of.
In fact, in 4 out of 5 phases of gait, your spine needs to flex. If “you need flexion to walk like a proper human” isn’t enough incentive, here are some other reasons to claim this important movement back:
Movement potential towards both ends of the spectrum= More range of motion into backbends. Give your body somewhere to back-bend from and it will back-bend further, more effortlessly. You can’t go much farther south if you’re already in Antarctica.
Having full flexion= Easier time finding “neutral spine”. For some dancers, just getting to neutral takes a maximum effort flexion. I am a good example of this (in fact, max effort lumbar flexion doesn’t even get me to neutral… Working on it).
More centered center of mass= Happy muscles and joints. Being stuck more extended (shifts your center of mass forward) or the inability to flex (which shifts your center of mass back) makes it more difficult to access that whole world of movement opportunities that exists behind you, not to mention can make your calves feel pretty tight from being forward on your toes all the time.
More reactive core= Less thinking, more effortless movement. If you can access both ends of the spectrum, metaphorically, you’ve read the whole spine book. You don’t need to stop to think about bracing or engaging your core, your body knows what to do and will do it reflexively without you having to brain your way through it.
How to improve spinal mobility and flexion?
1) Honestly evaluate your static position as well as your ability to actively flex and extend. Do a toe touch (as in the photos above), and do a back bend. Which feels like you move farther or is more comfortable? Take a photo or get a friend to give you some feedback on this. Also appraise where your weight sits on your feet (centered, more back, or more forward? More on one foot that the other?)
2) Take ownership of the long, full exhalation. Exhalation drives lumbar and thoracic flexion. Own the exhalation. Find opportunities to exhale two or three times as long as you inhale and feel the position it brings you into (hopefully one that is rounded, ribs depressed). Exhaling also helps to calm your nervous system and reduce chronic stress-related muscle tone (which is often the situation of the spinal erector muscles, making it even more difficult to flex forward).
3) “Unstick” the parts of your spine you notice don’t flex well. Mobilize the bicycle chain. My 2 favourite exercises right now for newbies to spinal mobility, shown below, both involve lying supine. The floor helps to feel which parts of your spine have trouble flexing down into it. You will also be using a long exhalation to encourage more movement into flexion. Try these two out:
Supine spinal mobility: Explore flexion and extension (Credit to Gary Ward and Anatomy in Motion):
In this drill you are simply arching and rounding your lumbar and thoracic spine, coordinating the flexion into the floor with a nice long exhalation. Use this time to explore whether there are chunks of vertebrae that move in one piece, or whether you can articulate them all individually. Go slowly and feel what’s happening, and what’s missing.
Take some time to luxuriate in the flexion and take a few long exhalations there if you find it difficult to round into the floor with any parts of your thoracic and lumbar spine.
Note that you should allow your skull and neck to move naturally (as you arch your back off the floor you should feel your chin slide down towards your chest, and as you round into the floor you should feel your chin lift to the sky).
Also, welcome to my kitchen floor! My favourite place to spend my exciting Friday nights…
Focus on maintaining a posterior pelvic tilt (tucked under tailbone), and rounding your lower back with ribcage depression. I like to visualize my spine as a hammock, sinking towards the floor. Attempt to exhale 3 times as long as you inhale with a pause at the end of each exhalation. Use a balloon, too. It’s lots of fun. If you’re a member of the Dance Stronger training program you’ll recognize this exercise from the breathing module.
Now, recheck how your forward and backwards bend feel. Is anything different? Have you claimed back any movement potential? Does your weight feel more even in the center of your feet?
Don’t expect instant miraculous changes or a quick fix, but it is incredible how consistent, deep practice towards more balanced spinal mobility can make a difference in the way you feel, both in terms of pain relief, performance, and feeling more grounded on your feet. Try these two drills before dancing as part of your warm-up and see if anything feels different (and let me know what you find!).
Dance science research is always looking for ways to help dancers become injured less.
“Why do dancers get injured?”
Science can help, but science doesn’t dance. We can try to make predictions, but predictions are often imprecise.
Predictions don’t prevent, they predict (without precision)
Think of dance is a fragile art, (which one wouldn’t initially see because the artists themselves appear so strong), because it is negatively asymmetrical, in its approach to training (and I don’t mean anatomical asymmetry).
Positive asymmetry: When what you have to gain is disproportionately larger than what you could lose. The gains are unknown and massive, while the failure and loss is small and known.
Negative asymmetry: When what could be lost is disproportionately larger than what could be gained. The potential losses are large and known, but with an equal (or even slightly lower) upside.
What we would rather see is an upside-downside asymmetry: More positive asymmetry. Small, manageable known-losses, and unlimited gain. We learn how to manage and avoid small losses through experience, not through theory and research (as much as I love theory and research!).
Dance and dancers are fragile.
At any moment, everything could be lost (huge, career threatening injuries).
The risks are large and known compared to the potential reward (larger likelihood of becoming injured than “making it big”.)
There is proportionate risk and reward, perhaps even veering to the side of more risk than reward (when you consider the small number of dancers who “make it”). A dancer can go from feeling invincible one day, to bed-ridden the next.
Help a dancer find a way to achieve positively asymmetric payoffs. Reduce the downside and uncertainty, and increase the upside.
But we do not need to coddle dancers. Treat them like precious flowers who need constant protection. Let them lift heavy things. Let them make mistakes. Let them experience small doses of stress and harm. They need to feel the extremes.
This asymmetry is present in the elements; the downside smaller, yet still present, contributing to the existence of the upside. Like fire needing wind to ignite it: No wind, no fire; too much wind, no fire.
Let dancers play with just the right amount of fire. Experience just the right doses of stress and harm to teach them to cope with the downside; to see there is a downside, and learn to reduce it, by playing with it, to allow for a disproportionately larger upside.
“Provide for the worst; the best can take care of itself” ~Yiddish proverb
What research shows us is that previous injury and lack of coping mechanisms are the highest contributors to future injury.
What research can’t show us, is how injury can teach us to cope, can show us the downside, and if we let it, teach us mechanisms to reduce our fragility in these situations: Small exposure to harm, with proper coping, can result in extreme reward.
You cannot learn to cope without small doses of harm to cope with.
Avoidance of risk cannot teach us anything but to dissociate. And fear that previous injury makes us fragile is unnecessary.
What if instead of asking “What causes injury”, we asked “What can we learn from injury?”.
What I’ve learned from injury is written in this blog, and I continue to learn from it everyday, where reading and theories have failed to show me answers.
The condition of knowledge (or lack thereof): “I don’t know enough about ____ to do _____”.
The condition of appearance: “Dancers must be thin, and beautiful, and have pointy feet.”
The condition of talent: “I am naturally talented and do not need to practice”.
The condition of worth: “I do not deserve the more expensive option”.
The condition of strength: “You have to be strong to do that”.
The purest way to experience anything is unconditionally.
Love is tricky. Unconditional love has no limits, but to many of us, unconditional love means it must last forever. But time is a condition. So to promise to love forever is to limit love.
We put limiting conditions on our passion, which, uninhibited from thinking we are too old, too inexperienced, or not smart enough, can manifest in exquisite innovation. But the flame of passion can be snuffed by our beliefs in needing to be educated, be the “right” age, or fitting a certain stereotypical mold.
A condition is not tangible, not found in nature. Does the grass ever say, “I am too ugly to accept the warmth of the sun or drink the rain!”? No, it simply does what it was programmed to do. It doesn’t question it, or judge itself unworthy. It takes what it needs to survive, unapologetically. Unashamedly. Without artificial condition.
Humans are blessed with irrational emotion from which we form conditions for how to live authentically. Our misperceptions of how one “ought” to live are acted out in obliviously conditional ways, or rather, omitted completely for fear of failure.
We take up a new sport, but limit our participation and embodiment by telling ourselves we’re not talented enough to ever be truly good. As if being “good” mattered! We limit our enjoyment with the condition of recognized talent.
How much do we miss out on by setting conditions? How aware are we of the conditions by which we limit ourselves?
“I am in pain, but I fail to acknowledge the obvious pattern of reacting that keeps me fragile”. This is to limit oneself with the condition of worth. Feeling unworthy of honest reflection. Attachment to self-pity, ignorance, and fantasy. Dishonesty. Failing to listen.
Remove the conditions. Remove the bumpers that keep false sense of safey. There will be failures, but after a failure there is nowhere to go but up. After a failure, you’ve got nothing left to lose. After a failure, the ball’s in your court and you have a disproportionately high chance of success.
“Think without banisters” ~Hannah Arendt
To live a life without banisters… It’s harder, but it’s better.
To love unconditionally. Play unconditionally. Pursue dreams unconditionally.
To dance without limits.
Let go of the banister, act purely, unlimitedly, and honestly.