Exploiting Pain for Personal Gain

Exploiting Pain for Personal Gain

It has been a while since I’ve written anything here. I have to say, I’ve really enjoyed not sitting in front of my computer, and I think this is something I’m going to be doing more often. Maybe you’d like to try it, too?

In fact I’ve been up to some fun things in the real world, like trying out circusy stuff at the Collingwood Circus Club and sharing some movement/strength goodies with them, and learning how to sing.

In this pic I am doing what is supposed to be “swan”. My left splits leave much to be desired…

Much as I like the “real world”, I don’t want to let my unwritten words fester in my brain where they might start to rot and stink (Yes, I used deodorant today. Yes, I’ve showered…. I just haven written for a few weeks).

Let’s get down to it. (Fair warning, this post is long)

SEVERAL CONSTRUCTIVE USES FOR PAIN

They say “no pain no gain”, and “rest is for the weak”. However, this can potentially lead one to Broscience based evidence.

I prefer, “exploit pain for personal gain”. As is the topic of today: Living completely free from pain may be unrealistic, but we can meet it with our understanding and find that it can enrich our lives in many ways.

Writing this blog post brings me back to first year university anatomy class with one of my favourite professors of all time, Sam Booker.

It was in this class that the idea “pain is information” was first introduced to me. To paraphrase Sam’s words, “Pain is a sign from your body that you need to listen up and stop doing something because it feels bad”. Or something along those lines.

At the time, this blew my head off. You mean, pain isn’t just the annoying feeling of something hurting? Pain is trying to tell me something useful?? NO WAY!

And then, as per 19-year-old-Monika’s style, I memorized this fact for a test (aced it), neglected to further consider its practical application, and, for the next 4 years of my dance degree, I endured, ignored, and disregarded that my near-daily pain could be information worth tuning in to. 

A few years ago I came across the work of Lorimer Moseley, the pain research guy from Australia, and read his and David Butler’s book Explain Pain. Explain Pain, again, describes pain as information about something our system is experiencing that could be potentially dangerous. Not that it is absolutely dangerous, but that we perceive it could be.

Image result for explain pain lorimer moseley

Our body uses pain to try to keep us from getting into too much trouble. Like the smoke detector that goes off just in case that smoke from the bacon you accidentally overcooked is actually a life-threatening fire (the actual story of my morning). Thank goodness the smoke detector is that sensitive, just in case.

Pain is a construct of our brains. Not to say that it isn’t real, or that it is imaginary. Our experience of pain is very real! But it’s not our finger that feels pain when we slice it open chopping onions- it is our brain that interprets the information from receptors in our finger as “danger” and produces a sensation that we call “pain” to let us know that “that was dumb, don’t do that if you want to keep living with all your blood”.

That’s great, Monika… But pain hurts

It’s all great to say: “Pain is just information. It’s in your head”. Ok… So how does that actually help us? How do we decode this information and use it  to our advantage when we are injured, hurting, or sore?

(As you read on, keep in mind that if you are currently in a state of pain severe enough as to affect the quality of your life, get some help from someone you trust. I’m not a medical professional and I can’t help you through the magic of the internet.)

As my friend Rob Sawyer from aussie-land, recently wrote, living with the expectation of being completely pain free may not even be realistic.

Being pain free is a preference you and I are likely to both have, but it is just that: A preference. And pain, as I have learned, can be an enriching experience that helps us to learn more about ourselves. I used to think I could not be happy until I was completely out of pain. Why wait to be happy until that hypothetical, unrealistic date?

Rob wrote a lovely little piece comparing “pain-free living” with “balanced living”, which I will copy below:

I am surprised at how often the term “Pain Free Life/Lifestyle/Living” is used to lure in people who are experiencing pain in their lives… This terminology sounds extremely attractive… A life free from the experience of pain… But is that realistic?? Can we delete it from our existence? Mmm I think not.. So why is this continuously advertised? To prey on those that are hurting?

 

Is pain something we should be free of in this lifetime? Or might pain be a valuable experience that can help guide us?

 

I have met many inspiring people along this journey who have experienced great transformation in there body and lives, and they often had one thing in common… They gave in fighting and trying to be free from their pain, and began to honour it, explore it, listen to it, let it be a guide.

 

Can we life a Pain free life? A life free of pain?

 
Or a balanced life? A life enriched with the experience of both pain and pleasure?

Pain, in fact, is quite useful, and over the years and injuries, I have found quite a few uses for pain.

The following are some #protips for exploring pain as information, which may be useful if you wish to diminish its threat-status, live in harmony with your body, and  even exploit pain to enhance your quality of life.

Avoid self-pity and subjectivity 

A requisite for balanced living with pain is to be able to stay objective and avoid self-pity. These two bits are crucial going forward with any kind of treatment or therapy. Feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t make using pain as information possible- It makes you resent the pain and wish it was gone.

Of course, I don’t wish pain upon anyone, it’s not that you should ever wish you were in pain, but making up stories about your pain and wishing it wasn’t there isn’t going to help get to the truth either.

Stories I’ve heard:

“I’m broken, and I no one has been able to help me”. Can you absolutely know that this is true? Have you worked with everyone? Or have you tried three therapists and given up hope already? Or, have you tried actually doing the work they asked of you? 

“I’m just getting old.” Well, what about all those young people in chronic pain? What about all the 90-year-olds that live healthy, happy, active lives able to manage pain effectively and live with minor discomfort? Pain doesn’t discriminate by age.

“It’s because of my posture that I inherited from my Dad, he had the same issues as I’m having now”. Pain is not a genetic inheritance, and posture doesn’t necessarily correlate to pain.

Drop the stories and drop the self-pity.

Be open to feeling your pain

It might seem redundant to say, but, for us to exploit pain as useful information we must be open to actually feeling it in order to explore what it means, not wish it was gone or try to dissociate from it, or numb it with painkillers.

“But I shouldn’t be in pain!” (there’s that self pity I warned you about). Well you are. That’s the reality of it. Love that it is there, because it is, and you’re about to learn some useful things from it. 

This sounds a bit cruel, but you can only hide from your own body for so long. I remember needing to take pain killers to get on stage and perform, and I remember getting prescription pain meds instead of getting help from a therapist. Pills are just easier, and ignoring pain is much easier than facing it. For a while…

Dig deep for more descriptive words

It is useful to make pain less “painy” by describing it in as many neutral terms as possible, which I encourage you to try right now if you have something going on in your body.

I have one client in particular who, despite her impressive vocabulary (seriously, she knows ALL the words and corrects me frequently), and my insistence to find different words for her experience, consistently comes back to, “It sucks”, “It hurts”, “It feels shitty”.

Sucks how? What kind of hurt? What’s shitty about it? We need more information if we’re going to do anything with what you’re experiencing. In fact, she uses “it sucks” to describe a lot of exercises that don’t hurt in the “pain” way, but that are just hard to do.

If you currently have something that hurts, what three words would you use to describe the pain sensations? Burny? Grabby? Pointy? Weak? Grindy? Stuck? Dull? Sharp? See what happens as you get clarity on this. Just try not to use the words “tight” or “painful”.

Click here to use a thesaurus, if you’re struggling.

Remember, exploiting pain doesn’t necessarily mean “making it go away”, it means meeting it with your understanding, lessening the threat, and reducing the negative sentiments attached to it so that it can be used as a learning experience.

Pain as an object of meditation

You don’t need a meditation app if you have pain to work with!

The challenge with pain is that we are generally biased to judge it as a negative experience (there are however some individuals who genuinely enjoy pain. I’m not talking about those people). Then again, maybe that’s just my naivete speaking, having never broken a bone, never been stabbed, never fallen from a 10 story building, and never woken up mid-surgery to find the anesthetic had worn off prematurely. 

I’ve never felt I was in life-threatening pain, so, easy for me to talk.

Regardless, we can use “pain as neutral information” for a fascinating meditation.

Similar to noticing a tree over to the left, or a pile of dog poop on the sidewalk, we can notice pain. We can tell a story about the tree or the dog crap, or we can just notice they are there. 

We might see a tree and think, “Oh look, my favourite tree! This tree is beautiful. This is the same tree I had a wonderful picnic with my grandmother under just before she passed away. I love this tree and I will take my children here one day, too”. The tree brings back happy memories and so we become happily attached to it. No harm done here. But we can also look at it and see it for just what it is: A tree. No stories or sentiments attached.

As I mentioned earlier, we will also often tell stories about our pain, and sometimes these stories keep us stuck. The key difference: It is not so pleasant to become attached to pain as it is to a tree.

Using pain as an object of meditation is to observe it without the story, without the judgement of “bad”, and feel it for what it is. 

I would argue that it is an equally valuable experience to be able to look at a tree and see it for what it is, not for the story of the picnic with a cherished relative and the fond memories it brings, but for just being a tree. Since the tree is not a bodily experience, this might be an easier place to start than the pain meditation.

For example, in my meditation practice, currently, I am working on observing myself observing: Noticing the thoughts (words and images) that come in, saying goodbye to them without letting my mind get too carried by with them, and noticing the space between the thoughts. My awareness becomes the object of my observation. There are many ways to meditate, but this is what I am working on now. 

If I reach the 15 minute mark, I often start to notice some discomfort in my upper back and knees, and my foot falling asleep. At this point, it is easy to become frustrated with these sensations and wish they were gone because they are distracting me and I find it difficult to ignore them and I just want to get back to meditating! But then I realize that what is distracting me is not the pain itself, the pain is just there, like the tree, but it is my story and thoughts about the pain that are distracting me.

So I bring my awareness to the area of discomfort as I would to the tree. And I just try to “see” it as part of the landscape, along with all the other things in my awareness.

In “mindfulness” meditation, this is essentially what we are doing: Taking in everything with all our senses, and just observing it as it is. The pain is there, no doubt. But if I didn’t attach the “this is annoying, I wish this was gone” story, what would it feel like? 

Interestingly, as soon as I shift my focus as such, the pain and discomfort start to drop off, becoming a dull hum, not so sharp and omnipresent. The painy feelings cease to be as bad and distracting, and I can simply notice that they are there. And then, the pain may even disappear, which blows my mind.

Sometimes the act of observing changes the observed without us having to try to change anything.

Using pain in this way has made for very, very interesting sessions, and makes pain an excellent teacher for being in the moment, focusing on what is real, and practicing non-judgement. 

INJURY AS INSPIRATION

I will finish this long post up with the quick story of how I used some recent wrist pain to enhance my pistol squats. 

Last summer I started rock climbing (bouldering) and it was going pretty well (If you define embarrassing myself a bunch while trying to overcome my fear of heights as “great”…) but recently my wrist has been bugging me, and I’ve had to take a little break from it.

Years ago, I would have ignored an injury and kept performing through it. Monika 2.0 doesn’t do that shit anymore.

In fact, with my extra available time not spent climbing I wondered, “What if I used the passion and time I dedicated to climbing and redistributed it into the recovery process?”.

So that’s what I decided to do, and some pretty interesting stuff has come out of it, and, through the process of body-detectivery, this minor setback has been teaching me a lot about my body, stuff I may not of otherwise discovered.

To borrow the words of Gary Ward, I “interviewed my body”. Even if I do rest from climbing until my wrist feels better, I would also be best served to learn where this issue was coming from. Bodies don’t just start hurting randomly, for no reason. There is probably some good information to dig into here.

I will now skip all the dry technical stuff (but I wrote a few more pages on it, if you’re interested…). To sum it up, the interview process went as such:

  • How does my body hold itself statically?
  • Where is the perceived “center” around which my body is currently organizing itself?
  • What movements am I not accessing?

What I discovered in the process was a lack of ribcage/pelvis opposition in rotation, so I followed that trail. This incongruence in rotation turned out to be a missing piece of my left leg pistol squat puzzle.

My left side pistol squat used to be extremely wobbly, and even kind of painful (I mean tight, I MEAN…) for my hamstring (old injury). As it happens, on my left leg, my pelvis and ribcage were rotating the same direction (both to the left, instead of pelvis left, ribs right). In gait, and in most exercises, the pelvis and ribcage should rotate in opposite directions, not the same. I just hadn’t noticed this until I took the time to interview my body.

View from the top down: Skull and pelvis both rotating to the left (L), while ribcage opposes and rotates to the right (R)

Now, with the awareness of my lacking oppositional rotation, I can go just as low into the pistol squat as on my right side (which is still pretty pitiful) with no discomfort, and all I have to do is reach forwards a bit further with my left hand.

And I’ve been blaming my “short achilles tendons” all these years… It was just a rotational pattern I didn’t know I wasn’t doing.

Pretty cool to be able to trace some wrist discomfort to an old hamstring injury, and use the info to revamp my pistol squats.

What’s really interesting to me is that paying all this extra attention to my body over the past week, it feels amazing, in fact, never so good. However, my wrist still feels the same. Not worse, the same. Pain is still there, but I feel enriched by the experience of exploring it.

Patience is truly a most important virtue, as this process has been teaching me.

CONCLUSIONS?

Nope. I’m all worded out. Gather your own conclusions. You can do it! I believe in you!

And seeing as we’re getting towards the 3000 word mark, I think this is a nice place to wrap up.

What do you think? What’s your experience? Hate or love what I have to say? Leave your kind words and/or abuse in the comments section below.

 

Tales From the Dance Academy (part 3)

Tales From the Dance Academy (part 3)

Click here to read part 1.

Click here to read part 2.

Things are getting a little chaotic at the dance school. Students are in full on rehearsal mode for an upcoming show at the end of February and their schedule is getting intense.

In teaching this class, one of my aims is for the students to consider not doing the things I did when I was their age.

Dance Stronger

Self-portrait, Monika age 22

Here are some quick notes from this week’s class.

How deep is your practice?

As I mentioned last week, I wanted to hold a discussion with the dancers on what it means to practice deeply, having noticed that, week by week, their ability to focus has been waning.

Sometimes I read books. I like books about the mind. I particularly like books on the psychology and neuroscience of skill acquisition and mental performance.

This January I read Deep Work (Cal Newport) and Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell). I also read Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), and The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle) last year, and as a result, for the past year or so I’ve been contemplating the meaning of the concepts deep practice and flow state, and my own relationship with them,

Image result for deep workDeep Work focuses on the benefits of working and thinking in a deep, focused way in a world in which it is easier than ever to become distracted by our technology, and why we should be doing more deep work. Working deeply saves time, delivers superior quality results, and at higher rate of productivity. Newport remarks, however, that our ability to focus deeply is limited, and, on average, it seems that we can only realistically reach about 4 hours per day, in chunks of about 90 minutes at a time (which in itself takes some training to accomplish).

Image result for outliersOutliers focuses on factors, sometimes random factors like date of birth, that enabled the most successful people to accumulate the 10 000 hours of deep practice he argues are necessary for people to master a skill (although, in his book, he left out the important word “deep”, neglecting to explain that these 10 000 hours of practiced need to be of a specific quality).

 

Flow describes what it means and how it feels to be in the state of deep practice, “flow state”. Image result for flow mihalyCsikszentmihalyi explains that in a state of flow we are completely immersed in the present moment with no distractions, have a clear goal in mind, are aware of mistakes as we make them, and receive immediate feedback moment to moment in order to adjust based on these mistakes. Time begins to distort so that it flies by (an hour seeming to go by in half as much), or even time slowing down as we are fully present in every second that passes.

Image result for the talent codeThe Talent Code explores the role of deep, deliberate practice in skill acquisition through the lens of neuroscience- We are not born inherently with our talents, but those who have mastered a given skill have become that way due to the many hours of deep practice they participated in. He goes on to describe the qualities of deep practice that creates changes in how our brain is wired, which, interestingly, requires that we fail and make mistakes.

Sounds like useful stuff to know about for a group of young dancers trying to make it in a hard world where only the top few succeed (whatever that means).

I started the discussion by asking them, “What does deep practice mean to you?”. Some of the answers I received:

“Being completely in the moment”

“Having no distractions”

“Doing it right”

This last one is interesting. Does deep practice mean, “doing it right”?

When I asked him to explain what he meant he elaborated with the example of doing a tendu. If you practice doing a tendu but you’re “doing it wrong”, with your leg turning in when it should be turning out (if you’re doing ballet), then its not deep practice, because the technique is wrong.

This is interesting because as we know from Coyle’s work, we need to make mistakes to learn and change. Too, from Csikszentmihalyi’s work, we know that part of flow state is noticing mistakes in real time and making adjustments. So, being “wrong” is a necessary part of deep practice.

Deep practice is a neutral state. There is no right or wrong, there is simply awareness of what is.

Practicing things without technical precision, not caring, not noticing, and thinking about lunch, for example, is not deep practice. However, practicing things with poor technical precision, but noticing, actively trying to change and adapt based on these mistakes, and paying attention to the feedback in your body from moment to moment is deep practice.

Also, it is possible to deeply practice something the wrong way, in which case, you will not have mastered what you set out to master. This is why it is important to have an end goal in mind when participating in a deep practice.

I understand what he meant by “doing it right”. If you practice a skill ineffectively, you will master just that. You get what you practice.

Next, I asked the class to make a list of all their classes in a given week (which was about 15 different non-academic, physical classes), and asked them to reflect on how deeply they practiced in each of these classes, rating it on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being very shallow, and 10 being extremely deep).

Overall, the dancers found that in ballet and in partnering classes they worked most deeply, and, overwhelmingly, they found that they were practicing the least deeply in pilates. Why?

In partnering, one dancer explained that there was more at stake if you’re not invested in the moment. If you aren’t in the moment, and your partner is relying on you to be there for them, things are not going to go well. I agreed, you wouldn’t want to be paired up with someone who didn’t have a depth to their practice in a partnering class. You would not trust the person with the track record for having a short attention span.

Other dancers explained that they enjoyed ballet the most, and so found it easier to practice more deeply. Makes sense.

As for pilates, the dancers said several things to explain their lack of depth in practice:

“The repetitive actions and rhythm makes it easy to just get it into my muscle memory and then I zone out mentally”

“Lying on the floor makes me tired”

“There’s no music… Wait, maybe that would make me even less focused”.

Interesting feedback.

At the very least, I hoped to get them stoked to focus for my class. I wonder how they rated their focus in my class… I’ll admit, I was afraid to ask (but at least I beat pilates on the depth score!).

Fun with diaphragmatic breathing

Image result for diaphragmatic breathingA few weeks ago I guided the dancers through a check-in of how well they could breathe with their diaphragm. I think I explained that in a bit more detail in part one, so maybe you’d like to go back and (re-)read that now.

Essentially, dancers were to use their hands to feel for 360 fill: Coordinated sternum/belly breathing, posteriolateral (back and side) ribcage expansion, lower abdomen/pelvis fill (just below the ASIS). They chose the one that was challenging to do, but that they were able to change if they put their attention there. Their next task was to simply walk around the room for a few minutes with their focus on breathing air into where they had chosen to use their hands to monitor airflow.

For example, students who found it a challenge to feel their lower abdomen/pelvis fill with inhalation were to put their hands there and walk at a pace at which they could still manage to create air flow into their hands. If they lost the ability to fill, they were to slow down their pace or stop, and were encouraged to speed up when they thought they could handle more challenge.

Its one thing to stand still, or lie down, and breathe with an ideal diaphragmatic pattern, but to notice and adjust it in motion is the challenge, and generally we lose awareness of this when we start dancing or moving with more complexity. An ideal breathing pattern has to become unconscious so that we can carry it into dancing, and other activities, without the extra energy spent micromanaging it.

As Karel Lewit said,

If breathing is not normalised no other movement pattern can be”

Let’s pronate and supinate the crap out of our feet!

And we did.

We went through suspension again, to review our introduction to pronation mechanics last week.

I couldn’t believe how easily this class embraced pronation. Feeling is believing, I suppose. This class reported that pronation actually felt nice to do. After practicing suspension, they reported that their hips felt looser, and their feet felt more grounded. I said to them, “Isn’t it funny? Most of us have been told that pronation is bad to do, but here you are pronating your feet, and saying that it feels nice.”

Very awesome.

This week we moved into new territory: Supination.

To experience this, we went through a movement called transition from Anatomy in Motion, which replicates the phase of gait in which the foot moves from pronation into supination, with the foot tripod on the floor, as we would see in mid-stance.

This day was reminiscent of last winter when I held a jump landing workshop at York University, and all we did was pronate and supinate the crap out of everyone’s feet.

(this workshop footage is available in full for members of Dance Stronger, FYI. It’s in the member zone, under “Support Resources”).

In transition, what we want to feel is, by virtue of rotating the pelvis, that the femur, tibia, and sub-talar joint (ankle) also rotate and pull the foot up into a supinated position (arch with tripod on ground). Its not the just foot we’re looking to move, but to move it in context of what the rest of the body does when the foot begins to resupinate. We could say that what we are trying to do is supinate the body, as a global movement.

Image result for supination

Only one dancer in the class “didn’t get it”. It’s a tough thing to coach a group setting, ensuring that everyone can get a sense of what the movement should feel like in their bodies. This one dancer did not seem to be able to keep a tripod on the floor, rolling all the way to the outsides of her feet, and so losing the supination and going into inversion, aka, ankle sprain city. This is pretty common for people who have had a lot of ankle sprains, and the outside of their ankle becomes lax. Next week, she’s gonna get wedged.

Orthorics vs. "floorthotics": Creative AiM foot wedging strategies with one of my clients

Welcome to wedge city, population, dat inverted foot!

(Transition is a movement we cover in Dance Stronger in more detail).

A story I forgot to tell last week

Two weeks ago, actually.

There is a dancer in my class with a massive amount of rib flare at rest, and a lumbar spine that does not flex (round). It is very noticeable when she dances, and she says that she is constantly getting the correction from her teachers to not stick her ribs out.

Two weeks ago we introduced some breathing check-ins, and we played around with breathing diaphragmatically by reducing rib flare on an exhalation to get to a zone of apposition, and working on using a 360 inhalation without losing their ZOA. This one dancer told me after class that while she was doing this- Not flaring her ribs on inhalation, she got crazy cramping pains in her ribcage. She was wondering what the heck was going on.

While I can’t know exactly what’s going on in her body, I did my best to piece it together, logically.

My best explanation:

In your current position, ribs flaring up, and unable to move down, your most important breathing muscle, diaphragm, is stuck in a shortened, contracted position. So, when you exhale and get your ribs to move down and in, your diaphragm gets a chance to lengthen and relax. This, however, is not currently  within your comfort zone to do, and when you inhale again, you are contracting a muscle from a longer position than it is used to, which could potentially create some cramping.

Think about how it feels to go into a lunge or as I recently experienced, a one leg squat more deeply than you normally go, and try to get out. With the muscles in a longer state than they are used to going into, it requires more force to contract back to center, and you’ll feel the muscle contracting harder than usual, and possibly cramping.

Of course, this is a strange and unpleasant sensation to have going on inside your ribcage. Not pleasant, but good information to work with in a safe way. Work gently, not forcefully with the breath.

I hope that this also makes some sense of why it is so hard to change this pattern of rib flare just by telling dancers in class to get their ribs down- They don’t know how to breathe like that, and when they do, it hurts!

Other thoughts

Focus was indeed better this week. I didn’t ask them to focus more. I didn’t tell them their their focus was poor and they needed to get their acts together. We had a nice discussion on deep practice, and, as it often does, in simply becoming aware of something, that thing started to change. I hope they will consider this idea in their other classes as well (especially pilates!).

That’s all for today’s notes. Thanks for reading this far.

 

 

Tales From the Dance Academy (part 2)

Tales From the Dance Academy (part 2)

In case you didn’t see part 1, GO HERE to read that blog post.

A brief background for this blog post: I made a decision last week that it would be useful for me to write notes and observations from the classes I am teaching at the dance academy I work with. Maybe even useful for you…

This blog started in 2012 as a way to to teach myself stuff. Along the way, I lost that a little bit, and got caught up in trying to sound smart. Screw that. It’s time to go back to what this blog used to about. ME!!!!!

Anyway, these are the class notes from week four.

Discussion time

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been curious how the work from our class has been (or not been)  transferring into their dancing, in particular, the ballet class they have directly following mine.

I also have noted, over the years, and in my own experience as a dance student, that we are not often given the opportunity to share what we’re experiencing in our bodies, either for fear of being “wrong”, or because we don’t know what our inner experience is. We don’t get to practice sharing our inner experiences, and so there is this reluctance to speak up. That’s what I think, anyway.

So I asked the class, “How do you you feel in ballet class, after this class, compared to other classes of the week?”.

Two things they reported, as a general concensus:

  • Where they felt the pressures in their feet when we check in at the beginning of class tends to be the same as in ballet class, and this was not something they noticed before. For example, if they notice their weight was primarily on their right heel during our check in, they will most likely notice that that is also where they tend to have their weight in other classes. This is good information, and a good awareness to have.
  • They feel more “aware of their core” in the ballet class after doing the work from our class. 

That was about it.

Getting these answers was like pulling teeth. I get the general sense that they have been conditioned not to speak their minds or share their internal experience. After all, dance is about how thing look, right? (that was sarcasm, FYI).

Ideally, I would love for them to have more observations that this, positive or negative, I want to know. If the work we’re doing in class isn’t helping them to notice anything useful carrying over into the next dance class, I want to know about it so that we can change up the class. Their lack of awareness, inability to find words, and reluctance to share experiences worries me a bit. 

There are a few possibilities I can think of for why this may be:

  1. Students don’t understand the exercises I am showing in class but are not asking questions to deepen their understanding.
  2. I am not sufficiently explaining how the exercises and movements should feel in their bodies, and so their execution is not ideal. 
  3. I am not selecting appropriate exercises for them.
  4. Students do not immediately see the value in the exercises and so their execution lacks the requisite depth and focus to create a change in their system.
  5. I am not sufficiently emphasizing the need for quality movement over “just doing” the movement, which creates lack of depth and awareness in their movement execution.
  6. 60 (but more like 50) minutes per week is not enough to elicit a change in their bodies when compared to the many other hours per week they spend dancing.
  7. Students may need more hands on cuing to help them move differently, and I am only one person with two arms, unable to help everyone in every class.
  8. Students require additional practice at home on their own to provide enough stimulus to create a change in their system. 

I imagine it is a combination of many of these factors, and I will do my best to cover them in the future. 

Onwards.

Foot mechanics day. Yay!

Today was the day we covered a topic that, historically, has been met in dance studios with at least a mild amount confusion, resistance, and fear, and typically takes a good chunk of time to cover for those reasons.

I’m talking about introduction to foot mechanics day. Seeing as dancers rely on their feet like Rocket relies on Groot, I feel it is important to provide the experience for dancers to understand how their feet move and function in as simple terms as possible.

Image result for rocket and groot

I was impressed at how well this group sailed through the lesson without much objection. Only a few confused, frowny faces, but everything was ok in the end.

Foot loading patterns

Before learning “ideal” foot mechanics I had the dancers first check in with their foot loading patterns without telling them what “should” be happening, or what was “right” or “wrong” to feel. We want to first know what is happening now.

As Feldenkrais has wisely said,

“You can’t do what you won’t until you know what you’re doing”.

Foot loading pattern refers to the area of your foot that receives your body weight (loads) at a particular moment in a particular movement. The center of pressure on your foot at a given point in time. I wanted to them to get a sense of whether or not their feet could pronate and supinate well. 

Here’s what we checked in with:

  1. Active windlass. This checks for supination mechanics as they would appear in an open chain when the big toe is actively lifting up, such as in the heel strike phase of gait.To do: Stand with your feet side by side and lift your toes off the floor as high as you can.What we are checking for: Does the foot supinate? (arch lifts, weight moves more to the outside of the foot, with tripod on the floor- 1st met, 5th met, and heel). We also want to see sufficient movement of the big toe (about 40 degrees extension), but that’s not the topic for today. If, as you lift your toes up, your foot pressures do not change, the weight stays centered or on the inside of your feet (a more everted foot), or if you can’t get toes up to 40 degrees, this shows a lack of supination mechanics with this movement.The class was fairly divided between who could feel their feet supinating, and who stay everted.
  2. Passive windlass. This checks for supination mechanics in a closed chain while the big toe, first and fifth metatarsals are on the floor, with the heel lifted. The big toe is extending passively due to the movement of the rest of the foot, as we would see in the propulsion phase of gait.To do: Stand with your feet side by side, and press up to a parallel releve (demi-pointe).What we are checking for: Does the foot supinate? Does all the weight stays on the inside edge of the foot, on the big toe/1st metatarsal (everting) or all the way to the 5th met (inverting, or, as we say in dance, sickling). Again, we want to see the foot supinating here, not just rising up on an everted or inverted structure.
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Far left: Active windlass Far right: Passive windlass

3. Foot pressures felt in heel in pronation: Posterior to anterior shift. This was to get the dancers to feel where their weight moves in their heel as they move into full weight bearing on one leg in a forward lunging movement.

Something like this…

To do: Start in a split stance, bend the front knee, and as you move your weight onto your front leg in a lunging-type motion tune in to where you feel the pressure in your heel moving from and towards.

What we are looking for: Can you feel the pressure in your heel moving from the back to the front of their heel (6 o’clock to 12 o’clock)? Many of the dancers, in fact, completely bypassed their heels and moved directly onto their toes, gripping on for dear life. We did not move onto the second part of this check-in until the whole class could feel the weight in their heels moving from the back (6 o’clock) to front (12 o’clock). No one gets left behind! It took a few minutes…

4. Foot pressures felt in heel in pronation: Posterior-lateral to anterior-medial shift. All those words means is that we are checking to see whether or not the weight in their heel moves from the outside-back bit of the heel to the inside-front bit, in a diagonal line. This is how we would like the pressures to move through our foot as we go from heel strike into suspension (foot flat) in gait to absorb shock.

To do: Same as above, but this time check in with where you feel the weight moving in the side to side plane of motion.What we are looking for: Weight in their heel moving from the outside-back (posterior lateral) part of the heel to the inside-front (anterior medial) part (for your right foot, that would be from a 4 or 5 o’clock to a 10 or 11 o’clock direction). Many of the dancers felt the opposite happening: Weight going from medial to lateral, or just staying stuck on the inside of their foot the whole time. This check in is a great indicator of how well a foot can pronate.

Experiencing pronation

Last semester when I went through this segment of the class with the first year dancers, there was resistance.

“But isn’t pronation bad?” 

I wrote a few things about this already, so I will refer you HERE, and HERE, and also HERE and HERE to read more about the necessity of possessing and using pronation in life, and even in dance.

This class dove right in and just accepted that what I was saying was true. Not going to lie, I would have liked a little bit of resistance and questioning from them. At least then I would know these guys don’t just believe shit without asking questions or thinking critically. I am somewhat worried…

To experience pronation in the context of its role in the shock absorption phase of gait, we went through suspension, a movement from Anatomy in Motion in which we couple pronation of the foot with what the rest of the body is doing at this moment in the gait cycle (an exercise you’ll recognize if you are a member of Dance Stronger).

Then I had to pull more teeth out to get feedback on how it felt after doing something many of them had been told was not “right”- pronating their feet!

One dancer expressed how her feet now felt more pronated. I asked her what that felt like, and she replied that it no longer felt like she was standing on the outside of her feet (as is her habitual pattern), and that it felt “good”. Who woulda thunk it? 

And another dancer said that she felt more stuff around her hips and butt were activated (In fact, as Gary Ward has written in What The Foot, extension of the hip- activity in the glutes and posterior chain, requires pronation of the foot due to the fact that at the same time as the foot pronates, the glutes and hamstrings eccentrically load).

Two dancers agreed that their weight now felt more back in their heels, and less on their toes than before. This is interesting, because in the gait cycle, when the foot pronates, the center of mass is actually travelling forward towards the toes. Perhaps their experience is due to pronation enabling the posterior chain to load, as I described above, making it possible to allow their center of mass to shift backwards. Or something…).

Not bad for our first go at it! As I mentioned, only minimal frowny confusion. Looking forward to see how we can build on this initial experience in coming weeks.

The rest of class…

We spent reviewing stuff from last week. Nothing exciting to report here.

A few other notes

As the dancers get to know me, they are becoming more relaxed, but less focused. Maybe it’s time to activate Monika-means-business-mode…

Monika-means-business-mode. JK. No guns in class 😉

I am reading the book Deep Work, by Cal Newport, right now, and so, I have on my mind right now the importance of being able to work for long chunks of time without distraction on one’s productivity and ability to learn. Many of the dancers in class are losing this ability to focus and I feel that if it continues to be a thing, their progress will stall.

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I am making a mental note for next week to take five minutes to discuss the importance of maintaining their attention in class, treating it as a skill to be cultivated, and, in general, the ability to be able to practice deeply as a highly useful skill, not only for this class, but for dancing, and other levels of their lives. It also is important as it relates to rule #2: honest movement. Difficult to move honestly without the capacity to maintain a level of deep focus. 

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience:

“Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we use this energy. Memories, thoughts and feelings are all shaped by how use it. And it is an energy under control, to do with as we please; hence attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.”

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Well that’s all I have to say for this week. I hope you enjoyed and maybe even got something valuable out of reading. I know writing this has been useful for me.

Would love to hear your thoughts, comments, love, and abuse. Leave a comment below if you feel moved to, but I also encourage you to get away from your computer and do something not related to the internet.

 

Tales From the Dance Academy (part 1)

Tales From the Dance Academy (part 1)

We are the third week into the semester at the dance academy I work at here in beautiful Torono.

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I am super stoked. Why am I so stoked? I’ve never had the opportunity to work with one dance class progressively for the course of a semester. I’ve done drop in classes with rather irregular attendance, but nothing enhances one’s progress like making it mandatory to show up for class in order to graduate.

I thought it might be nice to share the progress of the class and my observations. And, as always, when I write, I learn. So it will be a nice practice for me to retrieve details deep from my brain. Maybe some of you will even enjoy reading this. And maybe, so will I…

Last semester I did in fact work with the 1st year class at the academy, however, last semester I was not a great teacher. I was gone for a lot of the semester.

First, I was away for a total of 5 weeks to present some things at a conference in Hong Kong, then to study Thai massage in Thailand, and studying Anatomy in Motion in Melbourne.

Then, after a series of unfortunate events involving my own idiocy, a few missed flights, and overstaying my visa in China and nearly needing to pay my way out (a place I had not intended to be in the first place, let alone get stuck in for more than 24 hours), and then contracting the plague after arriving back in Canada three days later than scheduled. So I ended up missing 7 classes that semester. My bad.

This semester, things will be different.

THE FIRST CLASS…

The goals.

I wanted this class to place an importance on both education- the understanding of why we’re doing what we’re doing, as well performing the physical work to enhance their movement quality and general strength (as is the theme of the class).

I had lofty ideals for this class. I had planned out how I wanted to assess the students at the beginning of the semester, how I would re-assess at mid-terms, how the class would progress, etc. Well, none of that happened. Welcome to reality. 

The time-limit factor.

I have 60 minutes per week with them. This ends up being more like 50 minutes per week since they are consistently 10 minutes late for class, and then have to rush off to ballet class immediately after we are done.

Side note: I am super curious to get their feedback on how ballet class feels after having done my class first. More data needs to be collected…

Side note two: The entire class is injured in some way.

So, realizing that 50 minutes per week would not allow me to execute my grandiose vision, I complied with reality, and reduced the amount of “stuff” we’d tackle in a session.  

In any case, it is more beneficial to focus on less stuff more deeply, than to do more stuff, superficially. I’d rather the class get through 3 exercises in a deep way, with understanding, feeling what they are doing in a way they can replicate on their own, than 12 exercises just going through the motions in a disconnected way.

The “assessment”

I planned for the first class to be entirely a movement exploration. No “strength” training. Not even any real “movement practice”. Just exploring and finding out where they are now. Unfortunately, the heat was off in the studio that day and it happened to be about -20 outside, and so my poor students we freezing to death on the one day we weren’t moving enough to break a sweat. #SorryNotSorry.

What was the assessment? Call it more of a check-in. We don’t have the means/budget to do any objective testing that would require reliable equipment (like a vertical jump test) nor do we have the time to do a lot of assessing. So what can we do to ensure they are still progressing class to class? The dancers can learn the fine art of checking in (as per rule #7). And truly, it is an art and a skill. One that, as we practice, we can hone to move from more subjective to more objective.

For example, if I were to ask you to stand quietly and try to feel your foot pressures on the floor, you may feel that we are standing with equal pressure on both feet, not rolled to the inside or outsides, or weighted more to the front or back of your feet. Maybe you feel pretty dang centered. In reality, what the outside observer might see is that you could be standing with your pelvis shifted to the right, yet feeling centered. In this case, what you’re feeling is likely not to be an accurate read of your foot pressures. Your subjective experience is not matching with reality.

Arguing with reality is a waste of energy. I personally don’t recommend it.

Over time, the ability to improve your objective perception of your body can be trained, much like any other skill. As you learn to feel your body in stillness, and learn how it reacts to various movements, tuning in to what changes, along with someone observing and giving you some feedback from their point of view, you can start to put together a more honest picture of what your body is doing.

One dancer I once had in class told me her feet felt even. The way she was standing told me this could not be the case. “Are you sure that’s true?” I asked her. “I don’t know….” was her reply. At the end of the class, she remarked, “I can feel my arches!”. So, I asked, what did that mean? “At the beginning of class you didn’t know what was happening with your feet, now you have arches. What happened?” Was she standing more on the insides of her feet before, and now she was more centered on her feet? Less everted? Again, she didn’t know. Not yet.

This is the beginning of the process and speaks to the importance of the check-in before and after a movement session. The more information we can gather and correlate with before and after experiences, the better sense we can get of where our bodies are really at.

Moving along.

The check in.

So we checked-in. Foot pressures. Pelvis, ribcage, and skull motion in 3D (a la Anatomy in Motion). And natural spinal motion in sagittal plane. Basic stuff.

The results?

  • The majority of these dancers don’t know their pelvis from their ribcage. This is a bit of an issue as, in gait and many other activities, for efficiency of movement we need the pelvis and ribcage to oppose each other in all planes of movement. If you rotate your ribs to the right, your pelvis should be able to stay where it is, or, rotate left. This rules is true for shifting, hiking, side-bending, and anterior/posterior tilting, too. The result of this opposition is that we create space between our ribs and pelvis, joints get to open and close, abdominal tissues get to load and contract in response to motion, blood and other fluids gets to go where there was previously no motion, and we can access the lateral and spiraling motions so common in dance more effortlessly.
  • Breathing in an “ideal” pattern is not a thing for these guys. This exists on a spectrum in this class- Some dancers couldn’t close their mouths, sit still, or get the breath out of their chests, and others got right into the zone (of apposition…). Interestingly, having seen these dancers perform in their dance exams, it was evident that, for the most part, the dancers who demonstrated a more ideal pattern of breathing (diaphragmatic, 360 expansion, ZOA with exhalation, etc), or were able to change their pattern of breathing with gentle cueing, were the ones that stood out to be as being more interesting to watch dance. Perhaps there is some sort of study someone in the dance science world could do…
  • Spinal motion needs a lot of work. Meaning, their quality of spine flexion (rounding), and extension (arching) lacked the freedom and range of motion that would make their lives a lot easier. Many of them have only a few points they hinge off of, so the load sharing through their spines is not kind to them. Too, the natural opposition that should occur between the lumbar and thoracic spine, and the cervical spine, is not yet natural for many of them. Below is a quick recap of what that means:

Then, I asked them how many joints their spines had. Long pause… One dancer finally guessed, “seven?”. “Well, maybe that’s how many YOU have”, I joked.

Our spine has 33 joints. It is my aim for them to be able to feel that and use that mobility in their dancing. And seeing as nearly all the dancers in this class complain of back pain, what better place to start than with their spines.

So, after the check in, we did a little 10 minute exploration of that, and checked in again. Some dancers reported changes in their foot pressures, feeling more centered. Some did not. Either way, it was useful information for all of us.

Onward we go.

THE GENERAL CLASS STRUCTURE

Unfortunately, the 50ish minutes per week we have together is not sufficient to get through the amount of stuff that ideally we’d have time to do. Some equipment would be nice, too. Maybe some kettlebells and some resistance bands would be cool. Maybe at least some mats to make kneeling on the floor comfortable.

Fortunately, I like and am used to minimalism, so the equipment we have to work with is their bodies, the floor, and the air they breathe. I think it will be sufficient.

With the limited time it was a task prioritization challenge to design the curriculum. In an ideal world, we’d have two sessions per week together as a minimum. One class we might spend more time working on movement quality and some more subtle stuff, and the other session more time might be spent on strength development.  

In any case, this world ain’t ideal. Here is roughly how each class flows right now:

  1. Check in. At the beginning of each class we check in consistently with 2 or 3 simple measures.
  2. Movement preparation/warming up. In this phase we work on things like breathing, spinal mobility, differentiating body parts (remember, your pelvis is not your ribcage!), accessing tri-planar movements, foot mechanics (accessing pronation/supination), dynamic “stretches”, and lower threshold core stability work, getting them warm and primed to move in a more efficient way.
  3. Actual strength building stuff. Right now, this portion of the class is much shorter, maybe ⅓ of the class time. There is a learning curve for the preparatory/movement quality portion of the class, and each dancer is at a different place. Rather than rush forward, leaving people behind, we go slower and in that way we’ll all make more progress in the long-term. So far we have been learning single leg deadlifts, crawling, and push-ups.Side note: I was super impressed that everyone in this class could do one push-up. That almost never happens.
  4. Check-in/cool-down. We check back in with the measures from the beginning of class. What has changed, and what hasn’t? We might revisit some breath-work to calm their systems down, and prepare them for the next 90 minutes they will spend looking at themselves in a mirror wearing a bodysuit and pink tights, holding their breath, wishing they had more hip rotation, more flexibility, pointier feet, longer legs, and generally, wishing they were better than they are now: Ballet…

So far, I’m really enjoying this class structure. The difficult bit is making time for everything that is a priority. With more experience, I suppose this will become easier and more intuitive, and it will also depend on the individuals in the class.

Ideally, I’d love the class to be driven by what the dancers want to accomplish and are curious about. I recall several classes last semester in which we sometimes took 10 minutes to discuss ideas that were foreign to them, but important for their progress. Like how lifting your leg up in front of your was not an action performed by the hamstrings, and that “quads” is not a bad word. Getting dancers to learn how to squat seems to go hand in hand with the quads-are-not-bad conversation. Good times.

THEIR PROGRESS SO FAR.

The injured dancers aren’t improving much, which it does not please me to report… I don’t know much about the kind of therapy they are receiving, if any, and they have a strenuous schedule. Too, there is still the fear of taking time off to recover from injuries for being left behind the rest of the pack.

I witnessed a 1st year student, in last semester’s dance exams, dance every single one on a sprained ankle. By then end of the exam week, it was very clear that she should not be dancing, but when you have to make the call between saying you can’t dance, and risking your grades, and taking time off… Well, I’ve been there. It’s a tough call to make that inevitably ends with you not making a choice- Your body says “nope”, and you stop.

  • Overall, the rest of the dancers are doing quite well. I have observed that many of them are developing more movement into spinal flexion each week. (Every single dancer in this class has a flat board for a lumbar spine that does not want to budge. But slowly, this is changing.)
  • Their focus is improving. At first, it seemed as if they had trouble keeping their mind on the movements we were performing. Some of them seemed to need to stop, and look around the room for a bit before getting back into the movement practice. Each week they seem to be developing more “mental endurance”, and are able to spend more time practicing the movements, and less time getting distracted and re-connecting. As we know, more time spent in deep work/deliberate practice/flow (whatever term you prefer)= better results.
  • Breathing and bracing, and creating intra-abdominal pressure is now a concept they embrace and can demonstrate while lying on their backs. This is awesome. One or two dancers are lagging behind here, but overall the group is kicking butt and getting stronger each week and ready to increase the challenge.

SOME OTHER CHALLENGES

As you would expect from a group of collegiate level dancers with goals to perform professionally, these guys are quick adapters with pretty good body awareness. They are mature 18-20 year olds who want to perform their best and are motivated.

The challenge is, they are stuck “on”, and “on” is their comfort zone.

There is a level of arousal that is optimal for performance, and the sense I get is that these dancers are wayyy shifted to the right (aroused) side of this scale. Too much arousal, too much sympathetic nervous system activity, means they will not perform at their best.

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I feel ethically not great about giving them a class that is also “ON” (such as a high intensity class) while they are unable to leave their “on” state, as many of them seem to be at this point. I would rather, and feel it is more beneficial at this time, give them the tools to turn themselves down to “medium”, maybe even to “low”, so that they can experience this end of the spectrum, and go back to on, full-force, when it’s required of them.

You can’t turn on unless you can turn off first, and no one gets stronger without allowing themselves a sufficient amount of recovery. This is why we focus for the first part of the class on tuning in, quality of movement, and noticing their breath. Intensity is modulated (challenge/level of exertion) as they can handle it.

Dancers are not athletes that typically receive much guidance on recovery, guidelines for strength training effectively, nutrition, etc. In 50 minutes, I can’t convey everything I would like to, but I can start, and chip away at it every week. It’s been inspiring so far, and a lot of fun.

We’re only three weeks in… Let’s see what these dancers can do.

7 Rules For a Highly Effective Movement Practice

7 Rules For a Highly Effective Movement Practice

conteurOnce a week I get to work with the dancers of a post-secondary dance academy here in Toronto. The official class name is “conditioning”, but only because I didn’t come up with a name for the class fast enough when they asked me for one. If I had been on the ball, I would have called it something like “fundamentals of movement and strength”, but I guess I’m stuck with conditioning for now, as inaccurate as it is.

Yesterday was my first class of the new semester. Sadly, I only get to spend one hour per week with these talented guys and gals, which is not really sufficient. I can only hope that they see enough value in the class material that they choose to use on it on days when they don’t see me. Otherwise, that one hour, once per week, out of the full 5+days per week they spend in the studio is not sufficient to make changes in the way they move and perform.

Because it was the first day and this is a group of students I haven’t worked with yet, I got to give my spiel which, I hope, was at least somewhat inspiring and useful. There is no formal exam or assessment for my class, but I did give them the “class rules” (and made them write them down, fully taking advantage of my title as “faculty” muwhaha. Sometimes I use my powers for the greater good).

These rules, as I reflect on them now, are likely to be useful for anyone who exercises or plays a sport, wants to become great at their athletic endeavor, or simply wants to enjoy movement to the fullest without unnecessary, preventable injuries and discomforts.

Rules for humans, not only dancers. So I’d like to share them with you now.

These are not the only “rules”, but they are good start and cover a lot of bases. 

7 RULES FOR A HIGHLY EFFECTIVE MOVEMENT PRACTICE (for dancers)

1. You are a human being before you are a dancer.

Or an “x”, “y”, or fill in the blank with your activity.

I can remember the first time I heard this line. Yeah, I stole it from a girl in my class in university, and, to this day, I greatly admire her maturity and clarity in coming to this conclusion years before I would understand its significance myself. But it stuck with me, and, while she is now establishing herself as a talented dancer/choreographer, I can now appreciate how these words, and the persistent congruence her actions had with these words (placing value in her human self above all else, even her dancing), is, somewhat paradoxically, what is likely to be a major contributing factor to her success.

You can’t dance if you don’t have a healthy body to dance with. Respect the body. Respect the body’s structure and how this structure has evolved to move over thousands of years. Dance, especially dance as it is now, has not existed nearly as long as the human body has been around for.

It is crucial to have these priorities straight. When faced with any decision in you life, it will be useful to consider, “Will this choice benefit my attachment to being a dancer, or will it benefit my human body, it’s longevity and health, and thus my dancing as a result?”

The real distinction here is, are you choosing to reinforce your identity as a dancer in the short term, say, by using a foot stretcher, doing tons of passive stretches, or trying to lose weight by skipping meals? Or are you choosing something that will benefit you, including your body, and all your various identities (dancer, human, sister, brother, friend, athlete, etc).

Take care of the human you, the rest will fall into place.

2. Fundamentals are not of lowest level, but of highest importance.

In the world of athlete development there is this thing called the performance pyramid which we can use as a guide for how the flow of an athlete’s training life would ideally look like. Life, however, isn’t ideal, and this is especially true in dance.

Here is some excellent art by me:

performance-pyramid

As you can see, on the bottom of the pyramid, the foundation, we have “fundamental movement quality”. Notice that it is a lot bigger than the other tiers of the pyramid. This is ideally what any athlete, and all people, should get to experience before they decide to specialize in a sport.

For a kid, it doesn’t need to be a formal teaching, just being given the opportunity to move all your joints in various ways- climbing, crawling, running, jumping, and playing a lot of different sports,  can provide a lot of options for movement and contribute to their movement variability. However, as time goes on and you learn the meaning of stress, you play specific sports for many hours, you learn trained “unnatural” ways of moving, or choose to do things that can distort your posture at rest, many of us will lose our grasp on the fundamentals of movement thanks to our amazingly plastic brains and their ability to adapt to the things we do. 

What are these fundamentals? Stuff like possessing your full spectrum of movement potential at all joints. Being able to breathe with an effective pattern that gets you an appropriate amount of oxygen for the demands of what you are doing at that moment. Being able to unconsciously create stability dynamically, for example, being able to move your hips while maintaining an appropriate degree of stiffness through your spine. And being able to differentiate body parts and move them independently. Basic stuff like that.

Unfortunately, a dancer’s training will typically (meaning, almost always 99% of the time) start from the top of the pyramid, tendus and foot pointing from day one, and this doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon, especially in the RAD syllabus (just kidding, I love RAD and even did a few levels back in the day).

Dancers never had a chance to work on the fundamentals, nor athletic development (strength, power, endurance, etc) and its not their fault. Knowing this, however, now it IS your fault if you choose not to do anything about it. To know but not to act is not real knowing…

3. Move honestly.

Honesty… On all levels of life, it is something I am trying to understand. What is truth? Is honesty the same as truth? What is “truth” when it comes to our bodies in motion, and how does it serve us?

Truth, simply put, is not a lie. Honesty gets us to truth, but honesty is not truth itself. Honesty is our perception of truth, the subjective experience of calling ourselves out on lying to ourselves and others.

However, simply because you are being honest does not immediately mean you have found the objective truth (whatever that is, if it is even possible), just that you are no longer lying to yourself or believing things without inquiry. “What is truth?” is wayyyy beyond the scope of this blog post and I honestly (see what I did there?) don’t know how to define it beyond “truth is”. In any case, we can all understand at some level what it means to be honest and appreciate it’s role in seeking truth. 

Why is this important? Because only good can come from honesty, and that goes for movement, too.

So honesty in movement, what does that mean? 

Moving honestly first requires you have enough awareness of how you are moving to recognize that you can move dishonestly, so that you can call yourself out on it.

It requires being aware of what is actually moving. Is it your pelvis shifting to the right, or are you in reality just leaning your body to the left, creating the illusion of your pelvis moving to the right? Are you moving your neck, or are you moving it by moving everything else, while your neck, in fact, stays still? Sneaky body…

Honest movement requires that you become aware of the feelings of safety and danger with motion and inquiring into this information further, not ignoring it, avoiding it out of fear, or staying only in the habitual, comfortable movements.

It requires an awareness of what underlying feeling is driving your movement. Are you moving from a place that is apologetic, fearful, safe, uncertain, unclear, or hesitant? Or are you bold, risk-taking, assertive, shameless, and clear in how you move? There is a place for all, but you must know what is happening and when.

Moving honestly requires being aware of the quality as well as the quantity of movement. So, you can kick yourself in the side of the head, but how does that feel for your body to do? What’s your body telling you about that? 

It requires being able to find descriptive words for the quality of your movement beyond, “it feels good”, “it feels tight”, or “it hurts”. What feels good about it exactly? What is the context of “tight”? (is a muscle stuck long or short? Joint locked open or closed? Tight doesn’t tell us enough). And what kind of information is that pain feeling trying to give you? Inquire a bit further into the “truth” of the state of your body.

And honest movement requires that you move authentically like yourself. Not in an attempt to copy your teacher or your classmates, but like you, with the understanding of what this feels like. Do you know what it feels like to move like You? I can’t tell you, and no mirrors can teach you how it feels to move your body.

Honest movement not moving perfectly, for honesty often reveals imperfections. It doesn’t mean to move in a way that looks aesthetically pleasing because honesty isn’t always attractive. It is moving from an authentic place where you understand exactly what’s going on so that you can make moment to moment adjustments that respect what is most appropriate for your body at that time, honoring its abilities and limitations.

And after all, at the heart of dance, the reason why most of us started dancing because we love the feeling of our bodies in motion. When we were young, we didn’t care what we looked like, we just moved because it felt good. One reader referred to her love of dance saying that she longed to “feel the freedom of music flowing unrestricted through my body.” You can’t do that if you’re worried about what you look like.

4. If you cannot breathe during the movement, you do not own the movement.

Breath is an incredible built-in indicator of what your body is experiencing (making it an excellent tool for moving honestly). Your emotional state and physical health can be interpreted via the quality of your breath, as well as you ability to load and use core musculature to provide dynamic stability and decelerate spinal motion.

In motion, if you can demonstrate a diaphragmatic breathing pattern, you are in charge. Good work.

If you can’t- you pull in air with a lot of upper chest movement, with excessive use of secondary breathing muscles (your neck), with your mouth wide open, or your find you hold your breath, it is more likely your survival instincts are in charge, and you don’t want to be dancing and breathing from your amygdala (a part of your brain involved in limbic system functions, such as memory, emotion, and survival instincts). This is excellent information. Now you can start to do something about it (the Explore Phase of Dance Stronger is all about this).

In dance, there will be times when, in order to accomplish a challenging movement, you will breathe in a way that is not highly effective. To prevent this from becoming habitual, recognize this (there’s that honesty thing again…) and do something about it by practicing breathing effectively while performing physically challenging positions and movements outside of class.

5. Slower is better at first- You can’t do it fast until you master it slow.

Until it becomes an unconscious process, movements often need to be practiced very slowly in order gain competence.

The more slowly you move, the more awareness, the more control, and the more honesty you’ll have in the motion.

The slower you go, the more time there is to practice what you are doing. Slow things down, and the more time you spend under tension, building strength. T

The more you slow things down, the more you challenge and develop your  ability to focus on the task at hand.

The slower you go, the more accurate you can be with your motion and feel errors as they come, adjusting as they do (crucial for learning and mastering skills).

However, you can’t stay slow forever, unless you plan to only dance adagio and do yin yoga your whole life (don’t plan for it). Progressively increase the speed providing that the same quality can be maintained.

One dancer once remarked to me that, while she had felt that she was making excellent progress in being able to feel stabilizing muscles working when she was doing exercises on the floor, the moment the speed and intensity ramped up in class, as in moving across the floor, she lost it. Not knowing the specific context or the exercises she was doing, I will assume that perhaps one factor was that she was not shown how to progress the exercises to effectively prepare her for the speed of the dance class, and all was lost.

Learn to do it slow first. If you can’t do it slowly, good luck doing it fast.

6. Get out of your comfort zone, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and fail.

Unfortunately for your sense of pride, failure is how we learn and there’s no way around it.

Growth takes place within the perfect balance of support and challenge. You must be challenged enough to make mistakes, but with enough support to be able to learn from these failures and move forwards.

As you can see in my excellent diagram below, you want to find the sweet spot.

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If you can walk, you have already experience this sweet spot of comfort and challenge. Your ability to stand on your own two feet is the result of many, many failures. How many times did you fall over as a small child learning to walk? Did you intellectualize the process, thinking, “oh, I fell over, better not try again and risk embarrassing myself”. You intuitively knew that you needed to go into the dark zones where falling was imminent. The baby’s lack of intellectual development is certainly an advantage here.

Be like baby-you. Be fearless, try stuff that makes you fall over sometimes, and risk doing it “wrong”.

As Daniel Coyle writes in his fantastic book, The Talent Code:

The people inside the talent hotbeds are engaged in an activity that seems, on the face of it, strange and surprising. They are seeking out the slippery hills. They are purposely operating at the edges of their ability, so they will screw up. And somehow screwing up is making them better.”

Trying to be perfect is not the way to perfect movement.

7. Check-in before and after your practice.

Back in the day, before dance classes I had this ritual “ab routine”. I don’t recall ever feeling better or different for having done it, save for the peace of mind of having gone through my ritual and the approval of my teacher. In fact, the routine itself was probably reinforcing all the many strategies I had found over the years to move around pain and injuries.

Put bluntly, it was a waste of time. But I didn’t know better.

How can you know for yourself whether or not the exercises you are using to strength train or improve your technique are actually working unless you are actually checking in with some measure? You can’t. You’ll be guessing.

Take the guess-work away. Before you practice, check in with your body. Get an honest appraisal of what your body is currently doing. Check in again after you practice, or even after one exercise of your practice. Has anything changed? Has that exercise had a positive impact? No? Good to know, now you can stop doing that. Yes? Congratulations you’ve found something useful to work on. Either way you get information. 

There are many ways of doing this. In Dance Stronger, I have provided a framework for checking in, but it’s not rocket surgery. It starts as a matter of making the time.

By making checking in a regular thing, you’ll prevent yourself from getting stuck in the trap of doing things because they look cool, because someone told you to, or because it’s what you’ve always done. Get to the truth of it by measuring as objectively as you can.

CONCLUSIONS?

I’m fairly confident that these rules make sense.

But as always, rules are meant to be challenged and broken. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can share what I’ve learned.

Its great to learn from others through their mistakes, but nothing provides for a better learning experience than making a mess of things yourself. So get out there and screw some shit up (kidding mostly… please don’t blame me if you screw things up in a devastating way).

Was this useful? Does it resonate? Agree or disagree? Love or hate what I have to say? Would love to hear so please leave a comment below to let me know 🙂