Here we go again… Monika rants about “core training”. Some more.
Can you blame me? It’s like the universe wants me to talk about it.
A few weeks ago was invited to lead a core training workshop with a group of dancers at York University. Here’s a little clip for ya:
And just last weekend I was invited on the Eat Well Move Well podcast with Galina and Roland Denzel (two incredible people, wow!), who caught me off guard by stating that I had an interesting way of approaching the core strength idea.
This surprised me because I definitely do not have any new or ideas on the topic. I’m just doing my best to reiterate what the most influential people I’ve had the honour of learning from have taught me in a language that makes sense to myself, my clients, and hopefully to you.
My thoughts on core training are not new, and not that interesting. But for the dance world, I guess they can seem unconventional.
The “core”, much like the Earth, has been around and doing just fine long before we naively intervened and labeled it “core”; it was probably doing better for itself (and for us!) before we tried to systematize, aestheticize, and control it’s training.
I feel uneasy about adding more “new” stuff to this information-cluttered internet-thing we’re addicted to getting answers from, but it hurts me more to see people doing silly things with their bodies *coughtraceyandersoncough* in an ignorant, tone-oriented, sympathetic-driven haze, for the sake of “core strength” and a six pack.
Let’s clear some of that haze, eh?
Here are some of the supposedly “unconventional” ideas on core training I hold that are actually anything but unconventional- They’re quite sensible.
WHAT IS “CORE TRAINING”?
And the reason I feel it is even necessary to write this is because every single dang dancer ever in their career will hear from a teacher that they need a “stronger core”. I’ve yet to meet a dancer who hasn’t.
Core training goes beyond concentrically working the muscles we are commonly taught need to be strengthened and toned.
My approach is guided by five key principles. If you understand these principles and base your training around them, it really doesn’t matter what exercises you choose (for the most part…).
1. Know your anatomy: Understand the intrinsic and extrinsic core subsystems and their roles.
2. Breathing: Learn to create intra-abdominal pressure and load core musculature through your breath.
3. Mobility: Recognize and appraise the need for mobility as a prerequisite for training stability.
4. Remove roadblocks for reactive core: Become aware of compensatory patterns that could be limiting effortless core connectivity.
5. Semantics: Place importance on the words used to describe training, which matter just as much as the physical training.
These principles matter more than the exercises you use.
Let’s go into these in a bit more detail.
1. THOUGHTS ON CORE FUNCTIONAL ANATOMY
It is kind of important to have at least a little bit of understanding of which muscles we’re talking about. Kind of. What’s more important is to FEEL them.
Today my colleague Wensy Wong, kinesiologist and massage therapist, ie has MAJOR anatomy knowledge, told me that it wasn’t until just recently she really understood the psoas, because finally she could feel it. Knowing where a muscle is in a textbook, in 2D, is one thing, feeling it in your body is completely different. You have to experience it to know it.
You can’t say that you know someone personally because you read their autobiography and stalk them on the internet.
Anyway, some anatomy.
The core is more than just the muscles of your trunk and your abs. Think of the core as a hierarchical system of units.
Intrinsic core musculature (inner unit): Deeper muscles, not responsible for creating large movements, but hold “stuff” together.
- Transverse abdominis (TVA)
- Pelvic floor
- Internal obliques
- Lower erector spinae
Extrinsic core musculature (outer unit): More superficial muscles, important in larger movements.
- Rectus abdominis
- External obliques
- Upper erector spinae
- Psoas major
- Quadratus lumborum
Understand that in the hierarchy of the core system, intrinsic subsystem function is most fundamental.
We’d like to see these two systems in balance, performing their proper roles: The instrinsic system holding stuff together and providing adequate intra-abdominal pressure and proprioception (position sensing) so that the extrinsic core can allow us to move freely.
It is possible for all or part of the intrinsic core unit to become relied upon excessively for movement rather than the extrinsic core, and visa versa. Sometimes, one part of the intrinsic unit will be working harder than another in an attempt to find a sense of grounding, counter-balance, or irradiation to increase muscle contractile strength (examples of this coming up a bit further down…).
This should, ideally, be cleaned up and re-trained before performing a more complex, high-threshold exercise. Even a plank can get messy if this system isn’t balanced.
2. BREATH CONTROL = CORE CONTROL
This really should not be considered unconventional. Many people claim to “know” that breathing is important for core connectivity. We hear it every dang day as dancers, yogis, pilates-ers (what’s the plural for a pilates enthusiast?).
So if you really “know” it, then why aren’t you working on it? Why aren’t you teaching it? Why haven’t you made progress with “core strength”? Telling students to breathe isn’t the same as coaching them on how to breathe for core connectivity.
Remember that to know is to have had experienced it. Do you really know how breathing affects core connectivity? Have you ever felt that connection?
This is tricky. It’s something that often requires coaching. Get on that. It’s totally worth it.
The breath allows you to create an “airbag for your spine”, to load core musculature, and create a safe space mentally for you to train, adapt, and recover.
Creating intra-abdominal pressure: Air pressure in the abdominal cavity prevents excessive movement in the spine- dictated by our breathing. Using “umbrella”-style inhalations (360 degree expansion) to fill out the abdominal cavity evenly creates an “air bag” to cushion the spine as it moves freely, allowing muscles to load as a response.
Coupling solid intra-abdominal pressure with an abdominal contraction (by holding the breath in and contracting the abs) is called bracing, and is useful under heavy load. However, this isn’t how you want to get stuck. Life doesn’t always need to be a heavy load, high intensity ordeal… Unless you’re on a reality TV show.
Eccentric and concentric loading: Inhalation, is required for eccentric loading (lengthening) of the abdominal muscles as the abdomen expands. A muscle first needs to be able to lengthen to be contracted effectively, and an 360 degree inhalation does just that.
A full exhalation concentrically contracts the abs and gives us Zone of Apposition (ZOA) with the ribcage depressed. This position allows for a more ideal use of both intrinsic and extrinsic core muscles, because joint position dictates muscle reaction.
||Concentric contraction (shortening)
||Eccentric contraction (lengthening)
||Concentric contraction (shortening)
Autonomic nervous system state: Exhalations bring the nervous system to a safe state of growth, recovery, and flow, where learning and change is possible, by activating the vagus nerve. This state- parasympathetic (opposite of fight/flight), is a state where you should ideally approach training from if you actually want to improve.
So you can do 500 stress-crunches while you hold your breath and grind your teeth. I. Don’t. Care.
3. CORE MOBILITY
All we talk about as an industry (both in dance and fitness) is core stability, being in control, and preventing movement but, consider this: Your spine has 33 joints- It was designed for effortless movement!
Things that are chunks, or planks, or blocks were designed to be rigid by nature of their structure. Things that are designed to have many small parts and joints are naturally intended to allow movement.
So would we train our spines for stability before considering its innate need to move? And I don’t blame you. I was that idiot-trainer making my clients do planks, preaching the value of “stability”, before appraising their spinal mobility. Don’t be idiot-me. You’re better than that.
Consider these four ways that your core craves mobility:
Spinal stability vs. spinal mobility: Preventing the spine from moving by stiffening is useful at times, but full potential for movement of the spine is prerequisite for stability. How long and fast could you ride a bike with a rusty chain and jammed links? Your spine, like a bike chain, needs to have the potential to allow movement at all segments. Appraise the spine’s need for mobility before giving it a stability solution.
Courtesy of Gary Ward, here’s one of my favourite spinal mobility experiences right now- Cogs:
First joints act, then muscles react (to movement): Movement of the skeleton dictates muscle (re)action. The goal is not to forcefully activate and and consciously engage the core, but to allow it to reflexively fire as a reaction to movement. So movement of the spine and pelvis, to which “core” musculature attaches, is necessary for the muscles to load and contract.
Muscles must lengthen before they contract: Like a slingshot, muscles “load to explode”. Training only concentrically by shortening muscles to create movement (think crunches) does not replicate this natural function. Excessive “tone-seeking”, thus, can prevent lengthening, reducing mobility and reactivity, and limiting performance. Concentric work is useful, but length needs to be created before you can earn the right to shorten.
Management of base of support within center of mass: How much movement can your center of mass access within your base of support? How far can you shift without moving your feet before you fall or need to take a step? Core muscles react as the body moves away from and back towards center.
When we keep things “tight” constantly it doesn’t allow this natural movement in and out of our base of support. Finding “center” therefore, is more a result of experiencing a full spectrum of movement, not of keeping things tight.
4. REMOVING ROADBLOCKS: COMMON CORE COMPENSATIONS
Remember above I mentioned there are ways the core systems can become out of balance? This can happen be due to trauma, injury, habitual ways of holding our bodies, or repetitive patterns of moving. These roadblocks can prevent our bodies from accessing joint movements and positions.
Many of us unconsciously develop strategies to get around these roadblocks. These “compensations” are not bad. THANK your body for finding these clever strategies and allowing you to continue to move and live. Know that they aren’t serving you anymore, address them head on, and find a new way through them, not around.
Here are some common road-blocks for dancers (and most humans):
- Breath-holding: Can cause diaphragm to be used more as a muscle of stabilization (due to it’s connection to the spine) than respiration, influencing spine/ribcage position, movement potential, and ability to recover from training.
- Jaw clenching/shifting: An attempt for proprioception, counterbalance, co-contraction, or a response to stress and strain and is commonly found to be facilitated in relation to abdominal function.As Dr. Kathy Dooley explains HERE:
Because the TMJ has more proprioception per surface area than any other joint in the human body, you will go where your jaw shifts you to go…When the jaw shifts, the center of mass shifts. This will down-regulate recruitment of the opposite side core in the sagittal plane.
- Pelvic floor: Part of the intrinsic unit, tightness, overworking, weakness, sub-optimal positioning, digestive function, organ issues, urinary control, all influence core function.
- Mobility limitations in general: Can affect the ability of core muscles to load, reducing their role ability to react to movement (limited hip mobility, and spine segmental mobility in at least one of three planes is fairly safe to assume…).
You cannot change that which you are not yet aware of. Do you know which roadblocks could be in your path?
Sometimes, just cultivating awareness and openness to change is all it takes to make a shift. Other times, it is necessary to seek guidance from a movement coach or therapist to help you. NeuroKinetic Therapy (TM) practitioners and Anatomy in Motion folks are trained to discover and unwind these compensatory strategies (but so can most good therapists of any background).
5. CORE SEMANTICS
As a writer, I appreciate the power of words, and I know a lot of you do, too. But the correlation between core training and the words we traditionally use to talk about it in dance is particularly interesting. And in major need of change.
“Core semantics” shape our results, and require a consideration equal to the physical training itself, as we speak to ourselves and guide others as dancers, teachers, therapists, and parents.
In the table below, which column sounds more useful? Which sounds more like dance? Which choice of vocabulary will you apply to your “core training”?
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.
DEDICATE 30 DAYS TO EXPLORING YOUR CORE:
Ready to commit yourself to figuring out this “core” thing? I’ve got just the thing for you:
Sign up for the next free 30 day Restore Your Core Challenge. You’ll learn to master one concept and exercise each week through exploration of the “core concepts”, exercise video tutorials, and community support. Join our tribe of stronger dancers and learn how taking a few minutes each day to unlock the power of your “core” can transform the way you move and feel. Totally free. Find out what could change if you dedicated a few minutes each day to unravelling your core. We do these challenges LIVE, together, every July, October, January, and April.
I suppose if you had to take just one thing away from this article it would be that core training is really just a result of allowing your body to explore movement and breath so it can do what it needs to do when it needs to do it.
Need to lift something heavy? Make sure you have access to all ranges of motion necessary to do that and understand how to breathe for that situation.
Need to balance on one leg for 30 seconds? Make sure you have access to all ranges of motion necessary to do that and understand how to breathe for that situation.
Simple as that. Maybe too simple. But simple does not mean easy.
Funny how just by allowing you body to move into ranges of motion that have been denied or avoided, breathing appropriately for the situation, using a more helpful choice of words, and getting some help when you get stuck the “core” just kind of takes care of itself without much time and energy spent on “training the abs”.
For more information on unconventional/sensible ways of training for dance, check out Dance Stronger: A multi-media resource created to help you understand the why and how of training breath, movement, and strength to improve dance performance and reduce soreness. Available by donation, so no excuses 😉 Get training!
So, what’s up with me lately?
I’ve become obsessed with the teachings of Dr. Stephen Porges and his brain-child, polyvagal theory.
Polyvagal theory brings clarity to our understanding of the autonomic nervous system, and in the world of dance training, we so rarely appreciate the huge role autonomics play in both our mental and physical performance and keeping pain-free.
Understanding autonomics through the lens of Porges’ polyvagal theory, beginning to notice where his teachings show up in our lives, and making time for strategies to optimize our autonomic nervous system, we can take our physical and mental performance, and quality of life, to new levels.
How dancers can use his theory to improve performance and well-being is particularly interesting to me, and that’s exactly what we’ll be getting into today.
In this post, we’re going to talk about the vagus nerve and autonomic nervous system (ANS) function, and how these systems relate our sense of safety to our physical and mental performance, as well as the muscles that control the face, breath, eyes, voice, and hearing.
Ready to rock this? Let’s do it…
Let’s take a very brief tour of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). First, let’s define “vagal”, in polyvagal.
Vagal refers to the vagus nerve, cranial nerve 10, which regulates the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system (ANS).
This nerve comes out of your brain and connects to your organs. It is 80% sensory, and 20% motor- It acts more as a feedback loop than a “mover of stuff”.
The vagus works “bottom up” (sensory) as well as “top down” (motor), meaning it both regulates, and receives information from your viscera. The vagus is 80% sensory, which means it works more “bottom up”, telling us how we’re doing, so we can see it’s important role is in providing information to the brain about the state of our internal organs. A beautiful surveillance system.
This is the pathway through which we can tune into visceral sensations, or “gut feelings”.
When the vagus nerve is activated, we enable the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows us to enjoy a state of health, growth, and restoration. When a parasympathetic state is enabled, sympathetic nervous system is inhibited. The sympathetic system is our mobilizing system, telling us to flee or fight in the presence of danger.
Dr. Porges refers to this inhibition as putting on a “vagal brake”.
Looks kind of like the nervous system…?
The vagus nerve is activated during exhalation (among other things you’ll read about farther down). If you tend to not exhale completely, and breath-hold to create a sense of stability, you might also be preventing yourself from getting to a state of health, growth and restoration.
In the face of stress, danger, or life-threat, real or perceived, your system may choose to recruit a strategy of mobilization (“get the hell out of here!” or “fight harder!”), to ensure your survival.
If we have trouble using our vagal circuit to get to a parasympathetic calm state, it is near impossible to learn, think creatively, and move optimally because our nervous system thinks it’s in danger, and survival is wayyy more important than creative movement and learning new things. Priorities..
This shows us the importance of practicing breathing exercises like pranayama yoga, blowing up a balloon PRI style, and being aware of breath-holding while we dance.
90/90 hip liftin’, PRI style
The vagal circuit is also regulates the striated muscles of the face (particularly around the eyes), the muscles of the middle ear, the voice, the heart, lungs, digestion, and other organs.
Because this vagal circuit works both top down, and bottom up, both regulating and relaying information from organs, we can see the potential that our sense of safety- our psychology, has to influence our physiology, and that our physiology also has to influence our psychology (which I think this is the most fascinating thing ever).
“Change your body about your mind.”
We can change our physiology, psychology and our experience of health through exercising this neural circuit. This can happen both consciously and unconsciously.
Isn’t that cool?
This shows us the inseparability functionality of our body and mind. The subtle cues we receive from our viscera and heart are very useful indicators of our neural state, and we can actively use neural exercise to influence the state of our viscera.
As Judith Anodea states in her book “Eastern Body, Western Mind”:
We are taught to control the body by way of the mind, which is considered far superior. But the body has an intelligence whose mysteries the mind has yet to fathom. We read in books how to eat, how to make love, how much sleep to get, and impose these practices on the body rather than listening from within.
What I’ve written above is what is most commonly known about the parasympathetic nervous system, what they teach us in school (unless you went to school for dance, like me, and you didn’t learn any of this..).
There is, however, another side of the parasympathetic system that has a completely different function from the rest and digest system we know it to be.
This ” however” is a great segue into polyvagal theory…
There is not ONE parasympathetic nervous system but TWO.
The health, growth, restoration branch of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) described above is regulated by our newer, mammalian, myelinated, ventral (belly-side) vagus.
However there is a second, less commonly acknowledged branch of the PNS, regulated by our older, reptilian, unmyelinated, dorsal (back side) vagus. This is the parasympathetic system we inherited from our reptilian ancestors (which are speculated to be turtles).
Silly turtle. Strawberries isn’t human food!
While the newer vagus is designed to calm us down, the older reptilian vagus will immobilize us in the presence of life threat when we are unable to fight or flee.
This is characterized by fainting, freezing, blacking out, playing dead, and other immobilization strategies that, for our reptilian ancestors, worked very well in the presence of danger, because reptiles don’t need as much oxygen as we do.
Go unconscious and you won’t feel pain. Go unconscious and the predator might leave you alone.
When humans try to feign death, it doesn’t work as well, because we do need oxygen to live! And unless we’re under extreme conditions, death feigning isn’t the most useful strategy in modern society.
So we’re evolving out of this ancient, vagal circuit as it serves us less than it did in the past.
Recall that the old vagus is unmyelinated, making it less easy to recruit (myelin improves nerve conduction). Old man vagus is recruited as a last line of defense, not a first.
Dr. Porges teaches us that our autonomic nervous system is hierarchical in nature, one system inhibiting another.
To fulfill our needs, we move selectively through the different states of the ANS in this order:
1) Parasympathetic nervous system 1: New, mammalian, vagus control: Health, growth, restoration.
This is our preferred state for optimal function of pretty much everything.
Because this circuit is related to the muscles of the face, eyes, ears, and larynx, we can see it’s qualities expressed in peoples’ faces and tone of voice, as well as activate it when we listen.
This neural circuit is all about safety.
When we are in a safe state under myelinated vagal control, we can think more clearly and creatively, let go of physical tension, experience states of compassion, gratitude, contemplate important things (like “who am I??”), and enjoy play and movement without fear and hyper-vigilence.
Through this neural circuit we can become informed by our experiences, develop strategies that make our body feel safe and derive meaning from our lives more effortlessly.
We can can make the world better by making people feel safer.
2) Sympathetic nervous system: Mobilize, fight, or flight.
This is our first line of defense when things feel unsafe.
In the absence of safety, or if we are unable to activate the myelinated vagus, our bodies will jump into action: To fight or flee.
We often look at the sympathetic nervous system as being the evil twin of the parasympathetic, but in reality, we need to get sympathetic sometimes in situations where there is REAL danger.
In dance and in other sports, this system is what helps us perform our best. We need that rush of adrenaline and increased glucose uptake into skeletal muscle to help us meet physical demands.
It can become problematic, however, to get stuck in this state through chronic, low level activation to deal with the mundane stresses of life due to chronic injury, fatigue, or to make up for a poor diet.
Being perpetually in a mobilizing state like this is exhausting and can’t be maintained forever. People eventually burn out and must rely on a less efficient neural circuit to deal with life…
3) Parasympathetic nervous system 2: Old, reptilian, vagus control: Immobilize, shut down, death feign.
Our last line of defense in the presence of perceived life threat.
If your body or brain perceives that you might actually die, and the first two systems above cannot be recruited, the older, unmyelinated vagus will signal you to immobilize- Faint, or freeze- whether it’s a good idea or not.
The root of the polyvagal theory is the recognition that in the absence of the ability to fight or flee, the body’s only effective defense is to immobilize and shut down
This happens because some fibres of the old vagus are cardio-suppressant, meaning they can slow, or stop completely, your heart (immobilization).
This circuit is related to the sub-diaphragmatic (below diaphragm) organs: Liver, stomach, intestines, bladder, sexual organs, etc.
So if we are recruiting this old vagal system to deal with our stress, the neuroregulation of these organs will not be optimal either. We might have pain in our abdomen. Compromised organ function. Poor control of our bowels and bladder.
Ever feel like you have to pee uncontrollably before going on stage? Or get so nervous that your stomach hurts? That’s you coping with stress with an old vagus reaction.
Note that “perceived life threat” doesn’t necessarily mean your life is actually in danger. For example, some people say they would rather die than speak in front of a big audience. What they mean is that public speaking feels so terrifying for them that they feel like they might freeze up or pass out because it is too much for even their sympathetic nervous system to help them manage.
When we are in stressful or unpleasant situations, like confrontation, or getting on stage, what is your body telling you? Do you find yourself filled with energy to deal with it head on, or do you freeze up and find yourself unable to move or speak?
In either case, you’ve chosen a defensive strategy, potentially an ancient one that we rarely need today (in Canada, anyway, our likelihood of being in a life-threatening circumstance is fortunately quite low).
That said, if we’re burnt out and can’t use the newer vagal circuit OR a sympathetic strategy of mobilization, we will unconsciously recruit the old vagus to deal with relatively low-risk situations that we perceive to be life-threatening! We’re so silly… We dissociate from stressful situations rather than face them calmly with an open, curious mind.
This can explain why the earliest symptoms of over-training are psychological in nature, as we attempt to use our sympathetic nervous system to fight through stress, ignoring visceral sensations. The next phase in over-training is physiological, often showing up as illness or injury (a shut-down, immobilization response).
Can you see why it might be pretty important to become aware of the signals our bodies are sending to our brains? And what if you made a conscious choice to manipulate your ANS state and take your body to a “safe” place, helping you learn to react more appropriately in stressful situations?
Dr. Porges calls this “providing cues of safety”, and it’s one of the ways we can “choose” to activate our newer vagal circuit over our other survival circuits (unless we really, truly need them!).
Remember, your vagus is 80% sensory- Your brain is constantly being sent signals from your viscera. Are you paying attention to this unconscious “neuroceptive” process?
Neuroception: Listening to Your Guts
As a survival strategy, our bodies were hardwired to actively seek out cues of danger.
This happens unconsciously through a process Dr. Porges refers to as “neuroception”.
Neuroception: Nervous system detection of safety and risk in the environment expressed through implicit bodily feelings; body responding outside the realm of awareness.
Implicit bodily feelings could be an increase in temperature, upset stomach, dizziness, and other feelings and emotions we often disregard as “random”, or “because I ate potatoes last night”.
A friend of mine who is prone to anxiety attacks, for example, wondered if her most recent episode was related to the potatoes she ate the night before. Sure, maybe they are related, but rather than blame the potatoes for your anxiety, it may be more useful to identify why your system is fragile to potatoes in the first place.
Make like Taleb and become antifragile to the potato
When we experience these implicit feelings, we then cope with them by reacting explicitly, outwardly: Facial expressions, words, anxiety attacks, etc. We mobilize, immobilize, or dissociate to varying degrees.
Neuroception is different from “perception” because it is not under conscious control. Neuroception is not something we can intellectualize or use our rational mind to understand and requires tuning in to our unconscious mind.
Ever had a “gut feeling”? Felt nauseous in a frightening situation? Became light headed and fainted in response to stress? This is information being relayed from the organs to our brains via the vagal circuit, based on our body’s reaction to the environment around it.
Do yourself a favor: Pay attention to the neural circuit that delivers information from your organs to your brain!
What if we listened when we experience “random” pains, particularly in the abdomen.”What does this mean?”, “What in my environment is ‘unsafe’?”, “Is my gut signalling something my thinking-brain can’t or won’t see?”
In the case of stomach pain, many of us go to the doctor who, more often than not, will prescribe something for us to numb it, like pepto bismol, or in my case, back in university when I was suffering from regular stomach pains, “You’re just constipated, take these laxatives”. Looking at the organ in isolation, without considering that perhaps the organ isn’t the issue, but it’s neuroregulation (how the brain is using it). The organ isn’t the issue, it’s the indicator of something larger. And the same can be said of all our body pains
Cultivating a safe environment intrinsically and through the environment could be the most important thing we try to do with our lives: Make our bodies and our environment a safe place to live so we can react from a place of safety, not out of defense.
Can you begin to see how this is an important system in our bodies to learn to optimize both for life and for dance?
Why Should You Care About Vagal Regulation?
1) As a human, you only get the one body, the one set of organs, and I bet you don’t like the feeling of stress.
2) As a dancer, you rely on your body for you art.
3) As a dancer, you rely on your mind to enable your body to perform things that are outside your comfort zone, potentially “unsafe”, and “unnatural”.
And as it relates particularly to #3 above, remember, when your body senses that it is in an unsafe, unfamiliar place, it WILL look for danger (dat neuroception) and use a defense strategy that seems the most useful for you.
Do you ever feel like your body sabotages you? You know exactly what you should be doing, but it never seems to work out (pirouettes for me…).
If you do not have the ability to regulate your ANS well, your system will respond by a) Becoming hypervigilant and tensing up, or b) Freezing and shutting down.
N=Monika examples of both these scenarios:
a) Turns scare the crap out of me, and I am aware now how I tend recruit my sympathetic nervous system to cope with them: Using too much effort, overthinking, and tensing every muscle: A high threshold response. In fact, my last dance related injury was an adductor strain last summer, having to do with a turn that transitioned into a split… Ironically, when i stop thinking and use less effort, things seem to work better. Pirouettes are now something I can use as a barometer of neuroregulation. I know I am having a good day if I can turn. I’d bet a lot of you can relate.
b) 5 or 6 years ago, during a particularly challenging jazz class (and time in my life…), I recall feeling my brain shut down, completely overwhelmed and unable to focus, so I walked out of class, sat in the hallway, and cried. Trying harder (sympathetic system) was no longer an option. This was my reptilian parasympathetic system managing the situation, immobilizing me.
In both scenarios, the myelinated vagal circuit was bypassed in favor of a defensive strategy.
Ask yourself: Are you dancing with your lizard brain, relying primarily on a survival strategy to get you through class? I’d reckon it’s a possibility… Ask yourself:
- Have you ever taken pain-killers to get through a performance?
- Do you dissociate from pain and work through injuries (mind over matter) to keep moving?
- Do you hold your breath or clench your jaw to cope with the physical demands of class and choreo?
- Do you have trouble relaxing your face and neck?
- Do you find it difficult to interact with some dancers you train with, and does it interfere with your ability to perform?
- Do you feel the constant strain of judgement, pressure, and competition, and question whether you’ll “make it”?
These may be indicators of your body’s unconscious perception (neuroception) that something isn’t quite safe. Remember, your nervous system is actively searching for danger, so unless you currently use strategies to optimize vagal tone or you somehow lead a completely stress-free, life (ha), dance can tend to make us
A few important terms:
Vagal regulation: Ability to recruit the myelinated vagal circuit to balance the autonomic nervous system and related function (homeostasis). This can be a conscious process if we train it. Vagal regulation is how well our system can live and cope with challenges and maintain homeostasis.
Vagal tone: Measure of ability to recruit vagal activity (which we think can be measured through heart rate and heart rate variability, HRV, but this relationship is not 100% clear). Our vagal tone increases as we perform a long exhalation, among other things that activate the myelinated vagal circuit..
Vagal brake: The inhibition of a defensive response (mobilization or immobilization) via the activation of the myelinated vagus, increasing it’s tone, in response to a stressful or dangerous situation.
So what you should understand is…
YES you have a degree of conscious control of your vagal tone. This is because the myelinated vagus also works top down, from brain to viscera, and is linked to the muscles that control our face, voice, hearing, heart, lungs and breath, which we can consciously train.
YES vagal tone is a real, physiological, measurable thing. You can track it and hack it to change your psychology, help you feel safer in your body, and make better choices not influenced by a primitive survival strategy.
YES you were hard-wired to prefer a state of growth, health, and restoration. You came with a pre-installed “brake” that you can choose at any time to press in situations of stress to prevent you from reacting hypervigilently, or immobilizing. It is our natural state to have an active, healthy PNS predominantly at rest.
Isn’t that beautiful? You were hard-wired to succeed and be healthy. Everything you need to overcome challenge, mental and physical, in the most productive way possible, is already inside you. You just need to learn hit the vagal brake.
Wensy Wong, my amazing friend, yoga lady, and partner in CAPE
Just as increasing muscle tone requires physical exercise, Dr. Porges explains that we can train to improve our vagal tone through neural exercise.
So what qualifies as a “neural exercise”? And what other strategies can we use to improve vagal tone so we can kick more ass?
Using Neural Exercise and Cues of Safety to Improve Vagal Tone
There are three primary ways you can improve vagal tone.
1) Removing cues of danger.
You can put a band-aid on a wound, but for it to stop bleeding you first need to stop stabbing yourself.
Cues of danger are what our bodies unconsciously perceive (neuroception) to be dangerous or stressful. These include:
- Low frequency background noise (signals “predator” —>)
- Monotone voices
- Blank faces, lacking expressiveness around the eyes
- Unwelcom social engagement
- Other past trauma, injuries, etc.
Stop stabbing yourself. Give me the knife…
2) Seek cues of safety.
Cues of safety inhibit defensive responses of the sympathetic and reptilian vagus systems, and allow us to better use our newer vagal circuit to promote health, growth, and restoration (parasympathetics). These cues of safety include:
- Hearing and using more prosodic vocal intonation (melodic, “mothery” voices)
- Listening to others with genuine interest (compassion)
- Seeing upper facial muscles used in an expressive way (particularly around the eyes)
- Face to face interaction
- Long exhalations
- Healthy socialization with happy, like-minded people who make you feel safe
Essentially, using our senses mindfully and deliberately to experience the world and interact, in real time, with ourselves and others.
Use of prosodic voice: Lull someone into a safe place with the comforting rhythm of your voice
Interestingly, the one activity that allows us to blend all of these cues together is social engagement. Listening and speaking to other people who make us feel good uses all functions related to the vagus (eyes seeing the facial reaction of another, and ear muscles used to listen, exhaling and intonating as we speak).
The only caveat- Social engagement must be welcome or it will signal “danger”. So find your people.
3) Participating in neural exercise.
Things that use the breath, voice, body, and muscles of the face, Like:
- Playing wind instruments
- Pranayama yoga
- Listening to prosodic music (like folk music)
- Social engagement
- Chanting or prayer
- Intentional shifts in posture
- Body scanning
Or, as Dr. Porges tells us is most important:
- Feeling safe in the arms of another appropriate mammal
Not necessarily another person. A mammal will do.
The vagal circuit is a highly integrated system maintained primarily by being social.
The people (or mammals) you choose to be around have a significant impact on your state of being.
Sometimes in the dance world, we don’t always get to be around the most compassionate human beings, judgement and jealousy are typical, and as artists (not every one of them, but we all know those people…), we often experience crippling self-doubt and feelings of low worth, which are often unwarranted and untrue.
This also means that if you struggle in your dancing with…
- Keeping a calm facial expression
- Difficulty focusing and retaining choreography
- Stage fright
- Learning new, challenging moves without inhibition
- Chronic pain
…you can regulate it to a certain degree through understanding this fascinating vagal circuit. It’s worth a try, and it doesn’t cost a thing.
How to start applying polyvagal theory, cues of safety, and neural exercise to improve your dancing.
How DOESN’T understanding polyvagal theory help you? (that goes for all the non-dancer humans reading this, too).
Can you see how feeling more safe in your body could enhance your dancing?
How useful is it that you’re hardwired with an intrinsic stress-management mechanism that you can use to improve your recovery and performance?
Isn’t it great to know that can train this inner system by engaging with people you love, and it makes you more resilient?
Increased vagal tone and better vagal regulation are related to some important things as it relates to being a performer:
- Being able to become vulnerable
- Breath control
- Preventing injuries
- Reducing chronic pain
- Improving mental focus
- Recovering more quickly from training
- Managing stress
- Creative thinking
- Not peeing your pants before you step on stage
Here’s what you can do right now
To improve vagal regulation, increase vagal tone, and improve your physical performance, recovery, and think more creatively:
1) Understand that your autonomic nervous systems functions hierarchically. Your body functions best when it feels safe. By becoming aware of our body’s responses, and gut responses (sub-diaphragmatic, reptilian vagal cues), we can find cues of safety and react to life without having to defend ourselves.
2) Respect your body. It’s easy to feel helpless to our situations (pain, inability to perform as well as we’d like) but we need to understand that we are reacting to situations through neuroception, which is an unconscious process. We may not know yet what we are reacting to, but we can be aware that our body has responded, and try to move to a safer place. Honor the body’s responses.
3) Body-scanning. Starting a movement practice with a body-scan is a great way to tune into unconscious cues and reactions. There are so many ways of doing this and they are all great. Pick a system, trust the process, and see how far you can take it.
4) Remove cues of danger (see the list earlier in this post). Because these are subconscious cues, it might not be entirely evident that a dance teacher or a particular class mate is signalling “predator!”. Be aware of facial expressions, tone of voice, and gut feelings, and how well you’re able to focus around these people. Depressed vagal activity can be represented by depressed neural regulation of striated muscles of face/head. This is how we can tell if someone is friendly just by looking at their faces.
5) Surround yourself with cues of safety (see the list earlier in this post). These cues in particular can be received through physical practices, listening to music, and social engagement, (if it’s welcome…).
5) Train your breath. Because long long exhalations activate the myelinated vagus, you can increase vagal tone by increasing the duration of exhalation compared to inhalation (I like to 3:1 ratio of exhale to inhale). Playing a wind instrument, blowing up balloons, singing, and chanting also extend exhalations and can serve as effective neural exercises. These also include the use of facial muscles which are also related to the vagus.
6) Mindful movement and shifts in posture. Yoga, religious or spiritual practices, and other mindful physical practices (even working out with weights) require conscious shifts in posture. Postural shifts influence carotid baroreceptors (related to blood pressure), so it seems that practices that require mindful postural shifts can influence the heart, which is under vagal control. Exercise isn’t just good for your body.
7) Welcome social engagement. Keyword being “welcome”. If you’re forced to interact all day with people sending you unconscious cues of danger or predator, social engagement is no longer improving this vagal pathway. On the other hand, we can use social engagement as an ultimate delivery system for neural exercise and cues of safety.
The nervous system of social engagement is the same nervous system of health, growth, and restoration.
~Dr. Stephen Porges
Going to a yoga class with a friend is the ultimate vagal toning experience: You can easily combine social engagement with breathing, body scanning, mindful postural shifts, chanting, prosodic tone of voice, and listening (to the teacher AND within).
Reminds me of this…
Most sympathetic yoga session ever. I’m crying.
I hope you can also see that the “how” is more important than the “what”.
Exercise is good, but is how you’re doing it helping you?
Social engagement can be am amazing therapeutic experience, or it can make you feel unsafe.
Same thing goes for your dance practice. How are you approaching it? Are you aware of how it makes you feel?
On a final note, I urge you to take an honest look inward. Are there any visceral sensations you’re dissociating from? What can you learn from these feeling? Are you surrounded by cues of safety or of danger? Do you participate in neural exercises? Do you have people in your life that you can genuinely and honestly connect with?
How you approach your dance training needs to respect this holistic view of wellness. Dance teachers are not life coaches. Nor are rehabilitation specialists. They don’t have time to give you advice, be your friend, and teach you to be mindful. Take the time to cultivate this practice yourself.
Understanding polyvagal theory gives you the information to expand your dance practice into a mindful movement practice that enhances vagal regulation if you allow it.
You CAN dance your way to health, growth, restoration.
If you’d like to start something right now to work on tuning into your body and your breath, you’ll probably enjoy the 30 Day Challenge. What would happen if you make the choice to deliberately practice one exercise everyday, for 30 days? That’s what the challenge is about. Forming the habit to take a few moments for YOU everyday, to work from the inside out. Sign up for free and check it out.
To learn more about the work of Dr. Stephen Porges, check out these amazing talks and interviews (worth the time, I promise!)
While I was in Chiang Mai just over a month ago the most valuable experience hands down was studying and receiving Chi Nei Tsang.
Studying Chi Nei Tsang at Blue Garden. Here is our teacher, Remco, getting all up in this lucky student’s left kidney.
If you don’t know what Chi Nei Tsang is, I for sure suggest you read more about it. If you really care to, you can read about my fun times learning CNT HERE (it’s a pretty long, rambling post though so save it for when you have a coffee and 10 minutes to kill).
In a nutshell, Chi Nei Tsang is an abdominal massage based in Chinese Medicine. As the story goes, negative emotions are stored in our organs. Our gut is our “second brain”, the small intestine in particular. And much like the food we eat, when we are unable to digest and deal with our emotions they are stored in the second brain. Apparently even in our bones.
And likewise, when organs (or bones) are squished into awkward positions because of poor posture and movement mechanics, this can also cause negative emotions and stress to manifest, along with degeneration of the organs.
Chi Nei Tsang can be a pretty intense experience for some people. Especially if you’ve got a lot of pent up emotional shit or funky movement and postural patterns (dancers… Just sayin’!).
So anyway, learning this massage was a blast. Helped me with many things. And I miss having my belly rubbed everyday. Any takers? 😉
But now, over a month since my last belly-rub session, I’m learning how I can apply Chi Nei Tsang principles to movement related issues, particularly those rooted in poor breathing patterns.
And so, the topic of today’s post is on learning how to first breathe and then move from the tan tien.
What’s the tan tien?
The lower abdominal tan tien is an important place in the body in Chinese Medicine. This point is located roughly 2cm below the navel, deep in the abdomen, and correlates to your center of gravity.
In yoga, this point correlates roughly to the sacral chakra, and in Japan is referred to as hara.
Your tan tien is your energy center, where “life force is stored”.
Sorry, guys, if I’m not using science words. Just deal with it for now. Science isn’t always everything.
Tan tien is an important reference point in activities like Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and many martial arts. In dance, I reckon that when teachers and choreographers want you to stay more “grounded” it would be helpful to be connected to your tan tien.
Unfortunately in dance, and other bendy-people-activities like gymnastics and yoga, we put so much emphasis on being able to bend backwards and doing crazy twists, it becomes easy to lose the connection to the center of our bodies. This can be a cause of lower back pain (much like they say about imbalance of the sacral chakra).
Many of us, and non-dancers too, lose connectivity to our tan tien. You can blame stress, poor spinal stabilization patterns, unresolved emotional issues, or poor organ function due to lifestyle. The result is the loss of ability to breathe into the lower abdomen favouring a paradoxical breathing pattern instead. We forget how to contract the tan tien, relax it, and move from it.
The image on the bottom represents a paradoxical breathing pattern, with the belly sucking in with inhalation, air going first into the chest, rather than both expanding together.
In Chi Nei Tsang, the practitioner will first “clear” the tan tien to allow chi (energy) to flow more freely to it, and open it, bringing more awareness to the area.
It is possible to achieve similar effects by yourself through moving and breathing mindfully.
Some people who know pretty well will remember that I used to refer to my lower abdominal and pelvic region as a “black hole”. Literally had no ability to connect my brain to the black hole (tan tien!).
After having received Chi Nei Tsang I was finally able make a connection to my lower abdominal area. After waking up tan tien, things starting feeling different. Much different.
- I was able to breathe into my lower abdomen, whereas before I was a paradoxical chest breather (still mostly am…Workin’ on it,guys, ).
- Because my breathing was coming more naturally, I felt my inner core activate more reflexively- I no longer had to brace so much to stabilize.
- I felt my hips were able to extend fully, whereas before I could not, or had to actively contract my glutes to get to that range of motion.
- I was finally able to maintain a neutral spine and pelvis without tucking under and reduced my normally uncontrollable pattern of resting in a heavy anterior pelvic tilt.
- All former pain symptoms disappeared (knee, hip, hamstring, lower back, shoulder).
- Amazing mental clarity and calm.
- Finally could get full cervical spine (neck) flexion
- Felt my weight shift more posteriorally onto my heels, whereas before I had a tendency to shift onto my toes and make every movement super quad dominant.
- Felt grounded into the earth, lighter.
These improvements lasted for weeks, and now, about a month after returning to the cold north, not getting regular Chi Nei Tsang, and doing several dance classes (loading the dancer-dysfunction back into my system), I can feel these effects leaving me. Noooooo…
I just want to be able to move like her:
Oh my God that single leg landing in deep plie… One day.
There is, however, a technique I’ve been using to try to hold on, and this is to do tan tien focused breathing.
How to do tan tien breathing?
It’s super easy and effective. If you do it regularly.
I taught one of my dance clients how yesterday. After a few rounds her neck alignment improved (now getting full left cervical rotation! BAM). She noted similar things as I had: Felt more grounded, calm. Good things for a dancer to feel.
How to breathe into tan tien (a self Chi Nei Tsang technique):
1) Find your tan tien with your fingers and get comfy poking into it.
The easiest position to start in is lying on your back, knees bent or with pillows supporting under your knees.
Remember your tan tien is about 2cm below the navel and deep in the abdominal cavity. Place your fingers there and on an exhale, press into your belly until you can’t poke in any deeper. This may feel weird. Good. Go with it.
Take note of how it feels in there. Do you notice if it feels cold or warm? Can you feel a pulse? How far down can you get before you meet resistance?
2) Breathe into your tan tien!
Breathe into this special place that stores your life force. Put some awareness into your center of gravity.
With your fingers still poking into your belly, inhale and try to push your fingers out. As you exhale, allow your fingers to sink deeper into your abdomen. See how deep you can go. Hold your breath at the bottom for a few seconds. Repeat for a few minutes.
Aim for your exhalation to be 3 times as long as your inhale. Get out all your air, and then some more. I like to work with an in 4 out 12 count. You can start with a 1:1 ratio and move up to 2:1 until you can handle 3:1 exhale to inhale.
An Ayurvedic doctor once told me to work on a 30 second inhale, 30 second exhale pattern. I managed to do this once. I almost passed out. On the bus.
Be aware of where your breath goes first. You will likely feel that as you inhale, it is difficult at first to guide the breathe into your fingers, but it will become easier each time.
You can also try humming, or making a “shhh” or “chooo” sound as you exhale. This will ensure you are truly getting a full exhalation. Auditory cues don’t lie. Often there’s more air left than you think. These are also healing sounds used in Chi Nei Tsang and Qi Gong.
3) Repeat a few time a day. Experiment with different positions. Try it while walking.
Much like any skill (chin-ups, push-ups, speed reading), the more you “grease the tan tien groove”, the easier it becomes. You don’t need to spend 30 minutes working on breathing all at once, because that sucks. Just break it up into mini sessions throughout the day (especially before dance class, dancers!).
I like to attempt tan tien breathing in positions that I know are challenging for me. Like in a supine hip bridge. God it really sucks. Just try it.
Another fun challenge is to breathe into your tan tien while walking, without your fingers for feedback. I attempt this quite often and find I have to slow my walking wayyyy down to do it properly.
When you are able to bring awareness into your tan tien, it’s almost like you’re not even breathing, but like the breath is moving you.
By having this energy channel open, the breath will flow there naturally. You don’t need to use any effort. Rather than forcing through muscular effort, the breathe simply moves you into the correct place. It’s magical.
It’s Wu Wei– Action through non-action. Allowing what feels spontaneous and natural to occur. What if your dancing could feel like this? It was rare for me, and probably the cause of my many injuries, always relying on excess muscular effort.
Try tan tien breathing while doing inversions- Head-stand, hand-stand or shoulder-stand. That takes some mad skillz.
Try doing this focused breathing in dance positions like an attitude line, or to initiate a turn.
The more you try to play with breath and gravity and allow yourself to be moved in new ways into new positions, the more fun you can have with movement.
The trouble with trying to teach movement and posture to people, I think, is that it isn’t easily possible to describe how to do it in terms of muscular execution. The person has to feel it for themselves by directing their breath into the right place, helping them to naturally move into the appropriate position.
This can’t truly be taught, but only offered to them through a learning experience. It is up to the student to be open to it and allow it to happen.
This can be frustrating.
I often want to resort to more obvious ways of cueing, like, “shoulders back”, or “squeeze your butt”.
What I try to do more often is direct the client on where to breathe. If they direct the breath into the right area, at the right time, the movement and the posture becomes natural. The breath dictates it so.
So I suggest you try building a tan tien awareness practice. Make it a regular part of your day. Just for fun. Poke your fingers into your belly and breathe. It just might change your life.
Have a listen to master Mantak Chia talk about tan tien and the second brain. Cool stuff!
I was recently invited to present a workshop (of my choice!) to the dancers at York University here in Toronto. The day after I had just returned from Thailand. I was quite laggy…
I am always excited to work with the York dancers because they receive such great education on important things like injury prevention, dance kinesiology, pedagogy, and other topics that I didn’t learn about at Ryerson.
They made me a poster! So sweet.
So because I had complete freedom to choose the workshop topic, I chose something very close to my heart: Breathing. Possibly the sexiest topic. Ever.
Why? We know breathing is important. It does keep us alive. But it wasn’t until after I finished my dance BFA and started working in the strength and conditioning world that I really began to understand.
And in recent months, even, I’ve had revelations. Working to optimize how I breathe has helped me reduce many chronic pain symptoms I thought I was stuck with. Just as an example, it wasn’t until I took a few huge steps back and started to work on breath control that my knee pain stopped. CRAZY, right?
You’d think breathing would be intuitive, wouldn’t you? Well, simply being born does not make us alive, it’s that first breath that allows us to enter the land of the living. Out of necessity, this breath is a deep, efficient, belly breath. I reckon that no breath after that one first life-giving breath is the same. In fact, it might be all downhill from there.
Sorry for the ominous intro. I have this great talent for setting the mood, don’t I?
So anyway, because I know this might be new info for some of you, and a nice review for others, I want to recap some of the key points we covered in my excellently-titled workshop….
Breath, Performance and Prevention: Optimizing Breath for Dance
Fancy-sounding title, ‘innit?
I started off by asking the question, “Why should you care about breathing?”. Why is it important for you, as a dancer, to know how to do it well?
Well, as a dancer, you likely tend to do things like hold your breath, assume extreme extension postures, overuse accessory respiratory muscles, be told to suck in your belly, and then perform intense physical activity. Cleaning up breathing patterns goes a long way to balance these functional dysfunctions that dance imposes.
However, it would be foolish to think that dancers, particularly in ballet and other classical forms, are going to use deep, belly-expanding breaths while they dance, because that just doesn’t fit the esthetic. Because of this, I emphasized to the group was that it’s definitely worth it to have a few techniques up your sleeve to work on optimal breathing patterns outside of dance-life. Before class, during breaks between exercises in class, after class. Whenever.
But I must backtrack a little and talk about one of the most important structures for optimal breathing, the diaphragm.
Diaphragmatic function- What is that?
Your friend Mr. diaphragm is an important guy and he does a lot for you. More than just the primary muscle responsible for giving you life through respiration…
Your diaphragm also helps keep a bunch of other stuff working smoothly:
- Managing information between chest and abdominal cavities, and other distal areas of the body
- Health and support of nerve, musculoskeletal, circulatory, lymphatic, and fascial systems
- Lumbar, sacroiliac and cervical spine stabilization
- Ensures proper function of mouth, swallowing, and speaking
- Posture, static and dynamic proprioception
- Supports organs: Heart, lungs, stomach, liver in particular
- Ensures optimal pelvic floor function
- Prevention of gastroesophageal reflux
Want some other fun facts about the dipahragm (yeah you do!)?
- Diaphragm connects to your lumbar spine, influencing it’s function
- Diaphragm has fascial connectivity to your liver, heart lungs, esophagus, kidneys psoas major, quadratus lumborum, pelvic floor and other muscles and organs.
- Diaphragm is asymmetrical, with the right hemisphere bigger and more likely to be overworked (facilitated)
- Any change in diaphragm causes a symmetrical change in the pelvic floor, so, breathing dysfunction=pelvic floor dysfunction and visa versa.
But for the purposes of right now, let’s just say the two primary roles of the diaphragm are breathing and stability. Or in other words, DANCING BETTER WITHOUT GETTING INJURED.
How does dancing tend to mess with diaphragm function?
How does it NOT? Just kidding…
- Sucking in the belly causing paradoxical breathing: Belly sucks in on inhalation while chest expands
- Exaggerated extension postures and rib flare: Reduction of zone of apposition (ZOA), which I will talk more about later in this post…
- Excessive lordosis and over-lengthened abdominals: TVA down-regulation
- Breath holding and hyperinflation of lungs: Diaphragm facilitation, inability to exhale fully
- Forcing turnout: Feeds extension postures and anterior pelvic tilt, increasing need to flare ribs.
- Accessory respiratory muscle overuse: Neck, traps, pec minor, etc
- Stress and poor recovery from classes and rehearsals
Here’s something important to think about: What happens when your diaphragm doesn’t work like it should, AND THEN the need for increased respiration arises? Like in a physiccally exhausting dance piece?
This is where things can get messy.
Maybe you are used to using your diaphragm primarily to stabilize your spine and you hold your breath to do so, rather than also using your abdominals. But then should your need to breathe increase due to strenuous dancing, your diaphragm will be used primarily for keeping you breathing rather than stabilizing your spine. In this case, you had better hope you have functional abdominals, or there won’t be much else holding you together other than bone on bone action. Mmm, gotta love that spondy feel.
Ahh the spondys. Good ol’ extension based spine injuries.
So how can you ensure that you’re both using your abdominals AND will be able to breathe enough? That’s called maintaining your zone of apposition (or ZOA). Another fancy-sounding way of saying, “Is your ribcage in an optimal position for your diaphragm to perform it’s many, many functions?”.
Well, do you dance? Then likely, you’ve lost a bit of your zone.
What is this zone (of apposition) and how can I be in it?
It’s not so much that you can be in the zone, like it’s an exclusive club or something. But honing an optimal ZOA puts you in a pretty cool club- The Super Excellent Apical Expansion Club.
By definition of the Postural Restoration Institute, the ZOA is: “The cylindrical aspect of the diaphragm that apposes the inner aspect of the lower mediastinal (chest) wall.”
Or in other words, the front part of your ribcage kind of in line with where your zyphoid process is (where your ribcage opens up in the front). If you stand with your ribs flared, with extreme lordosis, and anterior pelvic tilt, then you’ve lost your ZOA.
On the far right, you can see the extra width in the ribcage. Cause his lungs are full of air from ineficient breathing. Or as they say in Chinese Medicine, he’s full of “wind”. Hyperinflation of the lungs and poor positioning of the ribcage.
The ZOA is maintained by your transverse abdominis and your internal obliques. Dem abs!
If you are able to maintain your ZOA, that is to say, maintain abdominal activity, while you breathe, you win. High five! Your diaphragm will be in it’s best position to perform two of it’s most important functions- Delivering life-giving oxygen, and stabilizing your spine (and other things that attach to your spine, like your limbs).
You should be able to breathe deeply, into your belly, while maintaning your ZOA. If you are not, and your chest tends to expand first because you’re trying to keep your belly sucked in, this is called paradoxical breathing, and it is not a great thing to do. You probably breathe paradoxically while you dance whether you’re aware of it or not. And because your teacher tells you to…
What you should gather from those last two paragraphs is that you need to have some abdominal musculature engaged while you’re breathing to maintain your ZOA and help you breathe diaphragmatically.
Here is what it looks like to have a reduced ZOA:
Check out the rib angle, lordosis, and pelvic alignment. Indicators of probably reduction of the ZOA causing diaphragmatic dysfunction.
How can you tell if you have diaphragm dysfunction?
Here are some signs that maybe you need to get back in the zone (of apposition) and give your diaphragm some TLC:
- Do you dance? (kidding… sort-of)
- You breathe paradoxically
- Various pain symptoms: Low back, SI, neck, hip, shoulder (endless possibilities)
- Rib flare/extended posture at rest
- Shortness of breath/asthma
- Difficulty speaking and swallowing
- Excessive yawning
- Everything becomes easier with breath holding (diaphragm facilitation)
- You have pelvic floor dysfunction
- Digestive issues or constipation
A client of mine asked me, “Does anybody not have messed up breathing?”. I don’t know about that, but for sure, many people probably need to work on maintaining or improving their ZOA, not just dancers, and not just those who are in pain or rehabilitating injuries.
Ideally, we are all aware of our breath and rib position daily. We make it a practice to be mindful of this. It doesn’t mean we need to be perfect all the time, that’s why it’s called practice. But we do need to do the work we often don’t want to do.
There are many tools you can use to improve your ZOA, diaphragm function, and breathing patterns generally, and I don’t care which path you choose. Whether you choose to do yoga, Qi Gong, find a good trainer, or see a rehabilitation specialist, the principles of good breathing remain the same.
I believe you owe it to yourself to cultivate this awareness and begin to work with someone you trust to guide you. It just might be the missing piece that helps you overcome whatever obstacles are keeping you from performing your best, and being the best person you can be.
**If you can’t breathe in a position or during a movement, you don’t own it. Own the breath, own the position, own the movement, own at life**
This is a post for the lovers (or love/haters) of Martha Graham’s famous contraction, and Graham technique in general.
It would be a great understatement to say Martha Graham was a smart lady. Among other things, she recognized the importance of treating the spine with kindness (in an art form that tends to abuse the back’s “happy” range of motion), and using breath to initiate movement- A fundamental basis for her entire dance technique. As a dancer, choreographer and teacher she was brilliant, and said brilliant career lasted about 70 years. Talk about career longevity. Graham has just about everyone beat.
Makes you think she must have been doing something right…
There are many ways that Martha Graham and I differ. Her dance career was successful and long career, versus my painfully short one, is just one example. But what I think is really important is that she must have innately “got” what it was to be a dancer, and not simply what it felt like to dance. It’s the difference between being and doing. And trust me, I was doing most of it wrong. I think Graham must have had some kind of instinctual sense of how dancers should use their bodies both to keep them healthy while also creating beautiful, expressive movements.
Case in point: The infamous contraction.
Consider these three common characteristics you’ll see in many dancers, particularly wannabe ballet dancers (not hatin’ or anything, just not everyBODY was made to excel at ballet):
- Exaggerated lumbar hyperextension
- Upflared rib cage
- Breath holder-ism
And what do you know- These three things are the exact opposite of the Graham contraction: lumbar flexion+ ribcage depression+ exhalation.
Those three pieces of the Graham contraction are typically what a dancer with back pain needs: Getting out of lumbar hyper-extension, lowering the ribcage a bit, and to stop holding their breath.
And somehow Graham knew. Though perhaps she couldn’t dissect it in functional terms like I am here (me being more of a technician than an artist), she felt it, and had a highly successful career because of it. And I have mad respect.
Unfortunately, the Graham contraction (which I shall henceforth refer to simply as the “contraction”), is super easy to do wrong. I wasn’t doing Graham contractions, I was doing a Volkmar contraction, which not only looked screwy, but also screwed a lot of stuff up and made dancing way harder than it needed to be.
The contraction is a movement pattern that involves simultaneously flexing the lumbar spine, posteriorally tilting the pelvis, and exhaling (which causes the diaphragm to relax, fyi). Like any movement pattern, the contraction can be cheated. It will still resemble very much the contraction, but without any the above individual movements actually being done.
And yet the body finds a way. Dancers happen to be genius cheaters. Give us a movement pattern, and if we can’t do it, you can be sure we’ll find a way to cheat it. And we’ll hold our breath while we do it. And somehow make it look pretty graceful, too. That’s just the beginning of the extent of our mad skillz.
When we continuously cheat fundamental movements like the contraction daily, and for years on end, our bodies will recognize this as the “normal” pattern to work in. In this comfy, familiar pattern you can probably imagine that some muscles might become unnecessarily hyperactive (or facilitated), and some others that we should be be using, become underactive (or inhibited).
A Graham contraction, as I stated above, should involve this pattern: rounding the lower back, tucking the pelvis, dropping the ribcage, and exhaling simultaneously. The movement, initiated from the lumbo-pelvic area, causes the upper body to react naturally, and curve. As a reaction. Not as the initiation.
And here’s how you do a “Volkmar contraction”: Make the curve originate from the upper body. Round from the chest rather than lower back. Protract the shoulder blades. Do a fake, shallow exhalation (or no exhalation at all).
How to do a contraction wrong:
- Round the upper back instead of rounding the lower back.
- Non-diaphragmatic exhalation.
- Tension in the shoulders, chest, and neck rather than in the abdominals.
Based on the above compensated movement patterns, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest the following muscle compensation patterns, which can become so engrained in your motor control center(your brain) that you need a team of experts to get you out of it (seriously…):
Pec minor working instead of your abdominals
Neck muscles (scalenes and friends) working, to breathe, instead of your diaphragm.
Diaphragm working instead of your psoas.
In the picture below look at how the pecs and rectus abdominis are connected fascially:
And how the diaphragm and psoas are connected:
And how the diaphragm (on the inside of the rib cage there) connects to both the psoas and the neck muscles in a kinetic chain:
If you have been doing your contractions with those common movement compensations for some time, then you might have actually lost the ability to get into the contraction position. Yet… You have some work to do, grasshopper.
Your work will involve down-regulating some muscles (via massage, stretching, foam rolling, etc), combined with the up-regulation of others (think strengthening and activation exercises). And then you must repeat that and make a promise to yourself not to go back to your old habits of movement. Don’t ever do the Volkmar contraction again. It did not look pretty. And it felt bad. So very bad.
Change is difficult process. And it’s not always enjoyable. And sometimes it even hurts (ever had pec minor or diaphragm released? owwww). But it’s worth it.
So where’s your contraction really coming from, eh?
There’s stretching, and then there’s productive stretching. I now only refer to the stretching I do in sessions with my dancers as “productive stretching”.
Mere stretching is unacceptable. My clients deserve better than simply to stretch, and so do you! Why choose to do only a “thing” (to stretch) over an activity with legitimate, progressive returns (a productive stretch)?
Which would you rather choose: Productivity, the act of actually accomplishing something worthwhile. Or, doing stuff for just for the sake of doing stuff.
As much as I like just doing stuff, I came to the conclusion last year that being productive and my happiness level have a direct correlation. It turns out productivity isn’t such a bummer, and I actually like getting stuff done.
Case in point: Only do productive stretching.
By my above definition of productivity as being the act of actually accomplishing something worthwhile, productive stretching therefore refers to stretching that actually accomplishes something worthwhile: An increase in tissue length and/or desired improvement in joint range of motion and/or changes a neuromuscular pattern of moving in a way that improves execution of important movements and skills, AND can reduce the risk of injury or relieve chronic pain. That’s a very important AND.
In other words, flexibility that will help you dance better and not hurt you.
Does this look productive?
Will it make you more flexible? Yeah maybe… But only up until you need hip replacements at the ripe old age of 27. My iliofemoral ligaments hurt just looking at this picture.
Will getting sat on improve motor control, dynamic stability, and help you dance pain-free while preventing injuries? Heck no.
Please don’t do crazy stuff like that. Don’t let your coach sit on you. If not for yourself, do it for me! Because I CARE ABOUT YOU!
It’s funny, I hardly ever stretch with my dancers at all, and when I do, it is generally limited to some mobility or motor control drills, some dynamic stretching to warm up, and I must admit I’m a huge fan of yoga slow-flows and their ability to set your ass on fire while improving range of motion, strength, and building new motor pathways.
Like I wrote about HERE, simply doing common stretches, like lunges to release your hip flexors aren’t that productive. In the case of the pelvis, active mobilization is a better strategy to improve alignment and help with “tightness”. By this I mean using your own muscles to move your bones into a new alignment, and then chill out there and take some deep breaths, which teaches your body to remember that position, increasing the likelihood you’ll actually keep some of that alignment while you’re up walking around, dancing, and carrying your too-heavy bag in one hand, Starbucks cup in the other.
In a nutshell, if you’re already flexible, perhaps well into a degree of being pathologically lax in the ligaments (although I really hate that “p” word) then there are better things you can do with your supplemental training time than stretch more. By simply doing more and longer durations of stretching, a few undersirable things could happen:
- Muscle becomes overstretched and weak, unable to activate at the right times
- Joint position becomes altered (ostekinematic changes), causing things to rub together and hurt (labrums, bursae, tendons, etc)
- Altered motor control around that joint due to ligament and muscle overstretching
- Muscles around that joint tighten up in an attempt to guard the overstretched joint
- Overstretching of joint capsule and ligaments (again, causing guarding and feeling of tightness around the joint).
In fact, these days I say, “If it feels tight, DON’T stretch it!”.
And if you are going to stretch something, please breathe while you do it!
So what should you do instead? Try these exercises that serve as mobility drills that can help you to improve joint range of motion as well as training good movement patterns into your system that will allow your joints to stop guarding themselves against the overstretching you might be dishing out (oh your poor ligaments…).
1) For your quads and hip flexors:
Half kneeling is one of my favourite drills and positions. Your goal is to get a stretch for your quads and hip flexors while at the same time you’ll probably feel them burn from activation (along with your butt and hamstrings, hopefully).
Things to consider:
- Both knees should be at a 90 degree angle
- Make stance as narrow as possible within a reasonable level of challenge
- Lift front foot to make sure your weight is not shifted forward onto the front leg. Recheck throughout to make sure you have not drifted forward.
- Feel maximal stretch possible on front of supporting hip by pressing your knee through the floor, slightly thrusting hip forward, and trying to feel as much space in the hip as possible (like you’re hovering off the floor)
- Turn head side to side to check balance
- Breathe with the intention of 360 expansion, directing the breath low, below your bellybutton
2) More fun for hip flexors, and some calves, too.
I know- You have tight hip flexors and calves all the dang time. You can kill two birds with one stone and do some split stance breathing. It doesn’t look like much, but this drill (inspired by Anatomy in Motion), when done with awareness of the breath (<– super duper important), can be a really awesome stretch for your calves, hip flexors, and can help with pelvic alignment.
Things to consider:
- Split stance with feet parallel (don’t let that pesky back foot turn out), as wide or narrow as needed
- Check in with breathing- Can you breathe low below bellybutton, 360 degree expansion, with full exhalations letting your ribs drop down to hip bones?
- On an exhale, rotate tailbone through your legs (like a sad dog) to bring pelvis forward, leading the lunge. Front knee can bend a little, back leg stays straight.
- Keep back heel down and knee straight as much as possible
- You may feel stretch in calf and/or trailing leg hip, or even inner thigh.
3) For your lower back (if you have a large lordotic curve like me!)
The lower back muscles often become hypertonic, and very overdevelopped, appearing visually hypertrophied (big and sausage-y). However this is not always the case- Some of us are the opposite, so don’t assume that you need to release your lower back because it’s possible you need to get MORE ability to extend your lower back.
You must be careful, very very careful, when stretching the lumbar spine area. Too much stress too soon will hurt your vertebrae, and rather than improving the length of the muscles you might increase their stiffness due to the additional stress and weird forces on the vertebrae and disks themselves. You don’t want that.
The following 2 videos aren’t technically “stretches”, but are re-positioning/motor control/breathing/core (whatever you wanna call it!) exercises which I have found to be productive in helping to release tension from the lumbar spine erectors.
Things to consider:
- I stole this exercise from the Postural Restoration Institute. This one helps to release the lumbar erectors while activating the abdominals, hamstrings and adductors, and making you breathe a lot (which is a good thing).
- Push feet into wall and pull heels down.
- Lift tailbone slightly off the floor by pressing knees up.
- Breathe, trying again to expand all around like a balloon, and try to extend your exhalation to being 3 times as long as you inhale (getting all your air out), and letting the ribs drop down to your hip bones.
- You should feel this one in your hamstrings and inner thighs and a bit of core, as well as a release for your lower bacl. If you don’t, keep practicing. Same goes if you feel your quads tense up (hint, your quads should stay unclenched)- Keep practicing!
Things to consider:
- Another PRI exercise to actively release the lumbar erectors.
- You are trying to maintain contact with your mid and lower back (from about bra level to tailbone). Really round your lower back.
- Same cues as the 90/90 hip lift, but now up on your feet! Breathe, round into the wall, reach your arms.
4) For your abs and butt.
Yes, just because you want to tone and tighten your abs and butt doesn’t mean that they don’t need to learn how to lengthen too! Can you produce force with a sling-shot if you haven’t stretched it back as far as it can go first? Nope. By the same token, you need to be able to feel your muscles stretch to use them. Abs and glutes included.
This is one that is inspired by Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS). In this sidelying reachy exercise (that one of my clients has adorably named the “Starfishy Sideplank”), your goal is to find a stretch for your abs and the bottom glute (among other fun possibilities of muscle-feels).
Things to consider:
- Lying on side, propped up on elbow, legs in a 90 degrees lunge-type position- bottom leg forward, top leg back
- Ensure supporting elbow is directly beneath shoulder
- Press palm and forearm into the floor, rolling it inwards (pronate arm), keeping as much space between ear and shoulder as possible
- Check in with breathing
- Reach forward as far as possible with front arm, hold for a breath
- Lift hips off floor if possible, hold for a breath
- May feel stretching across back hip, bottom leg glute, upper back/shoulder, ribcage/abdomen, lower back, etc
If you want to learn more exercises like these check out Dance Stronger– My latest creation. Dance Stronger is a multimedia guide for dancers who want to get the tools to help them improve their dancing, prevent injuries, and reduce pain by, you guessed it, getting stronger! Click here to get more info.
You can also sign up and see the first two chapters for free (click the image below! DO IT!).
In any case, I’d love for you to try the “stretches” in this post out for yourself and see how they feel. Can you feel the stretches? It might be a little trickier because these are stretches that take a bit of conscious effort to find, not splat stretches where you get sat on.
I hope this was helpful. From now on you must only stretch productively. Deal?