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.
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.
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.
Once 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:
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.
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.
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 🙂
“I don’t have time in my schedule to include cross-training and self-care.”
Is this something you find yourself saying?
Do you prioritize getting ahead in your dance training over taking care of yourself?
Are these two things mutually exclusive? Or are they two sides of the same coin?
This was the conversation I found myself having on the highest peak in Hong Kong. Yeah, we’re here in HK for the IADMS- International Association for Dance Medicine and Science annual conference
Today, I am writing this from our Airbnb as there is a level 8 (out of 10) typhoon warning in effect and the conference has been cancelled for today. Right now the weather is not crazy, but who knows what will happen in the next few hours. We dared to venture out for breakfast (spam and hotdogs on instant ramen noodles with instant coffee- What I can only imagine is a traditional HK style breakfast).
What if you placed the same value on self-care and taking care of your body’s needs as you did on excelling as a dancer- technique training, performing, auditions, rehearsing, etc.
One could argue that if you placed the same priority on self-care, then you would be limiting yourself as a dancer. Afterall, to be a successful dancer it seems that you need to make sacrifices. You can’t skip an audition. Can’t say no to a contract. Can’t risk saying no to a choreographer’s wishes. If you say no, someone could swoop in and take the opportunity from you, and this is a competitive field in which it is difficult to be successful.
Just today I saw a former client of mine, who we’ll call Kayla, post something on her Facebook page bragging about how busy her schedule was with dance contracts, yet how her body was falling apart, glorifying the sacrifices she was making to “succeed” in as a professional dancer.
This is tradition at play. This is her education, and you can’t blame her for doing what she’s been taught to do. Being conditioned to think that to be a dancer is to be in pain. That this is how it should be. But it made me sad inside to see that other people “liked” and even “loved” this status. Encouraging her to push her body past it’s limits for the sake of “making it” as a dancer.
But is this what success as a dancer is?
Every dancer’s definition of success will be different. For the dancer above, it is to perform at all costs. To get contracts and make a living doing what she loves, but at the expense of her body. If she were to take time off to rehabilitate and nurture her body, she would have had to say no to some opportunities to perform. She would have had to work more hours at her “Joe job”. She would be making choices that are not moving closer to her definition of success.
But for how long can she sustain this?
It seems the way she is going, that if she does not make the choice to take care of herself, the choice will be made for her, as it was for me years ago. It is much less fun this way.
Saying no to a dance gig is so hard. I get this.
So is success for her a “right now” matter? One of instant gratification, living from day to day? A means to distract herself from the truth of what is really going on in her body, and the future of her career?
Would she make different choices if her idea of success also considered the long term? Would she still consider herself successful if she had to say no to a few gigs now in order to prolong her career to dance later in life? Could she accept that new definition of success?
This is a discussion on priorities and finding a meaningful definition of success as a dancer, one that takes into consideration both the short and the long term.
I’d like to tell the story of another dancer- a professional contemporary dancer, who we’ll call Molly, with a very different story. Molly came to see me to find a solution to “save” her dance career having been performing through chronic lower back and SI joint pain for three years.
She had come to realize that she needed to retrain how her body moved. She recognized that the current way her body was organizing itself to move was no longer serving her and was exacerbating her symptoms. She was out of options, could no longer dance, and needed help to unravel these patterns and rebuild.
Because she had been dancing through pain for over three years, she had found many strategies for moving around her pain which were now causing more trouble for her body.
In a much different place than Kayla, and perhaps having danced through pain for a few years longer, Molly made the difficult decision to stop dancing and performing to take the time to get to the root of what was causing her troubles.
Her definition of success was long-term. “I want to keep dancing and I willing to do what is necessary for that to be a thing.”
She told me, from such a beautiful space of honesty, that, this was to date one of the hardest things she had to do, but she recognized that if she didn’t stop dancing now, out of her free will, then she would be forced to stop. This is the thing: It IS hard inner work that none of us ever wants to face. So we postpone it. Deny it. But for how long can this be kept this up? How long can the Kaylas of the world dance this way?
This decision required that Molly drop her identity as a dancer momentarily to work with her body as a human, trusting that even though she wasn’t dancing, she was still a dancer, and the work we were doing was to help her get back to dancing again. It wasn’t taking anything away from her dance career, but serving her long-term success as a dancer.
It meant tuning in with how her body felt, not dissociating from and moving around pain. And it meant that some exercises and new movements we worked on fatigued her in just three repetitions. While this could have been discouraging for a dancer like her- known for her powerful, strong movement and used to pushing to and often past her limits, she understood it was a necessary part of the process to honestly appreciate that three reps was all she could do well and that three reps was enough.
She eventually built up work capacity while maintaining the same quality, and within several months was back to dance classes with a better understanding of her body, her limits, and what to do when she felt her symptoms resurface.
Her attitude towards pain has completely changed. She sees it as information and does her best not to judge it. With this new information, she also understands that she could not dance the same way that she used to, but this did not mean she would not dance as well, and in fact, she could find dancing more fulfilling and meaningful with her new appreciation of her body and ability to move more honestly.
She sees her injuries as a gift that gave her the opportunity to get back in touch with her body, and is grateful for the time off dancing that she used to practice honest movement and build strength. Working at her neural edge, moving honestly, and getting out of her comfort zone are what allowed Molly to make the changes she did and return to dancing. Not only that, she committed to practicing daily, fully trusted the process, and made it her priority.
The truth is, if we take our dancing seriously, it is likely we will move through this spectrum: From Kayla to Molly. Or, from Kayla to naught.
But there is another option: To consider these options early in one’s career. To prioritize self-care and cross-training from day one. To start as a Molly. There are very few opportunities for dancers to be brought up in this way. Let us hope that this will change.
This may mean saying no to some things to preserve your body. This may mean making some hard decisions.
In our mountain-top talk, my friend made the point: But in a dancer’s schedule, there isn’t the time to make self-care an equal priority.
But I’m not talking about time. I’m talking about a moment to moment understanding of what is happening in your body right now. Making choices based on this understanding. Making it a 10/10 priority to have this understanding, take 5 minutes before class to breathe, and check in, to make the choice to actually do a warm-up, to make the time for cross-training, and to take time off if you need to.
Making it an equal priority doesn’t have to mean the time commitment needs to be the same as the number of hours you dance in a week, but every choice made needs to be made with awareness of what is in your best interest according to your idea of what success is for you.
So, what does “success” mean for you? What does prioritizing your body’s best interests look like for you? And do you feel like these two things are conflicting, or rely on each other, like two sides of a coin?
This idea fascinates me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
This isn’t a story relating directly to dancing, but it does relate to being a human, and since you’re one of those, too, I think you’ll find there’s something in this story for you.
This is a story of a lady that I feel I failed, and my six weeks working with her left me feeling frustrated and confused. In writing this I’ve managed to find some clarity, to see the big picture. That it wasn’t my failure, it was a cumulative failure.
This lady was a cyclist referred to me from physio post rehab for bilateral rotator cuff issues that she wanted to learn some exercises for to strengthen her shoulders.
I was taught that when we see the exact same injury on both sides of the body, the root of the issue may lie somewhere in the middle. Her shoulders may not be the problem. Her shoulder issues may be a symptom of something that’s been going on for much longer.
So, I thought, probably useful to check out what’s happening (or not happening) with her spine and ribcage, those guys that her shoulders are attached to.
We checked out her spine and rib motion in three planes and observed that there was some stuff definitely NOT happening through her spine, some important motions missing (well, all motions are important… You can’t change one thing without changing everything else, too).
To me, what her body was saying was clear: Her thoracic spine was locked into a flexed position- her cycling posture. When she moved her ribcage into an anterior tilt (down), it looked like it was getting pulled into a canyon, but to extend up she became locked and couldn’t move at all.
Aha, I thought. No wonder her shoulders feel gnarly, she can’t move her spine!
It should have been quite simple, but it ended up as a fight. It was more than a “can’t”, it was a “won’t”.
This lady had a team of people trying to “fix” her. A physiatrist for her back issues. A pelvic floor specialist for her pelvis issues. And another physiotherapist for her shoulders (the one who referred her to me). And all of us were saying something different.
Her pelvis and back people told her she should avoid extending her back (even though she was stuck flexed). Keep her pelvis stable and prevent movement because it was rotated. Moving was her problem, according to them.
And I humbly observed the lack of movement in her system. Her back stuck stiff, flexed, unable to extend except for one segment of her lumbar spine, and unable to flex except for a good chunk of her thoracic spine (exaggerated while she’s on her bike).
To me, movement was her solution! Get her spine moving again in the appropriate ratios. See if her pelvis and shoulders might be able to reorganize, and we’ll get closer to the truth.
But her trusted team told her not to.
They told her not to extend her back. Extension is bad. Extension will hurt you.
But there are no good and bad movements. For this lady, both extension and flexion were causing her issues, at different places, at different times, in different ratios and for different reasons, but her team decided that the solution was to completely eliminate one range of the spectrum.
And even though it didn’t hurt to explore her range of spinal motion together, even though she told me she felt like things were moving in the right direction, she told me she couldn’t do my exercises anymore, simply because her team told her they were bad.
In a conversation we had:
Me: “Did it ever cause you any discomfort while we practiced spinal motions in our sessions?”
Lady: “No. It felt fine. But they told me not to. And last week I felt great, the only time my back started to bother me was when I got on my bike”.
Me: “So, you felt good until you got into the flexed posture we’re trying to teach you how to get out of, and then you felt all your symptoms come back?”
Lady: “Yes. My physiatrist recommended that I get a steroid injection in my spine, so I’m going to do that, and I’m not supposed to do your exercises”
I am amazed.
She won’t work on extending her back, even though it takes her out of the position that causes her pain: The position on her bike that she spends hours and hours in every week.
I just couldn’t understand it. Her mind seemed as locked up as her spine…
Granted, I’m not a medical professional. I’m “just” a trainer. I’m qualified to work with movement. I can’t diagnose and prescribe. I’ve been working with her for a much shorter period of time than her team. They have information I surely don’t have. There are always more complexities than what I’m being told and presented with and I can appreciate that.
But in a complex situation, could not a simple plan of action- make spinal movement feel safe again, be of great benefit?
Medical pro says, don’t move, movement is bad, hold your body still, get this injection. All you have to do is lie on this table…
I say, movement will set you free, explore this, there’s so much potential to unlock. But it’s going to take a lot of work, patience, and practice…
And I wonder… would I have done things any differently in her position?
She made her decision with the information she had at the time, to best of her abilities. And with so many conflicting points of view, of course it’s safer to believe the people who have the power to diagnose, prescribe, and “fix”, and whom she has been working with for much longer.
And so eventually we parted ways.
In our final conversation I told her to be an advocate for her health and to always choose what was best for her, not to get lost in the noise. To take an honest appraisal of what everyone was saying to her and do what she felt was right based on what she knew, and what her body was telling her. To continue with the exercises that make her body feel better, and scrap the ones that don’t. And I told her she might consider not seeing so many people to eliminate the noise and confusion. I wished her the best with her spinal injection and to be in touch if she wanted some input in the future.
I imagine this will be the last I hear from her.
Could I have done more with her?
I explained why we were doing what we were doing, and it made sense to her. But the opinions of her trusted team held more clout than her own experience in her body.
I think that last sentence sums it up: Being unable to trust your own body over the opinions of other people telling you what is right or wrong for you to do.
It makes sense that this would happen after years of pain and many injuries, you stop tuning in with what your body is honestly experiencing as a way of just getting through the day, and you start to look to other people to tell you what is right for you. It’s no wonder she made the choice she did. I probably would have done the same. In fact, I HAVE done the same in the past.
Take away from this story what you want. I’ve learned an important lesson, and I hope this lady has, too.
For me, it was a beautiful reminder that my job goes well beyond showing people exercises and counting reps (I absolutely hate counting reps).
My role must include showing people how to tune in to their bodies, to learn to trust their bodies again, and to provide them a safe experience to explore movement.
To show them a way to develop a nurturing relationship with their bodies, not one of mistrust and loathing.
To encourage them to be brave in this exploration of movement, to be advocates for their own health, to inquire and question what people are asking them to do with their bodies, especially me (because when I have to explain, I learn, I appreciate the free education!).
And, if along the way, they get a bit stronger, move forwards from pain, enhance their quality of movement, and start to enjoy being in their bodies again, then that’s a bonus.
As dancers, this relationship with your body, one of nurturance, compassion, and trust, is essential if you want to dance sustainably, as long as you want, and at the level you desire.
If you could describe your relationship with you body in one word, what would it be?
I am no stranger to feeling badly about my body.
I have struggled with low self-esteem and eating disorders. I once believed that to be successful in dance I needed to be thin, and spent more than 10 years hating my body, wishing I could change it.
I thought I could diet and punish my way to the ¨perfect¨ ballet body. I thought I could use my self-hate to fuel my transformation.
Yesterday, I received THIS email:
…I have been struggling with my imperfect ballet body for quite some time now. To paint the picture for you, I am very muscular without any desire to be or without any added exercise other than full time dance… I’m completely lost with where I stand in relation to the types of workouts/ training, stretches and foods I should be eating to not gain this unnecessary muscle… although I have ‘muscle’ I am the weakest in my class! So I am writing to hopefully find a new approach on my far from perfect ballet body that I so desperately am willing to work for!
I was desperate, too… I completely understand this feeling of ¨imperfection¨, and the intense desire to change.
The word ¨perfect¨ is an interesting one.
Last week I attended Anatomy in Motion (for the third time this year), and something Gary Ward said about perfection blew my mind, and missed the next 20 minutes trying to put my brains back in place.
What he said: The history of the word ¨perfect¨ is that it actually come from the word¨complete¨.
And I was gone…
Your body is perfect.
Whether you feel that way about it, or not, your body is complete. Even if you are missing part of it, you´re still a complete human, a closed system.
What a beautiful thing to consider.
So this passionate lady who emailed me feeling utterly imperfect, what if instead of asking, ¨How can I change my imperfect body to become a better dancer?¨, she asked, ¨What if my body is perfect the way it is for dancing my best?¨
The first question will limit you. The second, if you can honestly contemplate it, will start to get you somewhere.
Your body IS complete… Nothing can change about your body until you can change the way you feel about it. Understand how it is already serving you to perfection.
This answer may disappoint you, but sometimes the truth will do that… There is no diet, no exercise, nothing that will make you more complete than you are now. Ironically, the only thing that makes you incomplete, imperfect, is feeling that you are…
The perfect ballet body is the one you already to have. The one you are grateful for and appreciate all that it can do.
The Dance Training Project blog has evolved over the years I’ve been writing it.
This blog started as a means to teach myself when I had no teachers.
I started working as a personal trainer the day I finished university. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had a mission, and I had clear values and standards for how I wanted to practice.
Writing became a necessary part of this phase of self-apprenticeship (I say self-apprenticeship because at the gym I initially began working at, there was no one with whom I shared the values and standards I one day hoped to be appreciated for).
In the book Mastery by Robert Greene, he states that there are three typical phases to an apprenticeship:
- Deep observation
These three phases will typically overlap which each other, but I foolishly attempted all three at the same time. Not having yet found my teachers, it was necessary to teach myself as I waited to find my tribe. And so this blog became a place to record my observations as I experimented and practiced.
Over the years, people actually started reading my blog. Now there are close to 6000 of you who like what you read enough to agree to let me send you an email when I write something new. That feels pretty cool. It’s humbling to think that there are people out there who care about what I have to say, and are interested in the same stuff I’m interested in. I really appreciate you guys.
However, having people regularly reading my work as changed the nature of my writing. I have to consider YOU (the reader) a little bit more. What do you want? Because it’s not just about my process anymore.
One day I received an email asking me if I could stop using the F-word because she wanted to share my blog posts with her younger students, and so I realized I would have to choose my words a little more deliberately (still the occasional F-bomb though… sorry!)
The role this blog played in my life began to shift from teaching myself and recording observations to spreading ideas, asking for change, and aiming to empower the dance world to take ownership of their physical needs. It changed from speaking to myself and asking myself questions, to speaking to an audience. I saw that I had gained some potential power to influence an industry, and that was a cool place to find myself.
But you know what they say about power and responsibility…
As a vehicle for spreading ideas, this blog is part of the mass of information available on the internet in the blink of an eye. Information that is frequently misinterpreted, and causing confusion and arguments.
Sharing and exploring ideas with people is something I value highly, but It doesn’t leave me feeling good to contribute to the overwhelming amount of information on the internet. It is just not good enough to be just a consumer of information expecting to have problems resolved, much a like expecting health problems to vanish by consuming a pill. Information is not a quick fix.
I love this blog, and I love what I stand for, and I love being able to share my passion through this medium, but I’m beginning to have an issue with words. As a writer, this is somewhat troubling.
I wonder quite often, how many of the people reading this blog genuinely try to apply the ideas, concepts, and exercises I write about? How many actually get creative and tinker with these ideas? How many actually embody the message before deciding whether or not they agree with it? Because not trying things out for yourself is what makes my writing part of the information problem.
Consider the following passage from Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now:
Don’t get stuck on the level of words. A word is no more than a means to an end. It’s an abstraction. Not unlike a sign-post, it points beyond itself. The word honey isn’t honey. You can study and talk about honey for as long as you like, but you won’t really know it until you taste it. After you have tasted it, the word becomes less important to you… If,for whatever reason, you disliked the word honey, that might prevent you from ever tasting it… You would be cutting yourself off from the possibility of experiencing your reality…. So if a word doesn’t work for you anymore, drop it and replace it with one that does work.
We don’t understand the world through words, we perceive it unconsciously through metaphors that we embodied from when we were small children. This is called embodied cognition. Before we had language we understood the world through our senses, internalized it, and developed language to represent it. In fact, all grammar has it’s roots in metaphor. Words do not represent the complete understanding that only our bodies can have.
So if you are trying to understand information at the level of the mind, this is incomplete understanding. Words distort the truth, and if we stop at the level of words, we deny ourselves the truth.
If you read my, or any other person’s blog, please don’t stop at the words. There are many self-proclaimed “gurus” who write well, are good at marketing their content, and collect followers who spread their word. There are also many smart people writing and sharing resources on the web that are worth following, but these genuine masters we should be looking up to for mentorship are rare in comparison.
You may read something, a book or a blog post, and disagree, but it might not be that they are wrong, just that the words used to describe their ideas are not ones that resonate with your current experiences- You just don’t have the same circuitry. It is 100% fair to not agree, but recognize that not everyone understands the world through the same nervous system lest we wage semantic wars (which never happens…).
All this to say, please, don’t believe the words I write in this blog until you try them out for yourself. And likewise, if something I write does not resonate, please, try it out in your body before you make your final decision.
When I say “strength training”, or “resistance training”, don’t reject that idea just because you don’t like that word.
When I say, “core training”, please set aside your typical association with these words and realize that they have become overused and meaningless. But, because I am not yet aware of other suitable verbiage to describe this aspect of training, I’ll probably keep using them for the time being (with said disclaimer)
When you read about injuries, injury prevention, syndromes and disorders, please do not become attached to those words, but realize that they are just a way to concisely wrap up a pattern into a neat package to facilitate communication (ironically making communication more difficult.). So when you read “scoliosis”, be curious with how things might change in your mind and your body if you use a different word less meaningful to you. If you’ve been saying, “I have scoliosis and my back pain stops me from dancing my best”, try, “My spine has unique curves that have developed to serve me, and I must learn how to work with them to dance my best”.
How could your world change if you tried out everything you read before deciding on it’s use for YOU? If you omitted words like syndrome, pain, and weak?
Words. Freakin’. Matter.
Please, keep reading this blog (pretty please!), but don’t stop at the words I write. My words may limit you if you limit yourself to only my words.
This is part of the reason why I created things like the 30 Day Challenge, and Dance Stronger, so that you can try the things I say out for yourself. Words are great, but they will never be enough.