If you recall THIS blog post from a few months ago, then you are aware that I’ve been taking a break from “exercise”.
But no, you won’t see me washing myself with a rag on a stick anytime soon #Simpsonschallenge
This break from exercise was to re-evaluate my relationship with it by choosing only to do what felt like “movement”, or “skilled practice”, rather than “working out”.
Well, guess what. I’ve officially broken my vow of abstinence. I confess, I deadlifted last week for the first time in six months.
I’m back in bilateral-extension-land and loving it. My softening calluses have experienced a reawakening, or if you’d rather, a bloody mess all over the kettlebells.
This blog post will serve as a follow up to the “movement vs. exercise” dilemma I was having and, for all 7 of you reading this, I hope it it will provide a new lens through which to view exercise and to explore how movement and exercise are not the same thing. Maybe it will even ignite in you the curiosity to try your own exercise-abstinence experiment. Why?
Movement may be a more useful thing to focus on than exercise. Exercise is something we often use to make up for being sedentary. Movement, on the other hand, when done in sufficient amounts, makes structured exercising kind of superfluous (depending on your goals).
I was very happy to come across something Katy Bowman wrote that echoes my feelings and sees the bigger picture:
Movement, in a natural setting, is incidental to meeting other biological needs. This arrangement between nature and your physiology creates a dynamic and sustainable relationship that is self-regulating.
Now, to answer your first question…
Was I just being lazy?
This was a comment on my Facebook page after I posted the original movement vs. exercise blog post:
“I’m at a similar place and was questioning if it is just laziness…”
I struggled with this belief, too; with feeling lazy and like I should be doing more. Where did we learn this belief that choosing not to exercise immediately makes someone lazy and insufficient?
Anything done deliberately is not laziness.
A deliberate practice, even one of non-doing, is the opposite of being lazy. Laziness as a concept, in my mind, doesn’t exist. Laziness is an excuse we use in avoidance of something. So no, if you’re worried that taking a deliberate break from training or exercise makes you lazy, it does not.
There is never enough time to do all the nothing.
Taking a break from exercise doesn’t mean I spent six months sitting on the couch eating Tim Bits all day. One, because I don’t own a couch. And two, as a proper Canadian, I used to have an addiction to Tim Bits. In third year university I lived across the street from a Tim Horton’s and regularly enjoyed a 20-pack-for-dinner kinda life style.
Never. Going. Back.
Taking a break from exercise didn’t mean becoming sedentary, but temporarily stepping away from ways of training that no longer felt spontaneous, useful, and, for lack of better word “good” in my body. A sort of “elimination diet” for movement.
Primarily, I removed deadlifts, squats,
my sorry attempt at chin-ups, and any other exercises that didn’t feel like “movement”, as well as other exercises that I found myself doing for the sole reason that I felt guilty if I didn’t do them, because they had become too habitual, our out of a compulsion just to sweat.
So, from November 2015 (after that dang Anatomy in Motion course) up until a few weeks ago, the main forms of movement I performed were:
- Pistol squats
- Turkish-get ups
- Walking a crap load
- Anatomy in Motion stuff
- Rolling around on the floor
As you can see, this still left me with a plenty of options. And yes, I know, push-ups, TGUs, and pistol squats are”exercises”, but that doesn’t mean I was exercisING.
My criteria: If it felt like a movement skill I could do with a mindset of “practice”, then it stayed in my life. Intention was key, but I’ll talk a bit more about that further along in this post.
And then, an existential crisis…
Whenever we examine movement we are also examining behaviour.
I’ll admit, I had a small identity crisis a few months ago while I was in a dressing room. I caught glimpse of my back and, if you know me, you know I have extensor tone for days. But what I saw in the mirror was something different. I had changed: My muscle tone was way down.
My mild existential crisis: “Who am I without my extensor tone??” was followed by the immediate urge to do kettle-bell swings and deadlifts. If I’m being completely honest, I did some swings later that day. It was like a junk food binge, seeking comfort and instant gratification.
Interesting isn’t it? How attached we can become to our physical identity even if it is no longer serving us.
We do this as dancers all the time. We’re proud of how our physiology reveals our identity as a dancer.
We walk turned out. We pop our hips and backs constantly. Stand on one foot whenever possible. Sit around in the splits. Talk about how we are sore all the time. We even brag about how gross our feet are. It’s weird, but we want everyone to know these things about us because they have become a part of who we are, and they reveal that we are dancers.
This is not unique to dancers. It happens in fitness, in other sports, and many other industries.
My kettle bell swing compulsion was an important reminder that change is scary because letting go of habits that have become part of our identity feels a bit like losing a piece of ourselves, stepping into the unknown, and losing control of our lives.
Don’t know about you, but I like being in control.
A relationship based on trust
My experiment has come to a natural close which feels like a firm desire to never “just exercise” again regardless of what exercises I choose to do. It feels like confidence in the relationship that I have with my body- A relationship rooted in honesty and trust. When my body speaks to me, I listen, like in any good relationship.
For example, today I got hit by a taxi on my bike as I was riding to work (Beck Taxi, license plate number BPED450, fyi).
I’m totally fine, don’t worry, Mom.
But my poor right handle bar will never be the same… 🙁
I think I slid across the hood a little, got thrown off my bike, and somehow landed on my hands, completely calm and unharmed. In my mind I knew what I needed to do to land safely, and I did, trusting that my body had the survival strategies. I left the scene with only a small scratch on my knee despite landing hard on my hands (and head… I was wearing a helmet fortunately, or it would have been a different story).
I think the taxi got the worst of the damage as I was able to use it to break my fall somewhat.
The driver, by the way, was pretty inconsiderate and angry at me. Without even asking if I was ok says, “You should have slowed down!”, and then proceeded to check his car’s damage. What is our world coming to if we value being “right” and our material possessions over the well-being of fellow human beings!
This could have been much more serious, and in part I think I got out of this situation totally unscathed because of the honest, trust-based relationship I was training myself to have with my body. Because I spend time every day being present with my body and its natural ways of moving, not just punishing it three times a week with intense exercise and forceful controlled motions. Oh, and wearing a helmet saved my life. Always wear a helmet, guys!
Never has the motto “train for life” meant more to me.
My mantra, courtesy of Screaming Monkey apparel. Get this shirt here: www.screaming-monkey.com
What 6 months exercise-free has taught me
The metta lesson: Before movement, there was intention for movement, and this is what I have come to appreciate most.
My wonderful friend, massage therapy and yoga genius, Wensy Wong and I had this exact conversation last week in the context of causes of injury in yoga, both of us having sustained yoga injuries for the same underlying reason: Our misguided intention.
Injuries don’t happen because of poor movement mechanics, although that does play a large role. And it’s not about the teacher’s skills and (poor) class design, although that plays a role too. Underlying these external risk factors what really matters is the individual’s intention.
Intention for movement happens in the brain, in the motor cortex, our center for movement intention, will, and skill.
There are physical circuits that exist in our brains that allow us to move and to override stretch and golgi tendon organ reflexes. And when our intention is “I must do this exercise as hard as I can, and it must look good, and I have to do it better than X”, we override circuits that keep our experience honest.
Dishonesty leads to injury, and it happens in our brains before it happens in our bodies.
Physical injuries start in the brain.
It’s your intention. Your ability to listen honestly to what your body is saying and being willing to do things in a less show-offy kind of way. To focus on the movement in a deeper sense, perhaps as if it were a skill to practice, not an merely exercise to make you sweat, punish yourself for eating “bad” food, or to show off.
Moving honestly: What I wish for all humanity to experience.
Here are some of the other lessons I have learned from taking 6 months off of exercise:
- You can stop exercising for 6 months and not worry about gaining weight.
- Guilt is not a useful motivator for training, but knowing your body and mind will feel great afterwards IS.
- Our physical identity drives us to train in particular ways that feel familiar, and becoming unattached to this comforting familiarity is a practice of “movement honesty”: Moving without ego. Moving for a greater purpose than to fulfill an aesthetic.
- You can get “exercise” as a secondary result of performing a movement practice, but not all exercise qualifies as movement practice (and I prefer the former).
- I miss deadlifting.
- Shifting your intention for moving allows movement forms that once caused pain to become healing (ballet, yoga, etc)
- When something is difficult for us to do or change about our movement practice, it almost always shows up somewhere else in our lives, at some level (honesty, patience, listening…).
And with these important lessons in mind, I’ve made a triumphant return to the gym floor.
And guess what, I’m doing it Hardstyle.
Kettlebells keep me honest. The beauty of a self-limiting exercise like the TGU: You can’t fake holding 20kg of iron over your face.
Yes, I feel honest enough to start learning the StrongFirst system with the help of my amazing friend and coach, Paul Hynes. Each session is a lesson in honesty, patience, and listening. This training system should really be called “ZenFirst”, because I’m learning it’s impossible to produce force without the ability to first wait with a quiet mind.
I’m not training for the SFG certification, although if it takes me there, I’m open to it. Mostly, I’m excited to be training a new skill, and happy to be working with a coach who appreciates my need for this to be about practice not exercise.
Getting back to training things like swings, deadlifts, and chin-ups feels great, and I am reminded that being strong is something that is important to me, and why I began doing it in the first place, years ago, and how it helped my dancing.
So I will close by saying three things:
- Be mindful of whether your movement/exercise routine is becoming a part of your identity, and if you are ok with that.
- Re-evaluate frequently what your intention for movement truly is and whether it serves you.
- Move honestly. Always. As in movement, so too in life.
Welcome to a new series of posts that I sincerely hope I can stick to: Dance Like a Human.
About a year ago, I started a series called “Stretches You Need to Stop Doing“. But I abandoned it because I felt bad about telling people what they should or should not do. And the title “May I Make a Suggestion About Your Stretching Practice That I Respectfully Ask You to Reconsider?” just wouldn’t have the same effect.
Anyway, the goal of this series is to explore a topic close to my heart, that is, helping dancers reclaim and maintain a requisite level of movement quality for better performance (the sexy), faster recovery (the less sexy), and injury prevention (the holy grail).
In proper Volkmarian fashion, part one of this series will simply be a long-winded introduction to the topic of movement quality and it’s importance as it relates to dancers. I predict approximately 7 of you will read through this blog post in it’s entirety.
But I’m cool with that, ’cause my mom always reads my blog, and she thinks I’m cool.
Word, Milhouse. I understand you.
Ready to begin? Hell yeah you are!
Why Movement Quality and General Physical Preparation Matter
Dancers face a unique challenge as athletic artists (see what I did there, Khyle Eccles??). They are trained to move in beautiful, yet unnatural ways, often dependent on pathology to succeed, but without a base of fitness, fundamental movement, and general physical preparedness to support them.
The result? Movement quality deteriorates rather rapidly, as there is no quality to support the quantity of training dancers often do, and we can observe this in the high injury rate.
Why is this a thing? Don’t we know better? Well…
1. Early specialization (is it necessary?)
2. No established long term athlete development plan (the topic of my talk at the HDC conference in Vancouver, 2014). If skaters and gymnasts have an LTAD, why can’t dancers?
3. Insufficient appraisal of fundamental movement quality as part of many dancers’ training and rehab (low or asymmetrical FMS scores, for example, although some people will argue with that, and there are other methods of evaluating movement quality).
4. Not enough rest and recovery, both in-season between classes, rehearsals and performances, and off-season as a whole (although whether dancers even get an off-season is a topic of scrutiny. And how I scrutinize).
5. Self-limiting, and otherwise imposed negative mindsets.
6. Insufficient strategies to unwind from dance: Most dancers don’t have a movement practice or participate in supplemental cross-training that is not a specific skill related to dance. Floor barre doesn’t count. Barre fitness classes don’t count. And Zumba… Does. Not. Count. Dance fitness is NOT fitness for dancers.
More skilled movement doesn’t equal better movement quality.
The above sentence summarizes the exact conversation I had with my very smart friend David Wu (aka, male-Asian-Monika) last week: You can excel at specific skills and create the illusion of having good movement quality, but the tricky thing with “skilled” movers, is that they can mask their lack of fundamental movement quality with their impressive skills.
That’s exactly what dancers do. So tricky!
And this is why many dancers may have poor experiences with rehabilitation, or may hurt themselves when they start strength training. An uninformed physio or trainer can really mess a dancer up if they don’t look for some sense of fundamental movement quality hidden beneath all that movement skill.
To an untrained eye, I can make most movements look good. Most dancers can, too because that’s their job.
Not all dancers are “good movers” as human beings. The humanity! In a movement form in which virtuosity and pathology are a package deal, we often sacrifice our quality of human movement for our art. Does it have to be this way? Maybe…
But if you choose to become informed (by reading this awesome blog, for example) you can create new options. Form new habits around your dance training that will allow you to delay an inevitable degree of damage, learn to manage pain effectively, and reclaim some (but perhaps not all) fundamental movement.
Ready to go down this rabbit hole with me? Yeah you are.
Let’s talk about natural human motion, neuroplasticity, and movement variability.
I Move Therefore I am (Human)…
Would have been a more accurate statement for Descartes to make. You can’t think without a body, after all, you need a body to live, and you can’t be alive without movement: Air flow, circulation, neurons doing their thang, etc.
So what is natural human motion?
Because dancers are obviously humans (or are they…), we need to have this discussion of what is actually meant by human motion (otherwise known as functional movement, fundamental movement patterns, blah, blah, blah).
Chris Sritharan said it best:
“Human movement is trained, human motion is not… If you’re going to engage in a sport that is not natural human motion, just make sure you have a strategy to unwind it”
For the purpose of this blog post, here’s a working definition:
Natural human motion: Refers to joint motions that naturally occur in the human gait cycle and in fundamental movement patterns.
We must understand that all motions the human body is capable of performing serve an important purpose in movement and need not be feared or avoided.
To consider there is no human motion that can be labelled as “bad” allows us to move with a complete map of our bodies which dancers must be able to do for optimal performance and recovery. Spinal extension isn’t bad (neither is flexion, and you probably need more of it). Pronation isn’t bad. Knee valgus isn’t bad. Joint compression isn’t bad.
Dance-specific movements are specifically trained, meaning we didn’t learn naturally them in our early development. Natural human movements are what we develop as young human beings as we first learn to centrate our joints and put our feet in our mouth, roll over, creep, crawl, and eventually stand up, fall down a bunch, and then walk. This was all a reflexive process. No one had to train us on how to do it.
Human motion is hardwired. Dance… Not so much.
I feel you, girl.
And another problem arises.
Learned disuse: You Just Forgot How to Move Like a Human!
Or rather, when you were 3 years old and your parents decided that you would specialize in dance while you were still developing a base of fundamental movement (or not), your brain decided to optimize some circuitry that preferred dance-specific movement over human motion.
That’s why ballet schools like to get ’em young. Little kids brains adapt quickly. And they are more bendy, too. That’s just one of the reasons why I wasn’t accepted into the National Ballet school when I was 15, having started ballet at the ripe old age of 12. Catching up on knowledge gaps is the story of my life.
Neuroplasticity: The brain is capable of changing itself based on what we use or don’t use it for, and this happens until we die, for the better or worse.
Our preferred movement patterns are the result of neural circuits that have become optimized based on specific inputs (dance, for example), how often the input is received, and how well-liked it is. Synaptic connections are continuously being modified and re-organized in response to these demands, repetition, and emotional connection to them. These cortical plastic changes occur both when learning a new skill, and after injury through disuse or avoidance of movement patterns.
Learned disuse, for dancers, can refer to the optimization of dance-specific skills, at the expense of “forgetting” how to perform some important movements, like big toe extension at the expense of toe flexion (both being required to walk like a proper human).
What happens when you work solely on pointing your toes, extending your back, and stretching your adductors so you can kick yourself in the head, but you never make time for the complimentary pattern?
This leads to the next point(e)…
Movement variability: You can have your cake and eat it too.
It doesn’t need to be and either/or choice: Only dance, or, only strength training, or whatever sport or activity you ascribe to. One big problem is that some teachers and dancers don’t understand this, and believe that supplemental training that is not dance will undo all the hard hours of dance training. This is untrue.
Variability makes you better. It gives you more movement options. And it unloads repetitive patterns of potential overuse.
You can do it all in whatever ratios allow you to best manage your desired proficiency at dance technique, pain symptoms, movement quality, and strength, ie- You can follow a training program that creates the most appropriate options for you, as a mover. You just need to be smart about it and know what you need in what quantities.
It will depend on how much dance you’re doing and how seriously you take it, what season you’re in, and whether you’re injured and/or over-trained.
Ask yourself: as a dancer, what do you value most? What are your needs, what does your schedule allow, and how can you create opportunities to develop movement variability within this reality?
For example, if you are uninjured, in an off-season, and struggling to get past a technical training plateau, that sounds like an awesome opportunity to jump on movement/strength development.
If you’re injured, in-season, and classes make you sore, then you probably don’t need to add extra hours of training, but take more time to recover, work on movement quality, and regress your technique a bit to work on fundamentals.
Variability keeps you honest by keeping you out of a pattern. Constantly appraising your needs and adjusting your training inputs accordingly will prevent you from getting stuck in only one way of moving that could be your undoing.
Which Pill Will You Take?
It’s your choice.
You can continue to live blindly, blissfully, and not worry about this learned disuse and movement variability stuff, or, you can explore the #truth.
Hate to break it to you, but you’re not invincible just because you’re really good at ignoring reality. Just because you’re perfectly comfortable doing fouette turns to the right, standing on your left leg, doesn’t mean it’s not a pattern that needs a complimentary strategy to manage.
Next up in this series we shall discuss some super sexy examples of the human motions we sacrifice for dance-specific movement patterns that require supplemental strategies to unwind
In writing this blog post today I am procrastinating the completion of a massive piece of editing. I’ve created a monster. I’ve been assigned the rewarding task of creating a resource paper for Healthy Dancer Canada. “Write two pages”, they said. Naturally, that exploded into 10 (concision isn’t a strong suit of mine…).
My brain’s going a little dead, so, to avoid making silly editing decisions, I’m giving the paper some space so I can remember why I’m writing it in the first place.
When you lose sight of the purpose, just sit with it. The solution often comes when you take a step back, zoom out, remember the bigger picture.
Anyway, let’s talk about me: I’m in a weird place with my training right now, and I’m pretty sure some of you will be able to relate.
I haven’t deadlifted since November 2015.
I know… Who am I??
I love lifting. I love feeling strong. I especially love doing what I do best- Sagittal plane extension-based movement. But I’ve lost sight of a greater “why”.
Honestly, taking Anatomy in Motion was the catalyst. AiM forced me to reflect on this idea of movement vs. exercise. This course explores natural human motion, and participants get to bring to life, in their own bodies, what this means at every joint, in every plane of movement (and I’m excited to be re-taking this course in May in New York).
After AiM, I realized that I no longer had the desire to “exercise” for the sake of exercising. It needed to mean something more, and I needed to re-evaluate the relationship I had with it.
So I dropped anything that felt like “exercise”. My training is now quite minimalistic.
I was trying to explain this to my room-mate.
“What?? You’ve stopped deadlifing? The king of all lifts?” Incredulous.
I told him that the distinction between “what is movement and what is exercise” had become muddy. I needed to step back from it and sit with this idea for a while until I had clarity.
The look he gave me.
“So what are the distinctions?” He asked me.
“I don’t know… I’m still figuring it out. And until then, I don’t do anything that feels like exercise”.
This also puts me in a very weird position in my field of work.
As a trainer/strength coach/movement coach/massage therapist/detective, people expect me to help them exercise and get strong, often in the presence of chronic pain. I’m happy with that expectation, but I also feel that expectations are limiting. How lovely would it be if every client came in with zero expectations? Imagine how much they would grow, being totally open, completely trusting the process?
Most people come see me, or are referred to me generally because they want to work on their “fitness” and learn “exercises”, or get a program to “do”. But not everyone cares about their relationship with exercise.
I do my best not to bring my personal biases into my work with clients because they might not serve my clients’ goals. This happens a lot in the fitness industry: Trainers imposing what is important to them on their clients, but not considering what their clients really value or need.
I won’t force my ideas on my clients, but I really want them to take the time to think about this exercise vs. movement thing. I feel that it is important, especially if you’ve been recommended to train with me because you want to move forward from pain.
Even dancers rarely take the time to consider this idea.
I’ve asked dancers: “Why do you dance?”, and many of them say that they enjoy the physical exertion. They like getting exercise in a way that isn’t boring, like working out at the gym or jogging.
If this is you, I encourage you to dig a bit deeper. If you’re dancing because it’s the most enjoyable, least boring form of exercise you can find, consider whether your relationship with dance is one of exercise or movement. What does that mean to you?
I used to be an exerciser. Physical activity was a huge value of mine and my family, and I think this is a great thing. But while I loved the “exercise” component of dance, it wasn’t just about the physical exertion. It was escape, exploration, and self-expression above all- things that are facilitated through movement.
And then that changed. Somehow, the focus became burning calories, strengthening muscles, getting “toned”, and my relationship changed from “movement form” to “exercise form”.
The same thing happened with my training. Work-outs were exercise. There was no goal but to work hard, sweat, and burn calories because I felt it was necessary for no particular reason. That changed a bit when I started focusing on strength, but it was still a need to exercise.
Where I am at now, I don’t want to workout because I feel like I need to exercise. Exercise is important. I recognize this. But our relationship with exercise matters more.
These are a few distinctions and ideas that have come up as I rethink movement vs. exercise:
1. Movement training embodies Wu Wei: Effortlessness. Action through non-action.
A Taoist philosophy. This is the feeling of being mobilized to act, not forcing oneself to train out of a sense of need or guilt. Rather, movement training implies the want to explore motion, with an intrinsic momentum pushing you forward, curiously.
It should feel effortless. Not effortless in the sense that you’re not working hard while training, but effortless in your summoning of will to do it and desire to work hard at it. Exercise is often difficult to bring ourselves to do. We put it off, skip it, and are relieved when it’s done. Just a tick on our daily check-list.
2. Movement quality vs. exercise quantity: How much do I really need to lift be “strong”?
I used to train in a power-lifting style. I got pretty strong in a relative sense, and I guess I still am. But my body didn’t feel great after a solid stint of Wendler 531.
With dancers, too, I feel there is a point of diminishing returns where it is no longer useful to become strongER in an absolute, or even relative sense. Strength is only one component of fitness that dancers require. Too much “exercise” interferes with movement quality.
Ironically I feel stronger in this non-exercise phase. How do you explain that? I think it is because moving well as a human is requisite for being strong: Movement quality is potential to tap. Or because I’m always well-recovered?
The more I experience this “strength without strength training”, the less I want to exercise, and the more curious I am to explore how movement quality improves physical resilience.
3. Exercise requires movement, but movement does not always imply exercise.
I love a fallacy. Which should we be prioritizing?
4. Movement helps us enter flow state.
Because there is a goal in mind beyond working hard and sweating, which is generally what comes to mind when we hear the word “exercise”.
5. Movement teaches us about ourselves and the world.
Helping people explore this idea is one of the aims of CAPE, the movement workshops I co-teach with Wensy Wong.
As in movement, so too in life. When we feel challenges come up in our body’s ability to perform, we can almost always see this same challenge present at a different level in our lives: Why can’t I do this? What’s holding me back? What options am I creating for myself? Why am I stuck in this pattern? Am I being honest?
It is always amazes me how revealing movement is of who we are. Exercise tends only to help us tune out and distract us (which isn’t bad, just different).
Sounds like I’m anti exercise, doesn’t it? I’m not. Just for right now. I’m trying on a different perspective. I felt lost for a while, through November and December when I stopped exercising, but I’m comfortable now with the fact that whenever I feel like it, I can come back to exercise because it will always be there.
Movement, on the other hand, won’t unless we take the time to explore it and own it. Movement quality deteriorates with non-use, but we can always exercise without movement quality (well, maybe not always…).
This distinction will be different for everyone. I still train, but I choose not to do exercises that feel like exercise.
I encourage everyone to have a think about this exercise vs. movement thing.
As dancers, it also serves us to take a step away from dance momentarily to consider why we’re doing it. Know that the things you’ve attached a particular meaning to will always be there for you, even after you’ve dropped the attachment, you can always come back.
When you lose sight of the purpose, just sit with it. The solution often comes when you take a step back, zoom out, and remember the bigger picture.
If you’re soaked in sweat by the end of the first plie exercise, you’re doing it wrong.
I used to think it was “correct” to be working so hard that what should be an easy warm-up becomes a heart-pounding, sweaty ordeal.
So too we see this trend in fitness, but just because you’re sweating, red in the face, and tired does not mean you’re being effective. Making a fitness class “hot” does not automatically make it more useful (although our brains may perceive it so if we’re taught that to sweat and work hard is synonymous with “better”).
Plies, the first exercise to prepare us for a ballet class, should set the stage for the rest of the class: To find a sense of effortlessness. But when we are in a tug of war with our bodies, creating this illusion of “ease”, is anything but easy.
What if it didn’t have to be an illusion? What if “effortless” was the natural intended state? What if our bodies were hard-wired for freedom in our movement? If this is true, then it doesn’t make sense to try harder to work less. It’s paradoxical, like yelling at a dancer to relax.
Things become effortful when our body loses its optionality; an injury, a behavioural pattern, or a habitual way of moving that once served us (but was never meant to be permanent). Through learned disuse, we “forget” ways of moving.
If there’s a block in the road, we take a detour, a less ideal, longer, more frustrating way of getting from point A to B. For every forgotten movement, there is a detour, too.
Missing movements are the block in the road to effortlessness. We need to accept that perhaps there are some pathways we need to rebuild, because that detour is starting to piss us off.
So part of letting go of effort is first to find “what’s missing”. Which movements are you being denied? Which ones are you protecting yourself from because, at one particular point in your life, it served you to avoid them? Avoidance may not be serving you now. You need a new option, or rather, reclaim an option back.
The next step is to explore that uncharted territory. This can be unpleasant, but there is a whole map of your body to explore, especially the uncharted, fuzzy areas.
You may have vague recollections that exploring one area of the map seemed threatening and unsafe. Or maybe you can’t even remember visiting this part of the map, but I promise, you’ve been through all of it before (with the potential exception of some significantly limiting experiences in childhood/birth…).
Be brave enough to explore the unknown, and trust that it really isn’t that unknown. You’ve been to each part of this map before, and this will seem so evident to you when you trigger the memory by taking the leap of faith.
When you are moving with a complete map, you know that you’ve visited every corner (or are in the process of). You can feel confident that “you” won’t become lost, because you know where you are. You have reference.
Now, with this complete map, you find yourself standing in first position. Things feel, easy… Unexpectedly so. Your weight feels centered in your feet. Your legs naturally rotate into the position you want them to with little extra effort.
“Ahh”, you think to yourself, “Now I can start to enjoy the movement!”
Because you finally had enough of the detouring, the extra energy expended trying to get “around”, and not allowing yourself to move “through”. And because you were brave enough to explore the missing movements on your map that once felt unsafe, or difficult, or plain foreign.
Valgus, pronation, exhalation, pelvic posterior tilt, spinal flexion and extension: Perhaps these movements were not on your radar. You may have experienced that you couldn’t breathe and you were off balance, as you explored these motions, but you stuck it out and put them back on your map and taught yourself they were safe. Reclaimed them as yours.
And now there is no need to create a maximum effort contraction to simply keep from falling over, or to get to “neutral”. There is no need to hold your breath as you enter these motions, because you’ve practiced breathing through them, creating a safe environment for them to take place.
And this word, safety, is huge. When we don’t feel safe, we will find a strategy. But we don’t want to be dancing with strategies, we want to be dancing.
With a complete map, you’re simply standing there, waiting without purpose, confident that your body knows how to react because it has this wisdom it didn’t have before. So you can stop thinking. Start letting go of effort. Feel a sense of uncontrolled, yet anchored, momentum, not a restricting sense of “tightening” to forcefully achieve the desired aesthetic.
And you look over and see the woman across the room sweating buckets after plies. And you can’t believe that this exercise, that once would have had you sweating, too, felt like nothing. Like nothing, but like everything: Effortless embodiment. Joyous, reactive movement.
And if we can move through our whole lives like this, effortlessly, because we’ve fearlessly explored the missing pieces of ourselves that we were denied, what can’t we do? How much energy could we conserve? How present could we be if we’re not fighting just to stay on our feet?
What once hurt us must also heal us…
This can be difficult to believe, but one side of the coin cannot exist without the other. Heads and tails are a package deal.
We can get stuck in this mindset that if something hurts us, then it must be bad, and that we should avoid it forever.
When we have a negative experience with something, our brain remembers, and, beyond all logical reasoning, will tell us to avoid going there again.
Like playing on the monkey bars. It can be kind of painful on the hands at first. There is a risk of falling so the brain says “Hmm…Nope. Not going there.” This is why I avoided monkey bars my whole life and even today can’t swing from one arm to the other (2016 goal…).
This avoidance of what feels “bad” makes sense. Evolutionarily, if something has caused us harm, in the future we will avoid it to stay safe from danger. Life-threatening danger. Present day, life-threatening situations are relatively rare, and what is “harmful” is less clear.
Monkey bars are hardly a threat, but my perception of their danger is enough to make me go sympathetic.
This can happen with dance. Our relationship with it will change over the course of our careers. That is how it is, as it is with all things. Change: The one thing we can count on.
We can become injured from too many hours dancing with too little recovery, without strategies to cope with physical duress, fueled by a passion that burns so strong that we are able to tune out the important messages our bodies send us to “cool it”.
On stage, nothing hurts. That’s the power of our minds. Some parts of the brain that process pain are also responsible for movement. “If I can keep performing, I will feel no pain, and everything is ok.” On stage, we’re invincible.
Dance is healing in this way.
Dance can be an escape from everything “out there”. No one can touch you, and you feel your most “you”. There is no pain when you perform. You might need pain-killers to get on stage, but you don’t remember you needed them until you exit the wings and come back to reality, and even then, it feels worth it.
But everything that heals us can also harm us, as everything that harms us can heal us, too. The determining factor is our intention.
What differentiates healing dance from harming dance is why we are dancing and for whom. This “why” and “who” relationship can change without our noticing but makes all the difference in the outcome.
Dance began as a healing outlet for me. I’m an introvert. Have been since my first memory of being alive. Dance allowed me to escape from the world and be with myself, in my body, where things made sense without the noise from my conscious mind.
And then, my intention changed. When I began to take my dance career seriously I became afraid of not being good enough. I was ashamed of my body and wished I could trade mine for that of someone else. I wanted to move like someone else, not like me. I didn’t think being “just me” would get me hired.
I was not content to dance like “me” so I tried to dance how other people expected me to dance. My “for whom” changed.
I forced things past my limit to fit a mold. I over stretched. Ignored important signals of pain; my body pleading with me to take it easy and make time to recover. I lost sight of my “why”.
This was no longer healing, and it caught up to me. A few injuries later, I had to stop. If we can’t change and slow down on our own accord, “something” will force us to. The universe has a way of giving us exactly what we need, whether we like it or not.
I sure had it coming.
After this, I was afraid to go back to dance. I felt betrayed. What I had once loved and helped me cope with life had hurt me. How could dance betray me like this? I became quite bitter, as one could expect, mourning the loss of a major part of my identity (just read some of my earlier writing… It came from an entirely different place).
But an important question: Can you blame the movement for injuring the mover? Does a movement have an intention to harm? No. The movement comes from you. You set the intention, whether you’re aware of it or not.
We can’t blame dance for our injuries, we can only blame ourselves for not noticing when our relationship with it changes. Neglecting to tune in. Forgetting that we dance because it makes us feel more like “ourselves”, after too many hours spent practicing trying move like someone else.
The betrayal I felt existed only in my mind. Dance had not betrayed me, I had betrayed myself by failing to listen. I had changed my intention, and so the effect the movement had on me changed, too. Unsure what I had to offer the world other than to dance, I did my best to ignore the signs that I needed to stop.
What had once healed, now harmed me.
A few weeks post-hamstring injury. Dissociating. Sympathetic. Should be resting… Can you tell?
But this is incredible because it is proof that our relationship with dance is capable of change. In fact, the only way to complete the healing process from such a “betrayal” is to face the beast head on: Can I dance again, and can it heal, again?
The answer is undeniably yes.
How long will it take? That’s up to you. But it isn’t, either. It will take the time it needs to take. No more, and no less. Your best dancing days could be in your 40s, or they could be next week.
What is most scary is losing a large piece of our identity. Who are we now that we can’t dance? Now that we have nothing that makes us feel invincible? Now that we must face our pain with no admirable vessel to dissociate from it?
But dance will always be there for us. Dance will always be the same. We can always come back, years later, and realize that first position is still first position. What makes it feel different on any given day of the week is our intention.
We can choose to dance with the intention of honesty and self-respect.
We can choose to drop our expectation that dance should feel the same as it did “before” injury, not that it will feel worse, but it will feel different, possibly even better than before (and trust me, this is absolutely true).
We can, and must accept that our relationship with dance will change.
We choose to heal, or we choose to hurt. When we are able to return to that which hurt us and find that it heals, our journey has come full circle.
When I returned to dance, my intention had to change. I didn’t realize this at first, and it is part of the reason why it took me fours years to fully recover. In the early stages of healing, I attempted to return to dance still thinking that I needed to look a certain way and it didn’t feel “right”. I needed more time, more space to reflect on my relationship with it.
Now, I look for moments in ballet class that can heal me. Moments of humanity. Moments of honesty. I respect my limits. I focus on how good it feels to move. My body feels better after a class than before. My muscles feel like they’ve worked, but I don’t ache for days. And most importantly, I don’t give one F*** what people think of how I look.
Though I am sorry for what I put my body through, I know that it forgives me for not listening. I can laugh at my mistakes. I am thankful for the injuries that taught me how to heal and help others through their own healing process. And I love my body for what it can do, not for how it looks doing it.
My final, top three suggestions on how to live a long life, dancing:
Be aware that your relationship with dance will change. Not better, not worse, just different.
Keep sight of who you’re dancing for, and why.
Love how it feels to move when you look like YOU dancing.
My friend gave me a flower one morning. I kept it on my bicycle, and by the time I’d arrived at my destination, through 20 minutes of heavy Chiang Mai traffic, it was, as expected, more withered, but still beautiful. In Buddhism, flowers are placed on the alter to remind us that all things are impermanent. The freshness, fragrance, and beauty of flowers do not last. They will become withered, scentless and discolored. But this is how nature is. It is a reminder that we should value what we have now and live in the present.The withered flower is beautiful in it’s honesty, its representation of the world we live in.
Pain is like the flower…
This one is personal.
This is for those of you who are nurturing injuries or in a healing process.
For months I had this pain in my left posterior mediastinum. When I took a deep inhalation, expanding the area, I experienced a sharp, tight sensation that would radiate around my scapula.
It was oddly comforting. It reminded me that I had something to work for- To become pain free.
It was guidance. Information. It was pain but I didn’t think of it as “bad”, and I respected it by not pushing its boundaries. Instead I explored its limits and played within them.
Then one day it was gone. And I missed this pain!
It was a point of reference for so long. When I breathed into the area, I FELT something, and I missed that with each inhalation I could feel myself and knew that I was alive.
The pain reassured me that I was expanding posteriorally with my breath, something that I had been working so hard to achieve. And now my reference of it was gone. Was all my hard work gone, too?
Shouldn’t I have been happy? Wasn’t to eliminate pain what I wanted?
But instead, I missed it. I wanted my reference back. I wanted the daily reminder that there was a goal I was working towards: Becoming pain free, which, ironically, felt empty. But now there was no reminder. I got what I wanted… But was it really what I wanted?
Did I want to be pain-free, or did I want to feel that I was alive? Did I want to get rid of something, or did I want reassurance that something important was present in me?
And then, months later, the pain came back! Was I happy to be reunited with the “friend” I had missed? No. I was annoyed. I thought I had dealt with this! I thought I had learned this lesson. I had finally let go and found new points of reference unrelated to pain.
I had to question: So now am I moving backwards and not forwards?
But time only moves forwards.
To experience something similar to what has been in the past is not to regress, but just to feel something different. This was not the same friend as before. I felt less attached. Less reassured by its presence, and more assured that I could, at last, let it go.
And a few days later, the pain was gone, again. Just like that.
A funny relationship to have with pain. To become so attached to it while simultaneously wanting to let go of it. And then when let go, unsure what to do without it. Upon its return, to have a completely different relationship. That is the transient nature of pain- We can never fix it (also a pleasant reminder that we are never broken).
This reminds me of the times rehearsing heavily when it felt foreign not to be sore. How being sore reassured me I was still a dancer because we are told that to be a dancer is to be in pain.
Here’s the fallacy: All those who are dancers may experience pain and soreness, but not all those who are sore and in pain are dancers.
A suggestion: Let us not judge pain, for it can be a great reference and guide. We can explore pain, for it is an incredible source of information. Let us not get too attached to it or make it an integral part of our identity. Remember that we can decide to let go of pain when it is no longer necessary as a reference or a guide. And when it is gone, we do not need to keep looking for it.
Let it go, and carry on living.
Understand that all life is volatile like this. Pain comes and goes. You can gain or lose from volatility. You can gain or lose from pain.
Pain is volatile. There one day, gone the next. What can you gain from volatility? What can you gain from pain?