The “Strong Side” Myth

“I thought this was my strong leg, so why does it hurt? Why does it feel so weak?”

J, K, and S are three clients of mine. Each of them have a preferred leg to stand on. For J and K it is the right, and for S it is the left. We will call this their dominant leg. Their dominant legs are very good at being stood on, turned on, balanced on, jumped on, and these three have begun to label their dominant leg as being their “strong” leg.

But strong is not the correct word for this situation, and I will explain my thoughts on why.

One day, for J, K and S, something on their dominant side started to ache. For J it was her back. For K it was her SI joint, and for S it was her hip. From this experience, each got the idea that because things hurt, there must be something wrong with this leg. It must be weak! “But how is this possible? This is my STRONG side!”

But when we explore this more deeply, we discover that, in fact, neither of the three could shift their weight to the other leg. Neither of them even had a clear sense of where their non-dominant foot rested on the floor. It’s like the other foot wasn’t even there. Which is the “weak” leg? The one you can feel- the one in pain, or the one that gives you no problems, but that doesn’t exist in your mind map?

And then J, K, and S all explored an uncomplicated single leg weight-bearing position on their preferred leg- their “strong” leg, and it became nearly impossible to support themselves without bending, twisting, or contorting in some way or another.

So what is happening? Their preferred leg can go from being weak to strong in the blink of an eye. So which is it? What’s the truth?

It’s both.

You can be strong at your dominant pattern, strong at standing on a favourite leg, so strong that it is even getting you into trouble with your body. You are strong but at the same time you are weak. Weak in any other context other than the one you are stuck within. And even the context in which you are stuck is limited just by the fact that you are stuck in it. It is not your leg that is strong, but your favouritism. You were simply not aware.

A part of the process is to understand that “strong” and “weak” are not even the right words to describe what is happening. Stuck is a better word. Lacking variability. Lacking options. Patterned. These are better words than “weak” or “strong”.

Now meet H. For H, things were a little different. She had some trouble with her left knee, and so she for years considered her left leg to be the “weaker” side. But what we discovered was the same situation as J, K, and S: She could not shift her weight off of her “weak” leg. Her leg that gave her troubles, aches, and pains, was really her dominant side. She was simply not aware.

What if your pain was just a symptom of your “strength”?

Your strength brought to where you are now. Your inability to bring yourself to feel “weak” is what caused a system overload. Not that you are weak, but that you could not allow yourself to feel vulnerable.

Were it not for the judgments of “weak” or “strong”, “good” or “bad”, pain could be avoided. Weakness and strength are just two sides of the same coin. The right leg is not heads and left is not tails, but both legs are head/tails. We should avoid the desire to flip the coin and assign heads, tails, strong, or weak, but to help each leg feel as if they can both have the same experiences, the same quality in their feeling of movement, free from positive or negative judgements. This is the way suffering can be avoided. Each leg is a spinning coin, neither heads, not tails, until we stop the coin from spinning and make a call.

We don’t like to feel weak and vulnerable. We will avoid situations in which we feel weak unless we are aware of how we can grow from vulnerability. And this includes dropping our favouritism, dropping our labeling of good leg/bad leg, and to practice standing on our non-dominant leg.

More on the lateral biases in dance training: Lateral Bias in Dance Training 

Owning the Off-Season

Owning the Off-Season

It’s that time again… Time to talk about off-season training! Which means that glorious, glorious, summer is coming.

Last week I presented my final workshop of the school year at York U. I will miss these guys, and am looking forward to coming back next fall.

We had some fun times…

Talkin’ ’bout breathing:

york breathing 1

Workin’ on dem abs (sortof):

core training 2

Turning ourselves into magic-elastic shock absorption machines:

jump landing 4

And finally, a relevant topic for this time of year, off-season training.

If you’re lucky, summer means you get a bit of a break. If you’re in university or college, you get 4 months off regular classes, rehearsals, and performances. That’s a long time… What are you going to do with it?

This is exactly what I wanted to discuss with the dancers that came out to the workshop.

What is off-season training and how is it different than in-season training? What are the components of a solid off-season training program, and how should you prioritize them? Where does dancing fit into this? How do you schedule everything in without going insane and still having a life?

I learned some stuff, too. In particular:

  • Based on this small sample, seems like dancers are not using their off-season effectively, and the understanding of what are the components of a well-rounded off-season program remain relatively illusive.
  • Dancers need to feel that it’s ok, and sometimes a really good idea, to prioritize rest and rehabilitation, because they may often feel pressured to keep dancing, or just don’t appreciate that rest is a component of fitness.
  • The gaps preventing dancers from participating in off-season training include time/priority management, budget, and not knowing what to do.

Below you can check out a few video clips from the workshop:

My understanding of what is good off-season training for dancers is incomplete. 4 months of off-season makes things easier to plan, but what about when you dance year round and don’t have a predictable off-season?

What happens when you’re an independent dancer, living from gig to gig, never knowing when you’ll get a break, and dreading too long of a break because if means no cash money?

What happens when you’re a professional in a company, and you get 5 weeks of the year off, and maybe not 5 consecutive weeks?

Where does “off-season” training fit in when you don’t have a clearly defined off-season? And with such a busy schedule, how is there even time to fit in “in-season” training?

These are the questions I wish I had the answers to. Here is one of the problems: We have research showing evidence that supplementary training and periodization for dancers is good, but we don’t know how to implement it.  As I was discussing with my colleague, the wellness director for the National Ballet, unless the way a company’s rehearsal and performance schedule are adapted to include extra training, there is no way to fit it in without over-training the dancers.

This is important. The difference between “making space for”, and “fitting it in”. It’s a huge difference! And until that shifts, and every dance institution/ individual dancer decides that supplemental training is something to make space for, it will remain this illusive thing that, no matter the amount of evidence backing it’s efficacy, will never be actualized.

Kudos to the ballet companies that are “making space”. May they set the stage for other companies around the world.

And you can check out the handout from the workshop, too:

OFF SEASON TRAINING <– The main handout

OFF-SEASON SAMPLE SCHEDULE<–And here’s the sample schedule work-sheet

Where’s Your Head At? (How to keep your eyes off the ground)

Where’s Your Head At? (How to keep your eyes off the ground)

Time to get stoked about vision!

This blog post is for the dancers who have been told not to look down at the floor so much. Why is that so dang hard not do do, eh?

This is also a blog post for the dancers who have trouble spotting turns, balancing (in general), and generally projecting a focused gaze while performing.

Today we’re going to talk about eyes, vision, movement, and how becoming aware of and optimizing these things can impact your dancing (and yo’ life).

Vision: It’s a big deal.

In dance it is important for position sensing, movement quality, and artistic expression.

This is something I’ve always kind of known, but it wasn’t until LAST WEEK that I truly experienced it. In a ballet class, I was able to keep my head level, my eyes on the horizon, and I could balance, which never happens. And it was mind-bendingly effortless.

For you dancers who have been told to keep your eyes off the floor (hell, I know you have),  have you ever wondered why it’s such a hard habit to break?

Let’s break down looking down

The ability to hold a steady gaze on the horizon (or wherever you choose) and to keep an audience captive through your eyes is related in part to biomechanics, part autonomic nervous system function, and I will argue for dancers, part artistic expression and desire to communicate.

I have a few theories about looking down:

– It’s a learned behaviour that we use to cope with something. Something neuro. Something physical. Something from our past. Who knows, but it’s helping us to “survive” the moment.

– Lack of confidence: in one’s abilities as a dancer/artist, or an unconscious lack of confidence in their body to perform.

– Looking down helps to ground us when we don’t feel grounded.

– Being stuck in extension or compression of the cervical spine affects balance (which also influences where the eyes can go)

I suppose we could lump these into two groups: 1. How the nervous system relates to vision and 2. How biomechanics of human movement relate to vision.

From here, this blog post is going to get a bit technical, so here’s the summary:

Ability to keep eyes on the horizon= Happy brain= Happy body= Unlocked potential to dance your pants off.

Got it?

Your Brain Likes When Your Eyes Have Options

A few of your nervous system’s favourite things:

  • Eyes on the horizon
  • Wide field of vision (good use of peripheral vision)
  • Ability to use central vision (seeing what is in front of you)

So, much like your body is on the perpetual quest for the holy grail we call center, your eyes dig being “centered” too.

Centered doesn’t mean “stuck” in the middle (which can be a conundrum in itself), but means to have full access to each end of the spectrum. We can only understand what center feels like through our experience of the extremes. Through having options.

So, your eyes need to see all the way left and right (horizontal field of vision), and they need to be able to access all the way up and down (vertical field of vision). Our eyes can lose this movement variability due to:

  • Increased use of central vision (staring straight ahead at a screen)
  • Habitual patterns of moving (eye movement pairs with the rest of your body’s movement)
  • Trauma and injuries

Your nervous system loves having a full field of vision because evolutionarily speaking, this gives you a better ability to scan the horizon, the ground, and the sky for potential predators and threats.

With a full field on vertical vision you can also sense where the ground is. This is super important for feeling “grounded” and for the requisite input for your body to ambulate (and do cool dance moves) without looking down.

Let’s take this further (because that’s how I roll)… A full field of vision is correlated to a more parasympathetic resting state, connecting eye function to the important neural circuit that allows us to experience health, growth, and restoration (so, like, the ability to get good at dance and recover from soreness and injuries).

Now let’s try to connect this vision/nervous system stuff to how your body moves in natural gait.

Gait Mechanics and Vision

Your eyes have a role in gait? Try walking with your eyes closed…

Every part of our body has a particular, important action, in all three planes, at any particular point in time as reaction to each phase of gait. Even your eyes.

When we walk, we (ideally) keep our skull leveled on the horizon and our bodies move around it.

Kind of like the owl:

Taking that idea further, as we walk, and we keep our eyes level on the horizon, our skull moves around them.

Let’s break that down some more.

What happens through your spine, skull, and eyes in gait (sagittal plane edition):

– As you move into lumbar and thoracic extension (shock absorption phase), the cervical spine opposes into flexion (decompression), and eyes oppose with a relative upwards focus.

-As you move into lumbar and thoracic flexion (mid-stance through heel-strike phases), the cervical spine opposes into extension (compression), and the eyes oppose with a relative downward focus.

The image below represents these opposing movements nicely:

AiM-azing sketch by Caroline Williams, a fellow Anatomy in Motion student/practitioner.

Notice how the visual focus and the skull stay relatively still, but the movement of the body around it gives the sense that they are changing positions. Tricky, eh!?

NOTE: We could a lot about feet here and their role in gait, but for now, let’s leave it at: Eyes going relative down couples with rearfoot supination and dorsiflexion; eyes looking relative up couples with rearfoot pronation and plantar flexion. That’s for another day, another blog post, perhaps, but I would be remiss not to mention how feet have the potential to interact with vision. 

I encourage you to try it out now and see if you can feel these motions happening in your own body as you walk.

If you can’t feel it while walking, try it lying on your back on the floor. Look at a point on the ceiling, and move your spine through flexion and extension (my eyes are closed ’cause I was getting really into it). Credit to Gary Ward of Anatomy in Motion. Cogs are my fave.

I hope you can appreciate how the movement of the neck opposes the movement of the rest of your spine with the eyes staying level on the horizon. This happens during gait, sagittaly speaking.

These opposing actions of your eyes, skull, neck, lumbar and thoracic spine happen with each step you take, within 0.6-0.8 seconds.

Except sometimes they don’t. Damn!

We lose this opposition when we learn different ways of moving through experiences of trauma, injuries, or habitual “unnatural” patterns *coughdancecough* that never get the chance to unwind.

And yes, the neck compresses AND decompresses as you walk (and interestingly spends more phases in compression than decompression). Let’s be clear: Compression isn’t bad, but it can become problematic if you get stuck there. Your body needs the option to do both.

Let’s use a common dancer-thang as an example and make this super simple (stupid).

Something I see quite commonly in dancers is:

a) Lumbar and thoracic spine unable to fully flex (unable to decompress through gait), combined with…
b) Cervical spine that has wayyy too much extension (unable to decompress through gait).

Why?

  • Spending a lot of time back-bending…
  • Trauma, like whiplash (possibly dance-induced…), neck/head injuries, falling hard on your tailbone, etc.
  • High sympathetic tone- aka, just stressed the heck out!- which tends to show iteself through the extensor chain (tight hamstrings, neck, and lower back much?)
  • Simply spending too much time using central vision with a weird neck position from looking at computer screens and smart phones (over-optimized central vision can reduce your ability to use peripheral vision which, as you now know, is kind of a big deal).

What’s this got to do with keeping your eyes centered? 

If you are like the dancer outlined above, maybe you stay compressed as you walk and dance (which is just a fancy expression of gait, isn’t it?), never entering flexion or decompression, and this will present you with several challenges:

1. Eyes stuck in a relative down position. Remember, in gait, the eyes go relatively downwards when the neck is extended (or extendING). If you are like the example above and are stuck extenDED, then you may also be stuck with eyes that feel more comfortable settling down at the ground. So to get your eyes up, you need to extend your neck more, compress more, and this might not feel so great, not to mention…

2. Trying to cope with the above to get your eyes to lift takes some seriously, energy expending, creative strategies (I will not use the D word: d***unction).

Do you think it feels good to lift your chin up from of a position wherein the chin is already up, chronically? Hell no.

To create the sensation of neck extension in an attempt to lift the eyes (because it can’t flex well, which would allow the eyes to lift), it needs to first flex a bit to get OUT of the extended position.

In my books, this is way too much work, not to mention can exacerbate compression and limit neck range of motion in all three planes, not just the down-up.

So with all this work to get around compression, extension, and stress, the path of least resistance is simply to let the eyes go down to the ground. Things feel safer there. And easier. The happy place. Ahhh.

What do you do about it?

Long story short:

  • Teach your spine/neck how to flex and/or decompress to allow your eyes to reflexively lift
  • Reduce stress in your life so that you can let go of chronic extensor chain tone. Breathing helps. 
  • Get appropriate rehab to unwind injuries
  • Go look at actual things in the real world that aren’t on a screen and use your peripheral vision

It might be more complex than that (because this is just sagittal plane edition…), but I like simple.

How The Heck Does This Relates to Dance?

What’s the visual system go to do with physical performance? Visual input affects sensorimotor systems, so it affects your ability to perceive where you are in space and how you move. Kind of a big deal for you sensing, moving machines.

Ever wonder why your brain seems to freak out whenever you set up for a pirouette? (speaking for myself anyway, but please tell me I’m not the only one!)

The ability to keep your eyes level on the horizon, in gait, and in dance, is related to:

  • Ability to sense the floor via peripheral vision (so not needing to look down at it)
  • Ability to be return to a parasympathetic state and recover from training and injuries (also correlated to good peripheral vision and vagal tone)
  • Reduced strain on all things MSK through improved movement variability (ability to compress AND decompress, flex AND extend, blah blah blah).
  • Ability to spot a turn better (because you can actually center your eyes!)
  • Balance, your body having heightened position sensing as your skull stays level and your body moves around it, which is particularly evident in a slow adage.

Ahhh that Svetlana!

So to be able to walk, keeping your eyes off the ground, is a cool measure to check in with as it can revealing of your physiological and nervous system states. A few years ago, I couldn’t walk more than 10 feet without my eyes dropping to the ground. This became an outcome measure I tracked, and it was very revealing.

Conclusions?

The ability for your eyes to a) find center, b) leave center, and c) experience a full field of vision also relates to your body’s ability to to do the same: Find and leave center and experience full ranges of motion.

Having these options makes it possible to:

Spot turns
Balance
Feel grounded
Project to an audience
Recover
Learn
Be calm

This is the tip of the iceberg. But I hope to have connected some dots between the inability to keep your eyes off the floor and how it is represented in your body, globally.