Reclaiming the Frontal Plane for Dummies (for Dancers)
I’d first like to take the time to congratulate myself on actually following through on writing part two, because no one’s going to give me a high five for that but me. Go me! #SelfAccountability.
To recap part one(<– read it now before you continue if you haven’t already! I can wait…):
Dancers rarely work on fundamental movement quality in their training, and tend to develop a movement vocabulary that, while rich in technical skill, has major cracks in its foundation, denying them several important ranges of natural human motion.
To restate what I said in part one:
[Dancers] 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.
Being flexible has nothing to do with it. You can’t stretch movement quality into your system, and as we will discuss today, stretching can sometimes make things even messier.
Today, part two, we are going to explore one specific part of this “dance like a human” thing that gets a bit messy. Ready?
Warning: This post is long, but I tried to make it easier to read by including lots of fun images and subtitles in the formatting. Grab some coffee, ’cause we’re going deep.
Whether You Like it or Not, SHIFT Happens
Courtesy of Gary Ward. Whether you like it or not… Shift. Happens.
I’d like to introduce you to pelvis shift. A little appreciated movement essential for dance, gait, and, if you want to get philosophical (maybe another time), for life.
Shift refers to moving laterally through space, like a Krispy Kreme donut going smoothly down a flat conveyer belt. Imagine your pelvis is that Krispy Kreme, sliding along, not a care in the world.
Each time you take a step, at the same moment you heel strike, your pelvis must make this smooth shift from one foot to the other (as pictured in Gary Ward’s lovely sketch—>).
Gary, in his Anatomy in Motion course calls this the “leap of faith” because it’s the only time in the gait cycle that your center of mass must breach your base of support, and you have to trust that your swinging leg will be there to catch you on heel strike so that you don’t fall on your face.
This side to side shift of the pelvis is an extremely important movement in the frontal plane that gets really effed up a little lost for most dancers. Shift is an important part of many aspects of dance technique (as we’ll discuss a little further down), but ironically, dance technique and training can mess up our ability to shift.
Alas, whether you like it or not, shift happens.
If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to walk, let alone dance. So when you lose the ability to perform pelvis shift, your amazing body finds other ways to make it happen. Is it going to be the most ideal, most effortless, safest way? Nope.
Some people call this “compensation”. I call it being a “skilled movement strategist”. Many of us dancers are a little too skilled in this domain…
Let’s first get clear on what frontal plane movement is and where pelvis shift fits in.
Frontal Plane Movement 101
Our bodies move in 3 main planes:
Sagittal plane: Front and back movement. The plane of motion for a somersault.
Frontal plane: Side to side movement. Plane of movement for a cartwheel.
Transverse plane: Rotational movement. Plane of movement for a pirouette.
Our bodies are always moving in all three planes at once. Some muscles have different roles in all three planes in one motion. One muscle might be shortening in the frontal plane, but lengthening in the transverse plane during the same movement.
Our bodies are cool like that.
When we lose the ability to perform a movement in one plane, we can make up for it by moving more in a different plane, or by moving a different joint more in the same plane(we’ll go through a dance specific example of this a little further down).
Just for today, let’s keep this simple and stick to the hips and pelvis, although it’s good to know that nearly every joint and muscle in your body, but not all, has a role in frontal plane movement (the knee, for example, does not do much in the frontal plane, because that would suck).
Your turn to think
Stand up and try to figure this one out:
What are the possible movements for the pelvis and hips in the frontal plane?
Go ahead, take your time, stand up and play around with side to side movement. What do you feel happening? I’m looking for 4 main movements. Here’s a nice picture to look at while you think and move:
Well? What did you come up with?
Hopefully you got to these 4 main movements (one of which we already named):
If you had trouble naming or feeling these, either you need an anatomy lesson, or your body doesn’t do them well. When we have trouble accessing joint actions, we often will also struggle to describe them with words and conceptualize them. That’s because all thought is embodied. But that’s a tangent I won’t go down today.
These are motions your body must be able to do in frontal plane. In life. In dance. And if one is messy, they all get messy.
This lady is in a position of right pelvis shift, right hip hike, right hip abduction, and left hip adduction.
Why do dancers easily lose frontal plane competency?
Over stretching, and the need to be very flexible (often to the point of pathology)
Rushing technique progression, or poor instruction on proper technique
Aerobic fatigue causing sloppiness and compensation
Technical demands of the specific dance style: Turn-out, need for excessive amounts of hip abduction or hiking and spinal extension.
High resting muscle tonus (sympathetic nervous system dominance)
Poor breathing mechanics (contributing to above sympathetic dominance)
Arabesque. I won’t get into it today, but arabesque is like an open chain, patho-shift. If you want me to explain that one, shoot me an email and we’ll talk.
The above aren’t bad, they are a reality of dance training. It is important to understand that they will likely develop into”creative movement strategies” that may not be ideal long term, and it would be wise to have supplemental strategies to keep these challenges in check.
Do you even shift?
Do you shift, bro?
From a human motion perspective, we can assess shiftability a few different ways. Let’s look at some of my faves:
1) Standing closed chain pelvis range of motion exploration, AiM style.
This is your chance to experience triplanar movement at your hips and pelvis. Can you shift? What else is limited? And what are you good at? Take a few minutes to go through this with me. Makes for useful outcome measures.
Note, you can also take this idea and explore any joint or structure in your body, because shift isn’t only a pelvic event.
2) Adduction drop test, PRI style.
This is important: If you can’t adduct your hip passively, it is doubtful you can do it standing up. Get a PRI trained person to check you out. If you are lucky, you live close to Michael Mullin or Sarah Petrich, who work with dancers and are PRI level badass.
3) Manual muscle pattern testing, NKT style
While I’m sure there are some muscle testing haters reading this, I argue that NKT done well looks for patterns, not muscle strength, and is not yo mama’s MMT.
Some common patterns in non-shifters with NKT testing are:
Adductor compensating for opposite adductor and/or QL
Adductor compensating for opposite side external oblique, or same side internal oblique
Diaphragm compensating for TVA (breath holding pattern keeping them in spinal extension)
Crazy pelvis ligament stuff inhibiting hamstrings, adductors, hip flexors, quads, etc.
Jaw compensating for anything in the lateral sub-system (QL, adductors, TFL, glute med).
Neck compensating for obliques
Lots of ways to get the job done. It’s cool to see these patterns show up in muscle testing and movement screening, and then re-integrated into better quality movement through training.
4) Gait observation, ninja style.
Gait observation is highly subjective, and it’s something that I am working on getting better at least somewhat decent at. Give me 10 years and ask me how it’s going…
That said, if you take a look at this lovely dancer lady walking, what you should notice is whether or not her pelvis is going from left to right at the appropriate time: As her back heel starts to lift off the floor. Is it??
Not so much…
How Many Ways Can You Cheat Frontal Plane?
So if you can’t shift well, how are you even walking?
As a self-proclaimed expert at butchering frontal plane hip and pelvis movement, you can trust that this info is direct from the source: Chief Creative Movement Strategist Volkmar (CCMS). Esquire.
CCMS Volkmar: Just making an abomination of the frontal plane. But at least I’m respecting my ligaments. Mostly.
Remember, when a joint can’t move in one plane, something else will try to do it in another.
Here’s an example that may resonate with you. Let’s say you can’t shift your pelvis to the right very well, but you need to get on your right leg (right shift) to tendu side with your left leg. What are your options?
The most common strategy will often be to hike the hip on left side, which the lady in the image above is doing (hike and shift both being frontal plane hip movements). In pure shift, the hips stay level.
You could also get the job done in two other planes of movement: Extend your spine (sagittal) and rotate your pelvis to the right (transverse), which helps you accomplish the same weight transfer, but with more expended energy and torque.
Or maybe you choose to shift excessively from joints other than your pelvis. For example maybe shift your ribs or your skull to the right more excessively to accomplish a similar weight transfer.
Sneaky. And then you wonder why you can’t get rid of that upper body tension. Maybe if your skull wasn’t busy trying to be a pelvis…
One final note on frontal plane strategies
This blog post is primarily geared towards ballet and contemporary technique, but I also used to salsa dance, and have worked with a few salsa dancers.
What’s interesting about this dance style is that they do what I call a “reverse shift”: When they take a step, the pelvis shifts the opposite way. Not to mention it’s an anterior tilt dominant dance style. Latin dancers don’t shift well, but they hike like champions (same-plane shift strategy).
Where does shift show up in dance technique?
“But Monika, what does this have to do with helping me dance better?”.
I’m getting to that. Keep in mind that losing the ability to perform any range of motion is never ideal. Maybe you need to read part 1 again?
The ability to shift is actually a majorly huge deal in dance. It wasn’t until after I learned how to shift that magic really started happening in ballet class, I could stop clenching my neck and jaw, my turnout became easier to access, and I could balance in adage like a boss.
Dance is pure shift.
Chassé pas de bourré is shift.
Start thinking less in terms of “pelvic stability”, words which, while important, don’t frame the concept properly. While stability implies non-movement, shift implies allowing lateral movement.
Were does shift show up in dance? Everywhere. If you need to be on one leg or change directions, you need shift. What doesn’t require shift? is a better question.
Unadulterated pelvis shift is what allows dancers to change directions and transfer their weight quickly and smoothly without tensing anything in their upper bodies, holding their breath, or creating excess torque (at the lower back, hips, neck, or jaw, for example).
If you can’t shift, you can’t have single leg stability because it’s impossible to get your body’s mass over one leg without first shifting your pelvis. Try it.
Non-shifters are barre-grippers.
Even keeping a “neutral” pelvis requires shift, because if you can’t let your pelvis shift, you’ll have to cheat it in another plane or from another joint (as we already discussed). In reality, a pelvis that shifts right and left well is a pelvis that can be neutral when it needs to, and leave neutral when it needs to.
Neutral only being a phase that lasts for an instant between 0.6-0.8 seconds.
Neutrality = having movement options.
A pelvis that shifts has options.
A pelvis that shifts lets you reduce tension and torque from other parts of your body and makes dance more effortless.
What muscles help you shift?
Short answer: Don’t worry about it.
A lot of dancers screw themselves over by becoming so focused on what muscles should be working that they tense up, get in their heads too much, and forget to feel what’s happening.
Instead of asking, “Am I doin’ it right?”, ask “Am I feelin’ it right?”. Daft Punk knows what’s up.
Joints act, muscles react: Shift happens, and muscles react to it. Muscles don’t make you shift, you shift.
Muscles must lengthen before they contract: In order to shift, something has to lengthen as a reaction to your pelvis’ lateral movement in order to decelerate it (slow it down), and then contract to get you back to center, like a sling shot first pulling back to shoot a stone.
So what is reacting to the pelvis shifting? What has to lengthen and load eccentrically in order to allow the pelvis to move laterally and return back to center?
Wait for it.
It’s your dance teacher’s favourite muscle to tell you to strengthen…
Ah, yes… your friends the adductors.
But also the other members of the lateral sub-system that react to lateral movement:
Glute med and the adductors have a larger role in shift, as we are discussing it today.
But let’s be clear about one thing: Inner thigh leg raises will do nothing for you if you can’t eccentrically load your adductors, or passively adduct your hip joints, which allow shift to happen in your body.
Clams are also somewhat of a waste of time.
Why are my adductors so tight?
Dancers’ adductors are often locked long (from overstretching), so they lose the ability to eccentrically load, or, because they are already on load all the time, they tighten up to protect themselves from strain. And you wonder why stretching your adductors doesn’t relieve the tightness…
Get up on your feet and shift your pelvis over to the right. you should be aware that your left adductor is lengthening, hence, decelerating (eccentric loading) the journey the pelvis makes from left leg to right leg. This happens with every step you take.
Shift is less about clenching the same side inner thigh to pull you over, or pushing with the opposite hip abductors, and more about allowing joint action through decelerative muscle reaction.
Sounds like less work, doesn’t it? You bet.
And now you can see how it can be problematic for dancers who have overstretched their adductors and pelvis ligaments to the point of pathology. You can’t shoot a stone very far with a stretched out elastic band.
Reclaiming shift: Monika’s Story
I know what you’re thinking, “Not another story, Monika. Get to the dang point!”. But this one is good, I promise. And relevant, too.
So, let me tell you about my journey reclaiming shift (still a work in progress, by the way), and I’ll try to keep it concise. You can also read THIS.
I was first introduced to shift by Dr. Brock Easter, my go-to body healing dude in Toronto.
I remember him telling me once, “When I start working with a dancer, I go straight to assessing the adductors, and it’s almost always the primary dysfunction.”
Words of wisdom from Dr. Brock: If its a dancer, go for the groin. Did I get that right? 😉
Anyway, I went to see Brock specifically to learn about Anatomy in Motion. He assessed me and put me in shift phase. In this AiM movement, the key points are that the pelvis should shift across the midline, and you should feel the adductors loading eccentrically (kind of a stretchy/worky feeling) on the leg you’re shifting away from as it abducts and externally rotates.
I didn’t feel shi(f)t.
And I continued to feel nothing for almost a year, though I practiced diligently every day. My body felt better for sure (back pain, hamstring pain, being things I was working forward from), but still no adductor function.
And then I had a pelvic floor intervention.
Not like that….
It was February 2015 at Neurokinetic Therapy level 2 in Toronto, and I was the demo body for pelvic floor testing and correction. And a good one, at that.
Dr. Kathy Dooley found that my anterior pelvic floor was facilitated bilaterally. Probably because I was a breath holder, and used to be a chronic pee-holder for many years. I was good at it. Like, really good. Too good.
Dooley did an NKT correction, showed me how to anti-kegel (kegels aren’t the answer to all life’s problems, guys), and I felt my abs work in crazy new ways. I felt pretty good afterwards.
Then, because it had become a habit whenever I was standing around doing nothing to practice shift phase, I got up and tried it out, and HOLY CRAP. Hello adductors.
Why did this happen?
This might not be the complete picture, but to the best of my limited understanding, to be able to access pelvis shift in frontal plane, the pelvis needs to be in a posterior tilt in the sagittal plane, and the pelvic floor needs to be able to stretch to allow the lateral movement. In February 2015, I couldn’t posterior tilt if I used max effort, and I couldn’t let go of my pelvic floor. Getting my pelvic floor to chill out allowed me to access abdominals and finally get into a post tilt. Boom. Shift happened (#).
Too, the obturator nerve is responsible for motor innervation of the adductor muscles, and can become entrapped in the obturator canal, for which the obturator internus facscia creates a medial wall.
Why does that matter?
As Dooley explained to me later:
You stretch pelvic floor, you allow shift with a stretch of OI fascia, taking tension off obturator nerve so it can innervate adductors.
All that to say, just because my adductors weren’t working the way I would have liked, don’t go blaming my adductors! Concentric adductor exercise wasn’t the solution I needed.
Remember, joints act, muscles react. When I finally was able to get my body in a decent position, and maintain it as I shifted, I felt adductors come alive in a meaningful way for the gait cycle.
So on that note, I want to leave you with some ideas for how to optimize your ability to let shift happen by getting joints to move into positions that allow muscles to react in more useful ways.
Let’s get shifty
To accomplish a proper pelvis shift, you need these three big things:
1) Ability to exhale fully and depress ribcage (ZOA)
2) Posterior pelvic tilt
3) Lumbar flexion
If you can achieve these movements but still struggle to accomplish shift, there’s something else going on. Or you might need some guidance/therapy/time, like I did.
This past January and February I did free movement screens with some Ryerson dancers, and not one of them could posterior tilt past neutral. Posterior pelvic tilt should not be a max effort event.
You can get all three of the above movements at the same time with these two exercises (which you have seen in many, many blog posts before because they are #DTPfaves).
1) Cogs (emphasis on flexion/exhalation phase)
2) 90/90 Hip Lift
Do these two activities, and go back to check your pelvis range of motion. Is anything different? Can you shift more easily? Tuck more easily? Hike more easily?
If you’ve achieved requisite range of motion into flexion/posterior tilt/ZOA, you may now have opened a window of opportunity to reclaim some frontal plane shift. So let’s do that now.
The moment you’ve all been waiting for.
Worth noting that every joint in the body plays a role in shift. You can’t see my feet in this video, but they are kind of a big deal. Also, should have mentioned in this video that your back knee needs to stay straight.
As mentioned in the video, for a successful shift, you should feel adductors on back leg loading. If you don’t, it’s not shift. It’s a CCMS Volkmar special.
Please note that this movement is best learned from someone who’s been trained in AiM, and you can find such a person HERE.
This next exercise allows you to apply shift to a dance-specific situation in it’s most fundamental form: Transferring from first position to coupé and into tendus front and side.
This one kills me. And I like it.
I stole this exercise from my favourite ballet teacher, Christine Wright (who you can find teaching at the National Ballet School in Toronto, Monday-Friday from 10am-12pm. Another #DTPfave).
If you are doing this one well, your hips should stay level (not hike) as you shift onto one leg. If you are able to do this, you may feel some burny/stretchy/eccentric load feels at the front of the hip you’re standing on, indicating that you’re “on your leg”, or, not compressing the hip or going into an anterior tilt/hike on that side.
Remember the wise words of Daft Punk: You’re doin’ it right if you’re feelin’ it right.
The other side of your butt should not leave the wall as you shift (that’s a transverse plane violation), and you should be able to maintain 3 points of contact with the back of your body on the wall: Back of skull, ribcage, and pelvis.
Breathe, 2, 3, 4. It ain’t easy.
Alright. That was a lot… Just imagine how I felt editing this monstrous thing.
I hope you’ll experiment with shift, reclaiming it back, and maintaining it as a regular strategy to unwind from the duress of dance training and enhance your performance abilities.
In part 3 of Dance Like a Human, we will be discussing another key human motion to reclaim for better performance… But I’m not saying what it is! Stay tuned.
Over several years of movement screening, I’ve noticed a common pattern with nearly every (but not all) dancer: Missing spinal flexion, meaning, being unable to round your back (note that I’m referring primarily to the aspiring/pre-professional, college level, or competition dancers, which is also the world I come from).
The most relevant example of spinal flexion from the dance world is the Graham contraction, as pictured to the right (complete with contraction hands!) —> Check out the position of her lumbar spine. That’s some nice looking flexion!
In particular, it is quite common to see difficulty flexing from the lower back (lumbar spine).
Check out these forward bends. Can you see what’s missing?
And here is my particularly un-FLEX-able spine…
Can you see the chunks of spine that aren’t rounding, but remain completely straight? Ideally, we would like to see a uniform, round curve of the spine, whether you’re able to touch the floor or not.
Because of the coveted spinal extension dancers train for (backbends like Svetlana), if flexion is not also trained (or it is avoided), it can become forgotten and denied.
But you can get it back! And don’t worry, training flexion will not affect your ability to back-bend, in fact, it will probably enhance it.
Consider that you need to experience both ends of the spectrum– flexion and extension, to increase your total range of motion and have a happy body with happy joints and unlimited potential for movement.
Flexion and extension are two sides of the same coin, but there is a third side of the coin which is the world of unlimited movement possibilities that opens up when you can see this.
Much of the teachings and literature on how to train the spine and “core” (ugh that word I hate!) is dedicated to stability– Keeping things still, preventing movement, bracing, controlling, tightening, engaging, etc.
What if we flipped that upside down. What if having the ability to move to both ends of the spectrum with your spine- flex and extend equally (in the sagittal plane), you wouldn’t need to try so hard to stabilize because your body would have the information it needs to react according to the given situation.
Take a lawyer in a trial, for example. Imagine if the lawyer hadn’t read the chapter of the lawyering text book that he needed for this particular case. He would have to stop time, read the chapter, and then proceed with caution, thinking his way through it very carefully (and probably quite stressfully), and it would be anything but effortless. If this lawyer had had the opportunity to explore the missing territory before the case, things would flow much more easier, with less thought and tension.
Your spine is craving to read the chapter of the book on flexion.
Think of spinal mobility as a prerequisite for stability.
Stability is a result of mobility. Stability is an illusion created by perpetual motion. Just look at the world around us, and one can see that complete stillness is impossible. Should we be training our bodies to deny the inherent behavior of the natural world?
Your spine has 33 joints which move through 3 planes of movement. Would you agree that our spines were designed for movement? Put another way, do you think your spine has 33 joints because it was designed to be rigid?
What else in life is made of many small parts that, as a whole, compose something that was designed for movement?.
Does a bicycle chain come to mind?
A bicycle chain is made of many small links. Each link needs to have full mobility to articulate with its two neighbouring “joints” in both directions, and if even one link in the chain gets jammed, you’ll notice. To get the chain links unstuck you can manipulate the stuck links and restore movement and bike function. Sounds like a spine to me.
I was amazed at how much more effortlessly I could ride my bicycle after I mobilized a stuck link in the chain (I lied, I got a friend to do it for me because I’m useless with tools and bikes).
Just as with a human body, we can a bicycle faster and, with increased speed, we seem to feel the stuck link in the chain less, and happily ignore it- “I’ll deal with it later”. It is also easy to ignore to chunks of vertebrae that don’t move, go faster, and dissociate from it instead of taking the time to address it.
What a spine in need of segmental mobility really wants is for you to slow down, feel the missing movement, and claim it back (more on how to do that a bit further down).
Also consider the verbiage many dance teachers and personal trainers are drawn towards when speaking about the alignment and use of the spine:
On the left, words we use that limit potential movement by asking dancers to contract muscles, and on the right, words we can consider using to encourage dancers to move, allow muscles to lengthen, and explore new ranges of motion. A different perspective on “core training” for some folks, perhaps.
Flexion, when missing from a movement in which your spine should flex is not ideal. However, if flexion is present in a movement in which it shouldn’t happen, or it happens too soon or too fast, this is something to be aware of.
In fact, in 4 out of 5 phases of gait, your spine needs to flex. If “you need flexion to walk like a proper human” isn’t enough incentive, here are some other reasons to claim this important movement back:
Movement potential towards both ends of the spectrum= More range of motion into backbends. Give your body somewhere to back-bend from and it will back-bend further, more effortlessly. You can’t go much farther south if you’re already in Antarctica.
Having full flexion= Easier time finding “neutral spine”. For some dancers, just getting to neutral takes a maximum effort flexion. I am a good example of this (in fact, max effort lumbar flexion doesn’t even get me to neutral… Working on it).
More centered center of mass= Happy muscles and joints. Being stuck more extended (shifts your center of mass forward) or the inability to flex (which shifts your center of mass back) makes it more difficult to access that whole world of movement opportunities that exists behind you, not to mention can make your calves feel pretty tight from being forward on your toes all the time.
More reactive core= Less thinking, more effortless movement. If you can access both ends of the spectrum, metaphorically, you’ve read the whole spine book. You don’t need to stop to think about bracing or engaging your core, your body knows what to do and will do it reflexively without you having to brain your way through it.
How to improve spinal mobility and flexion?
1) Honestly evaluate your static position as well as your ability to actively flex and extend. Do a toe touch (as in the photos above), and do a back bend. Which feels like you move farther or is more comfortable? Take a photo or get a friend to give you some feedback on this. Also appraise where your weight sits on your feet (centered, more back, or more forward? More on one foot that the other?)
2) Take ownership of the long, full exhalation. Exhalation drives lumbar and thoracic flexion. Own the exhalation. Find opportunities to exhale two or three times as long as you inhale and feel the position it brings you into (hopefully one that is rounded, ribs depressed). Exhaling also helps to calm your nervous system and reduce chronic stress-related muscle tone (which is often the situation of the spinal erector muscles, making it even more difficult to flex forward).
3) “Unstick” the parts of your spine you notice don’t flex well. Mobilize the bicycle chain. My 2 favourite exercises right now for newbies to spinal mobility, shown below, both involve lying supine. The floor helps to feel which parts of your spine have trouble flexing down into it. You will also be using a long exhalation to encourage more movement into flexion. Try these two out:
Supine spinal mobility: Explore flexion and extension (Credit to Gary Ward and Anatomy in Motion):
In this drill you are simply arching and rounding your lumbar and thoracic spine, coordinating the flexion into the floor with a nice long exhalation. Use this time to explore whether there are chunks of vertebrae that move in one piece, or whether you can articulate them all individually. Go slowly and feel what’s happening, and what’s missing.
Take some time to luxuriate in the flexion and take a few long exhalations there if you find it difficult to round into the floor with any parts of your thoracic and lumbar spine.
Note that you should allow your skull and neck to move naturally (as you arch your back off the floor you should feel your chin slide down towards your chest, and as you round into the floor you should feel your chin lift to the sky).
Also, welcome to my kitchen floor! My favourite place to spend my exciting Friday nights…
Focus on maintaining a posterior pelvic tilt (tucked under tailbone), and rounding your lower back with ribcage depression. I like to visualize my spine as a hammock, sinking towards the floor. Attempt to exhale 3 times as long as you inhale with a pause at the end of each exhalation. Use a balloon, too. It’s lots of fun. If you’re a member of the Dance Stronger training program you’ll recognize this exercise from the breathing module.
Now, recheck how your forward and backwards bend feel. Is anything different? Have you claimed back any movement potential? Does your weight feel more even in the center of your feet?
Don’t expect instant miraculous changes or a quick fix, but it is incredible how consistent, deep practice towards more balanced spinal mobility can make a difference in the way you feel, both in terms of pain relief, performance, and feeling more grounded on your feet. Try these two drills before dancing as part of your warm-up and see if anything feels different (and let me know what you find!).
Polyvagal theory brings clarity to our understanding of the autonomic nervous system, and in the world of dance training, we so rarely appreciate the huge role autonomics play in both our mental and physical performance and keeping pain-free.
Understanding autonomics through the lens of Porges’ polyvagal theory, beginning to notice where his teachings show up in our lives, and making time for strategies to optimize our autonomic nervous system, we can take our physical and mental performance, and quality of life, to new levels.
How dancers can use his theory to improve performance and well-being is particularly interesting to me, and that’s exactly what we’ll be getting into today.
In this post, we’re going to talk about the vagus nerve and autonomic nervous system (ANS) function, and how these systems relate our sense of safety to our physical and mental performance, as well as the muscles that control the face, breath, eyes, voice, and hearing.
Ready to rock this? Let’s do it…
Let’s take a very brief tour of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). First, let’s define “vagal”, in polyvagal.
Vagal refers to the vagus nerve, cranial nerve 10, which regulates the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system (ANS).
This nerve comes out of your brain and connects to your organs. It is 80% sensory, and 20% motor- It acts more as a feedback loop than a “mover of stuff”.
The vagus works “bottom up” (sensory) as well as “top down” (motor), meaning it both regulates, and receives information from your viscera. The vagus is 80% sensory, which means it works more “bottom up”, telling us how we’re doing, so we can see it’s important role is in providing information to the brain about the state of our internal organs. A beautiful surveillance system.
This is the pathway through which we can tune into visceral sensations, or “gut feelings”.
When the vagus nerve is activated, we enable the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows us to enjoy a state of health, growth, and restoration. When a parasympathetic state is enabled, sympathetic nervous system is inhibited. The sympathetic system is our mobilizing system, telling us to flee or fight in the presence of danger.
Dr. Porges refers to this inhibition as putting on a “vagal brake”.
Looks kind of like the nervous system…?
The vagus nerve is activated during exhalation (among other things you’ll read about farther down). If you tend to not exhale completely, and breath-hold to create a sense of stability, you might also be preventing yourself from getting to a state of health, growth and restoration.
In the face of stress, danger, or life-threat, real or perceived, your system may choose to recruit a strategy of mobilization (“get the hell out of here!” or “fight harder!”), to ensure your survival.
If we have trouble using our vagal circuit to get to a parasympathetic calm state, it is near impossible to learn, think creatively, and move optimally because our nervous system thinks it’s in danger, and survival is wayyy more important than creative movement and learning new things. Priorities..
The vagal circuit is also regulates the striated muscles of the face (particularly around the eyes), the muscles of the middle ear, the voice, the heart, lungs, digestion, and other organs.
Because this vagal circuit works both top down, and bottom up, both regulating and relaying information from organs, we can see the potential that our sense of safety- our psychology, has to influence our physiology, and that our physiology also has to influence our psychology (which I think this is the most fascinating thing ever).
“Change your body about your mind.”
We can change our physiology, psychology and our experience of health through exercising this neural circuit. This can happen both consciously and unconsciously.
Isn’t that cool?
This shows us the inseparability functionality of our body and mind. The subtle cues we receive from our viscera and heart are very useful indicators of our neural state, and we can actively use neural exercise to influence the state of our viscera.
As Judith Anodea states in her book “Eastern Body, Western Mind”:
We are taught to control the body by way of the mind, which is considered far superior. But the body has an intelligence whose mysteries the mind has yet to fathom. We read in books how to eat, how to make love, how much sleep to get, and impose these practices on the body rather than listening from within.
What I’ve written above is what is most commonly known about the parasympathetic nervous system, what they teach us in school (unless you went to school for dance, like me, and you didn’t learn any of this..).
There is, however, another side of the parasympathetic system that has a completely different function from the rest and digest system we know it to be.
This ” however” is a great segue into polyvagal theory…
There is not ONE parasympathetic nervous system but TWO.
The health, growth, restoration branch of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) described above is regulated by our newer, mammalian, myelinated, ventral (belly-side) vagus.
However there is a second, less commonly acknowledged branch of the PNS, regulated by our older, reptilian, unmyelinated, dorsal (back side) vagus. This is the parasympathetic system we inherited from our reptilian ancestors (which are speculated to be turtles).
Silly turtle. Strawberries isn’t human food!
While the newer vagus is designed to calm us down, the older reptilian vagus will immobilize us in the presence of life threat when we are unable to fight or flee.
This is characterized by fainting, freezing, blacking out, playing dead, and other immobilization strategies that, for our reptilian ancestors, worked very well in the presence of danger, because reptiles don’t need as much oxygen as we do.
Go unconscious and you won’t feel pain. Go unconscious and the predator might leave you alone.
When humans try to feign death, it doesn’t work as well, because we do need oxygen to live! And unless we’re under extreme conditions, death feigning isn’t the most useful strategy in modern society.
So we’re evolving out of this ancient, vagal circuit as it serves us less than it did in the past.
Recall that the old vagus is unmyelinated, making it less easy to recruit (myelin improves nerve conduction). Old man vagus is recruited as a last line of defense, not a first.
Dr. Porges teaches us that our autonomic nervous system is hierarchical in nature, one system inhibiting another.
To fulfill our needs, we move selectively through the different states of the ANS in this order:
This is our preferred state for optimal function of pretty much everything.
Because this circuit is related to the muscles of the face, eyes, ears, and larynx, we can see it’s qualities expressed in peoples’ faces and tone of voice, as well as activate it when we listen.
This neural circuit is all about safety.
When we are in a safe state under myelinated vagal control, we can think more clearly and creatively, let go of physical tension, experience states of compassion, gratitude, contemplate important things (like “who am I??”), and enjoy play and movement without fear and hyper-vigilence.
Through this neural circuit we can become informed by our experiences, develop strategies that make our body feel safe and derive meaning from our lives more effortlessly.
We can can make the world better by making people feel safer.
2) Sympathetic nervous system:Mobilize, fight, or flight.
This is our first line of defense when things feel unsafe.
In the absence of safety, or if we are unable to activate the myelinated vagus, our bodies will jump into action: To fight or flee.
We often look at the sympathetic nervous system as being the evil twin of the parasympathetic, but in reality, we need to get sympathetic sometimes in situations where there is REAL danger.
In dance and in other sports, this system is what helps us perform our best. We need that rush of adrenaline and increased glucose uptake into skeletal muscle to help us meet physical demands.
It can become problematic, however, to get stuck in this state through chronic, low level activation to deal with the mundane stresses of life due to chronic injury, fatigue, or to make up for a poor diet.
Being perpetually in a mobilizing state like this is exhausting and can’t be maintained forever. People eventually burn out and must rely on a less efficient neural circuit to deal with life…
3) Parasympathetic nervous system 2: Old, reptilian, vagus control:Immobilize, shut down, death feign.
Our last line of defense in the presence of perceived life threat.
If your body or brain perceives that you might actually die, and the first two systems above cannot be recruited, the older, unmyelinated vagus will signal you to immobilize- Faint, or freeze- whether it’s a good idea or not.
The root of the polyvagal theory is the recognition that in the absence of the ability to fight or flee, the body’s only effective defense is to immobilize and shut down
This happens because some fibres of the old vagus are cardio-suppressant, meaning they can slow, or stop completely, your heart (immobilization).
This circuit is related to the sub-diaphragmatic (below diaphragm) organs: Liver, stomach, intestines, bladder, sexual organs, etc.
So if we are recruiting this old vagal system to deal with our stress, the neuroregulation of these organs will not be optimal either. We might have pain in our abdomen. Compromised organ function. Poor control of our bowels and bladder.
Ever feel like you have to pee uncontrollably before going on stage? Or get so nervous that your stomach hurts? That’s you coping with stress with an old vagus reaction.
Note that “perceived life threat” doesn’t necessarily mean your life is actually in danger. For example, some people say they would rather die than speak in front of a big audience. What they mean is that public speaking feels so terrifying for them that they feel like they might freeze up or pass out because it is too much for even their sympathetic nervous system to help them manage.
When we are in stressful or unpleasant situations, like confrontation, or getting on stage, what is your body telling you? Do you find yourself filled with energy to deal with it head on, or do you freeze up and find yourself unable to move or speak?
In either case, you’ve chosen a defensive strategy, potentially an ancient one that we rarely need today (in Canada, anyway, our likelihood of being in a life-threatening circumstance is fortunately quite low).
That said, if we’re burnt out and can’t use the newer vagal circuit OR a sympathetic strategy of mobilization, we will unconsciously recruit the old vagus to deal with relatively low-risk situations that we perceive to be life-threatening! We’re so silly… We dissociate from stressful situations rather than face them calmly with an open, curious mind.
This can explain why the earliest symptoms of over-training are psychological in nature, as we attempt to use our sympathetic nervous system to fight through stress, ignoring visceral sensations. The next phase in over-training is physiological, often showing up as illness or injury (a shut-down, immobilization response).
Can you see why it might be pretty important to become aware of the signals our bodies are sending to our brains? And what if you made a conscious choice to manipulate your ANS state and take your body to a “safe” place, helping you learn to react more appropriately in stressful situations?
Dr. Porges calls this “providing cues of safety”, and it’s one of the ways we can “choose” to activate our newer vagal circuit over our other survival circuits (unless we really, truly need them!).
Remember, your vagus is 80% sensory- Your brain is constantly being sent signals from your viscera. Are you paying attention to this unconscious “neuroceptive” process?
Neuroception: Listening to Your Guts
As a survival strategy, our bodies were hardwired to actively seek out cues of danger.
This happens unconsciously through a process Dr. Porges refers to as “neuroception”.
Neuroception: Nervous system detection of safety and risk in the environment expressed through implicit bodily feelings; body responding outside the realm of awareness.
Implicit bodily feelings could be an increase in temperature, upset stomach, dizziness, and other feelings and emotions we often disregard as “random”, or “because I ate potatoes last night”.
A friend of mine who is prone to anxiety attacks, for example, wondered if her most recent episode was related to the potatoes she ate the night before. Sure, maybe they are related, but rather than blame the potatoes for your anxiety, it may be more useful to identify why your system is fragile to potatoes in the first place.
Make like Taleb and become antifragile to the potato
When we experience these implicit feelings, we then cope with them by reacting explicitly, outwardly: Facial expressions, words, anxiety attacks, etc. We mobilize, immobilize, or dissociate to varying degrees.
Neuroception is different from “perception” because it is not under conscious control. Neuroception is not something we can intellectualize or use our rational mind to understand and requires tuning in to our unconscious mind.
Ever had a “gut feeling”? Felt nauseous in a frightening situation? Became light headed and fainted in response to stress? This is information being relayed from the organs to our brains via the vagal circuit, based on our body’s reaction to the environment around it.
Do yourself a favor: Pay attention to the neural circuit that delivers information from your organs to your brain!
What if we listened when we experience “random” pains, particularly in the abdomen.”What does this mean?”, “What in my environment is ‘unsafe’?”, “Is my gut signalling something my thinking-brain can’t or won’t see?”
In the case of stomach pain, many of us go to the doctor who, more often than not, will prescribe something for us to numb it, like pepto bismol, or in my case, back in university when I was suffering from regular stomach pains, “You’re just constipated, take these laxatives”. Looking at the organ in isolation, without considering that perhaps the organ isn’t the issue, but it’s neuroregulation (how the brain is using it). The organ isn’t the issue, it’s the indicator of something larger. And the same can be said of all our body pains
Cultivating a safe environment intrinsically and through the environment could be the most important thing we try to do with our lives: Make our bodies and our environment a safe place to live so we can react from a place of safety, not out of defense.
Can you begin to see how this is an important system in our bodies to learn to optimize both for life and for dance?
Why Should You Care About Vagal Regulation?
1) As a human, you only get the one body, the one set of organs, and I bet you don’t like the feeling of stress.
2) As a dancer, you rely on your body for you art.
3) As a dancer, you rely on your mind to enable your body to perform things that are outside your comfort zone, potentially “unsafe”, and “unnatural”.
And as it relates particularly to #3 above, remember, when your body senses that it is in an unsafe, unfamiliar place, it WILL look for danger (dat neuroception) and use a defense strategy that seems the most useful for you.
Do you ever feel like your body sabotages you? You know exactly what you should be doing, but it never seems to work out (pirouettes for me…).
If you do not have the ability to regulate your ANS well, your system will respond by a) Becoming hypervigilant and tensing up, or b) Freezing and shutting down.
N=Monika examples of both these scenarios:
a) Turns scare the crap out of me, and I am aware now how I tend recruit my sympathetic nervous system to cope with them: Using too much effort, overthinking, and tensing every muscle: A high threshold response. In fact, my last dance related injury was an adductor strain last summer, having to do with a turn that transitioned into a split… Ironically, when i stop thinking and use less effort, things seem to work better. Pirouettes are now something I can use as a barometer of neuroregulation. I know I am having a good day if I can turn. I’d bet a lot of you can relate.
b) 5 or 6 years ago, during a particularly challenging jazz class (and time in my life…), I recall feeling my brain shut down, completely overwhelmed and unable to focus, so I walked out of class, sat in the hallway, and cried. Trying harder (sympathetic system) was no longer an option. This was my reptilian parasympathetic system managing the situation, immobilizing me.
In both scenarios, the myelinated vagal circuit was bypassed in favor of a defensive strategy.
Ask yourself: Are you dancing with your lizard brain, relying primarily on a survival strategy to get you through class? I’d reckon it’s a possibility… Ask yourself:
Have you ever taken pain-killers to get through a performance?
Do you dissociate from pain and work through injuries (mind over matter) to keep moving?
Do you hold your breath or clench your jaw to cope with the physical demands of class and choreo?
Do you have trouble relaxing your face and neck?
Do you find it difficult to interact with some dancers you train with, and does it interfere with your ability to perform?
Do you feel the constant strain of judgement, pressure, and competition, and question whether you’ll “make it”?
These may be indicators of your body’s unconscious perception (neuroception) that something isn’t quite safe. Remember, your nervous system is actively searching for danger, so unless you currently use strategies to optimize vagal tone or you somehow lead a completely stress-free, life (ha), dance can tend to make us
A few important terms:
Vagal regulation: Ability to recruit the myelinated vagal circuit to balance the autonomic nervous system and related function (homeostasis). This can be a conscious process if we train it. Vagal regulation is how well our system can live and cope with challenges and maintain homeostasis.
Vagal tone: Measure of ability to recruit vagal activity (which we think can be measured through heart rate andheart rate variability, HRV, but this relationship is not 100% clear). Our vagal tone increases as we perform a long exhalation, among other things that activate the myelinated vagal circuit..
Vagal brake: The inhibition of a defensive response (mobilization or immobilization) via the activation of the myelinated vagus, increasing it’s tone, in response to a stressful or dangerous situation.
So what you should understand is…
YES you have a degree of conscious control of your vagal tone. This is because the myelinated vagus also works top down, from brain to viscera, and is linked to the muscles that control our face, voice, hearing, heart, lungs and breath, which we can consciously train.
YES vagal tone is a real, physiological, measurable thing. You can track it and hack it to change your psychology, help you feel safer in your body, and make better choices not influenced by a primitive survival strategy.
YES you were hard-wired to prefer a state of growth, health, and restoration. You came with a pre-installed “brake” that you can choose at any time to press in situations of stress to prevent you from reacting hypervigilently, or immobilizing. It is our natural state to have an active, healthy PNS predominantly at rest.
Isn’t that beautiful? You were hard-wired to succeed and be healthy. Everything you need to overcome challenge, mental and physical, in the most productive way possible, is already inside you. You just need to learn hit the vagal brake.
Wensy Wong, my amazing friend, yoga lady, and partner in CAPE
Just as increasing muscle tone requires physical exercise, Dr. Porges explains that we can train to improve our vagal tone through neural exercise.
So what qualifies as a “neural exercise”? And what other strategies can we use to improve vagal tone so we can kick more ass?
Using Neural Exercise and Cues of Safety to Improve Vagal Tone
There are three primary ways you can improve vagal tone.
1) Removing cues of danger.
You can put a band-aid on a wound, but for it to stop bleeding you first need to stop stabbing yourself.
Cues of danger are what our bodies unconsciously perceive (neuroception) to be dangerous or stressful. These include:
Low frequency background noise (signals “predator” —>)
Blank faces, lacking expressiveness around the eyes
Unwelcom social engagement
Other past trauma, injuries, etc.
Stop stabbing yourself. Give me the knife…
2) Seek cues of safety.
Cues of safety inhibit defensive responses of the sympathetic and reptilian vagus systems, and allow us to better use our newer vagal circuit to promote health, growth, and restoration (parasympathetics). These cues of safety include:
Hearing and using more prosodic vocal intonation (melodic, “mothery” voices)
Listening to others with genuine interest (compassion)
Seeing upper facial muscles used in an expressive way (particularly around the eyes)
Face to face interaction
Healthy socialization with happy, like-minded people who make you feel safe
Essentially, using our senses mindfully and deliberately to experience the world and interact, in real time, with ourselves and others.
Use of prosodic voice: Lull someone into a safe place with the comforting rhythm of your voice
Interestingly, the one activity that allows us to blend all of these cues together is social engagement. Listening and speaking to other people who make us feel good uses all functions related to the vagus (eyes seeing the facial reaction of another, and ear muscles used to listen, exhaling and intonating as we speak).
The only caveat- Social engagement must be welcome or it will signal “danger”. So find your people.
3) Participating in neural exercise.
Things that use the breath, voice, body, and muscles of the face, Like:
Playing wind instruments
Listening to prosodic music (like folk music)
Chanting or prayer
Intentional shifts in posture
Or, as Dr. Porges tells us is most important:
Feeling safe in the arms of another appropriate mammal
Not necessarily another person. A mammal will do.
The vagal circuit is a highly integrated system maintained primarily by being social.
The people (or mammals) you choose to be around have a significant impact on your state of being.
Sometimes in the dance world, we don’t always get to be around the most compassionate human beings, judgement and jealousy are typical, and as artists (not every one of them, but we all know those people…), we often experience crippling self-doubt and feelings of low worth, which are often unwarranted and untrue.
This also means that if you struggle in your dancing with…
Keeping a calm facial expression
Difficulty focusing and retaining choreography
Learning new, challenging moves without inhibition
…you can regulate it to a certain degree through understanding this fascinating vagal circuit. It’s worth a try, and it doesn’t cost a thing.
How to start applying polyvagal theory, cues of safety, and neural exercise to improve your dancing.
How DOESN’T understanding polyvagal theory help you? (that goes for all the non-dancer humans reading this, too).
Can you see how feeling more safe in your body could enhance your dancing?
How useful is it that you’re hardwired with an intrinsic stress-management mechanism that you can use to improve your recovery and performance?
Isn’t it great to know that can train this inner system by engaging with people you love, and it makes you more resilient?
Increased vagal tone and better vagal regulation are related to some important things as it relates to being a performer:
Being able to become vulnerable
Reducing chronic pain
Improving mental focus
Recovering more quickly from training
Not peeing your pants before you step on stage
Here’s what you can do right now
To improve vagal regulation, increase vagal tone, and improve your physical performance, recovery, and think more creatively:
1) Understand that your autonomic nervous systems functions hierarchically. Your body functions best when it feels safe. By becoming aware of our body’s responses, and gut responses (sub-diaphragmatic, reptilian vagal cues), we can find cues of safety and react to life without having to defend ourselves.
2) Respect your body. It’s easy to feel helpless to our situations (pain, inability to perform as well as we’d like) but we need to understand that we are reacting to situationsthrough neuroception, which is an unconscious process. We may not know yet what we are reacting to, but we can be aware that our body has responded, and try to move to a safer place. Honor the body’s responses.
3) Body-scanning. Starting a movement practice with a body-scan is a great way to tune into unconscious cues and reactions. There are so many ways of doing this and they are all great. Pick a system, trust the process, and see how far you can take it.
4)Remove cues of danger (see the list earlier in this post). Because these are subconscious cues, it might not be entirely evident that a dance teacher or a particular class mate is signalling “predator!”. Be aware of facial expressions, tone of voice, and gut feelings, and how well you’re able to focus around these people. Depressed vagal activity can be represented by depressed neural regulation of striated muscles of face/head. This is how we can tell if someone is friendly just by looking at their faces.
5) Surround yourself with cues of safety (see the list earlier in this post). These cues in particular can be received through physical practices, listening to music, and social engagement, (if it’s welcome…).
5) Train your breath. Because long long exhalations activate the myelinated vagus, you can increase vagal tone by increasing the duration of exhalation compared to inhalation (I like to 3:1 ratio of exhale to inhale). Playing a wind instrument, blowing up balloons, singing, and chanting also extend exhalations and can serve as effective neural exercises. These also include the use of facial muscles which are also related to the vagus.
6) Mindful movement and shifts in posture. Yoga, religious or spiritual practices, and other mindful physical practices (even working out with weights) require conscious shifts in posture. Postural shifts influence carotid baroreceptors (related to blood pressure), so it seems that practices that require mindful postural shifts can influence the heart, which is under vagal control. Exercise isn’t just good for your body.
7) Welcome social engagement. Keyword being “welcome”. If you’re forced to interact all day with people sending you unconscious cues of danger or predator, social engagement is no longer improving this vagal pathway. On the other hand, we can use social engagement as an ultimate delivery system for neural exercise and cues of safety.
The nervous system of social engagement is the same nervous system of health, growth, and restoration.
~Dr. Stephen Porges
Going to a yoga class with a friend is the ultimate vagal toning experience: You can easily combine social engagement with breathing, body scanning, mindful postural shifts, chanting, prosodic tone of voice, and listening (to the teacher AND within).
Reminds me of this…
Most sympathetic yoga session ever. I’m crying.
I hope you can also see that the “how” is more important than the “what”.
Exercise is good, but is how you’re doing it helping you?
Social engagement can be am amazing therapeutic experience, or it can make you feel unsafe.
Same thing goes for your dance practice. How are you approaching it? Are you aware of how it makes you feel?
On a final note, I urge you to take an honest look inward. Are there any visceral sensations you’re dissociating from? What can you learn from these feeling? Are you surrounded by cues of safety or of danger? Do you participate in neural exercises? Do you have people in your life that you can genuinely and honestly connect with?
How you approach your dance training needs to respect this holistic view of wellness. Dance teachers are not life coaches. Nor are rehabilitation specialists. They don’t have time to give you advice, be your friend, and teach you to be mindful. Take the time to cultivate this practice yourself.
Understanding polyvagal theory gives you the information to expand your dance practice into a mindful movement practice that enhances vagal regulation if you allow it.
You CAN dance your way to health, growth, restoration.
If you’d like to start something right now to work on tuning into your body and your breath, you’ll probably enjoy the 30 Day Challenge.What would happen if you make the choice to deliberately practice one exercise everyday, for 30 days? That’s what the challenge is about. Forming the habit to take a few moments for YOU everyday, to work from the inside out. Sign up for free and check it out.
To learn more about the work of Dr. Stephen Porges, check out these amazing talks and interviews (worth the time, I promise!)
I was recently invited to present a workshop (of my choice!) to the dancers at York University here in Toronto. The day after I had just returned from Thailand. I was quite laggy…
I am always excited to work with the York dancers because they receive such great education on important things like injury prevention, dance kinesiology, pedagogy, and other topics that I didn’t learn about at Ryerson.
They made me a poster! So sweet.
So because I had complete freedom to choose the workshop topic, I chose something very close to my heart: Breathing. Possibly the sexiest topic. Ever.
Why? We know breathing is important. It does keep us alive. But it wasn’t until after I finished my dance BFA and started working in the strength and conditioning world that I really began to understand.
And in recent months, even, I’ve had revelations. Working to optimize how I breathe has helped me reduce many chronic pain symptoms I thought I was stuck with. Just as an example, it wasn’t until I took a few huge steps back and started to work on breath control that my knee pain stopped. CRAZY, right?
You’d think breathing would be intuitive, wouldn’t you? Well, simply being born does not make us alive, it’s that first breath that allows us to enter the land of the living. Out of necessity, this breath is a deep, efficient, belly breath. I reckon that no breath after that one first life-giving breath is the same. In fact, it might be all downhill from there.
Sorry for the ominous intro. I have this great talent for setting the mood, don’t I?
So anyway, because I know this might be new info for some of you, and a nice review for others, I want to recap some of the key points we covered in my excellently-titled workshop….
Breath, Performance and Prevention: Optimizing Breath for Dance
Fancy-sounding title, ‘innit?
I started off by asking the question, “Why should you care about breathing?”. Why is it important for you, as a dancer, to know how to do it well?
Well, as a dancer, you likely tend to do things like hold your breath, assume extreme extension postures, overuse accessory respiratory muscles, be told to suck in your belly, and then perform intense physical activity. Cleaning up breathing patterns goes a long way to balance these functional dysfunctions that dance imposes.
However, it would be foolish to think that dancers, particularly in ballet and other classical forms, are going to use deep, belly-expanding breaths while they dance, because that just doesn’t fit the esthetic. Because of this, I emphasized to the group was that it’s definitely worth it to have a few techniques up your sleeve to work on optimal breathing patterns outside of dance-life. Before class, during breaks between exercises in class, after class. Whenever.
But I must backtrack a little and talk about one of the most important structures for optimal breathing, the diaphragm.
Diaphragmatic function- What is that?
Your friend Mr. diaphragm is an important guy and he does a lot for you. More than just the primary muscle responsible for giving you life through respiration…
Your diaphragm also helps keep a bunch of other stuff working smoothly:
Managing information between chest and abdominal cavities, and other distal areas of the body
Health and support of nerve, musculoskeletal, circulatory, lymphatic, and fascial systems
Lumbar, sacroiliac and cervical spine stabilization
Ensures proper function of mouth, swallowing, and speaking
Posture, static and dynamic proprioception
Supports organs: Heart, lungs, stomach, liver in particular
Ensures optimal pelvic floor function
Prevention of gastroesophageal reflux
Want some other fun facts about the dipahragm (yeah you do!)?
Diaphragm connects to your lumbar spine, influencing it’s function
Diaphragm has fascial connectivity to your liver, heart lungs, esophagus, kidneys psoas major, quadratus lumborum, pelvic floor and other muscles and organs.
Diaphragm is asymmetrical, with the right hemisphere bigger and more likely to be overworked (facilitated)
Any change in diaphragm causes a symmetrical change in the pelvic floor, so, breathing dysfunction=pelvic floor dysfunction and visa versa.
But for the purposes of right now, let’s just say the two primary roles of the diaphragm are breathing and stability. Or in other words, DANCING BETTER WITHOUT GETTING INJURED.
How does dancing tend to mess with diaphragm function?
How does it NOT? Just kidding…
Sucking in the belly causing paradoxical breathing: Belly sucks in on inhalation while chest expands
Exaggerated extension postures and rib flare: Reduction of zone of apposition (ZOA), which I will talk more about later in this post…
Excessive lordosis and over-lengthened abdominals: TVA down-regulation
Breath holding and hyperinflation of lungs: Diaphragm facilitation, inability to exhale fully
Forcing turnout: Feeds extension postures and anterior pelvic tilt, increasing need to flare ribs.
Stress and poor recovery from classes and rehearsals
Here’s something important to think about: What happens when your diaphragm doesn’t work like it should, AND THEN the need for increased respiration arises? Like in a physiccally exhausting dance piece?
This is where things can get messy.
Maybe you are used to using your diaphragm primarily to stabilize your spine and you hold your breath to do so, rather than also using your abdominals. But then should your need to breathe increase due to strenuous dancing, your diaphragm will be used primarily for keeping you breathing rather than stabilizing your spine. In this case, you had better hope you have functional abdominals, or there won’t be much else holding you together other than bone on bone action. Mmm, gotta love that spondy feel.
Ahh the spondys. Good ol’ extension based spine injuries.
So how can you ensure that you’re both using your abdominals AND will be able to breathe enough? That’s called maintaining your zone of apposition (or ZOA). Another fancy-sounding way of saying, “Is your ribcage in an optimal position for your diaphragm to perform it’s many, many functions?”.
Well, do you dance? Then likely, you’ve lost a bit of your zone.
What is this zone (of apposition) and how can I be in it?
It’s not so much that you can be in the zone, like it’s an exclusive club or something. But honing an optimal ZOA puts you in a pretty cool club- The Super Excellent Apical Expansion Club.
By definition of the Postural Restoration Institute, the ZOA is: “The cylindrical aspect of the diaphragm that apposes the inner aspect of the lower mediastinal (chest) wall.”
Or in other words, the front part of your ribcage kind of in line with where your zyphoid process is (where your ribcage opens up in the front). If you stand with your ribs flared, with extreme lordosis, and anterior pelvic tilt, then you’ve lost your ZOA.
On the far right, you can see the extra width in the ribcage. Cause his lungs are full of air from ineficient breathing. Or as they say in Chinese Medicine, he’s full of “wind”. Hyperinflation of the lungs and poor positioning of the ribcage.
The ZOA is maintained by your transverse abdominis and your internal obliques. Dem abs!
If you are able to maintain your ZOA, that is to say, maintain abdominal activity, while you breathe, you win. High five! Your diaphragm will be in it’s best position to perform two of it’s most important functions- Delivering life-giving oxygen, and stabilizing your spine (and other things that attach to your spine, like your limbs).
You should be able to breathe deeply, into your belly, while maintaning your ZOA. If you are not, and your chest tends to expand first because you’re trying to keep your belly sucked in, this is called paradoxical breathing, and it is not a great thing to do. You probably breathe paradoxically while you dance whether you’re aware of it or not. And because your teacher tells you to…
What you should gather from those last two paragraphs is that you need to have some abdominal musculature engaged while you’re breathing to maintain your ZOA and help you breathe diaphragmatically.
Here is what it looks like to have a reduced ZOA:
Check out the rib angle, lordosis, and pelvic alignment. Indicators of probably reduction of the ZOA causing diaphragmatic dysfunction.
How can you tell if you have diaphragm dysfunction?
Here are some signs that maybe you need to get back in the zone (of apposition) and give your diaphragm some TLC:
Everything becomes easier with breath holding (diaphragm facilitation)
You have pelvic floor dysfunction
Digestive issues or constipation
A client of mine asked me, “Does anybody not have messed up breathing?”. I don’t know about that, but for sure, many people probably need to work on maintaining or improving their ZOA, not just dancers, and not just those who are in pain or rehabilitating injuries.
Ideally, we are all aware of our breath and rib position daily. We make it a practice to be mindful of this. It doesn’t mean we need to be perfect all the time, that’s why it’s called practice. But we do need to do the work we often don’t want to do.
There are many tools you can use to improve your ZOA, diaphragm function, and breathing patterns generally, and I don’t care which path you choose. Whether you choose to do yoga, Qi Gong, find a good trainer, or see a rehabilitation specialist, the principles of good breathing remain the same.
I believe you owe it to yourself to cultivate this awareness and begin to work with someone you trust to guide you. It just might be the missing piece that helps you overcome whatever obstacles are keeping you from performing your best, and being the best person you can be.
**If you can’t breathe in a position or during a movement, you don’t own it. Own the breath, own the position, own the movement, own at life**
Grab My Leg Baby Please. I fondly recall this mnemonic with which I first was taught the names and attachments (distal to proximal) of the much underrated adductor group.
Ah, the adductors.
The adductor group. Gracilis (grab) attaching most distal (farthest from the head), and pectineous (please) most promixal (closest to the head).
More recently at NeuroKinetic Therapy (NKT) seminar, we were taught a mnemonic that is somehow even more badass, to remember the muscle tests for the individual adductors: Please baby love my groin. (G for gracillis, with the foot pointing in towards the groin. So awesome).
Anatomy is sexy.
But sexy mnemonics aside, this article is all aboutthe important function of the adductors for dancers.
Much like you’d expect, the primary action of this group of muscles is to adduct the leg (bring it towards the center of the body). They also, depending on the context you’re moving in, rotate the leg in and help flex and extend the hip.
And not only do they create movement, but help to stabilize the leg, hips and pelvis while other prime movers are working dynamically (think your supporting leg during a balance). In this sense, the adductors could considered a “core stabilizer”. The adductor magnus has been referenced by The Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) as being the most important internal rotator muscleto hold your pelvis and hips together.
From my PRI notes: Adductor magnus is suuuper important for alignment
This context dependent variability of function is why that seated adductor machine (where you sit and squeeze your thighs together) doesn’t quite cut it if you’re trying to train the adductors for performance, injury rehab, or even for that mysterious goal of “toning”.
This is unintentionally becoming the sexiest article I’ve ever written…
For dancers, proper adductor function is a HUGE deal for lumbo-pelvic-femoral stability. Weak, over-stretched adductors can lead to loss of joint range of motion, postural and movement dysfunction, and eventually even pain and injury. And I am a living example of this (but more on that later).
Why do dancers tend to have dysfunction in the adductor group?
In dance we are encouraged to stretch more often, and more intensely for longer durations at the wrong times. One thing you can do right now to improve your adductor situation, is to no sit in the splits and stretch them before class. PLEASE STOP DOING THAT. Stretching a muscle is a method of downregulating it. Do you think it’s a good idea to weaken an important stabilizing muscle prior to using it? Noooope.
The emphasis of turnout in many styles of dance also has it’s toll, as we tend to work in extreme ranges of hip external rotation, with little emphasis on maintaining internal rotation (those adductors), which causes us to lose range of motion into adduction- The leg becomes unable to cross the center line of the body without compensation in the pelvis.
It’s never good to lose a range of motion, at any joint, much like losing the ability to posteriorally tilt the pelvis can wreak havoc on the SI joint and lower back.
Bear with me now while I talk about myself for a bit. Because I can.
Recently I had the amazing opportunity to get assessed using 3D motion capture analysis at The Performance Lab here in Toronto. It’s the same technology they use to make graphics for video games. Very cool stuff.
Just call me MoCap Monika…
Yes I know. I make motion capture technology look good ;0
3D motion capture analysis is super helpful for anyone who wants to learn more about how they move, but especially for dancers, who are the masters of sneaky movement compensations that slip past the untrained eye.
I have a fun history of multiple back injuries, hamstring strain, hip pain, knee pain and neck strains, and am currently experiencing right-sided almost-every-joint pain. I was ecstatic to be finally getting a comprehensive view that could show me WHY things were feeling so nasty. What compensatory movements could be contributing to my pain?
While I won’t go into ALL the details, the biggest take-away for me was that my right pelvis moves excessively to compensate for the fact that I have very poor motor control over, wait for it, the adductors and internal rotators.
Further muscle testing with a friend and fellow NKT practitioner revealed that my adductor magnus is poop. Good times.
Because blame is fun and useful, I will blame years of forcing turnout and sitting in the splits cold before class. Also, big round of applause for my huge ego, for telling me it was a good idea to fling my body into larger ranges of motion than I had control over. My ligaments all hate me. I’m also really glad I didn’t ever work on core strength while I was a dancer, because then I might have had a brilliantly successful dance career, and wouldn’t be writing this today.
Over the years it seems I have down-regulated the crap out of my adductor group. Magnus in particular. And if you dance (or are hypermobile, do gymnastics, yoga, or anything else requiring you to be flexible), it’s quite possible that you have too.
How do you know if you need to develop some adductor strength?
You walk and stand toed-out.
It takes effort, or feels unstable to stand with your feet touching in parallel (think mountain pose, for the yogis)
You can do the splits/over-splits like it’s nuttin’.
Your groin feels “tight”, like you need to stretch a lot (although this is probably due to protective muscle tone, because of over-stretched hip ligaments…)
When you lie on your back with your legs straight your feet flop out, and it’s serious effort to turn your toes parallel, up to the ceiling.
You’re more comfortable sitting with your legs open, or cross-legged than knees together (ladylike)
You have poop for hip internal rotation ROM and strength, or are very turned-out.
You have knee, groin or hip pain, or even lower back pain.
If most or some of the above apply to you, then maybe you should learn to activate those adductors. Your performance will improve, your stability will improve, and you’ll definitely reduce your risk of injury.
Over-time, if you continue to dance and live without adductors, there could be some unpleasant risks associated in the form of:
Over-stretched ligaments. In particular, the pubofemoral ligament which should, if intact, prevent your leg from lifting past your face. And remember, when a ligament becomes stretched, it will never contract again. If that ligament isn’t holding you together, what is? Well, it should be your muscles. Enter the adductors…
Chronic displacement of femur in acetabulum. The demands of dance to turnout the hip, lift the leg into large ranges of motion, and the minimal emphasis on training core stability in many large classes can cause the head of the femur to shift outwards and upwards in the socket. This can cause pain and pinching and awful grinding, which could contribute to hip impingement, labrum tearing and joint degeneration, as well worsening of the already poor motor control and joint positioning.
I would love to give you some strategies to help with this adductor situation, but to be quite honest, I’m still trying to figure out the most optimal plan for restoring muscle synergy. I’ve been experimenting with some simple activation drills before my usual strength training sessions (and have been training more single leg exercises if I can do them pain-free), and have noticed, anecdotally, that almost all yoga poses now feel easier in class. So I’ve been activating my adductors daily. Seems logical, right?
My favourite so far, and the simplest, is the PRI 90/90 hip lift. On each exhalation, squeeze the living crap out of the foam roller/towel/whatever implement.
I will try to keep you updated on my progress restoring adductors to good function. If you have any helpful strategies that have worked for you or your clients, please let me know so that I can try them out.
PLEASE NOTE: This article isn’t for inactive, inflexible people. That population will have different adductor issues not covered here…