Applying Polyvagal Theory to Enhancing Physical Performance

Applying Polyvagal Theory to Enhancing Physical Performance

polyvagal theory for dancersSo, what’s up with me lately?

I’ve become obsessed with the teachings of Dr. Stephen Porges and his brain-child, polyvagal theory. 

Polyvagal theory brings clarity to our understanding of the autonomic nervous system, and in the world of dance training, we so rarely appreciate the huge role autonomics play in both our mental and physical performance and keeping pain-free. 

Understanding autonomics through the lens of Porges’ polyvagal theory, beginning to notice where his teachings show up in our lives, and making time for strategies to optimize our autonomic nervous system, we can take our physical and mental performance, and quality of life, to new levels.

How dancers can use his theory to improve performance and well-being is particularly interesting to me, and that’s exactly what we’ll be getting into today.

In this post, we’re going to talk about the vagus nerve and autonomic nervous system (ANS) function, and how these systems relate our sense of safety to our physical and mental performance, as well as the muscles that control the face, breath, eyes, voice, and hearing.

Ready to rock this? Let’s do it…

Autonomics 101

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).

parasympathetic nervous system

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”.

vagal brake

Looks kind of like the nervous system…?

The vagus nerve is activated during exhalation (among other things you’ll read about farther down). If you tend to not exhale completely, and breath-hold to create a sense of stability, you might also be preventing yourself from getting to a state of health, growth and restoration.

In the face of stress, danger, or life-threat, real or perceived, your system may choose to recruit a strategy of mobilization (“get the hell out of here!” or “fight harder!”), to ensure your survival.

If we have trouble using our vagal circuit to get to a parasympathetic calm state, it is near impossible to learn, think creatively, and move optimally because our nervous system thinks it’s in danger, and survival is wayyy more important than creative movement and learning new things. Priorities..

This shows us the importance of practicing breathing exercises like pranayama yoga, blowing up a balloon PRI style, and being aware of breath-holding while we dance.

breathing exercise for vagal regulation

90/90 hip liftin’, PRI style

The vagal circuit is also regulates the striated muscles of the face (particularly around the eyes), the muscles of the middle ear, the voice, the heart, lungs, digestion, and other organs.

do you struggle to relax your face muscles when you dance?

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.”

~Thomas Myers

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.

Hence, “poly”vagal.

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).

did we inherit our nervous system from 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.

polyvagal theory for dancers

To fulfill our needs, we move selectively through the different states of the ANS in this order:

1) Parasympathetic nervous system 1: New, mammalian, vagus control: Health, growth, restoration.

This is our preferred state for optimal function of pretty much everything.

Because this circuit is related to the muscles of the face, eyes, ears, and larynx, we can see it’s qualities expressed in peoples’ faces and tone of voice, as well as activate it when we listen.

This neural circuit is all about safety.

When we are in a safe state under myelinated vagal control, we can think more clearly and creatively, let go of physical tension, experience states of compassion, gratitude, contemplate important things (like “who am I??”), and enjoy play and movement without fear and hyper-vigilence.

Through this neural circuit we can become informed by our experiences, develop strategies that make our body feel safe and derive meaning from our lives more effortlessly.

We can can make the world better by making people feel safer.

2) Sympathetic nervous system: Mobilize, fight, or flight.

sympathetic nervous system 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

~Stephen Porges

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.

why you feel like you need to pee before going on stage

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.

Dang.

 

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.

antifragile

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. 

your reptilian brain when you dance

Ask yourself: Are you dancing with your lizard brain, relying primarily on a survival strategy to get you through class? I’d reckon it’s a possibility… Ask yourself:

  • Have you ever taken pain-killers to get through a performance?
  • Do you dissociate from pain and work through injuries (mind over matter) to keep moving?
  • Do you hold your breath or clench your jaw to cope with the physical demands of class and choreo?
  • Do you have trouble relaxing your face and neck?
  • Do you find it difficult to interact with some dancers you train with, and does it interfere with your ability to perform?
  • Do you feel the constant strain of judgement, pressure, and competition, and question whether you’ll “make it”?

These may be indicators of your body’s unconscious perception (neuroception) that something isn’t quite safe. Remember, your nervous system is actively searching for danger, so unless you currently use strategies to optimize vagal tone or you somehow lead a completely stress-free, life (ha), dance can tend to make us

A few important terms:

Vagal regulation: Ability to recruit the myelinated vagal circuit to balance the autonomic nervous system and related function (homeostasis). This can be a conscious process if we train it. Vagal regulation is how well our system can live and cope with challenges and maintain homeostasis.

Vagal tone: Measure of ability to recruit vagal activity (which we think can be measured through heart rate and heart rate variability, HRV, but this relationship is not 100% clear). Our vagal tone increases as we perform a long exhalation, among other things that activate the myelinated vagal circuit..

Vagal brake: The inhibition of a defensive response (mobilization or immobilization) via the activation of the myelinated vagus, increasing it’s tone, in response to a stressful or dangerous situation.

So what you should understand is…

YES you have a degree of conscious control of your vagal tone. This is because the myelinated vagus also works top down, from brain to viscera, and is linked to the muscles that control our face, voice, hearing, heart, lungs and breath, which we can consciously train.

YES vagal tone is a real, physiological, measurable thing.  You can track it and hack it to change your psychology, help you feel safer in your body, and make better choices not influenced by a primitive survival strategy.

YES you were hard-wired to prefer a state of growth, health, and restoration. You came with a pre-installed “brake” that you can choose at any time to press in situations of stress to prevent you from reacting hypervigilently, or immobilizing. It is our natural state to have an active, healthy PNS predominantly at rest.

Isn’t that beautiful? You were hard-wired to succeed and be healthy. Everything you need to overcome challenge, mental and physical, in the most productive way possible, is already inside you. You just need to learn hit the vagal brake.

capemovement.com

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.

neuroception cues of danger1)  Removing cues of danger.

You can put a band-aid on a wound, but for it to stop bleeding you first need to stop stabbing yourself.

Cues of danger are what our bodies unconsciously perceive (neuroception) to be dangerous or stressful. These include:

  • Low frequency background noise (signals “predator” —>)
  • Monotone voices
  • Blank faces, lacking expressiveness around the eyes
  • Unwelcom social engagement
  • Other past trauma, injuries, etc.

Stop stabbing yourself. Give me the knife…

2) Seek cues of safety.

Cues of safety inhibit defensive responses of the sympathetic and reptilian vagus systems, and allow us to better use our newer vagal circuit to promote health, growth, and restoration (parasympathetics). These cues of safety include:

  • Hearing and using more prosodic vocal intonation (melodic, “mothery” voices)
  • Listening to others with genuine interest (compassion)
  • Seeing  upper facial muscles used in an expressive way (particularly around the eyes)
  • Touch
  • Face to face interaction
  • Long exhalations
  • Healthy socialization with happy, like-minded people who make you feel safe

Essentially, using our senses mindfully and deliberately to experience the world and interact, in real time, with ourselves and others.

vagus nerve

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
  • Singing
  • Pranayama yoga
  • Listening to prosodic music (like folk music)
  • Play
  • Social engagement
  • Chanting or prayer
  • Intentional shifts in posture
  • Body scanning
    Or, as Dr. Porges tells us is most important:
  • Feeling safe in the arms of another appropriate mammal

Not necessarily another person. A mammal will do.

heart rate variability dance

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
  • Breathing
  • Stage fright
  • Learning new, challenging moves without inhibition
  • Injuries
  • Chronic pain
  • Over-training

…you can regulate it to a certain degree through understanding this fascinating vagal circuit. It’s worth a try, and it doesn’t cost a thing.

How to start applying polyvagal theory, cues of safety, and neural exercise to improve your dancing.

How DOESN’T understanding polyvagal theory help you? (that goes for all the non-dancer humans reading this, too).

Can you see how feeling more safe in your body could enhance your dancing?

How useful is it that you’re hardwired with an intrinsic stress-management mechanism that you can use to improve your recovery and performance?

Isn’t it great to know that can train this inner system by engaging with people you love, and it makes you more resilient?

Increased vagal tone and better vagal regulation are related to some important things as it relates to being a performer:

  • Being able to become vulnerable
  • Breath control
  • Preventing injuries
  • Reducing chronic pain
  • Improving mental focus
  • Recovering more quickly from training
  • Managing stress
  • Creative thinking
  • Not peeing your pants before you step on stage

Here’s what you can do right now

To improve vagal regulation, increase vagal tone, and improve your physical performance, recovery, and think more creatively:

1) Understand that your autonomic nervous systems functions hierarchically. Your body functions best when it feels safe. By becoming aware of our body’s responses, and gut responses (sub-diaphragmatic, reptilian vagal cues), we can find cues of safety and react to life without having to defend ourselves.

2) Respect your body. It’s easy to feel helpless to our situations (pain, inability to perform as well as we’d like) but we need to understand that we are reacting to situations through neuroception, which is an unconscious process. We may not know yet what we are reacting to, but we can be aware that our body has responded, and try to move to a safer place. Honor the body’s responses.

3) Body-scanning. Starting a movement practice with a body-scan is a great way to tune into unconscious cues and reactions. There are so many ways of doing this and they are all great.  Pick a system, trust the process, and see how far you can take it.

4) Remove cues of danger (see the list earlier in this post). Because these are subconscious cues, it might not be entirely evident that a dance teacher or a particular class mate is signalling “predator!”. Be aware of facial expressions, tone of voice, and gut feelings, and how well you’re able to focus around these people. Depressed vagal activity can be represented by depressed neural regulation of striated muscles of face/head. This is how we can tell if someone is friendly just by looking at their faces.

5) Surround yourself with cues of safety (see the list earlier in this post). These cues in particular can be received through physical practices, listening to music, and social engagement, (if it’s welcome…).

5) Train your breath. Because long long exhalations activate the myelinated vagus, you can increase vagal tone by increasing the duration of exhalation compared to inhalation (I like to 3:1 ratio of exhale to inhale). Playing a wind instrument, blowing up balloons, singing, and chanting also extend exhalations and can serve as effective neural exercises. These also include the use of facial muscles which are also related to the vagus.

6) Mindful movement and shifts in posture. Yoga, religious or spiritual practices, and other mindful physical practices (even working out with weights) require conscious shifts in posture. Postural shifts influence carotid baroreceptors (related to blood pressure), so it seems that practices that require mindful postural shifts can influence the heart, which is under vagal control. Exercise isn’t just good for your body.

7) Welcome social engagement. Keyword being “welcome”. If you’re forced to interact all day with people sending you unconscious cues of danger or predator, social engagement is no longer improving this vagal pathway. On the other hand, we can use social engagement as an ultimate delivery system for neural exercise and cues of safety.

The nervous system of social engagement is the same nervous system of health, growth, and restoration.

~Dr. Stephen Porges

Going to a yoga class with a friend is the ultimate vagal toning experience: You can easily combine social engagement with breathing, body scanning, mindful postural shifts, chanting, prosodic tone of voice, and listening (to the teacher AND within).

Reminds me of this…

Most sympathetic yoga session ever. I’m crying.

I hope you can also see that the “how” is more important than the “what”.

Exercise is good, but is how you’re doing it helping you?

Social engagement can be am amazing therapeutic experience, or it can make you feel unsafe.

Same thing goes for your dance practice. How are you approaching it? Are you aware of how it makes you feel?

On a final note, I urge you to take an honest look inward. Are there any visceral sensations you’re dissociating from? What can you learn from these feeling? Are you surrounded by cues of safety or of danger? Do you participate in neural exercises? Do you have people in your life that you can genuinely and honestly connect with?

How you approach your dance training needs to respect this holistic view of wellness. Dance teachers are not life coaches. Nor are rehabilitation specialists. They don’t have time to give you advice, be your friend, and teach you to be mindful. Take the time to cultivate this practice yourself.

Understanding polyvagal theory gives you the information to expand your dance practice into a mindful movement practice that enhances vagal regulation if you allow it.

You CAN dance your way to health, growth, restoration.

If you’d like to start something right now to work on tuning into your body and your breath, you’ll probably enjoy the 30 Day Challenge. What would happen if you make the choice to deliberately practice one exercise everyday, for 30 days? That’s what the challenge is about. Forming the habit to take a few moments for YOU everyday, to work from the inside out. Sign up for free and check it out.

To learn more about the work of Dr. Stephen Porges, check out these amazing talks and interviews (worth the time, I promise!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Moving Into Stillness”: Why You Should Choose Dynamic Stability


Moving Into Stillness
, by Erich Schiffmann, is the book I came across when I was 18 that I attribute as the catalyst that sent me on this journey of exploring of human movement.

And it’s an interesting idea:

Moving into stillness…

But to find stillness, surely we need to be in control, don’t we?

Control.

Take a moment to think about what that word means.

For dancers, control is something we feel we need. Something we’re told we need. Encouraged to have more of.

I want to go to a ballet class and count the number of times I hear the teacher use the word “control”. (but I don’t do much ballet these days, so maybe you can do that for me and let me know what number you get…)

Indirectly, we hear that we need control when we are corrected to stand up straight, hold our core tight, keep our shoulders down, etc.

We try to control our appearance: Make our face look calm, not strained, try to keep a slim body by dieting, and appear graceful and fluid as we perform unnatural movements.

Dance is the epitome of being in control.

Any wonder it attracts so many type-A personalities?

But what if what we’re hearing when we are told to be in control, and doing as we strive to be in control, is different than the kind of control we truly need?

What is control?

“STAY IN CONTROL! CONTROL the movement”!

When our dance teachers shout this out it can send us into a sympathetic response.

“Oh shit! I’m not IN CONTROL. Better clench everything. Activate all my stress tone to stay on my feet, get my leg up and not fall on my face!”

Consider this: Do you want to “be in control”, or to have “control of”?

To purely “be in control” implies a rigidity. Every move controlled, stiff, thought out carefully. Everything bound by rules. Nothing free flowing. No balance. Always try, try, harder. Activate, clench, push!

Have “control OF” implies a constantly shifting specificity. That some part of you is taking charge, providing support, as another part of you fluidly follows the lead, but nothing ever static.

Control OF implies you are selectively choosing, no, ALLOWING something to take the reigns. Allowing something to control more, so that something else can ease up.

That fine balance of Yin and Yang. Control and ease. Hardness and softness. Stillness and movement.

Control OF implies a dynamic state, rather that a static state. “Of” is a transient term.

Control of what? At what time? For how long? In what way?

What you want to have control OF can change at any given moment, different for every movement, and every movement of every movement.

Allow, at any given moment in time in a movement, for some parts to have more “control”, and others to have more “ease”.

Center of mass constantly changing, and your body reacting to catch it.

In a grand battement, for example: On the way up, the supporting leg is more controlled. It’s planted, rooted, firmly into the ground, moving LESS (but still moving), and the active leg is barreling through space.

It’s the control of the supporting leg that allows the ease and flow in the swinging leg, and the unbounded movement in the battement leg that allows energy to be diverted into the supporting leg.

But nothing is still…

Control is a spectrum.

There’s rigid control, and there’s flowing, dynamic control.

Having control OF is dynamic.

You CHOOSE what you dedicate energy towards controlling, and what you allow more freely just to happen.

Dynamic control takes awareness. Focus. Conscious choice.

Dynamic control takes less effort, energetically, but is more difficult to achieve due to the hours deep, focused practice it requires. And it you’re stuck in a “be in control” mindest, dynamic control is nearly impossible and depleting of your energy.

Being in control prevents deep practice. Control OF allows it.

But the more you choose dynamic, the more natural it becomes and, suddenly, you find that you don’t have to think about it anymore. Your body chooses for you. You begin to  feel that to let go of control, in absolute terms, feels better, and to selectively control the minimal number of of parts feels better.

More efficient. Less strenuous. FEELS better in your body to perform.

This is when dance starts to feel really, really good to do.

You have to let go of CONTROLLING, and find CONTROL OF, even when your teachers are screaming at you to control your body.

“Pull up!”

“Ribs down!”

“Tuck under!”

Rigid control is how we react when we are told to stay “tight” and hold positions. When we’re unsure what to do. At least we feel that we’re in control!

Dynamic control, which flows, is not about being tight and positional. It’s about movement.

Control OF is reflex that you don’t need to think about. Your body recognizes what it needs to do to not fall over, and it does it.

It’s an instinct.

Instincts are developed through experience, listening inward, and learning. And if your experience has been to control through rigidity, breath holding, and clenching, it is quite difficult to experience that beautiful sensation of your body catching you, being there for you, as you daringly move away from (and hopefully back towards) center.

IS A MOMENT OF STILLNESS TRULY “STILL”?

In dance, a moment of stillness is one of the most powerful things. As an audience member, you feel a sense of anticipation, not knowing what will come next. A beautiful moment suspended in time.

In reality, however, you are never still. Your body is constantly in motion, as the Earth is constantly in motion. As the seasons are constantly in motion. As are the oceans around us and the circulating fluids and energies within us.

Maybe it’s just that because everything is moving so fast around us, we can’t feel it at all. And when we move into a place where all movement, for a moment in time, is synced, we feel MOVED. Yes, we FEEL it when we see someone come into “stillness”.

When we perceive stillness, what we’re really feeling is the movement of everything else.

It’s beautiful.

Your body is in perpetual motion. Reacting to the movement before it, anticipating the movement that will come next. It’s a cycle that never stops, that started before you were conceptualized.

This is natural. Why would you try to stop it? To control it?

Plank. Clench. Hold. Position. Tighten. This is the wrong vocabulary to apply to your movement.

Try these out: Flow, react, catch, allow, give, drift…

But sometimes, either from a learned movement behavior, trauma, chronic injuries and pain, we lose our flow. Lose our dynamic control. Our only option becomes to tighten up to keep things safe. To protect.

You do not want to be practicing movement, trying to get stronger, or trying to add technique from a place of protection, tightening, and excessive control.

It’s a strange thing to consider, but when you stop trying to hang on for dear life, you become liberated.

Stillness is an illusion.

The feeling of stillness, it only lasts for a moment. And perhaps it’s just one part of your body that is more still, while other parts are moving, but because we’re so used to being always moving, the stillness at one segment stands out.

But to be completely still? Impossible.

Stability exists only relative to what’s moving.

Rather than try to force yourself to be still, completely controlled, accept that this does not happen. Something’s always moving, but something else is always moving less, or moving more slowly, in a more” controlled” way.

But really you’re not controlling, you’re allowing.

Like descending into a squat, we may feel feel that our feet and spine stay rigid, and our knees are held outward in a controlled and stable way, but in reality, they are moving, reacting to the larger movement at our hips and knees as they flex. They have less movement, and move more slowly, but they DO move, and their movement is important for this idea of dynamic control (control “of”).

Try this: Squat down without moving your spine, grip your feet, do not allow your knees to rotate in or out. What does that feel like? How does your depth feel? Restricted? Blocked?

And now try the same squat, but choose to let your knees move in or out slightly on the way down, let your spine arch or round, and let your feet roll in or out. Did you get more depth, feel less restriction, by allowing movement to happen?

This is where it is important to know your body: Know where your body needs more or less movement to create an illusion of stillness and control.

I discovered that, while squatting, if I actively round my back a little, posteriorally tilt my pelvis, allow my knees to roll in, pronate my feet, and shoot my knees forward, I appear to be descending in a “neutral” position, in complete control.

And it FEELS good. It feels like I’m in control. But I’m not “controlling” or stabilizing. I’m moving. A lot. I’m selectively choosing what to move more, what to let go of, what to move less, to create the illusion of a stable structure globally.

Some of you might feel pretty bad squatting the same way I described. Know your body!

It’s ok to let go of control. Stop trying to be so stable. It’s necessary in fact, to let go, and experience what dynamic ability you truly possess, so that you can train your body to use it at the most appropriate time.

Let go of “controlling”, and allow “control of”.

Stillness can only be created through movement.

Movement is life. Stillness is…

 

 

What Kind of Dancer Are You? How Recognizing Your Mental and Physical State Will Help You Get the Most Out of Your Cross-Training

For the past few years I consider myself fortunate to have worked almost exclusively with dancers as training clients. As an example, throughout this summer I’ve worked with 13 dancers and only 5 non-dancers. That ratio changes a bit during the fall when dancers are in-season and don’t need to cross-train as much, but I generally don’t ever see my ratio of dancer clientele drop below the 50% mark.

So yeah, you could say I see a lot of dancers in a day compared to the average person.

Not only that, but I get to see how good these dancers are at not-dancing. Out of their element. Just being humans. This last point is my mission: Get dancers to feel like well-functioning, strong human-beings outside the dance class.

You’d think that from working so frequently with this unique population I’d be able to slap together a dance-specific training program and have a breeze with it, making progress in an awesome linear way. In reality, this is far from the case.

I have tried my best to make such a program (for dancers who want to develop full-body strength to support their dance practice) in hopes that there are people out there who will actually get something out of it. Dance Stronger is a 4 week program that you can sign up for HERE for free. Look, it actually helped this person:

Hi Monika,

I came across your web site and blog in November, after a disappointing performance in which my legs felt shaky. I hit the gym, inspired by your site and the results have been awesome. I feel strong, powerful, and alive, and even after taking a month-long break from dance training and only going to the gym, returned to the studio with a strength and vigor I hadn’t known in recent history.
I love your straight-forward, courageous, no-nonsense assault on the damaging myths of the dance world. And the particular exercises you write about work, and are efficient—I love the psoas activating stuff, and the work on the glutes.

Rock on! I can at least feel semi-justified (and relieved) that some people have the ability to take a non-individualized program and get some initial benefits from it.

But that’s not enough for me. My German heritage demands utmost efficiency.

I used to try to logically create a program template for my new dance clients to follow, knowing that I would probably need to adjust the exercises- progressions and regressions- here and there. I still kind of do that.

What was so frustrating for me, though, was that despite knowing of the common patterns of muscle imbalances, injuries, training needs, etc, every single one of my dance clients are SO different. My “logical starting template” never worked. Sure I would get to the planned exercises eventually, but in a roundabout way that I could never predict. I didn’t like that.

It got to the point where I felt like I had no idea what I was doing- I would have this sensible-looking program in front of me to take the client through, but I would look at the dancer, and look back to the program, then back to the dancer, sigh and put the program down and do something completely different.

If my program said that in this session we were going to work on a plank variation, and my client can’t even focus enough to lie on her back and show me good breathing technique, we’re sure as hell not following the plan that day.

And maybe on another such occasion my handy plan states it’s time to work on lunges, but this dancer is so stiff through the hips that the lunge start position wasn’t possible, you bet we spent that day trying to get her range of motion back instead of lunging.

And this was happening every day despite my best efforts to plan. I felt that I was missing something huge.

I realize now that it wasn’t that I had made a “bad” program, but that the dancer wasn’t at a stage where they were ready for it, and I had failed to notice because I hadn’t properly screened for it. I feel that many dance-specific training methods have this same issue and are unaware that this is why so many dancers fail to make progress with their methods.

Have you ever, for example,  signed up for a pilates class, attended religiously, and still not made progress? Not noticed a difference in strength, control or an improvement in your dancing?  Strong chance it’s because you aren’t ready for that type of training yet. There’s something even more fundamental  and preparatory you are missing.

I can see now why I felt like I was floundering with some of my dancers, and was because I wasn’t taking into consideration that, for example, while one dancer might look like they’re doing a plank properly, they aren’t making progress anywhere else because something even more fundamental needed addressing first.

What’s more fundamental than a plank? Breathing…

I had skipped too many steps. I had assumed that all dancers have body awareness. That all dancers can learn movement quickly. And that all dancers will understand the importance of not cheating their way through an exercise and ignoring pain during movement. These things will elusively hold back their progress unless you screen for it.

I see now that there are a few types of dancer, each with varying degrees of readiness for exercise. Some are ready for hard work, some can’t even focus for 5 seconds on what I’m asking them to do.

It wasn’t that I was giving them a “bad” exercise plan, it just wasn’t the right type of plan. I hadn’t made  sure they were actually ready for it. Maybe there was something even more fundamental that needed addressing, like a lack of mobility at a particular joint, a lack of awareness of a particular element, or a even a change necessary in their state of mind.

I have identified (I think…) 3 types of dancer, and while I’m sure there are more than just 3  understanding what type you are, or you are trying to train in whatever method you work with (pilates, yoga, rehab, weight training, etc.), will help you to better determine what type of exercise or technique any individual dancer might need to progress most efficiently.

But this post is long enough for now so stay tuned for all that stuff tomorrow  ;).

Breathing and Bracing- Dance Edition

Breathing and Bracing- Dance Edition

I have a moderately German background. Hence my intense last name, Volkmar. I say “moderately German” because whenever I ask about my heritage I get vague answers like, “Well, your grandmother was a German Mennonite who lived in Russia (or vice versa?) and was also probably of Belgian ancestry, and your other grandmother was Swedish, but your Grandfather was born in Canada……..”, and so now I just say I’m Canadian. Very, very, Canadian.

The German in me likes efficiency. My definition of efficiency borders on synonymous to sheer laziness- Doing as little as absolutely necessary to get the best possible result.

I think when it comes to breathing, efficiency means breathing as much as you possibly can. Oxygen is the ultimate performance enhancing, mood enhancing drug. Take in as much as you can, baby. It’s legal! And free (for now…).

Deep, mindful breathing is scientifically proven (yay science!) to have so many health benefits and practical uses. If keeping your body alive isn’t a good enough incentive for you, here’s some more reasons to breathe better:

  • Dampens the body’s production of stress hormones (2)
  • Improved posture (the diaphragm is an important postural stabilizer, but more on that later) (1)
  • Eases various musculoskeletal aches and pains (more on that later, too) (3)
  • You get stronger (through activation of the deep trunk muscles, and use of the Valsalva maneuvre- which dancers don’t really need to do that often).
  • Individuals who suffer from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart issues can see benefits from breathing exercises (2)
  • Changes in gene expression (through the alteration of the body’s stress response) (2)

Is it any wonder that according to traditional yogic philosophy, proper breathing (pranayama) is one of the 5 important points (along with proper exercise, diet, relaxation and positive thinking).

Dance and yoga seem like similar activities, but they are really the polar opposite. Especially as it relates to breathing. Chief reason being that while yoga is alllll about breathing, dancers don’t breathe at all, and aren’t really taught how.

I remember being in The Nutcracker back in the day, and performing The Waltz of the Flowers. It was a long piece with multiple exits and entrances, and each time I would exit the stage I’d have to gasp for breath and cough up a lung because I had essentially performed high intensity exercise for 2+ minutes straight without breathing.

As a quick side note, I think it’s worth noting that high level dance perfomance is NOT aerobic activity. Telling a dancer to jog or bike at a steady state is not sufficient cross-training to prepare them for the rigours of a performance. Go read this, by Joel Minden (dancer, CSCS, Ph. D). He says smart things.

But anyway, the reasons dancers don’t breathe efficiently are numerous:

  • High anxiety levels (being a dancer is stressful, and performing is acutely so)
  •  Being told to “hold in your stomach!“, and “shoulders back!“, “kind of makes breathing… challenging.
  •  The high technical complexity of the art makes it easy to forget to breathe
  • Not being taught/lack of awareness. And no, “remember to breathe!” is not a sufficient cue for a teacher to give.
  • Tight accessory muscles, like the abdominals, chest, and neck restricting the diaphragm from doing it’s work (what’s a diaphragm?)
  • High stability demand (aka being on one leg and spinning) compromises diaphragmatic breathing (more on that in a bit).

In dance you actually need to  breathe a lot. It affects every aspect of your performance. In most cases you need to be in an extended position through your trunk, while bracing (or hollowing or whatever you wanna call it) the abdominals. Think arabesque. And then you need to breathe. And remember the choreography. And not fall on your face. And not look weird, awkward or scared. What’s a diaphragm??

There’s your diaphragm!

Enter, breathing and bracing. A concept that very few dancers (and people in general) understand. I myself haven’t mastered it (yet), but I theorize that learning this technique could improve nearly every element of your dance technique from balance, weight transfers, jumps, leaps, and just looking more aesthetically pleasing in general.

What is breathing and bracing? In a nut-shell, using your diaphragm and abdominals independently. Holding the core strong while still taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths.

As I alluded to, your diaphragm isn’t just for breathing– it plays huge role in postural stability. If you’re not using your diaphragm properly, you’re missing out on a whole world of fun stability challenges and choreographic possibilites! (and it makes sense that dancers who have good balance look more calm- Remember the anti-anxiety benefit associated with breathing?)

Dr. Jeff Cubos (who knows more about this whole “breathing and bracing” thing than I do) says:

It has been shown that in the presence of increased stability demand, the diaphragm contracts concentrically while specific abdominal musculature contract eccentrically during inhalation. During expiration, the roles of these muscles are reversed…As a result, faulty breathing patterns and inefficient core stability may lead to clinical conditions such as low back and pelvic dysfunction”. (3)

Sound familiar? Diaphragm doesn’t work properly, so the diaphragm’s buddies (ze spinal stabilizers) start working harder- the ilioposas, QL, spine erectors, and abdominals. So you get things like hip and low back dysfunction, and you get winded after petit allegro because you can’t get enough oxygen.

Maximal postural and respiratory efficiency is achieved (efficiency = minimal accessory muscle activity, or E = MA squared). (3)

Good ol’ efficiency. That’s a way better definition than mine.

THIS HERE is an excellent article by the Postural Restoration Institute, if you want to learn more about breathing and how, when dysfunctional and non-diaphragmatic, it can literally affect e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. that becomes the bane of your dancer existence. Like,

  • increases use of accessory muscles of inspiration
  • poor neuromuscular control of core muscles
  • increased lumbar lordosis
  • low back pain
  • increased lumbar-pelvic instability
  • thoracic outlet syndrome
  • athsma
  • MORE (seriously, read the article)

And this here is an exercise from Dr. Cubos that I am currently trying to master. It’s way harder than it looks, but I’ll be breathing like a champ in no time flat.

You’re basically trying not to asphyxiate yourself- Makes the learning curve pretty quick I’d say.

Alright, that’s all I have to say about that for now. More about breathing another time. For now, just try to be aware of it (and whether or not you actually breathe while you dance).

 

References

(1) http://posturalrestoration.com/media/pdfs/The_Value_of_Blowing_up_a_Balloon_3.pdf

(2) http://www.npr.org/2010/12/06/131734718/just-breathe-body-has-a-built-in-stress-reliever

(3) http://www.jeffcubos.com/2011/03/27/the-balloon-your-new-clinical-tool/

The SI Joint Whisperer Tells All (Part 2)

The SI Joint Whisperer Tells All (Part 2)

Lucky you! In part 2 of this epic tale of SI joint mastery, Bizz shares with you her favourite exercises to rekindle an old friendship with your SI joint. For those of you who missed part one, she pretty much explains how most of us, especially as dancers, have jammed and stuck SI joints that can cause a multitude of pains, in the lower back, knee, etc. She explains that the root of these mysterious pains are often a jammed SI joint, something which often eludes us, and she further explains how showing it some love can go a long way.

And now onwards to part 2! Lots of great exercises in here, and be sure to check out Bizz’s website to see full video explanations of all the moves.

 

PART TWO

Rehab – How can I be BFFs with my SIJs?

Disclaimer: While I have lots of personal and professional experience helping people heal their SIJs, I am NOT, in fact, a doctor. If these exercises help you, that is wonderful, but if they do not or if your pain gets worse, PLEASE see a medical professional – ideally one who has experience working with dancers.

I’ve provided a number of options for each step because I’ve found that every SIJ joint issue has a personality of its own, and different bodies respond better to different therapies. I recommend giving all of them a try to find which ones whisper the sweet nothings that your SIJs need to hear. The best course of defence against future issues in the SIJs is to do a little work on them every day, from a minimum of 5 up to an ideal-world 20 minutes, either all at once or a few times a day, as needed. Once you become familiar with the exercises and with the difference between the way a functional and dysfunctional SIJ feels, you’ll know what your body needs and when, and you can address any weird twinges before they throw off your alignment and set off a zigzag effect throughout your body.

 

Step 1: Loosen Up

Since so much SIJ drama is caused by tension, the first order of business is loosening the f#$% up (something most over-achieving dancers prefer not to do) (note from Monika- HAHAHA! So true).

This is as much mental as it is physical – you need to get into your happy place so that you can let go of the anxiety that pain and injury cause. In extreme cases, I often recommend a glass of wine to promote relaxation (you gotta do what you gotta do!).

Bouncing: with your feet parallel and shoulder width apart, bend your knees slightly making sure they point over your second toes, and simply bounce gently up and down, letting go of tension throughout your body. You can let your head roll side to side as you bounce, and try bouncing on one leg at a time while you stack your joints over one another from your feet to your head.

 

Pelvic Tilt: laying on your back with your feet hip width apart on the floor and your knees bent, gently tilt your pelvis towards your head, rocking your tailbone up off the floor and slightly flattening the curve in your low back. This is a subtle movement that wakes up your deep muscles, so you need to keep it small. Your obliques, transverse abs and adductor magni can rock your pelvis, but only if you relax your glutes and try not to push with your legs.

 

Step 2: Align

The second most important thing you can do to improve your SIJ function is to embrace inward hip rotation.Turnout is not your enemy, but over-reliance on turnout muscles is, so do yourself a favour and learn to love parallel feet, hip width apart. In yoga, the opposite of turnout is called ‘inner spiral’. A balance of inner and outer spiral appropriate to the body’s position is the key to SIJ stability. A great way to learn to use inner spiral is to use an image I call the “pelvic smile.”

 

Pelvic Smile: When you activate your pelvic smile, you turn on your deep abdominals and activate your inner spiral while releasing your outer rotators. To do it, imagine that you are able to look at a cross-section of your body, as though you were cut in half just below your navel at the level of your ASISs (the bony points at the front of your pelvis). A top view from here would reveal the two halves of your pelvis connecting at the SIJs in something like a semi-circle.

If you make your index finger and thumb into a semi-circle on each hand and connect them at the tips of your thumbs, you can simulate this image. Without proper alignment, your hip bones can feel (and your hands will look) kind of like a ‘W’. We want to make them into a ‘U’ or smile shape. To accomplish this, there are three main actions:

First, you will imagine widening across the back of your pelvis, pulling your low belly muscles in towards your sacrum (pulling your thumbs out to make a rounder shape) Next you’ll use your deep abdominals to narrow your ASISs (hip points) towards each other in the front of your pelvis (pull your index fingertips towards the centre to make your fingers perpendicular to your thumbs). The third action deals with the body in space. When you are standing, the pelvic smile (fingers and thumbs) should be parallel with the ground, and when you lie on your back the ASISs will point up towards the ceiling. When on your stomach, the pelvic smile forms a bridge from one hip point to the other, with the sacrum at the apex. When you are moving through space, the pelvic smile should move with you, maintaining its position between your head and your feet.

Once I experienced the magic of pelvic smile, I couldn’t help but do it everywhere – in the shower, while washing dishes, grocery shopping…. it works wonder to get you in alignment, and you’ll find that after a little practice, you’ll develop a smirk on your face to go along with it, one that says “bet you can’t guess where I’m smiling right now ;)”.

Step 3: Warm Up

Developing a mental picture of your pelvis by using imagery (such as the pelvic smile) will help you to understand what does and doesn’t work for your body. If the pelvic smile doesn’t work for you, there are lots more options – ask around or check out Donna Krasnow’s dancer-saving Conditioning with Imagery.

Muscles, like people, have trust issues, and when dancers focus all their attention on the outer rotators, the inner ones will weaken and retreat, sulking in a corner and refusing to do their jobs. Being an especially touchy and stubborn kind of joint, the SIJ responds better to attempts at realignment once it’s been flattered with a little attention, so be sure to warm up before you try any of the release techniques.

You will find the exercises below described in my free workout video “The Pilates Quick Fix on youtube (or visit my website to order a DVD). Here is a quick list of the most important exercises to improve your relationship with your SIJs, so if you don’t have time for the 25 minute video, you can choose the exercises you need the most.

Abs: Imprint

Multifidus: Cat/cow

Glute medius and Adductor magnus: Hip release

QL & Latissimus dorsi: Back extensions

Ilio-psoas: Hip fold

 

Step 4: Release

Retraining involves three things: releasing tense and spasmed muscles, strengthening weak ones, and then stretching and massaging to lengthen the short ones. Because SIJ dysfunction affects so many parts of the body, it would be inefficient to try and strengthen the weak muscles without first putting things back into place.

Releasing is not the same as stretching. While stretching involves pulling on the ends of a relaxed muscle to make it longer, releasing places the body in a position that brings the ends of a tense or spasmed muscle closer together so that the muscle can relax. It’s important to release before you strengthen (and before you stretch), because it will help maintain your alignment as you retrain your body.

Some people hold more tension in their piriformis, while others focus theirs in the glute medius or QL. Releases are best held for 3 minutes, but the longer you stay, the more your muscles will remember what it feels like to loosen the f$%# up.

Outward rotation (releases glute max & piriformis)

Laying on your stomach with feet hip width apart, bend the knee of the affected side so the shin is perpendicular to the floor. Take the bent knee out to the side, about 30-45 degrees from the midline of the body, and place the knee on top of a pillow or cushion. Now allow the foot of the bent leg to drop towards the straight leg, passively rotating outwards. You need to relax the entire leg on the affected side, so you’ll want to prop the foot against something so you don’t have to use your hamstrings to keep the leg bent. I like to do this in a doorframe or near a table, but a chair or stack of heavy books would also make a decent foot-stopper. Once you’re there, focus on breathing deeply and relaxing the outer rotators on each exhale. I also like to reach back and use my hand to give the butt muscles a good jiggle to make sure they’re loosening up. This one is way easier if you get a friend to help, but it can be done on your own when necessary.

 

Inward rotation (releases glute med & IT band)

 

Laying on your side (with the affected side on top), make sure your body is in one straight line from head to toes. Bring your top knee forward, at an angle of about 45 degrees to the body and place the entire shin on a pillow or bolster. Roll forward slightly so that your weight rests on the cushion (you might like to cuddle a pillow to your chest as well). Make sure the foot and shin of the bent leg are at the same height as the knee. Once again, breathe deeply and go to your happy place, and add a little jiggle if necessary.

 

Seated fourth (releases glutes, piriformis and IT band)

This one is a great quick release you can do just about anywhere, no props required. Sit in fourth position with the affected leg behind you (bend the unaffected leg in front of you as though you were going to sit cross-legged, with the unaffected leg curled around behind you near your butt). Align your upper body with the thigh bone of the back leg, and lean away from the leg and rest on your hand or elbow. While relaxing the glutes and thigh muscles of the back leg, massage the piriformis and glute med. I often twist and wiggle around some in this position to find the ideal spot for release.

 

 

Bolster release (SI and QLs, etc)

For this release you’ll need a prop that is at least 8-12” in length and not much wider than your SI dimples. A foam roller will do but you can also use a tightly-rolled yoga mat or a bolster if you want something softer. The roll will line up with your spine, and you will lay on it with the bottom at your tailbone. If your prop isn’t as long as you spine, you’ll want to cushion your head and upper body above its end. Once in position on top of your roller, bring the soles of your feet together and your knees out to the side. Place your hands on your hip bones and rock them gently side to side while thinking soft and happy thoughts about your glutes. You may feel a clunk or a shift, or you may not feel anything move, but either way this is a VERY effective release for the SI joint once the muscles surrounding it have chilled out.

 

Step 5: Strengthen

Now comes the business of strengthening those tense, weak inward rotators so that they feel equal to the outers and start doing their jobs. Don’t skimp on this part – you have probably spent more hours ignoring your inner muscles than you care to admit, and this is your chance to make it up to them. Although joints can be replaced these days, you can’t just trade in the ones you’ve got for ones that trust you more, so you and your SIJs might as well start talking about your feelings and working through your issues now.

 

Pilates is a very effective way to strengthen your deep core muscles and facilitate neuromuscular repatterning. Make sure to use your pelvic smile! Instructions for the exercises below can be found in my Quick Fix video.

Abs: Tic tocs, Ab curl

Multifidus: Back extensions

Glute medius: Clam shell

Adductor magnus: Butterfly

QL & Latissimus dorsi: Swimming, Arm & leg reach

Ilio-psoas: Hip fold (*try it with a straight leg, too)

 

Step 5.1 Re-release

In the beginning stages of retraining, old habits could pop up during strengthening and cause a spasm in the outer muscles. If this happens, don’t stress, just go back to step 4 and re-release them before you stretch.

 

Step 6: Stretch/Massage

Stretching and massaging is about balancing the resting length of your muscles. You need to lengthen your outer rotators to balance them with your inner ones so your SIJs can rest easily between the two. Because the SIJ’s range of motion is small and controlled by deep ligaments, muscles and fascia, stretches won’t be able to get at all the structures that need attention. Massage (using props for those hard to reach places) will dig down into them, basically reverse-stretching them in the way you would roll out a pie crust.

Yoga is a great way to stretch while maintaining proper alignment and activation of your postural muscles. You will find instructions for most of these poses in my Hippy Hippy Shake videos (or see YogaJournal for step-by-step basics). And don’t forget to use your pelvic smile!

Downward dog

Chair pose (with twists)

High and low lunge (with twists)

Warrior 2

Side angle

Triangle

Pigeon

Fire log

Cobra

Bound angle

As for massage, a pair of hard rubber bouncy balls are ideal for getting into the deep structures around your SIJs (tennis ball size is good, but I find tennis balls themselves to be too soft and slippery). (Note from Monika- You can get a lacrosse ball for four bucks from Canadian Tire). Place them on either side of your spine and roll up and down against a wall for a nice deep massage. You want to avoid rolling over your spine, instead focus on the muscles and tendons. Make sure you get down into the glutes, and even turn sideways to get the entire glute medius and the IT band.

I’d love to hear how these exercises work for you, and I’d be happy to answer your questions on becoming BFFs with you SIJs, so feel free to drop me a line at bizzvarty@gmail.com. And as a nerdy bonus that doubles as a workout soundtrack, check out the classic Canadian tune “Let Your Backbone Slide” in which Maestro Fresh-Wes gives a shout-out to the SIJ just before the 3 minute mark. Holla!

BONUS #1:

BONUS #2: 

Check out the free 30 Day Core Challenge. It’s a great way to get back in touch with the fundamentals of “core” (do you know what they are?). All you need to do is make time every day for a few minutes of practice for 30 days. Simple 🙂