Thursday, June 18, 2009
The following is excerpted from an article I wrote for the Classical Dressage Journal a few years ago. It was titled "Learning to Improve". Although written for riders, it has more universal applications.
"Many riders would like to improve their seat, suppleness, core strength, stamina, and coordination. All of these elements are important for riding, but it is the brain and nervous system that organizes the various elements for action, and to improve this organization requires time, attention, and development of the ability to sense and discern.
I am not a rider, yet I help riders to improve. My background includes over 40 years of science and engineering, and I have taught martial arts for over 30 years. It has been my experience as a teacher that, in order to improve performance, the individual must be aware not just of what
they are doing, but how
they are doing it. To that end, I have found the lessons of Feldenkrais Method®
, created by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, to be invaluable.
“We act in accordance with our self image.” This statement is the opening sentence of the book Awareness Through Movement®
by Dr. Feldenkrais. The implications of those few words are huge, for they imply that the self image influences every action. And where does this self image come from? Part of it is hereditary, part of it comes from the culture and society into which you are born, and part comes from your own experience or “self education”. There is not much that you can do about heredity or birthplace, but, clearly, self education is in your own hands.
How do we learn anything? Basically, we learn by observing differences. Can you remember the first time you tried to ride a bicycle? I say “tried” because I doubt that you simply got on the bicycle and rode away on the first attempt. Perhaps it took you days? Or weeks? Or did you have training wheels? Or did you need someone to walk beside you on the bicycle and steady it? And then, one day, you were able to do it, and you probably remember to this day the feeling of elation that accompanied that joyous event. In the beginning, riding was an impossibility, yet later it was nothing extraordinary. And so, what changed? In fact, you were able to ride as soon as you were able to eliminate most of the things that were interfering with riding. In other words, the inability arose not from a lack of basic skills but from doing too much.
How would you characterize the movements of a master, a master of anything: a martial arts master, a master of dressage, a world class dancer, or a master carpenter or plumber? In each case, they have things in common. They make the activity appear effortless, easy. And the reason it looks so easy is that there is no wasted, superfluous effort. They do only what is required and not one thing more. Efficient movement and absence of effort go hand in hand. The human brain and nervous system are so constructed that anything we do well is not perceived as an effort. The difficulty is that many of us are so accustomed to using our willpower to accomplish our goals that, unawares, we habitually do much more than is required. When we “make an effort”, we think that we are acting correctly, but often we end up producing precisely the opposite of what we intended. There are other consequences to doing too much. Suppose two people of equal size and weight decide to go for walk. Now, basic physics tells us that if you move the same mass over the same distance you perform the same amount of work and should use the same amount of energy. However, when you measure the actual energy expenditure, you find that one person uses more, sometimes much more, than the other. Where did it go? It went into heat and friction within the system, wear and tear in the muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints. In the short term, the system recovers, but, move that way for decades and you can imagine the results (or perhaps you have already experienced them?)
To return to the bicycle analogy, how much did watching someone ride a bicycle help you learn to ride a bicycle? Or did you go to a school that taught bicycle riding? I do not wish to imply that it would be wrong to seek out a teacher. If you wanted to compete in the Tour de France, you could try to figure out everything yourself but more likely you would need someone to assist you with strength and endurance training, mental conditioning, and the like. A skilled teacher can greatly accelerate a student’s progress, but the student must be able to sense and feel for the teacher to be truly effective.
The principles embodied in the Feldenkrais Method are useful for improving both learning and neuromuscular organization. The Method has been used for decades by athletes and performing artists to improve performance and reduce injury. Tennis great Martina Navratilova, basketball's Julius Irving, violinist Yehudi Menuin, and country music star Willy Nelson are just a few of the recognizable names that have studied Feldenkrais Method
. For the past few years I have been providing lessons to small groups of riders and all have seen improvement, and their horses have improved as well. The lessons are simple to do and require no special equipment; an example is provided in the following paragraphs.
A Lesson in Awareness
The following exercise can be useful for freeing the hip joints and organizing the pelvis to support the spine, thereby freeing the head and neck. Wear comfortable, loose fitting clothing, go slowly, and rest often. Remember that the quality of the repetitions is more important than the number. The lesson should be done on a flat surface. A pad or mat may be used as long as it does not provide too much cushioning.
Please lie on your back and take a moment to notice how you are contacting the floor. Observe the parts of yourself that are lying comfortably on the floor and those that are less comfortable, or not on the floor at all. Do not attempt to change or correct anything, simply observe, so that you will have something to compare to as the lesson progresses.
Put both feet standing on the floor about shoulder width apart. Picture the face of a large clock with 12 at the top, 6 at the bottom, 3 to the right, and 9 to the left. Imagine that the clock face is in the floor and that your pelvis is lying on it. The 12 is in between your legs just beyond your tail bone, the 6 is just above your waist, the 3 lies to the right side of the pelvis, and the 9 to the left. Begin by slowly pressing the lower back to the floor, causing the pelvis to move in the direction of 6 o'clock. After several movements, do the opposite: increase the arch in the lower back, protrude the abdomen, and rock the pelvis towards 12 o'clock. Now alternate between the two hours, moving smoothly from 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock and back. Rest.
Once again move the pelvis in the direction of 12 o'clock. From there move smoothly in an arc through 1 o'clock, to 2 o'clock and then to 3 o'clock. Pause there and retrace your path from 3 o'clock to 2 o'clock to 1 o'clock to 12 o'clock. Rest for a moment and then do it again. See if it is possible to visit each hour in turn, without hurrying. Once the path from 12 to 3 is clear, add an hour. So, the next time you will travel from 12 o'clock to 4 o'clock and back. Keep adding an hour until you make a complete clockwise circle. Notice that some hours are clear, easy to find, while others are more difficult to locate. Note also where the movement of the pelvis is easy and where it is not and see if you can reduce the effort in the difficult places. Make two complete circles and then rest.
Repeat the previous sequence but, instead of moving from 12 o'clock to 3 o'clock, move from 12 o'clock to 9 o'clock and back. Once that path is clear begin adding an hour until you make a full counter clockwise circle. Notice that the hours that were easy or difficult in the clockwise direction are not necessarily the same when moving counter clockwise. After you have made two complete counter clockwise circles, rest. Pay attention to your contact with the floor. You may find that various parts are lying more comfortably on the floor, and that there is more overall contact with the floor than at the beginning.
Return to moving from 12o'clock to 6 o'clock and back and notice what happens to your head during the movement. As the pelvis moves towards 12 o'clock, the nose moves down and the chin comes a bit closer to the throat and, as the pelvis moves in the direction of 6 o'clock the nose goes up and the chin moves away from the throat. The pelvis is connected to the head via the spine and so a movement of the pelvis can produce a corresponding movement in the head (although it is certainly possible to inhibit it). Return to making clockwise circles with the pelvis and see if you can allow the head to follow the movement of the pelvis and also make a circle. After making a few clockwise circles, rest for a bit and then make them in the counter clockwise direction. Once again rest, and observe your contact with the floor.
Slowly come up to sit, and then to stand. Walk around for a bit and notice if anything is different. Do you feel taller, or shorter? Is your head in its usual place relative to your breastbone, or is it more lifted, as if to look to the horizon? When the hip joints are free to move in all of their articulations, the pelvis can support the spine and the head can be free.
There is value in practicing this lesson in orientations other than lying. For example, the pelvic circles could be done while sitting Indian style, or sitting with the soles of the feet together and the hands on the floor behind. Similarly, one could imagine a pencil stuck to the top of the head and trying to draw circles on the ceiling with it. The movement can be generated mostly by the pelvis, or mostly by the upper spine, or by some combination of the two. For a real challenge, try making a circle of the pelvis in one direction while making a circle with the head in the opposite direction (it is possible).
One of my students is a champion skydiver and he and some friends were traveling by plane to New Zealand from the east coast of the USA. He asked me if there was anything they could do to keep from getting stiff and sore during the flight and I recommended that they do this lesson for 5 or 10 minutes each hour. After 26 hours in the air, he and his friends were the only ones walking normally upon arrival. I hope you find this lesson useful as well."