Hi – I’m happy to welcome you to my blog. It’s a place where I write to you catching up with recent thoughts in CORE care bodywork. If you would like to contact me, please click here. Again, welcome.
Years ago in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, one of my students (I believe it was you, Heather Huber!) watched me working on a model, and saw how I tried to pay attention to the entire body, no matter where I was working with that client. She observed me, then said, “I see what you’re doing; think globally, act locally.” Bingo! The old environmental slogan applies, and marvelously, to bodywork. It’s something I’ve drilled into students since, and it’s currently resurging in a large way, as I realize how much more can be accomplished with a body when we keep the client present in the entire global situation instead of just the small patch where we’re working.
I remember an old country song whose tag line said something like “…but your heart’s not in it, and I don’t want your body if your heart’s not in it.” Exactly! If the client has checked out, or has run away, or is fighting me, I can’t get much done. But the interesting bit is that if I watch closely, I’ll see the client may be present with me and accepting work in the costal arch, or the feet, or the neck, or wherever I’m working, but another part of their body is defending against my touch. Their heart’s not in it, and globally, they’re hiding from me.
Once, I was young. We smoked some cheap marijuana and were constantly worried about getting ‘busted’. We’d have a place to hide our goodies, which we called our ‘stash’. It seems to me that many of us hide our goodies, and ‘stash’ them somewhere in the body to defend and therefore not release when we’re challenged.
And my point is: A good bodyworker will look at, feel, sense, and intuit what else is going on up and down the line of the body; not just right on the spot where they’re working. A good bodyworker can put fingers in the costal arch, or the tibialis posterior, or the neck, and notice the client has stopped moving and breathing in the other end of the body or somewhere in the middle. Various tools can tell us this is so: we might feel or see the lack of breath movement. We might see that little ‘flick’ in the corner of the eye that tells us someone is struggling mightily. We might see fists curling up, or inner arches sucking into the stomach. We might see the low back lifting off the table or couch; we might see the chin reach toward the sky as the back of the neck tightens. We might notice that breath has stopped entirely. These are some of the easy-to-read signals. As a practitioner, closing eyes and trying to determine what body part has stopped participating can be difficult when one begins, but the longer one works with the concept, the better the practitioner becomes at reading the entire body, not just the part under the fingers or elbow or knuckles or hands. Becoming aware of the small and subtle signals can allow us to take clients to a far more productive level.
Recently, I blogged about Ida Rolf supposedly saying that maturity is the ability to discern finer and finer distinctions. This is absolutely true for bodyworkers—the more they can discern when a client is holding against their touch, and where, the more they can coax that client into finding, identifying and releasing that holding pattern.
I’ve long taught that stretching a rubber band from one end only just doesn’t work. One needs to stretch from both ends. If one twists the ends while stretching, even more movement occurs. If one puts a hand or foot in the middle of that band while stretching, even more happens. We’re like that rubber band in our bodies; the more we learn to stretch in more directions while working that client, the more we’re likely to get movements we’d never dreamed could happen. And the more we keep clients present to the places they’re trying to ‘stash’ their tension, the more tension can be released. The more we practice this simple environmental formula, the better we become at our body craft. If we think global while working local, great things can happen in terms of release and resolution of client bodies. So remember to look at, feel, observe, intuit the entire picture when working on the specific problems.
Lately I’ve been remembering a quote that either Peter Melchoir or Emmett Hutchins attributed to Ida Rolf: “Maturity is the ability to discern finer and finer layers of distinction.” (This is as I remember; it may be slightly differently worded). I’ve been sharing it with students and clients quite a bit over the past month, because right now, it feels very important to me personally. Similar to a fine craftsman who puts his or her best work on creating the flawless finish, I’m more interested in showing clients, but more importantly myself, how to achieve finer and finer distinctions in my body.
I’ve mentioned to students that somewhere around 15—20 years into my practice, I looked at a picture of psoas, iliacus and quadratus lumborum, deep muscles of front of back and hips. Though I’d been looking at it for perhaps 15 years, I realized that though I’d been looking for all that time and teaching from it for a long while, I hadn’t realized the quadratus was so deep as to attach to the front of transverse processes as well as to the tips and back! Maturity.
In my own body, this attempted maturity currently translates in two major ways. First, I’m aware my left foot doesn’t like weight in the middle toes. I’ve been experimenting with adding weight to the front of that foot, with the result that I feel springier in that foot and leg. Maturity.
Likewise, my right foot has its own pattern. I prefer to turn it out slightly as I walk and stand, and the inner arch is higher than the left. This height translates into a pulling all the way into the adductors, groin, and a couple of sites of surgeries on my right side from years gone by. And, when I twist my body and arms to the right with weights in my hands, the right arch pulls up even further from the floor…unless I mind it, and ask it to stay grounded. Maturity.
So, currently I’m asking students to sharpen their observation skills….to learn to watch the entire client body to see more maturely where that client is holding, hiding and defending when they receive work. I challenge them to make their clients more mature in their bodies. If I’m teaching to students, I obviously need to learn for myself as well….still. So with my clients I challenge myself to get more mature, more aware, more subtle, more in tune with who they are (and who I am). I seek maturity for everybody that crosses my path.
The above title seems to describe life perfectly for me these days….on so many levels. I hope to share how this is true for me.…exploring the sense of this marvelous nervous pathway we’re just beginning to understand and believe in its power, control, and determination of our total health or lack of it….being deliberately vague: not wanting to be anyone’s authority but my own, yet happily exploring all that intrigues me without being overwhelmed by the many choices one could choose to serve…..sharing what I’ve found, when asked, and being satisfied if I’ve instilled a question as well as an answer, occasionally.
The vagus nerve is getting more and more buzz, and happily and rightly so. Stephen Porges has broken ground with his book The Polyvagal Theory (2011, Norton & Co, NY, NY). I’m working through the book for the first time currently, and will get more of what I need on the second read, but so far I’m most impressed with my basic understanding of his theory. If what you read in this article doesn’t seem right, don’t blame Porges! I’m slogging through, beginning to pick up understanding, and am fascinated.
We need to start by realizing that the vagus isn’t simply one nerve, but a wandering and disparate bunch, which can be classified primarily as autonomic: sympathetic/parasympathetic, but also as dorsal/ventral. The theory begins for me with the realization that it’s the only cranial nerve to truly descend into the body, where it pretty much manages all our automatic functions. Wow. That’s an amazing start. It’s some VERY important communication between head, heart, gut, and groin. Even more interesting is that direction of impulses is directed primarily towards the brain, not from the brain to the body. The brain lives in every cell and constantly processes information from many of them.
So the autonomic system includes sympathetic, which controls action in response to signals received: fight or flight being chief among them. The parasympathetic system, mainly about resting and digesting, is also the shut down or play dead mechanism….the freeze or play possum default. It’s easy to rev up the sympathetic tone, and can take longer to turn it down, or to allow parasympathetic tone to rise. We get stuck in fight or flight and find it harder to relax and find neutral. Our vagal brake is meant to do this work, and it works better when we remember to deep breathe, meditate, be mindful, etc. There is no fast way to inherently slow down the sympathetic tone or stimulate parasympathetic tone, except for the vagal braking system.
Polyvagal gets interesting when we begin to learn that each spinal column has four management centers, and that different centers control disparate reactions to stress. So we can choose an action: to fight, or to run away. That’s activated by the nucleus ambiguous (NA) and the sympathetic nervous system which is associated with dealing with challenges from outside the body, our environment. But the older, more mammalian way of coping with such a stress is to exhibit no sign of life. It’s operated by a different system in the brainstem, the DNMX or dorsal motor nucleus (in the dorsomedial medulla), also seen as the dorsal vagal complex. So when we want to escape by faking death, we’re activating the dorsal vagus; when we’re trying to act in some manner to defend or flee, we’re activating the ventral vagus. (It’s helpful to realize that parasympathetic or PNS is most concerned with promoting functions associated with growth and restoration, while sympathetic or SNS is most concerned with increasing outputs to deal with threats from outside).
Interestingly, we ‘evolved’ mammals have an even newer system, a myelinated vagus also coming from the nucleus ambiguous inhibits the sympathetic system and allows us to process, reason, communicate, and choose. This is also in the ventral vagal complex, and it’s associated with emotion. This system takes us to the amygdala, the integrative center for emotions, behavior and motivation….all sensations go through the amygdala. I think it’s this system that creates so much havoc in our health and lives, and the one I’m interested in learning how to help people ‘reset’ so they can get out of their vagal brake response and carry on with life! Do you begin to see why good neck work and good stomach work are so important as therapists?
Heart rate variability (HRV) and/or respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) can be measured to show that healthy individuals have higher HRV. The core measurement for HRV is measuring the beat-to-beat variability….a greater span is healthier. It seems that high HRV individuals have some way of resetting their vagus nerves, shaking out their fight/flee/freeze mechanism, and remaining healthy and resilient. I believe it’s this evolution of the ventral vagus that causes us to be resilient, or not. Again, breath is important to healthy HRV, which also contributes to better circulation, less inflammation, lower blood pressure, and lower cortisol levels. Proper vagal brake which shuts down the sympathetic system and raises the parasympathetic, contributes to this enhanced HRV. Increasing HRV and vagal braking can improve brain function as well!
Now, what got me interested in this work was a quote from Porges in an interview quite a few years back: “….the pivotal/critical point is, can we get people to feel safe?” This is health, this is healing. And we’re finally, finally beginning to understand how critical vagal health is for all health.
If a nerve can start at the base of the brain, meander through the entire trunk and regulate the automatic functions of all the organs and systems, as well as instantaneously choose reactions that create the ability to maintain homeostasis or condition of smooth sailing—that nerve is vital to vitality! And as we’re finally beginning to sense what it’s about, how do we train ourselves to allow homeostasis instead of creating fear in every moment?
I maintain some of us are addicted to ‘fight’, or to ‘flee’, or to ‘play dead’. It seems to me, that too many of us choose one or other of these mechanisms to be our default switch, allowing us to feel alive by hooking into the adrenal system and overloading it in our desire to feel something. Many of us have chosen to strive for success; we fight for it. Others of us meander the path, waiting to see if success wants to find us…we run away. Still others move through life as quietly and unassumingly as possible, trying to not be seen….playing dead. And most of us have used all three of these systems from time to time, and perhaps/hopefully in a healthful and helpful way, to cope….because they are coping mechanisms. That’s what they’re there for! But we prefer not to get stuck in any one of them. That’s where I believe we’ve failed; how are we creating safety for the clients who visit us? How do we instill in them a sense of rest, of homeostasis, or a purring machine that takes them where they want to go? How do we find that for ourselves?
This is where Porges and Peter Levine intersect….Levine’s work of Somatic Experiencing (Waking the Tiger, 1997, North Atlantic, Berkely and In An Unspoken Voice, 2010, ibid) crosses the bridge between physiology and psychology as he asks clients to experience their stuck trauma but focus on body sensation as they do so. When a person can find the stimulus that still feels like a trauma, then learn to lessen the traumatic feeling by paying attention to the entire body until the trauma or tension dissipates, they’re resetting that vagal pathway, clearing out the old signals, and moving forward. We’ve forgotten how to do that.
How and why does this affect me, as a bodyworker? First, partly because I now think of myself as treating bodymindcore whenever a client comes to me….one can’t discount all the crazy-making behaviors of self and others as we try to negotiate this unsafe planet. I want to help people stay present in their trauma, face it in a dose they can manage, and learn to release it. I find that I both want to better understand the workings of the nervous system, then get better at soothing those nerves as I work with the body medium. I also want to understand the vagal system, learn to respond in the chest and stomach at an appropriate layer, and encourage clients to ‘let it go’. It’s holy work I get to do!
Remember how a child can fall, scrape a knee, and get Mom to kiss it and make it better? We need to find that talent, instill that ability to shake it out and go on, and remember to do similar work for ourselves. We need to help our vagal system understand what’s truly dangerous, what’s not, and how to move forward after evaluating danger, without being stuck in one of the unwanted patterns of fighting, running, or playing dead—all of which contribute to survival, but not in every moment. When we learn this technique for ourselves, we become better therapists for our clients.
I remember a cartoon when I was very young; a couple of torturers from medieval times were plying their trade in their chamber. One victim was on the rack, and as one torturer twisted the lever to make him stretch out even more, the other said to him “Careful, Frank, you’re stretching a good thing too far!” It’s an interesting take on a fairly common phrase or idea; don’t take a good stretch past its ‘this is good for me’ space, because the space after that can be damaging.
Personally, I experienced this for myself—again—this past winter when I took three weeks for myself to stretch my body. I probably devoted 4—6 hours every day to pretty intensive stretching time. As I worked, I felt quite good about the bits of my body that were waking up. The low back, source of much of my original trauma and still a place that gives me trouble, began to ache sharply. I blessed the pain and was glad it had come to show me how to eradicate it. Trouble was, I couldn’t eradicate it, and it stayed….and stayed. Finally, several months later, with some more subtle stretching on my part and a good piece of work from students in one of my basic courses, my back is reasonably happy again. But this experience reminds me to practice what I preach, and to preach the idea that we can overdo anything, including working on ourselves to improve.
For years I’ve been advising clients on the difference between ‘achievement mode’ and ‘exploration mode’. I imagine you can guess which one makes sense to me; it’s simple common sense that while achievement is good, exploration of one’s pain, restrictions, and fears is more likely to help one work through those problems than deciding to bludgeon the problem over the head with more, deeper, faster work. I realized even as I was overworking that I was pushing myself too hard. It just seemed right to have the time to really pull things apart; unfortunately, I pulled so hard the whole cloth came to pieces and it took some time to get things back together!
I’ve got no beef against achievement, and in fact, have achieved quite a bit in my life. I don’t believe we should all be satisfied with where we are all the time; I do believe we should be satisfied with the progress we’re making. I’ve long thought if some worm millions of years ago had adapted the affirmation “I am satisfied”, we wouldn’t be having these conversations in our sophisticated heads. So satisfaction comes for me with the proviso that there’s always more to accomplish. BUT, accomplishing changes in proper time means allowing changes to occur instead of forcing them to happen. It’s the way I try to work in my bodywork, and it’s the cue I give more and more clients when they’ve had a good realization in their situation….”Now go home and PLAY with those changes.”
Years ago I realized a new client basically had no breath at all; I’d ask for an in breath, and could count a very weak count of two. I suggested to him that as he was an achiever, I’d like to see him achieve a breath of five counts. It worked; he finally got, and kept, a longer breath. So occasionally I’ll throw about that word, achieve….but primarily when I say to an over-achiever: “Now, you’re an achiever, so tonight I’d like you to go home and experiment with achieving relaxation. I’d like you to put on a CD and listen to two songs while simply lying on the floor and breathing. Don’t think about other stuff, don’t sort the mail, or make lists, or multi-task in any way. Simply lie there, focus on the music and your breath to achieve relaxation. Do you think you can achieve that? Sometimes I see the light bulb go on when we discuss achievement and relaxation in those terms.
Too many of us still seem to see the world and all its parts as things that must be conquered, achieved, and defeated. I still prefer the term ‘explored’….to me, one can achieve relaxation by exploring the situation, the body, the group, the world, while making it all right to land where one lands without judgment of the quality of the trip that got one there. So, go and explore!
Recently I was talking to my daughter, who, like me, seems to lead a charmed life, even when things are going particularly badly. Somehow, we seem to manage to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat on many occasions. Why is that, I wonder? The more we thought about this interesting question, the more we decided it’s because, for whatever reason, we both believe in living our lives by the title of this post. We work to show up with an open heart; to remain open to the good in a situation or a person, to look for and expect that something wonderful is planning to happen to us even when we can’t see it, and to allow life’s goodness to flow through us.
I can’t say my entire life has been easy (whose has been?) but I can say some amazing opportunities have presented themselves to me, and that often, I’ve been intelligent enough or open enough to take advantage of them. Some people might see growing up fairly poor on a working farm as a disadvantage; I see it as a tremendous plus! Not that I ever want to butcher a hog or cow again, but I could do it if I must; and make sausage, and plant a garden, and build a fence, and milk a cow, etc, etc. My background has prepared me for lots of interesting life experiences.
Others might look at the plane wreck that broke my back severely in 1987, causing me to be paralyzed for awhile, and having a spinal fusion and rods installed in my back, and choose to believe my productive life was over. I chose to see a new opportunity to learn more about bodies, trauma, and how to overcome trauma in the body. In some ways, that wreck was the real beginning of my learning and living. I’m reasonably sure I could have lived on disability for the rest of my life. How would that have served me? Or anyone else? It’s been so rewarding to use that accident as a springboard to ever-increasing learnings. I am so lucky!
Likewise, my daughter seems to have ‘it’. She’s had her share of hard knocks in her life, but we both seem to believe that what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger. I’m happy to report that through all the rough patches she’s kept her sanity and her sense of humor, and she’s actually beginning to really achieve her goals in life.
I think it comes back to the title. I think too many of us try to shut down our heart energy. Why? Perhaps because of early abuse, physical or emotional, that caused us to want to make a smaller target by shrinking and stooping forward to protect our hearts. Perhaps our work situation is such that we must sit at a computer, or drive a lot, or work with people we can’t enjoy or trust. Many physical and emotional problems cause us to pull ourselves forward and try to hide our hearts. If and when we can choose to keep that heart hinge open, and expect that there’s good waiting to happen in our lives, I believe we magnetize that good to us!
In the past I’ve suggested to clients that they might want to start practicing allowing their heart to be the first body part that reaches out into the world. Several have burst into tears and said, “I could never do that.” I remember one woman who said, “Well, I won’t do that, but I’ll allow myself to think about it.” To me, even this small step is a step in the right direction. What would life look like if we could allow ourselves to face it with a full and open heart, more of the time?
I believe by expecting good things to come our way, and therefore NOT protecting ourselves against the bad things that might come, or the good things that are disguised as bad things, we can get a lot more joy from our lives. I believe making the simple decision to allow our hearts to arrive first, to ‘wear our heart on our sleeve’, and to live with our ‘heart in it’, will give us a richer, fuller life; even if that life sometimes or even often feels harried or unhappy. We’re alive, and when we allow ourselves to be fully alive and act as if life is meant to be enjoyed, it often is so!
Therefore, I invite you to consider showing up with an open heart. You don’t necessarily have to expect good things to happen in every moment; you just have to begin to stop judging events and people as ‘good for you’ or ‘bad for you’, and allow yourself to experience each of them for the learning, the lesson, and the joy they bring. Lead with your heart, and see where it takes you!
I’ve just returned from three weeks in paradise; a day traveling on each end, but three full weeks of doing and being nothing but everything. Perhaps I’ve never allowed myself quite as long, as deep, or as painful but healing a process. This vacation has pushed me to vacate old spaces by taking time out to find out who I am and where I fit in time and space.
The reality that this was a different vacation hit when I noticed which small things were missing for me: I forgot to bring paper! As I’d brought along a few items, I tore up the paper wrappings in the boxes to make writing paper, and happily worked on morning pages until I ran out of my one pen! And it took two days to replace it! No pen, no paper, no work is happening here. I also forgot camera battery charger and cords to plug camera into computer. No photos or blogs this trip.
In other words, from the very beginning, this trip shouted to me that I was supposed to be moving slowly, not creating goals and projects, but simply to slow down, stretch with awareness, and BE. That’s been a challenge, but a very rewarding one, and I think I’ve risen to it.
So, the ‘work’ of this trip: Movement, stretching, breath awareness, and allowing the sensations that come from the movement and stretching. I’ve been amazed at how many deep line places are still holding, and in fact, believe I’ve reached new areas which have been traumatized for years, and are beginning to think about change. Each day consisted of coffee in the morning with morning pages; then preparation and a four mile walk up a glorious beach to the section where very few people bother to stop—an amazing fact, given how much prettier my stretch of beach is compared to most, and how much less crowded. I see so many people looking for their ‘spot’; I just find one and sit in it, and I’m satisfied.
Why don’t more people stop and take that free time to find out who they are? As I said, I walk my four miles, find the same tree, unpack my things, and sit in the shade of that tree for five or six hours. I move into the sun and the water for stretching and exercises, and while I’m sitting in the shade mostly I stretch. I also watch people to see two interesting things. First, everybody is going somewhere, mostly fast. They seem to be looking for their little perfect stretch of beach. Well there isn’t one left! Therefore, whatever you find that’s close to perfect is perfect enough. Yet most people never stop, just walking by with set faces, achieving the length of beach and never enjoying the scenery! Crazy.
Second, oh my, such bodies we’ve created! I’d have to say at least half the people on the beach are overweight. I’ve enjoyed noticing that several overweight women and men are quite attractive even with their extra weight, and some carry it very comfortably. But most, many of us, drag 50 pound bellies in front of us. Again, the Ida Rolf injunction to carry head up and waist back makes so much sense. What causes each of us to have such a short low back, and therefore a dumped out belly? I’m agreeing with Stephen Porges, author of The Polyvagal Theory, when he says, “The pivotal point is, can we get people to feel safe?” I think this is truly what we’re trying to achieve. So, here’s me, sitting on the beach, stretching, moving, breathing, dancing, and watching so many unhappy, unlived in bodies!
And don’t get me started on the way many people don’t seem to want to allow their feet to touch the ground. It’s interesting to watch a person walking the length of a long beach and realizing that they don’t like letting their feet touch the ground! I think we’re back on safety, again.
More and more my attention focuses on the creation of safety. I realize for me, Jamaica has a factor of uncertainty….one doesn’t truly know the nature of some of the people one connects with during a day. The ability to feel safe and able to take care of self has been invaluable! I love being in my room at night; perhaps the door open to my balcony so I can see/hear the night unfolding. Mainly I feel I’ve been out challenging the day; then come in at night to a locked up sanctuary where I hear a wilder world, but I’m secure in my space. More stretching, more writing, more reflection, and less achievement!
Probably the biggest learnings of the trip for me have been rememberings instead of learnings: for example, remembering to stretch self to an interesting block, then to take three deep and intentional breaths into that block. It’s amazing what I believe has dissolved with this simple procedure.
Second, add stretch up and down the line. I was primarily interested in loosening the tissues around my fused spine from T10—L3. I found I truly did create more movement there, especially when I related what was happening in low back to toes/ankles/hips/neck and shoulders. The longer the line I pretended I was able to chase and stretch, the more effectively I believe I stretched everything. Satisfying.
Third, again, out of achievement mode and into exploration. I found that going to a more deserted part of beach, allowing myself to be vulnerable in the sunshine, finding my hidden pains, and exposing them to the light of day, has given me a far smoother machine than the one I brought.
Well, thoughtsthoughtsthoughts keep coming, but the gist of this trip has been: Go inside. Go deeper inside. Stay there. Look around. Change something. What a joyful journey it’s been for me.
Nearly two years ago, I traveled to Hawaii for a six day workshop with my mentor Emmett Hutchins. Emmett was assisted in the course by Isaac Osborne from Caifornia, and the concept was four handed work. Most of what we did in the course wasn’t new to me, and in many ways the affirmation from the course was simply that I needed to continue the path I’m traveling and allow my Rolf roots to continue to nurture me while growing in another direction. The piece that most pleased me, however, was seeing Emmett himself and paying homage to him, his work, and his embodiment of his work.
For the past forty years or so, 82 year old Emmett (give or take a year or two) hasn’t sat in a chair with a back! By sitting without back support, he’s trained his spine to believe that straight is comfortable. Too many of us lean back into our chair backs. Therefore, we’re putting our weight into both the back and the back side of our sitting bones—what I think of as the ‘heels’ of our sitting bones. Just as I prefer us to think of standing slightly in our toes as opposed to our heels, so I think we should sit more in our toes and less in our heels. Emmett does this, and has been doing for over forty years! Remarkable.
Recently while pondering this idea of sitting without support, I found another important piece for me. I’ve realized that if I sit in my backless chair, or sit without touching the back of my chair, foot position is also important. When I place my feet slightly behind where they’d normally go, behind my knees, I’m in my toes of my feet too; even though I’m sitting, I’m in my toes. As I sit with the toes touching the ground and the heels off the ground I can feel myself using the toe and ankle hinges. To me, this is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves—to use our toe and ankle hinges more fully. This toe work exercises all the calf muscles in a way little else does. I’ve long believed the deepest muscle of the calves, the tibialis posterior, is critical to good overall health, and that most of us don’t exercise it or even know we have one! When we sit backless, with toes in a flexed and moving position and exercise the calves, we’re creating fluid and resilience all through the body.
Perhaps Emmett has already figured out this piece about staying in one’s toes while sitting; after all, he is one of the smartest people I know. Perhaps he’s never verbalized it this way. I’ve certainly never heard him explain the idea of remaining dynamic in the feet while sitting, but somehow, I suspect it’s exactly what he does. As they say, “The proof is in the pudding.” This older gent has a lot to teach us all, whether from watching, listening, or emulating.
Thanks, Emmett Hutchins, for a shining example for the last thirty years!
The above title may not mean anything to younger people; I have no idea if that old tale is ever told anymore. It relates the tale of a foolish king, who was duped by an unscrupulous tailor into believing he was being made a suit of clothes from cloth that only very intelligent people could see. When he finally went out on parade in his new suit, everyone pretended to be intelligent and admire the suit of clothes on the naked king, except one small boy who yelled out the words above.
Well, I’m going to step on some toes. I’m not trying to paint everybody with the same brush, but I feel the need to comment on something I’m seeing more and more of the time, and I’m going to quote Leon Chaitow, and use a term I first saw him use: ‘bad Pilates’.
Lately I’ve had several clients, and several students, who are Pilates instructors. Some of them are in horrible shape, and have no idea what a healthy body is supposed to look or work like. They focus on strengthening the core, but actually tighten the core, anger the sleeve, and begin to not be able to even move their bodies. It’s movement that’s important!
I’m reminded of an Ida Rolf-ism: “Strength isn’t strength; flexibility is strength.” It’s true. Those who are focusing single-mindedly on building a strong core are, I believe, doing serious damage to themselves, but more importantly, to clients who are buying into the concept that they’ve got to condition and over-condition until they have a stainless steel core. The emperor has new clothes—a strait jacket.
Perhaps Joseph Pilates is turning in his grave; perhaps he likes the way things have turned out with his work. We’ll never know. What we do know is that since his death, nobody owns the right to define Pilates work specifically—it’s now a generic term, such that I could bill myself as a Pilates instructor with absolutely no training…I could read a book and set out a shingle. Now, this lack of ability to regulate the profession is not my beef; I believe most of these instructor folks have been trained, and overtrained, and overtrained badly.
When clients ask me about whether to work out, run, do yoga, or continue activities of daily living after a session, I always suggest it depends: Can they do their activity in exploration mode, or must they go into achievement mode? If they have to achieve, I tell them to take the day off; if they can explore, I say ‘Go for it.’ Too many Pilates instructors are encouraging too many clients to try to achieve too much without truly paying attention to the client bodies and their bodies’ needs! This is only my opinion, but it’s borne out by the number of instructors and clients who come to see me with wrecked out bodies. We don’t need to tighten the core; we don’t need to lift the serratus anteriors. We don’t need to tighten the abs; we don’t need to sharpen the quads. We need to find these muscles, explore their functions, and work to make them resilient, not strong.
And when clients tell me they’re ready to work with Pilates, I bite my lip and suggest they choose carefully with whom they will work, and that they pay attention to form and finding resilience instead of choosing someone who drives them to work harder, achieve more, and strengthen every cell of their being.
I’m reminded of one instructor who wants to study with me, but had to miss courses to have a hysterectomy. In the one course she’s had, I spent lots of time trying to create resilience at her core. I’ve wondered: if I had been able to convince her to soften the core and explore it, would she have needed surgery? We’ll never know, and perhaps I’m shouting at the wind, but, the emperor has no clothes. Pilates is not a bad thing; bad Pilates is a truly bad thing, and there’s some bad Pilates out there.
How to stay away from bad Pilates? Common sense. If you are feeling driven, abused, and actually find your body feels tight and doesn’t move as well, you’re paying for bad Pilates. Stop. Put on some clothes!
Currently among my wise men, those who inspire me and who both seem to have original ideas and exhibit common sense, are Stephen Porges and Peter Leving. Porges has been researching the vagus nerve for the past thirty years and Levine has been working to develop his own psychotherapeutic techniques called Somatic Experiencing which has been found effective in curing PTSD, or post-traumatic stress syndrome. Their works have actually begun to complement each other in some interesting and common sense ways. Porges shows us how the vagus nerve, which many call the ‘anti-anxiety nerve,’ is important to the adrenal system’s fight-or-flight system, but also controls an older and deeper system within the adrenals: the ‘freeze’ or play dead system. He theorizes that many of us have learned to play dead in too many situations as the default coping mechanism we’ve adapted to allow us to feel safe on this unsafe planet where we live. He also has demonstrated that while we think our brain is the controlling organ of the body, actually the brain is in every cell of the body, as 90% of the fibers that connect body and brain go to the brain, and only 10% come from the brain and go to the body.
Levine’s work with PTSD encourages clients/patients to slowly activate their physical being in its ‘stuck’ fighting, fleeing or frozen places…that frozen shoulder, that frozen thought, or that frozen emotional attitude, and to slowly work to release the physical sensations so as to find and release that which is stuck underneath, thereby freeing every cell’s body brain. He realizes trauma is stored in all parts of the bodymindcore, and that the best we can do is allow ourselves to become vulnerable, explore slowly, and allow self to release that which has become embedded in our tissues, causing us to remain in fight, flight, or freeze mode instead of in ‘feel’ mode.
In the recent book Trauma Proofing Your Kids (Peter Levine, Maggie Kline, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA and ERGOS Institute Press, Lyons, CO, 2008) these authors suggest that resilience is the quality that both makes people healthy and keeps them healthy. Those who are resilient are less likely to respond to a traumatic experience by freezing or playing dead; if an experience does overwhelm them, they can use that resilience to unwind the trauma from their bodymindcore and proceed back to health. They can release the anxiety in that anti-anxiety nerve, allow the signals from the body’s brain to reach and recharge the brain’s body, and remain alive, energetic and enthusiastic.
So, what makes us resilient? Again, here I refer to these wise ones as well as others who follow common sense. While I understand the nature/nurture debate, I imagine much of resilience is genetically given, but much of resilience is taught. Can we learn to teach our children to be flexible, to be adaptable and less easily disappointed, frustrated or thwarted when things don’t go their way on the first and second try? Can we teach our children that life may or may not be fair, but their perception will color it and make it seem more of whatever focus they choose to give it?
It seems we’re raising more and more generations of children who believe foremost that life owes them something wonderful (One book I enjoyed was titled something like Not Everyone Gets a Trophy)! We hear of ‘helicopter parents’, defined as those parents who continually hover, never giving their children the chance to self-determine and self-develop. How can such a child become resilient if they’ve never had a chance to make their mistakes and learn and profit from them so they can move on and achieve success based on failure?
Some may be born resilient, and some probably are. Many, too many, I think, are never given the chance to develop their resilience by parents and societies that encourages fear, mistrust, suspicion ,and a belief that someone else is supposed to take care of them.
Ah, there’s the rub. Too many of us still want someone else to do the heavy lifting when it comes to living, to getting better, and to making decisions and abiding by the consequences of those decisions. We’re creating generations of society who believe that they must be taken care of, and they have no say in what their life will be.
I’m reminded that Ida Rolf reportedly used to say, “Strength isn’t strength; flexibility is strength.” These seem to me to be wise words. One who is weak certainly isn’t seen as resilient but as a pushover and pliable. One who is strong is probably tight; one who is tight is brittle, and one who is brittle is actually therefore fragile. I think Levine, and Porges, and Rolf, are wise elders. Resilience is a trait we’d all benefit from developing and fostering in each other, and especially in our children. Let’s teach our children—and ourselves—to be resilient.
I think most of us know the main answer to the above question; I teach because I learn so much from my students. When I teach, especially if I’m delving into something I’m not quite sure about, I force myself to get more comfortable with foreign materials and concepts that help me to grow as a person. I also have an opportunity to hear about new ideas, both of their own and from their readings or courses, that my students present to me. I have an opportunity to allow myself to see and hear the world through many more eyes and ears than I have in my own body; these students bring me fresh information and ideas in every course.
Generally, something in a class situation will trigger a new thought or idea in me. We may talk about information I think I know very well; someone brings me a new idea or a new twist on my old ideas, and it sends me to the textbooks, to the internet, to a new book I’ve not heard about before this time. Or I’ll state what seems obvious to me; then be challenged, or informed I’ve been passed by in the real world by new information. It’s a humbling and blessing experience.
Recently in a CORE II course, we began discussing my concept of self-esteem and self-actualization. I’ve watched far too many on this planet at this time struggle with issues of self-esteem. It seems Louise Hay has been right all these years since You Can Heal Your Life, when she suggested that low self esteem is at the root of many if not all illnesses and conditions that cause us problems. Our discussion took us to the term self-actualization. You may remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: we must have food, shelter, security, but we crave warmth, socialization, and other aspects that give us a rounded and full life instead of one in which we merely survive. If our needs are met, we’re said to be self-actualized.
I realized I feel fairly self-actualized…I’m not wealthy beyond measure, but I feel wealthy. My relationship with my partner isn’t perfect, but it’s healthy and happy. My work is satisfying; my circle of friends is loving and my reflection time is fruitful. Would I enjoy more? Probably. Am I satisfied with what is in my life? Definitely. I’ve even created a new affirmation for myself: “I am moderately successful and highly satisfied.” Doesn’t that feel better than “I am highly successful and moderately satisfied,” or “I am unsuccessful and unsatisfied,”?
This realization got me to thinking about the idea that we as parents work hard to instill self-esteem in our children. I remember reading a book several years past, called Not Everyone Gets a Trophy. It discussed this very issue; how too many parents are creating children who crave self esteem given from others, and never develop their own self esteem. To me, they therefore never self actualize! I believe it’s only when we learn to create our own self-esteem instead of seeking it in the form of approval from others, that we can approach self actualization. We must learn to meet our own needs, and in this age of helicopter parents (think hovering) some of us never get a chance to learn how to do so.
Like all good things, the best self esteem comes from within. The best self actualization is truly of the self. As long as we teach our children that we can provide these items to them, we fail them, and we fail us. And frankly, as long as we feel the need to make our children’s lives pain free and full of self-neediness instead of self-esteem or self-actualization, we fail all of us, greatly.