Taking It Slow

08.09.17

I decided to use Pete Egoscue’s supine groin stretch as an alternative starting point for experimenting with relaxing the leg and hip joints, but instead of focusing on the extended leg I concentrated on the raised leg, particularly the hip flexors and hamstrings.  Initially just relaxing a while, then lifting slightly and lowering the leg, and eventually using the slightest of contraction in order to engage the hip before relaxing again.

This base position allowed me to relax fully while experimenting with contracting different parts of the hip/lower back/thigh musculature and to begin to build an awareness of the difference between “on” and “off”.  Sometimes I used my hands to provide additional tactile feedback, but in any case I progressed by feeling rather than labelling and attempting to consciously instruct parts of my body.

I also incorporated yesterday’s technique of lifting the leg using a band wrapped around a stick, both from a 90 degree supported position as well as without the chair so that the leg can relax completely to the floor.

[This technique led to the inadvertent discovery of a more efficient way of stretching internal rotation that avoids the problems associated with creating excess torque at the knee joint.

The leg is placed in the loop of the band just above the knee, and the band is then twisted in order to gain traction on the clothed leg, and then wound in a clockwise direction (for the left leg).  The loose end of the band is then threaded with a stick which allows for a solid grip with both hands.  As the stick is pulled away it causes the leg to internally rotate, which overcomes the limitations of trying to hold and twist the leg directly – you can act upon it from a more relaxed position, you are not limited by how much your hands can grip your leg, and the twisting force is generated indirectly from a more efficient straight line pull.]

Until now I have been trying to relax as quickly as possible, that is, to feel the change from tense to relaxed as quickly as possible.  I think this is simply because it appears easier to observe the relaxed state when it is in the form of a falling or drooping limb, due to the contrast between the two opposites.  This is compared to say, a relaxed muscle whose limb doesn’t change position because it is passively held in place by an outside force, as per yesterday’s exercise with the bicep.

Although the goal is to be able to transition from a naturally (subconsciously) maximally relaxed state to the opposite end of the spectrum in as short a time as possible, it doesn’t mean that this is exactly how we should train to achieve it.

I think though that slowly relaxing is harder for a beginner as it actually requires more control to be able to regulate various amounts of tension.  It seems paradoxical that I must learn to relax progressively, when I can already seemingly flip the switch to do so instantly, but what we are really talking about developing is a state of controlled relaxation.  Being able to move consciously and deliberately-unconsciously is only half of the equation.  The other half is about preventing unwanted unconscious movement, which is perhaps an even greater task.  When attempting to slowly turn off – by moving one limb with another through its range, there is a “stuttering” or “speedbump” type effect that can be felt when performing CARs.  The muscles seem to anticipate certain positions or movements and attempt to contract accordingly, causing a conflict between these unconscious patterns and our new demands.  It is almost as if the body recognises itself in a position and assumes that it must actively play a role in maintaining it.  This is why when passively holding a bent arm, upon letting go it remains still instead of falling.  Pulsing or rapid release does not have this effect, which is why I began to passively hold in end range before attempting to let go some seconds later.

I suspect that some ranges are more difficult to relax in than other, which means that the exercises must continue to operate in multiple dimensions.

Having decided to try and use a pulley-type system in order to make passive holding of the limbs easier, I began experimenting with a small resistance band.  With one end wrapped around my wrist and the other draped over the back of a chair and lightly held with the opposite hand (this could just as easily be attached).  The use of an elastic instead of a rope or cord provides unique opportunities, as the limb can be flexed against the resistance of the band and then released, as well as be actively lifted against gravity and then relaxed.  This way, both the agonists and antagonists can be incorporated in a particular position.  The activation of opposite muscle groups should also help trigger relaxation through reciprocal inhibition.

The main purpose of the pulley system though, is to allow a relaxed limb to be slowly moved through its passive ranges of motion in order to teach the muscles that it is safe for them to turn off, and only come on when instructed.  I imagine that such exercises will come to form the bread and butter of this training method.

Notes:

– With the elastic in place I tried to transition from triceps tensed to biceps tensed, while only recruiting the muscles in question.  I realised that the anterior deltoid quite quickly becomes involves when attempting to bend my arm.

Getting Distracted

07.09.17

Distraction has been shown to enhance creativity I.e. by forcing conscious awareness away from the task at hand and allowing the subconscious to express itself.  This is analogous to the techniques used for implicit learning that draw attention away from the body, and de-emphasise explicit cues in favour of focusing on the external effects of a movement, and using imagery for cueing.

Analogy/metaphor as in the case of “melting” muscles seems like it will be most useful for dance/movement practice where there are not obvious external effects to focus on like there are in sports where objects (balls etc) are used.

Orientation within space relative to head position may be useful for certain movements that can be learned slowly and segmentally, like various spins for example.  Analogy/metaphor therefore seems like an ideal method for implicitly improving posture which often involves little or no movement, or limited external interaction.

Different postures or stances involved in training (front squat, deadlift, support position on rings) do use equipment, which means that other methods for creating implicit learning opportunities are available to use when it comes to strength and conditioning.

More experiments:

– Lift the arm with bent elbow, attempt to let go of shoulder muscles only.

– Tensing the bicep for 10 seconds, then passively holding with opposite arm before releasing.

– With the bicep bent and the shoulder at 90 degrees, relax the forearm only.

– Trying to swing the hand from the end of the arm like the ball and cup game.

– Tense/relax while passively holding the bicep bent. (This seems harder than allowing the arm to fall when relaxed)

– Elevate the shoulder, bend the arm, then make a fist, then relax one by one.

– As above but in reverse order.

– Using a resistance band wrapped around a stick in order to lift and manipulate the leg in a standing position. (After just a short time, the leg feels much lighter, and walking feels smoother.  A similar lightness and freedom is experienced with the arms too.  Most tension seems to be held in the hips and neck)

 

Letting Go

06.09.17

Some time ago I realised that there was one important factor that my favourite dancers had that I lacked: a sense of effortless control or natural relaxedness to all their movements. Over the years I became experienced in creating high tension through heavy squats, deadlifts and gymnastics strength training among other things, but what I had neglected all this time was to learn to let go.

I used to believe that I simply wasn’t flexible or mobile enough, and while having greater mobility would allow me to make what are in my mind more pleasing shapes and transitions, mobility represents only part of the equation for movement potential, not quality. By “quality” I am not referring to good or bad in the sense of range or restriction, but to the way in which the movement occurs and appears. Is it smooth or deliberately jerky? Is it controlled or sloppy? Precise or random?

So if inflexibility or restricted mobility was only part of my particular puzzle, where were the other parts to be found? A clue perhaps lay hidden in my medical history, and more pertinently, in my current state of health.

In early 2011 while still living in Finland I woke up one morning with my head violently spinning, so much so that it caused me to try and vomit up the contents of my empty stomach. I tried to sleep it off, but upon re-awakening I wasn’t any better. I spent the journey to the hospital retching into an empty bucket. The doctors suspected an inner-ear problem, but ultimately didn’t find the cause.

After returning to England I took a number of tests in order to determine the origins of my nausea and declining health, from scans to blood tests and was eventually fitted with a blood pressure monitor for 48 hours or so. It was eventually concluded that my dizzy spells and lethargy was due to high blood pressure, which in itself was rooted in stress and anxiety.

People around me seemed as surprised as I was. “You? Stressed?! No way!” But the symptoms spoke otherwise, and what was interesting to point out was the fact that stress is cumulative, not just suddenly arising from one day or even one month to the next. Unknowingly, I had been living with stress for some time, until one day my body decided that I needed a wake-up call in both the literal and metaphorical senses.

Since that day I have moved house no fewer than 7 times, worked a number of different jobs, including as a cook in a restaurant (probably the most stressful of them all!), followed by taking my ex-employer to court (and winning!), stopped dancing regularly, completely stopped and briefly re-started all types of training a number of times, and somewhere along the way I lost the momentum that I had gained from over 10 years of practising movement.

I had apparently 2 choices; either I took the blue pills designed to keep the blood pressure of elderly patients down, or I took the non-medicated option to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

I decided not to get on that slippery, pill-popping slope and my condition improved. Later though, while now living in France, I acquired some new symptoms: random heart palpitations ,shortness of breath and chest tightness! My doctor suggested that I exercise, and so I began to wander barefoot, re-discovering the sense of freedom that can only come from leaving the house with empty pockets, and nothing but the few items of clothing I was dressed in. I explored, I climbed, I moved, and even built up my confidence to walk the bridges that crossed the river where I lived, on the outside walls, feeling the cold, rough stone beneath my bare feet. Looking back now I wonder how I managed to get to the point where I would only ever cross in this way.

I eventually began rings training again, but in the back of my mind there were more important things to be doing, and although I had acknowledged that not only was I stressed, but that my health, and therefore overcoming stress should be my priority, I never took the necessary steps to really do anything about it. Last year I tried meditating, but didn’t manage to integrate it as a regular part of my life in order to be able to benefit from it in the long term. Ironically, when trying to meditate I feel the strong urge to be doing something else, as if it is just a waste of time. Becoming more aware of this pressing need to do has lately become part of my plan to restructure my life in order to take into account my long term health, not just a few years from now, but into what would be considered old age, 40 years or so from now.

I am prioritising mental health, and physical function for the sake of my future selves, and it is clear to me now that relaxation is not only the key to my movement problem, but is the key to reversing the ill-effects and preventing other long term troubles caused by stress.

With these insights I recently did a little searching in order to find some guidance on how to become a relaxed person; someone who carries themselves with grace and ease. While there is a lot to be found in relation to mental health and wellbeing – meditate, exercise, socialise, there was little help in answering my movement-related questions.

While reading an entry in the skeptic’s dictionary I clicked a link and found myself investigating alternative physical therapies and wanted to know what exactly the Alexander Technique was. I had heard of it once or twice, and knew little except for its name, which is precisely how it still feels now, even after a little digging.

If we ignore the worryingly long list of ailments it is sometimes purported to help with, and concentrate on looking at it as a method of mind-body training for postural purposes, the Alexander Technique appears to be about re-training your muscles to work more efficiently, more importantly, to teach your muscles to relax when they are not needed.

Many people say that having a teacher of the technique is imperative, and based on the seemingly esoteric cues and descriptions often used, it’s not surprising that trying to learn alone may lead to frustration. But as some have rightly pointed out, the inventor of the technique created it himself without any guidance! So with this in mind I have set out, not to learn the Alexander Technique, but to create my own, in order to fulfil my personal needs and goals, exercising autonomy and living by my own strength.

I am not entirely in the dark though, and have some clues as to where to begin looking, firstly, thanks to the research on implicit motor learning it seems even more clearer now that efficient movement is not accomplished through conscious effort, and that explicit cueing can actually hamper learning and consequent skill retention.

Having already discovered over a decade ago the concept of imagery, and that it was something I had naturally been unconsciously using, this research illuminates in detail the mechanisms behind the effect while opening the way for new areas of interesting application.

The other inspiration on my journey is the concept of explosive power in Chinese martial arts, like Fa Jin in tai chi for example. Transitioning from a motionless state to one of full force in a split-second requires not only the ability to contract the muscles maximally and rapidly, but also to relax them just as easily. Alternating contraction and relaxation of the different muscles/groups therefore provides the basis for my relaxation method.

During my first session I experimented as follows:

– Allowing the arms to swing while walking, overly emphasising the swing followed by “blocking” a particular joint in order to alter the movement. (Shoulders loose/elbows bent, all loose, shoulder stiff/elbow loose)

– Lifting at the elbow then relaxing

– Lifting elbow then shoulder, relaxing all together

– Lifting both, relaxing one at a time (essentially focussing on one area while varying the sequence and other joints involved)

– Lifting arms to the side then relaxing (varying the movement along different axes)

– Using an outside force to move the joint through various angles and rangers

– Using the opposite hand to hold and manipulate the joint (when bending at the elbow it becomes hard to relax at end range, and harder to release the limb after a pause. This is contrary to a pulsing motion in which the limb is progressively brought closer to end range while in constant movement. Holding onto a piece of clothing makes it easier to suddenly release the limb. When flexed maximally the bicep does not release easily, and the muscle holds the arm in place.)

– Using the opposite hand to move the limb so that it comes into contact with objects in the environment. (Relaxing the fingers and wrist too)

– Being in contact with the floor/wall/object with a relaxed limb, then alternating between a contracted and relaxed state.

– Contracting/relaxing through partial ranges in a stuttering-like fashion.

– A long tense period followed by a long relaxed period

– A short tense period followed by a long relaxed period (so far, only moderate tension has been used)

– A brief experiment with the right leg, but it’s clear that the setup will need to be modified as it is too hard to hold your own leg and relax. ( The leg muscles themselves seem much more tense compared to those of the arm, or perhaps they are just physically bigger?…)

When holding the opposite limb it can be seen that the muscles themselves attempt to control the limb as it “anticipates” the movement. Slower movements may help.

Repetition and patience are needed, and it’s probably best to work on one joint at a time, and to avoid trying too many areas or variation within a session. As it is difficult to get any muscle to relax, by focussing your efforts you will see (feel) more change/improvement which is an essential motivating factor in continuing to pursue the search.

Throughout the session I focussed on what I was doing and at times casually visualised or created imagery to help me relax. I imagined the ends of my limbs (forearms) to be really dense, and thus feel heavy in the supporting hand. I imagined my arms falling to my sides as if a switch just turned them off. Another image is the thought of a tense muscle turning to liquid or becoming soft and supple like an elastic bread dough. I try to be loose about the visualisations because they must feel natural and personal in order for them to work best: there is no universal cueing standard!

My hypothesis is that perhaps there is a sort of reverse irradiation (innervation) that occurs with relaxation, meaning that once one muscle or group of muscles stops contracting unnecessarily, it makes it easier for other muscles, either adjacent or of the same limb to relax also.

I also experimented with timing my breathing to coincide with tensing (held breath) and relaxing (breathing out).

Certain movements were performed with my eyes closed in order to concentrate on feeling rather than seeing.

The Beginning

Since March 2014 I have been note-taking, idea-recording and stream-of-consciousness-brainstorming in a number of notebooks that I dedicated to this practice.  The existence of these books didn’t however stop me from doing a significant amount of writing on scraps of paper that have now an accumulated thickness of a few inches.  Whether I set out for it to become this way is unclear, but what I have been doing during this time is cultivating a practice of expressing my ideas in all of their forms, which seems to have had the effect of not only giving me more ideas, but more significantly, I think that it has improved my ability to make novel links between disparate domains and subjects.  What I should make clear though, is that I do not try to have ideas, and often actually try to block any potential sources of new information if I think they will impact my current ideas before they are expressed.  This could mean that I want to give my present opinion or take on something before being influenced by someone else’s, or that I simply have too many ideas and do not want to become overloaded, potentially resulting in nothing at all.  Having a book or at least a pen to hand has been instrumental in capturing the interesting things that float around my mind, and in addition, I have been better at holding onto that spontaneous inspiration by writing immediately or as soon as possible so as not to let the ideas escape as they often have the habit of doing if I spend too much time thinking last thing at night in bed.  Some potentially great thoughts still continue to suffer the fate of dissipating into the walls of my head somewhere, as I have the habit of having one person rational arguments (OPRAs) in my mind instead of on the paper.  For this reason I’m currently contemplating a small sound recording device, which in itself will have an effect on what, and how these things are expressed.

I had mixed feelings about creating a blog when I first put up my website as I felt that a time-stamped, chronological series of texts would give the impression that only what is most recent is relevant or interesting etc. In effect I was being overly cautious of potential reader biases, while allowing this to overshadow the positive aspects of regularly publishing and expressing the various things I habitually kept to myself.  The blog format did actually suit the way I feel, which has for a long time been that what I think or say today might not accurately reflect how I thought in the future, and moreover, that expressing, letting go and moving on was a healthy way of living not just as an artist, but as a human being.  In this sense a blog could be read as evidence of personal evolution (change), but only if it is read from the beginning and in its entirety.  In the same way that a film cannot be fully understood if we flick back and forth between channels, so too must the blog be looked at as a whole, instead of as a series of disjointed episodes that it may first appear to be.

When I first began note-taking this is how many of my ideas appeared to me, but as time has gone on I am starting (or perhaps just learning) to see how the connections make up a distinct whole with recurring themes and interests, underlying ideas and values, and greater sense of direction that had not before been apparent.  At around only three and a half years into this process I can only imagine what insights, discoveries, revelations and perspectives my future self may have ten years down the line, let alone forty or so.

So despite having published very little in the way of text/image on my website since its launch, I have nevertheless been very active in creating something, which should hopefully become more apparent with the addition of this log, to anyone with the desire to know.