Category Archives: Embodied Movement

Support Your Body vs. Kicking Your Butt

A holistic perspective on training and fitness involves viewing mind and body as an integrated whole—our mind-body. Looking at the body from a holistic perspective, then, requires an ability to see things in context instead of just looking at the content. Context forms the relationship between the parts of any system and its surrounding environment. In short, context makes things what they are.

Keeping this in mind, when we look at the body from a holistic perspective, we soon realize that no single muscle, joint, or bone can be moved without the support of other parts of the body. The body always moves as a unit.

Ida Rolf, creator of the famous mind-body Rolfing method, noted that balance comes first, before you can gain strength. However, in her system, balance is not merely the ability to avoid falling. Instead, she was referring to how the integration of the whole structure generates strength. From this perspective, then, when we perform any movement, or aim to train or develop an embodied skill, the key is to focus on the whole body—because that is what the body is always doing.

For example, you might assume you are working on your biceps when you do a bicep curl. However, the body does not “think” that way because it is always seeking the integrity of the structure in relation to gravity.
Thinking with our head always involves some assumptions, and limits the body’s possibility for movement. Action that relies too much on cognition soon becomes repetitive and loses focus.

But what if you didn’t intellectually know anything about the body and, instead, allowed the body to feel what’s happening in the moment? Try it, and you are likely to find it’s much better to let the body feel its position, for instance, in relation to gravity—its context. This movement will be a very different and probably a much richer experience.

Kicking butt appears to be a developing trend in the fitness industry (as in martial arts). But ask yourself “Am I more likely to become better, more balanced in all aspects of life, just by learning to beat others?” Would you even have greater mastery of your own body just because you can kick butt? If you are “head-driven” by your ego, you might think so. Unfortunately, that’s more likely to land you in trouble than get you what you want.

Now ask: What do our bodies (not our egos) really want? The moment we shift attention to the body, we realize that our bodies always seek “support”—from all its parts and from its relation to gravity. Next question: How can the body be supported for optimum performance?

When you start looking for the body’s “internal support” in every movement, you naturally step onto the path of mind-body connection—a path of structural integration that restores your health and well-being.

Learning How to Move Like Our Ancestors

In modern society, it is ironic how many of us experience physical pain because of the influence of the Western culture. Modern lifestyles are designed for comfort, convenience, and even luxury—but often these come at a cost to our health. Believe it or not, the two primary culprits are sitting in chairs and wearing shoes!

We take chairs and shoes so much for granted, that most of the time we aren’t even aware of how much we use them in our day-to-day lives. Almost certainly, few of us are aware of the negative health effects of prolonged sitting, not to mention wearing shoes that squash or crimp our feet. In fact, these are now so strongly embedded in our everyday lives they have become items of fashion, designed for a better life.

But do we really have a “better life” if modern comforts affect out physical health? Issues such as back pain, hip pain, knee pain, neck and shoulder pain . . . disrupt the lives of more and more people. And here’s the surprise: Every one of those conditions can be traced to poor posture caused by sitting the wrong way, or for too long, and wearing shoes that isolate us from feeling the feedback of the earth beneath our feet.

Problem 1: Shoes Syndrome

Your feet are not designed to wear shoes. Let’s not even mention high-heels!Think about this: If you constantly wear shoes, why do you need ten toes? Your body is designed perfectly, and every part has a purpose, which it fulfills beautifully—until interfered with. Imagine wearing gloves that do not have openings for your fingers (skiers call them mittens). Imagine trying to tie your laces, or eat your dinner, or do a thousand other things you do everyday if your hands and fingers were tightly confined.

Well that’s what happens to our feet when we wear shoes . . . we force our toes into spaces that scrunch them together and prevent them from doing what they evolved to naturally do. Not only do shoes restrict functionality of our feet, they also affect the rest of the body.

The body holds its integrity through connective tissue, fluid systems, and energetic channels. If you cover your fingers, you will restrict your shoulders because the movements of your fingers are related to how you move your neck and shoulders. The old joke is true: “The knee-bone is connected to the thigh bone . . .” The parts of our body are dynamically related to other parts of our body. If you restrict your shoulders, you will restrict your neck, spine, back, hip, knee . . . basically your whole body.

Something similar happens with shoes. We wear them almost everyday for an average minimum of 8 to 9 hours per day (if you don’t wear them at home). This means that for almost one-third of your life, you cover and restrict your feet and toes. This alone can account for why so many people have hip or knee problems, experience low back pain and stiff necks.
Because your feet are blessed with sensitive receptors that function best when stimulated, you need to spend more time allowing your soles and toes to interact with the ground (preferably in nature, and not just on floors and carpets).

Bottom line: Give your feet room to breathe! Go ahead, try it. Feel the freedom of walking barefoot. Learn the secret of “happy feet.”

Problem 2: Chair Syndrome

People love chairs. Sofas and chairs are comfortable and give us welcome rest. We sit on the car seat when we drive; we sit on office chairs at work; we sit on other chairs in restaurants or at home when we eat dinner; we sit on a couch watching TV or surfing the Internet . . . Have you ever thought about how much of your life you spend sitting? You’d probably be shocked. But not only do we lack awareness of how much time we sit, we are even less aware of what it does to our bodies. Sitting in chairs usually keeps our hips at about 90 degrees—but this position locks the whole body. (Think of a chair as a kind of “shoe” for the whole body, forcing it into unnatural positions.)

When you sit on a chair, most of the force concentrates in your lower back, scrum region, and around the hip area—because your lower body doesn’t really support your upper-body weight. “Support” is a key word. Chairs encourage us to not to support the body as we sit because chairs are so comfortable. But this invites us to lounge in some of the worst postures—and the consequences are costly, often leading to excruciating back pain, or other body ailments.

Ironically, chairs are designed for a prime purpose: to allow us to rest with no effort. But because of this, we developed a habit of letting gravity take over our bodies. The way we relate to gravity, locking our hips at 90 degrees when we sit in chairs, creates posture problems our ancestors never had to deal with 100,000 years ago. And, again ironically, although we have infinitely superior medical technology today, our ancestors had better, healthier, more robust lower-backs thousands of years ago.

Solution: The Monkey Lifestyle

So what are we to do? Obviously, it makes little sense to suggest that people stop wearing shoes and sitting on chairs. That’s just not feasible for modern lifestyles. For example, as I write this, I am sitting on a chair wearing shoes! Nevertheless, I have an effective solution . . . something we can all incorporate into our lifestyles. Little by little, we can reverse the modern tendency of being too comfortable and lazy.
The solution? Use our feet like our hands and sit on the ground as much as our lifestyles allow us to. Bottom line: We need to learn from monkeys.

Monkeys are mobile, flexible, and strong because they spend almost all their time on the ground (when they’re not climbing trees). They use it so they retain it. By contrast, we modern humans stopped using the natural capacities of our feet and rumps (as well as our lower-back, spine, shoulders, neck, etc.) a long time ago—and our medical bills reveal the high cost of breaking our ancestral covenant with nature.

The irony continues: We assume that sitting on the ground is uncomfortable and “not good” because if we try it now, today, we will likely feel pain very soon. However, as a matter of fact, the pain arises because we stopped going to the ground.

The solution: we need to shift our mindset. As much as possible, let’s spend time barefoot and sitting on the ground. Try it. Explore sitting in a position that might be a little uncomfortable at first. You can always make it more comfortable by using a blanket or cushion. You can try crossing your legs or stretch your legs in front of you, or perhaps (if you do not have a severe hip, knee, or foot injury) try Japanese seiza where your sitting bones rest on your heels. It might be a little uncomfortable, but it needs to be in order to change old unhealthy habits. When you do this for five minutes a day, you will soon start feeling the difference in how your hips and back feel. They will feel more “open” and flexible.

Incorporate this “monkey lifestyle” daily, and you will be on the way to the healthy hips and back our simian ancestors had 100,000 years ago.

Two Moves Everyone Should Know and Why

Movement is the way we are, not just what we do. When movement stops, life stops. Without movement, nothing lives. Life requires energy to flow through us, right down to the molecular and cellular level—and beyond, even to the quantum level.

When you open an anatomy book you see illustrations of cadavers—dead bodies. Western culture, rooted in reductionism (dividing things into pieces and parts to understand the whole), views the body as a system of muscles, bones, and joints. While true, this is really only a part of the picture. The whole body also contains connective tissues that integrate the various organs and systems of the body. Without paying attention to the role of connective tissue, we miss the body’s experience of movement.

Today, in the 21st century, we face an epidemic of chronic back pain that affects people in all walks of life. The solution lies in greater awareness of our mind-body connection. For example, a whole-body connective tissue approach to movement helps us focus on what happens in the body as a whole, integrated unit. In short, for optimum health and fitness, everyone needs to learn moves that encourage whole-body connection, strengthening the back and opening the hips. Try these moves:

Move 1: Squat

Why squat? Because too much chair sitting, too much time on the phone or computer—which creates stressful living—tightens our hips. Doing squats is a whole-body movement that effectively opens the hips and relieves stress.

How to Squat

Squats are best done barefoot.

  • Begin by sensing the bottom of your feet, yielding into gravity. As you squat down, you begin to feel the lift of your abdomen away from gravity.
  • Next, feel your feet fully supporting the rest of your body (and sense the connection between your feet, pelvis, spine, head, and hands).
  • Send your “sit bones” back as you hinge forward slightly and begin bending the knees to squat. Arms can be down or forward.

It is important to feel the process of squatting instead of just tracking the beginning and end of the exercise because the body searches for integrity throughout the process.

Move 2: Back Extension

Why back extension? Because it, too, opens the hips. The more you have a healthy mobile lower back, the less tight your hips will be (and vice versa). When done effectively, this movement is essential because, due to modern lifestyles, many people have developed the habit of a forward head posture, which strains the neck and the rest of the spine.

How to Extend the Spine

It is not about coming up high. It is about eliminating tension as you extend.

  • Lie down on your stomach with legs open and lower back relaxed.
  • Place your hands a little in front and outside your shoulders, with elbows bent, keeping them down to avoid tension in your shoulders.
  • From here, you need to do only four things: (1) Let your pelvis feel heavy. (2) Stretch your legs long, away from your hip socket. (3) Feel the weight of your forearms. (4) Push the crown of the head up toward the sky.
  • Your heavy forearms will help extend your spine.

As you experience your spine extending, you release tension in your lower back.

When approached from a whole-body perspective, these two movements not only address the problems of a stiff lower back and tight hips—so common today—they also integrate your body’s connective tissue, uniting the body as a whole. Your energy starts to flow more freely, and you become aligned with how you actually experience your body’s movements.