movement habits that harm
and how to kick them
The habit that harms
Feeling tired, achy, a little bit stuck physically and maybe emotionally too? Suffering from swollen ankles, shin splints, knee, hip, back or shoulder pain?
Ever considered that the problem may simply be that your muscles are fighting each other? Half of you is unconsciously holding back whilse the rest of you wants to be moving forward?
Sounds like you are trying to move with your brakes on!
To fully understand this peculiar but widespread phenomenon it might be helpful first to remind ourselves of a little basic science.
We, Earthlings, live in a gravitational field that exerts, an average* of 15lb per sq inch of pressure on us. 24/7 from the moment we sprout forth to the day we finally give in to it and lie down for the last time.
*(depending on your latitude. If you weighed 100 lbs on a spring scale at the north pole you would weigh 5.5 once less on the equator)
So the best way to cope with this constant downward pressure is to have four or more feet on the ground. Like a table or a cow or horse or an elephant
For some crazy reason, one of our ancestors, be she an ape, lizard or alien visitor? Decided that we should move around on just two of our four available limbs
All that pressure and only two rather spindly supports is a challenging combination
Its legacy is an ever-present choice between Stability and Adaptability. We need Stability so that we can carry loads and "stand our ground." Adaptability so that we can move freely in our environment, to gather food or avoid being food. And as anyone who has tried to build a free-standing, walking robot will tell you (probably very few of you is my guess?)
It's actually a very very complicated engineering problem. Luckily, this constant juggling between stability and adaptability which would be a right pain if we had to think about it all the time. Has, over the last 6 million years or so, become somewhat automatic for us bipeds
So how does the body balance automatically?
A Little bit more science, bare with...
Not so long ago, the classic view of the human structure was a stiff skeleton, draped with muscles. The muscles both holding it all together and moving the joints. If this were true though, we would need to produce prodigious amounts of energy just to stand up, let alone move anywhere. So, nature has devised a much more energy efficient way of converting the pressure of gravity into stability, while also allowing us to move freely.
Tensegrity - (brief aside)
The word Tensegrity, a combination of the words Tension and Integrity, was coined by American Architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller. Tensegrity describes a structural principle based on the use of separate components in compression balanced inside a net of continuous tension. So that the compressed members (usually bars or struts) do not touch each other and the prestressed tensioned members (usually cables or elastic material) delineate the system spatially.
Fuller’s initial ideas about tensegrity structures came from the work of artist
Kenneth Snelson, whose work is seen here.
Researchers into fascia have recently discovered that our bodies are constructed using tensegrity principles. The bones providing compression struts and the connective tissue the elastic tension members.
We now know that bones which can be seen as the compression struts float in a network of connective tissue fibres which can be seen as the elastic tension members. The role of the muscles is chiefly to tension the fascial fibres which act as powerful springs when we need to move whilst the fascial fibres maintain a constant tension to keep us balanced in gravity.
So let us look more closely at how muscles and connective tissue keep the right amount of tension in the body
Tonic vs Phasic muscle fibres
Our muscles consist of long fibres of which there are two types:
You can perhaps already see that we have the ingredients for some possible conflict of interest here?
Tonic Muscles (some bite-sized facts)
For the cannibals amongst you who prefer the dark meat, my advice is to dig into the Tonic muscles first.
The actual fuel that all muscles use is ATP (Adenosine triphosphate). Tonic muscles use a method known as aerobic synthesis to make ATP from oxygen and mitochondrial reactions. Aerobic synthesis is very efficient but much slower than the method used by their fast twitch cousins. Hence the label slow twitch fibres.
Phasic Muscles (some equally tasty morsels)
Phasic or fast twitch muscle fibres metabolise ATP from phosphocreatine and glycogen stored in the muscles. This is known as anaerobic synthesis because they do not need oxygen to do this. Its a rapid process but the downside is that they can only work at maximum output for about 30 seconds
Myofascial Civil War
This situation ignites a kind of myofascial civil war. Muscles fibres which want to move you pitted against muscle fibres who wish to keep you still. This is "Stress" pure and simple, it wastes your precious energy and feels terrible.
With the body fighting itself in this way, movement of any kind will feel awkward and uncoordinated. You will also burn at least 100% more fuel than you need to. Is it any wonder that many of us feel exhausted just getting through an average day?
Kick that Habit
How do we begin to let those brakes off?
How do we even recognise when we have the brakes on?
I have been a clumsy student of Tai Chi for over 3 decades now. In that time, I have observed that the effortless power and beautiful balance with which tai chi masters move is not really about anything they have acquired. Their calm flowing movements are more a natural result of what they have learned to let go of through slowly and mindfully practising their dance. This “letting go” principle is a vital part of the conditioning common to all great dancers, martial artists and athletes.
It is possible, however, to intervene in the space between stimulus and response. To reprogram ourselves and build new sense memories. We begin this process by acknowledging two fundamental ideas about our physicality. About what it is to be a living, moving organism.
1, that we have the ground supporting us
2, that we have space to move through.
Our body, and in particular the part that orients us our tonic system, has known this since we emerged from the primordial soup.
Here is the ground where I stand, and there is the space into which I reach.
Here is present, there is the future.
Here is what is, there is what is possible.
And both states exist simultaneously, are codependent, inseparable.
This too will pass
Knowing and acknowledging this simple fact. That you are not fixed, not destined to be stuck with that stiff neck or achy back. That you can choose another response to a colleague’s sarcasm, to your fear of speaking in public, to the way, you hold your breath when you …..? Just knowing, that change is ALWAYS a possibility. That there are always other pathways available to you, can be a hugely liberating feeling.
Before we start, may I suggest that you pause for a moment to find a quiet place to stand, sit or lie down.
When you are comfortable and settled, begin by floating the question, “Where am I?”
I use the word float because I don’t want this to feel anything like an interrogation. We just let the question hang and wait to see if an answer comes.
Feel your feet, your bum or your back held by whatever is supporting you. (the Earth ultimately)
As you settle and relax, you may start to get a sense of slowing down. A feeling that you are coalescing into yourself. Into your centre. And that’s great because that’s precisely where you are!
Next ask, “What is happening here?” Again let the question hang, don’t search for an answer? Just stay with the sensations that you are feeling.
Try not to judge or change anything because that will take you away from “sensing” and into “thinking”. Away from where you are and what is happening in the present moment to where you are not and where you would like to be in some imaginary place. This is the world of unconscious habit that we are trying to escape.
If nothing particular comes to mind, float some questions which drill down a little deeper into where you are and what is happening. Take care with the type of questions you float. Asking yourself open questions like, “Do I feel anything ?” Isn’t going to get the attention of your unconscious mind. Its too easy to evade the question by answering, “No” or, “I don’t feel anything” or, “what am I supposed to feel?”
Instead, ask yourself closed questions. Questions that demand observed feedback, like,
“When I take a deep breath what moves?”
“What doesn’t move?”
“What can I let go of to allow movement there?”
“What does that unmoving part look like inside?”
"Does it have; a colour? Shape? Texture? Direction.?”
“Does it have something to tell me?”
“What does that unmoving part need?”
Building new sensory maps
When we explore the experience of our bodies in this way we begin to build new maps. Maps which chart previously unknown or unobserved territories. We gain a much greater sense of control, of inner comfort as we begin to receive sensorial information from wider and deeper parts of ourselves. Realising that the mind is not in the body after all but that the body is in the mind. And as such we have control of how it behaves.
Getting in touch with your 'present moment' body sense in this way, without judging, interpreting or drifting off into thought can take practice. Practice though is the only way that we can change movement habits that harm us. So it's worth a little effort.
Here are some more very simple exercises that can help you to build new sense memories and change the way you respond to your world as you go about your day.
Leading with your heart
Before you take a step before you even think about moving a muscle, allow yourself to pause for a moment. Say "hello" to your heart. Imagine that your heart is opening to space in front of you. To something or someone in that space that you really love. Then, instead of letting your legs pull or push you forward in the usual way. Once you have made this 'heart' connection, let your body float forward on the gentle river of your heart’s desire. Notice how different this feels.
Whatever you reach for, is also reaching for you
Picking up an apple or discarded sock from the floor. Reaching for the door handle or your mobile phone. Imagine that whatever you are reaching for really wants to be touched and is also reaching out for you. Feel how free and relaxed your shoulders and arms become.
As always I am grateful to receive your comments and feedback. Especially if anything in this blog has been of particular help to you. I am also happy to hear opposing views and opinions but please keep it polite and respectful.
Watch this space for more Movement Habits That Harm and How to Kick Them
I’m Keith and I’m a graduate of the Dr. Ida Rolf Institute. I've also been a student of Tai chi for nearly 40 years .
As an Advanced Rolfer and Rolf movement coach, I help people to live more comfortably in their bodies. By learning how to align with gravity's flow my clients begin to move more efficiently and with less pain.
As a Tai Chi Instructor, I teach how to to find your line of balance, how to let go of unnecessary tension and to find the safe, still centre deep within us all from which all genuinely free movement springs.
I thought that some of the information and experience I have collected over the years might be useful to pass on! So here we go. I sincerely hope that you find something of benefit for your life amongst my ramblings.