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breathing

The Gestalt: Coordination and Perception

In the last 2 years I’ve really simplified the way I work with people on movement.  In doing work with movement the holy grail is in the “cue”.  This is the direction you give a client for what to pay attention to or what to do.  For example, in standing one of the most useful things you can do is let your knees be soft with the quads relaxed so they aren’t locked back or bent, just right in the middle.  When you initiate walking with soft knees, the tendency is to land more towards the center of the foot without all the shock and hyperextension that comes with landing on the back of the heel.

The problem I’ve run into cues like this with some of my clients, is that there are just too many of them to achieve balanced posture and the gestalt is lost.  Often the tendency will be to try to do all of the cues I’ve given at once rather than to tune into one at a time or even better how that one cue is effecting the total experience.  This generally leads to the opposite result of what I’m looking for which is that the person I’m working with starts walking like Robbie the Robot, hopelessly lost in the mental exercise of managing the cues.   For example, try letting your knees be soft while landing on the pad in front of the heel, while allowing the hips to shift back and keeping your eyes on the horizon.  While you’re at it, allow your arms to swing from your midline and let your jaw be soft, oh yeah, and don’t forget to breath.  It’s easy for these cues to become a bunch of tasks to pay attention to, but that’s not really the point. I’m going to make a brash statement and say we live in a singularly focused culture.  While we may be getting better at multitasking on our iPhones, when was the last time you noticed your breath or whether your body is comfortable, while you send a tweet?  How about right now while you’re reading this?

This brings me back to the question of, what is the goal of movement education and more importantly, what is the gestalt that ties our experience together?  Some of my clients have articulated it as learning how to sit or walk or stand all over again.  That’s not far off, but I’ll offer another suggestion. To begin with, to feel better, but what does that really mean?  How about something like, “being able to maintain easy attention to your internal experience while participating in the world outside of your skin”?  Isn’t that really what’s happening when we feel good?  We are aware of our experience and we’re able to participate with others and engage with the world. Another way of putting it would be to balance internal and external experience.  When it comes down to it, most people come to see me with problems that stem from difficulty at listening to the inside, while doing something out in the world.  Another way of saying the same thing is that it’s easy to forget how to coordinate our internal experience while interacting and moving.  Hubert Godard, the brilliant Rolf Movement teacher uses the words coordination and perception to talk about the same thing.  Essentially, the majority of postural misalignments have to do with two things: 1. how we experience; and 2. How we express ourselves and interact with the world.  To achieve a balance between internal awareness or coordination and external focus requires a lifetime of practice, but the journey begins when we become aware of HOW to focus on either one (perception or coordination).

It will likely come to you as a surprise that core support doesn’t come from doing sit-ups, (a totally irrelevant exercise in developing core support), but instead comes from a balance of perception and coordination.  I’ll give an example.  While you’re sitting reading this article (assuming you’re sitting), your abs are probably not toned much and your awareness is most likelyon the words on the computer screen.  That’s ok.  See what happens if you take your eyes away from the screen and look out at the horizon, letting what you see come to you if you can.  There’s a reason why gymnasts mark the horizon with their eyes while they’re balancing. With one hand on your belly, press into the floor with your whole foot really feeling the floor, and draw your shoulder sockets and hip sockets back towards the back plane of your body (the hip socket is at the hip crease, right in the middle of the thigh).  You should feel a subtle toning or drawing in of the transverse abdominus muscles under your hand.

These are the muscles that lead to stabilization of the spine and help us to get longer, but what initiated the tone was not a squeezing of your 6 pack muscles.  Instead, we got there by coordinating our internal movements (hip sockets and shoulder sockets moving back into the joint), and expansion of our awareness of the ground (through our feet) and our awareness of what’s around us (through the eyes).  When we start to feel misaligned it’s often because of a loss of core support caused by a breakdown of our internal coordination or external perception.   This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.  It’s often what we do when we rest, but it’s not the easiest way to move.  In a general way we can work on our core support by focusing on our coordination and perception.  So next time you’re out for a walk you might just ask yourself, are my thigh bones softening back into the sockets? Am I able to walk with my attention on the horizon? What’s around me or am I looking at the ground?  Am I able to stay attuned to how it feels on the inside, while being engaged and interested in what’s happening around me?

Balancing the Bandhas Through the Breath

In my last article about the breath, I wrote about the importance of contacting our inherent impulse to breath, and allowing ourselves to be breathed, rather than following an external or mental cue.  This exercise is no different, but it takes a little bit more refined focus and it builds off of the last exercise.

The Bandhas in Yoga, or “locks” (as in locks in a river) refer to the horizontal membranes of the body that provide containment and regulate the pressure of the different cavities of our bodies (our guts, lungs, heart and brains).

Where are they? 
The major diaphragms of the body are the respiratory diaphragm, the pelvic floor (muscles between your tailbone and pubic bone), the base of the throat, the base of the skull -at the level of the ear lobes (including the roof of the mouth and base of the eyes), the top of the head, and also the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.  The joints of the body are also diaphragms.

Why the Bandhas are important… 
When we are having trouble breathing, or our limbs are stiff or weak, it is often reflected by in how our breath moves through our bodies.  For example, if you puff up your chest you will notice that the base of your throat and your respiratory diaphragm have to tighten to retain the pressure in your ribs that allows you to puff up. These pressure regulators also have a dramatic effect on blood pressure, oxygen delivery to the cells, stress on the heart and overall health.  If they are too tight oxygenated blood isn’t able to reach the tissue and if they aren’t toned at all, there isn’t enough pressure to squeeze the blood back to the heart and we tend to feel sluggish. Balanced tone in the diaphragms leads to longer more balanced breathing and a lot less stress on the heart. When we are feeling our best, our diaphragms are gently pulsating between contraction and release to allow a smooth flow of energy through our bodies.

Ready to feel amazing? 
Lie on your back and notice your breath.  Allow your breath to come and go, without changing anything about it.  As you tune in, you may start to notice that when you inhale, all of the diaphragms naturally contract, and on the exhale, they all tend to release. Without changing anything about your breath, see if you can tune into the softening quality of the exhale.  As you begin to inhale see if you can continue to soften your diaphragms.  Since they all move together, you won’t actually have to focus on all of them to receive the benefits of this exercise.

At first see if you can bring your attention to just one or two at a time or try checking in with different diaphragms as you breath.  With practice, you will be able to open your attention to all of the diaphragms at once.  Just be sure you aren’t forcing your breath, either breathing harder or speeding your breath up or slowing it down.  Just let it flow naturally in response to the effects of your attention on the bandhas.

The overall effect of this exercise is that it will begin to feel as if your whole body is breathing, as if your lungs extend all the way from your fingers, to your toes and out to the top of your head, every cell expanding and contracting.  If this is easy, try the exercise sitting or standing. I hope you enjoy the experience.

A word of caution.
Big emotions can often come up when working with the breath.  If you begin to feel overwhelmed or even just light headed, take a break, this exercise should ideally make you feel more connected to yourself and more at ease.