The Virtuosity of Paying Attention

Have you ever played with a child? I mean spent time with them building castles that are never completed? Repeatedly banged out the same tune, because each turn never stops being highly amusing to them. Children have an innate ability to just play, not to find the meaning of things, but to explore the pleasure, run with it a while and then change, move on, let go. It’s highly frustrating for an adult, because we’re so used to seeing the end game, or seeing the point of it all. I know I am.

The resounding impact of a 3 day workshop with the improvisation performer Andrew Morrish, was this realisation: perhaps I’ve forgotten how to play!

Andrew’s workshop was titled ‘Solo Performance Improvisation Practice’. It involves at least three of the most terrifying propositions anyone could face: performing, solo and improvisation. Imagine entering the space, facing a whole audience, no score, no pre-rehearsed movement, just you and the space and the audience. No props or other performers to lean on. Andrew’s starting point is always to think that the audience likes you, they’re on your side. But I’ve seen audiences walk out of theatres, so I’m less convinced.

As an experienced improviser Andrew admits that there’s a lot of bad improvisation out there. Improvisation is often the fall-back of choreographers and directors when they cannot quite fill a section of their work, or performers when they forget their lines or make a wrong move. “Just improvise” is an often heard comment back stage, “no one will know”.  But when improvisation becomes a practice in its own right, the result is a performance that is skilled, authentic, endearing, humorous, engaging. An improviser over-comes so much of the natural chatter that prevents us from fully revealing who we are, they place themselves in a place of ultimate vulnerability. The experience of being in this space develops new muscles of authentic communicating, which is what gives this work its multi-dimensionality. The good news is that it’s not magic, it’s a practice that takes time to develop. And the key to developing this skill is to pay attention:

improvisation is the virtuosity of paying attention”  – Andrew Morrish

To frame Andrew’s teachings, I’m going to use his own structure of Beginning, Middle and End.

Beginning

Beginning starts with noticing.

Andrew says that having ideas is great while you have them, but what happens when the ideas run out? The key to being present, is to notice what’s here, now. We’re taught to listen in to sensation, and become aware of where that takes us in terms of movement, sounding, talking, imagination. When you attend to what’s there in the room, you never run out of resources.

“Pay attention to the child”

Andrew relates how he worked on a project where his job was to improvise alongside a child. Paying attention to the child was his source material for his own role in the duet. I know that Andrew was talking about a specific event, but I couldn’t help drawing parallels with Julia Cameron’s suggestion that our creative side is a child. Suddenly this idea of tapping in to my inner child just opened up something for me.  I’m here in this workshop because so many years of dance training dulled down any real ‘presence’ in favour of physicality. We were physical beings, but not human beings on stage. And now I just find that presence so stale. I’m here to work out what it might mean for me to be present on stage. If I could cut out all the negative chatter that prevents me from making a fool of myself and notice what my inner child was drawn to, perhaps something more real would come out of me?

Staying in this childish space, Andrew suggests following your pleasure. The game is not to find something that’s “interesting”, it’s to find something that’s fun for us now. It’s function-less, frivolous. But if you find it then developing it is a pleasure too. It sounds like a good life mantra…

Middle: Developing what you’ve noticed

I’m very bad at the middle bit. I find myself wanting to know the outcome right from the get go. Only a few seconds into an improvisation task, I find my mind panicking to know the end point. I find  it so hard just to settle in, notice and develop what’s there, whatever that may be. I sense that Andrew knows this and one of his tools is to get us to move around the space.

“a solo is a journey”

Andrew places groups of people around the space, so that as we improvisaed solo we have to move from one audience to another, shifting ourselves spatially. Each new audience, or new sapce brings a new energy. Somehow, using this structure, we each do a 4 minute solo improvisation on the first day!

“Change!”

If the first job of an improviser is to find something pleasureable, then the second job is to find the next thing that’s pleasureable. It’s so easy to get stuck in what we’re doing, that sometimes we forget to change. Andrew suggests introducing something that prompts us to change, like a change of scenary or a change of focus. I think that my inability to change more frequently comes partly out of feeling very invested in what I’m doing, so that I find it hard to let it go, and partly in the fear of not being able to find the next thing. Andrew suggests the Andrew Morrish App: it follows you around shouting “change!” every 30 seconds. Sadly it doesn’t exist, but it’s not a bad idea.

“you need to feel safe to be creative”

There’s something about this remark that holds so true and yet is so little understood in the arts world. Everyone somehow expects artists to bare their soles, to be really ‘out there’. But that’s not a safe place to work from, and when you’re acting from a place of fear, you cannot really be creative, you can only do what you already know which is the opposite of being present. So how do you create safety when you’re facing an audience with no pre-known moves / score etc?

“supportive architecture”.

Andrew talked about creating supportive architecture. One exercise involved each of us performing with other members of the group sitting / standing around the space. When you’re in relation to another body the space feels less empty. More resources appear. Later Andrew suggested using our imagination to create that supportive architecture, or thinking about the audience as a supportive architecture.

Ending

“Be aware of what’s happened”

Finding an ending involves the ability to be aware of what’s happened and to somehow hold that in our body in a way that will lead us to an ending.

I don’t think I ever really found an ending. It would be safe to say that I’m still trying to find a sense of play. But each time my turn came to an end, I seemed to come out of performance and suddenly I was me. In Andrew’s words: how can I find more of her?

This blog is dedicated to my work as a dance artist and choreographer. If you're looking for my Pilates work, please visitmy Pilates website at www.margueritepilates.com

 

 

Being a little more brave

This week has been a very sad one. On Monday 16th October, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist, was assassinated by a car bomb. Whilst I bare the same surname, she was only a distant relative. I think I only ever met her once. However her work was followed by everyone on the island. Her horrific murder sent shudders through us all.

It’s been hard to know what might be the right thing to do. On Wednesday I made my way to Malta House on Piccadilly to add my note to the small pile of flowers and candles on the door step. On my journey back home I was thinking about Daphne and her work, trying to work out how I could honour her in some way. I remember finding her quite shy in person. But she was extremely bold and brave in her writing. She criticised complacency and exposed corruption. She was persistent, even in the face of unbelievable adversity.

I used to have that fire. I used to have that kind of conviction. But I seem to have lost it somewhere along the way. Recently,  I’ve hidden behind procrastination. It took me months to decide to start publishing videos on my Pilates blog, because I was afraid of being criticised. I’ve written things on this blog too and then deleted them, afraid I would ruffle too many feathers in the dance world. I was even afraid of advertising my workshop to my own friends, fearing someone might find it presumptuous. Well all these things are true. If I put myself out there then someone is likely to take offence, criticise me, even if only in their head, and yes my group message to absolutely everyone on my dance list probably pissed at least 3/4’s of the group off. So what? I think I’ve finally made peace with the idea that whilst stepping up and standing up for what I have to offer I am likely to annoy more than a few people. I’m sorry in advance.

What began as shock on Monday, has now rippled out into sadness. Sadness for Daphne, for her sons, her husband and anyone else who held her dear to them. Sadness for the entire island. But whilst I am horrified by her murder, I feel emboldened by the example she set in her life. It’s time to be a little more brave.

RIP Daphne, our thoughts are with your family. 

 

Fold R&D (2017)

‘Fold’ is a part video installation / part performance work. It uses 3 cameras relaying live video feeds projected back into the performance space.  Floor tape and wide ribbons in the space intersect with the architecture of the performance space and the framing of the three cameras, to create a fragmented collage of spatial relationships across three projections. Visual, architectural, disorientating and playful, the work’s formal elements belie its very human undertones, generating images of tenderness, sadness, rejection, desire and the denial of human contact. The fragmentation of the body creates a disjointed portrait of the artist / performer, an unarticulated urge to reconcile the layers and complexities of inter and intra-personal relationships.

Fold is still work in progress. The following videos document my process of research carried out at Yorkshire Dance in August 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Solo Practice

What are your thoughts, issues, frustrations, ideas around developing your work on your own? When you book yourself into a studio to finally get your ideas out of your head and into your body, or you’re super chuffed about getting a residency, you walk into the studio on your first day, all alone with your music and that bit of text you really liked…. then what? Does this way of working, work for you?

A few weeks ago I decided to take a week off from teaching so that I could get back into the studio and move again, bringing my focus back into my dance work. I’m starting a new piece as well as rehearsing an old one. It’s all solo material, plus quite a lot of tech, literally just me and the machine. Working in a studio is an investment. It costs time and money. Even when it’s free, it comes with some kind of a cost. So one does kind of feel obliged to ‘achieve’ something. Compound that pressure with all the problems that arise from working alone (distraction, boredom, self-doubt) and you have a recipe for the ultimate frustration. Working solo has to be one of the most difficult aspects of a dance maker’s practice. By the end of that week of rolling around on the floor, I put the above question to my fellow dance makers. Here are some of the responses I received:

 “I almost never go into a studio on my own. I always feel lost whenever I try to do that. I’m usually either making group work or if I’m practicing solo improv then I always share the practice with someone so I have an audience.” – Seke Chimutengwende.

“I never go into the studio alone either. No one should. All solos need a director 😉 as not to be left at some point – lying in a shaft of sunlight falling asleep in desperate lonely inadequacy – before then bursting into tears, getting inspired, coming up with something small; it’s hell.” – Sally Marie 

“It’s usually great for the first hour…and then I’m bored, not sure what to do next, messing with documentation and note taking instead of developing material… I’m not good in the studio alone but I also feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do to be a good dance maker, so I tend to make myself do it for a day or two at the beginning of a project.” – Kate Sicchio 

“For me, working on a solo is like learning a foreign language; you need to pass through the point where everything seems impossible, really push yourself and “learn the grammar” to finally let the body speak. And I go to the studio on my own because it is the only moment I feel my body is a subject and not an object. It is honest and a process that lets me connect with myself first.” – Danai Pappa

The bottom line is that working alone in a studio is tough. I’m curious about the combination of reasons that people chose to work in this way: sometimes it’s out of necessity, sometimes it’s just a starting point, sometimes it’s because of a feeling of obligation. I’m grateful to those who expressed that this way of working simply isn’t necessary in their practice at all. Working solo is hard work, so if you can avoid it then by all means do. I think it’s fair to ask ourselves, in the first instance: Why choose to work alone? Is it really necessary?

I started working alone partly for practical reasons: I got tired of asking people to work for free for me, it never felt good. But once I started working alone, I realized that actually working with others was even harder. The reason for this is that developing an idea from scratch puts you in a very vulnerable place to begin with. It’s all very raw and unimpressive and more importantly, it’s easily trampled on. Having another collaborator in the studio with me made me feel like the idea was threatened, partly by the presence of another person’s ego, partly by the fact that another person will bring their own baggage to the room. I’ve also become hyper sensitive to the way that someone else’s movement can take over the aesthetic of the work, and this probably has something to do with the subtle nature of identity in my practice.

After the first two rehearsals, working alone in a studio space, I found myself wondering whether I was really getting anything out of it. I came away and showed some images to my collaborator, who instantly saw the progress and encouraged me to keep working. If I hadn’t had that feedback I think I might have despaired.

What I realized is that some of what we think of as frustrations, may actually be a consequence of the continuous expectation of being productive. But the productivity scale does not reflect the value of what we are doing. Richard Newton puts this so well in “The Little Book of Thinking Big”:

“The cult of busyness requires a certain type of thinking. You could call it instrumental thinking. The consequences of the thinking must be instrumental in achieving value: sales, innovation, cost savings…wealth and power. This is valuable but it is narrow, focused and constrained.” – Richards Newton

In some senses, remaining in the undefined, non-linear space of creative practice is a quiet protest against the dominance of ‘getting somewhere’ in our goal oriented culture. There is something pre-verbal about solo practice (I read that somewhere) and I wonder about allowing it to remain in this space. How can I allow myself to roam in that initial idea without getting trapped in self-absorbed, self-conscious fantasy?

So the question isn’t “How can I get more out of this time?” but “How do we get better at being in this space?” by which I mean both the physical space of the studio and the psychological space of solo creative practice.

And another thing: shouldn’t it be fun? Why does it always feel like such hard work?

I recalled the writing of Mihaly Csikszentmihaly who talks about the state of Flow. Here’s what he says:

 “These are the eight main components people mention when what they do is fun and enjoyable: they have a clear sense of goals, they know how they are doing, their skills are matched to their challenges, their attention is concentrated on what they are doing, they operate in the moment, they are not worried about being out of control, or about how they look in the eyes of other people, time then passes fast and one is glad to be doing whatever it is that provides such an experience.”

The reason that I like this idea is that is suggests that if the first three principles are met (clear aim, feedback and skills matched to the challenge) then all the other frustrations disappear.

So how does all this fit together? I’m just at the very start of my research, but this is what I think we might need, to develop a better solo practice.

a.) The right approach.

I think we need to remember that working solo is a practice that takes time to develop. We need to approach each session with curiosity and kindness. We need to enter into the mental attitude of practice rather than achieving outcomes. We need to be ready to suspend judgment.

b.) Resources

In preparation for my workshop on Sunday, I’ve been spending time walking around hardware stores and stationers. I’ve bought ‘toilet reading books’ and searched through online resources for anything that resonates. Having a box of physical tools (I don’t mean hammers and nails), is a great oblique way of getting the mind focused on making. Resources don’t have to be physical. They can be simple constraints or tasks you give yourself, like using less space or trying to make 10 versions of something. You can tailor them to the ideas you’re exploring. Having small task based goals gives us something smaller than the bigger picture to get our teeth into. I think a lot of the time we’re so devoured by the bigger picture of what we’re trying to do, that we feel paralyzed by it. Finding a way to focus on something small, either related, or unrelated, is a good way to keep the analytical side of the brain engaged, so that the more elusive original ideas can surface.

c.) Preparation

I have this idea that if I’m about to spend 4 hours alone in the studio then I should spend at least 4 hours preparing in some way. Creative practice should be an ongoing process. Admittedly this takes a lot of discipline, but setting time aside in the week to go and look at something, or research ideas that you can take into the studio with you, will massively enhance the quality of that time alone in the space.

d.) RSPV

If you’re not familiar with Anna Halprin’s RSPV cycle, then I’ve written about this here. RSPV stands for Resources, Score, Performance, Value-action. We all know how to structure rehearsals, but what about structuring the process? I like to think of the preparation time before the session as a time to collect resources and set a score for how I want to work in the studio. The time in the studio then becomes the performance, which I film to watch later. I then evaluate what I’ve done by reflecting on my process and the documentation after the rehearsal. This allows me to refine my score and resources so that I can repeat the cycle in the next rehearsal.

e.) An observer

The most effective solo practice sessions I ever had involved working with the dramaturg, Chris Higgins. You can read about my experience here. What I realized from this way of working, was that having an external eye, not directing, but supporting me staying in the space, was the most conducive set up for my own physical practice. On Sunday 18th June I will lead my very first lab on the observed / observing practice. This presents a score for supporting each other’s solo practice by simply being present. I’ll also be exploring some of the resources I’ve been gathering to facilitate solo making. You can find more details on the workshop here.

I’m so grateful to all of my fellow makers who contributed their thoughts and allowed me to share them here. This is just the beginning of these ramblings. In the meantime let me know what you think. Do any of these ideas resonate with you?

Bi-later-ability

Thank you all for your comments following last week’s post. It’s lovely to hear everyone’s reactions to what I’ve written and reminds me of the importance of this ongoing research and thinking around my teaching. So this week’s inspiration came from my new-found hobby of swing dancing. It’s a step up from ironing, and somehow continues from last week’s post, which you can read here.

Swing is a social dance. You dance with a partner, either loosely facing or side by side. One person in the couple is the ‘lead’ and the other is the ‘follow’. This description is all highly simplistic I know, because you watch professionals dancing and they’re literally all over the place. But at a very basic level, your footwork and facings essentially mirror that of your partner.

Bare with me.

Following the usual set-up of the beginners class I go to, last night we first learnt a basic step, and then built on that into different variations. The lead dancer started by stepping back on the left leg, the ‘follow’ stepped back on the right. The pattern soon set in till it felt almost unconscious, which we only realised several variations into the class when we suddenly all found ourselves on the ‘wrong’ side of our partners. Having to do the basic step on the other leg before we could get back to ‘home’ felt like picking up a knife in the wrong hand. Panic!

What we experienced was the surprise of having internalised a movement pattern.

Repetition has long been the main way of learning dance steps. We talk about ‘getting it into the body’ or ‘feeling it in the body’ so that it becomes imprinted to such a degree that it can be performed unconsciously. This is the result of neuro-muscular patterning, the particular organisation and co-ordination of parts needed to carry out the movement. The rate of encoding will depend on how practiced our neuro-muscular system is at adapting to the demands of this new circuitry and what other library of sequencing the body already has to draw on. If the basic scaffolding (an understanding of centre, full access to the peripheral joints and an ability to sequence from one to the other) is available, then building the sequence will take less time. Perhaps for those without a basic scaffolding, more basic patterns will need to be laid down first before the full co-ordination can be accomplished. Once a pattern is imprinted into the body, it then becomes the ‘easy’, most available option, which in turn makes us more likely to select it, leading to further re-enforcement etc.

OK so perhaps you have no interest in learning social dancing, although I highly recommend it, but this little unpicking of learning seems relevant to how we create movement biases just through living. As I struggled to get my left leg to start the rock step back, I was reminded of this remark by Liz Koch:

Unlike a machine, we are not symmetrical but bilateral – Liz Koch

We are literally composed of two different and complimentary parts that work together around a single central core. However, somehow, through conscious or unconscious learning, we have all internalised movement patterns that have led to more or less use of one side over another. Of course I’m not suggesting that we all become ambidextrous. We will always have a dominant hand / leg. However I wonder how much we tend to lean onto these dominant sides. Remember that the body will always default to the easiest, most available pattern which, whilst over-developing activity on one side, will equally reduce access on the other side. Injury, for example, can lock us into a pattern that is aimed to protect the injured part in the short term, but causes more imbalances in the long term. Learned non-use leads to functional asymmetry. The result is a metaphorical limp in the neuro-muscular system with various compensation patterns, stresses and strains on the joints that lead to pain and injury.

Perhaps the roles of ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ might equally apply to two sides of our body? If so, the key to reducing this functional asymmetry is to somehow land up on the other side, to trick the body into stepping out of ‘home’ and remaining bi-laterally able.

The way towards bi-later-ability (my own word, not a technical term) is the ABC of better movement:

  • Increase Awareness: notice your habits.
  • Shake Things Up: walk around the park in the other direction, put your mat down on the other side of the room, start on the opposite leg, go to a different class (because teachers also tend to default into patterns of exercises and teaching techniques that come easiest to them), change the interlace of your fingers.
  • Listen to Feedback: Go to a class where a teacher can see what you’re doing and help bring your awareness to patterns that you are not aware of.

Be creative, let me know what other small habit shifts you’ve thought of.

 

 

Form Follows Function

Last night I decided to tackle the pile of washing that’s built up over the weekend. I always find it so interesting ironing out clothes. It’s not just a simple matter of removing the creases, which is easy enough. Have you noticed how getting the side seams to meet is so crazily difficult? I have to adjust all my tops several times before I can fold them symmetrically.

I’ve had a scoliosis since I was a teenager. It’s called an idiopathic scoliosis, assumed to have no real cause. It just popped up out of the blue. It’s a sideways (lateral) bending of the spine. A trained eye can see my curvature, but most people wouldn’t notice, since the curve is quite small. The main giveaway is that the Right side of my back is more indented than the Left, and the Left side of my back is quite tough. It basically feels as though I have more meat on one side than on the other.

One of the key features of a scoliosis is that as well as bending sideways, the spine rotates. It’s like the trunk of a tree bending and spiralling upwards. The interesting thing about ironing clothes, is that I can see that exact rotation in them. My whole pelvis twists around so that the Left hip sits further forward than the Right. Sure enough all my tops are slightly twisted in this way. I have to make a specific effort to untwist them so that I can fold them neatly.

My clothes, when new, are easily folded. There are no twists. They fold ‘naturally’ along the seams. The ‘bones’ of the t-shirts, ie: the seams and stitching that holds it in shape starts off being more or less symmetrical. But with wear it takes on my shape. What I’m looking at is the imprint of my own movement in my clothes. Movement that is both unconscious and repetitive so as to gradually pull the fibres of my clothes into a twist. When I iron them out and straighten them, they return to neutral.

I think that when I examined the twist in my clothes I realised that I was seeing a mirror of my form. But this was not the original form of the clothes. I ‘have’ a scoliosis, but my clothes do not. The form that you ultimately inhabit comes out of the repeated movement habits that you carry out and most of this is unconscious. The real problem isn’t the distortion that you “have” it’s your lack of awareness around this distortion. As Katy Bowman writes:

Having someone tell you that your frustrating, inconvenient, or painful condition is natural and that surgery or difficult (and barely effective) spot treatments are your only options is both disempowering and possibly untrue. So much of our physical experience is created by how we choose to live – it’s not the result of some unavoidable genetic fate. You can learn… how to use your body in a way that allows it to function better, the way it’s supposed to. – Katy Bowman

Now, most adjustments to boney alignment are quite complex. Hereditary elements do play a role. But more and more I’m tending to feel that the way we organise ourselves (unconsciously) plays a very key part in the degree of deviation that results. The more we bring ourselves back to neutral the less likely we are to have a large deviation in the first place. This, in turn, will reduce the strains that result from the adjustment on the rest of the body.

The good news is that once we develop awareness around our movement we can begin to make decisions about how we move that will have an “ironing out” effect on those distortions. How we organise ourselves depends on us.

You are how you move.

Where Pilates Goes Wrong…

I know that I spend a lot of time reminding people not just to obsess about the area that is injured, painful or out of alignment. The general thrust of my writing and talking about the body is to always look at the system as a whole. A key model for understanding this holistic approach is through the Anatomy Trains identified by Thomas Myers. Fascia, the connective tissue that wraps around each cell, each bundle of cells, each muscle, the tissue that interconnects muscle, to tendon, to bone, to viscera. Fascia, I have thought, is the reason the whole body is a whole system. But what if I’m slightly wrong?

As so many of my clients and classes wind down for the end of term, I have more time to think of my own body and training. I went for a run on Monday which absolutely shattered my lower calf muscles (the soleus area). No matter how much I stretched them out, they still felt tight. Walking down stairs was actually painful. Thursday comes and I was determined to get myself out for another run. I hoped that the movement would help to release them. It didn’t and I had to give up after 10 minutes just because the tension was getting silly.

Now, I’ve always struggled with super tight calve muscles. I tell everyone that I inherited them from my Dad, which is true! I swear I have my Dad’s legs! (How many times have I heard that from a client…?) But I also know, because I am a Pilates teacher, that this kind of overuse is a signal that the mechanics of my running are slightly dysfunctional. Something I am doing is leading to this over use. It’s probably wrapped up with my knees being hyper-extended and the position of my weight over my legs when I’m running. It’s symmetrical (both sides are equally tight), which is some good news. It’s probably something to do with the switchover between the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles during the take off and landing phases, (as my teacher Dominique Jansen has said in the past). Or maybe it’s just the shoes, or the fact that I haven’t run for some time.

My brain went into over-drive trying to work it out.

Later in the day I hobbled down to Triyoga to do a Feldenkrais class. We spent the whole lesson working on the shoulder girdle. The whole 1.5hours lying on our backs just doing movements around the shoulders and integrating this into spiralling the back.

I walked out of the class with no calve pain…

[Pause for effect]

This is why I keep on going on about Feldenkrais. But what I realised is that what happened yesterday was not just related to fascia. Feldenkrais talks to the nervous system and invites an overall more functional organisation of the whole body. So yes, we worked on the shoulders, but the whole body was adjusting in the meantime, and something else let go. Not only is the calve pain gone, but my scoliosis is less significant today.

The discovery has been both exciting and worrying. I realised that even though I actively attempt to address the body and person as a whole, Pilates does, unfortunately, still have a tendency to reduce pain to a specific area and to try to treat it. We look for logical connections: the neck and lower back, the neck and gluts, the hip and knee, the foot and lower back, the wrist and the shoulder etc. What we sometimes get wrong is that the system’s natural ability to self organise is so finely tuned to the balance of every part, that even our extensive body knowledge and eye for detail cannot always see the whole. Pilates goes wrong when teachers assume they know better.

Now excuse me whilst I go and have an existential crises.

 

DR 2

So in my last post I talked about the cause of a DR as the increased pressure against the abdominal wall from the inside out. Pregnancy is one example of why this might happen, however I am seeing, with considerable frequency, the same pattern happening in men. It seems clear that the main cause of the DR is posture. There are contributing genetic factors too, like hyper-mobility, which will make someone more prone to it. There are also occasions where a single event, like a sudden sneeze, coughing or lifting something heavy can bring about a hernia. However the chances are in both cases that the occurrence can be greatly reduced by maintaining appropriate tone in the abdominal wall and ensuring that you do not place too much pressure on it during habitual movement.

In my last post I identified four key areas that need to be addressed:

  1. Centering – asymmetry (unilateral imbalances) reduces the functionality of the Rectus Abdominis muscle. Before loading the abdominal wall you need to find centre.
  2. Releasing the shoulders – restrictions in shoulder movement leads to rib cage displacement. It may seem strange, but ensuring you have full ROM in the shoulder will reduce pressure on the abdominal wall.
  3. Release the rib cage – The ribs need to soften down. I drew a nice picture of this in my last post.
  4. Release the Hip Flexors – When the ribs are displaced, it makes it very hard to connect through the centre of the body, so when these clients do things like abdominal crunches with their legs in the air, they often tighten up in the Hip Flexors. This brings the pelvis into a forward tilt, also in my picture.

The following sequence is not a complete fix. It’s a starting point to address the main points mentioned above:

  1. Centering: start off by doing a low level centering exercise. My favorite is to lie down with pelvis raised onto one of those disc shaped wobble cushions, but a simple cushion does the trick too. You need to make sure that your ribs are not poking up to the ceiling so soften the rib cage and raise your head onto another cushion if needed. Start with pelvic rocks, then small clocks, rolling an imaginary marble around the pelvis. You can then draw one knee in and hold it with your hand and do a few knee stirs. Repeat on the other side. Then hold one knee in towards you to allow the other hip to open up. Change sides.
  2. Lateral Breathing: staying on the cushion but with both feet on the floor begin to breath into the sides of the ribs. As you exhale, allow the arms to lift up infront of you whilst you soften your ribs down. Then try to take one arm overhead, without displacing the rib cage. Keep softening the ribs down as the arm goes overhead. Repeat a few times to each side and then try this with both arms. Drop the ribs! Drop the ribs! Drop the ribs!
  3. You can now begin doing some low level abdominal work. Place your hands onto your belly, so that with each out breath you sink your belly away from your hands. Try drawing one knee in towards you at a time without swinging around on the cushion or collapsing your lower back into the floor. Then try to do the step up where you lift one leg, hold for an in breath and lift the second leg up to join it on the next out breath. Then reverse. Always breathing out when you either lift or lower the leg.
  4. Leg slides: With the pelvis still on the cushion and feet on the ground, you slide one leg down along the floor. As you do this try sinking the belly back towards the spine, breathing out all the way, and watch that the lower back doesn’t arch especially towards the end range of the knee extension. Hold the leg out there for an in-breath, and then press the heel into the floor, engage the muscles around the sits bones and drag the leg back in to the starting position. Repeat 3-4 times to each side, alternating legs.
  5. Bridge: press your heels into the floor as you raise the pelvis off the cushion. You want to think of lifting the pelvis from the muscles around the sits bones, keeping the ribs soft and opening the front of the hips. Remove the cushion from under the pelvis, and then roll the spine down to the floor bone by bone, focusing on releasing through the mid back. You can then repeat the bridge without the cushion a few times.
  6. Lunging HF stretch. Ok this one is just obvious, but don’t forget to avoid hanging into your lower back. As you lunge forwards you think of lifting out of the pelvis, keeping the ribs soft.

I’ve been busy writing this whilst suffering from a nasty cold, which means that I’ve had time to create a quick video of all of this (minus the lunge). It’s just a quick picture so that you know what to do when you’re on your own. Please excuse the red eyes and sore nose 🙂

Diastasis Recti

As some of you know, I’ve recently become intrigued by the number of men I come across with some degree of Diastasis Recti. A DR is a split in the abdominal wall, which we commonly come across amongst pregnant and post-natal women.

DR is accepted/ expected as a normal result of pregnancy. As the baby grows, the abdominal wall splits to make room for the growing bump. Post-natal Pilates focuses on re-knitting the abdominal wall by gradually increasing loads to tone the abdominals whilst encouraging the abdominal wall to sink downwards and inwards. It’s a tricky balance. If you load too much, the abdominal wall is pushed outwards, further exacerbating the problem. If you load too little the client finds it very hard to ‘feel’ anything in the abdominals and other muscle groups like the Hip Flexors begin to take over.

The good thing is that when you work with a post-natal woman, they know that their abdominal wall is vulnerable. So they don’t go for broke on big abdominal exercises. They (often) listen to my instruction to reduce loading if they’re in a big class, or engage with the issue rather than trying to ignore it. Men with a DR, on the other hand, have not just given birth. They don’t feel vulnerable, in fact many of them appear to be quite strong. They often show up in my classes because their physio recommended Pilates for their lower back pain…small wonder. Many of them simply don’t accept that the abnormal bulge in their abdominal wall is a problem at all. The literature out there backs this up, calling it harmless. But a split in the fascial sheets of the abdominal wall is not functional. Try telling a buff looking man that he needs to do post-natal Pilates….

Enter Katy Bowman.

Katy Bowman is a bio-mechanist. She looks at movement in terms of forces placed on the bones, joints, soft-tissue and even the cells. Her philosophy is to develop nutritious movement habits, varying the loads and directions of pull on the body so that we develop a varied movement diet, leading to all-round wellbeing. She’s a massive fan of the squat and hanging from trees, for example, movements that our sedentary culture has made very easy to forgo.

In her most recent publication Diastasis Recti, Bowman insists that DR is a whole body problem. She identifies that all occurrences of DR result from too much pressure on the abdominal wall. Whether this is because of a growing baby in your belly, or if, like a friend of mine, you just picked up something too heavy and literally ‘bust your guts’. From a bio-mechanical point of view, the cause is the same: too much pressure on the abdominal wall from the inside outwards, and though the onset may be sudden, the fault lines have slowly been creeping up:

 Slow sustained loads in a certain direction can deform tissues in a manner from which they cannot recover. Mechanical creep is the tendency of a material to deform slowly under a constant stress. The failure of a tissue in this case is called a creep failure. A diastasis recti or hernia is the result of creep failures.” Katy Bowman.

So Diastasis Recti is NOT just a natural result of pregnancy. It is the result of abnormal amounts of force on the abdominal wall, of which pregnancy may be one cause.

The abdominal muscles support the lower back. Poor tone or weakness in the abdominal wall results in a gradual wear and tear on the discs and intervertebral joints in the lower back. It’s obvious that a tear in the abdominal structures makes them a lot less functional (read: weak), which is why they really need to be addressed. I think that when medical professionals say that DR’s are ‘harmless’ what they mean is that they are not cancerous growths. But a DR is not something to ignore.

It follows that if the cause is the pressure on the abdominal wall, then just fixating on the location of the DR itself, as we tend to do with post-natal women, is a very limited way of looking at it. That doesn’t mean that specific, targeted abdominal work is not necessary. On the contrary, we do need to work to restore correct functioning of the abdominal muscles, but it needs to done within a program that considers the pressures on the abdominal wall brought about by the organization of the body as a whole.

If I hold a picture Doc - 28 Mar 2017 - 21-56in my mind of clients who have a DR, the picture is roughly this. The rib cage is flailed, compressing the mid-back area and the pelvis is in a forward tilt. This appears to create more space out the front, making it the favoured posture for a pregnant woman. I think that men who adopt this posture (if they are not obese) do so because they may be trying to sit upright, but don’t have the mobility in their upper thoracic area or shoulders, and therefor hinge on the mid-back section. Once you displace the ribs in this way, it makes it very hard to feel a connection through the centre, so any abdominal work is likely to go into the Hip Flexors or lower back.

 

Bowman goes through a very comprehensive program of exercises to address every detail around this posture type, (and I highly recommend her book to clients, especially men, who have a DR). However, one of the key factors that makes DR quite difficult for a post-natal woman is: asymmetry, which I don’t think Bowman has addressed sufficiently in her book. Having one leg longer than the other, or some rotation in the pelvis, or a scoliosis all lead to a weakening of the abdominal wall. Lack of alignment causes weakness in the surrounding muscles. So addressing this is just as important. Once the body is aligned, the hip flexors are released and the ribs are dropped, we can then progress to more targeted abdominal work focusing on sinking the abdominal wall. The trajectory is therefor: align the pelvis, release the rib cage, open up the hip flexors and then integrate low level abdominal loads.

My next post will go into more detail on each of these. 🙂

 

The Hip – Foot Sling

I’ve been talking about the Spiral Line, or how collapsing into the Spiral Line causes a downward spiral. I hope that what’s coming across is the fact that you are not just a series of parts fixed together, and that a holistic, whole body approach is necessary to address injury or pain.

Today I’d like to look specifically at the Hip and it’s role in the Spiral Line.

The hip is involved in the Spiral Line at two major points: the outer side, by the ASIS, and the back and lower side, by the sits bones. These two points are directly related to the arches of the feet via the Spiral Line.

If you put your hands on your ‘hips’, you’ve most probably placed your hands on the pelvic crests (The Illia). If you trace your fingers to the front of these two bones, that’s the ASIS. This point is connected fascially to the inner arch of the foot. The Spiral Line runs from the ASIS down the outside of the leg (the ITB), then crosses forwards from below the knee across the front of the shin and down to the inner arch (via Tibialis Anterior).

doc-21-feb-2017-12-09-1Tibialis anterior hooks under in the inner arch of the foot where it meets the tendon of Peroneus Longus at the base of the first metatarsal. Peroneus Longus runs from this point towards the outer side of the foot and up the outer (lateral) side of the shin bones. The line then continues towards the back of the thigh up the hamstrings and towards the sits bones (ischial tuberosities).

As you can see from the diagram, the tendinous insertions in the foot create a stirrup around the arch of the foot. However the really interesting thing is that this continuous line connects the pelvic placement with the arches of the feet in a sling like structure.

This is super important!!!!!!!!!!!

doc-21-feb-2017-12-10If the arches are dropping inwards there is a fair chance that your knees are rotating inwards and that your pelvis is tilted forwards. If you’re rolling onto the outside of your feet, there’s a fair chance that your knees bow outwards and your pelvis is in a backward tilt (also known as tucking under).

Remember that these are simplifications and no body is 100% of one thing.There are millions of variations of the above. Sometimes one side of the line is tight on one leg and lax on the other leg. (I will talk about this later when I look at whole body movement and the spiral line.)

Since my series has been focusing on the “Downward Spiral”, I will give you a few tips on how to work with the first of these patterns, where the arches are dropped and the pelvis is in a forward tilt.

  1. Do not stretch the hamstrings!* I often come across people with this pattern who insist that their hamstrings are tight. Actually, if your pelvis is in a forward tilt, then your hamstrings are too long, ie: they are in a constantly lengthened position under load. If you stretch them any more then they will just tighten up against this. They are actually too weak and need to be strengthened to encourage the pelvis to come more towards a neutral alignment. I’m sorry to say that this is a really tricky thing to achieve because the Hip Flexors at the front of the hip are often tight and therefore stop people from being able to access the gluts and hamstrings in exercises that should target these areas. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is that people just arch their backs instead, which just causes more problems. So before you can tackle the hamstrings themselves you will need to:
  2. Lengthen the Hip Flexors. The kneeling lunge is probably the best option, however if your knees are dodgy you can lie on your back with your pelvis slightly raised on a cushion and hug one knee in towards you.
  3. Engage the sits bones. Now obviously the sits bones are bones and cannot contract, but this image, that you often hear me give in class, is a key one for the functional integration of the hamstrings and gluts in hip extension. When you ‘narrow the sits bones’ you engage the top attachments of the hamstrings and the lower fibres of the gluts. This anchors the lower end of the pelvis so that the front of the hip can let go. You need to find this connection first before going into hip extension exercises like the bridge. My favourite exercises for this are either footwork on the Reformer or the matwork version which is supine leg slides.
  4. Do the Bridge.

It’s so difficult to describe these exercises in any detail. So ask me in class if you’re not sure about any of these.

*Generally speaking, if you notice that you have one area of your body that constantly feels tight, it’s a sign that it is being asked to do more than its fair share. A muscle that is constantly tight is essentially very weak. Stretching constantly is not a good idea. By looking at whole body alignment you can learn to achieve a more functional distribution of effort so that no one area ever feels constantly stiff. But that’s a point for another post altogether.