Yesterday, Sage told us about a different way to look at doctors in her post about functional medicine. Today, I’m going to tell you about a different way to look at exercise.
Imagine your runner body as a relationship between your brain and your muscles where the brain is the boss and your muscles are the employees. When we run, our brains order our muscles to work! But what if this relationship is dysfunctional? What if the brain isn’t a very good boss and the muscles are lazy, inefficient employees? What if there was a way to rehabilitate your brain into an effective leader that gets the most out of your muscles?
There might be: the Feldenkrais Method. This exercise program, popular with dancers, might just be the key to getting your runner body working efficiently!
Before I was a runner I was a dancer. I first encountered The Feldenkrais Method at a summer intensive with Paul Taylor Dance Company. Each day began with either ballet or a Feldenkrais class to warm up. At first I was merely curious about Feldenkrais, but one lesson got my attention. The class began lying on the floor with the instruction to gently roll the head right and left. The rolling was slow and gentle, and stayed in a range that was very light and easy. My head rolled as it always had, jumping and jerking like a car on a flat tire.
Then the instructions were trace the ceiling tiles with the eyes in several variations:
- To the right and back to the center
- To the left and back to the center
- To the right and the left
- To the right with the head rolling in the same direction
- To the right with the head staying in center
- With the head rolled right taking the eyes back to the center
The class continued with all combinations of head, eye, and pelvis and leg actions and ended lying still, rolling the head right and left as before. My head rolled smooth like a river over rocks. The teacher said to the class: “Your body has learned a better way to move. It will never go back.” Impressed as I was with this new way of moving , I was skeptical. I checked in with that movement, rolling the head gently on the floor, throughout the following year. Sure enough, my head never rolled the bumpy way again.
Could it really be that great? Here’s a video walking you through a similar exercise. Try it and see!
Where did these weird exercises come from? Exercises within the method are designed around the movements of babies and children. How did we move before we conformed to civilized habits? What was movement like when we ran barefoot, somersaulted, and wiggled around in the floor? Each Feldenkrais exercise is designed to get the body to return to those most natural movement patterns, to get that boss brain and the employee muscles back to efficiently working together as they did before they got lazy over the years!
So how does Feldenkrais work? It disrupts your body’s habits. If you always do an action one way, in a Feldenkrais lesson you’ll try it five different ways. Since the brain is always looking for the path of least resistance, it will keep the way that’s easiest for it. The theory is that when you slow down actions and do only what is truly comfortable, your body learns new and better pattern. Going back to our metaphor from the intro, Feldenkrais teaches the boss brain how to get the employee muscles to work better together.
Something that might be new to us runners, is that Feldenkrais is a process-oriented practice, not achievement-oriented one like like run or strength training. Feldenkrais teachers seldom demonstration an action like most fitness instructors. Instead they tell the practitioners what to do themselves as the benefit comes when each brain experiences and discovers how to move its own body; simply imitating a form at the front of the class cannot teach this. Feldenkrais practitioners often use the phrase “first approximation” to hint to students to stay process-oriented. No one needs to excel, achieve, or perfect anything in Feldenkrais, least of all in the beginning. This might be hard for most goal-oriented athletes to get!
It’s been exactly a decade since I first experienced The Feldenkrais Method. Here’s how it improved my comfort and ability in running and otherwise:
Tension release. I can sense when I engage a muscle, however slightly, in a harmful way. When I run, I tend to hike up my right shoulder. Not in a way someone could see, but I can sense the trapezius muscle taut and immobile. Whenever I sense that unnecessary contraction, I let it go. Once that happens, my shoulder drops, and so does the right side of my torso: neck lengthens, jaw relaxes, and diaphragm descends for better breathing. I can run faster and more smoothly with this easy, free quality.
Improved alignment. I used to have a sway back, or lordosis in the technical term. Dance teachers always told me to “drop your hips” or make myself “flat through the front of the hips.” But I could not sense that my hips were hiked up or my tailbone tilted out, because it was the only posture I knew. With Feldenkrais, I developed the ability to sense what I was doing. From there I could change it.
Muscle recruitment. Many of us have tight muscles in our lower backs because we hold them in a state of constant contraction. Try tightening your low back and then picking up one knee. Now leave your low back loose and lift it again. Which is easier? Can you imagine trying to run, injury-free, with a habitually contracted low back?! Inversely,many of us with tight backs have weak abdominals and are unable to stabilize the pelvis. Push out your belly and lift one knee. Now engage your abs like your normally would. Which feels more stable and powerful? Since working on this tight lower back/weak abs condition, my abdominal muscles can stabilize my spine and pelvis for optimal movement. Not only did I gain control for dance, I finally had control of my running gait.
Deep breathing. Breathing properly is vital to running at our best, but many of our bodies are stuck in bad breathing habits. “Paradoxical breathing,” intentionally breathing in unnatural ways, disrupt the habits of the diaphragm and surrounding muscles to allow for maximum oxygen intake. Inhale into your belly and exhale pushing out your chest. Then do the opposite, and inhale into your chest and exhale by pushing out your belly. Now suck in a big gulp of air and alternate pushing the belly and the chest before you exhale. These actions encourage diaphragmatic breathing, which maximizes the amount of oxygen delivered to the blood stream and triggers the body’s natural relaxation response while disabling the fight or flight response. These techniques let me run when my brain panics and says, “You’re going to kill yourself if you don’t stop right now!”
Ultimately, Feldenkrais has helped me move in a more natural way. Remember that Feldenkrais is modeled after the movement of babies. I return to this thought during every run. Running is wholly natural and free, and our bodies were made for it. (Born to Run, anyone?!) While doctors or friends say running causes knee pain, back pain—you name it—I say lifestyle causes pain. Sitting in a car to sit at a desk, or wearing shoes on flat, paved surfaces, and overall restricting the dynamic actions our musculoskeletal system was designed to do, are destructive behaviors. Feldenkrais brought so much change in the way I move, and it reminded me to live with childlike freedom and curiosity. It has made such a difference.
I highly recommend you try the exercise in the YouTube video above just to get a taste for it. If you want more Feldenkrais exercises, visit www.openatm.org. Scroll partway down the page to the name Sharon Starika, a Park City-based practitioner. She directs several lessons for runners.
Have you ever heard about Feldenkrais? Will you give it a try?