I’ve always been suspicious of practices or disciplines that involve deliberately tightening a muscle—even though I know that others use this strategy with great success. The reasons for my suspicion are that: (1) you can tighten a muscle without significantly changing your alignment and (2) it seems to me that the body has already worked out the best pattern of tone for a given alignment, and I doubt that we can cognitively do better. Consequently, my preference has always been to prioritize improving alignment, letting the muscles take their cues from the position.
I’m not saying that this is always easy! How are we supposed to know what better alignment is? I’ve talked about some of the answer in an earlier post, “Gravity and Neutral.” Part of what I said there is that neutral (segments stacking well) has the feeling of length without deliberate effort. But there’s more to say.
One of the realities is that, when you move from one pattern of alignment to another, everything has to change. So the appropriate use of the mind in this situation is to say, “I’m going to try changing the position of one part, and then let everything reorganize to match what I just changed.” It’s an interesting mix of deliberateness and surrender. When you practice this skill, part of what emerges is the logic of body patterns in gravity.
One of the most important parts of the logic is counterbalancing. For example, if you shift your femoral heads backwards in standing, your upper body will have to shift forward. Otherwise, you’ll fall over backwards. A good way to begin to practice shifting patterns is to shift the femoral heads (tops of the legs) forward and back, allowing the upper body to counterbalance. If, on the other hand, you deliberately try to shift the femoral heads without letting the upper body counterbalance, you’ll get a change to feel the body saying, “NO, that doesn’t make sense.”
Early on in my bodywork career, I began to realize that some kinds of classes worked better for me than others. I spent a lot of money finding this out! A similar thing happened, early on, with teaching: material I found really interesting (injury evaluation, for example) was, frankly, a turn-off for a lot of other practitioners.
At one point, in the early 90s, I had an idea that there were 2 kinds of bodywork. On the one hand, there were the types that were easy to teach and practice, but had limited depth; on the other, there were types that were more rich and satisfying, but impossible to teach with clarity. It wasn’t until I trained with Judith Aston that I experienced what was, for me, the best of both worlds.
The reality that I’ll always struggle with is this: material or teaching styles that don’t work for me may work just fine—or even be ideal—for others! It’s hard to appreciate what it’s like to be someone else.
The simplest thing I can say about all this is that some learners seem to respond best if they’re given protocols to practice, and others if they’re given principles to apply. I’m that second type: when someone gives me something to practice, my mind wants to know “why!” I think that some others, when hearing principles and ideas, want to be given “something to do.”
In our teaching, we’re trying to appeal to both types. We spend less time talking about principles than we could, and we spend a lot of time teaching specific techniques. I hope that our principles shine through the examples we use!
We just had a very nice weekend (especially considering that I had a cold!) in Seattle teaching an exceptional group. We're lucky to find such interested and talented folks to work with. I especially enjoyed listening to Lauren say things that I would have said…and more.
A central element in the work we do is identifying the location, direction, and degree of restrictions. Here, I want to consider some of the ways we might keep the question of location awake in our practices.
I recall being introduced, many years ago, to the exercise of pulling on a sheet (on a massage table) that had small weights placed on it, trying to identify the location of the weights by the drag on the sheet.(Ever notice how often we work with eyes closed?) Clients, of course, are three-dimensional—but this exercise has serious real-world relevance. When I pull, for example, on a client’s feet, I can feel the degree of restriction in the sacrum and low back. And as I continue to meet the restriction, I begin to change it.
In my everyday practice, I use weight-bearing palpation to identify the pattern of segmental balance in the body. Depending on how I palpate, I may also begin to feel restrictions, or I may just identify “areas of interest” to be explored once the client is on the table. For me, it has become normal to move tissue in its fiber direction (grain) to feel the quality and degree of available movement. There’s a 3-D perception involved that I often call “sonar” for lack of a better word. We pull on tissue and feel how the tissue pulls back. As we subtly change the direction of our pull, we get more feedback from the body, and this creates an “image” of the restriction. This is one of the essential skills in bodywork.
This same skill can show up in other contexts. For example, if I do a passive range of motion test, do I simply note how far a limb moves, or do I also register the location of the restriction that stops the movement?
Manual therapists of all kinds develop this skill with experience. And it's not just about evaluation, but also treatment. As we like to say, "If you can feel it, you can move it." The big question, for me, is: how can we be as clear as possible about our method, so that we can deliberately and consciously refine this skill?
I believe that harmony (balance in movement and position) between many different layers in the body is what leads to improved organization. I am deeply impressed by practitioners who can isolate very particular structures to treat (here, I’m especially thinking of neural and vascular work), and I always aspire to improve my skills in that realm…but what interests me most is the practice of organizing the whole.
Practicing whole-body assessment keep us on that track. In particular, our weight-bearing palpation protocol continues to flower and deepen. Over the last few years, we’ve clarified and simplified the way we teach it, and our own perception of body patterns in the clients we touch feels more and more immediate. You can see a bit of weight-bearing palpation demonstrated in this video:
Additionally, we wave the flag for integrative principles of assessment and treatment. It makes sense to us that, to the degree that we’re about tissue mobilization, we should be able to apply the same rules to lots of different kinds of tissues: muscles, fascia, bones, viscera, nerves.
One exception that’s a big presence in my practice is my long-time interest in so-called special tests: those that specifically identify a clinical condition. Whether we’re talking about knee arthritis, shoulder impingement, or tennis elbow, that kind of clarity really helps to clarify client needs and treatment options.
I consider myself lucky that the orthopedic side of my work developed separately from (and earlier than) the structural side. That’s made it easier to appreciate the differences between two good things—whole-body treatment and specific problem-solving—and to strive for a balance between them.
Here are my thoughts about teaching that material. Feel free to shoot me an email with questions. Good luck!
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