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Experiential Anatomy

Standing-Separate-Leg-Stretching-Pose“Stretch your arms out wide to the side: building strength with intention.” ~ Sara, one of Susan’s beloved yoga teachers

After practicing Nia for almost 15 years, I totally get the idea of creating strength with strength. By moving energy in, packing tight around the bones, I can increase my muscular strength by using the strength I already have.

Cool for sure.  But it took my yoga classes to show me that I can also use that same strength to safely and effectively create more flexibility, too. Love that.

Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Paschimotthanasana. Standing Separate Leg Stretching pose.
A Sanskrit name so long that I takes our teacher almost as long to say it as it does for us to do it.

In my yoga practice, I am challenged to execute any of the 26 postures in the series skillfully. But this 8th posture in the series is mine. I can almost really do it.

Almost.

On the surface, it looks like a venture of straight flexibility. But like yoga itself, it is the perfect balance of both strength and flexibility, yang and yin. It is the body’s way and it is an impeccable example of how we can create more strength with our own strength and more flexibility with that same strength.

Standing-Separate-Leg-Stretching-Pose 1

The pose sets up with legs straddling the mat, toes gently turned in, and arms extended long, Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.

Students Practice The Unique Bikram Yoga

Then it’s a swan dive forward

standing separate leg stretching swan dive

with hands reaching around the heels to, in its full expression, place the hairline on the floor between the feet.

standing separate leg stretching from side

At first, I just let myself swing gratefully into the stretch and hang out. I’m naturally flexible, so getting my head on or near the floor wasn’t a challenge.  But I wasn’t really doing the pose.

Step by step, my teachers helped me feel the balance of strength and flexibility that build on each other to create more of both.

First, Sara pointed out the full-on engagement in the arms before the swan dive. “In this practice, we don’t do a lot of Downward Dogs or Chaturunga [poses in which the body’s weight is in the hands]. Here, we build strength with intention.” Right on, say I. Just as we do in Nia.

With that reminder, I’d shoot my arms out with strength and intention and then gratefully swing down into the stretch, just letting myself hang. Then, during a class with Cecily, she walked behind me as I hung there, and wordlessly drew her fingers up my legs from knee to thigh. Ah, engage the fronts of the legs. Don’t just hang. Right. By actively drawing in the thigh muscles and pulling down with the hands, the backs of the legs — those notoriously tight hamstrings — released even more.

As my hairline quivered deliciously close to the floor in a class with Amy, she suggested I engage my middle and upper back to lengthen my spine. “By engaging muscles on one side of the body [in this case, the back], the others can more fully release. It’s called ‘Reciprocal Inhibition.’”

Reciprocal Inhibition, it turns out, is not the description of two painfully shy people on a date. Instead it is a reflex in the body that we can use with awareness to build both strength and flexibility. By consciously contracting muscles, we increase their strength, but also, we allow the opposing muscles to release safely and more fully.

You can feel this yourself with opposing muscles: contract one side of the body (quadriceps or biceps, for example) and sense for the length on the opposite side (in these cases, hamstrings or triceps). Reciprocal Inhibition can also happen in the core. Contracting the upper back, for example, stretches the chest; engaging the abdominal muscles helps the low back to release.

Right there inside your own skin you have what you need to create more strength and more length. How cool is that?

depth dinasaur tailThe focus of depth has been an interesting one for me to play with this week, even though it’s one that I’ve studied for years and taught many times.

Even as I write this, getting ready for a weekend trip out of town, I feel myself leaning forward, hurrying. I can feel the front of my body tensing rather than leaning back into the support that is always behind me. This is a practice, my friends, it’s not about getting it just right, and — there! — I have it! This practice is about coming back, over and over again to awareness and presence and noticing what is happening right now. I invite you to continue to witness your own direct experience with your body ~ in particular, the length, width and depth that is literally designed into your bones.

Rebecca and I have exciting plans for the six months leading up to the Life As An Artist retreat in March 2014. Stay tuned for how you can be part of the creative play that we are, well, playing with! AND registration is open for the Life As An Artist retreat on March 28-30, 2014 in Madison, Virginia (less than 40 minutes from Charlottesville)! Supah Early Bird registration before October 10 offers the lowest price (or register with a friend and get that low price until January 2)!

Have fun. Dance on.
Xo
Susan

PS I have an unusual chance to teach on a Saturday this week, September 28 at 9am at acac Downtown! I’ve got a special playlist brewing, so do come and play!

Depth ~ Monday, September 30, 2013, 1045am

Mandala 7:56 Kitaro
Planet 2:00 Kitaro
Dance of Sarasvati 9:07 Kitaro
Back to the Earth 5:27 Rusted Root
Nungabunda 6:20 Ganga Girl
Fire to Me 4:36 Hyper/The Crystal Method
Amma 6:26 James Asher & Sivamani
Shining Path 7:23 Dreadzone
Climb On (A Back That’s Strong) 4:16 Shawn Colvin
Underneath 4:14 David Wilcox
Plegaria Para el Alma de Layla 3:20 Pedro Aznar

Depth ~ Tuesday, October 1, 2013, 9am

Orange Sky 6:11 Alexi Murdoch
Calling 5:52 Bliss
The Fire From Within 4:12 Tryptamoon
Back to the Earth 5:27 Rusted Root
Free Your Mind 4:52 En Vogue
Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) 3:42 Kelly Clarkson
Born 2B Wild 7:59 Puff Dragon
Lean On Me 4:18 Glee
You Gotta Be 4:07 Des’ree
Climb On (A Back That’s Strong) 4:16 Shawn Colvin
Underneath 4:14 David Wilcox
Dream Of The Return 5:27 Pat Metheny Group

Depth ~ Wednesday, October 2, 2013, 1055am

Healing Senses 8:27 Parijat
Mulatica Mia (Cuba Remix) 5:32 The Tao Of Groove
Survivor 3:49 Destiny’s Child
Free Your Mind 4:52 En Vogue
Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) 3:42 Kelly Clarkson
One Billion Hands 4:05 Lourds Lane
Played A Live 6:46 Safri Duo
Lean On Me 4:18 Glee
Fallin’ 3:31 Alicia Keys
Kissing (Instrumental) 6:14 Bliss
Homeless (With Sarah Mclachlan) 4:15 Sarah McLachlan

Depth ~ Thursday, October 3, 2013, 9am

The Rising 4:47 Bruce Springsteen
Back to the Earth 5:27 Rusted Root
The Fire From Within 4:12 Tryptamoon
Habibe 7:12 Big Blue Ball featuring Natacha Atlas, Hossam Ramzy, Neil Sparkes, The Hossam Ramzy Egyptian Ensemble (Adel Eskander, Wael Abu Bakr, Momtaz Talaat
Shadow 4:28 Big Blue Ball featuring Juan Cañizares, Papa Wemba
Ghosts in My Machine 3:33 Annie Lennox
Everybody Needs Somebody To Love 3:20 Solomon Burke, Jools Holland
I Can’t Get Next To You 3:09 Annie Lennox
Stairway To Heaven 8:03 Led Zeppelin
Lean On Me 3:58 Bill Withers
You Gotta Be 4:07 Des’ree
Climb On (A Back That’s Strong) 4:16 Shawn Colvin
Horizon 4:00 Garth Stevenson

depth t rex standingHorses. People. Both powered from below and behind. Your body’s largest muscles are at the back (just take a look back there!) but with eyes in front, so we tend to lean forward. Forward leaning tenses the front of the body. Try it. Can you feel it?

Focus on depth: balance your body front AND back. Stand and rock your body front to back. Then imagine a dinosaur tail down your neck, back, extending on the floor behind you. This is a strong T-Rex-y tail, so lean back and feel your front relax.

Relax, your back has got your back.

depth running horseHorses run fast. But look at their legs: leeeetle skinny legs, big strong butt. All the power of horsepower is behind them.

People are the same.
depth side view human
From the side, you can see that most of the large muscles in the human body are at the back: calves, hamstrings, gluteals, and all the big back muscles. Our power, too, is behind us.

Sensing depth is the last focus in a three-part series on experiential anatomy. We began with length by looking at the spine especially top and bottom, then last week we focused on width by extending through the collarbones, and this week, depth: the power of balancing ourselves from front to back.

The very act of standing and walking requires strength and balance. Moving our upright bodies around without collapsing kittywumpus in a pile involves a good bit of muscle power. But as you may have noticed, our eyes are on the front of our faces (we are predators, as opposed to deer, fish, and sheep) and this gives us a natural forward orientation. We often lead with our head (literally and figuratively) by tipping slightly forward as we stand, sit, and walk. This tendency to lean in has repercussions, as it taxes the relatively smaller muscles in the front of the body. Chest, core, quadriceps, shin and even toe muscles hold on to keep us from pitching forward.

Focusing on depth gives us the chance to use the body according to its design and feel the support that is always behind us. Stand up right now (go ahead, you can make the type on your device bigger so you can see it!). First, feel your length by planting your feet, dropping your chin, and letting the crown of your head lift. Then lengthen your collarbones and feel your width, your connection to the world. Finally, rock your body gently from front to back, keeping your heels and toes on the floor.

Now use your imagination: visualize a dinosaur tail that begins at the base of your skull and extends all the way down your back and stretches on the floor behind you six feet back. See it as a strong, Tyrannosaurus Rex kind of tail, and then let yourself lean back a little into its support. As you do, feel the front of you soften and relax.

Picture your dinosaur tail as all your life-experience, all your wisdom. Everything you’ve done up to this point, is right there behind you. It’s got your back. You can rely on it. Everything you’ve gone through in your life so far has prepared you for this moment that’s happening right now.

depth dinosaur tail scaly Relax into your T-Rex-ness!

NOTE OF ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AND GRATITUDE: This three-dimentional approach to embodiment – length, width and depth — comes from centering exercises created by Aikido master and business consultant, Richard Strozzi-Heckler. You can experience these centering exercises for yourself by going to master somatic teacher, Amanda Blake’s web site, embright.org, and getting the (free!) 7-Day Centering Challenge. It may sound simple: getting a sense for where you are in space, extending into your length and width, relaxing into the support behind you, but I invite you to feel it and practice it. The idea behind the Strozzi work and our three foci is to help each of tap into the intelligence, information, and power of moving, making decisions, and living from an embodied state. By practicing the sensation of centering in our bodies, we can get there when we really need it. Many thanks to my friend, colleague and teacher, Bev Wann, who introduced me to this work and generously shared much of the language I use to describe it.

wingtip clavicles woman open armsThis was the second week of a three-week series of foci on experimental anatomy: connecting the design and function of the body with imagery, sensation, and experience. This week, we played with the width of the body and in particular, the sensation of lengthening through the collarbones. This open posture allows deeper breathing and triggers the higher brain, the prefronal cortex, instead of the lower, lizard brain that a closed posture engages. It’s well worth noticing how we hold our bodies if only for the enhanced ability to respond to stress (not to mention the benefits of standing taller)! As I mentioned last week, one of my favorite experiential anatomy is Body Stories. It offers a different perspective on our relationship with the design and function of the body!

Registration is open for the Life As An Artist retreat on March 28-30, 2014 in Madison, Virginia (less than 40 minutes from Charlottesville)! Especially if you don’t think of yourself as an artist (or if you do!), this is the weekend for you, to deepen your practice, connect with super-cool people, learn powerful stuff, and, absolutely have a ton of fun. Supah Early Bird registration before October 10 offers the lowest price (or register with a friend and get that low price until January 2)! See more here.

Have fun. Dance on.
Xo
Susan

PS I have an unusual chance to teach on a Saturday this week, September 28 at 9am at acac Downtown! I’ve got a special playlist brewing, so do come and play!

Clavicles ~ Wingtip to Wingtip ~Monday, September 23, 2013, 1045am

The Rising – 4:47 – Bruce Springsteen
Luna – 6:04 – Ganga
Catu (Vienna Sub Mix) – 6:21 – Ikarus
Takshaka – 10:42 – Makayo
Work That Body – 5:35 – Rodney Hunter
Friday I’m In Love – 3:38 – The Cure
I’ve Got The Music In Me – 5:02 – The Kiki Dee Band
Hermes – 4:09 – Carlos Santana
Inner Membrane – 5:19 – Govinda
Sunsethighway – 4:00 – Kiln
Onwards – 5:27 – Afro Celt Sound System

Clavicles ~ Wingtip to Wingtip ~Tuesday, September 24, 2013, 9am

Éireann – 5:10 – Afro Celt Sound System
Dubuasca (with Michael Kang) – 6:55 – Bassnectar
Nostalgia Worship – 6:46 – Bassnectar
One World, One People – 4:43 – Xcultures
City of Light (Reverso 68 Remix) – 5:53 – City Reverb
Walk Into The Sun – 5:21 – Dirty Vegas
Friday I’m In Love – 3:33 – The Cure
Best Of My Love – 3:42 – The Emotions
Walk on the Ocean – 2:58 – Toad the Wet Sprocket
The Mummer’s Dance – 6:13 – Loreena McKimmet
The Space Between – 6:02 – Zero 7

Clavicles ~ Wingtip to Wingtip ~Wednesday, September 25, 2013, 1055am

We Are All Connected – 7:07 – Magic Sound Fabric
Down To Earth – 5:59 – Peter Gabriel
Lovers House – 4:49 – City Reverb
Keep On Searching – 5:08 – Kraak & Smaak
Dance Floor (Nu Brazilia Remix) – 5:28 – The Tao Of Groove
One World, One People – 4:43 – Xcultures
Breathe – 4:17 – Telepopmusik
Rhythm Is? (Marques Wyatt Mix) – 5:49 – Afro-Mystik
Wrap My Words Around You – 3:11 – Daniel Bedingfield
Fallin’ – 3:31 – Alicia Keys
Gravity (feat. Sara Bareilles) – 3:54 – Sonos

Clavicles ~ Wingtip to Wingtip ~Thursday, September 26, 2013, 9am

Snakeroot – 7:58 – Lis Addison
The Obvious Child – 4:10 – Paul Simon
Graceland – 4:51 – Paul Simon
I Know What I Know – 3:13 – Paul Simon
The Boy in the Bubble – 3:59 – Paul Simon
Walk Into The Sun – 5:21 – Dirty Vegas
Moon & Sun – 6:02 – Dalminjo Fjörd Fusioneer
What I Be – 4:45 – Michael Franti & Spearhead
Deeper (Into Places) (Silk Spinner Mix) – 6:23 – Afterlife
I’ve Got The Music In Me – 5:02 – The Kiki Dee Band
City Knows Your Name – 4:59 – Chris Coco
Hymn – 5:25 – Andrew McPherson

wingtip clavicles michael jordanRight now: how are your collarbones? Are they folded in? Lengthened to the side? How you hold your collarbones impacts your stress response.

Sound funny? Two things: posture and breath.

A closed posture, shoulders rounded in, signals danger to the brain and turns on the limbic brain (that’s the lizard-y one). An open posture, with collarbones wide, tells the brain to relax and go with higher reasoning from the prefrontal cortex.

No surprise: you handle stress way differently from those two places!

Lengthened collarbones also allow the breath to deepen: another way to trigger the higher brain!

(Much more here!)

wingtip clavicles maleImagine a party. The host is a friend, but not a close friend, so it’s pretty sure that you won’t know many people there. You walk up the steps, open the front door and…how do you hold your collarbones?

Imagine a conversation. One you want to have, need to have, with your partner. Honestly? You don’t know what response you are going to get. So you sit down together, you take a breath and…how do you hold your collarbones?

Imagine a project. You are excited and inspired about it but do you know how to do it? No. Not even a little. And yet the pull of the possibility is strong. So you get your tools together (whatever they may be) and…how do you hold your collarbones?

Does that sound like a funny question in these scenarios? Shouldn’t I be asking something like “who do you ask for help?” or “where do you find your courage?” or “what deity do you pray to to talk you out of it?” Funny as it sounds, the way I hold my collarbones in these situations will have a huge impact on my stress response and therefore my behavior.

The collarbones, or clavicles, are the only long bones in the human body that lie horizontally. I imagine these curved bones as wings that I can fold in, like a bird sleeping, or stretch out, creating more space, wingtip to wingtip. Our collarbones help us define the width of our bodies, help us take a powerful open posture, and feel connections between ourselves and others.

Posture impacts our brains and our behavior. Even more so for habitual posture and alignment. The research of Amy Cuddy (I wrote about her work earlier this year in Body Language) and the work of Richard Strozzi (among others) demonstrate the a connection between how we feel and the posture we take, and the connection between the posture we take and how we feel.

Not surprisingly, the whole posture/nervous system connection is more complicated than just how I hold my collarbones. Diaphragmatic breathing, and pelvic tilt, and tension in the psoas muscle have major impacts. (See Physical Therapist, Matthew Taylor’s 3 Diaphragms Model for a simple, easy-to-understand explanation.) But start with how you hold your collarbones. Feeling the width of your body is a fundamental way to feel where you end and the world begins without being swallowed up or overbearing.

From an experiential anatomy point of view you can experience how you hold your collarbones right now: imagine the posture you’d hold if you were sneaking late into a crowded meeting. You’d fold your collarbones in, right? And what if Anne Lamott posted a comment on your blog to the effect of “you are the most insightful gifted writer since…her”? You’d sit up and spread out your collarbones like heron wings, wouldn’t you? (Well, I would, anyway.) In the second it takes to hold a different alignment, there is an immediate response in the nervous system that aligns posture and presence.

Play with your collarbones. Imagine them five feet long. Take up space. Show up. Center in your width and breathe into more power and ease, wingtip to wingtip.

P.S. I’ve recently discovered the excellent work of Amanda Blake who offers all kinds of great education. You can download her 7-Day Centering Challenge for free from her site. In it, she coaches you through the process of centering in the body including centering in length (our focus last week with the top and bottom of the spine), width (our focus this week with the clavicles), and depth (guess what? That will be our focus next week!)