Radical Sabbatical: Centering

As my four-month sabbatical is drawing to a close, I’m gratefully reviewing what has happened and what I’ve learned from this time away from teaching.  It’s been amazing, really, all the things that have materialized in these months, and all the things I realized or remembered.  Darn barn, y’all.  I am so lucky to have had this time.

I’ve done lots of movement throughout the sabbatical, but (surprise, surprise) my physical training didn’t go the way I thought it would.  Right at the beginning of my time away, my left shoulder started to bother me.  It started with occasional soreness and tenderness and increased gradually in intensity.  By June, I went to the doctor and had it checked out.  Tendonitis, he said.  Biceps tendon.  Inflammation.  He gave me some exercises to do and asked me to check back with him.

Sigh.  This wasn’t what I’d planned at all.  I was planning on kettlebells and weight training over the summer.  Not doing dozens and dozens of reps with light weights.  Grrr.  I confess that I did the exercises sporadically and (again, surprise, surprise), my shoulder didn’t get much better.

Then Bev Wann and I led an Opposite of Stress workshop with a group from the Federal Executive Institute.  We’ve been doing this work together for years, Bev and I, and the retreat we are leading September 7-9 is based on what we do with the FEI folks (Click here for more details about the retreat.  Do join us.  There is still room and holy MOLY, it’s going to be good.).  The point is, I know these practices.  I teach them, I do them regularly.  But there was something about the combination of listening to Bev teach and feeling my body, that gave me an insight that is helping me heal — and be more present and mindful.

The insight came when Bev was teaching Centering, one of the three practices from The Opposite of Stress workshop.  This is a practice developed by Richard Strozzi-Heckler, a master somatic teacher and Aikido master.  It is a practical and simple exercise that allows me to ground and relax no matter what the situation.  Centering emanates from the martial art of aikido where coming back to center is essential and that’s the key:  it’s not about staying centered.  You’ll lose your center, sure as shootin’ you will.  It’s about coming back to center — over and over again.  This centering practice can be done in five minutes or five seconds.  For me, it makes the difference between being reactive and off-balance and being responsive, calm and relaxed.

So let’s do it!  Ready?  Go ahead and stand up.  Adjust your computer screen so you can read it from standing.  Take your time.  I’ll wait.  (I know that most of you aren’t standing right now, don’t think I don’t.  And it’s okay, if you don’t want to stand and center right now, you can get a flavor of the sensation of centering from a seated position.  So keep reading.  And sometime, experiment with centering while standing.)

We’ll center in three directions:  length, width and depth.  Start by relaxing your posture, and organize yourself in relation to gravity so that you are supported effortlessly. Place your feet slightly apart, knees unlocked, and spine gently straight.  Sense the bottoms of your feet (or your sitz bones for those who are seated), where the floor presses against them. Relax your shoulders, and let them drop. Bring your awareness to the physical center of your body:  two inches below your navel.  Hold your eyes open, letting your gaze be soft and your peripheral vision be wide. Allow your jaw to relax. Imagine that the top of your head is connected to the sky as if by a cord and feel a slight tug on that cord that lengthens you up. This is your length.  Many people experience a feeling of dignity when they center into their length.

Now, connect with width.  Gently rock your weight from right to left. Find the neutral balanced place in the center of this dimension. Sense the equal weighting on each of your feet. Imagine your collarbones extend 5 feet on either side of you.  Be aware of your width, of the space you take up. It can be helpful to sense what it is like to walk into a room and take up space, feeling an expansion in your chest that gives you more room.  This is your width and it is associated with your sense of belonging — connection with and relationship to others.  Your width is about your place in the world.

Finally, feel your depth.  Align yourself from front to back.  Again, a gentle rocking back and forth from heel to toe can help for finding the balance point. We are accustomed to focusing out in front of us, but there is also space behind us. Bring awareness to this, sensing the room behind you. Imagine weight and mass behind you, as if you had a giant, heavy dinosaur tail extending out along the ground. Allow yourself to feel supported by this mass and to let your belly soften and open.  You can think about this support behind you as your experience: everything you’ve done in your life up to now is behind you, supporting you, and you can relax into it.  This dimension of depth is your presence, your insight, your creativity.

And, what, you may very reasonably ask, does centering and a dinosaur tail have to do with the tendonitis in my shoulder?  Good question.  Although I’d done this exercise lots of times, as I stood in a sea of centering Federal Execs, I centered, too.  As I leaned into the support behind me to find my depth, I felt my rhomboid muscles gently contract.  Just in case you aren’t an aspiring anatomy geek like me, the rhomboid muscles are the little muscles between your shoulder blades or scapulae.

In this illustration, you can see them on the right side, running between the spine and the scapula.  So as I leaned into my dinosaur tail, I could feel these muscles engage and I could feel my shoulders and my body relax into that support.  I wondered about the shift.  I know I tend to muscle arm movements.  My arms are strong, and I move forward and reach out with them.  As I centered into my depth, I felt how much strength and support was behind me and how that strength and support could take some of the effort out of my arms.

Debbie Rosas often says that power in the body comes from below and behind.  We know that this is The Body’s Way just by looking at its design.  A side view of the musculature of the body reveals that the biggest muscles are in the back:  calves, hamstrings, gluteal and latissimus dorsi (back) muscles all support from behind.

Even in the arm, there are three muscles (triceps) at the back and only two (biceps) in the front.  So when I’m muscling and moving from the biceps, rather than engaging from the muscles behind me, I’m out of center, out of balance and straining the system.

And of course, since everything is connected, there are numerous parallels in my life:  I tend to push, to “get ‘er done,” to muscle my way through more than just movements, but many of the things I do.  This experience with tendonitis combined with centering gave me the insight to endeavor to shift that approach in my body and in my life.  How can I relax into the effortless power behind me?  How can I trust in my experience and allow myself to be propelled from there rather than forcing?

Most of us spend lots of our time off-center.  It is the nature of modern life.  The practice of centering can be deeply useful when used regularly, particularly in stressful situations.  And the practice of centering can also shed light on habits of holding and tension that don’t necessarily serve us.  Most of us tend to focus in front of us, rather than being held by the support that is ready and waiting behind us.

I invite you to play and experiment with centering.  With practice, centering yourself will feel like a quick and effortless “coming home” and be almost an instantaneous shift in awareness.  And notice, especially when you center in depth, if there isn’t a surprising amount of ease, strength and power in your dinosaur tail.

Use the comment section below to share your experience (or email me directly!).  Wag those dinosaur tails, everybody!

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