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,, 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.

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 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!)

spine woman externalIn yesterday’s post, we explored the possibilities of focusing awareness on the design and structure of the spine, in particular the very top and base of it.

At the base are the sacrum and coccyx which are more solid that much of the rest of the strand of spinal bones. In fact, when seen from the side, they look much like a curved palm of a hand. When I imagine that hand behind me, something in relaxes a little.

Relaxed Rootedness

A few years ago, Nia practitioner Diane Goodbar shared a Nia story* that comes back to me every time I’m in traffic. After a Nia class in which we focused on the supportive “hand” of the sacrum, she was stopped at a light and saw a car barreling toward her from behind. She had no way of getting out of the way so had no choice but to allow herself to be rear-ended. She writes,

…as I “braced for impact” I just sat in my car totally relaxed, looking straight ahead, and feeling that hand [of the sacrum] supporting me. My car was hit really hard but I ended up with absolutely no injuries. In fact, I wasn’t even slightly sore and in less that 24 hours was back at the gym doing my normal workout. (You can read Diane’s whole amazing story here.)

Right now, imagine the relaxed support and the dynamic rootedness provided by the sacrum and coccyx. Experiment with adjusting what you’re doing to enhance that sensation.

The Spine’s Design: Top

The top two vertebrae of the spine are the atlas and the axis which allow the head to nod and turn. Most people move their head very little, opting instead for the “marshmallow on the toothpick” approach. This lack of movement over-stabilizes the muscles and joints in the neck and constricts the flow of energy. No shock that neck and head aches are miserably common.

The top two cervical vertebrae are positioned right behind the center of the eyebrows. The eyes and head direct our attention and energy, so movement of the top of the spine is essential for us to see and connect actively with the world. We call strong leaders and courageous creators “visionary” for their ability to see beyond the obvious. (Think of one of your heroes, and I expect that in your mind’s eye they are not looking down but are upright and looking out!) Mindfully moving the spine from the top connects us to this visionary nature that we can all access.

Spine Divine

As the main conduit of the nervous system, tremendous energy is moving through the spine in every moment. Enhancing our awareness and honing our movement particularly at the top and bottom of the spine offers more physical ease and comfort. I’ve also noticed that after moving the spine mindfully, when I quiet down, I also have access to insights, ideas, and creativity that was not accessible before.

Experiment with both big and small movements at the atlas/axis and at the sacrum/coccyx. Then sit or lie down quietly, letting both the body and mind settle down and see what comes to you from this aware and relaxed place.

This post is one of the things that came to me. I’d love to hear your experience.

* Do you have a Nia story?  Something big or small about how the practice has affected you or how you use the practice outside the studio?  I’d love to hear it!  Send it to me at and maybe we’ll use it as a focus for class and the blog!

spine divine xrayThe human spine is an amazing design. This necklace of 33 bones threaded with the spinal cord runs through the body with both spiny strength and delicate flexibility. The spine is solidity and movement, protection and communication, bone and spark. These dual qualities are essential for human movement and our upright posture, but also allow us to be the expressive, dynamic, passionate creatures that we are.

The Nia Technique celebrates these qualities in the spine with its varied and contrasting movements. Often, when new students come to class, I suggest that if they move nothing else, just move the spine. I love teaching about the spine (e.g., two posts from 2012: Explore from the Core and Core Galore). But even given my spine partiality, since combining a Bikram yoga practice with Nia, I’m even more of a spine believer. Lately, I am increasingly aware of both the relaxed rootedness and the spacious, creative energy that emerges from mindful, spinal movement.

The Spine, The Whole Spine…

Relaxed rootedness and spacious passion from mindfully moving the spine — more specifically, the distal ends of the spine. Many of us tend to think the spine begins at the neck and ends at the low back. Actually, the spine begins deep inside the skull and extends all the way down to the tailbone. Awakening movement and awareness at the very top and bottom of the spine helps us both ground as well as move, see, and think more creatively. Grounding and creativity are borne out of the physical design of the spine itself and the sensations associated with movement from the top-most and bottom-most vertebrae.

The Spine’s Design: Tail

At the base of the spine are the sacrum and coccyx. These structures are more solid than any other part of the spine (some are fused) and, if you squint a little, they look like the curved palm of a hand.

It’s common (especially when standing) to tip the pelvis forward uprooting the tail and disconnecting from the support inherent in the sacrum/coccyx design. When sitting (especially in the car), we frequently tuck the tail under and actually sit on the low back. This “bad dog” posture is a one of lower lumbar spine strain and energetic stagnation. It’s no surprise that low back pain is so common particularly in folks to sit and drive for much of the day.

The very structure of the base of the spine is to offer support and root us to the earth. This supported rootedness is easier to access with awareness of its design and function.  Tomorrow, we’ll continue this spinal exploration with a fascinating Nia story and a look at the uniqueness of the top two vertebrae.

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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