Experiential Anatomy

I love summer.

Despite its signature heat and humidity, I love the long, sunny days, all the growth and abundance and berries and watermelon. I also know that especially in the hot height of summer, I need to stay grounded. All that swirling, rising heat energy requires grounding my body, mind and heart. Summer is a time for meditation, siestas, being near water and sitting in the sand.

For me, it’s also a time for connection: gathering fresh fruit and vegetables (either from a garden, a blueberry bush or Misfit Market!), walking in the forest or near water, visiting and entertaining friends and family. (Conversely, I think this is why I winter holiday parties when my energy is quiet and attention is inward totally do not work for me.)

These dual needs for grounding and reaching, are reflected in the very design of the human body: in particular the lower legs and forearms. Take a look at the bone structure of the lower arms and legs:

On the surface of it, the two structures look almost identical: two bones next to each other, one noticeably larger than the other, the ends of which connect to similar structures — a hinge joint at one end and a gliding synovial joint at the other. But while the forms looks the same, their functions are not. The bones of the lower leg are designed to stabilize and ground while the bones of the lower arm are designed to flow and reach out.

The forearms and lower legs are the Bones of Summer.

The two lower leg bones are the tibia and the fibula. The second longest bone in the body, the tibia runs along the inside of the lower leg, attaching to the femur/thigh bone at the top and the ankle at the bottom. Run your fingers along what you think of as your shin bone and you are feeling your tibia. The fibula is another long bone but is narrower and runs parallel to and acts as support of the tibia. In the lower leg, the tibia provides strength and weight-bearing while the fibula provides mobility and range of motion with stability being primary focus of the lower leg.

The forearm bones are the radius, on the thumb-side of the arm, and the ulna that runs down the pinkie side of the arm. Similar to the leg bones, these bones provide both strength and mobility but in the arm, the focus is on mobility. The structure of the joints in the forearm allow the radius to rotate around the ulna — the only two bones in the body that cross each other! — which allows the hand and wrist to rotate more completely than the foot (thank goodness, that wouldn’t go well). This intricate design allows extraordinary flexibility and dexterity for everything from lifting heavy boxes to doing caligraphy.

The Bones of Summer remind us that when energy is moving and things heat up, we need to stay both grounded and fluid. We need to rest in the support of the earth under us but also reach out and connect to the ripening fruit of the season. Both stability and mobility are nourishing to the body in the summer heat and the same is true for the mind and heart.

To skillfully navigate a heated situation — rising anger, an intense disagreement or a hot political conflict —  we need to stay both grounded and fluid. Feel yourself present and rooted as well as open and expansive. It can help me to feel my feet and legs (maybe even feeling my feet or legs with my hands) and also breathe and reach out for connection and perspective. So when I get tangled in a Facebook morass, for example, I can feel my body and breath and also go outside, pet the cat and get a hug from my level-headed husband. This connection to both stability and mobility are what allows relaxation, a settling of stirred-up energy as well as openness to possibility and solution.

Hot summer days can be full of pleasure but they can also stir me up and get me over-stimulated. I have to remind myself to find strength and support as well as openness and connection. Walks in the woods, resting on rocks in a river and picking berries from the vine offer ancient balance to the heat of the season. However you navigate the heat, connect with the Bones of Summer in the lower legs and forearms for a physical sensation of grounded fluidity.

One of the sub-foci of the Sacred routine choreographed by Kelle Rae Oien is spirals and rotations. Since I’m not ready to leave Sacred entirely, this week I’ll be spiraling the routine with others. This post from a few years ago plus some new spiralicious art captures some of my fascination with the spirals around us and in us.

(originally posted on November 9, 2012)

I’ve been an admirer of straight-shooting for most of my adult life.  Tell it like it is.  Say what needs saying.  Cut to the chase.  I’m a bit ham-handed with it, to be honest, often saying the blunt rather than incisive thing, but in principle I’m down with telling it straight.  After reading Real Love by Greg Baer  and A Complaint-Free World by Will Bowen, as well as living with my kind and clever husband for 13 years, I’m beginning to understand the wisdom of less-direct, more spiral communication.

Especially in regards to sensitive topics, my husband, Frank, has shown me the skillfulness in quietly listening.  Where I might jump in and say my piece, he will be still and then circle back to something later when everybody’s more receptive to questions and conversation.  The wisdom of spirals.

I started the complaint-free challenge on October 26: endeavoring to go 21 consecutive days without complaining, criticizing or gossiping.  It’s been humbling.  So far, I’ve made it as long as 3 days before having to restart, and my tongue has a definite bite mark in it.  I’m being far less direct than usual, and I’m discovering that spiraling, when it comes to relationships, is often the wise way to go.

Not a surprise, really, since spiraling is The Body’s Way, too. There are few straight lines in the body.  As Amanda Latchmore’s beautifully writes in her Harrogate Yoga Blog:

Our bodies are composed of spirals. The heart is both an organ and a muscle that spirals in and around itself – formed by the gushing of blood from the Mother’s placenta into two tubes of spiraling muscle. The bones spiral, recede and curve, the striations within them spiraling downwards, so that the force of weight can be transferred to the earth. In turn, our muscles wrap around the bones in a continuous network of spiraling movement.

Nia movements reflect the power of spiraling and invite movements that rotate, wrap and revolve.  Moves like Knee Sweep, Palm Directions, Sink and Pivot Table Wipe all create systemic spiraling that echo the spirals in the body.

And the spirals are, indeed, systemic in the human body!  In her article, The Double Spiral Arrangement of the Human Musculature, Carol Porter McCullough describes Raymond Dart, a 20th Century anatomist, anthropologist and Alexander Technique enthusiast who discovered the double spiral design of the body.  She explains,

The spirals of the human musculature are mirror images of each other. Designating the right side of the pelvis as a starting point, the muscle sheet of one of the spirals travels diagonally around the side of the torso, crossing over the front mid-section to wrap diagonally upward to the left side of the torso, where the road of muscle makes a “Y,” one avenue junctioning with the muscles of the left arm, the other avenue snaking its way diagonally across the back, continuing on its diagonal journey across the neck to hook onto the head behind the ear in its original hemisphere of the right side (Dart 1996, 69).

Dart  believed in ‘the universality of spiral movement’ and said “all things move spirally and … all growth is helical (Dart 1996, 57).”  I can see the truth in this when watching a morning glory bloom or a baby roll over.  And when I circle back around to a conversation a few days later and find that it is easeful and healing to say what I want to say and that my words can actually be heard.

This week, we’ll focus on rotation and spirals in class.  Whether we are dancing together or not, I invite you into the practice of noticing how spirals have a healing effect on body, mind and relationships!  I’d love to hear what you discover!

[BLOGGER’S NOTE: When I started this blog nearly four years ago, I swore I’d never do those “7 Ways to Do Whatever” posts. They seemed like pandering gimmickery in a bad women’s magazine. Blech. But as I’ve been thinking and writing about necks and waists, I realize there really are a bunch of simple things anyone can do to create more ease in these over-worked body parts and I started writing them down and I swear to Betsy, there were 10 of them. So here we go…]

10 ways neck and waist

Yesterday, I posted about the structure of the neck and waist and how chronic immobility in these areas creates weakness and tension.

To restore balance and ease in the supporting areas of neck and waist, mobility and flexibility is key. Here are 10 easy ways to increase the health and happiness of your neck and waist.

1. After sitting at your computer for a while, open your eyes and look at each corner of the room. Bonus points for looking up at the actual sky.

2. Make big, slow back-stroke movements with your hand and follow your hands with your eyes (actively use your eyes rather than following your hand with your shoulders and chest).

3. When backing out of a parking space, look behind you with your eyes and neck rather than cranking your body around.

4. Imagine you’ve got an alligator or kangaroo tail and let your tailbone release and swing as you walk. Bonus points for doing this in the grocery store or even better in the bank.

5. Lie on the floor on your back with your feet flat and knees pointing to the ceiling. Imagine there is chalk under your low back and use your lumbar spine to “erase” the chalk.

6. If you’ve been in the car or at your desk for a while, stand up and use your waist muscles to circle your hips. (Stabilize your legs and move from your waist rather than your knees – small movement is great here. If you’re not sure if the movement is coming from waist or knees, put your hands on your hips while you circle – if you’re moving from your waist, you’ll feel the muscles moving, if you’re moving from your knees, you won’t.)

7. Gently stretch your neck using the handy-dandy weight of your head – allow your ear to fall to your shoulder, then chin then other shoulder. As you drop your head to the right, use can gently place the weight of your left hand near your left collarbone to create more length and release.

8. Lying on the floor or a bed on your back, cradle the back of your head with your fingers and run your thumbs gently and firmly along the ridge between the back of your skull and your neck. There are lots of little muscles here that rarely get enough love.

9. Wrap your hands around your waist with your thumbs in back and your fingers in front and massage first your low back, then around to the sides of your core, gently squeezing any places that are tense or tight.

10. On all fours, with hands under shoulders and knees under hips, inhale and drop your belly while lifting your eyes and tailbone, then exhale and drop your head and tail while using your belly muscles to round your low back up. These poses are called Cat and Cow in yoga but you can also circle your hips, move your hips forward and back, and generally move your waist in this position to get a personalized delicious stretch.

In this week of the fall equinox, where we celebrate the balance of our days, give some love to the supporting cast. Allow your waist and neck movement and release.

COMMUNITY BONUS: Do you have any ways of creating movement and stretch in your neck and waist? Please share them in the comments below or on the Focus Pocus Facebook page!

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.


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.

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,, 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.

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