Experiential Anatomy

[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.

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 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!)

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