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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 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!)

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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