How do we express ourselves through our feet? We think of dancers being very connected to their feet-to the expression of energy and rhythm, and shape, spatial positioning. But all who walk upright live from the ground up, in how we relate to the earth, and how we support our spines, heads, and dreams.
Feet are not blocks of wood. They are lithe instruments of perception and action. Opening them up to a greater range of motion, responsiveness allows the whole person to feel as if they are ‘growing up out of the ground’, finding better balance, and helping us to feel more emotionally centered as well. For dancers, I would call on you to experiment with openings all through the foot; not just the ability to point or plie. How easily can you stand? Can you release through the heel and ankle? Can you allow the gentle spiral of balanced rotations, of balanced supination, in the standing part of gait, to pronation in the push off phase?
The hardest thing about this for many dancers is the act of venturing outside of the limits of the training that they have received, from ballet and many forms of modern dance and jazz. If nature had intended us to have feet like pointe shoes, we would be proportioned like elephants, who are so large in relation to their feet that they are essentially always “sur les pointes”-walking on an extremely small surface area. How many ballerinas can claim the softness of gait and agility of an elephant, really?
Bodies are a constant work in progress, for better or worse. They respond to how we move, in daily life, class, at the gym or whatever. One of the theories about bunion development, for example, is that the stress is going into that part of the foot because of an overuse of the big toe/first metatarsal joint, and usually in a laterally rotated lower leg. Worse, instead of a bunion,an arthritis can develop in this joint, possibly leading to a total fusion and immobility there.
What I wonder is; what important joints and muscles above this joint are being underused, to create overuse in this area? By opening movement through the heel and ankle, we can hopefully head off this kind of dysfunction and pain. I teach my clients how to work with balls to help with this, and movement coaching in gait. A positive byproduct of this work is increased sureness in standing and walking, and more ease and confidence. I think of a sense of joy that rises up from below, naturally, like the Asian concept of a ‘bubbling spring’ coming up from the ground and through the feet. What a great idea!
How have I made the transition from dancer to healer? I am finding more and more that I utilize the skills and sensitivity developed over decades of work as a professional performing artist. Dance is not just dexterity and strength combined-it can hone our perceptions and how to act on them. Good dancers develop not just a sense of movement mechanics, line, musicality or spatial sense; they also employ a general knowledge of aesthetics, art history, situational intelligence and much more. We train ourselves to explore general principles in movement, in modern dance for instance, while honing them into very specific techniques and maneuvers. We learn how to manage the shapes that we are trying achieve, in relation to others, and in relation to the overall stage image that the choreographer is creating-or at least our understanding of it! All of this is a way to enhance perception of self and other in space, time and gravity.
One of the things you will often hear a Rolfer™ ask you or talk about in a structural integration (SI) session is the way one part of the body feels in relation to another part. This is partly because we are trained to perceive the body in terms of relationships-how does the thorax relate to the pelvis, how does the pelvis relate to this or that leg, and to the spine, and on and on. Another part of this is the notion of “end feel”, where we try to sense how the distant part is in relation to the point of contact. “How do you feel in the lower back on the left side” we’ll ask, for example, while sensing a fixation in the atlanto-occipital joint-this is where the head meets the top of the spine. It is hard, exactly, to quantify end feel, and I believe that different Rolfers go about this differently. I personally utilize all of my senses for this, including, but not limited to: rhythm, sub-cortical movement sense, aesthetic/visual sense, spatial brain, sense of weight and balance, analytical brain, and tactile sense.
In general, though, this involves the ability to touch in one place and “feel through” the structure to another area. You can liken this to being able to feel the position of a ball, ten feet away, when you contact it with a ten-foot pole. A lot of subtleties can come through this touch, regarding fluid pressure, springiness, stiffness and the like. Rolfing® SI, then, demands a lot of sensitivity, along with sufficient knowledge to distinguish different structures and understand the roles they can play in normal, or abnormal function. There is one sort of end feel when weight, length, movement, breath, heartbeat, or cranial-sacral rhythms are able to move freely through, and another when they cannot. Identifying where this flow is interrupted is part of what we try to do using end feel. This is very helpful for knowing where to work to get the maximum benefit for clients. It is often not ‘where it hurts’. It is often in a place that relieves strain on painful areas.
A little more ‘about me’ here: working in this way demands a lot of sensitivity-thank God! Finally I have another excellent place to make use of these kinds of perceptions! They worked for me, before, as a professional dancer, choreographer and teacher, and come in very handy as a Rolfer. I liken it, too, to the ability to sense where someone a dancing partner is in space, how they are moving, where they have their weight, what kind of attack or sustain-pattern they are using-and on and on! I spent over twenty-six years performing dancing professionally, and developing this ability to respond to the movements of another dancer. For me now, Rolfing is very much a unique dance with each client.
Feeling through, as we work, and trying to understand what layer (or layers) is adhered to what other layer(s) is akin to the princess trying to figure out how many mattresses down the pea is. Ok, hopefully you have heard the story of the princess and the pea! I will mention here that there at least seven different layers of fascia in the neck alone. Knowing which one is problematic can be a key for how to work the entire body. It is a lot more than ‘rub where it hurts’ folks!
There are many skill sets that a good Rolfer needs to be able to draw from. End feel, sensitivity to layers, functional and anatomical knowledge are necessary to couple with knowledge of techniques to release fixations, in the appropriate sequence, and then integrate. But then, the notion of “the proper sequence” and “then integrate” can be the subjects of future posts!
One of the most surprising things for clients on the table: “this feels amazing!” When your body opens up, you feel pleasure! This rush of pleasure is like a reward to the nervous system, and is a big part of what makes the work ‘sustainable’. Why? I am not %100 sure, but I have ideas on that. The body is aware of very subtle gradations, of movement, position, temperature, degree of stretch, load. etc.. When a joint is in a more normal position and has more normal range of motion, suddenly we realize what we’ve been missing! Ahhh! That’s how my shoulder should feel!
A lot of our senses are geared to the fundamental question: ‘where am I?’ Improved body awareness also gives us a sense of security about this. Feeling more secure, suddenly-that sounds pleasurable to me! We literally can have a better ‘feel’ in movement and stillness for where we are, in space. Blood flow to the previously-restricted area, which had been slightly impeded like a kinked garden hose, is also suddenly increased, and the blood flow ‘hoses’ are un-kinked! The trick is knowing how to do this releasing, at what layer, in what sequence – that’s structural work – and knowing what can best be freed through movement/spatial awareness – that’s the functional part – and integrated back into the whole – that the ‘integration’ that helps make Rolfing Structural Integration more sustainable.
’Embodiment’ goes beyond physical skill to sensing, presence, enjoyment, connection with self, other, environment and body wisdom.
I remember stepping onstage once at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and having a moment to take a breath, feeling my feet relax into the ground and my head release skyward. Afterwards, I was praised for my “stage presence” during that performance. Some times you do not have to gyrate and jolt your body to be a powerful dancer. You have to allow more of the “being’ sense to come through. Alwin Nikolais talked a lot about this. It is a way of being available in the moment, not overinflated, or working hard, not floppy and unresponsive either.
Embodiment, to me, also means sensing what is going on, in the body, when something feels ‘not quite right’; it means giving that vague sense a bit of time to clarify itself, rather than seeking a quick removal of the irritation through a ‘quick fix’, via a chiropractic adjustment or a pain pill. “What is this telling me about how I am in my body right now?”
Being clearer in our own body/mind ‘felt sense’ gives us a clearer sense of where we begin and other, environment or outside irritant, end. So, in my opinion, deeper embodiment helps us clarify personal boundaries, making us better able, then, to connect with and respond appropriately to others, and our environment.
Rolfing® Structural Integration and Rolf Movement work help to relieve pain and optimize performance, but there is a deeper gain to be had-the warm inner glow of increased awareness and …embodiment.
Working with a client recovering from a car accident this morning. In addition to:
1. easing spasming muscles, her painful nerves hyper-sensitive from tethered fascias and inflammation in her neck, and holding on for dear life around her liver and psoas;
2. adjusting joints, especially ribs, clavicle and sternum area, jammed by the impact from the other car, coming from her right, and the seatbelt, ( which did a lot to ease the nerve pain in the area),
3. easing holding in the nerves and fascia long the IT bands,
we had to look at awareness enhancing movements that could give her back a sense of wholeness and connectedness throughout her body. It had felt like ” hips and shoulders were cut off from each other,” she said. Her gentle rocking of her hips forward and back, more and more subtly, while I contacted fascias at the front of the transverse process of her neck, she reported a sense of “ebb and flow” though her whole body (and I helped by easing phrenic and vagus nerves and probably more that I didn’t know). This allowed her to functionally uncouple gripping of the hips in relation to her shoulders and neck, and helped her re-establish her ‘full-body sense.”
After we got this connection, deep work on the fascia of her ribs was “soothing” all the way into her neck and throat area, where a lot of irritation and pain has been showing up during her daily activities.
Lots goes on in this Rolfing® Structural Integration, Rolf Movement® stuff!