The first time I went Irish set dancing, I was a sweaty mess. After two hours of hurling myself around the dance floor, and being hurled by my also-new partner, I was exhilarated and spent.
Fast forward two years, and my partner and I happily danced through the evening, still looking and smelling fresh.
What changed in that time? Did we gain endurance? Perhaps, but that’s a minor piece of the puzzle. Did we learn to move properly? In a manner of speaking; more accurately, we learned how and what not to move.
What not to move???
Somewhere in that two years, we began to lean into each other in the spins to increase momentum. More like flying, less need to pull with our arms to drag each other around. We began to spring lightly from the balls of our feet rather than stampeding with heavy heels. Springing gave us resilience, helping propel us forward. Heavy heels had literally held us back, requiring that much more leg work to take the next step. (Try it! You’ll see what I mean.)
Week by week, we made subtle shifts, letting go of every extraneous movement until what remained was the essence of the step. And when we thought we were done, another 80-plus-year-old footwork teacher would come over from Galway and show us how much more deceptively simple it could be. It was thrilling.
Whether you take up dance, swimming, structural integration, or nearly any other physical pursuit, over time you learn elegance and efficiency. Which muscles need to move, and which can rest. How to let the principles of physics, like inertia and gravity, do the work for you. How to flow, instead of fight. We understand the need to refine our technique when dancing, or playing a sport or musical instrument. Perhaps it’s time to apply the same idea to sitting, standing, and walking.
Are your shoulders overly friendly with your ears?
In an effort to stand up straight, some clients rely on their shoulders, drawing shoulders closer in to the rib cage, and up into the territory of their ears. They come to see me with neck and upper back pain, and sometimes numbness in their hands. We soon discover they have reduced range of motion in their shoulders, and often have trouble taking a full breath, as their shoulders crowd the upper lungs.
Do shoulders have to work so that you can stand tall? On the contrary, lifting from the shoulders is a common compensation for a sleepy core. If you can release the shoulders and let the inseam of the legs and the deep stabilizing muscles from hips through spine do their job, you’ll likely stand taller, breathe easier and feel greater comfort.
As you sit to read or work, do you find the muscles of your brow tightening? Your jaw clenching?
Growing up, I could always tell when a friend of mine (let’s call her Rachel) was concentrating on her homework, because she would chew on her tongue. It was an unconscious habit; she never noticed unless someone else pointed it out.
Rachel wasn’t chewing hard enough to injure her tongue, but she was creating a habit of jaw tension associated with concentrating, thinking, stressing…and which modern urban professional doesn’t spend too much time concentrating, thinking, and/or stressing? As she entered the working world, Rachel started to grind her teeth. These days, she needs to wear a night guard to prevent tooth damage.
Chewing on her tongue may be part of Rachel’s unconscious working routine, just as my Lounge Techno Pandora station cues me that it’s time to focus. However, the muscular effort is clearly not required for effective thinking or typing. For her, as it does for many of us, jaw tension went from context-based habit to standard operating procedure. What might happen to her jaw tension, her teeth, her stress level if she could let that muscular effort go?
As you move through your day, scan through your body. What muscles are working that don’t need to?
The brow, the jaw, the neck are good places to start looking, but undoubtedly you’ve found your own tension hidey-holes. Take a moment to breathe. Let the tension go. Don’t try to force your body to relax (when has that ever worked?), but allow it to soften. Even just a little. You didn’t build the habit overnight, and while it would be lovely to make instant change, these things take time.
So….scan your body again. Did any tension return while you read those last few sentences? Breathe. Invite it to soften. Lather, rinse, repeat. What do you notice? Perhaps you are calmer, more comfortable. Perhaps you’re moving with a little more freedom, breathing with a little greater ease. Welcome home to your body. You might be surprised how spacious it can become.