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Reflections: Will It Ever Smooth Out?

July 27, 2012

Several of my newer students have asked me whether it’s normal for the movements we do in our Feldenkrais classes to be so uneven, jerky, and abrupt. They describe the sensation of clutching and grabbing, as if the muscles get all bunched up and won’t let go. When they notice their eyes scanning to the left and right and there are big gaps in the movement, they get concerned that everything is working the way it should.

Their questions are excellent questions and I thought I’d take a few minutes to describe what happens and what can happen, a sort of Movement 101 kind of description, without all the undecipherable terms we find in a medical journal.

First, muscles are long when relaxed and they shorten when they work. Muscles work in groups, hardly ever solo like we tend to describe when we explain what each one does. Muscles respond and do what the brain orders them to do and they respond to familiar messages more quickly, the ones they do every day over and over and over again. When a muscle begins a movement, we say it has fired.

Let’s say you want to do a familiar movement slowly, like in your Feldenkrais class. Your brain might not be used to telling the muscles to move slowly, its more likely it sends a rote, efficient, and quick message to the brain. Thus, when muscles work, they typically fire fast. When the muscles fire fast, a bunch of the neighboring muscles get involved. It’s a lot like in a classroom when one kids gets out the class turtle and the other kids want to see and hold it and they all crowd around with arms out to touch it. Yikes, poor turtle. It’s too much and too many. Muscles are just like that, doing whatever is going on around, especially when one is leading the way loudly and convincingly.

When the muscles fire together and quickly, there is hardly a chance for smoothness in the firing or the letting go. Some athletes are very good at it, but even they have jerkiness and unevenness in their movements and it’s how they end up getting hurt. The really good athletes get hurt less because they listen to themselves.

Hence, the slowness of a Feldenkrais class.

One of the most essential things you can learn is how to work with yourself to fire the muscles gradually and slowly and how to let them release gently and evenly. Once your brain is used to sending these unusual signals and the muscles easily respond to them, that’s the time you can begin to vary the speed and get back to near-normal actions with smoothness and a surprising amount of fluidity. This is the stage that is often glossed over. You need to settle in to this stage the longest. Learn to really listen to the texture, the nuance, and the rhythm of the firing and the letting go.

Today, I worked with a woman who is very attuned to the ideas we are exploring and I’ve marvelled at the readiness in her nervous system. Our lesson today involved contracting and relaxing the buttocks, a lesson that seems pretty simple, but brings an entirely new level of awareness to the action of the gluteal muscles and their surrounding partners and friends.

Muscle highlighted

Muscle highlighted (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My friend could easily fire both buttocks, the muscles were used to working together. Then she tried to contract just one of them and found it was really difficult. They were not used to working separately and yet they need to do just that when she walks, runs, hikes uphill, and almost anything involving moving her leg. Finally, she worked with letting the muscle work go. She needed many, many tries to begin to feel that things were smoothing out.

There’s a secret: movement doesn’t get learned on the first trial. It takes many tries and attempts to move slowly and sense what is working and what is not responding. Even then, only some of the things you thought you were doing begin to actually feel like that is what is happening.

Here’s another secret: you will not get smoother movement by trying harder. Nope. Zip. Nada. But, it’s surely almost always the first strategy we try when we get stuck or feel we aren’t doing anything, isn’t it? Trying harder just increases the number of muscle fibers that get involved all at once. Imagine all 30 kids in a classroom getting involved with answering the same question, total chaos and screaming ensue and you can’t hear a thing. Pretty much the scenario if you get too much going too soon when you’re firing a muscle, there’s a freakout in the muscle and it hurts and you can’t tell what is doing what.

How do you calm those kids down in the classroom? You speak softly, you gesture for them to return to their seats or put your finger over your lips and say shhhhhh long and slow. Eventually, you get them to gentle down and let go of the some of the steam they have. Even then, some of the kids will take a long time to settle down. Just like your muscles. Some of them will be confused and pouting and you won’t be able to tell anything that is really going on.

In that moment, I suggest to my students to simply stop doing anything. Stop trying to do the movement and stop trying to rest. Just stop. Wait. Then begin again slowly after you’ve had a few breaths to sort things out.

There are a kazillion other aspects and nuances of working with yourself that get learned over time. It’s impossible to get it all in a single lesson and it’s impossible to write it all in a single blogpost that anyone will want to read.

What is for sure is that it is worth the price of admission to learn how to have smooth and even and graceful movement. Why? Because when you have smooth and even and graceful movement, you can keep your balance. You can turn on a dime. You can stand tall and move in any direction. You can understand when things tighten up and do your own work of loosening them. You will have the ultimate control over your behavior.

If you only know about tightening the muscles, making them shorter, then when you need to move quickly and with strength, they are often so fatigued they can’t fire as efficiently as possible and you will have the perception of being weak and unfit. That is the paradox. Most of my clients come to me with plenty of strength, they are simply working hard and firing all the muscles at the same time. In that moment, the message is conflicting. There is a mini-riot going on inside and what they really need to learn is how to let some of it go while just one kid answers the question.

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Reminder: Summer Classes end August 17. Fall Classes resume September 19. Check out Kim’s Calendar for more details.

  1. Wally Walsh permalink

    Kim, this is such a great post. I am constantly reminding myself that this work…indeed, this life!…is a process. One that cannot be forced or rushed (despite this being a long held habit and old belief) Reminding us to just keep at it…bit by bit by bit…is powerful. Thank you… see you soon. – Wally

  2. This is a clear and wonderful explanation, gentle grist for the muscle mill! Thanks, Pam

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