'ENGAGE YOUR CORE!!!!!'
.......your fitness instructor, yoga teacher, or coach yells at you, half frowning, half grimacing with delight. *
What do you do?
If you are like 90% of the people I have worked with, you will immediately tighten your outer abdominal muscles. What happens as you do this? You might notice that immediately you stop breathing, your neck tightens, and your shoulders fly up. Surely, this can't be what your friendly instructor wants. Why then would they ask you to do this?
The reason is that the word 'core' has been like a magical fitness button that has been pressed endlessly over the past three decades in fitness culture. The source of this button is research indicating that building 'core strength' can prevent injury and increase functional movement(Google it--there is a wealth of positive literature). But there is a problem here: the 'core' your fitness instructor tells you to engage is different from the core that the science is about. The scientific core has very little to do with your outer abdominals--it is simply a word for the complex muscles of your whole torso, including not just the outer muscles of your stomach but those of your back and basically anything that isn't the sole property of arms or legs. Moreover, it is about strengthening not only the outer muscles of the torso, but the dazzlingly complex and beautiful inner layers of muscle that make up your deep core, most of which are not consciously engageable the way a bicep or a pectoral are. Often these muscles will not actually be accessed if we over engage the outer muscles of the body--they can only be activated indirectly. But hey, abs look nice, so most of us are willing to settle for that rather than achieving the strength and function we deserve.
So how do we respond when our well meaning instructor tells us to 'engage our core'? The answer is simple:
Any well-coordinated whole body movement will activate your core and thereby strengthen it over time.
The irony is that the more we focus on engaging a given 'part' of the body (such as the abs), the less well we use ourselves well as a whole. Rather than fall into the trap of over-engagement in parts, see if you can coordinate your movement so that your eyes move, then your head, then your whole spine, and then finally your limbs in any given movement. Only contract your muscles to the extent they need to in order to handle the work of the exercise, focusing on specificity and form rather than effort. You might be surprised to find those true deep core muscles nice and sore the next day despite the lack of apparent effort within the individual exercises.
Many of the exercises your awesome instructor/trainer are trying to get you to do are absolutely wonderful and effective (though I don't recommend isolated flexion exercises such as sit ups)--this idea can help them to become awesomer! All they need is a little translation.
*I am fully aware that many excellent fitness instructors, particularly Pilates teachers, already know this and are experts at helping their clients/students to access the true and deep core. However, the vast majority of classes I have taken tell people to engage their core with no explanation and regardless of what the movement in question is and most clients I have seen ascribe to the 'my abs are my core' concept. No offense is intended to anyone.
Recently I attended an excellent group plyometrics class at my local gym (a type of body weight interval training). I hadn't been doing this type of workout much lately, and by the end I was pretty worn out. As my legs got worn out, I realized that I was initiating the athletic motions of the class more and more with my shoulders. I could feel them coming up off my back in an effort to struggle through the last couple of minutes of the class. I noticed how much harder may of the movements were when I coordinated myself this way.
Returning for another class a couple days later, I noticed something--many people started with their shoulders off their back. By halfway through the class, many of these folks were stopping and holding their backs and necks in pain.
Lets clarify something--when I talk about the shoulders, I am not talking about the colloquial shoulders that are on either side of our necks--those are actually the top of one layer of our back muscles (notice these same muscles extend from the mid-back to where the spine meets the skull)
Instead I am talking about the shoulder blades which you will notice are anchored significantly lower on your back and are the root of our arms--functionally they are inseparable.
When we start a movement by contracting the shoulder blades off of the back, instead of our body working as a whole (including the complex and powerful layers of muscle in your whole back and legs) we hyper engage the muscles of the upper back and arms, which are much weaker and quickly wear out. When we do this, we don't recruit the larger muscle groups--their use is prohibited by the overuse of part of ourselves.
Essentially, effort in the shoulders and arms prevents proper effort in the legs and whole body, cutting us off from our full strength.
These muscles are also inseparable from the muscles of the neck, so as we use them we are invariably shortening and compressing the whole spine, resulting in weaker movement, discomfort, and potential injury. And the more we use these muscles, the more they become our 'go to', cutting us off from the ability to become whole body fit.
Most fitness instructors know this. Their advice is to pull the shoulders back. There is a problem with this age old advice-when we try to do this we usually arch the back instead, which makes it feel as if the shoulders are releasing down even when they aren't, and further compromising the spine's integrity (a la the dancer below).
So what can we do instead? Here are a few constructive tips:
There is a deeper metaphor here. The physical is never just physical. We often respond to the challenges of the world (physical, intellectual, or emotional) by 'taking them on our shoulders' or our 'backs' (the arched spine). What if instead we could respond by sending them through our legs to the ground, or tackling them with our whole selves instead, instead of our weaker partial selves?
That would be a beautiful thing indeed.
I recently received a query from a potential student living in Hyde Park on the south side of the city. They were inquiring about whether I would travel for sessions, because after a comprehensive search they could not find an A.T. teacher within a reasonable commute. The closest teacher works in the Loop, which is not easily accessible by public transport for some areas of the south side.
A quick google search or look at the Chicago Area Teachers of the Alexander Technique page confirms that there are no A.T. teachers on the diverse south or west sides (past Wicker Park) of the city, or even the south suburbs. We are concentrated almost entirely on the predominantly white north side, and in the western and northern suburbs.
I was stunned by this rather graphic representation of how non-diverse Alexander Technique practice tends to be. From the inception of the Technique, despite Alexander's humble personal roots, it has been accessible overwhelmingly to those with a high level of privilege. Typically this has been white well-off folks (Alexander's original clientele was the British Aristocracy). In America, that has by and large continued.
I posed the title of this blog as a question, because I don't know what the answer is. I am privileged, and don't come from a minority that lacks representative in A.T. circles (being a white Jewish man). I am actively working to find ways for this work to reach different people than it typically has. More than anything I want to foster dialogue about how we as a community of learners can work together to change this situation.
At the Alexander Technique International Congress I learned about a coalition of teachers called the Alexander Technique Diversity Coalition (Like their Facebook!). I attended a panel where several members of the Coalition shared both their experiences both of becoming teachers while coming from minorities and methods and experiences in reaching these communities. I learned a lot, and I encourage you to check them out and to read the fabulous list of resources they have.
I would like to request your help in finding ways I can reach and interact with Chicago communities that don't have access to this work. . I have not had a completely monochromatic practice, but I think this has more to do with my association with institutions like Green Shirt Studio and The Voice Lab than my own concentrated efforts.
Here are some commitments I've made for the coming year that I hope will help:
You might have noticed I'm not going to be around much for the next couple of weeks. Thanks for your patience--it will be worth it.
This week and the next I am attending two special events: the Annual Conference and General Meeting for AmSAT (the national professional body I am a part of) and the 2018 Alexander Technique World Congress, both taking place at Loyola University Chicago over the span of a week and a half. While both events are exciting (I am on the organizing committee for the national conference) the Congress is particularly noteworthy as it only happens every few years, will gather over 600 teachers together from around the globe, and hasn't taken place in the U.S. since the year I was born.
I am excited for the opportunity for community, exchange of ideas, and learning. What I am most excited about is the ability to bring new services, techniques, and ideas to you in the Freedom In Motion community. So here are just a few of the things I am excited for:
If you are like me, enormous swaths of your time the last couple weeks have been spent breathless in front of your television watching Wimbledon.
I grew up playing tennis with my family. Most of the exercise I got was from retrieving balls I knocked over the fence, the result of trying to hit the ball with my arm as hard as I could. Since becoming trained in Alexander Technique, I have returned to both watching and playing and have found to be it a movement junkie's dream. The coordination, the skill, and the physicality are all intoxicating to watch-- but above all its the poise of the players I admire. I don't know of another sport in which the mental and physical aspects of poise are as clearly reflected in each other as in tennis.
The Alexander Technique (A.T.) is above all a system for improving your poise and efficiency in activity and movement. Here are some places where A.T. and tennis intersect and how learning A.T. can bump your tennis game to the next level.
'Whole Self Tennis'
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.