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Aging with Grace requires Strength

posted on January 1, 2020

A Feldenkrais® colleague of mine suggested Body by Science to me many months ago. She told me that following this particular strength training protocol was making a huge difference for her. She felt significant improvements in strength and loved that she only has to spend 15 minutes a week at the gym.

After reading the book myself, I wanted to share what I’d learned with you immediately! Instead, I decided to pause, take a breath, and try this “Big-Five” workout (high-intensity training) myself for few months first.

As a former professional dancer, I have spent many hundreds of hours in the dance studio and otherwise training my body for strength, flexibility, accuracy and artistry. I never had to think so much about ‘strength training’ per se. I was always training. Exercise was built into my life. Implicit in my daily routine.

However, over the past 6 or 7 years as I have transitioned to focusing on my Feldenkrais® practice, I’ve recognized that, while I remain active with walking, biking, hiking, etc., my daily routine is much more sedentary than it used to be.

Feldenkrais® lessons have provided me with a structure and place in which to find ease and pleasure in movement and an authentic expression of myself, transferring force efficiently through my skeleton, reducing tension, learning how to move in accordance with my skeleton in relationship to gravity…

…and yet I am also recognizing the need to maintain and build strength and muscle mass in order to sustain my health and ability to continue the activities I need and want to do – stacking wood, shoveling snow, gardening, dancing…

The Feldenkrais Method® so beautifully offers us the opportunity to learn how to use ourselves well – to find power with ease, to follow curiosity and playfulness, to expand our self-image…

And the next step is to integrate this learning into our lives in a meaningful way.

This brings me to my interest in taking these improvements into challenging my body for strength and power.

After experiencing a back injury, I found that pain and the fear of recurring injury created limitations – and fear around moving and challenging my body. I find this is true for a lot of people, and we could have another whole discussion on pain and the brain. But for this discussion, I will stick to the topic at hand.

I have loved focusing on ease and pleasure in movement, but to remain strong, we must ask our muscles to work hard. The old adage “use it or lose it” definitely applies here!

So I was excited to try the “Big-Five” workout laid out in Body by Science and have been doing so weekly since August. The short of it is: you perform 5 specific exercises, preferably on machines, which engage all the major muscle groups of the body. The amount of weight you lift for each exercise is determined by how much weight it takes to bring your muscles to complete failure within as close to 90 seconds as you can. You go slowly enough to prevent the use of momentum. And that’s it. You are in and out of the gym in 15 minutes. Once a week. (Just like Feldenkrais®, rest is essential.) The reasoning for this type of workout is not only to build muscle strength, but to improve various physiological processes in the body.

If you’re interested in learning more about the physiological processes this sets in motion, as well as the details on how to properly carry out this type of workout, I recommend reading the book. Not only are you doing work that generates muscle growth, you are improving your cardiovascular health, insulin-sensitivity, metabolism, and many other processes that contribute to healthy functioning of all the systems in the body.

While I don’t know if my cholesterol levels have improved, or if my brain health is better – I do know that I always feel better and more clear-minded after exercise. And I have experienced improvements in my strength. In part, I know this because I can lift more weight for 90 seconds, and I also found that carrying a heavy shelving until from the car into the basement the other day felt much more manageable. While it felt heavy and difficult to do, I felt my structure and musculature could meet the demand without feeling in danger of injury.

Which brings me back to my point about the value of Feldenkrais®. When I first started the “Big-Five” workout, I just dove right in to each exercise. One of the goals is to completely fatigue your muscles, so it’s helpful not to rest in between each exercise.

However, about a month ago I started taking time at the beginning of each exercise to lift a very small amount of weight first and do so with a Feldenkrais® mind – slowly, noticing the very first moment of the movement… where am I using effort I don’t need? Where do I feel compressed? Am I lengthening my spine? Where is my support?

Particularly useful is paying attention to my breath and the expansion of my abdomen. I can approach this like a martial artist. Pay attention to sensation and finding lightness. Feeling ease and the support of my skeleton so that my muscles an function efficiently even when challenged by a heavy load.

Then I increase the weight to the load I think will fatigue my muscles in 90 seconds and do my best to integrate.

Because the tactic is to continue slowly (as slow as 10 seconds to lift and 10 seconds to lower), it’s easier to maintain attention on my sensation and clarity of form.

And… because of the way the muscle fibers are recruited (again, the book explains!), by the time my large motor units that can produce a lot of power are recruited, my muscles are close to fatigue and weak, limiting the possibility of injury from using too much force.

I have very much been enjoying the process of exploring the challenge of lifting heavy weights in a safe context. Practicing my Feldenkrais principles has helped a lot. In addition to feeling stronger, I love the feeling in my tissues after finishing a workout and in the hours and days afterwards – everything feels more flexible and open. My tissues feel malleable and nourished.

I see many folks at the gym using momentum to lift weights or, for example, using their back to do a hamstring exercise – causing forces to shear across their joints and tissues, creating wear and tear. Learning to use ourselves well, pay attention to sensation, and trust in our own abilities can be essential tools in strengthening our bodies and maintaining health while limiting wear and tear and the possibility of injury.

Back to the topic of this post… Efficient movement is graceful. And grace and efficiency are dependent upon learning to move with more ease and less tension, to move in ways that drive forces through our skeleton longitudinally, not shear across us, and to move in accordance with our particular structure and personality.

And, finding and sustaining a sense of grace is dependent upon maintaining our strength. Our ability to walk gracefully depends on balance and steadiness. This is dependent upon being well-organized and efficient, and it is also dependent upon having powerful and responsive musculature. Being quick and in tune with our bodies helps us fall well. Muscle mass also protects us when we fall.

Responsiveness is key.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to tune in to your own intelligence in the pursuit of grace and power, send me an e-mail! Book a session! Try out a class! I’d be happy to talk with you.

Happy New Year!

Is 6 hours of sleep is enough?

posted on August 30, 2018

If you’re interested in learning more about the profound importance of sleep for our overall health, I recommend this fascinating book. Walker references an impressive body of research (including his own) and his writing is fluid and easy to follow. Learn about the processes that occur while we sleep and why a “non-negotiable 8 hour sleep opportunity” every night is essential for pretty much all functions including memory, cardiovascular health, learning, emotional health, weight control, and much, much more!

If you’re having trouble getting comfortable while sleeping, wake up with discomfort, or struggle to breathe deeply an relax in the evening as you prepare to sleep, see if Feldenkrais can help! Schedule a private lesson with Fritha.

Click here to listen to Walker’s interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

*I encourage you to visit your local bookstore or library if you’re interested in reading this book!