How often do you think about your toes? Are you someone who takes care of their feet, or do you shove them in shoes and ignore them? Are they a part of yourself that’s a bit too far away to think about?
Feet are the most underrated parts of our body. But them working optimally: being supple and movable is crucial for our back and leg health. Yes: how movable your toes and feet are affects whether or not you’ll be walking easily in later life.
The foot is designed that the whole length of the toes spread forwards and outwards to take your body weight as we walk around. The weight needs to be able to spread across the full width and length of the foot: in three main directions: the heel, the base of the little toes, and the big toe. If the toes are squashed together they can’t work properly, and will affect the working of the ankle, knee, and hip joints. As the song goes: “Your thighbone’s connected to your…leg bone..etc…”
Don’t take my word for it, try it yourself:
In lying, with the feet standing and knees bent, or sitting with feet flat on the floor on the edge of a chair: slide the big toe of one foot inwards, towards, and then on top of the second toe, as far as is comfortable. Return the toe to the starting position, and make the same movement a few times. What do you feel happening in the ankle? The knee? The hip?
Feel how the ankle moves inwards, and downwards, pulling the muscles of the inside arch of the foot closer to the floor. And the knee has no choice but to accompany the ankle in the inward slant. Which in turn pulls on the outside muscles of the thigh all the way up to the outside top of the pelvis.
Try something else…
Lift the base of the big toe towards the ceiling, leaving the pad of the toe on the floor (if possible) Do you hold the knee or allow it to move? If you allow it movement, where does the knee go now? The knee is only a simple hinge joint. The complex movements of the leg are made in conjunction with the feet/ankle and hips.
If the feet and toes aren’t supple, its likely that there is excess effort in the knee joint and the foot, ankle and hip are compensating. If that’s the case for you do you have hip, knee or back pain?
Come to my workshop on the 19th of August, and we’ll explore together how you can easily improve the working of your feet and legs.
We’ll be using sensory awareness and exploration (unusual movements in unusual positions) as tools to improve your co-ordination and understanding of how your body works. We’ll be working on breaking down your habitual patterns of movement to find new ones which may serve your needs better: something that’s hard to do alone, but easy to do with guidance.
Feldenkrais differs from exercise modalities , in which it is assumed you should strengthen your muscles if weak; if inflexible you should stretch; or if you think you have ‘bad posture’ you should stand or sit up straight.
I work with how you move and your habits of moving. We use your innate ability to learn, improve co-ordination and self-regulation of your movement by working with the nervous system. Feldenkrais works with the language of the brain. Movement is the primary language of all of us.
It doesn’t matter how strong your muscles are if they can’t co-ordinate with other parts of yourself. We will be working smart, not hard.
Your brain might be tired at the end of the day, but most people feel refreshed, relaxed and energised after our workshops.
Sarah came to me through curiosity. She’s a world class cellist: a member of the Callino Quartet,and principal cellist of Academy of Ancient Music. Her playing involves
playing both modern and baroque cello, which require slightly different set-ups and techniques. For the modern cello the spike at the bottom takes the weight of the cello and the legs steady it. The baroque cello is different in that there is no spike, so the legs turn out more and the cello is held between the calves, in a slightly more upright position.
In her second lesson she brought her cello, she’d come direct to me from a rehearsal.
She’d talked about wanting to be more aware of what her shoulders and back did, so as she played by gently touching her shoulders with my hands- first the palms, and then more directly into smaller areas with the fingers, I gave her bio-feedback of what her shoulders do when playing, by touching and outlining each part of the shoulder, as she played her cello.
I moved slowly downwards the spine, noting which parts of her body were vibrating with the cello when she was playing — I could literally feel the sound through her, which was an extraordinary feeling. Especially as she played on the lower strings on the cello, which are exceedingly resonant.
There were parts of Sarah’s back which were working very hard, and the muscle tension was high enough that the vibration couldn’t move through it.
All whilst she was playing — dividing her attention between what we were both doing.
Then we moved the lesson to the table, I worked with tiny movements firstly with the head, and shoulders, freeing them, and showing Sarah’s brain the differences in how the shoulder blade can slide on the ribs. The back between the shoulder blades can be a very unknown area- we don’t feel it much in day to day life, except in lying against a surface.
I then worked with her on her side, with the musculature of the spine, gently showing her through my fingertips in which areas her muscles are working very hard, and which were relaxed, which helped her brain process the differences, in order to let go of unnecessary tension.
When we can learn to allow ourselves to be more relaxed in lying, we have more ability to use less muscles, move in a more ergonomic or if you like, lazier way. This creates less stress, strain and shearing on muscles and discs. If the movement is easier, we can do more complexity with less effort.
By working up and down the spine with my hands, I moved precise parts of her back more into the tension, in order for her brain to feel it clearly, and then it was possible to slow
ly release the muscles’ over-work, so her lower back could more relaxed, which could be felt as being flatter on the table.
At the end, we worked in sitting for a while, asking (with my fingers) the hips to have greater participation in the movement of her spine. So as her hips came backwards, all of the vertebrae were in involved in gently curling the spine into a forwards “C”, including her neck and head. We built this up slowly; and then as Sarah rolled her hips in the opposite direction together we taught the whole spine to move into a backwards “C”. The idea was that it would be more communistic movement, that all the vertebrae moved a little, rather than a few areas doing more of the work- which over time can lead to problems.
When we came back to the cello, this translated immediately into a freer, rounder, sound. For Sarah, she felt a very different sense of her shoulders and arms moving in space as she played, and a greater feeling of freedom and fluidity in her back. She said that she felt more relaxed whilst playing, and it seemed less effort. My fingers felt the whole of her back vibrating with the sound, not just patches, and I saw and heard a large change in how she moved whilst playing from the start of the lesson.
A little over a year ago, I gave two workshops at the Royal College of Music, after which the players filled in a questionnaire. I was hoping to do more, so I could produce a longer article, but here it is so far:
The workshop took three parts- starting with a classic lesson on flexors and extensors; a central exploratory more hands on session, working in pairs whilst playing; ending with a lesson whose themes were co-ordination of head, eyes, trunk movements.I wanted the students to experience a direct corrollation between quality or movement, and ease of playing, and see an immediate relevance of what we were doing with Feldenkrais to their journey of perfecting the art of their instrumental playing. So I asked the students to play at the beginning and end of each lesson to compare any differences, and to notice whether the work they were doing with self-sensing made any small changes to their ease of playing/quality of sound.
The 25 students were a cross section of instrumentalists: brass, wind, strings and piano.
The exploratory work in playing in the first workshop included guided touch: experimentation of outlining the bony structure of each other’s spine, (on the back) shoulders, arms, hands and digits, whilst static, and then whilst playing. The students were mostly engaged and enthusiastic about this part of the workshop. They took the weight of instruments from each other where possible, and then changed to moving arms, hands, individual fingers and thumbs from different joints for each other, to experience movement as a more passive action in playing. In doing so, for many it was then clearer to sense some muscular activities which were superfluous, and making their task harder. Some of this they were able to let go of, having discovered it for themselves.
Other discoveries they found were:
Some of the string players hadn’t thought of the thumb having so much of a role in moving the bow across the strings. Others found that leading the movement from different parts of the fingers and hand made a difference to ease and speed of movement of the fingers. For some just the exploratory nature of what we were doing allowed lateral thinking- the sackbut player and trumpet had to think of ways to carry out the task of moving the arm- in the end they settled for one taking the weight of the moving arm, and the effect was that the instrument felt lighter after the person took back full control. .
As the teacher I noticed large differences, of increase in volume and quality/roundness of sound across the board. The string players talked of greater ease of bowing across the strings, and lightness of fingers, and wind/brass an increase in ease and support of the sounds they were creating, both low and high.
In all of wind and brass I noticed a large improvement to co-ordination, and support of the sound with the breath. Most were able to notice this themselves, but a few not, even though it was evident to myself and those listening.
As this was my first questionnaire some of the questions were a little repetitive, so I’ve missed out a few. I realised afterwards the “a little” or “a lot” answers should have been qualifiers from “yes”- I ended up with some students circling both yes and a little/a lot and some only circling one or the other. Where this happened I’ve included the a lot/ a little answer rather than yes, but all three answers are obviously yes. I felt most of the questions self explanatory.
I am concerned that two thirds of the group suffer pain during playing already, at the physical peak of their adult life, Although I know many colleagues in the profession suffer pain on a regular basis, I hadn’t expected it would show up so early in their careers.
I was pleased by how enthusiastic they all were, even those who couldn’t recognise their own changes in playing. It was gratifying to see that they all felt they would benefit from further work, and that they really all felt it should be provided for them as an ongoing resource.
Sometimes, it’s not what you’re doing, its who you’re doing it to. I was up visiting my sister and her family, and talking with my brother-in-law who’s a GP about studies. We were talking about how I might be able to, in time, get some studies going with Feldenkrais in order to faciliate it being offered on the NHS (one should think big right?). Anyway, I had 40 minutes before getting my train, and I offered to show him (my cynical also consultant doctor sister was sat on the sofa listening and playing with my nephew.)
My offer was declined as my brother-in-law didn’t fancy being touched that morning, but unsually, my sister proffered herself in his place. This is one of the most intelligent, but deeply cynical people I know. And I know she isn’t so interested in what I’ve been studying for the last four years. I was nervous- more nervous than when I had to work with my teacher for the first time.
So I thought I’d start with her feet.She’s on them a lot at work, and is a mother, so on them at home too! I had an audience, and not really enough space, but thought I’d just get on with it. At least I wasn’t worried about touching her feet- I’ve known them a long time, and she’s not very ticklish.
I started work, with regular questions from the GP on the sofa, about what I was doing- he commented that it all looked like diagnosis, and other questions about what I was looking for, we talked about how it was a conversation- that I was helping her feel herself, feel her own habits through the medium of the feedback from my touch, and the questions I asked.
Twenty minutes later, I asked her to get up and walk around. One foot looked wider, and flatter, and softer in reaching and leaving the floor. My brother-in-law noticed it too. At that point my sister was aware that it felt more relaxed, but not much more.Continue reading “The change that changes one’s mind.”
I started working with a colleague recently. (We’ll call him David. Names changed for obvious privacy purposes)
One of his concerns was shoulder and neck pain after working at the computer. He’d had problems with a frozen shoulder before, and wanted some help with his set up at the computer. After looking at how David sat at, and used the computer, I was able to make some suggestions of things he could try to make life easier. After two weeks he is now pain free!!
Some things we talked about and changed: The angle of your thighs into your pelvis joint is important:
Ideally your thighs should be at right angles to your pelvis or sloping down towards the floor. Your knees shouldn’t be higher than the seat you’re sitting on. You want to be sat on your sitting bones for support, rather than slumped backwards. If you are taller than average, you need a higher chair than average, and ideally one that is flat (i.e. does not slope backwards- hard to find these days! If necessary try a stool instead)
When you lean forwards your weight can then travel into your feet, so your feet are helping and sharing the work.
Having your pelvis lower than your legs creates a situation where your pelvis tends to tilt back making your lower back rounded. This makes the spine unable to support the head and shoulders higher up- making it more likely excess work is happening, and more likely to have back/shoulder/neck ache.
For your fingers to be supported in their actions the wrists need to stay in line: bent wrists mean that the fingers start having to do the work of the arms- which isn’t great. A general principal is that strength comes from moving along the bones. When you use your fingers, you want the weight of the arms to provide downwards “force” or weight, and the fingers to move as lightly and lazily as possible. That means your elbows should not be lower than your arms, the same idea as your knees not being higher than your pelvis in sitting. If they are, sit on a cushion! (ideally a hardish one, like a yoga block- they’re more supportive.) Then the weight can find an easier pathway to the keys.Continue reading “Feldenkrais and computer posture experiments”