Floor as a Tool for Learning and Teaching

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One of (many)my favorite teaching "tools" for my clients: The floor
I often invite my clients to lie on the floor or my Feldenkrais table during a session to give them a chance to sense and observe how they contact and dont contact the floor and how their contact with the floor changes during a session.

Here are a few reasons why I like having people lie on the floor during a session:

1. In standing we carry our habitual muscular tone and effort, which makes it difficult for the nervous system to inhibit the habitual patterns and allow new movement patterns to emerge.

2. Standing increases center of gravity. As center of gravity increases, the fear of falling increases, which increases habitual muscular tone. This is particularly obvious for people who have poor balance and have a high risk fall. As they maintain habitual patterns in an effort to prevent falls, their balance becomes even more compromised because habitual muscular tone decreases freedom of movement and it becomes harder to counter-balance. Thus, lying on the floor reduces fear of falling (you are already on the ground!) and you can adapt new patterns more easily.

3. The floor acts as a feedback device that provides us proprioceptive input and enhance kinesthetic awareness. As you lie on the floor, you can notice what body parts have more weight and what parts dont and while you move, you can notice where you initiate movement and how you sequence your movement by "listening" to the floor, which I call "kinesthetic listening." Developing this skill is very important to fine-tune your body awareness and motor performance.

4. Accessible and Inexpensive (Free)! I am a big fan of no fancy, low tech equipments, and the floor is the king of them!

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Why I don't give specific instructions during Awareness Through Movement lessons

When you go to exercise/fitness classes, you would expect your instructor to show you how to do each exercise/movement correctly step by step, right?  What if your instructor wouldn't show you how to do exercises correctly?  In Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement classes, teachers guide students only verbally through a sequence of movements in a way that they are encouraged to explore and experiment many options of movements instead of being instructed to move only specific ways.  We also don't tell our students that they SHOULD move this way or that way, or this is the CORRECT way of moving.  Instead, we invite our students to pay attention to sensations in their bodies to notice the way they use their bodies habitually and non-habitually. In other words, we help our students to focus on their own kinesthetic experiences, which is subjective.

So, what are the benefits of avoiding specific instructions and encouraging exploration/experimentation?

One size won't fit all.  If we observe 10 different people's body and movements (e.g., walking), we will have 10 different body structures and 10 different movements.  A movement that feels good for one person may not feel good for another person.  If we assume there's only one correct movement that fits everyone, then we try to force ourselves to fit the idea, which may not work for you.  But, if you start to pay attention to your own kinesthetic sensation while exploring movements, you can probably find what works and what doesn't.

Your kinesthetic experience from one exercise/movement is different from others.  If I as an instructor/teacher showed an exercise to my students step by step and told them exactly how they should move, I'm imposing my idea on my students.  What would happen is that they would only focus on trying to make their movement look exactly like my movement.  At that moment, they disengage themselves from their kinesthetic experience.  In my experience, this is when people get hurt in many exercise/fitness classes because they are busy forcing their body to move like someone else's, which may not be right and not paying attention to their own sensation.

After one class (Feldenkrais pelvic clock lesson) I taught to a group of people, I asked them to share what they experienced from the lesson.  One student said that he noticed how he was using his hips and why he felt off balance when he squatted.  Another person said that she noticed how she liked using back instead of hips.  I really don't know what people will experience from each lesson.  I can't expect everyone will have the same experience as I did from the same lesson.  But, if I showed people how to do each movement specifically and asked them to repeat what I did, I could potentially take away all kinds of different experiences and learning they would otherwise get.  

It may be difficult and uncomfortable at first not to have someone show you exercises/movements step by step, but if you let go of that idea and start to "play" with movements and pay attention to how you feel, I can guarantee that exercise/movement will become a lot more enjoyable and fun.  And, you can find more comfortable movements.

To learn about Awareness Through Movement class:

 

 

Using Mistakes to Facilitate Learning

There's a saying "practice makes perfect."  What's involved in practice that leads to "perfect?"  

When we start learning any skill, we don't really know what's perfect as we haven't had any kinesthetic experience that we can make comparison to, though we may have a rough idea where we want to go.  As we try once, and twice, and three times, we start to accumulate experience and constantly receive feedback and make adjustments to refine our skills.  When our movements didn't feel quite right, we would know based on our previous experience.  

Mistakes provide feedback we need in order to make adjustments for the following attempt so we can get closer to our goal, ONLY IF we pay attention to the mistakes we just made. Otherwise, we're more likely to make the same mistakes without much improvements.  This is why some people say "perfect practice makes perfect."  Just simply repeating movements isn't necessarily going to guarantee improvements.  In fact, you may become good at unwanted skills, which now become your new habit.  

Fundamentals of motor learning can always be found when observing babies and kids.  My 9 month old son recently learned to pull himself up to stand.  He was very excited to check out completely different views from standing.  He, however, didn't know how to get back down to the floor.  He lost his balance and fell backwards and hit his head on the floor.  That was a very hard and painful lesson for him.  He was still curious about standing up so he stood up while holding onto the couch.  After a few minutes, he quickly recalled the painful event and was trying to figure out a way to get down to the floor without hitting his head against floor.  He slowly reached one hand towards the floor with the other hand on the couch.  Finally he was able to put one hand on the floor and lowered himself down without falling!  He's learned how to get down to the floor from standing from his mistake.

Mistakes are necessary for improvements.  The word "mistake" is often perceived as having a negative meaning, but if it weren't for mistakes, we wouldn't even know what is "right."  When I work with my clients, I always encourage people to make mistakes and help them recognize what makes certain movements/postures a mistake and what makes them a correct one for them.  We all make lots of mistakes, but mistakes are what get us closer to our goal!  If we make mistakes, we might as well make it fun!  Come join my weekly Awareness Through Movement classes to make mistakes in a playful environment!  

Moving with Attention and Intention

Whether you're training movement for rehab or athletic performance, moving with "attention" and "intention" makes a huge difference in terms of motor learning.  For example, doing an shoulder raise exercise with a weight or elastic tubing will help strengthen shoulder muscles as resistance and gravity place physiological demands on the muscles.  However, strength gain may not carry over to actual functional tasks such as reaching arm overhead to put a dish on a top shelf, changing a light bulb, or any overhead throwing, which means there's no motor learning.  

Exercising just for the sake of strengthening or stretching muscles will not require much attention of the brain.  There won't be much learning without the engagement of the brain. Adding an "intention" for movement/exercise will add a meaning and purpose to movement, and this will grab the brain's attention.  Here are examples.  When boxers do shadow boxing, they have clear intention of every movement, that is fighting against an imaginary person. During Aikido practice, an attacker has a clear intention when he/she is grabbing the opponent's wrist, that is to keep him/her from reaching for their weapon.  This intention organizes the bodies to create movement.  

You wouldn't exercise for no reason, would you?  You probably exercise to improve your functions.  So, think about what specific function you're trying to improve with each exercise. Once you know that, you visualize a specific function while performing each movement.

In order to make real improvements that will last for a  long time we will need to change how we move.  When we change how we move, we'll start to place demands on our bodies differently so we'll start to use muscles that we didn't used to, which then over time will become stronger and more flexible.  When you move with intention, you will pay more attention to your movement, and  your movement becomes much more purposeful and meaningful, which will make your exercise much more effective. Strength gain is given when you place demands on your bodies, but motor learning (changing movement habits) isn't without attention.  Next time you work out or practice movements, think about what specific function you are trying to improve with each exercise and practice moving with attention and intention.

Meaningful Movement and Neuroplasticity

Over the years I have come across situations where I taught my clients different movement patterns as a supposedly better alternative to their habitual movement patterns, somehow those new movement patterns never stuck to them.  One day out of blue they started adapting and using the new movement patterns automatically.  I always wondered why that might have occurred.  I wondered if they didn't do their "homework," so they didn't adapt.

One day I was playing with my 7 month old son.  He could roll over pretty well, but couldn't still pull himself forward on the floor, so I put a few toys on the floor, thinking he would try to reach for them and maybe would pull himself forward.  He didn't care enough to even attempt to reach.  Then, he started crying because he was getting hungry.  So I went to grab a bottle and he was staring at the bottle with such excitement.  As soon as I put the bottle on the floor, he quickly rolled over and started pulling himself forward so desperately.  He just learned army crawl!  Just like his father, he LOVES FOOD.  Food is very important for him, more than anything it seems.  Food draws 100% of his nervous system's attention.  His nervous system organizes movement patterns to allow him to accomplish his goal, that is to get to food and eat.  

That's made me think about my clients who adapt to new patterns fast and those who don't.  I think this has a lot to do with whether those movement patterns are perceived as meaningful and salient by the nervous system.  When I say nervous system, I'm talking about what's happening at subconscious level.  I think this is why changing habits is so difficult as it requires a shift at subconscious level, or very strong will power.  And, this is why it's so important to think about functional contexts and meaning around particular movements you're practicing, not just repeating the same movement mindlessly.  

 

Learning takes time

As a  movement educator/therapist, I would like to learn new movement patterns quickly and would like my clients to achieve that quickly as well.  However, watching my 6 month old son grow and change everyday always reminds me that learning takes a lot of time.  Learning involves lots of trials and errors.  I never knew that newborn babies have to learn how to latch onto mother's breast.  I thought they are born with that skill wired in.  I was wrong.  My son struggled to do that for about a month.  We all got so frustrated because we were doing out best (although I wasn't much help).  We saw lactation specialists several times, read books, watched DVDs, asked friends, and tried everything people suggested.  Still no luck..  My wife almost gave up after a month of struggles.  However, one day a miracle happened.  My son successfully latched on and he had a full meal for the first time.  That was a big day for all of us.  Ever since he had no trouble.  I don't know exactly what happened to my son that one day, but everything must have come together at the right moment.  Maybe he just learned to organize the movements of mouth, jaw, and tongue.  Maybe he found a perfect position. Maybe it was just the right time for him.  Whatever it was, I learned that learning is unpredictable, non-linear, and needs a plenty of time and experimentation.  This was a really good lesson for me as a parent as well as a movement educator.  It's good to encourage my clients to explore lots of movements and make mistakes and learn.  And it's important to remind people that it's okay to make mistakes and sometimes take a step back because that's how learning takes place.  

Awareness Through Movement classes are designed to provide such learning opportunities.  

SLOW DOWN

I have noticed that many people including myself have hard time moving slowly when we exercise. I so often have to remind my clients to slow their movement down many times.  I must admit that I had very very hard time to do that.  It took me a long time to learn that.  

I used to hate walking because it was too slow and boring.  I used to prefer running to walking. In the last few years I've learned the benefits of moving more slowly.  When we move fast, we access movement patterns that have been used many times, called habitual movement patterns.  We use the sub-conscious part of our brain, which responds very fast.  This is useful when we have to move quickly during emergency situations. However, when we're learning new movement patterns, we have to rely on different parts of our brain, conscious part of the brain, which acts much more slowly.  In order to allow us to access this part of the brain, we need to move much much more slowly.  If we move slowly, we won't bypass our sub-conscious part of the brain and inhibit habitual patterns.  This is one of the key principles in my movement re-education.  When someone keeps hurting because of their habitual movement patterns, they need to learn how to move differently.  If they try to move fast when learning to move in a different way, their habitual movement patterns keep interfering.  This is why it's a common practice for Tai Chi and Feldenkrais Method to move very slowly so they can pay attention to how they are moving and they can adjust their movements continuously.  I must tell you that this practice has completely changed the way I move and the way I work with my clients.  I've learned so much about how I move and definitely improved my movement quality.  By the way, the same mechanism applies to thinking, feeling, and sensing.  How we emotionally or intellectually react works much like our movements.  To break your habits, you'll need to SLOW DOWN.

Motor Performance vs Motor Learning

In fitness and rehab settings, it’s very common for trainers/practitioners to demonstrate exercises and have their clients repeat the exercise  and give them visual/tactile feedback to “correct” their movements before they give their clients a chance to feel/sense how they are moving. While showing them “correct” form of the exercise first and providing them external feedback would allow them to perform the specific motor task quickly, the motor task may not carry over to other functional tasks.
We often confuse motor performance with motor learning. Motor performance is the ability to perform a motor task. Motor learning is to have a carryover between one movement pattern and other functional movement patterns.

I think many people often use external feedback (visual/tactile/auditory) too much and don’t teach clients how to access their internal senses (proprioceptive-kinesthetic sense) to learn how they’re moving. The problem is that clients often don’t know how they are moving and can’t tell when they are moving “wrong.” When they are “corrected” and learn to copy the exact same movement, they still haven’t recognized the pattern of movement. Therefore, they just learned to perform that specific movement well, but they will probably go back to their old habitual patterns when doing functional tasks. I suggest we start directing clients’ attention to certain body parts and helping them become aware of how they are moving in space by asking them questions, before we jump in to put our hands and “correct” their movements. Let them explore movements and make some mistakes and let them make a choice. If we don’t allow them to make any mistake, how would they know what mistakes are? Learning always involves lots of trials and errors. We can help them recognize their mistakes so they can learn from the mistakes. We can become a movement tour guide for them so they don’t get lost.

© Taro Iwamoto 2015. Please do not reproduce without the express written consent of Taro Iwamoto.