Sunday, February 22, 2009

Practicing in the Dojo of Everyday Life

Richard Strozzi-Heckler tells a story about coming out of an Ikido dojo and almost getting run over by someone running a red light as he crosses the street. But what caught his attention more than the car hurling itself past his body was his rage, and the way he was thrown off centre.

Strozzi-Heckler, an Akido master and psychologist, has been practicing martial arts since he was 12 years old. He is one of the original contributors to the surge of Western body-centred practices that emerged from the crucible of the 60's. With Robert Hall MD and Elissa Hall, he was co-founder of the Lomi School, an approach that integrated hands-on practices with psychology and mindfulness back in the early 1970's.

Experiences like his lesson on the street corner began to move Richard Strozzi-Heckler away from traditional, table based forms of bodywork, and out of the traditional dojo. He began to understand that hands-on bodywork was limited in its ability to integrate body awareness with social interaction, and as he was discovering, the traditional dojo had its own challenges helping its practitioners integrate its ideals into modern Western life. These days, his business, The Strozzi Institute, works with organizations using a format he calls the corporate dojo. His corporate dojo learning environment has been used by organizations as diverse as Capital One, the U.S. Army Special Forces, Navy Seals, the Marine Corp (who put an extra week on boot camp to incorporate his dojo paradigm into training), and Los Angeles street gangs.

Participants might learn how to drop into their knees and breath into their belly when engaged in a confrontation. In my own practice one of my clients applied these principles in her work as a manager of a sales staff. She found that sales team members who incorporated simple neck and shoulder massage into their team culture became the highest producing sales group. And performance reviews became more successful when she coached participants to drop their breath into their belly, and to feel for the sensations of the chair they were sitting on and the floor beneath their feet.

As our bodies learn to locate themselves in the moment we gain increased access to the strategies of de-escalation and appropriate response. The training of the dojo emerges as a functional piece of organizational life.

The dojo, Strozzi-Heckler says, is a Japanese word that means, "place of training." It comes from the Sanskrit word, bodhi manda, which means "place of awakening, or enlightenment." A dojo creates a different educational environment than we are used to in most Western education systems. In a dojo you develop a practice, and you practice with your body.

Most Eastern somatic practices use the dojo approach to training. When you practice yoga or martial arts you start with the basics but as you advance you never leave the practice of fundamentals behind. Your competence as a practitioner is not just assessed by how much you know but on how much you have deepened your knowledge of the simple things that you share with every beginning student.

Richard Strozzi-Heckler's curbside epiphany points to a weakness in the dojo system, at least in the way it is practiced in the West. When we go to our yoga class we step into the dojo paradigm. We remember our underlying functionality as the practice helps us realign ourselves with the natural patterns of our being. As we leave we close the door behind us and slowly lose the lingering effects of the practices as we re-enter the habits of everyday life. The dojo becomes a pitstop in the race of everyday life.

But the disconnect of modern dojo practice is increased further when we look at the challenge facing hands-on somatic practitioners - the lack of a professional practice that is integrated with a personal practice.

When I step into a dojo environment, I am met by a teacher. In a yoga ashram that teacher might be called a guru - one who points the way. In a martial arts dojo that person might be call a sensei - one who has gone before. In each case these titles allude to an essential part of the teacher's role - practicing what they teach.

Western hands-on somatic approaches are notable in that they don't have an underlying personal practice. Your practitioner could easily have spent less time than you on a treatment table and is certainly not required to have a personal practice that would be congruent with the intentions of the work they do. Massage practitioners, for example, leave the profession in droves with sore backs, aching arms and repetitive strain injuries, largely because of the lack of personal practice that would support the work they do. I explore this issue further in two Massage Magazine articles titled, "Finding Ourselves" and  "The Trouble with 'Doing' a Massage."

Recently, I have been working on the disconnect between personal practice, professional practice and everyday life through a class that runs parallel to the SomaLab. I call it Somatic Patterning. The Somatic Patterning class is open to anyone and has a diverse participation ranging from clients at our clinic to hands-on bodywork and yoga practitioners.

The class has three focus areas:
1. Fundamental developmental patterns that organize the functional organism. I use techniques drawn from sources such as Thomas Hanna's Cat Stretch series, ideas from Feldenkrais, martial arts and the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.

2. Sensing approaches that work beneath the constraints of habit to recognize and release movement habits that contribute to chronic tension and discomfort. Here I draw from the sensing work of Elsa Gindler and Charlotte Selver, and that of F.M. Alexander.

3. Translation of these approaches to awareness and movement into practices that can be done anytime, anywhere. I call this practicing in the dojo of everyday life.

These practices run parallel to the SomaLab because they share similar intentions. In the SomaLab we are interested in developing professional practice that is shaped by the experiences of personal practice. In the Somatic Patterning class we create an environment where anybody can have access to the ground language of the human organism as it brings awareness to sensation and creates response that are continually reshaped by the experience of the moment.

Let me attempt the perilous task of describing a physical example. Let me know how I do.

We may start a class by exploring the cross-crawl pattern, moving across the room on hands and knees with one arm and the opposite leg moving together. A quick experiment will show that if you try the other option - moving the arm and leg forward on the same side - your crawl becomes very unstable. Then, we might lie on the floor (with knees bent) pushing one shoulder blade and its opposite hip into the floor. Finally, we could end the class sitting on an exercise ball with our hands gently pressing against the wall in front of you (you could get the same effect sitting in your chair as you gently pressed your hands against the edge of your desk).

You might want to try this movement. Slowly slide one knee toward the wall (or desk) while drawing the other one back toward you.

Although you will find this practice works with less effort on the unstable surface of the ball, try a few exploratory movements back and forth with your knees. As one knee moves toward the wall try adding an increase of pressure against the wall with your opposite hand. Gently explore this movement following the suggestions in "The Essential Questions of Somatic Practice" I have included in a separate blog.

Now, the pièce de résistance, practicing in the dojo of everyday life. The principle of contralateral movement says that each arm movement will be mirrored by a similar movement in the opposite leg. For example, as you sit at your desk working with your mouse try dropping a little more weight into the hip on the opposite side from your "mouse arm." You can emphasize this by very slightly releasing the pressure of your foot on the floor (Do Not Lift It Off!). You might find that these slight reorganizations of your body awareness will straighten you posture and let you drop into the shoulder of your mouse arm. It will also tend to take the strain out of your neck, lower back and working arm.

Playing with the contralateral principle of diagonal opposites can become quite fascinating. It can open your eyes to how much you distort your posture in everyday experiences of standing, sitting or walking. And, following your curiosity as you explore a movement shift can ease strains in your body without having to "fix" yourself. You just give your body the information it needs to make its own self adjustments.

As we move through the SomaLab, and its sister Somatic Patterning course, we are finding that participants begin to build sustainable practices built on curiosity, using sensation to engage the mind with body experiences in the moment.  It becomes possible to apply the principles of sensing and pattern organization to enhance dojo practices such as yoga, tai chi or Pilates that we are already engaged in. And we are gaining an enhanced understanding of how to soften the lock of habit while freeing the creative possibilities of how our organism wants to be more fully in this moment. 

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Orienting Response

As I go through the flow of everyday life there are certain events that pull my attention. Some come to me externally - a car unexpectedly coming around the corner as I step off the curb. Others emerge from my inner life such as the awareness of a strain from sitting for too long peering into the screen of my computer.

In his book, Waking the Tiger, trauma therapist, Peter Levine calls this our orienting response. He describes it as a 'what is it' reflex organisms use when responding to novelty in their environment. When I say, "what is this?", I create an important shift in consciousness. There is an "I" who is noticing a "this". When I notice something in my environment I create the ground for a heightened interactive relationship that involves all parts of my embodied being from the subconscious responses of my cells right up to the conscious awareness of my cerebral cortex. All parts of my organism become involved in an awakening to sensory information about the moment.

Suppose I'm putting on my shoes before going out the door. When I say, "what is this?", I create the potential to be present to every realm of my awareness. I notice there is strain in my neck and shoulders, probably because I am late. My breath is lightly caught in the cage of my ribs, my butt slightly lifted off the bench as I tie my laces. I am annoyed; I'm not sure at what.

But as I hold my perceptual frame of "what is this", I notice a shift. I drop a bit into the surface of the bench, a breath breaks to the surface of my rib cage. My mood shifts; I relax.

Why? There's a physiological event going on here. When I become more present to the sensations of my experience I softens the neural gates that function as filters to information coming in through my nervous system. The organizational patterns of my body use that increased information flow, making adjustments to the functioning of my system that shift my orientation to my environment. I experience that shift as a change in effort, positioning and mood.

Somatics theorist, Deane Juhan, describes my experience as a shift of awareness on the continuum between form and formation. In his groundbreaking work, Jobs Body, Juhan says “we are forms that are continually undergoing formation and reformation.” In Juhan's physiologically based model, when we limit the information available to our system we draw upon memory, the accumulated habits of previously learned body response. I use the minimal amount of sensory information available to me to look for matches with pre-existing movements, firing the patterns of habitual response.

But the habituated response will be an approximation. It will never have the sophisticated nuances we identify with fully embodied response. When I move through the habits of hurrying out the door I am moving through a virtual environment composed of a mixture of historical responses fired into sequence by a minimal amount of sensory information. "What is this?" softens the doorways of perception giving my neural patterns fresh information and pulling me, through my very physiology, out of the past and into the present. Or, in Juhan's language, out of the world of forms and into the world of formation, and continual reformation.

In our training program, the SomaLab, we use the orienting response as a frame that helps soften our habitual responses in a therapeutic engagement, giving the practitioner the widest array of sensory inputs about the object of our awareness. When working with another asking, "what is this", includes scanning through all the possible sources of sensory information. Through asking the question we open our awareness of how we are oriented in space. We discover information about our sensory contact with external surfaces - the floor our feet meet with, the skin our hands are touching. We begin to notice internal surfaces - the movement of our respiratory system through our torso and the subtle sensory interactions of our organism to the internal feel of fluid, fascia, emotion and thought.

Building on this enriched sensory responsiveness we can introduce a secondary array of frames that hold an intention while leaving the widest possible conditions for response.

For example, you might try the question, "how does it want to go?" You can test this frame with a simple movement, such as raising your arm to the ceiling. Raise it first without asking the question, noting how your arm moves. Then, ask the question, "how does it want to go", as you hold the intention of your arm raising. After years of demonstrating this simple exercise in workshops I can anticipate that you will most likely find notable changes in the sensory quality, direction, effort and speed of the movement.

As we move through life we are constantly having our attention pulled by events. And, if only in self defense, we screen many of the out leaving us increasingly dependent on our memory of movement, the habituated response.

When I wake up and become curious about the sensory experience of lying in bed. Or, when riding on the bus wondering exploring the sensations that tell me how my hip meets up against the seat, I'm not just doing an exercise in awareness. With each exploration I give my body essential information that it needs to adjust itself to a more responsive interaction with its universe. If I feel a bit stuck I might ask, “how does it want to go?” I allow my being to free itself, even just a bit, from the shapes and movements of habit.

I ask the question, and let the answer move me more fully into life