Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Posts tagged ‘touch’

Working with the Space Between Spaces: Explorations in Wholeness Class Review

One of the keystones of my growth as a Rolfer so far has been getting a sense of more tissues in addition to fascia and working with how they relate to each other. As I’ve grown more competent and comfortable with the variety in the body, I find my sense of the space between them growing deeper and more refined. So when I saw the listing for Thomas Walker and Gale Loveitt’s Explorations in Wholeness class it read like a class totally up my alley and a great way to deepen my use of those “spaces between the spaces”.

I did my Unit 2 basic Rolfing training with Thomas and he was a strong influence in developing the lighter side of my Rolfing touch and listening skills. The basic training in Rolfing was an excellent grounding in finding what this class might call “the hard stuff” muscles, bones and the like. Explorations in Wholeness added a depth for me of finding and feeling into “the soft stuff”, helping me find a way to contact softer parts of the tissue or anatomy more prone to hiding and finding ways to influence the body to connect more or to rediscover connections that past experience had disrupted in some fashion.

The essence of this class lay in working with various craniosacral rhythms. It’s not an area I particularly understand well nor am I sure the technical details would be helpful for everyone so I’ll relate it to my image of choice for the class which was ocean tides and waves. There are individual waves in the ocean breaking nearly every second on the shore, there is the cycle of high and low tide twice daily and in between these there is that middle cycle where the individual waves are washing higher or lower than the previous waves upon the beach every minute or two.

The work is… challenging to describe and honestly, my initial reaction was to resist naming it or calling it anything particular lest I narrow the potential of the work into some set box. That said, I also like to be able to communicate thing with more than just shrugging and saying “it seems to work” so I’ve tried to break out some ideas of how I describe this work to clients and how I might describe it to other practitioners.

For Clients

Every so often, as I grow as a practitioner, I encounter the idea that the ultimate goal is not for me to fix anyone, but for them to help engage their own healing mechanisms. Those are the kind of results I generally saw and felt with this work. Clients who I had worked with for several years seemed to notice me suddenly finding things at a deeper level, I honed in faster on where to put my hands with newer clients, and for my first week or two back almost everyone drifted to sleep at some point during their session.

I’ve also tried this work a few times with some very long-term clients and found it helps them access a level of strength and organization that they weren’t able to previously. I recently felt drawn to try a full session of this work with a client who I felt didn’t believe in her own inherent wholeness. The result was a deeply challenging session that stirred a lot of old feelings and hurts but several days later her whole sense of being had softened, she seemed more settled in her body, and some of her more kinetic energies had found a way to chill out.

From the client side, I think this work helps tap into a depth of calm in the nervous system that’s often hard to achieve in today’s world without going deep into the woods or far out to sea. It’s essentially providing a safe and supportive space for the brain to cool down and get out of the way and a sort of deep relaxation to come into play and help reorganize patterns of movement which in turn can build into lasting changes in how we hold and present ourselves and how we relate to our own stress.

For Practitioners

As I listened to the stories of Rolfers in this class I would say I found a theme of searching for something. A number of the newer Rolfers in the group talked about struggling to know what to do with clients where a number of those trained further back talked about looking for something softer, less “hammer and tongs” in our work. How to be effective when “mashing fascia” isn’t your bag or what to do when you don’t know what to do.

My impression going into the class was that this work would be a way to help bridge between layers, to work on the spaces between the spaces. And to be sure, there is a great deal of that in the work and it’s helped me find some ways into things, both structural stuckness and functional inhibitions that I didn’t have a tool for before when I was thinking of more specific tissues. In a fairly exacting sense, the work is about contacting fluid more than tissue, allowing not just for working into specific areas but also working with the uninterrupted wholeness of the body. It also involves a sort of stillness and patience that I find greatly aids in asking questions of the tissue and letting the body lead me into helping rather than feeling like I have to go in knowing where things need to move.

Fish-to-manIn a sense the work remains mysterious to me, albeit effective. I’ve struggled for several months to find an elegant way to say what I think I’m doing with this work currently but I finally hit on it in my first Advanced Training Module. I found myself wanting to do a full session of this work on a model client and since neither of the instructors were familiar with the work I was scrambling a little to describe just what in the hell I was after. The lead instructor, Lael Keen, had made several statements earlier in classes about working with ligamentous beds as “speaking to the dinosaur intelligence of the body”. Standing in front of the class trying to give an idea of the session I intended to do I finally came up with “I want to speak to the fish that existed long before the dinosaur”.

And Space to Grow…

Where many of the classes I have taken in my career have been fairly easy to describe, this work continues to almost defy my desire to describe it. It seems that I almost feel more effective in the work when I allow it to remain mysterious and exploratory rather than fixing a description or expectation to it. The essence of it seems to be in attention and allowing, skills that are at once inherent in all of us and yet can also be honed to greater depths or wider scopes. Thomas made mention several times of how after 20 years it still amazes him how a shift in himself can result in a deep change in a client.

While I do like to be able to understand what I am doing when I put hands on a client and why it works, I sometimes find myself eschewing understanding and paraphrasing Arthur C. Clarke: Any sufficiently advanced technique is indistinguishable from magic. I don’t think this work is magic per se, but my short experience with it is that allowing it to seem magical made it more effective. The mystery allows space, the space allows exploration, and the exploration allow growth of skill to occur.

And in much the same way that the class focused on ease and allowing, the growth and integration into my work seemed to happen similarly. I’ve made pretty minimal effort to directly practice the work in the past few months but the last time I worked on one of my office-mates her immediate response was “You’re doing something really different. Your approach to the body has changed, like you’ve gotten out of your own way.” I suspect there is a great deal deeper I can go with this work but one of the things I really value about it is how it seems to blend across lines of different techniques and both deepen my current practice while also offering new avenues to explore and tools to continue exploring.


Is Your Dance Partner Dangerous?: Swing Dancing and the Fight or Flight Response

Remember the first time you held hands with a boy or girl you were interested in?  The moment of tension when you first make contact, waiting to see if he or she will pull away, holding your breath, the fear of having made the wrong move, and then finally relaxing into the contact.  A variation of this sequence happens every time you make contact to start a dance with someone.  But many of us miss the relaxing phase and get stuck somewhere in the “eek” territory.

The sympathetic nervous system at work

A visual approximation of the sympathetic nervous system response 😉

Whether you call it nerves, intimidation, needing to relax, etc., that moment of tension is an activation of the sympathetic nervous system.  This activation is also referred to as the fight or flight response and can involve a number of physiological reactions including increased heart rate, sweating, and increased muscle tension.  When we view something in a dance (or elsewhere for that matter) as a potential threat,  we often resort to a form of the sympathetic nervous system response, mitigating our anxiety by shunting the emotional reaction into physical tension.

Threat Assessment

When you first contact another object, whether it’s an inanimate object or another human being, your body goes through what is essentially a threat assessment.  This is a very primal reaction seen in even simple organisms and is a very important survival instant throughout the animal kingdom.  You can think of this like the bouncer at the door of a club.  Situations that the brain deems safe get past and the body relaxes; threatening situations are tagged “not on the list” and the body reacts to prevent them getting in.  Because this reaction needs to be a very rapid response, in survival situations most of this assessment is based on past experiences.  Like the bouncer’s list, situations are either on the list (safe) or not on the list (potentially dangerous).

In it’s origins, this threat assessment related primarily to physical danger.  As organisms became more complex and eventually developed social groups, potential threats to survival became more complex as well.  While they do not pose immediate physical threats, things like judgement and rejection have become very real fears that can elevate stress levels and activate the sympathetic nervous system.  When this system is activated, a number of physical effects are kicked off that can interfere with dancing.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Each time you start a dance with someone, your body goes through this threat assessment.  If you are well accustomed to dancing and the contact that goes with it, relatively sure of your partner’s skill to not injure you, etc. then dancing makes the “list” and you can relax into the experience.  For most advanced dancers, this assessment often happens so quickly that it can be easy to forget that it even happens.  However, if any of a number of factors are unfamiliar, the situation may be deemed “not on the list” and the body will respond by elevating stress levels and activating the sympathetic nervous system.

waking-the-tiger-healing-traumaWhile we typically know the sympathetic response as “fight or flight” there is a third option to the response, the “freeze” response described in the book Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine.  The freeze response can be useful in nature as a “play dead” reaction or going limp in the face of overwhelming trauma can sometimes help minimize otherwise catastrophic injuries.  In the dance world, I think the freeze response is highly prevalent in the form of reactions like the “deer in headlights” look or the “oh crap, someone better asked me to dance and I don’t want to screw up their cool moves” sorts of thinking.  I believe the freeze response is what many instructors are seeing when they ask students to relax.

The involvement of the sympathetic nervous system is one of the reasons that the oft-given “just relax” advice can be difficult to put into practice (more on that in another post).  If your mind/body views a situation as dangerous, it would be essentially an illogical move to relax into a dangerous situation.  Rather, the goal the I find works better is to find ways to rewrite the “list” so that the situation is no longer viewed as potentially threatening.  Simply being aware that you have the “freeze” reaction in dancing can help to calm it.  Bringing attention to the threat assessment stage helps you complete it rather than becoming stuck in a tense state.

Where I think many dancers find it difficult to relax is because they actually fail to recognize that they see a threat in the first place.  In the non-dancing world, the level of contact you have with the average dance partner (holding hands, 3+ minute extended contact, inside normal conversational range) would be reserved for extremely close friends or often exclusive to someone you are in a romantic relationship with.  Because a new or even experienced dancer may be unfamiliar with a partner or not used to the closeness, the nervous system may treat this extended close contact as a potential threat.  Or even if you are familiar with your dance partner and close contact, anxieties about potential judgement, rejection, or imperfection can easily cause the same subtle assumption of threat.

Redefining Boundaries

So how does one handle these assumed threats?  Simply put, by redefining how you think about them so that you can view them as safe rather than threatening.  The rules of contact, that may work in the social world, operate differently in the context of dance.  Where a stranger touching your back could be a danger signal on the street, dance (and respectful dance partners) provide a space you can use to redefine that contact as a safe form of touch.  When someone approaches or touches you in a dance and you notice yourself tensing, take a second and remind yourself that it is not causing you any immediate physical danger.  Actively recognizing that you are in a safe space will help your nervous system to stop reading contact in dance situations as dangerous.

Note that most people do not make this face when dancing with you

Note that most people do not make this face when dancing with you

In addition to changing your response to touch, it is equally important to redefine the social assumptions.  This can happen to dancers at any level, but I find many beginners tend to believe that people are judging them or dislike dancing with them.  The assumption that people are judging your dancing often makes people tense, rigid, and represses the joy in their dancing.  I find the simplest practice to change this is to reflect on whether or not you are judging other people.  Many of us assume we are being judged, yet when we think about it, we spend little to none of our time judging others while dancing.  You probably don’t spend entire dances rolling your eyes about your terrible dance partner, so why expect that your partner is rolling their eyes about you?  Recognizing that you don’t spend every dance constantly judging your partner is a good first step towards breaking the assumption that your dance partners are constantly judging you.

I think that for most people, the most effective way to deal with these stressors is to start by acknowledging them.  If you are aware that your sympathetic nervous system response is making you tense, you can take steps to shake it off and remodel your thinking to consider certain situations safer.  Being aware of these mechanisms can help all levels of dancers to better settle their fears and gain comfort and confidence in various dance (and other) situations.  While the strategies for building confidence are varied, I think the following video does a solid job of breaking down the general idea of stressors and how to change your thinking around it.

Starting with simple awareness of the sympathetic nervous system reaction can do a lot towards helping shift the reaction.  There is a lot more to be said about how to work with it further, but in the interest of keeping posts to a readable length, I’ll end here and write more about that in the next few weeks.

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