Movement Exploration Part 1: Uncovering Habits
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Welcome to Episode #2 of Beating Chronic Pain - a podcast that helps you get unstuck from Chronic pain and back to living your life again with ease and comfort.
I’m your host Tom Wilson and I’m so glad you’re here because today we’re starting a series on movement exploration. In the last episode we spoke about the way that your brain is wired for safety. It’s primary purpose is to keep you safe. It does this by creating pain signals if necessary to make sure you pay attention and get out of danger. Now it just so happens us humans are pretty good at learning things and unfortunately for us, that also includes pain. Pain can become a learned behaviour. Your brain can become hyper vigilant, like an over-protective mother, and get stuck in the habit of producing pain. We also spoke of the role of movement in maintaining pain. Whether it’s a compensation like a limp or some other kind of inefficient movement habit, these are a factor in adding stress on your body… which your brain perceives as a threat.
I shared a little of my story about the way that one of my feet moved very differently while I was walking compared to the other foot. And this had a ripple effect of tension throughout my knee, hip and torso. This tension was one of the factors that was keeping my chronic pain in place. My brain perceived this as a threat and kept producing pain signals. Once I found the habit, I could then begin to change it. Now let that sink in, it’s an important point. The only reason I was able to change that movement habit was because I found it in the first place. I had to work like an archaeologist, carefully and systematically digging through the soil of my movement and uncovering hidden treasures which are my personal movement habits and then painstakingly cleaning away the dirt until they are in full view. The truth is, the asymmetrical way I walked wasn’t obvious at all to me. It just felt normal. But once I started paying close attention to HOW I moved, it became clear that something was unbalanced. The more I paid attention, the clearer I could notice it. Now that type information, my friends, is precious. That information is what allowed me to start making long-lasting changes that got me out of chronic pain for good. It wasn’t my only poor habit, but once I started exploring in this way, things really began to change for me.
If you have been in pain for a while now, then you also have movement habits which are not helping you, just like I did. These will be keeping your brain in high alert mode
What I want to share with you are the fundamental steps so you can begin helping yourself. I want to teach you how to explore your movement habits in a way that builds deep self-awareness. This is a brain-friendly approach that leads only one way...towards greater ease, comfort and joy in your life. The pain will just fade away over time.
Now I know that this might seem a little bit abstract right now. I promise that things will get more concrete as we go through the episodes, but I just want to build some basic understanding first that will be useful later on. So today, I’m going to talk with you about step 1 which is uncovering your movement habits. Or put another way, building awareness of how you do what you do.
Lets begin with some stories...
I remember when I was around 17 years old at high school a man came into my classroom during Physical education class. He stood there confidently at the front of the class room and tipped a box of several hundred tennis balls onto the floor. Then he started flicking them down the back of the room with his foot and generally spreading them throughout the space. I remember feeling quite intrigued and excited. It was quite an unusual situation - most teachers seemed quite formal and restricted. He on the other hand seemed casual and playful. He knew he was creating chaos in the room and he seemed to like it that way. Me and the rest of my buddies thought this was great. It was a welcome relief from the monotony of normal school life. So we enthusiastically joined him in sending balls careening around the classroom.
This man then told me and my fellow students to pick up a ball each. Then he said to start throwing it from one hand to the other. Back and forth. Back and forth. After a minute or so, he told us to pick up a second ball. The new task was to start throwing the ball from the left hand to the right hand. And while it was still in the air, throw the one from the right hand over to the left hand. So the balls were swapping back and forth mid air. This was obviously a little more difficult, but he kept saying to just pick up the balls if you drop them and start again.
After several more minutes of this he said to pick up a third ball. He then explained the basics of juggling and he told us that by the end of the class we would all be able to juggle. So we kept on trying this, dropping balls all over the place, but picking them up and trying again.
I was surprised at how quickly I improved at this process. By the end of the class I WAS juggling and I felt really happy about it.
Now the reason for this demonstration was actually to explain about different stages of the learning process. You may have heard of these before. In the beginning there’s what’s called “unconscious incompetence”. This is the stage when you don’t even know that you don’t know how to do something. For people who had never even tried juggling before they didn’t know how incompetent they were at it. For me, I had already been through this stage. My grandfather had taken me to circus school a couple of times when I was a kid and I had tried juggling there. He also gave me some juggling balls to keep and play with. Now I didn’t stick with the process much, but I had already passed through the first stage. The next stage is called conscious incompetence. This is where we started to notice how unskilled we were. We were paying attention to things like the timing of the balls and difficulty of getting that right. If you mess it up, the balls hit each other in mid air. Or perhaps the difficulty in throwing the balls in a vertical plane instead of throwing them a little forwards and having to chase after them. This stage feels hard because there are so many new things and they all require attention. The third stage is conscious competence. This is where you still have to concentrate and pay attention closely, but your ability has improved to the point where you’re actually able to achieve your goal. It’s the stage where if you concentrate just right you can get the timing of the balls right, focus in the right place with your eyes, throw the balls in the vertical plane and still breathe at the same time. I would say that I achieved somewhere between the second and third stage during that class. The fourth and final stage is called unconscious competence and that’s where you don’t have to think about what you’re doing anymore and you’ve achieved the ability to do the thing with ease. This is what you see in experienced jugglers who can walk around juggling and they can talk to other people, add other objects into their juggling or start playing with different patterns or more balls.
The reason I’m telling you this story is because this is the process we all go through with our movement. As babies we start off being these blobs that lie around all day playing with our bodies and moving through these stages of learning. When we are newborns we can’t even conceive that our bodies can walk. By the time we’re attempting our first steps we are in the second stage. We are conscious of what we’re attempting to do but we can’t manage to make it all come together yet. We’re trying to copy adults or perhaps an older sibling who has nailed the walking thing. By the time we’re toddlers we enter the 3rd stage. We start to get the hang of walking. It is still a little wobbly, but if we are focussed we can make it happen. Eventually we get to the final stage where we can walk and don’t even need to think about it anymore.
We have all been through this process many times over. For every movement skill we have learned in life we have gone through this process.
Now you may notice that by the fourth stage of learning the skill becomes unconscious again. This is an important point. It means that we have a lot of movements that we do which are unconscious. Meaning they are habitual and that our brain has learned the pattern of how to move and has put it on auto pilot. If I need to reach something on the top shelf in my kitchen I don’t need to consciously think - I need to shift my weight to my left foot, tilt my pelvis to one side, expand my ribs on one side, raise my scapula and lengthen my elbow, extend my fingers. Nope, we just do the movement. We did all the hard work exploring and trial and error when we were kids and now we benefit from that skill. We can do complex things without even struggling or devoting much brain power to them.
The reason that this is significant is because it means we can move in ways that are causing us pain and were not even conscious of it. It’s like I explained about my foot earlier. I didn’t even notice the difference between my left and right. The movement was unconscious and therefore impossible for me to change. It was only once I started making the process of how I moved conscious again that I was able to do something about it. It’s the downside of the incredible learning ability that we have as humans. Our brain eventually puts things on autopilot and then we can’t even see what we’re doing anymore even if it’s causing us pain!
Luckily for us though, we can also use our brains to unravel this sticky situation.`
Many years ago I went and did a vipassana meditation course. Now if you haven’t heard of that before, it is a meditation retreat which is not for the faint of heart. This is like army bootcamp style meditation. The course was 10 days long and we sat in stillness and silence for nearly 11 hours of meditation each day. There was no talking, no bodily contact, no looking at each other, no reading, no writing, no sexual activity, no drugs, and (gasp)... no dinner! We started at 4am each morning and finished at 9:30pm each evening. It was one of the most challenging experiences in terms of strength of mind I have ever been through in my life.
Now the meditation was all about harnessing your attention and placing it on different parts of your body. For the first 2 or 3 days the instruction was to just pay attention to the feeling in your upper lip, just below your nostrils. By the end of the 10 days the meditation had changed to sweeping your awareness across your whole body, starting at the top of your head and moving all the way down to your toes. One of the things I noticed during this practice was that some areas of my body felt dead or numb, while others felt alive and full of sensation. I noticed in particular that much of my back was difficult to feel while areas like my hands for example were much easier.
I later learned during the course of my feldenkrais training that there is a neurological reason for this. Our brain creates maps of our body which gives it information about how it moves and functions. It just so happens that in these maps there are much larger brain areas dedicated to places like your hands, than places like your back. And when it comes to movement, you are able to control your hands with much greater finesse than you can your shoulderblade for example. The amount of information we have in the maps about a particular body part, determines our ability to move it with control and skill.
If for some reason I happened to lose both of my hands in an accident I would likely have to start using my feet for doing the things that my hands used to do for me. My brain would begin to dedicate more resources to expanding the maps of my feet so I can use them better. I would have to go through a learning process where I pay attention to how to grip things skillfully with my toes. This paying attention feeds my brain information which is then used to update the maps. Now that is a big hint for you to know what is coming in future with these podcasts. The truth is these maps are always being updated based on the sensory input we give them. Feeding your brain information through your senses is crucial to getting out of pain.
Now when it comes to the way that chronic pain affects these maps things get very interesting. It’s like being at a loud nightclub and trying to have a conversation with someone. You have to shout at them just so they can hear you above the music. The music is sometimes so loud that messages get lost or muddled. Chronic pain is like loud music. It tends to drown out any other sensations in the area. Which means if you’ve got a knee which has been in pain for a long time, then all of the other sensory information which would normally be sent to your brain is no longer heard. This makes it very difficult to have accurate maps of your body. Chronic pain tends to diminish maps, making it harder to feel accurately. It interferes with your coordination and makes it difficult to move skillfully.
Another way these maps can be muddled is through lack of movement. If I walk everywhere wearing solid boots then the joints of my feet are inhibited from moving to their full capacity. They are almost always in a fixed position. My brain then starts to interpret the information coming up from my feet that this is how a foot works. The range of what is possible in my foot begins to shrink. Even if I then take my boots off, my feet still move as though they have boots on and all the thousands of possibilities of those joints are never expressed because my brain doesn’t have accurate information about my feet.
While pain and lack of movement do affect our maps. An even deeper and more widespread truth is that many of us have never really paid much attention to improving our movement beyond basic competence. We’ve only ever learned movement to a level that allows us to get by. After childhood, most of us stopped exploring our bodies. We just use them as ways to get around and do the things we need to do as adults. I would argue that this is an enormous cause of chronic pain. We aren’t aware of ourselves. We’ve stopped playing with our bodies and our movement, like what you see children do.
So lets do a quick recap before we shift gears into what we can do about this situation. We know that us humans go through different stages whenever we’re learning movement. We go through a process where we have to dedicate our attention to what we’re doing in order to learn something. But once we’ve become familiar enough with the skill, it gets shifted to autopilot and we can use our attention for other things. We know that we have brain maps which help us know how to use the different parts of our bodies. They are updated through the learning process by paying attention to what we’re doing. We also know that chronic pain, lack of movement and settling for basic competency instead of continued play and exploration are all reasons why our maps can become distorted or outdated - this results in poor movement quality. It results in a descending spiral of chronic pain. And since most of our movement is now on autopilot - or in other words, habitual - it means that the quality of movement is beneath our conscious awareness. We don’t even notice when something is a little off or unbalanced.
So now I’d love to share about what we can actually do about this… The title of this episode is uncover your movement habits to change pain. And that’s exactly what it’s all about.
The only way we can change some of those habitual movements is to first become aware of exactly what we’re doing. We need to bring those habits into the foreground again so that we can decide if they are still helpful. This is the same for any change in life. You need to know exactly where you are at right now to get feedback about where to go next. If you’re following a recipe that requires 100g of flour how do you make sure you get 100g in the bowl? Well you put the bowl on the scales and you pour some flour in. It will then give you feedback about where you are. If you’re at 68g then you know you need to add a bit more. If you’re already at 120g you know you need to take some out. Knowing where you’re at is crucial information which helps you adjust and change.
When it comes to movement we have to use our built-in senses in place of the scales. That is, our kinesthetic sense. You can ask yourself questions about how you move to get the feedback that you need. If you’re walking down the road what can you feel about the way you walk? Which direction does your right shoulder move in when your step onto your right foot? How about the other shoulder? How does the shape of your spine change as you walk? Is it symmetrical?
These questions are all invitations for exploring yourself in a sensory way. They feed information into your brain which then updates your maps and starts to improve the way you move.
What is the timing of your breath cycle? Which parts can you feel move when you breathe? Which parts are staying still? Which part moves first when you inhale?
With our kinesthetic senses we can layer in more and more information to make our maps richer and more detailed.
So what does this look like in real life? Do I expect that if you ask yourself a bunch of uncommon questions like these it is going to get you out of pain? Not necessarily.
Archaeologists who make their biggest discoveries probably don’t just go out into their back-yard and start digging for dinosaur bones. What is the likelihood that of all the places on earth, there’s going to be one in their back yard? Instead they increase their chances by scanning for areas that are more likely to hold value for them. They use tools like GPS and ground penetrating radar to find out where to dig before they dig. It is a similar story with these questions...How are you supposed to know which questions are the most important ones? There are potentially billions of different enquiries you could be making of your body. But some are more likely to hold the treasure we’re after. Now I’m not suggesting you don’t bother asking questions. Please do. Start to notice how you do the things you do. See if you can find out something new about yourself. But just know that in order to really find the best treasures there are some skills you’ll need to develop first. Some of these skills help you supercharge your senses so that you can feel much more than usual. Other skills help to hide your strengths so that your weaknesses shine through and become plain to see. Still other skills lead you to places where you know there are going to be treasures every single time you search.
I will cover these and many more skills in upcoming episodes. But for now, I just want you to know that this fundamental step to breaking chronic pain, which is uncovering your movement habits - requires you to use your senses. You need to learn how to feel again. Deeper than you’ve ever felt before - at least in your adult life.
In the next episode we’ll be continuing our discussion on movement exploration. We’ll begin talking about the next step which is updating those habits of movement. This is where we take our movement habits which we’ve started to uncover and we begin to make changes to them so that our brain can help us to move more efficiently, more safely and with less pain. The downward spiral begins to unwind and reverse direction.
Thankyou for joining me today during this episode and I look forward to speaking with you again for the second part of our movement exploration series.
If you’ve found this episode valuable I would appreciate it if you can share it with someone else you know who struggles with chronic pain. Also, rating and subscribing is a great support too!
Thankyou and bye for now.