How to guide effortless movement
This article gives a practical perspective based on interoceptive studies of body awareness and the polyvagal theory. It explores ways to assist clients in learning and deepening their sense of effortless movement. As professionals, we also teach presence by our body language. It is mirrored and revealed to the client's nervous system.
Muscle strengthening, stretching, mobility and cardiovascular performance are building blocks in musculoskeletal rehabilitation and sports. However, the biopsychosocial approach and cognitive functional therapy – which is becoming a gold standard in physiotherapy - challenges us to question the ways in which we guide movement. The guidelines invite us to move out of the disease-based model to encourage effortless ways to move. It also means that we might need to modify regular exercise texts to meet this understanding.
We all carry tensions in our body. They are often based on early childhood experiences, suppressed emotions and traumas. Our experiences live not only in the mind, but as habitual, unconscious holding patterns in the body. These patterns do not go away by strengthening or stretching the muscles, but by inhibiting certain muscles from firing together in myofascial chains. We are not doing trauma therapy or encouraging retelling traumatic stories. We are meeting the body as it appears in the moment.
When we go to our inner laboratory, we investigate tension patterns by body awareness, using interoception as a scientist. It is a moment-to-moment based science, scanning and exploration. We help the client to explore old tension patterns and see their habits of using the body in reactive ways. We also need to liberate our clients from guilt - there is nothing wrong with the contractions in the body; they are part of the human experience. Allowing the body to release its habits and tensions is a gradual process and takes time.
The inner game of movement – from mind thinking of the body to the body perceiving itself
"The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard." - Timothy Gallwey
In a classic athletic coaching 'bible', The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey helps players to learn a natural way to move. He introduces two 'selves' in us: Real self is entirely neutral, non-judgmental, a calm observer functioning effortlessly in reality. The other ‘self’ is a noisy inner critic, defensive, insecure, fearful and wanting. Critical thought limits body perceptions and body awareness. By not believing the inner critic, this separate self is put aside. That is where an intelligent game of the movement opens up. The stressful sympathetic nervous system shifts into parasympathetic flow, where free vagal conversation between the brain and the body is restored. In athletic language it is the body in ‘zone’, where intelligent movement happens automatically by intuition, using the senses and immediate bodily information. It takes time and practice for that skill to evolve. In everyday life it would be felt as ‘ease of movement’ with less defensive and reactive muscle tension and control.
Scanning the hiding places of the inner critic in the body increases body awareness
The inner critic lives as tensions in tissues, giving false information about the spine and joint positions, alignment and movement. It makes the body feel separate, as if it was under armor. It disrupts vagal conversation between the body and the brain. The observer-self faces tensions as neutral facts with curiosity. It allows the body to speak, align, move and heal at its own pace. This intelligent-self goes hand in hand with interoception and proprioception as immediate knowing. When aware sensing meets the tensions, relaxation happens automatically, and the tissues become alive and awaken. The body is memory and memory is chemistry. Through body awareness, the nervous system, with its chemistry, shifts to relaxation.
The typical hiding places for the inner critic are:
- Facial area; the whole face is a mask of layers of tensions, the eyes, the cheek, jaw area, forehead, lips, mouth and tongue (e.g. there are plenty of studies how jaw clenching has a negative effect on hand coordination, leg strength, breathing and balance)
- The throat and vocal muscles
- The neck
- The shoulder circle and the chest (main area of suppressed emotional tensions)
- Breathing muscles, diaphragm, intercostal muscles, abdominal muscles, holding the breath
- The muscles around the big joints, shoulders, hips (especially hip flexors), knees, ankles (ankle flexors)
- Muscles around the spine
- ‘Grasping’ muscles, e.g. finger and toe flexors
It is easy to test how the contraction in a single muscle group affects breathing.
Experiment: Clench your jaw and start feeling your body, sense what happens to your breathing and the aliveness in your feet and arms. Repeat without clenching and then clenching. That is an example of interoceptive knowing.
How to guide body awareness in movement?
We can use specific tricks, isolate certain muscles and use visualizations to disengage the "trauma muscle engagement" in the chain. The expressions of "widening through collar bones," and "lengthening through hips" start to make sense. Guiding the movement through bones instead of contracting the muscles breaks the engagements and inhibits unnecessary muscle tension. Yoga, Pilates, and Qigong are based on this understanding and we can use cues from them:
- Guiding to ‘widen through collar bones’ prevents closing the chest and overactivity of the pectoral muscles. Also, the shoulder joints are liberated from the cage.
- ‘Maintain the width through your chest and upper back’ helps the rib joints, thoracic spine and shoulder blades to align naturally without unnecessary closing of the chest or putting extra tension on the upper back muscles, rib joints or spine. Rib joints are highly innervated by sympathetic nerve ganglia and easily engage in stress-based patterns.
- In closed-chain shoulder exercises ‘pressing the hands through the floor’ takes off unnecessary compression from wrist joints, inhibits the ‘grasping’ tendency of the fingers and helps balanced and natural muscle chain activity.
- ‘Maintain the width of your lower ribs’ prevents integrating holding pattern activation in the diaphragm, intercostal muscles, back and abdominal muscles.
- ‘Lengthen through your hip joints’ helps to disengage the superficial hip flexors and frees the hip joint.
- When curling the back from forward bending, ‘press through your feet and imagine a balloon lifting your spine into the upright position’ prevents protective contraction of the back muscles.
- ‘Allow your breath to flow with ease’, ‘Feel your breath going effortlessly into your lower belly’, ‘Feel your breath broadening your mid and lower back’. Using breath together with awareness is key to relaxation and effortless movement.
Disengaging the breathing muscles can be done in many ways. Just being aware of the habit of holding the breath in daily life is effective. There are also effective yoga techniques like Uddiyana Bandha to isolate the diaphragm, intercostal muscles and abdominal muscles.
Effortless does not mean sluggish, we can still be firm with the technical skills.
Finding the effortless vertical spine
We have learned the mantra ‘the next posture is the best posture’, which has helped clients to not hold a rigid posture. At the same time, we may have ‘thrown the baby out with the bathwater’ and ignored learning an important skill to find an effortless vertical spine. The effortless vertical spine is a body-awareness practice, where the spine learns to align itself through interoception and gravitational and centrifugal forces. It takes time to develop the skill to effortlessly stand and sit. We learn to sense how the body is always in movement and aware of itself.
Exploration of the spine in lying
- ‘Lie on your back, scan your body parts by sensing them’
- ‘Feel the ground beneath you and allow the weight of the back and the pelvis and the whole body to melt into the ground ’
- ‘Imagine space between the vertebrae’
- ‘Visualize the top of your head reaching towards the wall’
- ‘Feel your natural breathing’
This should become a daily practice.
Facilitating effortless vertical spine in sitting
- ‘Feel your sitting bones grounded on the seat. Feel your feet on the floor, feel the ground supporting the feet. Place the weight of your pelvis on the chair and surrender your lower legs to the ground. At the same time, feel an energetic lift from your pubic bone towards your chin (helpful, if there is strong extension tone). Your head is like a balloon, floating freely. Your neck is free and open.’
Note: Effortless does not exclude functional muscle tone to maintain upright position. Gentle tactile help is recommended in the beginning, if the interoceptive sense of the spine and pelvis position is limited.
Facilitating effortless vertical spine in standing
- ‘Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Feel your feet on the ground, letting the ground take your weight. Take time to feel the connection as deep as you can.’ Finding the sense of ‘force of gravity’ through the feet is a prerequisite for the pelvis to find its natural alignment. The pelvis becomes like a pool, freeing the hips and ankles. When the feet and pelvis have found their balance, the spine is aligned naturally.
- ‘Visualize space between the vertebrae. Feel an energetic line between the pubic bone and the chin. Feel the top of the head reaching effortlessly towards the ceiling. Feel how your breath flows freely into your lower belly, back and sides of your torso.’
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Cross your arms with hands touching your shoulders. First find the effortless spine as explained above. Slowly allow your spine to rotate to the right while keeping your pelvis pointing forward. Return. Repeat to the other side. Feel your breathing. Then try a small upper neck extension and feel how it affects the thoracic spine range-of-motion. Move your chin forward a little. Then rotate your spine to the right and to the left. Feel your breath. Then try flexing your hips slightly and repeat the experiment. Do not judge anything as good or bad, just feel and observe.
Is there place for movement control?
‘When you take a taxi to the party and you’ve arrived, you don’t carry the driver with you.’
In habitual movement patterns, we see specific muscles that are not awake or active and have lost their normal tone. They are numb, deprived of the interoception. If a certain muscle is not recruited by guiding the alignment, we can use more proactive ways. We can facilitate the muscle to find its automatic innervation. When guiding isolated muscle activation, we teach the client to let the other muscles and body parts be free. We guide to let the breath flow freely. The isolated muscle activations are not meant to be carried on as voluntary tension throughout the day. On the contrary, they are meant to work like a magic wand, to invite the muscles to awareness, to awaken the interoception. The automatic activation is recovered without further need of a separate controller.
Own and enjoy your game
You can use your own vivid visualizations or metaphors to invoke your client’s body sensing, and save your own instructional texts in Physiotools. You can also find more exercise instruction examples for effortless movement from Physiotools and learn from our authors Jane Patterson, Joanne Elphinston, and Claire Sanderson. Keep in mind that simple strengthening, mobility, and stretching instructions are still useful and have their place, depending on the client’s needs.
This article has been written by Hilkka Virtapohja. Hilkka is an experienced physiotherapist who specialises in therapeutic training. She aims to provide her clients with tools to enhance their body awareness, prevent injuries and support the natural healing process. Hilkka has worked for many years in prevention and rehabilitation of sports injuries.
A new template available in Physiotools
Hilkka has created a new Physiotools template ‘Effortlessly Aligned Spine - Body Awareness Exercises’ that is available for all Physiotools users. To view the template, go to the Physiotools Online Exercises page, select Templates and type the template name in the Free text search.
Gallwey Timothy. The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. 1972
De Jong M et al. Effects of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy on Body Awareness in Patients with Chronic Pain and Comorbid Depression. Frontiers in Psychology 2016:7:967
Van der Kolk Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. 2014
Payne P, Levine P, Crane-Gordeau M. Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Frontiers of Psychology 2015:2
Craig A.D (Bud). How Do You Feel? An Interoceptive Moment with Your Neurobiological Self. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2015