By Molly Tipping, GCFPCM
“I feel grounded!”
The words spontaneously tumble out from the mouths of my students and clients as they stand after a Feldenkrais session.
For some it sounds as if they are connecting with a warm familiar feeling, for others it’s like a reuniting with something precious they’d forgotten they’d lost, and for a few it’s tinged with forlorn musings as they follow up with the question; “Is this what I’m meant to feel like?!”
Feeling grounded is something Feldenkrais students, clients and practitioners know intimately and for me personally this sensorial embodiment remains one of the most delightful gifts I have been given of this method.
But in my years of teaching I have also found that many people are using the word grounding as if it is a verb, as if it is something they need to actively do. And for some it’s a long to do list – “Soften the knees, press the big toes into the ground, feel your feet like tree roots sinking deep into the earth, tilt the pubic bone up, engage the abdominals, put a hand on your heart and say the words ‘I am open. I am receptive.’”
But grounding need not be a to-do list, it need not be a series of precisely controlled actions, and it definitely need not be a prefrontal cortical activity.
Because grounding is simply the truth of being a human being on planet earth.
Grounding is a noun. It simply is. Because whether we want it or not, we are grounded, it is an undeniable truth – we can not not be grounded (unless of course you’re the richest person on earth… or a guy named Mark ;))
However, there is a quality of grounding that is very unique to Feldenkrais teachings.
What is still wonderous to me however is that in doing small, attentive, at times peculiar movements, when I stand up I feel my feet solidly on the ground, and I feel genuinely present in my body and connected to the world with a human fleshiness that is both comforting and delicious.
So what is going on?!
How is it that this feeling of embodiment was not my normal state prior to discovering the Feldenkrais Method – particularly given it truly is just what is?
And how is it that in increasing my sense of feeling grounded I feel more relaxed and more comfortable in my skin?
Let’s go adventuring together, and ramble through some of the scientific and the esoteric…
In a 2018 study conducted by Matthias Brummer, Harald Walach and Stefan Schmidt, participants were given a private hands-on session, known as Functional Integration® sessions, to measure if this kinaesthetic experience of feeling more contact with the ground could be objectively confirmed. Amazingly what they found was that it is “visible through a larger area covered by the body and higher pressure, objectively measur(able)” meaning “this subjective feeling can be objectively confirmed(!!)”
They found that in all participants there was a measurable difference in how much they were in contact with the ground as monitored by a pressure sensor pad.
One of the main premises of this study is “that the gentle movements of Functional Integration in fact relax muscle groups and the body over time” resulting in an quantifiable increase in the resting pressure of the person’s body on the bed. And what they concluded was that changes in the “muscle tone lead to a more relaxed supine position” concluding that “Feldenkrais Functional Integration indeed relaxes the body.”
Now, this study focused on Functional Integration but the experience we have in group classes is almost identical. While we don’t tend to use the word relaxation as Feldenkrais teachers, it is what our students say and in reality it is how I feel too. Now that relaxing feeling comes because habitual muscular tension is reduced and with that an increased experience of being more supported by the ground. This physiological experience is what we associate with feeling relaxed and grounded.
But the physiological experience an interesting psychological consequence because that sense of relaxation and groundedness quietens the nervous system and leads to a feeling of quiet, calm, steadiness and ease. We are left with feeling comfortable in our own skin as if it is just simply easier to be us.
But the thing I want to linger with, before I dive into a rabbit hole of psychosomatics, is how muscle tension and contact with the floor are intimately linked. People come to Feldenkrais with complaints of sore shoulders, clenching jaw, tired eyes, tense bellies, etc but what we don’t always recognise is that this increased tension is linked with being less in contact with the ground. When through the session tension is reduced they come to rest more fully on the Feldenkrais table, their ability to give weight to it increases, and this further enhances their ability to relax as they have a trusted surface they can connect with. When we can relinquish the effort of holding ourselves up, we are able to give our weight to the earth which in turn allows us to relax even more as we feel the support of earth embracing us. It becomes a cycle in the best way!
This study also shows how reduced tension is linked with increased surface contact and that Feldenkrais lessons literally increase our capacity to feel grounded. We recognize that increased muscle tension and high muscle tone are linked with feeling stressed, being busy, and feeling anxious. BY reducing muscle tension and increasing our capacity to be in contact with the earth we serendipitously increase our capacity to reduce stress, busyness and anxiety. Now that’s a bonus!
Muscles work ‘against’ gravity to provide lift and erectness to our body. But for many this lift and uprightness is an overly effortful experience. We hold ourselves up even when we feel we’d rather just have a rest. Or we keep our chins up in the face of conflict and keep on keeping on. Sometimes we are simply busy rushing about from one thing to the next. It’s as if our feet are skimming across the earth.
We often go well beyond true vertical and over-correct our posture to the point of being minutely off balance. As we become used to the experience of our version of vertical or upright – perhaps a little more forward and upward – we clock the shape as where we are meant to be and the experience of tension associated as normal.
I work with ballet dancers, stage actors and soloist singers and finding their centre is essential to their ease, execution and artistry. But like many, their sense of the vertical is very often compromised to bolster their anxiety, or to give an air of levity to their performance.
But it is, as Moshe would call it, a ‘false vertical’ – and a tiring one at that.
Sometimes we are overly upright – chest forward, head forward, weight on the toes. Other times we get overly focused on our core and our belly is contracted, pelvis tucked under and the weight is back in our heels. Somewhere in our youth we have been given ideas of how we should sit up straight, how we should hold ourselves so as to abate the anxiety in others, so as to get ahead in the difficult world we have been born into, so as to present well for a future lover. But it’s tiring and in straining for something that can be simple we do not allow ourselves to be supported by the very parts of ourselves so perfectly designed to take our load, the bones.
Bones cost little to use. They demand virtually no glucose to do their job so when we give our weight to our bones, which act as a conduit to the earth, we can be sure we are over our base of support, on our axis and centered.
This connection to the bones, base of support, axis and center is intrinsic to finding a more true vertical.
When we are young we are cradled in the arms of our parents, and we surrender to the pull of gravity upon our mass while being held in a loving embrace. When we came to rest our little bodies upon the earth as Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen so eloquently notes “we magnetize to the earth.” And this meeting, this bonding with the earth’s surface is something that supports us through our entire lives. The baby’s experience is one of being with gravity, being with the earth, of simply being earth and gravity for in our beginnings we make no distinction from it – we are our environment. As we grow we start to gain command of our muscles and begin to push against the earth slowly learning to apply force along the bones toward the earth so we can move away from it, across it, into it, and in concert with it.
We develop our muscular coordination through instinct, necessity and curiosity. But unlike animals who use more evolutionarily instinctive movements and who have a more ‘pure’ conversation with gravity, ground, bones, joints and muscles, we find over time our posture, gait and locomotion no longer simply respond to the biological and biomechanical laws of our planet but to the social constraints, demands and necessities of culture.
Rather than being in a living intimate conversation with gravity, ground and body we make a puppet of ourselves, dancing to the rules from a hundred, a thousand years before. This puppeteering, this unnecessary effort, this tugging is the very thing that makes us forget our ground.
And what I sense in myself and see in my clinic is that some people are bound with so many strings, added slowly over years of obligation and conformity, exponentially following more and more directives, slowly giving up resting with and communing with earth, with nature, with true simple ordinary self, playfulness, whimsy, love and frolicking.
In the story of Pinocchio reverses this gradual adding of strings. The cutting of his strings allowed him to begin his journey toward maturation, albeit with the necessary pitfalls of true learning.Through his learning and as he connected with earthly feelings of tenderness, companionship, and love Pinocchio gets his wish to feel the delight of flesh, weight and earth, and becomes real.
Perhaps we need to remember we are real. We are on this earth. We are living breathing beings.
Cut those strings, find yourself grounded and then learn how to move your own body your way.
And so to finish. I offer a simple awareness task.
Could you sense as you sit here the strings that are tugging at you, the thoughts that are your tensions that pull you off your centre. Imagine, sense, locate, remember your bones. And feel how you can adjust your sitting so you find yourself balanced over your base, be it your bum or your feet. Not forward, not back, not left, not right, not up, just here. Resting on the earth.
What thoughts, struggles, yearnings, orders, obligations, tensions, strings you are willing to slacken, to give up, to snip and to let go of?
And who do you find sitting here when you give that all up?
Who is the quite fleshy you that rests here?
Being grounded is not something you have to do simply something to remember.
You are sitting, standing and resting on the earth whether you want to be or not. YOU ARE GROUNDED! You have no choice not to be.
If your grounding techniques include a long list of to do’s like “soften the knees, press the big toes into the ground like a tree root, tilt the pubic bone up, engage the abdominals, put a hand on your heart and think “I am open. I am receptive.” You are working too hard. Grounding should not be a prefrontal activity. It’s simply is the truth of being a human being on planet earth.
What a relief!”
If there is anything we can do to improve our experience of grounding it is noticing the tensions, the thoughts, the invisible obligatory strings that are keeping us suspended. And it is choosing to give up the pull of to do lists and niceties, to let those overly tense muscles give their weight rightfully back to the bones and to the earth that are so perfectly designed to take weight.
When I ask my clients this after their sessions. They answer “Seriousness” “Pushing myself”, “Shoulds”, “Being critical”, “Mrs Do”
Grounding is being of the earth. Grounding is being here. With no orders to follow, or even lofty ambitious dreams to pursue. It is living this ordinary life.
Molly Tipping’s work with Anxiety spans the subtle needs of trauma sensitive clients to the competitive needs of the performer and athlete. Molly runs a busy private practice seeing clients with complex emotional experiences and lectures at Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts. She supports dancers, actors, musicians, and singers. Molly was working with the Australian Olympic Skateboarding Team for Tokyo 2021 – until COVID19 put an end to that. Her website is tippingmotion.com.au