By Pamela Khim, GCFP
Many, many times during the 27 years of my Feldenkrais® practice, I’ve seen how people shed years while gaining comfort—when they learn it’s in their best interest to not constantly contract their abdominal muscles.
Shortly after starting my Feldenkrais practice in 1991, a retired eighty-year-old oncologist became my student because of his debilitating back pain and balance issues. For the first two sessions he would become markedly more comfortable while lying on my Feldenkrais table, but as soon as he stood up, he would return to his habit of contracting his abs to the max. His posture was curved forward, his back pain was present, and when he walked his balance was compromised.
The third session he discovered that if he allowed his abs to relax into lengthening instead of contracting, he could rearrange his posture from the bottom of his spine up. When he stood up, he was taller, had better balance, and was much more comfortable. He paused then said, “They don’t teach us this in medical school. You should write a book.”
Of course, it’s good to strengthen your abs, but does keeping your abdominal muscles continually tight help or hinder fluid, youthful, movement? Do the following experiments while sitting or while standing.
Tighten your abs (“draw your belly button back toward your spine”) and with your abs held tightly reach as far as you can with one arm.
Now, let your abs relax, and with that same arm, reach as far as you can.
Can you reach farther with your abs held tightly or with your abs relaxed?
Which way allows you to breathe more fully?
Imagine cooking or swimming or dancing or playing any sport with your abs contracted (when muscles contract they shorten). Is that familiar?
Now imagine doing one of those activities while allowing your abs to relax into lengthening so your torso can flexibly bend and twist.
Do you have no other choice than slouching when you let your abs relax?
Rest the back of one of your wrists against your lower back so that the back of that hand can rest against your sacrum (the solid part of your spine that is the center back of your skeletal pelvic bowl).
Intentionally slouch with your hand remaining there. Notice that when you slouch, the top of your sacrum tilts back and, because your sacrum is solid, when the top of your sacrum tilts back, your tailbone tucks forward.
Now, untuck your tailbone so that your sacrum is basically perpendicular to the ground. Did that lift you out of the slouch? This lift could be prevented by keeping your abs held tightly.
Tighten your abs, and notice this also tucks your tailbone. This is why when you crunch your abs for a sit-up, your tailbone and the top of your spine move forward.
Now, let your abs relax so that your skeletal pelvic bowl can support the entire length of your spine. Letting your abs relax does not mean push your belly forward—just relax so the abs can lengthen.
With your abs held tightly look around yourself; then with your abs relaxed and your pelvic bowl arranged so you’re tall, look around yourself. Notice how your ability to look around yourself is different.
Of course you need to use muscles to move; however, it’s muscular overkill that interferes. Much of the time it’s soft tissue—the muscles—that make movements look and feel stiff!
Walk across the room without intentionally tightening anywhere, with your abs relaxed into lengthening and your spine tall.
Now consciously make your muscles help you walk across the room.
Which way is actually more efficient as well as more comfortable?
Recently a strength-training coach asked me, “Well, what is the role of the core for walking, swimming, and cycling?” Movement is more powerful when it’s initiated from the center of the body out to the extremities; if the torso is on lockdown, that potential is stuck, so the extremities have to work extra hard. The torso needs its flexibility to propel movement out through the legs and arms.
Focus on the line of direction you want your bones to travel without preconceived ideas of what your muscles need to do, and your nervous system will kick in the exact muscles necessary for that movement—without unnecessary muscular restriction.
Instead of starting any movement by contracting your muscles, you could move with awareness of your skeletal map. It’s healthier— and more youthful!
Pamela Kihm, GCFP
You can get acquainted with your skeletal connections through Pamela’s books:
Stop Sciatica Now: Help Yourself Eliminate Back and Leg Pain
Relax Your Back with A Roller
Walking: Nature’s Perfect Exercise