Thanks! That wasn’t necessary! Unlearning movement habits

Girl playing pool

I spend my days working with muscular habits – my own and with my clients.  This week in my Vitamin MM Mindful Movement class online, we focused on the habits in how we use our eyes.  As I dig more and more into the neuroscience of movement, I find that our movement has more embedded in it than we typically think.   We tend to think about how we use our eyes in terms of vision and seeing.  In our class this week we dove into a learning experience in how we use our eyes to locate ourselves in space.  Our eyes are connected to centers in our brain, providing sensory information through light, making sense of what we see.  They are also connected to the center in our brain that creates our sense of spatial awareness, feeding information to help us locate ourselves and our movement through space.  We use our eyes to see and we use them to create our sense of space around us and through this spatial sensing, our sense of balance.

I often talk about the muscular habits of how we try hard.  Sometimes that can mean trying hard with smaller muscles like the ones in our hands and wrists to grasp and lift something rather than coordinating bigger muscles in our pelvis, torso and arms to do the heavy work.  Changing this kind of trying hard is an up-leveling of body mechanics so you use the big parts of you to do the big work and the smaller parts of you to do more delicate, dexterous work.

The kind of trying hard I want to focus on here is when we tighten up muscles that are not necessary to achieve a task.  I think my favorite version of this is how my tongue helps out.  When I am baking and I pour liquid into a measuring cup and want to be hyper-accurate, my tongue sticks out of the side of my mouth.  Helpful?  Not at all.  The habit for me seems to be related more to my desire to be hyper-accurate than to the actual task of pouring liquid into a measuring cup.  I can stop this habit but often when I focus hard on how accurate I am in pouring, my tongue just pops out to support my intention.

Turns out there is a name for this habit of unnecessary efforts when performing a task; dysponesis, originally labeled by George Whatmore and Daniel Kohli in 1974.  Based on the Greek, “dys” meaning  bad and “ponos” meaning effort, work or energy.  The term is typically used to refer to unnecessary or excessive tightening of muscles to perform a specific task.

I helped a friend move recently and faced a situation where I tightened my muscles unnecessarily several times.  Each time I lifted a box, I wasn’t sure how heavy it was.  If the box was labelled books, I noticed that I tensed up more to lift it, often tensing too much and sometimes not enough to successfully lift the box on the first try.  She had a grand wooden semi-circular desk – as I prepared to lift it with another person, it turned out to be shockingly lighter than it looked – my unnecessary effort meant the desk shot up above waist height before I stopped over-lifting.

So dysponesis can affect the accuracy of your movement as you interact with objects or people in your environment.  How much effort do you really need to write?  Or drive?

But that isn’t as important as how dysponesis can impact your health.  A more harmful hidden habit is how we unconsciously brace or tighten our muscles in all of our movements.  This is part of the long slow learning process in Tai Chi; sensing and then learning to release this ongoing hidden habit of moving with unnecessary effort.  It’s why standing meditation practice is a long-term study.  To practice daily how to notice and release the unnecessary effort of standing and to bring that releasing process into the movements of stepping, pushing, blocking, etc. within the Tai Chi form and eventually into every day movement.

Let’s look at this in terms of our most consistent movement – breathing.  When you inhale, notice what moves.  It is likely in this moment of inhale, that you are holding tension that impacts your inhalation.  Notice if your ribs under your armpits expand when you inhale.  If you tend to sit or stand with a slightly rolled forward posture, your upper ribs closest to your collarbone, are more likely to be held still, in service of holding up the weight of your head and neck.  They are less likely to be freely available to move so that your upper lungs can inflate fully with air.   It is a hidden muscular habit that directly impacts how deeply you breathe in, each time you breathe.

From a Feldenkrais perspective, this is called cross-motivation.  The muscles surrounding your top ribs are used in service of holding you in a slightly stooped forward posture upright.  They are not available to be used in service of your breathing.

It creates cost-benefit situation in terms of how you function.

This hidden muscular habit keeps you upright (benefit) but the cost comes in terms of taking in less air than you could.  Breath after breath you pay this cost in this most basic of health promoting movements.  Dysponesis contributes to the creation and maintenance of many conditions, like high blood pressure, anxiety or asthma.  Reducing this hidden unnecessary effort can support reducing the impact of these same illnesses.  The cost of hidden muscular habits becomes more pronounced when you have a health condition that raises the cost – COPD, severe asthma.  This hidden movement habit starts to become one that takes a toll on our cardiovascular system, our respiratory system, our digestive systems.  The good news is that we can discover and reverse these unconscious movement habits to reduce their cost and increase the health benefits of breathing and all of our movement.

Santa Clause with elves

I like to think about my tongue and other unconscious movement habits as little helpers.  Like Santa’s elves, they are busy at work, helping me move through each day.  Learning to interrupt their helping ways is like saying, “Thanks! That wasn’t necessary!”.

You can learn more about my Vitamin MM Mindful Movement class