Stephen Opper

B.A., NCLMBT #2955

Stephen Opper practices Structural Bodywork, and teaches Therapeutic, and Natural Movement Systems in Asheville, North Carolina

Lessons from a disc injury, part 2: Abdominal bracing and The Mudskipper

Abdominal guarding after injury

            One of the surprising effects of having a Lumbar disk injury was my unconscious, automatic guarding of my entire abdominal musculature.  In the acute phase, this was a desperate attempt on the part of my body to keep pressure off of the bulging disk and reduce the pain of the injury.  Keeping enough engagement through the abdomen, especially the transverse abdominal muscle, became a constant meditation, particularly while sitting and driving --once those became possible again (6 weeks).   Attempts to soften my belly caused an immediate increase in back pain, which convinced me of the soundness of my strategy-   this abdominal bracing served to transfer stress away from my back, maintain a lordosis in my spine, and provide active decompression of my vertebrae. I will explore these critical points later in depth.

          In some schools of thought this ‘guarding’ might be a no brainer.  For weightlifters, it is a standard practice to create a rigid cylinder through the abdomen, as a means of spinal bracing and support. Pilates and some schools of martial arts and qi-gong adopt this same approach. However, in the soft styles of movement and martial arts in which I specialize, excess tension is one of the primary elements we train to get rid of in ourselves and exploit in our opponents. Years of performing bodywork, where my primary tool was helping others to release chronically contracted muscles that were causing pain and bone misalignments, had added to my disdain for tension.  But there is too much of a good thing, and in this case too much relaxation is “collapsing”.  If abdominal guarding served to protect my back, the converse meant that my training and efforts to eliminate tension in my belly had actually increased the compression in my back! How could I have been so wrong? My constant practice of releasing tension had produced numerous benefits for both martial arts and healing purposes, including increased sensitivity, perception, fluidity, efficiency, and a general sense of calm. It had decreased learning time for all kinesthetic skills, and had taught me to constantly reference the line of gravity through my body, which had greatly improved my posture and bone alignment. But obviously not enough.

                   None of us are blank slates, and I came to learn softness after years of having trained excess tension and hardness into my body. Added to this were layers of accumulated injuries, especially to my hips and low back, years of asymmetrical training, lost range of motion, and years of leaning over a table performing bodywork, which tends to distribute stress away from the belly and accumulate it in the back, including the back of the discs. In short, global relaxation and softness was not specific enough for my needs. Without getting into the nitty gritty of therapeutics, the point here is about embracing opposites. The goal is to have the ability to change and control the hardness and softness of your body at will, rather than being stuck in any set pattern. In taiji there is often an articulated difference between relaxing and collapsing. I was collapsing: I was releasing tension in places where I still needed it to maintain structure, and not releasing the areas which were critical to achieving a “floating spine”.  Finding this proper balance between tension, pressure, relaxation, and structure takes a bit of time and exploration. One of the principles I find most helpful to keep in mind is the idea of not relaxing into a joint, but through the joint.

“This use of the abdomen to decompress my spine and control pelvic position became the initial focus of my rehabilitation, and has remained as a critical point ever since.”

 

 A partial explanation as to why abdominal bracing relieved pressure on my spine is that it increased tension in the front to pull compression away from my back, and then fixed my spine into position with the powerful abdominal muscles, instead of relying on the smaller muscles directly attached to my spine.  In this regard, the abdomen is actually the front of the spine. All of the abdominal muscles work in synchrony to achieve this effect, but the transverse abdominis plays the secondary role of increasing intra-abdominal pressure. By itself, this intra-abdominal pressure increases stability but not much else, and unchecked, it can increase compression.  But when there is enough internal pressure to give the “belt” of the transverse abdominals some volume to displace the thoracic and pelvic diaphragms upwards, the result is a tensegrity effect in which the synchronous contractions actually decompress the vertebrae. Now that’s what I’m talkin about!  

This ability to lengthen the abdominal “tube”, and to displace internal volume and pressure to create a vertical expansion, also provides a key to deep abdominal breathing, which -despite its many benefits- can easily compress the lumbar if not counterbalanced. Additionally, control of abdominal tension regulates the position of the pelvis from above. This use of the abdomen to decompress my spine and control pelvic position became the initial focus of my rehabilitation, and has remained as a critical point ever since.

 

Lets come at this from a different angle…with a separate lesson which reinforced the same principle.

 

          Mudskipper: walking fish

During the acute phase of my injury, lying down was painful, and standing,even more painful. But transitioning between the two was excruciating. Therefore, I avoided it as much as possible. The least painful method of locomotion I found was to lie prone, create a rigid abdomen, go into a low push up and hover while gliding my body forward a few inches before lowering myself down.  Repeat.  I liken this to the locomotion pattern of the mudskipper, or walking fish.   

abdominal muscles and the muscles

It is a pattern I had briefly explored while researching the progressions of movement patterns among our ancestral lineage. At the time I thought it dull and uninteresting and dismissed it as anything other than an evolutionary footnote. But being confined to this method of ambulation proved to me how wrong I was. After a few days of ‘mudskipping,’ my abdomen and pectoral girdle began to re-shape. My shoulders broadened as my pectoral muscles built strength in a lengthened position, and my entire abdomen was transformed into the primary support for my body, transferring stress away from my spine by providing a direct pathway from my thorax to pelvis. I came to regard my linea alba (or Conception Vessel, if you speak Chinese Medicine) as the central supporting cable, which, by creating a bridge from my sternum to my pubic bone, allowed everything else to find its proper position and relative tension.  As it turns out, the fact that the abdomen becomes a primary load-bearing structure in such a low posture is well known to our low-sprawling kin and ancestors. Many of the first tetrapods had a Gastralium,  a bone or series of bones stretching from the sternum to the pubic bone.   Wolff’s law states, “Bone will adapt to the load under which it is placed.” Bone becomes denser in response to regular exercise, and harder with the impact training of many traditional martial arts; a tendon will begin to ossify and become a “bone spur” if it is kept under chronic tension. The evolutionary corollary is that natural selection will favor bone placement in areas of highest mechanical stress. Which is all a fancy way of saying that low-sprawling postures will give you rock hard (or bony) abs. At some point most creatures abandoned the extra support this provided in favor of more flexion/extension capacity of the spine, though usually only after adopting a more upright posture, with arms and legs positioned directly underneath the body, greatly reducing the load on the abdominal musculature (an example is the panther, as powerful as any creature, which often appears to have a ponch: its belly bears little weight and hangs relaxed). The crocodile family still have the Gastralium, and some lizards and frogs have similar structures. We have the remnants of this bone as our xyphoid process, just below our sternum.

lumbar support

                   What all this means is that weight-bearing was a primary role of our ancestral abdomen, using isometric tension to keep the sternum and pubis from spreading apart and collapsing the body. The beauty of recapitulating this motion is that it strengthens the abdomen as a support structure, while placing very little stress on the joints and discs of the spine.  A similar excellent exercise for the less amphibiously inclined is what Stuart McGill calls “stirring the pot” As a practitioner of Chinese martial arts and qi gong, I know about 20 other exercises by the same name- but this one earns it as well. Of course, a low plank is a variation of the same body posture, but options are good, and incorporating movement and changing vectors is even better. (If I had just told you to do planks, you might never have seen a mudskipper. You’re welcome.)

          Ever since this experience, the mudskipper and its many variations have become a staple in my practice, to great benefit. Certainly it helps build strength. But, more importantly, it reminds the abdomen to do its job of controlling the forces around the spine and pelvis.

                                                                         

 

Lessons From a Disc Injury, Part 1: Injury and Acute Phase

        I just passed the 2 year anniversary of my disc injury, and I am reflecting on what a powerful teacher it has been. It has caused me to rethink everything I thought I knew about the body:  bodywork, healing, gong-fu and the internal arts, about alignment and biomechanics, movement, longevity…about my passions, my profession, and my personal practice. 

        Through the lessons I have learned since bulging a lumbar disc, I feel better than I have in the last 18 years, since my first back injury. It’s almost embarrassing to look back and see the trail of injuries and compensations that have led to further injury, knowing now how it could have been so easily unwound at any step along the way. Please allow my hindsight to be your foresight.

        This will be an article in several parts. I will begin by describing events that led up to my being incapacitated for several months with an intervertebral disc herniation at L5/S1 and a sacroilliac joint that fell apart.  Next I will address the lessons I learned on my ascent from the fiery hell of spinal nerve pain. I will detail the logic and practices that became the crux of my rehabilitation from a bulging disc, and those which have become pillars of my practice to maintain and improve the overall health of my spine.

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        To begin with, my back had been bugging me [again] for a couple weeks. Not terrible, but I figured it was time I took my own advice and sought professional help. I was used to having intermittent flare-ups every couple of years, which would put me down for a few days with severe back pain. But this time it was a different feeling- not worse, just different- and I wasn’t quite sure what was going on in there.  Two people I greatly respect had recommended a certain chiropractor, so I figured I’d give it a shot. 

        I made a couple of small errors that morning which I believe influenced the course of events to come. The first was that my appointment was right down the street from a jiu-jitsu class which I love but had been too busy to attend, and I was scheduled for chiropractic just after class ended. 

        "Perfect timing! I’ll just go train light, and then go get my back tended to,” I thought. Now, to the young bucks I trained with, “train light” meant something different than I had intended, which older buck like me should have known, and been humble enough to excuse himself from training when appropriate. But Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Meaning: I trained more intensely than was wise, and no doubt aggravated the pre-existing dysfunction, adding a new layer which would confuse anyone trying to assess my condition in the next few hours.

        My second mistake was that I had taken my lady dancing the night before on a rare date. Which was great, except the next morning, with one car in the shop and an extra early wakeup to get everyone to work and school on time, competition for the shower was fierce! I decided to forgo the shower as I was going to get sweaty before my session anyway.  Now, fresh sweat and stale sweat are not the same thing, and I can guarantee you won’t get the best possible care if your therapist’s eyes are burning from your fumes. Take heed: shower before any manual therapy appointment.

        The chiropractic session went fairly well, until after one adjustment I mentioned that it hurt a bit more now.  Watching someone’s face turn instantly white, as the good doctor’s face did at that moment, is a reliable punctuation mark on life. They knew what I was yet to discover: that I had just fallen off a cliff, I just hadn’t landed yet.  Throughout the course of the day, the sensation in my back went from annoying to excruciating. And upon rising the next morning, my spine was side-bent about 30 degrees. As I looked in the mirror, I watched my own face turn white. Sure, the pain was excruciating, but I was quite familiar with many types of pain and I have learned to simply interpret most pain as information. But the loss of control of my own body was terrifying. I was broken.

Fear fuels pain”

      One of the interesting findings of pain science is that pain is intensified by lack of familiarity and lack of understanding. Meaning the experience of pain is lessened when you know what is causing it, and it is lessened even more when you have experienced it before and found your way out of it. Fear fuels pain. This is one of the many reasons that the original meaning of “Doctor” was more akin to “teacher”. Generally speaking, the more that patients/clients understand about what is going on with their body, the more successful the treatment will be.

        And thus the reason for my compounded panic. Besides the pain and injury, besides the fact that my lady and I raise and provide for 5 kids, and that I would be out of work for the duration of the injury, what freaked me out the most was that I had no idea what was going on, how long it would last, or if I would ever fully recover. This was completely unfamiliar territory.

         Bear in mind, at this point I had been practicing bodywork for 15 years, having spent more than 10 practicing structural bodywork for chronic pain relief, and close to 30 years as a martial and movement artist, with a primary focus on joint mobility and self-healing aspects (specifically as a means of recovering from my own previous injuries). Meaning-I had accumulated a fair amount of knowledge and experience about the body, but something had gone terribly wrong, and I wasn’t sure exactly what. As far as I was concerned, every one of my beliefs was suspect until I could prove otherwise. At first I was groping in the dark for any sign of a pathway out, unable to trust my own knowledge and senses, and every misstep had painful consequences. But as I gained familiarity, and my body became more forgiving, I began systematically evaluating my assumptions based on immediate need.  Each stage of recovery provided a different lesson.            

         In the first few days of the acute disk injury, when I was unable to do much besides lie in a pile of pillows and dread having to go to the toilet, I researched my condition. What I found was that, when you get into the nitty gritty of it, there is quite a bit of disagreement about what the actual mechanics of a disc herniation are. And even more disagreement about the best course of treatment afterwards.

        The general consensus is that the outer layers of the disc, the annulus fibrosis, dehydrate over time and becomes brittle, thus allowing for the inner layer, the nucleus pulposis, to squeeze out through the cracks and press outward on the remaining walls of the annulus. This alone is not painful or symptomatic unless it goes as far as to push against the spinal cord or in unfortunate cases even rupture (thankfully, mine didn’t). Barring a traumatic spinal injury, the majority of disc injuries are the result of years of accumulated stress and injury to the fibers of the disc, which eventually results in a critical failure, resulting in a herniation. Most of them are triggered by something as benign as sneezing.

        There is mounting evidence that many disk injuries are preceded by an endplate fracture. An endplate is a thin layer of bone connecting the disk to the vertebrae. The fractured endplate creates disruptive changes in the fibers and chemical composition of the disc, predisposing it to bulge. This explanation makes some sense to me, as it helps to explain the strange feelings preceding the debilitating pain.

         Either way, I can’t really blame a single adjustment for the injury, as in all likelihood the wheels were already set in motion by that time. 

        So there I was, bedridden, in agony, with a crooked spine. Figuring out how I got into this mess was less important than figuring out how to get out of it.

        At this stage, what you really want is a magic fairy to come and make it all better. If that’s not possible, the next best thing is to already have a team of people you trust to help you out. This is not the ideal time to go shopping for healers. You might get lucky, or you might not. I strongly suggest you take the time when you are relatively healthy to find people you trust and respect.  Lucky for me, my years as a clinical massage therapist had acquainted me with some exceptional healers. If it weren’t for them, I likely would have stayed in this state for much longer than I did. This acute stage can last for a few day to over a year in some cases. 

                I still have much gratitude for the many people who helped me and my family in various ways during this time. A few of the local healers in Asheville NC, which went above and beyond in terms of their time, compassion, and wisdom are (in order of appearance):

                                Zachary Cahn, Lac

                                Billy Roberts, Lac

                                Lazlo Paule, LMT

                                David Graham, DC

                    Sifu Brian Moran, Lac, DPT

                                John Leonard, DPT                         

                                David Nygard, DC

 

        I will also tell you that this is the stage in which I have the least professional expertise, and I avoid working with people in this delicate condition other than to pass on lessons from my own experience. So here goes:

        During the acute and subacute phases (when the injury is your whole world) there are 3 primary needs:  Reduce pain and inflammation, protect the injury and avoid aggravating it, and encourage tissue healing. The attitude here is not to try and fix the problem, but to quiet the fire alarms going off, let the nervous system calm down and decrease pain so the body can rest and heal.  

Here are some useful tips for each need:

1.       Reduce pain and inflammation:    

a.       Ice- One of the few times I am emphatically in favor of Ice is when there is swelling and inflammation on the spine. Use it.

b.      Anti-inflamatories- Especially those which aren’t too hard on your liver. NSAIDs (like Ibuprofen) are the most commonly relied on.  However, due to the duration and dosage needed at this stage it is wise to use herbal anti-inflammatories as well, such as: turmeric, ginger, and boswellia. There are several excellent products available compounded for this purpose. In severe cases, this is what steroids are for.

c.       Nervines are a great help at this point as well. I used valerian root en masse. At first I didn’t like how spacey it made me, but then I realized that as I was going to be virtually useless anyway, there was no need to be agitated as well.

a.       Avoid stimulants and caffeine (sorry). Anything which excites your nervous system will increase pain.

d.      Avoid muscle relaxants: Often, the muscles around the spine lock up as a protective mechanism around the injured disc, and attempts to release them may actually aggravate the pain and dysfunction.

e.      Opiates can be a godsend or a road to hell. Do your own research. But understand that they also cause constipation, which can add compounding factors to a lumbar disc injury. Straining to increase intra-abdominal pressure is not your friend right now.

 

2.     Protect the injury and avoid aggravating it:  

a.       Positioning is critical: this may be obvious, as your body will let you know clearly what it doesn’t like. But it is important to realize that this is not the time to tough it out. Maintaining a lumbar curve keeps stress off the disc, and decreases pressure on the spine. Every time you aggravate your spine, you will set back your healing time.  With a disc injury, this can require very restricted movements and positioning for a while.  Just accept that fact, and your body will thank you.

b.      Use pillows liberally to take stress off the injured area: when lying on your back, place under the knees and the low back to help keep the curve in place and put slack in the muscles attached to the spine. When lying face down, pillows under hips or belly as needed. The specifics will vary with each person, but this is the time to embrace your inner princess and lie propped up with supports. If you can manage to get waited on hand and foot, even better.

c.       External brace or support: as mentioned above, with an acute disc injury the muscles around the spine often lock up as a protective mechanism around the injured disc, and attempts to release them may actually aggravate the pain and dysfunction. Spinal braces or external spinal support are much safer ways to take the stress off the spine and give relief to the muscles.

d.      Sex: proceed with caution. As mentioned above, positioning is critical. Issues around stimulating the lumbo/sacral nerves and increasing the intra-abdominal pressure during orgasm can increase pain and possibly aggravate a fragile disc. Be creative but cautious.

 

3.       Encourage tissue healing: both of the above categories contribute to this, as well as…

b.      Bone broth, drink it!  This was recommended by a friend who has also dealt with disc herniations. I was skeptical at first, but at the first cup I could feel my body absorbing needed nutrients. Your body needs collagen to rebuild an intervertebral disc, and well-made bone broth provides this and other important building blocks.

c.       Gentle modalities: acupuncture, electromagnetic therapies, and micro-current therapies of various types are of great benefit. This is not the time to try to “put something back in place.” Remember the part about muscles locking up for a reason? Even a gentle massage can do more harm than good at this stage.

d.      Gentle traction and decompression, as soon as the body can tolerate it, are essential.  If possible, work with an experienced practitioner with a traction table. The specifics of how this is administered will change as the injury moves from the acute to the sub-acute and remodeling phases. Several variations were important to my recovery, including an inversion table, and hanging from my arms. More on this later, as learning the importance of decompression was one of the treasures revealed to me by this whole process.

e.      Get familiar with the anatomy. As stated above, the more you understand what is going on, the better off you will be, and this is a way to get your mind actively involved in the healing process. Of course, I did more of this than the average person needs to, but in addition to looking and reading, I began drawing the anatomy of all the structures involved in detail. This filled in the mental map of the corresponding areas of my own body, allowing me to better feel and visualize the healing process. Do not underestimate the power of your mind, as it is the organ that actually feels the pain.

 

        This list is not exhaustive, but it is true. For anyone reading this while they are in acute pain with a lumbar disc injury, welcome to an elite club! I hope this information helps you pass through this phase quickly. Do your own research and listen to your body. 

          For everyone, regardless of the condition of your spine, the principles outlined above set the stage for the lessons to come about how to improve your spinal health and avoid the mistakes I made. In the following chapters I will lay out the most valuable insights and practices I have gained from my injury and rehab, as well as the misunderstandings and training practices I had adopted over the years which eventually set me up for a fall.

Ancestral Movement Patterns: Following the Trail

                I’ts always good to find friends you didn’t know you had.   As a kinesthetic person, I have always moved, stretched, and tended to my body at inappropriate times, unusual ways, and without warning. For decades, this was typically met with looks of disdain and embarrassment from those nearby.  In the last few years however, such uncivilized behavior is increasingly met with camaraderie and familiarity. 

                     Much of this is the result of the increased global communication and open sharing of information across geographic borders. The blurring of traditional boundaries of secrecy have revealed the methods and madness from movement  sub-cultures from every corner of the globe. 

 

                One of the areas which has delighted me the most to see become common place within physical culture (and among feral humans) is quadrupedal locomotion i.e. getting on all 4rs and moving like an animal. This has a special place in my heart and in my journey of exploration, and so I am going to share a bit about the intersecting roads which lead me there personally. I must first acknowledge that mimicry and drawing inspiration from nature are universal human traits, among both civilized and uncivilized cultures. One only needs to watch children play and you will see them imitate animals and run around on all fours. Or have even a passing familiarity with virtually any indigenous culture, or of any civilized tradition old enough to remember that its roots grew from the natural world, and you will find dances, postures, fighting styles, and attitudes, all named for animals or other aspects of the natural world -such as the elements. In fact, it is only the brief amnesia of western civilization regarding our connection and relationship to the natural world which can be considered remarkable.  

            As Plato states, acquiring knowledge is simply remembering what is hidden in our soul.

             My personal introduction to quadrupedal locomotion was at the Northern Shaolin Academy I attended in 1995. At the end of our “warm up” (read: dizzying workout), we would do “bear walk”, to gain the strength and power of the bear. One posture, one gait pattern, but it was enough to plant the seed of possibilities in my mind. I find it noteworthy that none of my other Shaolin Gongfu teachers, either Northern or Southern, included any animal walks in their curriculum. I am still not clear if this was a particular training method of that Shaolin lineage, or if it was due to the influence of one of the many other arts represented in that school.

        Fast forward to 1998-2000, and I am spending an irrational amount of time at The Tracker School , with Tom Brown Jr., and with Jon Young.  As the name implies, we spent a good deal of time and effort on tracking animals. Most of my friends there seemed to have developed the mystical ability to glance at a disturbance on the forest floor and clearly see that it was caused by animal X, using gait pattern Y, on its way to Z, and that it was in a bad mood, hungry, and pregnant. Meanwhile, I am trying to decide if the disturbance was caused by a Rhinoceros, a mouse, or a raindrop…and wait- that is the rear foot? Not the front foot-are you sure? How on earth does an animal end up with it’s front foot touching down HERE, and it’s rear foot touching THERE? I couldn’t make sense of it, so I had to get down on all fours and mimic the animals gait patterns. Now, this is nothing remotely new, as all trackers and traditional hunters employ this same type of mimicry, at least on occasion, to get a better feel for the movements and mindset of the animal they are trailing. This approach is beautifully represented in The Great Dance, a documentary of traditional San hunters of the Kalahari

           This is a very practical but awkward approach to animal mimicry, as our limb/torso/limb relationships are very different from most other animals, which means that if you want to reproduce the footfalls of a bobcat, your body is going to have to contort in a most “unnatural” way to accomplish this.  Being a particularly slow learner of the art of tracking, I found myself spending a great deal of time on all fours.  And being a bit lazy, I eventually abandoned the parameters of producing accurate footfalls, in favor of moving with efficient and relaxed biomechanics-the same attitude which animals generally adopt.  In trying to catch the feeling of moving like another animal, this approach made it immensely easier to, well, FEEL like another animal.  This opened a new world of possibilities, both in the effects on my own body and brain patterning, as well as in my experience moving through the woods on all fours.

         Not only did the animals in the woods respond to me differently when I was on all fours compared to when I was bipedal, but there was something so strikingly familiar about moving this way, as if not only my flesh and bones were designed for it (which they were over hundreds of millions of years according to accepted evolutionary theory), but as if parts of my brain and nervous system were designed for it, and had been starving in the absence of moving this way.  Was this a personal or an ancestral memory? And did it matter? As Ernst Haekel was both revered and ridiculed for saying “Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny”…meaning: the development of an individual goes through the same stages that their ancestors went through.  While this has been demonstrated to be false in the literal sense, metaphorically it couldn’t be more true.

       While the specifics of that statement are a few cans of worms I don’t want to open, there often is a vague sense of memory, and of a journey backward in time. The farther backward we go, the more all of our biological relations can be seen as one family. and somewhere, deep in our unconscious and subconscious mind, we carry the memories of this shared past, of our primordial beginnings, and our emergence onto land, of the old gods and the new.

There are movement patterns, morphological design changes, emotional and hormonal changes, brain and nervous system development, and life strategies associated with each split of our direct line and other branches of the family tree. The places where the branches meet is a marker of time and of fate, luck, decisions, and strategy.

 

In 2003 I took a course in Comparative vertebrate zoology (Dr.Dr. Bob Eckstien, Warren Wilson College). It blew my mind. (It was the first time I actually believed the theory of evolution). We tracked changes in the structure of life forms over evolutionary time, and saw how each change opened up new possible life strategies.

However, the focus was on structure, not mobility. It got me wondering about the incremental changes in movement patterns, and their evolution through time.  I attempted to follow the same format we observe through the fossil record of incremental change, layered upon the previous design, in a dance with the changing needs of the species within a changing environment, and apply it to the less well recorded world of movement patterns.

   Both Darwinism and Daoism extoll the virtues of adaptability in response to constant change. (And then there are the Confucianists, the Conservatives, and the Sharks- for which the old way has worked beautifully for eons. If it aint broke. Don’t fix it!)

I assumed this same pattern of layering upon the previous adaptation must also exist for the phenomenon of locomotion.  I looked for research on this, and was unable to find any (I just wasn’t looking in the right places of course), and so I kept returning to the laboratory of my own body, and observation of the natural world.  Like many things, patterns become obvious with familiarity on the subject.

It was very exciting, to watch the complexity of movement options in the biosphere begin to self-organize into simpler patterns, and simple progressions of patterns. 

      From the primordial cell, the first individuation, the monad, all the way to the myriad things, and to you and I, it is the journey of consciousness in matter, it is peeling back the layers of being. And it is as much about habit, strategy, and perception of the world, as it is about internal architecture, locomotion, and the changing environment.

 

This is a playlist I started a few years ago to help me see the progressions

 

        For most of this period of exploration, I didn’t realize anyone other than I and a few friends actually took this stuff seriously. Little by little I began to see things on the internet. Most of it seemed to be derivatives of Russian and Brazilian training. There was one low sprawling gait –salamander- that I had never seen anyone try. The ideal is to have humerus and femurs parallel to the ground, and use the lateral undulation to locomote, the way most Salamanders do.  It requires and builds a lot of muscular strength, because it is terribly inefficient- which is why our ancestors abandoned it long ago. I admit I was a bit proud that no one else seemed to be exploring the idea, until I saw this guy…

   and I thought “fuck me! I never even conceived that was possible!”   on second thought, don’t watch- It’s embarrassing . it was the answer to how to do a low postured gait with mechanical efficiency- just get rid of the sprawl. It is actually a different gait pattern, but it was a missing link in my progressions and in my thinking.

            This next video was an attempt to isolate the primary axial/spinal motions of each of these primary movement patterns in an evolutionary context. It was part of a larger study of undulations and spinal waves, and is heavily influenced by Qi Gong.  It could use a few revisions, which I encourage folks to find. But it gets the gist across.  

 One of my rewards for uploading my thought processes to youtube was to be introduced (virtually) to Simon Thakur, http://ancestralmovement.com/

not only was this the first time I knew of anyone else pursuing this train of thought on ancestral movement patterns, but we had a strikingly similar approach. One difference was that he had done an exhaustive amount of research on the subject. If you have made it this far, you definitely want to check him out. He also created an online forum to discuss these and other ideas, which has helped keep the fires burning.

Then, last year this book came out : Restless Creatures Life in 10 movements , it is everything we have been discussing from the perspective of a 30 year veteran in evolutionary biology. That means I am officially not crazy!

Turns out, there were already many people exploring these concepts.  Some were on the level of animal mimicry as a personal practice, and others with the philosophical tie in to evolution and human development.  For example:

the “Dart” method

Body Mind Centering   

Bartenieff Fundamentals   

 

Whenever something makes sense from several different perspectives, I consider it worth paying close attention to. While animal movements can be an excellent exercise in their own right, they can be much more than that as well. They can be a pathway to a greater understanding of our ancestral and developmental patterns, our neurological template, to not only our own bio-mechanics but the factors which shaped them, to our subconscious and unconscious minds, and to our unity and relationship with all life. And this my friends is what makes it a practice. Enjoy the journey!

 

 

Ancestral Movement Patterns (Part 1, Introduction)

Over the last several years, I have been amazed and gratified to see the rise in popularity of quadrupedal movement among fitness enthusiasts and movement practitioners.  As someone who has been practicing animal locomotion for 20 years I must warn you, it is a rabbit hole, which will take you places you might not expect. 

        I was introduced to the basics of the practice through Shaolin Gongfu, Baguazhang, and African groundfighting (Kupigana Ngumi), it was later reinforced and deepened through the study of animal tracking. Soon after that, I found it to be an answer to the question of how to integrate Taiji Chuan principles with bodyweight training, as a form of 4 legged standing meditation. This attitude allowed me to train “strength” without sacrificing the relaxed body-unification and sensitivity I was otherwise working to achieve.  Unexpectedly,  animal movements proved to be an excellent laboratory to study biomechanics, as I was subjecting myself to the same forces and body positions which designed much of the internal architecture of our-selves and our animal kin. Continued practice led togreater observation of animal movement patterns, and the natural tendency to look for underlying patterns in these movements led to an inquiry into our evolutionary past: to know when we adopted different strategies, in response to different environmental pressures, and the mechanical/morphological changes which followed suit. 

 

Another reason I stuck with quadrupedal movements was that they had the additional benefit of not aggravating my Iliopsoas, Quadratus Lumborum, l5/s1 joint, or Sacroiliac joint, all of which had been injured, and severely restricted what I could do for a decade and a half. Meaning, I could train hard on all 4’rs without ending up in more pain, while most other exertions left me unable to stand up straight.  Not aggravating an injury is step 1 in the healing process. Steps 2 and 3 don’t need to take you over a decade as they did for me, but live and learn. 

                After that old injury finally exhausted my L5/S1 disk, leaving me temporarily crippled with a bulging disc pressing on my spinal cord, I returned to ancestral movement patterns, first as a necessary means of locomotion, and second as a means of methodically rebuilding my internal structure-for which they are uniquely suited.

 

                Every conversation begins somewhere in the middle, and this one is no different. Over the next few weeks I will pull on a few of the threads mentioned above, and follow where they lead.  Until then, be well!

some thoughts on walking and gait analysis

Specificity does not imply accuracy. Anytime we examine a subject, I find it of great value to alternate between a microscopic view of detailed analysis, and a macroscopic view to give perspective and context. Here I share a few thoughts on walking. I have been taught numerous walking practices from different perspectives and with different intent: Buddhist, Daoist, Native American and bio-mechanical, with several variations of each.  And there are countless other walking practices which exist besides these. walking may be familiar, but it is far from mundane.

Interview on Balanced Warrior Podcast

I had the honor of being interviewed by my good friend Jarret Kaufman (AKA:Redfoot)  for his podcast "The Balanced Warrior".  We had a great conversation covering many topics related to movement, martial arts, and injury prevention and recovery. He releases a new podcast every week on topics related to health, martial arts, wilderness skills, and living a balanced life in the modern world. If you enjoy the show, please rate it on I-tunes.  Enjoy!

             http://balancedwarrior.podomatic.com/entry/2016-05-22T11_12_41-07_00

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