Harmonising Your Diaphragms & Your Sphincters
When we think about the way we move as an indicator of the state of our health, we might picture a younger, more lively version of ourself, perhaps running up the stairs two at a time like a teenager; or starting up a steep hill without trepidation; happily sitting on the floor when no spare chairs available. Perhaps you picture yourself with hip joints that sway easily as you walk, knees that bring you to standing without requiring special attention, or a neck that turns around easily in either direction. Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement was designed to be the perfect process for achieving and maintaining this youthful level of physical mobility in our daily lives, as well as – and even more significantly – the mental agility that goes naturally with a younger demeanour.
…Here you can see the sort of ease and grace it is possible to develop in a regular Feldenkrais class…
However, many of the fascio-neuro-muscular structures we rely on for our daily survival are smaller, more internal, and function in an automatic or only partially-controllable manner – precisely because they are vital for keeping all our internal network of self-maintenance systems in continuous working order. Our sphincter muscles are not just fundamental to our more automatic breathing and digestive functions, they are also fundamental to the way we communicate, both verbally and non-verbally, and are thus important in too many ways to describe fully here, and the systems they manage – breathing, vocalising, blood and lymph circulation, digestion and elimination – are the most essential source of our physical and mental health and well-being.
By actively tuning in to our internal pulses, ripples, undulations, and oscillations we can gain access to our own individual natural rhythms, becoming more spontaneous and self-expressive in the process.
Modern innovative filming techniques can reveal these patterns in the natural world: here you can see flowers opening and closing their petals in a diurnal rhythm so slow that we can only perceive it directly using time lapse photography…
…and I am confident you can see the similarity to this opening and closing motion in the graceful undulations of underwater creatures as they travel through the oceans…
Expanding and contracting, opening and closing, ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning; these rhythms are embedded into every aspect of life – we keep ourselves in balance by constantly shifting around our central axis, achieving a state of equilibrium through subtle and continuous motion. I have a particular affection for the Awareness Through Movement lessons that feature undulating motion – the ‘belle hand’ in particular has been an ever-evolving resource of effective self-regulation – a way to access a state of self-calming and self-soothing that is always available wherever I might be.
“Movement is all important. From cardiovascular health, bone density, joint functioning to central nervous system optimisation. For the health of each and every cell in your organism, to your mental wellbeing and overall happiness. Movement is life. And life is movement!”
Rodolfo R. Llinás, MD, PhD
These internal oscillations may seem hard to detect – and even harder to influence – however, thanks to years of practical clinical experiments by Paula Garbourg (author of The Secret Of The Ring Muscles) we know that those sphincters that are not so easy to control are linked to others that we have more conscious awareness of, and therefore more influence over. This means that if one vital sphincter is losing strength and becoming less reliable, another more accessible sphincter on the same “circuit” can be activated in a way that will bring our whole system into better functioning synergistically.
For example the sphincters that squeeze our eyes shut are linked to our urethra (which controls the release and flow of urine), and those that ‘purse’ our lips are linked to our anal sphincter.
Try this mini Awareness experiment:
Close your eyes, then squeeze your eyelids closed more tightly, relax them again without opening them, and then repeat, at a steady pace, many times, stopping whenever you have had enough.
[This will work best for you if you sit on your chair in such a way that you are balancing on your sitting bones with both your feet on the floor, as this will enable you to detect your internal sensations more clearly.]
After a few goes, see if you can begin to sense a matching response in the ring muscle at the entrance to your urethra (the one that controls urination). Obviously this sort of experiment is easier to do in a class when someone else is giving you instructions and you do not have to manage your own expectations – just remember that you cannot really go wrong when you pay close attention to your own experience, and that any breathing patterns that emerge are always interesting!
For instance, some of you may find that you begin to exhale in time with your squeezing as this triggers a subtle flexing in the torso. Your urethral response will probably be enhanced if you intentionally breath out through your nose as you squeeze your eyelids.
This is a tiny segment of my workshop on the healthy functioning of our ring muscles and our multiple diaphragms (yes, I know, I’ll get to those in a minute), and the goal is to heighten our self-perception so that we can feel-sense these internal connections, and activate them with ease.
Our “Sheet” muscles…
Just as our ‘ring’ muscles work in synergy with each other, our “sheet” muscles do the same – thus the movement of our thoracic diaphragm is linked to the contraction and relaxation of our soft palate, our tongue root, and our pelvic floor.
Several sources suggest that there are other sheet muscles that coordinate with our breating in this way, including the arches of our feet , and while this may seem a somewhat poetic idea, in fact it is interesting to compare the sensations you experience in your thoracic diaphragm and your pelvic floor as you intentionally lift the arches of both feet away from the floor – try this out…
Movement Experiment #2
Sit in the same lightly balanced position as before, and gently slide your toes along the floor towards your heels without lifting them, so that your instep begins to contract into a more pronounced arch, and then lengthen your foot again, and repeat. What is happening to your breathing? Your pelvic floor? Can you feel a change in the carriage of your head?
Sphincters, diaphragms & self-regulation
As much of my work focusses on breathing, voice, and managing chronic pain I have been incorporating Dr Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory into my teaching, and I have come to understand that – very much in the way the different diaphragms connect to form a coherent system – my workshops on the Inner Voice, the Potent Voice, and Hearing & Listening are all linking up to form an integrated system for physical and emotional health and well-being, so I am ‘whole-heartedly’ recommended my Sphincter workshop for:
Improving the functioning of the sphincters of elimination, and the pelvic floor, plus all the other sphincters of the body.
Releasing full whole self breathing via all your diaphragms.
Improving coordination and rhythm throughout the whole self.
Improving the functioning of your torso muscles, and your spine, and thus your whole self-organisation.
Improving the swallow reflex and functioning of the larynx, tongue, jaw and soft palate.
Calming a hypertensive or over-stimulated nervous system.
Rhythms Of Life…
Coordinating Your Sphincters & Diaphragms
*Contact me directly if you are interested in this workshop, or join my mailing list for regular updates…
Practice notes will also be provided – regular practice is the best way to help yourself to reverse the effects of ageing and stress on your internal and your muscular fitness.
Addendum: There isn’t much about Paula Garbourg on the net, but I notice her daughter Haya is preparing to launch a remote online therapeutic service, so maybe there will be more on YouTube in the future: in the meantime, here is a short film demonstrating some of her exercises – of course my workshop explores these processes in a more Feldenkrais-y way…