Is muscular strength important in headstand?


This is the picture that probably gave M. Feldenkrais his fame: Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion performing an headstand in 1957. Mistakenly this picture is often associated with Ben-Gurion doing Yoga. In reality, Ben Gurion suffered from extremely painful back pain and Feldenkrais became his teacher. Feldenkrais realized during conversations with  the Prime minister  that he had never been able as a child to do an headstand and he thought him to boost his confidence and also to relieve the weight on his lumbar vertebrae.  According to the date of the picture Ben Gurion was about 70 years old when he learnt his headstand.  Apart from  leaving me with hope about my own ability to learn to perform an elegant and effortless  headstand, such as the one in this video,

the image raises a question about what is really necessary in order to perform and headstand.

Ben Gurion does not give the impression of a very strong man in this picture, but he can stay there in this awkward position; once he learnt it, apparently he used to practice this posture every morning as it gave him relief from his back pain.

My yoga teacher always points to “core strength” as a key feature to achieve this position.I think that the same concept applies to many motor ability where we use strength as a poor substitute for lack of coordination.

Strength is needed if you want to really push toward the sky the legs, whereas the key mechanical requirement is the correct alignment of the vertebrae and the rotation of the pelvis to lift the legs, once you learn this aspect you reach the position effortlessly. Part of the weight is transmitted through the hands but the alignment of the vertebrae is fundamental as the cervical are much smaller than the lumbar vertebrae and a transverse component of the force can result in an injury. Psychologically the difficulty is related to the instinctive fear of falling that can cause unnecessary contraction and unwillingness to rotate the sacrum.

In fact the headstand in Feldenkrais view seems to me achieved through a controlled fall as can be seen in some lessons preparing for the position, where the final part of the fall is also practised in a reversed way. The idea is to perform a “carp” jump from standing with the knees bent where the whole of the spine moves up and if enough momentum is given we can find ourselves almost on the head.

Reflecting on headstand is another way to explore conceptual differences between Yoga and Feldenkrais, I discuss the different approach to breathing here. Whilst Feldenkrais always looks for paths of effort and pain minimization, extreme postures in yoga are achieved in some instances despite pain and muscular effort and, in the specific case of headstand, extension of the muscles is searched in the position. This is a consequence of a desire to achieve an “ideal” posture. The very definition of ideal posture is, in my opinion, wrong in Feldenkrais, as the status of the neural system determines the distribution of tonus and the posture. Creating options in the motor cortex via neuroplasticity can improve the posture only if the posture is compatible with the absence of pain and strain in the individual.

In the initial learning phase strength can help to achieve the desired result and it can be useful, however to achieve improvement the unnecessary effort needs to be reduced over time and when strength is not readily available the movement needs to be learned in the most efficient way.  This feature is common to elderly people and children, a baby learning to sit has reduced contractile strength in his muscles compared to an adult and the head weight is massive compared to the rest of the body, so he has to organize the whole of his body to reach the sitting position and he will fall hundreds of times before he learns to recognize the vertical alignment that provides support for his heavy head.

The vagus nerve and the middle ear

In this fantastic interview Stephen Porges talks about his theory. There are many striking points. One in particular regards the role of the modern vagus, the ventral mielinated branch, on the tonus of the middle ear muscles (minute 23).  Lack of tonus can occur as consequence of a stroke, and one of the consequences can be tinnitus and the hypersensitivity to certain sound frequencies. Such hypersensitivity is also common in autistic children and it can be a response to reduced tonus in the middle ear muscles, due to a bad regulation of the vagus. This dysregulation could result from the lack of normal response to other humans, whose origin is still unknown and maybe due to an anomaly in the mirror neurons,   that can generate a continuous feeling of insecurity.

I think that this could be one of the first experimental evidence providing support to the work of Alfred Tomatis and Guy Berard.  Tomatis and Berard theory  are looked as unproven in the best case by the medical establishment, even if there are reported miracles by parents of autistic children, and as scam in other cases. Surprisingly placebo effects in surgical knee operation at reducing pain and other symptoms in  patients suffering from torn knee cartilage do not prevent to continue to intervene in these cases. Not to mention other operations as tendon lengthening, still performed in palsy children to “improve mobility”, without considering addressing the impulse to shorten the muscles coming from the brain that can make the initial relieve provided by the surgery useless after a short time.

Using Feldenkrais  affects the tonus of the muscular systems in many ways, it would be nice to directly measure the tonus of the stapedius after and before a session, certainly we can see changes in the visible tone of the facial muscles.


Functional Integration: an exploration

A woman in her late sixties, acute pain in the left shoulder area, right handed.

Supine at the start with her legs bent.

I started trying to feel the level of freedom in the head rotation, the head is held in place strongly.  I reduce the movement to a tiny suggestion. the reaction is non uniform,  sometimes the movement is exaggerated, sometime is resisted.  I notice a variation in the breathing but intermittently intentional movements and change of position.

Mostly left arm and hand, but also right arms, legs with the feet resting only partially on the mat.  The head relaxes slightly and the breath changes, becoming more abdominal. Both shoulders are lift from the mat, I start to feel the right shoulder blade and to exaggerate the lift and to perform small simple movements of the shoulder blade away and nearer the column and toward the head and the feet, I start to feel the weight of the shoulder in my hand and a reduction of the muscular tension, but as soon as I reduce the lift, the muscles contract again.  Slight push travels to the feet with some dampening, all the muscular system  seems overexcited with excessive tension in the whole body. Keep working on the right side, exploring the arm movement and relation with shoulder blade, rib cage.  Again difficulty to quieten the system, I have troubles getting the weight of the arm, If I let it go it is kept, if I try to move I experience an oscillatory behaviour from continuing the movement or resisting it.  I reduce amplitude and speed and things slightly improve, try to have her to resist more and reduce the resistance progressively but again it does not help much.  I decide to try to feel the  lower body, staying on the right side, there is a good flexibility in the right ankle in terms of lateral movements,  the region near the Achilles tendon is contracted and there is little room for movement of the foot, now I understand the issue with the feet not touching the mat properly with the knees bent.  I work around the sole to elicit the gravity reflex.  There is not much change in the muscular tone, maybe I need to be more patient next time.  I move the foot using the lower leg muscles and feel the tonus, try the push pull, dampening still there but improved transmission. I check the hip joint flexibility and it seems quite good, better on the left that on the right, but much less jerky movements and holding on.

Turning on the side, moving like a rolling pin gives a good response, free of jerky responses and the same applies to exploratory movements to verify the ribs mobility.  I think that maybe it is enough as it seems to me that this newly found response is already beneficial, I decide  to stop the lesson at this stage, hopefully it is a better place.

Standing she is not aware of subtle changes that I can notice mostly in the position of the head now less forward.


Movement and attractors

Breathing is an extremely interesting process, it can be completely automatic, and we do not think about it, but some branches of the vagus are directly related to the lungs and
Yoga teaches to move by adopting a specific learned breathing pattern so they create an association between an activity and a breathing pattern, others like Feldenkrais seek in my opinion to dissociate the breathing pattern from physical activity.
A lion does not think about its breathing whilst is chasing a gazelle or mating. A way to think about what happens when we dissociate the breathing from the movement pattern or the distribution in spaces of our body is by analogy with a complex dynamical system, as suggested by E. Thelen. The exploration of all the possibilities does not reinforce equally all the possible neural paths but select amongst them a specific attractor.
To clarify this view, let’s think about alternated fingers tapping at a given frequency. This task is easily performed but at a certain frequency the alternated movement can not be sustainable. An even more striking example is provided by the gait that, depending on the frequency, changes considerably with walking and jogging no longer sustainable above certain frequencies. Doing things slowly is hence necessary as it allows a thorough exploration of the movement possibility that above given frequency is not possible.
Further discussion of this point demands a more detailed distinctions of rhythmic and reflex movements and voluntary movements and pauses a question about the possibility of changing the frequency where a voluntary movement is reverted to an alternate one.

Organization of voluntary movement -1

A voluntary movement is characterized by the intention of performing it and despite it is slower is much less limited and stereotyped than reflex movements; Voluntary movements can be performed to different level of proficiency by different individual and the ability of executing them is clearly influenced by learning.  What do we mean by learning and do we have a recipe to learn effectively?

Very often when we attend a gym course or a swimming class we are instructed to move in a certain way but we can obtain very similar results performing actions that to a trained eye are very different. Voluntary movements are largely dependent on the motor cortex, this is a region of our brain that we can imagine as a dynamic (plastic) map of our body with each part extending accordingly with the functional role of the limb represented (i.e. the thumb is huge compared to the torso) and adjacent region in our body close to each other; a notable exception are the genitalia (close to the feet) and my guess is that this is related to the foetal position where they are actually close together.

A closer look reveals that the border between these regions are not only
dynamic (e.g. remapping of phantom limbs on other parts of the body) but also not so well defined, a stimulation of the map corresponding to the region of the feelers in rats once the feelers were disconnected after few hours started to produce movements in the anterior limb; either the interpretation of this study is not easy it is possible that the face
map also has some connections with the anterior legs and the removal of the link with the feelers can facilitate such connection.

Another aspect that is extremely interesting in a Feldenkrais perspective is that if two similar actions are performed with different forces (e.g. grabbing a ball) some neurons in the motor cortex decrease their discharge with increasing the force, whereas they discharge when fine control is required.

We learn in Feldenkrais classes to do less during the learning process, i.e. reduce the amplitude and force of the movements, Feldenkrais discussed this in term of the Weber-Fechner law, that Stevens modified in 1953, the idea of the law is that reducing the amplitude of the stimulus we can appreciate more subtle differences and hence learn.

The more modern approach seems to implicate that besides the aspects related to the Weber-Fechner law a small movement is qualitatively different from a large movement not only with respect to the increasing our sensitivity and possibility of learning but also in term of the cortex areas activated.

Interestingly this also poses a problem as learning through small/slow movements might not be completely effective to correct the large/fast ones if the areas activated are different but probably the overlap areas are large enough to have an important influence.