The inner smile

Sucking is amongst the first actions performed in our life. Already in the womb, the foetus starts to practice to suck her thumb. Some suggest that early signs of lateralization can be related to the preference toward the right or left thumb. Minutes after the birth the newborn seeks the mother nipples to suck, at this stage the sucking movement seems to me mostly a lip action with little participation from the jaws; even if the action as in most infant activity seems to travel through her whole body.

The sucking action can be stimulated by the touch of a finger on the cheek, what probably simulates the nipple presence, however as sucking in the womb starts without any external action I think of sucking in newborns as a  “voluntary” action.

The novelties present in the after birth action are the arrival of the milk in the mouth and stomach of the baby, what reinforces the comforting nature of sucking, and satisfy a primary need of the newborn and the contact with the mother. Without considering all the aspects of breastfeeding, let’s focus on the end of the feeding when the baby “let go” of his head and shows an expression of intense satisfaction.

Is this expression a smile? If so, is it different from the social smile, seen later on in child development?

This expression is in my opinion different, despite the similarities, from the social smile. Duchenne pioneered the investigation of the muscular pattern leading to express specific emotions in men and identified as an essential feature of an authentic enjoyment smile the simultaneous symmetric contraction of the zigomatic and orbicularis muscles. Darwin in his “Expression of Emotions in Men and Animals” recognized the orbicularis contraction as a key ingredient of a smile, what gives us crow’s feet, and proposed that the social smile initiated as a suppressed aggressive gesture, due mostly to the teeth exhibition, however this suggestion does not seem supported by adequate evidence, even if it is difficult to completely reject it.

As in most human activity several complex layers are present, cultural differences can explain the observed variation of the smile frequency amongst different populations and genders, concealed emotions ranging from contempt to flirtatious feelings are accompanied with different types of smiles as pointed out by P. Ekman. The distinction between artificial and felt smile is in a certain way artificial as all of the smiles types express different emotions and it is only our limited attention to the person smiling that limits our ability to discern the emotions behind. In this sense the expression of the newborn after feeding is a “Buddha” smile, it is aggression free and free from any social pressure, it is an inner smile, the baby is pure joy in that moment and she lets us know through a wonderful expression.

Is muscular strength important in headstand?

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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.