3 Essential Tips for Allowing Effortless Movement in Your Life
We want to move right.
Our lives are full of movement. We are constantly standing, sitting, laying down, kneeling, bending, leaning. We breathe, we speak, we sing. We write, we type, we swipe. We walk, we run, we dance. We love, we have kids.
And we want to do it all right. I certainly do.
These activities are important. They are our lives, and how we do them matters for how we feel physically and even emotionally. They matter for our long-term health, our ability to keep doing the things that matter.
It’s so appealing to think that there is a concretely right way to do something, and if I just do the right thing, all my problems will go away.
Teaching the Alexander Technique, I get asked all the time about the right way to do things, for tips to perform better and hurt less. There are activity- and problem- specific tips that make a huge difference that I will write about in the future, but first let’s get on the same page with a few fundamental tips that apply broadly.
The very first tip is: Forget any notion of how you are “supposed to,” about being right, and basically…
Tip #1: Look at (and let go of) your stories about how you move.
One story that I picked up about myself as a kid was this: “you aren’t physically gifted, you don’t have what it takes (what others have) to do fun things with your body.” I rarely got to the point of questioning the 'right' way to do something, because I didn’t think some activities were in my reach at all. Better not dance or run or play sports or ride a bike, and if you do, make sure you self-deprecate the whole time to set others’ expectations appropriately. I assumed I was so far behind that it would take an impossible amount of work to catch up to what others had seemingly innately. None of this was true, but it constrained me for years.
But stories about movement don’t have to be big, existential things to get in our way.
Let’s take sitting. We all have ideas about how we’re supposed to sit. Most of us also have ideas about how we aren’t living up to that ideal that we use to explain our discomfort in chairs.
Right now, I invite you to let go of your sitting story.
Forget that you’re supposed to sit up straight, or forget that you’re not supposed to slouch. Forget that all your bones are supposed to be stacked on top of each other, or that you’re doing it wrong if your feet aren’t on the floor. Let strings pulling the top of your head go (hint: there is no string). Forget that sitting “is the new smoking” (it isn’t; what matters is how we do what we do and the variety of what we do). Release the idea that you have a bad back and you can’t expect to sit for long without pain. Forget that sitting requires a “strong, engaged core,” and that you really need to exercise more if you expect to sit well. Whatever it is that comes to mind when you think of sitting, let go of it.
All these stories — big and small — get in our way because they blind us to what is actually happening.
Each story contains assumptions that frame and constrain our future choices and possibilities. In each, there is an assumption that movement is hard, and if we want movement to be good, we have to work hard to do it right.
If we don’t work hard to do it right, the implication is that we simply don’t deserve to feel good moving in our bodies.
If we do work hard, going after the right thing, then we’re missing the wide span of possibilities outside that one thing we’ve decided is good and true. It might be neither!
But even if the thing is good, most of us try to do the right thing on top of everything we’re already doing. That is, we don’t look at root causes, and we ignore the legacy of our stories. We try to layer the new thing on top of our pre-existing habits.
Take sitting again. Sitting up straight and putting ourselves in good alignment is a decent idea for most of us. But most of us are unconsciously shortening our flexors, pulling us down into a slump. When we decide we’re going to work to sit up straight (read: to do the right thing), we are using our extensors to pull ourselves up without releasing the flexors pulling us down. We are literally fighting ourselves to sit up straight! No surprise that’s fatiguing, maybe even painful, until we give up.
We feel like failures. Maybe we blame our bodies, failing by lack of core strength or spinal stability. Or maybe we blame our minds, that we fail by our lack of willpower. We feel like failures, because the 'right' thing didn’t work for us. Ergonomics tips can end up just another way to bludgeon ourselves, and we go back to our slumps.
All of this, just from trying to sit in a way that feels OK!
We’re not failures. We just need a story that opens up possibilities, like the possibility of not fighting ourselves to sit up straight.
So I invite you to set aside the stories you tell yourself about your body, supposed-to’s and all, and consider a new story.
Tip #2: Movement is effortless like the sky is blue.
Movement is effortless in the same way that the sky is blue. Sure, sometimes there are clouds that make it hard to see, but we know that up above those clouds, the sky is always blue. We don’t have to strive and push ourselves to make the sky blue; it just is, and there is no right or wrong arrangement of clouds. There’s no blame associated with a cloudy day; it’s normal, and it tends to pass. So it is with movement.
Is movement effortless, though? I don’t mean that it doesn’t sometimes take a lot of energy, or focus, or practice. What I mean is that it is something we naturally possess, that we don’t have to strive for, that doesn’t grind us down, that we don’t have a limited capacity for, and that doesn’t expend more than it gives us. It does us no harm; it helps. Our whole organism is designed to move with strength and coordination, and we are the heirs of 540 million years of animal evolution, the defining characteristic of which is to move.
When we see a cheetah chasing down prey, we are impressed at the power, the speed, the focus and ultimately the unity of the cheetah. If we saw a cheetah running and had the thought, “Wow, look how much effort that cheetah is expending,” probably our next thought would be, “What’s wrong with that cheetah? Is it sick? Where can I sign up to send antibiotics to sick cheetahs?”
(And not all movement is explosive like the running cheetah. Think about sitting again — yes, sitting is movement. How ridiculous would it be to observe a cat sitting collapsed in a slump? Just as ridiculous as observing a cat straining to sit up.)
A common refrain among performers is that effort is ugly; that’s the kind of effort I’m saying only exists as a cloud in front of a bright blue sky.
This is a story that frames things openly and accurately, because the fundamental assumption that movement is effortless allows for the best possible outcome. It doesn’t constrain us. It doesn’t tell us what we are supposed to do or how we are supposed to be, just what we have the potential for. It puts us in better relationship to ourselves.
There might even be some big, dark, scary thunder clouds: like chronic pain, injuries, surgeries, panic attacks or movement disorders like Parkinson’s Disease. Me, I still have chronic neck pain. I am in no way saying that all our problems instantly melt away when we tell ourselves nicer (and more accurate) stories, but it does open the possibility. In the case of my chronic pain, it’s ultimately made the difference between occasional nuisance and persistent disability.
When my neck hurts again, I can remind myself that now it usually does not. The cloud will pass. My old stories would have me seizing the pain, tensing, and stretching, and pulling, making my neck feel worse because I thought I was supposed to work out the kink or hold myself in some protective position. I would look for the pain and jerk myself around until I found it. But if movement is effortless like the sky is blue, then I can see all I was doing was seeding a storm cloud from a wisp that was just going to pass.
My pain is reduced in both frequency and intensity, but more importantly, my relationship to it has changed dramatically. I have a say in it. I have control — not always directly, but over my reaction to it, which can make pain immeasurably worse or just a cloud passing by.
(Not just a story: The clinical research on Alexander Technique and musculoskeletal disorders is consistent with my experience, including significantly fewer days in pain and lower disability scores compared to other interventions, as well as improved self-care scores. Ditto for movement disorders like Parkinson’s Disease.)
If there are clouds, this story lets us see them for what they are.
We can look to see which clouds are transient, and which have been hanging in the sky for years.
We can define the outlines of our clouds. We can see how much of the sky is obscured by our own doing and how much is out of our hands (and how much more we obscure in reaction to what’s out of our hands).
Careful here. It would be easy to slip back into our old stories here. Remember that if movement is effortless like the sky is blue, we’re looking at how to get out of the way of the blue sky. It’s not about working to do right, it’s about learning how to stop working against ourselves and to provide ourselves with the support we need. We’re becoming mindfully aware of what we are doing and the choices available to us so that we can make decisions with intelligent kindness for ourselves.
It’s about freeing up, not battening down.
And we can practice this in the face of even our biggest, darkest, scariest storm clouds. Your clouds will be different than mine, but the sky beyond is blue for all of us.
It’s worth considering where in your movement life you can find more blue. Even if your sky is chronically overcast, it’s helpful to remember the blue beyond, and to look for where it peeks through instead of always chasing clouds.
But how can this be an actually practical tip?
Tip #3: Ask yourself, “Can I do a little less work?”
I was recently asked to demonstrate an arms-overhead squat for a personal trainer presenting to a professional group. He wanted to show the audience good form, and that meant me holding the position so he could point things out. He suggested that I not go as low as I normally can, to make it easier on myself.
Afterward, a man mentioned that when he saw me drop into a deep squat that all he could think about was what pain his knees would be in if he attempted the same.
Both of these folks hold a view of movement that is fundamentally focused on effort. They hold the idea that you can reduce effort by moving less, and improve movement through focused effort (in this case, focused strengthening of muscles like the gluteus medius to draw the knees apart as one squats to hold good form.)
In fact, the reason my form is good and my squat is deep is because I know that movement is effortless. I don't have to fire specific muscles to make my knees go to the right place. I just have to let them go that way, with as little effort as possible.
Similar to sitting, most people are constantly expending some effort pulling their knees in, and then they have to fight themselves to draw them apart. Instead, I don't fight.
And the squat is actually easier in the completion of movement than in its interruption. It is a position of rest, of release into support, that actually releases my back into length and eases weight on my hips and knees.
Whenever there are clouds in your movement sky, whatever the activity, a powerful, basic strategy is to simply ease up on yourself. Ask yourself: “Can I do a little less work?” Try it with whatever position you’re in right now.
As an experiment, you can try the opposite. “Can I make this harder?” Our bodies know how to interpret requests into movement (if you allow it). When I try this, when I ask how I might work harder to stand at my desk, I automatically stiffen my back, tense my hands and stop breathing.
And when I allow my body to respond to the request to do a little less work, my breath moves freely, I release into the support of my feet, and I actually get a little taller as I stop pulling myself down toward my keyboard. I feel at once lighter and more grounded, and I notice that I am even putting less pressure on my wrists as I type.
It probably won’t blast every cloud out of your sky, but when you give yourself the simple direction “to do less work,” notice if there is a little bit more blue: a little more freedom, a little more ease, a little less effort. That’s an opening that can continue to grow, if you allow it.
This simple question is a powerful means of addressing the root causes of our movement trouble, of beginning to release our habits so our natural coordination can return.
It’s an invitation to release into support, to complete movement.
It’s an invitation to yourself to stop fighting yourself and enjoy the sky.