Guest post by Feldenkrais Practitioner and Gestalt psychotherapist, Catherine McCrum
Core Stability by way of/through the skeleton
A member asked a question about core stability on the Artistic Dressage page. I was struck by the huge variety in understanding of what the core is, which got me thinking about how you might access your core in a way that could be effective in riding, as well as in daily life. So in my ride today I decided to pay very close attention to how I keep myself in balance and report my findings back here. I’m not the greatest or most experienced rider, however many years of teaching Feldenkrais, movement and sport has given me a relatively refined sense of how I’m moving at any point in time.
This is not supposed to be a recipe for correct core use – more an experiential report of the strategies I use to help me ride as effectively yet effortlessly as possible for the level I’m at. Bear in mind that I’ve developed many of these strategies to counteract my own unhelpful patterns of muscular contraction. Your patterns will be different and require your own unique approach.
Centering and Balancing
Before I ask anything of my horse I centre C7 – the protruding vertebra at the base of my neck - over the midline of my sacrum and tailbone and directly over my horse’s midline (spine). I also have a sense of having as much of my skull behind the top of my spine as in front, as if my head is a ball balanced on top of a pencil which ends at the level of my cheekbones. This image not only helps my head and neck stay free, but also supports my chest to stay open without arching the middle of my back. I love using the image of the ring of the first rib (which is about where a short necklace would lie and underneath your collarbones) and aligning it over the ring of bone in the pelvis which I describe below. This gives me a feeling of a central core which starts where my pelvis meets my horse’s back all the way to the base of my neck. I also think of my shoulder girdle resting on the ring of the first ribs so that my arms can hang freely and quietly at my sides.
When we walk on, my head, base of my neck, shoulders and top ribs stay quiet and steady in relationship to my pelvis which swings with the horse. I oscillate my attention between sensing my tailbone drawing a narrow u shape both either side of my horse’s spine and either side of the base of my neck (C7). This way I can check in my sensation whether I’m relatively symmetrical and also whether he is. I also think of the smaller cylinder of my pelvis below my hip joints being connected to the horse. This is comprised of my tailbone, sitting bones and pubic bone. I check in with the small ‘ring’ of bone in my pelvis which is at the height of pubic bone and the inside of the sacrum where it meets the lumbar spine . Check it out on a skeleton – it’s a great bony landmark to help you find the skeletal core! If I feel a bit lopsided in the walk, I’ll check whether the butterfly wings of the back of my pelvis are moving as much up to the bottom of my ribs on the right and to the left. I have a tendency to hollow my back so I remind myself to sit a bit more behind my sitting bones than I would in normal life.
When I want, for example, to leg yield to the right I think of releasing the right side of my spine so that I get a little more length through my right side – waist, ribs etc. It’s super minimal though and I don’t think you would detect this movement from the outside. This release really helps me activate the inside of my left leg, inside of my hip joint and all the way up the inside of the left side of my spine. I turn my pelvis and the ring of my first rib in the direction of travel.
I have a tendency in rising trot to arch the middle of my back which causes my bottom front ribs move away from my hip bones. I noticed today that I depress the bottom of my sternum a bit in and towards my back bone to counteract this. This definitely activates my abdominals – probably obliques and rectus abdominus - but my focus is more on keeping the ribs and pelvis more or less the same distance apart. There is a small lengthening between my pubic bone and the bottom of my sternum on the rise and shortening on the sit. When I’m steady in this part of me, I find it’s easy to release my hip joints so that my legs hand freely but are also steady. If I really pay attention to my deep core I can feel that this is activated much more strongly than at the walk, but I don’t have to consciously engage if I think of keeping my whole torso firm, stable and balanced.
I realise that I constantly scan myself for places that I’m fixing too much, whether my breath is free and easy and flowing with my movement. I notice whether I grip with my eyes, jaw or the back of my neck and I check in regularly with feeling whether I can even out my weight through the balls of my feet.
Having written about my sensory experience in such detail, I'm struck by how much awareness and attention a relatively simple ride asked for!!
Core Stability by way of/through the breath
Most Feldenkrais lessons ask us to attend to the relationships between the bones and the joints. Noticeable muscular effort is usually a sign of poor organisation - a contradiction between an unconscious (and probably unhelpful) habit and the action you’re intending to carry out. We do have a lot of breathing lessons which ask us to play around with moving the internal volume in our torso to expand our ribs, abdomen, into our hip joints etc. When it comes to the outer layers of muscle ie abdominals and back, I tend to brace these when I'm falling out of balance. It's as if I use them to grab me back to the upright which makes sense as they are the muscles that flex, extend and twist us. I've become very interested in what really does give me stability apart from the spine, pelvis and ribs ie the bony structures. So here are my non-skeletal discoveries!
I use my breath a lot for stability and for changing the 'texture' of my body if you like. So I got to thinking about what was involved. Of course when I breathe in my lungs expand. This means that the dome-like shape of my diaphragm also descends and pushes my viscera down. If I really think of filling the cylinder of my abdomen and back below the rib cage then I think that asks for the deepest layer of abdominal muscle - transverse abdominis - to expand 3 dimensionally. TA is a muscle that attaches to the ribs and pelvis and back around to the spine exactly like an old-fashioned corset. This seems to give a very stable firmness to my torso without the outer layers of muscle overly contracting. This allows me to keep the length and integrity of my spine without getting too tight. I can therefore still move my pelvis and lumbar spine to the degree that I want. It also seems to have the effect of keeping my upper back and chest vertically balanced above my pelvis. I also sometimes contract TA 3 dimensionally for half halts but I don't shorten my front. When I do this the volume in my abdomen is pulled upwards and my chest fills and gets more expanded. If I was going to describe the feeing it's like two water balloons, one on top of the other and I'm seesawing the volume of these balloons inside my torso. The top water balloon is my lungs and the bottom is my viscera and they're separated by the diaphragm.
So here's where it gets interesting. I was discussing this with my osteopath, Neill Saunders, who treats me and my horse. He also studied agricultural machinery so has a very interesting view on bio-mechanics. He said that the lungs and viscera are like a hydraulic system that give the torso stability. He described them as two bags surrounded by fluid which need to balance and hang one on top of the other and then either push down or pull up with the help of all the internal fluid. The diaphragm, TA and the pelvic floor are the muscles that keep this hydraulic system well-organised. Shana Ritter I think this matches your internal feeling of an elevator? He said that if you keep the superficial abdominals or back muscles contracted then these 'bags' can't hang so you destabilise yourself and lose your balance. The more I've thought about the image of a hydraulic system, the more I'm getting the feeling of where my system isn't quite working. And I'm able to use my breath to mobilise and free up these small parts of me.
After Neill treated me yesterday, I could feel the right side of my diaphragm, which is usually a bit tight, moving 3 dimensionally as freely as my left. All the tight tissue around the right side of my pelvis had changed so I was able to easily breathe into this part of me. The sensation I had in standing was one of effortlessness - more an absence of sensation. I'm wondering how it'll be to take this effortlessness into my riding.
Catherine McCrum is an assistant teacher in some of our programs and courses. For more info on Catherine: http://www.catherinemccrum.com/