Friday, June 12, 2015

Joints & Expressivity: What the two have to do with one another

Joints & Expressivity: 
What the two have to do with one another

When you think of your joints, "expressivity" may not be the first association that pops into your mind - but actually the two are closely related. To many people "joints" are merely anatomical parts that we rarely consider until they cause us problems - such as, when they are injured or become achy. Anyone who has had an injured knee, ankle, wrist, etc., knows how debilitating this is to daily function. A little over a decade ago, I had an on-going injury with the lower joint of my left big toe that caused me distress for several years. So even an injury to a toe joint can affect daily function. (More later on the common colloquialism of "them causing us problems".) But that is enough on injury. What about expressivity?!

In these photos you can see how the articulation of the joints is linked to expressivity:

In these photos I am improvising with Paul Singh, a dancer from New York.

The Latin word for joint is "articulus". Hence, the words articulation in French, articulación in Spanish, articulação in Portuguese, and articalzione in Italian. The Latin root also found its way into English; we have the adjective "articulate" and the verb, "to articulate" as well as noun and adverbial forms. However, these words are more commonly associated with language expression and the ability to express oneself with clarity. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, "articulate" has the following definitions:

1. able to express oneself fluently and coherently: an articulate lecturer.
2. having the power of speech
3. distinct, clear, or definite; well-constructed: an articulate voicean articulate document.
4. (Zoology) zoology (of arthropods and higher vertebrates) possessing joints or jointed segments
5. to speak or enunciate (words, syllables, etc) clearly and distinctly
6. (tr) to express coherently in words
7. (Zoology) zoology (intr) to be jointed or form a joint
8. (tr) to separate into jointed segments

A synonym for "articulate" is "expressivity". Bingo! There we have the etymological connection - but the link between joints and expressivity is more than an abstract connection to be extracted from Latin words. (The word link is derived from the German word Gelenk, meaning joint. Focusing on the joints is good for making connections.) We can observe and readily experience this connection in our daily lives, and day-to-day movement.

Body movements, both fine and gross motor movements, are made possible because of the joints. Joints allow our limbs to move in relation to one another and to the trunk, or torso, of the body. Our muscles act as lever systems contracting body parts or extending body parts from one another. The torso itself, with the pelvis at its core and the spine running along its midline, is full of articulating joints. Each vertebrae (25 in humans) has at least four joints. The thoracic vertebrae, which are the 12 middle vertebrae to which the ribs attach, have up to four extra joints. Therefore, there are over 100 joints in the spine alone!

Anatomists and evolutionists sometimes refer to the torso as our primary body, since it evolved first, and the arms and legs secondarily. So to begin, let us look at the expressivity of the torso. The spine is extremely expressive of our internal state and/or emotions. Imagine for instance the spine of someone who is full of joy, or of someone who is eager, or depressed, or stuck-up, or stressed. It is, of course, ideal when we have full access to the expressivity of the spine, and can move through these various inner-expressions of being without getting stuck, long-term in a particular position or posture. (This can serve as a good reminder to myself to move and change my position somewhat frequently while typing at my computer.)

How would you interpret the expressivity of the spine in these photos?

Here I am performing with dancers Henrik Kaalund and Andrew Wass

We all know, however, that many of us do get stuck in a particular shape or posture. I believe this happens for various reasons. For one, many people simply lose range of motion in the spine due to lack of movement. Our lives have become highly sedentary compared to the lives of most humans throughout human history. By not moving joints regularly through their normal range of motion, we eventually lose the ability to articulate and move these joints properly. In some cases the joints simply become more fixed, or rigid, while in other cases, the joints may become hypermobile due to a weakening of the surrounding infrastructure. Secondly, there is truth to the old somatic saying of "form follows function". If our daily work holds us in particular postures or positions for hours on end, our body will start to form to these postures - especially if we are not regularly finding other ways of moving. Thirdly, fixed ideas or images that we have of ourselves (these may be personal or cultural) often affect how we hold ourselves. For instance, in the middle ages, many women would thrust their pelvis and belly forward as if pregnant; pregnancy being a highly desired state. Is there a particular way that tennagers in your culture hold themselves? How do you imagine the posture of a soldier, a ballerina, a homeless person.

How to maintain the full articulation of your spine? 
Ideally we are moving our spines everyday in all of the directions and motions available to us. The spine exhibits a full spectrum of movement possibilities in all planes: 1) in the vertical plane (up-down), which translates to lateral, side-to-side movement, i.e. fish-like movements, 2) in the sagittal (front-back) plane, i.e. a wave or dolphin motion, 3) twisting along the axis in the horizontal, or table plane, and 4) 3-dimensionally through all planes of movement. 

A healthily mobilized spine also means a more stable spine -  The great spinal dualities – mobile and stable & functional and expressive:
The spine is a structure, which is both beautifully mobile and also extremely stable. Think of how the stability of the spine allows to you to pick up a child or grown-up (if you practice contact improvisation), or to carry a backpack or to work upright at your computer. Mobility and stability come hand-in-hand. By regularly working with the mobility of the spine we engage the muscles around the vertebrae and thereby also enhance the stability. Working with stabilizing movements (think plank position of yoga or any sort of abdominal or extension training) can also serve to enhance healthy degrees of mobilization.  And, of course, a healthy balance between mobility and stability means a fully expressive spine. Someone with backbone is someone who can stand up for him/herself or a cause. It is someone that has a stable spine. At the same time we want a beautifully mobile spine to express playfulness and also flexibility. 

The Importance of the Breath
Each inhale and exhale offers us the potential to stimulate and move the joints within the spine, especially the costovertebral joints of the thoracic spine, which connect the ribs to the spine. The ribs are meant to expand with the inhale and release inwards with the exhale. By allowing for full breaths you can notice how the spine grows with the inhale and shrinks with the exhale. You will also notice that for full breaths to be possible the spine is ideally in an upright position, and you are not slumping in a chair. 
If I am sitting for a long time, or working at my computer, I notice that my breath often becomes shallow. Studies have shown that most people are far from using the full capacity of their breath and are often breathing shallowly. Shallow breath is frequently due to slumping, which in effect collapses the capacity of the lungs, but it can also be due to a simple lack of awareness around the breath, or can be psychologically related.  

A shallow breath translates to less stimulation of the joints in the spine and along the ribs. The ribs may even become frozen and not move at all with the breath. Note that the breath stimulates the ribs' connection to the spine at one end and to the sternum at the other end - thus we experience a 3-dimensional expansion and release with the breath, along the front, sides and back of the body.

The breath is also highly connected to emotions. You can notice how your breath changes from one situation to the next depending on how you feel. What is your breath like when you are in the company of close friends as opposed to when you are in the company of superiors or colleagues who you feel may be judging you? Stressful situations in which you do not feel free to express yourself can also lead to a more shallow breath and more cramped, immobile expression through the body. Or, you may feel that you have to put on a coat of armor to protect yourself - which is something that we literally do when we feel attacked, not allowing ourself, particularly our torso, to move or be moved. It is, however, not ideal when we have to keep our armor on hour after hour, day after day. This will naturally alter our ability to express ourselves, and we may even loose access to our own feelings.

Do you know someone who is frozen through the torso? This person may be difficult to "read". It may seem that he/she is covering up his/her true thoughts or feelings.

So what do we do in any of these unideal situations? Notice the breath and allow it to move us. 

Exercise 1: Notice your breath and how it moves the joints along the spine and ribs. Notice what happens with the inhale and with the exhale. What effect does the shape of your spine have on your breath, i.e. slumping, or sitting upright?

What is the most expressive joint in the body? What do you think?
Is it the shoulder joint, which has the widest range of movement of any joint in the body? Or, the combined actions of all the joints in the hand? Or is the core of the body more important? Although the range of movement at the center of the body may be more minimal, its affects are magnified through the proximal limbs. Or is the atlanto-occipital joint the most expressive? This is the joint, or actually pair of joints, between top spinal vertebrae and the skull, which allows for nodding and side-to-side movement of the head.

Exercise 2: Explore movement of the joints and find which one for you is the most expressive.

 Dance allows for a full range movement and of expressivity:

In conclusion, daily movement of the joints is important for maintaining the health of these joints. Movements that explore the full range of the joint, without forcefully pushing the edge of this range, like arm circles, shoulder roles, or hip circles, help to keep the joints in good working order. For synovial joints, those which contain synovial fluid, daily movement is necessary for the lubrication and smooth functioning of these joints. (Lubrication is not only something necessary for car engines and mechanical parts.) If we do not regularly move our joints through their normal range of motion, we will gradually start to lose this range of motion and the full functionality and expressivity of this joint.

The body causing us problems!
How is it that parts of our bodies, literally parts of ourselves, can cause us problems? The key, of course, lays in the objectification of the body and the belief in the widespread cultural paradigm of the body-mind split. If we were to fully identify with our body as ourself, we would likely listen to our bodies with equal interest as we do our will and daily plans, and give it the attention that it requires. And, we would not blame our body for causing problems or creating limitations. More often than not our limitations begin in our attitudes (be them cultural or personal) not in our bodies. 

Exercise 3Play with the articulation of your joints and notice how these affect your feelings, and emotional state. 

Exercise 4: Imagine yourself as a baby or small child who is first learning how to use his/her joints. You are naturally curious and excited to explore the full range of movement possible.