The Art and Science of Walking and Movement

Lessons on Friday evenings at Ripley Grier Studios, 305 W 38th St, New York from May 10 to June 28, 2019. The fee is $10 per lesson. RSVP with your contact information so I can make sure there is space and confirm your slot. RSVP by emailing me at praneeth dot namburi at gmail dot com, or reaching out here, or on the facebook event page.

The lessons are designed to be largely stand-alone. So, you can drop-in for one or more of these lessons! The room number is updated weekly on the Facebook event page.

Course Description

Most of us learn to walk as a baby – at a time that we can’t recall much from, and use this skill throughout our lives without really knowing how exactly it works or how to learn this skill. Several scientists and artists have spent their lives working out how this process works. Come to this class for a fun way to get to know how you walk and make your walking easier and more efficient, and discover the surprising consequence of being able to use this experience to improve your general posture and balance, discover why ergonomic mice are designed the way they are, and improve your moves during dancing, boxing, running, climbing, swimming, etc.

Goal. Our body produces beautifully coordinated movements by effectively channeling force flows through our body, especially in everyday activities such as walking. Unfortunately, most of us are used to thinking about this amazing ability as something that ‘just happens’. Instead, this course will empower you with tools to systematically analyze, construct and produce efficient movements, and tools to view coordinated movements produced during dancing, boxing, running, climbing, swimming, etc. as extensions of walking.

Approach. When we walk, there are predictable patterns in which all the bones in our body move with respect to each other when we put weight into a foot and take the weight off a foot. Becoming aware of these patterns and developing control over them can help us understand, explore, and consequently safely surpass our own limits of mobility, flexibility, speed, control, and precision. Furthermore, learning to follow these patterns while walking and training can not only help us locate areas of stress and strain in our body, but also help reduce the risk of injury by enabling us to distribute forces optimally throughout our body, and at least in my case, overcome mobility limitations in my body imposed by two accidents.

Syllabus. In this course, you will learn how to think about all movement as a full-body process, learn to decompose movement into its constituent components from the perspective of joints in your body and then compose coordinated movement from these components. During this process, you will learn to use the scientific method as a tool for extending your own awareness of how your body works. You will take away easy to do exercises at home designed to rekindle your curiosity for the concepts you learned in class, and develop a more sophisticated awareness of your own body. Lessons in the first 8 weeks will deal with the broad themes of movement decomposition and movement composition. These themes are:

  1. Hip joints
  2. Ankles and knees
  3. Lumbar spine and pelvis
  4. Articulated and stable lower body movements
  5. Shoulders
  6. Ribcage and thoracic spine
  7. Articulated and stable upper body movements
  8. Creating efficient movements, and self-exploration

In the second half of the lesson on June 28, you will learn to identify constraints and freedom within your own body. Some constraints are temporary and can be undone, and other constraints are imposed by our anatomy. Learning to differentiate between these constraints will help us understand when and how to push ourselves safely, and when to stop and seek guidance. A precise knowledge of where freedom lies within these constraints and the forms it takes will help you better explore your own creative potential.

Sample lesson: Shoulder stabilization

Summary. In this lesson, we talked about stabilizing the shoulder structure in the anterior-posterior plane by finding stretches in the pectoralis minor and the serratus anterior.

Theory. A stressed pectoralis minor muscle will pull the entire shoulder structure anterior, while a stressed serratus muscle will pull the shoulder structure more posterior (because of its attachment to the shoulder blade, which is not entirely obvious in this picture). Opposition between these two muscles through stretches in both the pectoralis minor and the serratus anterior keeps the shoulder blade stable in the anterior-posterior plane. These stretches provide the feeling of nicely draped shoulders over the ribcage.

Opposition. Opposition between two muscles does not mean that they are working against each other as the name might suggest. Instead, think about opposition as elastic forces caused by muscles stretching in opposing directions with the purpose of stabilizing a part of your skeletal structure. Therefore, the muscles are working together to achieve a specific goal, as opposed to working against each other! Stabilization caused in this way can be used to produce movements described commonly as ‘easy’, ‘effortless’, ‘sharp’, ‘controlled’ and ‘elastic’. Instead, if the concept of opposition is misunderstood and stabilization is instead achieved by contracting two muscles working against each other, then the movements caused by such stabilization often appear to be ‘spastic’, ‘effortful’, and ‘brittle’.

Application. Most of us swing our arms when we walk. Stretches and opposition through stretches in the pectoralis minor and serratus anterior muscles help efficiently transmit forces between the upper body and the arms, and can be applied to make our walking feel easier, and more generally, to movements involving our shoulders. Basic movements in boxing take advantage of the same stretches to produce fast and efficient movements. In climbing, we use the same stretches for shoulder organization, but more so for stable and controlled movements. Take the breaststroke during swimming for another example. Finding these stretches before we ‘pull’ our arms back will help us to efficiently engage the bigger muscles in the upper chest and the upper back. The same stretches can help maintain a stable and ‘breathable’ frame during the waltz, and create flashy but easy looking arm movements in the New Yorker of the rumba. Once we work with these principles, we can meditate on them to improve our posture and movement even when taking a stroll!

Recap. During the class, we started with the towel stretch exercise (see next section for a video review). The towel stretch exercise can also be used as a metric of openness and flexibility in the armpit region in addition to helping you find stretches in this region.

We also used breathing as a tool to find room underneath your armpit and help you stretch both of these muscles to stabilize the shoulder. Peruse the diagram above to visualize how increasing the volume of the ribcage can be used to induce stretches in these muscles.

You also experienced different sensations when you lifted your arms. You used to use your deltoid muscles to lift your arms, and after this lesson, you realized that there is a very different way of lifting your arms – one that doesn’t involve putting too much stress on the deltoid muscles. We achieved this by exploring ways to support our shoulder girdle better on top of our ribcage. We also thought about the shoulder girdle as being ‘draped’ over the ribcage.

Great job on being able to open the region underneath your armpits and gaining about 2 inches total in the towel stretch metric by the end of the lesson. Use the exercises below to dig deeper into building your awareness of how the shoulder region is stabilized by the opposition between the pectoralis minor and the serratus anterior. Remember that releasing stress (e.g., through massage) is only temporary until we discover our habits (e.g. how we use a computer mouse) that are injecting stress into our muscular system, and then change them in beneficial ways.

Exercises to practice this material. In addition to the exercises in the recap section, use these three exercises to find opposition between the pectoralis minor and the serratus anterior. The last one requires a lot more focus than the other two and is the best one among the three to build your awareness of shoulder stabilization. I recommend doing these exercises in order, and then moving on to the floor work discussed in class.

Exercise 1. Towel stretch

Once you find your limit (explained in the video), repeat the exercise around there about 10 times.

Exercise 2. Camel pose (yoga)

Do this 2-3 times with about 5 breaths in each repetition.

Exercise 3. Arm flexes

Repeat 15 times on each arm slowly. Do all three variations on one side before moving to the other. Do three repetitions of this entire progression. For the first repetition, stand on the ipsilateral leg (stand well, remember lesson 2). For the second rep, stand on the contralateral leg, and for the third rep, stand split weight. You can also do this exercise lying on your back, and get a different feeling for the stretches you are trying to induce.