Every weekend I teach acting classes to kids and teens in Century City.
As my group of teenagers entered the studio at the beginning of class last weekend, I noticed Markus drop his pen. With a big heave, a crunched neck and hunched shoulders, he bent over to retrieve his lost article off the carpet. At that moment, just for a flash, I saw fourteen-year-old Markus as the sixty-year-old man he might one day become. He came up in much the same awkward and compressed way, knuckled his back for a moment, and sauntered over to his seat.
“Guys,” I asked, cautious curiosity bubbling into my voice. “Where do you bend from?”
“What, Miss Jenn?” asked Alissa.
“Where do you bend from?” I repeated. The room grew silent, perplexed expressions on all the kids faces.
“Stand up, guys.” I grabbed the marker from the whiteboard and dropped it on the floor. “If you were to pick up this marker, how would you do it? What joints do you use? Point to the places you would bend from.”
The students paused for a moment and then eleven of my twelve students pointed to the middle of their backs, on or a little below the waist line.
“Okay, I said.” I’m going to pick up this marker. I’m going to do it by bending from the back of my waist like you guys are telling me to. Ready?” I curled over, my spine compressing uncomfortably, and reached out my right hand to grab the marker. My neck remained crunched up until I regained my height. “What did you notice about that move?”
“You didn’t look very comfortable.” said Irene.
“You looked like an old lady!” said Jeremy. Everyone laughed. They already consider me to be an old lady.
“I did.” I replied and dropped the marker again. “I’m going to do it again, but I’m not going to bend over at my waist. Do you know why?”
The class shook their heads.
“Because I don’t have a joint at my waist. I have some flexibility in my spine,” I wiggle around and do a funny dance, which proves this as well as how uncool of a grown-up I am. “But there isn’t a joint there. Where are the joints I can bend from to pick up something off the floor?”
“You’re hip joints,” says Irene.
“Yup. Where are they?” I ask.
She points to the top of her hips right below her waist.
“Not quite,” I say. Lift your knee up and see where you leg creases.
Half the students decide to try this for themselves.
“Oh, much lower than I thought.” admits Irene.
“Where are the other joints?”
“Knees,” says Jeremy.
“Yup.” Where else?”
“There’s more?” asks Kayden from the back. He’s clearly ready to start talking about something more interesting.
“How about your ankles?” I offer. Everyone looks down perplexed at their ankles.
“For bending?” says Kennedy a little skeptically.
“Well, try bending your knees without flexing at your ankles.”
They actually do, to my amusement.
“So what if I bend down to pick up this marker using my hips, knees, and ankles and leave my back alone?” I ask. I allow my neck to be free and easy and my head automatically begins to feel lighter. As my spine lengthens, rather than compresses, I float down on my joints, pick up the marker, and smoothly come back up.
“That looked easy.” said Irene.
“It was. And it didn’t crunch my neck or my back in the least. Want to try it?”
They do, giggling at the strangeness of consciously observing themselves practice such a simple activity.
“This looks a lot like the way my two-year-old sister picks up stuff,” comments Michelle.
“Wow. My back feels better doing it that way,” comments Markus. “Weird.”
It never ceases to amaze me how unconscious we are about the way we are constructed. Simply having a kinesthetic understanding of our bodies has a profound effect on the way we move through our lives.
I like to use the analogy of owning a car. Say you buy a new car, put only premium gas in it, regularly have it maintenanced, and protect it from freezing temperatures and harsh weather. It should last you for years, right? But say you also drive it hard. Hit speed bumps and potholes carelessly and are rough on the steering and breaks. I would hazard that this new car will wear down much faster than it should, despite the fact that you take “proper care” of your vehicle. It is the same with your body. You can exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and avoid fried foods, but if you are reckless with the way you “drive” you’re bound to have a breakdown sooner or later.
Compressing, twisting, or wrenching to complete simple daily activities such as grabbing a bag from the back seat of the car or stretching up to retrieve something off the top shelf might seem unavoidable. But next time you find you are compressing, twisting, or wrenching, ask yourself, “How can I be easier with myself right now? What tension can I let go of? What joints am I employing, or could be employing for this task?