The body has a harmony of its own. Think for a moment that what you know and live through day after day is the emergent result of the intricate workings on trillions of cells. These cells don’t have a central command. A series of local interactions and vast communication networks allow you to breathe, think, move, and be.
These cells, every last one of them, all trace back to one single, fertilized cell. A series of divisions and differentiations led to you as you are now.
Certain cells clustered and shared functions. These became tissues. Tissues clustered together to become organs. Organs become organ systems, and so on. There’s a beautiful quality to the living history of the body, reminiscent of the branching of trees. There’s an underlying pattern, a sort of embodied wisdom that brings order to the madness of trillions of cells.
Of course we see these patterns extend beyond our own flesh into the makings of families, communities, and societies.
But what I really want to discuss in this section is the interplay of certain systems in the body that lead to an experience of internal strength.
First, a short story…
When I was younger (around 8 years old), I decided to be a vegetarian. My favorite food had been chicken fingers. But my grandparents took me to see the movie Chicken Run, and at one point a claymation chicken actually gets its fingers cut off on a chopping block.
I ran crying out of the theater and didn’t eat meat again for another 14 years.
I wasn’t much of an active kid either.
I preferred to read, play video games, or study bugs.
So I never had much of an experience of my own physical capability until around college. The summer before, a friend convinced me to go running, and because I didn’t have running shoes, I stumbled my way into barefoot running. It stuck with me surprisingly well.
But the real change came in college when I first tried Brazilian jiu jitsu.
I was just about the smallest guy on the team, fighting at a humbling 114lbs. I would wrestle against guys with 20, 40, 60 pounds on me – up to twice my weight. And of course I got my ass kicked more often than not, but on those times I won…
I felt a level of strength I’d never experienced before.
It was incredible.
And it leads us to the focus on this section: leverage.
See, when you’re the small guy, you can’t out-muscle the big guys. You have to find a different strategy and play a different game. I found that, although they could out-muscle me, I was pretty bendy. I had also started practicing yoga 4 or 5 days out of the week. My flexibility would buy me some time while I hunted for a point of leverage to use against them.
Leverage is a loaded word.
Etymologically it derives from the Latin word levis, meaning light.
We know leverage from the world of physics, but we apply it in any number of other domains. When we use a lever, we’re able to reduce the amount of force needed by increasing the distance through which the force acts.
It’s worth noting that this diagram shows a “Class 1 Lever,” in which the force applied and the load moved are on opposite sides of the fulcrum (the pivot point). When you nod your head, you’re making use of Class 1 Levers. There are two other classes of levers as well.
This is a Class 2 Lever, in which the applied force and load are on the same side of the fulcrum, with the load between fulcrum and force. Think of lifting up on the balls of the feet for an example.
And this is a Class 3 Lever, in which the applied force is between the fulcrum and load. Think of the bicep engaging to lift an object at the elbow.
So of course we have examples of each of these levers all throughout the body.
Can you think of other examples for each?
What we’re experiencing in the movement of the body is a beautiful orchestration of force, generated by the muscles, acting on the bones, with the joints as fulcra, organized by the nervous system.
When these systems are working in harmony, we have easy, elegant movement. We move with grace, speed, and strength.
It is awareness of the skeleton, its position in space, its relative arrangement that affords us our sense of internal strength. This proprioceptive sense, the ability to orient to ourselves within the world gives us power. The skeleton, the most durable part of ourselves, the most essential form – this is what grants us leverage in life.
We move ourselves through the world by acting on this essential form. It carries us from A to B with ease – if only we’re able to free ourselves from inhibitions of muscular bracing. If we can soften some of the habitual tension through curious exploration of our habits, we’re able to create remarkable changes in our experience of leverage.
I had a surprising reminder of this recently.
I’ve recently been working with my deadlifts more frequently. I prefer low volume, high intensity for the greatest carryover into day-to-day life. A handful of reps to stimulate my system, and then a big meal and long nap : )
During the first week of a Feldenkrais training segment I hit 265lbs for a maximum lift. I knew I wouldn’t be going any higher on that day. But somehow I had a hunch that by the end of the second week, I’d add 40lbs and hit 305lbs — double my bodyweight — for the first time in my life.
I couldn’t tell you how I knew, but I was certain.
I didn’t touch the barbell the rest of the week, and on Friday — after a week of exploring all sorts of slow, gentle movements on the ground — I came back to the bar and hit a rep at 275…then 285…295…and then 305.
And it was surprisingly elegant.
Something had shifted in the way that my nervous system organized the muscular activity acting on the bony levers of the skeleton. Through a deep immersion in my sensory-motor experience, I had created a remarkable increase in capability – with real world results. Not merely feeling good. Engaging myself in the world in a new way.
That, I think, is the beauty of this kind of work.
There’s a sensuous quality to it that affords an incredible shift in function as well.
And the strangest thing about my deadlifts is that they’re set up all wrong, according to conventional cueing. I learned to deadlift by “screwing my feet into the ground” and “driving my heels down.”
Yet when I approached the bar for that double bodyweight lift, my heels had just the faintest sliver of contact with the ground. I found myself comically far forward over the bar. And yet, up went the bar with ease.
I had changed the arrangement of fulcra throughout my system, allowing me to exert less effort and create a movement with greater load. My hunch is that I was able to create a longer lever arm by finding more height over the bar – a result of the “lift” and “lightness” I felt throughout my system.
(Remember leverage comes from the same Latin root as levity)
It wasn’t a drastic change in position, but when it comes to leverage, we don’t need a drastic change. We simply need small shifts that compound for monstrously greater efficiency.