Performing an Exercise vs. Experiencing an Exercise

Fitness training needs a new paradigm that allows us to learn and adapt. That means letting go of how we look when we are training.

Today’s newsletter content:

  1. Learn from some amazing coaches (including me) at the free online summit: Unraveling the Myth of Flow

  2. Shifting the training paradigm: Experiencing the exercise over Performing the exercise

Unraveling the Myth of Flow Online Summit

What: An online summit featuring workshops from a wide range of movement coaches offering tools and tips to improve your movement flow

When: June 22-24

Where: Your screen

More info: This event is designed to challenge the misconceptions around “effortless flow” and to provide you with applicable tools and techniques to enhance your movement.

For 3 days Jessica John of Circus Mobility is bringing you presentations from over 25 industry experts. You’ll hear about everything from trance states and overcoming mental and physical blocks, to techniques for enhancing performance fluidity, and more.

For example, I’m going to be talking all about how mobility and end range strength training can improve your movement quality!

We’re featuring 25+ presenters including some pretty big names (Marlo Fiskin, Heidi Coker, and Dr. Emily Scherb.

You can see the entire list of presenters and workshops and learn more about the intention behind the summit here.

Can We Shift the Way We Approach Our Training Sessions By Letting Go of Looking Good (at least for a little while)?

Are you a performer?

I don’t just mean on the stage. I mean, do you do every exercise as if you are being judged by an Olympic panel?

For so many years - even when I was training alone - I trained only in pursuit of perfection. I wanted every moment of my workouts to look impressive… even if there was no one around to impress.

The truth is that no judgmental audience, no harsh coach, could ever be as critical of my movement as I was. Even my meanest coach (who told me that he wanted to cut off my thigh meat) wasn’t as mean as my own inner tyrant. I was so consumed by imposter syndrome and fear of failure that I drove myself right out of my own body.

How the Inner Critic Undermines our Training

The inner critic - I call it the judgement monster - is the enemy of learning.

Whenever I work with clients we must do battle with their judgement monsters. The judgment monster demands immediate, incontrovertible perfection. It is a third party to every training session, perched overhead like a buzzard. The louder it squawks, the more we want to perform according to its demands.

Like me, my clients are great at accommodating the judgement monster. When I offer them an exercise they perform it back for me, often beautifully. But when I ask them how it feels in their body they haven’t paid attention.

Kristina coaching a student int a contortion backbend

Coaching a contortion class at Inspiral Pole Dance in Warsaw, Poland in 2015

It’s hard to train when you aren’t in your body. It’s nearly impossible to understand a movement when you are judging it before you even start. That’s just not how learning works.

Learning requires experimentation. It requires experience and reflection. It requires failure.

Every failure is another data point, another input that your brain uses to analyze, re-calibrate, and adjust.

But in order to go through that learning process of trying, failing, feeling, reassessing, trying again, failing again, etc… you have to experience the exercise.

Experiencing the Exercise

Experiencing an exercise feels completely different than performing an exercise. When you experience an exercise your entire focus is on the process that is occurring in your own body.

I first started to really experience exercises when I was rehabbing the ligament tear in my hip in 2009. My excellent physical therapist, Kevin Takao at Premier Physical Therapy, told me that I had to completely re-imagine the way that I was using my hip muscles after over 30 years of being massively quad-dominant.

Many dancers and contortionists are quad-dominant and it is not an easy pattern to change. Instead of doing my usual contortion workouts with lots of splits and backbends I was doing tiny, irritating movements and trying to feel tiny, sleepy muscles in my hip sockets.

I wanted to perform these exercises. Make them look impressive. But fortunately Kevin was used to circus performers and knew what I was up to. He saw that even though my body was moving according to his instructions I was not feeling the muscles, making the changes, and doing the actual work.

Kevin told me to slow down and stop panicking about the end results. He couldn’t guarantee an outcome, but he could offer me a process. The catch was, I had to experience my body for anything to change. That meant being in my body now, with all of its imperfections, and working with my body instead of at my body.

An empty circus gym with blue carpeting and a dog laying on her back on the floor

My least judgemental training partner of all time was Betty Boop, shown here in an empty Cirque School circa 2010

Case Study: Ambitious Aerialist

Last week one of my clients (let’s call her A) was back for a follow up appointment. A is a total badass. She’s an aerialist and martial artist who also has chronic neck pain. We have been working on her breathing patterns, but she found that the exercises were causing new pains to pop up.

What I noticed is that A was going full throttle on these exercises. She was performing them to perfection. But when I asked her what she was feeling, she wasn’t actually able to tell me where she was moving or engaging. So for our entire session we asked her judgement monster to please wait outside the studio until we were done.

I asked her to follow the steps that have worked for me to shift from performing to experiencing.

Useful Tips for Experiencing an Exercise

  1. Ask your judgement monster to wait outside

  2. Take some deep breathes and check in with your body

  3. Don’t worry about the outcome, focus on the process

  4. Don’t worry about how the exercise looks or how far you move (for mobility training)

  5. Experiment with closing your eyes as a way to remove the temptation to worry about how the movement looks (if that is safe)

  6. Put your hand on the part of your body you want to feel and use the touch sensation to guide your attention

  7. Try less hard. Ask yourself what is the minimum amount of effort I need in order to accomplish this exercise. Trying harder doesn’t always lead to better results.

By the end of the session A was able to feel her hamstrings and psoas come on line, her rib cage drop, and her neck relax a bit. By experiencing the exercises with out pushing or judging her body was able to experiment, learn, and adapt.

Sometimes less is more!

Experience-Based Exercise is a Paradigm Shift

Experiencing instead of performing requires a paradigm shift in how with think about training. Circus training, my years of dance and martial arts, decades in the gym… all of it encouraged me to compete and excel. My income depended on my being more impressive than the person next to me at every audition. I never knew when someone was watching me who might pick me for a life-changing role.

Even for people who aren’t professional performers this kind of competition and constant judgement colors every aspect of our lives.

Combine that with the “go hard or go home” philosophy that has dominated the fitness world since forever, and exercise becomes a place where we go to break ourselves for the approval of others, not relate to ourselves for our own growth and learning.

In the last few years I’m seeing more and more coaches question the old approach, not just because it is unhealthy, but because it is less productive. I am hoping that this trend continues across all movement modalities, driven by new science and research.

The way we think about and experience our movement is just as important as the girth of the muscle or the length of the tendon. And while we may never completely banish those judgement monsters we can make them go sit outside while we work out. Life is so much more fun without them.

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