Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians

It All Starts With Awareness

On Monday, I listened to a podcast episode of Yoga and Beyond, in which Ariana Rabinovich and her guest Jenn Pilotti discussed the merits of core stability work for back pain.  The conclusion, in the end, was that core stability work is no more effective for treating non-specific back pain than any other host of movement modalities, which include walking, yoga, somatic practices, traditional weight training, and more.  A good question you might be having right now is, "so what?"  Ah- well at the end of the episode, Jenn suggested that the most important thing for treating pain, and back pain in particular, is developing awareness.  As I mentioned on Monday, there is no one right way to move, and the same is true for cultivating bodily awareness-for some, it may happen via yoga or pilates, and for others, via Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique, or bodywork.  Essentially, developing proprioception (awareness of one's body in space) is key to changing the way you move throughout the day, especially when working with an injury or area of pain.  I find this particularly interesting in conjunction with music study- musicians are often unaware of what they are doing with their body in space as they play, especially if they play in pain.  

This curious illustration shows where the body map "lives" within the structure of the brain, but also the disproportionate nature of the map, .i.e., not all areas of the body have the same quantity of nerve receptors and awareness. Image courtesy of Neurocirugia.

This curious illustration shows where the body map "lives" within the structure of the brain, but also the disproportionate nature of the map, .i.e., not all areas of the body have the same quantity of nerve receptors and awareness. Image courtesy of Neurocirugia.

How do we develop proprioception and bodily awareness?  The Merriam-Webster definition of aware is "having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge."  I've previously mentioned the importance of body mapping, or cortical maps, in helping our bodies direct our actions efficiently and accurately.  We create such cortical maps in response to the movement habits we adopt, which may be instrument specific, movement specific, or responding to lack of movement.  Musicians, for example, will most likely have a more developed awareness (and body map) of their fingers and hands, and in the case of wind players and singers, a more expanded map of their mouths, tongues, and muscles of respiration.  To enhance or expand a cortical map, one must move in a diverse way, but the movements must be controlled, slow enough to be coordinated, and with a relative amount of ease, at least to start.  If you think of someone who is just beginning a weight lifting practice, they need to start with lower weights and slower movements as they begin to acquire movement awareness, and then over time, the tasks become easier, the brain and body are more able to execute the task, and weight can be added, as well as complexity of movement. (It can also be extremely helpful to learn about some of the basic anatomy of the body too!)  Todd Hargrove, a Feldenkrais instructor, rolfer, and author, writes eloquently that,
"Of course, not all movements are created equal in their ability to stimulate the body maps. Movements that are most likely to lead to changes in the quality of the maps are movements that are curious, exploratory, novel, interesting, rich in sensory input, slow, gentle, mindful, non-painful."
 In addition, lack of movement will limit the brain's ability to map the body, as will pain (nociception).  To improve your body map, the best bet is to engage in creative, non-repetitive movements, more frequently, which will not only challenge your muscles, soft tissues, and bones, but give your brain a chance to move in new ways, with new awareness.