Physical Movement Goes Beyond Anatomy
The real work is always the inner work.
This is true even when it comes to the body.
If you’ve ever experienced chronically tight muscles or limited range of motion, you may have noticed that no amount of stretching seems to move the needle on your progress.
Limitations in the body’s range of motion aren’t purely a result of “tight” muscles, anatomical structure, or compensation patterns. These are all effects of a deeper cause.
Emotions, especially fear, play a big role in the health and movement of our physical body. This includes diseases — including symptoms like migraines and infections — and our physical pains, range of motion, and even our ability to build strength.
On the surface, some of my movement restrictions are similar to those that we associate with sedentary lifestyles: too much time sitting at a desk, hunched over a compute. Tight hips and hamstrings, poor shoulder mobility, a stiff upper back, and low back hyperextension.
Some of this might be related to years of sitting at a desk. But there’s another part that’s emotional and social.
For example, I have always struggled to sit into a deep squat. This looks like an effect of tight hips and ankles.
But these patterns are also effects of other causes. One is weak leg and feet muscles.
The other is deeply embedded fears. My body literally freezes when it tries to go into some positions; it seizes when it feels unsafe.
In part it may feel unsafe due to weaknesses in other supporting areas, like my feet or quadriceps. Some of the patterns could be compensation patterns resulting from past injuries.
And there’s another element rarely considered: social conditioning.
That conditioning starts when we are young. For example, overprotective parents who tell their kids,
Be careful. Don’t fall. You’ll hurt yourself.
Repeatedly warning your kids that something isn’t safe conditions them to be afraid of the danger lurking in every activity.
Another source is socialization — news and media or “experts” that misinform us about how to recover from injuries.
When the mind is afraid of getting hurt, the body tightens up to protect it. It sends sensations that we may interpret as pain — and as a message that it’s not safe to go into a certain position.
For the past five months, I’ve been working with a physical therapist to retrain my movement patterns. Although this is under the label of “physical therapy,” it’s far beyond physical. Much of the work is mind and emotion, learning how and when to listen to the body.
One thing I’ve learned is that sometimes “pain” just means the muscles are working the way they are supposed to; it’s simply a new sensation. I must learn when to ignore the sensation and remind my body that we are safe.
That doesn’t mean to push into the pain and ignore the messages. The work of retraining the nervous system is slow work. If you push the body too far before it’s ready it will continue to restrict movement.
This work also continues beyond the weight room and the gym, through the inner work of illuminating fears — so many of which are unconscious.
This is all part of the lesson that physical fitness isn’t just physical. Mind, body, spirit, and emotions are intricately related.