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Floating Hands and Heads, Or How to Move as Good as (or Better Than) a Worm

“The average person today is less mobile than a worm,” Mark Sensei declares in the middle of warmups. 


a worm wriggles out of soil

He makes this point while the students endeavor to bow and arch their spines. We look rather like a cross between wilting fiddlehead ferns and Frankenstein monsters juiced up on lightning bolts. 


“To move around, a worm has to wriggle its midline. It has to bend and flex constantly.” Sensei demonstrates by snaking his forearm through the air. “We don’t move that much because we have arms and fingers. We sit at desks and let our arms and fingers do everything.”


He pantomimes sitting at a desk and working a keyboard and mouse or texting on a device or popping snacks into the face’s food pipe. 


Later in the warmups, we work our way into the usual squats and slow rolls. Sensei tells us, “Folding the body like this keeps it way more mobile as you age.”


Like bending and arching the spine, folding the body’s midsection has almost gone extinct thanks to modern comfort-centered, stationary lifestyles.


Sensei credits the source of these insights: an episode of the Huberman Lab Podcast with neuroscientist Andrew Huberman interviewing movement expert Dr. Ido Portal. We aikidoka are encouraged to check out the podcast as homework. 


I, for one, did not hesitate, having felt rather humbled by my less-than-wormlike agility in daily life. The episode in question, “Ido Portal: The Science and Practice of Movement” is a long deep-dive conversation. Long, like over 2 hours long. Long


It is also wildly captivating. Portal and Huberman start with the revelation that humans are the world’s most mobile creatures, able to run, crawl, walk, jump, shimmy, spin, swim, kick – you name it, we can pretty much do it, and do it at varying speeds and intensities. 


And yet, we’ve sacrificed this stunning mobility for modernity. We exist primarily as floating heads that get all their needs met through deliveries from a pair of floating hands – a phenomenon Sensei Mark demonstrated all too clearly in his pantomime. 


To help athletes of all kinds attain smoother, virtually effortless movement, Portal trains them first and foremost with spinal waves. He gets them to undulate their spines, both forwards and backwards, as well as side to side. He emphasizes plenty of spinal twists. 


Initially, when the athletes return to their fundamental tasks, they are clumsier and clunkier than before. Before too long, however, the nervous system (the sensory and motor networks that link the body and brain) has integrated the new feedback and the athlete’s performance improves exponentially. The results are measurable, making for shocking data sets. 


aikido students roll during warmups
DSBK students fold and flex the whole body.

In class, we work through the familiar warmup routine. It has changed very little since I started training with the Durango Shin Budo Kai dojo over twelve years ago. In fact, it is a warm up routine that is largely consistent across all the SBK schools elsewhere in the U.S. The routine is crammed with undulations and midsection folds. I feel as though we might earn a satisfactory pat on the head from Dr. Portal. 


But another facet of his complex discussion with Huberman returns to haunt my thoughts. Namely his finding that people form physical and mental postures early on in life. These are the postures resulting from our habits. Our bodies and our minds launch into these postures robotically, regardless of their efficacy or efficiency. 


To articulate this in physical terms, Ido uses walking as an example. He has observed walks that appear effortful, clumsy, even painful. The person performs the movement of walking not through coordinated muscular interactions, but by pasting together the rudimentary postures of left leg forward, right leg forward, left leg forward. To break out of old postures, Portal urges listeners to practice the core essence of all movement: contraction and relaxation. Rather than settling on all one or the other, he suggests sliding seamlessly along the spectrum between the two extremes. 


Aikido operates along this spectrum all the time. Like the saw-whet owl whose head is fixed while the body pivots every which way, an akikdoka needs to have an unbroken focus on the opponent and their center of balance while simultaneously moving without force or tension. 


Aikido sensei demonstrates technique on student
Sensei Mark focuses on the attacker while his body moves freely.

Attaining this seemingly paradoxical state of opposites unified demands a ton of repetitious practice. All those reps bring Aikido’s practitioners into regular contact with another of Portal’s core movement principles: frequent failure is good for the nervous system. Failed attempts give the body-brain networks opportunities to change, update, and recalibrate. Feeling frustration is a good sign that you are exercising the plasticity of your system. 


Huberman describes the frustration as the game show error buzzer. Ehhhnnhhh! Most people start to lean away from a hobby when they run up against that buzzer, a fact that Huberman and Portal lament because the buzzer is a sign you are on the threshold of change. You have stepped up to the gateway of transformation. To walk away now is heartbreaking.


“In the seconds and minutes after a failed attempt at a motor execution of something,” Huberman explains, “the forebrain is in a heightened state of focus.” The nervous system just received a cue to change. It will rewire with shocking rapidity, and yet it always feels too slow for our liking. 


We want what we like, not what is good for us, Portal attests. 


Speaking for myself, I am all too willing to endure the merciless buzzer if for no other reason than to move as good as – or better than – a worm. 

 

Huberman’s interview with Portal is available here on YouTube. It is also available (without ads interrupting every 15 minutes) wherever you get your podcasts (Spotify, Podbean, Apple, Deezer, etc).

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