THE JUNGLE GYM: AN INQUIRY INTO FITNESS
ROLF LINES®, August 1998 by Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith is an Advanced Practitioner of Rolfing®. He uses Continuum in his practice and teaches Jungle Gym classes in the Mid Hudson Valley. He studies Epistemics with Dr. Gary David. He is an instructor at The Moving Body, an innovative fitness studio, teaching workouts based on the Gyrotonic Expansion System of Julia Horvath and the work of Joseph Pilates. He is an avid cyclist and lives with his wife Kali Rosenblum and son Josh in Bearsville, New York.
Editors note: This article follows Emilie Conrad Da’oud’s essay entitled Movement in the May 1998 issue of Rolf Lines®.
This article is an introduction to an on-going inquiry into what we know and can say about fitness. This inquiry is the Jungle Gym, developed by Emilie Conrad Da’oud. The Jungle Gym is a contribution to the evolution of a biologically based, self-reflexive model of exercise and fitness. The gym has evolved out of the recognition of the need for a different type of workout, the cultivation of a different kind of fitness. The concepts, values and methods used in the Jungle Gym stand in sharp counterpoint to the industrial models of fitness and exercise that predominate in our culture. The following narrative is meant to convey something of what if feels like to ‘work out’ in this way.
My weight continues to shift and the other arm slowly settles to the floor. Fingers extend, touching down, a lunar lander sending up little puffs of moon dust. Another shift and I am slowly pouring weight into the arm and hand. The limb begins to change form as my shoulder girdle, a moment ago free to play in a huge sphere of motion, now coalesces to provide the needed stabilization. I feel my clavicle and scapula extending out in space toward my elbow, my hand and beyond. The web-like stabilizers of the shoulder joint engage, creating connection between arm and trunk, span between arm and shoulder, shoulder and spine. There is a stimulation of bone and muscle and connective tissue but as well a stimulation of understanding. It is the understanding of structural and functional support, connections and relationships in three dimensional space.
My trunk is now suspended nearly horizontally, my weight balanced between a same side arm and leg that are entwined in the web and the arm that has just touched down. As I play in this configuration I feel a delicious tractioning effect in the lateral fascia of my trunk. It spreads slowly downward through the iliacus inside the pelvis and laterally into the tensor fascia lata and related hip fascia. It feels… incredible, a Rolfer’s dream. I hover, feeling the reverberations of each beat of my heart, allowing the moment to grow until all I am aware of is this emerging inner topology of movement, breath, elongation and meaning.
At this point I am aware of nothing so much as an exquisite distribution of support. I feel extraordinarily light—as if the work of stabilizing my body in gravity is being distributed throughout every fiber, every cell of the skeletal and mysofascial system. Thus de-centralized, I am the expression of constantly shifting reference points. The concepts and abstractions I use to understand, define, and bind that which I call “body” and separate “it” from the ‘outside’ environment begin to blur and lose meaning in this space.
As this new awareness emerges out of the unknown I feel a rush of excitation and the hair on my arms and legs stand on end, a rippling forest of cilia. The membrane of my skin becomes even more sensitive and permeable to the surrounding air. A new wave motion begins to emanate from the viscera, winding its way up through the lateral fascia of the rib basket and the shoulder. My jaw softens as my head and neck begin to drop sideways to the floor, elongating. I bring more breath into the upper lobes of my lungs and rib basket. I feel the fascial web opening in response. First rib, scalenes, on up into the temporal. Behind my right eye an opening. My head feels weightless, buoyed up from underneath, as if underwater. I laugh mischievously. Which way is up?
WHAT IS FITNESS?
“Our relationship with our planet is maintained by the resonance of our fluid systems with all fluid systems, human and otherwise.”
“Life is movement. Movement is something we are rather than something we do.”
“All form is temporal. Its demise or its need to reconfigure is inherent.”
“Stabilization is vital for efficiency but it becomes rigid when uninformed by new probabilities… With increased stabilization there is a compromise of adaptability.”
Speaking of her revolutionary work with spinal cord paralysis she says, “Movement can innovate new function…Perhaps paralysis is in the model and not in the spine.”
“Western culture…has brought about the industrialization of the body, with devastating and alienating effect.”
“Creative flux is essential for the enhancement of our functioning…It provides us with an ability to function as biological systems rather than cultural entities.”
In the Gym we use a rich tapestry of constantly evolving breath, sound and movement explorations in three hundred and sixty degree space and multiple relationships with gravity. Breaths and sounds are used to cue an awareness or resonance with certain physiologic processes. These may range from a breath that stimulates the cardiovascular and fluid systems, a sound that stimulates a vibrational resonance within the bony matrix, to another breath that seems to stimulate a dissolution of the boundary between inside and outside.
CONTAINERS AND HARNESSING
ESTABLISHING A BASELINE
THE ALCHEMY OF LAYERING
Presenting the organism with successive, diverse challenges to respond to appears to have a complexifying effect on life processes. Participants are often amazed by the profound shifts in their level of participation in the movements. Large changes in fluidity, articulation and energetic flow of movement are common. This does not appear to be result of a simple additive effect. The layering of the two elements seems to give rise to the appearance of a third effect, not predicted by either of the others. It is analogous to the interference pattern of ripples created by dropping two stones in a pond.
ACROBATICS OF THE GODS
There are powerful resonant fields generated within the entire group in the Gym. They are the result of a deep, mutual informing taking place on many levels. It is a unifying effect not, I suspect, unfamiliar to Rolf practitioners from their class experiences but with a uniqueness all its own.
The Explore Board and Extension is a custom built slant board with specially welded joints, great lateral stability and a variety of attachments to support movement in any gravitational plane. The Strong Suit is a two piece spandex leotard with weights strategically placed in the outseam of the arms and legs. These are oriented along the long axis of the bones, with an extra weight cuff on ankles and wrists. The suit allows someone working out to do resistance work while moving freely in any direction through complete ranges of motion. The Dynamite Vest is a weighted vest of the same material used to create a deeper challenge in core movements of the trunk. The Web, already described, is currently under development. There are four or five prototypes in use around the country.
In the first round the participant might start with a Load: either a Strong Suit, a vest or one or more weight belts around the trunk. The amount of weight used is dependent on the health and experience level of the participant. We add proportionately more weight to the core rather than extremities in order to challenge and stimulate the fundamental movement capacities of the organismic center. Also, some of the complex, multi-planar movements possible in the Gym require well organized core/extremity organization and support to avoid undue stress on the axial/appendicular structures and junctions when additional weight is added to wrists and ankles.
In the second round the participant Up Loads, adding a vest to a Strong Suit, or more weight belts to the trunk. Experienced movers might add ankle and wrist weights as well. Paradoxically the effect of the Up Load is not simply increasing resistance to movement. The added weight creates a deeper tractioning and elongating effect on the tissues. Participants can explore slow suspensions and tractions in favorable relationships with gravity that create outstanding expansions in myofascial and skeletal processes. The arcing, spiraling movements facilitate a reorganizing of all the neuro-fascial planes, wrappings and envelopes and their contents (including viscera and glands), as well as through joint capsules, and the bony matrix.
In the final Unload round, all weights are removed. All the elements are then explored anew in the absence of the added weight and its profound effects on the proprioceptive and kinesthetic systems. People often report after the third round that they feel like they are flying effortlessly even in movements and suspensions of body parts that require a great deal of connection and support and that had initially been quite challenging even without weights.
Progressive Loading usually begins with some nervous giggles as everyone starts loading and looking around at the spectacle of what looks like an indoor scuba class. But it is quite amazing to watch and feel the level of engagement in the room as participants rise to the energetic challenge that the Load and Load Up rounds present. It is particularly satisfying for women who wouldn’t be caught dead doing conventional resistance training to harness all their movement capacities in the service of promoting greater flexibility and resilience.
THE EFFECTS OF INNOVATIVE MOVEMENT
These documented effects have been discussed by Jim Oschman in relation to potential effects of manual pressure on the fascial matrix. Don Van Vleet, in the Future of the Body classes he co-teaches with Emilie, elaborates beautifully the unique effect that Continuum and Jungle Gym movements have on the health of all organismic processes via the fascial matrix. Whatever the mechanisms involved, we believe the implications of harnessing and cultivating movement in this way are vast. Focused awareness, breaths and movements and their effects on gross and subtle structures and processes can be sustained in a workout for extended periods of time. They generate resonant fields of information and energy that literally bathe the organism in ways that are deeply nourishing and regenerative.
The capacity to strike a balance between the conservation of useful habits and the capacity to innovate new function is a defining characteristic of living organisms, health, and fitness. “Creative processes are not symmetrical,” Emilie is fond of saying. Non-patterned, asymmetrical movement encourages the nervous system to discover novel responses. The challenge is to let go or “put on a shelf” our habitual, learned movements, rhythms and styles (however valuable in other contexts), and then allow something new to emerge out of the creative flux that is our nature. This is the aspect of Continuum and the Jungle Gym that I have found most fulfilling. I believe it is an almost totally neglected yet absolutely essential element of any comprehensive model of health and fitness.
FITNESS AS SYMBOLIC ACTIVITY
There is a strong emphasis in the Jungle Gym on attuning to sensation and lower order events in the nervous system. We do this, in part, by using primitive, embryogenic and biomorphic images and metaphors in our workout. The value of doing this can be illustrated by means of a simple experiment.
I invite the reader to first visualize deeply for several moments, then move one arm and hand through its entire range of motion in ways that are in keeping with the lever and pulley model of bio-mechanics. Notice which muscles are activating, the quality of their engagement as well as the way the joints move. Notice the level and quality of fascial activity in the arm as you do this. Finally take note of how interesting the movement is to you. Now visualize deeply for several moments, then move your other arm and hand in ways that are akin to those of an octopus. Again note the kind and quality of muscular activity, joint movement and fascial activity. Note as well your level of interest in the movement.
To complete the experiment, sit in open attention, feeling your arms for few moments before answering the following questions. In which arm did you feel more fluid articulation and muscle engagement? Which type of movement involved a more global involvement of the fascial web? Which movement felt more sensuous? Did one movement feel more significant or meaningful than the other? Finally, which one felt more alive?
This example vividly illustrates the incredible impact unexamined models and assumptions about movement and bodies have on our experience. We are symbol users. It behooves us to choose carefully and wisely what we want to embody through our use of symbols. When we think about fitness, we should exercise our species’ greatest strength, our self-reflexive nature. Otherwise it will be our greatest source of weakness.