In her book, Life and Death in Shanghai, Nien Cheng describes her life in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Because she and her late husband had worked for a foreign firm, her home and all her possessions were confiscated by the Red Guard, her daughter was tortured and then killed, and she was imprisoned and held in solitary confinement for six years. Ms Cheng was in her fifties when all this happened.
Conditions in prison were terrible and several times she came close to death. Describing one on her lowest points, when she barely had the strength to stand, she writes:
“…I thought that if I was going to survive the Cultural Revolution, I must discipline myself with physical and mental exercise. Inspired by my own resolution, I stood up rather abruptly. Dark shadows almost blinded me, and I had to sit down again. But from that day onward, I devised a series of exercises that moved every part of my body from my head to my toes, and did them twice a day. At first the exercise exhausted me, and I had to interrupt it with frequent periods of rest. Also I had to avoid the prying eyes of the guards, as exercise other than a few minutes of walking in the cell after meals was forbidden. Nevertheless, I managed to exercise each day and after a few months recovered my physical strength somewhat, as well as my feeling of well-being.”
Several years later, the political situation in China shifted and Ms. Cheng was released from prison. Despite all the hardships she had been through, her health quickly improved. Her friends commented that she looked much younger than her actual age. Eventually she moved to the United States.
It was fascinating for me to read about Ms Cheng’s system of movement exercises because it closely parallels a procedure described in the book How to Learn the Alexander Technique – A Manual for Students by Barbara and William Conable. This book emphasizes a procedure the Conables have named “body-mapping” – essentially a systematic process of exploring on your own body precisely how the major joints and muscle groups work.
This is not the sort of study one usually associates with anatomy – what I think of as “anatomy at a distance”, that is learning about the human body without relating it to the body of the student who is doing the learning. Nor is it at all like the detailed study of cadavers done in medical schools.
Body-mapping is all about the practical application of basic anatomical knowledge to yourself as a living organism, learning about how you function at rest and in movement.
In their book, the Conables write:
“In recent years some (Alexander Technique) students have expressed a longing to do flexibility work but have assumed they couldn’t devote enough time to it. To one of these students I said one day, ‘Well, you could do worse than simply put your joints through their range of movement each day.’ He came back a week later and said, ‘I did what you suggested and it was amazing.’ “What was that?’ I asked. ‘Put my joints through their range of motion each day.’ He showed me how much flexibility he had gained in a week doing that, and we began to systematically play with the idea. Sure enough, it works like magic and takes only about five minutes a day, with no necessity that the five minutes be consecutive. The student simply begins with the joint of the head and the spine…rotating the head and tilting, then moves on the the jaw…then on to the ribs, moving them at their joints with the vertebrae by taking a good breath. Then the student moves all four joints of the arm structure and the hand joints. Then the spine, bending forward, backward, to each side, spiraling, and twisting. Then the hip joint, knee, and ankle and the foot joints. That’s it. Done correctly this routine increases flexibility faster than anything I know, and I have wondered and wondered why. I now think two factors contribute, first the quality of attention brought to the movement, which is the kind of attention that makes it possible for the body to learn from each movement. Second, some of the movements are ones that many people rarely make, like rotation at the upper arm joint with the shoulder blade and rotation at the hip joint. The body seems to delight in these movements and the availability seems to free the joint.”
If you’d like to become more flexible, the experiences of Ms Cheng and of Barbara Conable’s students point to a simple, efficient and effective way to achieve that goal.
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