“IN every new movement, in every unknown attitude needed in difficult exercises, the nerve centres have to exercise a kind of selection of the muscles, bringing into action those which favor the movement, and suppressing those which oppose it.” This very evident truth Dr. Lagrange gives us in his valuable book on the Physiology of Exercise. At first, every new movement is unknown; and, owing to inherited and personal contractions, almost from the earliest movement in a child’s learning to walk to the most complicated action of our daily lives, the nerve centres exercise a mistaken selection of muscles,–not only selecting more muscles than are needed for perfect co-ordination of movement, but throwing more force than necessary into the muscles selected. To a gradually increasing extent, the contracting force, instead of being withdrawn when the muscle is inactive, remains; and, as we have already seen, an arm or leg that should be passive is lifted, and the muscles are found to be contracted as if for severe action. To the surprise of the owner the contraction cannot be at once removed. Help for this habitual contraction is given in the preceding chapter. Further on Dr. Lagrange tells us that “Besides the apprenticeship of movements which are unknown, there is the improvement of already known movements.”
When the work of mistaken selection of muscles has gone on for years, the “improvement of already known movements,” from the simplest domestic action to the accomplishment of very great purposes, is a study in itself. One must learn first to be a grown baby, and, as we have already seen, gain the exquisite passiveness of a baby; then one must learn to walk and to move by a natural process of selection, which, thanks to the contractions of his various ancestors, was not the process used for his original movements. This learning to live all over again is neither so frightful nor so difficult as it sounds.
Having gained the passive state described in the last chapter, one is vastly more sensitive to unnecessary tension; and it seems often as though the child in us asserted itself, rising with alacrity to claim its right of natural movement, and with a new sense of freedom in the power gained to shun inherited and personal contractions. Certainly it is a fact that freedom of movement is gained through shunning the contractions. And this should always be kept in mind to avoid the self-consciousness and harm which come from a studied movement, not to mention the very disagreeable impression such movements give to all who appreciate their artificiality.
Motion in the human body, as well as music, is an art. An artist has very aptly said that we should so move that if every muscle struck a note, only harmony would result. Were it so the harmony would be most exquisite, for the instrument is Nature’s own. We see how far we are from a realization of natural movement when we watch carefully and note the muscular discords evident to our eyes at all times. Even the average ballet dancing, which is supposed to be the perfection of artistic movement, is merely a series of pirouettes and gymnastic contortions, with the theatrical smile of a pretty woman to throw the glare of a calcium light over the imperfections and dazzle us. The average ballet girl is not adequately trained, from the natural and artistic standpoint. If this is the case in what should be the quintessence of natural, and so of artistic movement, it is to a great degree owing to the absolute carelessness in the selection of the muscles to be used in every movement of daily life.
Many exercises which lead to the freedom of the body are well known in the letter–not in the spirit–through the so-called “Delsarte system.” if they had been followed with a broad appreciation of what they were meant for and what they could lead to, before now students would have realized to a far greater extent what power is possible to the human body. But so much that is good and helpful in the “Delsarte system” has been misused, and so much of what is thoroughly artificial and unhealthy has been mixed with the useful, that one hesitates now to mention Delsarte. Either he was a wonderful genius whose thoughts and discoveries have been sadly perverted, or the inconsistencies of his teachings were great enough to limit the true power which certainly can be found in much that he has left us.
Besides the exercises already described there are many others, suited to individual needs, for gaining the freedom of each part of the body and of the body as a whole.
It is not possible to describe them clearly enough to allow them to be followed without a teacher, and to secure the desired result. Indeed, there would be danger of unpleasant results from misunderstanding. The object is so to stand that our muscles hold us, with the natural balance given them, instead of trying, as most of us do, to hold our muscles. In moving to gain this natural equilibrium we allow our muscles to carry us forward, and when they have contracted as far as is possible for one set, the antagonizing muscles carry us back. So it is with the side-to-side poising from the ankles, and the circular motion, which is a natural swinging of the muscles to find their centre of equilibrium, having once been started out of it. To stand for a moment and think the feet heavy is a great help in gaining the natural poising motions, but care should always be taken to hold the chest well up. Indeed, we need have no sense of effort in standing, except in raising the chest,–and that must be as if it were pulled up outside by a button in its centre, but there must be no strain in the effort.
The result of the exercises taken to free the head is shown in the power to toss the head lightly and easily, with the waist muscles, from a dropped forward to an erect position. The head shows its freedom then by the gentle swing of the neck muscles, which is entirely involuntary and comes from the impetus given them in tossing the head.
Tension in the muscles of the neck is often very difficult to overcome; because, among other reasons, the sensations coming from certain forms of nervous over-strain are very commonly referred to the region of the base of the brain. It is not unusual to find the back of the neck rigid in extreme tension, and whether the strain is very severe or not, great care must be taken to free it by slow degrees, and the motions should at first be practised only a few minutes at a time. I can hardly warn readers too often against the possibility of an unpleasant reaction, if the relaxing is practised too long, or gained too rapidly.
Then should come exercises for freeing the arms; and these can be taken sitting. Let the arms hang heavily at the sides; raise one arm slowly, feeling the weight more and more distinctly, and only contracting the shoulder muscles. It is well to raise it a few inches, then drop it heavily and try again,–each time taking force out of the lower muscles by thinking the arm heavy, and the motive power in the shoulder. If the arm itself can rest heavily on some one’s hand while you are still raising it from the shoulder, that proves that you have succeeded in withdrawing the useless tension. Most arms feel stiff all the way along, when the owners raise them. Your arm must be raised until high overhead, the hand hanging from the wrist and dropped into your lap or down at the side, letting the elbow “give,” so that the upper arm drops first, and then the fore arm and hand,–like three heavy sand-bags sewed together. The arm can be brought up to the level of the shoulder, and then round in front and dropped. To prove its freedom, toss it with the shoulder muscles from the side into the lap. Watch carefully that the arm itself has no more tension than if it were a sand-bag hung at the side, and could only be moved by the shoulder. After practising this two or three times so that the arms are relaxed enough to make you more sensitive to tension, one hundred times a day you will find your arms held rigidly, while you are listening or talking or walking. Every day you will grow more sensitive to the useless tension, and every day gain new power to drop it. This is wherein the real practice comes. An hour or two hours a day of relaxing exercises will amount to nothing if at the same time we are not careful to use the freedom gained, and to do everything more naturally. It is often said, “But I cannot waste time watching all day to see if I am using too much force.” There is no need to watch; having once started in the right direction, if you drop useless muscular contraction every time you notice it, that is enough. It will be as natural to do that as for a musician to correct a discord which he has inadvertently made on the piano.
There are no motions so quieting, so helpful in the general freeing of the body, as the motions of the spine. There are no motions more difficult to describe, or which should be more carefully directed. The habitual rigidity of the spine, as compared with its possible freedom, is more noticeable in training, of course, than is that of any other part of the body. Each vertebra should be so distinctly independent of every other, as to make the spine as smoothly jointed as the toy snakes, which, when we hold the tip of the tail in our fingers, curve in all directions. Most of us have spinal columns that more or less resemble ramrods. It is a surprise and delight to find what can be accomplished, when the muscles of the spine and back are free and under control. Of course the natural state of the spine, as the seat of a great nervous centre, affects many muscles of the body, and, on the other hand, the freedom of these muscles reacts favorably upon the spine.
The legs are freed for standing and walking by shaking the foot free from the ankle with the leg, swinging the fore leg from the upper leg, and so freeing the muscles at the knee, and by standing on a footstool and letting one leg hang off the stool a dead weight while swinging it round from the hip. Greater freedom and ease of movement can be gained by standing on the floor and swinging the leg from the hip as high as possible. Be sure that the only effort for motion is in the muscles of the hip. There are innumerable other motions to free the legs, and often a great variety must be practised before the freedom can be gained.
The muscles of the chest and waist are freed through a series of motions, the result of which is shown in the ability to toss the body lightly from the hips, as the head is tossed from the waist muscles; and there follows the same gentle involuntary swing of the muscles of the waist which surprises one so pleasantly in the neck muscles after tossing the head, and gives a new realization of what physical freedom is.
In tossing the body the motion must be successive, like running the scale with the vertebrae.
In no motion should the muscles work en masse. The more perfect the co-ordination of muscles in any movement, the more truly each muscle holds its own individuality. This power of freedom in motion should be worked for after once approaching the natural equilibrium. If you rest on your left leg, it pushes your left hip a little farther out, which causes your body to swerve slightly to the right,–and, to keep the balance true, the head again tips to the left a little. Now rise slowly and freely from that to standing on both feet, with body and head erect; then drop on the right foot with the body to left, and head to right. Here again, as in the motions with the spine, there is a great difference in the way they are practised. Their main object is to help the muscles to an independent individual co-ordination, and there should be a new sense of ease and freedom every time we practise it. Hold the chest up, and push yourself erect with the ball of your free foot. The more the weight is thought into the feet the freer the muscles are for action, provided the chest is well raised. The forward and back spinal motion should be taken standing also; and there is a gentle circular motion of the entire body which proves the freedom of all the muscles for natural movement, and is most restful in its result.
The study for free movement in the arms and legs should of course be separate. The law that every part moves from something prior to it, is illustrated exquisitely in the motion of the fingers from the wrist. Here also the individuality of the muscles in their perfect co-ordination is pleasantly illustrated. To gain ease of movement in the fore arm, its motive power must seem to be in the upper arm; the motive power for the entire arm must seem to be centred in the shoulder. When through various exercises a natural co-ordination of the muscles is gained, the arm can be moved in curves from the shoulder, which remind one of a graceful snake; and the balance is so true that the motion seems hardly more than a thought in the amount of effort it takes. Great care should be given to freeing the hands and fingers. Because the hand is in such constant communication with the brain, the tension of the entire body often seems to be reflected there. Sometimes it is even necessary to train the hand to some extent in the earliest lessons.
Exercises for movement in the legs are to free the joints, so that motions may follow one another as in the arm,–the foot from the ankle; the lower leg from the upper leg; the upper leg from the hip; and, as –in the arm, the free action of the joints in the leg comes as we seem to centre the motive power in the hip. There is then the same grace and ease of movement which we gain in the arm, simply because the muscles have their natural equilibrium.
Thus the motive power of the body will seem to be gradually drawn to an imaginary centre in the lower part of the trunk,–which simply means withdrawing superfluous tension from every part. The exercise to help establish this equilibrium is graceful, and not difficult if we take it quietly and easily, using the mind to hold a balance without effort. Raise the right arm diagonally forward, the left leg diagonally back,–the arm must be high up, the foot just off the floor, so that as far as possible you make a direct line from the wrist to the ankle; in this attitude stretch all muscles across the body from left to right slowly and steadily, then relax quite as. slowly. Now, be sure your arm and leg are free from all tension, and swing them very slowly, as if they were one piece, to as nearly a horizontal position as they can reach; then slowly pivot round until you bring your arm diagonally back and your leg diagonally forward; still horizontal, pivot again to the starting point; then bring leg down and arm up, always keeping them as in a line, until your foot is again off the floor; then slowly lower your arm and let your foot rest on the floor so that gradually your whole weight rests on that leg, and the other is free to swing up and pivot with the opposite arm. All this must be done slowly and without strain of any kind. The motions which follow in sets are for the better daily working of the body, as well as to establish its freedom. The first set is called the “Big Rhythms,” because it takes mainly the rhythmic movement of the larger muscles of the body, and is meant, through movements taken on one foot, to give a true balance in the poise of the body as well as to make habitual the natural co-ordination in the action of all the larger muscles. It is like practising a series of big musical chords to accustom our ears to their harmonies. The second set, named the “Little Rhythms,”–because that is a convenient way of designating it,–is a series meant to include the movement of all the smaller muscles as well as the large ones, and is carried out even to the fingers. The third set is for spring and rapid motion, especially in joints of arms and legs.
Of course having once found the body’s natural freedom, the variety of motions is as great as the variety of musical sounds and combinations possible to an instrument which will respond to every tone in the musical scale. It is in opening the way for this natural motion that the exquisite possibilities in motion purely artistic dawn upon us with ever-increasing light. And as in music it is the sonata, the waltz, or the nocturne we must feel, not the mechanical process of our own performance,–so in moving, it is the beautiful, natural harmonies of the muscles, from the big rhythms to all the smaller ones, that we must feel and make others feel, and not the mere mechanical grace of our bodies; and we can move a sonata from the first to the last, changing the time and holding the theme so that the soul will be touched through the eye, as it is through the ear now in music. But, according to the present state of the human body, more than one generation will pass before we reach, or know the beginning of, the highest artistic power of motion. If art is Nature illuminated, one must have some slight appreciation and experience. of Nature before attempting her illumination.
The set of motions mentioned can be only very inadequately described in print. But although they are graceful, because they are natural, the first idea in practising them is that they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. For in the big and little rhythms and the springing motions, in practising them over and over again we are establishing the habit of natural motion, and will carry it more and more into everything we do.
If the work of the brain in muscular exercise were reduced to its minimum, the consequent benefit from all exercise would greatly increase.
A new movement can be learned with facility in proportion to the power for dropping at the time all impressions of previous movements. In training to take every motion easily, after a time the brain-work is relieved, for we move with ease,–that is, with a natural co-ordination of muscles, automatically,–in every known motion; and we lessen very greatly the mental strain, in learning a new movement, by gaining the power to relax entirely at first, and then, out of a free body, choose the muscles needed, and so avoid the nervous strain of useless muscular experiment.
So far as the mere muscular movement goes, the sensation is that of being well oiled. As for instance, in a natural walk, where the swinging muscles and the standing muscles act and rest in alternate rhythmic action, the chest is held high, the side muscles free to move in, harmony with the legs, and all the spring in the body brought into play through inclining slightly forward and pushing with the ball of the back foot, the arms swinging naturally without tension. Walking with a free body is often one of the best forms of rest, and in the varying forms of motion arranged for practice we are enabled to realize, that “perfect harmony of action in the entire man invigorates every part.”