Practicing in the Dojo of Everyday Life

Richard Strozzi-Heckler tells a story about coming out of an Ikido dojo and almost getting run over by someone running a red light as he crosses the street. But what caught his attention more than the car hurling itself past his body was his rage, and the way he was thrown off centre.

Strozzi-Heckler, an Akido master and psychologist, has been practicing martial arts since he was 12 years old. He is one of the original contributors to the surge of Western body-centred practices that emerged from the crucible of the 60’s. With Robert Hall MD and Elissa Hall, he was co-founder of the Lomi School, an approach that integrated hands-on practices with psychology and mindfulness back in the early 1970’s.

Experiences like his lesson on the street corner began to move Richard Strozzi-Heckler away from traditional, table based forms of bodywork, and out of the traditional dojo. He began to understand that hands-on bodywork was limited in its ability to integrate body awareness with social interaction, and as he was discovering, the traditional dojo had its own challenges helping its practitioners integrate its ideals into modern Western life. These days, his business, The Strozzi Institute, works with organizations using a format he calls the corporate dojo. His corporate dojo learning environment has been used by organizations as diverse as Capital One, the U.S. Army Special Forces, Navy Seals, the Marine Corp (who put an extra week on boot camp to incorporate his dojo paradigm into training), and Los Angeles street gangs.

Participants might learn how to drop into their knees and breath into their belly when engaged in a confrontation. In my own practice one of my clients applied these principles in her work as a manager of a sales staff. She found that sales team members who incorporated simple neck and shoulder massage into their team culture became the highest producing sales group. And performance reviews became more successful when she coached participants to drop their breath into their belly, and to feel for the sensations of the chair they were sitting on and the floor beneath their feet.

As our bodies learn to locate themselves in the moment we gain increased access to the strategies of de-escalation and appropriate response. The training of the dojo emerges as a functional piece of organizational life.

The dojo, Strozzi-Heckler says, is a Japanese word that means, “place of training.” It comes from the Sanskrit word, bodhi manda, which means “place of awakening, or enlightenment.” A dojo creates a different educational environment than we are used to in most Western education systems. In a dojo you develop a practice, and you practice with your body.

Most Eastern somatic practices use the dojo approach to training. When you practice yoga or martial arts you start with the basics but as you advance you never leave the practice of fundamentals behind. Your competence as a practitioner is not just assessed by how much you know but on how much you have deepened your knowledge of the simple things that you share with every beginning student.

Richard Strozzi-Heckler’s curbside epiphany points to a weakness in the dojo system, at least in the way it is practiced in the West. When we go to our yoga class we step into the dojo paradigm. We remember our underlying functionality as the practice helps us realign ourselves with the natural patterns of our being. As we leave we close the door behind us and slowly lose the lingering effects of the practices as we re-enter the habits of everyday life. The dojo becomes a pitstop in the race of everyday life.

But the disconnect of modern dojo practice is increased further when we look at the challenge facing hands-on somatic practitioners – the lack of a professional practice that is integrated with a personal practice.

When I step into a dojo environment, I am met by a teacher. In a yoga ashram that teacher might be called a guru – one who points the way. In a martial arts dojo that person might be call a sensei – one who has gone before. In each case these titles allude to an essential part of the teacher’s role – practicing what they teach.

Western hands-on somatic approaches are notable in that they don’t have an underlying personal practice. Your practitioner could easily have spent less time than you on a treatment table and is certainly not required to have a personal practice that would be congruent with the intentions of the work they do. Massage practitioners, for example, leave the profession in droves with sore backs, aching arms and repetitive strain injuries, largely because of the lack of personal practice that would support the work they do. I explore this issue further in two Massage Magazine articles titled, “Finding Ourselves” and  “The Trouble with ‘Doing’ a Massage.”

Recently, I have been working on the disconnect between personal practice, professional practice and everyday life through a class that runs parallel to the SomaLab. I call it Somatic Patterning. The Somatic Patterning class is open to anyone and has a diverse participation ranging from clients at our clinic to hands-on bodywork and yoga practitioners.

The class has three focus areas:

1. Fundamental developmental patterns that organize the functional organism. I use techniques drawn from sources such as Thomas Hanna’s Cat Stretch series, ideas from Feldenkrais, martial arts and the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.

2. Sensing approaches that work beneath the constraints of habit to recognize and release movement habits that contribute to chronic tension and discomfort. Here I draw from the sensing work of Elsa Gindler and Charlotte Selver, and that of F.M. Alexander.

3. Translation of these approaches to awareness and movement into practices that can be done anytime, anywhere. I call this practicing in the dojo of everyday life.

These practices run parallel to the SomaLab because they share similar intentions. In the SomaLab we are interested in developing professional practice that is shaped by the experiences of personal practice. In the Somatic Patterning class we create an environment where anybody can have access to the ground language of the human organism as it brings awareness to sensation and creates response that are continually reshaped by the experience of the moment.

Let me attempt the perilous task of describing a physical example. Let me know how I do.

We may start a class by exploring the cross-crawl pattern, moving across the room on hands and knees with one arm and the opposite leg moving together. A quick experiment will show that if you try the other option – moving the arm and leg forward on the same side – your crawl becomes very unstable. Then, we might lie on the floor (with knees bent) pushing one shoulder blade and its opposite hip into the floor. Finally, we could end the class sitting on an exercise ball with our hands gently pressing against the wall in front of you (you could get the same effect sitting in your chair as you gently pressed your hands against the edge of your desk).

You might want to try this movement. Slowly slide one knee toward the wall (or desk) while drawing the other one back toward you.

Although you will find this practice works with less effort on the unstable surface of the ball, try a few exploratory movements back and forth with your knees. As one knee moves toward the wall try adding an increase of pressure against the wall with your opposite hand. Gently explore this movement following the suggestions in “The Essential Questions of Somatic Practice” I have included in a separate blog.

Now, the pièce de résistance, practicing in the dojo of everyday life. The principle of contralateral movement says that each arm movement will be mirrored by a similar movement in the opposite leg. For example, as you sit at your desk working with your mouse try dropping a little more weight into the hip on the opposite side from your “mouse arm.” You can emphasize this by very slightly releasing the pressure of your foot on the floor (Do Not Lift It Off!). You might find that these slight reorganizations of your body awareness will straighten you posture and let you drop into the shoulder of your mouse arm. It will also tend to take the strain out of your neck, lower back and working arm.

Playing with the contralateral principle of diagonal opposites can become quite fascinating. It can open your eyes to how much you distort your posture in everyday experiences of standing, sitting or walking. And, following your curiosity as you explore a movement shift can ease strains in your body without having to “fix” yourself. You just give your body the information it needs to make its own self adjustments.

As we move through the SomaLab, and its sister Somatic Patterning course, we are finding that participants begin to build sustainable practices built on curiosity, using sensation to engage the mind with body experiences in the moment.  It becomes possible to apply the principles of sensing and pattern organization to enhance dojo practices such as yoga, tai chi or Pilates that we are already engaged in. And we are gaining an enhanced understanding of how to soften the lock of habit while freeing the creative possibilities of how our organism wants to be more fully in this moment.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous on April 27, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    I catch the feeling again. This time while I am at the gym. The last time it was when I was driving the car. Another time when I was laying in bed . A generalized anxiety. Like something is bothering me and I don’t know what it is

    I try to figure out what is bothering me and I can’t nail it down. I go through the days events and nothing comes jumps out that is troubling me. No real problem left unsolved…

    I stay with the feeling as I jog on the treadmill….

    I realize that all my awareness/energy has shifted to the front of my body. I have been going full blast through the day. Running ahead of myself and now I have slowed down enough to notice the feeling. I am like two runners with one part of me running ahead of me. I have finally slowed down enough to notice the fast pace I have been operating at throughout the day

    I bet if i sped up I could catch the first runner and come into balance that way.

    Instead I slow down the runner in the front and balance myself out. I do this by feeling my back. holding my awareness there until I feel relaxed

    I feel relieved……..