This article is by the author of “Learn to Swim Before You Go In”

Pathways, DC, Winter issue, '96, '97
Comfort Signals for Adult Learning

Joe Lee Griffin, Ph.D.

I said, "Breathe through your mouth." My beginning swim student nodded attentively and carefully opened his mouth and took in some air. After one small breath, his mouth clamped shut, his head tilted back and he continued breathing through his nose. During five hours of wet classes, I repeated this instruction and got the same one breath response about fifty times. What was going on?
This positive, dedicated student was not being rebellious and understood my intent to help him learn to swim. He was just unable to take two mouth breaths in a row as he stood in the pool, not even in deep water or with his face wet. He and others with this pattern helped me learn just how important comfort is to adult learning.

Discomfort generates parasitic tension.
After much puzzling, watching, and listening, I now believe I understand. This student had not learned to be comfortable in the water. Discomfort and insecurity in an unfamiliar environment tightened him up and tension cut him off from his body signals. He surely realized that his mouth could drink, gargle, and deal with water much better than his nose could. Yet, in his disconnection, his reflexes clamped his mouth, resulting in the less safe nose breathing.
Similar reflex clamping produces a response I call "sticky armpits." Coach Doc Counsilman, in The Complete Book of Swimming, says the most common stroke flaw in adults is an elbow-down stroke. Trying to swim while uncomfortable produces a tense, clamped, elbow-down position.

If you learned to swim as a child, you may not understand my student's problem at all. Through play, many children learn unconsciously to enjoy the water and be comfortable there, thus are not blocked from the body signals needed for learning.
Often, beginning swim students think they should learn to swim so they can be comfortable in the water. The reverse is true. Their real need is to first learn to be comfortable in the water. Then they can learn to swim.

What is parasitic tension?
Appropriate tension is essential for breathing, walking, talking, balancing in gravity, and the rest of life. Because muscles act by shortening, each active muscle needs a balancing antagonist muscle. When you bend your arm, your contracting biceps muscle lengthens a relaxing triceps muscle. As you straighten your arm, your triceps contracts as the biceps relaxes.
Parasitic tension is tension that interferes with what you intend, instead of helping. If an antagonist muscle contracts too much (or relaxes too little or too late), the active muscle has to work harder just to balance the two, and less energy is available for the action you intend.

The myth of trying hard.
An "A" for effort? When you struggle, working against inner resistance, less energy is available for your actions. Despite this obvious fact, a wide-spread cultural myth is that trying hard is useful. In the movie, "The Natural," a climactic scene has the natural athlete hero "trying so hard" he knocks the cover off a baseball. This is nonsense.
In real life, watch Michael Jordan play basketball or Fred Astaire dance. Effective action comes from avoiding struggle. Graceful movement reveals the absence of parasitic tension. Jackie Joyner-Kersey, the fastest woman in the world, set her goal, "to get out there and relax through it." Brian Boitano said staying relaxed was key to his dramatic win of skating's Olympic gold.
Terry Laughlin, whose "Total Immersion" book and workshops have helped many adult swimmers and triathletes, finds that improvement by building strength and endurance is limited because of the water's resistance. He recommends decreasing drag to swim like a fish (by improving balance) and taking fewer strokes. Because fatigue causes loss of technique, long, hard practices build the ability to struggle, not the ability to efficiently swim faster.

Finding a comfortable place.
To return to my adult nonswimmer, uncomfortable in the water and thus unable to learn, we needed to find a place where he would be comfortable and relax enough to develop body awareness and sensory feedback. My solution was a dry land swim class, intended to get students far enough from the water so they could comfortably learn mouth breathing, coordination patterns, and general body awareness. The dry swim class uses shifting, stretching, wiggling, and flowing movements for awareness, to help students recognize comfort. Comfort recognition skills help students know when they are comfortable enough in the water to be able to learn there.

For physical learning, because it is your nonconscious functional mind that operates your body for you and needs to learn, head (factual) knowledge of what to do is not enough. You need comfortable, pleasurable body connections. As an example of one approach, Trager self-care movement uses "pleasure drill" to explore what feels good to your body. We ask open questions, "What feels better than that?" "And better than that?" "What does your body want now?

Relearning free movement.
Learning new or improved physical skills is discussed above. Comfort also helps us relearn freedom of movement after pain, trauma, illness, stroke, or inactivity. Moshe Feldenkrais once pointed out that while a "cure" could restore someone to where they were before, "learning" permits improvement significantly beyond the original state. We can even learn to enjoy feeling good.

Relearning follows the same principles as new learning. For a Trager® client who wants to rediscover free movement after a head injury or stroke, we use a sturdy table, adjust temperature, and make sure clothing is comfortable. The client's responsibility is to report any discomfort or concern. I tell clients, " The table is an agent of the Universe. It will support you if you let it." This reminds us both to be comfortable and easy while the table does the work.
Movement I use to create learning signals is gentle, rhythmic, meditative, within the client's window of comfort, and feels good to me. Movement so gentle it does not stimulate reflex resistance connects the client to her body without erecting tension or discomfort barriers. Ease of practitioner movement is transmitted to the client as soothing and self-absorbing. One client said,"I thought I would notice what you were doing, but I just noticed myself." I ask with my functional mind, through my hands, "What would be more comfortable?" or "Hello, lovely arm. Does this feel good?" .

A neglected physiological signal: feeling good
In the summer, 96 Pathways, I discussed pain as signal and the pain-fear-tension negative cycle. Though we often reject it, pain is a signal that may force itself on our attention.
The neglected signal is feeling good. To notice and even choose what feels good empowers. This is not just avoiding pain. A simple principle applies. When your body works well, it feels good to you; when you feel good, your body takes in the signals needed to function well. We can replace negative cycles by improving comfort levels to improve positive cycles.
As an example, one bodywork client who embodies this choice of comfort as empowerment had painful jaw spasms at age 74. She chose to look for help, then accepted the help she found. She was willing to learn (instead of demanding to be fixed), noticed and reported comfort and discomfort, and gave clear feedback from the table. As she practiced Trager self-care, she repeated movements that felt good and stopped movements that did not. I have enjoyed her enjoyment and her self-responsibility in the learning process. While her jaw spasms have stopped, her learning has not.

Many bodywork and movement education approaches enhance comfort and increase your physical self-awareness. I've heard that more than 200 such approaches (not all fully comfortable) are now used in the U.S. Some of the gentler ones I have enjoyed are Trager®, qi gong, Feldenkrais®, CranioSacral®, Zero Balancing®, Polarity, Alexander, Bowen, Orthobionomy, Reflexology, t'ai chi, yoga, some forms of massage, and energy movers like Reiki and Therapeutic Touch.

Joe Lee Griffin is a retired Trager® Practitioner, Tutor, and workshop leader. He is a Princeton Ph.D., who taught physiology at Brown, was NIH Special Fellow in Anatomy at Harvard Medical School, and worked at Walter Reed as a research biologist and in the Wellness Center.

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