I was always curious as to why ancient Hellenic culture was able to achieve an almost unbelievable pace of innovation on and off the battlefield. This small nation of made up of city states at war with each other for most of the time somehow found the leisure time to invent theatre, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, democracy, nutrition, systematic exercise and muscle development, sculpture, that we still use and are still relevant to this present day. My journey to understanding the secret of rational thought has been a life long pursuit. This article is the first I am publishing on this subject and will be followed up others and eventually by a book I have been writing for a long time titled: “Recipes for the Revival of the ancient Hellenic Spirit” The book will take a little while longer, but there is no need to wait.
The Dancing Warriors
There is one aspect of the ancient Hellenic culture that always intrigued me. Their physical development seemed so extraordinary that to this day very few if any really understand how they trained. What did they know about physical training and development? Based on the evidence they left behind they knew a great deal more than our present athletes and warriors. Dance was at the center of their training. You can still see some elements of the ancient Hellenic dance in classical forms of ballet. This form of dance began in Italy after the Hellenic scholars and merchants arrived fleeing the Ottoman empire after it occupied Constantinople. They brought their most treasured books and manuscripts and they brought their gold. This wealth fuelled the Italian renaissance and began the march out of the dark ages of human expression. It is assumed that classical dance began by simply copying the poses of the ancient Hellenic sculptures. But what if their books described a training technique of the body? What if there were detailed drawings of the exercises and rhythms and steps? Italians at the time would not understand them as warrior training they would think they were dance steps! Perhaps even the Hellenes who brought the books to Italy with them for safe storage did not understand their meaning either. These books and manuscripts could still exist hidden or forgotten in the Vatican library or in some remote monastery just waiting to be discovered or destroyed.
But we do not need to wait because the books are available and in perfect condition. These books were not only written in papyrus, or parchment they were also written in marble. The original ancient Hellenic sculptures have within them all the knowledge for training the human body for maximum efficiency, power and stamina. They were able to achieve this level of training because they were the first to discover and use the ultimate secret of humanity. Rational thought and observation devoid of any prejudgement and fear.
Structural Elements of Dance Expression
Classical dance training is based on training the body for specific choreography along with music to develop a specific movement vocabulary. It does not train the dancer to be able to express themselves fully through unhindered movement. Most of the modern dance training unfortunately has followed this “classical” method of training using piano or drums for musical accompaniment. They basically train the body to be able to conform to the choreographic limitations of the technique they have developed for the purpose of their personal choreographic vision. Whether it is the Classical or the Martha Graham modern technique or any other. There is no dance training that I know of that is solely devoted to training a dancer’s physicality with the sole purpose of achieving maximum muscular and structural resilience. This was exactly what the ancient Hellenes had developed. A method of training the physical body to be ready to dance, to fight or to endure with maximum flexibility and an enhanced ability to improvise movement.
SCIATIC HEALED IN A BLINK OF AN EYE
After a car accident a few years ago I was seriously considering a spine operation to relieve a very painful sciatic nerve condition. After more than one year of physio the pain did not go away and I was faced with having to undergo a very dangerous operation that would offer no guarantee I would be pain free ever again. Then one night I picked up a book on ancient Hellenic training methods written by an extraordinary woman Diana Watts called “The Renaissance of the Greek Ideal”. This book was a reminder of many things I had discovered about the body many years ago when I was training to become a dancer. I decided to stop the physio and instead use the knowledge of the ancient Hellenic culture as my guide to healing my spine. Diana was an exceptional woman and the first to attempt to discover the training methods of the ancient Hellenes by examining the statues they left behind. Memories of my own studies and discoveries on this subject came flooding back into my consciousness. There so much I had left behind and forgotten from my own dance experience and training. This is when I realized the answer to ending my pain lay in front of my eyes this whole time. Free download of full book http://bit.ly/dianawatts
My personal journey of healing began with the Kouros statue. This Kouros position is the first position for a good reason. When I began to stand in this position I felt no pain. So I spent a couple of days exploring it. Trying to get under its skin, I wanted to know why they stood like that? What was the purpose? These ancient Hellenes had a reason for everything they created. Their art had no accidents. They did not throw paint on a wall and call it art. They did not smash a marble boulder and place it on a pedestal as a symbolic representation. Symbolic of what? Laziness of spirit? They did not depict deformed human beings in their statues. Why bother? These statues served only one purpose; they were models of excellence. Their artistic vision was sculpted to uplift, inspire and heal their citizens. Their art was not conceptual it was a road to excellence and innovation.
Ancient Hellenic Kouros statue displaying perfect structural alignment. These statues were models of excellence. They were not idealized.
After 4 days of standing in the Kouros position and moving into positions that caused me no pain for 1 or 2 hours a day my sciatic pain completely disappeared. I achieved this by simply changing the way I moved.
THE ANCIENT HELLENIC SECRET REVEALED
In this first position (see Kouros photo above) one foot is positioned slightly in front of the other with weight placed in the center between the front and back leg displaying perfect structural alignment.
Weight of the body rests mostly on the heels. The weight is then spread out to the inside of the foot. This helps to open the gluteus maximus. If you place the weight on the outside of the foot the gluteus maximus tend to squeeze together causing a misalignment of the pelvis and pushing out the lower spine. The big toe should grip the floor slightly so the arch does not collapse and the 4 little toes are slightly elevated. This creates a centre line for balance with the least amount of effort. This gives maximum balance and is the structural alignment that is ready for action.
They had in fact developed the ultimate martial art and dance technique training methods. All this accumulated knowledge has been in plain sight this whole time. Patiently waiting for someone to notice. Could they have made it more obvious? They were the first to depict the human body naked; these naked statues have an indescribable sense of motion. These statues are cinematic they move they tell a story. The Romans tried to copy them but failed to capture this sense of motion. You can easily tell a Roman copy from an original. They could not copy them because they did not personify them. The internal motion is derived from the activation of the deepest and most powerful muscles in the human body.
The technique gained by training in classical or modern dance is very useful for stretch, strength and discipline. Unfortunately, it also trains the nervous system and musculature to move in narrowly defined set of steps and intentions. First thing we need to do is retrain the nervous system and the musculature in order for the dancer to be able to expand their vocabulary at an accelerated pace. To do this we must first understand anatomy and the mechanics of movement. This will deepen our understanding of presence, lyricism and grace which are physical sensations that can easily be learned and adapted to any movement beyond the classical or modern dance vocabulary. Abstract dance devoid of obvert emotional content or story line can also be lyrical and graceful with the dancers displaying an enormous amount of presence on stage.
IN THE ZONE
In martial arts it is called “chi” in sports its called being in the “zone”, in dance and in every day life it is called “presence”. Most people believe you can develop your “chi” through long practice. The same goes for athletic performance endless repetition of the skillset will eventually lead to a moment of being in the “zone”. Joggers are very familiar with this feeling when running and they suddenly lose sense of time and feel they can run forever without tiring. But in dance and the performing arts it is thought to be a mysterious gift that some dancers have and others do not. In fact anyone can have “presence” it is simply a matter of training. What type of training? “I thought you would never ask”. Presence is within you. It is accessible. It is available. It is empowering.
ANATOMY – WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW WILL HURT YOU
I began to look once again at drawings of anatomy particularly at the muscles in the mid section. This is when I realised the way out of spine surgery. There is was the inner corset the transversus abdominis. Extending from the inside of the lower spine to the front of the lower belly. The surgery that was proposed to me would remove a couple of vertebrae fuse them together and put them back. Looking at the diagrams and drawings of the transversus abdominis perhaps developing these muscles I could achieve the same result. This happened to be so called “Hellenic muscle” prominently displayed on all the ancient Hellenic statues. It forms a bowl shape below the navel and runs from one hip to the other. Anatomically it represents the development of the inner deepest muscle groups; the Transverse Abdominis and the Psoas and the Iliacus .
The Gluteus Maximus is the biggest muscle in the body and for good reason.
It is the basis for structural support and at the same time it is the most used muscle for movement. By activating the gluteus maximus tension in the thighs is released. The thigh muscles do not have to be tight in order to stand up right; they are best used for movement and not for holding a position.
This is the real secret of the ancient Hellenic training methods. They worked the muscles from the inside out.
These inner muscle groups (transverse, psoas, iliacus, diaphragm) were directly linked to the 3 basic human instincts when faced with danger; Fight, Flight and Freeze. These deep muscles were the first responders. Their sudden activation causes a release of adrenalin. This is the secret of the source of stamina, strength and endurance the ancient Hellenes discovered. By articulating and developing these muscles they could control adrenalin and access it at will.
In the Kouros statue, notice the lower back is slightly curved naturally. The gluteus maximus is clearly defined and activated.
The transverse and the psoas deep muscles are visible below the navel as they push the surface abdominals out to form the shape of a bowl mirroring the shape of the pelvic bowl.
THE FIRST POSITION – POSE FOR EXCELLENCE
These deep muscles stabilize the spine, the torso and pelvis and connect to the upper femur bone from the inside.
Now the first exercise is to simply stand in the Kouros position. This is what I call the first position. One foot slightly in front of the other so the toe of the back foot is slightly behind the heel of the front foot. The correct position will vary from person to person. In order to achieve perfect balance with least effort tighten the muscles below the navel, relax the rest of the abdomen and breath up and to the back. Next thing is to tighten the gluteus maximus and use them to balance. Do not tighten your thighs or your shoulders or your neck. Try standing in this position until you feel the only muscles that are tight are the abdominals below your navel and your gluteus maximus while breathing up and to the back. There are three reasons to breath up and to the back.
First reason is this keeps the torso balanced so the front ribs do not stick out when you inhale causing the spine to misalign.
Second reason is because it begins to engage the psoas which is attached to the spine in the middle of the back behind your heart and extends down to the pelvis and attaches to the upper femur bone.
Third reason is it activates the latissimus dorsi or “lats” for short that are rooted on the outside of the spine along the back and fan out to under the shoulder and above the waist.
So we have the psoas on the inside of the spine on the 12th vertebrae and the lats on the outside of the spine also on the 12th vertebrae and the diaphragm lifting the torso with every breath and elongating the vertebrae in your spine to relieve the gravitational pressure and create stability and agility. The transverse abdominals are activated and wrap around like a corset around the lower mid section. The whole body is now open and ready to respond to sudden changes of direction, purpose or intention. This is presence. Developing these inner muscles will automatically give you presence due to the adrenalin they cause to be released. Learning to control and channel adrenalin is the secret of attaining presence anywhere anytime. Whether it is on the ball park, in the gym, in the boardroom, in a bar, or while making love. Presence is in fact a peak experience of awareness and action.
There is a tremendous misconception about the diaphragm that has been propagated by relaxation specialists and eastern philosophies. The human body is built for motion the more we move the more energy we generate. In order to move the diaphragm has to move up for very specific reasons. The only time you should be breathing into the lower diaphragm is when you are lying down or eating. The rest of the time when sitting, walking, or running the human body is built to breath up. The simple act of breathing up will cause the diaphragm to elongate your spine on its own. In fact most people breath out when attempting to stand from a sitting position instead of breathing in and up. You do not need to pull up or make any other effort to lift your torso straight. Your head placed squarely in the center like the Kouros statue.
The Diaphragm is attached to the spine from the inside
Its not as easy as it looks because as modern humans we have been trained to use a great deal of effort to hold positions that are not structurally efficient. Once you gain some control and are able to stand in this position even for only 5 minutes you will notice a huge difference when you walk.
THE GLUTEUS MAXIMUS
The gluteus maximus when activated will feel like you are leaning up against a stool almost like you are sitting. Even when walking. It is the biggest muscle in the body and the least used or developed. Dancers may look like they have highly developed gluteus maximus but they are not articulated enough for movement. This is the easiest way to propel yourself forward or leap upwards and in dance this is the most important muscle for balance and strength, standing still or in motion.
When moving forward with the gluteus maximus fully activated, the lower abdominals engaged, and the breathing up and into the back it gives the impression of greater volume in the movement due to the adrenalin release; one of the key elements of “presence”. Your legs and arms will unfurl like sails of a boat. This is the perfect and constant inner dance posture whether standing straight or not. You can even do this exercise lying down as well.
This is the first step to engaging these deep muscles and going deep inside in order to discover your own very unique motion and movement vocabulary. There is no rush take it easy and feel it and then we will start to move with it. This will give you a neutral reference point and shift your relationship to movement from a series of steps into uncharted movement territory.
Dance training and exercises are based on repetition of steps needed for a specific choreographic context. They were not designed to fully develop a dancer’s ability to move in unexpected ways. This the key to the next stage of your development as an athlete, a dancer and a human being. You will discover movements that will surprise you and that will challenge your preconceived notions of what is possible. By getting in touch with your own uniquely deep structural alignment, your physical movement, will improve instantly. You will gain more stamina because your movements will become more efficient and thus use less energy.
Enjoy! And have fun! Don’t forget to register for the newsletter to receive upcoming release of videos and online training sessions.
All the best Athan
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