I interview Jonathan FitzGordon, creator of the Core Walking Program and my first yoga teacher from way back in the day. Jonathan works with people who are dealing with chronic pain by teaching them how to walk properly, and has amazing results with impacting pain patterns by addressing walking. He is also the author of Psoas Release Party, and Sciatica/Piriformis Syndrome. We get into all kinds of good stuff about pain, alignment, movement, the mysterious psoas, the importance of being your own healer, and much more. Check out the transcript below if you want to either skim or to get a more thorough outline of our chat.
1:35 Jonathan and I talk about how I was one of the very first people to go through the Core Walking program back in the day when we were both in Brooklyn and he was first developing it. Jonathan discusses his learning curve on how he needed to approach everyone completely differently.
3:18 I ask Jonathan about some of the hallmarks of his teaching like, “stick your butt out” and “go ape”. I talk about how he is talking to people in a very different way than most of us approach our bodies these days, which frequently looks like battling our bodies into submission and taking on a military or ballet dancer style posture (or aiming for that as the ideal).
4:00 [Jonathan’s voice from here on except where noted] I find a lot of body and movement work to be very smart but very subtle. So when I started the walking program I wondered how do I make this as simple as possible? Stick your butt out is a very basic instruction, and I get a lot of grief for that. In truth I don’t give very specific instructions. But I do think everyone tucks their pelvis.
5:12 Sometimes a bodyworker will come in for a session. Last week a Rolfer came in, and I thought, “Oh this person is going to show up and have perfect posture” and yet they come in and are tucked under like everyone else.
5:50 One of my favorite phrases is “go ape”. Very often I don’t tell people to go ape. I make them stand in a certain way and I wait for them to say, “I feel like an ape” and when they say that I know they’ve found it.
6:17 My main take is we’re all tucked under in the pelvis, hyperextended in the knees, leaning back in the upper body which crunches the quadratus and psoas and everything. Let’s say I’m teaching yoga and I put everyone in tadasana and I say “stand up straight” and I go around to everyone and stop them from leaning backwards with a tucked under pelvis. In truth you have to figure out what the perception issue is. You are perceiving standing up straight when you are actually leaning backwards. You have to change your perception of yourself in order to change your physical self.
7:42 Essentially I feel like I can’t fix anybody. I don’t think anyone can fix anybody. You know I’m a big fan of Rolfing, and I don’t think Rolfers can fix anybody. I think Rolfers facilitate people fixing themselves.
8:03 I love my chiropractor. And yet I tell people, when you go to the chiropractor and then you leave, you have to figure out how to keep the adjustment. If not, you’re addicted to your chiropractor if you have to go back each week.
8:17 Not to complain about practitioners, but I actually don’t think that’s in the dialogue enough. “I am someone to help you fix yourself” needs to be more of a dialogue. And that’s the [Core] Walking Program.
10:22 I ask Jonathan what he thinks the tucked pelvis is about. How did we even get this idea that it’s a good thing for a body? [Jonathan] I have lots of theories. I really believe something happened in the aerobics practice, Buns of Steel. The whole concept shifted in the public’s idea of what working out was. Also in medical practice if you hurt your back MD’s tell you to make your butt stronger and make your abs stronger. And I don’t think that has served people’s back pain. If someone goes to a doctor a doctor can say if you tuck your pelvis under you’re going to elongate your spine and make more space, and there's a certain logic to that. And it takes hold and so it becomes a part of the fabric of treatment of low back pain.
12:15 Another one of my main theories is that we do it because we can. We’re the first upright beings and I think we lean backwards simply because we can.
12:50 [Me: Tell people some of the benefits they would get from sticking their butt out] The main thing they would get is to relax it. We are a tight-assed people and we need to learn how to let go. I want to teach people anatomy so that they know how their body works, but I also want to teach them to feel their body.
13:40 The next time you are in a store and you are on line [this is New Yorker speak for waiting in line...] if things are moving too slow in that line my butt starts gripping. That tension goes right there. I now know when I get into a place of that tension, I relax it, and that brings nervous system ease.
15:07 Taking Root to Fly, the book by Irene Dowd, I think the first line of her book is the pelvis is a hub of a wheel. So to me it’s the pelvis. If you pelvis isn't’ in the right place, nothing can be in the right place. so a lot of this adds up to what happens when I stick my butt out.
15:55 I think kegel exercises are in controversy these days. I’m all for their anti-kegel-ness, except I just think people do them wrong. If their pelvis was in the right place, they could do them correctly.
17:40 [Me] Do you come up against a cultural bias of hiding the butt? [Jonathan] I find that all the time but for endlessly different reasons.
18:15 I’m not a psychologist, but I really do believe a lot of this body stuff is purely about the psychology of who I am, and what I am. And that gets into a lot of weird stuff. So I think it’s a very interesting process telling people to change. And there’s this amazing psychology of why our bodies turned out the way they did.
19:58 The 83 year old client who attributes never having had a day of back pain to eating hot dogs off the street [at NYC vendor carts] every day. True story.
20:45 That’s what’s fun about my work. Every body is so individual.
21:58 To me it is all fear of change. There is nothing driving our show more than fear. A lack of permanence in an impermanent world. And without getting too spiritual I really think our walking and movement patterns are really wrapped up in that. Our bodies are where we come from, but as an adult you get to choose if you want to change that. Or not.
23:46 [Me] A lot of people don’t put that together: If I change my walk, my pain will get better. So can you address that a little bit and what you teach in the walking program?
23:58 It’s called the Core Walking Program. So the idea is you have to walk correctly, but you also need muscles to support that walking. Kids don’t get taught how to walk. We teach them how to tie their shoes, how to zip their coats, but not how to walk. And I thought why not? Why should anyone walk well when no one taught them how?
24:41 Most of the people I work with have joint pain, low back pain, knee pain, hip pain, shoulder pain. They’re really only coming to me as a place of last resort, because they think of walking as this weird thing. So they’ve seen many doctors and other specialists by the time they see me, and I’m giving them very simple things to do.
26:32 In a lot of ways it’s about getting them into the front of the body. Everyone has a tight back body: their achilles, calves, hamstrings, their butt, erector spinae, suboccipitals, it’s all tight! So we’re walking that way.
27:00 So everything I teach is how to get people into the front of their body. Which gets into really unbelievable stuff because there are no rules for this stuff. I just had somebody who came in with back pain. They obviously had very tight psoas, and this person did a lot of crunches as well. He thought he was fat, but his belly was rigid and hard. His tight psoas was shoving his abdominal contents forward. So if he’s told to do sit ups, he’s going to create more congestion in his middle to do it. So that’s where it has to become very specific with people.
28:51 [Me] What are some of the ways you get people into their front body? We talk about the mystery of the psoas, and how it can be really tough to understand and access.
29:40 I am mystified by the mystery of the psoas. Because I have people who I have literally trained and they still come up and ask me, “where is the psoas?”. After listening to me talk about it for days, they still can’t understand where it is. My main exercise is not a core strengthener, it’s a psoas release: constructive rest position. 10 years later I cannot believe how profoundly useful it is for people.
31:07 I meet very few people who have enough core strength. But the other piece of that is you need to have a happy, released psoas which makes things complicated. There’s nothing wrong with stretching the psoas. What’s weird is that you don’t ever want to feel the psoas stretch. And when you feel it on one side but not the other you know you’re in trouble because you’re imbalanced.
32:13 It endlessly gets back into people getting to know themselves. People learning how the body works.
32:26 Everybody usually wears their shoes out on the outside of their shoes, and that’s living in the outside and living in the back body. I can either say, “walk this way”, or I can say, “How would you walk on the inside of your shoe?” If you know your foot is supposed to place down on the inside it’s going to place down that way.
33:38 Learn how to take apart yourself. Become an expert on you, and it will serve you for the rest of your life.
35:33 Patient, heal thyself. Our game is to facilitate how people can heal themselves. On a certain level a practitioner might get all wrapped up and feel like they need these people to come back, but the world is big.
36:19 Jonathan talks about his sister who has severe scoliosis, and his niece, a hip hop dancer, who was recently diagnosed with mild scoliosis. [Jonathan] And they start talking right away about things they can do, and she’s 16. When she came home from the doctor I told her I didn’t think she needed to do any of these strangely invasive processes. She’s so strong, she can do amazing things.
37:22 I ask Jonathan what his favorite thing is for self care at home for people to play with. I have to go back to constructive rest. It’s oddly benign. But on a different level, everyone learns differently. So I think it’s about learning about your body. If you like reading, buy an anatomy book. If you like watching, get NOVA on the body DVD’s or something. What’s amazing to me is how much money people spend on medical that they don’t need to.
39:33 Be your own healer.