A man once came to see me for Feldenkrais lessons. He had severe pain in his feet and shoulders and had been to countless specialists to no avail. I asked him to walk across the room. He walked like a stick figure, arms and legs stiffly jerking ahead, his torso, head and neck rigid. I asked him to describe where he felt movement. “My legs and arms of course,” he replied.
“Walk again,” I said. As he walked, I asked, “What kind of movement do you feel in your pelvis?”
He stopped, aghast. “My pelvis? Why, none!” He stared at me in disbelief, as if I had asked him to fly, then said, “Are you trying to say my pelvis is supposed to move?”
The pelvis is like a bowl that contains everything polite society both obsesses over and would like to ignore: our sexual and reproductive organs, our bowels (one of the definitions of bowels is something deep inside something large), our sphincters. On one hand, pelvic power sells everything from music videos to cars. Undulating, thrusting, shimmying celebrities offer the unattainable with gyrating hips. But a different message is taught from childhood. Moving your hips is a bad thing. It means you’re loose, or low class. Many people have difficulty even speaking the word pelvis when referring to their own anatomy, especially as it relates to movement. While Western culture looks askance at disempowering traditions like the Chinese custom of foot binding, freezing the pelvis is an unspoken requirement of refinement and good breeding.
Yet we intuitively know its power. When Elvis “The Pelvis” turned American women into ecstatic Bacchae, he was both heralded as a shaman (or “the King”) and vilified as an emissary of the devil. Today Graceland is for some a holy pilgrimage site. There are essays, books and even cults deifying Elvis’ Dionysian charisma. We can’t seem to resist pop stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson, whose signature pelvic moves are even now performed by children who never even heard of them.
The geographical center of the body is located in the pelvis, a little below the belly button, not far from where the Hindus place the second chakra, which they call the sacral chakra or Swadhisthana. There are two chakras in the pelvis: The root chakra at the base of the spine relates both to security and human potentiality, and the sacral chakra governing creativity, control and joy.
The Japanese call this central point the Hara or Tanden. It is the navel Dan -Tien in China. (There are actually several dan-tiens or energy centers, some corresponding in location to the chakras) This dan-tien is the center of balance and gravity as well as governing life force and sexual energy.
While each culture uses the term slightly differently, they all are called “energy centers.” When I first began studying aikido, my teacher would periodically come over and lay his hands on my shoulders. “Down,” he would murmur, “You need to move from your center. You’re way up in your chest.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Yet, when I turned my attention to this point in my lower abdomen, I was able to more effectively respond to my opponent. It was as if the act of grounding increased my power. Martial artists consider the pelvic region the core of power and stress the action of moving ki (energy) from the hara. Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais,who was also a black belt in judo, said, “The fullness of the abdomen makes the pelvis very nearly a spherical body, the center of which is the center of action. The first sacral vertebra is the point where all stresses in the body cross. This point must be allowed to move freely and is the representative point of the body in all action.”
The word sacrum is derived from the Latin word for sacred. Many cultures, from ancient Greece to the Mayans called the bottom of the spine “sacred.” The reasons vary among cultures, but most associate the sacrum and/or the pelvis with God or immortality. Contemporary Mayans in the Chiapas area say we have two skulls, the head and pelvis, connected by the serpent (our spinal column). Mayan traditions included carving animal pelvic bones into masks, ritually connecting the two heads.
Instead of allowing the valuing the contents of the pelvis by celebrating its natural roundness, contemporary fashion has fetishized the flat belly. For most adults this requires sucking in around the hara and often tucking the sacred tailbone as well.. Karlfried Graf Durckheim in his book Hara, The Vital Center of Man says, “Nothing is more opposed to the modern Western ideal of beauty than the big belly. But, not Okinawa Flat Belly Tonic content with rejecting the fat belly, we are prejudiced against any belly whatsoever. The ideal “good figure” – not only in the case of women – is flat bellied if not actually bellyless.” This tucked in, sucked in posture, exemplified by rail thin models and “ripped” male icons also imprisons the large muscles necessary for potent movement: the hip and back flexors, the core abdominals and the gluteal muscles as well as the deeper muscles of the pelvic floor.
In addition, over the course of our lives, various experiences: education, trauma, socialization and parental influences, act to inhibit the free movement of the pelvis. Tight sphincters, gripping buttocks, and tense groin muscles as the result of unexpressed fears, performance anxiety and even childhood habits impact these muscles of the pelvis, causing awkward stance and movement, jaw, neck and shoulder tension, and back pain. It’s interesting that current beauty standards reflect the very tension that disempowers. These “anxiety patterns,” as Feldenkrais terms them, result in compulsions, nervousness, impotence (both sexual and in action), and insecurity, belying what is ostensibly contained in the energy centers called chakras.
Francois Delsarte, a 19th century pioneer in the study of body language, espoused a trinity approach to the self, with physical, mental and emotional centers. He further subdivided the body’s functions, labeling the pelvic region the “lower emotional center”, where primal emotions are expressed. Terror, lust, sexual ecstasy and grief all affect the muscles and organs in the lower abdominal region. We void our bladders in shock and terror, the pelvic floor muscles contract and expand in orgasm. Likewise movement and inhibition in any part of the pelvis triggers emotions as well as impacting whole body function.