21st Century Yoga #everydayposer

A friend of my daughter just got back from an extended trip to India. He brought her a couple of cool gifts, one of which she stuck onto the dash of our car. I don’t like car time, but I might just have to spend a LOT more time looking at this:

2014-07-23 13.44.45

 

It’s a solar powered prayer wheel. It happily spins all day long glowing brightly in the corner of the windshield. It is maybe the best way I can imagine to enhance the driving experience. Ever.

But, maybe the best part of all is the instructions that came with it:

2014-07-23 13.49.21

 

Hard to read in the photo, but I wanted to prove that I didn’t make this up–so if you doubt me, maybe zoom in and look very carefully.

Instructions

1. Banned by the compulsory rotation forcibly cone.

2. If the solar lenses and base surfaces have dirt, please dry, clean cloth wipe gently. Do not add any cleaner is wiped. 

The back of the instructions go on to just as clearly describe what a prayer wheel is and how it works metaphysically–not too difficult a task at all to do in a foreign language.

So. My fellow students going through the Whole Body Alignment training come from many backgrounds, including midwives, physical therapists, yoga or pilates instructors, people with bad hips, people that love science, and I’m sure many, many other areas as well. You can imagine that we all talk in different languages and have subtle (or not so subtle) differences in expressing what we mean to our clients. We probably know what we mean, but in complexity do express is not correct use.

In a recent discussion online (we have a *secret* facebook page), a yoga instructor asked about the cuing often used in yoga to “press into the 4 corners of the feet.” This is an instruction I personally used to employ as well, but no longer. It was a long and thoughtful thread and I appreciated reading everyones’ translation of what that cue should mean or why it is useful or just plain wrong. Since the teachings of yoga originate from the same place as my new solar prayer wheel, maybe, just maybe, something has been lost in translation. Another thing to consider is that premodern yoga teachings were directed toward a very different population.

Which is why I no longer use that cue. I see loads of bunions and crooked, gnarly-looking toes which speaks to me of TOO much pressure already in the front edge of the foot. So my instruction is to back weight into the heels and go from there exploring the movement sensations of the front and sides of the foot. Other cues which I find no longer pertinent include “lift your kneecaps” since many people cannot lower them, and “tuck your tailbone” since most of our population already has a posterior tilt to their pelvis. Pressing, pulling or tucking something already engaged in that activity is too much effort in one direction. Physically and metaphysically, yoga is essentially about balance. Therefore, I need to understand the forces in the lives of my students–right now and in our cultural setting–that affect them in a negative way and introduce a practice that remediates imbalances in body, mind and spirit.

Yoga has and continues to evolve. The tenets remain that were laid down in the Sutras of Patanjali, but the way we practice today is far different than thousands of years ago. If you would like to know more about the changes in modern yoga practice, I highly recommend Mark Singleton’s book, Yoga Body.

As teachers, we need to evolve yoga language and practice to guide our students toward physical and mental liberation so spirit can be fully experienced. That can only be achieved by knowing their current physical condition and mind set. Culturally, there are many commonalities, so this is becomes easy to discern as we observe our students practice. It is also helpful to actually know your students–not to teach to such a large class that you aren’t aware of their personal limitations. And then we must learn the language of instruction that compulsory clarity do not body distort.

Sunday Morning Coffee

I love Sunday morning. Even though I’m not currently involved in a religious community right now, having been brought up in a tradition of observing a time of reflection, it sticks.

So, I have my coffee and one of two things result: quiet time on the deck or a meditative walk with week-in-review-time in my head. Guess what: it is time for a rant.

I almost titled this blog “Dear Exercise Science Major Please Note: The Foot Does NOT Pronate” because that is what this rant will be about. But I like “Sunday Morning Coffee” better because it sounds nice and I’m nice and I really don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But, then again, this isn’t about feelings, it is about understanding. One thing a college education should teach you is how to discern information, especially information within your field of study.

So, last week was Father’s Day and I took my wonderful spouse out for brunch. It was a glorious, kick back in your chair kind of meal out on a deck, casual enough to put our feet up on the extra chairs. Seeing my husband’s shoes, our really nice waitress struck up a conversation about running and shoes and she pronates and is an Exercise Science Major going into Physical Therapy. And I said, “feet don’t pronate.”

Please know this. It is important. Pronation is a movement that only happens in a human body within the relationship between your wrist and elbow due to the fact your radius and ulna can rotate. ROTATE. So if you are told by a shoe salesperson that your feet “pronate” (which they don’t), and you need expensive, supportive shoes to “fix” pronation, what the SHOE salesperson is trying to sell you is essentially snake oil.

bowlegs

You don’t need special shoes. You need hips that are strong enough to align your knees. I can explain this or I can just send you to this video clip by Katy Bowman. She is the shit, so watch her explanation please!

The lateral hip is pretty stinking important. Keep yours strong. Because what is rotating is your knee. Not. your. foot. Your feet most likely turn out, but that is called eversion, which is most likely due to you shifting your weight forward in your foot toward your big toe knuckle. Let’s just say there is a bunch wrong with that and stick to the knees for now. You don’t want your knee to rotate, mkay?

And so now I can go finish my Sunday morning walk, practice using my lateral hip, and return to coffee on the deck. Have a beautiful day my friends!

Whew! The most obvious title would totally suck…Spring, Cardiovascular Health and YOU! #Everydayposer

Geeze. We’ve been waiting for spring for.ever. It’s mid-April and yesterday there was snow, north wind, and temps in the low 30′s. But we know it will come, right? right???

Well these bushes are ready! The little buds are just waiting for the first warm temps and they will burst into blossom.

IMG_1326

They will get the needed water to mix with sunlight and perform the miracle of photosynthesis and probably all of us will burst into song.

These little buds get water up from the root by a process of fluid dynamics called transpiration. Notice the geometry of the branches: sort of straight and with little forks. The buds are located on the outermost aspect of the branch. None of this is accidental. There is a specific design of this bush that allows for maximum fluid flow of water up to the buds against the flow of gravitational pull. Physics isn’t just a good idea, it is the law my friends.

Essentially, this little bush sucks. And I mean that in the most earth-loving-can’t wait-for-May-flowers kind of way. And guess what! Your body sucks too. And I mean that in the most you-are-beautiful-and-a-miracle kind of way.

Throughout my college education and subsequent career in fitness, the emphasis of health was cardiovascular function. Of that function, we focused on heart rate, checking usually every 10 minutes to make sure we were working “aerobically.” This is probably familiar to most fitness enthusiasts. The only thing about checking heart rate is that it is based on a conceptual theory that the heart is responsible for oxygen uptake. Which is wrong, according to those darn laws of physics.

The little bush doesn’t have a heart and fluids move just fine. Your body has a very similar geometry of vascularization that creates fluid flow out to your “buds” which are your muscular cells. If we only emphasize the heart muscle, we might be missing out on large areas of the other 600+ muscles that are within your skin. All of them suck when they move. Which makes “cardio” more about circulation than about heart rate. Which means it isn’t just about moving the biggest, oxygen sucking muscles when we exercise, but really it is about moving all of them as much as possible.

I know lots of “fit” people that cannot move their toes. They cannot actively stretch their hamstrings. They cannot control their shoulder blades. If you cannot initiate a full range of motion through your motor functioning, those muscles are not metabolically active. In other words, they don’t suck. Which is bad.

If you want to learn more about how much you suck as well as how the other aspect of fluid dynamics which includes your lymph system, which does not have a heart muscle at all, which is the part of you that drains toxins out of your body, which if your muscles are not metabolically active creates inflammation, which sucks in the other not-nice-high-blood-pressure-and-pain kind of way, come to my Yoga & Aging serie on cardiovascular health May 3. It might put a little “spring” in your step :-)

Everyday Poser–Yoga in the Loo

I hear this a lot: “I don’t have time to do yoga.” That is why I started this feature of my blog called #everydayposer and am featuring ways to sneak postural awareness into your life. I would love for you to make time to come to classes, too, of course. And especially classes at On The Path Yoga (wink wink). But, even if you come to classes two or three times a week, it is the daily practice of awareness that will begin to bring your practice to fullness and light.

So today, let’s shed a little light on your bathroom. How much time do you spend there brushing your teeth and you know, sitting around? Two ideas to bring yoga into your day without adding a minute of time to your schedule:

#1 a calf stretch while brushing teeth or washing hands:

IMG_1311

Most of our back body tightness starts here, so to relieve back pain, this is the BEST way to start your day! (Even better than Folger’s in your cup.)

#2 a deeper squat whilst sitting:

IMG_1312

I sort of can’t believe that I’m posting a picture of me on the toilet, but, here it is with our bamboo Squatty Potty that we have in the studio. So that makes this photo sort of classy. I have a less classy version at home. And I had a member describe the Red Green version her husband created with paint cans and duct tape. Super classy!

The importance of this position for proper elimination can’t be overemphasized. It is the design of the body to squat to poo, but most American toilets have the hips high–sometimes even higher than the knees. Anatomically, the rectum is in a forward position and cannot easily relax unless the hips are flexed closer to 30 degrees. A squat also does a whole lot of good for low backs, too. And healthy knees. Not to mention how important it is to take the hips through their entire range of motion.

So there you have it. Two ways to integrate postural awareness into your day. If it seems too basic to be yoga asana, well, try to come into Warrior pose with calves, hips, or lumbar that are too tight. Try entering into a meditative state while feeling constipated. I’ll end with a quote from Vanda Scarafelli: “As the sun opens the flowers delicately, unfolding them little by little, so the yoga exercises and breathing open the body during a slow and careful training. When the body is open, the heart is open.”

Open your heart when you close that bathroom door and try a little yoga in the loo!

Everyday Poser: Walk the Plank!

I’m seeing all sorts of plank challenges happening. It’s cool to plank. Here is a photo of me planking a chair:

(pretty cool, but not as cool as the van!)

(pretty cool, but not as cool as the van!)

Planking is a great way to build tone in what is commonly referred to as “the core.” But (and by that I mean BUTT), here is the deal: most of us WAY overuse our gluteus maximus for standing. I do it all the time (although I am working on it! #everydayposer). Here is me standing with a thrust pelvis, tight glutes, internally rotated shoulders,and a dumb look on my face:

Notice how my hips are in front of the rope, but my heels are aligned with it.

Notice how my hips are in front of the rope, but my heels are aligned with it.

If you stand that way, then most likely you are planking that way. And holding a plank position is going to reduce your awareness of alignment, strengthening muscles that are already overused. There is a way of finding body alignment that is very subtle. What happens the moment you learn to ride a bike? Are you suddenly stronger? No, you just have found an inner awareness that coordinates all your movements. It won’t help you to find this by riding the bike harder or longer with training wheels.

Rather than holding a bad plank for 1-5 minutes, try to walk the plank. That’s right–and I’m sorry it isn’t National Talk Like A Pirate Day, because you could simultaneously say arrrgh while doing this and be as cool as participating in a plank challenge. But yesterday was March Forth, so go with that and make this month be your time to retrain the way you walk.

The key to stimulating the core musculature lies in your heels. If you want to stand, walk, or plank well, you must place a lot of effort into your heels. It’s easy to activate the kinetic link in your heels standing, just back your hips up until they are over your heels. It will be harder to then align the rest of your body, especially if you are a pelvic thruster. But you will begin to find your core while you find your alignment. Then, walk by pushing back with your heels. If you have a tendency of keeping tension in your glutes, this will be difficult at first and feel like walking in downhill ski boots. RELAX YOUR BOOTY! Use your hamstrings instead. Glide back with a straight leg. Your glutes will engage at the last portion of your step when you move into an extended hip and then relax when you flex the hip forward, as designed. Each step should be a core strengthening plank. Bonus: you can walk for a much longer time than you can hold a plank.

Walking this way will be more beneficial metabolically as well. Chronically tense muscles eventually become metabolically inactive. Yep–if you are pulling your bottom forward while standing or walking to make it look smaller, eventually it will become bigger. Dang. And so not cool.

Finally, if you insist on planking, rather than hold it, try moving in and out of your plank using your triceps (with relaxed glutes, straight hips, and neutral spine). If you cannot do it, then drop your knees to the floor. Your body to strength ratio for your upper body is whacked, which means you are hurting your shoulders while holding your plank as well. If shoulders creep up or elbows turn out, you’ll be tearing at your rotator cuff while planking. Again, not cool.

Learn plank like you would learn to ride a bike. It isn’t really possible to just balance on a bike without moving. Likewise, it isn’t really likely you will find your true core musculature in long-term holding of plank. Remember your body design is meant for movement and most likely you are in a holding pattern too much of your day already. Move more and start walking the plank!

Ice Age Ending Soon!

Here is a photo taken recently in my current home town:

grand-haven-pier

We look like zombies of the Ice Age Apocalypse, no?

It was one of the few sunny days of this Polar Vortex winter and there was ice, so hundreds of people wondered out onto Lake Michigan as if answering a calling of some sort. Kind of cool. Sort of strange. A bit dangerous. This ice is formed by wave action and wave action continues under the surface creating an constantly shifting ice surface. Thus the upheaval of ice seen in the foreground.

And here is where I take a metaphorical leap into our bodies (you knew it was coming, right?) We sort of think of our skin as a solid barrier to the constant flow of stuff beneath it. But it isn’t. There is NO separation of tissues in our bodies. One flows into another like the Grand River flows into Lake Michigan. Skin is the outermost layer of tissue containing the ends of blood, nerve and lymph systems. Ends that connect further up. Ends that eventually tell their whole systems to respond in a certain way depending on what is happening on the surface.

So, you get a scrape. Blood flows and coagulation occurs due to the movement of lymph into the area. Your nerves say ouch. You learn to stay away from that which scrapes you and you heal. Or you can ice the scrape. This reduces the flow of blood and lymph and deadens the nerves. Because what you do with your whole body in a Polar Vortex, you will do on the microscopic level when you apply ice locally: increase muscular tension. Everybody has been complaining of tight shoulders this winter. Because it has been freaking cold! and we’ve been drawing inward away from the cold. Why do we think that icing an injury is the correct thing to do? There isn’t any reason. No science has ever “proven” that this is good for you. What? Click here for a thorough discussion with Dr. Kelly Starrett of Mobility WOD. In order for our bodies to heal, we need the free flow of blood, lymph and nerves into that area. Muscular tension reduces that flow. Tension is NOT THE SAME AS MOVEMENT! It isn’t nice and although icing an injury may make you feel less of the ouch, that decreased sensitivity also is decreasing your body’s response to the injury. A response that is natural and healthy and the only way to actually heal the tissues.

I was taught all through my college and fitness career that RICE is nice: Rest Ice Compression and Elevation. Maybe I was taught that because everybody was doing it. We were the ice age zombies of what-to-do-when-you-hurt-yourself. But it is time for winter to end. All of us, even those (like me) that sort of love winter, feel it is time to move on. It’s time to be tired of icing injuries too, and move on to whole body wellness.

Caution: Contents Under Pressure

images

I’ve been thinking about this one all month. Which, I guess is only about 12 days so far, but, I have little notes all over my desk. Remember to mention this, bookmark that, etc. In other words, this post isn’t going to be under 500 words.

February has been declared heart health month by the American Heart Association (AHA). Earlier in the month, I got to go to our local elementary school and teach yoga to the fourth grades, so I emphasized poses that stretched and opened the heart space. At the end of class, the regular teacher made announcements about Jump Rope for Heart, which was the next special program they were participating in and an activity that is good for strengthening the heart. Here is a question I am going to ponder: which is better for your heart, stretching or strengthening?

Usually, when we think about heart health, we associate it with “cardio” something like jumping your heart out for an hour, or for those that go to gyms, it’s the tread mill, stair climber, aerobics class. Maybe you run outdoors. Or you might be a swimmer. But the idea of cardio is that your heart has to work hard, that it has to achieve a certain percentage of maximum output, which you check from a chart on the wall or an app on your phone. We like numbers: calories burned, VO2max, miles or laps completed. Maybe I should clarify what I mean by “we” here, because my grandmother, who had to raise a family of 5 during the Great Depression, liked other numbers: quarts of tomatoes put up, pounds of meat in the freezer, dozens of cookies in the oven. Her idea of heart health was to simply stay fed with whatever is at hand and your heart will keep ticking.

My grandmother’s diet,which included sugar, saturated fats, red meat, and processed vegetables (although the processing was done at home), would not be declared “heart healthy” by the AHA. I never saw my grandmother drink a green drink, nor did she even once consider vegetarianism, and yet she lived past 90. So did my great grandmother. Neither ever, ever did a cleanse. And I also never saw either of those two women run. Never. Not a scientific test group, I know. But still.

There are changes in how we perceive healthy eating. This morning, NPR had a report on whole fat milk, a real no-no to women of my generation. The naturopath that I work with recommends saturated fats. I have friends that are paleo eaters and those that swear by veganism. I once saw a Facebook post on paleoveganism…so here is the other question I am going to ponder: which is better for your heart, the diet of my grandmother or a specialty health diet determined by the latest nutritional advice?

And although I am going to ponder those two questions, I’m not going to answer them. Really, it is impossible. If you know about the scientific process, you know that there are just too many variables within humanity to say anything for sure about how to exercise or how to eat. But, this much I can say for sure, because the science is sound and the logic is pretty clear: nothing works well under pressure. (Not even pressure cookers. I remember my mom’s blowing its little spinning thingy off many times and put a hole right in our kitchen ceiling.)

If you really want to help your heart, take off the pressure. Whether that pressure comes from tight muscles surrounding it, overworking the heart muscle itself, poor circulation in the extremities, constant worry about diet, or unresolved stress in your life (watch this TED Talk for cool insight to stress). Any scientific experiment starts with a laboratory full of equipment. You need to understand how the basic set up works. Your body is your lab. Do you understand, really, how the equipment works? Although it far less complicated than understanding the role of cholesterol in your body (which a surprising number of people claim to know), the basic functioning of the human laboratory is pretty misunderstood.

I’m going to set up the experiment. I need the following items: blood, lymph, and electricity. I’ll put the blood in about a million test tubes and the lymph in the same amount test tubes. I need a way to get blood in and lymph out–the electricity will do nicely, trading one test tube of blood for one of lymph. I need to have good alignment of the test tubes, too. If I don’t set it up right, I’ll end up with too much of either blood or lymph in an area. The pressure in that area will increase. Test tubes will start to crash, maybe even break, spilling blood or lymph all over my lab. And then I’ll have to clean up the mess. The mess will resemble high blood pressure and inflammation. If there is breakage of the test tubes containing blood, the mess will be a problem of malnutrition, since the blood isn’t getting to where it needs to be. If a test tube containing lymph breaks, the mess will be more of a toxic problem, since lymph carries waste products. What matters in this experiment is how I moved the test tubes around. All of them, since any one of them can start to create havoc in my lab.

In yoga, we call the flow of blood, lymph, and electricity “prana.” In a human performance lab, the terms are more technical, but essentially the gist is this: you have to flow. All of you. No test tube is unnecessary and none are more important than the others.

So what is better, strength or stretching? Well, does all of your body move with ease while walking or standing? Do you have any tension in your body? That is an area of pressure. Blood is not going to flow well into a tight area or an underused one. Regarding diet, most likely in our society you are getting enough nutrition in your mouth, but your cells might still be starving. If you don’t move the nutrients around to all your parts, then the question of nutrition becomes moot. Can you move your little toe? No? Then even if you drank the best green drink this morning, your pinky toe is still starving. Besides your pinky toe, what else haven’t you moved lately? Anything that isn’t moving with ease is increasing the pressure gradient for your heart. And even if you do the hardest cardio workout ever, if you do it in the same position you spend the rest of your day in, you are just increasing the pressure on your heart muscle and not actually feeding the other muscles of your body. Crash.

What about clean diets? No matter how careful you are to remove toxins from your diet, cells are constantly metabolizing within your body and metabolism produces waste. The lymphatic system is responsible for removing waste and it works without a central beating heart, depending solely on the electricity of localized muscular movement. I repeat, no heart. The good news is that a large number of lymphatic drainage points are in your groin and armpit, so if you are extending your legs and arms regularly, there is no buildup of toxic waste. Oh. Wait. You sit a lot and then go to spinning classes, metabolizing a days worth of calories, but never fully extending your limbs behind you. The bad news is that a build up of lymph generally or locally (in the nodes) creates a toxic, acidic atmosphere which will alter cellular reproduction at that site. Crash and burn.

This is sort of a downer post. But I’m going to end it with happy news! To maintain heart health, cellular health, and overall functioning of your body, move in different ways throughout the day so that your test tubes are aligned and being moved in and out of each area of your lab, err, body. It really is easier than going to the gym for a kick-your-butt-training session. Or learning how to ferment your own ghee. Are you sitting? Stand up and stretch. Kneel for a while at your desk. Go out for a walk and focus on reaching back with your arms and legs–you are doing extensions and draining those lymph nodes of toxins! Want to improve your cardiovascular health? Move your toes. You can do that while you are sitting. You just need to take your shoes off. You don’t have to move harder, you just need to move more. In fact, moving harder might cause a crash in an area already under pressure.

All your test tubes are very important to your human lab. Notice if any areas are under pressure and avoid a crash simply by moving the blood in and lymph out. You provide the needed electricity just by moving your muscles. You don’t need a special app, an expensive gym membership, or the latest advice from the AHA. In fact, 1500 hundred words of this post could have been two: move more.