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:

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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

 

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.

Everyday Poser-Balancing Act

Here is a photo of  my business partner, Anne, and me:IMG_0125

See any difference? I mean I know that you see I am wearing a blue shirt and she is wearing a white one, right? But notice ANYTHING else? Do you see how she is balancing on ONLY her feet? I am on my entire forearm and head–creating a much larger surface area on which to balance.

In the above photo, we are in the exact same alignment and body position: leg extension, arm and elbow flexion. But really, the load of our bodies on our muscles are completely different because she is head up and I am head down. Generally, we “feel” that it is easier to stand on our feet because we are used to loading our muscles that way. Exercise is what we do to change how our muscles are loaded. Although technically I have a much larger surface area, it feels harder to stand on my forearms and head, because I am changing how gravity acts on my joints and I have to relearn how to stack everything. Balance doesn’t change; strength does.

Children learn to walk and the first thing we see them do is this:1656102_10152877109814298_591128827_n

They naturally know that to really “get” being heads up, you need to try heads down. They will try this over and over again, because they have a clear connection to their innate body balance. 1656102_10152877109809298_149190829_n

AND If standing and balancing on our feet is so easy, then why are we always leaning? I blogged a few weeks ago about my leaning habit in the kitchen. I have tried to catch myself whenever I lean. Geeze, I lean on one hip, I lean on the bathroom sink, I lean on the desk, I lean on an elbow. Leaning is not balancing. Check for yourself and see how much you are not able to balance standing up–you can even use both feet!

Notice in little Charlotte’s photos she is working on leg extension with the bed in the first one and with her foot kicking up in the second. She’s having fun trying extended poses similar to standing while using different gravitational forces. She is a natural little yogi with a still intact sense of her WHOLE body.

Yoga is essentially about being whole. If we are always looking at life from the same perspective, we start to lose sight of that wholeness. Change position. Change perspective. And for heaven’s sakes, get some pink flower boots!

Everyday Poser–Making Tracks in 2014!

My new year’s resolution is to get back into some serious walking this year. For many years I averaged 20-30 miles per week walking or running back and forth to work. Now that I work so close to home, it’s down to about 10 miles per week and I’ve noticed a little creeping up of weight, even though I actively teach everyday.

Walking is the ideal form of exercise–really it is just moving our body in a natural way that shouldn’t be described as a special “exercisy-thing.” We should walk. A lot. In the way our ancestors did–over hill and dale and as far as needed for dinner. Walking should be so natural and habitual that we don’t need to think about form or distance. But.

We don’t walk. Hardly at all. And when we do, we need to be aware of what we spend our days doing and how those habits affect our stride. I teach alignment and one of the main adjustments I have to do everyday is remind my students to align their feet. Anatomical alignment (i.e. putting our feet into the place they are supposed to be) often feels like being pigeon toed. That’s because most of us walk around duck toed due to hip rotations which result from pelvic thrusting and tucking habits. I’m aware of this and I’ve been pretty proud of myself lately for paying attention to alignment when I walk.

And then to my horror, my feet prints were visible to me in the snow from yesterday. Currently I am wearing Yaktrax due to ice, and I’m the only one walking this route, so I know the tracks were mine. And I had been paying attention! But the tracks tell another story:

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If you look at the photo, you will notice my left foot toeing outward. For the remainder of the walk, I overcompensated, REALLY turning my left toes in. Everything changed. I felt my right glutes more, my spine started adjusting, I felt my shoulders and neck shift…I had such an ingrained habit that I didn’t realize how far out of alignment I was in my walking habit.

Anytime we chose to “exercise” we generally do it to improve our overall health. Moving in a habitual way that takes us out of our anatomical design (aligned spine, balanced muscle tone), however, regardless of our intentions and even initial successes, will deteriorate our health over time. I know that for years I have had right hip issues–snapping out of joint, pain,  and such, but I really thought walking was supposed to help. It should, but only if I straighten out my gait! All those miles of walking may have kept my weight down a bit, but it was also creating a habit of imbalance so deeply ingrained that I didn’t detect it even when I thought I was.

Have someone tattle on you. Walk in the snow, allow a friend walk behind you (I did this with my husband while running and yelling “turn your toes in!!!!” repeatedly. Make sure you have a really good relationship with this friend), take classes where the teacher corrects your alignment. No matter how much you think you are aware, habits are extremely hard to detect!

Everyday Poser–Baby Yoga

Today I had four requests for Mommy and Me Yoga classes. Maybe it was a coincidence–I’m leaning more toward a group of friends all had an idea. Great! But I don’t have classes like that. I’m happy to offer a special class–but I can tell you in just a few words what I would mainly teach parents of infants: take that baby out of the bucket!

Babies are natural yogis if they are left to their own exploration of how their bodies move. Car seats are designed for safety upon impact, but these carriers are horrible, not only for your child’s postural development, but your own as well:

 

 

It is just so much easier to carry a baby my friends! And really, the position that your baby is in while being strapped into a carrier is soooo not ideal–not for their natural movements and not for their bone or muscular strength development due to the unnatural shift in load bearing. And I could go on–but these are short posts! So here is just a little bit more: hold your baby close to you. Lay them on their tummy, lay them on their back. Let them start to roll around. Trust your child to learn how to move naturally and watch them become an #everydayposer!!

Everyday Poser–Walking in the Snow!

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Here is what my neighborhood looked like this morning. Usually when things go winter around here, I get asked (told?), “you didn’t walk TODAY did you???”

Yes. I walk everyday. Walking is the best pose you can do for your body, yogis. And walking on varied surfaces is important for all kinds of reasons. Mostly this morning, my lateral hip muscles got a bit of challenge. These are called the Tensor Fascia Lattae. Which always makes me want coffee. But I had it before I left the house and I LOVED my morning practice of “walkasana” in the snow. See:

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Everyday Poser–Elbows off the table!!!

 

Everybody has said it, thought it, or had it yelled at them sometime. Why is it such a big deal?

The distance from the heart to the head is why. There is a reason why deep conversations are called “heart to hearts” and an argument is referred to as a “head to head.” The person in this photo is obviously bored. Her heart isn’t into the lovely meal, the company at the table, not even the wine! When we lean on our elbows, the anatomical action is a collapsing of the chest and the heart (along with the support structure of the spine and ribs) moves away from the head. The head is heavy. When it is place in a forward position, tension begins to rise in the occipital joint (head/neck connection) as well as in the jaw. Distant heart, heaviness, and tension do not lead to happy meals. Even if there is a toy.

Open your heart this Thanksgiving and sit tall. Become an #everydayposer and bring yoga to the table!

Everyday Poser–Computer Time

Okay–I am obviously sitting at my computer as I compose this. And I was sitting in my chair until about a minute ago. But then my butt fell asleep. Because that is what comfy chairs do–they allow your body to fall asleep. Unable to take a “selfie” (which is the word of the year!), I stole a picture from a kitteh site:

(so this isn’t REALLY me)
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But it is how I am “sitting” right now in a modified Virasana pose. Minus the kitteh. Look how sleepy that cat looks. Yep, chairs are definitely for resting–which is fine, but not for hours at a time! Notice how aligned the person on the computer is–knees, hips, shoulders, ears all in line and his face is able to look directly into the computer screen. I love yoga and teaching yoga and I hope you all come to classes all the time. But check what you do everyday for hours a day and try to become an everyday poser. And let the sleeping cat be–so cute–and absolutely the best use for the chair!

Everyday Poser–Sunshine on My Shoulders Makes Me Happy!

Here is a photo of my plant. We’ll call her Ivie:

IMG_1202Recently I gave Ivie some fishing line to grow up along and she is REALLY happy in that window as you can see.

Or maybe not completely–here is a close up on the lower leaves that are just under the sunlight concentration:

IMG_1203Ivie’s bottom leaves have been yellowing and dying quite a lot ever since I gave her that scaffolding. There is just so much sunshine on her shoulders that her feet are being de-prioritized and allowed to wither.

Where is the sun not reaching in your body? What areas are cramped either from sitting, slouching, or encasing (like feet in shoes)? Our spinal structure should be like the fishing line scaffold I made for Ivie–opening us up for nourishment. But we need to move everything equally. Check around for immobile parts that are beginning to wither! Just like Ivie–our bodies are selective and will begin to slough off the “leaves” that are not needed. Functional movement should make your whole body happy and thriving!