Bone Deep

Ah January–the time for resolutions. After nearly 35 years teaching in fitness facilities, I  know that many, many people will make healthy eating habits a priority, especially after the holiday feasting. Which is a good thing! Better nutrition is a vital part of any integrative approach to health. Without going into detail, our physical body is made up of the stuff of food and to be a little more detail-ish, minerals in particular, when we think of bones. For bones to form it takes more than just ingestion and digestion. There is a healthy competition going on inside us for those minerals that goes bone deep.

How nutrients absorb into your tissues has to do with what happens at the cellular (micro) level. First, think from a macro level: when you move a lot, you get more hungry, right? Well, the same thing happens in your cells. When they move, they absorb more nutrients. But it is important to consider how these cells move, since they are part of a specialized team of cells that form a tissue. Bone tissues have different movement needs from muscle tissues. The study of biomechanics (emphasis on the BIO) researches specifically what happens at the cellular level to create healthy nourished tissues. FYI: mechanotransduction is what happens.

When I was in biology class in middle school, we drew blobs with little floaty parts and called them cells. The floaty parts were organelles and they were sort of cool and we needed to know their names, but that was about it. As it turns out, the human body has patterns that repeat from the micro to the macro levels. Cells have a very tiny bone-like structure that “feels” movement and transmits signals like “I’ve been moving a lot and my cell is hungry” to the organelles. Which then absorb more of the nutrient soup that is extracellular fluid. No movement, no signal, no soup.

So we not only need to move to need to eat, we need to move specifically in a way that signals all of our tissues to get into the soup line. Which, since there is a variety of tissues in our bodies,  we need to move in a variety of ways. I’m just going to talk about bones for now, for the sake of staying sort of non-detail-ish.

Even our bones have a variety of needs that are based their shape and function. Long bones, such as your femur (thigh bone) need a certain amount of compressive and vibrational impact to get hungry. Movements like walking provide most of those needs, but the walks should encompass a variety of terrains and inclines rather than be flat and level, like most walking paths. The changing vibrational directions of non-flat walking creates a better diet for femurs. Running is fine, but it should be done on varied surfaces as well. Running on flat, level concrete may be too much of a good thing; steadily feeding the same area in a bone creates excessive growth such as spurs or arthritis.

The tiny sesamoid (“sesame seed”) bones in our body in places like hands, feet, and neck prefer pulling or tensile movements rather than impact. These bones are embedded in joints that have a lot of tendons and they help to create sliding movements. Your knee cap is the largest sesamoid bone. Compressing your kneecap doesn’t make it stronger and usually doesn’t feel good at all, which is a signal that it is getting the wrong kind of diet. Rather, the knee cap helps the knee to slide well and the pull from that sliding is what stimulates its appetite for some good calcium rich soup.

The human pelvis is maybe one of my favorite bones. Well, it is actually several bones that change over a lifetime, especially for women. Within the pelvis are the pubic symphysis, the sacroiliac (SI) joints, and the hip joints. Any of these can become mineral poor if not given a healthy movement diet. Hips are one of the main sites for osteoporosis. And no matter how much calcium you eat in your macro diet, the hip joints need specific movements to absorb it. There are several shapes of bones that come into the structure of the hip joint, so movements need to be varied including squatting, climbing, crawling, and walking. Standing posture is also important since the bowl of the pelvis is what holds the belly of our body and that creates a specific compressive load as well. The pubic symphysis needs tension that moves diagonally across from thighs to abdomen for the joint to be stable. And the SI joint needs a bit of both tension and compression in balance. Bottom line (hee hee) is that you need to move your bottom in a variety of ways. all. the. time.

So, when you make your resolution for the New Year—be sure to think bone deep. Move in a way that serves all of your needs, not just the need to reduce your calorie load. Your tissues will be inclined to help you with that if you create a hunger within their cells!

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Older Than Dirt

Last week two things occurred: I read Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougal  and I got to dig in my garden for the entire weekend.

McDougal’s book delves into natural movement–its ancient and modern applications. This is an area that I have done extensive research and some bit of training. It is the source of my summer hanging challenge–which I PROMISE I will return to. But before I do, I want to–actually I feel I need to–get a little more philosophical.

You see, I went to visit my mom a couple of weekends ago. She is in the final stages of her life. My trip left me satisfied and yet unsettled. Not because of her dying–she has had a good run and is ready, as ready as anyone can be for their life to end. No, rather I am unsettled by living, having another birthday that officially brings me into my mid-fifties and another year closer to the end of my life expectancy. And reading this book. And digging in the garden.

One of the people McDougal researched was French naval officer George Hebert who witnessed the volcanic eruption of Mount Pelee on Martinique in 1902. He was a part of rescue efforts as people ran into the water to escape the burning ash and then drown as they panicked. Almost the entire population of the capital city died. The “uncivilized” native population however were more fit to survive the disaster–they recognized the signs that lead to the eruption, knew what to do, and were able to stay afloat even when their canoes were burnt by the flying embers. Eventually, Hebert developed a philosophy to fitness: “be fit to be useful” was his credo. These words attached themselves to my heart as I read them. I reread that passage from the book throughout my week as I taught yoga–a practice that could be deemed “UN-useful” if viewed in certain ways. But my purpose was to shed light on the practice that is entirely useful: to really understand what it means to be human, you need to spend time exploring consciousness. And exploring consciousness is the root of a yogic practice.

 

And then I went out to the garden. And dug in the dirt that wasn’t there fifteen years ago when I first put my trowel in. The place in my yard I chose for a vegetable garden, it turned out, used to be a gravel driveway. No dirt–just rocks and sand–which are not the best medium for growing. So over the years I sifted out rocks, added topsoil, hauled manure, composted and slowly created a garden of 4×4 beds. I was amazed last year when a friend brought over his tiller to help me turn the beds. His machine was too big for the small beds, so he tilled between them. I stood in amazement as I saw dirt between the beds. No gravel anywhere. And this weekend as I hand dug to plant, my trowel sunk into a good 6-8 inches of real, live soil. I had been useful–I made dirt. And I felt very human and very deeply alive.

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In my years as a fitness professional, I have seen many strong and sleek bodies. I have seen–and participated–in feats of both physicality and courage. All of it is inspiring, but I’m not so sure about how useful any of these feats are in the long run of life. Especially when our physical efforts result in injury. And what amount of these efforts were made to overcome a sense of humanity rather than participate more deeply within it? This is the source of my unsettling. What does it mean to be useful? and what do we do to become fit so that we can be useful? As I–we–approach the end of our lives, how do we assess our usefulness?

“Exercise with only the intention to carry out a physical gain or to triumph over competitors is brutally egoistic…and brutal egoism just isn’t human,” Hebert is quoted as saying. McDougal goes on, “We like to think of ourselves as masters of our destinies, as lone wolves in a dog-eat-dog world, but guess what: Dogs don’t eat dogs. They work together. As do most species. As do we. We’re the most communicative, helpful species that’s ever existed.”

My dear mother is maybe the least physically fit person I know. But she was very good at being a mom. Even though she might not have been able to save me from drowning in a sea of ash, she saved me from a shadow that hovered over our family life and kept me free and innocent. I’m not sure even what that shadow was, exactly, due to how useful she was in protecting me. The Greek term “hero” means protector. My mom was my hero growing up.

One final quote from McDougal: “Empathy, the Greeks believed, was a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, tho more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into.” Being useful is sort of a mystery when you are in the midst of a crisis. Most heroes have no idea why or how they did what they did. What matters, what lasts, is how those heroes made other humans feel: recognized and worthy.

Heroes come in many forms–not all are strong or sleek. Awards aren’t all brass and glass–some of them crumble easily and are full of worms. As I grow older I am challenging myself to learn how to strengthen my shoulders not so I can perform a pull up and overcome aging, but so I can continue to reach out to others. I know what it means to get a good hug and thank god, my life is full of them. I want to be useful back. Hug back. Hang out and extend myself to others–whether that is by reaching into an isle of lava or across an aisle of difference. You are very human and hug-worthy.

The Problem Isn’t Always Where You Think It Is

This weekend I went for multiple walks and each time I did just a little bit of hanging. Once it was about hanging on to the dog but also, we went out to the woods for an afternoon walk and found a few tree limbs. I love to have bark beneath my skin rather than metal. I think you will find that the first problem of hanging isn’t so much the strength of your shoulders–it is the softness of your skin. Calluses are healthy adaptations on skin surfaces and the first step to hanging from your hands is to develop some thicker skin. Literally.

The second thing is wrists. Mine are totally wimpy. And not surprisingly (although I WAS surprised) my forearms were stiff and sore today. So, let’s begin our challenge, not at the shoulders, but in the hands and forearms.

To watch an 11-month old baby do some hang time, check out this video of my teacher, Katy Bowman’s little girl, Roan. See how often she checks her hands? But she isn’t crying or acting like they are hurting, she’s just connecting to them. Also notice that her hands are almost vertical and pretty open along that bar. No need for a tight grip! I think it is safe to say that as adults, we don’t have that kind of strength in our hands and wrists, especially in extension.

Begin by mobilizing those tissues and taking them through a complete range of motion. Here is your first week’s assignment: do these hand movements throughout your day:

Full extension

Full extension

Full flexion of fingers and wrist

Full flexion of fingers and wrist

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notice which direction is more difficult. Why? What is your hand position during most of your day?  To correct a movement limitation, we need to introduce small changes  throughout the day  to avoid injury. I like to do the extension one at my desk regularly, while I stop at a light when driving, and while sitting around doing nothing in particular. I use the desk, steering wheel or my other hand to provide gently pressure toward my limit of mobility and hold it for about 30-60 seconds. This was the exercise I was doing today that made it clear that I HAD done some work yesterday.

Tissues–whether it is skin, fascia or muscles–will adapt to changes in loads. The key is to do these changes slowly and apply the loads where it does the most good first. Take a tip from Baby Roan and check out your hands!

Walk b4 u Run #everydayposer

We don’t really have to teach a baby to walk. They will move through the necessary phases of rolling over, pushing up, crawling, pulling up, cruising, and then taking a first step.  However, as we enter adulthood we slowly take on habits that override our natural reflexes.

Here are the activities that typically make up a day in the life of a modern Westerner (I especially like the 70’s era TV pic): images-13 images-12

 

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What do you see that is common to all of these photos? (hint: seated posture with hip flexion–which isn’t so much a hint as the answer)

It is no wonder that our running gait looks like this:

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Looking carefully at these two runners, neither one of them is really extending their thigh relative to their torso. The woman in red looks like it–her leg is back and she is closer to extending, but she is also leaning forward considerably. Try drawing a line from their ears down to the midline of their pelves and see how far you can draw it into their upper legs. Hip extension happens when the femur (thigh bone) is moving towards an angle larger than 180 degrees.

I’ve been doing walking gait analyses on clients now for about 6 months. And probably everyone I’ve filmed flex forward at the hip and knee to take a step. You might argue that is how we are supposed to walk and run.

My mom always told me that I shouldn’t be influenced by what everyone else is doing. I bet your mom did, too.

Think about paddling a boat. Which way do you push? Do you reach waaaay forward when you put the paddle in? Nope. You put the paddle in close to you and push back. The way physics works is to move forward there needs to be a backwards force. And that push should start from the point closest to the center of mass to be most effective.

Walking (and running) then, should be EXTENSION of legs (and arms too). If we flex at the hip to move forward, it means that our glutes are not doing the work.Want a toned butt? Try using it! Extension is where it is at, baby! And if you watch that baby learning to walk, that is exactly what you will see! Notice in this photo, the leg she is landing on is directly beneath her. Draw that line from her ear to the middle of her pelvis and you’ll find her thigh is behind her. No hip flexion is happening in either leg.

Unknown-3Here is a final image of a group of children running. Notice the amount of movement behind their bodies:

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If you have a habit of sitting more than 2-3 hours per day, go back to walking before beginning a running program pretty, pretty please! Learn how to extend your hips and arms again. I think you will find it extremely challenging and a way to really improve your ability to run well too!

The Silence of the Hams #everydayposer

I’m talking hamstrings today. How tight are yours? Many of my clients come to me with a goal to reach their toes again. I sympathize–I have reached longingly for my toes too. But tight hamstrings aren’t the end of the world, right? I mean touching my toes, while nice to do, isn’t really a problem, is it?

Spoiler alert: it is. Well, it is important to have mobile posterior hips if you value your pelvic floor. If you wish to end chronic back pain. If you would like to rid yourself of tension headaches. If breathing matters…

Wait, a minute! Our ability to breathe depends on loose hips? Yes my friends, the old saying is wrong–it is TIGHT hips that sink ships. Here is a relatively poor, but sort of accurate drawing (I did myself!) of two bodies:

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The posterior body of the drawing on the right is tight. All over. And eventually, this poor stick figure will begin to have some amount of trouble in the tight areas. We tend to seek help for low back problems and lay low for tension headaches, but this tightness is a whole body issue–and symptoms will continue to crop up along the posterior connections as long as there is any amount of tension anywhere.

So, we can stretch out of it, right? I’m sorry, but no. “Stretching” a tight muscle is much like stretching a tight rubber band. It just springs back to its original length. And to complicate matters more, all your tissues are connected. Stretch your back, but not your hamstrings, you still have posterior tension. It shouldn’t be hard to reach our toes at all–small children do it easy breezy. So we get old and tight, nothing to be done, end of blog. Wrong again, banana nose. Let’s check out the difference of those two stick figures again and look at what started the back body tension: the one inch block beneath the heel. Which is my equivalent of drawing a shoe.

But, I know that you don’t wear high heels shoes, right? Now I’m the wrong one. Here is a photo of my husband’s running shoe (he LOVED doing this project by the way):

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When seen from the inside, there is a one inch rise from the ball of the foot to the heel. I don’t encourage you to take a band saw to all your shoes, but know this: ANY amount of rise in the heel will crumple your back side into a screaming knot of pain someday. Will you change your shoes now? Run a band saw through them maybe? The length of your connective tissues (muscles, tendons, fascia and the like) depends on what you do all day, everyday–not what you do for a few minutes in an exercise class, even one like yoga where you “stretch.”

I’m running out of words and time for this post. SIGN UP to get my posts and the next installation which will be how to test the posterior body’s tension!! A REAL cliff hanging kind of ending, I know, but you can handle it. In the meantime, check your shoes!

Motivation, Me, Malala & YOU

I want to know–what motivates YOU? I’ve been struggling with a new blog post for over two weeks now. Lots of ideas; that part wasn’t a problem. And I like to blog. But I just haven’t been able to get the work done. I want to, because I want to give away another of Katy Bowman’s books, Move Your DNA, and THIS post will reveal the next way to win. Feeling motivated? Read on!

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But I want to motivate you, my dear reader, to not only try to win a book, but to change your life. I can’t do that for you–I have a hard enough time changing myself! Knowing what motivates you would be helpful.

I can tell you what motivates me: fear and pain. Yep those two get me going every time. When I see people struggling with mobility I am motivated by fear of becoming them. I would like to keep moving as I grow older. And when, in my 40’s, I started to hurt myself by moving forward (aggressively, you know, from fear), pain motivated me to evaluate how I was moving.

Maybe that is why I haven’t been motivated to write this blog. Because until now, the deadline was far away enough to not be afraid of missing the opportunity to share with you. And of course, it is always sort of scary to write down something really personal, so that motivated me to do anything else. And, since I’m using this format to gauge my readership, I might painfully discover how little my blog is really read.

But. Here I am!! And if you are reading this, yay! And I have to admit, I am also motivated by inspiring people including students, teachers, and leaders. This week Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize. At 17. Her motivation was a dedication to seeing girls get access to education in Pakistan. She motivates me to be a teacher worthy of her efforts and the efforts of all my clientele that come to me to learn how to move and become healthier.

And REALLY I want to know: What motivates YOU???? Here’s how you will register to win Katy’s book: answer my question. Reply to this blog or comment on On The Path Yoga’s Facebook page with your honest answer. I will put your name in the drawing and let you know by the end of October if you are the winner. Thank you! By knowing what motivates you, I can be  a teacher worthy of your time.

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.

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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 🙂