Science Discovers: Your Brain is Connected to Your Body!!

This has been an exciting week in body-nerd world! Two important discoveries were in the news, both of which sort of discovered that the workings of the brain are undoubtedly connected to the body. Yes!

The first study, “Hacking the Nervous System” reports on the importance of the vagus nerve in organ regulation–specifically on inflammation response. Read the article, because it is truly important and interesting, but I am just going to for now point out that the brainstem (a part of the brain) is connected to the body through the vagus nerve via the neck and shoulders (parts of the body).

The second report is really ground breaking: scientists have discovered lymphatic vessels in the central nervous system (the brain). “In a stunning discovery that overturns decades of textbook teaching, researchers have determined that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist.” (link here to read report).

Maybe I’m being too snarky, but I’m glad that science has discovered the links between the brain and the body. Maybe now we can move into more integrative medicine. One can hope.

In the meantime, I would like to point out the absolute importance of HOW the brain connects to the body through the neck and shoulder girdle. If the alignment of those areas is not optimal, then much of these important connections can be lost. Vessels and nerves are extremely sensitive to geometry and pressure. Having incorrect alignment can result in poor communication (think “telephone game” from your childhood).

SO another, more “science-y” reason to DO THE HANGING CHALLENGE WITH ME THIS SUMMER!!! Your shoulders were meant for so much more than typing and driving–they need this! I have looked at hundreds (thousands?) of spines and seen for myself the amount of hyperkyphosis–both apparent and hidden we are currently carrying around. Increased neck posterior flexion and shoulder girdle weakness are rampant. And now, more than ever, maybe we can realize how important it is to have a properly aligned neck–to connect the brain to the body.

Here is a video of your next portion of the challenge:

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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.

Do Your Arms Hang Low?

….do they wobble to and fro? Well, in that song, I think it was about your ears, and there were more subtle meanings as well that I didn’t get as a child. I also didn’t get the subtleties of hanging either. I was a child that liked to be planted firmly on the ground!

And now I’m making some advancements toward a healthier shoulder girdle by learning to hang. Last week, I posted about hands and wrists. Today I’m talking upper arms and getting them into correct positioning to hang well.

I’m also learning how to post a video. I hope. Rotation in the upper arms is easier to show than describe. I love this exercise in finding your upper back muscles! I hope you have fun with your challenge for this week:

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!