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.

#everydayposer : Think INSIDE the Box!

Here is some wellness news that I came across in a recent Time Magazine (Feb. 16, 2015): mindfulness helps children in learning. Whoa! As opposed to mindless learning? We need studies to figure this out?

Maybe so.  It seems that we need to qualify everything. Even things that should be common sense. A colleague of mine recently gave a public talk about alignment and Restorative Exercise™ (RE). Someone in the audience wanted “proof” that the theories behind this approach to movement was valid. Well, the theories behind this approach are that 1-movement is a biological requirement and 2-bodies respond to that which we do most often, not what we do most enthusiastically (read more).

I’m going to propose a proof: bed sores. Stasis eventually brings about cell necrosis which, I’m pretty sure, isn’t good. Here’s another: overuse injury. Repetitive movement creates friction and eventually, tissue damage. There may be studies that confirm these findings, however, I’m going to suggest that it is sufficient for this rant er, blog to simply rely on common knowledge.

About this blog: it is about what you do at your desk–inside your “box.” Are you able to work without creating physical damage? If your desk job IS causing health problems, then how does that affect your success and eventually, your company’s?

Sitting is the new smoking and standing work stations have become all the rage, but standing has problems as well. Going back to RE, movement is the biological requirement. So it’s not sitting OR standing, but rather changing positions that is going to be most beneficial to your workday/life outcomes.

Here are some changes of positions I have devised behind my desk:

standing on my rocks!

standing on my rocks!

squatting on my BOSU!

squatting on my BOSU!

lunging on rocks and BOSU!

lunging on rocks and BOSU!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Changing positions often will help to relieve the pressures our bodies feel, both in stillness and repetitive movements like typing. Small stretch breaks should occur every 20-30 minutes with a complete change in position to follow. Remember, it isn’t what you do at the gym for one hour, but how you move your body (or don’t) for the other 15 hours of the day that counts. These 3 positions change the degree of my hip flexion, the rocks create a variety pressures on my feet and “encourage” me to alter my stance, and altering my relationship to my screen allows my arms, head and eye positions to change. The BOSU has tons of other movement options when I’m not doing desk work as well. And the rocks are fun to try to pick up with my toes.

Another very cool and hip way to change positions often is to get an IKEA “Bekant” desk. Of course, between sipping kaffe and looking suave and making the desk go up and down every 5 minutes because COOL! and needing to run to the loo because KAFFE! and HAIR! I doubt that my work outcomes would be very good. But if you show this video to your employer and suggest that you need either one of these (with the very cool matching  chair, file, and attitude) OR a much cheaper BOSU and a pile of rocks–I’m betting you’ll get an okay update your desk in some way. Bring some proof if that is what it takes, too. This blog will suffice.

 

 

#everydayposer: Contents Under Pressure!

Ahhh, so we have been exploring stretching. And now we are coming to the time of year when we stretch our stomachs. Hello holidays! Let’s revisit the drawing of areas in the body that tend to have tension:IMG_1498

In my last post, I exhibited how stretching the back of the legs can have a release throughout the entire back side of the body. I also, in my blog before last, explained that stretching is a temporary thing due to the elasticity of muscular tissues. So here, in THIS post, we see that my little stick person rather than stretch regularly AND change lifestyle habits (in this case wearing those 1-inch heels), the heels have remained and tension patterns are still present.

No problem–if things get a little tight in the back, there is plenty of room in front, right? Except that this poor little stick person is likely to suffer from back pain if the abdominal muscles aren’t able to provide support. Enter the six-pack abs!

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Everything looks good now! And unfortunately, many, many fitness and health professionals will do exactly that: add tension to help with tension. Which works, sort of, until….

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We see A LOT of abnormal abdominal issues in our country. And not just at Thanksgiving. Issues that have to do with pressure (no stick pictures on what that looks like–I’m going to let your imagination run wild!). Pressure caused by tension. By each of us, to ourselves. It’s time to stop the madness.

Stretching may only create a temporary release to tight muscles. And that is a good thing to do because, even for a little while, you can relax. But more importantly, attempting to stretch an area that is tight lets you know that it IS tight. The next step isn’t to tighten up more, but to find out why the tension is there in the first place. And then start to change your lifestyle, slowly, and stretch, regularly, and you might find that over time you feel better. In many ways. You sleep better, don’t burp as much, your knees don’t ache as much, tension headaches disappear, constipation is eased, sneezing doesn’t require a change of pants…..you get the picture.

So, enjoy your holidays. Enjoy your family. Take a walk and stretch your legs together. Eat together. Sit on the floor together. Hang from a tree together. If you go shopping, look for shoes without heels for each other. I have some other gift thoughts as well: a Squatty Potty, toe separators–like from a pedicure–or toe separator socks, yoga classes (maybe from yours truly?), a hanging bar for your house–even better, line a hallway with several bars so you can monkey swing! There are lots of ways to relax and relieve pressure. And wouldn’t that be the BEST way to enjoy the season?!!

Viral vs. Vital–ALS Ice Bucket Cha(lle)nge

My friend Allison nominated me and I accepted the challenge–only if you know me well, you know that I am a bit rebellious. So, I’m going from *challenge* to *change* and offering up a new way of accepting her challenge.

In Allison’s video she defined ALS with the following from the ALS Association: “A-myo-trophic comes from the Greek language. “A” means no or negative. “Myo” refers to muscle, and “Trophic” means nourishment–”No muscle nourishment.” When a muscle has no nourishment, it “atrophies” or wastes away. “Lateral” identifies the areas in a person’s spinal cord where portions of the nerve cells that signal and control the muscles are located. As this area degenerates it leads to scarring or hardening (“sclerosis”) in the region.”

I really appreciated her using the challenge as a teaching opportunity and I hadn’t taken the time to research ALS, so I looked into the disease a bit more. I found that these symptoms have no known cause, so there is no known cure as of yet. It has a little genetic connection (5-10%), but not enough to be considered a cause. There was one study from a couple of years ago regarding nutrition and eating a diet rich in anti-oxidants and Vitamin E–both of which are good for nourishing motor neurons and in that way, may offer hope and help for those already diagnosed with ALS, but again, not enough of a link to be causal. What could my dumping a bucket of ice water on my head do to help this bleak outlook?

But WAIT! I just spent 7 days in an intensive certification week on developing neural pathways and studying mechanobiology, which according to Katy Bowman, MS, in her new book, Move Your DNA, is “a relatively new field of science that focuses on the way physical forces and changes in cell or tissue mechanics contribute to development, physiology, and disease.” (In fact, this area of study is so new, my autocorrect is sure I made a mistake on mechanobiology.)

Here’s the short on my Ice Bucket Challenge: I decided to USE MY ARMS rather than douse them in ice. I do that every year anyway (the photo below was from two years ago in November on Lake Michigan–I’m in the blue bikini). Also, having grown up along the shores of Lake Superior we spent our summers challenging ourselves with icy water. Been there–done that.

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BUT what I didn’t do much as a kid was climb trees. Part of my training to become a Restorative Exercise™ Specialist was working on my ability to manage my body weight with my arms and increase the nourishment to the very tissues affected by ALS.

SOOOO HERE IS MY CHALLENGE TO ALL OF YOU–It may not go VIRAL, but it IS VITAL to the health of your motor neurons no matter what, so go out and climb a tree, hang from a bar, USE YOUR ARMS! Somewhere, someone suffering from ALS wishes with all their heart they could do this. Here is my answer to Allison’s challenge:

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AANND since it was more than 24 hours, and I didn’t actually douse myself with ice water, I will also make a donation–with a note that says 1) increase funding for ALL research through our National Institute for Health, and,  2) READ KATY’s BOOK! Sometimes what looks like prevention could be a cure!

I’ll end with another quote from Move Your DNA, “Our general lack of awareness of the mechanome should not muddle the fact that many of the processes occurring in the body, including genetic expression, can be regulated mechanically. When you understand this, you quickly see how searching for a health solution without considering your ‘movement environment’ inevitably produces results that are limited in scope and benefit.” (p 31)

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:

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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:

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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!