Weekly musings, 2/11/18: Movement choices and one arm handstands

Weekly musings, 2/11/18: Movement choices and one arm handstands
At a workshop yesterday, one of the participants asked about the one arm handstand. Specifically, he wanted to know the steps he could take to actually achieve the one arm handstand. 

The instructor (who practices one arm handstands on a semi-regular basis), began by assessing his ability to rock both and forth while he was on both hands. He could do that without much trouble, so they began working on the next progression, which was challenging for the participant. He rotated his pelvis and fell as soon as his legs were in a wider position. 

To help the participant feel what he was doing, the instructor placed him against a wall and had him do the same drill. This time, because the wall was in the way, he was unable to rotate his pelvis. Suddenly, the issue wasn’t the participant’s ability to balance; it was the large amount of work he felt in the stabilizing arm and shoulder. He came down, with a look of surprise on his face.

“When I got my one arm handstand,” the instructor said, “I did it by muscling through it. I wasn’t stacked and my line wasn’t efficient. Another coach reached out to me and told me I needed to stack the joints, just like I would in a handstand. As soon as I did that, even though the work felt harder at first, it was eventually much easier to maintain. If you learn how to be efficient now during the progressions, the one arm handstand will actually be easier than if you muscle your way through each step.”

We all have a choice when it comes to learning movement. I muscled my way through just about every skill I learned the first eight years of my movement journey. As I re-learned everything, gaining efficiency was challenging. I tapped into different stabilizing patterns, which caused the sensation of muscular effort in a different way. I learned to slow down, and see if I could do things easily, which conflicted with my go-go-go personality. 

Eventually, the sensation of muscular work and the internal battle over wanting to “get it done now” gave way to something else, something that made movement more enjoyable, more fluid. There is no right or wrong way to learn a skill, but if you take the time to break it apart, practice the pieces, and find efficiency, your path will be more direct than mine. Embrace the process.

Weekly musings, 2/4/18: Eyes and observation

Weekly musings, 2/4/18: Eyes and observation
A client came in recently, frustrated that his low back was bothering him. As I had him do some gently mobility work, I chatted with him about which positions seemed to cause him the most discomfort. “Standing up,” he said. “Particularly getting up out of a chair or the car.” 

This client happens to be a writer, and he spends a fair amount of time on his iPad or laptop. I set up a box that was a little bit higher than than hip level. “Stand up and sit down twice for me please,” I instructed. He winced a little bit on the way up. “That hurts,” he said.

“Okay, the next time you do it, look up and forward before you stand.” A smile spread across his face as he stood. “That doesn’t hurt at all,” he said, clearly pleased. After doing a few more and performing different types of basic get-ups throughout the session, he left with the clear correlation of that using his eyes to initiate his movements significantly reduced or eliminated his pain (at least for the time being).

There are several muscles that control movement at the eye. The eye, like many body parts, is able to move a variety of ways, including up, down, away from the nose, and towards the nose.

In addition, the eye plays a key role in our brain’s ability to understand where we are located in space. If we aren’t using the full action of our eyes, our sense of our body position will be altered. This will change how we perform certain movements. In this particular client’s case, looking down was altering how his brain organized his spine to stand up. (It doesn’t help that the head sits on top of the skeleton. Head position is partially determined by eye position, which influences the position of the spinal column).

Basically, the eyes matter. So, too, does listening to the person in front of you. I knew changing the eye position could potentially have a significant influence on this particular client’s experience because of the questions I asked and my ability to listen. 

1/28/18: Breathing and bracing

1/28/18: Breathing and bracing
Have you ever considered the value of a full exhale? Often, when we are instructed to breathe, we think about the inhale, but the exhale is really what allows us to re-organize the way we are holding ourselves. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, causing the entire self to feel a little bit calmer, and allows deep stabilizing muscles to coordinate a little bit differently.

I was teaching a workshop yesterday, and one of the participants was struggling in a hands and knees position. She was holding herself tensely, with the understanding that she needed to stabilize herself. The way she did it was by bracing, using as much muscular effort as possible.

Not surprisingly, when she tried to move in that position, she found it very difficult. A tense structure doesn’t have much give. Instead of the structure supporting movement, it resisted it.

When she was instructed to exhale fully, her structure changed. She no longer braced to hold herself in a hands and knees. Instead of holding herself rigidly, she had a little bit of give. When she tried to move, the rest of her structure responded, supporting the effort of the movement.

Sometimes, high amounts of tension are necessary. When I go to lift a heavy weight, for example, I need to establish a high level of tension so I don’t buckle under the load. I should still be breathing, but my strategy should meet the demands of the task. But when I lift a hand while in a hands and knees position, I don’t need to brace. I should be able to breathe smoothly and softly, allowing the structure to support the movement.

If you find yourself bracing during tasks that don’t require a lot of effort, ask yourself if you can take a long exhale. See if that helps you soften. The ability to move fluidly starts with the breath.

Weekly musings, 1/21/18: strength makes ease

Weekly musings, 1/21/18: strength makes ease
I was working with a client recently who used to have a really hard time relaxing into the floor. When she would lie down on her back, her mid back would arch up, creating space between her ribs and the ground.

I brought awareness to it, like I do. We worked on breathing, and she began to understand how her exhale could change her rib position. She learned to feel where her ribs were during positions like hands and knees, and she figured out that if she wanted her abs to support her, rib position mattered.

She brought the same awareness to standing strength based exercises. I would occasionally let go of major alignment cues, allowing her instead to simply work on the basic coordination and motor control needed to do things like squat, row, press. I would mention her ribs periodically, but I also let her do the movement- if her ribs flared after my initial cue in the beginning, that was okay. In order to build basic strength, sometimes the alignment is a little bit off while the body and the brain figure out how to do the movement. At the beginning of the next set, I would re-cue the ribs and almost always things would look a little bit better than they had the first time around.

Gradually, the client became stronger. As she became stronger, her ribs lifted less and less away from the floor when she lied down. She looked at me last week and said, “my ribs just go down now. I don’t have to think about and it feels so much better on my mid-back.”

Building strength in different positions take patience and consistency. It’s okay if things look a little bit awkward at first as long as you occasionally bring awareness to how you want to be supported. I was once told, “you grow into the position in which you spend the most time.” If you consistently train with your ribs lifted up and out, that’s where they will remain when you sit, lie down, or even come on to your stomach. Establishing the strength to keep the ribs relaxed and down is not necessarily better, but it is different and requires a different way of holding yourself. Play with your alignment occasionally and see if holding yourself differently offers you more or less support in positions that require strength. The most supported place of strength will also give you the most ease.

Weekly musings, 1/14/17: Simplicity

Weekly musings, 1/14/17: Simplicity
Recently, I was visiting the esthetician I see once every couple of months for skincare stuff. She was peering at my face under a magnifying glass, like estheticians do, when she peeled her eyes away from my skin to look at me. “Your skin looks amazing. What are you doing?”

“I am using olive oil, in the morning and evening,” I replied.

“Olive oil? Wow. Well, it’s working.”

What’s fascinating about this isn’t the fact that olive oil is making my skin look great (though that is a nice little by-product). I have spent thousands of dollars on expensive skin care creams over the course of my life, looking for the perfect one to hydrate and replenish (because women care about these sorts of things), and the thing that has been most effective is the one I read about in a fashion magazine twenty years ago and a bottle will probably last me a year. 

For some reason, when it comes to health and wellness, there is this idea that expensive and complicated must be better than simple and minimal. Clients are frequently amazed at my ability to design a challenging workout using a washcloth, 2x4, and their own body weight. Though I utilize external load almost every workout, once in a while it’s nice just to return to the most basic patterns. 

Additionally, the basic patterns can be cued using muscular tension to provide support. A movement such as hands and knees can be done in a way that feels like nothing is really happening, or it can feel extremely challenging. “How can this simple little movement work so well?” clients often ask. 

The answer, maybe, is that like the olive oil, simple is better. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective, so if you are struggling with something, take several steps back and work on the most basic patterns. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Weekly musings, 1/7/17: cells, life, and movement

In the book, “The Big Picture,” Sean Carroll discusses three features that are ubiquitous to our concept of life: compartmentalization, metabolism, and replication with variation. Compartmentalization, he writes, is actually part of a more general concept called self-organization.

When Mr. Carroll discusses life, he is looking at it from a cellular level, but these three ideas could easily be translated to the foundations of healthy movement. Compartmentalization and self organization are how the body organizes itself to move effectively and efficiently for the task at hand. When joints work both independently and interdependently, forces tend to be dispersed more fluidly up the skeleton.

Metabolism is required for movement (and life) to take place. A person that moves little is not using as much energy as one who moves often. The ability to use energy means the system is alive, so movement is a way to maintain life.

Replication with variation is a lot like repetition with variation. Repetition with variation is how we learn, and in movement, is a way to define play. It maximizes options, improves self organization, and requires energy. By moving in similar, but different, ways regularly, we maximize long term success for moving efficiently and effectively.

Maintaining health and vibrancy throughout an individual’s life is multi-faceted, but it is clear movement is a large part of the equation.

Weekly musings, 12/31/17: Reflections and accomplishments

Weekly musings, 12/31/17: Reflections and accomplishments
As 2017 winds down, it’s easy to get caught up in what you want to change for 2018. But what about what simply reflecting on what you accomplished the last year?

Every December, towards the end of the month, I comb my business account and put together my expenses, profits, and losses for my accountant. I used to dread doing it because it takes time and money can be a little anxiety provoking for me. But I have found the ritual of looking at my statements and reflecting, month by month, on what happened financially over the course of the year actually gives me perspective on what I did well and what can be improved for the next year. Since money is, for better or for worse, tied to things like learning, traveling, and trying new things (at least from a business perspective), it also gives me an opportunity to assess whether I made good decisions. Money well spent, at least in my world, leads to enrichment in some way. If I learned something that I can apply to my life or my work, I made a good decision; if not, I should probably avoid repeating the same mistake in the future.

I am not suggesting everyone undertake the tedium that is bookkeeping to reflect upon their year. However, I do think having a written account of some variable in your life, whether it’s your mood, how you felt during your workouts, or how many minutes you devoted to a breathing practice can help with an honest reflection of time that has past. We all know that strength and mobility require consistency; whether your consistent program is working requires honest self assessment; a written log of some sort can help keep you reflect on a deeper, less biased level.

Cheers to a happy, healthy 2018!

Weekly musings, 12/24/17: curiosity

Weekly musings, 12/24/17: Curiosity
In the movie “Elf,” Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a human adopted by Papa Elf when he is a baby. At some point, Buddy realizes he isn’t actually an Elf and sets out on a journey to find his real father in the far away land of Manhatten.

Apart from his slightly manic state (which is probably the result of the sheer amount of sugar he consumes), and surprisingly good skin despite the lack of vegetables in his diet, the most interesting thing about Buddy is his curiosity about his new environment. He is constantly in motion, searching for ways to play and be useful. He explores the world like a child, jumping on the lines across the crosswalk instead of walking, running round and around through turnstile doors until they make him sick, and running instead of walking whenever he has somewhere to be. 

While many of Buddy’s behaviors are a little suspect (maple syrup on spaghetti?), his natural curiosity with regards to movement is something we could all embrace. What if you looked at the world with slightly more wonder? Would you see the curb as an opportunity to balance heel to toe? Or would you hop from stepping stone to stepping stone? Finding joy in things we otherwise find routine makes the world interesting and might even make us feel younger, longer.

Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas!

Weekly musings, 12/16/17: on pain

Weekly musings, 12/16/17: on pain
A client I see once every six or eight weeks came in recently. She originally began seeing me for chronic pain issues that had persisted for years. She was active, did what she could, and had been through several rounds of physical therapy. Though the physical therapy had helped, she wanted to transcend her pain and view her body as strong, rather than fragile. She was also hypermobile.

I mention this, not because hyper mobility in any way a guarantees pain, but because I feel like hyper mobility and pain are largely misunderstood in the exercise and post rehabilitation community. People with hyper mobility tend to be hyper aware, acutely in tune with what they are experiencing in their bodies. Teaching these individuals how to feel the sensation of work and how to feel like their joints are supported by muscles in a variety of positions is critical to improving their confidence in their bodies and what they can do. 

There is also something about helping these individuals tap into their breath and its relationship to movement in the middle back and ribs. The ability to feel movement in these areas is centering, for lack of a better word. And to feel centered is to feel connected.

When I asked her how she was feeling on our most recent visit, she looked at me and said, “I have spent thousands of dollars over the last twenty years trying to find a way to get out of pain. I am so grateful to you. This has worked. I feel stronger and more confident in my body’s abilities than I have in my adult life.”

I frequently tell clients I don’t do anything. I don’t touch people. I don’t prescribe thousands of exercises. I give people the tools to feel themselves and their bodies in space. I empower people to feel work in a variety of positions and trust that their body will not let them down, because it is strong and capable. I teach people different ways to breathe, because the breath is powerful. You are not broken. You do not have to live in pain. Find a practitioner that listens and is willing to think outside the box, particularly if you struggle with hyper mobility or any other condition that is poorly understood. Autonomy is powerful- find a practitioner that encourages it and help you find it.

Weekly musings, 12/10/17: Aging and play

Weekly musings, 12/10/17: Aging and play
My almost 12 year old pomapoo is losing his eye sight. He stumbles into things once in a while, and he’s scared walking at night unless he’s near my feet. He’s never liked loud noises, but now that hearing is a sense he relies on more fully, he stops when he deems a loud noise threatening and turns around, facing the other direction.

Other than these behaviors, he’s still active, and he still plays with his toys, chasing balls he can’t always find. An outsider looking in wouldn’t know anything was wrong, because he looks fine.

I have learned to adjust my expectations when we walk, patiently shining the light and going slowly down curbs. I pick him up when we cross busy intersections, because otherwise he might sit down in the middle of the road, overwhelmed by the noise. 

I train people of all ages. Everyone is capable of learning, and everyone is capable of gaining strength and mobility, regardless of age and circumstance. As people get older, they may move a touch slower or have to think about things a little bit longer before they “get” what you are asking, but they still enjoy being challenged in a thoughtful way. Dribbling a ball, tossing washcloths (one of my favorite games to play with clients), and utilizing hand eye coordination in a way that feels athletic ignites a playfulness in people that transcends age.

Winter the pomapoo reminds me daily that empathy is important, but so is encouraging playfulness. We are only as old as we feel. The people around us and the activities we partake in influence our beliefs about ourselves, so surround yourself with people that believe in keeping a sense of humor and a sense of play as you navigate the adventure that is life.

Weekly musings, 12/3/17: reframing fitness

A recent study published in Science Advances analyzed loading patterns in the upper arm bones of women throughout history.* Interestingly, women living during the Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age had upper limb bones that were comparable to semi-elite rowers, suggesting women regularly participated in rigorous manual labor that far exceeds what women do today.

The Neolithic Age is also known as the New Stone Age. During this time, tools were used that eventually gave way to farming, and animals were domesticated for food. It enabled people to settle in one area, rather than live nomadically. One can only imagine the jobs that needed to be done during this for success were low to moderate intensity, involving similar movements done a variety of ways. Women were likely lifting, reaching, pulling, and pushing using both sides of their bodies to build, farm, and create a sustainable environment.

At a workshop I took recently, the speaker said we as humans don’t do enough low level activity. We “exercise,” which means we get our heart rate up as high as possible and maximize caloric or strength output, and then we sit. We don’t build fences, pick berries, or walk. We have adopted an all or nothing attitude, with nothing in between. 

But what if we were designed to move mostly at low to moderate intensities, throwing in high intensity work once in a while? And what if we adopted this attitude a little bit more? Would we feel better, have more range of motion and strong bones?

It’s not always about how fast, how strong, how much. Our general health and well-being would thrive on moving at lower levels in a variety of ways, daily. Maybe if we change our mindset around what fitness actually is, more people would feel less intimidated and encouraged to move just a little bit more, every day. 

*http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/11/eaao3893.full

Weekly musings, 11/25/17: designed to move

I watched a TED talk recently by a neuroscientist who convincingly argued that we evolved not to think logically or critically reason, but to control movement.* In fact, researchers believe the endocrinological response to exercise that makes us feel good was an evolutionary reward for us to keep moving.**

We are physiologically primed for exercise, specifically aerobic exercise. It makes everything work a little bit better, it clears our head, and it’s often linked to things like increased creativity. Yet, people put it on the back burner because it takes too long, or it doesn’t provide a magical solution for weight loss. 

The good news is it doesn’t take a ton of time for walking (or some other form of aerobic activity), to be impactful. Just twenty minutes of walking at a brisk pace most days of the week will make you feel better. And when you feel better and have more energy, you begin to do a little bit more. If you are feeling really adventurous, walk on terrain that isn’t level or even to stimulate the mechanoreceptors in your feet and ankles that are there to react to the ground. Use the body you have in the way it was designed to be used just by moving a little bit more. Your health and well being will thank you.

*https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_wolpert_the_real_reason_for_brains
**http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2154828/Humans-evolved-runners-high-moving-explains-lazy-modern-lifestyles-bad-us.html

Weekly musings, 11/18/17: the power of tricks

I was working with a client recently, trying to come up with ways to get her to look out when she walks, rather than down. While her balance has improved significantly, she has double vision, which affects how steady she feels. When she is working with me, I encourage her to look out, since she knows the floor is free from obstacles. However, her habit remains to look down, just to make sure nothing gets in her way.

This week, rather than continue giving her the same cue, I handed her a ball and instructed her to toss it in the air and catch while she walked across the room. Her gaze immediately lifted and her overall steadiness improved as she focused on catching and tossing the ball.

Internal awareness is important. It allows us to feel our body and get in touch with our habits. Awareness, I like to say, is the first step to change.

However, the world is external. At some point, our awareness needs to move outside of ourselves so we can interact with the environment. The ability to look out rather than down while walking not only improves posture and balance, it let’s us take in our surroundings and actually see the world around us. 

Asking people to perform tasks like throwing a ball forces them to use their bodies reflexively. They stop worrying about how they are doing something and instead work on what they are doing. Interestingly, often these types of activities also make more present, due to the fact their attention is focused. 

If someone is struggling with embodiment, try moving their awareness externally. It may improve their internal awareness more than you expect.

Weekly musings, 11/12: Floor strength

Weekly musings, 11/12: Floor strength
A 72 year old client came in recently. She began working with me when she was in her late fifties. We basically grew together, with her getting stronger as the years went on and me gaining the necessary knowledge to help her meet her goals and move well into her later years.

We were chatting about push-ups, a staple of her home program, when she said, “I really like doing the push-ups, but it’s getting harder and harder to get up and down from the floor.” 

Getting up and down from the floor is an action we take for granted when we were are younger. The strength and flexibility needed to interact with the ground is readily available to most of us throughout our thirties and into our forties. However, like with all things, if it isn’t practiced regularly, it becomes more challenging. Frequently what happens is people begin to lose the strength required go from the ground to upright because they don’t use those ranges of motion very often; if you add in constraints, such as not using the hands, a task that was challenging but doable becomes nearly impossible.

The problem for this particular client wasn’t lack of strength or flexibility; she just didn’t know how to do it in an easy way.  After cueing her to reach forward as she was standing up from a half kneeling position and watching her fly up, I quickly realized we don’t work on floor transitions and she simply hadn’t given them much thought in the last decade.

We played with a couple of seated rolling variations, discussed hand position, and voila! She was getting up without using her hand on her knee or experiencing any sense of effort. When it isn’t a strength issue, it’s usually an “I don’t fully understand my options” issue. Strength is necessary; so is being able to move easily, without effort. We need both to perform everyday activities well.

Weekly musings, 11/05: Active Flexibility

Weekly musings, 11/05: Active Flexibility
I am often amazed at what clients accomplish by repeated exposure to an initially challenging movement.

Impressive improvements in flexibility are made through moving in and out of ranges that originally seem inaccessible. The great thing about training positions that could potentially be uncomfortable in this way is it reduces the perception of threat. The nervous system, instead of tightening up (because that’s what we do when things get uncomfortable), learns to relax and embrace new patterns, gradually allowing the individual to move further and further through the active range of motion. 

This is the basic premise behind several techniques, including nerve flossing and Feldenkrais. Move towards something and retreat away, only to find you move a little closer the next time. As confidence grows, so too does the ability to move freely.

I have watched clients increase the ability to move their arms, sit back on their heels, and turn their heads. They learn to reach behind themselves, get their heels on the floor in downdog, and move their spines, all without forcing themselves into uncomfortable positions. Eventually, they learn to hold their new positions, building strength in a place they couldn’t previously go. 

I don’t believe getting stronger and more flexible always needs to be miserable to be effective. It’s not a matter of avoiding the sense of work- after all, learning to feel contraction in the muscles increases body awareness and creates a sense of strength, both of which are good things. It’s just when you are initially learning how to do something or exposing your body to a place it’s never gone before, give yourself permission to not have to stay in a place that is initially uncomfortable. Moving in and out of new positions can eventually lead to the ability to access an entirely different way of being. 
*There was a great article in the New York Times about Feldenkrais that can be found here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/30/well/trying-the-feldenkrais-method-for-chronic-pain.html