To Open and Close

We’ve moved on to some shoulder work this week, and we did some Shoulder CARs. Those of you who have been coming regularly over the past few months know that I’m certified in FRC which is a training system that promotes mobility, strength, and control throughout the entire joint.

So we’re doing a shoulder rotation in class, and a lovely regular student asks, “This is amaaaaazing! Does this open the shoulders?” A common question in it’s various forms. And just like the previous blog post, I sort of stumble on my words trying to figure out the most efficient and palpable answer possible.

To ask if an exercise “opens” a part of body, the assumption is that that part of our body is “closed.”

First of all, what do those words even mean? Does “open” mean flexible and “closed” mean tight? Or does “open” mean expansive and “closed” mean narrow? Which direction of the body are we talking about? When you broaden your chest, you may be “opening” the front of your body, but then aren’t you “closing” the back of your body? If you do a backbend, you’re “lengthening/opening” the front of the spine, but then aren’t you “shortening/closing” the back of the spine?

Second, in assuming that we’re closed, we’re saying that our body is so static that we remain “closed” at all times and wait for a movement to “open” us up—that we’re living stuck in a closed state of being. We’re also determining that opening fixes closing. We are saying that the problems we have with being “closed,” such as feelings of tightness or pain, can be “fixed” with the opposing state of being, which is “to be open.” To reduce our feelings and sensations, our bones and joints, our muscles and tissues, and our nervous system to a state of either “open” or “closed” is harmfully binary and simplistic.

What we can and should ask about any movement in a class is, “What is this movement doing for my body? How does it make me feel and how might it be beneficial?” Ask this of yourself and the teacher!! I loved being asked these questions because it keeps me accountable to what I’m offering and why. And if I don’t have an answer, I absolutely will the next time I see you.

So, instead of thinking about opening and closing, think about three dimensional movement. In how many ways can I possible move each joint every day? When was the last time I took my arms behind my back? When was the last time I took a step bigger than one stair? When was the last time I tried to sit in a squat? Let “opening” mean varied movement and “closed” mean little or no movement and see how that shifts your perspective throughout the day.

keep moving

xoxo

Bandaids and Quick Fixes

The most common question I get is a form of,

“What stretch can I do to help with my (insert body part here) pain?”

And every time I get that question, I fumble my words for about 10 seconds before I can come up with something valuable to say that is not what I really want to say, which is “There is no such thing because that’s not how it works.” How do I even begin? I mean, look, blanket statements are really hard to make these days with all the information we have. So yes, maybe for a few people, one simple stretch done daily could in fact rid of someone’s back pain. Especially if that person is completely sedentary, simple stretches that get said person to begin moving in novel ways can be immensely helpful. But that will only last for so long, and generally speaking, a specific target stretch is not a cure-all.

(Side note: I’m unsure of and curious about why it’s assumed that stretching is the answer to pain. Did yoga do that? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because stretching actually does feel good as it releases endorphins and can have a temporary analgesic effect. )

My dad, a runner, recently asked me what stretch he can do to help with his nagging proximal hamstring attachment pain. I was both exasperated with the thought of having to navigate an answer to a question that was the wrong question to be asking in the first place, and also extremely empathetic toward all of us as humans who have really busy lives, lots of aches and pains, and need help; to us humans who have been conditioned by media? culture? medicine? technology? that quick fixes exist and instant gratification can prevail; to us humans who are constantly bombarded with misinformation and contradictory information about how to be healthy; to us as adults who have been told that pain is unequivocally the product of getting older. How can I answer that question in a way that empowers him to think about the adaptability of his body, the importance of strength training, and the holistic approach to working with the body beyond isolated muscles? Tough ask.

The truth is that, with the body, simple fixes sometimes DO exist. Small changes and very non-dramatic adjustments can be made to existing habit patterns that may change people’s worlds. BUT, there are so many things in the way of accessing these fixes that keep them from being quick. One of the loudest dogmas of the movement world in which I strongly believe, is that pain is a signal for change. Pain is our body telling us something we’re doing needs to fundamentally change. So, if we just want to stretch out “X” body part for a few weeks until it feels better, what have we inherently changed about the way we walk, the way we hold ourselves, the way we exercise, the way we live our lives? Nothing. Even if we’re ready to do the work of strengthening said body part for a few weeks until it feels better, we haven’t changed our lifestyle. We haven’t shifted our perspective. We’ve just band-aided the problem, and you can bet you’ll see more leaks in the ceiling until you decide to address the entire roof.

Where does the shift come from? It comes from the source of the problem. WHY do you have this pain? Ok, this is a huge question and largely goes unanswered by us as individuals AND by science. However, we DO know that generally speaking, our sedentary lifestyle has literally weakened our bodies. For the record, when I say sedentary, I’m talking about an evolutionary culture shift that has affected every single one of us. I, a yoga teacher and not a desk 9-5er, am still a sedentary being. We are currently a more sedentary species than we have ever been before. So, the second most important dogma of the movement world in my opinion is: getting stronger is essential for healthy living. Let’s say someone has a host of weight issues, sleep issues and cholesterol issues but does not exhibit any signs of disease or physiological malfunction. The first thing any doctor will prescribe is diet and exercise. It’s a given. THEN if diet and exercise still don’t improve the weight, sleep, and cholesterol issues, more tests will need to be done, more doctors visited, etc. Diet an exercise are commonly accepted and proven “filters” for A LOT of physiological symptoms.

So, what if strength training was a proven (it is) and widely accepted (not yet) filter for chronic musculoskeletal pain? What if the immediate prescription for any chronic pain was “get stronger and then if that doesn’t fix the problem, we’ll look at other things” . . . .???? For the sake of a shorter blog post, I’ll include moving well as part of getting stronger, because it absolutely matters just as much ( I’d argue that they are both equally important to musculoskeletal health). And the thing is, just like diet and exercise, it’s not something you do for a month, get better, and then continue life as you had before. It’s a fundamental shift in lifestyle. You must continually challenge your body to adapt to new movements and new strengths or it will certainly challenge your nervous system with aches and pains.

I’m aware that this is a really simplistic view of things. There are SO many circumstances that feed into why people feel the way they do and have the symptoms they have. However, it’s a nothing-to-lose-and-everything-to-gain first step, and there are many docs and PT’s out there who are seeing how so many of people’s chronic pains disappear with strength training. And anyway, at the end of the day, aren’t we looking for simplistic ways to digest our lives a little bit easier? I truly believe in the idea that this perspective, this “filter” is way more effective at addressing the general population’s pain symptoms than a pain pill, the ineffective surgery, the “just stop moving that body part if it hurts.”

So, keep moving. And get stronger while you’re at it.

xoxo

Stability in Motion

What do you think of when you think of stability? Maybe something strong, not moving, able to withstand resistance? You’re on the right track, but it’s not exactly accurate. The way the fitness world (including me!) uses the term “stability” is a bit confusing. We like to think of stability as being still. But actually, stability is the ability to recover from a perturbation. Think of walking down the side walk. You trip on some uneven pavement. How quickly are you able to return to your center of gravity and keep going? Do you injure yourself? Do you fall? Do you tweak your knee? How long did the whole tripping scenario take? 1 second? A quarter of a second? 3 seconds? How quickly and smoothly you’re able to return to center is your measure of stability. Not, how still can you hold yourself in a split stance position that resembles walking. What’s really cool about this distinction is that thinking about stability as recovering from perturbation is way more useful and applicable to how we live. We’re rarely holding completely still during our day. We’re moving something. So, while I love to teach balancing poses, I teach them less often in still form, and more in terms of transitioning from one pose to the next—your ability to retain your center of gravity through movement is far more interesting to me than if you can hold tree pose perfectly still for 2 minutes.

This is not to say that holding poses still is not useful. It creates a lot of strength and awareness. Imagine standing in a high lunge position (if you’re not sure what that looks like, check out this photo here). Now imagine being in that high lunge with a block under your front foot. You’re likely experiencing more effort, more sensation in your hamstring, outer hip, and/or inner thigh. You have a stronger connection with your foot from the feedback of the block. You may feel more grounding in your back leg because of different weight distribution. Holding this pose can do wonders to feeling the inner workings of a lunge, AND can make your lunge muscles stronger. This strength and awareness will absolutely contribute to your stability—your ability to come back from a perturbation when in a lunge. But holding still in this pose doesn’t by itself mean you’re increasing your stability.

Alongside strength and awareness, mobility is also key in better stability. Imagine a stone sculpture about 5 feet tall and 1 foot wide (a small person). Imagine if you accidentally bumped into this small sculpture—because it’s made of stone, it’s going to move all in once piece wherever it’s going. Likely, if you bumped into it, it will fall to the ground. Now imagine an actual human about that same size. If you bumped into it—likely an hourly occurrence on NYC sidewalks—does the other person fall to the ground every time? I hope not! We don’t fall like that, usually, because all of our amazing joints that are there to help create movement within our structure so that we can return to our center. How well we do that and in how many various situations we can do it dictates our level of stability. So, contrary to what you may be thinking, you want to have a lot of movement—controlled movement—between your joints and a lot of differentiation (think teamwork, where everyone plays a part) between your muscles to create more stability. Imagine wearing an oven mitt on each of your hands all day. How much would you really be able to do with your hands? Not a whole lot. It would require a TON of more energy from the rest of your body to help your hands do what they can’t because of the mitts. It’s a super inefficient way to move. Apply that now to your spine. What if your spine moved in a block like fashion, all in one piece? What about your feet?

We’ve been on a hip kick in class for several weeks now. Now that we’re beginning to understand the mobility capacity of the hips, we’ll test out our stability with some perturbations! Check out the latest Control Yourself video here to get an idea of what I mean.

keep moving.

xoxo

Ask Yourself, "Why?"

One word has had the single most powerful influence over the past three years of my life. It’s the word, that is also the question, “Why?”

On Jan. 8th, I embarked on the Whole 30 diet. It’s like Paleo on steroids—no dairy, no grains, no added sugar. Basically meat and veggies all day every day. As the name suggests, the diet is supposed to last 30 days. I officially ended the diet on the 16th day, completing half the recommended time. Taking the time to ask myself why I was choosing to diet at all and choosing this particular diet helped me untangle the mess in my head. Imagine your thoughts/beliefs/opinions/perspectives are all like separate strings in a giant knot in your head. At some places in the knot they intertwine in what seems like healthy cohabitation, at other places they are wrapped furiously around each other in a tight bind, at other places the strings parallel each other along the same path for awhile. That’s how I envision my brain. If I want to follow the origin of a thought, I have to untangle it from all the other thought strings to understand how it’s influenced by all those other thought strings.

I wanted to quit the diet 2 days after I started it. One thing about me is that I hate feeling confined, trapped, stuck, limited in my options. Another thing about me is how much I enjoy—in the truest sense of the word—all food. Yet, I made a decision and I wanted to see it through. After two weeks had passed, I really began to consider quitting. I had already gained from it what I originally wanted (to prove to myself that I could change a low emotional state without sugar and cheese binging). I wasn’t gaining any physical benefits. And I was really unsettled with how much meat I had to eat to stay full between meals. However, quitting wasn’t so easy either. Entangled in all the reasons I wanted to quit were all the reasons I felt I needed to stay. Thought strings like: am I disciplined enough? I chronicled the diet on IG stories, what will people think? Am I truly not feeling physical benefits or am I subconsciously avoiding them to get back to my normal diet? What do I really think about eating meat? Is cooking a healthy hobby or do I use it as an escape? Why do I always feel guilty when I eat certain foods? Maybe it’s good to feel guilty when eating certain foods so we don’t overeat them? Did I secretly want to lose weight? Gosh, and so many more thought strings, each with their own path of entanglement in my brain.

In two weeks, I worked through a lot of it, and in the end, I decided to quit the regimen. If the diet wasn’t good for anything else, it was certainly incredible at forcing me to answer a lot of “why’s.” And now I’m just a little more clear. Now, my brain knot is a little less complicated. Just a little.

Why is this important? Because why we do ANYTHING is the driving force behind the direction our lives take. And don’t we all want a little more control over that direction? Ever since I answered some questions about yoga and teaching, I feel more grounded. I have received so much more amazing feedback, and a client even told me that I was more confident in my teaching during class. Answering “WHY” allows us to stand up for ourselves against other people’s opinions of us. Answering WHY keeps us on track toward our goals. Answering WHY helps define our goals. Answering WHY allows us to question things people have told us and we’ve just blindly believed. Answering WHY allows us to question our beliefs about ourselves that may be sabotaging.

The first question I ask new clients is, “Why are you here?”
They may answer with something like “I want to gain upper body strength,” or “I want help with my back pain.”
And then I ask, “Why?”
Their answers force them to go beyond the surface. Why do you want upper body strength? Is it because your wife told you she wanted you to? Is it because your grandkids make fun of you for getting older? Is it because you want to be able to move heavy boxes with more ease the next time you move? Is it because you read somewhere that it’s good for you? Why do you want help with back pain? That may seem obvious and no one wants to be in pain, but the answers tell me where to go next. A 70 year old client once told me he wants to get rid of his back pain to be able to sit through a concert with his wife without having to get up. I now know what’s important to him, and that his pain is impeding his outings with his wife and most likely affecting their relationship to some degree. I know that he’s in pain when he sits, and that he most likely won’t be embarking on a 5 day-a-week exercise regimen.

I never said this was easy. Asking why is actually a bitch. We spend decades avoiding the question because the answers are scary. And once you know the answer, you can’t ever go back. But that’s why it’s life changing.

Empower yourself. Ask, “Why?’

xoxo

On Play.

On Play and Me.
Over the past few years of my life, I’ve bumped up against the ideas of creativity, lightheartedness, and imagination. And I say “bumped up against” because they are parts of me that hard to access. For a long time, I assumed I wasn’t creative. It was a combination of the books the Artist’s Way and The War of Art, along with a yearning in my soul and one specific experience a few months ago that made me realize we all have creative power—it’s just a matter of dormancy for some of us. I could no longer use the excuse ‘‘I’m just not creative,” and understood that I had to work to access my creativity. That, in conjunction with learning how important creativity is for us for our psychological development and happiness was, and is, daunting.

Side note on that specific experience. Over the summer, a serendipitous thing happened where I met a woman on the street and was granted a keyboard and piano lessons. This happened weeks after I decided I’d like to try to play again. I played paino ages 6-12. No prodigy here, but decent. All 6 years I played, I read sheet music. I played someone else’s music and it never ever occurred to me to just “play around” on the piano.

During my only two lessons with my new teacher, I was given one of life’s greatest gifts. She gave me permission to create. Well what she actually did was ask me, “Have you ever composed your own music?” to which I scoffed incredulously. And then she proceeded to give me the very very simple tools to create my own music. I’m not talking about performance worthy. Or even worthy of any other human to hear it. But it was never about what I created, it was about following my own tune, aimless, agendaless. I lost track of time, improvised in a way I’d not done before, and felt nourished by the efforts. I didn’t judge the results. It was so powerful at the time that I almost cried. I couldn’t believe it had never occurred to me to play on the piano instead of play the piano.

With lightheartedness . . . well let’s start with the fact that I chose the word lightheartedness as an antonym to being serious. I am serious, pensive. I’m tempted to say there was a culmination of moments that led me to understand this about myself because I remember there being a shift: a before-I-knew-I-was-a-serious-person and an after-I-knew-I-was-a-serious-person. Among my immediate family growing up, I never considered myself serious. It was later in life that friends made comments or I saw my reactions to things more objectively that made me realize humor doesn’t come as easily to me, and I’m deeply absorbed in thought most of the time. There’s a sticky spot for me when it comes to the ability to let go of inhibitions to allow myself to be goofy, to mess up.

Then there’s imagination—to create thoughts that are not limited by the boundaries and limitations of this physical world. Inherent to it’s very nature is that imagination is not real. So then, it’s limitless! Yet, my imagination is so limited by the plaguing if’s and but’s. I didn’t realize this before I met Jerid, my partner. Without this turning into an Ode to Jerid (because he is my world), it will suffice to say that one of his most attractive and eye opening qualities to me is his ability to allow his mind to wander. He comes up with ideas faster than I can come up with yoga sequences because he’s not afraid of all the potential obstacles that may or may never happen were any of it to ever materialize. It’s just a thought! So why not see where it can go?

So, why is this all relevant right now? Because I recently finished reading the book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, M.D. He details how play has a crucial role in children’s cognitive and emotional development. But he continues to write that because humans’ brains continue to develop long after childhood, play is actually an essential part of our humanity, something we benefit from engaging in throughout the entire length of our lives. While Brown lists seven qualities that he uses to define play, he writes that ultimately, play is state of mind. It’s because of this that play is not the opposite of work—play and work are actually mutually supportive, and the real opposite of play is depression (whoa). Reading his book made me realize that creativity, lightheartedness, and imagination are all the results of play. It’s as though I can less dauntingly explore the qualities of play and know that within the play state of mind, the rest will follow. (En Vogue anyone??)

On Play and Movement.
Brown writes: “Movement is primal . . . If you don’t understand and appreciate human movement, you won’t really understand yourself or play . . . Movement play lights up the brain and fosters learning, innovation, flexibility, adaptability, and resilience,” the essential qualities for human survival throughout the evolution of our species. Two posts ago, I wrote about the difference between exercise and movement and the importance of making that distinction for our overall health. There are definitely some people for whom exercise is playful which, according to 2 of Brown’s 7 defining properties of play, means that the exercise is done for its own sake (no higher purpose) and done with a desire to continue. I will venture to say that most people don’t feel this way about exercise. Thinking about movement differently from exercise gives us the opportunity to move our bodies in a way that is so desirable that we enjoy it just for the sake of it; in a way that makes us want to keep going; in a way where we have the potential to improvise on the spot (another one of Brown’s play properties).

I think that if all fitness/movement professionals, can, in addition to what we already teach, make movement so approachable that it becomes a catalyst for play and exploration, we’d be contributing an invaluable and lasting tool for a healthy way of living.

This is a great short article from GMB about how to start moving playfully.

keep moving.

xoxo