The Thing About Learning

Just being in my training, here in Las Vegas with Jules Mitchell, for only one week, I already know that my previous post about “What Is Biomechanics” needs to be re-written. I also know that I won’t be able to re-write for a little while.

The most beautiful thing about education, is that it has the potential to challenge us. I read somewhere that our brain releases dopamine when we read something that confirms what we already believe. We’re literally wired to be rewarded for confirming our biases. So how does it feel when you read something or learn something that doesn’t agree with what you know? Not great, we can all attest to that. Defensiveness, dismissal, anger, and other such responses may rise initially. Hopefully curiosity takes over. And then when we use the challenging/confrontational information to think critically about why we are so attached to our current perspective of things—the learning happens. I believe the best learning doesn’t happen in the information itself, it happens when the information gets processed.

The other thing about learning that I’ve come to understand is that the integration of knowledge will happen when the learner is ready. Knowing something because you learned it in a book, or took a course, or listened to a teacher is very different than living it. That’s why self help books are only good to a point. It’s awesome to learn new ways to foster self growth, but the information you now know after reading the book is only as useful as your ability to use it and integrate into your everyday life. This could happen immediately after reading the book. In most cases however, it takes repetitive exposure from various sources for you to be able to apply what you’ve learned in a meaningful way (funny that that’s how the body/brain works when learning a new skill . . .).

For me, this has become a very consistent part of the learning process, and something I’ve come to truly appreciate. I’ve learned so much about the body over the past 3 years, but only over time does what I’ve learned actually sink in. It’s not something I can force to happen. It happens when it’s time. Every week, something new sinks in for me, gets absorbed into my understanding in a way it hadn’t previously, even though I technically “knew” it for many months, or even a couple of years. It’s a fascinating and patience-dependent process.

So, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas . . . for a little while. Slowly, in bits and pieces, you’ll find me blogging about a certain topic in my effort to understand it, like I’m talking it out with myself. And slower still, as the dust settles in my brain and body, my teaching may evolve. I invite you to question with me, be patient with me, and be curious with me.

keep moving.


What Is Biomechanics And Why Does It Matter?

One of my biggest “Aha!” moments, which took place several months ago, helped me solidify my approach to teaching. It was the understanding of biomechanics. I had been learning aspects of biomechanics without fully realizing it and had simultaneously been sort of confused by it.

Biomechanics is essentially the study of human movement. Bio— a living organism, and mechanics—the branch of physics dealing with the effects of force on motion.

My understanding and training up until my introduction to biomechanics was that our bodies are all different—from the obvious qualities like difference in height, to the less obvious qualities like difference in the depth of your pelvic socket. Those differences mean we all move differently, and the conversation stops there. If your hips sway dramatically when you walk, that’s just the way you you learned to walk. If you can’t drop your hips below your knees in a squat (like me), that’s just the way your hips are structured. My client is flat footed, therefore he rests all his weight in his inner foot when doing anything on his feet. So, that’s just the way his feet were designed.

Biomechanics offers another element to the story: There are basic principles that govern healthy movement, just like there are basic principles that govern healthy eating (eat lots of vegetables, eat less sugar, don’t overeat, etc). We can, and many times should, seek to incorporate those rules into our movement capabilities.

This was super confronting. What does all of this really mean? I’ve simplified it to these three points:

  1. While we are born with a set of genes, we are products of our nurture more than we realize, especially during the years of early development.

  2. The body’s movement capabilities (which originate in the brain) and the body’s tissue capabilities (which take place in the tissues themselves) are infinitely more adaptable in our later years than we realize. We are not set in stone after those early development years.

  3. “Healthy movement” means well dispersed and efficient movement. So yes, there is a standard of movement to which we can all aspire.

The above is my interpretation of what I’ve come to understand about human movement. It took many many months of a furrowed brow to make sense of all if it (and I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg). But the moment it all sunk in came during a conversation with Jenn Pilotti, a movement specialist in California and a mentor. Jenn said: “If you look at a group of elite runners running, they will look almost identical in their running form.”  That was it! Of course! Elite athletes need to maximize their efficiency for competition. A runner can be muscularly strong and train speed and agility in all the right ways, but if he/she doesn’t adopt the basic principles of efficient running, he/she won’t get to the elite level. Length of stride, speed, and cadence, among other things, will vary (and these are the variables based on differing human bodies). But the form with which runners move their bodies—which is a product of the actions they’re performing while running—will be quite similar.

Why does this matter? Because the source of pain for an incredibly large portion of individuals with musculoskeletal dysfunction is inefficient movement (read: uneven dispersal of load and effort). You may not be an elite runner training for the next Olympics, but the principles that guide the elite runner are the same principles that guide your weekend 3 mile jog.

Now, human movement can’t be explained within one field of study, so biomechanics is only one piece of the puzzle (but it’s large and really fascinating piece!). That’s why I’m particularly excited to be on a plane, as I write this, to Las Vegas for the first half of my 300 Hour Teacher Training with Jules Mitchell. While Jules’s work has a heavy emphasis on biomechanics and understanding it through the lens of yoga asana, my training will also include aspects of motor control, pain science, and the consciousness of movement.

Stay tuned! (and keep moving!)


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


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.


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.