April 10, 2014
Like many who hit the gym hard, I’m a hard charger. Advance, advance, advance. “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” goes the famous USMC slogan. If we’re talking about muscle pain (within reason), then yes, depending on your tolerance and fitness levels, soreness and fatigue are good things.
For joints, ligaments, tendons, and anything deeper, more internal, pulling sensations or sharp, biting pain should be noted and whatever action is causing them ceased and/or modified immediately. Pushing through isn’t a good thing. It can lead to the destabilization of joints or the spinal column, overstretching or overworking or even the breaking of ligaments and tendons (I know of people who’ve injured both), strains, sprains, dislocations, herniation, joint or spinal deterioration, and so forth. Having personally experienced a knee dislocation due to overstretching, I’m here to tell you that it’s no fun hurting yourself and no fun being slowed down by rehabilitation–particularly for go-getters.
There is a prevalent mindset urging exercisers to push through the weariness, soreness, and pain. Popular workout-at-home videos like P90X, CrossFit, and so on, have motivational personae encouraging the participant to keep going, keep going, at the risk of sacrificing body alignment and precision for the sake of burning more calories.
I come from a very different mindset, the body-mind mindset, where body alignment and precision are two very fundamental principles of a strong, supportive workout that gradually gets harder and digs deeper over time. Ah, yes, a lot of folks have trouble with those last two words, “Over time.” We live in a society where people want instantaneous results. Diets and exercise programs promise a loss of [insert a number] pounds in the first 2-6 weeks. And, let’s face it, the weight might come off but does it stay off, or are we happier working harder rather than smarter, or do we feel any better about ourselves merely because we’re dieting/exercising in order to fit in with the current skinny-Minny trends of the magazines?
The answer, most often, is no, we don’t feel better about ourselves, and pushing beyond where our bodies physically can go today isn’t necessarily going to make us feel good…about ourselves or anything else.Yes, we ought to feel weariness at the end of a tough workout, but we shouldn’t feel our lower backs or joints. Yes, we ought to push ourselves, but we shouldn’t compromise the precision with which each exercise ought to be accomplished. It is better to do fewer repetitions, or move gently into a stretch, rather than finding ourselves jerking and twisting and exerting too forcefully for our bodies to handle that momentum and force placed upon them.
The solution to avoiding an injury, then, is quite simple and another foundational principle of mind-body exercise: listen to your body. It will tell you where to go every day. Each day may be different, and that’s okay! Gains in strength and flexibility (range of motion) should be earned through gradual increases of weight or stretching over a long period of time. For us go-getters, slowing down is hard but essential to preventing the wrong kinds of soreness and injury. The best gains are the safest gains!
April 3, 2014
We’ve all heard the quote, “April showers bring May flowers,” but how about these:
- April hath put a spirit of youth in everything. (William Shakespeare)
- The April winds are magical, And thrill our tuneful frames; The garden-walks are passional To bachelors and dames. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “April”)
- When April winds / Grew soft, the maple burst into a flush / Of scarlet flowers. / The tulip tree, high up, / Opened in airs of June her multiple / Of golden chalices to humming birds / And silken-wing’d insects of the sky. (William Cullen Bryant, “The Fountain”)
Flowery ways of simply stating that Spring is on its way, regardless of how slow it is coming to some parts of the world. And after hibernating throughout a rough winter often buried in copious amounts of snow, trapping us inside our homes till we are all crazed, now is a good time to think about stepping outside to breathe in fresh air.
I am currently reading The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, to my daughter and am reminded by Burnett’s strong belief that the great out-of-doors heals the spirit as well as the body. I put those things in reverse because often this is how the gentleness of a nature walk works. It changes us from the inside out, working on the cares and troubles of the heart and mind, and therefore the body receives the benefits. Why else would the USA’s National Parks be handing out free passes to active duty military and veterans? Studies done on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder have shown that getting out into nature is one of the best ways to create calmness and peace, and reduce the risk of suicide.
Removing ourselves from a chaotic space into a serene one helps us clear the mental clutter that so often overwhelms us, throwing our Fight or Flight response (the sympathetic nervous system) into continual overdrive, resulting in weight increase, anxiety and emotional issues, chaotic eating, sleep disorders, and more. We move from a place where we have no time to think about anything into one where we have time not only to think but to solve problems. Furthermore, at some point, the mind is eased into a happy quietness. Have you ever noticed how suddenly you stop thinking about all your cares and are instead gazing around a forest pathway in admiration of all the things growing there?
Plus, you’re moving! Moving burns the body’s extra stored energy. Nature plus exercise equals a win-win situation, in my opinion. That’s why so many people choose to take their workouts outside (though yours truly finds herself far too distracted to actually finish a rigorous workout; yoga and Pilates are different to me). I see countless individuals around where I live–a desert, of all places–take their CrossFit, P90X, yoga, running, TRX, you name it, out the gym doors because, I believe, they find the environment natural, soothing. To be honest, is there anything soothing about the pound-pound-pound of feet on a treadmill, or the whir of elipticals? I didn’t think so.
In conclusion then, I just encourage everyone to get outside as much as possible with the nice weather coming your way. Mine has already arrived and I’m enjoying it as much as possible before the burning sun chases me indoors with summertime highs. I find it so soothing to just get out and walk around the neighborhood. How much more peaceful and joyous would I feel if I were in a lovely national park?
March 27, 2014
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading two books that I never got to during my yoga training. They both have to do with mindfulness while eating, about tackling the issues beneath and/or undermining every attempt to diet (or not to diet), about dealing with the baggage we’ve carried around with us since childhood and how and why that translates into our eating habits. As last week’s post was extraordinarily long, I’ll try to keep this one short, sweet, and to the point.
The basic point of both: diets don’t work. Food is a coping mechanism, a distraction from what’s really going on deep inside.
The first is by Geneen Roth, titled Women, Food, and God. In essence, this book discusses the theory behind the importance of mindfulness in our daily lives–how it changes lives. Roth candidly discusses her own 50-year struggle with food issues as well as those of her students at retreats. To come directly to the point, she believes that our eating behaviors are a direct reflection of our deepest-held beliefs and/or belief systems, whether we overindulge or underindulge, binge or starve.
Although I disagree with her on one level (I hold some very strong spiritual convictions of my own), I think she hits the nail on the head most of the time. We get so wrapped up in food–what we can and cannot eat, calorie-counting, all the fad diets, and so forth–that we are ignoring–no, avoiding–the real issues that are making us miserable, anxious, and huge (or miserable, anxious, and anorexic). We choose to focus on controlling our intake (or not, if we’re in rebellion against a nameless authority within our minds) because we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that by fixing what and how we eat, we’ll fix our bodies and therefore will fix whatever is wrong and/or broken within us.
Um, yeah…about that: as Roth says, no physical fix will ever make us happy.
The second book, which I read first, is by Susan Albers, titled Eating Mindfully. I loved this book more because I feel it’s very practical and immediate. One part theory, four parts helpful tips, this book is essentially a guidebook for getting yourself on track to eat mindfully. Albers discusses the kinds of eaters there typically are before giving 55 great tips, plus some extra goodies in the back, to the reader to help them learn self-awareness. Additionally, the book is small with short chapters. If you only have a few minutes each day to read one, this is the mindfulness self-help book for you because you can apply it to anything in your life. Eating habits are just the beginning of mindful living.
At no point in either book do the authors poo-poo medical advice. Albers highly recommends taking hers to your doctor/dietician appointments so you can discuss the techniques in it and use the ones that will especially help you. Nor do either pass judgment. The whole point, as Roth repeatedly reminds the reader, is to discover what’s going on beneath the surface, not to judge the junk that comes up in order to beat yourself up all over again–that’s not going to help.
Mindfulness is about recognizing when you’re tripping down a mindless, destructive path and then using positive self-talk and helpful reminders and/or exercises to get you back on track. If you are someone whose tried every diet out there, gained and lost weight for too many years (Roth says that she gained and lost 1000 pounds before finding her mindfulness practice), hate yourself for binging, hate food, or just hate dieting restrictions, try these out. There are very few “rules” and absolutely no “good” and “bad” food lists. I mean, it cannot hurt, can it? This is your health, after all, and your quality of life. You are worth it!
February 6, 2014
A pregnant woman’s body undergoes a lot of changes. The demands placed upon it by the relaxin and progesterone, the hormones responsible for opening up the body in preparation for birth and hence the reason why so many women see increased flexibility, can place joints in danger of destabilization and muscles as risk of imbalance. An extreme example of such things happening is a woman who has never been particularly flexible in the past going into a yoga class and discovering that she can bend and twist herself into any shape her heart desires, only to find postpartum that she needs physical therapy because the ligament structures around her joints have overstretched. (Ligaments do not shorten back up like muscles do.)
With that said, there are ways of maintaining strength around the joint capsule to balance the increased range of motion that accompanies pregnancy hormones. Here are a few that I used while pregnant. Try to do at least 10 per day. The more, the merrier!
Abdominal Scoops: Sit in a chair or on a stability ball with feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Slowly hollow out the belly on an exhale as though you were trying to scoop ice cream out of the cavity, or trying to pull on pants that are extremely tight. Release on the inhale. NOTE: This is not like a crunch, which can exacerbate the stretching and/or separation (in extreme cases) of the linea alba (the tendon that runs down the middle of the rectus abdominus) potentially leading to a hernia; nor will it harm the baby if done gently and with control. The idea is to lift the pelvic floor, zipper the abs and lower ribs closed, and feel supported throughout the lower back and pelvis, areas into which we crunch when we are carrying added weight. (With pregnancy, the pelvis will shift, increasing the pressure.) Also, ensure that you are sitting as tall as possible, with shoulders lined up directly over the hips.
Planks: From an all-fours position, place elbows directly beneath the shoulder girdles and step one foot at a time out into plank. If in need of a modification, once feet are in place, drop the knees to the floor to prevent sinking into the lower back. Push into the heels (if on the feet), lift through the abs (again, think “scoop”) while lengthening the tailbone toward the back wall, and open the collarbones by rolling the shoulder blades back and down the spine, thereby giving space for the neck. Keep the gaze slightly forward rather than down. Hold for 30 seconds per plank, doing as many as is comfortable (up to 10). Rest in Child’s Pose. NOTE: If you feel pressure in the lower back come out of the exercise and rest before trying again. The focus should be on supporting the back and pelvis rather than holding for expended periods of time. If you need someone to help you get into the correct position, ask a trusted friend or gym trainer to help with corrections. The goal is to look like a table upon which you could serve your favorite meal without sagging or peaking at the hips and low back.
Open-legged squats, also known as moonflowers: Stepping wide and pointing the toes toward the corners of the room (about 45 degrees), reach the arms up into a high-V, fingers spread. Take an inhale. On an exhale, sit into a squat, making sure you can see your big toes, coming no lower than a 90 degree angle with the knee. Inhale return to standing. Do as many as you like. NOTE: think of yourself as an elevator, sliding up and down a building. Try to maintain a nice neutral spine while doing so, without the bottom sticking out or the chest collapsing forward. Also try to keep the knees from caving inward past the big toes. This will put huge stress loads on the medial ligaments supporting the joint and can eventually lead to repetitive use injuries. Contract the gluts slightly and feel the thighs wrap around the outside of the leg in order to prevent this.
Close-legged squats, also known as flowing chair: With feet slightly wider than hip-width for balance support, exhaling and reach the hands out in front of you (or keep them at the heart, pressed together) and sit back into the heels as though you were going to sit into a chair. Perhaps you start by using a chair until you feel capable of doing it without it. Inhale back to standing. Do as many as you like. This exercise is great for the pelvic floor. See if you can feel a gentle lift in the perineum muscles. NOTE: Knee collapsing is also a problem in this exercise; to avoid this, make sure the toes are in line with the ankle and knees in line with the toes. Again try to also keep the chest lifted.
Chest lifts, also known as flowing half forward bend: With feet far enough apart to supply room for your growing belly, bend the knees and place hands on the shins, a pair of yoga blocks or anything that will support you in this low position so you aren’t loading the spine. Inhale deeply. Exhale and use the back muscles only to lift the chest away from the floor, letting arms dangle for added weight or resting hands lightly on the thighs (above the knees) for support while ensuring that they do not assist in the lift. Inhale and return to starting position. This exercise is great for correcting poor posture resulting from pregnancy and breastfeeding, as well as the daily slouching we do while sitting. NOTE: At the initiation of the lift, feel as though the shoulder blades are sliding down the back into your back pants pockets, and from there the muscles of the upper and middle spine will work. Also, there is a great temptation to look forward toward a wall rather than keeping the gaze on the floor. Try to avoid this, as the head is a natural weight that challenges and strengthens your back muscles without putting too much strain on them. Keeping the neck in a neutral position will also avoid straining its muscles and crunching into the delicate cervical vertebrae.