Simple Strategies for Improving Movement

This week I was inspired by two resources that I want to share with all of you.  The first comes from Mindful Strength founder and instructor Kathryn Bruni-Young.  Her practice “combines mindful attention with strength, mobility and functional movement”.  I learned about her from movement specialist Jenni Rawlings, who I have been following for some time.  Those of you who know me recognize that I have long been interested in functional movement and how to improve our capacity for movement at all ages and skill levels.  In my opinion the outward shape of a yoga pose is not as important as the internal feel of that pose for the person holding it.  Can you sense your movement through space?  Do you know where your body’s parts are in relation to other parts and to the external world?  As a result of injury, trauma, or just plain lack of attention many of us have lost touch with our bodies.  Images in the media to which none of us can possibly measure up have given some of us a less than optimum opinion of our bodies.  This further contributes to detachment.  The goal of mind-body disciplines as I teach them is to put practitioners back in touch with their own bodies. Then, perhaps, we can see them for the miracles they are rather than focussing on perceived faults and failings.

On Kathryn Bruni-Young’s website, I was delighted to discover her podcast.  Many of you know I am a podcast devotee so I began listening immediately.  I am now working my way through her archives and have so far been extremely impressed.  The one I wanted to point out to you today features an interview with Nicholas St. Louis, a Physical Therapist and founder of The Foot Collective, which is on a self-described “mission to reclaim the human foot.”  I highly recommend this podcast and also suggest a visit to The Foot Collective website.  In his blog post “An Introduction to Feet and Footwear”, Nick describes our feet as “a magically well engineered body part and yet despite the massive role they play and how robust they are, most people neglect foot health.”  That is, until those feet start to hurt and become a problem.

Nick reminds us that although we take our ability to walk upright on 2 feet for granted, this trait is unique to humans.  The feet, he emphasizes, are “the only part of your body that touch the ground as you navigate the world and because of that they have a rich and extensive network of nerves . . . that relay vital information to your brain”.  In fact, each foot “contains 25% of the bones in our body, has 33 joints and over 100 muscles/tendons/ligaments.”  What could possibly go wrong?  No wonder we have foot problems!

Yet our feet are also incredibly resilient and designed to take lots of abuse.  But we abuse them at our own peril.  According to Nick, a major source of that abuse is the footwear to which we subject our feet.  He details how our footwear choices have allowed our muscles to weaken and even atrophy.  The modern shoe, he states, “numbs the sensory network in your feet and without the input from the ground, the muscles of your foot stop working like they were designed . . . [shoes become] a foot binding contraption that systematically shortens our heel cords” among other issues.  Furthermore, as a result of this “contraption” the absent or misleading information coming from the foot “gets translated upstream to your shins, knee, hip, low back and all the way to your neck.”  Nick even goes so far as to suggest that many of our knee, hip and back issues are really foot issues.  Of course, there are likely other contributing factors that accumulate along the way, but I believe there is great deal of merit to this argument.  It certainly makes sense to include this concept into any strategy for addressing other problems.

In the podcast, Nick also states that many of our problems with balance are also related to our limited ability to translate signals from our feet to our brain and, consequently, other parts of our body.  He suggests some simple practices to help address this problem.  Among them is simply gradually incorporating more barefoot walking.  Also heel-to-toe walking a straight line both forward and backward, without looking down, on a slightly raised surface like a 2 x 4.  This helps to retrain your proprioceptive ability to gauge your body’s place in space.  The height of the surface can gradually be increased as mastery develops.  He also suggests walking on a variety of surfaces, like grass and sand, even rocks.  As with any new or renewed effort, “gradual” means just that!  Start slow and increase equally slowly.  You’re not going to undo a lifetime of poor habits in a day or even a week or month.  But as with any practice, if you stick with it you’ll improve.

The second piece of information I wanted to pass on to you is an article from NPR this past week called “The Lost Art of Bending Over: How Other Cultures Spare Their Spines”. This article describes the “hip hinge”, the process of leaning forward from the hip crease instead of the waist.  Your hip crease is that place where your legs meet your torso.  When you bend from the waist, you round your spine.  For those of us with weak abdominal (or “core”) muscles, this creates stress on your spine which ultimately invites back pain.   As Jean Couch, from The Balance Center, states in the article, bending from the waist makes us “all look like really folded cashews.”  Do you really want to look like some kind of nut??

Of course, in Pilates we try to train practitioners to strengthen and engage their core muscles when creating a “C-curve”, but that does not negate the benefits of the hip hinge.  Core strength also helps with hip hinging.  I often hear prospective yogis lament the fact that they can’t touch their toes.  Touching one’s toes is certainly not the be-all and end-all of any yoga practice.  But one of the reasons why many people have so much trouble reaching for their feet is because of chronically tight hamstrings.  “Bending at the hip takes the pressure off the back muscles,” says Liza Shapiro, who studies primate locomotion at the University of Texas, Austin. “Instead, you engage your hamstring muscles.”  That simply means stretching your hamstrings.  People often think of reaching for their toes as a back stretch, but it is really a hamstring stretch.  As the article states, “when you hip hinge, your spine can stay in a neutral position, while the hips and upper legs support your body weight. When you bend at the waist, the back curves, putting stress on the spine.”

The article also advises that “whether or not hip hinging will prevent back pain or injuries, doctors don’t know yet” but it’s one more practice that is worth a try.  If nothing else it might help relieve those chronically tight hamstrings.  I have certainly seen the evidence in my classes that hinging at the hip improves the ability to reach toward one’s toes without back pain.  There is a great little video in the article that demonstrates using the hip-hinge technique to pick something up off the floor.  I highly recommend it.

None of our movement problems have easy solutions, but the more tools we can try in our practices the more we information we can gather.  If you’re reading this you probably already know that each part of our body is inextricably connected to every other part, brain included.  Learning how our bodies work is an endlessly fascinating journey.  Each of us needs to explore lots of ideas to find what works for us.

Advertisements

Fear of Falling

Winter has only just begun and already I’ve heard about several incidents of injuries from falls, at least one of them serious.  Of course, anyone can fall at any time of the year, but it seems like winter is a particularly dangerous time when ice and snow accumulate all around us. Some falls result from what we call “black ice”.  This is that devilish condition when a thin layer of ice on asphalt is invisible to the eye.  When encountered it can cause supports like feet, bicycle tires or even autos to slide perilously.  Another insidious form of hidden ice occurs frequently in my area where daytime sunshine causes standing snow to melt and then refreeze when the sun goes down and temperatures fall.  This condition can be particularly precarious when another layer of snow falls on top obscuring the ice layer below so you don’t know where it is until you step on it.

Although older adults seem more prone to falls, and many studies show that the consequences of falling for older adults can be particularly dire, no one is immune from falls.  There are many articles featuring suggestions for preventing falls.  All you have to do is Google “Fall Prevention” and you will find examples.  But I would like to focus on the causes that I see most frequently and that I think can be at least partially addressed with training.  First and foremost is failure to pay attention.  Our modern lifestyle seems to encourage hurrying.  We worry about slowing down when there are people behind us.  Or making that car wait for more than a few seconds while we cross a street.  Something distracts us and we forget to pay attention to our surroundings.  Have you ever been looking down at your feet (or your cell phone) and suddenly been hit in the head with a tree branch?  Admittedly I’m guilty of that one.  So the first piece of advice I would give is slow down.  Look around you in all directions.  Be aware of your surroundings.  Make sure your next step is on firm ground.  Sometimes I will take my foot and just slide it back and forth in front of me to make sure my next step is not on ice.  That car that’s waiting for you to pass is most likely not going to run you over.  And no matter where you’re going, the extra few minutes will not make any difference in the long run.  Unless they save you from injury.  Then, in fact, the extra few minutes might make a huge difference!

The second most frequent cause of falls I’ve observed or heard about is not taking proper precautions.  For example, not wearing appropriate shoes.  You think “I’m only going out for a few minutes.  I can make it in my high heels.”  Perhaps that’s a little extreme, but you get the picture.  You get away with it once and think it won’t be a problem the next time.  And maybe it’s not.  Until it is.  Wouldn’t it be better to just take that extra few moments to be safe.  I could go into a big rant here about the footwear industry and how it encourages us (especially women) to wear inappropriate shoes, but I’ll save that for another time.  Suffice it to say that most of you know what works in these situations.  It often comes down to the choices you make.  It’s also important to remember that just because you’ve been careful to clear your own walkways, this may not be the case everywhere you need to go.

There are many reasons why people fall.  Some of them are related to physical conditions or side-effects of medication.  If you have these types of concerns hopefully you will get professional advice on how to deal with them.   But so many falls result from preventable circumstances that it’s worth another reminder.  This provides yet another reason to tout the benefits of movement practices.  Mind-body practices like yoga, Pilates and others can help you to learn to pay more attention to the way you move.  These practices help encourage strength, flexibility and balance.  We think of balance as being able to stand on one foot.  But practicing balance exercises can also be a way to strengthen the muscles that will help you catch yourself and avoid falling.  Or help you get up if you do fall.  Holding onto something because you fear falling might be helpful, but wouldn’t it be better if the muscles that support you were stronger.

Mobility has been described as more than just being able to move, but also maintaining strength through a full range of motion.  Stability is the quality that enables one to retain or regain position when impacted by an external force.  So, for example, if you’re standing and something pushes you, you’re ability to recover your position would be a way to measure stability.  So you can see how mobility and stability go hand in hand.  Then there is flexibility which might be described as the quality of being able to bend without breaking.  Clearly all of these traits are also necessary components for good balance.  If you feel stronger and more stable you will also gain confidence.  Fear can make us tense.  Tension makes us brittle and rigid.  Rigidity is the opposite of flexibility. Tension zaps energy and strength.  So learning to relax can be as important as all the other elements of balance.  Breathing practices, also an important component of mind-body practices such as yoga and Pilates, can help relieve tension and encourage relaxation.  They also help you slow down and recognize that few circumstances merit the hurrying we often feel is so necessary.

Finally, being in good physical condition might not prevent a fall, but it will certainly help you recover from one.  And cultivating more conscious awareness of your mind and your movements can help you in all aspects of your life.   If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s never too late.  If you can move and breathe, there is a practice for you.  Take the time to find one.  You won’t be sorry.  And it just might save you from yourself.