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.


Coping Strategies

Many of us are feeling the effects to varying degrees of chronic stress.  Given our 24/7 news cycle which rarely has anything positive to offer, it’s not surprising that rates of anxiety have been increasing.  We seem to be fed a constant diet of fear.  If only this or that group was eliminated from our lives all would be well and we would be safe.  Sadly, reality just doesn’t work that way.  Life is full of problems and this is true for every life.  I would challenge anyone reading this to examine their own life and tell me that they have never had cause for anxiety, fear or just plain suffering.  Some of us like to think there was mythical time in the past when life was somehow simpler and easier.  But if you are truly honest, would you really want to go back to that time?  Was it really as great as your hindsight suggests?  And even if it was – for you anyway – the fact is time only moves in one direction.  We can’t go back.  We can only accept what is right now and move on from there.  In the complex world of today there are no easy answers.  Pointing fingers might make us feel good but it solves nothing.

So what is a person to do when faced with our daily bombardment of negativity.  One possibility is to try and ignore it.  Turn off the TV and the computer.  Avoid newspapers, magazines and radio.  Great idea!  But just as we look between our fingers at horror movies, few of us can really stay away from current events for long.  And sometimes it’s not national issues that get to us but something closer to home, like family or neighborhood discord that’s not so easily avoidable.

Another strategy is to pick a problem and find some way to address it with your own time, money and/or expertise.  This can be especially effective at a local level where you can sometimes actually see results from your efforts.  Or even if the results you seek extend beyond your view, you can at least feel like you’re contributing to a potential solution.  Helping others is widely prescribed as an antidote to stress and even depression.  It certainly beats complaining and blaming.

Still the feeling of helplessness in the face of any problem – illness, life changes, loss – can cause stress.  When you’re in the middle of a crisis it can be difficult to see clearly or to remember that all things change and nothing lasts forever.  Although it may seem simplistic, sometimes even  a momentary distraction can be helpful.

One very simple example is breathing.  There is actually science behind the calming power of breathing.  A recent article in the journal Science describes the “rhythmic activity of a cluster of neurons in the brainstem [that] initiates breathing . . . [and] has a direct and dramatic influence on higher-order brain function.”  The article states that “Slow, controlled breathing has been used for centuries to promote mental calming, and it is used clinically to suppress excessive arousal such as panic attacks.”  This study found a physiological and neural relationship between deep breaths and peaceful feeling.  According to an article in Yoga Basics which references this study:

“These findings suggest that the rhythm of our breathing directly relates to our higher-level brain activity.  For example, short, rapid breathing warns the brain that we may be in a stressful situation. . . .In contrast, deep breathing and long sighs encourage the opposite response. These tell our brain that we are safe”

There’s a key – the word “safe”. When we are fearful it is usually because we feel unsafe.  If we can convince our brains that we really are safe, a major cause of stress can be relieved.  A simple practice like deep breathing with a focus on long exhales can go a long way towards achieving that goal.  Now we even have scientific evidence that this reaction is real.  What’s even better is the knowledge that breath is always available.  We take it for granted and often don’t even notice it, but as long as we are alive, we are capable of breathing.  For some of us, breathing is obstructed and difficult.  But to the extent that we are capable of slow, deep breaths, this can be a good coping strategy when feeling stressed.

Another potential fear and stress-reducing practice is to create a gratitude list.  We’ve all heard of these, but how often do you actually remember all the positive things in your life?  Especially when you feel surrounded by a huge seemingly insurmountable problem.  If you can’t think of anything positive, try reading this article from the Chopra Center.  Even the most hard-core fear monger is bound to find something in this list to be grateful for.  Somewhere (unfortunately I don’t remember where) I read a suggestion that when feeling fearful or just overwhelmed to look around you and simply name everything you see.  The goal of this exercise is to bring you into the present moment.  Often what we fear is something from the past or something that might happen in the future but hasn’t happened yet, and, in fact, may never happen.  If we come back to the present moment it will keep us from regretting something we can’t change or anticipating something that may never happen.

Of course, no coping strategy works if you forget to do it.  And all interventions can be easily overlooked during a crisis even for the most stable and centered of us.  But when things seem at their bleakest, sometimes the only thing you can do is find a way to cope.  A little relief might help you to get to through the crisis.  And then maybe next time you’ll remember the practice that helped.  As alway, practice is the key.  The more we practice, the better we get.