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.

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Cultivating Calm

We all could use a little help reminding ourselves to relax.  This seems especially true in our 24/7 world where information overload never seems to cease.  There are strident voices everywhere, all of which seem entrenched in their own particular version of truth.  We receive constant messages designed to make us fearful.  Yet we race around our lives at warp speed without really spending the time necessary to evaluate what is or is not worth our concern.  As a result it’s pretty easy to fall into a state of perpetual worry.  Even if we’re not personally affected by some of the larger dangers in the world, there are plenty of localized concerns.  No need to name them; each of you reading this has a list of your own.  It’s no wonder that so many of us find ourselves in a state of chronic stress.

Maybe your own brand of stress has nothing to do with events in the news, local or otherwise.  Yet almost all of us at some point will find ourselves worried about something.  Stress is actually our body’s natural reaction to perceived threats.  It puts us on alert and releases physical reactions designed to help us address the danger, whatever it is.  There are mechanisms within our bodies that help us recognize and cope with threats to our survival.  In small short-term doses, stress can be a good thing.  Some stress can make us stronger by training our systems mentally and physically to handle discomfort.   But too much of anything can cause overload.  Then instead of adapting, the body gets thrown out of balance and many health problems can result.  In modern times, perceived threats to our survival may be more psychological than physical.  Often, if you examine your worries honestly and objectively, you will probably recognize that they are related to something that happened in the past which can’t be changed, or something that hasn’t happened yet and, in fact, my never happen.

Sometimes we don’t even realize how stressed out we are until something happens that becomes a wake-up call.  For example, a sudden illness or injury may help us to recognize that we may need to pay more attention to how we treat ourselves.  If we’re lucky, there will be a chance to turn things around and find ways to cope.  Even for those of us who do not see ourselves as chronic stress sufferers, there are times in everyone’s life when we just need to take a time-out and release tension.

So what can you do if you find yourself all wound up in a state of anxiety? Maybe you feel like you’re lacking something you need, like time, money or control over your life.  Right now we’re entering into the holiday season which on the surface should be a time of fun and joy, of giving and receiving, festive events with family and friends.  Yet too many of us find the holiday season akin to a mine field, laden with hidden traps ready to grab us when we least expect it.

Not surprisingly, my first suggestion for relieving stress is movement.  Think you haven’t got time?  Everyone has time to get up and walk around, even if it’s only for a minute or two.  If standing too much is stressing you out, then sit in a chair and do some easy stretching.  Shoulder rolls and neck stretches can help to relax.  You can, I’m sure, come up with all kinds of excuses.  But I will contend that unless you are a medical professional in the middle of a life-saving treatment, nothing you are doing is so critical that a few minutes of break time will make a difference in the outcome.  All sorts of events may be sabotaging your usual movement routine.  But no matter where you are or who you’re with there is always time for a break.  Make it a priority.  Remind yourself that not only will you feel better, but the world is not going to fall apart as a result.

Still having trouble finding time for movement?  Try breathing.  Whether or not you realize it, you’re going to breathe anyway.  So why not try focussing on your breath for a few minutes.  Just notice.  Slow it down.  Take your inhales all the way into your belly.  Lengthen your exhales to empty completely.  Try it!  Go into another room if you need to (like the bathroom, for example).  You may be surprised to find that whatever was in your head dissolves while you focus on your breath.  It may return afterwards, but you might also find that you are less tense and better able to handle whatever it is.

Another possible strategy is to let go of expectations. A friend recently said, “Every year I tell myself that whatever gets done is fine and whatever doesn’t is fine, too.  And every year that idea goes out the window as I try too hard to do too much.”  Think about it, though.  That’s pressure that we put on ourselves.  Generally, no one else expects as much from us as we expect of ourselves. It’s fine to make plans but sometimes the best laid plans and strategies can be upended in a moment through no fault of your own.  When that happens, it may not be easy to accept a different outcome.  But when you think about it, what choice do you have?  Reality is what it is, even if we were hoping it would be different.  We can blame ourselves or someone else, but placing blame is unlikely to change the situation.  Sometimes a mistake was made that we can learn from and avoid in the future.  But even that is not always possible.  Better to focus on living with the outcome as it is, whatever it is, and moving on from there.  Sometimes you might even find that outcome leads to something even better that you could not have foreseen or anticipated.  Keep your mind open to whatever happens and you just might be surprised by the results.

There are, of course, many articles and even books full of ideas for reducing stress, but here is my final suggestion.  When faced with disappointment or anxiety, making a gratitude list is something that always works.  No matter what is going wrong, there are bound to be things that are going right.  Did that new recipe not work out so well?  Take heart – most likely no one will go hungry because of it.  Were you unable to help out at that charitable event this year?  There are people in need all year long.  Be thankful that you can be generous in a different way another time.  Did you have enough to eat today and a warm place to sleep?  Even the fact that daylight arrived when expected today and you were there to witness it is reason to be grateful.  If you really spend some time with that list, you will come up with many more things to celebrate.  When I’m tempted to regret something from the past or feel insecure about the future, it always helps me to remember that right now – in this moment – I have everything I need.  And if this moment is uncomfortable, it will pass.