More Benefits of Mind-Body Connection

Just a short post this week to draw your attention to a couple of articles reinforcing the benefits of movement in general, and mind-body practices in particular.  Many of you probably know that as scientists learn more about brain function and how genes work, researchers have also learned that brain pathways and gene expression continue to change throughout our lifetimes.  It was once thought that brain function automatically declines as we get older.  Recent research has shown this is simply not true.  In addition, researchers are learning that the changes in gene expression brought about by mind-body practices may actually have the ability to reverse the effects of chronic stress.

A recent article in Yoga Journal , cites a study published in Frontiers of Immunology that sought to examine whether our genes actually change after engaging in mind-body practices.  The conclusion?  Engaging in these practices can actually create molecular changes that have long term effects on your health.  As quoted in the article, “ ‘Mind-body techniques like yoga or meditation are the most effective ways of reducing stress that are known to science,’ lead author Ivana Buric, a doctoral student and research assistant at Coventry University in England”.

Another article from National Public Radio (NPR) discussed a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine.  This showed that exercise in general works better at providing relief from and even preventing chronic lower back pain than a variety of commonly prescribed interventions such as back belts and shoe insoles.  According to the article “It didn’t really matter what kind of exercise — core strengthening, aerobic exercise, or flexibility and stretching.”  Dr. Tim Carey, an internist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who wrote an accompanying commentary to the study, said that “health care providers don’t prescribe exercise nearly enough, given its effectiveness.”

So if you’re still on the fence about whether or not yoga, Pilates and other practices that connect mind and movement will help you, the evidence shows that its worth a try.  Any movement is better than no movement.  If you’re not ready for yoga or can’t find a class that works for you, try walking.  It’s simple, effective and you can do it anywhere, any time.  Just remember that if you are brand new at any movement practice, start simple and take it slow.  The point of these types of practices is to help you learn more about how your own mind and body work.  Every body is different.  So even when you’re in a class, there is no rule that requires everyone to do the same thing.  Take the time to tune into your own inner workings.  Learn what works for you.  You may be surprised to learn that you can do more than you think you can. And if you stick with it, you’ll get even better.  If you can approach any new effort with curiosity you’ll be much better off than if you let your ego take over.  Include a little self-compassion and even humor and you’ve got all the ingredients to improve your health.  Give it a try!

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Lessons Learned

If you read my last blog post, you will have learned that I was headed for spine surgery.  As it turned out, my surgery happened a week earlier than originally planned.  This was fine with me since by then I had reconciled myself to the need for the surgery and had also come to my wit’s end with the pain I was enduring.  It was not an easy decision to have the surgery.  Any time one is subjected to the vagaries of anesthesia and the dangers inherent in opening parts of the body that are otherwise not meant to open anything can happen.  These cautions become even more pronounced when working with the spine and the nervous system it is designed to protect.  Arriving at the decision to undergo surgery meant I had to surrender to the unknown and be willing to accept whatever consequences might ensue.  I have since spoken with many people who are daily enduring problems that surgery might fix but the fear of those consequences outweighs the problem.  For me it was the other way around: the prospect of a solution won me over.  As I said in my most recent post, I felt that the fact that a solution exists at all – and that I had access to it – put me in a far better category than those for whom a solution is not available.

At this point I am delighted to report that my surgery went exactly as planned and did, in fact, solve the problem for which it was intended.  I am beyond amazed at the miracle of it.  Despite our resilience, human beings are subject to a myriad of health problems.  Even as medical advances are made, new problems seem to crop up daily.  Yet there are also marvelous techniques now available that even a few years ago would have seemed impossible.  Here I am, not quite 5 weeks from my surgery and already I can walk a couple of miles pain-free and even do some yoga.  Nothing short of miraculous in my mind.

So what have I learned in this latest journey?  First of all, it really helps to be in good shape to begin with.  All my years spent touting the benefits of movement and working to motivate others has not been for naught.  The strength, flexibility and balance I have worked to maintain has definitely helped pull me through this.  The first week after the surgery was very difficult.  It is easy to understand how some people might succumb to that difficulty, stretching out or even hindering the recovery process.  Pain can create a vicious cycle – the more you hurt, the less you want to move, but the less you move the harder it is to get moving. Yet even while I was still in the hospital I was encouraged to move.  This is another change in the thinking of the medical community.  It used to be that after surgery people were told not to move.  Today, just the opposite is promoted.  Our bodies are meaning to move and the sooner one gets moving, the better for the body. It’s tough, though, to move when everything hurts.  So it became another opportunity for practice.  All of the lessons I’ve been writing about in this blog had to be re-activated.  Examples:  keep trying!  If you have to stop, then stop.  But try again later.  My doc gave me a simple rule of thumb, “If it hurts, stop.  If you think it’s going to hurt, don’t do it.”  That last part could be interpreted as license to stop trying, but that marker moves as the healing process progresses.  So what hurts today might hurt less tomorrow or the next day.  Each day brings another opportunity to try again.

Which brings me to Lesson #2 – the danger zone.  That first week was miserable, but by the second week I could already tell the difference. There was a spark of light at the end of the tunnel.  Healing was hardly complete but I could tell that I was getting better.  By the third week, I was actually feeling good much of the time.  That’s when the danger zone arrives.  I started to feel good enough to believe that I could do more than I should.  After a couple of episodes of over-doing (thankfully minor) I realized that I had to pull back.  This is when the full realization of aging starts to set in.  Although it is truly amazing that a person my age can go through a trauma like this and not only survive but thrive afterwards, I still had to respect the fact that healing is slower as we age.   It is so important to me to keep moving as much as I can for as long as I can.  Rather than invite set-backs that could be avoidable, I had to remind myself that I am in this for the long haul.  Feeling good will only get better if I have some patience and let it happen in its own time.  A fellow Pilates teacher said, “You’ll be that much stronger if you just wait until the time is right.”  Good advice.

And that’s Lesson #3 – I am continuing to get better on a daily basis and it was worth the wait.  Every day I feel stronger and more like my old self again.  It may take a little longer to get my fitness levels back, but come back they will if I just take it slow but keep moving forward.  Still I am changed by this as I am by every new experience.  I heard a great quote the other day:  an elderly woman was asked what it is like to be 89 or whatever age she was at that time.  Her answer, “I don’t know.  I’ve never been 89 before!”  A great reminder that as long as we’re on the planet, moving and breathing, life continues to be an adventure.  Each day is one you have never before experienced.  Stepping into the unknown can be as simple as getting out of bed in the morning.  It can be scary, but we all have the capacity to be brave and do the best we can with whatever we have to work with on an given day.  Everything is changing all the time. So whatever you felt yesterday might be different today.  Treat every moment like the remarkable gift it is.