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Why Does My Leg Still Hurt? I’ve Been Stretching and Doing Lots of Yoga!

hamstrings

You have no idea how many times a yoga student complains, “I think I had an injury in my thigh, and I have been stretching it for months and it still hurts.” Then for some reason, the student is shocked to hear the reply,  “Well then… stop stretching it.” Yoga people: Stretching is not the answer for everything! In fact, we would argue that it is RARELY the answer for anything.

“But, I was told to keep stretching it.” So you did that, right? And it didn’t get any better? Time to do something else, perhaps seek the advice of a medical professional? Bottom line: If you have a pain that lasts for months, please go see a doctor, not a yoga teacher! Ok, now that we have that out of the way, this brings up an interesting question for those of us who teach.  Why is this always the same story?

After advising students to seek medical advice and digging a little deeper, there seems to be a fairly predictable story concerning this kind of hamstring pain.  It’s so common, in fact, that some teachers have termed it “yoga butt.” Students generally complain about a soreness near one of their sitz bones that becomes more painful when they are in hip flexion (a forward bend). Sometimes it can be a cumulative effect, and sometimes it can be an acute injury (some say they even hear a pop), but it almost always happens in a deep forward bend. So what the heck is going on here?

First off, it should be noted that contemporary yoga practices are largely hamstring-centric. Perhaps, it’s to counter our modern Western life of sitting in chairs all day (although that still does not make complete sense, but let’s just go with that), but people seem to be obsessed with stretching their hamstrings to absurd degrees. The potential for injury is compounded by the fact that most of this hamstring work is done through passive stretching (the hamstrings are doing a minimal amount of ‘work’, if any). Even in a standing forward bend, a pose in which the hamstrings are supposed to be active,  teachers cue to put weight into the front of the foot, contract the quads to straighten/protect the knee and then try to pull the face towards the lower leg. Yikes! You can touch your forehead to your shin? That’s cool, but it kinda sucks that you can’t stand on one leg very easily… It also sucks that you are probably going to get the aforementioned injury known as “yoga butt” with your obsessive hamstring “opening.”

That soreness you feel up by your sitting bone? Yeah, that’s probably the tendon of one of your hamstrings that you just keep tearing over and over. Do it long enough and you can even get an avulsion, a soft tissue tear that can include pieces of bone tearing away from the attachment point. Fun! What most likely happened was that you stretched too far, too fast. When this happens, a mechanism called the myotactic stretch reflex causes the muscle to contract to resist the stretch and prevent injury. If your leg is not in a position where the muscle contraction will stop the movement (let’s just say… I don’t know… in a loaded forward fold with the weight of your body coming down with gravity???), then the muscle will still contract, but something else has to keep lengthening because of the position you are in. That something else would be the tendon, which is why the sensation is up at the attachment point of your ischial tuberosity, aka sitting bone. With enough force, it will tear.

So, you have a tendon injury, why shouldn’t you stretch it out? After the tendon tear, most people will experience limited range of motion (as well they should; inflammation is the body’s way of telling you to NOT MOVE the joint while repairs are being done). If you continue to stretch through this limited range of motion caused by injury, the muscle will continue to protect itself by contracting and then you are just tearing the tendon more. Then, of course, there is the scar tissue formation after repeated offenses, as well as not so helpful compensation patterns, bla bla bla.

By now it should be pretty clear why all the stretching you were doing may not have been the best choice. So, what do you do? For one, you should probably treat it like an actual injury that you would have anywhere else in your body and STOP doing the thing that caused it and go to the doctor! Yes, that means no more crazy forehead-to-shin forward folds for 4-6 weeks (that’s how long it generally takes a soft-tissue injury to heal). Take an epsom salt bath, get a massage, all that stuff. If you really just don’t want to lay off of it, you could continue with your practice and modify (bending your knees is actually ok sometimes). Whatever you do, you must do it with awareness. Yoga is slow for a reason. It is methodical. This isn’t a who-can-shove-their-face-to-their-leg-the fastest contest. No one is paying you to injure yourself, so please, treat your body kindly….

Yoga Practice Suggestions So You Can Stop Hurting Your Neck (Part 2)

To continue our practice suggestions from our last post about how to not destroy your neck while doing yoga…

Don't end up like him. Look at his unhappy face! Thank you digitalfreephotos.net
Don’t end up like him. Look at his unhappy face!
Thank you digitalfreephotos.net
  • Increase your awareness of how well you are able to execute spinal flexion and spinal extension, especially in different relationships with gravity.

So basically, the more awareness you have of your spine the more likely you have a choice over your ability to manipulate it safely and comfortably.  You can then identify which parts you have a finessed control over and what parts you don’t.  In other words, you can identify what parts of the spine are not integrated in the totality of it’s physical potential (barring any structural issues or illnesses).  Once identified you can work on integrating and strengthening what needs to be strengthened, which usually includes deep postural muscles that have have become overstretched (from that rounded position we fall into after many hours in front of a computer).  Take care of those muscles, strengthen them and then other muscles that have been overworked have a chance to relax.  For example, if your posture sucks, because you can’t comfortably maintain your lumbar curve while sitting, then you can work on evenly distributing the muscle work throughout the spine.  Once your restore lumbar curve integrity you provide an opportunity for the bones of the thoracic spine and neck to “fall into place” and release muscular  tension.  Also, when you restore healthy posture you create space for the organs, like your lungs, to function more comfortably.  Even the diaphragm can find more space to move.  This is the beginning of finding internal support from the organs.  The better you do that the better chances you have for your shoulders to relax.

In order to create this kind of spinal awareness, it may be helpful to work on articulating the spine, rather than lengthening it, in order to see which parts are more “stuck”. For example, if you always hinge down in a forward bend try rolling down (check out our sequence that focuses on rolling through the spine). Or you can try focusing on different parts of your spine during a light backbend. Cat/cow is a great movement for this kind of exploration.

  • Create the ability to embody passivity in some parts of the body while consciously using others.

The ability to simultaneously be passive and active, by choice, in the body demonstrates a refined control over the nervous system.  Your yoga practice should do more than “make you more flexible” in your musculo-skeletal system (which it arguably may not do to begin with).  It should help you develop a sense of nervous system flexibility. Leslie Kaminoff, yoga educator and adored teacher, often references the two elements of sthira and sukha, space vs. stability.  This balancing act happens even on a cellular as he explains:

In a cell, as in all living things, the principle that balances permeability is stability…All successful living things must balance containment and permeability, rigidity and plasticity, persistence and adaptability, and space and boundaries.  This is how life avoids destruction through starvation or toxicity and through implosion or explosion.*

Ok, that is some deep shit… ahem, profound.  So how does all that apply to this movement practice?  In the example forward bend from the last post, we suggested learning how to keep the upper body passive while the legs and feet are very active.  It takes practice to cultivate the ability to to make the decision to assign sthira and sukha to different parts of your body, simultaneously, to create the balance needed to successfully perform a physical feat.

One way to practice this kind of “sensing flexibility” is by trying to look down at your front foot while practicing trunk rotation.  This includes doing Trikonasana while looking down at the front foot and of course the more difficult progression of Parivrtta Trikonasana. Try to do this while keeping the neck relaxed; which can eventually help to relax the shoulders as well. Also, you might want to try a posture that demands extraordinary trunk stability like Virabhadrasna III.  But do it while having loosey goosey noodley arms (this is very VERY technical language that only consummate professionals should feel comfortable with). Don’t let the weight of your dangling arms decrease the stability through your trunk. These are excellent practices for embodying sthira and sukha.  But really all of yoga is about this practice…if you’re doing it right.

Bottom line:  Create awareness.  That’s the one instruction that may be safely applicable to all people.  The more awareness you create the more choices for healthy movement become available.

*The above quote can be found in the 2nd edition of Yoga Anatomy, page 2, which if you don’t already own you should buy it now!

 

Yoga Practice Suggestions So You Can Stop Hurting Your Neck (Part 1)

Last week we put up a post discussing the different ways in which your yoga practice could be making your already stiff or tight-feeling neck worse.  This week we’d like to follow up with suggestions and modifications for you to try in your practice to avoid this extra hurt and even possibly ameliorate your neck issues.

Two items of note:

1) Why the HELL didn’t the last post talk about shoulder stand or headstand?!
Here’s why.  Those would be the first-thought-of, most-expected asanas to talk about.  The discussion about these postures is pretty obvious (or at least should be) and we wanted to direct the conversation to a less anticipated, but just as important aspect of a physical yoga practice.  People don’t often think of the “safer” postures as contributing to neck pain and it is because of that lack of dialogue that we felt the responsibility to explicitly illuminate such negative possibilities.

2) Not all modifications that will be suggested here will help, apply or be appropriate for every body.
This should go without saying, but it shall be said…again. Every individual possesses their own unique physical history.  Each individual also lives a unique life with daily physical habits.  This history and lifestyle combined create the idiosyncratic physical capabilities and limitations of every individual.  Thus, contrary to current yoga (and other) pedagogy, It is nearly impossible to apply a universal formula of movement or alignment to the entire human race and expect everyone to have success. We do try to offer many alternatives and many, many options.  But we will not be able to write about every possible situation.  So please enjoy what we have to write, try things out, but  if you aren’t sure of an idea’s applicability to your situation then seek the help of a knowledgeable professional who will see and treat you as an entire person, not just disassociated parts.

Suggested ways to practicing yoga (while not jacking up your neck):

  • Work on balancing without having to rely on counterbalancing with the head or involve the neck.

As we discussed in our last post, often we will extend the spine in order to “get long”  through unintentional parts, like the head and neck,  because we lack the awareness to discern the difference. For example, in upward facing dog we might intend to extend the upper back, but more likely end up throwing our heads back and bending our necks, because the sensory organs confuse us.  Obviously, this erroneous movement would add more stress to the neck. Some cases are not as obvious. For instance when we are in a forward bend. Sometimes in an attempt to get a “long spine” and create the greatest sensation in the hamstrings (what we think feels like lot of “stretch), we will lift our heads thinking we are arching our upper backs. We also use the head and neck as a way to help us feel more balanced when in an inversion.  This can be seen in forward bends, arm balances and many other instances.  Again, this counterbalancing and lack of awareness creates more tension than we desire. Here is one suggestion to correct this issue:

While hanging upside down in a forward bend, with slightly bent knees, hold onto your elbows.  Give yourself the time to surrender to the posture and see if you can allow your head, neck, and entire upper back to become passive (you can think of them as dead weight, perhaps trying to make them heavier with each exhale).  Once you’ve found that focused relaxation take your attention to your feet.  Staying as relaxed in the upper body as you can try shifting your weight to the front of your feet trying to lift your heels.  Then shift your weight back towards the heels lifting the toes.  If you do this while prioritizing the passive state of your upper body, head and neck the range of motion in the feet may be very small.  Eventually, the more you practice and the less unfamiliar this movement is the bigger your range of motion may become without tensing up your upper back, neck and head (and face, and tongue, and mouth, and nostrils, etc…)

  • Learn to execute and sustain trunk rotation without relying on your arms while in a twist.

In many poses like Utkatasana (chair pose) or a high lunge when a student adds a twist it might be helpful to focus on the trunk.  But often what happens is that the arms are inadvertently used to brace against the outside of a knee and then one leverages force from arm and shoulder muscles, as opposed to abdominal muscles. Try starting out in a pose that is a little less challenging to practice achieving and maintaining trunk rotation without using your arms.  Start in Virabhadrasana II. Keep the arms loose at your sides.  Take it slow!  Resist the urge to use them as you begin to turn from the pelvis up.  You may try allowing the back foot to turn with you, so that the pelvis finds the ability to assist with the turn.  Also, use the breath to help you get into and hold the twist.  Allow the breathing to stay relaxed and anticipate having to find space for the breath in places that may seem unfamiliar, as when you are twisting in this context, the organs and muscles of the abdominal cavity will be compressed.  Which can make it hard for the diaphragm to move as freely as when you are not twisting.

Once you’ve achieved the trunk rotation you can comfortably (and safely) maintain then try taking the hands together and hinging at the hips to perform a full twisted side lunge or even twisted chair.  It’s a challenge to not immediately use the elbow on the leg to take over the efforts of your trunk rotation.

Is Your Yoga Practice Hurting Your Neck?

Yes, it’s true.  Yoga could be hurting your neck.  Well, no…But the way you are doing yoga could be making your stiff neck worse.  Allow us to explain.

In many instances when someone complains about a “stiff” neck or “tight” shoulders muscles in both areas (neck and shoulders) it can feel like one solid rock of tension.  And, we hear, that no matter how much people try to relax that area, “stretch” it or “roll the shoulders down” there is no relief.  Ugh! That is frustrating.  But none of these methods works, because none of them is getting to the root of the issue.  Often, when someone feels like their neck and shoulders (sometimes entire upper back) is a tense rock it might behoove them to explore movement that reestablishes individual articulation  to those knotted up and tensed up parts.If this alone does not work, and something won’t seem to move, usually establishing stability in the proximal joint is the solution. In other words, rehab those parts in such a way that shoulder blades can move independently, that the thoracic spine find movement and that the neck be able to move without it dragging the flesh and fascia of the shoulders with it.

Unfortunately, a typical yoga practice can make this problem worse.  Often, an asana will involve  outstretched arms.  This in and of itself is not bad, but if you are not approaching this practice mindfully, the weight of the arms can be difficult to maintain without negatively stressing out already strained muscles of the neck and upper back, which may be too weak.  Let’s break it down.

Virabhadrasana 3 (Warrior 3) is an asana that demonstrates just what we we’ve been describing in a really obvious way.  It’s an extremely challenging posture balance wise.  In its fullest execution one is standing on one leg with the upper body and other leg extended parallel to the floor.  Well, that’s tough, but then try adding the arms extending over head, further adding to the balance difficulty, but also loading the upper back with the full weight of the arms (especially if you aren’t strong enough to extend your thoracic spine, which is really tough in that relationship to gravity!).  If you can’t get a healthy range of thoracic extension in the spine while balanced on that one leg then you are sure to fall back into a posture with a rounded upper back that can’t support the weight of the arms and this will add to further strain on the neck.

Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon) is another balance posture with the arms extended. In this asana one is directed to look up towards the top hand while the arms are fully extended.  Balancing, in any posture, can be difficult (depending on the individual’s level of comfort with balancing), but then add the direction of your drishti (gaze) up towards the top hand and that adds to the overall stress. Stress is not bad, btw. This presents an excellent opportunity to help figure out how to stay connected to the breath and relax instead of creating more tension.  But if you aren’t mindful of that process and insist on making a shape with your body without awareness then you can count on making those stiff parts stiffer. This also applies to triangle pose, or any pose where you have to look up against gravity. Both of these poses require a significant amount of trunk rotation that most people don’t have and so most people will compensate for the lack of trunk rotation by cranking their heads around to make the shape or because that is what the teacher tells them to do. Again, not bad, and can actually relieve the neck in some instances, but most people who claim to want to relax their necks, are definitely NOT doing it by cranking their heads around for these poses!

Trikonasana (Triangle) and Parivrtta Trikonasana (Twisted Triangle) may not seem as extreme as a one-legged balance asana, but if one is not careful the arms can take over more than might be helpful.  In Trikonasana the arms are outstretched and one is directed to take the gaze to the top hand.  Just like in Ardha Chandrasana this can bring up its own issues.  But also, the arm that is extended towards the floor can inadvertently take the weight of the upper body whether touching the floor or braced against the front leg.  This usually means propping through the joints (fingers, wrist, elbow and shoulder), which can eliminate much of the work in the muscles needed to create the shape without creating unnecessary tension in the arms, shoulders and neck.  The twisted version of triangle can present even more opportunity for overuse of the arms if they try to brace one in the twist.  It may be of more benefit to someone who’s dealing with tight neck and shoulders to learn how to execute this twist from the trunk and legs and sustain it without having to rely on the arms torquing the trunk into rotation (if this pose is safe for you try it and see how well you can move into the pose with loose “noodle” arms and with the gaze directed towards the front foot).

Any asana can be explored in a variety of ways, particularly depending from where one initiates movement.  The experience of the asana can change when you switch which structures are mobile and which are supportive. Our next post will have suggestions for how to conduct this exploration and how to modify your practice to reduce the chances of nasty neck tension build up.

Bad Yoga Tip #11: Be Super Careful with Yourself

Always be gentle with your body.  Respect its boundaries.   Don’t push.

These are generally good rules to listen to when challenging yourself physically and trying to avoid injury, especially when learning a new activity.  But if one uses this kind of thinking to dictate how she should treat the body in all situations it can actually be counterproductive to health and well being. Stress (of all kinds) can actually be beneficial (and arguably necessary) for the body.  Our entire lives as mobile human beings is to actively engage with the oppressive and compressive forces of gravity and other natural forces.  For everyday activities from locomotion, to breathing we must combat and even use those gravitational forces to assist us in living healthy lives. Make no mistake. It is by intelligently dealing with stressful elements that we can strengthen all aspects of our physical bodies (and mental/emotional. duh.).  Knowing when to back off is a necessary skill, but don’t think you need to always use kid-gloves…

Here are examples of this behavior that we find significantly detrimental:

  • It is assumed that you need more props in your yoga practice as you age.  That’s a bit presumptuous.  Age, in and of itself, is not always a direct indicator of “level of ability” in a yoga class.  Yoga Journal recently had an entire spread about how to keep your yoga practice as you age and YJ suggested adding more props.  Wouldn’t one think that as we age it is more important to be confident in our bodies, knowing how to securely traverse space around us?  Stability is key for all of us.  In particular, stability can save us from a nasty fall, which can be harder to recover from as we age (falls are the leading cause of death in people over 65, you can look at the stats here http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/falls/adultfalls.html) .  If the idea is to use yoga to keep bones strong and improve stability, then lets create a practice that allows people of all ages to challenge themselves and encourage them (safely) to better manage themselves and their bodies without the fear of, “If I don’t have a wall or a prop I can’t do this, because I’m older.”  Perhaps props will be needed (as with anyone of any age) if the practice is new, but the eventual goal is to be able to manage your body without assistance, no matter what your age.
  • “Be careful with your back.” We hear from clients ALL THE TIME how they are careful performing movements that can “hurt their backs,” even though they do not currently experience back pain.  This often includes twisting (trunk rotation) and extension in the lower back. With the exception of people who actually do have back pain and/or were diagnosed with a condition (which is a VERY GOOD reason to actually be careful with your back), we find that a lot of people seem to have rumor-driven back anxiety. What’s interesting with this kind of spinal-anxiety is that if you pursue a line of questioning to zero in on his or her concerns, there is no real reason.  We hear, “I’ve heard that too much lumbar curve isn’t good”; “I don’t want to twist and possibly create a bulging disc”;  “Sometimes my back is sensitive, so I treat it tenderly.” It seems the fear of future back pain can create a hyper-awareness of any kind of sensation, painful or not.  This lack of discrimination leads to making choices about movement that are misinformed and can lead to neurotic, self-imposed limitations.  Try googling about back pain and getting out of bed (then try googling what Dr. Sarno has to say about bulging discs and back pain).  There are many, many articles advising people about how to get out of bed!  Some of these articles are written by doctors and physical therapists who would warn you to avoid twisting as much as possible when getting up.  Or even doing stretches before getting up.  If you can’t get out of bed without fear of hurting yourself, then don’t bother getting out of bed that day. Seriously… It’s not wrong to take special care of yourself especially if you have just suffered an acute injury.  But wouldn’t it be more helpful to assist a person to finding mobility that feels good and healthy that removes anxiety over the simplest of acts?  If you’re obsessing about how to properly get out of bed to avoid injury, then you should be equally as concerned with walking, carrying anything, eating, sneezing or going to the bathroom (which can actually cause a lot of internal pressure changes on the spine.)  Unless there are specific structural issues, getting out of bed, bending over to pick up your child or doing many other everyday tasks should be a gift that you should be able to take for granted.
  • “I don’t EVER jump or run, because it stresses my joints unnecessarily.”  Your body and joints are built to withstand a good amount of impact and stress in moderation.  But as with everything it is about how you perform any activity (how much load, how frequently and more importantly how you are using your body to do it).  Running and jumping are activities that have allowed our species to survive (Oh no, I can’t get away from this hungry lion for fear that I might hurt my joints… can you imagine?).  The structure of our feet and legs tells the story of our running and jumping ancestry (yes, we know short vs long distance is still being debated BUT, it can be agreed that we did run at one point or at least we sprinted!).  We agree that running and jumping with improper shoes on flat, hard or paved surfaces with feet that no longer fully-function because of being used to hard-soled shoes will inevitably cause problems.  However, it’s 2013… there are plenty of ways to get around this and plenty of people who can help train you to do these things properly. We are not saying that everyone has to run and jump. If you don’t want to, then don’t do it (hope you never get chased by a lion…). But don’t stop yourself because you are afraid that those things are bad for you.  What happens when you trip and fall?  What if that fall is the first real hard impact your body has to deal with?  Chances are, since it’s not used to handling those kind of intense physical vectors of force that travel through the body upon impact, it may not cope well (and we are not even getting into what the brain does and reflexes, etc).  People practice these things on the regular have better chances of falling and getting back up without much drama (obviously too much practice is not good either).  Also, jumping is great for moving lymph in the body and keeping bones healthy. So, don’t fear impact.  Engage with it intelligently and use it to your benefit.
  • “Organs are delicate”… Some people are afraid to get in touch with their organs figuratively and literally.  For some  it can be just plain gross, which is understandable (unless you are Kim, in which case she will just call you a pansy), but is an attitude that should be changed.  Bodies are visceral experiences (puns!) and allowing yourself to be familiar with what’s going on inside of yourself can bring up emotions, but the process is completely worth it.  Your body is your house and it is YOUR responsibility to take care of it.  Get to know what is going on.  Aside from that some people may advocate that we should use extreme caution when dealing with organs and that too much movement or touch can be hazardous to their well being…  Do understand that we REGULARLY put stress on our organs already by being alive (have you ever breathed or eaten anything or went to the bathroom?).  We sometimes bump into people or walls and this  jostles our insides.  Some of us are stomach sleepers with no fear of rupturing intestines.  Ever fall asleep on something like a remote control or pen?  Did you die?  Probably not.  In fact, they probably accommodated for that intrusion.  You might be a little sore upon waking up, but everything was intact. Reject the idea that your insides are super delicate. If they were delicate, we would probably not be designed skeletally with a big GAPING HOLE exposing our most delicate features… that would just be dumb… Your organs can provide immense support for the arrangement of the musculoskeletal system.  Remember this post? If you could watch a video of what was going on inside your body even while you are just sitting on the couch watching the Housewives of Beverly Hills (Yes, Melissa loves Bravo TV.  AND?!)  you would be amazed at how much movement you would observe (you might even stop watching Bravo, because your organs are way more interesting!).  Embrace their strength and rest assured that so much of your personal durability is because of your organs’ strength.

There are so many ways in which we try to control our life experiences in order to avoid pain and create safety.  We can create this control through fear or anxiety and limit the physical experiences in our bodies to ensure that we are not stressed.  The problem with this is 2-fold.
1)  You will inevitably have your safety bubble popped, because we live in a world full of stressors.  Relationships, environment, illness…You will be under prepared for handling them well when confronted.
2)  This fearful behavior will negatively color much of your attitudes towards movement.  You will limit and inhibit yourself, which can lead to many physical issues.  The body is a machine that needs movement (challenging movement) to remain healthy and capable.  You start to communicate fear to the body and allow that to manifest as physical anxiety and you’ve created a perfect storm for all the problems you’d like to avoid.  In other words, don’t wait until you are being chased by a lion to learn how to move… you’ll get eaten.

Remedy the fears.  Get rational.  Educate yourself.  Train so that you can be functional in an often dysfunctional world. Know what your body truly is and isn’t capable of and then you can start making the kind of decisions that will keep you healthy and happy.

The Pain of Changing Negative Patterns and Experiences

Doing good for yourself hurts.  We’re talking specifically about the discomfort involved with undoing bad habits and changing patterns of behavior for the better.  This kind of pain is familiar to those of us with a conscious movement practice like yoga, pilates or dance.  When the goal is to have focus, be aware of the processes of what’s going on in the body and change “bad” habits for better ones (Note: What is “bad” and what is “good” changes depending on the situation and individual.  That’s another post) one is bound to confront feelings of frustrations and a myriad of unpleasant physical sensations.

Sounds like it sucks, right? This is one reason why we lose motivation so easily to continue to make good changes, live better/more conscious lives, stick to New Year’s resolutions….
So why do something that hurts or feels bad?  If you’re clear on your intentions and what your goals are then you can learn to use these sensations as indicators for how the process is going.  A great example is avoidance behavior.  Sometimes our instinct to avoid pain can keep us stuck in a rut.  We can only change for the better if we are willing to look at and sit with whatever it is we need to change and move past.  This process is the same for the emotional over-eater, the alcoholic driven to numb emotional pain, the one who is okay with limping and favoring one leg in hopes that an injury will eventually sort itself out, one who doesn’t like the way “certain movements” feel and will instead accept other physical limitations, and so on…

Mel (and many others) can easily relate to this difficult process when she battles depression.  Mel has a history of clinical depression throughout college. It was during that time that she learned how to mitigate much of the physical and emotional ramifications of coping with the sense of inertia and anxiety that can characterize depression for some.  (We will not be discussing the chemical imbalances in the brain often responsible for the biochemical causes of Depression.  It’s too complicated a subject for this post, although, much of what is discussed here can be applied to the neuroscience.  For the sake of keeping this not novel-length we’re skipping it).  The physical sense of heaviness and the emotional feeling of hopelessness was often so overwhelming. But Mel noticed that physical activity was often helpful and in fact could even prevent an oncoming cycle. Much of this awareness has come from a deep yoga practice (see, yoga CAN help you!). She noticed when an episode, which can last many weeks, started to rear its ugly head and forced herself into activity.  Depression, once it has its sticky, dark grip on a person can feel impossible to shake and if nothing is done can get progressively worse as time passes.  Winter was always a particularly hard time, but Mel realized that once the gloomy feelings began to creep up that she had to act fast if there was any hope of mitigating the negative experience and maybe even shake it off completely.

Mel shares: “It took a lot of discipline.  The second I could identify what was going as something beyond the normal stress we all experience in college I knew I had to act fast.  I didn’t want to.  I didn’t always like it.  But I had seen the other side of letting the depression take over and knew how much worse it could get.  I spoke to therapists and had other coping methods in place, but physical activity was key FOR ME.  So I would force myself to run, walk or crawl.  Sometimes it really felt like all I could do was crawl!  But I did it.  It felt fighting for my life; it was so painful.  Despite that, I knew in those moments that I was taking control while I still had it in me to do.  I knew I was changing my chemistry, my outlook and my entire sense of feeling victimized.  Through movement, of any kind, I found power.  Even now, although my depression is nowhere near as bad, I can feel when emotions are starting to overwhelm me.  One of the things I force myself to do is workout as hard as I can.”

This pretty looking shit takes hard work.

As you know, we believe that there are (at least) 3 bodies:  the physical, the emotional and the mental.  They are inextricably connected; in fact are 1.  Whatever is going on in one will affect the others.  Mel continues, “Sometimes it’s weights, it’s plyo or it’s yoga.  But I get moving and it’s in those moments when emotionally I don’t want to move that I know I HAVE TO.”  That’s a moment when one uses the sensations as indicators for change.  “As long as I know I’m not damaging my physical body, the more I don’t want to do it the harder I work myself.  There have been moments when one more burpee makes me feel like crying.  Not because of the physical demand.  I could be working well below my endurance level.  But it’s the fight to shift my energies that hurts so much.  Trust me; I’ve cried through the burpees.  It’s at the apex of that pain that I’m aware that in this moment I make a change for the better.  Often, after pushing past the discomfort there is a sense of relief, accomplishment and the black cloud starts to lift.  It’s an incredibly difficult, but worthy undertaking.  There are many who will know what I’m talking about.”

The above process shows what it is to use awareness of all 3 bodies and gather valuable information.  Taking the signals out of the “good” or “bad” categories can be helfpul.  For instance, one may feel the sensations of despair in the body as pain and think, “Oh no.  I can’t move.  It’ll hurt too much and maybe damage myself.”  This is an example of the emotional body dominating the physical and mental bodies in an unhealthy imbalance (this language may not sound familiar compared to previous posts, but this is the same thing as saying that this is an example of the limbic system overriding the pre-frontal cortex in regards to choices for body movement).  It’s precisely in that moment when an individual can shift energies and strike a balance again.  One can take the opportunity to change how the physical body responds to difficult emotions.  We’ve discussed this before in other posts about confronting fear or difficult relationships.  The more control and awareness you have over the complex system of the human experience as expressed on these 3 levels the better the chances you have at making good choices…even when it hurts.

The concept of using physical movement or exercise is not new, particularly in this therapeutic context.  There are many teachers, therapists and scientific studies that speak about the benefits.  Take a look at Movement Efficiency Training, which incorporates emotional states to optimize movement ability.  You can take a look at this line of studies about exercise and depression along with several studies from Harvard, which try to be as exhaustive with variables, causation and validity as possible.

You Might Not Be Strong Enough to Hang Out with These “Old People”

These senior citizens kick serious ass!  They are all over the age of 70 and have hard-core weight lifting practices.  Again just when you think you can’t do something – for any reason – just take a look at these people.

Ernestine Shepherd, 75 years old and teaching others how to live better lives.

Charles Eugster, 91 years of age didn’t start till he turned 80!  Click here to read his full story.

This grandmother,  Wanja Sjödin from Sweden, can do 55 push ups before needing to take a break.  How do you compare?  (Thanks to our friend Brian at tabataexercise.com for sharing the awesome video.  You can go there for awesome tabata video workouts too!)

The point is:  YOU ARE NEVER TOO OLD TO START SOMEWHERE AND IMPROVE YOUR HEALTH!  How have you moved today?

Get to Now Movements Afoot

Readers!  We want you to know about all the cool movement resources that exist out there for you.  Movements Afoot has a particular in with the Pilates crowd as it is known as a “pilates wellness center.” Also, the fact that one of our favorite movement educators, Amy Matthews, is a staff member only ups the coolness factor for us.   Lesley Powell, the founder of Movements Afoot, is also Read More

An Inspirational Monday: Don’t Stop Moving!

Here’s a fair amount of inspiration to help you start the week strong.  Mondays can often be characterized by our hesitancy to let go of the weekend and start the rat race.  So whether you’re having a hard time starting the week off with excitement or even having a hard time getting into your movement practice here’s what you need to get started.  We have really awesome friends on facebook, so if you want to keep seeing cool videos that they post then you should “like” us and then “like” them.  That being said, Enjoy!

The first video comes from Elephant Journal, which is full of awesome yoga-related news, environmental news and social commentary.  Fun!  This man’s story is an incredible testament to the power of faith and perseverance.  Warning: You Will Cry!

This second video shares the importance of play for the body, mind and spirit.  Again, this man’s attitude about having fun on a daily basis proves that this is the way to total health and well being.  Watch and learn; he’s pretty much a genius.

Find more inspiring video, audio, and images at Growing Bolder.

What’s My Prognosis?

A lot of the clients that we see here at SMARTer Bodies come to us, because of an injury. Most of them have been to the doctor and some to physical therapy (unless that is what they are here for, alternatively), but are still seeking a more thorough recovery. One of the first questions we get asked is, “How long will it take to be back to normal?” or “Will I ever regain full function?” The honest answer to those questions is that… it is entirely up to YOU. Read More