Archive for body

Effective Exercise

Strong Mind and Body

Do we get the best results from our exercise selections?  How do we select which exercise to perform?  Besides matching the proper exercise for the problem we have, what else is important?

Is being effective due to:

  • The proper selection of the correct exercise?  or
  • How we do that exercise/movement?

Effective Exercise

First we must congratulate ourselves because we are doing exercises.  Next we have usually identified some reason for putting down the remote and/or getting out of bed.  Now let’s move quickly on to someone who wants to perform their particular task or skilled movement better.  It could be that they want to jump higher, cut quicker on the field, get into better shape/condition or simple perform a yoga posture that is particularly challenging.  Let’s take the latter case to illustrate several of these points on how to effectively exercise.  (We are expanding the definition of exercise and bending the definition of yoga asana here to make some points, knowing that the purists may start off disagreeing too early here)

Yoga Asana–Chakrasana

This is not a complete description of how to do Chakrasana.  We are using this posture/asana as an example of some one who wishes to do an exercise or asana effectively.  (This example could be extrapolated into many of the “corrective exercises” being given and performed today.

Let’s start with looking at a typical example of someone wanting to be more flexible.  They have taken up Yoga asanas in a class.  At some point the teacher has progressed to this pose called Chakrasana or wheel.  It is fairly vigorous for many, as can be seen by the picture above.  Again this could be an example of someone wanting to jump higher and get stronger in their legs who at some point starts doing one leg squats.  It really doesn’t matter the movement activity by itself.  It is again looking at how to exercise effectively.

Truly in exercise/movements it would be best if we knew ourselves well.  (Know thyself–OK, end of philosophy).

  • Where do we move well–actually where and in which directions do we have ease and dis-ease
  • What movements are strong/stable/powerful and have endurance (both in mobility and in stability)
  • Which tasks and/or skills do we prefer and which ones do we stay away from
  • Do we move smoothly and in a coordinated fashion
  • Do we breathe or frequently hold the breath with frequent efforting
  • Can we stay focused and pleasant in our mind or just the opposite

These are just some of the aspects or questions to ask in order to get to know HOW we move and therefore better know ourselves.  Knowing ourselves better will allow us to move better.  We can take full advantage then of the exercises or movements being selected.

Maybe Chakrasana (or single leg squats) are not the best exercise at the moment.  Maybe the way in which we do them is not allowing the benefits of those movements to create the tremendous results that await us.

Where (location and direction) and how do we move well (and where/how we don’t)

We need to look at large patterns of movement.  We want to see and feel how the body moves in all directions from the major areas of the body while performing a variety of movement patterns/tasks/skills.

  • Bending and reaching
  • Twisting
  • Pushing and pulling
  • Squatting and kneeling
  • Rolling and crawling
  • Sitting and standing
  • Walking, running, hopping and jumping

Where in the body do we move a lot and where are we stiffer.  Often this inquiry stops here.  It is insufficient.  The shoulders may be tight in lifting them above our head but have a lot of movement in the opposite direction.  Especially important is to notice difference from side to side and up to down.  Maybe our hips are able to extend (backward bend) well but our shoulders cannot open in that same direction.  Maybe one shoulder does more opening that the other–do you see that in Chakrasana then you would create a rotation of the trunk.

Look at the picture again and you see that the hips are opening well in backward bending.  The lower back spine is bending a lot.  The rib spine or thoracic spine is not backward bending at all in the mid to upper back.  The shoulders are also tight in this same direction.

Isn’t it interesting to note that this person is doing the general direction of this Wheel pose.  It is just HOW they are doing it that is of note here.  Therefore they will be over using hips and low back (and neck) and under using shoulders and mid-upper back (and wrists).

What if we knew where we moved and didn’t.  This might totally change what we do and how we do it.  Of course the results would be vastly different.  Our learning then and what we pay attention to would be expanded.  The changes across many different systems could be facilitated (musculoskeletal, fascial, nervous system, respiratory, immune, etc)

What movements are strong/stable/powerful

Again looking at this picture, we can ask several questions.  I know it would be better if we actually had a video.  Then truly we could appreciate the movement qualities better.  This picture and discussion will at least highlight the points of this article.

Looking at the two ends of this Wheel pose–which end, the leg or arm end, looks most stable?  You can see how the weight of the body is carried behind the arms.  Are the shoulders weak or only stiff?  or both?  Address whatever is involved with a more appropriate regression of this pose first.  Identify weakness and lack of stability of the shoulder complex with the arm above the shoulder level.  There are many ways of doing these tests/movement regressions.  We will not go into that detail here.

Looking at the middle of the body and seeing how the front of the lower back (the belly) over lengthens.  The lower back  over shortens.  How much of this over extension of the low back is a mobility problem of the thoracic spine in extension?  (or/and does it involve lack of stabilization of the anterior belly region.)

First you would have to decrease the challenge of this activity.  Take them out of trying to do this asana.  Place them on the floor and have them roll from belly to back with only the arms and head.  Do they activate their belly enough to transmit the rolling through the trunk from the arms.  Could their shoulders and thoracic spine be so stiff as to even impede this movement. Further investigation would be warranted.  This again is just to highlight a perspective of looking and asking questions.

By looking at more of these larger movement patterns, it will become clearer.

Which tasks and/or skills do we prefer and which ones do we stay away from

I wonder if this person loves to do backward bending movements where the shoulders are not flexed near their end ranges (that is over head position, above shoulder level).  So let’s make up a scenario that I see frequently in the clinic.  They would do  easily cobra or lying on their stomachs with arms by their sides.  Even Camel pose (tall kneeling and bending backwards to place hands on heels) would be available.  Any superman type position or boat pose would be done with substitution and difficulty.  They would never practice hand stand as it is too tiring.

If this lack of using the extremities over the head (in Chakrasana) causes such stress, then it may need to be regressed or made easier.

This easier movement may allow the proper awareness and adjustments to overusing and underusing that is being outlined here.

Do we move smoothly and in a coordinated fashion

This examination of coordination and agility reinforces many of the above observations.  Again whatever we move well and strongly, those are things we do.  We always use what we have even when trying to do something else.

Let me digress from this example to talk more of our preferences and avoidance’s in general movement.  We use the same patterns of movements and habits even in opposite directions.  It is not unusual to see someone who is trying to sit on the floor and has a lot of left knee pain (for example–in a cross leg, sukhasana pose).  Sometimes in looking at them you see their weight shifted to their left hip, although they are leaning a bit to their right.  You find they are in right sidebending of their trunk.  When you ask them to sit on a chair and turn right and left they still have most of their weight on their left sit bone.  In other words they do their movements of rotation and still maintain their right side bending of their trunk.  Their coordination remains dysfunctional even though you would give them a movement to change it.

This latter dysfunction a very important point to discover.  Our movement habits often remain and don’t change just because we are doing some corrective asana or exercise.  The WAY we move becomes also very important.

Do we breathe or frequently hold the breath

OK, breathing is so important.  It is a barometer of our mind and nervous system.  Sure at the beginning one may fine this breath rhythm disturbed.  The habitual and repetitive nature of an interrupted breath is very detrimental to our learning and proper response to the exercise.  A jerky breath relates to a jerky focus of the mind and all the other negative effects in all systems.

Try moving only so far as the breath can flow well.  This does not mean that you can’t cause strain.  That is ridiculous.  As one continues to do repetitions or hold the pose, the breath should be noted to start to flow well.  Otherwise there is not practice.  One is just violently stimulating the system.  Of course you have some changes even with the breath always being strained.  This abnormal breath rhythm though is very limiting and over the long term is detrimental to health and well being.

Can we stay focused and pleasant in our mind

Alright, take off the music headphones.  Pay attention to what you are doing and what you are feeling.  A good barometer like the breath is to ask whether you are pleasant in your mind.  GEEZ, you mean we have to be smiling all the time.  OK, less drama here.  Just note what happens to your overall sense of tensing and effort when you notice that your mind is not pleasant.  Whenever I ask this question in class or to individuals, I never fail to see an easing of tension, even a  : o )

Also when the mind is more pleasant–often you will notice an ease in the movements.  Try it just like you would try breathing with more awareness and ease.

Whew

So now when you exercise, you can ask more questions.  Effective exercise is creating the proper effect you want and/or that is available in the stimulation of the movement done well.  Effective exercise involves BOTH the selection of the right exercise the proper way of moving–

  • The Body
  • The Breath
  • The Mind

So before and during your next exercise session, take time to pay attention.  Use the movements to create opportunities to sense and breath.  Train hard up to your capacities.  To know your capacities, you must practice a lot.  You would benefit by coaching or skilled guidance.  Try using these principles–pick one, like having a pleasant mind.  Then go find a skilled coach/teacher and get some quality feedback.

Best of luck in your effective exercise.

Feel free to comment or contact me directly for a consultation.

Centering Ones Self

Centering-Centrate-Centralize

In posture and activity, stabilizing and or moving from and into a center point can be great feedback.  You start noticing what is your attitude of your body, breath/prana, and your mind.  Where do you stand or sit from?  Where do you move from and into in your life?  What are the effects of the postures we take–both physically and mentally?  How could we organize our postures of our body, breath/energy and our mind?

It is this latter question we wish to speak of at this time.  The other ones are of great interest also and we will allude to them as well.

Coming to this center means finding a balance point within these three systems of the:

  • Body System
  • Breath or Pranic or Energy System
  • Mind System

Body System

Let’s look at posture.  Sitting posture is one place to start.  Sitting for meditation is a great place to start.  To sit well can be a lifetime endeavor.  As you will see or know, all these systems (body, breath and mind) relate closely to each other.  So only for convenience are we separating them out here.

Sit with the head neck and trunk straight.  This is a popular guideline in meditation.  On this site there is an outline (here) for how to arrange the body to sit.  We will not go through that detail but add some other points and emphasize some previous points.

Center All Spinal Junctions

  1. Where the head meets the top of the neck (O-A joint)
  2. Where the bottom of the neck meets the upper back (Cervico-thoracic joint)
  3. Where the bottom of the rib spine meets the top of the low back spine (thoraco-lumbar joint)
  4. Where the bottom of the low back spine meets the sacrum or pelvis (lumbo-sacral joint)

Let’s pick one of the above areas to talk about a bit more.  The thoraco-lumbar joint on many people who try to sit erect or even stand erect is often not placed in the center of its excursion/range. or of it’s tone.  Often I see many people place this area in to much extension.  That means we are leaning backwards too much from this area.  Leaning backwards is part of not leaning forwards.  It is just that this T/L junction placed into too much backward or extension movement.

To understand or appreciate this over extension of the T/L junction we need to see this over effort as a compensation.  It is usually in part taking place in the adjacent areas above and or below.  That means the rib spine or Thoracic spine is too forward or flexed.  The same can be true of the waist spine or lumbar spine (it can be too forward or flexed).

The effort at straightening up in sitting  in this example is just taking some common postural dysfunctions in order to elucidate the issue of centrating the junctional areas of the spine.

This over extended T/L junction causes tension and impedes normal tonic flow of information both grossly and subtly.  This means it is crimping this area like you would crimp a garden hose–it interrupts the flow along the spine.  (whether we talk about a facilitated/inhibited vertebral segment or talk about impeding pranic flow–in principal they are coming from the same problem–postural imbalance of not centering properly)

How to center at the T/L junction

Easiest way to come to center is to first explore the two ends.  So sitting like the above is moving the T/L too far forward–flexing too much and relaxing or over stretching the posterior elements, tsk, tsk.  You are trying to arrive at something in between after you literally flex and extend this area.  You can see that extending at the T/L junction allows one to nicely lift the chest.  If the thoracic spine is stiff and bent a bit forward in flexion, then lifting the chest at this area is a compensation for a problem above. (a dysfunctional compensation for many)

So as you explore moving in flexion and extension at the T/L, make the movement excursion smaller and smaller.  Find this in-between place.  Check the lower ribs that meet the belly to see that they are not lifting nor depressing.  The erecting of the trunk comes from the anterior rotation of the pelvis and less activity of the  lumbar lordosis than many perform.  The centering of the T/L junction is supported by activation of the belly.  The front lower ribs and the front of the pelvis maintain the upper trunk from leaning backward at this junction.

The belly is not rock hard.  Proper diaphragmatic breathing continues and is a check that the belly tone is just right.  If you are breathing only in the belly like an infant, then you are not breathing efficiently.  (Belly breathing is a good first start vs chest breathing.  It is only a starting point, not an end point.  Get instruction if needed.)  Breathing now should be felt more three dimensional.  The belly in proper tone that helps centrate the T/L junction, allows the breath on inhalation to expand laterally and slightly posteriorly.

This centrating or centering the T/L junction often places people with a forward head posture in an exaggeration of their postural dysfunction/problem.  Also many people with a forward head over extend the T/L junction as their compensation.  Then when they try to correct the forward head they over lengthen their O-A junction, by incorrectly doing the turtle movement or head retraction to stand tall.  (isolated cueing without respecting the pattern of compensations is a recipe for failure and adding tensions in order to be correct, which in this case is incorrect.)

Weight of the body is placed through or slightly anterior of the hip joint axis

Most people sit straight with the too much activity of their muscles along the spine, the paraspinals.  First let the weight go through the pelvis with a properly rotated pelvis (slightly forward) and ones normal lumbar lordosis (similar to in standing).  Allow the hip joint to be flexed while the lumbars are in their normal lordosis.  The sacrum is also anteriorly nutated.  (meaning that the lower lumbar spinal segments are supported in extension because the base of the sacrum, the top, is slightly forward.)   This hip position will automatically activate the hip extensors, slightly.   Also the hip flexors are involved in stabilizing the spine.  There is a symphony of balancing activities going on here.   Some of which we have a better idea than of others.  (probably there is more to say and these things said will be revised over time.)  Here the hip extensors are acting eccentrically in a tonic fashion.  (meaning that you are not extending the hip per se but you are using these muscles to control flexion–eccentrics are lengthening contractions, like when you do a push up and lower your body your elbow extensors are controlling the elbow flexion activity vs extending the elbow at that time.)

Breath, Energy or Pranic System

In Yoga the Pranic System is more familiar.  It is often misunderstood.  The breath is on a continuum.  There is gross breath that everyone knows.  Then there is subtle breath.  We now get into “weird” territory for many.  One thing to think about is if you have a dead body and try to just push air into it there is no effect for life.  It does move the chest up and down, but that seems to be it.  There is a life that is carried by the breath, that yoga speaks to as the prana.  Other systems talk about the chi.  What ever you call it the Yogis have spent a long time (thousands of years) in refining and teaching it.

One starts with the breath and establishing diaphragmatic breathing.  There will be a separate post on this later.

There are junctions in the pranic system, just like there are junctions in the physical system.  (imagine that)  These junctions are described with the terms of chakras and marma points.  (as well as other designations)   Just think of them as meeting places of energies of a more subtle nature.  (meaning of subtle here is just a descriptor of less easily noticed, that’s all)

Bandhas and Mudras

In yoga, one way we learn more about the pranic system is through practices of the Bandhas and Mudras.  They are simply a way of channeling these energies.  They have strong effects on the neurological system.  A common Bandha is Moola Bandha.  At the gross level it is tensing of the anal and pelvic sphincters.  It is interesting to note that more and more people are utilizing the pelvic floor activity in functional movement training and diagnostics.  It is a area that is included in describing musculoskeletal coordination in ontogenesis of children or child development.

This means that proper stabilization of various movement patterns have this activity of the pelvic floor being recognized now in mainstream function.  Well the yogis have refined it to a great detail.  I don’t say I understand it completely in that way.  It is just an experience which I wish to share.

When sitting for meditation we will activate this Moola Bandha.  Also the Khechari Mudra (tongue lock) is utilized.   Another Bandha that is helpful is activation of Uddiyana Bandha (stomach lock).  These bindings/redirecting of energies will not be technically taught here.  There are some erroneous claims and methods of applying them.  I only wish to mention another way of working with them once you have some basic experience with them.

Method of working with Bandhas and Mudras

In order to make ones posture steady and stable–and absolutely still these methods will compliment your postural work of coming to center more deeply.  You will be using these Mudras and Bandhas to align your centers and use these energy centers to align and centralize yourself.

  1. Activate the centers with the traditional practices of learning the above mentioned Mudras and Bandhas
  2. Next subtle activate these same Bandhas and Mudras.  This means that in the first step you grossly contracted the muscles and felt and saw the effects.  This second step is were there is only a slight activation that would be barely noticed.  You practice at this level until you feel it easily.
  3. Next you make it more subtle.  There is no perceived body activation now, there is only the sensation of the area within the mind.  It is as if the mind’s awareness becomes activated in that area, which actually is felt as calmness and great stability there.
  4. Next you will find that these Bandhas and Mudras will seemingly spontaneously activate.   You will experience a deep stillness and sharper focus inward.  The outside focus of sensations and thoughts, etc just subsides.

Mind System

Bring the mind to it’s center.  Easier said than done.  To stabilize the mind and bring it towards it’s center we withdraw it from the outside and bring it inside.

  1. First get your minds attention
  2. Second withdraw the mind from the outside sensory input–we do this by quieting the body through relaxing it.
  3. Use the Breath as described above
  4. Increase ones breath awareness with further refinements
  5. Increase the minds focus with sound like a mantra as replacement for the thoughts that just percolate into our awareness
  6. Then slowly shift to observing even the mind as it watches this breath and sound and thoughts that arise
  7. Slowly expand your capacity to remain in this place of observing the mind’s focus
  8. Slowly as you further deepen this state of observing, you will at times loose the focus of the mind
  9. You will enter into a deeper stillness and silence
  10. This stillness can be expanded all on it’s own
  11. At some point there is just nothing
  12. Not sure what continues as one holds or is held in this later step

I have an inkling that there are connections between many of these levels.  These connections are not linear or incrementally progressive.  You can fall in and out of them in both directions.  That is why slowly training the mind in an incremental way is so important.  Otherwise it’s like a chutes and ladder game then–it’s good sometimes and then no good other times.  This change is a part of the journey.  Is it always?

As they say come to that center and find out.  Also enjoy the comings and goings.  Life certainly can be such a drama.  We can over do it and under do it.  This center can create stability and life which is lived as we are.  Lived both from the inside and outside.  Such fun stuff this life stuff.

OK, now let’s go practice.

3 Observations in Yoga

In yoga class and in physical training, we often advise paying attention, doing it “right”, and make sure you are breathing–“Don’t hold your breath!”  Remember.

We can look at this advise/coaching/key points as 3 essential observations

3 Observations

  • Body
  • Breath
  • Mind

Body

There are many ways to organize the observation of the body.  We could look at it from what is moving or the qualities of the movement, or both.  (There are even more ways of course we will just limit it now)

Try observing the movement of the body from three key areas

  • Shoulder Girdle
  • Trunk/Spine
  • Pelvic Girdle

These areas will help guide your attention and organize your discoveries.  These three places represent keys and key links or relationships.

Breath

Breathing is a key in all activities.  It can be approached from the gross to fairly subtle aspects.  One of the great gifts of yoga is this emphasis on the breath.  Their approach starts at the subtle breath which then organizes the gross breath.  We can more easily start at the gross breath and it’s characteristics first.  The breath is the link between the body and mind.  This is a main point so well described by one of the great Saints of India, Swami Rama of the Himalayas

6 Main Qualities of the breath

  • Nostril vs mouth
  • Diaphragmatic and lower chest vs upper chest
  • Smooth
  • Deep
  • Noiseless
  • Continuous

Mind

So much can be written and has been written on this mind.  Do we mind?  That is the real question–what are we minding.  Observations of the gross mind can be divided into:

  • Sensing mind
  • Thinking mind
  • Pleasant mind

This last observation of the pleasant mind is a question I find missing.  Well not the question as much as the pleasant mindedness.  Whenever I think of this observation, an image of my teacher, Swami Veda comes to mind.  He has spoken so eloquently of this aspect of the mind.   Also he is able to demonstrate it under conditions most of us would never entertain such a pleasant state.

Well–paying attention and what and how we pay attention is key.  Otherwise we will have to pay for not.