Category Archives: body

About the gross body

Reminder about the myo-fascial sytem in the human body

I chanced across this reference, Fascia and Structural Integration with Robert Schleip, who is one of the leader in the expanding understanding of the myo-fascial system in the body, and the video:

Finally, an Australian blog and store that has lots of references to other resources. It all just reminds me that I have some much more to investigate about the mind-body connection.

I also found two resources to deal with yoga injuries: Yoga Injuries and Prevent Yoga Injury, all via the it’s all about yoga, baby blog of Roseanne Harvey. There is a book called The Contraindication Index for Yoga Asanas (TCIYA), which would be helpful to anyone trying to make the most of a yoga practice, avoiding the pitfalls and sharing its gifts with others.

A wrinkle in my evening routine – crunches

In addition to my yin/restorative yoga routine that I do every evening, I’ve added a couple of sets of reverse crunches (started at 15 reps, now up to 25) between my extended stretches. Because I am a professional chair sitter, constantly seated in front of a keyboard and monitor, my lower abdomen gets a minimal workout during the day. If I don’t catch myself, I am constantly leaning back into the back support and rounding my lower spin.  I’ve noticed that my abs have  become progressively weaker, despite my yoga practice.  Most classes don’t include navasana (Boat pose) or similar poses enough to make a difference. When you’re over 60, the tendency is for the gut to start spilling out over the pubic and hip bones. In fact, I probably had lost the ability to contract those muscles fully, which was why it was so hard to reach into forward folds.

It’s an effort to regain contact with the lower chakras, both to energize the supporting muscles and relax them. In order to make a noticeable difference, I need to practice crunches every day. I remember that the Forrest Yoga classes at Thrive a couple of years ago used to include a lot of variations on crunches, and I used to hate them.

Anatomical scepticism

I put in a weekend’s standard dose of yoga (two classes); plus, I managed to turn the torture of watching the Redskins losing to the Lions by rolling out my mat and getting into frog pose for a full quarter [This particular post stayed in my Blackberry for two weeks before I finally published it. That explains the time frame: I’m referring to a game two weeks ago. ]. My hip joints are slowly, gradually opening and frog posture really gets into the most hardened fascia. If I did not know better, I would have said that breaking through this apparent barrier was impossible because I was bumping up against the anatomical limits on my range of movements. It seemed that solid.

The next step is noticing how this slight variance can ripple through the rest of my practice — in lotus pose, in standing postures. I’ve developed a kind of anatomical skepticism: my body feedback says that I can’t get deeply into this or that pose, but that judgment may just the false testimony of being locked in a certain setting for 30 years.

This process is different from just starting yoga or learning a new pose when you’re exploring the postures. No, I’ve tried frog or reclined bada konasana 50, 100 times and my body always wimpers it can’t go any further. But I persist patiently at the edge and the barrier gradually gives way.

Exercise and taking care of my feet

There was some spillover from New Year into today as I could not get to sleep early last night and did not wake up in time for my yoga class. Bummer! So I punished myself by going to the gym and putting in 30 minutes on the stationary bike and 40 minutes on the treadmill, alternating between a brisk walk and jogging. I tried out my new Asics GT-2150 that I had my daughter give me for Christmas. I had been using Brooks Beasts, which are the running shoe with maximum support against pronation, for my running for the past two years, but I wanted to get something that did not get in the way of running. The new shoes are much lighter and fit my feet like gloves so I really enjoy using them. I will have to see how my feet and legs hold up under the renewed challenge of light running. I am not expecting to get back to what I was doing before my knee injury and surgery, but I want the option of jogging and running to supplement my yoga. It will also allow me to back off a bit and take my yoga with more ease and stamina.

On my trip to Miami in late November, a heel spur on my left foot became irritated and inflamed. In fact, I first notice the problem when I was doing savasana (in other words, lying flat on my back), and my legs rolled out and put pressure on my heels. I noticed a shot of pain on the heal and had to avoid putting weight on that spot. It did not bother me after class. But when I went to the airport for my flight to Miami, I wore my Brooks Beasts and those shoes irritated the heel spur even more. By the time I got into the hotel, I was limping from the constant pain. I started taking non-prescription anti-inflammatory drugs and putting ice on the heel and sole when I could. The other lucky break was that for the rest of the week I wore dress shoes that did not allow my heel to move around, and that allowed the inflammation to decline gradually. By the end of the week I no longer had to limp. When I got back to Washington, I decided to see a podiatrist since I could see the little knot on my heel and knew that it could be inflamed again. But the first available appointment was not until December 17 so by the time I got to see him, the worst symptoms had disappeared.

Since I knew that I wanted to get back to running, I asked the podiatrist multiple questions about my feet. First, the heel spur (a calcium deposit at the end of my plantar factia) is not something that will prevent me from running if I keep it from getting inflamed again. Second, I should not fear running because of my knee surgery. Third, my arches had not fallen as badly I thought. Getting fitted with a new pair of running shoes would get ahead of those three points, and he suggested JnR Sports in Rockville. I also learned that I was developing peripheral neuropathy in the sole of my feet. I had noticed some numbness as well as tingling sensations and pin pricks in my feet. This condition can be due to multiple causes — I can immediately rule out some of the more obvious ones, such as diabetes and side effects from certain drugs. The doctor wanted to see how I respond to increased exercise so I’ll be seeing him again this month.

At JnR Sports, I tried on Brook, Saucony and Asics shoes in multiple sizes and support levels, narrowing my choice down to the Asics GT2150. I got them in size 11, double E width, which is the first time that I’ve purchased a wider shoe. I got them in black because I am a bit tired of how most athletic shoes are decked out in swooshes, stripes and logos, in multiple colors and reflective surfaces. I also learned a couple of useful tricks to ensure that the shoes held my heels snugly, thus preventing any rubbing of my heel spur.

A new corporal compact

Following up on my inventory of physical achievements, I want to clarify why that list was important for me. I am negotiating a new contract with my body. When I went through childhood and adolescence, I was laboring under several handicaps about how I perceived myself:

  • Trauma: At the age of six, I had an appendectomy. I had felt a pain in my side for several days, but did not recognize it as a serious symptom. I kept asking my mother for aspirins. I was at school when it worsened substantially. After school was out, I tried to walk home, a mere two blocks, but that distance seemed as if it were two miles. (The sense of distance is still engraved on my mind; when I went back last year, I saw that my sense of dimension had been blown out of proportion.) I did make it home. The crossing guard saw that I was doubled over in pain, and got help. I was rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation because it was close to rupturing. While recovering from the operation, an infection set in and I had to stay another week. I was conscious when the doctors drained the abscess. I remember the putrid color of the pus as it flowed out of my belly and into the metallic pan. This was also my first separation from my mother so it must have been traumatic for me to spend the evenings and nights alone. When I went home, I was hit with several other childhood illnesses, which kept me out of school. I ended up repeating first grade.
  • Wimp: I had allergies that caused asthma and skin rashes. I did not participate in organized sports or engage in fights or quarrels because I feared an almost pre-ordained defeat because my body could not defend me, it would break first.
  • Feet of clay: I had a fungal infection under my toe nails and on my soles. My nails were very disfigured by the time I was a teenager. I did not want to show my feet in public, which meant that I hated going to the beach or the pool. The biblical metaphor of having feet of clay seemed to apply to me. About eight years ago, I saw a dermatologist and had the condition treated. I don’t think I could have started practicing yoga if I had not first cured my skin condition; I would never have taken off my socks.

The unspoken conclusion of these visceral experiences was that I could not trust my body. It was going to fail myself. If tested, it was going to break. What’s more, I could not anticipate when and how it would betray me. So I discounted it; I ignored it; I concentrated my efforts on a mental realm, in a fantasy world that consumed my energies during childhood and then intellectual efforts once I got into junior high and found that I could distinguish myself in the academic world. I did not participate in sports because I could never push myself to the maximum because I misinterpreted the exertion required for sport competition as a warning that my body was near its limit and close to a breakdown.

Those perceptions of my physical body have followed me for 40 years, shaped my self-image and conditioned how I dealt with the physical world.

Over the past four years, I have been moving slowly, gradually and hesitantly towards a new awareness of my body, a prolonged dialog between my body, mind and spirit to reach a new agreement about how all three hang together and establish a different interface with the outside world. I did not even know why yoga and pranayama felt so “right” to me when I started back in early 2004, or why meditation has been so liberating. But I have kept engaged in this new flux and have gradually changed the terms of the partnership. I am reverting to childhood and the primal tasks of walking, running, bending, lifting, extending. I even find myself re-examining something as fundamental as how I take each step, what parts of my foot are employed and when, and how that changes translates up my limbs and changes the way that I carry myself. It’s a much bigger challenge than becoming physically stronger, more flexible, more skillful at moving my body. In a sense, I am taking ownership of my whole body and exercising full dominion over my personal space, rather than being confined to my head. It requires a greater command of sense and awareness. and an extension of my will through my core, out to my fingers and toes — and beyond.

That’s why this physical side of change has taken on so much significance. If I am able to run five miles or push myself into wheel or crow pose, that small achievement means that I can take a childlike joy in possessing my body and its capabilities.

One thing from my weekend practice

I was able to get into Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana) this weekend and then slip into the bind with one arm around my back and the other one under my thigh, grasping my two hands behind my back. It had been one of those poses that seemed not fit me anatomically. My torso seemed too long, my hips too tight to allow me to get my torso down next to my thigh and, then, my shoulders too tight to fit under my leg. Then, I could not rotate my lower arm to get it behind my back and then cock up to reach for my other arm. The position requires the shoulders to bow back so that I can reach around my leg. A good example of the pose can be seen at the Asana Index at the bottom of the page.

It all sounds so complicated, but I got it yesterday and repeated again it tonight at Thrive Yoga. Eighteen months working to loosen up my shoulders, trying to make my shoulder blades touch, and it looks as if it’s finally paying off.

Teaming up on my body

I have diversified my methods to break through my physical limitations. I have been getting massage therapy for about 30 minutes about every three weeks at work. The focus is on my shoulders and upper back. I’ve also returned to my acupuncturist, Kelly Welsh, for treatment of the same areas, plus the hips. I’ve also tried to incorporate little yoga stretches within my work routine. The idea is to apply multiple approaches to dissolve my tight, knotted muscles because I am not going to progress in my practice until I get passed this obstacle.

My first yoga class after my acupuncture session I noticed a difference immediately. I was much looser  and more open in my shoulders and hips, and I felt as if I were using a completely different set of muscles.  The next day, I had an antagonistic reaction: I felt as if I was too loose, as if I were swimming in clothes a couple of sizes too big. I was especially tired after the practice. I also had an emotional resistance to the experience and I had to force myself to focus and move forward. I also resisted writing down my experience. Only now, two weeks later, have I expressed myself here, well after the first impressions have faded.

Shoulder dividends

An unexpected result of my shoulder loosening routines is that my arms seem so much lighter than before. In Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), a pose that seemed to be worse than weightlifting, I can now sustain my arms outstretched with a lot more ease. When doing my bastrika breathwork, my arms rise above my head with less effort and do not get tired. So part of the fatigue issue in doing many of my hatha poses was the resistance that was coming from lack of range and flexibility, not just fighting against gravity.

Shoulder routines

Alan Little asks me for my secret sauce for loosening up my shoulders: see his comments. He even gives his own his own example. My routines are not rocket science, much more remedial. I am still waking up to my body, probably for the first time in my life, after decades of misuse.

The premise that got me started is that I don’t do anything fancy — just do it everyday, along with my meditation and pranayama practice. These are routines that are equivalent to office yoga — stuff that you can do to relieve tension from sitting at a desk all day.

  • The upper torso part of Cow Face pose or Gomukhasana — I have to use a strap to reach between my hands.
  • I do a simple pectoral stretch, usually pressing my arm against the wall, and the reverse that by pulling an arm across my chest.
  • The clasped hands behind the back of prasarita padottanasana (wide-legged standing forward bend). I do this several times a day, loosening my shoulders and forcing my hands down as far as they will go and then lifting my arms out away from my body. This has done wonders for my mobility of my shoulder blades.

I’ve found two good books with shoulder routines: Erich Schiffmann also has eight shoulder stretches, some with a strap, in his book Yoga: The Spirit And Practice Of Moving Into Stillness. I can do only five of them. Miriam Austin in Cool Yoga Tricks has a whole section on loosening up the shoulders.

I still can’t do the top half of Garudasana or Eagle pose. My arms and hands simply will not intertwine.

Postscript: here are some other ideas for office yoga: the University of Alberta has some detailed instruction with drawings in Word format. Easy Desktop Yoga has a free video download. Cyndi Lee gives advice in Yoga Journal. And then you have My Daily Yoga, which has some fun graphics.

News flash — add inches to your reach

I discovered an ingenious way to add (what seems like) two inches to my reach — loosen up my shoulders. I’ve been concentrating on doing some simple routines over the past 2-3 weeks to increase flexibility in my shoulders, and it’s had a ripple effect across my practice and my torso. Suddenly, I find it much easier to reach the floor in forward bends or similar poses. Camel (Ustrasana) becomes easier to get into, rather than blind backward flaying in search of my heels. It also translates into longer flanks, because the farther your shoulders rise, the more your side can stretch.

I also discovered that once your shoulders are loose, it is much easier to move your shoulder blades together and down your back — I can actually feel them float down as I relax. I now realize that although I heard my instructors to manipulate my shoulder blades, I hadn’t the slightest idea of what I was doing.

All this softening means that it’s easier to open my chest more deeply. I start hearing cartilage popping and creaking.

And when I say “discover,” I am speaking facetiously.