Sunday, July 30, 2017

Shoulder health: Simple exercises can help a complex structure.

Anthropologists tell us the body that experiences stress has not changed 
much over the millions of years of being human. Our ancestors had the same 
anatomical and physiological characteristics as we who drive freeways and 
communicate via the information superhighway. We have an ancient body 
subjected to a modern problem: living with chronic stress.

~ Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, P.T.

So here I am about to discuss the complex structure of the shoulder, and I start off this essay with a quote from my favorite teacher about stress. Why is that, or can you already feel physically what I am talking about when I allude to the connection between stress and the tightness of your shoulders? 

If we can easily agree that many carry "the weight of the world on their shoulders" then let us begin this topic with a radical idea: stress is not inherently negative. For example, our muscles need to be stressed (and then time to repair) to become stronger. Weight lifters are counting on stressing their muscles so that they can gain muscle mass in the process.

Okay, so stress isn't inherently bad. Got it. So what?

Ponder this for a moment: In this day and age, what we think can cause us stress.

Why is this important? One, we aren't running from a potential life threatening situation, like a hungry lion, which is great. THAT would be stress inducing! We don't have to forage anymore nor worry if we will have meat for dinner. Our hunter-gatherer days are over for at least first-worlders. Our obstacles and stress are less movement oriented and more about what we think. I am sure you could easily list at least 5 things that you think about daily that cause you stress.

If the stress in our bodies is caused mainly by what we think, then what should we do about it?

Great question: There are no easy answers, of course. My suggestion to you is to start to pay attention to how you hold your body especially just in a simple standing position when you aren't "stressed-out." Let us call that position your neutral standing position. Get to know how your body feels when you are comfortable and happy so that you can understand how you hold yourself when you are stressed. This is very important. I can teach you how to stretch your body and have healthy alignment but if you go back to that habitual stressed-out body shape because you aren't paying attention then the muscles will have a harder time finding their comfortable neutral position. 

Another radical thought: Sometimes we carry our bodies in a stressful position out of habit.

Arms crossed in front of the chest is a classic protective position. You are protecting your vital organs, you are closed off, AND you are shortening the muscles of the chest. Not a terrible position when you are cold but also not a great go-to position if you would like a healthy upper back, head, and neck relationship. (It just makes my shoulders hurt thinking about it.) 

Here's an exercise that I have my students doing these days (and I do every chance I get):

  • Stand tall with the feet about hips width apart. 
  • From a side-of-the-body perspective: Center of the hips over ankle bones so that the weight of the body is over the back 2/3rds of the feet. 
  • Ears, shoulders (deltoids), hips, and ankle bones in line. 
  • Pause. ARMS STRAIGHT. Release them towards the earth completely.
  • Do not actively straighten the arms but allow them to feel heavy. 
  • Pause. Allow the breath to be comfortable and easy.

NOTICE how hard it is to let go of the contracted muscles completely. Your arms are almost always either bent and working or at the ready for the next activity. Most people do not allow their arms to just hang at their sides, even if they aren't using them at the moment. 

I love this seemingly simple exercise. Just by paying attention and relaxing the arms fully, you will allow the stress to melt off of your muscles. Stress equals tension. During this practice we are not only paying attention to the tension in the body but actively letting go of it. Powerful stuff.

Next essay we will discuss the hands. By working with the arms and hands, we will indirectly (to us) start to soften the muscles of the neck. It's all connected and I have seen profound results so I hope you will try the exercise above 3 times before you decide that it isn't for you.

Thanks for reading.


P.S.  I will be teaching a class this fall that is entitled, "Shoulder Exercises for a Healthier You." Email me if you want updates and more information: 



Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Movement is life.

Big aside: I am in the process of typing and printing my Yoga notes from previous workshops over the years. While attending various workshops, I would overhear other teachers discussing the fact that they never looked at their notes afterwards. I secretly knew I was different. 

And while I do look through my notes periodically, right now they are next to me in a big pile and not well organized. I am in the process of organizing them, which takes time.

(So to procrastinate even further, I am writing this blog post.)

Let the procrastination begin:

I really enjoy teaching. I have been a teacher for a long time. When I was 15 years old, I was lucky enough to be given a job as a camp counselor at the West Branch YMCA in Omaha. It wasn't my first opportunity to teach, but it was a big step for me. 

Fast forward to today. I have been teaching Yoga for almost 18 years. Wow! And if you would have told me back then that I would be doing something that I love for this long....I wouldn't have believed it. Life really can surprise and amaze, if we are paying attention. 

And while on the topic of teaching and teachers, I am currently in the middle of a wonderful little book by Katy Bowman entitled, Movement Matters. For those that think you have a short attention span, this might be your book. Katy has put together many very thoughtful, well researched short essays that encapsulate the decades of research towards healthy movement and healthy lifestyles. Katy cares and you can read it in her essays, in her many books, her podcasts, and videos that she has put together over the years. If you want to learn how to move well and be a better person by making informed choices in this world, she is a living example. Yay, Katy!

I am a firm believer in the idea that we are all teachers and students simultaneously. Like when I am teaching a new asana (Yoga posture) in class, I must observe and adapt so that the student receives the info at their level. If the instruction isn't translating safely in the student's body, I need to approach the asana differently so that the student is successful within their own body. Learning is a life-long pursuit and I am so thankful for all my teachers and the knowledge that they have passed on over the years.

Sometimes learning for me takes on more of a contemplate and observe level. I love to take a concept or word and carry it with me for a year or so.....observing how it shows up in my life. Some of my past words were: community, God, forgiveness, and empowerment. Right now I am focusing on the statement,

Movement is life.

It isn't an original concept, and I don't need it to be. It is just an idea that I carry with me throughout the day. I watch how its truth manifests when I observe the world around me. Of course, there is always a balance that we need to address when someone is discussing movement and health. Too much in one direction or the other is just that...too much.

When someone is sick with the flu, we can agree that bed rest is essential. If a person isn't healthy, their body needs time to recuperate. The problem seems to be these days when we are healthy and have the ability to move but we choose to move less. Moving less could represent wealth in our minds because we don't need to move to collect our food and carry our water. Our society has been conditioned to think that all we need to do is pop something in the microwave and sit down (after sitting down all day at work) to watch t.v. A sedentary lifestyle is becoming not only the norm but something that is desired. When we do choose to move we exercise, not realizing that we are outsourcing our natural movements with each convenience we perceive as necessary (and desired) in our lives. Because we are no longer are hunter/gatherers, we need to schedule in some form of exercise to replace the loss of daily natural movement. 

Now I don't want to delve into the pros and cons of various exercises vs. the natural movements that were the basis of daily existence in the not-so-distant past. What I want us to just ponder for a moment is just the word "movement." And while you are carrying that word around with you throughout your day, maybe think about your movements.

When I teach my Yoga classes these days, I think more along the lines of incorporating lots of healthy movements and easy stretches that can be performed anywhere by anyone. I also make an effort to get my students seated on the floor (with blankets or a bolster so their lumbar spine keeps its natural curve). Even before I was introduced to Katy Bowman's work, I knew most people had a hard time getting up and down off the floor as they got older. Why is that? Well, in our culture we sit in chairs which are at a certain height, and go from one seated position to another seated position (of that same aforementioned height). Do you see where I am going with this?

All I want to do is plant a seed, an idea. The idea is how do we incorporate more varied movements throughout our busy days? I have some suggestions but for now, I just want you to observe yourself and your environment. Observe what movements you make and the variety of shapes (seated on the floor or chair, standing, squatting, etc.) you make with your body. That is all.

In about a week, I will check in with you. I will probably give a suggestion or two. But for now just observe. Of course, once you start to pay attention you will change your habits. Good luck and feel free to email me with any results or questions.

Now that I have finished my entry for this blog, I am going to get off of my bolster (yes, I type seated on the floor with my computer on a low coffee table) and go outside. It is time for a my walk. 




Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Shoe choices do matter!

Recently I purchased a pair of minimalist shoes (see photo above) for working in my garden, since my older pair of slip on garden clogs (see photo below) were hurting my feet. My new moccasins have a very flexible sole that essentially protects my feet from nails and rough terrain while allowing a variety of articulations that weren't available with a rigid sole. (Also, if your shoe or flip-flop isn't attached to your foot, your toes will curl in to attempt to hold onto your shoe....which could result in bunions over time.)

Of course, the caveat is now when I wear my old shoes with a rigid sole, I can feel the way my ankles are forced to receive the brunt of impact while I am walking.  Your feet really do need a diversity of movements with each step, and that does not happen when they are constrained all the time by our footwear choices.

The 26 bones and 33 joints in the foot really do work well to receive and distribute the impact of the ground with each step. When our shoes have a rigid sole (which now feels like someone strapped a block of wood to each of my feet) then the outcome is your ankle works structurally in a way that potentially may hurt it due to the fact that your foot's natural movements have been removed from the equation. If your feet cannot articulate properly then your ankles will receive more force with each step which may cause undue and unnatural stress. Overuse syndromes do not need to be the norm if we consider and practice more the natural movements of the body. 

Think of all the movements that your hand can perform. Now imagine you have strapped your hand to a block of wood. You have limited the movement in your hand, which then translates to loss of muscle over time. Since your body economizes energy efficiently, it will decide that those muscles in your hand (and, in reality, your foot in constraining footwear) aren't as important since they aren't being used. 

Shoe choices DO matter!

Does this info spark your interest? If so, I teach a class called "Healthy Feet for a Healthier You" that gives the student tools and exercises that improve overall foot health. 

Please email with any questions:

Since the feet are our foundation, I think this is a great start to a healthier lifestyle and a healthier YOU!!