The movement secret most people don’t know

Mind Shift is a blog series where I turn my fascination with body-nerd research into bite-sized info chunks, designed to help you shift the way you think about–and live in–your body.


In a previous post, I talked about the importance of varying up your movement and the fact that most exercise programs only tap into a small subset of the movements your body is capable of (yes, even yoga). You can catch up on that post here.

Moving Without Moving

Today, I want to illustrate how it’s possible to be moving your body as a whole–for example, running or doing yoga–and still have parts of your body that are stuck or otherwise immobile.

The easiest example to look at is your feet. If you’re like most people, you wear shoes. A lot. And unless you’ve sought out shoes specifically designed to allow for more natural movement (“minimalist” or “barefoot” shoes), chances are your feet are hanging out in those shoes, all day every day, barely moving.

To use the words of biomechanist Katy Bowman, your feet have been cast in your shoes, like a broken leg held immobile by a cast.

Your foot has 33 joints–33! That’s a lot of movable parts. And yet, if our shoes have rigid soles that essentially turn the bottom of our foot into a plank of wood whose movement is restricted to hinging at the ankle, and/or our shoes have constricting toe boxes that prevent our toes from moving, most of those 33 joints aren’t being used. We have sedentary feet. (And our ankles are getting seriously overused.)

Why does this matter? Well, for so many reasons that I can’t enumerate them all here, but let me choose three, starting with the most obvious.

1. If your current movement capabilities allow you to move your body from A to B, and you’d like to hang onto this ability, your feet are vital. Without functioning feet, you can’t move yourself around without some sort of added support–cane, walker, chair, etc. So if you’d like to continue moving, take care of your feet.

2. Your feet affect your entire body, so if they’re out of whack, you’re out of whack. Here’s just one example: When you walk, your body relies on sensory information from the feet (among other inputs) to send messages to other parts of the body to help make walking efficient and functional. For instance, when the joints of your metatarsals (the long foot bones connected to your toes) and the tissues between them make contact with the ground, sensory receptors send a message to the quadriceps (front of the thigh) muscles, triggering those muscles to help absorb the forces of walking.

This helps us move without putting undue stress on our joints and tissues, while also allowing us to move with more efficiency (i.e. without expending more energy than necessary and feeling pooped out even by minimal exertion). Here’s the key, though: This communication between feet and quads is limited (and even eliminated) when our shoes prevent our feet from being able to naturally spread out over the terrain. No spread, no communication, less functional walking, more wear and tear on the body.

3. Our cells require movement to stay healthy, starting from our time in the womb (here’s one study demonstrating that reduced movement in utero leads to improper skeletal formation). In an earlier post, I talked about current recent connecting a lack of cellular movement with a host of diseases. Clearly, movement is extremely important, and not merely from a “staying fit” perspective; without movement, our cells die or otherwise go awry. Returning to the feet, if you’re moving about in stiff shoes, there are loads of cells in your feet that are still starving for movement.

It’s Not Just the Shoes

This stuckness can occur in other ways, without a physical constraint like rigid shoes. If you sit for hours at a time, you are casting your body into a specific position. Then, when you stand up and head to yoga after work, parts of your body casted by sitting might have difficulty moving, even in those twisty, bendy poses. What typically happens is the more movable areas have to pick up the slack and move even more, causing undue wear and tear and leading to injury, while allowing the stuck spots to stay stuck.

Here’s a little exercise to see what I mean. If you’re like most people in this culture, you spend a lot of time at a screen or in a car. Your shoulders are likely rounded forward, either a little or a lot, and this limits your shoulder’s ability to move freely.

Reach toward the ceiling with one arm. Now, notice how much your ribcage had to come along for the ride. If you focus on keeping your ribcage down, how much is your shoulder motion limited?

While your body might be different, 99.9% of the clients I see have some degree of forward rounding shoulders limiting their shoulder mobility, and as we talked about above, when one part can’t move well, other parts have to make up for. In this case, that’s demonstrated by the rib cage being hoisted up to compensate for the shoulder’s limitations.

So, what’s a body to do? Well, the simple answer is: Move more, and move more of you when you move.

A more nuanced answer might look like this:

  1. Move more. Get away from seeing movement only as exercise (read this post for tips), as this opens up countless opportunities to move throughout the day, and not just during “exercise” time. Squat down to get pots from the cupboard. Sit on the floor in various positions while watching Netflix instead of adopting one couch pose. Reach up and grab the doorway above your head, etc.
  2. Gradually start to uncast your body so that more of you is actually moving when you move. Two fantastic resources are Move Your DNA and Whole Body Barefoot by Katy Bowman.

That last step contains two mini steps. To get more of you moving involves 1) transitioning away from things that are preventing you (or parts of you) from moving, such as poor footwear and hours sitting or standing in one position, and 2) using restorative exercises and bodywork to introduce movement back into areas that, even when freed from their constraints, don’t know how to move anymore.

Again, Bowman’s books mentioned above can help you on both counts (if you’re in CoMO, they’re available at our public library!), and her website is a fantastic resource as well.

Start where you are: What’s one way you can introduce movement to an under-moved part of you today?

Maybe you can slip off your shoes at work and wiggle your toes.

Place items that you reach for frequently behind you, introducing a rotation to the torso and shoulder movements that might not happen otherwise.

Pick one of the movements from this awesome list and work it into your day.

Have fun!

How to be a Light Worker When You’re Pissed

I was flipping through one of my old journals when I came across an entry that really grabbed me. I’d been struggling with anger toward one of my parents at the time, and in my journal, I wrote that even though I knew the anger was detrimental to my well being and was fueling self-destructive behaviors, it was hard to let it go.

I had a subconscious belief running in the background like a tired, old soundtrack that said, “If you stop being angry, you’re saying that what your parent did was okay.”

And this insight wasn’t necessarily anything new. I’ve known for awhile that a major roadblock to forgiveness is equating forgiveness with condoning someone’s behavior, when, in fact, the two are quite distinct. You forgive in order to free yourself. Forgiveness is not the same as condoning past hurtful behavior, nor is it an invitation for future hurtful behavior.

Even so, something was keeping me stuck.

It took hearing about an acquaintance’s work drama to flip the switch for me. The situation was this: “Karen” was in a supervisory position over “Pete,” and for months, the two had been engaging in a power tug o’ war. Pete procrastinated on work projects, and Karen ripped him a new one every chance she got. From the outside, coworkers were wondering 1) Pete’s a smart guy–why on earth doesn’t he just get his stuff done on time to prevent the bi-weekly blowouts? and 2) Why doesn’t Karen find a more productive way of dealing with Pete because this strategy clearly isn’t working?

Both very good questions. Where my interest lies, though, is in Pete’s situation, because this is one that I’ve found myself in many times with my family. As an adult, I’d find myself doing things that felt like Teenage Me rebelling, and even though they made little to no sense in the current situation, it was hard to stop.

Why? Well, there are many reasons, of course, but here’s a juicy one: I wanted to prove that my parent was “bad,” and one way I could do that was through triggering their bad behavior by deliberately doing things I knew would set them off. As a kid, I imagine that a big part of my subconscious motivation was that I needed help. I was no match for my parent’s domineering anger, but perhaps if I could trigger them to act out, someone who could stand up to them, like a teacher or a relative, would see how bad things really were and come to my rescue.

As a kid with limited options and life skills, this made sense. As an adult, however, there are far better ways to get my needs met, and provoking bad behavior in the hopes of dragging other people to my rescue is far from a good strategy. In Pete’s case, this tactic is leading him down the road to termination, and I can bet that Karen isn’t going to be the one who feels punished in that scenario. Pete is punishing himself.

What Can We Do?

One of the most transformative steps for me is recognizing what my needs are. Until I know what I need, it’s hard to consciously choose healthy ways of getting those needs met, something I’ve written about extensively in the past.

If you find yourself reacting on autopilot (which sometimes takes the form of chronic complaining), use this as an opportunity to press the pause button and take stock.

What do you want from this situation?

What do you need in this situation in order to feel [safe, supported, etc]?

And the question for the win: How can you take responsibility for getting those needs met?

This doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help; sometimes taking responsibility for our needs means asking for support from the right people (i.e. people who are actually in a position to support us and who are willing to do so).

And even if getting our needs met does involve other people, it inevitably circles back to us. We must be meeting our own needs before the support of others can have a significant impact. If we’re not supporting ourselves, other people’s efforts to support us are either rejected or they’re never enough–we just need more and more to feel okay.

When we start by supporting ourselves, which might look like establishing healthy boundaries, getting a massage, validating our feelings, and other forms of self-care, the support of others is like the cherry on top. We’re not desperately relying on it to feel okay, but it sure is nice to receive.

When we get clear on what we need and want, we can go about getting those needs and wants met in the light of consciousness, rather than taking a back alley through the subconscious, resulting in behavior that’s baffling even to ourselves.

In New Age circles, there’s a lot of talk about being a Light Worker. If you ask me, more so than putting a positive spin on everything and keeping it “light,” this is one of the Light Worker’s primary tasks: To bring the heavy stuff out of our closets into the light of consciousness so we can forge ahead with mindful awareness.

Who’s with me?

A Meditation for Information Gathering

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In massage class last night, we were learning how to work more directly with the body’s network of fascia. If you’ve never heard of fascia before, it’s a connective tissue that some researchers have compared to a continuous sweater covering and interpenetrating everything in your body, including your muscles, bones, and organs.

Here’s an image I found online that shows some of the fascia between chicken skin and the underlying muscle–the fascia is the spiderwebby stuff.

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Research is indicating that this network is also a means of communication, so in a sense, you could think of your fascia as your body’s own internet, sending messages all the way from your head to your toes.

Our instructor compared this to the concept of mycorrhizal associations, which are partnerships of vast networks of fungus in the soil and plant roots. This has been dubbed the “wood wide web” by some scientists, and according to the BBC, “by linking to the fungal network [plants] can help out their neighbours by sharing nutrients and information – or sabotage unwelcome plants by spreading toxic chemicals through the network.”  So, too, our fascia allows distant parts of our body to communicate–both messages of wellness and messages of dis-ease.

So, what does this have to do with meditation? Well, I drew my tarot card of the day this morning, and I got this lovely Wild Unknown rendition of the six of cups:

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Check out those beautiful roots! I immediately had the urge to do a meditation on roots as information gatherers, and it was so useful that I’d like to share it with you here.

To begin, settle into a comfortable meditative position. Calm your body and your mind by focusing on your breath, gradually lengthening the inhales and exhales.

Focus on the base of your spine, and imagine roots extending from this base, deep into the earth. Allow the image to fill out as a single root branches into many. Appreciate the complexity of your roots, the vastness of the network tethering you to, and making you one with, the Earth.

Set the intention to receive via your roots the information that is correct and good for you at this time, then allow the experience to unfold.

Maintain gentle awareness of the root network, and allow any thoughts and sensations to arise. You might see images, hear words, have thoughts pop into your head, and so forth. Allow the information to flow into you.

When the experience feels complete, give thanks as feels appropriate to you, and return your awareness to the here and now.

When I did this meditation, ideas popped into my head, seemingly out of nowhere, and they were ideas that definitely tested the boundaries of my comfort zone. Here’s one example: I’m one month away from finishing massage therapy school, and the thought surfaced that I am being called to do primarily energy work with some massage incorporated into it. But, but…I’m a massage therapist! I’m supposed to be doing a ton of massage…right?

In spite of my ego’s clawing and scrambling, I had to admit a deeper feeling of release and softness.

I have no idea where this will lead, but I do know that I am now open to making energy work more of a focus in my practice, and even on a logical level, it makes sense. I’ve studied energy extensively, and I work with my own daily: You could say I’m a little obsessed. 😉 And yet somehow, I’d gotten a little out of touch with those roots.

What do your roots tell you?

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Aromatherapy and the Brain

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The limbic sytem, which deals with the regulation of emotions, was once thought of as the rhinencephelon, or “nose-brain,” because it was first studied in rats for whom olfaction (sense of smell) and emotions are utterly entwined. The limbic system is comprised of different subareas, and these subareas send projections into other parts of the brain, especially the hypothalamus, and the connection between the limbic system and the hypothalamus is important for our understanding of aromatherapy.

But first, let’s back up and look at something called the automonic nervous system (ANS). There are all kinds of autonomic (automatic) functions in your body that are vital to keeping you alive and well, and these functions happen involuntarily; you don’t need to consciously control them. And this is a good thing, because we’re talking about functions like the beating of your heart, the amount of sugar you have in your blood, and so forth. You would spend your entire day and then some consumed by these processes if you had to think about them.

Three different layers of the brain have an influence over these autonomic functions, which are carried out by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and the hypothalamus is the first layer of influence. If you were injured and your blood pressure started dropping, a blood pressure sensor would send a message up the spinal cord to your hypothalamus, and through a few more steps, your blood pressure and heart rate would increase, thereby bringing your body back into balance. Thank you, hypothalamus!

The second layer of influence on autonomic functions is the limbic system, and it is here where we start to see the possible mechanisms for aromatherapy’s powerful effects. A scent or an image can trigger an emotional response in the limbic system, which in turn sends a message to the hypothalamus, and again, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is activated. It’s like pouring a double cocktail emotions and hormones.

Finally, the third layer of influence on autonomic functions is the cerebral cortex, another part of the brain and one that is involved in memory, learning, complex processing, decision making, and more. In this part of the brain, thought and memory are the triggers that can send messages to the limbic system and to the hypothalamus, again stimulating the ANS.

So, we’ve just looked at three ways that autonomic/involuntary processes in your body can be affected, processes like the beating of your heart, your rate of digestion, and the levels of hormones in your body. These three ways are the hypothalamus, the limbic system, and the cortex. Let’s grossly oversimplify these by relating each one to a key function: the hypothalamus produces hormones, which are powerful chemical messengers; the limbic system deals with emotions; and the cortex handles thoughts and memories.

In other words, the basic, involuntary functioning of our body can be influenced by hormones, emotions, and thoughts and memories. (Of course, it can be affected by other things as well, but these three are important for our purposes.)

Let’s connect this to aromatherapy. If you smell, say, lavender essential oil, your olfactory bulb sends a message to your limbic system, triggering an emotional response, and to your cortex, potentially triggering thoughts and memories (e.g you have a memory of being in the backyard while your grandma hangs lavender-scented laundry on the clothesline). Your limbic system, in turn, can send messages to your hypothalamus, causing hormones to be released, hormones that can have a multitude of effects on your body, such as lowering your heart rate and respiration. Thank to one little scent, you’re having an emotional response, you might be experiencing long-forgotten memories, and your body is likely producing hormones that are traveling throughout your body, causing any number of physiological effects.

This is all well and good, but let’s take it even further and talk about how aromatherapy can even change the expression of your DNA. In a lecture series called Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, Dr. Robert Sapolsky outlines different ways in which our environment, including scents, can influence the activity of our genes.

In a nutshell, DNA is like the blueprint, or set of instructions, for your cells. However, each strand of DNA contains instructions for all kinds of things, and your cells aren’t using all parts of these instructions at the same time. How does this work? Well, to oversimplify again, imagine that your DNA looks like a string of pearls. After every nine pearls on the string, there’s a blue bead, and this blue bead plays a special role. It’s like a switch that allows a particular stretch of nine pearls to activate. Unless the pearls are activated, they can’t have any effect in the cell; they’re essentially just sitting there doing nothing, so these blue beads are very important. If the blue beads turn the pearls “off,” nothing’s happening, but when the blue beads activate the pearls, things start to happen.

Okay, so what tells the blue beads (known as promoters) to switch on? There are proteins in your cells called transcription factors, and they have the power to flip the switch, turning on the blue beads, and thus allowing your DNA to spring into action. What’s interesting is that these transcription factors can be influenced by things in your external environment, like scents. Dr. Sapolsky gives the example of a male wildebeest who smells a rival male who has been scent marking in his territory. Sound the alarm! The scent of the rival works on the pathways we’ve just discussed and has the ability to turn on sections of the wildebeest’s DNA, perhaps causing a certain neurotransmitter to be produced, which in turn has a powerful effect on the brain, generating, perhaps, an aggressive response in our wildebeest friend: Off he goes, charging across the savannah to exact revenge!

An example that you might be familiar with in humans: Studies have shown that women in regular close contact will begin to sync their ovulatory cycles, typically matching the cycle of the socially dominant female in the group, and olfactory triggers (pheromones) are responsible. If you’ve ever lived in a dorm full of women PMSing at the same time, you know just how powerful this can be.

While many of us have had the experience of being energized by peppermint or soothed by lavender, it’s fun to peel back the layers and explore what’s going on in the brain and in the cells of our body while this is happening. Scents have the power to change our heart rate and other bodily functions, our mood, our thoughts, and the expression of our DNA. Ponder that during your next aromatherapy session!

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