Do you ever just delight in the sensory world we live in? Imagine living your life as though every day you are in a new place, taking in the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and noises in a whole new way. When we get stuck in the same routine we often lose the magic of connecting to our sensuality. I often recommend for people in my classes to move with eyes closed or at least softened so they can really sense into their internal space or to delight in the felt sense of the breath moving through their body, there is nothing more enlivening than connecting with the very life force that is animating us and after teaching restorative yoga we delight in the sensation of chocolate as it hits our taste buds. Being aware of our sensations helps us to ground us into now. Being more sensual can allow you to experience more pleasure in your everyday life, not just sexually but in every aspect of your life. Think of the feeling of sand between your toes, the smell of freshly ground coffee, the effect of your favourite music, a sad song, a happy song, a song that triggers memories, a full moon on a clear night, a beautiful sun set or sun rise, the smell of freshly cut grass, the feel of a beautiful fabric against your skin, a welcoming hug, the soft fur of your pet against your hand, the smell of fresh lilies, the smell of rain, the taste of your favourite food, the sensation of warm water on your naked skin, the sound of the ocean, the feeling of slipping into freshly washed sheets at the end of a long day, making love, moving your body in rhythm with music or sensing into a more somatic movement based practice. Tuning into the sensory world helps us to slow down, pause and fully experience the magic of this human experience. Try for today to delight in each of your senses sight, sound, taste, touch, smell and see how it affects your life.
Ankle mobility is underrated and often not talked about possibly due it to not being as fun and sexy as focusing your attention on getting 6 pack abs or nailing a handstand, but ankle mobility can go a long way to improving the structure and function of your whole body and is needed for walking especially uphill walking, squatting, pistol squatting, jumping and a whole lot of other movement skills.
A lack of ankle dorsiflexion (think calf stretch, toes towards shin) can have dramatic implications upstream into the knees, hips, low back and even neck and downstream encouraging adaptive compensatory movements of excessive pronation (flat feet) or excessive supination (high arches) if the foot is unable to go through the normal hinge motion at the ankle.
A healthy gait cycle has elements of all ranges of motion and problems occur when we get stuck in or can't access the full range of all of the other movements that should be available to us. Dorsiflexion is vital for movement efficiency, if we have an inability to go from plantar flexion (think barbie doll feet) to dorsiflexion we are unable to access hip extension (think Glute activation) and we end up relying heavily on the muscular effort of the quads as opposed to the energy efficient elastic recoil of our posterior.
I think a lot of the issues arise due to spending so much time in positive heeled shoes and unfortunately this isn't just the obvious heeled shoes that women wear but children's and men's shoes have some form of an elevated heel which shortens our calves and restricts our ability to dorsiflex our ankle.
When we are unable to dorsiflex our ankle optimally our body will adapt and find a compensatory movement to get from point a to point b, often the foot rolls into pronation as the easiest route. When this happens we invariably have a valgus collapse of the knee (knees drop in towards each other) which stresses the ACL ligament of the knee.
If you are a runner, do any form of hill walking or running, a football or soccer player, if you do any high impact activities like jumping, burpees or incorporate squats into your fitness regime it's vital that you spend time not only stretching your calves, spending more time barefoot or in negative heeled shoes but getting some good quality bodywork to encourage your foot and ankle to move more optimally. Why wait till you have been told you have flat feet and you need expensive orthotics before doing corrective exercises to condition your feet and ankles or why wait until you are already injured before investing time and attention into moving your body well and improving your body map of these really important structures of your body. You have been gifted with one body, learn how to be an incredible caretaker of it :)
Regress to Progress
Regress to progress. Not all exercises are suitable for all people, all of the time. As humbling as it is, sometimes we have to regress an exercise or movement for a variety of reasons in order to strengthen neuromuscular control, to restrict compensatory movement patterns and to avoid overloading a specific area without building the load specifically over time amongst others. This morning I was targeting my deltoids with weights and found my left side was struggling big time on one particular exercise so I dropped the weight right down to only 1kg so I could really focus on the correct recruitment, timing and control of the muscle without my upper trapezius and neck muscles compensating. I understand that many of us are time short and when we take the time to exercise or work out we want to give it our everything. I could have done the exercise with a heavier weight but I recognise that I'm providing a new load to my deltoids and I need to slowly build up the load over time so my body can become adaptive and stronger, rather than struggling through with other muscles taking over and not getting the outcome in the long term that I'm looking for. I'm in this body for the long haul and I believe any training programs main priority should be on priming the body to be as capable and efficient as possible in order to do all of the human things we need to do. There's no point in pushing through when your body hasn't adapted to it, it only increases your chances of injury which will not get you closer to your goals. Whether those goals are to lift heavier, to nail a yoga posture, to run a marathon or to do a triathlon the key is to build up your tolerance and the load over time, so your body can adapt at a steady rate to the loads you are placing on it. All too often we go in too heavy which can end up actually slowing us down in the long run and make our goals seem even further away.
Is it advanced if you find it easy? Arm balances are often touted as being advanced yoga postures but body proportions make a big deal on how easeful or difficult many of the postures are. If you have short legs like me it makes certain yoga postures more accessible whereas if you have longer legs they act as longer levers making some postures more difficult. Same for longer or shorter torsos and longer or shorter arms, or short arms and long torsos, the postures are not going to look the same on different bodies as we all have different proportions. Forget "advanced" yoga postures and cookie cutter postures and learn movement and movement skills instead.
Treat Your Feet
When was the last time you paid any attention to your feet? When was the last time you actively worked the muscles in your feet or stretched or mobilised the toes, the foot or the ankles? What happens or doesn't happen in the feet has far reaching affects throughout the rest of the body. The big toe joint plays an important role in compensation patterns including over recruitment of the adductor muscles (the inner thigh) and limitations in the flexibility of the big toe can affect gluteus maximus activation. Whether you are a relatively sedentary office worker or an athlete, treating your feet (not just to the pedicure variety) but including strengthening and mobilising work regularly can benefit not just the health of your feet but the health of your whole body up through the chain. Chances are your feet are scrunched up into what the bodyworker Tom Myers coined as foot coffins for the vast majority of your day for the vast majority of your life from the moment you were able to walk and gets very little freedom to move and strengthen in a variety of ways on a daily basis. Which is why it's important to do more corrective exercises regularly as these "foot coffins" limit movement and our ability to propriocept or sense where our feet are in space, which is an important function of our feet and one which deteriorates as we age leading to falls and injury. The first thing that touches the ground during movement not only affects the feet but has a ripple affect up through the whole chain of the body, whether that's in gait, working out and stepping our foot into lunges, running, walking and dancing. Make treating your feet a regular part of your workout routine and you'll notice a difference in strength and stability and even perhaps a reduction in your compensation patterns.
It doesn't have to hurt to work
We've all heard the no pain, no gain motto right? What if I let you in on a little secret....it doesn't have to hurt to work.
This applies across the board, we don't need to exercise to exhaustion to get results. We don't need to be left bruised and feeling broken after receiving manual therapies. We don't need to be constantly beating ourselves up on the inside with feelings of unworthiness and self doubt.
Life can be hard enough sometimes without feeling like we have to make it harder. Often times it's no pain, all gain. In life we need a healthy amount of stress or what's termed eustress physically, psychologically and biochemically in order to grow and become stronger physically and psychologically. Too much stress or bad forms of stress however in whatever form can be detrimental, it's not dissimilar to the Goldilocks dilemma, too much, too little and just right.
Exercise creates a form of stress on our body, just enough hard work and we stimulate feel good hormones and over time we create stronger bones and muscles, too much exercise or the same type of exercise over a period of time can create too much stress in the body leading to burn out and leave us prone to injury and we all know the detrimental effects of not enough exercise.
In massage and bodywork we are also looking for that just right feeling in regards to pressure but interestingly enough less is sometimes more when a system is already on high alert with injury or pain. Sometimes simple touch can provide just enough novel stimulus to turn down the alarm bells and if you are looking for more pressure it should feel like the good sort of sensation not the type where you are having to clench your teeth, curl your toes or hold your breath.
I think it's important to remember always that you are the boss of your body, you know your body much more intimately than any other specialist, therapist or teacher if something feels like it's too much whether in a hands on session or a class you have the authority to speak up or to not participate in something that feels like it's aggravating or not beneficial for you and your body at that time. Most skilled professionals will respect your ability to honour your body in this way, if they don't I would suggest you search out another professional to work alongside with.
Thoracic mobility. By design there is less mobility available in the thoracic spine in comparison to the cervical (neck) and lumbar (low back), due to the attachment of the ribcage. This doesn't mean however that there isn't movement here or we shouldn't work on keeping the movement of the thoracic spine optimal. Due to modern life and the prevalence of technology, life brings our shoulders forward and our thoracic spines back into flexion. This pose is a lovely passive pose that you can do prior to doing more active thoracic mobility, it will create short term changes in your nervous system to allow you to feel more mobility and openness and make the active work more accessible. If the thoracic spine is immobile it can have wide reaching consequences from additional neck and shoulder stress to low back stress and can impact on your breathing potential. Try it and then move your thoracic spine in all of its ranges of motion, flexion, extension (forward and backward), lateral extension (side to side) and rotation (twisting). Your spine has the potential for so many ranges and possibilities, if we weren't designed to move it, we would have one long bone along the centre. Explore all the capabilities that your body has the innate capacity to do. If it feels too much with a block try rolling or folding a blanket or towel and gradually progress to a block.
I rarely practice this pose....it's a pretty posture but it has zero carry over value into our activities of daily living. Can you name anything that this could help you do better in your day to day life? Perhaps if you are in need of airing your armpits out on a warm day or a novel way of scratching your foot. In fact many of the yoga postures particularly the fancy advanced postures don't make you any good at anything else except doing fancy yoga postures. I want my body to be capable of doing a wide variety of things, not just striking a pretty yoga posture. I need to have the ability to pull, push, lift, climb, throw, squat, crawl, roll and many other movements not necessarily static postures on the confines of a rectangular yoga mat. I often ask myself why am I doing this? What's the purpose? What value and benefits am I getting from this? What outcome am I expecting? I think these are important questions for everyone to ask in many contexts but especially in regards to exercise and movement. For sure the standing leg is having to work like crazy to stabilise and you're working on balance but try holding the leg with the strength of the leg alone without the help of the arm and it makes it a very different posture and it probably wouldn't be very instagram worthy. Passive stretching which this is with some elements of active work is fun and can feel good but try mixing it up with novel and new inputs for your body, mix the same posture up with slightly different variations, different orientations and you have a whole different posture and you're working your body in a whole new way.
You Have Permission To Rest
I've just emerged from a long yoga practice and a blissful yoga nidra session and it's left me wanting to float in this sublime state for as long as possible.
The truth is these feeling states are transitory and that's why we do the "practices" on a regular basis for it to become easier to access and deepen these states over time. By doing these practices regularly we create a safe haven that we get to return to over and over again, to have the ability to tap into these states with more ease and for it to have an accumulative affect over time much like with persistent effort and dedication we get stronger muscles when we train our body at the gym we are training our relaxation muscles so to speak.
Working on a daily basis with clients it's clear that there's a huge resistance to doing these simple practices that create powerful changes in the body, mind and nervous system. There's a feeling that it's a waste of time, that you're not doing anything, that it's boring and self indulgent and how can anything change just by doing nothing.
The truth is there is plenty happening underneath the surface by allowing the body/mind to become still and being guided into deep relaxation you are having a profound affect on your nervous system which pretty much governs everything from heart rate to blood pressure, from the tonus of your muscles to your libido to digestion. Not to mention the affect on brain waves which I've discussed in a previous post.
It saddens me that many people haven't experienced deep, radical rest and even more that they won't even attempt to give it a try. We all have these natural states that we can access that are generally free, completely legal with the right tools, techniques and mindset but we either have this pre-occupation with taking the hard road, the path that is difficult, where in order for it be effective it has to be painful or difficult or the path of no effort where you place all of your expectations of health and wellbeing onto another.
It takes a certain amount of effort to set aside time to care deeply for your self, to put aside all other responsibilities, tasks and to do lists but it's so worth it and your body will thank you for it. Taking care of yourself is no longer a luxury it's a necessity.
I can't even touch my toes..
"I can't even touch my toes" is something I hear often in regards to people's complaints about their flexibility or lack thereof. It would surprise most people to know that the ability to touch your toes is a sign of hypermobility or of too much mobility. It's a part of the beighton score which is used as a diagnostic tool for hypermobility. Too much mobility may not be a good thing despite it being held in such high regard particularly in yoga circles and this ability appears to get you lots of likes and followers on Instagram. People with hypermobility tend to flock to yoga classes because they are "good at it." Meaning they have the flexibility to contortion their bodies into pretzel like shapes with ease and grace. The truth is people with hypermobility don't need the stretching component or the extreme end ranges of motion that many "advanced" yoga postures require and over the long term can be doing more damage to their body than good. People with hypermobility generally have poor proprioception which is the ability to sense where your body is in space, in order to sense and get sensory feedback they have to take their joints into excessive ranges of motion where they are stretching into already lax ligaments. Lax ligaments are not a good thing they keep you connected to parts you want to stay connected to and once they are lax there's no going back. The good news is we don't need to be able to touch our feet with our hands there are other more functional ways to pick things up off the ground by bending your knees and squatting and strengthening the posterior chain of your body while you are at it. If you do have the signs of hypermobility I wouldn't recommend taking your joints to passive and excessive end ranges of motion and I would highly recommend to build in strengthening and stability work to stabilise and strengthen the supporting structures.
Advanced clinical massage therapist and yoga teacher.