I don’t know if the recent tension in my upper back is from inadequate stretching after my TKD classes, from lifting heavy things as I declutter my basement, or from not paying enough attention to my posture but I do know that I am not enjoying it.
I have done some extra stretching. I have spent a fair bit of time lying on a lacrosse ball. I have draped myself over my foam roller.
Nothing has really helped so far.
Then, this morning, I received a newsletter from Yoga with Joelle announcing her latest video – Yoga for Rhomboid and Upper Back and I realized two things:
1) I’ve stretched but I haven’t done any yoga specifically for my upper back.
2) I had forgotten that those muscles were called the rhomboids.
(Rhomboid is a very fun word, go on and say it a few times in a row.)
My storytelling self knows that knowing something’s true name gives you power over it.
I’m going to do this video a few days in a row and see if name magic holds true for muscles. 😉
Over the past few years, in an attempt to counter the natural ‘but what if…’ tendencies of my ADHD brain I have been reminding myself to ‘do the easy thing’ whenever I can.
This isn’t the same as ‘taking the easy way out.’
Instead, it’s about 1) figuring out the easiest/most straightforward way to get something done 2) making sure that approach will cover the key details/meet the needs of the people involved 3) only adding more complexity if needed.
So, instead of letting my brain branch out into every possibility, I try to find what feels easiest and check if that will work before letting things get more complicated.
Long time blog readers will know that I absolutely adore hot yoga. I cannot explain why yoga in a hot room feels so much more satisfying to me than yoga at room temperature, but it does. And so it was a huge sacrifice when I felt the need mid-pandemic to take a stand and leave the hot yoga studio that I’ve been a dedicated member of for over a decade. At the time, I felt that they were making decisions concerning COVID that put their yoga community at risk and violated legal requirements that had been put in place based on recommendations from Ontario’s science table. I wrote about my decision here.
Well I’m happy to say that after more than ten months, I am back at hot yoga at the same studio. I don’t regret taking the position I did last October. Back in October I said, “I don’t know if I’ll go back or if they’ll have me back.” But now I feel that one of the things I’ve learned over the course of the pandemic is that I value relationships that I have built over time and I do not take them for granted. I may have disagreed, even strongly disagreed, with the official position of the yoga studio. But I am not willing to let their position on a temporary situation have permanent consequences for my well-being. To do so would have been a case of cutting off my nose to spite my face.
I have been feeling the itch to go back for some time now. So when I got a notice that they were offering a deal on ten-class passes, I purchased a couple. My goal is to incorporate it back into my life slowly, starting with a class a week. Last week when I went to my first class since October I consciously chose to go with one my favourite instructor. I got there early enough to take up my preferred spot near, but not right in, the hot front corner, and lie in savasana for a few minutes before we started. It was a yang-yin class, which meant it was only vigorous for half an hour, then completely and deliciously stretchy and slow for a half an hour. It felt so right to be back in the hot studio.
I know many of us had to switch up our routines during the pandemic, and some of those routines are permanently altered. But I’ve talked to lots of people who have been extremely eager to get back to their gyms and yoga studios and what have you.
Did you experience any big interruptions or changes in your fitness routines over the past couple of years? Have you gone back to anything that was put on hiatus? If you have, I’d love to hear in the comments about how it felt to go back.
During her Move program in January, Adriene (of Yoga with Adriene) emphasized how important it can be to think about how you move.
She invited us to consider the actual movements we made when relocating our hands to move between poses, the way we moved our legs into downward dog, the process of how we unrolled our spines to stand up.
This wasn’t about making us self-conscious, it was about grounding us in our bodies, about considering the movement habits that serve us and those that hinder us. It was about figuring out where we find ease and what parts of our bodies need more attention. It was about figuring out how to work with or work around the unique abilities of our individual bodies.
Even though this process made for a tricky line to walk between being mindful and overthinking, it really set me up well for practicing for my recent TKD belt test.
In the course of learning and practicing my patterns and other movements, I had to think about how I was moving. After all, it’s not just that my foot has to end up in a specific spot but I have to move it in a certain way to maximize my power, to increase my balance, to ensure that I can reach the target that I need to reach.
Even though my TKD skills are a work in progress (and always will be), concentrating a bit more on the specifics of my movements did help me a lot. Recognizing that in one of my patterns, I always place my foot down at the wrong angle gave me the opportunity to correct it and execute my pattern more accurately.
(Sidenote: I actually learned DURING MY TEST that I was getting another movement wrong and the correction from my instruction made a huge, immediate difference in the effectiveness of that technique. Another victory for the ‘how’ of movement.)
My latest stop for this train of thought is a video I did on Sunday. I felt like doing some yoga but I also wanted to do something a bit different so I had my metaphorical cake and ate it too by doing this video from Liv in Leggings.
I really enjoyed it. She’s an engaging instructor and I found her ‘how’ explanations very clear even when I couldn’t quite execute the movements yet.
Considering the question of how – her explanations and my personal experience – helped me to be curious about even the most challenging movements.
That curiosity meant that I was intrigued rather than frustrated by the difference between the strength of my right arm and the strength in my left arm during a wheelish/bridge-ish pose where we had to support ourselves first on one arm and then on the other.
(I mean, I know that my right arm is stronger than my left and I know that I can be more precise with my right. But the difference was especially apparent on that one movement – and I could feel that I was moving differently as I was getting into the pose and I couldn’t hold myself steady in the same way while I was in it. I could support myself on my right arm for quite some time but my left arm started shaking almost right away.)
And it let me pay attention to my movements when doing twists so I could tell exactly which ones made the tight spot on the left side of my back protest. And I could see how small adjustments could bring some ease.
And, of course, overall focusing on the ‘how’ helped me to be more mindful and present while I was trying this new approach. That just seems like a good thing doesn’t it?
How much time do you spend thinking about the how of your movements?
Do you find it helpful? Does it make you more mindful?
PS- While all that shaking was going on I was really grateful for the various online yoga videos I’ve done from Adriene and Joelle Because they always refer to those kinds of shaking movements in a positive light. In their framework, it’s not about weakness in the shaking body part. It’s about energy flowing and about knowing that you’re alive and about putting the effort in. I think that’s a really encouraging way to look at it.
I love weekend yoga retreats, especially those at Kripalu in western Massachusetts. It’s in the Berkshire mountains overlooking a lake. The food is extremely yummy mostly-vegetarian fare. The accommodations are simple (single or double or multiple-bed dorm room style), but you don’t go there to hang out in your room. There are loads of pretty spaces to read, write, meditate on your own, or chat softly with others in between classes.
The programs they offer here are varied, with multiple levels and styles. I enjoy them immensely and learn something new about myself and my body each time I visit.
Here’s a thing I’ve learned about myself and my body this trip: no matter how many props a sincere yoga assistant offers me, I STILL CAN’T DO HERO POSE. I just can’t.
What’s hero pose, you might wonder. Here’s what it looks like.
It’s not twisty or bendy or balance-y at all: you just sit flat on the mat, or on one or more yoga blocks, bending your legs to sit with your feet beside your hips.. The blocks give you extra height and take some of the strain off your knees and feet. There are folks who can do this pose without them, but most people in my classes use at least one block or a blanket for a bit of comfort.
Not me. When I try hero pose (also called Virasana), it hurts the tops of my feet too much. They get all cramped, and I absolutely have to move, like right now.
There are ways to mitigate the crampage. You put a rolled up blanket or bolster behind you so the tops of your feet are sitting on it, giving them some cushion.
Nope. Still hurts too much. Normally, this is no problem. I know this about myself, so I just sit in another pose (sitting cross-legged works for me) and do the stretchy or twisty things. Maybe it’s not as effective, but hey—this is not a life-or-death situation here.
Except at last night’s yoga class, one very sincere and persistent yoga assistant saw me try hero pose (I always try it, in vain hopes that this time it won’t be excruciating), and decided she would make it happen this time, with the aid of loads of props. I did whisper to her, “my body doesn’t do hero pose”, but she replied with, “let me put these cushions here”. Before I knew it, she was shimming me like I was a rickety bookcase. I was awash in cushions and blankets, along with extra blocks under my bum.
Honestly, she meant well. But by the time she was done, she had effectively built a fort out of blankets, blocks and cushions, with me teetering from the ramparts. And still I wasn’t comfortable.
Trying to be a good sport, I remained in my hero-pose construction site for several minutes, trying to breathe through the pain and will the tops of my feet to relax. Soon, though, I dismantled the Jenga tower of props as quietly as possible so I could sit cross-legged on my mat and rejoin the class in whatever it was doing.
Let me say now that I don’t blame the assistant at all. It’s true that, with the right props and modifications, many poses are open to us that otherwise wouldn’t. For instance, here are two ways to modify half moon pose, which can be difficult.
Back to my anti-hero attitude about Virasana– Hero pose. Yes, there are some stretches I can do at home to get my ankles and feet in better shape to do this pose. But sometimes I think it’s okay to just say no– my body doesn’t do that. Y’all go ahead; I’m just fine sitting here doing my thing.
There’s more yoga on offer tomorrow, but I just saw a class called “Archery and Mindfulness”. Hmmm. I wonder if my body will do that. Only one way to find out…
Readers, are there some moves or techniques in your sport/activity that you simply can’t do? I’ve love some solidarity comments if you’ve got them… 🙂
June 21st is many things. It’s summer solstice, it’s also National Indigenous Peoples Day — a day for all Canadians to celebrate the diverse cultures, unique heritage, and contributions of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples, and it’s International Yoga Day.
Laura is celebrating International Yoga Day with a standing balance flow. She writes, “Are you up for a fun (I think) standing balance challenge? Here is a short (<10 mins.) flow, taught by me.”
Bonus content: her dog Trudy demonstrates a beautiful execution of “Sleeping Dog Pose” throughout this video.
And balance is also in the news days these day as a marker of health.
“If you have difficulty standing on one leg, it could be a sign of something more serious than overdoing it at the office summer drinks party. Middle-aged and elderly people who cannot balance on one leg for 10 seconds are almost twice as likely to die within 10 years than those who can, research suggests.
How well a person can balance can offer an insight into their health. Previous research, for instance, indicates that an inability to balance on one leg is linked to a greater risk of stroke. People with poor balance have also been found to perform worse in tests of mental decline, suggesting a link with dementia.
Now an international group of experts from the UK, US, Australia, Finland and Brazil have completed a first-of-its-kind, 12-year study examining the relationship between balance and mortality. Although the research was observational and cannot establish cause, its findings were striking.
An inability to stand on one leg for 10 seconds in middle to later life is linked to a near doubling in the risk of death from any cause within the next 10 years. The results were published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
The findings are so stark that the researchers, led by Dr Claudio Gil Araujo of the Clinimex exercise medicine clinic in Rio de Janeiro, suggest a balance test should be included in routine health checks for older people.
Unlike aerobic fitness, muscle strength and flexibility, balance tends to be well preserved until the sixth decade of life, when it starts to wane relatively rapidly. However, balance assessment typically is not included in health checks of middle-aged and older people, possibly because there is no standardised test for it. Until now there had been little hard data linking balance to clinical outcomes other than falls.”
The weather here in Newfoundland and Labrador is tricky at any point and doubly tricky on the May 24th weekend.*
I have spent May 24th weekends wearing shorts, I have been rained out of planned adventures, I have shoveled snow from in front of a tent. And, on several occasions, I have worn shorts, a raincoat, and then mittens all on the same day.
So when Saturday rolled around and the weather was beautiful, I knew that my usual Saturday stuff inside could wait.
I had to get outside ASAP just in case things took a turn.
Normally, this would be cause for a scrambly brain of indecision – Should I do yard work? Bring inside work outside? Make plans for my garden? Take Khalee for an extra walk? What is the BEST use of this time?
This time, though, I bypassed all of those questions and just asked myself “What would be the most fun to do right now?”
And that’s how I found myself in the sunshine, doing yoga on my patio, laughing at the way my shadow makes me look like a fur ball or some sort of tendrilly sea creature.
PS – For the record, Khalee and I took a long walk later in the day… and neither of us had to put on our mittens.
*Apparently, the May long weekend in Canada is not called ‘May 24th’ everywhere but that’s what we’ve always called it – no matter which date it falls on. If your brain hates that, imagine that I have said ‘Victoria Day’ instead.
CW: mention of BMI and body weight in a medical study on laughter yoga.
Since yoga took off in North America, teachers and studio owners and social media hopefuls have trotted out every possible variation to make it more attractive to more people. I’m not talking about Kundalini yoga, Iyengar yoga, etc.
No, in this case, I’m talking about yoga with music, yoga with wine or beer or cocktails, goat yoga, bro yoga, naked yoga, yoga dance, etc.
One type of yoga I hadn’t heard of until last week was laughter yoga. Yes, this is a thing. Dr. Madan Kitaria is credited with inventing it, and this site goes into loads of detail about him and about what laughter is alleged to do to us and for us. In short, laughter yoga is supposed to lower stress and anxiety, provide ease from depression, release endorphins, and generally relax us.
If you’re interested in a demonstration of laughter yoga, here is a TED talk (of course there’s a TED talk!) that you can watch.
Okay, I get it: yoga is good for you. Laughing is good for you. So, laughing while doing yoga must be extra-good for you. And yet I maintain a smidge of skepticism. Why?
Lots of scientists and sciency-folks have been speculating about the role of laughter in health and well-being for decades. In this Shape article (an authoritative source if ever there was one), we get this capsule history of laughter as medicine (forgive me, I got lazy while googling):
William Fry, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, helped to pioneer the research on the health benefits of laughter back in the 1960s. Fry found that laughter enhanced the activity of immune system cells through an experiment in which he drew blood at regular intervals while watching comedies. In author Norman Cousins’ 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness, he described how he battled a fatal disease for years through his practice of mindful laughter. And psychotherapist Annette Goodheart published a book titled Laughter Therapy in 2006 that included 25 ways to help yourself laugh about everyday things.
It makes sense that people hope to leverage laughter to bring down blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, cortisol levels, you name it. So far, the research suggests diffuse and bidirectional effects– laughter may affect well-being, and feeling better influences frequency of laughter. For instance, in a 2021 study of the relationship between oral health and laughter, the researchers found
The participants with 10 or more teeth were significantly more likely to laugh compared with the edentulous participants, after adjusting for all covariates… There was a significant bidirectional association between frequency of laughter and oral health that was independent of socioeconomic and lifestyle factors among older adults.
Which is to say: people with more teeth laugh more, and people who laugh more have more teeth.
I bring up actual laughter research because last week, while perusing the weekly newsletter on body weight and metabolism research, I found this study:
Curious, I read the article. Twice. Here’s what I found:
The researchers tried out a 12-week program of 60-minute laughter yoga classes and 30-minute rakugo performances (a traditional form of Japanese comic storytelling). The participants were mostly women over 60, and they had some standard risk factors like high blood pressure or cholesterol, diabetes, or slightly higher body weights (overweight according to researchers and adjusted BMI scale). The control group just went about their business, with no intervention.
So what did the researchers find?
The intervention group laughed a lot more. Their responses to all sorts of quality-of-life health surveys after the 12 weeks were a bit higher than the control group’s. The laughter yoga and comic performances seemed to do them good.
But laughing a lot didn’t really affect their body weight. The researchers document some teeny-tiny shifts in BMI– shifts which they acknowledge aren’t clinically significant. The men in the intervention group– which were 2% of the group (yes, I wrote that correctly) experienced stronger effects overall, but even their effects were very small. So much for laughter yoga as weight-loss method. This is entirely unsurprising.
However, that doesn’t mean that laughter yoga should be dismissed; far from it. It seems to be a way to introduce some people to both gentle movement and breathing techniques that reduce stress and improve mood and feelings of well-being.
Here are a couple of laughter yoga exercises you can try in the privacy of your own bathroom. I took them from the knowledgeable folks at Shape (obvs):
Smile-Ups: Stand in front of a mirror, or even better, face to face with a friend or family member. Practice breaking into a big smile 10 times. You can also do this when confronted with a stressful situation, such as being stuck in traffic.
Hand Puppet: Struggling with negative self-talk? Get rid of it by acting it out. This exercise, which you can also call the “I love myself” laugh, helps you to recognize the silliness of those thoughts. Lift up one hand and imagine it’s a hand puppet, and start putting those negative thoughts into words using a funny voice and moving your hand puppet accordingly. Then, take your other hand and “squash” the hand puppet with laughter.
Readers, have any of you tried laughing yoga? Did you try the smile-ups or the hand puppet negative self-talk? Let me know.
Doing things slowly is often harder than doing them quickly. This is true for jazz singing– ballads expose every note, every nuance of melody and rhythm– and also for yoga practice. Ditto for holding poses for longer periods of time: you’ve just got to relax into the process, open up, and commit.
Some people prefer to just go with the flow, favoring vinyasa, power yoga, etc. That’s cool– you do you. I’ve found myself getting into yin yoga, pranayama yoga and restorative yoga again. Many of you know these terms, but here is my take on them, aided by Wikipedia:
yin: passive poses done on the mat and held for minutes, focusing on connective tissues; a very contemplative practice.
pranayama: practices and poses to focus on the breath; poses are supported and passive and directed by a teacher. Also very meditative in nature.
restorative yoga: passive poses, supported by props (basically everything in the yoga studio, including folding chairs), for relaxation, rest, and calm. Very meditative and occasionally nap-inducing (snoring is not an uncommon sound in an evening restorative yoga class).
Before the pandemic, I discovered yin yoga while in Tucson, AZ on a work/play trip. It was absolutely sublime. But, there were poses where I still experienced tension, or held myself up or back, where I couldn’t melt into the pose because my body wouldn’t do the thing we were supposed to do. I felt too impatient or embarrassed or clueless to try to fix it, so I just carried on. During in-person yin classes, my experienced and intuitive teacher Emily would come around and adjust people, adding props to make their poses right for them. Since zoom-time, though, it’s not been quite the same.
Restorative yoga has been much the same story, but with a twist: I blogged last year about how restorative yoga turned into face-plant yoga for me because of pandemic changes in my body and my having to get used to re-arranging myself for rest and calm. The teacher was super-helpful when I asked for help. But I spent a fair bit of time gritting my teeth through some of the poses, not feeling patient or kind or inquisitive enough to explore options that might have made me feel more at ease.
Enter pranayama yoga. The workshops I’ve done have been, hands down, my favorite yoga experiences ever. Why? Because, for whatever reason, there’s been a harmonic convergence of 1) poses that are naturally (for my body) more comfortable; 2) persistent assistance from teachers I trust (yes, you Rahel and you Mary from Artemis!) in providing adjustments or modifications, using everything in the studio but my bike bottle; 3) studio owner Liz’s creation of an environment of complete support and safety for inner exploration.
This spring, during Rahel’s pranayama class, she had us to do chair-assisted forward folds. They were a little like the pictures below:
On the left, we see a person using a chair for support in a forward fold. In real life, lots of people need blankets or block(s) to support their heads. I thought I didn’t need a block, as my head reached the chair seat. But Rahel put a block there anyway, and you know what? It felt lovely, yummy, super-supported. I could have stayed there for an hour (well, probably not, but you get the idea).
On to a pose I’d never seen before. We did a variation of the picture, standing with our butts against the wall, out legs straight out from the wall. We held onto a folded up chair, and were to drape ourselves over it into a forward fold.
Turns out, this pose isn’t easy to do as shown. Rahel took her time and adjusted everyone, including not leaving me until she found the perfect way to support me in this pose. She tucked a block on the chair rim so my head would rest effortlessly. And rest it did. As did I.
If you’re interested in a bunch of ways to do forward fold, check out this site.
Friday night, I went to an in-person Artemis restorative class taught by Shireen, a teacher I didn’t know. Again, we did a series of resting poses, many of which requires a fair number of props to make comfortable and effective. One very common pose that I just can’t do as shown is the spinal twist. I’ve had rotator cuff surgery on one shoulder and a partial tear in the other, so neither will rest on the floor as I twist.
Shireen saw me doing what I usually do in this pose– trying to calm my flailing arm– and suggested I just move my arm over my head instead. And it worked. I got some nice stretching in my side body– excellent! I also got to actually sink into the pose and feel the sensations without worry about instability or pain or time. Nice! Thanks, Shireen!
Asking for help when I need it, allowing myself to receive help when it’s offered, and feeling the benefits that help and support bring to my life– these are big and newish experiences. They’re a little daunting because getting help requires allowing ourselves to be seen as in need of something.
Also, help isn’t perfect– people don’t have the mind-reading capabilities or even problem-solving capabilities we wish they did. I know this to be true in life as well.
In 12 days I start my sabbatical. I’ve got plans for writing projects, athletic projects, home and self-care projects. I’ll definitely be wanting some help. So I’ll be asking, responding, taking some advice, experimenting, and (most importantly) taking the time to recognize and experience support when it’s happening.
Readers, have you had an experience in which you needed help or support and got it? What was that like? I’d love to hear from you.