A few days ago I posted a photo on my Facebook page of my lunch. I had been trying to keep my fridg stocked with pre made healthy choices, and given that I had seen a lot of photos of oreos and such recently, I wanted to share a thought of some ways one could eat quickly AND healthfully. That day I was having kale with garlic and lemon, spiced chickpeas with ginger, and brown rice with turmeric and cilantro.
I was surprised how popular that post was. Even more popular than when I posted about Kareem Abdul Jabbar doing yoga, or quoted Camus (gentle irony). So I said I would follow with the recipes. I promise 2 of the 3 dishes can be done in less than 10 minutes, and they are all quick and healthy.
If you just want the recipes please skip the next paragraph, as I exercise my 'jnana yoga'.
There are all these threads coming together around our eating habits. Big food provides us with whatever maximizes their profits, and coincidentally (and sometimes perhaps not coincidentally) decreasing our health and increasing our weight. People involved in health and fitness (and those that make a profit from supplying its needs) tell us about juicing, eating raw, eating paleo, eating low carb.... Beautifully set cooking shows show amazing and elegant cuisine. But we also do not live lives where we have a kitchen staff, and even people like me who work part time are hard pressed to avoid the traps of cholesterol, trans fat, over pricing, animal cruelty, staying in budget, growing our own.... and still get everything else done that we are called on to do. I know what it is like to be tired and just want to make a p b and j, or eat digestive biscuits. I know what it is like to try to manage a household of different tastes and different schedules. I know what it is like to walk the gauntlet of the grocery trying to avoid pesticides, cruelty, worker ill treatment, over packaging, trans fat.... and to engage in the war that SOME companies wage to fool me into buying their outwardly pretty inwardly dubious wares.
Brown Rice with Toasted Turmeric
If you are optimizing reducing packaging and cost you will start by cooking a batch of brown rice. I typically steam it. If you are optimizing speed you will go to your freezer for your box of Rice Expressions Organic Brown Rice and microwave 2 of the packets (3 minutes each). You can also use the whole foods frozen brown rice, or some other one.
In a sauce pan heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil on low to medium heat. Once warm add a teaspoon of turmeric (or a bit more), some salt, and a few turns of black pepper. You can also put in a sprinkle of ground cumin. Give it a couple of minutes, till it starts to get a little golden, but not dark. Stir in the rice, and about a quarter cup of rinsed and chopped cilantro.
Keeps well in fridg, warms up well, and if you do the frozen rice ready in under 10 minutes.
Kale with Garlic and Lemon
You can certainly do this with fresh kale from your garden or farmers market and reduce packaging and carbon footprint. If you do that you need to wash carefully, and chop. Or you can procure a package of organic baby kale and rinse it in the package.
In a sauce pan over medium to high heat add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add some chopped garlic and about a teaspoon of butter (can be left out, but enriches the flavor). Again a choice: fresh chopped, or Penzy's spices (in my opinion the BEST spices ever) has wonderful chopped dried garlic, much more flavorful than anything chopped in a jar. This will start to brown quickly so quickly throw in the rinsed kale. Usually enough water is adhering to it to steam it. Put on the lid and let it steam a few minutes. How long? How crispy do you like your kale? I do about 5 minutes. Stir once to bring up the bottom layer. Take off lid, drain if excess water, add salt to taste and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Here I am going to give you a link, because I got this from Allrecipes.com
I will say, I made a few changes. First I did not crush my cinnamon sticks, I used powdered (penzy's again), and I used ground cloves. Second I used 2 cans of organic chick peas, and I rinsed them well. Third, mincing takes time and my family tends not to like big chunks of 'veg ter bles' so I grated rather than minced the onions and ginger and I used the penzy's garlic again. Saves time also. I also did not cook it for a full half hour, I found 20 minutes quite adequate.
I think it is possible to eat and feed a family in a way that tries to do well with those things that matter to us. I also think the act of cooking and eating is one that sits at the center of the various dimensions of self. It feeds our physical self, our emotional self, our creative self, and when we cook for and share food with others is one of the most basic ways to feed our social selves.
If you like these I will do some more. I am planning a really delicious moroccan salmon for tomorrow's dinner which I would be glad to share, for example.
(please note I am not on the payroll or otherwise have any relationship other than consumer with any product I mentioned).
The other day a few students and colleagues were engaged in an online chat about a spin class the gist of which was that the class was difficult and awesome. The end result of the exchange was to make me want to go take the class.
The first thing to understand is that decades ago I was a full time fitness trainer and instructor who taught about 20 hours a week, saw clients, and walked miles every day. I did take a spin class during that time. As I recall spin was pretty new, and I liked to try out new things. Some of those new things had staying power (like step) and some didn't (like jump rope aerobics). Spin did, but for whatever reason I did not pursue learning to teach it myself. As I remember it bothered my hip where I had had an injury. Also, even then my work centered on yoga, and secondarily on strength training. That was 20 years ago.
I ended up taking about 7 years off from teaching to care full time for my family. For the last 7 years I have been working part time, slowly doing more with each year. The thing is yoga has always been the center of my work, as well as of my personal journey. So a lot of my hours are teaching yoga. But I decided to go to the IDEA convention this year. I am very excited about this: it is 20 years since I have been at an IDEA convention, and I remember the excitement and how much I learned. But after watching the online ad I realized I probably needed to tweak my personal workout schedule if I was going to manage this without basically dying.
So last Tuesday I found myself turning right rather than left to the yoga room, and walking past the aerobic room into the spin room.
My experience with this class was really interesting. What is most interesting to me are the ways that I find spinning a lot like doing yoga. Obviously the music is really different, and the training effect is primarily cardiovascular, where in yoga the training effects are more flexibility, balance, and strength related. But it is a little like the way Levi-Strauss looked at mythology: the cultural trappings are different, but there are pronounced structural similarities.
Actually I posted to the instructor my sense of similarity ( I think I told her it was like yoga, but like yoga that had drunk a lot of espresso) and she said that it was no accident that the two things she liked were spin and yoga. Actually the first thing that struck me when I went in was her relationship with the room and the students. The ability to connect to individual students, and to notice what is going on with them, and to provide options and modifications is a very yogic thing. Certainly this is how I have always taught yoga: what you learn about yourself while on the mat is even more important than how many calories you burn, or how much weight you lift. This may be due to her experience in both worlds, I would have to take a few more teachers to know.
Many of the spin classes I have seen, and this one that I took are done with the main lights off. I think that is another thing that made if feel particularly yogic to me. I don't just mean that a lot of yoga studios turn the lights down, or use candles, or fairy lights. It has more to do with why one might do that, and with one of the parts of yoga that has been talked about even as far back as Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras: pratyahara.
When we are children we learn about the '5 senses'. The thing is those senses have to do with our relationship with the world outside of our own physical body. There are other senses that give us information from within our body. They help us balance, judge spacial presence, feel pressure in joints, and lots of other things. When there is a disconnect between our inner and outer self (the mind and body) we often have difficulty focusing on and responding to those inner signals. Of course we can also become so self involved that we forget that or loose interest that these inner signals are shared by others. The way I say this is that the lines of stretch, or energy, or understanding reach outward like waves from a pebble dropped in a lake, but also inward. Shutting the eyes for a few moments when one enters practice, in my belief, allows us to rebalance the senses that draw us inward and those that draw us outward. In particular with spin the darkness pulls our attention away from the surface of our own bodies in the mirrors, and those of the other students. The kinesthetic connection grows stronger. Yet the sounds of the bikes and the breath keep us from loosing ourselves solely in the inward journey.
One thing that I need to think about more has to do with focus. I often find if I ride a cardiovascular machine that my mind often goes off to check email, or to shop at the grocery. In yoga it doesn't (well, it used to, and I know when you begin a yoga practice that can be a difficulty). In yoga we call the place of intense mental focus dharana. Dharana is balanced by dynana, or meditation. I think of them as like a hose attachment that you twist to open the water or to intensify it to a narrow point. We use the breath, linking inhale to exhale with variations in movement, moving deeper, and finding the mind body connection by body surfing the breath. That focus came to me very strongly in the spin class, partly because of the breathlike quality of the pumping of the pedals.
Actually the first thing I thought once I got on the bike and the instructor advised me how to modify it to my needs, was that the seat was most uncomfortable and I wished I had a pillow. Once the class started it didn't seem to matter as we were usually standing up, or moving up and own so the seat only met with the seat for a few seconds. That rhythm combined with the rhythm of breath, deepening and lengthening, and, the rhythm of the peddling, created flow. While different in many ways, (like speed, number of joints involved, etc) it FELT like vinyasa.
I would say I am quite looking forward to my next class.
It is widely understood that one of the huge differences in lifestyle between modern people and their ancestors is that we sit a lot more and walk a lot less. This sitting, particularly sitting for long periods in chairs, and particularly in front of desks with our head and shoulders hunched forward, has contributed to a lot of discomfort and injury. And it has only been made worse by being combined with the even more hours of the day peering down at screens of varying sizes and types.
There are quite a few things that we can do to balance the needs of living in the 21st century with the needs of our human body. Some of those things involve what in yoga we call svadhayaya, or self study. Some involve what is at the heart of yoga: joining or connecting various things to create a balance between those elements. I want to look at some of the biomechanics of the chair/computer problem. Then I want to consider some general life choices that can help to balance them, some of the small techniqess that can be done while engaging in those activities to balance them, and what are some exercises that can be added to our weekly workouts, and some poses that can be added to our yoga practice that are helpful in counteracting the effects of too much sitting and too much computer.
Please keep in mind that the tips I offer are for a general, uninjured population. It is really important if you are pregnant, injured, or have some sort of chronic condition to speak to your medical provider before beginning a program. It is also helpful to speak to your teacher/trainer as you modify, as they will be familiar with your body and your background.
Self study has a number of tools. I think using journaling techniques can be very helpful. For example, if a person wants to know how many calories they are taking in they might use a 'diet diary'. I think that is a great tool, because prepackaged food tends to be high in calories and to have labels that try to trick one into thinking it doesn't, and because if one looks at the data it is clear that most people underestimate portion sizes and total amount consumed. In the same way I think it can be useful to do a diary of screen use. Screen time related to work and school probably cannot be shortened (though there are other ways to balance it), but just as we may be surprised at how often we put a handful of m and ms in our mouths, and how many extra calories that adds, we may be surprised if we actually time the number of minutes (hours....) we spend on social media, U tube, twitter, instagram,.... etc. Once we know we can try to set some limits. Once way is to have daily time when one is purposefully unlinked, another is to use a timer to limit the total number of minutes, but leave free when it happens.
Another method of self inquiry (or data collection) that can help us understand how much time we sit is to use a pedometer. Once we see what our baseline is for how many steps we take per day we can try to increase it. Using an alarm to remind us to get up at defined intervals of sitting and walk through the office or home is also helpful.
If we want to think about what sort of movement patterns can help more specifically we need to look at the biomechanics of sitting and staring at a screen, and then think about what sort of movement patterns can help to balance that. My preference is to look at this from the ground up, as it were. I know a lot of the problem areas are in the neck, shoulders, and arms, but it is easy to overlook what is happening at the base, and I think it is always helpful to take a whole body approach to things.
For most of our day, especially if we work in an office setting we are wearing shoes. Shoes protect our feet from injury (stepping on a sharp stone or broken glass and getting an infection for example). They also force the feet into a simple repetitive movement pattern, and if they have heels, can shorten the muscles that attach through the achilles tendon to the heel. This can then pull on the hip and contribute to low back problems, and pull on the foot and contribute to problems with an overstressed plantar fascia (the connective tissue on the bottom of the foot).
If this is combined with lots of sitting the feet and knees and hips are all pushed into a series of flexed positions and held there. Think about when you have gone to the gym and been on a bike and then gone right to the car and drove home. When you get out of the seat your hips resist opening. Or if you have ever had frozen shoulder.... how once the joint has not done a movement for a while it is very difficult, or even painful to stretch it to its fully open position. Joints are constantly remodelling. The connective tissue that surrounds the muscle fibers start work as soon as the joint stops.... like making paper mache.... layering itself into position. If you are warm and cool down stuck in flexion that will be even more noticable. In addition remember (as I always tell my students) arteries have muscle to push the blood out. Veins need pumping action to help push the blood back to the heart. And gravity is working to pull the fluid down at the same time. So the longer you sit (or even stand) in one position the harder it is to keep fluid moving (including not just the blood, but also the lymphatic fluic).
foot has lots of movements.
There are a number of things you can do to balance these effects:
Choose shoes that can be slipped off and on easily and occasionally do so under your desk. Then do heel/toe stretches, ankle circles, and practice holding one leg at a time straight.
Set an alarm to take an occasional walk from the desk.
Do wall stretches (If you put a book that is between a half to an inch thick near the wall you can stand on it and sink one heel at a time off the edge and hold for about 10 seconds and switch. Yes... barefoot)
Some of the things to think of for your workout or your yoga practice would be to include some rhythmic cardio which is helpful for fluid dynamics (as well as other things). I also really like downward dog, which opens the ankle joint as well as the hip. I would suggest as you breathe into the posture and hold for whatever is your regular time, you take a few breaths with both knees bent by a half inch and pressing the navel toward the thighs. When the knees are straight one of the two calf muscles opens, and when you slightly bend them you work into the other. I also think adding a few standing balance postures can be useful for building strength in the feet. And occasionally varying shavasana by laying perpendicular to a wall with your legs resting straight on the wall is also helpful for the feet. Just make sure to do regular shavasana sometimes to rest the hips as well.
The hips, low back, and middle of the body also can suffer from too much sitting and computer use. Sitting in a chair with a back means that the abdominal musculature is not called upon to help with posture. This can mean that the lower back can get overarched, and the hips be pulled in one direction. The pelvis is supported above and below, front and back, and side to side. If any one of these directions gets too tight, or too weak the system is thrown out of whack, and everything above the hips can get misaligned, and become more likely to get stressed or injured. Also if one is sitting facing forward for hours at a time there is a huge loss of lateral and rotational movement. Remember that the spine is a lot of bones, with a lot of movement between parts.... it is meant to move more than just hinging forward. And of course, remember that the hip flexors are getting shortened, so in addition to weak abs not pulling up on the front of the pelvis, the hip flexors are pulling down too much, putting much stress on the low back.
To keep the core of the body strong it is helpful to do strengthening exercises. These can be done in a lot of ways: e.g. in a core yoga class, or a Pilates class, or in a toning class, or as part of a weight room workout. It is possible to add some core strengthening even while sitting at one's desk. In yoga we learn to do mulha bandha and uddiyana bandha. These two practices can be done at regular intervals during the day. They could be timed to do right before or after taking that walk down the hall, or in whatever way works. I've talked about these things in the blog before, so I won't give instructions again. Doing kegels is another great occasional practice.
Another general tip I suggest often is to try a chair yoga class. People often avoid such classes as they feel they are for people who are unable to do more vigorous work. The thing is though, one can get great tips that can be used in an office setting. And it is easier to learn them in person, rather than my describing the movements.
I will, however suggest one chair based posture that I think is really good. This is a chair variation for virabadhrasana. It is not to be done in a chair on wheels. Sit in the chair, forward so your back is off the back of the chair. Place the feet flat on the floor. Pivot so you are 'sidesaddle' with the chair back to your left. The left half of the buttocks are on the chair, the right half is off. Hold the arm rest with both hands, have a good grip, but not so tight you raise your blood pressure. Make sure your left foot is flat to the floor. Slowly push the right leg back and straighten it slightly. Tighten the buttocks, and press forward slightly at the hip. Breathe fairly deeply and hold for 3 or 4 breaths. Draw the foot back in and carefully move to do the other side. If you want to add a spinal twist (remember that if you are sitting in that chair facing forward you are not squeezing and hydrating the spinal discs, the importance of which I have blogged about before... but also remember if you have a herniated or bulging disc or other back injury or condition lateral work may not be for you) when you are in position move your hands gently toward the backrest of the chair. Make sure to push the head up and the seat down before you twist.
When doing your regular workout I do recommend squats if it works for your legs, same for lunges. And definitely stretching the whole leg, back, and hip area. In yoga I think all the Virabhadrasana variations, and the lunges, and pigeon (look at my instruction for leg series if you need a gentle way to approach these leg stretches) if your knees allow, as it is great for the hip. Also cat to cow and the six movements of the spine, and half moon.
So now we get to the places that are really affected most deeply by our long hours of screen time: shoulders and chest, arms and hands, and neck.
Leaning forward over a desk, or toward a laptop or computer pad causes thoracic rounding, chest compression, and inward rotation of the humerus. Considering that age already is associated with such rounding, as well as the dehydration of the intervertebral discs (as I talked about already) it becomes even more important to create balance, by focusing on movements that lengthen the upper spine, and produce extension. In addition holding the arms, back and shoulders still while the hands fly over the keys, or work the mouse mean it is really helpful to do regular range of motion stretches throughout the arm and shoulder complex.
Think of the chair variation of Vira I mentioned. Before doing the twist, as you push back on the foot, and forward with the hip turn the palm of the hand on the outside inward, push down into the fingers and sweep the hand up to point to the ceiling, concentrating on pulling in on the belly, and keeping the ear aligned no further back than perpendicular to the floor. Then move into the twist. These movements will help to stretch muscles like the rhomboids and trapezius and serratus (among others).
Doing regular strength training is very useful. It will help to create the strength of the upper body to handle the stress of sitting and keyboarding. It is important thoug to take care to balance fmovements like bench presses with back work. If your work is constantly collapsing the chest your strength work should include work to draw the scapula together as well as things that lift and externally rotate the arms. One movement might be a high pulley lateral extension to try to strengthen the teres minor, infraspinatus and rhomboids as well as trapezius and deltoids. Rows and pull downs can help to strengthen lower in the back.
In yoga one should definitely include back bending postures (if medically allowed). Cobra (especially a baby cobra that focuses higher in the back), and down facing boat, and bow, and bridge are all good variations. I do a variation of boat where I place a block on the seat, draw the arms back and press into the block and lift it up, drawing the scapula in and down the back, engaging the belly lock and the neck lock. I find it creates strength within the lift as well as focus. There is a set of movements I learned with Gary Kraftsow (a great viniyoga teacher) where while one holds virabhadrasana I one flows forward with the arms and back into deviasana (goddess) arms. Any sort of flow that opens the shoulders and arms through multiple lines of stretch are great. These are just examples. I do not have space to list all the ones I do, but I definitely do a lot of this sort of opening. Another shavasana variation I like is one I learned from Megan Garcia: a blanket is rolled (or a spare mat) and placed in alignment with the spine. The seat is flat on the floor and the blanket roll is from the low back where it meets the spine, up to under the heat. The shoulder blades are able to spread and rest, the arms held palm up can be next to the body, or fanned out up to perpendicular to the body.
Breath work will be particularly helpful in countering the forward slump. There are lots of pranayama techniques. One thing I like to do is to lengthen the exhale a count or two over the inhale, and silently to say 'lift' as I inhale, and 'relax' as I exhale. Allowing breath fully into the lungs will promote stretch to the chest area, among other things (again, I already blogged about breath work, so I don't want to go too deeply into other aspects of this part of the yoga).
One of the best techniques to balance the stress of computer work and desk sitting is massage (full body, or neck and shoulders). I do recommend finding someone who is trained, certified, experienced, and recommended. I actually do not always go to people who are recommended, because I try to try new people so I can give recommendations to my students. I have found there are tons of great massage therapists, and that styles vary quite a bit.
Of course the hands and arms take a lot of overuse with computer use. The same principles apply to this area: take regular breaks to change activity, and to stretch, and consider adding some exercises to strengthen this area in your strength training program. One example would be to do reverse wrist curls for weak wrist extensors, and wrist curls for wrist flexors. For me I like to do hammer curls as well as bicep curls, again to vary the angle of stretch and strengthening.
Approaching down dog can be challenging if one's wrists are week, or overused. One option is to do dolphin. If one is going to do dog, it is extremely helpful to have someone work with you to show you how to place the body weight, and how to turn the shoulders, to pull the pressure off the wrists. There is a reason this posture is used a lot. It is really helpful. But like most good postures done with problematic allignment it can cause as many problems as it solves. The same can be said with plank, and with upward facing dog. One can always replace up dog with cobra, and plank with low plank. And if you have any sort of issues I strongly suggest leaving chaturanga dandasana out.
If one develops carpal tunnel, or any kind of overuse pain I think it is really important to see one's health care provider. I know the idea of surgical intervention is unpleasant, but there are quite a few things they can recommend, including working with a good physical therapist or occupational therapist, that can be very helpful.
The last part of the body to look at is the head and neck. Here also there are problems with forward movement. Especially if eyesight is not perfect, but really with most people there is a tendency to push the head forward, which can cause shearing stress in the cervical spine. The regular use of jalandra bandha (and yes, I know you are tired of hearing this, but I believe I blogged on how to do this already), or the neck lock is really helpful. I generally prefer to do spinal twists by opening from the base of the spine and working up, from the large vertebrae, to the smaller. With the neck though, I do like to do positions like the floor lying spinal twist where the head and hips move in opposite directions.
One of the things that can be done at one's desk I also like is to sit and bring the chin toward the breast bone, and then draw my hands to where the skull and neck meet, and pulse the fingers quickly up and down that area. It is also useful to stand at a right angle to the wall and place the hand on the wall at shoulder height. Then keeping the hand on the wall one turns one's head and torso slightly as though one is looking at someone standing next to them. This is great for opening the chest and neck.
Do remember that ANY exercise done with the neck should be done slowly and not to full range of motion. Also please refrain from extending the throat so that the back of the neck squeezes and the head moves toward the back. Your cervical vertebrae dislike being squeezed as much as L4 L5 does.
This has turned into the longest blog I have done, and though I think it is important, and though I have taken at least 4 breaks, and taught 2 classes in between writing sessions I am so ready to turn off my screen and walk my dog and make dinner.
Namaste my friends, and thank you for your interest.
Math, like language was created by man. There have always been things that could be counted and sorted, but we have not always counted and sorted them. There are cultures like the Piraha that have concepts like one and many, but no system of counting a group of things. Systems of counting and math began as a way to keep track of stuff, particularly stuff that belonged to the ruler of a culture large enough to have a lot of stuff to organize. In a larger and more complex society it was practical and useful. These days we count and measure all the time. It seems as obvious to us to measure a half cup of water into our instant oatmeal as to someone younger to google something about which we want to know. When I open my copy of Cook's Illustrated and my metal teaspoon and quarter teaspoon it is easy to forget that it was something like 120 years ago that Fannie Farmer published a system for more accurate measurements, leaving behind things like 'an egg sized lump of butter'.
I think it is really interesting to look at how we use tests and measurements not just about our stuff, but about ourselves: our bodies, our health, our intellectual and physical progress toward certain goals. At your annual physical you will likely have blood work, weight and height, and often questionnaires on lifestyle and safety. At school there are entrance tests, progress tests, and regional (in New England we have the NECAP) or national tests (like the SAT). There are IQ tests and tests to measure emotional satisfaction or stress levels or depression. If you have ever joined a gym odds are you have you have filled out a sheet asking about your health history, and possibly your exercise history as well. You might also have had someone test you on the number of push ups you can do, or use a set of calipers to measure percentage of body fat. And anyone who has watched their weight is at least familiar with tools to measure calorie and nutritional intake.
The benefits of these sorts of tests and tools for data collection are many. They can help discover underlying weaknesses or other problems. For example if your doctor gives you a blood test and measures total cholesterol above 240 they are going to have a conversation with you as this is a risk factor for heart disease. And if you are a fifth grader who measures at a second grade reading level on a standardized test your teachers are (hopefully) going to be recommending you for extra help to bring this score up.
Data collection goes on through our lives, and by having what is called 'baseline' data, or how things were at the beginning (of a program, of our lives, or of a specific chunk of time) we can keep track of trends and see where there is progress or loss.If you can do 10 push ups and every 4 months you add another 5 that is a good trend, whereas if you do less every month that is not.
The types of tests we do, or data we collect is predicated on what we have done before. You wouldn't do that push up test until you did a health history (you really do not want to do a sit up test with someone with a history of osteoporosis), and then did some postural assessment to make sure the spine and hips are working as they should. Before a teacher gives a test on Shakespearean vocabulary they would want to know the person's reading level.
Baseline tests and measures and data collection can help create strategies for change based on how things are, what needs to be addressed, and what needs to be modified. We might have a general idea that we need to loose some weight, or want to add some shoulder muscle to complete our daily activities more efficiently, or that there is a family history of borderline hyperlipidemia. These pieces of information can help us set goals that are more specific: not “I want to loose some weight”, but “I see I am about 30 pounds into the obese range, and would like to loose that 30 pounds”. They can help us see patterns: “Gee, my blood pressure is really high since the year started, and this test indicates high stress level, and my workout log shows I have not been at the gym in 4 months.” Testing and data collection is like putting lights and sign posts on the path... They can make it much easier to follow.
Quantified information can help motivate us to change, as well as set strategies to do so, “Gosh, the pretest shows I am weak on polynomials, I had better spend some extra time studying that.”
More broadly they foster self understanding. In The Yoga Sutras Patanjali talks about svadhyaya, or self study as one of the niyamas or ethical/philosophical/spiritual underpinnings of yoga. This study can be done in an unstructured or intuitive way, but because the tool of understanding is malleable based on its own understanding when it studies itself such rational data points can help to hone the course of that intuition. It is like practicing trikonasana against a wall.... it lets us compare how we feel we are standing with how we are actually standing.
This does not mean that it is good to do as many tests as there are available. That is like taking every vitamin you hear might be good for you in the highest possible dose. You can spend so much time writing things down and taking tests that you don't get to live. You can also spend time and money taking tests that have no value to your health or individual interests and goals. I personally do not feel the need at this point in my life to spend time taking the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale. Like everyone else I have things that I worry about, but they tend to be transient and do not cause me to be unable to focus on or do pretty much anything. Blood work might be a good idea though, it has been a while since I have had that done. It really is a question of time management and appropriate selection. Remember that path we are lighting? We don't want to trip, or take a wrong turn, but we do want to end up standing in the same place dithering.
What are some specific tests or tools to capture data I would recommend? I think it is highly variable. It will depend on the person's health status, age, weight, goals, emotional state, intellectual interests, personality type, and so on. It is also important to stress that not all useful information is quantifiable or countable, or might be countable, but does not need to be counted to be helpful. To help understand one's interests and goals better simple journaling is a great data tool. It is not going to give you a mathematically precise answer, but will provide much insight into your interests, goals, concerns, weaknesses, etc. Knowing those things can help you decide what things you either want to watch to make sure they do not become a problem (like a yearly weigh in), or want to set goals for as a way to track and organize progress (like measuring hamstring flexibility with the sit and reach test).
Generally speaking a yearly trip to the doctor for a health screen is a good starting point. Resting heart rate, blood pressure, some simple blood screens, weight, height, and so on can help almost any one by providing basic health information and a history to track changes for the better or worse. It also allows the physician to make a judgement on whether other medical tests are useful, such as tests for bone density, or tests for cardiovascular fitness.
Can you administer basic fitness tests for yourself? Sometimes yes. However the results will never be as accurate as when they are administered by an experienced trainer. Moreover, with some tests there are health risks if done in the wrong way, or if done by someone with certain kinds of underlying health issues. That is one reason why a trainer will generally have a student fill out something like the 'PAR-Q' health history before testing or training someone. Plus a well trained trainer can help figure out which tests are likely to help you reach your goals best. There are dozens of possible tests, sometimes measuring slightly different things, and sometimes using different tools. For example, to test cardiovascular fitness there are protocols for the treadmill, the stationary bike, the step, walking, etc.... and some are ok to do in a gym, some are best done in a hospital setting. It all depends. And of course there are tons of fitness tests you can do. You can test your flexibility at various joints, strength, endurance, cardiovascular ability (one of the differences between a medical test and a fitness one is that the trainer will generally use a test designed to measure what they call 'submaximal' and the doctor will be equiped to measure 'maximal' effort. The submaximal tests are pretty accurate, and unless there is a medical reason to do so the trainer will not usually refer you to do a maximal test. They are both designed to see how hard your heart can work to provide oxygen to the working muscles. There are tests that can be done on bikes, treadmills, steps, even walking. The Rockport walking test is a really easy one to take). You can also test sport specific skills, like speed, power, or agility. What you choose to do should relate to what your goals are, and whether there are some limitations you perceive in your everyday activities. If you are having trouble with a stiff low back, or can't reach down easily to tie your shoes you might want to do flexibility testing and create a stretching program to increase the flexibility in the areas where your flexibility is significantly less than normal. If you are having trouble picking up your child or your backpack you might want strength or endurance testing.
By the same token though there are inventories to measure stress, overload, personality, anxiety, if there are interpersonal, or emotional weaknesses or areas you would like to improve on it is absolutely helpful to work with a well trained professional therapist. There may be things for which you would go to a psychiatrist, or a therapist, just as there may be things you go to a general practitioner before starting a fitness regimen. The same is true with nutrition. It is straightforward enough to do a 3 day diet log, and to get a general idea ('gee, do I really eat that much bread?), and just journaling for yourself may give you enough information. But you may find working with a trained certified nutritionist can give you more accurate data. How accurate you want/need will depend on goals, needs and interests.
To take time to collect data or not? To write down or not? Well, we are back with Aristotle. Some is helpful. Too much can be a burden rather than a help. So we try to choose our data collection intelligently. The golden mean is our yellow brick path lit with self exploration and understanding, on which we are accompanied by and pointed forward as needed by trained professionals.
A couple of years ago I decided to 'do' Facebook. My sister in law sometimes posted photos of my nephew, who is very sweet and whom I do not often see. At first I pretty much ignored it. That is not hard for me, as I was neither very competent with, nor very interested in technology. I actually unplugged signal TV in 1997 and spent almost 10 years unplugged. I had two young kids at the time and wanted to be present with them. But as they were older and I began teaching yoga again after a few years off I began to feel that the hour or hour and a half on the mat was not sufficient for what I wanted to give. I wanted to be available to answer questions, anatomical, philosophical, and historical. I wanted to be available to teach the jnana path that seemed increasingly important to me. So I decided to use Facebook. It may not be the best platform, but there was a free class on how to use it offered by the public library.
I have come to love Facebook. It is like the modern agora. There are a variety of people with all sorts of reasons to be there: economic, social, romantic, nefarious. Just as you have to be mindful of where your pocketbook is in the village square, you do need to be careful and not assume everyone is honest or honorable. However, I have had the kind of philosophical discussions I have not had since graduate school, and I have been led to information on happenings that are not always covered in the media I follow, and I have gotten recipes, and helped people find work and been able to provide my often shifting schedule to my students.
A while back I saw a link from someone suggesting taking a quiz to see what character from Harry Potter I was most like. Being a big fan of the books I did so. And of course, since then I have gotten quite a number of those 'Take this Quiz' emails. On one level it is one of those time wasting enjoyable activities that are so prevalent in social media (and in the village square), but I have been finding in them a framework for self reflection.
Agatha Christie's character Miss Marple often remarks that people are much the same everywhere. What she means is that she can see how people do things and relate them to how she has seen people do similar things and categorize them. Think Carl Jung's archetypes. Whether one accepts a kind of a priori categorization of personality types or not, it is clear that there are certain basic drives in the human experience, certain basic roles and ways of being in the world. But those types are just the rough outline. No matter what 'type' a person may be, it is in the shadings and nuances of their genetics, and of their life experiences that create something completely unique and fascinating.
I have been Lupin, Obi Wan, Guinan, a rose, and had a silver aura. As much as I admire Picard, I have to agree with the test that I am not Picard. I am not a charismatic leader. I have no desire to be the one in charge. And though I admire the warrior who leads into the fray, or the extrovert who can charm everyone at a party that is not me. Of course one must take the next step. Not just, 'oh coo I'm Harry', or 'seriously... Neville?', but, 'Does this make sense?', 'Why?', 'If these are my strengths and weaknesses how can I use them?' and 'How am I not like the archetype suggested?'
Of course one can use any symbol system to do this. Birthstones are an example. What is commonly said about your birthstone, does that represent you well, and why or why not?
Even more interesting is how this can go beyond the very human task of self discovery, to the understanding of our connections to other humans, and to how we maintain and communicate within that framework.
In Star Trek TNG Picard is taken to a planet to try to learn to communicate with another being whose language cannot be translated into his. It turns out that that language is based on metaphor, and on the shared connections of one situation with another. To understand this take the William Blake poem called 'The Sick Rose'. In eight short lines he tells the story of a rose that gets a beetle in it that eats out its center. In the same eight words he tells the story of a woman being sexually exploited, the fall of the serpent from heaven and the destruction of Eden (this is not an exhaustive list of meanings). The imagery of metaphor allows a way of packing meaning into a small number of words. It is understandable within a context where the hearers share enough understanding to know that all of these ideas and themes. More than that there is an essential truth that it is not just these themes being packed into the same words, but how they are connected to each other that matters. Ever looked at old anatomy drawings? They used to peel away the connective tissue to draw the muscles. But it is the fascial web that links and connects all the muscles into a system. One can look at the truth of a single thing in itself, but the deeper truth is within the connections.
I will continue to take these tests, and think about the answers. I will look for the shared archetypes and patterns that allow me to understand and connect to others within this human community. I will continue to drop pebbles in the lake of the internet, and watch the ripples. Mine are unlikely to be as far reaching as some, but they will eddy against others, which will ripple in turn, and like the fascia pulled in one place, or the gravity of one small planet moving through space, I will take my place within the shared web of existence.
The other day I went out to walk my dog around the neighborhood, as I am wont to do. It being early April the signs of incipient spring were very apparent: crocuses, buds, warmer air, the last piles of snow under the shrubberies gone, landscaping trucks dotting the roads, and more people out walking. One of the nice things about walking is not just where the legs take you, but where the mind goes. In this case I was thinking about my college days at a school in a highly urban environment, and the prodigious amount of walking I did. Curious about what more than 30 years, decades of which I have lived in the suburbs with a car have done to my walking habits, and thinking I might like to get some baseline data to possibly try increasing what I suspect is less than ideal, I attached a pedometer to my waistband and took a look at where I was.
I seem to be averaging about 4,000 steps. This does not include time teaching or doing yoga or other classes. It could be worse, but I definitely could be doing more. I used to write papers in my head while walking in and out through the city. I found the exercise seemed to help me focus and understand the material better. (Which was good because Wittgenstein and Kant are challenging to wrap yourself around even at your most highly caffeinated)
However, I was remembering a study about walking and the Amish from the ACSM, some years ago. I looked it up and discovered in this study they found the men averaged over 14,000 and the men over 18,000 steps per day. One of the interesting things about the Amish that the study looked at is that in spite of a diet extremely high in gravy, carbs, meat, and desserts only 4% of the Amish were obese. While I think few people in modern society are going to spend the day ploughing the fields, and shooing our own horses, we clearly have come a long way from how we lived three hundred years ago. I think it unlikely I am going to get near 14,000 steps, for one thing, this does not include the time I am teaching.
Remember the old commercial with the person who slaps the side of their own head and says “I could have had a V8!”. Could it be as simple as this, just tell people to walk more steps, increase activity, and they will all loose weight, get more fit, and have less lifestyle related ailments? Pretty simplistic. And it hasn't worked so far.
The other thing that struck me on rereading this study is to wonder if it is a straightforward question of 'they eat more, but exercise more', but something about the diet that matters. They are eating gravy.... but it is homemade. They are eating pies... but they are not filled with artificial ingredients. I am thinking about the research I was just reading someone is doing on diet and motivation. They were finding that rats fed on junk food were much less motivated to work hard on various tasks. Add that to the growing body of research on the variety of ways eating processed food makes it more likely to gain weight and harder to loose it once it is gained. If it carries with it the bonus of making us less able to fight against it once we've eaten in well, as my mom used to say “good gravy”.
I am thinking about a recent article in the fitness professional journal Idea Today. It was on the association of diet and stress. Clearly in addition to what we eat, and how much activity we do, we need to manage our stress. One answer to that is to do activities like yoga that provide tools to manage stress. But there is something beyond this we need to think about.
People in the fitness industry spend a lot of time thinking about how to make people more fit. One thing, though, is that a lot of the conversations are about using two tools: education and motivation. The thing is, that is like pulling out a hammer and a level and trying to build a bookshelf. Both of those tools are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Yes, we need to address activity, nutrition, and stress management. But we need people to be able to use these tools.
I can provide a student or client with information about walking. I can teach them about target heart rate, about stretching, about warm ups, about how to prepare for different types of weather and physical conditions. I can send them posters with a big eyed dog holding a leash with the caption “Think of him as an exercise machine with legs”, or pictures of sunrises with short statements about believing in yourself. I can take measurements and data, and provide lots of carrots and sticks. But what if that person lives in a place where it is dangerous to walk the streets? What if they are a single parent with two jobs, and an elderly parent with alzheimer's who needs care and attention? What if they cannot afford personal training, or passes for yoga?
I can tell them how wonderful it is to eat organic. To make their own food, and, like the Amish, avoid processed junk. But what if they live in a neighborhood without a grocery, and they are walking to the corner store where the only fruit is very expensive and low quality? What if they cannot afford to pay for organic? What if everyone around them eats fast food?
Education and motivation are important, but equally important are addressing the social barriers to health and fitness. Of course, doing these things take time, and do not tend to bring in much money, so what is wonderful is how many people in the industry serve as well as market. Some outreach is an extension of what we do best: educate and motivate. I have a friend who took a job with social services, to bring yoga to the homes of people who would not otherwise have had it. I know a couple of people who have worked with prison populations. Most of us do something. Most of the yoga studios I know offer 'community' classes for free or small donations. Many of us choose to teach at places that offer financial aid for families that otherwise would never be able to afford these services.
These acts of karma (as we say in yoga) are important, but by themselves are not enough. Imagine a giant hole, with people on one side putting in handfulls of pebbles, and on the other side a flow of mud eroding the hole ever bigger. What we need are both as many people as possible putting in pebbles, but also tools that will make it easier to get a lot of pebbles in at once. We need organizations like the Y, or the JCC opening safe community centers for youth to meet and exercise in urban centers. We need organizations like meals on wheels, and local senior centers to provide opportunity for decent meals, silver sneakers classes, and social engagement. We need physicians like a friend of ours who travels regularly to Guatamala to provide basic medical services to those who would otherwise never have it. We need Habitat for Humanity providing decent housing where the kids can ride their bikes, and play outside. We need grocery stores to serve those neighborhoods where people most need them, and not just those where they make the greatest profits. We need farmers to partner with our schools to build vegetable gardens, to teach the young so they can grow their own healthy foods... even a few herbs in a window box... and supplement the school lunches. We need to fund research that will promote our understanding of health and fitness, and motivation, and addiction and recovery. I read something recently about a company that is creating a coating for walking paths that reflects lights, thus making safer paths and reducing light pollution (http://www.gizmag.com/pathway-sprayon-coating/29468/) We need to spend the time to educate ourselves on how our government works and put people in that government who will spend our tax money and use our resources to promote policies that work to our greater health and fitness. Most of all we need to remember what Marley said in 'A Christmas Carol'; “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
I normally post once a week as I like to mull things over and do not want to post just to increase the total number of words I churn out. However, this is something I really wanted to share. I just watched a segment of the Dave Rubin Report. He was talking about some additives in commercial food, and I was so surprised (and I do not surprise easily about what big food will do) I had to look for some other sources.
One of the additives is L-Cysteine. It is used for a number of things, but in the food industry it is used as a reducing agent: making it easier and faster to mix and proof dough. It is apparently in a lot of things. The source of much of the L-Cysteine used commercially is human hair (mostly from China) and duck feathers.
One is dimethlypolysiloxane. In food it is used as an emulsifier, and an anti foaming and anti caking agent. It allows oil to be used longer for deep fat frying. What is surprising to me is that in addition to things like MacDonald's fries, and Chick Fil a sandwiches it is in things like Diet Coke and Dr. Pepper. It is a silicone and is also used in things like silly putty and breast implants.
The final one he mentioned is castoreum. It is actually not used a lot, but I personally wish it were not used at all unless it were labelled. It can be used to flavor things primarily that are meant to have a vanilla flavor, although also strawberry or raspberry. The interesting thing that I did not know is that it can be labelled as 'natural flavoring', as it is not made in a lab. It is naturally made from an anal scent gland of a beaver. Makes one wonder what other 'natural' flavors are hiding under cover of that general designation.
While in theory I am in favor of using the entirety of an animal if one chooses to eat said animal, I think if one wants a nice vanilla it should not be anal glad juice pretending to be vanilla.
If you go to a doctor you know a few things about their background: they have a college degree, an advanced degree, have passed exams both oral and written to be licensed, have a number of years of training beyond their medical school, (first an internship and then residency... which differ... a surgeon may be a resident seven years, a dermatologist two or three), and that after their training they will be required to re license and take continuing education as long as they practice.
There are quite a number of professionals with whom one may work in fitness, and the scope of practice (what services and information they should be giving you based on their training), as well as the training and licensure differ greatly for different types of fitness professionals.
You can think of fitness as an adjunct of your basic health care. One form of health care is treatment oriented: you get sick, or have a condition, and you see a physician, who either offers treatment or refers you to a specialist (another physician or even a physical therapist, or other health care provider). Another form is preventative: you see your physician regularly and receive information and referrals to maintain health, rather than to cure disease. Some people do not start with a GP (general practitioner physician), but with a nurse practitioner, or a Naturopath, or some other alternative. But whatever it is that person is kind of the person at the door who helps direct you to the path you need. There are quite a lot of professionals involved in the 'health care' (both curative and preventative) to which at one time or another you may go: physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, rehab specialists, psychotherapists, behavioral therapists, addiction specialists.... etc.
Within the area of fitness there are also a ton of different kinds of professionals, and a fair amount of overlap of scope of practice.
I am a yoga teacher. I teach yoga. I do this in groups large and small, and with individuals. I do not have a specialty certification for yoga with kids, so I do not teach those classes. Some yoga teachers have special training with yoga therapy, to work with people with specific injuries or conditions. Most yoga teachers will have a designation on the Yoga Alliance: an ERYT 500 will be highly trained and have taught several thousand hours, an RYT 200 will be registered and have completed a 200 hour training program, for example. There are some very senior teachers who will not have an Alliance status. I know of one teacher who trained with legendary teachers in India decades ago and does not have Alliance status. But for most teachers this is a way to tell you have a teacher with a basic amount of training. Yoga is not regulated in the way that, say, massage therapy is, so this self regulation is very helpful.
Yoga is one of the mind body disciplines. These are disciplines that stress the connections of mental and physical functioning. Those who train in, and teach yoga also often work with yoga based or other meditation techniques, relaxation training, and stress management.
I used to be a personal trainer. The scope of practice for a trainer is all forms of physical exercise. Some trainers have additional training in senior fitness, or children's fitness, or sport conditioning, or post rehab, etc. They can generally do fitness testing and assessment, create fitness programs, and work individually with you on those programs.
For that I carried a special certification which required extensive study. There is a thing like the Alliance that began recently to try to be a clearing house for trainer certifications. It is really necessary. In years gone by a trainer often was someone who worked out at the gym and had a 'good body' and would get hired to help others 'pump up'. These days most trainers have a certification and many have a degree in a fitness related field. But certifications vary, so it is helpful to know which are nationally recognized. There is a big difference between hiring someone who did an online open book test where they could look up the answers, and someone who has had a proctored exam (someone watching and timing the test). And trainers are not really regulated either, so there is an element of caveat emptor. Look for a NCCA accredited certification (I know, I know, before the AFAA people write in, that does not have NCCA but is respected), ACE, ACSM, and NASM are some of the best known.
What I am not is a nutritionist. A nutritionist has a degree in nutrition, and is licensed. A nutritionist can assess diet, provide meal plans, and so on. This is similar to stress management and yoga. I am not a therapist. I do not do therapy. I do however, understand the principles and practices of the discipline of yoga as they relate to stress release, and mindfulness.
Nutritional counselling is a hot topic right now. As fitness professionals of all types, and personal trainers in particular, have become more educated, and research driven, there has come the realization that exercise is only part of the equation. Without addressing the 'what goes in' part of the equation the 'what gets used' part of the equation will not lead fully to a healthful or fit place. This could have led personal trainers to go back to school en masse for degrees in nutrition, or could have led to trainers and nutritionists creating webs of aligned services. Some of this has happened. But what has also happened is that some trainers are pushing the boundaries of their scope of practice in some cases. A trainer generally has to have some familiarity with fitness nutrition to be certified. However, while a trainer can provide basic information of the place of food in the equation, they may not make meal plans for you. And selling supplements without a nutritional or medical background is not ideal.
We are also seeing a new category of fitness professional: the life coach. The life coach should have a broader mission than the trainer, and in addition to a trainers background, additional training in nutrition, motivation, stress management, and so on. This is a way to recognize how helpful it is to work with one person who has an understanding of a multiplicity of aspects of wellness. If you hire a life coach do be aware that it is a relatively new category, and as usual, look for a nationally recognized organization for certification, and also for whatever other trainings, skills, and certifications the person may have.
There are a lot of other types of professionals one may work with in fitness/health. My favorite is the massage therapist. But you might work with a person trained in Ayurveda, or Pilates, or Zumba, or other types of group exercise, or MELT (myofascial release), or a coach for a particular sport..... When you work with someone in the field the basic questions you would ask remain the same: what certification do you have? Is it nationally recognized and/or NCCA accredited? How long have you been teaching/training? Do you have a degree that relates to your field? If the field requires are you properly licensed? What services do you offer (and do they fall into their appropriate scope of practice).
The range of what members of the community of fitness professionals have to offer is as varied as is the community they serve. Even within categories there is a huge range of background and training. One trainer to another, one nutritionist to another, one yoga teacher to another, can be as different in their approach as a trainer to a yoga teacher, or a massage therapist to an occupational therapist. Every time I get to work with someone new I feel like I learn so much. But I always try to work with those whose commitment to their field and to their clients is expressed in their commitment to their training and study.
Leg Series is a set of postures I developed as a very gentle way to stretch the legs and hips. I particularly like to use it myself after I have been travelling and sitting a lot, or at the end of a long day. It is gentle enough that it works for most students.
Those for whom this would not be appropriate would include anyone who should not lie on their back for an extended time or anyone who should not do deep stretching for any reason. There are some cases where one should not do yoga, or not do forward bends.... It is important to check with your physician or other health care provider to make sure your practice nourishes you, rather than making an underlying problem worse.
Anyone who is beginning a new form of exercise, or is beginning to exercise generally should consult their health care professional before starting. Our bodies are a combination of a uniuqe life history and unique genetics. Understanding our injuries, limitations, strengths, and structural nuances can make our exercise (and our yoga practice) both more effective and safer.
I generally recommend holding each posture for about 6 breaths, though it will not be a problem if you prefer to do it as a flow, with a single breath for each place, or hold it even double that many breaths. Allow your body's needs and kinesthetic feedback to guide you.
I generally count a breath as about a slow 4 count in, and a slow 5 count out. However it can be a bit less or a bit more. The inhale should not be so deep it is uncomfortable, and the exhale (for this series) should be slightly longer than the inhale.
A strap can be very helpful. If you can bind the foot, by holding it you will have more control in the posture, and your body will be less inclined to tense up as a self protective measure against going too far into the stretch. I recommend not looping it too tightly around the foot, not pulling on the strap too tightly, or holding too tightly. You want to feel a good stretch, but not go to pain (pain is your friend and will tell you where not to walk), and not go to where you start to hold your breath with effort. I also suggest placing the strap over the ball of the foot, and not over the instep.
Other props are equally useful. A folded blanket, or bolster, or block can support a body part that is too tight to go fully into a position.
I strongly suggest not seeing these postures as necessary to reach endpoints, but as a signal fo the direction into which one is to stretch. How far you go is less important that what you feel as you move in that direction.
I believe the BEST way to begin to practice is with a teacher. The interaction of their feedback with your movement can really help you begin to understand, and find a path that works for you. But for those who cannot always get to a class, or who have developed a strong personal practice these sort of suggested sequences can sometimes offer new ways of thinking about how to do things. I tend to do this a lot in the winter when people are going to go on vacation, or get very busy, and I am hopeful my students will remember enough of it that they can do a bit at the end of a long day and at least be able to keep their practice going that way. A teacher of mine once said 'a posture is a practice'. I really like that. It reminds me that even when busy I can slow my breath, put my awareness into the lift of my breastbone, and the release of my shoulders, and in that moment I am back on my mat.
This is a bit of an experiment: I am not great with technology, so I am attempting to add a scan. I hope you can all read it, and if not I apologize, and just send me an email and I will send you the series that way.
With any posture in yoga there are two questions: How to do it safely and effectively, but also Why to do it at all. When I was very young and trying out yoga poses I saw on Lilias, or in books and so on, I would see a cool looking pose and try to mimic it. It was all about the pose. But when you do that you start to realize that some poses feel good, and that they might feel good at particular times of the day, or after other activities. That is why I tell my students “Think of the posture as a tool, rather than as a goal”. You would not use a hammer when you need to saw wood. Of course once you identify what you want to do and what tool you need to do it, you need to know how to use the tool effectively and safely. Effectively means that you will be able to hammer in the nail you want in the place you want it, and safely means not banging your thumb.
However, just having a list of problems and projects and tools is not going to be enough. Because (I believe) in its essence yoga is about balancing opposite pulls. So the tool analogy is not enough. Sometimes I talk about the squishy toys (my kids used to love those): push hard enough on one part and the fluid bulges into another part. Push really hard and the toy will break. This is why in all physical disciplines you hear about the kinetic chain. That is the old “the shin bone is connected to the knee bone” thing. What you do in one area will flow outward into other parts of the system, and without working with synergistic pulls you can create imbalance. For instance if you do half an hour of bench pressing 3 days a week for a year, and never do any sort of back work you will have a muscular chest, but a very rounded back.
To see what you need to create balance you need connection. And I prefer the word connection to control (apologies to Joseph Pilates), as to me the word control suggests that the thing controlling is somehow outside of the system. We connect the understanding with the tools and implement their use in a balanced way.
To see what benefits might accrue from backbends (and particularly cobra), as well as to see how it must be balanced, and how to do it safely and effectively it is important first to think about some anatomy. (Is she finally going to talk about cobra? My goodness, how much context do you need?)
I did a whole blog a while back on the spine and spinal twists, so I will suggest reading that if you want more depth.
The spine sits between the shoulders and the hips. There are 33 vertebrae, with 5 sections. The sections are defined by, among other things, a set of balanced curves. The first curve is inward at the neck (cervical). The second is outward at the upper back (thoracic), the third is inward at the low back (lunbar), and the last two follow the lumbar curve, but have little movement (sacral and coccygeal). Each vertebrae is shaped and sized differently, with each of the 5 areas being similar (and yes, the top two are quite different... they are shaped to help rotate the head, so put them aside for the moment). Generally (except at the top and bottom) the vertebrae look like misshapen doughnuts. On the back half of the doughnut are various bony projections that allow complex attachments to each other, and to supporting muscles. The front half is more smooth, and above and below attaches to the next vertebrae in line with a soft disc between. In the center of the doughnut is a hole, each of the holes stack over the next, and the spinal column runs down through this hole. In front and behind the spine there are ligaments, holding the system together, and lots and lots of muscles that contract to provide multiplicity of movement: from belly dancing to building sand castles to rock climbing.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when tackling back bends:
It is important to lengthen and create space before actually bending.
Gravity and body weight push down on the spine. This pressure is greater in the lower vertebrae than the higher. That is one reason the lower vertebrae are bigger and heavier. (And certain positions will put more pressure on the lumbar area. Sitting puts more pressure than does standing, and sitting and bending forward puts the most. Back bends actually help balance the strain of such forward bends)
Interestingly, with age the blood vessels no longer directly provide nourishment to the discs. So backbending and twisting become extremely important in pushing fluid around and hydrating the discs. When the discs are hydrated they keep the bones from sitting too close together and so promote movement. And help avoid the loss of height you see so much with age. Something like 25% of the length of the spine is in the discs.
It is important to balance strength with flexibility; in particular it is important to engage the core.
While the rib cage helps keep the thoracic spine stable, the lumbar spine has no such help. It is the strength of the core muscles that helps stabilize this part of the spine. That ligament on the front of the spine will help keep the vertebrae from sliding on each other, but intra abdominal contraction helps to avoid over stretching at that area.
Do not forget to think about the shoulders and hips in any back bend.
The spine may be flexible or not, but it is attached at top to shoulders and at bottom to pelvis and if those areas are tight or unbalanced the spine will tend to go out of balance to try to compensate (like a functional scoliosis developing in response to one hip being pushed up.
It is also helpful to do range of motion exercises to prepare for deeper holds. Vinyasa can be very helpful here, as is the viniyoga technique of coming into a held position and moving in and out of a range of motion to create fluidity in tight spaces
More is not always better.
I always ask my students: Do you want to be on the cover of a yoga magazine, or an olympic gymnist, or do you want to enhance your OWN health and well being?
While the sternum and ribs stabalize the vertebrae if you push too far here the vertebrae can rotate slightly, and as they are attached to the ribs the ribs will also and that will be rather uncomfortable, and possibly not healthy, given that in front the ribs are protecting the heart and other internal organs.
Certain areas of the spine have more movement (such as T11 and 12, or L5 S1 where most of the lumber bend is generated). Too much lift will tend to go to those areas where the movement is greatest, and too much movement can overstretch the ligament, or push the disc place. Getting the soft center of the disc herniated or pushed into the nerves running down the back is not something you want to do.
Use the whole system.
The natural range of motion may be different in different parts of the spine, but if you engage a small amount at each place you will open the whole system more, and avoid over stressing the more fluid places.
Be aware of the neck.
Doing jalandhara bandha is helpful to take pressure from C7 T1 where the spinal curve shifts. Flex the neck slightly first, and then draw the chin slightly up.
Beware of tingling and numbness.
These are signs of nerve compression. If you feel these remember that pain is your friend, and it is warning you not to take this road farther. Please do contact a health care provider if you experience either of these things.
So why do we practice back bends?
To balance our forward bends
To stretch the spinal flexors
To hydrate the spinal discs and promote fluidity of movement through life
To strengthen the muscles of the back, shoulders and seat
And one last thing of note: while forward bends are associated more with parasympathetic nervous excitation (i.e. they promote relaxation), back bends are associated with sympathetic excitation. When feeling sluggish and tired and unfocused, backbends can be very helpful. BKS Iyanger actually recommended them to fight depression. While I think we need a lot more research to delineate and quantify such an association, there is a good bit of research out there to suggest the strong benefits for mood and quality of life from yoga practice. And, if done safely the side effects are pretty much all positive.