biophilia: a human longing to connect to nature

Here in South Florida, it’s not uncommon to spend summers avoiding as much of the outdoors as possible (with the exception of boating, beaching, and that kind of thing). It’s just so damn hot. I walk the dogs earlier in the morning and later at night to avoid the heat of the day, and even at 8 AM, when I step outside, I am struck by the heat. You’d think after 20 years of living here, I’d be ready for it, but it’s like a smack of humidity in the face every time.

But as the pandemic stretches on and our lives continue to reshape themselves to our new realities, many of us are spending more time outdoors. I have no plans to return to the gym– it just doesn’t feel right for me. The space inside my house is limited, and likely to have some kind of audience. So I’ve taken to doing almost everything outside: yoga practice, meditation, mobility, mace, and kettlebells.

My favorite time to work out is around 3 PM, which is also, unfortunately, a very hot, blazing-sun-overhead time of day. These sessions are sweaty and sometimes that’s not a lot of fun (it’s hard to get a good grip on a mace, and it makes Upward-Facing Bow pretty hazardous)– but I have loved the feeling of pushing through the heat to find new levels of strength or endurance.

One of the reasons is likely my biophilia, which is what biologist E.O. Wilson calls our hardwired instinct for spending time outdoors.

The etymology of biophilia is literally “love of life,” which is completely appropriate. Spending time outdoors, whether it is watching the seemingly endless ocean waves, hiking through the mountains, or just sitting on my back porch meditating with the squirrels and the bees, gives me an expansive, positive feeling that really does fill me with something like love. Actually, just writing this paragraph gives me a feeling of friendliness and joy that I feel ballooning in my chest.

“The human brain evolved in an environment that was defined by constant contact with and reliance on the natural world. The emotions that modern humans tend to feel in nature– awe, contentment, curiosity, wanderlust– contributed to early humans’ ability to thrive as a species that had to find its place in a complex and constantly changing landscape. These emotional responses to nature are still deeply ingrained in us, and the more frequently we experience them, the more fulfilled we are.”

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, The Joy of Movement

It makes sense that we human animals have a connection to the outdoors. After all, we evolved there, and it was only relatively recently in our history that we moved indoors and shut ourselves away from the natural world. In their 2012 research paper on the benefits of spending time outdoors, psychologists Holli-Anne Passmore and Andrew Howell write, “Connecting with nature embeds us more deeply into the existence of life beyond he course of our single lifetime.”

Being outdoors, witnessing the natural cycles of growth and decay, takes us out of our ruminating mind and brings us back into an engaged, mindful presence. It gives us a grounding and centering reminder of our essential wholeness and our right to belong to something greater than ourselves. Perhaps this is what Mary Oliver is speaking to in her popular poem Wild Geese:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Excerpt from Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

I never would have imagined that I would enjoy sweating outdoors as much as I do, but it has made me more durable in my body, and more joyful and expansive in my soul. Sun on my skin, breeze (barely) cooling the sweat, the green things growing and the small animals moving in their own rhythms: these are the joys of biophilia. I don’t plan to give it up anytime soon.

finding your footing in warrior 1

a long, nerdy post about alignment in this classic shape

Warrior 1: it sounds so fundamental, so simple, like, the most basic thing you could learn or do in a yoga class. So why do so many students struggle with it?

The truth is that for many of us, Virabhadrasana I isn’t really a simple pose at all. And many cues that you hear in a yoga class are confusing, contradictory, or downright painful to follow. In this post, we’ll look at how each of the elements of the pose is connected to another (your foot bone’s connected to your leg bone, etc), and why some cues may not make sense for some bodies. Let’s break down this pose and figure out the “right” alignment (for you)!

Here’s a stock photo picture of three women in Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana 1 in Sanskrit). We’re going to look at the first two women (since it’s harder to see the third). Let’s call them Woman 1 and Woman 2.

Three women in Warrior 1: which stance is “right”?

heel to arch or heel to heel?

Have you ever been told to “line up your back heel with your front arch?” Or have you been directed to transition from Warrior 2 to Warrior 1 without moving your feet? In either of these cases, you’re going to end up with feet that are lined up with each other as the first two women’s are. While this might be just fine for them, it will not feel comfortable for many folks. If you feel as though you’re a little bit wobbly in the pose, I recommend trying to move your front foot out to the side (in this case, I would suggest moving the left foot a little bit to the left) to see how that feels.

If you’re transitioning from Warrior 2 to Warrior 1, it’s likely that you’ll want to move your feet to change your base of support. Warrior 2 tends to feel more comfortable in a “heel to arch” or “heel to heel” alignment, and its longer stance feels fine. When we move into a Warrior 1 shape, bringing the back hip forward into extension, suddenly it’s a whole different game. For that transition, I recommend widening and shortening the base by moving the front foot to the side and shortening the stance (stepping your back foot forward) until you feel stable and supported.

do what with my back foot?

Now, where should your back foot be pointing? If we look at the first two women in the picture above, you can see that Woman 1 has her back toes pointing more forward. Woman 2 has her back toes pointing out to the side. Which is right? Well, it depends. Many times (but not always), the foot position is dependent on what that hip is doing. Before we diagnose or lay out rules, we should ask, what is each of these women feeling? Woman 1 is able to have her back hip in a more neutral position here (a neutral hip is like what your hips do in Tadasana, Mountain Pose– they point straight forward), which means that her knee and foot are both able to point relatively forward. I would guess she’s experiencing a stretch through her front right hip. If you look closely, you can see that her back heel isn’t all the way on the floor (which is totally fine)! That might be because her front hip won’t allow her to stretch it that way, or her back foot doesn’t have the mobility to dorsiflex that much.

Woman 2’s back leg is externally rotated (external rotation is like what your bent leg does in tree pose; think about where your knee and foot point when you do tree pose, and you’ll see how what the hip does affects those two joints), which makes her back foot turn out. There are lots of reasons this might be happening– it’s not a random choice. If she isn’t able to dorsiflex (“flex”) her back foot due to lack of mobility, she may need to turn the foot out, and the knee/hip with it. Or, she may be restricted (“tight”) in her quadriceps or hip flexors. Turning the hip out to the side means she won’t have to feel a stretch in the front of that hip. None of these are bad reasons and it’s not a bad thing to do. In my own body, it doesn’t feel stable or good to have my back leg externally rotated that much. Woman 2 may have a very different experience than I do with that, so we can always ask her. She’s the expert on her body and what feels right for her.

should i square my hips?

Now, what if these women were given the cue to “square their hips to the front of the mat?” How would that feel in their bodies? Well, let’s look at Woman 2. With her right foot locked into place (let’s say she doesn’t move her foot at all), when she tries to pull her right hip forward, the movement is going to have to come from somewhere else– it might be the back knee, the back ankle, the SI joint, or the lumbar spine. For this reason, I don’t cue students to “square” their hips. If for some reason (and I would hope there’s a reason beyond aesthetics), we want to try to experience “square” hips here, I would have them lift the back heel, balancing on the ball of the back foot, in more of a Crescent Lunge shape. This takes some of the tension out of the back leg, so the hip is more free to move. For some students, this will be much less stable as they’re now having to use their muscles to hold them in place, rather than the joints themselves.

(By the way, when students report pain to me from Warrior 1– it’s almost always the back knee, the back ankle, the SI joint, or the lumbar spine. Many times they weren’t even aware that the pose shouldn’t be painful– they thought this was how it needed to be done!)

Let’s look at one more example of Warrior 1. In the picture below, you can see that this woman’s hips are relatively “squared” forward, making a more neutral hip. Her back heel is slightly lifted, which allows her some room to stretch the front of her left hip and/or her left calf and Achilles. Her front foot is more to the right than her left foot is, so she’s got a wider base for her legs. The stance is pretty long, which is going to put more demand on her body in the pose overall. If that feels good for her, then that’s great!

A woman outside in Warrior 1 pose. Keeping the back heel slightly lifted allows for a stretch in the back calf/Achilles, as well as the front hip.

oh, my aching back

Let’s take things just one step further in our Warrior 1 investigation: the backbend that occurs in the shape. The placement of the feet, combined with each individual’s anatomy– for example, a lack of extensibility (“tightness”) in the front of the hip and quadriceps muscles– can tilt the front of the pelvis forward and down into an anterior tilt. This is absolutely fine, unless it doesn’t feel good for that person’s body. Looking at all of the women in our photos, we can see some degree of anterior tilt in the pelvis, and a corresponding arch in the spine as they lift their torsos up toward a vertical position. Not familiar with anterior tilt? From a standing position, if you stick your butt out behind you, that’s an anterior tilt. If you tuck your tailbone under, you’re in a posterior tilt. Somewhere in between is your neutral.

What if that arch in the spine causes some lower back discomfort? How do we take out that pelvic tilt that’s pulling them into a backbend? If these women are told to lift their front hip points to try to reduce the pelvic tilt, they will be stuck. We can see that they are close to or already at their end range of motion, with the quads and hip flexors being pulled tight. In order to release the front of the hip to reduce the pelvic tilt, we’d need to either have the person lean forward more, i.e., not try to lift the chest up, or we can have them change the back leg by 1) lifting the heel (as Woman 1 and Outdoors Woman are doing); 2) shortening the stride by stepping the back foot forward; 3) changing the angle on the back hip by externally rotating it; or 4) un-“squaring” the back hip (letting it turn open more toward a Warrior 2 position) so that there’s less of a pull on the front of the hip. Any of these strategies can potentially reduce the torque on the front of the pelvis that causes spinal extension (the backbend)

what’s the right way for you to do the pose?

As we’ve seen, each of the models in our discussion is experiencing Warrior 1 in a different way. Some are getting a stretch through the front hip; others may be stretching their back calf. The backbend may be feeling good, or it may be feeling a bit crunchy.

The real question to ask is, why are we doing the pose and what would we like to accomplish? If our goal is simply to experience ourselves in an embodied way, then the physical alignment is secondary. If we’re looking for a stretch in the body, or to strengthen certain muscles, then we’ll want to emphasize those elements of the pose. And more than anything, I think it’s helpful to use our bodies wisely, avoiding pain in our practice. Beyond that, it becomes a matter of aesthetics, which is not a goal I pursue or teach. Rather than trying to fit our bodies into someone else’s idea of “good,” we can find ways to appreciate and enjoy our bodies for our own purposes, goals, and needs.

(vegan) double chocolate zucchini muffins

This is my go-to recipe when I have extra zucchini, am craving a little chocolate something, or want an easy food gift for a friend. Years ago, I modified this King Arthur Flour recipe to be vegan, potentially gluten-free, and make muffins rather than a loaf. I’ve been asked for this recipe so many times that I finally wanted to write it up so it’s easier to share. If you want to bake this recipe along with me, you can watch my first-ever cooking show here. Enjoy!

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup aquafaba (liquid from canned chickpeas), OR 2 T ground flaxseed or chia seeds + 5 T water*
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (I like this one)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder*, optional
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa Dutch-process or natural
  • 1 2/3 cups flour– this works well with all-purpose flour or a gluten-free blend (I’ve tried with Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur flour GF blends and both came out fantastic)
  • 2 cups shredded, unpeeled zucchini, gently pressed
  • 1 cup chocolate chips

now you do this

Preheat the oven to 350° Fahrenheit and prepare two dozen muffin tins. I use cupcake liners because I hate washing muffin tins, and I always spray a little non-stick spray in them because I hate when my delicious muffin sticks to my cupcake liner.

In a large bowl or stand mixer, mix first five ingredients (through vanilla).

In a separate bowl, stir together baking soda, baking powder, espresso powder, cocoa, and flour.

Gently mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients.

Add the shredded zucchini and chocolate chips.

Scoop the batter into your muffin tin, filling each cup about 2/3 full. Bake for approximately 20-25 minutes (depending on how big the muffins are, and your oven’s idiosyncrasies). At the halfway mark, I like to turn my pans to ensure a more even bake. The tops should be firm when done, or a toothpick or knife inserted into the middle should be clean (minus melty chocolate chips).

Allow to rest for a few minutes in the muffin tin before turning out onto a rack to cool. Yields approximately 15 muffins.

These freeze well and are great to pull out for a last-minute snack or gift.

Note: If you’re using chia or flax seeds, mix with water before adding to the other liquid ingredients to avoid awkward clumping. If you do not have espresso powder, you can add 2/3 of a cup of cold coffee instead of water along with chia or flax seeds. The coffee enhances the chocolate and does not give a noticeable coffee flavor.

“failure means you’re going somewhere you haven’t been before.”

Laura balances on tip-toes with the other leg in the air. Balancing and falling are great ways to work with your central nervous system to decouple the feeling of activation from a sense of danger.

For some of us, learning that it’s okay to fail is a life skill that pays off big. In a recent Fighting Monkey workshop with the incredible Elke Schroeder, she encouraged us to try to fail at least 40% of the time (and more, if we felt up for it). In the movement “task” we were working on, failing meant falling out of balance.

“Failure means you’re going somewhere you haven’t been before,” she said. I knew just what she meant.

I lived in a state of chronic hyper-vigilance for several years. I know all too well how it feels to be on-edge, jumpy, and feeling as though something terrible is about to happen. My sympathetic nervous system was in full throttle, ready to save me from whatever danger it perceived. A beeping horn in traffic would send my pulse racing, temperature hot, breath short and fast.

 

Because I had learned to equate the feeling of activation in the body (faster pulse, heat rising, etc.) with danger that needed to be avoided, I did everything that I could to avoid it. No scary movies, no excess caffeine, no loud noises.

It was during this time that my personal trainer set me up with a piece of balancing equipment (it was an Axius Core Trainer— they’re pretty amazing) and asked me to do some squats. The task itself was simple and logically, I could see that it was totally safe. The worst-case scenario was that the board wobbled and one edge hit the floor. At the same time, inside my body, I felt as though I was in mortal danger. I was nauseated, my skin was clammy, and I desperately wanted to get out of the situation.

Although I would not have (during that time) chosen to put myself into a situation that felt so deliberately stressful, it was exactly what I needed. In giving myself that time to feel the experience in my body, and then a few moments after completing the task to integrate and come back into my window of capacity, I taught my nervous system that it is possible to experience activation, live through it successfully, and return to a more regulated state.

Our movement practice, when done in a safe and controlled environment, is the perfect place to begin to de-couple the threat response from a feeling of activation. In other words, we can learn to experience heightened arousal (pulse rising, breath speeding up, etc) as anticipation or excitement rather than fear.

How do we work with this? First, we need a safe space to practice. Whether that’s in the privacy of our own home, or with a trusted teacher or coach, we can find some curiosity around the experience. If failure is just visiting a place we haven’t been before, then we can see how it feels to be a tourist– check out the scenery.

Whether you simply put yourself into a challenging position (as in a balance pose that feels stressful) or allow yourself to fall, or fail, the key is to let yourself feel what happens. Experience the activation in the body. Does your temperature rise, do you feel your muscles tensing, are you breathing more quickly? Whether you fall or not, perform the exercise, and then give yourself permission to feel the relief as your mind and body regulate you back to a calmer state. Take a moment to let that feeling really install itself in your body. Repeat as needed.

Elke’s words reminded me that our movement practice is a great place to practice failure and strengthen our resilience. The more we repeat this experience, the more we re-pattern our brains with this new neuronal path. We become more confident and durable as we learn to live through these cycles of activation and regulation. We can aim to fail more often, taking bigger risks, not just in our movement practices, but in our lives and work.

core stability from the inside out

My understanding of core work has changed over the years, but for a long time, I understood it as primarily a need to “strengthen the abdominals” in order to “support the back.” In order to accomplish this, I had my students do supine core work with their lower back “glued” the floor; I instructed them to “hollow the belly” and to “pull their belly-button toward the spine.” Along the way, I began to hear more about “bracing” vs. “hollowing,” but it wasn’t until I really came to understand the anatomy of the diaphragm and experienced intra-abdominal pressure for myself that the lightbulb clicked on in my brain. I had a feeling of being supported in my lower abdomen and back that felt completely natural. I stopped sucking in my tummy all the time, and my instagram pics looked less svelte, but my kettlebell swings improved and I care a lot more about that.

There are some incredible resources out there for you to read about this topic, but since you made it to my page, I’ll give you a really simple overview to get you started, and then you can decide if you want to read more or try it for yourself.

Meet Your Diaphragm

https://www.scientificanimations.com/wiki-images

This picture illustrates the dome-like shape of the diaphragm, tucked neatly away below the heart and lungs. As you breathe in, the diaphragm drops slightly down; the lungs expand. As you breathe out, the diaphragm lifts back up; the lungs contract. You can watch a video of this here. Try breathing along with the video and see if you can imagine or sense this movement in your body.

While I’m sure you knew that the diaphragm was used for breathing, you may not have known that the diaphragm is also a postural stability muscle. Remember the last time you got really winded? You probably bent over and rested elbows or hands on your knees, or had to sit down. That’s because the diaphragm was working so hard it was no longer able to help hold you up.

Intra-Abdominal Pressure: The Inner Core

When all is going well and you’re able to breathe “optimally” (more on that in a minute), our inhale causes the diaphragm to drop down, increasing intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). Think for a moment of the air in your tires. When the tires are not fully inflated, they aren’t as stable or strong, right? No matter what the outside of the tire is made of, it’s not going to be very useful if it’s only half-inflated. The same is true with our inner core. If we are not stabilizing or pressurizing from the inside-out, all of the core exercises in the world are not going to make us as strong or stable as we’d like.

This is why hollowing, or “pulling the navel to the spine” is not terribly useful.

How Should We Be Breathing?

There’s no one “right way” to breathe. As we move around and respond to stimuli, our breathing naturally changes. Our breathing patterns are complex, and highly attuned to our nervous system.

All other things being equal, if we are in a calm, relaxed state, an inhale should allow the belly, sides, and low back to expand evenly as the diaphragm descends. The chest and shoulders should not have to move at all. Have you seen a sleeping baby, or puppy? That three-dimensional expansion of breath doesn’t move at all from the upper chest– it spills out down below.

Now, if we are experiencing a stress response, it is normal for the breath to become shallow and quick; In this case, the accessory muscles of breathing (scalenes, trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, pec major) work to lift the ribs, increasing the air that is taken in. For trauma survivors, or those of us living through prolonged stress, this style of breathing may have become second-nature. In these cases, you may not be able to get the diaphragm to move enough to experience that expansion. First, we would want to get you out of that stress response and into your window of capacity.

Want to Try it Out?

If you are feeling relatively un-stressed, you can give this a try. If you are not too relaxed, go dance around, throw a ball with a friend or a dog, or get yourself feeling a little more at ease, first.

Now: Lie down with your knees bent, soles of the feet on the floor. Bring your hands to your low abdomen, resting your fingers just inside your front hip points (ASIS). Wrap your hands around the side waist so that your thumbs are moving toward your back.

Breathe in here, and see if you can feel a gentle expansion of the belly, side waist, and back. It’s important to see if you can find it in all of these places and not just the front (which can indicate that you’re simply hinging from the rib-cage and not truly expanding the diaphragm). You will feel it more easily in some places than others. That’s normal. With time and practice, this gets much easier.

Check in with your chest: is it moving as you breathe? You can place a hand on the chest and see for yourself; or, use a mirror to watch yourself breathe, and look for movement.

“Brace Yourself!” and Movement

Once you’re able to breathe in this way lying down with knees bent, you can try it in other positions. Straightening both legs will be harder; sitting up, harder still. Eventually, you’ll be able to breathe naturally in this way while you’re standing and even during movement.

Abdominal bracing is a gentle pressurization from the inside out that supports us in a natural way. It is not a hardening or gripping of the lower abdominals. This type of engagement is counter-productive; it keeps the diaphragm from being able to descend.

If you have patterns of tension, trauma, or anxiety, be patient with yourself as you begin this work, especially if it feels painful, unpleasant or frightening. Many times the tension that we are holding there, or the breathing pattern we’re using, is helping to “hold ourselves together,” literally and figuratively. A somatic therapist can be helpful in unwinding body tension patterns in a gradual, supportive way.

Resources For Further Learning:

letting in the good

Do you find yourself scanning through your Facebook feed or news sites these days, looking for the next bad news (this has a name now– doomscrolling!)? Do you feel like you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop? Does it seem like it’s hard to find anything good at all, some days? It’s not your fault, friends– it’s our DNA.

Staying alive over the past 10,000 years hasn’t been easy. Conflicts with other humans, starvation, illness, injury, parasites, and the threat of predators were omnipresent. In order to survive and pass on their genes, our ancestors had to learn to recognize and avoid danger. As a result, our brain developed a unique solution– a “negativity bias.”

Our brain is always looking for potential hazards, from social (is this other human angry?) to global (is the pandemic going to change life as we know it on this earth?). This constant scan is present even when we’re in our window of capacity— that is, even when things are going pretty well. When we experience a stress response of any kind, our vigilance for threat is even more heightened. It can feel as though it’s taking over. It’s hard to think about anything else.

Negativity Bias: It’s a Real Thing

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson explains our brain places more value on negative experiences than it does on positive ones. We store our negative experiences in our memory more easily, and this can lead to what he calls a “vicious circle:”

“Over time, negative experiences make the amygdala even more sensitive to the negative. This snowballing effect occurs because the cortisol that the amygdala signals the hypothalamus to call for enters the bloodstream and flows into your brain, where it stimulates and strengthens the amygdala. Now the alarm bell of your brain rings more easily and more loud. Making matters worse, even after the danger has passed or turns out to be a false alarm, it takes many minutes to metabolize cortisol out of your body…

..In the meantime, in a one-two punch, the cortisol in your brain overstimulates, weakens, and eventually kills cells in your hippocampus, gradually shrinking it. This is a problem because the hippocampus helps you put things in perspective while also calming down your amygdala and telling your hypothalamus to quit calling for stress hormones. So now it’s harder to put the one thing going wrong in the context of the many things going right.” -Rick Hanson, “Hardwiring Happiness”.

He goes on to explain that research demonstrates that positive experiences (feeling pleasure, comfort, joy, etc.) are less likely to be installed in our memories. We tend to zoom through the good moments, busy solving problems or scanning for more threat. We don’t take the necessary time to feel, appreciate, and notice the positive experience. Without consciously making an effort, the positive event will be so fleeting that it never has a chance to re-shape the brain.

Good News: Your Brain Can Change

The solution, Hanson says, lies in manually reprogramming our negativity bias into a positivity bias. We can do this by consciously “taking in the good;” pausing to notice the good feeling or experience. We activate it by noticing it, or even by creating it. This might be as simple as feeling a comfortable breath, or looking at the face of a loved one.

Next, he says, we take a moment to install the good experience in your brain. We do this by “enriching it,” staying with the positive experience for 5-10 seconds. As you do this, open to the feelings of the good experience. Let it fill your mind, or notice how it feels in your physical body. Encourage the experience to be more intense; recognize its relevance, how it could help you or make a difference in your life. This teaches your neurons to fire in a new pattern– one that you will learn to repeat again and again.

Finally, we “absorb” the experience. Imagine, or visualize, the experience sifting down into you, or that you are breathing the experience into your whole being. If you’re more pragmatic, you might see this as the installation of a new software program to form a new circuit in your brain. In this way, the experience becomes a resource that you can draw on again and again.

I’ve been working with this “taking in the good” practice for a while and find that it’s been quite helpful. While I do have a regular habit of practicing gratitude and mindfulness, it’s clear to me that there are hundreds, even thousands of opportunities to “take in the good” throughout my day that I’ve been missing. This practice is so simple, but in the midst of a pandemic– when it can feel as though there is so much for my brain to worry about– it has real potential to lift my spirits. I have no doubt things will continue to be challenging. I feel hopeful that installing a more robust positivity bias will support my health and give me better resources to support others.

Want to try “taking in the good” with me? Here is a 10 minute video I created to practice together. If you like it, leave a comment and let me know how it worked for you!

movement capacity & mental health

Your body is the way that you experience the world. 

Although you might imagine that you can feel as others do, “putting yourself in their shoes,” ultimately, everything in your experience is driven by the information your body provides to you. 

Our bodies are our mind’s proxy in the world. Through our five senses, we take in the experience of the world around us, translating it through the lens of our mind into a story that only we can write. Proprioception (provided in part by the joints of our body) tells us where we are in space. Our body may also have extensions of itself: hearing aids, contact lenses, wheelchairs. These help us navigate and explore our world with greater confidence and clarity. 

Laura sits in a 90/90 position often used in Functional Range Conditioning or Kinstretch work for mobility, specifically internal rotation of the rear leg and external rotation of the front leg.

When we have an injury or lose range of motion in a joint (for example, a shoulder), we are no longer able to move as freely there. The brain doesn’t receive as much information from that joint. Pain signals tell us that we should limit our range of motion, so we become more guarded and less free in our movements. In this way, a loss of confidence in our movement pattern corresponds to a loss of mental and emotional confidence. I know that when this has happened to me, I avoided activities I previously enjoyed. I experienced myself as more fragile and dependent. 

Conversely, what happens when we are able to regain range of motion, or strengthen or stabilize a part of our body that we couldn’t use as well before? We feel capable, strong, more in charge of ourselves and our lives. Using the muscles of our body to lift something heavy, throw a ball, or grip an object translates to a greater sense of capacity and power. When we have more movement options– that is, if all of our joints have a full functional range for the activities that we want to do– we  don’t need to be afraid of injury. We can trust in our own ability to support ourselves. And if we’re in less pain, we have less fear, more trust in ourselves, and more energy to tackle life challenges. 

We should also note that there can be a similar sense of empowerment when we are provided with a tool that helps us to use our bodies better. Getting the right prescription for corrective lenses can be transformational. Employing a block in Triangle pose can change the body’s ability to feel strong, open, and steady in the shape. 

Improving our body’s ability to interact with the world around us is a key component in mental health, which is why it’s such an important part of my work.  I use the Functional Range System for myself and clients to safely improve and restore mobility. Mobility is a key word here– it implies not just flexibility (or passive range of motion), but the ability to be stable and strong within that range of motion. 

Health and the ability to move well are privileges that we may not all enjoy in equal measure, and there are many conditions that might prevent us from being able to increase our movement capacity or strength. The focus for each individual client is always to capitalize on the body’s unique strengths, and to enhance its current capacities. I love the FRS system because each person can tailor it to their own needs, even in a group setting. 

We all deserve to feel confident and capable in our bodies and minds. Working with my own body in this way has liberated me in unexpected ways.  

If you’re interested in working with me, you can contact me for information on private sessions, or check out my new Kinstretch online class (which incorporates these principles) here. Equity pricing is available. 

resource yourself: my free habit tracker

One of the things I hear frequently from clients and students is how difficult it can be to maintain motivation, even when we know that a particular habit helps us to feel better. When the world feels chaotic and out of control, or our life circumstances change drastically, those habits seem less important as we’re simply trying to survive.

Making sure your basic needs are met has to come first, obviously. But once we’re back in our window of tolerance, each of us has our own ways to support mental, physical and emotional well-being. Whether that’s gardening, physical activity, meditation, FaceTime with a loved one, or anything else at all, there are resources that you use to create a healthy, sustainable structure for yourself. You know that if you can do those things, you’ll be better supported internally to handle the external turbulence.

And yet somehow, we don’t always seem to get around to doing those things we meant to do.

So: how do I stay “on track” to support myself? .

I began using a habit tracker a few months ago.

I use it as a tool for both accountability (to help create and maintain habits) and to track trends over time. I use a paper version because I am a tactile person and I enjoy the satisfaction of making check-marks every day. At the end of the month, I review my (now coffee-stained, crumpled) paper to see what worked well and what didn’t. Then, I can make changes to my goals for the following month.

This is not a tool for shame or guilt. Instead, it’s a compass to keep me on track with the habits and resources I find useful to support my physical and mental wellness, work (paid and unpaid) that is important to me, creativity and growth. For example, this month I wanted to prioritize anti-racism work, so I made sure that it was a daily item. When I noticed that two days had gone by without making a check-mark, I was able to regain focus.

It also helps me to analyze personal trends. Reviewing my June habits compared to my May habits, I did not complete as many online Kinstretch classes. The number of classes I filmed per week also fell in June. I understand that this was because I completed three online workshops in June that kept me busier than I was in May.

Laura Wenger's Habit Tracker- shows Laura's daily habits, including meditation, mobility, strength training, and more.

What happens if I have a day or a week where I just can’t seem to meet the goals?

In the past, I would have felt guilty for not doing the right thing. I am able to take a more holistic view now. I always keep two things in mind:

  1. I know there are days when I just won’t be able to meet the goal. Life happens and that’s okay.
  2. I remember why I set the goal in the first place.

Knowing these two things, I give myself permission to have days where I need to adjust my plans. If I start to feel guilty or anxious about not meeting the goal, I remember why I set it– not to adhere to some arbitrary external number, but because I want to support myself in some way.

On the other hand, if I find that I’m not making time for a particular habit consistently, I can decide whether or not this is a habit I want to prioritize.

I had “Cardio” listed on my tracker for May and June because I was curious how often I was making time for these– I didn’t set a goal. Only three times over the two months did I engage in a pure cardio session. However, I found that I was getting my heart-rate sufficiently elevated during my strength training sessions. For July, I might decide that I want to make more of an effort to attend my friend Tangela’s amazing WERQ dance classes because they’re so much fun, and then I would adjust my goals accordingly.

Keep in mind that these are your goals, or resources, or habits (frame it in a way that feels helpful for you). You don’t need to do 10,000 steps just because someone said it was a good idea. Think about what makes you feel happy, alive, grateful, or joyful. That’s where your tracker starts.

Rather than thinking of the Habit Tracker as a set of external rules to follow, I see it as a list of resources that lift me up and guide me where I want to go. It’s a work in progress and changes over time– because my life and my needs are constantly shifting. Make sense?

I’m including a link to download your very own copy of the Habit Tracker I use myself below.

I’d like to encourage you to be playful with it and use it in a fun way. As you fill it out, ask yourself: What supports me? What makes me feel good? How often do I do the things that I really love? Remember that what works for me might not work for you– including this Habit Tracker. If it feels like it just isn’t working for you, then recycle it and be done. Otherwise, I look forward to hearing what your experience is. Happy Tracking!

tolerating big mistakes

I’m reading David Epstein’s book “Range” this week– it’s a fantastic book that talks about how generalists, rather than specialists, are primed for success. I love the book because it tells us that those of us who are “frequent quitters” will end up with the most satisfying careers; that failing a test is the best way to learn; and that generalists often find their path later in life. Having sampled other paths, they are creative, agile, and can make mental connections that specialists may not be able to see.

Image of Laura holding the book Range by David Epstein. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how being trained in multiple disciplines makes you more effective overall. A great read for yoga teachers, movement professionals, or folks who are changing careers!

I am therefore now not too proud to say now that I have been a “frequent quitter,” and that I’ve tried many paths that did not work for me. Leaving out the early defeats (Girl Scouts, 4H, softball, etc), we can pick up in my 20’s with my Bachelor’s degree in Spanish; my career as an artist; my customer service/banking career; my culinary degree and subsequent failure to thrive as a personal chef. We should probably also include my two marriages, since they were not ultimately successful.

For years, I felt deeply shamed by all of these– that somehow, by not managing to make these things work, I was a failure myself. Or maybe the character flaw was that I was a bad chooser in the first place; that I was passionate about things that didn’t turn out to be a good fit. There were times where I felt like I couldn’t go on; that my mistakes were too terrible and bad, and there was no good way forward.

“Desirable difficulties,” says Eptsein’s book, are “obstacles that make learning more challenging, slower, and more frustrating in the short term, but better in the long term.” While the book’s researchers were studying university students’ ability to learn vocabulary, I think the metaphor works well here. The “wrong turns” I took in my early 20’s turned out to be the learning experiences I needed to grow into the adult that I am: creative, flexible, resourceful.

Even more interesting to me was what the researchers called “the hypercorrection” effect: “The more confident a learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. Tolerating big mistakes can create the best learning opportunities.”

“The more confident a learner is of their wrong answer, the better the information sticks when they subsequently learn the right answer. Tolerating big mistakes can create the best learning opportunities.”

-William epsTein, range: why generalists triumph in a specialized world

My younger self was often quite (embarrassingly) confident of her choices, which meant that when it came time to admit defeat, it was sometimes a hard pill to swallow. There’s no doubt now those were the best learning opportunities. We remember most deeply the things that pain us the most.

Maya Angelou told us, “When you know better, you do better.” Our younger selves do the best they can so that our more mature selves can reap the benefits. Skills learned from earlier careers, relationships, and other “mistakes” translate into greater success in later life. R&B artist Ciara is a decade younger than I am, but she already knows:

Them old mistakes are gone, I won't do them no more 
That's old news, there's new news, I done did that before 
I turned nothing to something, my comeback on one hunnid' 
Less talking, more action, you just gon' see Ci coming 
I just keep elevating, no losses, just upgrading 
My lessons, made blessings, I turned that into money 
Thank God I never settled, this view is so much better 
I'm chilling, I'm winning, like on another level.

“If you cannot be vulnerable in your training, you cannot reach your potential.”

This week’s blog is inspired by an Instagram post by one of my favorite gyms-that-I’ve-never-been-to, 13th Flow in Chicago. I’m not sure how I had the luck to find and start following them a few years ago, but their consistent messages of positive empowerment are a bright spot of inspiration in my feed. Let me give you an example of their verbiage: their “About” page on their website says, ” Success isn’t built on shame and guilt, but on self-worth and pride in what you’re doing. You already possess everything you need to be who and what you want to be.” YES TO ALL OF THIS!

Since the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests and country-wide social awakening, I’ve been quiet on my own Instagram account, trying to learn more, listen harder, and uplift Black voices. Since lots of other white accounts are doing the same, it’s been an opportunity for growth and education (and, remembering that this is unpaid education for most of us, I try to pay what I can through donations and payments to the content creators– most of them have a link to donate easily on their insta profiles).

Yesterday’s post from 13th Flow included a sentence that really hit me hard:

“If you cannot be vulnerable in your training, you cannot reach your potential.”

To be vulnerable means that we put ourselves at risk; we leave ourselves exposed, defenseless. To be vulnerable in our training– whether that’s in the gym, a group exercise class, or a yoga studio– means that we can be ourselves in utter honesty and authenticity. We can confess our inability to complete a rep or do a pose without pain. We can say, “that hurts,” or, “I can’t do it like that,” or “I don’t think that’s right for me today.” This truth is what helps us to find the right expression of a pose, or the right amount of weight, or the lateralization (not “modification”) of an exercise that will allow us to get stronger on our own terms in a safe and healthy way. Not only is it the only healthy and sane way to train, it’s the only sustainable way to train.

But to be vulnerable in our training means that we are undefended and open. Even as a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered human, it is often difficult for me to find an atmosphere that is so accepting, open and accessible that it allows me to feel comfortable in my own vulnerability. And that’s pretty sad.

Our fitness/wellness/health community often gives lip service to the idea of inclusivity and accessibility without actually providing accessible options or a truly welcoming atmosphere. A few of those reasons are lack of diversity in trainers/staff (“there’s nobody here who looks like me,”); diet or weight loss talk that puts a greater perceived value on certain types of bodies; a lack of training in staff around unconscious bias or how to serve diverse populations. Access to services may be restricted financially or literally (not being accessible for wheelchairs, for example).

I believe that one of the reasons well-intentioned efforts fail (including my own) is that we have not fully addressed our own internalized bias. Since birth, our culture has taught us that some bodies are better than others. It has made thin and white and able-bodied the default, and any variation on that is “other.” The dolls I played with as a child; the history I was taught in school; the magazines I loved as a teenager; movies, media, all messages showed me that there is one best way to be. It takes a lot (and I mean a LOT A LOT) of conscious, targeted work to root out these untruths. These myths continue to be prevalent in our wellness spaces.

“If you cannot be vulnerable in your training, you cannot reach your full potential.”

As a yoga teacher, mobility specialist, and personal trainer, it’s up to me to make space for my clients to feel vulnerable. That includes not just the poses or exercises we do, but how I speak to my clients, the space we train or practice in, and the messages they see me sending publicly through social media, in verbal communication with them, and in our nonverbal communication. I’m committed to doing more work to change what what an equitable wellness, fitness and health culture would look like.

Real wellness– real freedom– is freedom to be vulnerable. It’s freedom to reach your full potential. How does this resonate with you? What is your experience of vulnerability in your yoga practice, or gym, or with your personal trainer? What, if anything, has prevented you from being authentically vulnerable?