It seems like trauma is trending lately– we hear more about it in mainstream news, and it feels as though there’s much less stigma around mental health issues. Many people I know are comfortable talking about their own therapy, their past (and present) trauma, and many yoga teachers, personal trainers and movement coaches are learning how to make their work more trauma-informed. But what does that mean?
Let’s start with a simple working definition of trauma. It’s commonly said that trauma is caused by anything that is “too fast, too much, or too soon for our nervous system to handle.” Because each individual is different, what causes trauma for one person might not result in trauma for another.
The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) isn’t much help here– it lists only Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) under trauma-related “disorders” (I object to the use of the word “disorder”– what happens when our systems become overwhelmed by trauma is a completely natural response to a situation that we are unable to handle). Rather than thinking of trauma as something that can only happen after one big event (as in PTSD), we should recognize that trauma includes a broad spectrum of possibilities. Understanding that it includes anything that is overwhelming (too fast, too much, too soon)– then we can see that trauma can affect us all.
Almost all of us have been exposed to a traumatic event at some point in our lives. Remember that, just like non-human animals, each of us is equipped to be able to handle stressful events. However, there are some things that will always be too much– a situation that can’t be escaped, for example. When our defense systems are overwhelmed, we become “stuck” in a stress response. For a better understanding of how we are equipped to handle stress and what happens when our systems are overwhelmed, you can read more here.
Every one of us has our own unique trauma response. This might look like hyper-vigilance– always needing to be on-guard, “ready” for danger. It could present as heightened emotional reactivity. In other cases, trauma looks like depression, sluggishness, or an inability to move.
Our bodies, stuck in a trauma response, do not function optimally. Each of the body’s systems can be affected, resulting in countless variations of illness. The brain, too, is impacted, resulting in different behavioral patterns that can be confusing for others to understand. It’s impossible to overstate the effects of traumatic stress on the body, especially in developing children. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) shows how prevalent and impactful this can be.
Of course, we don’t get a sign to wear that explains our trauma history, or ongoing state of trauma, to other humans. A lot of the time, we’re not even aware that we’re operating through a trauma response. Our bodies and brains adapt. What starts out as adaptive behavior becomes a personality, and people in our lives adapt to that. And so we move around the world, bumping into other folks and their trauma with our own trauma and wondering why everyone doesn’t act the way we think they should.
So what does it mean, then, to be trauma-informed? A trauma-informed view of dealing with other humans takes into account the unseen challenges that individual may be facing. It recognizes that each of us has overcome countless obstacles simply to be alive right now. It can be more flexible in its understanding of what is “normal,” and accepts the other with an unconditional positive regard. In my next article, we’ll take a look at what that might mean with regard to teaching yoga or movement. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Of course, I am not a trauma expert. If you believe that you have experienced (or are experiencing) unresolved trauma, please look for a qualified mental health expert for assistance. The purpose of this article is to give a broader understanding of what trauma might be, and to start to consider the implications of that more inclusive definition.
One of the challenges that we face in the contemporary wellness/healing/spiritual world is how to share, honor and celebrate the indigenous roots of the practices we love, without engaging in cultural appropriation.
The practice of yoga feels especially problematic. The long history of yoga has as many twists and turns as the story of India herself. However, what we call “yoga” today in the western world bears little resemblance to the original practices. It might be more accurate to call it, as Matthew Remski does, “modern postural yoga (MPY)” in order to differentiate it from its spiritual origins.
First, we should acknowledge that even a very physical practice of “modern postural yoga” can still be transformational, and a spiritual practice. When I started yoga, it was simply a form of exercise for me. I was lucky enough to find teachers and spaces who honored yoga’s roots, so that I learned to practice meditation and ethical behavior as part of the experience. Over time, yoga became something that was more about what I was doing off of the mat than on it; the physical postures (asana) were secondary. I now spend more time each week in meditation than I do practicing yoga postures.
But attempts to inject spirituality into a physical practice, while well-intentioned, can also run the risk of causing harm through cultural appropriation. Remember, intention is not the same as impact. We can have wonderful, loving intentions, and still accidentally cause harm. This doesn’t mean that we’re bad people– it just means that we didn’t know, and once we learn, we can make better choices. If you’re someone (like me) who has made some of the cultural appropriation missteps in this article, remember that this is just part of the learning experience.
“Cultural appropriation is when someone uses someone else’s culture, including practices, symbols, rituals, fashion, or other elements from a target or ‘minority’ culture, without considering the source, origins or people of that culture.
They may be using another culture for various reasons such as:
* to make a profit
* to ‘make a new trend’
* to look cool or be fashionable
* to be a cultural tourist or explore the ‘exotic’
* or for some other self-serving purpose without respecting or caring for the original culture or context.
Cultural appropriation happens when a dominant group adopts, benefits from, shares and even exploits the customs, practices, ideas, social and spiritual knowledge of another, usually target or subordinate, society or people.
Cultural appropriation clearly harms the source culture in a variety of ways
1. Material harm
2. Disrespect or disregard to the values, practices, social, religious or cultural norms
Often that harm can span social institutions and political, economic, social, spiritual, cultural worlds.”
According to Barkataki, cultural appropriation always involves a power imbalance and harm. One example might be for a white person to wear a pair of yoga leggings with a Hindu deity printed on them. While this person may have good intentions– perhaps they know a little bit about the deity and like what it stands for– it may feel offensive to someone else to see their sacred images used in this way. That’s the harm piece of the equation. The power imbalance is that the white person is “allowed” to wear an image of a deity, while still being seen as white and part of the “norm,” the dominant culture. A brown-skinned person practicing their religion is more likely to be seen as “other–” different, or even dangerous.
Avoiding cultural appropriation means re-thinking how we approach our practice. It is a process of continual re-learning and questioning how we can honor both the history of the practice and, at the same time, uplift, support and create reparations for the folks whose ancestors created the practice– but never saw material benefit. In many cases, what we call “yoga” in the West has become a practice that is almost exclusively white. And in the case of shamanic healing or other indigenous practices, many Indigenous People, living under the impact of systematic oppression, can’t even afford to attend a weekend workshop on the modalities that are traditional to their ancestors.
So how can we engage in cultural appreciation, rather than cultural appropriation?
Be aware of the indigenous roots and wisdom of the practices you are sharing. Teachers, explore the lineage and histories; share with your students/clients.Learn and cite correct cultural references. Students, ask for more information, or seek out teachers who share it.
Dehomogenize the practice. Teachers might offer scholarships or sliding scale pricing to BIPOC students, especially for teacher training programs. Studios and workshop organizers, seek out teachers of color and center their teaching.
Be respectful of symbols and iconography. As Barkataki says, “Make sure, if we are using images of deities or regalia such as statues, malas or bindis, that we know where they came from, what they mean, how to relate to them respectfully and have a sincere intention at heart.”
Understand that Sanskrit is a critical part of the history of yoga and respect it as such. Consider how you are using “Namaste.” This is a sacred word that has been commercialized. “Namaslay,” or “Namastay right here” can feel like slander or trivialization of a word that has spiritual resonance.
As a non-Indigenous Person, using the words “tribe” or “spirit animal” is problematic. We’re co-opting a culture without taking on the burden of centuries of oppression and marginalization by colonizing culture.
Understand that this sort of self-inquiry can be challenging and even confusing at times. There are often questions (for me) that defy easy answers. Can I call what I’m teaching yoga? Should a white woman be teaching yoga at all? As the conversation continues to evolve, we can remember that yoga’s ethical law of ahimsa tells us to do no harm. Asking ourselves, again and again, how we can do the least harm as we try to engage in healing practices, is a good start to understanding how to avoid cultural appropriation.
If you’ve taken a yoga class over the past decade, you’ve probably heard some of the following cues:
“Never let your knee travel further than your ankle– you want to protect your knee.”
“Brace your abdominals to protect your back.”
“Never roll up to stand from a forward fold, or you’ll cause damage to your spine.”
“Don’t place your foot on your knee in Tree Pose or you’ll dislocate your knee.”
“Don’t let your head drop forward– we don’t want to reinforce ‘text neck’ posture!”
While all of these directions are well-intentioned (if not necessarily accurate), each of them has one element in common: they include a warning of potential danger or injury. This type of language is called nocebic; it creates anxiety, a negative expectation or fear in the mind that is often more detrimental than the potential danger.
Words matter. If we are told that something is dangerous or painful, our incredibly powerful mind is more likely to experience fear or pain. One fascinating example of this is demonstrated in a 2000 study, which followed the experience of patients being injected with radiographic dye. The results showed that the the more frequently doctors used words like ‘sting,’ ‘burn,’ ‘hurt,’ ‘bad’ and ‘pain’, the more discomfort was felt by patients.
It’s also important to understand what really is a potentially dangerous movement. Yoga teachers and even personal trainers do not necessarily have a strong foundation in anatomy, physiology or kinesiology. I have spent the better part of the last 5 years educating myself on topics that my initial teacher trainings just couldn’t cover during the time allotted. Much of my earlier teaching career was spent simply repeating cues (such as the ones listed at the beginning of this article) because I had heard someone else say them.
Our bodies are made to move. While there may be movements that aren’t right for someone’s body at a certain moment in time (they may need more strength or mobility, for example), I don’t think there are movements that are, as Jenni Rawlings says in this well-written blog, “inherently bad.”
In fact, we can create greater overall strength and range of motion by practicing movement in all kinds of ways, rather than sticking to a prescribed pattern. For example, if you slip and fall in your shower, how likely are you to fall into the perfect plank shape, which you’ve practiced so many times? Not very. If instead, we’ve learned to move and load (add weight to) our body in many different positions, we’re less likely to injure ourselves when we land in an awkward way.
As far as the cues that I listed at the beginning of this article? I don’t think they’re necessary for most people. For example, is it really problematic if a knee travels forward of the ankle in a lunge or Warrior pose? Every time we walk down stairs, the knee has to travel forward of the ankle, and for most of us, that’s not a problem!
Are there times, as coaches or teachers, where we need to guide someone out of a potentially dangerous movement? Absolutely, but I find it’s pretty easy to do this without fear-mongering. For example, we might just say, “Hey Bob, it looks like that’s feeling a little unsteady. What happens if you move your foot over here? Does that feel more supportive?” This keeps the power in Bob’s hands and lets him experience 1) his own ability to find strength and support and 2) a physical sense of safety in his own body.
Part of being safe is learning that we are strong, resilient, and that we can trust our body. For many folks, just showing up for a session or a class is scary enough. If they are in a non-normative body, have a history of trauma, have experienced an injury, or have an x-ray or MRI that demonstrates something isn’t “normal,” they may already feel that their body is a little bit untrustworthy, or even fragile.
As teachers and coaches, we can be of greater service by teaching progressively, from simpler poses to more complex, giving the body and nervous system time to adapt. Rather than giving rigid, nocebic rules about alignment or movement, we can encourage students to explore how movement feels in the body and what feels strong or supportive. Remember that words have power, and avoid telling people how anything “should” feel, especially if it reinforces a sense of fragilization. Instead, invite them to be curious about the experience. If something feels painful, uncomfortable or unsafe, that’s something to pay attention to. Learning to recognize and follow these self-guided cues creates a greater sense of self-trust that can lead to greater strength and resilience in the long-term. This is real safety, which comes from a felt sense of inner strength and adaptability– not externally-imposed rules and guidelines.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.