tension holds us together

What do you feel when you read the word “tension?”

When we speak or hear about tension in the context of a yoga class or a massage treatment, we might think of tension as something to be eradicated, soothed away, released, dissolved. We’re encouraged to smooth our forehead, relax our jaw, soften our shoulders. The unspoken understanding is that tension is a problem.

The truth is much more complicated. Not only do we tense (engage) our muscles in dynamic patterns to move our body into different positions and to travel through the world, each of us is literally held together by tension. Our myofascial system is suspended around our bones through what is termed tensegrity. Without the tension of the soft tissues of our body, our skeleton would collapse in a heap on the floor.

Okay, you might be thinking, but that’s not what we’re talking about. The BAD kind of tension is what gives us headaches and makes my shoulders and back tight. It’s the furrow of the brow and the wrinkle in my forehead and the way I clench my jaw. I need to get rid of that kind of tension, don’t I?

It’s really natural to feel that this tension is bad. It doesn’t feel good and yes, it often does have negative effects. I can attest that jaw-clenching, tooth-grinding, shoulder gripping, and tension headaches are all really unpleasant.

Let’s zoom out for a moment and take a look at why this tension is present. Much of what we think of as negative tension is the result of an ongoing or habitually unresolved stress cycle in the body. When our bodies are under threat, our nervous system reacts by creating muscular tension (to run from danger or to defend ourselves). We armor ourselves in a protective way: tailbone tucking, abdominal muscles and pelvic floor gripped. As a result, breath becomes shallow and we breathe with our accessory breathing muscles (neck and shoulders). It’s an incredible physiological process designed to keep us safe. You can read more about why your stress response is your superpower here.

When defense systems become overwhelmed or we are unable to complete the stress cycle, we can get “stuck” in these patterns of tension. However, attempting to soothe away the tension will only have limited results. Your nervous system is often holding that tension there because it is trying to keep you safe.

If you’ve ever had the experience of enjoying a really relaxing massage or a relaxing restorative yoga session, only to be swept up in a rebound of anxiety, stress, or panic afterward, then you’ll understand what’s meant by “relaxation-induced anxiety.” This can happen when we artificially relax ourselves to override the stress response– our natural survival resource in the body. ⁣

Attempts to soothe away tension with deep breathing, touch or other stimulation to the vagus nerve can trigger relaxation that temporarily interrupts the stress response. When the body recognizes that we are still “in danger”– that is, the stress has still not been resolved– it tightens us right back up to deal with the perceived threat.

Rather than treating our tension as some sort of wrinkle to be ironed out, we can recognize it as a useful and protective adaptation, and find ways to discharge the stress energy (through movement, for example) so that our nervous system feels safer. At the same time, we might work on ways to create more of a sense of felt safety in our own body by integrating mindful strength work. Core strength, posterior chain engagement and hand/grip strength are just a few of the ways that we can increase our sense of internal capacity. When the body feels more capable of dealing with threat, the nervous system has less of a need to armor against it. We can use our internal systems of tension to support us.

the frustration is a good thing

So, you’ve decided you want to make a change. Maybe you’re working on recognizing and changing a bias you carry. Or you’re trying to use learn a new skills, like Indian clubs (see video below). Or you want to start using your non-dominant hand for more activities. How long does it take before you feel frustrated? What happens then– do you give up?

As we learned in our last blog, changing patterns takes time. Every time you’ve previously chosen to do something your “habitual way,” you’ve reinforced the likelihood that you’ll do it again the same way next time. Overall, this is a good thing. These shortcuts in our brain (central pattern generators) minimize the effort we expend so that we can easily (and mindlessly) do things the way we always do. Imagine that every time you had to accelerate or slow down your car, you had to stop and think about how you did it, just like when you were a new driver. That would be terrible, right? It’s good that our brain has these reflexive shortcuts.

But sometimes we’ve decided that we need to do things differently; we want to learn a new pattern. If you can recall the last time you tried to learn something new, this can be incredibly difficult and frustrating, especially if you’re really, really used to doing something a certain way. Here’s the fantastic news (and the point of this blog): that frustration is a good thing.

When we decide that we need to change our behavior, our brain has to engage in top-down processing. This means that our big, smart human forebrain (see more about the brain here) is suppressing the automatic response from the limbic system. When this happens, norepinephrine (adrenaline) is released in the brain. This functions to make us more alert– it’s a way that our body gets us to pay attention to what’s going on. However, we tend to experience this as agitation and stress.

At the same time, our brain is also being flooded with another chemical, acetylcholine. This has the effect of increasing our focus so that we can pay closer attention to whatever is happening and make corrections as needed.

Learning to use Indian clubs has been a fascinating exercise in working with new patterns for brain and body! I’ve had to work through many layers of frustration in order to achieve minimal competency– but it’s been fun!

So, let’s say you’ve decided you want to vacuum your house with your non-dominant hand, and you quickly discover that you don’t have the same amount of dexterity or strength that you typically do. That feeling of irritation or stress that comes over you– that’s just these neuromodulators (chemicals) doing their job to say, “Hey! Pay attention! We’re trying to do a new thing.”

At this point, you might make a second decision, which is that you don’t care about being able to vacuum with your non-dominant hand, and you move back to the other. But maybe you don’t have a choice– perhaps your dominant hand is injured and it is imperative that the house be vacuumed (sometimes these examples get dumb, don’t they? Just go with it). So, you continue to vacuum in your clumsy way.

But then, something interesting happens. As you persist with the task, you begin to improve. Here’s where it gets super cool. When your brain recognizes that you’re starting to be able to do the task better, you get an infusion of a third chemical– dopamine. That’s right! Now you get a shot of feel-good. You start to think, “Hey, maybe I’m pretty good at this after all.” That dopamine is your reward for sticking with it, and it keeps you on target to continue the effort.

But– and this is key– the frustration was the gateway to getting there in the first place. We need to experience that stress or agitation of being really awful at something before we get the bliss of a dopamine hit.

If we walk away when we become frustrated, we’re re-wiring our brains to both continue our habitual/reflexive habits, and to give up the next time we become frustrated.

Stress isn’t always a bad thing, especially if we want to continue to learn and grow. If we can familiarize ourselves with this stress as the precursor to change, we can even come to welcome and appreciate it. It’s a little bit like the way some folks can associate the discomfort of an intense massage or foam rolling with pleasure (I don’t think we’re born believing that a deep jab in a tight muscle feels great), so that they even enjoy the discomfort. This may be one of the secrets to a growth mindset— recognizing and even appreciating learning discomfort as a necessary part of the process.

changing patterns takes time

If I asked you to balance on one foot right now (and that is something your body is able to accommodate)– which foot would you pick up?

When you reach up to open a cabinet, which arm do you use?

Do your shoes wear more on the inside, or the outside of the soles?

These aren’t likely things that you have to think about, but patterns that are long-established in your body. For example, my brain feels more confident stepping with my right leg and reaching right arm– they’re stronger and more dextrous. It also knows that my balance is stronger on my left foot– since breaking my right big toe 25 years ago, my right foot doesn’t have the same strength or mobility.

These engrained patterns of movement occur through simple pathways in the brain stem called central pattern generators. Their job is to generate reflexive movement– that is, movement you don’t need to think about. You might think of these as neurological or physiological shortcuts– the easiest way for our body to get from A to B with the minimal amount of physical and mental energy expended.

In repeating the same patterns, I’m reinforcing those deep neural pathways, making it more likely I will continue to use them in the same way. I’m also denying myself the experience of other patterns. In my body, this means that my left leg is likely to continue to be weaker than my right; my left arm less dextrous than my right (and my left latissimus dorsi does not stretch as comfortably or easily as my right!); and my left foot will always be my go-to for demonstrating a balancing pose.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” -Henry Ford

Our familiar patterns aren’t necessarily bad, but we there’s a consequence to limiting or movements. Over time, sticking to our familiar patterns can mean that our body starts to shut down access to other patterns. This can be neurological or physiological– neuronal pathways close down, or the tissue itself changes so that we’re not able to move in as many ways. This often happens so gradually that we don’t notice we’ve “lost” a movement until we attempt it. “I used to be able to do that,” we think, or, “man, it sucks getting older.”

Changing these reflexive patterns takes time and a certain amount of diligence. Sometimes it’s a case of having to remind ourselves to do something differently– for example, I have to make an active effort to open a cupboard with my left hand. If we’re dealing with physiological changes, we might have to engage in more physical effort to create tissue change as we “rewire” the brain. There are many ways to approach this (with my clients, I use the Functional Range Conditioning System/Kinstretch to teach the body and brain how to work together to create the desired movement).

In our next blog, we’ll take a look at the frustration that comes from trying to change patterns, and how we can leverage that to our own advantage. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Can you think of an engrained pattern in your body– perhaps it’s something that’s just a habit, or the result of a long-ago injury? Have you tried to change it? What was that experience like?

the only chocolate chip cookie recipe you’ll ever need (yes, it’s vegan)

I’m really excited to give this recipe a page of its very own! This is my absolute favorite, best-ever, chocolate chip cookie recipe. I adapted this from a Food 52 recipe and my friends and family rave about it. There are two “secrets” to making these excellent: First, you must let the dough rest overnight in the fridge. Really. This gives the batter time to mellow and age in a way that creates an incredibly complex, almost caramel note. Second, use the best chocolate you can find. I like to chop up a good chocolate bar for some fun chunks, but chips are also great. 

a picture of delicious-looking, golden brown, puffy chocolate chip cookies resting on a white tray.

Ingredients: 

  • 2 cups flour (I have never made these GF, but let me know if you do!)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cups dark chocolate chips  
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar 
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon canola, grapeseed, or any other neutral oil
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
  • a splash of vanilla extract (1 teaspoon would probably be about right)

In a large bowl, combine first four ingredients– whisk thoroughly. In a separate bowl or large measuring flask, combine sugars, oil, water and vanilla. Blend well, and then add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined and no flour lumps remain. Add in the chocolate, and don’t worry if it doesn’t seem to be integrating well– it’ll be fine. Cover tightly and place in the fridge for at least 8 hours and for up to two days. You can also freeze at this point for a month or three. 

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350. While it’s heating, scoop out balls of the dough onto your cookie sheet (if you have parchment paper, use it). Don’t panic if the dough is crumbly or it feels like it’s not sticking together– just mush it into a ball and set it on the sheet. It’ll be fine. 

In my house, the guys love them a little underbaked, but I’ll let you determine how far you want to go with it. 10 minutes is about right for these, depending on the size you choose.

Let them cool on the tray for a minute, then transfer onto a cooling rack until ready to store or eat.

what is healthism (and how does it hurt us)?

You may not have heard the term, but you are already an expert in healthism. As invisible and pervasive as the air we breathe, healthism underlies and intersects with all other aspects of our culture. For many of us, some aspects of healthism will feel like absolute truths, while we may be unsure about others.

Healthism is a pervasive belief system that says health should be valued above all else, and that it is the sole responsibility of each individual to care for their health.

Healthism says, “Your health is in your hands!”

A core belief of healthism is that each of us is responsible for our own health, and that health is within our grasp if only we do the right things. It says that each of us simply needs to care for ourselves with the magic combination of foods, supplements, diet and exercise, and that if we are failing to be healthy, it is our fault. This type of thinking is prevalent in many fitness and health communities, and is (unsurprisingly) espoused by the purveyors of fitness and health products such as yoga studios, supplement manufacturers, and “detox” programs.

But is this really true? Can each of us actually manage our own health through behavioral changes? Let’s assume that it is possible to manage one’s health perfectly through diet and exercise alone (I don’t believe this, but for the sake of argument, we’ll move forward). Even in wealthy countries, many people do not have the means or access to “healthy” food, physical/mental health care, or gyms. Assuming they could overcome these barriers (“It’s easy to eat well on a budget!,” or “You can always work out at home!” the voices of healthism cry), there are often cultural, physical, educational or time constraints.

Healthism is the voice that says, “No excuses!” while ignoring the role of oppression, poverty, racism, sexism, trauma, violence, environmental factors, and naturally occurring disease or variations in the human genome. 

Healthism also assumes that mental health is within our control, perhaps with the right combination of diet and exercise, or a daily pill to manage any troublesome symptoms. In this way, it reinforces stigma and silence around mental illness and prevents us from seeing it as a normal part of the human experience.

Healthism says, “Healthy people are the best people.”

Because it places such a high value on health, healthism says that healthy individuals are morally superior to unhealthy individuals. After all, they’re the ones who have managed to take their health into their own hands, showing us all that it’s possible! This is what we’re all striving for, right?

This is the principle that allows insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. It says they are not healthy enough to deserve healthcare. 

This is why we consider thin, “fit,” able-bodied people to be the “norm,” and others to be deviations. A quick look across the tabloids or a flip through social media will tell you which bodies are most valued in our culture. Celebrities are shamed for “letting themselves go.” People using mobility aids are missing or invisible. It’s no coincidence that the featured bodies are the ones that hold privilege.

Because if you recall, in reality, health is not something that everyone has equal access to. This means that privilege determines who is healthy, and who is considered morally superior. Those with financial privilege, educational privilege, white privilege, thin privilege, cisgender privilege, able-bodied privilege are at the top of the pyramid. 

When we buy into healthism, we reinforce the structures of racism, ableism, sexism, and white supremacy (among others).

“Healthism shows up when we joke about getting diabetes from a single dessert, or refer to a rich meal as a “heart attack on a plate”—implying that those health conditions are caused by failures of a perceived personal responsibility to be healthy, not by structural forces that disproportionately harm the health of people living on the down side of power. Healthism shows up when we suggest that trans people should be more worried about the side effects of long-term hormone therapy than their own lived experience of their gender.” -Aubrey Gordon, @yrfatfriend

How does healthism show up in your life?

Healthism makes us feel guilty when we are sick, as though we’ve done something wrong. 

Healthism is at play when we hear things like, “Covid-19 is only dangerous for the elderly or people with underlying conditions.” Healthism has created the implicit understanding that their lives are less worthy because they are not healthy (and therefore inferior). 

Healthism says, “I don’t want my hard-earned money to pay for someone else’s health-care,” or, “Why should I pay for people who don’t take care of themselves?” 

Healthism doesn’t take into consideration the amount of work that each of us may have to do. It positions self-care as mandatory and shames us for not “finding the time.” 

Healthism judges others, saying “She just hasn’t been taking care of herself.” 

Healthism ignores those that are missing from our wellness spaces (brown bodies, black bodies, disabled bodies, fat bodies, trans bodies). Rather than asking why these spaces are so white, it says, “Yoga is for everyone!” and, “If everyone would meditate daily, they’d be healthier.” 

Healthism assumes that the fat person at the gym is there to lose weight.

Healthism shames us when we are tired, under-resourced, or unmotivated to exercise.

Healthism is selling you:

  • Products to control your weight
  • Products to manage your time 
  • The idea that you would be better if only you could control your health.

Most of us have been so indoctrinated in the church of healthism that we may not even recognize it. Do you believe that health is the most important thing? Do you believe that each of us has to take responsibility for our own health, and that some of us deserve better care? What would it be like to imagine a different type of of community wellness?

neuroception, embodiment & how to be with others in a nonreactive way

As I’m writing this, my dogs are barking fiercely: the lawn maintenance company is trimming some hedges around the house, and as the workers move past each window, it is FULL RED ALERT CRISIS TIME. You couldn’t have a conversation in here if you tried.

This ability to perceive danger or threat is called neuroception. When something feels dangerous or wrong, my dogs react. Their senses heighten, their posture stiffens, and they’re ready for fight or flight. The hair on their back stands up, and their tails are alert. They vocalize their reaction (loudly) with barking, to scare off the predator and alert the rest of the household.

Our Bodies Are Always Watching

Just like dogs, humans use neuroception to scan for threat. Our bodies are constantly monitoring the environment and each other. When we perceive a threat, we react.

You might have experienced this if you’ve ever encountered a dangerous animal– a rattlesnake, a bear, a frightening dog. But our neuroception works with other humans, too. Encountering a stranger who feels scary, your body reacts: perhaps you confront them, or move away, or reach for the safety of a crowd or a phone call for help.

Neuroception is always happening, even in casual conversations. When we are with our doctor, or a friend, or in a learning environment, we’re scanning to see if we feel safe, or comfortable. We’re looking for signs that this is a person we can trust. We’re subconsciously monitoring their body language, word choices, and other cues, and reacting to them.

Meditation vs Embodied Awareness

Meditation is one way in which we can learn to become more familiar with the ways in which we habitually react to others. Over time, the practice of sitting quietly creates a sense of spaciousness around our reactions and patterns. Our brains are able to create new responses. This means that, although we’ve responded 1000 times before in the same way, it is possible that on the 1001st time, we can make a different choice.

Meditation has been crucial in helping me to recognize my own patterns when they occur, and in helping me to change them. But it is often taught from such a top-down approach (in which the brain is “in charge”), that it doesn’t take into consideration the almost subliminal ways that our bodies are responding, moment by moment, to the world around us.

A somatic, or embodied approach to meditation invites a greater awareness and understanding of the ways in which we are working with neuroception and our attempts at human connection, below the surface, at all times. Rather than simply noticing our thoughts and patterns, we can learn to be aware of how our bodies are responding to each other. Think for a moment about the last time you spoke to someone and disagreed with them. Or, imagine someone you don’t like is speaking on social media or TV. Can you notice heat in your body? Tightness or tension? A subtle (or not-so-subtle) desire to move away? Are you making a face? What are your hands doing? Do you feel the urge to speak rising up in your throat?

Holding Space for Ourselves First

Being aware of these natural embodied reactions, combined with our mental awareness of patterned behaviors, gives us a greater understanding of how we might learn to be with others in a nonreactive way. If we are not aware or mindful of our bodies’ physiological response to others, then we may act on it. This might mean that we use body language that pushes them away, or respond in a way we may regret later.

This technique of dual awareness– being aware of and caring for what our bodies are experiencing inside, even as we are present with the situation outside– is the key to holding space for others.

If you are someone who is a caregiver, a teacher, a healer or works with other human bodies, it is essential to practice being with others in a nonreactive way. As Lama Rod Owens says below, “not reacting to the material in my experience means that I have the space to focus on other things as well.” Our ability to truly be present with and care for others is contingent on our ability to notice and care for our own experience first.

“Holding space is the work of being with ourselves and others in a nonreactive way. I am able to notice everything that comes up in my mind and body, and I can allow it to be there without having to react to it. Not reacting to the material in my experience means that I have the space to focus on other things as well while not losing awareness of this material. When I get distracted and start reacting to the material that is coming up for me, then I am not holding space for myself or anyone else. Authentic holding space means that first and foremost, I am holding space for myself.”

Lama Rod Owens, Love and Rage

Holding Space for Political Disagreement

This is vital for communicating with others who may hold opposing viewpoints– something that is so important as we move forward in this country in the post-tr*mp era. We hold space first for ourselves to be sure that we are cared for, and then we are able to engage with the other.

This doesn’t mean that we have to approve of or like them or their behavior– it means that we can acknowledge the situation as it is and choose an appropriate response. Ruth King offers the following mantra for equanimity in her book Mindful of Race: “This moment is like this, and it doesn’t have to be different right now. I can allow what is here, and offer what is needed.” This may mean we need to leave the situation or confront the individual, but that we remain within our window of capacity as we do it.

I frequently have conversations with others who disagree with my political views, and they have often gotten heated. Being aware of my embodied response allows me to see whether I am able to engage with them, or if it’s best to step away.

Love & Trust In Our Bodies

“We experience love and trust in our bodies. For me to love and trust you, my body needs to sense that you deserve that love and trust. Yours will need to sense the same about me. This is visceral, not cognitive.”

Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands

What I find most fascinating about neuroception is that it’s always happening, whether or not I pay attention to it. I am a highly sensitive, empathic human, which means that I am always very attuned to what other bodies are doing and saying. I used to wonder why I was so tired after being with other people, or why certain folks would leave me feeling so unhappy. When I learned to pay attention to my body’s vigilance, the answers became quite clear: I had been responding to others in ways that I wasn’t aware of, which can be incredibly exhausting. There will always be people that are more challenging to be around– our bodies perceive them as more dangerous or difficult, and even though we are not reacting outwardly, the effort takes a toll.

When we are able to spend time with someone who is themselves present in their own experience and able to be with us in a nonreactive way, there is less material for us to react to, and we can feel more comfortable to be authentically ourselves. We feel a sense of settling in our bodies, at home with ourselves and this other. Then, the potential for connection and collaboration is so much greater. As Resmaa Menakem says, this is visceral, not cognitive. Meditation is helpful, but embodiment is crucial.

One last (really important) note: learning to be present with our own embodied experience is not always simple or easy, especially for trauma survivors, or those living with the effects of traumatic stress or systemic oppression. Meditation can also be challenging. It is important to go slowly and seek out support (a mental health care provider who takes an embodied approach, or a trauma-informed movement/meditation coach, for example) if you find yourself becoming overwhelmed.

born this way

One of my earliest yoga experiences was with a local man, who we’ll call Ed (why not) . Ed taught a Saturday morning donation (pay-what-you-can) class outside by the community pool at his condo. I’ve written before about how magical yoga felt to me in those early days– like falling in love, or coming home, or having a curtain pulled back and suddenly seeing the world in such a clear and lovely way.

As far as I was concerned, Ed was the Real Deal. He burned incense, he anointed our wrists with essential oils, he read from Meditations From the Mat, and, on special days, he even played guitar during Savasana. I mean. What more could you ask? (As you can probably tell, I fell a little bit in love with Ed, too, during that first yoga honeymoon phase).

I came to each class feeling a little bit brave (my social anxiety made any outing feel a little brave), but also a little bit like I was Doing Something Really Special. If you have ever been in love with yoga, then you know that feeling. I looked forward to it all week. I didn’t always understand the postures, or the yogic spiritual teachings that Ed thoughtfully shared, but I had a sense that something special was unfolding and I wanted more of it.

This was a phase I went through where I was trying to do the poses like BKS Iyengar in Light on Yoga.

The easiest way into yoga for many of us is through the physical postures– the asana. I brought all of my best work ethic to my mat. I pushed through the pain in Pigeon (oops), I held my leg up in front of me until it burned, I fell out of Crow pose over and over and over. It was the only way I knew to feel as though I could progress, or steep myself more in this practice that was transforming me and my life experience.

One day, Ed didn’t show up for class– instead, he sent a substitute teacher. Let’s call her Cassie. Cassie was tall and thin, with flowing hair and a breezy yoga outfit that looked as though she’d stepped off the cover of Yoga Journal magazine (which, let us not forget, largely features thin white women, so that’s not super surprising).

Cassie was also INCREDIBLY mobile. Her poses were effortless, with a range of motion that could easily have qualified her for Cirque du Soleil. She could do things that my body couldn’t, and for the first time I thought I saw where I wanted this yoga practice to take me.

After class, I approached her and asked, “How long will I have to do yoga before my body can do things like yours?”

Cassie looked at me, and laughed self-deprecatingly, even waving her hand a little bit in front of her as if to brush away the idea. “Oh, I was just born this way.”

I felt a little bit as though I had been running full-speed and encountered a clothesline– that was the force of my reaction to her response. I didn’t know what to say. Did this mean that I wouldn’t be able to do the things she could do? Would I never put my leg behind my head? Was I simply lacking the gift of mobility? Was my yoga practice all for nothing?

2015 photo of Laura with both legs behind her head, and Stanley the Pomeranian looking on in confusion

It would take me another decade to recognize that Cassie’s response was actually full of wisdom. During those ten years, I continued to work hard, undeterred. I knew that the physical practices of yoga were changing my body. I became stronger in many ways, and more mobile in others. I did indeed find a way to get not one, but both legs behind my head. I worked so well that I inevitably injured myself, and found that my practice wasn’t really as balanced or healthy as I’d thought it was– but that’s another story.

The truth is, though Cassie dropped it like an offhand remark, that there are some things that our bodies are just born with, and that we will not be able to change. There are poses that I struggle with and always will. I can’t change the shape or the length of my bones.

I didn’t yet recognize that the yoga postures were the least important thing about the practice. What changed my life wasn’t improved external hip rotation or the perfect arm balance, but the quality of awareness, vitality and presence that followed me from the mat into the rest of my life.

Cassie was born her way, and I was born mine. We’re all born this way– whatever “this way” means in your body/heart/mind. The practices of yoga (beyond the postures) allow us to witness the truth of our circumstances and to work skillfully with them.

Occasionally I get a question like the one I asked Cassie so many years ago. I understand the excitement and attraction of wanting to change our bodies, to make them do challenging things or to get out of pain, and I never want to take away from that experience– it’s how I got to be where I am, after all. So I tell them their bodies will probably change and be able to do different things, and they might feel better, but along the way each of us will have our own challenges and limitations. And– if they’re able to hear me– I tell them that they may come to find that the most important things they get from the yoga practice have nothing to do with their bodies at all.

HRV: when you can’t hear what your body’s saying, turn on the closed captions

Like many of you, I have a morning ritual. I wake up, feed the dogs, make my coffee, and sit down with my phone– not to start my social media scroll (that will come later)– but to take my heart rate variability (HRV) measurement.

HRV is a super easy way to take a look at how our bodies are handling stress. It measures the variability between heartbeats– that is, how quickly your heart rate recovers from beat to beat as it encounters stress. Remember that your system is designed to oscillate between activation and ease– you see a bear, your nervous system ramps up; you run away from the bear, and the nervous system settles again. Generally speaking, the higher your HRV, the better; we want to be able to recover quickly and shift easily from one state to another.

Your HRV is the only (practical, accessible) way that you can measure the activity of your autonomic nervous system (ANS). In a recent post, I talked about how important it is to understand and support the nervous system. We can learn to interpret the somatic language that our body speaks; in my body, I recognize the symptoms of overwhelm and can often adjust accordingly. Sometimes I miss the signs, or choose to override them. That’s where having a digital readout of the ANS can be extra helpful as an objective measurement.

I use a super simple app called HRV4Training. It’s inexpensive, easy to use (you just put your thumb over your phone’s camera and try not to move for a minute), and it gives me some quick information about how my body’s handling stress. The app allows me to put in additional information that it takes into consideration– how sore are my muscles? How stressful is my life right now? How much did I sleep last night? Then, it makes suggestions about how intense my training session should be that day.

You might remember from my last post that our systems are affected not just by the physical movement we do, but by all kinds of stress– even positive.

In this screenshot, you get an insider’s perspective into my HRV since September. You’ll notice that there are some peaks and valleys– that’s normal– and that the red bars indicate days where my HRV was exceptionally low. If you could zoom in, you would notice that one of them was November 4– US Election Day. My ANS was responding to the stress I’d been experiencing as it approached. Other low days might occur because I haven’t slept well; I’m fighting off some kind of illness; or if I had an exceptionally challenging day yesterday (perhaps I saw more clients than I could comfortably handle, or trained really hard). It might also be low because I had a really fun or exciting day– and that wore me out.

So, low HRV isn’t always a bad thing– it’s just an indication that my system needs a little more recovery time. Make sense?

An image that reads,"If you listen to your body when it whispers, you will never have to listen to it scream."

At its simplest, you can use an HRV readout as a tool to validate or explore what your felt sense of health is in your body. Many of us don’t have a really clear understanding of what our body is trying to say. Its signals feel confusing, or we may have been taught to push through or ignore them completely. Maybe you’ve seen that saying that goes, “If you listen to your body when it whispers, you will never have to listen to it scream.” That’s great advice, but if you’re having a hard time hearing the whisper, you’re not alone. When I first began measuring my HRV, I was often baffled by its readouts. I literally had no idea I was feeling so run down (or why I kept getting injured…!). For those of us who are still learning the language, HRV is like a closed caption that gives us a hint of what we might start to pay attention to.

Of course, it’s not always that simple to understand how and why HRV works, which is where having a tool like HRV4Training really helps. It analyzes long-term trends and correlates factors to help support my decisions about what kind of training to do. Right now, I am just coming out of a two-month stretch that was really challenging– on top of my election stress, I was going through some major changes in my work, and had very little time off, which taxed my system more. You can notice that my overall HRV (look at the black line) was higher in October than in November and December. This corresponds to my feeling more tired and achey than I was in October, so I’m taking it easier in my training right now to allow for fuller recovery. I’m also happy to report that much of the external stress has shifted, so I’m looking forward to training harder and feeling better again in the next couple of months!

I’m a big fan of HRV4Training (as you can probably tell– in fact, I’m an ambassador).It’s inexpensive, their customer service is great, and it’s really helped me to work better with my own system. The company is committed to research and communication about how HRV works! I am all in for simple tools that increase self-awareness and help us to function better, so I’m happy to endorse this product.

balancing the allostatic load

One of the things that brings me joy, that makes me feel alive, powerful, and free, is physical training. I love to sweat, to move, to swing heavy things. It helps me to complete the stress cycle, reinforces my sense of agency and strength, and (because I am often outside), gives me a chance to soak in nature.

Of course, I can’t do that every day. My muscles need a chance to rest and repair– and I also need to take into account everything else that I’ve done that day (training clients, filming classes, etc). That makes sense, right? Physically, there’s only so much the body can handle. If I tried to push through when my body wasn’t ready, I might not have the energy or ability, or I’d risk injury.

What’s often overlooked is that we need to take into account more than just the physical activities that we’re engaging in. Is work overwhelming? How many difficult conversations did you have today? Are you under financial stress? When’s the last time you were able to get out of the house and have fun? See your family? Get a hug from someone you love? Are you worried about your health? The electoral college? The environment?

Any kind of stress has a physical cost; we pay with our body’s energy stores. Our body responds to a stressor by preparing us to run: muscles tense, heartbeat goes up, endorphins flood our bloodstream. Every system in our body is PRIMED FOR ACTION. Yet for many of us, the stress doesn’t let up. We can’t run, we can’t fight, and unless we are actively doing something to complete the stress response, we are living with the effects of cumulative overwhelm in every system of our body. If you ever been under sustained stress, you know how exhausting that is.

(need a refresher on how the nervous system deals with stress? read this post).

The amount of stress our body (+brain, +nervous system) is under at any given moment is called allostatic load. When our allostatic load is too high, our health suffers. If (like me!) you’re someone who thrives on movement, or who craves physical activity to release stress and feel good, you may find that in times of greater stress (for example, 2020), you are not able to train as hard. Your system doesn’t know the difference between different types of stress, so we need to find ways to stress it less.This means that you may need to back off on the weight you’re lifting or the pace you’re keeping. You might need to train less frequency, or start incorporating other types of training instead.

How do you know when you’re in a state of allostatic overload? Physically or emotionally, you might feel drained. Your muscles might feel achy or sore, or you find old injuries cropping up. You might feel like you don’t want to move at all, or you might feel fidgety. Maybe your mind seems to be cycling endlessly through repetitive thoughts. Every system responds differently to stress, so you will have your own experience. But I bet you have some ideas already about what it feels like to you.

In my last post, I suggested that it’s really important to understand your nervous system, and to be able to support it. Recognizing your current allostatic load is a great start. When I am feeling exhausted from stress, I know that I still need to complete my stress cycle in order to reset my nervous system. I’m not able to take on a big sweaty training session, but I can take a long walk. Research shows that optic flow, which includes forward movement like walking, running or biking (not a treadmill/stationary bike– what your eyes take in has to match up with what your body is doing!), reduces anxiety. I know that’s true for me.

What about restorative or yin yoga, or sitting down for quiet meditation? For those of us whose allostatic load is running high, until we’ve discharged some of our stress energy, sitting and meditating, or stretching our hamstrings for five excruciating minutes is going to be pretty hard. Remember, your nervous system thinks it is under threat, so how is it going to just sit down and relax? A little movement first will go a long way. For those of us who aren’t able to do a lot of movement, a little chair dancing, balancing a ball on a book, or even just laughing with a friend over Facetime can be super helpful to help reset our nervous system.

One of the biggest lessons of this challenging year has been to learn to balance my allostatic load. I couldn’t control the pandemic, my financial situation, other people’s behavior, the elections, or the way my nervous system responded to any of it. What I could do was adjust my training to support, rather than stress, my nervous system.

your nervous system needs your support

Have you ever finished a long day of work sitting at a desk, and felt like you were too tired to move- even though you barely moved your body all day?

Do you struggle to stick with a “workout” program because it always ends in burnout or injury?

Have you ever tried to sit down and meditate, and immediately fallen asleep?

Or tried to sit down and meditate, and felt like you were going to jump out of your skin because it is SO HARD to sit still?

In all of these (really common!) scenarios, the missing link is often a lack of understanding about how our nervous system works, and how we can support it.

Training the body without an understanding of our nervous system is like driving a car without looking at the instrument panel. The car will move whether you’re paying attention to those dashboard lights or not— but you won’t know that the car isn’t running well until it leaves you stranded on the highway. 

When we’re reading the dials (so to speak), we can understand when we are operating in a state of overwhelm that needs to be addressed. We can use our bodies and minds together to discharge stress hormones, shake ourselves out of a freeze response, or find new ways to address recurring challenges. 

We also need to understand that our body is affected by more than just movement. Stress strains our body’s resources. That might be stress from work, ongoing trauma, relationship issues, or it could be the stress of not feeling cared for, not moving enough, not sleeping well or not getting proper nutrition. Training the body without respecting the nervous system can leave us frustrated, depleted, or, worse, injured or sick.

Training the mind without this understanding can lead to a profound disconnection of our somatic (body) wisdom. I’m reminded of one of my favorite meditation teachers, who says that “yoga people are too much in their bodies; meditators are too much in their heads.” Many meditators can get really, really good at using meditation to dissociate from their present experience; it’s difficult for them to connect to sensations or messages from their body.

If you struggle to sit quietly in meditation, or you find yourself frustrated by countless failed attempts to start an exercise program (injured or burnt-out yet again), an understanding of the nervous system may be what’s needed to bridge your mind’s desires with your body’s capabilities.

I know that on any given day, my nervous system determines how much I am physically and mentally able to handle, as well as the type of movement or work that is going to be most beneficial.

I adjust my training and meditation volume and input according to what else is going on in my life. Sometimes that means I don’t do very much at all– other times, it means I need to do a little dancing, or stretching, or take a long walk.

A good teacher, coach or trainer will help you learn to access those dashboard controls rather than mindless “encouragement” to push through pain (right now I’m looking at a “fitspo” Pinterest board that tells me to “Stop trying to skip the f*cking struggle,” “My body says no more, my mind screams two more!,” and “Show up when you’re tired, that’s discipline!”). That approach is neither sustainable nor does it produce the best results.  Instead, nervous system awareness and support provide the structure to train our bodies and minds to their safest and greatest capacity.

In our next installment, we’ll take a look at some of the ways that we can work mindfully with our nervous system for greater success in our movement and meditation practices– stay tuned!