6 ways that movement helps support mental health

(There are definitely more, but 6 is a nice number to start with!)

  1. Endorphins. Movement releases “feel-good” hormones like seratonin, endorphins, dopamine & norepinephrine (adrenaline). You really can get a natural high. If you’re moving in synchronicity with other people, socializing, or outdoors, you may get an additional dose of these!
  2. Improves the mind-body connection. Our body has all kinds of wisdom to share with us, but we’re not always able to hear it, or we may have learned to ignore it. Mindful movement teaches us to pay attention to the information our body is sending us so that we can make better choices to support our safety and well-being.
  3. Decoupling activation from stress. It’s not uncommon for folks to have negative associations to the feeling of activation in their body. A faster pulse, shallow breath, elevated body temp can all feel like stress– but they’re also things that happen naturally we practice movement! Learning that feeling “activated” doesn’t have to be negative gives us a greater capacity to handle these feelings in our body when they do arise.
  4. Becoming more comfortable with difficult feelings. Movement– even gentle  yoga– can teach us that it’s possible to experience a difficult emotion (such as frustration with a new movement) or a challenging sensation (think intense stretch or a fatigued muscle on that last set) without needing to immediately numb out, medicate, or flee from a situation.  We get better at working with tough situations.
  5. Work with our body’s natural rhythms. Our nervous system is designed to oscillate naturally between cycles of stress and cycles of ease. Movement allows us to use the energy of our stress response to move naturally into more settled states. It also helps us to get out of the “stuck” energy of old stress/traumatic events so that we can move forward in our lives. In this way, we learn to ride the ups and downs of life with greater ease and confidence– we improve our stress tolerance.
  6. Increased self-confidence. Movement is a natural self-teacher. Through repetition, we improve our ability to practice skills like walking, lifting  weights, catching a ball, and using our bodies in different ways. Becoming a stronger, faster, more coordinated and efficient mover translates directly to a natural sense of self-confidence. We trust our bodies (and ourselves) more.

What other ways have you found that mindful movement supports your own mental health?

why mindful movement matters

Mindfulness gained popularity in the past few decades as a secular way to experience the benefits of meditation. It’s become so common as to almost be cliched. Your employer is encouraging mindfulness as a means to reduce stress (and lower their own costs). Your favorite actors go on regular mindfulness retreats. And now the many folks in the fitness industry are suggesting that their version of mindful movement will be beneficial not just for your body but for your mind and soul. 

let’s define mindfulness

Mindfulness is often defined as, “bringing awareness to the present moment in a non-judgmental way.”  In mindfulness meditation ( simply become aware of things, as they are, without trying to change them. We let go of goals (even the seemingly harmless goal of trying to be more peaceful or relaxed) and allow things to be just as they are. The technique is quite simple, but the practice is not always easy. 

Left to its own devices, our mind likes to dwell in what’s known as “default mode.” We ruminate on the past; fantasize about the future; commentate and color our current experience with narrative. Default mode is what’s operating when our mind is wandering or we’ve “tuned out.” It’s called “default mode” for a great reason— we spend most of our time in this state. 

Mindfulness practice is a deliberate action of turning off default mode and training ourselves to be in a state of present-moment awareness.  We can do this by deliberately bringing awareness to things like sensations, sounds, smells, sights, or even more interior experiences of breath, thought or emotion. 

what makes movement “mindful?”

Movement becomes mindful when we direct our awareness to what our body is experiencing in the moment. That might be something as simple as feeling our feet planted on the ground, or the arm moving through the air. With greater awareness (and this can take more practice and skill), we can notice things like breath, muscular contractions or stretch sensations. We may also notice our more subtle interior physical reactions to the present moment experience , where we register embodied emotional reactions.

In addition to simply practicing awareness of our present-moment experience, mindful movement includes a second step that requires even more sensitivity and skill: we respond with wisdom to the experience as it unfolds in each moment. For example, if I’m training vigorously and notice that I’m no longer able to breathe through my nose, I recognize that it’s time for me to slow down (rather than pushing through). If I am almost done with a set of deadlifts and I develop a sharp knee pain, I stop the set rather than “just finish the set.” Or, if I see a text notification that I know might take me out of my practice (perhaps it might be stressful), then I can make a mindful choice not to read it just then.

Of course, we’re going to make mistakes in this kind of practice, but the really cool thing is that our mindfulness gives us immediate feedback. If I chose to read the text (and I’m paying attention to my response), I can recognize how it’s affecting me. I might make a different choice next time. Or, we may not get feedback right away (perhaps I pushed through that set with the knee pain), but when we do recognize the results of our decision (my knee hurts the next day), we can recall with greater clarity just what we did and why because we were paying deliberate attention.

so wait, it’s not just yoga?

When we think of mindful movement, we often think of slow, deliberate, contemplative practices like yoga, tai chi, or qigong. It’s true that these practices may have mindfulness already built into the structure, but we don’t need to limit ourselves to just this kind of movement. Mindful movement can be any kind of movement– running, kettlebells, dancing. It doesn’t need to be slow (although you may find it easier to pay attention with slower movements at first).

In fact, for people who live with the effects of trauma, anxiety or stress, a deliberately slow or introspective practice like yoga can feel overwhelming. The deliberate attention we’re directed to give to our internal experience can be really uncomfortable or even detrimental. If that sounds like you, then it might be better to explore activities that feel more deliberately physical or muscular, or that appeal to you for any reason.

sympathetic joy: learning to celebrate others’ good fortune

You’re probably familiar with the concepts of lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and equanimity (upekkha). When we wish, pray or chant, “May all beings be happy and free from suffering,” we have a clear understanding of what is being offered. Even equanimity feels pretty clear: we wish that all beings be unbothered by the ups and downs of life. But what about mudita– often translated as sympathetic joy? This one doesn’t get as much press, and it may be because it’s a little harder to understand– and to practice.

what is sympathetic joy?

First, a little context: these four qualities together are known as the “four immeasurables,” because they are immeasurable in their quality (they’re also called “boundless”) and in the number of sentient beings they encompass. That is, when we pray or wish for others, there is no limit to the amount of love, compassion, equanimity and sympathetic joy we wish for them– and we wish it for all beings everywhere.

Mudita, or sympathetic joy, is the practice of delighting in others’ good fortune. It’s the opposite of envy or jealousy. Theoretically, it’s a natural next step to wishing happiness for others. We want to celebrate the good things that happen to them! Sounds easy, right? In practice, things sometimes get a little muddy.

Pema Chödrön illustrates the problem by suggesting that we imagine our friend walks in eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake on a plate. Do we say, “How wonderful you’ve got this cake!”? No, she says, we’re more likely to say, “Where did you get the cake, and why didn’t you bring me any?”

…why is this so hard for us?

While I firmly believe that all beings have innate goodness, I also understand that each of us sees life through a very self-centered lens. I say that without judgment– literally, we are the center of our own world. We see through our own eyes, we taste with our own senses, we suffer or feel pleasure in our own bodies. To each of us, the world revolves around my body and my mind.

We’re also biologically designed to care for ourselves. This is a basic survival need, but we are also programmed to enjoy things that taste and feel good (sensory pleasures like chocolate cake), or societal status rewards, like a fancy car (which might make us feel like we are an important part of our group, or that we have some illusory control over our circumstances).

Sympathetic joy turns our natural self-centeredness inside out. Because it is not always our spontaneous reaction, it allows us to see just where we have work to do. This opens the door for a more genuine and authentic caring for others.

in finding our own needs met, we can wish the same for others

Many of us have untended emotional or psychological wounds that have left us feeling a sense of lack or fulfillment in our own lives. Perhaps our needs in childhood were not met as they should have been, or we are not getting our basic needs met now. Through no fault of our own, we may find ourselves feeling emotionally impoverished.

An important step toward practicing sympathetic joy can be found in healing our own past hurts and making sure that our needs are met. If we attempt to feel joy for others’ good fortune while we are still experiencing a sense of lack in our own lives, we can find our efforts thwarted by resentment and anger. Think of it this way: if you’re starving, it’s hard to be happy about someone else’s cake, isn’t it?

The good news is that working with sympathetic joy may be the nudge we need to do some deep personal work. If you find yourself pissed off and bitter about your neighbor’s new Mercedes (or partner/job/house/etc) , it might be interesting to explore why that is– through contemplation, journaling, meditation, or with the help of a good therapist.

Finding satisfaction in our own lives may require healing work, or a gratitude practice, or perhaps a drastic change. Interestingly, what often happens at this point is that we can recognize where others may be experiencing a lack of their own. We wish them happiness, and freedom from suffering, as we’ve found for ourselves. Then we really can celebrate the wonderful things that might happen to them– even the chocolate cake.

how do you practice sympathetic joy?

There are lots of ways to practice mudita, but one simple way is in formal meditation (that just means we’re sitting down to meditate, rather than thinking about it in passing). We can start by finding a comfortable seat. For a moment or two, let your mind rest– maybe you feel your body settling into the seat, or notice your breath– without feeling like you need to change anything. Now, call to mind someone that you love. See them in your mind’s eye, and allow yourself to feel any warm emotions that might arise, and recall that you naturally want them to be happy and free from suffering. This should be pretty easy– if not, you might try another loved one instead, perhaps someone with whom you share a less complicated relationship (I find animals work well for me when humans are challenging).

Now, imagine something really awesome happening for that person– maybe they win the lottery, or they’re on a vacation. Let yourself feel joy on their behalf– celebrating for them. Take a moment to really let yourself experience that sympathetic joy, and then let your mind rest again before you repeat this activity with another imagined piece of good fortune.

This is difficult work to sustain, so be patient and work in small doses. Don’t try to stay with it for too long, and rest your mind (perhaps with breath meditation) in between. A few minutes is great. It’s also okay to fake it a little bit at first. Remember that we’re practicing in order to get better at really feeling it, so if you notice that you’re struggling, that’s great! This practice was created for humans just like you and me so that we can become more truly loving. Just as our muscles grow stronger with repetitive training, our empathetic, compassionate and caring connection to others grows deeper and more authentic with practice.

body positivity isn’t always the (best) answer

When I was a freshly-minted new yoga teacher, I had one goal with my students: to help them to recognize that they were enough, perfect, just as they were. I proclaimed radical self-love to anyone who would listen– convinced that if they could just throw out their scale and embrace their own imperfections, they would discover true happiness. At the time, I had just become a certified Curvy Yoga teacher and was excited to make yoga more accessible to more people. While I had great intentions, I was missing one a big piece of the puzzle: my own privilege.

I’m a young(ish), thin, white woman, educated, upper middle class, able-bodied and cisgendered. While I’ve had my own struggles with mental health, body image and disordered eating, the reality is that I’ve never been too far from what our culture centers as “the norm.” For me to declare radical self-love or body positivity was a pretty small step, and didn’t require any real risk. Even when I was in a bigger body, I was still able to fit comfortably in public spaces and purchase clothes at major retailers. I never had to navigate racism or ableism. Wellness spaces (and their marketing) were filled with folks that looked like me, so that even if my social anxiety got in the way, I understood that I was intended to be there and it was safe.

Where the messages of body positivity and “self-love” fall short is that in a culture that values one type of body over another, not all bodies have equal access to safety. Simply based on marketing images alone, to be fat, openly queer, or BIPOC, for example, is to automatically be considered “other.” Worse, this “otherness” means that if you are not thin, white, able-bodied and cisgendered, you may not have equal access to health care. You may earn less than your colleagues. Property ownership may be less of a possibility for you. For those in bigger bodies or living with disabilities, simply navigating the world is more challenging everything from public transportation to the chairs in your doctor’s office may be uncomfortable or completely inaccessible.

As I grow older, I’m also more conscious of the ways in which our seniors are treated differently; often with less inherent respect and dignity. I recognize my own feelings of dismay at wrinkles, gray hair and other signs that my body is aging, and I have more empathy and compassion for the ways in which we work to “stop the signs of aging.” I recall an especially poignant episode of Grace and Frankie in which Grace (Jane Fonda), tired of being treated like a senior citizen, cries out, “I just want to be relevant!”

We all deserve to feel safe, comfortable, and relevant. It’s only natural that some of us will feel compelled to make changes to our bodies in order to meet these basic needs. To ask all humans to love themselves through unconditional body positivity is to deny the reality that many people are desperately trying to navigate a system that is ignoring, discriminating against, shaming, or even killing them.

Rather than offer body positivity, we can encourage body neutrality. Body neutrality allows us to acknowledge our bodies for what they can do for us, rather than for what they look like. We can recognize the functions that our bodies have, even when we aren’t able to appreciate or love them.

Body neutrality allows each individual to have their own experience with their body. It does not deny the inequity of our cultural ideals, nor does it invalidate anyone’s lived experience. It also allows room for self-agency and autonomy, including the idea that each of us may want or need to change our body in order to feel safe or comfortable within our current systems.

When we center an experience of body neutrality, rather than body positivity, we can begin to work toward body liberation. Body liberation seeks to free all bodies from the hierarchal systems that keep all bodies from experiencing true equity and equality. It’s a social justice movement that begins with an understanding and acceptance of ourselves and our complicated relationship with our bodies.

In our next blog, we’ll take a look at ways that you can practice true body neutrality and/or body liberation (and a few of the unconscious ways you may have been upholding systems of oppression in your own relationship to your body).

diversify your joy portfolio

When you think about health and wellness, what comes to mind? Exercise, meditation, massage, eating well? What about just feeling good– are you prioritizing joy and pleasure for yourself? 

Learning to allow ourselves to feel good doesn’t come easy for some of us, especially those of us who have a history of traumatic stress or anxiety, but it’s so important for our well-being and for the greater good. I’ve been listening to The Finding Our Way podcast with Prentis Hemphill. In this episode, she’s interviewing Vanessa Rochelle Lewis, who teaches folks how to “reclaim their ugly.” Vanessa speaks to the importance of feeling good as a means to a healthier society: 

I believe that a lot of us make decisions based off of what we have been socialized to believe as right, as moral, as good, this is the way things should be. And a lot of times ‘the way things should be’ don’t actually serve our joy, or our capacity to be good to ourselves or other people. And so I want people to be able to slow down, to move away from what they’ve been taught and connect to what feels good to them in their heart, what feels gravy for them in their body, and to trust and honor the divinity and the brilliance of their intuition, the brilliance of their desire to feel good..

When we’re looking at what does it mean to feel good, what does it mean to create a world where we’re not interfering with other people’s ability to feel good, we’re going to experience a lot more peace. We’re going to experience the space and the resource to make systemic choices, to make structural choices in our families and our organizations and our lives, to imagine…and to facilitate a world that is less rooted in oppression, less rooted in harm, and more rooted in good, loving compassion. 

I was recently introduced to the idea of “diversifying your joy portfolio.”  The idea is that the greater variety of things we have in our lives that bring us pleasure, the better-resourced we are for those days when things don’t feel so great or life goes a little upside down. In thinking about the things in my life that bring me joy, I came up with five categories to help diversify our joy portfolios:

1. Movement: this could be gardening, joyful movement, play, a sweaty training session at the gym, a walk in the park. How can you use your body in a way that feels pleasurable and fun? 
2. Social Connection: in-person, on the phone, letters, a surprise gift, a coffee date, FaceTime, cuddling or snuggling your furry companions. 
3. Restful/Introspective Activities: a snuggly nap, journaling, meditation restorative yoga, an hour on the couch with your favorite reading material, a relaxing bath. These are activities that are restful for your body/mind or allow you to spend quiet time nurturing that connection.
4. Work/Hobbies/Intellectual Stimulation: Maybe you love Words with Friends, or History Channel bios. Learning a new language or skill. What tickles your brain and feels fun? What gets you in a “zone”? 
5. Sensual Nourishment: cooking or eating a delicious meal, aromatherapy, a massage. Think things that just feel good to your body. 

How can you diversify your joy portfolio?

  • Make a list of your own joy activities. If this feels hard, ask yourself, what brings me pleasure in my day? What feels ‘gravy’ in my body? What do I enjoy doing, even if I haven’t been doing it lately? 
  • Take a look and see in which category your joy activities fall. Are you someone who gravitates toward work? Do you spend a lot of time indulging in sensual nourishment, but not so much time connecting with others? 
  • Find areas where you’re not spending as much time, and come up with two or three joy activities to prioritize in those areas. Then, schedule them into your week and follow through.
  • Whether it’s a scheduled activity or a surprise moment of joy, take an extra two minutes to let it soak in: pause, notice the feeling of pleasure or joy in your body. Imagine it soaking in or spreading through your body. This helps the feeling to stay with us longer. Click here for a guided meditation to practice this!

has perfectionism been your protection?

“I don’t understand why I’m so bad at this,” my client said. “Why can’t I do it?”

“Have you ever done this before?” I asked her. “Why do you think you would be an expert at something you’ve never done before?”

Perfectionism shows up in our movement practice much as it does in the rest of our life. Many of us have incredibly high expectations of ourselves: not only should we be able to do this thing, but we should be the best we can possibly be. Anything less than 100% success is an utter failure– and failure is not an option.

Yet it’s this perfectionism– this need to be the very best– that prevents us from learning, keeps us from enjoying new activities, demands that we only do things at which we already excel. We lack tolerance for the frustration that accompanies learning, and will often quit (or refuse to participate) before we can fail.

Perfectionism can be experienced as ‘the inner critic,’ who sees all that we do, judges us harshly and frequently finds us wanting. Sometimes that critic speaks with the voice of someone we know, or maybe it feels like your inner mean girl who won’t let you ever just live your damn life. Your inner critic can seem like your biggest enemy.

Yet perfectionism can be a protective adaptation. In always being “the best,” we ensured that we were admired, accepted, or even loved. This might have been something that was necessary for parental approval or peer acceptance. In this way, our perfectionism kept us safe. The idea of not being perfect– of failing– is synonymous with rejection. This can be incredibly painful.

When we see perfectionism in this light, as a habit, or a persona that has protected us from harm throughout our lives, our relationship with it may begin to shift. How wonderful that we have this part of us that has wanted to keep us safe! Instead of being angry at our inner critic, we can say, ‘Thank you for caring about me.’ And then perhaps we can begin to choose another way of working with ourselves, knowing that failure does not mean that we are unloved or unworthy.

Learning to fail is a healthy and normal part of the human experience. If we never had the opportunity to learn and grow in this way, then our movement practice is the perfect place to explore how failure is not final, nor is it fatal. Not being “the best” doesn’t have to mean that we’re rejected or uncared-for. Our perfectionism, once our best protector, can step to the side and make room for a more creative and curious way of being in the world.

different bodies look different in yoga poses: a case study in upward-facing dog

Have you been told that there is a right way and a wrong way to do a pose? Maybe you were taught one “proper alignment” or principles that should apply to all bodies. Like so many yoga folks, I used to think that there were rules about how yoga should look– but I couldn’t make my body conform to them. Learning to let go of yoga alignment rules set me free to really enjoy my yoga practice, and to help others to do the same.

Okay, journey back with me in time, many years, to an advanced yoga teacher training program* with an experienced instructor. We were breaking down each asana (pose) to learn the proper alignment for each.

When we came to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Upward-facing Dog, I hit a moment of truth. The proportions of my body (more on this in a minute) mean that I cannot experience this shape in the same way that someone with longer arms can. With my arms straight, my hips rest on the floor, and I don’t get a chance to fully extend my spine into a backbend. Because I had been told that in Upward-Facing Dog my hips needed to be off the floor, I was not “doing the pose right.”

There I was, attempting to make my Up Dog look like someone else’s, and failing, naturally, because my body can only do what my body can do. One of my fellow teachers turned to me and said, “Can’t you just lift your hips?”

As a matter of fact, I could not “just lift my hips.” If I did, the pose became more like a push-up; my spine was no longer doing a backbend.* She and the others stood there, stymied, at a loss to understand how my body could not do the proper alignment for this pose.

Upward-Facing Dog looks different in different bodies. With longer arms and a shorter torso, the hips are off the floor. With shorter arms and a longer torso, the hips rest on the floor.

If we take a look at the two people in the picture above, we can see that the person on the top left has her arms straight in her Up Dog; her hips are several inches above the floor. Now, if she were to change her shoulder position a bit by shrugging her shoulders down and back, her hips would come a little closer to the floor, but we can be reasonably sure they wouldn’t touch.

The person on the bottom right also has straight arms, but her hips are clearly on the floor. If she were to push her hands into the floor, she might be able to lift her hips, but I can tell you from experience that’s a pretty awkward thing to do, and you lose the element of the backbend (spinal extension) in the pose.

If both of these people were to sit side by side in Dandasana (seated staff pose), and place their palms on the floor, we’d have a better look at their arm to torso position. You can see an example in the pictures below.

Dandasana (seated staff pose) is a great place to see how different people’s torso to arm proportion varies.

This is just one of the many ways in which our bodies can differ– and one of the many reasons why our yoga poses can look different, while still being “correct.” Can you see how it might not even be possible for these people to do this pose in the same way? And, looking at the proportion, can you imagine how it might feel different in their spine when they do the pose? Now, imagine these folks were to wrap their arms around themselves for a bind. How might their arm length affect their ability to grab their own hand? What if their torso is wider? Are they doomed to a lower state of enlightenment?

Below, you can see a picture of my own expression of Upward-Facing Dog. I’ve added a block under each hand to artificially lengthen my arms. Because I’m able to lift my torso higher in this way, my spine can extend (backbend) more– and it feels really, really good. I’ve also got my toes tucked under, because I came forward into the pose from Down Dog– but the extra height and stretch under my feet feels nice, too. Why not?

Upward-Facing Dog with hands on blocks gives extra room for the spine to extend.

When we let go of our ideas about how a yoga practice should look, we make space for a greater range of experience. We normalize body variation (because despite what we see online and in clip art, yoga is not just for thin white women). We give greater agency to each student to choose the variation that makes sense for them– and we start by not calling them “modifications,” since there’s no right way to “modify” in the first place.

*I don’t know where all of those teachers are now, but I hope they (like me) went on to learn more about anatomy, body proportions, human variations, and how to see the various parts of a pose!

**Also, any time someone says, “can’t you just…” that’s a big old red flag to me that this person is looking for a simple answer to a complex situation.

laziness is normal

One of the things that I hear from folks quite often is that they find it hard to get motivated to exercise. “I know I should, but it’s just so hard,” they say– often in an embarrassed tone.”

It’s important to understand that our species did not evolve by “exercising.” While we often think of exercise as something that must be done in order to achieve health, happiness and social standing, the truth is that our ancestors didn’t exercise at all.

Sure, our hunt-and-gather forebears had to forage to find their food, but how intense was this movement? Based on anthropological studies of (the few remaining) indigenous groups that live a hunt-and-gather way of life show, hunting-and-gathering actually only takes a few hours a day. It’s done at a reasonably slow pace and may even include seated time (digging up tubers in a casual way, for example). Once the food is gathered, these folks enjoy time sitting and resting.

“Despite stereotypes of non-exercisers as lazy couch potatoes, it is deeply and profoundly normal to avoid unnecessarily wasting energy. Rather than blame and shame each other for taking the escalator, we’d do better to recognize that our tendencies to avoid exertion are ancient instincts that make total sense from an evolutionary perspective.” 

-Daniel E. Lieberman, “Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do is Healthy and Rewarding.” 

The truth is that humans evolved by being very, very efficient with their energy. Consider for a moment that calories for our ancestors were a more precious commodity. When we weren’t using energy to perform necessary tasks (food, shelter, socialization, sex), it makes sense that they would do as little as possible. So, rest easy– literally. It’s really normal that you don’t want to exert unnecessary energy. That drive you feel to sit on the couch and do nothing is a very deep instinct. You’re not lazy, you’re just human!  

The concept of exercise is a modern answer to our modern problem of not moving functionally as much as our bodies used to do.For many of us, calories are easy to come by. Contemporary hunting-and-gathering involves a car trip to a grocery store, where we park as close to the entrance as we can. However, our bodies are designed to function more optimally when we’re getting a certain amount of movement; all of the systems of our body rely on movement in order to stay healthy.

The concept of exercise is a modern answer to this modern problem. We go to the gym, get on our treadmill, or roll out a mat, and spend an hour sweating in ways that our ancestors couldn’t possibly have imagined.

That’s great if you’re the kind of person that really enjoys those things– maybe you like the endorphins, or the socialization aspect, or you’ve found a routine that just really works for you. 

But what about the rest of us– those whose natural desire to avoid unnecessary energy expenditure would keep us on the couch? How do we get motivated to do this thing that would make us feel better? Here are a few quick ideas to get you thinking. 

  1. First, drop the shame and the blame, remembering that humans are innately “lazy.”
  2. If you don’t like the idea of exercise, stop calling it exercise and start getting more movement in throughout the day. Studies show that in some ways, moving throughout the day is more beneficial than sitting all day and then getting up for an hour of intense exercise. Schedule a twice-daily walk around the garden, your block, or your office. Park a little further away from your destination. Schedule interruptions into your daily schedule for household tasks (water your plants, make the bed, wash the dishes) or to refill your water bottle, stretch your back, visit a co-worker. It all adds up. 
  3.  Movement can be play, or a game, or just plain fun. Frisbee or ball with the kids, the dog, or the neighbor. Dancing. Jumping rope. Find some great music, a podcast or an audiobook and head out for a walk. 
  4.  Let go of “all or nothing” thinking. This is the biggest problem I see in some folks– they think if they’re “exercising,” they need to be doing the most, best, training-for-a-triathalon-type-of-training possible. When that fails (often due to injury or burnout), they are back to doing nothing. What can you do today that moves your body, feels good, and will leave you wanting to do more again tomorrow? That’s the thing to do. 
  5. Rather than exercising to change your body (i.e., weight loss), try movement that feels good right now. This is so important. When we’re working toward a goal that involves some future version of ourselves, we’re deferring our pleasure in the moment, and reinforcing the idea that your body right now is less worthy of pleasure and appreciation.
  6. Consider a coach. I have learned (the hard way) to hire experts to help me. From taxes to legal to plumbing to how to lift a kettlebell, I have found that just googling it or thinking I can figure things out myself will often end badly. One-on-one support through private sessions is a really wonderful resource to address individual concerns that can’t be met in a group or online setting. In my own practice with clients, I use strength, yoga, and creative movement to help support nervous system health (i.e., stress and anxiety) and to create a greater sense of capacity to handle challenges. 

What do you think– does this resonate? Drop your thoughts in the comments below and let me know how you work with your own human “energy conservation” tendencies!

This post was originally part of a newsletter that went out to my folks (if you’d like to get on that list, click here)!

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 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.