Dynamic Ease

January 1, 2018. New Years Day.

I don’t know about you, but 2o17 was a rough year for me in many ways.

I’m fine with it being over.

But I don’t want to be in a rush to change everything. There are many things that are GREAT and that I’m GRATEFUL for.

Sure, there are  lots of things I’d like to change, but before I go there, I want to focus on what’s working, what feels good, and what I want to keep.

This week, when everybody’s focused on resolutely changing stuff, let’s focus on what we love and what we want more of.

We can get to that change thing soon, but for now, start with what’s great. What do you want to keep?


choosing sides revolved head to knee pose
My first yoga class with Mia Hamza focused on the side body. Afterwards, my body’s increased ease, range of motion and depth of breath amazed me.

Inspired, I read Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews to understand more about what is physically happening in different postures and movements.

In particular, I appreciate Kaminoff’s definition of breathing (explained simply and briefly here) as “shape change in the abdominal and thoracic cavities.”

So, it makes sense that length and strength in back, core, and rib muscles allow for ease, range and breath. May you get on your good side, too.

choosing sides half moon
“The side body is over-worked and under-paid.” ~ Mia Hamza

In February, I unrolled my mat in Mia Hamza’s yoga class for the first time. She focused, in that class, on opening the side body and (as hyperbolic and gluteus-kissing as this sounds) it transformed my practice.

The Nia practitioner in me loved having a focus: a thread that connected the poses and sensations. I loved that the poses and muscle groups were relatively new to me. But mostly, mostly, I loved how good I felt after that class.

Once I started opening my side body, I couldn’t get enough. That one class sent me on a cascade of exploration: into poses, breath, anatomy, and then choreography to create a Nia routine called Elegant Stumbling that focuses on the side body.

I’m relatively fit and limber but until that first class with Mia I had NO IDEA the tension I was carrying in my sides. Her class opened ease in my torso and core, deepened my breath and got me curious about what was going on in there. Whatever it was, I wanted to be doing it more.

As Mia points out, the side muscles, including the latissimus dorsi (broad back muscles), the obliques (side abdominal muscles) and the intercostals (muscles between the ribs) are working and stabilizing the body constantly.

choosing sides obliques and lats
As I researched, I discovered a muscle I didn’t even know — the quadratus lumborum (QL), a deep abdominal muscle in the low back — that is deeply connected to side bending.
choosing sides QL
Like the obliques and the psoas (deep hip flexor muscle that assists with hip flexion and rotation — and is notoriously tight), the QL connects the pelvis to the spine. These muscles integrate the upper and lower body – actually keeping the legs and torso together — so they are working all. the. time.

While we commonly (both in daily movement and in exercise) bend forward, arch back and twist, it’s rare that we do any lateral flexion (side bending). It’s not surprising, then, that this under-noticed area may be a little shy when it becomes the focus. Resistance or a feeling of “stickiness” is common when activating the side body, so it’s wise to go gently into these areas and breathe a lot. It can be easy to over-do or to hold the breath, so playing with awareness and breathing fully into all sides of the rib cage allows your body to open in its own natural time.

As things tend to do in our super-connected bodies, there are other areas to be aware of when focusing on side body opening. Tight inner thigh and hamstring muscles can impede movement in the hips which in turn can reduce the range of motion in or strain the side muscles. As we play with side body opening, then, we’ll also focus on releasing inner thighs and hamstrings.

It’s been a rich journey from that first class with Mia to the launch of Elegant Stumbling. I’ve learned how my core musculature affects the depth of my breath and my range of side motion. But the brightest side is that I’ve discovered movements that leave my body feeling easy and spacious. Get on your own good side and experiment for yourself.

PS You can find a couple of excellent Yoga Journal Articles on the side subject here and here.

don't just sit there woman sitting on bench“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.” – Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative

As a movement educator, avid yogi, biker and hiker, it’s safe to say that I’m active. Even so, I’m amazed at how much time I spend sitting ~ at my desk, in my car, at the table, watching movies. It’s kind of stunning.

A couple of weeks ago, my yoga teacher posted an article about the muscular ramifications of prolonged sitting. This brilliant article (please read it, it’s full of great information and helpful visuals) outlines how muscles compensate for the sitting for long stretches leaving some muscles tight (and overworked) and some muscles weak (and underworked). It’s called the Upper Crossed Syndrome (UCS) and Lower Crossed Syndrome (LCS) and the criss-crosses of tight and weak muscles result in shoulder, hip/lower back, knee and foot pain. (The article does a brilliant job of explaining the details of the muscles involved and the anatomical consequences, so I won’t recount them all here. Go read it!) Understanding the UCS and the LCS helps me see clearly why I’ve had issues in my shoulder, knee and even gives insights into the plantar fasciitis I occasionally grapple with.

The body is designed to move but our culture is designed to sit. Even fit folks are sitting a lot during the course of an average day. The UCS/LCS piece sparked my curiosity to look into the other consequences of extended sitting. What with the wonder of the World Wide Interwebs, it took me about 30 seconds to come across the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” (the phrase’s coiner, Dr. James Levine, is quoted above) and then to be inundated with articles and research about the health risks of sitting.

Holy first-world health hazards, people. Sitting increases the risk for obesity, muscular issues and joint pain, sure, but it’s not just that. Cancer. Heart disease. Diabetes. Depression. More. It’s a mess, I tell you. Sitting a lot makes a mess. (The phenomenon is fascinating in a frightening kind of way. If you’re interested in reading some more, you can find them here, here, and here but you’ve got the Interwebs, you can find even more, if you’re so inclined.)

So if extended sitting sets up not just structural imbalances but systemic health hazards AND if sitting is an inextricable part of life, what’s a person to do? In tomorrow’s post, I’ll talk about my personal strategy for combatting the tight, the weak, and the sad, sorry ails of sitting.

Civil Rights Confrontation
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

My life is ridiculously comfortable and convenient. The extraordinary good fortune that has been heaped upon my head would be enough to up the quality of life of an entire island nation. It’s incredible, really.

And yet, that’s not enough to stop me from behaving badly when iTunes crashes or I spill a quart of coconut water on the kitchen floor or my new password manager is wonky.

Yep, that’s all it took: a wonky password manager.

After a security breach on my husband’s computer, the two of us agreed to put all our passwords into a password manager. An excellent idea since I am more than a little lax in the computer security department and the scrap of paper with all my passwords on it (that I’ve had since 2002) was getting a difficult to read.

Only I’m impatient when learning new computer stuff and when the program wasn’t working the way I thought it would and I got locked out of my Twitter account, I got irritated (irkitated, even). I went on a rant about how dishonest and malicious people require us to invest time, money and energy into these stupid programs and the only person it really keeps out of my accounts is me and then I slammed a couple of doors.

A ridiculously first-world problem, up to my armpits in comfort and convenience, and I’m acting like a four-year-old.

Which brings me to hot yoga.

Wonky computer programs notwithstanding, choosing to spend time in a challenging and uncomfortable environment helps me build resources to draw on when challenge and controversy show up uninvited.

When I started hot yoga in December 2012, I thought it would be a physical challenge and a new way to keep my body healthy. It is that, for sure, but the biggest benefit I’ve gotten from yoga is its effect on my mind. After 467 90-minute classes in a humid, 100+ degree studio, more and more I’m able to stay calm in times of challenge and controversy.

My teachers often talk about breathing calmly and steadily even when the body is under stress or concentrated effort. By focusing on the steady, even flow of breath, my nervous system is less anxious and startled by the discomfort.  I’m able to literally and figuratively stay in the room.

After practicing hot yoga, I have higher tolerance for other uncomfortable situations.

In the past couple of years, I’ve had unpleasant and alarming experiences, I’ve had friends upset with and disappointed in me, and I’ve taught classes under emotional and stressful circumstances. In all those situations, I’ve shown up more relaxed, more present, calmer than I used to.

Obviously, it doesn’t work all the time. Sometimes, I still get twisted up over things and stomp around. But spending time in the hot room or sitting in meditation even when my back hurts or staying low in sumo stance until my legs shake, gives me confidence that translates into my life. My mind learns I can do this. Choosing challenge helps me stay calm or regain my calm quicker when things go awry.

When I think about the challenge and controversy endured by brave people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who participated in the civil rights movement (and people today who are fighting diligently for civil and human rights, environmental protection, and social equality), I wonder how they managed to behave so well when under such duress. I wonder how they built their resources to be steady and calm in the face of so much hatred.

Given my track record, I suspect I wouldn’t have had the strength or courage for it. I think I would have slammed a lot of doors in Alabama. But perhaps, in some small way, by choosing to challenge myself, I can rise to some of the challenging occasions in my life … and maybe even be a force for love.

Principle 7 – Three Planes & Levels…the ups, downs, ins and outs

P7 up down out

The body has 13 major joints (see Principle 2!). The central joint, Number 7, is the spine (a strand of joints, actually). Is it a coincidence that Principle 7 is about moving up and down and out and in from the spine? I think not.

Three planes (low, middle, high) and three levels (in, out, full range) invite us to make movement and life choices from love rather than fear — allowing us to step into potential, to ride each cycle of what the body and mind can do now … and now … and now.

CR 020614pm 002“When the body takes a new position, resistance is the first response. Relax as much as you can in the pose without losing the shape of the pose.”
~ Jacquie Hansen*, my yoga instructor at Rancho Margot in Costa Rica

A yoga class in Costa Rica: rain is falling steadily on the platform roof. There are no walls so we can both watch the downpour and hear the rushing river below. Birds sing and pop in to see how class is going. Occasionally, a lizard darts across the floor. Often, there are mosquitoes.

After some standing postures, we transition down onto our mats. Jacquie moves us into a simple twisting pose with knees falling to the side. Oh yeah, I thought, I know this pose. I’ve done it a thousand times. But with Jacquie, we did it s-l-o-w-l-y and we held it for a long time. No rush to the final expression, just hang out and pay attention. The first thing I notice is that I am holding my breath. The second thing I notice is that the muscles in my hips and low back are holding on for all they are worth.

“Just stay with the pose and keep relaxing, while staying in the pose,” encourages Jacquie. “How much can you relax and also hold the shape?”

I let go of my jaw and slow my breath. As I do, I can feel a small unwinding in my top hip. I take another breath and feel my low back unfurl just a little. I find it fascinating to observe the microadjustments in breath and body — catch and release, shallow then deep, tense, let go.  I also observe my skiddering mind hustle around to assess everything, then rest, then poke its head up to check in again.

“Relax as much as you can in the pose without losing the shape of the pose.”

Relaxing can be seen as something I do when I’m not doing anything else. Floating in a pool. Watching TV. Swinging in a hammock. And for sure, we can relax while doing those things, but somehow I think Americans think that’s the only time we can relax. Mindful practice shows us that we can relax into everything – even if it’s intense or strenuous. Chopping wood. Running a half marathon. Having a difficult conversation with your child.  Dancing all out.

In Jacquie’s class, I love the yogic experience: the union of my body and mind, the connection between what I am consciously choosing, what I am noticing, and what my body is doing on its own. It reminds me of the Nia concept of dynamic ease: using just the amount of energy needed for any movement – no more and no less. It reminds me of Leela in a yoga class years ago saying, “Take it easy, but don’t be lazy.” It reminds me of Amy in yoga class last week saying, “Try easy.” It also reminds me that we can do this in any activity, any situation, and in our lives as a whole. Relax, but stay in it.

Relax as much as you can while retaining the shape of what you’re doing. Relax as the axe swings over your head. Relax as your feet steadily strike the street. Relax as you listen to your struggling kid (even to the hard bits) and soften your eyes (even if you’re angry).  Relax as you dance with your whole self.

What can you do in any moment, in this moment, to relax more while staying fully engaged in what you are doing? You might be surprised at what tenses over and over and at what unwinds and lets go.

* Jacquie teaches yoga in Seattle, so if you’re in that neck of the woods, go take a class with her!

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