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Functional Fitness

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.

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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.

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.

The Unofficial Guide
to the 13 Nia Principles
~ Practical, Nia-or-Not Applications for EveryBody

(Wondering what the heck the Unofficial Guide is and why I’m writing this series of posts? Click here!)

p7 pt 2 less is more

Principle 7, Part 2 – Three Intensity Levels

(This week’s principle covers a lot of territory so we started with Part 1 yesterday and today, we’re on to Part 2.)

Excerpt from the Official Nia Headquarters Description:

Part 2: Three Intensity Levels

The Three Intensity Levels allow you to personalize every Nia move, encouraging you to adjust your movement to fit the moment. … Use the Three Intensity Levels to choose what is the best for you from moment to moment by monitoring your comfort, breath and the sensation of ease. Practice each move in a way that feels right for you and personalize your practice by making your own choices. Do not force your body to move like any other body; this creates unnecessary tension and can cause injury. When your body moves with ease, it naturally takes care of itself. Choose what feels good and replace effort with ease. Replace will with desire.

This part of Principle 7 encourages you to choose from three intensity levels when moving. Level 1 (movements are close to the core), Level 2 (increased range of motion / exertion) and Level 3 (full range of motion / exertion). The look and feel of the three levels are personal and unique to each person. Each level offers unique conditioning benefits for the body, mind, emotions and spirit and should be explored with equal passion and curiosity.

Unofficial Practical Nia-or-Not Application for EveryBody:

“Less is More” ~ Robert Browning
“Less is more?? More is more!” ~ Susan, circa 2000 and intermittently thereafter

Three Intensity Levels is used in Nia to offer everyBody in every class a version of the movements that feels right – a version of the movements that can be executed with an easy breath and steady balance. The common assumption in Nia is that Level 3 is better than Level 1. In fact, all three levels have benefits for everyone and exploring all three in every class is ideal.

My friend Kate just returned from taking her Nia Black Belt training. In one class, she said the trainer taught the entire routine at Level 1. Kate’s experience was that she was more relaxed and even with complicated choreography, she felt that she had more time … and she still got a workout. My experience is that while I love the energy of Level 3 – reaching far out from my center – I find that my larger extrinsic muscles and my momentum often “skip over” my smaller, supporting intrinsic muscles. Level 1 is about conditioning my body close to the bone.

Practically and officially speaking, I use the Three Intensity Levels to modulate my energy over the course of a day, week, or a year. Just like in Nia, I find that if I’m going all-out Level 3 all the time with a full calendar and a busy schedule, I miss a lot of nuance and subtlety. Meditation, energetically speaking, is my daily Level 1 experience. When I sit, I notice what I might otherwise have “skipped over.” It also wakes up my awareness to what’s around me – the leaves changing in my neighborhood, the expression on my step-daughter’s face, the shift in Frank’s posture.

Most people (in Nia and in life) pick an Intensity Level and stick with it…all. the. time. You probably know people who are all-out, going full speed, burning-it-at-both-ends (Level 3). Others are more laidback, are easy going and doodle along at a relaxed pace (Level 1). Then there are the middle-of-the-road folks who stay the course, steady Eddy, without pushing too hard or taking it too easy (Level 2). Think about how you schedule and move through your days: which Level do you tend to go to? And which do you avoid?

For years, I was convinced that Level 3 was better than the other levels. If I could push it a little harder, reach a little further, do a little more, then it was better. But that’s not the way the body or our Selves work. There are benefits to all three levels and the most healthful way to move through a Nia class or a day is to have some of all three as part of it.

The Unofficial Guide
to the 13 Nia Principles
~ Practical, Nia-or-Not Applications for EveryBody

(Wondering what the heck the Unofficial Guide is and why I’m writing this series of posts? Click here!)

200543463-001

Principle 7, Part 1 – Three Planes of Movement

(This week’s principle is a big, rich, juicy one so we’ll start off with Part 1 and tomorrow, we’ll get to Part 2.)

Excerpt from the Official Nia Headquarters Description:

Part 1: Three Planes of Movement

The body is designed to build strength by moving as a whole. When we learn to walk, we begin by creeping on the floor, which prepares us to move into crawling, crouching and finally into standing and walking. These actions strengthen our core, upper and lower bodies, limbs, joints and respiratory and nervous systems. Moving through this process is how we develop strong, agile bodies, as well as emotional and mental adaptability. Nia teaches us that in order to maintain our natural movement potential throughout life, we must maintain the ability to move like a child.

This part of Principle 7 encourages you to move your body through three planes of movement along a vertical line: high, middle, and low. The range of motion within each plane is personal and unique to each person.

Unofficial Practical Nia-or-Not Application for EveryBody:

Principle 7 is a two-part principle with a bunch packed into it. Here is my short unofficial take on it:

Part 1 is physical and highly practical no matter what you do with your body…

Increase your strength, your cardiovascular fitness, and your youthfulness by moving your body up and down in relationship to the floor.

Part 2 can also be physical but it applies to non-physical activities, too…

Vary your intensity levels based on your needs (not just the needs of other or the situation) at the moment to create more health, ease, and longevity.

Part 1 of Principle 7: Three Planes of Movement offers a natural, dynamic approach to creating functional physical fitness. By moving your body up and down along the vertical line, you create more strength (especially in the base and the heart) and – super cool bonus! — more youthfulness. This approach is one of the most powerful things we can do and it is one that is often neglected, even by experienced movers.

As adults, we are trained to stay in the middle plane: moving from bed to standing to chair (and car) and back again. Somehow, it’s not dignified to get down low or reach up high. When people peek into a Nia class, one of the comments I often hear is, “Why do you get on the floor?” My answer is always, “Because getting up and down off the floor is one of the best things you can do for your body.” (Cue eyebrow waggling and skeptical face-making from class-peeker.) But it’s true, moving your physical center — your hara (located two inches below your navel) — up and down even a little has tremendous health benefits for bones, muscles, spine, and heart.

Imagine your hara is like an airplane and it leaves a vapor trail behind it as you move through the day. The more up and down that trail goes, the better for your body. So when you drop your towel on the floor, drop your center down to the floor to pick it up. If your child or your pet wants to play, you go down to the floor with them rather than picking them up to sit on the couch with you. If you need something off the top shelf, see if you can reach it instead of asking a taller person to get it for you. Even small variations in the plane that your body travels in can have a huge positive impact.

Don’t take my word for it: do it yourself. Set a timer for 30 seconds and get down and up off the floor as many times as you can and see what your heart rate does! In Nia class, really experiment with taking your hara (not your head but your center point) up and down in relationship with the floor…see how you feel!

Tomorrow, we’ll get into Part 2 which is not just physical but, well, you’ll see. See you then.

socks on socks off girl putting on socksEvery morning, I plop down on the floor next to my bed and shimmy my feet into socks. I can hear him in my head. Carlos, my teacher, in his heavily Mexico-City-accented English, “Get on the floor to put on your socks and shoes.”

The movement of children, Carlos argued, was a view into health. Watch a five- or six-year-old for even a couple minutes and you’ll see them move fast and slow, big and small, around and down and up off the floor without missing a beat. Unless directed by a grown-up, they aren’t likely to sit demurely on a bench or chair to put on their shoes. One way to improve fitness, Carlos suggests, is to do the shoes and socks thing like a kid.

In yoga, Standing Forehead to Knee pose confounds me. The idea is to balance on a fully-engaged leg, extend the opposite leg straight out in front and place the forehead delicately in the center of the knee. That’s the idea, anyway. It’s possible. I’ve seen people do it. But I’ve been practicing 17 months and I’ve yet to even get the strong standing leg part.

socks on socks off standinghead-to-knee

I’m all Zen and unattached about my utter inability to do the guldarn thing, of course. Oh yeah, all kinds of Zen.

Lately, when I’ve been taking my socks off, I do a little practice for my nemesis pose: I lift one leg up to 90 degrees, engage my core muscles, lean over and peel my sock off my foot. Then I do it on the other side. It’s kind of fun and I feel like I’m getting a tiny bit of yoga practice in before my shower.

Functional fitness is an approach that structures movement in the gym or studio to increase the ease and reduce the risk of injury in everyday movement. Functional fitness training focuses on increasing balance, range of motion, strength and flexibility to improve the body’s ability to walk, stand, reach and carry. Moving the body high, middle and low, for example, (Nia Principle 7 calls it the three planes of movement) conditions the cardiovascular system and the body to move more easily up and down off the floor. Since my ability to get myself up off the floor determines my independence, that’s a damn fine thing to condition my body to do.

As I get on the floor to put my socks on and do a little standing head to knee to take my socks off, I realize that functional fitness works both ways. What we do in our everyday movements can enhance and improve our practice.

In The Karate Kid (1984 version, of course), Mr. Miyagi’s famous “Wax on, wax off” exercise trained Daniel to execute crisp, precise blocks. (If you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it here. It’s such a great scene.) Daniel had been spending all day doing chores using movements that conditioned his body to do karate. Presumably, his karate practice also allowed him to do every day work with more ease.

The body loves to move and the brain loves to make meaning. Functional fitness can be a matter of framing the meaning of our movement choices. When I’m looking over my shoulder to back the car out of the drive, I can say to myself, “I’m practicing spinal twist.” In Nia class, when I’m sinking and rising from my core and legs, I can say, “I’m conditioning my body to play with my nieces and nephew.”

What do you want to do with your body? Whatever it is, find ways of practicing it that can help you do more of what you love. And for fun you can say to yourself, “Socks on, socks off.”

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