Archive

Integration

If you look up the classes I teach on the gym schedule, you’ll find them listed under “Body Mind Classes” as opposed to “Group Exercise Classes.” After 20 years of having my work categorized in this way, I find the arbitrary distinction sometimes hilarious, sometimes exasperating. Catch me in the right mood, and I can go on a serious rant. I mean seriously: what Body Pump or High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class isn’t using both body and mind and what yoga or Nia class isn’t group exercise? Don’t even get me started.

If I got to describe the practice we do together, I would call it movement, not exercise or dance or martial arts. I would say it is systemic, whole-body and sensory-centered. I would say that it is about presence, awareness and responsiveness. I would say it creates health through integration and is as much about what we do outside the studio as it is what we do in it.

I might call it Seselelame.

Seselelame is a West African word that a genius coach friend taught me not long ago. She learned it from Philip Shepherd’s book Radical Wholeness in which seselelame is described as “an inner realm in which all the world is felt.” I haven’t read Shepherd’s book but this term captures my imagination.

Kathryn Geurts’ academic work and her book Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community
describes the holistic quality of seselelame and how it encompasses sensation both internal and external, physical and emotional, everything in the world inside and out.

Our western view of the senses, on the other hand, is utterly external. From our “five senses” perspective, we see what is outside us, hear what is outside us. Taste, touch, smell what is outside. Other cultures think of balance as a sense and physiologists know that proprioception and interoception (see my post about these here) are senses that are essential to our human functioning. But we westerners are all about what’s out there.

Seselelame is translated as “feel feel at flesh inside” which recognizes that the entire human experience is felt in our bodies. The approach is used by dancers to balance choreography with improvisation, training with intuition, cooperation with competition. I loved watching this video and considering the question it poses, “How does dance enable you to understand who you are?”

Maybe if I was asked to describe the practice we do together, I’d call it HIIT: Holistic Integrated Interoceptive Training. Maybe I’d call it Seselelame: Feel Feel At Flesh Inside While Moving To Groovy Music. And maybe that’s why I’m not in the marketing department.

This week, let’s dive into the question, “How does movement enable you to understand who you are?”

Advertisements

focus-in-to-broaden-out-020417
A bunch of times last week, I lost my mind.

Once I was attempting (yet again) to do Crow Pose (Bakasana). I planted my hands on the floor, bent my elbows, put my shins on my upper arm bones, sucked my belly in annnnnd… nope, my feet simply would not come up off the floor. My face got flushed, my heart pounding. I felt frustrated and annoyed that my teacher called this damn pose that stumps me every time.

Another time, I was on Facebook and a friend I haven’t seen since high school made a nasty, personal comment annnnnd… my face flushes, my heart pounds. I fire with fury and dash off a tart retort in which I wonder if maybe he’s donated his heart to science since I’ve seen him.

In these situations (and more!), I lost my mind. More precisely, I lost my prefrontal cortex.

When I get upset and impulsive with my thoughts or actions, it’s a sure sign that I’m at the mercy of the less-evolved parts of my brain. The brain stem and the limbic areas of our brains evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. This lower brain keeps heart beating and breath breathing and when under stress it puts us into the fight / flight / freeze / collapse mode. The limbic area is emotion and memory center and is the home of the survivalist (and oft alarmist) amygdala.

I don’t behave well when my brain stem and limbic area are in charge.

The frontal cortex on the other hand (the outside “bark of the brain”), allows me to think, reflect, manage emotion, regulate information flow, and communicate. These are handy skills when I’m struggling with a difficult posture, a snarky email, or an upsetting conversation. And right in the middle of the frontal cortex, behind your forehead, the prefrontal cortex connects it all. This latest-to-evolve part of the brain takes in what’s going on around you, what’s going in your body, in your brain stem, in your limbic area, in your cortex and integrates it all. Note that it doesn’t turn off the lower brain, the prefrontal cortex integrates it.

An integrated brain is a healthy brain. And it’s one that’s less likely to dash off a surly email or curse a yoga teacher even when under stress.

The question, then, is how do I function from the integration and skillfulness of my prefrontal cortex instead of from my reactive lower brain?

My yoga teacher, Kelly Stine says, “directed, precise awareness in this moment gives access to a broader perspective.” In other words, mindfulness turns on the wisdom, regulation and integration of the prefrontal cortex. By paying attention to the details of what is arising right now – my heart is pounding, my jaw feels tight, my face is hot — I am able to manage my responses and choose more wisely. From a brain development point of view, when I reflect on my inner experience, identify emotions, and pay attention, I literally stimulate the integrative fibers of the brain.

How do I function from the healthy integration of my prefrontal cortex instead of my impulsive lower brain? The answer lies at the intersection of ancient meditation practices and modern neuroscience.

This from Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist

When you breathe in, you bring all yourself together, body and mind; you become one. And equipped with that energy of mindfulness and concentration, you may take a step. You have the insight that this is your true home—you are alive, you are fully present, you are touching life as a reality.

Breathe deep. Pay attention. Get integrated.

– – – – – –

Watch More about the connections between mindfulness and brain science with Dr. Dan Seigel whose work inspired this post.

Mindfulness. Brain Hand Model. Dan Siegel. Empathy and Cognition.

Mindfulness and Neural Integration: Daniel Siegel, MD at TEDxStudioCityED

– – – – –

If you enjoyed this post, great! Please share it!
And you might also like this one from April 2013: Integration is Health, Part 1

connect to connective tissue 0604016

What if our whole understanding of the body was off? What if we put a lot of attention on all of our separate parts (in particular the bones, joints, muscles and organs) but we were missing the bigger picture?

Until recently, anatomists studying the human body saw the web of interconnected fibrous tissue that surrounds and interweaves the body literally as a throw away. When dissecting a cadaver, the scientist would slice the connective tissue and toss it away so they could get to the “good stuff.”

Our understanding of connective tissue is evolving to reveal that it is far more important, sensitive and powerful than early researchers believed. And that understanding is changing the way we train, condition and heal the body.

An orange is the classic illustration of connective tissue in the body. Peel and orange and you’ll see each segments contained in a membrane. Then within each segment are pods of juice sealed in their own membrane packets. Our bodies are like that, too. Sheets of elastic fascia surround muscles, organs, joints, nervous system…everything. It is what holds us together and what allows our movement and bodies to stay graceful, strong, and aware.

The system of connective tissue in the human body is complex and interwoven. Here are six ways to begin to bring this supportive system into awareness as we make choices both in the studio and out.

1. Full Range

Connective tissue reinforces how you do what you do. If you have an injury, your connective tissue will surround the affected area and support it. If you have parts of your body which are under- or misused, the connective tissue will contract around it. As Paul Grilley writes,

If you don’t use your full range of joint flexibility, the connective tissue will slowly shorten to the minimum length needed to accommodate your activities. If you try to flex your knees or arch your back after years of underuse, you’ll discover that your joints have been “shrink-wrapped” by shortened connective tissue. (Why Try Yin Yoga? In Yoga Journal, Aug 28, 2007)

Joints function best when they move in all ranges of motion including the full range. Every day open and close your thirteen major joints fully to give your connective tissue a stretch. And for a great article about Yin Yoga, go here.

2. Systemic Movement

By its very nature, connective tissue connects! It runs from the soles of your feet to your eyebrows so moving your body as a whole (and particularly in diagonal lines) promotes health in the fascia system. Evan Osar explains that,

while the muscles are the drivers, fascia appropriately directs these forces throughout the body. For example, through the myofascial chains, forces generated through the lower extremity can be transferred through the trunk and delivered into powerful movements of the upper extremity. (The Functional Role of Fascia in Posture and Movement: Part I, 20 May 2014)

When doing movements as everyday as walking or as specific as delivering an outward punch, notice the chain of connected energy that moves through the whole system.

3. Proprioceptive

There are ten times more sensory receptors in fascial tissue as there are in muscle which means that your connective tissue is essential to your proprioception — your ability to sense where you are in space. Sometimes called the 6th or hidden sense, proprioception is what allows to scratch an itch in the middle of your back and walk up stairs without looking at them. Proprioception keeps your body balanced and your movement fluid. Given the sensory nature of fascia, when your muscles feel sore, it’s likely that what you are actually feeling is the connective tissue around the muscles.

Play with balance and vision (think: stand on one foot with eyes closed) to strengthen the proprioceptive system is a way of tuning in to the connective tissue.

4. Elegant & Graceful

Since it is interwoven throughout the body and directs energy where it’s needed (see Systemic above), the fascia is instrumental in creating graceful, fluid movement. Again, Evan Osar explains that

When functioning optimally, the myofascial system works to virtually suspend the body in the upright position while maintaining “tension and integrity” within the system. More specifically, tensegrity enables the maintenance of erect posture and smooth, coordinated movement. Maintaining erect posture and smooth, coordinated movement under a relative minimal energy expenditure and without compensation is the hallmark of an efficient strategy. (The Functional Role of Fascia in Posture and Movement: Part I, 20 May 2014)

When moving, think about efficiency and elegance. See how you can walk across the room or deliver a side kick efficiently and elegantly. It doesn’t matter what it actually looks like, just notice how that intention changes the feeling and quality of the movement.

5. Hydration

Imagine your connective tissue is like elastic bands. Now imagine leaving an elastic band out in the sun for a while. How soft and flexy will it be? Not so much. Hydration is one of the key components to healthy connective tissue. Be sure you’re drinking enough water (caffeine, alcohol and sugary stuff completely don’t count) throughout the day. I aim for around 50-75% of my body weight in ounces daily (so if you weigh 150, you’d be aiming for between 75 and 113 ounces)!

6. Ideal Practices

Two of the best ways to soften and open your connective tissue are Yin Yoga and Myofascial Release. Check out classes and workshops near you (I also like this online Yin class). If you’re in Charlottesville, you can take Mia Hamza’s Myofascial Release workshop on Sun, Jun 19, 1230-330pm at EDGE Studio.


Focusing on connective tissue in all its amazing complexity has the potential to transform the way we move, train, condition and heal the body. But what if we take an even larger perspective and think about the connective tissue of our lives and of the world?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you hanging on this. This week’s Art in Action post (coming Tuesday!) will focus on how to keep the connective tissue in your life strong and healthy.

5 ways to play 051516

Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

Play is for kids.

It’s true: play is essential to the learning and development of young humans but research shows that humans at all ages need play to thrive. But while adults might play an instrument or play a sport or go see a play or even be in a play, we don’t tend to think of play as an adult activity.

In fact, notice if you feel resistance to play as something that is silly, immature or a waste of time. If that’s the case, entertain the notion that playing is just tinkering with something that you already do. What if play can be helpful when you get stuck in habit, in an unhelpful pattern, or when you’re searching for a solution?

Here are 5 ways to play that you might not have considered before and that just might shift something that needs shifting:

1. Play with something you do every day

Take a simple thing you do every day — brushing your teeth, washing dishes, or driving to work – and see what happens when you play with doing the repetitive process with variations. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand or while standing in the dining room or with a different kind of toothpaste. Wash the dishes while whistling, do them more slowly or wash them as you dirty them instead of waiting for the sink to be full. Drive a different route to work, without the radio on (if you usually have it on) or with it on (if you don’t), see how many out of state plates you see. Take a habitual, repetitive action and play with it.

2. Play with something you think every day

Notice repetitive thoughts — that thing you always think when you see yourself in the mirror, or about the drivers who are in the wrong lane or when it’s time to do that thing you don’t love to do. Notice what you think every day and play with thinking something different:
“Hiya, gorgeous!”
“I’ve made that mistake before. Here’s space to get in front of me.”
“This is going to go easefully.”
Take a habitual and repetitive thought and play with it.

3. Play with someone you see every day

Relationships can become habitual and repetitive especially if we see them regularly. Play with greeting people differently or instead of asking how they are, compliment them or say how good it is to see them. Over the evening meal, ask a different question:
“What was surprising today?”
“What was funny today?”
“What did you learn today?”
Take a habitual and repetitive relationship and play with it.

4. Play with something you’re learning

If you’re starting something new or learning a new skill, allow some play into the process. Whatever you’re learning, repeat it and practice it with variations. If you’re learning something physical, like a dance step or a soccer skill or how to mince garlic, do it slowly then do it with one eye closed, then while humming L’il Liza Jane. Memorizing a speech or French verb conjugations? Whisper them, say them while walking the dog or make them into a little song.
Take a new skill and play with it.

5. Play with something you’re stuck on

Maybe you are having trouble solving a problem or making a decision. Maybe a creative project is stalled and you’re not sure what to do next. If you’re stuck, what the hey, you might as well play with it. Write about it in a journal – stream of consciousness style or write the question with your dominant hand and the answer with your non-dominant hand. Ask your twenty-years-older-than-you-are-now self what to do next. Take one small step in any direction and see how it feels.
Take a problem and play with it.

PLAY 051416

Friday 8am. Julia’s yoga class. We’re in a wide-legged forward fold called
Prasarita Padottanasana. No surprise, we do it in most classes.

prasarita

“From here,” she says, “Why not take Firefly?”

Firefly? I’ve experimented with several arm balance poses with little success but Firefly? An arm balance with the legs wide and lifted off the floor? But, shazam, why not? It’s Friday morning with Julia!

firefly

I lower my hips, bend my arms and gingerly lift my toes. For a second, just like its namesake, I hover over the ground…and then tip over and dump awkwardly onto my butt. I snort because, butt-falling.

Julia is all for it. “Yeah! Falling is great! Yoga can be so intense, serious and challenging, it’s important to bring a sense of playfulness to it.”

“Samuel L. JACKson,” I think. “LIFE can be so intense, serious and challenging. It’s important to bring a sense of play to everything!”

Years ago, I read Stuart Brown’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul and it profoundly changed the way I think about play in my work and in my life. We’ve all experienced the State of Play at some point. Executives call it The Flow. Athletes call it The Zone. No matter what you call it, according to Dr. Brown’s research, some characteristics of play are:

  • Purposelessness, that is, the activity is done for its own sake. It is intrinsically rewarding.
  • Timelessness – an engrossing activity in which the player loses her sense of time (you know, “time flies when you’re having fun”).
  • Safe – In the state of play, we are incapable of failing.
  • Pleasurable – of course, play is fun!

Our culture tells us that play outside of childhood is silly and pointless but research shows that it is essential to people of all ages. Part of the reason the practice of Nia has been consistently interesting to me for more than 16 years is this element of playfulness. It’s also a big reason I love my husband (and cat) so much.

In Nia we use play to train, condition and heal the body and by practicing play we develop an effective way of learning, improving processes, increasing creativity and solving problems. In his May 2, 2016, post “Thoughts on Play” Todd Hargrove defines play as repetitive movement with variations. This definition gets directly to the integrated nature of play.

Imagine seeing someone doing a repetitive movement with no variation. This would look rigid, like work, not like play.

Now imagine seeing someone doing movement that had no repetition at all and was only variation. This would look like crazy chaos, not play.

But if you saw someone repeatedly doing something with slight tweaks and variations – like throwing a ball or skipping rope. That would look and feel like play.

Dr. Dan Siegel, UCLA professor of psychiatry and overall neuroscientific badass says, “Integration is health.” Without integration, a person, group, system, or organization swings either to rigidity or chaos. Play, then, is a healthy place to be.

Playing with play is the human way of learning, creating, and healing. How can you play today? In anything you do ~ from dreaded chores, tricky conversations, creative conundrums or physical challenges ~ incorporate playful tinkering to see what happens.

Integration is health and play is integration so go play.


season of contrast globes 121915

What is up with me and this time of year? I find myself feeling all awkward and wonky like clapping off the beat and tripping over the curb.

I’m not one for organized religion but even my odd spiritual amalgam does allow me to see that this is a special season in many ways. It’s just that I feel out of sync and clumsy for most of it.

Perhaps more than any other time of year, there are a whole tangle forces at work: nature and culture, sacred and secular, light and dark, giving and receiving, grief and celebration. Life is always full of everything but in December, there is a lot more of everything. In fact, part of the reason I feel buffeted by the holidays is that this is the season of contrasts and contradictions.

For example,

  • Our side of the earth will be its darkest in just a few days. Nature’s natural cycle lends itself to nurturing introspection and healing rest now. And yet, flash-sparkly lights are strung on everything that doesn’t move and some things that do. The artificial pop and shimmer can be fun, breath-taking, delightful… and disorienting.
  • Temperatures drop (usually) into the windshield-scraping zone which makes me want to snug-bundle by the fire with an unending pot of tea and the warm, quiet company of cat and man. And yet, we have more parties and gatherings and high-heel-wearing occasions in the next two weeks than in any other time.
  • Gratitude and generosity are at the heart of the season. I love offering gifts of love to the people for whom I am thankful all year. And yet, it is also now when empty chairs are painfully obvious. Whether separated by distance or death, anger or the Army, feelings of loss stand fully alongside those of connection.

With all these wildly contrasting forces at work, it’s no wonder I feel a little scrambled up inside: I’m swinging between life’s extremes and after a while, that swinging makes me want to put my head down.

Instead of swaying back and forth between contradictory conditions, what happens if I opened enough to feel both at the same time? Appreciate the inky depths of the solstice sky and the simultaneously glowing moon. Snuggle into the warmth and nurture of company and community. Fully feel the complicated love for those who are here and those who aren’t.

Simultaneously light and heavy, bright and dark. Giving and receiving. Grateful and grieving.

A tricky balance, I grant you, but perhaps less confusing and unsettling to feel it together.

Contrasts coexisting concurrently.


 

LEAVE A COMMENT, GET A GIFT ~ ‘Tis the season of appreciation for Focus Pocus readers! Please add a comment below or at the Focus Pocus Facebook page and I’ll send you a gift for creative meditation! You can choose from the super-cool one from last week about The Gap (it’s got a hidden message!) or a new one for this week (which I haven’t made yet so who knows what it will be!). ❤


 

flength strexibility reverse warriorStrength and Flexibility.

I use these words when I’m teaching.

“Strength is the sensation of energy moving in toward center.”
“Flexibility is energy moving out along the bones.”

Strength and Flexibility.

I use these words in my relationships.

“I’ve got to be strong for her.”
“The only way this will work is if we’re both willing to be flexible.”

Strength and Flexibility.

I use these words in my life.

“If I was strong, I wouldn’t give in and I would take more risks.”
“I should be more flexible in my thinking about this.”

Strength and flexibility in my body, my mind, my life
have two different sensations:

Energy in.
Energy out.

But what if real health and happiness comes from an amalgamation of the two?
Not sometimes being strong and sometimes being flexible,
not alternating between the two,
but by simultaneously being strong and flexible?
By simultaneously sending energy out and drawing energy in.
Both. At the same time.

In isolation, strength folds me in on myself.
In isolation, flexibility has me flying apart.

But together, at the same time, they create stability, health, peace.

Flength and Strexibility.

Simultaneously drawing in and reaching out.
Energy moving in both directions at once.

I can feel it in my body
Instead of stretching and compromising the integrity of connective tissue,
Or contracting so much that I lose range of motion,
I can extend out while simultaneously plugging in, hugging the muscles around the energy-radiating bones.

I can feel it in my relationships
Instead of I give to you and then you give to me,
I can feel that giving to you also gives to me
and receiving from you also allows you to receive.

I can feel it in my life
Instead keeping meticulous track of who’s given me what
And haven’t I done more than she has?
I can trust that if I move through my days feeling
the inextricably integrated flow of
In and out
Give and receive
You and me
Us and them
That I have the sensation of powerful peaceful balance.

Flength and Strexibility. Those are the words I’m going with.

%d bloggers like this: