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Stability

I love summer.

Despite its signature heat and humidity, I love the long, sunny days, all the growth and abundance and berries and watermelon. I also know that especially in the hot height of summer, I need to stay grounded. All that swirling, rising heat energy requires grounding my body, mind and heart. Summer is a time for meditation, siestas, being near water and sitting in the sand.

For me, it’s also a time for connection: gathering fresh fruit and vegetables (either from a garden, a blueberry bush or Misfit Market!), walking in the forest or near water, visiting and entertaining friends and family. (Conversely, I think this is why I winter holiday parties when my energy is quiet and attention is inward totally do not work for me.)

These dual needs for grounding and reaching, are reflected in the very design of the human body: in particular the lower legs and forearms. Take a look at the bone structure of the lower arms and legs:

On the surface of it, the two structures look almost identical: two bones next to each other, one noticeably larger than the other, the ends of which connect to similar structures — a hinge joint at one end and a gliding synovial joint at the other. But while the forms looks the same, their functions are not. The bones of the lower leg are designed to stabilize and ground while the bones of the lower arm are designed to flow and reach out.

The forearms and lower legs are the Bones of Summer.

The two lower leg bones are the tibia and the fibula. The second longest bone in the body, the tibia runs along the inside of the lower leg, attaching to the femur/thigh bone at the top and the ankle at the bottom. Run your fingers along what you think of as your shin bone and you are feeling your tibia. The fibula is another long bone but is narrower and runs parallel to and acts as support of the tibia. In the lower leg, the tibia provides strength and weight-bearing while the fibula provides mobility and range of motion with stability being primary focus of the lower leg.

The forearm bones are the radius, on the thumb-side of the arm, and the ulna that runs down the pinkie side of the arm. Similar to the leg bones, these bones provide both strength and mobility but in the arm, the focus is on mobility. The structure of the joints in the forearm allow the radius to rotate around the ulna — the only two bones in the body that cross each other! — which allows the hand and wrist to rotate more completely than the foot (thank goodness, that wouldn’t go well). This intricate design allows extraordinary flexibility and dexterity for everything from lifting heavy boxes to doing caligraphy.

The Bones of Summer remind us that when energy is moving and things heat up, we need to stay both grounded and fluid. We need to rest in the support of the earth under us but also reach out and connect to the ripening fruit of the season. Both stability and mobility are nourishing to the body in the summer heat and the same is true for the mind and heart.

To skillfully navigate a heated situation — rising anger, an intense disagreement or a hot political conflict —  we need to stay both grounded and fluid. Feel yourself present and rooted as well as open and expansive. It can help me to feel my feet and legs (maybe even feeling my feet or legs with my hands) and also breathe and reach out for connection and perspective. So when I get tangled in a Facebook morass, for example, I can feel my body and breath and also go outside, pet the cat and get a hug from my level-headed husband. This connection to both stability and mobility are what allows relaxation, a settling of stirred-up energy as well as openness to possibility and solution.

Hot summer days can be full of pleasure but they can also stir me up and get me over-stimulated. I have to remind myself to find strength and support as well as openness and connection. Walks in the woods, resting on rocks in a river and picking berries from the vine offer ancient balance to the heat of the season. However you navigate the heat, connect with the Bones of Summer in the lower legs and forearms for a physical sensation of grounded fluidity.

A NOTE about the Focus Pocus art: I am in the middle of a book project called Octabusy: How To Let Go in a Sea of Doing. I’m excited about it and want to focus my art-making energy on it in the next couple of months. So instead of making more complex art pieces for the Focus Pocus blog, I make little cartoons like this one that features characters from the book. This week, Octabusy is counseled by the sea turtle and hatchet fish to remember to BOTH mix it up and keep it stable.

How does the wisdom of an ancient Greek philosopher (as interpreted by a 20th Century writer) and a Belgian psychotherapist intersect? What does that wisdom have to do with movement and living in the human body?

Last week, we focused on Mixing It Up and how variety — whether it is in our diets, our movement or our relationships — brings health and aliveness to any system. As we practiced together, I noticed that variety was not the only thing at play. There was something at the root of the experimentation and exploration.

Aristotle wrote, “as it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy….these virtues are formed in man by his doing the right actions.” You might be more familiar with Will Durant’s explanation of Aristotle (words which are often misattributed to Aristotle himself):

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Will Durant (Not Aristotle)

Accumulation of repeated actions that give a result. What we do over and over builds our lives. Mindfully choosing what we do over and over, then determines the kind of life we live.

As much as I teach and practice changing things up and breaking habit, I also know the deep importance of intentional, value-driven, positive habit formation. As human beings, our brains respond to repetition and predictability. We are wired to expend a large amount of mental energy on learning something. Our brains then quickly shift to making it a habit.

Think about a time when you learned something new — whether it was a movement pattern or a foreign language or a new app. What did that feel like? I sometimes call the feeling of leaning “egg beater brain” — as if my neuropathways are scrambling to reconfigure themselves. Once we’ve learned something, our brains then do their very best to make it routine. This is when we are *practicing* something that we’ve learned. This is an utterly different sensation, right? This is the difference between roughly bushwhacking a trail through the forest, and walking it every day, clearing the way and making it easier and easier to walk that same path. After a while, taking that path becomes familiar, easy, peaceful. Walking that path might allow you to be so relaxed that it’s transportive and expansive.

Athletes and artists often call this the flow state. And we need this, we need the stability of familiarity and the groundedness of the known in order to open to creativity and possibility.

Relationship therapist Esther Perel’s amazing podcast Where Should We Begin? looks squarely at the intricacies of intimacy and reveals that human beings fundamentally need both stability and excitement. She writes:

“Love is a vessel that contains both security and adventure, and commitment offers one of the great luxuries of life: time. Marriage is not the end of romance, it is the beginning.” ― Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic

Without stability, we have nothing to launch off from. Security allows us to relax. Without adventure and change, parts of ourselves wither and die. Whether you are in a long-term relationship with another person or not, we all have one relationship that we all have had since day one: our relationship with our body.

How can you create this balance of security and adventure, of practicing and learning, of stability and mobility in your body, your movement, your life?

I’m a worrier. Always have been. My sweet mom used to give me strands of smooth worry beads to carry in my pocket to help ease the thread of anxious thoughts. Once she gave me a broad flat smooth stone with a divot in the center for my thumb. I rubbed it so hard, I broke it in half.

Over the years, I’ve been able to catch myself worrying at least enough to question the habit. Recently, one of my yoga teachers shared this lovely bit of Rumi that made my heart leap.

When I find myself niggling a worry, it helps me to cultivate a combination of stability and mobility. Together these sensations ground me and allow me to see more possibilities than the train wreck that I’m envisioning.

The genius poet Mary Oliver offers the wisdom of stability and mobility in her poem, I Worried.

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

If you’ve followed me at all, you know that my favorite app is Insight Timer, the free meditation app that offers a timer as well as thousands of guided meditations of all kinds. In particular for our focus this week, I like this Healing Vibrations meditation by davidji and this one about releasing worry from Lou Redmond and there are others about letting go of worry, too!

Instead of worrying — beads or stones or strands of thought — find your ground and mobilize your perception of what is possible.

 

Both mobility and stability are movement sensations that train, condition, and heal the body uniquely. Creating the mobility of fluid, constant movement around the joints lubricates connective tissue, stimulates intrinsic muscle, and creates more ease in the nervous system. Sensing that stability is not only a rooting down, but an energetic radiation from center, creates stability even in the inherent instability of our bodies and the world.

But put them together and…

Shazam.

Totality.

(Okay. I didn’t actually SEE the totality when it happened this summer. I was actually kind of MEH about it. This art was inspired by Rebekah Wostrel and Annie Dillard’s extraordinary essay that Bekah shared with me.)

If you’re interested in more good writing, check out this post that I wrote while I was in the midst of a big move. Read it here!

elements interconnected 041816

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.

Earth.
Water.
Fire.
Air.

The basic elements of life are inextricably interconnected and intertwined. We may look at a boulder and think “Earth” but the stone was born of Water and Fire and Air, too.

Since they are of this planet, our bodies are made of the same stuff — all the ingredients blended inseparably together. The brilliance of this design is that in any moment, we can choose to emphasize whatever element is most needed.

Like a sound system mixing board, we can turn up the volume on whatever track needs to be highlighted. Use sensation and awareness to guide yourself toward healing and well-being.

Earth

Feeling over-excited or anxious? Have you been up in your head solving a problem or analyzing a situation? Feeling spacey or zoned out? Grounding with Earth energy can get your feet back on the ground

  • Drop in. Stand up, lift up onto the balls of your feet and firmly drop your heels down to the floor several times. Relax your hands and jaw and shoulders.
  • Get on the ground. Lie on the floor (or extra bonus points for lying on the actual Earth) and relax into the support (without going to sleep). You can roll and stretch but whatever part is in contact with the floor, let it soften.
  • Focus on the exhale. Extend your exhale as long as you can to relax and integrate the energy.

Water

Feeling hot or irritated? Been in an argument or had someone pushing your buttons all morning? Feeling jagged and sharp? Smoothing out the edges with Water energy can help calm your prickly pointy parts.

  • Move smooth. Roll your neck and shoulders, stand up and circle your hips, rotate your ankles and wrists. Imagine your body flowing especially in places where you tend to hold tension.
  • Get in touch with water. Take a shower or wash your hands. Drink a big glass of water or a cup of tea. Listen to a recording of ocean waves, rain, or (my favorite) water running over rocks.
  • Breathe evenly. Inhale and exhale for the same count (say, 4 in and 4 out) with no pause between them.

Fire

Sleepy or bored or distracted? Feeling lethargic or low energy? Sparking the Fire element can wake you up and get your attention.

  • Shake. Do some jumping jacks or simply shake your hands, feet, shoulders or head. Literally shake yourself up.
  • Fire up the iPod. Listen to your favorite up-tempo energizing music. Two of my favorites are Sandstorm by Darude and Raging Fire by Phillip Phillips. Dancing is optional, unless the song is super good and you can’t help it.
  • Bellows breath. Sit tall and forcefully exhale and inhale using bhastrika breath or bellows breath. Find instructions here.

Air

Feeling tightness in your muscles or your mind? Find yourself in a contracted position on a plane or around an issue? Been slumped in front of the computer or TV for a while? Opening up space with the Air element can release tension and offer a broader perspective.

  • Stretch. Lengthen your body along the bones. Let your whole body find length from feet to spine, from legs to fingers. If you’re on a train or at a meeting, stretch what you can – maybe your hands or sit up taller or imagine yourself in a big open space reaching long in all directions.
  • Look at the sky. On your way to the car, take a moment to look up and see how much space (even on an overcast day) there is all around you.
  • Breathe in. Expand your internal spaciousness by breathing deeply in. Let your ribs expand to the front, sides and back.

* The mind is a powerful tool. If you can’t move due to injury or circumstance, move what you can (e.g., shake out just your right hand if your left hand isn’t available) or imagine yourself moving. Just using your imagination will have almost the same effect!

feet roots
One way to understand something is to look at another thing. The Body’s Way is really Nature’s Way, so what can I learn about my feet by understanding roots?

Spread out.

Most tree roots grow in the top 18 inches of soil – spread platter-like under the tree. For balanced movement, spread and relax your feet. Unclench your toes and your heart may follow.

Resting but ready.

In winter, tree roots don’t go dormant but instead are resting and poised for even a few warm days to enliven and grow. Keep relaxed aliveness in your feet and You will leaf from there.

Turkey Run State Park 004

Turkey Run State Park, Indiana

… tree roots seem to maintain a readiness to grow independent of the aboveground parts of the tree. … This winter quiescence – where roots are resting but ready – is extremely important for the health of individual trees and, by extension, for forests in general. ~ Micheal Snyder, Northern Woodlands, Winter 2007

Most of the time, I don’t give tree roots a whole lot of thought. But I think about tree roots plenty when I trip on one (a perfect opportunity to use John Larroquette’s timeless line from Stripes: “Have that removed.”). I think about tree roots when I’m riding over them on my bike. When I’m bouncing along and every other sound out of my mouth is “ooohff”? That’s when I think about tree roots.

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Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

On our trip this summer, we saw roots everywhere: on the trails, curving around rocks, clinging to river banks and lake shores. We saw the roots of up-ended trees fanning up toward the sky with the awkward vulnerability of a teenager who’s tripped and fallen in a high school hallway.

When I’m bumping and tripping over them, I think of roots as solid and fixed, grasping the earth to keep the tree upright. But of course, roots aren’t that way at all. Roots are alive and growing and finding their way through soil, around rocks, always deepening their connection and finding ways to offer support and nourishment.

Rigid, solid roots would serve the tree no better than rigid feet would serve us.

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Grundy Lake Provincial Park, Ontario

Feet offer stability and make it possible for us live upright. Tight, tense feet that live in ill-fitting shoes are unstable feet – and are likely attached to an uncomfortable person. A couple of years ago, I noticed I tense and lift my big toes a lot when I walk and when standing I often “grab” the floor with my toes. No wonder balance is a challenge for me: my feet are holding on instead of relaxing down. Check out how much tension you hold in your feet. Relax your feet and toes, and your whole body gains stability and mobility. You might also smile more.

One misconception I had about tree roots is that they mirror the branches above them. I always imagined that roots reach down as far as branches reach up. Instead, most tree roots grow out more than down – mainly in the top 18 inches of soil where the most water and nutrients are available. Imagine a wine glass standing in the middle of a dinner plate. Roots create support and stability by spreading wide.

Except for maybe in super soft sand, our feet can’t really dig down, but they can spread out. Notice if, like me, you roll to the outside edges of your feet (you can also look at the wear on the soles of your shoes to see if you have this tendency). The inside of foot — heel to big toe and third toe plus the arch that spans the space between — is the most stable. As you stand and move, focus on pressing down through the big toe mound to engage the muscles and connective tissue in your feet and legs that offer you stability and relaxation. You can also pay attention from the top down: if any body part above the base is tense, this is a sign that the base isn’t stable and relaxed.

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Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania

As winter approaches, tree branches go dormant and wait for spring before they grow again, but roots go into a different state as the weather gets colder. Roots are inactive, but if temperatures rise even briefly, they will “wake up” and get growing again. In the winter, roots aren’t totally alseep; they are in a state of “resting but ready.”

When our human bodies are moving easefully and efficiently on the earth, our feet and legs are in this state of resting but ready each time we place a foot on the ground. The foot’s intricate architecture of 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles plus connective tissue all allow it to move, be still, and balance on sandy, grassy and rocky terrain. When we say “stability” sometimes it’s mistaken for solidity or rigidity. Instead, every step and stance is alive with powerful and readiness for whatever movement may (or may not) come next.

Nature knows how to make a tall life form like a tree or a human stable and resilient. Awareness and intent can let your roots come alive.

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Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario

Plus, more resting but ready, means less tripping over tree roots.

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