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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.

thoracic love

Most of us don’t pay much attention to it. It’s at the back of the body, of course, so it’s easy to miss. Oh sure, I hear about low back pain and car seats with lumbar support. I hear about neck issues and headaches. But mid-back? The central span of spine often goes unnoticed.

Do a little posture and movement observation, however, in yourself and in the people around you and you will see that most of us have both a rounded and immobile mid-back. It’s a scourge of slouching.

Given both our anatomy and our culture, it’s not surprising. The thoracic spine has a natural outward curve to balance the natural inward curve of the lumbar (low back) and cervical (neck) spine. What’s more, the ribs attach along the 12 vertebra of the thoracic spine. The bony cage, including the flat length of sternum bone, tends toward immobility by its very design. Add that to our cultural norm of forward-orientation over screens and steering wheels, grocery carts and baby carriages, and the result is that in many of us the whole mid-section of spine has an exaggerated rounding. [For a great article on this, check out this piece in Yoga Journal.]

Even as a movement instructor, I forget that the slump of my shoulders comes less there and more from my mid-back. But as a yogi, I know the intensity and power that come from strengthening the over-stretched, weakened muscles in the thoracic spine and lengthening the shortened, tight muscles in the front body. After a few backbends, I’m usually flat on my mat with my heart gasping, “Whoa.”

Even though (and perhaps because) it is challenging for most of us to strengthen the mid-back and stretch the front body, it’s well worth the effort: for body, for breath, and for heart.

Body

The brilliant design of the human body is based on interconnection and balance. When habit and misuse create disconnection and imbalance, the body does its best to compensate. So when I spend too many hours with my head hovering over my keyboard, the small muscles in my neck will do their best to hold up my heavy noggin. When I spend too many parties standing around in high heels, my low back will do what it can to keep me upright. But there is a cost to compensation. There is a price for not using the body as it was designed.

If you have low back pain or headaches, it might seem counter-intuitive to look to your thoracic spine. But strengthening your mid-back and opening your front body brings back the natural balance of the spine. And the more balance and alignment, the less strain and the less pain.

Breath

Since the thoracic spine is directly connected to the rib cage, its strength and mobility is also directly connected to your breath. If the mid-back is solid and immobile or if the front ribs are collapsed forward, the breath has nowhere to move.

It’s a reciprocal relationship: the more I strengthen and mobilize my thoracic spine, the deeper I can breathe. And the more I breathe deeply (especially into the back and side ribs), the stronger and more supple my back will be.

Heart

If my mid-back is stuck and slumped, so is my heart. A slouched posture can seem protected and safe but that’s an illusion. Just as a slouch is a weak physical posture, it’s also a weak emotional one.

A strong back cracks open the heart.

By focusing attention on physical movement in the thoracic spine, the energy of kindness, compassion, and love get moving, too. Back bending can feel vulnerable, exposed, even scary but these movements also unleash energy and freedom. Feel the connection between a physically strong back and relaxed chest and the emotional ability to walk through the world with love.

In Tuesday’s Art in Action post, I’ll share some ways to strengthen the thoracic spine for the benefit of body, breath and heart. In the meantime, simply paying attention to your mid-back goes a long way toward more ease and energy in all realms.

fingers and toes manWe use fingers and toes all the time and they’re easy to take for granted. Until you stub one. Mindfulness of them enhances fitness, happiness, and presence – even without anatomy or Nia principles.

Toes tend to tighten. Relaxed toes relax the whole body.

4 Mindful uses of fingers offer big benefits:
1. Use them – Stretching, shaking, squeezing, flicking fingers strengthens hands and engages the body.

2. Relax them – Like toes, relaxed fingers help the body relax.

3. Break habit – Use non-dominant fingers. Wear rings differently. Burn new neural pathways!

4. Be expressive – Using fingers to express emotion is intimate…and healing.

fingers Indian danceFingers and toes don’t get much attention, but awareness of these distal ends of our hands and feet can enhance our fitness, our happiness, and our presence in any situation.  Yesterday, we looked at the many benefits for body, mind and emotions of relaxing, engaging, and wiggling the toes.  Now, let’s look at how we can do similarly cool things by paying attention to fingers.

My dad used to joke that all he’d have to do to get my grandmother to stop talking was to tie her hands down (gratefully, he never tested the theory).  Hands and fingers are some of our most expressive body parts, both literally and figuratively.  When they use their hands, I don’t have to hear what that another driver is saying to know what they are feeling.  I can see by their gestures if they are calm (as they thoughtfully wave me in front of them) or angry (as they furiously flip me the finger).  And there are dozens of idioms in English that illustrate how fingers are intertwined with how we see ourselves.  Whether I’m “all thumbs” or have a “green thumb,” whether I “don’t lift a finger” or “work my fingers to the bone,” how I use and talk about my fingers says a lot about who I am.

While it can be cool and helpful to understand finger anatomy and Nia’s take on fingers, I’ve noticed that simply paying attention to the fingers and using them mindfully is good for the brain, body, and spirit.  As a movement instructor and student of the body, I’ve put my finger on the ways people use (and don’t use) their fingers.  Here are the top four ways to get all the benefits that we all have at our fingertips:

1. Use them

Most people use their fingers in limited and unconscious movements both during their day and in their dance.  Fingers are designed to do a huge range of movements – not just typing and texting!  Stretch them wide, shake them out, make a tight fist and flick them.  By engaging the fingers in more ways, the hands become stronger, more powerful and more flexible.  What’s more, the entire arm gets benefits that only finger movement can offer.  (Do an experiment:  flick your fingers like you have water on them repeatedly for 30 seconds and notice the sensation in your arms and hands.)  The more fully I use my fingers in my movements, the more I am moving as a whole, the more of my body I am using, the more of me that is engaged.  Want a better workout?  Use your fingers.

2. Relax them

During freedance in Nia, I can be standing in a room full of dancing, jumping, swirling bodies.  But the fingers?  Frozen in a claw.  Or splayed out tight.  Or even held in a fist.  Like the tight toes I talked about yesterday, fingers often hold lots of unconscious tension.  When I notice I’m tensing my fingers, I like to vigorously shake mine out.  Shaking out my hands and fingers, restores circulation, moves energy, and shows me where I’m holding tension (for me, in the big muscle at the base of my thumb).  And like relaxing my toes, relaxing my hands and fingers lets my whole body let go, too.  Want to feel more relaxed and have more possibilities in your movement?  Relax your fingers.

3. Break habit

Almost everybody is dominant on one side.  Whichever side you write with you probably do most everything with and, most likely, you hardly notice that you do.  Overuse of the dominant side can lead to imbalance in the muscles and even injury, but also it entrains the brain into only one pathway, one way of doing things.  So it’s great for the body and the brain to play with your non-dominant side.  Brush your teeth, write or draw, eat your breakfast, and use the computer mouse with your non-dominant fingers.  Play with grasping doors handles and carrying bags with your non-dominant digits.  If you always wear a ring, watch or bracelet on one hand, really light up your brain by wearing it on the other side.  Want to burn new neural pathways in your brain?  Break finger habits.

4. Be expressive
Expressing emotion with the hands and particularly the fingers can move stored emotional energy and be tremendously healing.  However, given their delicate movements, it can feel intimate and vulnerable to use the fingers expressively.  There at the edge of our bodies, at the end of our arm, our fingers are where we most often meet the world.  I’ve used my fingers to prepare every meal I’ve ever made, to steer every mile I’ve ever driven, and to write every single blog post — including these very words.  It’s with my fingers that I caress a baby’s cheek, plant my garden, and squeeze a grieving friend tight.  When I stop and notice, I realize how sensitive and personal every movement with my fingers really is.  So be gentle.  Approach expressive fingers with curiosity and awareness.  Choose finger movements that feel both challenging and healing.  Want to free up emotional energy?  Be expressive with your fingers.

We use our fingers for so many familiar gestures, many of them vulgar, that I can already hear the jokes and snickers in class.  And that’s okay, this week, you can flip me the bird.  I genuinely invite you, though, to look beyond the stereotypical high-fiving, scolding, fist-bumping, swearing, peace fingers.  Those movements we share are fun to recognize, but what’s really interesting is the way you uniquely move and express using your very own fingers.

fingers-and-toes babyHave you ever stubbed your little toe and suddenly noticed how much you actually use it?  Ever cut a finger and find it impossible (or at least highly clumsy) to do even the most basic things?  We use our fingers and toes so much that it’s easy to take them for granted.  The truth is that fingers and toes allow us to do much of what makes us human, but that’s not all.  Using fingers and toes with awareness makes us more expressive, more fit, and more connected to the world.

What with the World Wide Internet Web, there is plenty of information to be had about hand and foot anatomy and finger and toe function, as well as any number of foot and toe maladies and abnormalities (I’ll leave those searches to you).  Nia has its own take on fingers and toes and dedicates some of the 52 moves to them, too.  All of this is interesting and insightful and I’m all about inquiry so definitely explore what interests you.

But that’s not what I’m writing about.

I’m writing about what you can experience without knowing a blessed thing about anatomy or the Nia principles (cool as they may be).  Fingers and toes are largely ignored in fitness and movement classes (and in life in general) which is too bad since they offer huge benefits for physical fitness, emotional expressiveness, and our overall presence and connection.  Our ability and willingness to pay attention to these oft-overlooked phalanges can make a big positive impact on our day-to-day experience.

“It’s a pleasant thing to be young, and have ten toes.”  – Robert Louis Stevenson

In our culture, our toes are almost always tucked away inside shoes but we talk about them all the time.  Someone can “keep you on your toes” or “make your toes curl.”  You might be a Red Sox fan “down to your toes” and plan to be until you “turn your toes up.”  Toes are pretty communicative parts even though we rarely let them see the light of day!

One of the repercussions of wearing (often tight, sometimes high-heeled) shoes is that toes get accustomed to being crammed together.  When this happens, we start to lose the strength, mobility, stability, and balance that are all available with healthy, relaxed toes.  Toes are designed to work independently (just stand on one foot and feel each of them firing to keep you upright) as well as together.  So it’s no surprise that yogis, martial artists, and Nia movers all take their shoes off for their practice.

As you stand and walk, notice if your toes tend to tighten up.  See if instead, you can relax and spread them – whether you’re sitting at your desk, going for a run, or doing a heel lead in Nia.  By relaxing and spreading your toes, you allow the lower leg to function as it’s designed without undue tension in the muscles and ligaments — and that increased ease reverberates through your whole body.  Relaxed toes also allow the body to move more systemically since the whole nervous system can relax into the power, support, and balance that healthy toes provide.  So if you want a better workout, let your toes relax.

Awareness of your feet and toes is a great way to center and be present.  In any moment, but particularly ones that are challenging or emotionally charged, one of the best things you can do is breathe and feel your feet.  Whether your boss just called you into her office, or you’re standing up to a podium to deliver a speech, you’ll bring your best self to the proceedings by feeling your feet before you do anything else.  And if Great Aunt Lulu starts in about your hair cut again at the dinner table, wiggle your toes.  It’s a great reminder to breathe, relax, and have fun no matter what deleterious things she may have to say about your style.

Who knew?  Relax and wiggle your toes for more health and happiness!  And check back in tomorrow for how using fingers with awareness can offer even more benefits to body, mind and spirit!

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