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how to have a classic thoracic
Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, 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.

The thoracic spine (the section of spine that is connected to the rib cage and pronounced thoh-RAS-ik) curves outward by design to balance the inward curve at the neck and low back. But our lives over keyboards and cutting boards and ironing boards (does anyone iron anymore?), our forward-leaning momentum over steering wheels and grocery carts and lawnmowers and baby carriages, exacerbates that curve. Throw in a bunch of crunches at the gym and you’ve got a mid-back that is over-stretched and weak and a front body that is shortened and tight. Yikes.

For the sake of body, breath and heart, counterbalance all of this by strengthening the thoracic spine and opening the front body. In short, do some back bending from the mid-back and heart rather than from the more-mobile lumbar (low back) and cervical (neck) spine! Here are 7 ways to get a classic thoracic heart opening:

During the day…

1. Stand up and stretch
Every 30 minutes or so, get up from your desk, lace your hands behind you, and stretch your shoulders and chest for several deep breaths. Feel the squeeze and strength in your mid-back.

2. Doorway push up
Place your hands flat on an open doorway at shoulder height with your feet a foot or more away from the door. Lean your weight onto your palms and let your chest open and your shoulder blades slide together. Hold for 3-5 breaths. (Thanks, Diane Goodbar!)

3. Chair Check
Check your posture in your favorite chairs – desk and otherwise. Do you hunch over after even a few minutes? Consider sitting on a physio ball or using a standing desk or both!

4. Ten Big Breaths
A couple of times during the day (perhaps before or after a meal), pause and breathe deeply into your back and side ribs. It can help to place your hands either on your front ribs and feel them knit together as you breathe to the back and side, or on your side ribs to feel the expansion into your palms. Ten big ones!

5. Lead with the Heart
Use an intention to lead with your heart. Whether you are driving or walking or dancing or working, let your heart move first with a gentle pull up and forward. Even holding the image in your mind of you moving through the world heart first can create a shift in your very bones.

In the morning and/or evening…

6. Locust and Cobra pose
Experiment with either of these back-strengthening belly-down poses. Find instructions for Cobra Pose here and Locust Pose here .

7. Supported Back Bending
Lying on your back on the floor (not on a bed) place a rolled towel or firm pillow under your heart and let your body passively rest in the heart opening position. For more stretch, you can use a half or full foam roller, or a yoga block (and you may need something also to support your head). Especially if I’ve been writing or cooking a lot, I often hang out in this position while watching TV or listening to music to get a nice long opening. Which leads me to…

BONUS: I am a big fan of Yin Yoga which holds poses for several minutes to let long-held connective tissue unwind and let go. It’s a class that is taught more and more so find one and check it out. Read more about why it’s worth a try here.

AWARENESS NOTE: When working on increasing the mobility in the thoracic spine, notice that the lumbar and cervical spines have more mobility (since they don’t have the whole rib cage attached to them) and may jump in on the mobility game without letting the thoracic spine in on it. Stay aware of what’s happening in your low back and neck when doing these exercises and do your best to stabilize the upper and lower spine so your mid back gets some action.

Do you have ways of creating strength and mobility in your mid-back? Please share them in the comments below or at the Focus Pocus Facebook page!

A strong back cracks open the heart, my friends!

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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.

marine mammal breathing art in action 102615

Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, 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.

“Conscious breath control is a useful tool for achieving a relaxed, clear state of mind.” — Andrew Weil

You could survive three weeks without eating. Three days without drinking. But only three minutes without breathing. Breathing is essential to life of course, but breathing mindfully can enhance mood, increase mental clarity, and improve overall health. Mindful breath is one of the most powerful (and overlooked) tools we have for centering, creating balance, energizing, calming, and relaxing the body, mind and emotions. Breath can even be the path to spiritual enlightenment!

There are centuries-old breathing exercises (pranayama) and plenty of resources on-line* for ways to use your breath for health and well-being. Here are 6 of my favorite super-simple ways to use the breath to feel great.

1. Exhale Relax / Inhale Energize. If you’re feeling revved up and scattered or in pain, focus your attention on lengthening your exhalation. If you’re feeling sleepy and foggy, focus your attention on deepening your inhalation.

2. 4-7-8 Breath. I love this breath for when I’m having trouble sleeping: inhale quietly through your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7 and exhale through your nose for a count of 8 (some experts suggest exhaling audibly through your mouth, but I find this works less well for sleep).

3. 10-Count Focusing Breath. To sharpen focus and attention, use a progressive counted breath. Breathe in for a count of one and out for a count of one. Then breathe in for a count of two and out for a count of two. Keep building up to an inhale for a count of 10 and exhale for a count of 10. If you lose track, go back to one.

4. Ujjayi or Victorious Breath. When practicing yoga or meditation or you need to focus, use a slightly restricted throat (the action you would use to fog a mirror or clean your sunglasses) to create the ocean sound of Ujjayi breath. This breath is both relaxing and energizing and the wave sound has the added benefit of drowning out repetitive thoughts (it even helps me with musical ear worms!). For more, go here.

5. Breathe first. Before speaking or acting (or eating!), take a breath. Take two or three if you feel agitated in any way.

6. Get curious about your breath. We all have breathing habits and breath-holding habits. Notice what happens to your breath when you are:

• Exerting physically (opening a jar, lifting a bag of groceries, shoveling snow, etc.)
• Transitioning from one movement or activity to another
• Concentrating on a mentally challenging task
• Feeling irritated or impatient
• Feeling stressed
• Feeling sad
• Feeling excited

The other way to approach the curiosity exercise is to notice what is happening when you are holding your breath and what is happening when you are breathing deeply and evenly.

However you do it, even a little more attention to your breath is a powerful step toward feeling good — body, mind, emotions and spirit. If you have a favorite breathing exercise, please share it in the comments below or on the Focus Pocus Facebook page!


 

* There are so many excellent resources for information about the power of breathing. Here are a few that I find helpful:
Dr. Andrew Weil
Yoga Journal
Wall Street Journal (believe it or not!)

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.

pupilOur bodies are designed to move…in lots of different ways.
But what do we do mostly?
Sit.

Sitting, especially for extended periods, creates pairs of tight and weak muscles in the neck, shoulders, hips, knees and feet that can result in pain and injury. Even fit people who sit often are prone to health problems.

Combat sitting by

Step 1a. Move (every day)
Step 1b. Move (from the desk every 25-60 minutes)
Step 2. Be aware (know where you are tight and weak)
Step 3. Move differently (shake it up and break habits)
Step 4. Repeat (over and over)

Share your anti-sitting tips below!

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.

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