Finding Flow

By Michael Shapiro. Photo by Ali Kaukas

I don’t envy the newlyweds who picked this week for their Hawai‘i honeymoon.

The Turtle Bay Resort is a swarm with the lithe, and all their painted-on Lululemons and Lycra pants aren’t helping things. Tatted and pierced and dreadlocked, they radiate vitality as they fairly prance between classes, their bodies toned by thousands of vinyasas and their smiles sculpted by preternatural optimism. And little wonder: Four days of yoga, meditation, ocean sports, rainforest hikes, healthy food and live music would boost anyone’s luminosity a few candelas. But with hundreds of vibrant people powering up together on one of O‘ahu’s most spectacular coastlines, it’s all positively blinding. Distraction enough for the newly-minted marriage, but heaven help the couples here to celebrate a fortieth anniversary.

Two things you learn right away at a yoga festival: Everyone is intensely blissful, and there are no decent yoga clothes for men. My 50-year-old dad-bod is long past Lycra friendly, so I wear the most form-obscuring clothes I have—my pajamas—and search for a class befitting my lack of fitness. “Aging Gracefully” seems promising until I read the description and discover that the acquisition of grace requires ninety minutes of “intense and sweaty” yoga. “You Are a Spiritual Warrior” hardly calls to my innate passivity(in yoga they call it, charitably, “yin”). “The Core of You” will “challenge me to dig deep within” myself, which I’m reluctant to do because of the challenge part. Then I find it: “Deep Snooze with AIReal Yoga,” which consists of lying suspended in a silk hammock for half an hour, a “guilt-free napping experience” and a “floating savasana.” Ah, savasana—the pose where you lie on your back and let it all go. Usually it follows an hour or more of intense movement, but this—it’s like bypassing the entrée and going straight for the crème brulée. Maybe I’ll dig deep tomorrow; after all, I’ve got four days to find the core of me, which I’m pretty sure will be dozing in a silk hammock, wondering why I’m bothering it.

Still, with all these yogis and yoginis opening themselves physically, intellectually and spiritually—with meditation classes, “culture walks” sharing the ancient mo‘olelo (stories) of this stretch of the North Shore, surfing lessons, poi-pounding workshops and talks on self-realization (my favorite: “Make Your Life Feel Like an Orgasm,” which, while enlightening, turned out to be blatantly false advertising)—I feel lame for being lame. So I decide to push myself by stretching as far outside my comfort zone as I can—by signing up for the “HoopDance Fundamentals Playshop.”

I know I’m in the right place when I see the stack of hula hoops and note that I’m the only male within a hundred yards. I’m also prepared to fail embarrassingly: The instructors demonstrate what we’ll learn with such sinuous grace that even the women seem intimidated—and their hips are made to do that, while mine have all the mobility of a cinder block. Stationed at the back of the group, I fail as anticipated, evoking that solicitous expression reserved for the kid who gets an award for participation. But watching the women sustain the hoop’s rotation with the slightest rocking of their hips—they barely move—I realize I’m going about it all wrong. Instead of hacking my hips in choppy circles, I close my eyes and feel the hoop, connecting to its rotation from within, a flow found not by pushing the hoop but by following it. Turns out my yin isn’t so passive after all. Once I tune in, it becomes easy, and I feel like a child at play, unaware. that what he’s doing is difficult. Because, for the moment, it isn’t. When I stop, the instructor, who’s been playing at this for years, gives me a look that says, “See? You found it.” HH


Three rules of thumb: The Body is a Machine

by Jonathan FitzGordon

Just like a car the body is a machine designed to work in a specific fashion. Nothing in the body works in isolation—every part has an explicit function meant to work in harmony with other parts. Our skeleton is like the chassis of a car and the quality of our posture determines whether all of the moveable parts can work effectively. Many of the body’s muscles though far away from each other are meant to work in synch and require proper posture to do so. Our body follows a mechanical model—it is a series of arches, hinges and pulleys, and learning about and understanding your body’s mechanics will allow you to effectively utilize the genius behind the body’s design.
You have to learn how the body works in order to use it correctly. A question I am often asked is—Don’t we just know how to walk? There are so many things we teach babies and young children— how to eat with a fork and spoon, how to tie your shoes and zip a jacket, but when it comes to walking, we all take our first step somewhere between ten and eighteen months old, get a big clap and a cheer from our parents and are then left to our own devices.
The fact is we are designed to walk in a specific way. Bones hold us up; muscles move us; nerves tell the muscles to move the bones. The foot is meant to fall very near to parallel with a distance of two or so inches between each foot. Our arms are meant to move in opposition to the legs with each step—when the left leg moves forward the right arm should move the same distance at the same pace. Our head is meant to be level so that the eyes can best communicate with the spine.
Some people are born strong. Look at your ancestry. Where did you come from? If your forefathers were strong like mine, you likely have a reserve of strength stored away in your DNA. Our level of childhood activity goes a long way to determining the strength you carry into adulthood as well. An active child who played a lot of sports or just ran around a great deal will have a lot more core strength and body awareness than someone who spent more time indoors and avoided the playing field. There are many mitigating factors to movement as well, including illnesses, accidents, and traumas both physical and emotional.
Core Power is a very popular cultural buzz phrase. My approach to the core is about creating strength to support the muscles and bones of walking. Without the proper tone in the muscles of the pelvis and trunk, the body is a machine that is not free to move effectively.
Our society’s aesthetic focus is on the surface and the extremities. When most people go to the gym they work the muscles that people can see—they build strength in the arms legs and the surface of the belly. While tone in these muscle might look good, if it is pursued at the expense of the muscles responsible for holding us up and moving us we will run into trouble in the long run. The muscles of the inner thigh, the pelvic floor and deep low belly are the key core muscles for the FitzGordon Method. These three groups of muscles tend to be weak dues to imbalances with their opposite more external counterparts. Pay attention to your mechanics and learn which muscles need building for a more finely tuned tuned and balanced body. The body is a machine that likes to function efficiently but you have to show it the way how.

The Science Behind Miracles

By Erik Vance

How our minds push our bodies to defy expectations, beliefs, and even our own biology—in short, to make miracles
Imagine a man who could endure near-freezing water for 45 minutes at a stretch. Imagine if that same man could run a barefoot marathon in the Arctic or swim 50 meters under the ice of a frozen lake. Imagine that man said the secret to his abilities not only allows him to climb Himalayan mountains wearing shorts, but also eases everything from chronic pain to Crohn’s disease and even Parkinson’s. What would you call that man? A savant? Guru? Prophet of God, maybe?

That’s the character Scott Carney describes in his new book, What Doesn’t Kill Us, about legendary survivalist and icy-water swimmer Wim Hof. The 57-year-old Dutchman, often referred to as the Iceman, has devised a series of breathing techniques and conditioning exercises—mostly various types of hyperventilation and other ways to purge the body of CO2—that he credits as being the key to his extraordinary abilities. Hof, for his part, sees the whole thing in a much more spiritual light—getting back to a purer, more primitive version of ourselves.

The book is a fun read because, at first glance, Hof does seem superhuman. He claims that by slowly conditioning oneself to low-oxygen states (through breathing exercises) or extreme cold (through full-body muscle-clenching exercises), one can channel their spiritual energy and tap into all kinds of hidden powers. Carney is at his best when he tries to explain Hof’s abilities through science. For instance, he suggests that Hof has tapped into a specific type of fat cell called brown adipose tissue that is found in human babies but mostly disappears in adulthood; through his body training, it’s possible that Hof has encouraged this vestigial fat to play an increased role in trapping heat. But the tone of What Doesn’t Kill Us occasionally implies that we should worship the guy. And honestly, it’s hard not to.

Hof is one of those extraordinary characters who pops up occasionally throughout human history seeming to be nothing short of miraculous. For thousands of years, humanity has occasionally glimpsed man’s capacity to do the seemingly impossible or the miraculous using only force of will: walking on burning coals, healing the sick, enduring lethal temperatures for hours. And for all that time, we have been left to our own devices in guessing how such things are possible.

But today, modern science has revealed a number of fascinating mechanisms for how the brain influences the rest of the body, forming a string of enticing bread crumbs leading toward a more satisfying understanding of some of the limits of the human body—and how people like Hof cheat them.

Take one fascinating lead: the effect certain expectations have on bodily functions. The mind has a propensity to make predictions, and then ensure those predictions come to pass through internal “pharmacies” that, when lumped together, are also called placebo effects.

In my book, Suggestible You, I talked to scientists around the world who investigate placebos, internal pharmacies, hypnosis, and the power of belief on the body and mind. One of my favorite quotes came from Alia Crum, a psychologist at Stanford. “I don’t think the power of mind is limitless,” she said. “But I do think we don’t yet know where those limits are.”

In his book, Carney points to Wof’s ability to heal things like Parkinson’s, asthma, chronic pain, and digestive problems, giving us the impression that the mind can do anything it wants. As it happens, all of these diseases are also highly susceptible to the influence of placebo. Contrary to popular belief, not all placebo effects are the same, and not all conditions respond to them equally. That’s because a big part of placebo effects are chemical, employing things like dopamine, endogenous opioids, serotonin, and an untold number of other chemicals your brain idly keeps on hand in case it needs to adjust what’s happening in the body.

That’s what’s at the center of almost every “miracle” I’ve encountered: chemicals that have incredible effects but still follow the rules of biochemistry, even if we don’t yet fully understand what those rules and mechanisms are. Hof claims that one of the secrets to superhuman strength and healing is specialized breathing techniques. Fair enough. But I can introduce him to a healer in Beijing who says it’s about balancing spiritual heat with cold or a witch doctor in Mexico who says it’s about channeling spirits. What do they all share? The chemistry of expectation and belief—which, writ wide, is the world of placebo. A better definition for placebo might be to call it a measurement of the effect of one’s belief on their body.

Belief and placebos don’t just affect disease. They also boost athletic performance, as Hof demonstrates when he swam under 50 yards of ice. This is where scientists have begun asking some really interesting questions.

Placebo effects have long been studied in medicine, but Christopher Beedie, a sports psychologist at the Canterbury Christ Church University in England, is among the few scientists who study it in athletics. His work often examines how elite athletes perform under intense fatigue when they think they have some kind of performance enhancement. The interesting question for Beedie isn’t what can the human body do, but rather, what more can the human mind add to that?

“I don’t think there’s anything surprising about people who exist at the end of continua,” says Beedie. “[Hof] is an extension of the classic example of a unique athlete optimized on nearly all variables who’s also probably learned to capitalize on every component of placebo responding he can.”

One of the most studied mechanisms of placebo in medicine is that of pain relief. Scientists have documented an extensive network of self-medicating pathways in the brain involving internal opioid stores that kick into gear when our bodies expect a treatment—from aspirin to acupuncture—and don’t get one. And there’s a lot of overlap between pain and athletic performance. Because what is intense exercise but extended pain resistance? In fact, pain relievers like morphine are strictly regulated in athletics for their performance-enhancing powers.

In addition to painkillers, there may be a whole network of internal chemicals our bodies can dip into for increased performance. In one mind-boggling study from 2008, legendary Italian placebo scientist Fabricio Benedetti told weightlifters that they were getting performance-enhancing drugs when they were actually getting placebos and, secretly, lighter weights to lift. Once they believed the drugs were working, as perceived by the lighter weights, the loads were surreptitiously returned to their normal weight. The force the athletes were able to produce with their muscles increased while perceived fatigue stayed the same.

Beedie has done a lot of similar placebo performance experiments—consistently demonstrating their ability to give an impressive edge to cyclists, runners, and many other athletes—to the point where the athletes at his school don’t always believe what he says. He claims belief taps into “headroom” that every athlete has in their potential—or the idea that that athletes can push themselves to operate between their perceived maximum execution and the maximum that physics and their bodies will allow. By either removing energy-wasting anxiety or tapping into chemicals like opioids or as-yet-undiscovered internal performance drugs through one’s expectations, the brain can coax the body into that magical zone.

In fact, Beedie is convinced this headroom is the same space filled by performance-enhancing drugs. (Indeed it’s not even clear that some banned drugs, like erythropoietin, can outperform placebos.) He’s just finished the largest (not yet published) placebo study ever done in athletics—600 subjects in all—and found that the people most likely to respond to placebo were the ones experienced using supplements. Perhaps the previous supplements the athletes had taken primed them to have a placebo response. Perhaps people who naturally respond to a sports placebo are also likely to have taken performance enhancers. Either way, it suggests that artificial boosted performance and boosted performance from expectation produce similar effects.

“This [whole idea of expectation-based bodily responses] is an evolved mechanism that allows us to capitalize on untapped resources at critical points in our existence,” Beedie says. Belief is belief, so it’s possible that drugs—real or placebo—fill the same space that superstitious baseball pitchers fill by wearing mismatched socks or dirty underwear and the same space filled by Hof and his breathing methods. None of this is to say Hof isn’t incredible. His feats of endurance are astounding and perhaps even scientifically significant, like his ability to control his body temperature so well. But he’s not magic, and we should be careful about trusting important health decisions to any belief-based technique—even one that allows a person to swim under ice.

Perhaps the most interesting question is what can people like Hof really tell us about the effect of our mind on our bodies? Scientists already know that Parkinson’s disease, pain, and depression all respond very well to all kinds of beliefs, whether through special breathing, secret pills, or magic crystals. But could that same belief fuel unprecedented feats of athleticism? Beedie says that, especially for elite athletes, there’s a limit to the benefits of both psychological and pharmacological performance enhancers, so why not just use belief in place of drugs?

“We’re trying to educate athletes into the idea that the headroom is there to be filled, and drugs are not necessarily the only way of filling that headroom,” he says. “Confidence is the drug of champions.”

Erik Vance is the author of the new book Suggestible You. Reporting for this project was supported in part by the Pulitzer Center.


What Ayurveda Says About Exercise

By Dr. Jayagopal Parla

Daily movement is a vital part of this ancient practice. Here’s what active people of all kinds can learn from its teachings.

Moving the body is important in Ayurveda. So important, in fact, that it’s included in the essential daily routine that has been enumerated in all the classic literature of Ayurveda. All of those texts firmly state that everyone should exercise on a daily basis, although they don’t mention what type of fitness it should be. That means people are free to choose what they enjoy.

In the sequence of the daily routine, exercise comes after anointing one’s body with oil. One place where we see this practice is a traditional Indian martial arts form called Kalaripayattu, which is practiced in Kerala. The reasoning behind this is that when you anoint your body with oil, there’s more flexibility, which results in fewer injuries.

Even if you’re not willing to oil up before each workout, there are some key takeaways from Ayurveda’s approach to exercise that all active people can learn from.

The Myriad Benefits of Exercise

The first thing Ayurveda says is that exercise makes the body feel light, and can help a person be enthusiastic about the day’s activities. Though exercise is a physical pursuit, Ayurveda acknowledges that it has an impact on the mind and aids in psychological balance. Secondly, the classical texts say that exercise helps muscle tissue in the body become more toned, which, these days, is one of the main motivators to hit the gym for some people.

Exercise also helps people achieve a compact body, so that muscle mass is proportionate to body fat. Ayurveda says this allows people to experience some physical strain without fatigue. So for example, carrying something heavy—such as laundry, groceries or a toddler—or doing some physical labor during the day won’t tucker you out if you’re fit. Exercise also helps burn fat. Ayurveda considers sweat to be the waste product of fat tissue, so the idea is that when you sweat, excess fat gets metabolized and is excreted from the body in the form of sweat.

Regular exercising also aids in efficient digestion of food, absorption of nutrients, and excretion of wastes. Plus, it boosts metabolism in all the tissues of the body. Lastly, and most importantly, exercise allows the body energies, called doshas, to work in their physiological states in a way that does not aggravate or cause imbalances in the body. As a result, people who exercise tend to feel more balanced.

The Importance of Not Overdoing It

Even thousands of years of ago, Ayurvedic practitioners recognized that people could become addicted to—or at least over-enthusiastic about—exercise. Here’s how they explained it: A person’s strength can be compared to a roaring lion, and exercise is like an elephant. If the two confront each other, the lion will kill the elephant with great difficulty, but the lion will also probably die because of exhaustion.

What they’re saying here is that people can exert themselves to an extremely high degree, but it’s not always worth it to push yourself past your limits. If you do too much, instead of just being toned and having a good bodily enthusiasm, you may become exhausted, and exhaustion can result in disease. In Western medicine, this is called Overtraining Syndrome, which can lead to a weakened immune system, among other ailments. In other words, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

So how much exercise is ideal? If you have an idea of what your maximum output for exercise is, your regular daily exercise should be at half of that amount. For example, if you know you can run continuously for one hour, you should run for a half hour only. If you go beyond that point, you are dipping into the body’s vitality rather than helping the body to become active and strong.

If you’re not sure what your maximum is for your chosen form of exercise, there’s a physical way that you can measure this, too. If you’re sweating on your chest, back, forehead, and nose, then you’ve reached the threshold point where you should slow down and stop exercising. Also, a constant need to breathe through the mouth instead of the nose indicates that you need to slow down or stop.

Exercise According to Season and Energy

Like eating, exercise is also done with consideration for the season in Ayurveda. Colder seasons and climates allow for more exercise. In hotter weather, the intensity of exercise should be moderated because the external environment is causing the body to lose fluids. Doing vigorous exercise can further dehydrate you and cause tissue depletion, so it’s especially crucial not to overdo it when it’s hot outside.

When it comes to body type, there are also some guidelines. Kapha (water) types have the most endurance. They are best-suited to intense exercise, and Ayurveda encourages them to do it because even though they have great athletic capability, they are often less motivated to move. Vata (wind) types should do the least amount of exercise because they have less lubrication in their joints and their muscles aren’t naturally as strong. It’s better for them to not overstrain themselves. Pitta (fire) types fall somewhere in the middle. For example, let’s say a kapha should do 40 push-ups for optimal health, a pitta would do 30, and a vata would do 20. (Related: Learn more about body types here!)

Similarly, there’s a reason why exercise is recommended in the morning. The day is divided into three phases. The first phase of the day is the kapha phase, the second is pitta, and the third is vata. You want to exercise when you have the most strength and endurance, and that’s in the beginning or kapha part of the day. Of course, it’s not wrong to exercise in the evening and you’ll certainly still see some benefits, but according to Ayurveda, a daily morning workout of moderate intensity is one of the best things you can do to achieve optimal health.

When flexibility becomes a liability: The downside of being super bendy.

By Cassie White for Life Matters

Have you ever had a friend whose party trick is to bend their thumb to their wrist, or contort a limb into a position that’s just wrong (and a bit gross)?

Well, I’ve always been that person.

Most of my life I’ve been told I’m “double jointed”, without even knowing what that meant, other than that I’m really flexible.

Turns out, there’s a clinical definition for being too flexible — generalised joint hypermobility (GJH). So much clearer, right?

Hypermobility is both a genetic and acquired condition that affects the body’s connective tissue, making it much more elastic than it should be.

This can be a problem because connective tissue is the stuff that holds us together.

It’s in your organs, skin, muscles, blood vessels – pretty much everywhere. And it surrounds your muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments.

Loose limbs and injuries

When connective tissue has too much elasticity, you’re at risk of injury because you need more control around your joints.

“You’re constantly going further than what’s considered the normal end range of a joint,” explains Dr Verity Pacey, a physiotherapist and expert in GJH from Macquarie University and The Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

This puts a lot of strain on your tendons, which attach muscles to bones, and your ligaments, which connect bones to each other at the joint.

By repeatedly pushing past “normal” range, you’re getting micro traumas, which can lead to more serious injury, such as joint dislocation, ligament strains and tears, or tendon inflammation.

There’s flexible and there’s flexible

So the hyperflexible among us move far too much in our knees, hips, shoulders, elbows and ankles. We also tend to get joint pain, when our stretch-fests have gone out of hand.

One of the issues with GJH is that most people have no idea that they are too flexible.

It can be seen as a positive when it comes to certain activities – such as yoga, dancing and gymnastics. All that stretching feels really good.

It’s not until we’re injured and see a physiotherapist that we realise what’s going on.

“There are plenty of people who don’t show symptoms . . . and you may be drawn to a sport because of your flexibility,” Dr Pacey says.

It’s worth pointing out, there’s a difference between GJH and hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS), which is much more serious.

Those with EDS often live with severe joint and muscle pain, have loose skin that bruises easily, suffer extreme fatigue, and are at risk of prolapses and hernias.

A cautionary tale

Yoga is my sport of choice and after a decade of stretching my limbs into “enviable” depths, I’ve been left with shoulder and hip issues that mean I am spending far too much time on rehabilitation.

Over the years I kept stretching myself further, until my already loose connective tissue probably resembled an old elastic band.

It wasn’t until I became a personal trainer that I understood that hanging out on my joints was bad. Like most people, I thought my flexibility was cool. Now I see it as the karmic debt I’m repaying in this lifetime.

It’s hard to know how many people have GJH because the criteria are so broad, explains Associate Professor Leslie Nicholson, leader of the Hypermobility and Performance Lab at the University of Sydney.

“There are figures at between 4 and 30 per cent of the population,” she says.

Experts say it’s hard pinpoint the cause of hypermobility, except that it’s genetic and can be acquired. For example, ballet dancers who train themselves to become hypermobile.

Feedback system broken

So what’s the solution to elastic-band limbs? Strengthening the muscles that surround the joints.

It won’t stop you being hypermobile, but it can help control joint movement and reduce the risk of injury.

The frustrating part for the super flexible is that when they’re strength training, they’re constantly told to stop at “normal” range of motion. Often they don’t know what that feels like.

“Ligaments, tendons and joint capsules have nerve endings that provide information on where you are in space and how much muscle activation is needed to control your joints,” explains physiotherapist Nigel Morgan.

“But when they’re chronically stretched over time, that feedback system is impaired, so your nervous system gradually receives less information. This makes it harder for you to control your movements.”

Which is why people with generalised hypermobility shouldn’t try to stop within ‘normal’ range.

“You can’t really stop yourself going into that range especially when you are fatigued, so it’s far better to learn control and strengthen your muscles in that excess range,” Associate Professor Nicholson explains.

By doing that, you’ll be training proprioception – your ability to sense the relative positions of your body parts – and improving the nervous system’s feedback system, so you get better at controlling your joints.

Which means, in a dream world, that a ballet dancer who’s super flexible will also have strength and control while doing insane things with their body.

Stay in the game for longer

In general, otherwise healthy people who have hypermobile joints can benefit from lifting weights several times a week.

The muscles you need to strengthen will depend on where you’re too mobile, but building the major muscles that surround your joints is key, especially if it’s your weight-bearing postural joints like hips, knees, shoulders and back.

Not only that, we need to learn to co-ordinate the muscles so they work in sync when moving our bones. Easier said than done.

“All muscles have a certain length where they’re at their most efficient and that’s based on typical range of motion,” Dr Pacey says.

“But when you’re hypermobile, your muscles are at a disadvantage. So when you need them most, they’re at a less-efficient position.”

Activating This Muscle Could Be The Key To A Stronger Mind-Body Connection

By Kait Hurley

“You need to learn how to connect with your glutes.”

That’s what my physical therapist told me after I pulled my hip flexor a few years ago for the third time in the previous two months. Honestly? I was puzzled, to say the least. I had been teaching group fitness for years, and I did glute-strengthening work several times a week. What was I doing wrong?

It turns out, all those times when I was pouring sweat and I thought I was strengthening my butt? My hamstrings, hips, and lower back were actually stepping in to do the work instead. I was feeling the burn—which gave me the illusion of success. It turns out I wasn’t feeling it in the right place.

As I dove deeper into learning about my glutes and the importance of glute strength and how to turn on these hard-to-connect-with muscles, my attention shifted during my workout. I became less focused on how the moves might affect the way I looked, and I was able to tune in a little deeper to how the moves felt in my body. The result? A more connected, meaningful sweat session—not to mention a little more compassion for myself. I created an entire online class devoted to strengthening your glutes right here in the hopes that sharing this knowledge can do the same for you.

Why glute strength isn’t just about looking good.

The glutes are one of the most major muscle groups in our bodies, and we need strong glutes to power us during our workouts and to perform simple day-to-day tasks—like picking something up off the floor, climbing stairs, or even just standing tall and upright.

Here’s the thing, though: Because of all the sitting we do, our hip flexors—those ropy muscles at the front of our hips and thighs—get short and tight. As a result, our glute muscles become limited in their range of movement and they weaken. Another harmful effect of sitting is that the glutes can become malnourished. Just like when you sit in a funky position and your leg falls asleep, the same thing is happening to our glutes on a regular basis.

When they don’t have access to regular blood flow and nourishment and this pattern is prolonged, our glutes can even forget how to turn on properly. They become desensitized, and they lose their ability to generate force—which means, even though we try to contract and fire our glute muscles, we can’t. Instead, the muscles in our legs, hips, and lower back take over to compensate for our loss of strength. And this leads to all kinds of health problems—including pelvic floor issues (think sneeze and pee) plus lower-back, knee, and ankle pain.

A 3-move guide to activating your glutes.

So how can we make sure our glute muscles are working efficiently? How can we light them up and train these muscles to work as a team so our body is functionally strong? I’ve got three effective butt-burning moves you can try right now to wake up your glutes and reinforce healthy muscle patterns in your body.

Move 1: Bridge Lifts


Set it up: Roll all the way down onto your back and bring your feet hip distance apart. Place your hands on your hip bones. Exhale, push your feet into the floor, and engage your glutes. Inhale, lift your hips a few inches.

Take it deeper: Push your feet down into the ground and then, without moving them, energetically drive your feet forward. Hug your low belly in and knit your ribs (so they’re not popping out). Every time you breathe in, imagine that you’re reaching the tops of your thighs and your knees away from you. As you breathe out, focus your attention on turning on your glutes even more. Option to press your palms down into your hip bones to add a little more resistance. Because the glutes are difficult for many of us to connect with, know it might take you a little while to activate these muscles. That’s OK. Just keep focusing. Persistence is key.

Add some movement: Make sure you can feel your glutes activate before you layer on movement.

Start to move your hips up a little bit and then down a little bit. Do 20 reps of small movement—if I were right there with you, I may not even be able to see you moving. When you’re done, try 20 reps of moving a little bit bigger.

Move 2: All Fours


Set it up: Come onto your forearms and knees. Extend your left leg back and bend your knee so your heel is firming tightly in toward your glutes. Lift your low belly so your lower back is supported.

Take it deeper: Without moving, energetically reach the top of your left thigh and knee behind you. It doesn’t matter how high your knee and thigh are lifting. What matters is finding the length. The more you can stretch the front of your thigh, the more your glutes can turn on.

Add some movement: Begin with 20 reps of smaller movement. Then increase your range of motion and try moving bigger. If you lose the connection with your glutes when you move bigger, go back to moving small. You’ll know the range of motion that is best for you because you’ll be able to feel your glutes activating the whole time. Be sure to repeat this on the right side so you stay balanced.

Move 3: Squat


Set it up: Step your feet out wider than your hips. Turn your toes out slightly. Bend your knees and drop your butt down.

Take it deeper: Dig your heels into the ground, and then without moving them, drag them energetically away from each other. Also, press your knees gently out, so they’re in line with your three outer toes. When you do, you’ll start to feel your glutes turning on.

Add some movement: Stand all the way up without pushing your hips forward. Then drop back down. Every time you lower, have the intention of digging your heels into the ground and pressing your knees out. If you’re having trouble feeling the burn in your glutes, go slower. The slower I go—particularly as I lower down into a squat—the more connected I feel.

How Fascia Can Help Us Unravel Deeply Held Tension

By Jessica Humphries

The Gifts of Fascia

Once you’ve experienced the aha moments that accompany practices that release the body’s fascia, there’s no going back. You know it. A subtle shift. A feeling of letting go. Maybe you haven’t been able to describe it in words. It’s an experience that needs to be felt. But you know it. You may have felt it in a hip opener or a backbend. The moment your body goes from resisting to releasing. It’s the thing that keeps us coming back to our yoga mats; it’s all about fascia.

Anatomy expert and author of Anatomy Trains, Tom Myers, when describing fascia tells us that, basically, our cells “are glued together with snot, which is everywhere, and is more or less watery (hydrated) depending on where it is in the body and what condition it’s in.”

The wonderful thing about the journey to understanding fascia is that you don’t need to have an acute understanding of the ins and outs of anatomy in order to see how it operates within your body. I recently attended a fitness class at the gym titled ‘fascial fitness’. Long journeys along foam rollers were intercepted by oscillating movements that left me feeling spacious and free–despite the pop music in the background and lack of savasana at the end of the class.

As the research on fascia evolves, we learn new ways of unravelling deeply held tensions in this connective tissue, which greatly impacts our mobility as we age, as well as affecting our mind. And although we yogis often hear the word fascia associated with yin yoga, Western science is continuing to discover new ways of releasing and rehydrating through different forms of movement.

FasciaFascia is a flexible and sturdy material that covers every muscle, bond, organ and nerve.

Fascia, Simply

Author of Fascia–What it is and why it matters David Lesonak, explains that fascia is like “a silvery-white material, flexible and sturdy in equal measure–a substance that surrounds and penetrates every muscle, coats every bond, covers every organ, and envelops every nerve.” He says:

The most important thing to keep in mind… is that the fascial net is one continuous structure throughout the body…The ‘everywhereness’ of fascia also implies that, indeed, it is all connected, and thus is ‘connective tissue’, which is a term often used interchangeably with ‘fascia.’

The Connective Tissue that Weaves Through Us All

Ariele Foster is the founder of Yoga Anatomy Academy. She’s also a personal trainer, yoga teacher and anatomy teacher for yoga teacher trainings. Foster explains that fascia is “the network of connective tissue that surrounds and includes your muscles”–like scaffolding throughout your whole body. While the fibres of your body are supposed to slide easily over one another during movement, that’s not always exactly how it happens. “Whether due to injury or repetitive actions [such as running, hunching over computers, or even yoga poses] areas of tissue can become thickened and inflamed and tug on fascial network further up the chain,” Foster says. The result of these repetitive movements is that “the fascial sheaths that encase the muscles no longer have as much give and can become wound up like a wrung-out dishrag, contributing to restrictions, strain, and eventually pain.”

Erin Bourne holds a Bachelor of Exercise Science, as well as extensive training in Yoga and Myofascial release. She describes fascia as a dynamic and highly sensitive tissue that’s always listening and responding to what is happening throughout the whole body.

If we stop moving one part, or all, of the body then the fascia starts to dehydrate, solidify and constrict. This spot becomes like a dam for the energy, the information and the signals. We lose awareness in that part of the body and healthy function.

Foam rollers for fascial releaseBalls and foam rollers are great for fascial release.

By including exercises that help to release the fascia, Foster says, “we improve the slide and glide of the tissues whilst hydrating them through the act of compression and release.” And by doing this in one part of the body, it affects the whole. So, for example, if we release (or restrict) the fascia in the feet, it can have an impact all the way up to our neck.

Eastern Thoughts on Fascia

According to eastern philosophies, energy flows through fascia. In The Spark in the Machine: How the Science of Acupuncture Explains the Mysteries of Western Medicine, Daniel Keown says, “Fascia is everywhere–controlling everything; forming our body; channeling Qi; keeping everything in order.” Keown explains that the acupuncture channels of the East are the fascial planes of the West, and Western science is beginning to support these philosophies as it discovers parallels between the anatomy trains and the meridians. 

Releasing Fascia

Research on fascial release shows that there are a number of ways that we can start to unravel the deeply held tensions that lead to constriction and pain in our bodies and minds.

Tom Myers has been involved in bodywork for over 43 years. He is the author of the hugely popular Anatomy Trains and also lectures on the topic of fascia. He explains that we need long, slow stretches in order to reach the deeper and denser tissues of the body, such as fascia. He says:

One of the wonderful things about yoga is that because of the sustained stretch held in many yoga poses, you actually do change the connective tissue.

For Myers, once you change the habitual patterns of the fascia, you can start to address the chronic tension lodged in the tissues. The long held poses of yoga, especially yin, give the muscles time to relax and release, which can ultimately lead to both physical and emotional healing. Myers explains that when you first stretch a muscle, its own stretch reflex tries to contract the muscle back to its original length, but maintaining the stretch allows the body to relax into the shape and as the muscles relax, we begin to work into the deeper layers, like fascia.

Move it or lose it!Moving our bodies prevents fascia from dehydrating, solidifying and constricting.

The muscles have to relax first and then the fascia starts to stretch and release. And that can facilitate the kind of re-patterning that leads to lasting release of chronic holdings and, in many cases, a profound change of mind and body.

Myers notes that there is no amount of time that works for every body. For some, physiological changes can happen in a short time, and for others, long-held poses are required for release. It’s also important that we don’t push ourselves to our full capacity, so that we remain fluid; subtly moving within a pose to allow optimal hydration of the fascia.

Foster points to a 2015 review in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy that looks at 14 scientific papers illustrating the positive impacts of fascia release exercises. The studies suggested that gently rolling different muscles over balls or foam rollers (like in the newly popular ‘Yoga Tune Up’ classes) “pushes on fascia between your bones, muscles, organs, and nerve fibres—freeing up more mobility than is achievable with passive stretching alone.”

Fascia, Feelings, and Letting Go

Alexa Nehter is a long time yoga teacher who has delved deeply into the fascinating world of fascia. She’s studied with Tom Myers and has been blessed with the opportunity to meet with Dr Robert Schleip, one of the most well known fascia experts in the world and director of the Fascia Research Project at the University of Ulm, in Germany. Nehter muses about her love affair with fascia: “Fascia is our biggest sensory organ, our organ of awareness, our internal ocean. For me the current fascia research brings everything together with what I’ve learned through surfing, meditation and yoga.”

Foster tells us that impacting our fascia can affect our nervous system. She says, “Gentle pressure on your fascia may help communicate to your nervous system that there is no longer any need for increased tension in that area.” And so, by influencing these deeply held tensions in one part of the body, we can start to not only unravel and release tension in other parts of the body, but also in the mind.

Yin yoga for fascial releaseLong-held yoga poses help release tension in our muscles, fascia, and mind.

Nehter understands wholeheartedly. She explains how her life changed when she began exploring the world of intuitive fascial movement.

I began to undo the knots and complications in my life that had been getting bigger and increasingly restrictive.

By exploring fascial release, and the movements and practices associated with it, Nehter explains, “you’ll notice the places where your body is holding on at a deeper level than your muscles or connective tissue.” She says:

You learn to feel the fast and slow vibrations of yourneurological patterning, and, when you allow yourself to let go and open even deeper, you notice these openings giving way to your life force… Interoceptive movement teaches us higher sensitivity and, the more sensitive we are, the deeper the patterns we are able to unwind. The more we do that, the more freedom, love and passion for life we can experience.

There are a number of ways in which we can release, hydrate and revitalise fascia, leading to profound changes in the body and mind, and while the research continues to unveil these methods, our own body’s intuition can also certainly point us in the right direction.

When we’re practicing yin, we can feel the moment when resistance subsides–a gentle unlocking in the body’s holding reminds us to soften. When we’re rolling around on balls in a Tune Up class, we sense our body surrendering. And when we glide our quads along foam rollers, we feel the tension slowly increasing, until it releases and we can finally breathe and let go. That’s the magic of fascia, and it’s only the beginning.

Why Do So Many Runners Have Knee Pain?


My Knees Hurt!

Knee pain is one of the most common runner complaints. However, the knee itself—a simple hinge joint designed to bend in one direction—is rarely the root of the issue.

Often dubbed the “middle child,” the knee has the misfortune of being stuck between two problematic siblings: the feet and hips. But the poor knee’s worries don’t stop there. Even an old shoulder or back injury can add to the knee’s stress, particularly when running is involved, says Rebecca Johnson, a physical therapist in the Chicago area.

For this reason, it’s really important to look at how your entire body is moving. “If you have an overuse injury, you didn’t ‘hurt’ your knee—your knee is just a symptom that something is wrong,” she says. “Now we need to figure out how to unload the knee.”

Determining how to reduce the knee’s workload is a bit of a detective game. Typically, increased forces are due to an inefficient gait pattern, says Johnson.

Potential Causes Of Knee Pain:

  • Too much vertical movement/bouncy gait
  • Too much lateral movement
  • Left/right asymmetries, such as when hip extension is limited on one side
  • Alignment issues, such as knee valgus (when the knees cave inward) or overpronation at the foot (when the foot rolls inward and the arch flattens)
  • Inefficient or loss of reciprocal arm/leg swing

You can observe a runner’s gait and notice any of these issues. The challenge lies in determining the “why.” For instance, a bouncy gait indicates a lack of efficient hip extension—which likely results in overuse of the quads, and underuse of glutes and hamstrings, Johnson says.

She seeks the answers to several questions during an assessment: Are a runner’s glutes and hamstrings weak, or is a joint limiting their function? Could dysfunction at her core be to blame for tight hip flexors and quads? Is an old ankle injury inhibiting her toe-off and thus preventing her from getting good hip extension? Is there a range-of-motion issue—related to restrictions in the nervous, skeletal, myofascial or visceral (organ) systems? Or does the runner just need some cues to help her change her gait? Johnson says all of these potential scenarios need to be considered when knee pain is a nagging complaint.

Johnson adds that rest is rarely an adequate solution for nagging knees. “If your car alignment is off, you don’t just park in the driveway, hoping that with a little rest it will run better the next day—you take it to your mechanic. The same goes for your own body. Treatment by a skilled physical therapist will keep you up and running, not stalled on the couch.”


The Arthritis Foundation says on its website that, ‘by conservative estimates, about 54 million adults have doctor-diagnosed arthritis.’ Furthermore, they start off their How to Prevent Arthritis section by stating, ‘The fact is, there is no sure way to prevent arthritis.’
If you already have arthritis, they do offer a few specific examples of things you can do to manage it. For osteoarthritis, they recommend that you maintain a healthy weight; for rheumatoid arthritis that you do not smoke; and for gout, they advocate that you eat a healthful diet, low in sugar, alcohol and purines. They add the following at the end:
Right now, because scientists don’t fully understand the causes or mechanisms behind these diseases, true prevention seems to be impossible. However, there is real hope that someday some or all types of arthritis and related conditions can be prevented.

Gee whiz. Perhaps we simply haven’t given enough money to Western Arthritis Researchers to enable them to ‘understand’ what’s going on. Oh well–at least in the meantime, they have mountains of pharmaceutical drugs, enough for everyone, to fill the void of ignorance.

For arthritis sufferers, little of the ‘insights’ of Western medicine are truly helpful. The lack of clarity about the causes and effective treatments for arthritis is obviously frustrating. And when pharmaceutical drugs are the main line of treatment for arthritis sufferers—drugs which serve only to suppress the immune system and block some of the pain caused by arthritis, and do not offer the possibility of a cure—it is understandable that having arthritis could lead to feelings of hopelessness and depression.

Links Between Arthritis and Mental Health Issues

In fact, this lines up with a new study conducted by the Medibank Better Health Index that shows that Australians living with arthritis are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Medibank Chief Medical Officer Dr. Linda Swan further drills down on this as follows:

While arthritis is a physical health condition, we know it can also take a major toll on the mental wellbeing of those affected—with chronic pain, mobility loss and a reduced ability to take part in physical and social activities all playing potential roles. These findings confirm how essential it is that people with arthritis take measures to not only manage the physical symptoms of the condition, but also their mental health as well.

The first recommendation given by the study is for sufferers to ‘learn mindfulness and relaxation techniques.’ Certainly, the notion that we should have strategies to mitigate the mental health problems brought on by arthritis is a positive step; however, this still leaves us with a disease, arthritis, that is seen as fundamentally incurable and a constant pain we just have to live with.

An article entitled ‘Use Your Mind to Beat Arthritis’ goes a step further in suggesting that perhaps mind-centered techniques have the ability to actually alleviate some of the pain brought about by arthritis on their own. Here is the science they point to:

A recent Norwegian study followed 68 people with painful joint inflammation, half of whom participated in mindfulness training in a group setting. Over several months, they were able to reduce their emotional stress and improve overall well-being compared with the other half, who received routine medical care and simply followed along with a CD of mindfulness exercises at home.

Unfortunately, the article is very careful to present its claims in deference to Western medicine, disclaiming on several occasions that mind techniques are not substitutes for Western medication, and calling upon an MD for his authoritative take on it:

How does this “mind over matter” approach help arthritis? “If it works, we don’t understand why,” says Robert Shmerling, MD, a rheumatologist and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. But dissecting the mechanics may be unimportant if the end result is a better outlook on life. “It’s possible that anyone with chronic pain can be helped with some of these approaches,” Dr. Shmerling says. The only caveat is that they should not be used as a substitute for medication or other therapies, including those aimed at treating joint pain. “You can get joint damage and functional disability if you stop your medications,” he warns.

Again with the ‘we don’t understand why’ business. Why? Because Western medicine only concerns itself with physical processes, and so is disqualified from being an ‘authority’ on what the mind can do since they don’t even actually investigate the powers of the mind!

The article goes on to describe 4 different methods:

Meditation. Meditation helps you focus your attention, reduce stress, and improve feelings of well-being. There are different types of meditation to consider. In mindfulness meditation, you concentrate on your breathing (or another physical process) without reaction or judgment. With transcendental meditation, you repeat a mantra — a word or phrase — over and over to keep any thoughts from distracting you. A study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that people with arthritis who underwent eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy that included meditation experienced a significant decrease in their pain intensity and achieved improved quality of life.

Relaxation techniques. Sometimes, taking steps to relieve the stress of arthritis can bring about positive physical changes, like decreased blood pressure and slower breathing, which in turn can lead to less discomfort from chronic joint pain. One technique, called progressive muscle relaxation, centers on purposely tightening and then relaxing each muscle group in your body while following a breathing technique. A study published in the International Journal of Nursing Practice found that a small group of people with rheumatoid arthritis who practiced relaxation techniques in addition to taking their medication had less anxiety and depression than those who only took medication.

Biofeedback. Biofeedback therapy involves the use of a simple machine that measures blood pressure, muscle tension, and other physical markers. By watching the measurements on the machine as you use various calming techniques, you can learn how to better control these physical functions. You can even shop for a biofeedback machine and books on the topic online.

Cognitive behavioral therapy. This form of psychotherapy helps you change negative thought and behavior patterns by replacing them with more positive behaviors. If your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms are making you tired, this approach could be particularly helpful — two British studies found that group sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy reduced the impact of fatigue.

Belief Is The Key

After listing these 4 techniques, the article goes on to state that ‘the best therapy is one that you truly believe may help. Going into it with a lot of skepticism may reduce its effectiveness.’

Aha. There it is. Belief is the key. The problem is that this article, and Western medicine as a whole, do not provide us with a body of knowledge that would give us good reason to believe in the powers of the mind, and our innate abilities to heal ourselves. And why? Because if we really believed in our own ability to heal ourselves, the entire Western Medical Establishment would be out of business, save for a small area of health care dealing with acute traumas to the body.

Holistic Paradigm

For chronic illness, especially if we want to test the full effectiveness of mind-centered therapies, it becomes important to adopt a holistic paradigm of healing. A holistic approach sees the mind and body as one, intimately connected in the manifestation and perpetuation of chronic disease. Rather than being seen as an arbitrary event, diseases such as arthritis are actually manifested and maintained by the mind, the ultimate source of intelligence behind all of the body’s physiological processes. It follows that if we are willing to see chronic illness in the body as the manifestation of an improperly functioning mind, then it gives us a lot more confidence that we can heal ourselves through mind-centered practices such as the ones described above.

This does not negate the need for proper nutrition, rest, activity, or other physical processes; indeed in the holistic paradigm these are all part of the overall health of the organism, and would be included in any holistic treatment program for arthritis.

The unlimited power, though, is founded in the mind. To get really clear on the mind’s role in both the manifestation and healing of chronic illness within the body, books such as Bruce Lipton’s ‘The Biology of Belief’ or Louise Hay’s ‘You Can Heal Your Life,’ are excellent resources. Once you gain a full understanding of this paradigm, you will bring confidence and optimism to your experimentation with various mind-centered therapies, gaining more confidence and certainty in your ability to heal yourself with each sign of success.

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