This month we are focusing on the breath in our Moving Medicine classes. When I think about these themes I like to cast a wide net of associations from the anatomical, to the emotional, to the spiritual, to the cultural, to the natural world. For a deeper look at the anatomical you can look at last June’s blog on breath, abs and core.
This month I want to play with breath as movement and cycles. In my acupressure class we’re learning that the lungs are associated with Autumn, the color white, the sound of weeping, the emotion of grief. “The Lungs Rule Qi” (Kaptchuk). Kaptchuk writes that the lungs are where Qi from outside the body meets the Qi inside the body. The ashe (from Yoruba àṣẹ) of breath is to animate and connect. Through breath we are connected to every person, animal, tree, plant arounds us.
When I’m walking in the woods I like to feel into the idea that together the trees and me form one continuous breath – my exhalation becomes their inhalation, their exhalation is my precious inhalation. And I hold that many of us humans, forgetting the joy of being in the one breath with are tree elders, are upsetting the balance of the Earth’s breath.
I recently rewatched ground moving and breaking Bay Area choreographer Anna Halprin’s documentary Make Breath Visible. “Making Breath Visible,” her definition of dance, opens up dance to all movement and the idea that we are all dancers. I was deeply moved by her unrelenting, joyful, courageous search for the meaning of dance, for what must be made visible – after the Watts riots, Black and White bodies both their unique and common movement languages needed to be made visible; the beauty of our elders bodies dancing in a glade with trees surrounding them and their feet in the earth needed to be made visible. She showed us deep grief in her work about the loss of her beloved husband of 70 years, Lawrence Halprin.
We are all grieving the events of the past month – the taking of the breath, the dance, of Black bodies; the taking of the breath, the dance, of children; the limiting of the wild free dance of women. As we breathe through our deep grief (the exhale of our deep love) what must be made visible? Let’s especially honor the spirit of Anna Halprin, the depth of her love, courage, humility, integrity, humor and breathe what needs to be made visible into our healing, life sustaining dance.
I had the really good fortune of taking a class that transformed my understanding of what it means to be a human being and don’t say that lightly. The class was offered by McKinnon School of Massage and was called Touch and Trauma and was taught by Craig Toonder, MFT. I left the class with the conviction that not only every bodyworker should take this class, but every person – teacher, parent, spouse, sibling, police officer (and especially police officers). The class raised a central question for me. If we had a deeper understanding of how and when trauma expresses through human bodies could we more meaningfully support individual healing and community health?
In one of the first exercises we broke up into pairs and asked to touch our partner with three different intentions – an intention to fix, indifference, and compassion. We first asked our partner where they would like us to place our hand. We then placed our hand on that part of the body and held one of the above intentions without revealing which one. I found I wasn’t able to distinguish between my partner’s indifferent touch and intention to fix touch (I’ll save that exploration for another day, but it’s interesting to think about how an intention to fix/help could be experienced as indifference). What I noticed with these two touches was a specific awareness of the touching hand and the part of my body – my shoulder in this case – being touched. When my partner’s touch held the intention of compassion I did not notice the hand or my shoulder, but became aware of my whole body. And so I’m thinking these days about how compassion holds a person differently from pity, sympathy, empathy, judgement. How that holding allows for the person to feel their wholeness. What might be if we saw and touched with a compassion that held the whole of who people are?
“Proprioception, otherwise known as kinesthesia, is your body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location. It’s present in every muscle movement you have. Without proprioception, you wouldn’t be able to move without thinking about your next step. Proprioception allows you to walk without consciously thinking about where to place your foot next. It lets you touch your elbow with your eyes closed.” (WebMed)
Have you ever had the experience, maybe at a wedding, where you go to pick up a champagne flute for a toast and realize too late that it’s plastic and not glass? Your body assuming the flute is glass lifts with a certain force, which is a little too much if the flute is made of much lighter plastic. All of sudden you feel like you’re throwing the glass up to the ceiling, which always makes me chuckle (like the glass played a practical joke on me). What’s happening kinesthetically is that your proprioceptors are miscalculating the needed force for a habitual action.
Proprioceptors are throughout our body and the ones we’re most interested in from a movement perspective are the proprioceptors in the joints that help us coordinate movement, orient in space and to respond, for example, instantaneously as we step onto an uneven surface. Proprioceptors are essential to our physical balance.
What are proprioceptors?
Proprioceptors are “mechanoreceptors [that] detect stimuli such as touch, pressure, vibration, and sound from the external and internal environments. They contain primary sensory neurons that respond to changes in mechanical displacement, usually in a localized region at the tip of a sensory dendrite.” These sensory receptors, “receptors for self” give detailed and continuous information about the position of the limbs and other body parts in space. (WebMD, Brittanica.com)
Certain conditions osteoarthritis, certain neurological conditions, and injuries can affect proprioception and we just tend to lose proprioceptors as we age. And so while strong muscles are important, stimulating our bones to maintain healthy bone density is important, we have to practice proprioception to prevent falls and maintain balance.
How do we build balance and proprioception?
I draw on Zeina Grifoni’s (Synergy Pilates of San Rafael) expertise constantly. I have taken her Pilates Rehabilitation classes for years and what I’ve learned from her is that the best way to build proprioception is to push to failure. This means if you’re doing a balance exercise and you’re not wobbling you’re not building proprioceptors. It means that we build balance by moving through unbalance. In the video below Zeina talks about three components to balance – posture/alignment, reaction time, and proprioception. We will be exploring these components this month in our Moving Medicine Classes.
“Why do we lose balance and what can we do about it?”
I’ve done several Pilates trainings on working safely with clients with osteoporosis, most recently with PT and Pilates Instructor Zeina Grifoni, the founder of Synergy Pilates, and given how prevalent it is wanted to share some information about the condition and ways we can work to maintain and build bone safely.
Osteoporosis means “porous bone” and is a condition where the density of the bone decreases, especially in the spine, hips and wrists. What’s most challenging about this condition is that people with Osteoporosis don’t experience any pain until a first fracture, and then the likelihood of subsequent fractures increases dramatically. The goal is to prevent that first fracture! Osteoporosis is also incredibly widespread. “30% of all post menopausal women have osteoporosis and 1 in 5 men are at risk of an osteoporotic fracture. After a first fracture there is an 86% chance of a second fracture.”
Postmenopausal women under the age of 65 with risk factors
Men 50-69 with risk factors
There are a range of risk factors, including age, family history, sex (women are more likely then men to get Osteoporosis), race (White and Asian women are at higher risk), size of body frame. Smaller-framed people are at higher risk. There are also a range of other risk factors – dietary, medications, and medical conditions that put a person at higher risk. To read more see Risk Factors (Mayo Clinic).
As a Pilates instructor my goal is to support bone building (especially around the thoracic spine, hip and wrists) through muscle strengthening, balance training, and, critically, to work in positions that don’t put clients at risk for fractures. This means NOLoaded Spinal Flexion (forward bends in standing, rolling up into an abdominal curl, rolling like a ball, any position that rounds head towards feet or takes legs over the head, e.g. shoulder stands). If you look at the image below you see that Osteoporosis tends to cause us to round forward (into increased kyphosis) bringing the front of the vertebrae closer together.
Loaded spinal flexion increases that rounding, putting pressure on fragile bones, which is why the majority of osteoporatic spinal fractures happen in the thoracic spine. It’s also clear from this image that extension exercises are one of the best things we can do to support not only postural changes to prevent fractures, but bone building as well. Swans, Cat Stretch, upper back lifts, swimming are all great extension exercises.
For those of you who do other forms of exercise, yoga, weightlifting consider any exercises that ask you to bend forward and ask your instructors for modifications that allow you to stay in neutral spine (the natural curves of the spine).