Thoughts on Compassion

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?

Balance and Proprioception

“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?

Foot proprioceptor feedback loop – McEntire Pilates

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?”

Osteoporosis and Pilates

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.”  

Because there are no other indications, bone density testing is the only way to diagnose Osteoporosis. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends testing for:

  • Women 65 and over
  • Men 70 or older
  • Women/Men who break a bone after age 50
  • Women of menopausal age with risk factors
  • 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 NO Loaded 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).

If you have any concerns, talk to your doctor about a bone density exam. For more information you can also visit the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation.

Bone Remodeling

“The remodeling cycle consists of three consecutive phases: resorption, during which osteoclasts digest old bone; reversal, when mononuclear cells appear on the bone surface; and formation, when osteoblasts lay down new bone until the resorbed bone is completely replaced. Bone remodeling serves to adjust bone architecture to meet changing mechanical needs and it helps to repair microdamages in bone matrix preventing the accumulation of old bone.” PubMed. Through weight-bearing, strength training – we activate bone remodeling that builds stronger bones. The more we ask of our bones, the more they give us!

August 2021 Theme – Snaking the Spine

“Historically, serpents and snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. ” (Wikipedia)

“80% of adults (from adolescents to the elderly) are estimated to experience a back injury in their lifetime….the top reasons identified by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Muscle or ligament strain
  • Bulging or ruptured disks
  • Arthritis
  • Skeletal irregularities
  • Osteoporosis” (thegoodbody.com, mayo clinic).

Back injuries are painful, debilitating and likely to reoccur. In addition to the above list, I have worked with several people whose back pain flares up during stressful, highly emotional periods, which we are having plenty of these days. Back pain is often why people end up in a Pilates studio. Pilates’ focus on strengthening the core (abdominals, diaphragm, pelvic floor, hip and back) can be tremendously healing and an excellent way to ward off future back injuries. We, for example, can strengthen the deep abdominals to help create length through the low back and lift out of the pelvis. This lift out of the pelvis helps us to unweight through the joints of the hips, knees and feet.

In the Yamuna Breath Work training I did last fall we explored using the breath to stretch from the inside out, e.g. using the breath to expand the lungs to move the ribs to the side and back, and to direct the breath into different parts of the torso to create space and release. Connecting back to the healing potential of our breath adds to our healing and well being. During the breath work training I slept deeply and felt an ease and space in my low back, which can tend to get tight, not to mention feeling grounded and present. Our breath is a powerful medicine!

Conversations with Latanya Tigner, and her, Colette Eloi and Ebonie Barnett’s Back to the Root Series: Healing and Spiritual Power of the Spine and Pelvis in African Rooted Dance and my training with Thomas Presto on his Talawa Technique opened an exploration into the how the spine heals us through movement. In observing and learning some of the highly refined movements of the spine, foundational in many traditional African/Diasporic dances, we learn to move parts of our spines in isolation, thereby activating muscles at different levels of the spine. This increases our proprioception (awareness of our body’s position in space) and muscular support and so the health of our spines. Watch Joel Ramirez (facing front) and Luciano Wollman Michelle (side view) moving through the 7 levels of the spine as synthesized by Thomas Presto in his Talawa Technique.

I cite this conversation with Latanya Tigner all of the time because the question is profound. She asked me to reflect on the question, “How did enslaved people do back breaking work 14 hours a day in the fields and then dance at night?” We don’t know how many enslaved people experienced back pain, but it does seem that our culture of sitting all day and driving has wreaked a disproportionate havoc on our backs. While Pilates is important for learning how to stabilize our backs, to activate the full potential and healing of our backs, and I’d argue our creative life force, we need to move our spines – to get the snake into our spines!

This month and building on June’s focus on the breath and core, and July’s focus on the pelvis, we will focus on developing the strength and support for our spines, activating our breath as medicine and movement for healing.