Stop Engaging Muscles (Without Dating Them First)

When well-meaning instructors prod you to “Engage Your Abs (Your Core, Your Pelvic Floor, Your Quads, Your Calves…) does it seem like you’re being thrown into an arranged marriage with muscles or body parts you don’t know well?  Is consciously grabbing hold of those muscles til death do you part the pathway to bliss or to a short-lived honeymoon?

What Turns You On?

Let’s ask our muscles. If we sat down with them and asked, “What really turns you on?”, they’d answer: “Actions.”

More than words?

“Yup.”

Our muscles want movement. Not any ol’ come-what-may, generic movements, but the specific kinds of movement that turns THEM on.

Are Your Needs Being Met?

So if a muscle isn’t turning on, instead of yelling at it to “Engage!” (or calling it lazy), maybe we ought to ask it what it needs and investigate whether it’s being proprioceptively fed that motion.

Take the pelvic floor muscles (the levator ani and the coccygeus muscles that provide support for the pelvic viscera and help control incontinence), for instance.

If you’re experiencing leaking or if someone is tracing your low back pain, knee pain, ankle instability or neck tension to pelvic floor weakness, you might be told “Engage Your Pelvic Floor!”

But if you sat down with the Pelvic Floor Muscles over a quiet dinner and asked, “What turns you on?” one of the things you might hear about is the Pelvic Floor’s good friend, Obturator Internus. The obturator internus (OI) decelerates internal rotation of the femur, hip adduction and hip flexion AND its fascia provides an origination for the some of the pelvic floor musculature. You could say it’s connected at the hip with the pelvic floor, in a manner of speaking.

“So, wait a minute: you’ve stopped hearing from the Obturator Internus?”

“Yeah.”

“But you’ve always counted on Obturator to help lift you up.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Geez, no wonder you’re down.”

“Yeah.” (Sniffle.)

“We gotta do something about that.”

Putting in the Work

Granted, for teachers of movement, it requires more work to trace the movement patterns of a body in motion than it does to verbally cue muscles we suspect aren’t working.  Calling on muscles to engage may sometimes produce a desired effect in that moment, but ultimately, muscle function is meant to be subconscious.

We can’t monitor our clients’ movements 24-7 and we don’t want them doing that either. Everyone’s to-do list is long enough without having to drop your shoulders, stabilize your shoulder blades, tuck your tummy in, cinch the transverse abdominal belt, lift the pelvic floor and soften your knees. We need a better solution – one with a subconscious carryover.

This is where knowledge of the body’s chain reaction biomechanics (an awareness of how forces move domino-like through the body) can come in handy.  It allows you to select movements or sequences that will subconsciously engage (eccentrically lengthen and concentrically contract) muscles that weren’t previously responding.

Applying that strategy to awaken the pelvic floor, one scenario would involve creating internal and external rotation and side to side frontal plane movement in both hips. This might be done in positions that had the practitioner’s hips flexed (as they are in a lunge) or in extension (as occurs in bridge pose). The pelvic floor’s friend, the obturator internus, would be turned on in all of these movements and its activation would in kind help turn on the pelvic floor without any need for the practitioner to engage, fire, trigger, lift, squeeze or draw up on anything.

A Lifetime of Listening

Creating optimal relationships among the muscles and other connective tissues in order to facilitate optimal movement is always ‘best efforts’ work.  This alternative approach to verbally cuing muscles, borne from the evolving understandings of functional anatomy, certainly has its strengths (and is not without its limitations).  By continually listening to what the body has to say about what it needs and how it gets turned on, we’ll be well-positioned to help practitioners and teacher we work with achieve their goals.

“Lost” by David Wagoner

Here’s a great poem – another that illustrates how the great poets are mystics pointing us beyond language, beyond our senses to a quieter knowing.  This comes from Collected Poems 1956-1976 © Indiana University Press.

Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

 

On waiting and wasting…

There is a long tradition of meditation in Christianity. One of the tributaries of this stream was renewed in the 20th Century by the practice and teachings of a Benedictine monk named John Main.

Picking up where he left off, a fellow Benedictine, Laurence Freeman, advocates for an embrace of the contemplative life through retreats, books and a monthly column called Tablet which I subscribe to read.

Here is May’s reflection on waiting which I found particularly resonant:

May 2013

One of the worst things about prison, he told me, was the time-wasting. We were standing in a huge barren hall, or maybe it was a baseball court, where we had just meditated with a large group of his fellow-prisoners.

After the profound, shared, sweet silence of the meditation we had a lively discussion about what the inner life on the inside was like and how it could be cultivated. This had graced me with the strange feeling I have often had before in prisons, of being very close to the Kingdom, which Jesus says is always “very close to you” wherever and however you find yourself serving your life-term.

The ugliness and dirtiness of the space we were standing in reminded me of some men’s religious houses I have stayed in which reveal more than anything else how a community can lost hope in the spiritual life and in themselves. It would be hard to keep faith in God or yourself in such an aesthetic inferno. But the prisoners on the whole did not complain about the lack of beauty, maybe because they had discovered that complaining about things you can’t change doesn’t make anything better. Maybe because it didn’t seem the main problem they were facing. They all agreed, however, that the great enemy of prayer in prison is the relentless noise, the continuous sounds of metal gates clanging, loud voices echoing down stone corridors, of the rasping noise of anger or hollow laughter.

It is bad enough to know that many years of your life will be wasted in incarceration. It becomes surreal when you realise that you have become a different and better person than the one who was condemned and excluded from society. Worse still is to fill that wasted time with routines that rob you of what minimal meaning or creativity you might be able to cultivate. Meditation, the prisoner I was talking to told me, had helped him to transform this horrible experience of lost time, as in the hours spent standing in line to be counted. Like monks anywhere he had discovered you could pray anywhere and continuously, even in the worst of conditions, by releasing the prayer already within you. As he stood for his number to be called he let go of his thoughts and his resentment and sadness. Often standing in line, but standing too in his heart, he would fall into the sheer joy of the presence.

Compare this with life in another ‘total institution’ of modern life, a hospital. Doctors and nurses complain increasingly about the stress of their professional lives. Substance abuse, depression, breakdown and suicide are growing factors in the medical profession everywhere. As in prisons, medical stress is a product of bad time-management. It breeds the impression of being overwhelmed, powerless to perform properly; persecuted by colleagues or the people you are supposed to be serving.

A hospital where I was speaking recently runs four meditation groups. When it ran a workshop on interpersonal skills for doctors, they were amazed to be told how badly others perceived them to be behaving – interrupting the patients before they had finished describing their problems, avoiding eye contact, harsh with nursing staff and colleagues, cold-hearted in relaying bad news. They were amazed to be told that if they visited a patient and stood sideways to them at a distance, avoiding personal contact, the patient would either remember the visit negatively or erase it from his memory altogether. If the doctor had sat on the edge of the bed for a few moments, present and attentive, the patient would later be convinced she had stayed for a good twenty minutes.

How much time and resources are wasted trying to achieve what a simple spiritual practice makes obvious? In prisons the ethos of punishment and degradation is blatantly counter-productive. In hospitals the depersonalization of medicine makes no one feel better even if it prolongs life, which it often doesn’t. In schools, government policies impose education as a means of training children as an economic resource for reducing the national debt.

One way or another, we are all processed through institutions today. Wastage of time and resources increase with the diminishing of the human factor. And once the humanity of relationships and the quality of personal attention begins to slide it is hard to reverse the trend. The Nazis perversely mastered this process of self-dehumanization that leads, inevitably, to extinction.

Waste will waste us all in time. Finding how to handle time under stressful conditions, how to manage restraint so as to be fully present, is probably one of the greatest spiritual needs of our time. Regardless of any belief system or management theory the simple human art of being present, the lost art of prayer, patiently calls us home to ourselves.

Laurence Freeman OSB

Laurence Freeman is a Benedictine and the Director of The World Community for Christian Mediation. His readings are available online: http://www.wccm.org

Yes

YES 

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out––no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

William Stafford, from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems © Graywolf Press, 1998.

An excerpt from “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver

…When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

From New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press).

Let’s Talk About Flex, Baby

Let’s talk about flex, baby. You know, Flexibility. All the good things. All the bad things.

If you’ve ever written a flyer about yoga or pitched a workshop or corporate classes, or tried convincing Aunt Sally or Uncle Phil to take up yoga, I bet you’ve touted ‘flexibility’ as one of the benefits of yoga. I know I have.

So let’s play the part of Uncle Phil for a second:

“Okay but so what if I can’t touch my toes. What’s the big deal anyways?”

Do you want to jump in – or do you want me to? I bet we both have our rap down pretty good correlating tight hamstrings and back aches and lost productivity. It’s then a quick hop, skip and a jump to slipping in Uncle Phil’s favorite activity and assuring him that yoga’d be great for that:

“You know Uncle Phil, a little more flexibility could mean the difference between you qualifying for sectionals in lawn bowling this year or not….”

Of course, we’re just backdooring Uncle Phil into the full experience of yoga via asana. We’ll get him chanting and doing meditation soon enough. He’ll learn flexibility of the mind and heart, too, and compassion and being present and all that. But first, we gotta get him limbered up.  Right?  Or… no?

Well. Maybe before we move past benefit number one (“flexibility”) we should clarify what it is. Maybe it’s not exactly what we’ve been saying it was.  Maybe it’s not some generic thing you either have or don’t have. Maybe Phil’s right: touching your toes proves nothing more than you can touch your toes.

Do you have 15 minutes? It’s a little bit of time, I know, but it’ll be totally worth your while, I promise.

In fact, come back later if you want, grab a friend or two, some chai lattes and make a mini-date of it.

The guy in the video – Gary Gray – is not a “yogi’ and he’s definitely not a guru. But movement professionals from around the world fly to his podunk town in Michigan to study with him because- well, I’ll let you figure out why. I dropped everything when I had the chance to do a year-long fellowship with him

What he has to say has HUGE implications for the Yoga community. At least, that’s what I think. How about you?

All the good things. All the bad things. You and me: let’s talk about flex.

Bibles and Bodies

Some people know the body chapter and verse. They’ll quote it for you any chance they get.

“My neck’s sore.”

“That right? You mean the SCM – your sternoclediomastoid? Or you talkin’ your traps or scalenes? Scalene posterior, I bet. Origin’s C4-C6, inserts down there on your second rib.”

I recognize that patter.

Once, I went to meet up with a piano player who gigged in a local church band. By accident, I stumbled into a Baptist congregation when I was meant to meet him at a non-denominational one.  Before leaving, I got to experience the preacher in action, calling out passages from the Gospels and from the Hebrew scriptures like an auctioneer collects bids. It was entertaining on some level. I wasn’t buying his theology but I was impressed by his dexterity.

I remembered what a friend once observed: “naming something’s not the same as knowing it.”

Rattling off chapter and verse – whether the text is one’s body, the Yoga Sutras or the Gospel of Matthew – is a skill. Whether it’s a laudable skill or not is in the eye of the beholder/memorizer.  I’m not saying you can’t learn from people who have this skill – I certainly have – but for me, I hope I don’t become a body-parts patterer.

The people I like working with are ‘open book’ teachers/learners. They don’t have all the answers memorized in their head but they have processes they rely on to search them out.  If they had it their way, all tests/quizes would be open book ones.

T.K.V. Desikachar seemed to be a teacher like that.

At a conference in Rhinebeck years ago, he asked a participant to explore something “simple” – like whether it felt easier to exhale on a forward bend or inhale during it.

Duh.  Those of us watching knew what the answer was going to be (exhale). How could Mr. Desikachar, heir to the great viniyoga tradition, not know this?

And yet, when the practitioner reported, “Exhale,” he seemed genuinely surprised.  He commented that others had reported similarly in the past and thanked her for her observations and for investigating that for herself.

Since meeting Mr. Desikachar, I’ve met other “world-renowned” researchers and educators. In the days leading up to my visits with some of them, I had anxiety-plagued nightmares, afraid of being called out for what I didn’t know.

When I actually met them, it was incredibly disarming and actually endearing to hear them admit, time and time again, “I don’t know.”

Of course, I’ve also experienced times when an “I don’t know,” offered up by an “expert” is completely unsatisfactory.

“You don’t know? How could you not know? It says so right here in the book that…”

“The” book on knee rehabilitation. “The” Bible. “The” Body. “The” protocol. As if there’s “one.” As if they’re not all texts, all with authors, all with points of view that are open to interpretation and debate. (Which, by the way, is not the same thing as saying “it’s all good” because multiple perspectives does not always mean there are multiple truths. There are many ways to represent 2 + 2 = 4 but that’s not going to make 2 + 2 = 5 any day soon.)

As much as I appreciate the open book learners/teachers I’ve met in my life, I know I still rely too much on my ‘get the right answer’ muscles (perhaps I’m not the only one who does that).  I always appreciate it when someone gives me permission to rest them.

A few weeks ago, I was co-teaching a workshop on pelvic floor biomechanics with a physical therapist friend. We included a slide that quoted a leading medical textbook which admitted that much was not known about what the pelvic floor muscles did, despite all the time and energy spent studying them. Everyone laughed. And then picked up their pencils to take notes on what little we had to offer them.

Finally, my colleague, a therapist for almost thirty years and one of the most skilled I have come across, observed:

“Don’t worry about memorizing this stuff.  I don’t remember it half the time myself.”

“For real?”

“Yeah, just know where to look for it and you’ll be fine.”

Amen, brother.

Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?!

During the year I spent studying with Drs. Gary Gray and David Tiberio at The Gray Institute, I had the pleasure of meeting Gary’s son Brad, who shared this powerful story (credited to biblical historian Ray Vanderlaan) that has remained with me.

Below is my (hopefully not too bastardized) recollection of it:

One night a Rabbi was out walking, hoping the fresh air would help him clarify something he had been reading in the Torah earlier in the day. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, the Rabbi soon lost himself in prayer.

Suddenly, the rabbi was startled out of his prayerful reflection by someone shouting “Who you and what are you doing here?!”

Rather than stay on the path that would lead him back home, the Rabbi quickly realized he wandered into a Roman encampment.

The Roman centurion who called out before repeated his questions, “Who are you and what are you doing here?!”

Instead of responding directly, the Rabbi asked the guard, “What do you get paid for asking me these questions?”

Confused at first by the Rabbi’s response, the guard eventually replied tartly, “Three Denari a week!”

“Well, I will pay you double that if you’ll stand outside my house and ask me those questions every morning.”

Post-Graduate Yoga Teacher Training

Transformation Zone Yoga is excited to announce its private client-centered yoga training for graduates of 200- and 500-hour Yoga Teacher Training programs.

This training is unique in both content and scope:

  • Private client-centered focus sets it apart from group class-oriented programs;
  • Process-driven framework helps you devise personalized strategies to meet your clients’ needs;
  • Rooted in functional anatomy vs. cadaver anatomy of the:
    • Foot
    • Knee
    • Hip
    • Pelvis
    • Spine
    • Shoulder
    • Elbow
    • Wrist/Hand
  • Re-examine asana, breath work in asana, pranayama and meditation through a functional lens
  • Acquire strategies for defining, assessing, developing and restoring optimal movement
  • Dive deep on sequencing (both within a session and over time)
  • Explore strategies for adapting Yoga practices for developmental, therapeutic, sports specific and other practitioner-driven circumstances

Training Dates

Course material will feature in-person, hands-on training as well as supplemental assignments (outside reading, learning challenges and video reinforcement).

January 26 & 27
February 9 & 10
March 9 & 10
April 6 & 7

The Saturday sessions will run from 9-5:30pm.  The Sunday sessions will run from 9-2:30pm.

Cost: $1500 for all four weekends.  ($1300 – early bird discount if paid in full by December 31, 2013).

Prerequisite:  Applicants must have successfully completed a 200- or 500-hour teacher training.

Location:  Weekend sessions hosted at H&D Physical Therapy’s Midtown Clinic, 12 East 46th Street, 8th Floor in Manhattan.

Want More Information?

If you have any questions about the program, feel free to be in touch with Al Bingham by phone (347.644.9642) or by email (Al@TransformationZoneYoga.com).

Ready to Register

Register now for the Winter 2013 Post-Graduate Yoga Teacher Training.

What Happens in the Pelvis, Doesn’t Stay in the Pelvis

Recently I had the opportunity to lead a workshop on pelvic floor biomechanics with my good friend and physical therapist, Greg Hullstrung.

In my 17 years of teaching, I’ve had the good fortune to collaborate with physical therapists who specialize in pelvic floor dysfunction and study with some of the top movement educators in the country and I’ve learned that there’s a lot about the pelvic floor muscles that’s up for discussion.

Knowing What We Don’t Know

“Ideally speaking, one should describe the function of each component of the pelvic floor muscle individually; however no such information is available. Broadly, the pelvic floor muscles can be considered to have 2 important functions. They provide 1) support or “floor” to the pelvic viscera and 2) constrictor functions to the urethra, vagina and anal canal.” (V. Raizada MD, R. Mittal MD. Pelvic Floor Anatomy and Applied Physiology. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2008: September, 37(3); 493-vii.)

Naming the pelvic floor muscles has even proven to be tricky. While it’s agreed that the levator ani and the coccygeus muscles are the main muscles of the pelvic floor, naming the component parts of the levator ani is where the agreement breaks down (pubovisceral?, pubococcygeus?, puborectalis?, etc.)

Part of the challenge lies in the fact that the pelvic floor muscles are subtle and hard to study in living people. In cadaver studies, some of these muscles have been damaged due to pelvic floor traumas (this is especially true of some of the cadaver studies of women who gave birth).

But for movement professionals, and Yoga teachers in particular, there are 6 Key Concepts worth keeping in mind in both our own practice and as we work with our students/clients.

1. What Happens in the Pelvis, Doesn’t Stay in the Pelvis.  For starters, resist the temptation to isolate the pelvic floor from the rest of the body. The support that the pelvic floor provides (or does not) affects how the foot hits the ground, the stability of the knee, the condition of the hip, whether the low back gets chewed up, and it even impacts tension in the neck and shoulders.  Think locally but act globally.

2. It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know. In life and in the body, connections matter. Look no further than the obturator internus (a decelerator of hip internal rotation, hip adduction and hip flexion and whose fascia provides an origination for the levator ani) for proof of the pelvic floor’s connection to the lower body. Who else would seem to be an influencer/influenc-ee of the pelvic floor musculature?

3. What’s In a Name? Everything. Pelvic floor or pelvic core? Christina Christie and Rich Colosi are physical therapists based out of Chicago who suggest a great way to get your head out of the pelvis: assess and train the pelvic core. The abdominal muscles are the front of the pelvic core, the paraspinals provides the back, the respiratory diaphragm provides the top and the pelvic floor is the bottom. Does that shed more light on some of the bottom-up and top-down influencers?

4. Don’t Engage Your Pelvic Floor Unless You’ve Had a Really Long Courtship. In some cultures, it’s cool for one person to tell another, “Engage So-and-So” even though no relationship has been cultivated. And hey, sometimes that works out. Just like artificially engaging your pelvic floor muscles works out sometimes. Perhaps a better strategy is to ask those muscles: what turns you on? You know what we’ll hear: actions.  So if you suspect someone’s pelvic floor isn’t turning on, don’t yell at it (engage! activate! lift!), instead, learn what movement patterns turn those muscles on and then trace their movement patterns to see whether they’re getting those motions (or not).

5. Nobody Drives in Neutral. A lot of well-intentioned energy is spent helping people ‘find neutral’ as if positioning the spine in a neutral position is the end all, be all. While it’s nice to find neutral, remember that just as nobody drives their car in neutral (they pass through it to get to other gears), nobody functions in life with a neutral spine. Over-training a ‘neutral spine’ can remove the there-by-design, anterior (forward) tilt of the pelvis. Taking away the anterior tilt of the pelvis removes the bony support that the pubic bone provides the bladder, asking the pelvic floor muscles to pick up the slack. Literally.

6. The Final Word on The Pelvic Floor/Core… There is no final word on the pelvic floor/pelvic core. For that matter, this observation would hold for much of what is ‘known’ about the human body.  So as we apply this information – and gather more – in our best efforts to be of help to the clients/students we see, it’s always helpful to keep an asterisk handy and to get comfortable saying “I don’t know” and “it depends.”

Want to go deeper? Email Al Bingham (transform@transformationzoneyoga.com) for details on the Yoga Training for Teachers with Private Clients, a series of workshops to be held in Manhattan.