What you believe about movement could make it better for you.

I read about this study not long after it was published and have had many occasions to remember it and tell it’s story, which goes something like this. A sample of 84 of hotel room attendants were divided into two groups. Group 1 participants were in the control group and were not given any special information and continued to perform their cleaning responsibilities as usual. Group 2, the informed group, were given the intervention, which was being told that the work they do (cleaning hotel rooms) is good exercise and satisfies the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle. On average, hotel room attendants clean 15 rooms a day – work that requires exerting activities like walking, bending, pushing, lifting, and carrying. They were provided with examples of how their work was actually exercise. Remember, subjects in the other group were not given this information.

Although actual cleaning behavior did not change, 4 weeks after the intervention, the informed group perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before. As a result, compared with the control group, they showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index. Results suggest the possibility that prior to the onset of the study, room attendants were not receiving the full benefits of their exercise because they were not aware that they were actually getting exercise.

The placebo effect is a favorable response to an intervention — a pill, a procedure, an activity — that doesn’t have a direct physiological effect. The classic example is when people enrolled in a study experience some improvement in their condition even though they were given fake pills that don’t contain any active ingredients. In the case of hotel attendants, beliefs and expectations elicited significant physiological improvements. Simply shifting their mindset to perceive their work as exercise improved their health. The placebo effect was in play.

What if you looked at all of your possible and actual movements in a given day as having potential health benefits?  I include possible movements because humans are inclined to choose convenience over movement. My movement teacher, internationally renowned biomechanist Katy Bowman, sees convenience as the problem. Start replacing the word, “convenient” with “takes less movement,” and you will find that’s how it translates most of the time.

If something is convenient, it means you made less physical movement. If it’s convenient to park close to your destination, it takes less movement. If its convenient to blow your leaves or snow rather than rake or shovel them, it means it you moved less or less of you moved. Even really small things, like the convenience of having your wife or husband hand or bring you something, means you didn’t move much. And less movement is not what most of us need.

If treating some work tasks as exercise has positive health aspects, why not also consider some movements made throughout your day as exercise?   This could be especially fruitful for those with sedentary jobs. Many of the movements that you make (or could make) just getting life done have the potential for maintaining or improving cardio respiratory fitness, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and neuromotor fitness.

How can you stack more movement into your life? For some great ideasI turned to the most passionate and creative people I know, when it comes to moving more. You should know that this group of movers are avid students of courses and writings of Katy Bowman of Nutritious Movement. Some, including myself, have trained and certified with Katy as Restorative Exercise Specialists. Movements like walking, sitting on the floor, squatting, and dynamic core activities like carrying, hanging, and swinging feature prominently in our lives and for those of us, who are movement teachers, in our work with clients.

I share with you ideas for more movement that also provide fitness components necessary to be considered exercise – cardio, strength, flexibility, and neuromotor fitness. Your job is to move, move more, and move more of you in your life and contemplate how this movement is physiologically as beneficial as exercise plus it gets life done!

Movement for getting transportation & travel done

I have embraced things that I formerly thought of as inconvenient, uncomfortable, or risky, which mostly means walking everywhere, carrying, climbing, leaping, swinging, and not acting my age. I walk to and from work every day no matter the weather or what I need to carry (once I carried an armload of cherry wood that someone chopped down and said I could have).

At the airport, I hand carry my carry-on luggage through the terminal instead of rolling it – even carrying it up/down stairs instead of using escalators. And I never use the moving walkway.

luggage

I always take the stairs rather than the elevator, even if its 30 flights!

I coordinate my errands so that I can park centrally and walk to each place.

I try to walk all errands under two miles.

If I can’t walk the entire way to my destination, I will drive part of it and park and walk the rest.

I carry my backpack in my arms instead of on my back and change up how I carry it every couple of minutes.

Whenever I go for a walk, I bring a trash bag and pick up garbage along the way, which gets me lots of squatting and stooping, some carrying, and a sense of doing good in the world.

Movement for getting house stuff done

Today I painted my kitchen ceiling, and I left the paint on the floor in the corner and every single time I needed to reload my brush, I climbed down the stool I was using and squatted down to the paint – it took longer than just staying up there with paint right there, but it was an inconveniently lovely movement experience- and the ceiling looks nice.

For grocery trips, I carry one or two hand baskets instead of using a cart.

At Costco, I decline a box so that I have to load and unload items individually to my car and house.

I often prep food in various positions on the floor, and I chop outside when weather permits.

I use a short handled broom instead of a long handled one. (Here is a fun video of Shannon of Purna Wellness doing just that, but there’s more to it. She conveys an important idea about how we often outsource our movement to tools that require us to move less). 

laundryrack

I use a mortar and pestle to grind spices instead of a spice grinder.

I hang my laundry instead of throwing it in the dryer.

I installed hooks on the tops of the kitchen cabinets for coffee mugs & wine glasses so that every time I use one, I have to really reach for it.

I moved my silverware and favorite coffee cups to the lowest drawers so that i have to squat or stoop to get to them

I keep a lot of herbs in mason jars that I’ve put on top of my pantry cabinet so that I get to climb on the counter or stool in order to get them down.

Movement for getting outside stuff done

When I water my gardens and flower pots I fill two gallon jugs of water in the kitchen and carry them outside to the plants instead of watering with the hose. I make about 10 trips a day during the growing season. When I return to refill I look for different ways to get on the deck rather than always using the steps. e.g. : climb up the high end, butt plop on and swing legs up (challenging with a 70 lb dog who thinks you are playing) etc.

We haul wood up to the house from the woodpile (our sole source of heat) in a plastic sled, but now I often carry armloads of wood up the steps, in different configurations, rather than just dragging the sled up the stairs.

We retired all of our motorized lawn tools for hand tools. Instead of a weed whacker, we use hand clippers; instead of a leaf blower, we rake; instead of a snow blower, we shovel; instead of a rototiller, we double dig the garden beds; we still mow the lawn, with an old fashioned, human powered push mower.

handtools

Movement for getting kids done

I carry my baby (now toddler) in my arms instead of on my back or in a stroller.

carrychild

I play on the playground equipment with my children several times a week  – monkey bars, ducking under, climbing over, running around. 

I park a few blocks away from my daughter’s school so we have to walk for drop-off/pick-up.

I let my kids lead our hikes. I have to (try to) do whatever they do – walk across logs, crawl under low-hanging branches, hang from high branches, step from stone to stone, carry a heavy rock or as many sticks as I can as far as I can, walk backwards, wade through streams, run up scree slopes, jump up on and down from boulders.

Movement for getting sedentary done

We got rid of our couch and purchased a low dining table. So we squat and sit multiple ways all day long.

floordesk

I switched my desk out for a floor desk with a cushion. We also now watch Netflix in the evening on the floor (in front of the couch, we just pull the cushions off) and I do hamstring stretches while I watch.

We keep the house cooler so all our bodies do more of the work heating us.

I have Metolius rock rings hanging in my car port, and I hang for a few seconds every time I get in and out of the car.

A portion of all screen time (computer, tv, etc.) or reading time has to be done either standing or sitting on the floor.

Please share your ideas for moving more and more of you.

Namaste, Michele

Why I Walk to Work

Most days I walk to work, in my case a yoga studio. Round trip, its ~3 miles. I don’t speed walk or carry hand weights or pump my arms. I simply walk. It’s one of the big ways that I stack my life around movement. Here is why you might consider walking to work.

Walking to work doesn’t require you to add gasoline or miles to your car and for that trip, your car-bon footprint is nil.

Walking to work can be your workout for the day, which means you won’t have to set aside time later to exercise. If you want to add more movement, plan to add some errands to your walk. Yesterday, I dropped off some items at the postoffice and then added an additional 2 miles to pick up something from the fabric shop.

If you pass by your favorite coffee shop, you can go inside and maybe run into a friend or have social time with the barristas. Whenever I do, Here Comes a Regular, by the band The Replacements plays in my head and I leave feeling happy and connected.

When you walk to work, you interact with neighbors and strangers, who are out mowing lawns, getting the paper, or walking their dogs. You begin to grow your extended community.

When you walk to work, people notice and it plants a seed. The fact that I walk to work has not been lost on my students or other yoga teachers. I regularly hear from people I know, “hey, was that you I saw walking down Yakima Ave.?” You never know, when or where those seeds will grow.

Speaking seeds growing, when you walk to work you really get to enjoy your neighbors’ gardens and how they change with the seasons. And, if you are stealth, you can graze on berries or plunder small starts for your own garden. Or, better yet,  just ask. I find most people are happy to share their garden bounties.

I often listen to podcasts, while walking, from smart movement and somatic thinkers. These are three of my favorites: Liberated BodyYoga & Beyond, and Katy Says. Listening to an educational podcast, while walking to work or walking to do errands is great way to stack your life around movement.

Walking to work replaces sitting in a vehicle with moving your body. One hour of exercise at the beginning, middle, or end of your day cannot not undo the harm done by too much sitting. Sitting in car, sitting at work, sitting for meals, sitting on the couch, sitting at your home computer. In fact, a cardiovascular expert from a consensus panel of the American Heart Association says “Regardless of how much physical activity someone gets, prolonged sedentary time could negatively impact the health of your heart and blood vessels.” I recently wrote an article that details other ways that you can replace sedentary with movement.

My wife and I often join each other on our respective walks to work. This stacks movement around family time.

I remove my shoes for sections of my walk to work, which is part of my foot health protocol. Barefooting is ultimately the best way you can improve strength, mobility, and health of your feet.

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If you come up with other benefits of walking to work, please drop me a line.

Namaste, Michele

 

 

 

 

The Inconvenience of Movement

preventionMag

The July issue of Prevention Magazine featured a 12-page spread on Katy Bowman’s Nutritious Movement. I spent two years studying with Katy and in October 2015, I began working for her organization. While Nutritious Movement has had an influence on how I practice and teach yogasana, it’s greatest impact has been on my own personal life-driven movement practices.

I first heard Katy talk about the relationship between convenience and movement in the context of stacking her life. The idea is that convenience always equals less movement. Think about it. Taking an elevator instead of stairs is convenient but requires less movement. Tossing your clothes into the dryer instead of hanging them is convenient, but requires less movement. Parking close to your destination is convenient, but requires less movement. Driving one mile for a quick errand instead of walking is convenient, but requires less movement. Katy came to the realization many years ago that convenience was not convenient to her health and was in fact debilitating her.

Influenced by Nutritious Movement, I began to notice the big and small ways that choosing convenience robbed me of movement. One of the striking things I discovered was how often I am tempted to ask my partner to hand or bring me something instead of getting if for myself. I had no idea how precious I had become! So I began to intentionally choose movement over convenience. Every day, I am faced with countless decisions to either take a shortcut and “save steps” or to seek opportunities to increase my movement. For instance, at Costco, where I park at the farthest away space, instead of asking for a box, I have my purchased goods placed directly into my cart, which requires me to unload them one at a time into my car; and then several trips into my house. When I return my cart, it is not to the closest stall, but all the way back to the store. These are simple steps that don’t take much time and add up. 

In the Prevention Magazine article, Katy shares numerous ways she chooses movement. For instance, she places her everyday dishes in the lowest cabinets (under the counter) so that she has to squat each time she wants to get a glass, dish, or bowl.

I’ve compiled my own growing list of “inconveniences” that have added movement to my life that in aggregate over days, weeks, months, and years will provide incalculable benefits.

  1. I no longer own a couch or cozy living room furniture. When I wish to sit, I have to get down onto the floor, which is not convenient and requires me to mobilize ankles, knees, hips, and spine. It demands a combination of concentric and eccentric muscle actions to lower me down to the ground and bring me up to standing; and is a realistic test of strength to weight. The benefits of sitting on the floor go far beyond lowering down to and rising up from.
  2. I sleep on a three 3 inch pad on the floor. Again, because it requires me to get down onto the floor and back up again, I’ve added more movement and loads to my parts.
  3. I do quite a bit of computer work, so I had a standing work station built. Prior to making my living as a movement practitioner, I was a research librarian and spent 10+ hours a day sitting at my computer. Now, when I have to be at the computer for long stretches, I either stand or sit on the floor at a sit/squat desk. If you are standing for work, here are my top 25 movements at my standing work-station.
  4. One of the best changes I’ve made to my domicile is adding a squatting toilet. I use Nature’s Platform, which sits directly over my toilet. It provides more realistic squatting loads than that gimmicky foot stool called the Squatty Potty. Nature’s Platform differs from a true squat toilet in that you have to climb up onto it rather than lower to a squat from standing – the way you would do if you were toileting over a hole in the ground/floor, but once you are in a squat on the platform, the experience and benefits are much richer than using a foot stool to hike up your legs.
  5. Over a year ago, we downsized to one car and I walk as many of our errands now as I can. It does take some planning and there are far too many times that I don’t plan well and end up driving to errands that are walkable to save myself time. But I do try to think about where I need to go each week and how I can prioritize walking to get there.
  6. I grew up in Tennessee, where we had no shoes. Just kidding. We had shoes, but I chose not to wear them whenever I could get away with it – all the way up through college. Katy reawakened my love of barefoot living, causing my great neurotic shoe purge that while traumatic has been amazing for how, how much, and how much of my feet move.
  7. And I use my arms more. On my barefoot or minimally shod walks, I carry things in my hands and arms – like my day pack. Instead of using a cart at the grocery store, I carry two hand baskets (when they are available). Instead of using a motorized lawn mower, I use a non-motorized push mower and basic hand tools like clippers, loppers, and hand saws to trim what needs trimming around the garden and yard. Katy is a big advocate for hanging (like from monkey bars and tree branches), but I got bored with hanging, so I started rock climbing again.
datal

Michele, Datil, NM

If you are inspired to add more movement to your life, but you’ve been sedentary and would like to ease in slowly, I am certified by Nutritious Movement to teach the corrective exercises that Katy features in the Prevention Magazine article. These exercises will prepare your body for the loads required for squatting and getting on & off the floor with grace; adding more steps to get you to and beyond the recommended 10,000; and using your arms for lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling, dragging, climbing, digging, chopping pounding, swinging, reaching mantling, scraping, ripping, hoisting, throwing, hauling, heaving and all those other wonderfully nutritious movements your upper body has been missing.

Namaste, Michele

 

Picking Strawberries Stacked the Best Yoga Practice of My Life

Internationally renowned biomechanist Katy Bowman coined the phrase “stack your life.” Instead of making errands, movement, family/friend time, studying, entertainment, etc. discreet events, each taking up precious amounts of time, you perform these experiences together, essentially stacking your life. For instance, today my partner and I walked (movement/exercise, family time). Partway through our walk, we listened to a podcast (edu-tainment). Our walk had a task associated with it – dropping off an item at a friend’s house (errand done!, friend time); and a destination -our local coffee shop, where we studied, chatted, and enjoyed seeing several regulars (community, family, coffee time). Infused in a stacked life are often values held dear – decreasing an environmental footprint by not driving, being an observing presence in our neighborhood, adding to its vibrancy by our street presence, and supporting a local business and the community it gathers. Stacking our lives in this way is rich and rewarding and does not carry the weight of feeling like there is not time to get done what we need.

I recently spent two hours picking strawberries and found it to be a another perfect way to stack my life. I stacked family time, support of a local farm, share in a harvest, participation in the agricultural bounty of our valley, securing food, and the best yoga practice of my life. Yoga? Yes, yoga.

For two hours, I organically cycled through countless variations of malasana (squat), uttanasana (forward fold), virasana/vajrasana (sitting back on heels), bharadvajasana, Yin’s deer pose, lunges, sukhasana (seated cross legged), ustrasana (camel), snippets of surya namaskar (sun salutations), and asanas for which there may be no name.

Obviously, I didn’t capture this on video, but here is a 15 second re-enactment in time lapse.

And listen to Katy’s podcast on stacking your life. It’s been one of the most inspiring podcasts that I’ve listened to this year.

strawberryyogastill

Namaste, Michele

How High is Your Wall?

In an earlier post on boobs, I mentioned upper body movements that are missing in the lives of many – pushing, digging, lifting, carrying, prying, hoisting, pulling, throwing, reaching, hanging, climbing, pounding, peeling, swinging, ripping, and dragging.  Because we have not regularly done most of these things for most of our lives, we have relatively weak upper bodies that fatigue easily and are prone to stress injuries. Baseline strength to weight ratio is bleak in many of us. Visualize the following scenario to see how your upper body would fare. Then go out and find some walls. Or better yet, rock faces, boulders, and trees.

Imagine that you are approaching a series of smooth concrete walls that you have to go over because there is no way to go under or around them.

The first wall is is only as high as your mid shin. Easy, you step on or over it and you’ll be on your way.

The next wall is higher, but only about knee high. Pretty easy. You step on or over it. However, you may have to turn sideways and take some of the load into your hip to step down because that damn knee.

The next wall is mid-thigh height. Can  you step up onto it and jump down on the other side? Or maybe you have to straddle it or sit on it and swing your legs around. Or maybe a combination of sitting and straddling.

The next wall gets interesting. It’s hip height. Can you still step up on? Can you do it with either leg leading? Do you sit and swing your legs? Straddle and schmear your junk?

The next wall is waist high. Can you hoist yourself up onto the wall?  Do you use momentum or slow muscle control? Do you have to jump down to the other side or can you lower yourself down face forward, controlling your descent with the strength of your  back and triceps?

The next wall is chest high. Have you ever mantled? Mantling is an intermediate level move used in rock climbing, where you press or push the mass of your pelvis high enough to be able to get a foot onto the same ledge so that you can stand up. Its not dissimilar to how your might press or push yourself up and out of a swimming pool. Can you get that foot up or do you make that classic beginning-climber move of mantling only until you can get one or both knees up, literally crawling onto the ledge, in the poorest of form. Can you mantle this wall? How do you get down? Can you envision lowering yourself down, backwards, by only eccentric action of your arms?

The next wall is as tall as you. If you were unable to mantle on the previous wall, the outlook is grim, because now you will have to pull yourself up high enough to change the orientation of your hands so that you can mantle. If you are a climber, now is a good time to throw a heel hook. Are you strong enough in your hands, wrists, forearms, shoulder girdle, and core to pull up the weight you are carrying? What would you do if you turned around and a mountain lion was there ready to pounce? While still unlikely, it is ever more conceivable that a concrete retaining wall and a mountain lion would be in such proximity.

The final wall is as tall as your fully reaching hands.

How high is the wall that shows you your boundaries? How high is the wall that stops you?

How high is your wall?

Namaste, Michele

datal

 

 

 

 

Foot Love Workshop Exercises – October 2015

You can find variations of some of these exercises in world-renowned Biomechanist Katy Bowman’s books & DVD included in her Healthy Foot Kit.

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Standing Exercises

All standing exercises should be done in Tadasana aka mountain pose with your feet pelvis-width distance apart, pointing forward, which means the outside edges of your feet should form a straight line (you can line up the edge of one of your feet on a yoga mat to check that it is actually straight and match the other accordingly); and your hips back so that they are stacked over your knees, ankles, and heels and not drifting or thrusting forward. Keep your weight back in your heels. I call this Smart Tadasana Alignment.

Toe Spreading

Lift your toes (this is called extension), spread them away from each other, and place them down onto the mat. Repeat several times throughout your day. You can improve your ability to actively spread your toes by passively spreading them using toe socks.

Short Foot Exercise

A full explanation is linked, but the short of it is to draw the base of your big toe towards your heel, without flexing or curling your toes. It’s OK if they grip the floor. This action lifts your arch, thereby shortening the length of your foot, and strengthening the arch-supporting muscles. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 3 times for each foot. Try to do 5 sets of 3 repetitions per day, holding for 5 seconds each rep. You can perform the short foot exercise any time your standing in yoga postures and as you get stronger, you can do it while balancing. The Short Foot Exercise is comparable to the Strong Yoga Foot.

Balancing

Any single leg balance will strengthen your extrinsic and intrinsic foot musculature. Once you are skilled at balancing on a firm surface, you can explore a variety of unique surfaces – a folded up towel or blanket, a yoga block, a half round, a boot tray of rocks, your yard…Hold for up to one minute and repeat several times throughout your day.

Exploratory feet

Move your feet in exploratory, weird, random, bizarre, strange, silly, varied ways. This can be done sitting in Dandasana (with your legs extended in front of you) or lying down. This is a great way to mobilize your feet before you get out of bed in the morning. Repeat throughout your day.

Top of foot stretch

Extend a leg behind you, pressing the top of your foot into the mat. It is important to keep your pelvis back and stacked vertically over the knee & ankle of your front or support leg as the tendency is for it to drift forward. If balance is a challenge, please use a chair so that you can concentrate on the stretch without worrying about the balance.Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Top of foot stretch

Top of foot stretch

Calf Elevator

Lift the heels of both feet, coming up onto your tippy toes. Try to avoid letting your ankles blow out to the sides. If they do, then only raise your heels as high as you can keep your ankles stable. Hold for several seconds. Once you are skilled at balancing on both feet, start working towards one foot at a time. You can do this either by lifting the heels of both feet, but letting the work happen mainly in one foot; or you could do this balancing on one foot! Whichever variation you choose, make sure your hips are back. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Calf stretch

A half round (or half moon as one of students sweetly miscalled it) is best for this stretch, but you could roll up a couple of yoga mats or blanket or use a book. Place the ball of your foot on the top of the half round with your heel on the ground. Keep your other foot even to and pelvic-width apart from the stretching calf. You can advance in this pose by slowly stepping the non-stretching foot forward. If your pelvis moves forward with you or you lose balance or get rigid, bring the forward stepping foot back and don’t progress until you can do so in a relaxed and balanced stance with your hips back. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

I purchased a SPRI Half Round Foam Roller, 36 x 6-Inch that I cut down to one 18″ length and three 6″ lengths that I use for various purposes as yoga props.

Calf Stretch/Elevator Combination

Stand with one foot on the half-round and elevate both heels to a slow count of three. Hold for 3 counts. Lower for a slow count of three. The lowering is where you train eccentrically, generating force while you are lengthening your muscle tendon units. This is how you get stronger at greater ranges and with more control. At the place that you want to give up and drop your heel is the opportunity to exercise muscle control.

Hamstring stretch

I’ll be posting later this week on hamstring stretching, but for now, start from tadasana, place your hands on your thighs and hinge forward at your hip joints, allowing your hands to slide down your legs, keeping your spine in neutral. As soon as your spine starts to deform ie round, stop, come up a few inches and work instead on lifting your tailbone, which will move the proximal muscle attachments for your hamstrings that are located on your sitting bones away from the distal attachments that are located on your lower legs, thus stretching these muscles. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Ball rolling massage

Place a new, firm tennis ball on a yoga mat or carpet. Keep your heel down as you drape only your toes over the ball, weighting it as much as you can tolerate. Very, very slowly, roll the ball under your toes, from side to side, allowing your toes to spread as you go. After a while move your foot forward so that the ball of your foot drapes across the ball. Again, move very slowly side to side. Continue to move your foot forward in small sections using a side to side motion. When you are deep into the arch of your foot, you might explore some front to back motions, or invert/evert your foot to get into the lateral and medial arches. The benefit from this massage comes when you slow down, take your time, move forward in tiny increments, hang out in sore spots, and remember to breathe. This can and should be done daily as a meditation practice.

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Floor Exercises

Plantar Fascia Stretch – kneeling/squatting

In this exercise, you kneel with your knees pelvis-width apart on a mat or padded surface. Extend (curl) your toes forward. If you can, reach around and separate your toes from each other and make sure they are all extending forward. You may be able to lower your hips, shifting more of your weight onto your feet, but do this slowly and with ease as the thick band of fascia and four layers of intrinsic muscles on the soles of your feet may never have experienced this type of stretch. Images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Barbie foot

This is the exercise where you press your balls forward (of your feet, people!), all toes forward, all toes back, foot back. You know the one. In the balls forward, toes back position, your feet look like Barbie’s. You can use your arms to support you in an upright seated position, but I suggest you place your hands in your lap from time to time and hold yourself up using your own trunk musculature. Images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Bridge with marble

I know you all remember this bit of love from the workshop – a yoga bridge pose holding a marble with your toes and extending your leg. Yes, that one.  Remember, cramping is good…a good reminder, that it, that you should be moving your feet more. Again, images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Ankle circles, point/flex, invert, evert

This can be done seated with legs extended or on your back. My preference is supine with legs extended 90 degrees and soles of your feet facing the ceiling. Try to keep your legs straight and pelvis-width apart and don’t be in such a hurry. Slow, sweeping circles will assure full range of motion. If you fatigue, bend your knees, but keep moving your ankles & feet.

Exploratory feet

Exploratory feet can be done standing in Tadasana with your feet squirming around on the mat; seated in a chair with them wiggling about on a bolster; seated on the floor with them playing mischievously out in front of you; or lying supine, my favorite, with your feet in the air spazzing all over. The object is to make as many movements as you can. According to my teacher Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and math dork, if you apply a mathematical concept called a factorial, a foot with 33 joints can deform into 8,600,000,000,000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 unique ways – or thereabouts. Whatever.

Toe spreaders

These exercises will help to undo the harm that shoes with small toe boxes cause to the muscles between your toes that have so little range of motion or strength that you may not even be able to generate enough of your own force to spread your toes. The third exercise, Toe Lifts, was not included in the workshop because a) I forgot; or b) We ran out of time. Whatever.

Namaste, Michele

Q. But don’t I need to “do cardio” to stengthen my heart?

Actually, no, you don’t. You need to move more, and not at intense levels. Let me explain. Of all the wonderful, amazing things our bodies do, the most critical, the most imperative is to regenerate cells. 50-70 billion cells (which make up our tissues, which make up or organs, which make up our bodily systems, which make up us) die each day in the average adult human. Your body has the capacity to replace all of these cells. In fact, your life depends on you regenerating these cells. The recipe for cell regeneration is quite simple:

  • 1 part electricity (to move your cells)
  • 1 part blood (to feed your cells)
  • 1 part lymph (to remove cellular waste)

Mix together. Grow cells.

In baking, you can get all the ingredients right, but if you mix it wrong, you may end up with a culinary disaster. The same with  cellular regeneration. Mixing it correctly means moving all of your skeletal muscles as often as you can throughout your day. A combination of stretching, squatting, pulling/pushing your body weight with your arms, and walking comes closest to moving every skeletal muscle.  It is through muscle movement that blood is pulled from our arteries into our smallest of vessels bringing it to our cells (aka tissue food) and facilitating nerve health and cellular waste removal (you have to take out the garbage, bruh!).

So back to the heart. If cellular regeneration is our biological imperative, then you could consider your body a cell-making factory. Your heart and all 600+ skeletal muscles are its workers. If you are sedentary much of your day – sitting for breakfast, sitting for your drive to work, sitting at work, sitting for lunch, sitting for your drive home from work, sitting at dinner, and sitting in front of the TV/computer/book in the evening, and the only time you really get moving is for 30-45 minutes of intense cardio at the gym, you are relying on one worker, your heart, to pump hard enough to get blood to all of your cells in a very brief window of time. Wouldn’t it be more cost efficient for your heart to calmly pump blood into your arteries and the other 600 plus workers, your skeletal muscles, to get the blood into your tiny capillaries and hence your cells? If you are running a cell making factory, would you rather have one worker for 30-45 minutes or 600 workers all day long?

Q. Ok, so I’m moving all day long, don’t I still need to get my heart rate up?

Actually, no. Your heart gets plenty strong pumping blood all day long. When you push towards your maximum heart rate, it’s the stress equivalent of being chased by a bear. When your heart goes from a calm, steady rhythm to fast & furious, your body automatically secretes stress hormones and goes through all its fight or flight reactions. This is not good, as many of us already are plagued with constantly high levels of stress hormones.  No matter how much cardio you do, it will never be enough to effectively pump your blood into the tiniest of vessels. You need muscle movement to do this. And you need it all over. And you need it all day. And you can even get more of it at night, if you sleep on the floor.

Q. Uh, how exactly does one move all day long?

  • Walk every day – one long walk or multiple short walks; walk errands that you would otherwise drive.
  • Transition to a standing work station. See my favorite movements for my standing work station.
  • Take a 2 minute movement break every 30 minutes
  • Get a squatting platform for your toilet
  • Install a pull-up bar and hang from it daily; work towards being able to pull yourself up
  • Go to your neighborhood park and play on the children’s play structure. Seriously. Go. Now.
  • Garden with hand tools – shovel & hoe instead of a rototiller; manual push mower instead of gas-powered; clippers instead of a weed eater; watering can instead of a sprinkler.
  • Every choice you make throughout your day, which will be almost every choice you make, ask yourself how can you do it with more movement?

Get moving, there are cells to be made!

Namaste, Michele

In reply to a dead but long living king

I received quite a few comments, on my personal Facebook page, to my article on headstand. Below are my clarifying responses. While I don’t include the original comments from my FB friends, they are fairly obvious within the context of my replies.

Reply to W.

Fan or not, Hector’s study is hugely important to biomechanics literature as it relates to yoga and to yoga literature as it relates to mechanical considerations of asana. There is very little out there that looks at the mechanics of yoga postures and their mechanical consequences. Hector was not trying to prove that loading the neck was bad. She set out to determine how much load is happening, rate of loading, center of pressure, and neck angle; contextualize these findings within what we already know about spine mechanics (lots); and apply this to an increasingly popular and controversial yoga posture. It’s through this extrapolation that one might conclude (me in this case) that unnaturally loading the neck is not good and that sirsasana provides the type of loading known to cause chronic and acute injuries.

You make a great point about loading of the neck not being limited to compressive forces. There are indeed tensile forces loading our cervical spine via our musculature. Buried within the 100+ pages of Hector’s thesis, she references studies that look at the minimal forces shown to cause cervical failure. These force studies, in humans, must be done in cadavers for obvious reasons. So, to account for the activity of surrounding musculature that would be found in a living person, cadavers’ skeletons were anatomically restrained in order to simulate the stabilizing properties of neck musculature. What they found, surprisingly I assume, is that larger fractures and forces were generated. This indicates that muscular stability or restraint may not increase tolerance for higher loads. Other researchers found that age, gender, disease, endocrine function, congenital factors and arthritis all affect tolerance values for cervical failure. Coincidentally, she does discuss African wood bearers, who are practiced at carrying large loads on their heads. In one small study, 90% of male wood bearers exhibited cervical degeneration compared to 23% of the control group. Elimination of natural cervical lordosis was seen, which puts the spine into pre-flexion – a known condition for cervical failure under axial loading. In other studies, females carrying large loads of wood had more prolapsed discs, herniations, and listhesis than those with moderate loads.

Ethically, a clinical study that seeks to prove that neck injuries are caused by certain loads can’t and won’t be performed on living humans, so we have to rely on research studies with cadavers or retrospective studies like those with wood bearers – which may be the closest thing we have to proving cervical loads do indeed cause injuries. When I put all of this together – case studies,  biomechanical studies, anthropological studies with wood carriers, clinical studies  done on glaucoma & blood pressure, and all the anecdotal studies from yoga teachers and practitioners, the evidence is clear, if not overwhelming, that supporting more than 8% of your body weight on your neck is dumb. Even if you do strengthen your cervical bones and other tissues by loading, I can’t imagine you strengthen it over five fold. But, again, the studies have not been done, which is why Hector’s study is so important.

Reply to M.

Iyengar taught, in his books anyway, that the full weight of your body should be on your head in sirsasana. Fortunately, many good teachers, like you, instruct students to place little to no weight on their heads. This better protects the neck, but then you have to consider that most people have meager compressive and tensile loading histories in their shoulders and arms, outside of some planks and possibly pull-ups in the gym/studio. I suspect that loads produced in the shoulders & arms from headstand or handstand far exceed most peoples’ loading histories and capacities. Nobody has studied this that I’m aware of.

The context of fear and empowerment is so important to this discussion. In my early 20’s, I was diagnosed with panic disorder, which was layered on top of a history of generalized anxiety. At age 26, I began rock climbing and that was the beginning of the end of my battle with anxiety. Climbing for me was terrifying, but I persevered (main motivator being I was totally in love with the guy who was taking me climbing:) and through overcoming my fears of heights, hanging belays, run outs, and dynos, I overcame my fear of life. Climbing is inherently dangerous, but 99% of the danger can be mitigated by good choices. What I’m learning about headstand (and shoulder stand) is that even the best choices (alignment, good instruction, acquiring strength, etc.) may not protect you from accumulated damage from putting 50% or more of your body’s weight onto your cervical spine, unless you are levitating your head, which I suspect most people aren’t. Listening to your body and doing what is right for you, while in most cases is sound advice, may not override the truth of biomechanics when it comes to standing on your head.

Reply to J.

I applaud you for recognizing your “youth” as a teacher and putting your student’s before your ego. I wish I had showed the same restraint. It took me a while before I realized that just because I can do a headstand, arm balance, etc., it doesn’t mean I have the maturity in my practice to teach it. And, for what is now paramount to me, it does not mean that I understand their impact on biomechanics well enough to be teaching them to students, whose movement and loading histories I don’t know well. I’m not sure, though, if “feeling good” is always a good marker for the safety of a posture like sirsasana. Much of what I’ve read in the case studies and in the personal stories of long term yoga practitioners discusses cervical spine injuries as more chronic or cumulative in nature – not of the burst fracture type – but of accumulated damage from unnatural loading on insidiously degenerating discs and bone density-compromised vertebra. Most of these practitioners “felt good” for those years they were doing sirsasana, until they didn’t.

Reply to H.

You are right; the Hector study did not look at duration in headstand as a risk factor for cervical injury. However, earlier studies of headstand related to glaucoma found that duration positively correlates to increased intraocular pressure. I would posit that greater duration would be associated with fatigue, thus disrupting ecological balance between arm/shoulder forces and head forces. Your advice to students not to kick their legs up in sirsasana, and to work on having the strength to weight ratio to lift them in a controlled, symmetrical manner, certainly aligns with Hector’s study. As for shoulder stand…. it is another posture that has not fared well in the medical literature…more to come.

Reply to a different M

Hector’s study showed repeated loading of the head and neck due to intrinsic bouncing and weight shifts between the arms and head. Unless you were completely levitating your head from the ground (were you?), it seems like you would be unable to completely remove loading forces from your neck. I  would love to hear your technique.

Reply to R**

I edited my post to say the following: “I’ve been in many yoga classes, where headstand was cued, but few of them came with warnings about headstand’s potential effects on glaucoma, detached retina’s, neck issues, or uncontrolled blood pressure.” I appreciate the feedback that helps me to clarify what I really mean.

** R is a former teacher of mine and has reached the Intermediate Junior I level in her Iyengar teacher training, which is frankly badass in the exquisitely rigorous training curriculum and testing process that is Iyengar (don’t let “intermediate” and “junior” fool you, this is a remarkable accomplishment). Originally, I said that I had never had a teacher give contraindications for glaucoma, when instructing sirsasana. R challenged me on this. I have taken classes/workshops from a handful or formally trained Iyengar teachers but it has been some years and I don’t recall these contraindications, but I don’t trust my memory either. However, in recent memory, in local and regional studios in the last year or so, I can remember specific times when the warning was not given, because I was listening for it. That is a more fair statement.

General reply to all

I wrote this article from a teacher’s perspective. But as a student/practitioner, I have a different relationship with the King. Ironically, I used sirsasana as a therapeutic exercise (protocol of Loren Fishman that I referenced in my article) after I tore my labrum from the bone and partially tore my supraspinatus showing off  in downward dog. I credit sirsasana with my near miraculous, almost full recovery.

Namaste, Michele

The King is dead. Long live the king.

The so-called King of all asanas aka salamba sirsasana aka supported headstand is one of the crowning achievements in yogasana. If you can perform headstand, you join an elite group of yogis. If you teach it, especially to a group of wide-eyed beginners, you are a yoga rock Goddess. Another teacher once bragged to me that, within some period of time (months? a year? I can’t recall), every student in her class was able to perform sirsasana. I taught it at one time too. Before I had any business teaching it. I continued to teach it after I considered myself qualified. What qualified me? The usual stuff – I regularly practiced it. I read and watched tutorials on the internet and in books. I learned from other teachers. I took a couple of workshops.  I taught headstand because I craved the status. I desired to impress. I delighted in being responsible and lauded for another person’s accomplishment. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I’d like to say that I didn’t hurt anyone. But I don’t know. There were no reports of injuries. But, then again, I’ve had students confide in me about injuries sustained in another yoga class, including one suffered from prep work and attempts at headstand, but these students never told the other teachers.

But here’s the thing. I thought that if I followed the cumulative wisdom of alignment in headstand that I, and anyone I taught, would be safe from injury. I thought that if I drilled the shoulder girdle prep work into my students ad nasueam (lift your shoulders! lift your shoulders! lift your shoulders!) and dampened my enthusiasm and that of my students by  patience, restraint, and slow, methodical prep work, it would be all good. I was wrong. I liken this King of all yoga poses to King Henry VIII, known for many things, but most notoriously for lopping off tens of thousands of heads during his reign. Nobody knows how many heads have been lopped off by King Sirsasana, because nobody is counting. OK, nobody has literally lost her head with this pose, but we do know that adverse events can and do occur with headstand and that they can be of a serious, life altering nature.

Here is what’s been written up  over the years in case reports in the medical literature and captured in a 2013 review article entitled Adverse Events Associated with Yoga: A Systematic Review of Published Case Reports and Case Series. Keep in mind that this is not an inventory or accounting of the actual number of adverse events caused by yoga. These are the very few cases, where someone experienced an injury or other adverse event directly attributable to yoga; and where that person was seen by a physician, who subsequently wrote about the event and published the case in a scientific journal. What is missing from the number of cases reviewed (76) are the potentially millions of injuries/adverse events that occur each year in the US alone, where over 15 million people practice yoga and pranayama regularly. There is currently no way of knowing how many of these events occur each year because studies large enough to provide a valid estimation have not been done. In the above review of cases, headstand was culprit in 10 of the 76 cases.

Adverse events attributable to headstand included:

  • Worsening of vision secondary to glaucoma; this 46 yo female yogi fully recovered in several months by avoiding sirsasana
  • Progressive pigmentary purpura – a rusty brown skin patch caused by leaky capillaries (tiny blood vessels) of the forehead; the treatment was topical corticosteroids and the clinical outcome for this 59 yo male was unclear
  • Bilateral orbital varices (bulging veins in the eyes) due to increased blood flow;  treatment and clinical outcome were unclear for this 62 yo female
  • Basilar artery occlusion aka a stroke; the 34 yo female yogi received inpatient treatment and physical therapy  and had not fully recovered one year later
  • Progressive optic neuropathy (nerve damage to the eye) secondary to glaucoma; the course of treatment and clinical outcome for this 46 yo female were unclear
  • Bilateral conjunctival varix thromboses or enlarged veins with blood clots in the eyes; the 60 yo male yogi had a surgical excision of the blood clots but the clinical outcome was unclear
  • Progressive optic neuropathy (nerve damage in the eye) secondary to congenital glaucoma; the treatment and clinical outcome for this 47 yo female yogi was unclear
  • Early glaucomatous optic disk change and visual field loss aka pathological changes in the eye accompanied by worsening vision; treatment for this 29 yo male yogi was avoiding inversions, which stabilized his eye status
  • central retinal vein occlusion aka eye stroke; this 55 yo male yogi underwent eye surgery, but did not recover

If I had glaucoma or a family history of glaucoma and a yoga teacher cued headstand without detailing why it would be contraindicated for someone with glaucoma, I would walk run, possibly screaming, from the room because at the very least,  teachers should know this universally agreed upon contraindication. I cringe to say it, but I’ve been in many yoga classes, where headstand was cued, but few of them came with warnings about headstand’s potential effects on glaucoma, detached retina’s, neck issues, or uncontrolled blood pressure. And then, confounding matters and tarnishing the shine I feel when I call my teaching style “Iyengar-influenced,” there is this, from B.K.S. Iyengar from his seminal work, Light on Yoga: “I have taught this pose to a lady of 65 who was suffering from glaucoma. Now she finds the eyes are completely rested and the pain in them is much lessened. Medical examination revealed that the tension in the eyeballs had decreased. I am mentioning this to prove the value of the correct head stand.” One could not be faulted in believing that a good teacher can align the bad away in sirsasana, even though numerous case studies, as well as full research studies, show that intraocular pressure rises in headstand and exacerbates glaucoma.

While I have a macabre fascination with headstand-induced strokes and vision loss, my real interest lies in the biomechanics of sirsasana and potential or actual musculoskeletal injuries to the cervical spine.The weight of an average adult head is 7.5% of total body mass. Your cervical spine was designed to carry the weight of your head, or about 7.5% of your total weight. In headstand, as you will learn later, you ask your neck to bear upwards of 50% of your body’s mass. For example, I weigh 125 lbs, so my head weighs about 9 lbs. Thus, my neck has a loading history of hauling around 9 lbs give or take a hat. However, when I perform headstand, I potentially place more than 60 lbs of weight onto my cervical spine, which, again, has a loading history and capacity of 9 lbs or less. Vertebra are made of trabecular bone, which is the spongy variety and more prone to fracture. Loading beyond tolerance levels subjects your neck to the possibility of a burst fracture. Burst, in case you need reminding of its definition means “to break suddenly and violently apart, spilling the contents, typically as a result of an impact or internal pressure.” Not something you want associated with your neck. But a more likely scenario, detailed below, is the possibility of spinal cord compression by a compromised cervical spine.

What I found remarkable about these cases was that none is the type of musculoskeletal injury you might expect to find when you  hold the majority of your body weight on the fragile vertebrae of your neck. To an emergency room physician or orthopedic doctor seeing a headstand-related neck injury, it’s going to be a no-brainer. A neck injury, where you might expect one, is neither as fascinating nor case-worthy as, say, a pneumothorax (collapsed lung) caused by Kapalabhati or breath of fire. So, I went searching and found a few case studies that were not included in the 2013 review article. In one case, a 63 yo woman, who had practiced yoga for 30 years and had a daily headstand practice, presented with bilateral hand numbness. Imaging showed severe multilevel degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal in which the spinal cord runs), and secondary compressive myelopathy with myelomalacia  aka compression of the spinal cord by the vertebrae. In another case, a 63 yo man presented with history of tingling & numbness in his finger and toes, weakness and stiffness in all four limbs, and frequency and urgency of urination. There was no history of trauma to his neck or back. For 25 years prior, he had done headstand daily. He, too, was found to have cervical compression of his spinal cord. While case studies are captivating, they don’t tell us that much. What I needed was a research study. What I found, was even better. I uncovered a Master’s Thesis completed in May 2012 by Rachel E. Hector from the University of Texas, Austin, entitled Sirsasana (Headstand) Technique Alters Head/Neck Loading: Considerations for Safety. I could not have dreamed of a better find.

Here is how the study played out. Three groups of 15 yogis practiced one of three variations of sirsasana. Variations occurred in the entry and exit  from the postures, while the actual holding of the headstand was the same for each group. Group 1 entered and exited sirsasana by lifting/kicking one leg up at a time; Group two bent both knees, then straightened them together; Group 3 extended both legs and lifted symmetrically, in a pike position. I present a sketch of the entry techniques from Hector’s thesis.

Three ways to enter/exit headstand

Three ways to enter/exit headstand

Participants performed their respective variations, holding for 5 breaths, while a force plate beneath them measured peak forces acting on the head and neck, loading rate of those forces, center of pressure, and neck angle in the frontal plane at C3 (cervical vertebra 3). The study study examined the weight-bearing responsibility of the head and neck – separate from the arms, which I found to be a critical parameter. You can read Hector’s thesis to learn how they rigged the force plate to eliminate interference by arm forces.

Highlights of the study revealed:

  • the average yogi loads the head with 30-50% of his or her body weight while performing headstand
  • Individuals entering the posture with legs extended and together (pike position) exhibited the lowest maximum and average forces during entry with over 75% of participants using this technique staying below the threshold of vertical loading known to cause cervical failure (image on far right)
  • Individuals entering the posture by lifting/kicking one leg at a time experienced the greatest forces on the neck, with more than one half of them experiencing forces above the loading threshold for potential cervical failure (image on far left)

If headstand is responsible for an unknown number of strokes, vision loss, and debilitating damage to the cervical spine, why is still practiced and taught in most yoga studios? I think the reasons can be complex and beyond my ability to articulate nuances of empowerment, sacrifice, injury, and redemption in yoga. The courageous, thoughtful, and frankly brilliant Matthew Remski, the most compelling writer on philosophical aspects of yoga injuries, explores these ideas in his heady WAWADIA Project . I can not recommend it enough. I’ll go further, you should pre-order a copy of his soon-to-be-published-but-not-soon-enough book (which was crowd-funded, no less), because it’s first printing will sell out.

While Matthew wades through the deep stuff, I’ll pluck the low hanging fruit and merely bullet a list of popular, but mostly unexamined, “medical” benefits of King Sirsasana, tidily summed up in this giddy, optimistic article 10 Awesome Medical Benefits of Headstand. Fortunately, there are practitioners out there like Dr. Kathleen Summers, another yogi doc, who writes in a fairly balanced three-part post about the purported benefits of sirsasana and some potential dangers,  addressing several of these claims.While some of them are reasonable and may be valid, most are unexamined. My comments are in brackets.

The 10 [so called] Medical Benefits of Headstand

  1. Relieves stress [possibly for some; for others, it will likely increase stress hormone secretion]
  2. Increases focus [definitely]
  3. Increases blood flow to the eyes [yeah, that thing about glaucoma]
  4. Increases blood flow to the head & scalp [uh, no; the body has a highly regulated, secure system that will not throw the brain under bus for folly or whim]
  5. Strengthens shoulders and arms [yes and yes; in fact, Dr. Loren Fishman, a world-renowned rehabilitation physician and long time yoga practitioner and teacher, in a small pilot study (10 participants), produced remarkable results using sirsasana and even sirsasana prep work to heal torn rotator cuffs.]
  6. Improves digestion [huh? what? digestion is a downward action; human physiology is designed to push food, urine, feces, menstrual blood, and babies down and out; this makes about as much sense as having a delivering mother stand on her head to improve the birthing process. Ugh.]
  7. Helps flush out the adrenal glands [really? please elaborate]
  8. Decreases fluid build up in the legs, ankles & feet [yes, it will increase venous blood return, but only while you are in the pose]
  9. Develops strength in the core muscles [yes; this is more likely with a controlled pike variation of entry and exit; but while stabilized in headstand, the same alignment applies as in Tadasana – neutral pelvis and ribs to bring the core musculature to its appropriate length for maximum force generation]
  10. Stimulates the lymphatic system [yes, but a better, safer way to stimulate your entire lymphatic system is whole body movement such as walking in alignment.]

When these master-blessed messages are perpetuated in books, magazines, videos, websites, and by a staggering number of teachers in countless studios, then you have potentially hundreds of thousands of people clamoring to honor the King, without a clue that sirsasana can be a very nasty ruler indeed. While it is possible to suffer a musculoskeletal injury in just about any yoga pose, the stakes for musculoskeletal AND other adverse events like stroke and vision loss are higher than most would be willing to wager – if only they knew.

So, I end by circling back around to the work of Rachel Hector (who, by the way, recently published her findings in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies) and leave you with my recommendations, based on her work, for practicing sirsasana – IF you still feel compelled to practice it. But first, let me be very clear about some contraindications and caveats.

Contraindications:

  • If you have glaucoma or uncontrolled blood pressure, do not practice sirsasana
  • If you have low bone density in your spine, do not practice sirsasana
  • If you have degenerative discs in your spine, do not practice sirsasana
  • If you suspect that sirsasana is injuring you, do not practice sirsasana
  • If you feel pressured by teachers, students, media, or your own ego to practice sirsasana, do not practice sirsasana
  • If you are 35 of older (the age range with the highest risk for disc degeneration), do not practice sirsasana, and if you do, do not practice it daily. While Hector’s study did not find age to be a factor (her study subjects ranged in age from 18-60), intervertebral immobility and disc degeneration come with aging. Large, repeated, asymmetrical loading onto immobile, degenerative cervical discs that are not designed to withstand 50% of your body weight can, as the cases studies highlighted earlier, cause cervical failure resulting in neurological damage to the spinal cord. This damage is cumulative. You may not know its happening until one day, you know it’s happened.

Caveats:

  • According to Hector’s study, the taller you are and the more you weigh, greater are the loading forces and loading rate applied to your neck
  • Men tend to have higher loading rates and maximum forces on the cervical vertebrae (largely explained by their greater weight), however, studies on male cadavers have consistently shown that males have a much greater loading capacity before cervical failure occurs. Are you one of the lucky ones?
  • The subjects in Hector’s study ranged in yoga and headstanding experience from 6 months to 20 years and that experience was not a predictor of any outcomes. It bears repeating: headstanding experience was not a predictor of any outcomes. Experienced headstanders, with as much as 20 years experience, had no added protection from negative cervical spine outcomes. This was the most surprising result of the study and possibly the most important to the yoga community. There is a perception that if you get hurt in yoga, it is your fault, that you were novice, or not practicing good alignment, or you weren’t ready for the asana you were attempting. Matthew Remski, once again, illuminates these perceptions brilliantly in a piece on headstand that inspired me to begin consideration of its risks. The darker side of this coin is that if you are experienced and in good alignment, you might think you won’t get hurt. But in reality, being experienced at headstand may not protect you and being inexperienced may not put you at greater risk for injury. I can’t quite wrap my headstand head around this, but it bears consideration.

Recommendations for practicing Sirsasana:

  • Enter with legs extended (no bend in knees) and lift, symmetrically, in a controlled manner. This method of entry measured the least amount of forces to the neck and occurrences of sudden changes in loading, as it loads the head and neck slower than the other methods. This method of entry requires more intense upper body activation and controlled loading – essentially a better strength to weight ratio that kicking one leg up at a time.
B.K.S. Iyengar in Sirsasana

B.K.S. Iyengar entering sirsasana

  • Exit the pose quickly, by allowing one leg to drop to the mat in a controlled manner. This method of exit, as opposed to the pike exit, appears to reduce over-flexion of the cervical spine upon exit. Flexion-compression, also called pre-flexion or axial loading, loads the cervical spine without is natural curve and is the most vulnerable configuration of spinal alignment, which can result in spinal injury due to buckling failure.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

Namaste, Michele

Dear Friend, you are ruining your feet, and your health, to be fit – an open letter

I have a friend who is having foot pain. Serious foot pain. It has kept him from doing “any vigorous exercise in a full 7 days,” leaving him “pissed off all day and scowling.” This could be the best thing that ever happened to him. He thinks that his pain may have been brought on by “lots of running and time spent in tight climbing shoes.” I think he’s right. I’ve been there brother.

Dear Friend,

We run and engage in other strenuous endurance activities because we think we are doing something good for our cardiovascular health, but we aren’t. Running over a certain point of intensity/endurance is the stress equivalent of being chased by a bear. You may improve your “fitness” aka athletic performance by running strenuously, but you do it to the detriment of your heart and blood vessels. Strenuous endurance activities cause your heart to pump really hard for a long time and may induce pathological structural remodeling of your heart – scar tissue, fibrosis, stiffening of the heart muscle, and premature aging.  Running causes blood to flow turbulently through your arteries resulting in vessel injuries that becomes plaque (yes, that plaque), which is essentially your arteries’ version of scabbing. You’ve only ever heard that you need to get your heart rate up for cardiovascular health. But, keeping your heart rate up over a certain intensity/time overworks your heart and causes a major stress reaction to the rest of your body.

The part of cardiovascular health that you probably haven’t heard is that your muscles, all 600 of them, need to be moving as much as they can, all day long. It’s this skeletal muscle pump that actually pushes blood into your capillaries and on into your cells, feeding them, creating a healthy environment for your nerves, and removing cellular waste via the corresponding lymph system. As I wrote in my post on boobs, its natural movement – lots of walking, squatting, climbing, etc. that is required by our biology. If you are moving throughout your day, your heart can work less because you are instead relying on the skeletal muscle pump to get oxygenated blood to your cells.

If you think running more and faster makes you live longer, the research doesn’t support it. A 2015 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that running over 2.5 hours per week or at higher frequencies – more than 3 times per week – and at faster paces (7 miles per hour or an 8 minute mile) is NOT associated with better survival compared with sedentary non-runners. In fact, strenuous runners were as likely to die, during the 35 years of the study, as sedentary non-runners. Light and moderate joggers fared better, in that order. These joggers ran anywhere from 1 – 2.5 hours per week, 3 or fewer times per week, and at a much slower pace – as low as 5 miles per hour or a 12 minute mile. This study comes on the heels of several studies that show running more and harder is not a healthful activity. High intensity fitness activities, including serious running, are performance based, not health based and do not hold up the gold standards of health – longevity, bone density, joint health, and pelvic floor function. On the contrary, high intensity fitness activities  often break down these standards.

So, I could tell you, my friend with disabling foot pain, to replace strenuous running with light to moderate jogging, but my concern is not for your heart. It is for your whole body health. You took a climbing fall 10 years ago, smashing your foot and ankle on a rock ledge. You wear 5-6 screws in there now.  As a result that foot turns inward when you run. That mal-alignment is obvious from a comparison of the tread wear on the soles of your running shoes. It’s that foot turn that worries me. What I know about foot and gait biomechanics is that if your foot is not aligned as it goes through heel strike, foot flat, heel lift, and toe push-off phases of gait, then your body’s major joints (ankles, knees, hips, spine, and shoulders) will compensate by moving out of their respective alignments. Mal-aligned joints become degenerating joints and chronic pain. It’s not a matter of if that mal-aligned, in-turning foot will wreak havoc; it’s when. It’s happening now to you, my friend, at the local level of the foot. It’s just a matter of time before your feel it other places.

Let’s say a 150lb man walks one mile. Impact forces to his bones and joints are about 110% or just a bit over his body weight, resulting in a mind-boggling force of 175 tons (!) to his feet. If this same man runs, those impact forces are 300-400% or three to four times his body weight, resulting in a staggering force to his feet in excess of 350 tons! With these forces on a hardware-compromised, mal-aligned, painful foot, would I recommend that you jog instead of run? No efff’ing way. My friend you must retire your running shoes (and gets some climbing shoes that fit for God’s sake) and walk instead. Running will not be worth it in the short or long run.

The health benefits of walking are outside the scope of this letter, but please understand that evolution adapted our bodies to walk. Early humans walked or trekked about 8 miles a day to hunt and gather, only running in short bursts by necessity while hunting or being hunted. Your body is adapted to walk. Your body requires lots of walking, every day. Your foot needs you to walk, not run. Unless you are being chased by a bear.

Please let me know if I can help you to move with better alignment. Be well my friend. Michele