Rest – The Other Fitness Requirement


By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates And Yoga

The majority of these blog posts are focussed on the benefits of movement and the many problems associated with lack thereof.  This weekend as the powers that be attempt (futilely, I might add)  to control the universe by getting us all to adjust our clocks, it has occurred to me that sleep and rest are often overlooked aspects of fitness that can be just as important as exercise.  Recently I listened to an interview with Dr. Kirk Parsley, former Navy SEAL and current sleep guru, about how chronic sleep deprivation is leading Americans to all kinds of illness.  Dr. Parsley speaks about the pervasive myths in our culture that sleep is for the weak.  He emphasizes what he calls the “four pillars of health: Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise, Stress control”.  If any one of the four is ignored or minimized our health will suffer.  Despite this, we continue to celebrate people who claim to sleep 4 hours per night and still achieve what appears to be success.

In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers insufficient sleep to be a public health problem.   In addition to nodding off while driving, “persons experiencing sleep insufficiency are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity.”  Yikes!  For those of us – myself included – who take pains to eat right and exercise regularly, it can be a huge wake-up call to realize that short-changing sleep might be just as detrimental to health as eating lots of donuts.

A related connection that comes to mind is the additional need for simple rest.  Those of us who exercise regularly may not realize that muscle gains are made during rest periods, not work periods.  That’s why strength trainers advise their practitioners to work different muscles each day instead of doing the same routine daily.   We are also told to limit particularly stressful workouts to once or twice per week.  Some stress is good as it trains the body to handle the load.  But muscles need time to adapt to the changes.  Many of us make the mistake of overtaxing our muscles without allowing them sufficient time to recover.  Even when advised to start slowly and increase gradually, we think this advice doesn’t apply to us.  I’m the first to admit to being guilty on that count.  It has taken many years and lots of mistakes to learn that it isn’t worth pushing the envelope too strongly.   Injury or illness is a high price to pay.  Still it takes practice and constant reminders to keep that message up front.

Some time ago I read the book “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor.  Dr. Taylor is a brain research scientist who suffered a stroke.  Due to her knowledge of how the brain works, she was able to retain a memory of what was transpiring as she experienced the stroke.  The book is about what she learned during that time and her subsequent recovery.  There are many lessons learned from this book, but among them was her emphasis on how important sleep was to her recovery.  Throughout the book she emphasizes the healing powers of sleep.  During my health challenges over the past few years I’ve recalled her words and agree that sleep and rest are as important to healing as any medication.

It’s not easy to keep that thought up front, though.  I’m also well aware that many people have all kinds of trouble sleeping well.  A huge pharmaceutical industry has arisen to address the problem.  There are all sorts of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that getting more sleep is not as simple as it sounds.  Our 24/7 culture is no help either.  Recently I heard the term “time-bullied” referring to how most of us feel like the there is never enough time to do all the things we feel the need to do.  But we sacrifice sleep at our peril.  Like the other 3 “pillars of health”, we need to find a balance, a way to give each of the pillars its due.  Maybe it means a bit more moderation in all things.  Hmmm. . . Where have we heard that concept before?  Simple advice yet so hard to achieve.

Still anyone who has experienced any kind of health challenge knows that life is short.  No matter how well we try to care for ourselves, its length is uncertain.  The tendency to want to maximize our time on earth can be overwhelming.  But there are benefits to being the best we can be for as long as we can manage that.  Quality of life is just as important as length, if not more so. This weekend we were given an extra hour.  Of course, it will be taken away from us in the Spring, but we can deal with that when we get there.  For now, I hope you all used that extra hour to get a little more sleep.  I know I did.  And I still feel like I need a nap.  So I think I’ll stop here and take one!

Finding Your Place In Space

Finding Your Place In Space – Image: Stephanie Meshke

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Recently I heard a story about a meditation teacher addressing a class.  He asked his students to demonstrate how they feel space. Immediately every student raised their hands into the air.  The teacher laughed.  He said, “You don’t need to put your hands in the air.  You are already feeling space.”  Think about it.  Space is all around us.  And not just outside our bodies, but inside our bodies also.

Your body’s ability to sense its position in space is part of what we call “proprioception”.   The term also refers to recognizing the relative position of each limb in relationship to other parts of the body as well as the environment.  Proprioception is important in all movements of the body since it enables us to know where our limbs are in space without having to look.  When I teach chair exercise classes and ask participants to move their feet, everyone looks down.  This always makes me smile.  For most of us, our feet will move whether or not we are watching them.  But somehow we feel the need to help them along by looking.  I often ask my yoga students to close their eyes when standing in Mountain Pose and bring their feet to a parallel position.  Then I’ll ask them to open their eyes and see how they did. Surprisingly most do pretty well!  This demonstrates the ability to sense the position of one’s feet in space and each foot in relation to the other.

Of course, this is not true for everyone.  People with certain neurological conditions may have difficulty with proprioception.  It is also one of those senses that tends to diminish with age.  Several years ago I read a book called “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte-Taylor, a brain researcher who had a stroke.  While she was actually experiencing the stroke she was somehow able to marshal her knowledge of how the brain works and recognize what was happening to her.  The book describes her experience both during the stroke and in recovery.  As the stroke was happening, one of the indicators for her was that she became unable to distinguish where her body ended and other objects began. Every time I trip over something I think of this.  Even though I see the object and should be able to get around it, somehow I lose my ability to recognize where my body ends and the other object begins.  Thus we collide.  As my husband would say, “No – you’re just clumsy”. Point taken.  But I still prefer the other explanation.

Any of you who have ever had nerve damage to a limb will know that one of the goals of physical therapy is to restore functional mobility.  In an article discussing proprioception in physical therapy, author Brett Sears, P.T., describes how different nerve endings in your limbs relay information to your brain about the relative position of your limbs and the direction and speed of movement.  This process enables us to move in space without actually watching the movement.  Think of yourself walking.  Generally, you can move your arms and legs in space without looking at them and also usually manage to keep them from bumping into each other.  When this communication between brain and limb is disturbed, it needs to be retrained if possible.  Most of us understand the need for practicing balance, but proprioception is equally important.  The two senses work together to help us move efficiently.

So how can we work on improving proprioception?  One way is to create balance challenges.  Try standing on one foot.  You may notice that your standing foot starts to wobble.  If you pay attention you may recognize that the part of your foot that is wobbling changes minutely from moment to moment. This is your body adjusting to subtle shifts in your center of gravity.  For example, perhaps you are also moving your arms or maybe without even realizing it your body is tilting forward or back.  As these changes in positioning occur, your proprioception abilities are called upon to help you stabilize.  You will probably not be surprised to learn that both yoga and Pilates help to train your senses to respond to the constant changes occurring as you move through space in normal everyday activities.  These and other mind-body disciplines help practitioners to develop awareness of their bodies in space and the space in their bodies.

Moving through space requires more than just internal control.  We need to be aware of gravity and other forces that impact movement like momentum, uneven surfaces, and elevation changes as well as obstacles in our path.  Pilates in particular focuses on strengthening from your core or center.  Exercises help you to stabilize the center and move from there.  The concept of “oppositional lengthening” is emphasized so that movements from the center are balanced in all directions.  This does require attention and practice.  But as you learn your own body’s individual idiosyncrasies you begin to train your body to become better at making those subtle adjustments enabling you to move more easily through space.

Learning to move from our center can help in other ways as well.  We all know what it’s like to feel “off-center”.  This is usually a sign that we are stressed and losing balance in our lives in general.  Thoughts become scattered and unfocused.  Even routine activities can seem overwhelming.  Our mental muscles and nerves begin to lose their ability to adapt to changing experiences, internal and external.  This can easily translate into physical discomfort as well.  Fortunately, mind-body practices like yoga and Pilates can also help with these feelings. Breathing practices can help bring us back to our center, reminding us of what is really important in our lives.  Coming back to our centers and retraining our brains to adapt to shifting energies both internal and external can help us restore balance and ease as we move through space and through life.

Practicing Balance For Life’s Delicate Dance


Balance is Dance


Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Proponents of practicing yoga and Pilates often stress the ability of these disciplines to improve strength, flexibility and balance.  Frequently I hear people say “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible.” Physical flexibility is often defined as full range of motion within a joint or a series of joints.  Although many of us have lots of flexibility as children, over time due to lifestyle habits such as excessive sitting, driving and many forms of repetitive motion, we begin losing it.  This can create all kinds of problems including chronic pain and joint deterioration.  No amount of yoga or Pilates will give us back everything we’ve lost, but most of us can maintain or even improve our range of motion through practice.  When I started practicing yoga I had the tight hamstrings that are common to most runners.  Forward bends were practically impossible.  My hamstrings are still tight and one side is more flexible than the other but I have greatly improved.  This is attributable simply to practice.  No particular physical skills or attributes on my part.  Just non-judgmental patience and practice.

The same can be said of balance.  Human balance is a complex process that relies on a number of anatomical systems including the senses of touch, vision and inner ear motion sensors.  Your brain has to receive and process this information in real-time and your muscle and joint systems must respond and coordinate appropriate movements.  No wonder balance is so difficult!  In fact, our ability to balance at all is nothing short of miraculous.  Most of us can stand on our feet and even walk which actually involves a lot of balance.  Still, just like with flexibility, I hear people say, “My balance is terrible.”

A commonly held belief is that our ability to balance declines as we age.  This is not strictly true, but balance disorders are more common among older people due to various diseases or injuries that take their toll through the years.  As with flexibility, though, balance can be improved through practice.  Medical intervention may be required for the treatment of specific disorders, but most generally healthy adults regardless of age can improve their balance.  In fact, it becomes more critical to focus on balance improvement as we age in order to avoid falls which can become very dangerous.

The ability to maintain balance impacts more than just our physical mobility.  The word “balance” comes from the Latin word “balare” which means to dance.  Anyone who has ever stood on one foot in Tree Pose can understand this derivation.  Your standing foot is in constant motion, internally and externally, requiring minute shifts of the body to maintain equilibrium.  Recently I heard an analogy made to surfing. To me this seems like the ultimate example of responding to subtle changes while staying centered.  One thing that helps with these tiny adjustments is attention.  In balance poses, we are often instructed to find a focal point and concentrate our energy to help maintain the stillness required. It is also important to stay relaxed and to breathe.  Many people hold their breath when trying to balance.  This creates tension which undermines balance.  rhythmic breathing helps the body to relax and adapt to stressors.  Accommodating the dance of balance is difficult enough, but if your attention is diverted it becomes almost impossible.  When people tell me they have fallen or injured themselves, the cause is often traceable to not paying attention.

Sometimes, too, the transition between stillness and movement can be as demanding of our attention as holding our balance.  Perhaps even more so.  Recognizing when to be still and when to move requires that all of the contributing anatomical systems maintain an awareness of what is actually happening in the moment – where your body is in space and in relation to the objects around it and the surfaces it rests on. When you reflect on all that goes into it, it becomes understandable that mindful movement can really help.

The practice of paying attention and being mindful can translate into other aspects of our lives.  Physically, we have two sides – left and right. But we also have a front and back and lower and upper bodies.  There are internal systems and external systems.  Light and dark, day and night, yin and yang.  Each of us is an individual but we are also part of a whole – a family, a community, a country, our planet, the universe. We all also harbor contradictory tendencies within ourselves – positive and negative thoughts and feelings, tendencies toward fight or flight, fear and confidence, hard and soft, etc.  Figuring out how to balance our own inner conflicts and confusion is an enormous challenge. Balance is a lot more than our ability to stand on one foot.  Handling all of this requires coordination of many more systems.  Sometimes we have control over some aspects of these systems, but mostly we have no control.  Stuff happens.  Still similar principles can apply. Maintaining presence in the moment, focusing attention on conditions as they arise and change, adapting to those changes without losing our equilibrium and the values we cherish, assessing each shift and remaining open to all possibilities these are not easy tasks.

Once again practice helps.  But practice does not mean perfect.  There are many times our better nature can be overrun by the tidal wave of emotions in a given moment.  This doesn’t make us bad or faulty but if we can learn from our faults and failings and practice behaving differently, we can begin to experience some sense of equilibrium.  When people say to me “I’m not flexible” or “My balance is lousy” or “My mind is too noisy to focus”, I often reply, “That makes you just like everyone else”.  We all tend to think our abilities and tendencies, or lack thereof, are unique and unusual.  But all humans are coping with challenges.  There is a saying, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” We as humans seem to have a natural desire to want to make order out of chaos find the stillness of peace.  We seek predictability, order and unity.  Disorders of all types, both mental and physical, can subvert this tendency and turn it upside down.  Those of us with the ability to practice mindfulness have a gift.  We need to value that gift and find compassion for those unwilling or unable to make that choice.  This is where the third leg of the yoga/Pilates stool comes in – the quality of strength.  Building strength, inner and outer, can help us to stay mindful and make the right choice even when it’s difficult.

This week we’ve seen some tragic examples of chaos in our world.  But this week is not unique.  Every day there is violence, despair, misunderstanding, fear and hatred.  Perhaps it’s time for all of us to acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining balance, take a collective deep breath and try to recognize that “everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”  There is no perfect solution, but we can all improve with practice.  As with any practice, the hardest part is starting.