Moving Past Pain

On my walk this morning I ran into a friend I had not seen for some time.  She seemed to be walking well, but I knew she had foot surgery within the last year or so and I asked how she was doing.  “It’s still challenging,” she said, “I still experience neuropathy, but I’ve learned what I can do.  When I first get going it’s tough, but if I just give myself some time to warm up and let my muscles loosen, it’s manageable.” When I saw her she had been out walking for about 30 minutes and found that she was now moving well with little discomfort.  She said, “I’m finding that I really can do pretty much anything I want to do as long as a take my time and have a little patience.”

That morning I had been feeling pretty stiff myself.  In this blog I don’t talk about it much, but I’m still adapting to the changes brought about by cancer treatment in 2014.  Chemo left me with several problems, among them neuropathies of my own.  My feet and legs have changed. The brand of running shoes I wore for years no longer work for me.  For the past two years I’ve been experimenting with different brands and models.  I thought I had finally solved that problem, but this morning I found myself questioning that choice as well.  New pains have begun to assail my legs and before I saw my friend it had occurred to me that I should probably begin the search for shoes again.  My legs were feeling particularly achy.  I even began to think about taking some ibuprofen, something I rarely do these days because of other issues that have developed following chemo.

After encountering my friend I thought, well maybe I’ll wait 20 minutes and see if I still have the pain.  I am a total believer in her practice of moving through the discomfort for a while in hopes it will change.  So I shortened my stride, slowed down a bit and within another 15 minutes or so the pain began to subside.  When I left my house, I told myself that I would only walk a short distance today but I found that I was able to go much further than anticipated and stayed reasonably pain-free for most of it.  There were occasional twinges, but if I distracted myself with the scenery, for example, I would realize that the sensation had passed by the time my attention returned to it.

The point of all of this is that sometimes we have to work through the pain.  When we’re hurting all of our energy seems to focus like a laser beam on our misery.  In a recent article  in Tricycle magazine the author, Daisy Hernandez, who was suffering from her own encounter with chronic pain that defied diagnosis, referred to the teaching of the two arrows:  “An arrow hits you and there’s pain. The second arrow is the story we tell ourselves about the first arrow. I’m a loser. This always happens to me. Why me?”  She goes on to say, “The thing about illness is that in addition to its being a series of impermanent and heightened sensations, it is a story that contains many stories.”  We can easily become obsessed with our misfortunes and let them take over our lives.  You might have noticed the reference to illness as “impermanent sensations”.  Surprisingly, even in the case of chronic illnesses, the sensations never stay the same.  They come and go, morph and change – just like everything else in life.  Sometimes we even make friends with these sensations, even cling to them.  They become such a part of us that letting them go means we just might cease to exist.  But if you pay attention, you’ll notice that nothing stays the same.

It may be that even when the pain changes, it might not completely go away, especially when the source is unknown.  We may have no control over how it manifests.  But we create the stories ourselves.  So we also have the power to change them.  In her piece Ms. Hernandez quotes another author, David Loy:  “As David Loy writes in his enchanting book The World Is Made of Stories: ‘To see stories as the problem is to blame the victim. Instead of getting rid of stories one can liberate them: storying more flexibly, according to the situation.’ ”  This sentiment is echoed in an article  by Valerie Sjoberg on the Chopra Center’s website.  She writes about “rebuilding your story of pain” turning it around into something positive.  That might seem like a tall order.  But it’s one more opportunity for practice.  The practice Ms. Sjoberg suggests:  “Catch any negative thought tendencies and choose to spin your experience of pain into a positive story. A positive outlook can help reduce unnecessary suffering and may even provide space for your body to heal.”  Yup – easier said than done.  But it can’t hurt to try it out.  If it doesn’t work the first time, don’t give up.  Keep trying. That’s what practice means.

Back to my walk today.  So many of us are daunted by the obstacles of illness and pain.  We think, “I can’t do the things I want to do because it hurts too much and I feel too lousy.”  However, just as my friend related sometimes you just have to work through the pain to get past it.  It may seem impossible at first but if you keep trying you just might find that your pain begins to change and maybe you can get a little bit further than you were able to yesterday or last week.  This is a perfect time of year for this type of practice.  Look around and notice the angle of the sun and the color of the leaves.  Today I walked by a field where the haying has begun.  I watched the machines piling up the grass and then pulling it together to make a bale.  Breathing in the smell of freshly mowed grass it was hard to remember that I wasn’t feeling all that great. That’s a good place to start if you want to spin a new story.  Watch the birds.  Listen to their songs.  There  is still much beauty to observe in the world.  If you spend your time focussing on your own suffering you’ll miss it.

And if walking outside is not your thing, you can always take a class and bring your movement indoors.  The same concepts still apply:  warm up slowly and be gentle and compassionate with yourself.  That’s right – treat yourself with the same compassion that you often reserve for others.  Illness and pain can be isolating.  We tend to feel like we are alone with our suffering.  We wrap ourselves in a blanket of self-pity. But this makes me think of the famous saying “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”  Everybody has problems.  No one is exempt.  As Ms. Sjoberg writes: “Developing compassion doesn’t just apply to yourself—it can extend to your interaction with others. Everyone is experiencing their own suffering. Give them some love. It may help them in their healing, too.”

Bottom line: get moving!  You can do it.  Take it slow.  But you are more than your pain, whatever it is.  Allow the rest of you to shine through.

The Power of Community

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Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

The power of community is both humbling and inspiring.  Each of us has our own special individual gifts to offer the world.  But when we join those gifts together an energy is created by the group that can be greater than the capacity of the individual parts.

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of participating in the inaugural edition of the South Dakota Yoga Conference.  We live in a rural state with a low population scattered over a large geographic area.  Yet the human resources available here are world-class. Presenters with expertise in a wide variety of mind-body disciplines came from all over the state to gather with a group of enthusiastic attendees from multiple states.  There were an amazing 33 sessions available over two full days.  The variety of topics and expertise of the presenters made it difficult to choose among them.  In the end all choices were good.  A total win-win for everyone!  In the past I’ve attended national conferences with “name-brand” yoga teachers.  This quality event was every bit as impressive as any of those – maybe even better since it was right in my own back yard.  No planes or passports required.  Dates for next year’s conference have already been set (last weekend in July 2017) so mark your calendars!

If you are reading this blog from outside South Dakota, take heart.  Of course, you are welcome to come here and attend also.  But if that is not possible for you, my point about community is that it can be found anywhere.  Sometimes where you least expect it.  This conference was conceived by three friends who saw the need and took the chance that others would recognize that need.  They are 3 fabulous and energetic ladies (Scottie Bruch, Jillian Anawaty and Cheri Isaacson) but I’m sure they won’t mind me saying that they have no particular special powers.  What they do have is a passion for spreading yoga and all related health promoting and life enhancing practices.  My point is that any of us is capable to putting together a community.  It requires a passion for learning and sharing and a willingness to take that first dangerous step into the unknown.  When these women began this quest, they did not know what the outcome would be.  But they believed in the concept and in the power of community.  Wonder or wonders the community responded!  A call for presenters was put out and the rest is history.

There was a preliminary session at the conference which was open to all current or aspiring yoga teachers and anyone else interested in participating in this gathering.  This became an opportunity for us to share challenges, successes and ideas with others engaged in both similar and different pursuits.  Here in the Black Hills we are fortunate to have a wonderfully supportive and close-knit yoga community yet we have never had an opportunity like this before.  The seed has now been planted so the possibility exists for something else of value to grow from this experience.

Even though many of us are in different work and/or life situations, it was interesting to see how much we could each benefit from the experience of others. This is actually not such a surprising result.  In fact, it is yet another benefit of community.  We learn that others are going through or have gone through similar situations to our own.  It’s easy to feel isolated in today’s world where so many of the institutions we used to rely on are no longer working.  Our society often places a value on being independent. We perpetuate the myth that we should all be capable of solving our own problems. Yet human beings are by nature social creatures who are drawn to groups.  As the song says, “no man is an island”.  The fact is we all rely on others in many ways whether or not we realize it. When you become isolated, you might feel like your thoughts or problems are unique and insurmountable.  It can be so comforting to learn that you are not alone. By becoming part of a group you may be surprised to find that there are others who are or have been where you are and can show you by example that change is possible.

There are opportunities for community everywhere.  Anyone feeling lost or alone can look for them.  Or create one yourself based on your own passions and interests. It may surprise you to find that there are others out there who share your interests.  Whatever you have learned will be different from what they have learned so the sharing can begin.  All that’s required is an open mind and a willingness to take a chance. If you’re afraid to join an existing group, give it a try.  If it doesn’t work out the first time, try again.  Maybe try a different group.  Don’t give up. Keep trying.  You never know when the right circumstances will arise.

Time for yourself has its value and everyone needs to be alone sometimes.  But community can be a magical and powerful force capable of transforming lives.  Keep your mind and heart open and release your expectations.  Just let it unfold organically without trying to force it.  The result may be totally different from what you thought might happen but you may just get what you need.

Stretching – A Beneficial Exercise

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Photo: Pixabay

Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Over the many years I’ve been involved in the fitness industry I’ve seen different theories and recommendations regarding stretching. Certain questions like “Should I stretch before or after exercise?” or “Should stretching be static (not moving) or dynamic (incorporating motion)?” have at times been a source of controversy.  Often practitioners swear by their particular choices whether or not research supports them. Being a firm believer that what works for one may not work for everyone, I would never argue with anyone who benefits from whatever regimen works for them even if it isn’t something I would necessarily recommend.  We are all an experiment of one and we each need to find our own best practice.  But each of us still needs to keep an open mind since everything, including our bodies, is constantly changing.

Fortunately, recent years have seen considerably more interest among researchers in conducting well-designed studies examining which exercise and movement strategies work best for certain populations.  With chronic illness on the rise, it is no accident that the medical community is seeking new solutions for patients whose medication options may be limited or even ineffective. Health care costs are also increasing so any intervention which is low-cost and effective is worth investigating.

One such study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association for Internal Medicine found that stretching and yoga were both helpful in easing low-back pain among chronic sufferers.  This has been a particularly problematic condition since many of the current recommended treatments have not been highly effective.  Researchers noted that, “Self-management strategies, like exercise, are particularly appealing because they are relatively safe, inexpensive, and accessible and may have beneficial effects on health beyond those for back pain.” Although the results in this study showed comparable benefits from both yoga and general stretching classes, yoga showed a slight edge.  Researchers thought this might be “because [yoga] includes a mental component that could enhance the benefits of its physical components”.  This makes sense to me because an important aspect of yoga practice is learning to pay attention to how your body works and, perhaps more importantly, coordinating breath with movement.  Breathing techniques are a key aspect of yoga instruction that are not often emphasized in typical stretching or even physical therapy techniques.  Participants in a third group in this study were given a book on the causes of back pain and advice on treatment.  Both the yoga and stretching groups improved significantly more than this self-directed group. This result led me to wonder if the benefits of group participation and instructor-led classes also contributed to the positive outcome. Researchers did not highlight this possibility, but these are two pretty powerful ingredients.  Perhaps future studies will dig into that possibility.

It is thought that one aspect of aging is a slow process of dehydration that can manifest as arthritis and impediments to certain metabolic processes.  One of the goals of yoga and other types of stretching is to hydrate the tissues by increasing the blood flow in the target areas. These practices also help to relieve tension in overworked muscles, joints and connective tissue.  According to the Mayo Clinic the top 5 benefits of stretching include:

  • Increased flexibility and joint range of motion:
    Flexible muscles can improve your daily performance. Tasks such as lifting packages, bending to tie your shoes or hurrying to catch a bus become easier and less tiring. Flexibility tends to diminish as you get older, but you can regain and maintain it.
  • Improved circulation:
    Stretching increases blood flow to your muscles. Blood flowing to your muscles brings nourishment and gets rid of waste byproducts in the muscle tissue. Improved circulation can help shorten your recovery timeif you’ve had any muscle injuries.
  • Better posture: Frequent stretching can help keep your muscles from getting tight, allowing you to maintain proper posture.  Good posture can minimize discomfort and keep aches and pains at a minimum.
  • Stress relief:
    Stretching relaxes tight, tense muscles that often accompany stress.
  • Enhanced coordination:
    Maintaining the full range-of-motion through your joints keeps you in better balance. Coordination and balance will help keep you mobile and less prone to injury from falls, especially as you get older.”

Recent recommendations suggest that it is no longer advisable to stretch before exercise.  This is something I have long advocated. It is preferable for muscles to be warm before stretching.  There is less danger of injury from over-stretching.  Five or 10 minutes of easy movements that begin to raise your heart rate, like walking before running or simply moving arms and legs rhythmically, can effectively prepare your body for some gentle stretching.  Having said that, I also realize that there are many people who experience pain upon waking up in the morning.  This can be caused by lack of movement during the night causing stiffness.  In that case, some gentle stretches can be beneficial even before getting out of bed.  The key here is GENTLE.  Take it slow and breathe.  Some examples of simple stretches that can be done while still in bed include:

  • Reaching arms overhead for a full body stretch;
  • Bending one knee at a time and drawing the knee towards your chest, let the other leg rest on the bed; repeat a few times;
  • Keeping one knee bent above your hip, use your hand to gently take that knee back and forth from one side to the other and then hold over the straight leg;
  • Roll to one side and press up to seated on the edge of the bed.  Lift shoulders up to your ears and then down a few times
  • Bring your elbows in front of you at shoulder height and open your arms to the side and then bring them back to the front few times;
  • Stretch one leg out in front of you, keep the other knee bent with foot on the floor, then lean forward slightly; change legs;
  • Flex and point your toes; make small ankle circles;
  • Once standing, reach arms overhead and press up.

There are many variations you can add to this routine like leaning from one side to the other (hold on to something stable), gentle twists from side to side, etc.  Just remember to take it SLOW.  In our world, where hurrying seems to be valued it is often difficult for us to just slow down.  The benefits of stretching are often best experienced when stretches are held for at least 30 seconds. Sometimes moving slowly in and out of a stretch before holding can help prepare your body to release tension. While holding the stretch try scanning your body to see where you might be holding tension.  Then try using deep breaths to help release that tension wherever it exists anywhere in your body.  This will help you to relax, increase your sense of well-being and may even reduce muscle fatigue giving you more stamina.  Part of the practice is learning to enjoy this experience.  And, as frequently noted in this blog, it is a practice.  The more you engage with consistency, the more you will benefit.  If you need help or advice, try attending a gentle yoga class or consulting a physical therapist.  Incorporating yoga or any type of stretching into your daily routine will increase your flexibility in many ways.  Give it a try and then keep at it.

Practicing Balance For Life’s Delicate Dance

 

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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.

Better Days

 

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Better Days

Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Every day is different. Even people living a completely ritualized existence will need to acknowledge this fact.  If nothing else, think about weather.  There may be places on earth where the weather is the same every day, but I doubt it.  Even if you live alone in the woods you are still part of an ecosystem that is in a constant state of flux. None of us is exempt from external influences.  We are all interconnected in this way.  Each of us is just a small part of a larger whole where we frequently find ourselves being impacted by circumstances beyond our control. This can be a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view.

Some of us welcome change.  These folks are constantly seeking something different and may even get bored or restless when things seem to stay the same for too long.  Others (and this is most of us) hate change, resisting even the smallest manifestations.  We like consistency because it gives us a sense of predictability reinforcing our illusion of control.  If we believe we can rely on things as they are, we don’t have to fear the unknown.  This fear is really just anxiety that we won’t be able to handle whatever changes occur in the future.

Despite this sense of anxiety there is not a single person among us who can look back through their lives and not see evidence of an ability to handle change.  We’ve all faced changes at some point in our lives regardless of our age.  In fact, small children change on a daily basis and usually manage to adapt.  As we age, we may become more invested in the status quo.  Yet we can still find even more examples of accepting change.  We may have been dragged kicking and screaming into a different scenario from the one we were used to, but still most of us find a way eventually to see things as they are and adjust.  Sometimes change brings hidden blessings which may not be recognized immediately but might become evident in hindsight.  Looking back can sometimes help us move forward when change is required.

Sometimes change is forced on us for one reason or another.  At other times the status quo itself is causing our suffering and we need to create our own change.  This can be difficult.  Inertia is a powerful force.  Also, just as changes in the world impact our own personal lives, so changes we make to our personal lives can impact the lives of others.  This doesn’t make those changes good or bad, right or wrong.  But it does help to remember that all decisions have consequences, some unexpected and unanticipated.  Being willing to accept and deal with the consequences whatever they are is one of the characteristics of resilience.  This is a quality defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”  You may have heard the saying “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” Resilience is one of the traits that help us deal with the pain without buying into the suffering.

So what does all of this have to do with yoga, Pilates or exercise in general, my usual themes?  Basically it’s this – since each day is different and change is all around us all of the time, our practice can be impacted.  One of the many benefits of practice is that it helps us to deal with stress.  Practice can be an anchor in a raging sea of change.  There can be a comfort in the experience of simple breath and movement.  One of the things I often tell students is that if you really focus on connecting breath and movement there is usually no room in your head for anything else.  This can provide a brief respite from the ills of the world.  In fact, practice might help you to remember that in this moment right now there is still a lot that is OK.  We as humans seem to naturally gravitate to noticing what’s wrong more often than what is right. Those of you who take my classes know that at the end of each class I always offer gratitude for being able to move and breathe.  This is something I learned from yoga teacher Seane Corn and I am grateful to her for passing on that tip.  It has served me well.

Another consequence of daily changes is that some days are better than others physically as well as mentally.  As we get older, we tend to focus on the negative aspects of these feelings, but they are not limited to older people.  Everyone has days when they feel like they could conquer the world and other days when staying in bed seems like the only option.  On days like that it helps to remember that practice can be a source of comfort.  If you take classes regular, the group can also be a support.  Just like you feel differently on some days, your practice can be different, too.  If you’re not feeling terribly energetic or if you are bogged down by some difficulty, don’t blow off your practice. Instead allow it to change just as you are changing.  Be gentle.  Take it slow.  Don’t work so hard.  Bend your knees more.  Try using an extra blanket or other prop to make it less stressful.  Or just take Child’s Pose and breathe whenever you feel like it. You can also just completely avoid poses that are painful or difficult.  Or use modifications even if that’s something you rarely do.  There are no expectations you need to live up to. Your practice is for you alone.  There may be a benefit to others due to the effects of your practice on you, but that’s not the point.  The ultimate goal is for you to take care of yourself.  So just for today whatever will help you do that is the right thing to do.  Tomorrow will be different.

Exercise! A Little Goes a Long Way

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Easy Does It.

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

This blog has been touting the benefits of exercise since its inception.  Any of you who have ever been involved in marketing know that repetition is the key to getting your message to penetrate.  As a movement evangelist I agree with the importance of driving that message home.  So here is another round of research that not only reinforces how important it is to keep moving but also shows that even a little can have significant results.

For those of you who are concerned that exercise might be dangerous, a clinical perspective published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology indicates that “even small amounts of physical activity are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease”. “The evidence with regard to exercise continues to unfold and educate the cardiovascular clinical community,” said JACC Editor-in-Chief Valentin Fuster, M.D., Ph.D. “The greatest benefit is to simply exercise, regardless of the intensity . . .”.  The article does make mention of the problems that can occur when trying to be too intense too soon without proper preparation.  So often I see people who try to go from zero to maximum in an effort to make up for lost time.  Perhaps they are thinking of what they “should” be able to do instead of accepting where they are right now.   Then they wonder why they get injured or worse decide that they can’t exercise after all.  Unfortunately, we can’t change the past.  What used to be is gone.  But we can start today to change the way we feel right now.

It turns out that it is not necessary to run a marathon or climb Mt. Everest to experience health improvements.  Recent studies show that exercise in lower intensities still significantly lowers disease risk.  So the best advice is still to start slow and gradually increase, especially if it has been a while since you’ve done any regular moving at all. Increases can be made in a variety of ways:  time spent moving or movement intensity such as distance, speed or difficulty.  Only one of these factors should be increased at any one time. Then the body needs time to adjust to each increase before adding anything new.  If you keep this moderate movement in mind and continue to remind yourself that any movement is better than no movement, perhaps you can control the urge to do too much too soon.  This applies to all forms of movement including yoga and Pilates.  There are modifications for all moves so that new participants can start slow.  The trick is to listen to your own body, focus on your own needs and ignore what you see anyone else doing.  Regular practice will enable your body to adapt and at your own pace you will begin to notice improvements.

In addition to the heart health benefits, the mind-body connection is also increasingly demonstrating how important physical movement is for brain health.  Contrary to long held beliefs, our brains are capable of forming new pathways throughout our lives – even as we age.  In an article from Boston University Medical Center researchers found “that higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness were associated with enhanced brain structure in older adults. . .”  Corresponding author Scott Hayes, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and the associate director of the Neuroimaging Research for Veterans Center at the VA Boston Healthcare System, noted that “physical activities that enhance cardiorespiratory fitness such as walking, are inexpensive, accessible and could potentially improve quality of life by delaying cognitive decline and prolonging independent function.”  Another study, also dealing with physical activity and brain health, further reinforces these findings.  “Our study provides the strongest evidence to date that fitness in an older adult population can have substantial benefits to brain health in terms of the functional connections of different regions of the brain,” said Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer.  Michelle Voss, who led that study while a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, further noted that “the benefits of fitness seem to occur within the low-to-moderate range of endurance, suggesting that the benefits of fitness for the brain may not depend on being extremely fit.”  More evidence that a little movement is all you need.

The best news is that the medical profession is finally beginning to get the message.  A recent article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal provides a “How-to Guide for Prescribing Exercise for Chronic Health Conditions”.  The article notes that “Exercise helps to alleviate the symptoms of many chronic health conditions such as knee osteoarthritis, low back pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, heart disease and more, yet it is often overlooked as a treatment.”  “Many doctors and their patients aren’t aware that exercise is a treatment for these chronic conditions and can provide as much benefit as drugs or surgery, and typically with fewer harms,” states lead author Dr. Tammy Hoffmann, Centre for Research in Evidence-Based Practice, Bond University, Robina, Australia.  Some examples of the chronic conditions that can benefit from exercise include osteoarthritis of the knee and hip, low back pain and prevention of falls.  In particular, movements that aid in improving muscle strength, range of motion, coordination, and balance are mentioned as some of the interventions that can help with these and other conditions.

As you know, Pilates and yoga specialize in practicing these types of movements.  So doesn’t it make sense to give movement a try?  It costs less than doctors visits, medication or surgery.  All it takes is an investment of time and a commitment to practice.  As noted above, you don’t need to be an expert or even an athlete to get started.  You can start where ever you are.  If you can move at all, there is something you can do. Make a decision to be kind to yourself and take it slow.  If you are already following a medical protocol you should, of course, check with your medical professional before starting any program.  But try asking before you assume that you are incapable of exercise or that it won’t help you.  You’ll never know until you try.

Time For a Change

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By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

This week I attended a seminar on Successful Behavior Change presented by Mary Ann Hodorowicz.  Although this talk was primarily aimed at clinical educators much of it was applicable to anyone attempting to change behavior for one reason or another.  For example, suppose you recognize that you need to exercise more.  Perhaps your doctor has suggested that this is necessary to improve your health.  Or maybe you used to exercise regularly but got out of the habit due to illness, injury or just life interferences.  You know you felt better when exercise was part of your life but you’ve been away so long and so much has changed that you lack the confidence to jump back in.

Whatever the reason and regardless of your good intentions, changing one’s behavior can be difficult.  There are so many obstacles along the path. Family or job obligations, weather, time constraints, physical limitations, fatigue, depression or just plain inertia – all of these and more can conspire to keep you from moving forward.  You end up telling yourself that you just can’t change and it’s pointless to try.  Sound familiar?  Here are some ideas that might help you break this negative cycle.

The first step toward making any kind of change in your life is accepting that the change is important to you.  This means making a decision. Changing anything necessarily means letting go of something and replacing it with something else.  This involves a loss of some type.  Loss is difficult so a choice needs to be made.  The thing you’re giving up might be time, for example, or an extra half-hour of sleep.  Maybe you will need to ask someone else for help so that you can make the time.  Sometimes that’s a tricky proposition requiring some risk of rejection.  Or maybe you just don’t like having to ask for help so the loss is your pride.  You already know what’s standing in your way, now look at the reasons why you want to make the change. How much do you value the thing you’re giving up?  What are the benefits of the new behavior? For example, regular exercise has to potential to improve your mood, reduce your stress levels, give you more energy so you can accomplish more, make mobility and simple tasks easier, reduce pain, etc.  In fact, the benefits may extend beyond yourself.  You might actually find that those around you experience benefits as well.  When your quality of life improves, everyone around you benefits.  Try making a list of potentially positive results and weighing it against whatever you might think you’re losing.  See if this helps to motivate you.

Making the decision is a big step, but then you have to follow through.  This can be tough, too.  One thing that might help is to ease into it. In the years when I was running ultramarathons there were many slogans we used to stay motivated.  One was “start slow and back off”.  This was an acknowledgement that we all start off too fast.  In order to complete an ultramarathon one needs to have the stamina and endurance to go the distance.  It helps to have a long-term mind set for the long range process.  In many ways, behavior change is like a marathon.  It is a lifetime process.  If you try to do too much at once, you will likely get discouraged and burn out or quit.  Just like the proverbial tortoise and hare, slow and steady wins the race.  Remember – you did not get where you are overnight.  It will take a consistent committment to get you back on track.

At this point it helps to let go of expectations.  Forget what you used to do or think you should be able to do.  In fact, drop the word “should” from your vocabulary. There is no “should do” there is only “can do”.  That means celebrate what you can do right now in this moment.  If it means you can walk for 5 minutes or you try the first few movements of an exercise in a class before taking a rest, that’s fine!  It’s a start. Everyone has to start somewhere.  Starting is the important part.  This is a process that you want to be able to maintain long term.  The outcomes will become apparent over time and they may be totally different from what you initially thought.  You may find additional benefits that were not in your original list.  For example, if you decide to try classes you may discover the social benefits of exercising with a group.  As you begin to gain skill you may even surprise yourself by finding out that you actually like exercising.  At that point you will find that keeping the change in our life is not so difficult anymore. Even if you don’t like every movement, you will enjoy the benefits.  When obstacles arise, resistance will be easier to overcome.

If you are still grappling with how to implement changes you know you need to make in your life, a reality check may be necessary. You can stay in denial, refusing to accept that the change is important to your quality of life. You can also waste a lot of time waiting for the right moment.  So many times I hear people say, “As soon as (fill in the blank) is over I will start exercising.” Or “I need to get in shape first and then I’ll come to a class”.  These are all excuses.  When you run out of excuses it can actually be a relief to simply accept reality and make the effort of choose change.  It will require some thought and planning, but showing up is half the battle.  Once you’ve made the decision take that first scary step.  Then add another step and another.  Before you know it, you will be on your way to implementing that change and making it a part of your life.  That’s something you can really feel good about!

Yes – Yoga is for You!

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Peace and Freedom

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

As a strong advocate of yoga for all, I am somewhat disturbed by the proliferation of images that portray yoga as more like gymnastics than the cultivation of a mind/body connection.  Yoga was originally developed as a contemplative practice to assist with the physical demands of seated meditation.  Somewhere along the line certain branches of the practice have taken a turn to the athletic.  In fact there has been a movement in recent years to make yoga a competitive sport.  This is fine for some. Unfortunately, however, this tends to intimidate people who think they are too old or infirm or inflexible or whatever to do yoga.  That, of course, is completely untrue.  One does not need to be flexible to do yoga. Although yoga will not alter genes or inherent physical attributes, it can improve flexibility and encourage greater mobility in regular practitioners.  Fortunately, there is also a growing segment of the yoga community that is advancing the practice of yoga as therapy, expanding on its roots as an inner as well as outer practice.

The keys to experiencing the benefits of yoga, both physically and mentally, are letting go of expectations and maintaining a consistent practice.  It is entirely possible that you will never be able to touch your toes in a forward fold.  But here’s a revelation – it doesn’t matter!  If you practice forward folds consistently, they will become more comfortable and you will experience their benefits.  These include calming the nervous system, quieting the mind, and helping to relieve stress and anxiety. Forward bends also stretch the hamstrings and calves, notoriously tight areas for most of us that can lead to additional problems in the hips, knees and lower back.  And now for another revelation: according to a Yoga Journal article by long time yoga teacherBaxter Bell “90% of people [need help] doing [forward bends] safely”.  So if forward bends are a problem for you, you are certainly not alone.  This is what props are for.  Using props is not a sign of weakness.  It is a sign of self-love, self-compassion and finding the joy that accompanies true acceptance of reality.   Remember also that today’s reality is transient just like everything else.  So accepting and accommodating the reality of today doesn’t have to mean forever.  Just for today practice they way that feels best for you.  That may change tomorrow.  Or it may not.  But today is the most important day.  It deserves your attention.

It doesn’t help that we live in a culture that does not value aging.  Youth is celebrated to the extent that we are constantly bombarded with images that implore us to deny the natural – and inescapable – reality of changing physical bodies.  Instead we are encouraged to follow the next great product or procedure to the impossibility of eternal youth.  We find ourselves falling into the trap of denying reality and living with the false hope that we can avoid change or return to some magical time when everything was perfect.  It’s amazing what hindsight allows us to believe.  The fact is that just by virtue of having lived longer than younger people we have accumulated a certain amount of wisdom simply through experience.  Sometimes the noise of the youth culture becomes so overwhelming that we, too, forget to value this wisdom.  Here are some quotes from one of the founders of modern yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar:

“Do not look at others’ bodies with envy or with superiority.  All people are born with different constitutions.  Never compare with others.  Each one’s capacities are a function of his or her internal strength.  Know your capacities and continually improve upon them.”

“Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement. . .”

Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance recently completed a study titled2016 Yoga in America.  Highlights include documentation of the increase in yoga participation throughout the U.S. even in remote and rural areas.  This is not exactly big news to most of us, but some of the statistics are surprising. Among them, more men are practicing yoga.  Also the number of participants aged 55 and older has increased by a whopping 10 million people in the 4 years since 2012 (from 4 million in 2012 to 14 million in 2016).  The article anticipates that this population “may usher in a wave of softer and more meditative practices.”  Fortunately, this is already happening.  Those of you who are lumping all yoga classes into some broad category of sun salutations and arm balances would do well to take a second look.  Most studios offer a variety of classes.  Check out the descriptions or speak with an instructor before making assumptions about what you can and can’t do.  The study also points to the increase in the number of trained yoga teachers.  For every current teacher, there are 2 more who are training to be teachers. This means that there is a choice in teachers.  So if you try a class and don’t like it, my first suggestion is to try again.  Everyone has a bad day and your own anxiety could have been part of your judgment.  If you still don’t like the class, try a different teacher.  American yoga has greatly expanded on the original methods of yoga that came from India.  Today there are so many styles and teachers bring many different backgrounds and interests to their classes.  So don’t give up.  With a little patience and persistence you will likely find a practice that works for you.

Finally, the study cites all of the benefits enjoyed by yoga practitioners.  These include a more positive self-image, increased likelihood to be active in other ways, relief of stress and overall health improvement.  Those who take classes also have the benefit of community.  So if you are new or returning to yoga after an absence, be kind to yourself.  Let the past go.  Just for today, accept where you’re at right now.  Don’t try to push yourself beyond your capacity.  Pay attention to your own body and listen to what it is telling you.  Use props and make adjustments as needed.  And accept support.  Ask your teacher for help with whatever accommodations you might need.  Don’t compare yourself to anyone else.  Regardless of what you think your poses look like, you are a real yogi just like all other practitioners.  Relax and enjoy!  You, too, deserve the benefits of yoga.