Exercise Physiology, Posture & Breath: Being a Total Halfwit, what would I know?
If you don’t know my background, let me fill you in. More than 20 years ago now, after 15 or so years of dabbling in Yoga now and then, loving the idea, but not quite able to commit, I met my fabulous teacher in a local hall in Newtown (1998). I never looked back. Simon Borg-Olivier now (or usually!) teaches all over the world. He is a physiotherapist who also has degrees in Maths and Molecular Biology. Simon co-wrote the Master of Wellness Program with Professor Marc Cohen (another learned Yogi) for RMIT University and is very much a super-brain. He is a true Yogi; a man I admire greatly for his incredible knowledge and generous teaching. I feel extremely honoured and lucky to have him in my life as a mentor and “guru”!
Prior to having kids and over the past 10 years, I attended Simon’s annual Intensive Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga, face-to-face nine-day workshops, and sometimes his annual Yoga Therapy workshops. This year neither happened of course, but we are connected remotely and I get to enjoy a lecture on everything health and Yoga every single week.
Like many parents, I feel like I have lost the battle somewhat with my kids living their lives online. It’s the new normal so what can be done? For me, it’s always been about the postural issues and longterm physical and physiological effects associated with lots of sitting as well as walking around staring at IPads looking like a tortoise. It’s just not possible to use any device for any amount of time in a way that is ergonomically sound.
Recently, my son was complaining of being tired. There are many stressors for the older kids at the moment including exams, lots of travel to get to school and early starts. But, knowing how a stiff neck can make you feel fatigued, I wondered if a chiropractic adjustment might help. Predictably perhaps, the chiro ordered some X-rays.
As soon as I saw the X-rays, I cringed at the scoliosis. In fact, his spine looked exactly the same as mine! I also know though, that X-rays do not tell the whole story. Some people will have awful looking pathology and no symptoms, while others with perfect looking Xrays and scans suffer from chronic pain that seems to be inexplicable. The point being, we should all take X-rays with a pinch of salt (unless there is a broken bone!) My son doesn’t have a sore back particularly – at least not yet. I knew the issue wasn’t one to fret about, but more about a management plan. Every “body” needs a healthy spine and a preventative exercise program to help reduce stiffness, degeneration and weakness in the long term. Our online and chair-bound lifestyle means this is increasingly important.
Treatments are fabulous for back and neck relief, but I didn’t see the point in committing to an expensive twice-weekly plan for a structural issue that cannot be fixed. I believe prescriptive exercise is the best option. Consequently, I sought another opinion with a well-respected, local exercise physiologist (who, thankfully, pretty much confirmed absolutely everything I have just stated above!).
He noted that due to weakness in the lower back (lifestyle and the pathology no doubt) there was an unhealthy reliance on the gluteal muscles which are over-active. I also brought the physio’s attention to what I felt wasn’t just a teenager’s six-pack. but actually- chronic tension in his abdomen. He felt this was probably due to the same thing. Back muscles not activating and thus other big muscles compensating.
Can you see how this might now start to affect breathing and cause other postural issues? This is where we go from anatomy (how things look) to physiology (how things feel). My son is most definitely a chest breather due to lifelong sinus issues and now the resulting tension in the belly (plus technology) is starting to pull him forward. This could eventually cause a more extreme kyphosis (the rounded part of the upper back) and very stiff neck and shoulders. Meanwhile, the struggle to get a decent breath is no doubt constantly affecting the health of his nervous system and draining a lot of energy.
Of course I can’t tell him any of these things! He is nearly 17 and I am a complete fool who knows absolutely bugger all about anything! I can’t prescribe him exercises, it has to be someone else! At 17, nobody really feels that bad do they? You can get away with a lot! Until you can’t.
What I am more than delighted to report though, is that all of the exercises he was prescribed in that session (for the hips, pelvic floor, lower back and neck) pretty much turn up, either as is, or as a variation, in EVERY SINGLE YOGA SEQUENCE THAT WE DO. Yep. Every. Single. One:
1. Knee to chest (I would suggest add resistance)
2. Universal spinal twist (see image)
3. Balances – lots of balances (for pelvic floor and core strength)
4. Squeeze something between thighs to strengthen and release adductors (we tend to use our arms or “pretend” by using our feet).
My particular style of Vinyasa-Krama* is absolutely tied up in modern exercise physiology, combined with traditional Yoga postures, thanks to all that I have learned from my teacher, Simon Borg-Olivier over the past 23 years. We practise an accessible (for most reasonably fit and healthy people) form of dynamic, mindful-movement meditation where every single exercise or posture has been placed in the sequence, in that order for a particular reason. Sometimes it will release the correct muscles for the next pose which will make it more comfortable / accessible, or maybe it counters the previous exercise / posture in some way.
Even our static exercises are performed dynamically to incorporate resistance and organic muscle activation and/or release. In Yoga speak, we call this “bandha” (a “co-activation” in modern exercise physiology). It creates strength AND flexibility (what is the point of one without the other?). It also moves blood around the body which nourishes the joint sockets. This way they don’t wear out so quickly; circulation to all parts is pretty much everything. I generally do not recommend that people consciously “tense” anything, particularly the “core”, because most people will squeeze everything – which blocks energy, restricts the spine and inhibits strength. Far better that we move more naturally and adjust our habitual posture so that muscles switch on organically and become active.
Our fluid Qi Gong-style movement segments move blood, energy and information through the entire body. These exercises loosen and nourish the joints and joint spaces while lengthening and strengthening muscles without tension. We may find, somewhat inexplicably, that more challenging postures seem far more easier to execute.
The best thing about the flowing qi gong-type aspect of the sequences though is the fact that it provides a moving (dynamic) mediation.
Meditation is very hard, but we can all benefit from it. What does it mean though? The fact is that true meditation (dhyana) is out of the reach of most people in our particular environment. We crave stimulation and excitement. Our minds are used to being busy and are easily hijacked**. In fact, without taking the time to ease into a more “traditional” seated and silent meditation model, some people’s mental health will suffer negatively. There are definitely many better ways than trying to sit uncomfortably in stillness.
Dhyana – advanced meditation – is when a mind doesn’t wander, label or judge. It simply experiences joy and contentment even when nothing particularly interesting is going on and it is completely unstimulated. One example is Vipassana (nine day silent meditation). If we can remain calm and happy within ourselves when things are mundane, without the crazies creeping in, or becoming overly stressed due to the “nothingness”, then we know we definitely have healthy mind control!
When was the last time you did that?
However, Dharana (concentration) is a form of meditation that we can all practise because it is totally accessible. It’s not boring. Our mind won’t wander if we give it something relatively interesting to do or focus on. Ideally it’s not super easy or lacking in technique (otherwise we are back to boring and mind wandering again), but able to be done, while in the “zone”, in a state of “flow”, and preferably without lots of instructions.
This could involve repetitive, flowing arm movements, twists and/or balances. It could be skiing, surfing or walking on / climbing rocks. Importantly though, the mind must feel challenged yet “comfortable”. In Yoga life we call this “sthira / sukham. Firm, yet calm. Attention, but not tension.
We must always take things to the “edge” while remaining within our current boundary. Go too far and you lose, because ego crept in. Don’t try hard enough and focus will be lost. Boredom creeps in.
Anyway, that’s dharana. It’s essentially the essence of physical Yoga. It’s a meditational mindset – I call it “the sweet spot” – where the healing happens. It’s also a Parasympathetic NS state also known as “rest and digest”. Hence, we need to work on making this state dominant as opposed to the opposite – fight or flight. In our tendency towards Sympathetic dominance there is very little healing. Neither is there much cellular reproduction, digestion or healthy immune responses. I just keep thinking about my son with his tight belly….. But of course, someone else needs to tell him because what would I know?
One day it might all sink in – or maybe it won’t, but this is how most chronic 21st century conditions roll out. He is just another young person right at the beginning of it all.
I want you to know that what we are offering in these classes is a complete and integrated health program to cover all bases. I tried; I really thought about it in fact, but I cannot squeeze that much importance and goodness into one hour. It’s not the gym. It’s not a quick jog or a run down the beach. It’s the whole bit.
You deserve more than a quick rushed hour from me and I always have more to offer you. Why would you imagine you are not worth that little bit of extra time with all that you do and all that you need to make up for it?***
Life is short. Health is wealth (empower yourself)
*Intelligent steps towards a “goal”.
**(Not true? Think for a minute about all the strange posts and ideas/beliefs that have come to the fore in the past eight months or so just because many humans were a bit bored and became anxious….)
*** My visit to the exercise physiologist was a four-hour round trip into Newcastle. Any other one hour appointments with specialists where you are trying to rectify the chronic results of a typical 21st century lifestyle, take time, energy, cash and petrol. False economy?