Friday, July 7, 2017

Your Neck and Yoga

I find it hard to believe that nearly two months have passed since the 2016/17 academic year drew to a close. I am still pretty amazed by how much I learned in my first year in grad school, and I am eager to continue the learning process next year.

While all my courses ultimately proved to be interesting (and challenging), the highlight of this past academic year was Systems Neuroscience. As its name implies, Systems Neuroscience provided a comprehensive overview of the human nervous system. Even though the pace of the course was sometimes overwhelming, I was rapt by its content.
Yoga doesn't necessarily "cause strokes."
(Please be sure, however, to avoid
extreme flexion or extension of your neck.)

A significant aspect of the Systems Neuroscience curriculum was neuroanatomy. At the outset of the course, I expected that neuroanatomy would be one of the easier aspects of the course for me. I have long enjoyed studying anatomy and viewing the body 3-dimensionally, which interestingly enough, has become a hallmark of my yoga teaching. As a result, I came to consider my spatial sense to be well developed. As it turned out, neuroanatomy was far and away the most difficult part of the course for me!

Nonetheless, I worked with 3D computer renderings, flashcards and no small amount of hair-pulling to memorize the various vascular structures, brain regions, brainstem nuclei and neural circuitry that was presented in Systems Neuroscience.

As a yoga teacher, I found studying the vascular structures that supply the brain to be particularly interesting. I've long heard of arterial dissection as a potential cause of stroke in yoga practitioners, and now I feel like I have a better understanding of the vital blood supply to the brain.

As you can see in the adjacent diagram, an artery passes through the vertebrae. This artery has the logical name of Vertebral Artery, and is part of the sophisticated blood supply to the brain. As I've mentioned in a previous blog entry, any artery can be damaged by excessive movement. If you consider a wire coat hanger, the wire can be bent a nearly infinite number of times, as long as the bend isn't too great. If the coat hanger is repeatedly bent too far, however, the coat hanger will break.

The arteries aren't likely to break, though they can be damaged by delamination. Consider the adjacent image - the arteries are made up of concentric layers. These tissues are wonderfully robust, though the boundary layers between the layers can potentially be a site of damage. When the boundaries between the layers are damaged by overstretching, there's the potential for an arterial dissection (the proper name for what I'm calling delamination.) The arterial dissection, in turn, can lead to parts of the artery breaking loose... and finding their way upstream into the brain.

Arteries are made up of layers.
The upstream movement of debris is a big problem - ultimately the debris blocks a brain artery, and then that part of the brain is starved for oxygen. This is the essence of a stroke - damage to the brain that's caused by an interruption in blood flow.

For yoga practitioners, I believe that there are two primary points to keep in mind when making decisions about how and what to practice.

Firstly, avoid extreme flexion and extension of the neck. Because the vertebral artery passes through the vertebrae, extreme forward or backward bending can cause the bones to push too hard against the vertebral artery, which can cause damage. Here's what I consider the most important point: those that have loose joints (joint laxity) are capable of pushing their necks deeply into both flexion and extension, and as a result, may increase the risk of making neck movements that could damage the vertebral artery. If you are joint-lax, you'd be wise to limit your extreme movements of your neck.

Secondly, not all arteries are equally resistant to delamination. Those of us with joint-laxity are more likely to have compromised boundary-layer connections, and are at increased risk of arterial dissection. With joint laxity, it's like the glue that holds the various layers together is a little weaker, and the layers are at higher risk to separate. As a result, those of us with joint laxity are at increased risk of boundary layer damage in various tissues such as the skin, veins, arteries, gut, etc. Again, for those with joint-laxity, you need to mindfully resist the Siren's sweet songs that can lead you too deeply into poses.

In summary, arterial dissection is not urban myth - while not common, it does happen to some really nice people that love Yoga. If you have joint laxity (please see prior blogs for more discussion on joint laxity), you are at increased risk of the strokes that can arise from arterial dissection. No need to stop practicing Yoga - simply consider reducing how deeply you move into all your poses. And if nothing else, please be sure not to flex or extend your neck too far!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Movement Lab - 6/6/17

Per request, I'm posting the sequence that we explored in yesterday morning's Movement Lab.

The focus was on releasing the humerus from its scapula. Often these two are glued together, and many common cues reinforce this ineffective patterning. For example, a common cue to open the chest is to rotate the arms such that the palms face forward. No doubt this cue can help place the shoulder-blades against the back, though the mechanism that this cue uses to place the shoulder-blades does not translate to functional, daily-life movement.

Rather than defaulting into an ineffective movement pattern (using the arms to place the shoulder blades) in order to release another ineffective movement pattern (shoulders rounded forward), we focused on placing the shoulder blades independently of what the arms are doing, and then using the shoulder blades to support the arms. The goal was to cultivate the movement patterns that support improved posture during daily-life activities.

Making sense? If not, please let me know.

Here's what we did:

Supine – explore how arms can rotate either from forearm or from the shoulder socket
Prone Mountain – practice rotating arms from shoulder
Locust – practicing above, and adding contralateral coordination (swimming-like)
Rocking Chair
Roll Like a Boat
Squats/Chair repeats
Contralateral Psoas Walk
New-School Side Angle
Foam Roller – stabilization
Foam Roller – lift arms
Foam Roller – lift legs
Foam Roller – contralateral lifts
Crab Walk
Dog Pose

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Last Night's Class

Last night's class seemed to be well-received. Following a theme of back-health, below is the sequence that we explored.

Intermediate Class
Focus: Back Health

Hamstring Wake-Up (in prone mountain)
Locust Pose (focus on hamstrings)
Knee Folds
Shoulder Reset
Dead Bug Cycle
Locust Pose (contralateral form)
Sumo Cycle
Warrior II (focus on hamstrings)
Side Angle (New School form)
Sun Salutations x5
Frog at Wall (quad stretch)
Downward Dog Pose
Supine Leg Stretch
Child’s Pose (supine or prone)
Pranayama (microcosmic orbit)


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Movement Lab

This morning's Movement Lab garnered lots of positive feedback, and I'm happy to share the sequence that we explored.

For those of you who are not familiar with Movement Lab, it's a class that's based on my expanding knowledge of the body, the
Movement Lab does not involve cats, though I didn't want to post
two consecutive blog entries without a photo.
mind and their intersection. Movement Lab integrates what I consider the best-of mindful approaches to Pilates, Western fitness and Yoga.

I hope that you can join me on a Tuesday morning for Movement Lab this Summer. The class is getting bigger almost every week, and it's been fun to watch people apply their Yogic fundamentals to a wider repertoire of movements.

Movement Lab

Pilates Mat
Knee Folds
Leg Circles
Roll Down
Rolling Like a Boat
Foam Roller
Lift legs
Lift arms
Ring (arms)
Shoulder flexion
Seated Twist (arm internal rotation)
Stretch of the West

My neighbor, Oscar

As many of you know, my home base is the Village of Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. For those of you that have not made the trip to Blue Mounds, the village meets the criteria of blink-you-missed-it. Blue Mounds is very small, though as small communities frequently assert, it has a big heart. I've been headquartered in Blue Mounds for almost 25-years, now, and have found the land and its people a steadying and supportive environment.

One of my neighbors is Oscar. I don't know many details about Oscar's life, though I do know that he's a hard worker, a retired mason and a WWII veteran. I also know that we share the same birthday (November 1st)

Oscar's birthday is exactly 40-years prior to mine, which means that he's pretty old. I haven't seen much of Oscar over the past few months, though I'd heard through the neighborhood grapevine that he'd taken ill. Yesterday morning as I was heading out for a run, I caught sight of Oscar lugging his trash cans back from the curb. I was relieved to see him, and immediately went over to visit.

As it turned out, the neighborhood rumors were true - Oscar had recently been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and lung cancer. Neither diagnosis is very promising, and Oscar estimated that he had 2-6 months to live.

We shared a long, quiet moment as the fullness of that prognosis settled in. The gap wasn't awkward in any way, but a momentary release from the linear time-scale that we often find ourselves whisked along. The gap at the end of the exhale had expanded to include the two of us, the village, and the unspoken vastness that hung in the air. It was a spacious and magical moment.

As quickly as the moment arose, it vanished into one of Oscar's jokes. Oscar is famous (notorious?) for his jokes. For all the years that we know each other, Oscar consistently shared two jokes with me each time that our paths crossed. Sometimes they'd be real groaners, and sometimes I'd find myself laughing out loud. I'm not sure where he picked these jokes up, though I'd always appreciated their homespun humor.

In the slipstream of the moment that we had just shared, Oscar looked me in the eye and requested one thing - that I share that day's jokes with others. Jokes, Oscar told me, were to be shared -  to bring a smile to those that you told them to.

In honor of Oscar, and all that he represents to me: neighborliness, service to country, grounded work ethic, and kindness... I'd like to share one of the day's jokes:

The queen was showing the bishop her stable of beautiful horses. As the queen and the bishop passed one of the horses, the horse let out a giant fart. The queen apologized profusely to the bishop, to which the bishop responded, and here I thought that it was the horse that farted!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Cultivating the Conditions of Productivity

Simple foods = the best foods for me. Steel cut oats, fruit,
ground flax seeds, salt and cinnamon. Plant Power!
Today feels like the first day of Summer break, and I'm alternately excited and apprehensive to behold the relatively unstructured days that are ahead. This past academic year, the days were carefully assembled to reduce interstitial-time inefficiencies, and I'm pleased to report that I largely kept up with schoolwork, maintained my commitment to practicing the Dharma, and stayed pretty physically fit. Whew! Now a new relationship to time is unfolding in front of me, and I'm eager to feel this new time-relationship in my body/mind

This morning felt like the first day of the new chapter, and it sure has gotten off to a great start. After a cup of quasi-Bulletproof coffee (espresso, chia seeds and coconut oil), I donned my FiveFingers for a run in the UW Arboretum. Today's training agenda was LSD (long, slow distance), though the first step was to set a compassionate motivation.

I strive to begin my workouts with the aspiration that my activity benefits me personally (as fitness activities assuredly do), and perhaps more importantly, to also include the wish that the workout helps me to be a kinder, more patient person - the wish that this morning's run be of benefit to others in addition to myself.

With the setting of compassionate motivation, I set off into the forested trails of the Arb. During the run I alternated among object meditations (sound and physical sensations, primarily), and resting my mind in objectless meditation. After 9+ miles, hunger was starting to become a motivating force (thanks to Systems Neuroscience, I now know that signals from my paraventricular hypothalamus and the nucleus accumbens were involved!)

Setting a course back home, I ran into my good friend Jonathan and The Mighty Taz in Vilas Park. What a nice surprise - to bump into a friend and his high-energy dog! After a brief visit, we went our separate ways to embark on our week's activities.

By now I was definitely feeling appetitive drive, and I walked into the house to find that the slow-cooked steel-cut oats were ready for consumption. I find that simple foods work the best for my system, and enjoyed a satisfying five-ingredient breakfast.

A quick shower, and now it's time to write. The academic paper that I'll work on this morning is a review of the current research on Joint Laxity, and I'm eager to buckle down and make some progress. I'm going to sign off, now, and head to campus.

Have a great start to the week, and hopefully our paths will cross sooner than later!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Running Yoga

Blue Mound State Park (BMSP) is an ideal
setting for Running Yoga
This morning I went out for a relatively low-intensity run in Training Zones 1-2 (50-70% of my 187 beats-per-minute maximum heart rate). After a few minutes of cruising along at this pace, I noticed my senses sharpening; the wind in the trees became more audible, the trail beneath my feet provided sensory feedback, and the in/out movement of breathing woke up my ribcage. For the next 50-minutes, I enjoyed a Running Yoga practice in the forest that's near the Blue Mounds Dharma Center.

The physical body can be a direct portal to experience the mind's true nature. Over the past few years, I've been exploring how running may offer the opportunity to pull back the curtain to reveal the state of Yoga.

In my experimenting, I've found that running at different intensities influences the mind in specific ways. For example, when I'm approaching aerobic threshold (when heart-rate is ~50% of maximum), my senses seem to be heightened. Sounds seem to be crisper, colors appear brighter, and I experience physical sensations in my body more keenly. This heightened perception helps me to rest my mind in Object Meditation.

While there is no direct substitute for seated meditation, I've found these moving meditations in BMSP to be highly nourishing.