Being Injured, Being Humbled

Being Injured, Being Humbled

I’ve never understood why people respond to winning awards or recognition with “I am so humbled by this.” My instinct says the opposite of that should be true – now that everyone knows you’re the most eligible bachelor in Tampa under the age of 30, or whatever, you should feel like hot stuff. And feeling like hot stuff isn’t inherently bad; there’s no need to feel guilty for celebrating our accomplishments or the qualities we love about ourselves. (After all, loving ourselves is the root of loving others.) We are, however, always balancing those feelings with humbling experiences, too. Failures. Close calls. Setbacks.

I’ve had a couple of setbacks myself recently. Part of how I define myself is through what I’m able to do, and worked hard to achieve, physically. I am a rock climber. I am a yogi and yoga teacher. I get outside and play outside.

IMG_9985

Can’t do this right now ūüė¶ Working through the moves last July on “Butch Pocket and the Sundance Pump,” 5.12a, at Wild Iris, WY. Photo by Andrew Hudson.

Last September I woke up one morning after “camping” in my car in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, with an intense ache in my neck. While driving back home, the pain worsened. When I woke up the next day, I could barely look up or down, much less side to side. I immediately booked myself a massage, but walked out feeling about the same level of crappy as I’d felt before. After a referral and a physical therapy consultation, I learned I’d acquired an inflamed cervical disk.

This immediately had consequences for me. No more headstands. No more backbend-y yoga poses where I need to gaze up and back. And, as I learned on our next climbing trip, it also meant I couldn’t look down to find my next foothold, or up at the climber I was belaying.

tritripod headstand

Couldn’t do this either. Tripod headstand playtime in the park with Jessie (center) and Amy (right), summer 2014

After months of physical therapy, I’d finally reached a point of comfort (and I mean physically, not financially- yikes). My neck still hurts on occasion, but the muscles in my back no longer seize up to protect it, and I have almost the same range of motion as I had before that doomed morning in September.

Come late October the outdoor climbing season ended and, in late November, ski season began. Knowing I’d improved my skills significantly over the course of the last season, I was excited to get back on the snowy slopes.

2016-01 Steamboat

A beautiful snowy Sunday in Steamboat Springs, CO

After the new year, I went down to Steamboat Springs with friends Georgia and Tom, and Tom’s family. Saturday night it snowed over a foot, maybe around two feet, even. In the morning we laughed as we tossed armfuls of snow off our cars. The lifts carried us out of the sun and into the icy clouds surrounding the mountaintops, still dumping snow.

On what became our last run of the day, the front end of my right ski lodged itself in a mound of heavy, powdery snow, twisting my foot out to the right. The rest of my body didn’t get the message and kept sailing downhill until my right knee jerked inward, and popped. I dropped to my back, dug out my sunken ski, and held my right knee into my chest while I made some pathetic wails. Fortunately Tom and Georgia heard/saw me, and came over. After about five minutes of feeling sorry for myself, I swallowed the pain, got up, and we made our way to the bottom of the mountain- slowly.

2016-01-17 Skiing_Steamboat

Just before I hurt my knee! Steamboat Springs, CO. Photo by Tom Ashley.

My physical therapy appointment for my knee is later this week, but the preliminary diagnosis is a partially torn MCL. This means no more skiing, climbing, or running (honestly I won’t miss that one), and avoiding certain yoga poses- again.

I hate being injured, and not just because of the pain. I hate the limitations it brings. I find myself sitting at work, feeling blah, and thinking, “Oh I know- I’ll just go to the climbing gym tonight,” and as soon as I start to feel cheery again, I realize I can’t. Yoga class? Nope, not if there are any deep lunges or squats or psoas stretching. So I settle for gentle movement on my mat followed by some resistance band nonsense to make my knee feel more stable.

So much goes into those Instagram photos of flexible yogis in breathtaking poses, or YouTube videos of skinny guys break-dancing. So much has to go right. Just because that guy in the gym is only lifting 5 pounds or walking around the track instead of jogging doesn’t mean he’s lazy or unmotivated. He could very well be recovering from illness or injury. He could be on chemo and unable to do any high-impact exercise for fear that his fragile bones could fracture underneath him. Maybe that woman in my yoga class is in child’s pose instead of the pose I’m teaching because she just had a baby, or she has a herniated disk in her spine, or that pose is just too intense for her and that’s not what her body needs right now.

So. What do I do when I’m not climbing up mountains or skiing down them? I cook. I eat. I read. I tell our new puppy that I don’t appreciate his chewing a hole in the curtains, or constantly sniffing our butts, or jumping on our laps while we’re on the couch so he can gnaw on our fingers. I stress about being out-of-shape. I scroll through social media sites feeling envy at all the beautiful photos of my able-bodied friends. I paint my nails. I clean my closet. I cry. I drink wine. I play the piano. I try some yoga, and slowly back out of all the poses I can’t do, and try to be kind to myself.

Last night I met with my friend Amy (pictured above doing tripod headstand) to discuss our plans for the kids/adults yoga event we’re leading next weekend (learn more about it here!). Our theme for the classes is kindness, and Amy shared with me a kindness-centered visualization and meditation exercise she has used in the past as a kids’ yoga teacher. I invite you to try it.

Kindness Visualization:

Situate yourself in a comfortable seat, or lie down comfortably. Now, begin to visualize a person you love- not a person with whom you’re mad right now, or with whom you’ve had a recent argument- but for whom you just feel love. Maybe it’s a family member, or a partner, or a best friend. Picture this person’s face with as much detail as you can muster. Maybe you find your lips curling into a smile as you think of them. Now, with this person’s image in your head, say silently to them, “May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you be at peace.”

Begin to shift your focus inward. Notice your breath. Notice the feeling of your clothes on your skin. Notice the parts of your body touching the floor. Notice how you feel. Now say silently to yourself, “May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I be at peace.” It may be hard to repeat this words to yourself, but try to be receptive to them. “May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I be at peace.”

~

Love to all.

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Office Yoga: Part II

This is a follow-up to my previous post, “Office Yoga: Part I,” in which I gave options for stretching while still at your desk or in your office. In this post, we’ll delve into options for after you’ve come home for the day.¬†These stretches will be focused on the same body parts mentioned in my last post, but will go deeper into the body¬†and would look pretty weird if you busted them out at your desk, if that’s something you’re worried about.

Sitting all day at a desk, in a car, or on an airplane can cause lots of tension in certain areas of our bodies. You’ll feel it as soon as you stand up to head home from a¬†day at¬†the office – the front of your thighs and the sides of your hips get tight, the neck and shoulders can feel crunchy and uncomfortable, and the wrists are overworked from hours of typing and clicking or gripping a steering wheel.

So what are you to do once you come home from a day spent sitting? I know it’s tempting to crawl to the couch, and then from there to bed, BUT! before you get there, see if you can’t set aside just 10-15 minutes to go through a few of these stretches. I promise you’ll feel better, and your body will thank you!

The Neck:¬†There are many yoga poses to which you can add just slight movements that encourage relaxation of muscle and joint tension. Here’s just one example.

Sphinx pose

 

To get into sphinx pose, clear some space on the floor into which it will be comfy for you to press your elbows, like on a carpet, rug, or towel. Lie down on your belly, and then stack your elbows under your shoulders. Pull your shoulders down and away from your ears to create space for the neck. Spread your fingers wide and inhale. On your exhale, begin to drop the chin down toward your chest. On your next inhale, roll the chin up toward the right shoulder. Exhale back to center, and inhale over to the left shoulder. Continue this pattern, and feel free to stop anywhere that feels particularly good. To come out of sphinx pose, widen your elbows away from one another and stack palms under the forehead to rest. Then push back up into a tabletop position.

The Wrist: Our wrists can over-develop in one direction when we spend lots of time at a computer keyboard or a steering wheel. Rock climbers also over-develop in this way, creating tight forearms. Below is one of my favorite stretches for the wrists and forearms.

Preparation for peacock pose

Preparation for peacock pose

Start kneeling with tucked toes (as pictured above), then lower your hips down onto your heels. If you have tender knees, you can always place extra cushion under them in the form of a rolled-up blanket or towel, or place that blanket or towel between behind the knee to create a little space between the calf and the thigh. Begin to lean forward over the knees as you place the fingertips on the ground in front of you, the forearms facing away from you. Continue to push the wrists down toward the ground. With increased flexibility, you will be able to lower the entire palm of each hand down. This is, as the caption notes, a preparation for a very challenging arm balance pose called peacock pose.

The Psoas: If you have no idea what the psoas (pronounced SOH-azz) is, feel free to refer to my last post, which includes an illustration of the muscle.

You can take many different variations of lunges to open up the psoas. As you grow¬†more flexible, you’ll be able to lower your hips closer to the ground, stretching the psoas more deeply.

A last lunge option

Deep lunge

This is the same final variation that was included in my last post. The front knee stacks over the front ankle and the top of the back foot presses down into the ground. For a very deep stretch, lift the arms up overhead, palms facing one another, and begin to lean back, away from the front leg. The sternum will lift up toward the ceiling for a gentle backbend as you drop the head back to open the front of the neck as well. Yummy!

The Hips:¬†Sitting in a cubicle,¬†car, or airplane usually requires us to take up as little space as possible, meaning we’re not given the opportunity to open and stretch our hips very often. The pose pictured below is more passive and restorative, meaning it requires little effort to “stay” in the pose and instead utilizes gravity and props to help stretch the body.

Supported reclined bound ankle pose

Supported reclined bound ankle pose

To get into this posture, begin in a seated butterfly or bound ankle pose, bringing the bottoms of the feet together in front of you (and, if your hair is up in any fashion, undo it so your neck can release down). In the picture above, I’m using yoga blocks to support my knees, which allows me to stay in this pose for a long time and provides a more gentle stretch. If you don’t have yoga blocks at home, you can always stack books under each knee as well, or anything sturdy and solid. Once you’ve arranged the blocks or block-substitutes, lower yourself down onto your back. From here, you can do anything with the hands that feels good and relaxing, whether that’s hands on the belly, as pictured, or palms face-up on either side of the hips. Stay here for 3-5 minutes to feel the full benefits of this amazing pose.

The Shoulders: As I described in my previous post, our shoulders hold loads of tension, just like our hips, and this is exacerbated by spending lots of time in public spaces, where we are regularly encouraged to take up as little space as possible. Our shoulders are designed to move in many different ways, and we only access a couple of them in our everyday lives. This is why opening and stretching the shoulders can feel so good!

Another variation on reclined bound ankle pose

Another variation on reclined bound ankle pose

I promise I’m not cheating, even though this pose looks exactly like the one pictured above it! Take a closer look- what’s the one difference? In this variation of reclined bound ankle, I have placed a bolster, another type of yoga prop, along the length of my spine to support my back and head. So in addition to opening the hips here, I am also opening the chest by pushing the sternum up with the bolster and allowing gravity to pull the shoulders down, away from the chest. If you don’t own a bolster, you can substitute it with a rolled-up blanket or towel- just make sure it’s long enough to support the full length of the spine as well as the head. If your substitute isn’t quite long enough, you can always place a pillow under the head too. Allow the hands to come to either side of the hips, palms face-up.

When you try this pose, don’t be surprised if you feel lots of tension along the upper arms. This can be a very deep stretch for many people, so be gentle going in and out of the pose. As in the first variation, stay here for a good 3-5 minutes to reap the full benefits of the stretch, and to feel relaxed too.

The Hamstrings: The hamstring is the large muscle that runs from the knee to the butt along the back of your thigh, and it grows tight from both activity (e.g. running, hiking, cycling, swimming) as well as inactivity (mainly, sitting). Below is also a more passive stretch that can help to stretch the backs of the legs.

Aaahhhhh

Aaahhhhh

This is a great, relaxing pose to practice after a long day on the road or at the office. It can help to relieve tension in the belly and low back as well. It’s actually harder to get into than it looks, so don’t get discouraged. Find an open wall space, and begin to scoot your butt up toward the wall. Start with knees bent and the bottoms of the feet pushing into the wall. Slowly inch yourself closer to the wall, working the legs toward straight. It’s fine if the legs don’t straighten completely. Lower yourself onto your back, maybe placing a pillow/rolled-up blanket/rolled-up yoga mat (as pictured above) under your head for a little extra support, and relax. You can flex the toes back toward your face, as pictured, if that feels good. Hands can go wherever you’d like. Stay here for several minutes, but not so long that your legs begin to fall asleep!

If you have any feedback or suggestions for other stretches, please let me know in the comments. Many thanks to fellow yoga teacher Jessie Carlson for taking all the above photos for me. My outfit and yoga mat are from Prana, and the pictures were taken inside the lovely Blossom Yoga studio in Laramie, Wyoming. Love to all.

Office Yoga: Part I

Habitually sitting can create a lot of tension in our bodies. If you find yourself often hunching over a book, computer, or steering wheel, your hips are likely closed, you may have a tight neck and tense shoulders, you likely feel tension in your wrists and legs, and maybe even pain in your neck and low back. Since we live in a world where many jobs involve a fair amount of time sitting in front of a computer, becoming aware of these misalignments in our bodies is more important than ever.

It’s less that our bodies weren’t designed to sit and more that they weren’t designed to sit for¬†so long. Because of this, I recently gave a presentation at a corporate event on techniques to counteract the problems sitting all day can generate in our bodies.¬†Below you will find stretches that can be performed at your desk and in your office to help counteract this pain and tension.

The Neck: So many people have neck pain, and tension in the neck is easily exacerbated by sitting for long periods of time. Low flexibility in the shoulders can contribute to the problem.

A good neck stretch for office employees

A good neck stretch for office employees

One method of stretching tight trapezius muscles and other, smaller muscles in the neck is pictured above. To do this stretch, sit comfortably in a chair on the floor. Bend both elbows and reach the right hand across the low back. Flip the palm of the left hand to face the ceiling, and reach the right hand for the crook of the left elbow. Once you have a comfortable grip, push both shoulders down and away from the ears and lean your head very gently toward the right shoulder until you feel a nice stretch. The stretch can be intensified by rotating the head until the gaze is down over the right hip. Hold this position for at least five breaths, and then release. Switch sides.

The Wrist: The wrists are¬†especially important if you do a lot of typing, coding, or internet surfing. We spend most of our time extending our wrists (bending the hand down toward the forearms) rather than flexing them (pushing the tops of the hands back¬†toward our faces). These two motions require the use of muscles and tendons in opposing directions, and it’s easy to over-develop on one end of the spectrum. There are several options to stretch the wrists toward flexion, but the below is one of my favorites.

Start with the thumb on each hand.

Start with the thumb on each hand

Continue through all the fingers

Continue through all the fingers

Start with the right hand. Flip the right hand palm face-up, and push the right elbow in toward your belly. Take the left hand under the right, and wrap all five fingers of the left hand around the right thumb. Activate all five fingers of the right hand as you gently tug the thumb back towards the left elbow. Take at least two breaths. Release and wrap all five fingers of the left hand around the right index (i.e. pointer) finger. Re-activate all five fingers of the right hand before tugging. Continue through all fingers on each hand. It is very important to activate (i.e. widen and extend) the fingers before stretching each time, as keeping the hands relaxed during this stretch can cause harm to your tendons.

The Psoas:¬†Most people outside the world of athletics and medicine know little about the psoas, but it’s one of the muscles most affected by our habitual sitting.

The two highlighted muscles pictured here are the psoas muscles. Photo from pilatesgarage.com

The two highlighted muscles pictured here are the psoas muscles. Photo from pilatesgarage.com

The psoas is shortened when we are seated, and lengthens as we stand up, lunge, or backbend, leaning our chests back and away from our hips. One of the simplest ways to stretch the psoas is by doing lunges. There are several different variations you can take, depending on your balance and flexibility.

Lunge supported by a chair

Variation 1: lunge supported by a chair

The above is a good option for beginners, or for those with less than stellar balance. Turn so that your right thigh is facing the front edge of a chair, and your left thigh is away. Step into a lunge over the chair, keeping the right knee stacked over the right ankle, to stretch your left psoas. If the sensation is too intense, bend the left knee deeply. Hands can stay on the chair to assist with balance, or can come up overhead for a deeper stretch.

Lunge option #2

Variation 2: low lunge on the floor

The above option is friendly to those with tight muscles but more stable balance. Starting in a tabletop position, Lift the right foot off the ground and bring it between your hands. Inhale to rise up into your lunge. The left toes can tuck under the foot, as pictured above, or you can press the top of the left foot into the ground instead, whatever is more comfortable for the left knee. If the left knee remains uncomfortable here, feel free to place a rolled-up towel or blanket under it for more cushion. In this variation, the left hip stacks over the left knee, and the right knee over the right ankle. The hands can stay on the hips, as pictured above, or can rise up overhead.

A last lunge option

Variation 3: an intense psoas stretch

This final variation requires a more flexible, open psoas muscle. You can get into this variation the same way I recommended getting into the last one, but this time the front foot comes out further away from the hips. The front knee still stacks over the front ankle but, as you can see, in this variation, my back knee is way further back than the hip. Also, the top of the back foot is pressing down into the ground, rather than tucking the toes. In this variation, the psoas of the back leg is experiencing a more intense stretch. Hands can stay on the hips to assist with balance, or can rise up overhead. For an even deeper stretch, risen arms can begin to lean back, away from the front leg, and the chest can lift up toward the ceiling for a gentle backbend.

The Hips: In yoga we often refer to certain poses as “closed-hip” and “open-hip.” Lunges, for example, are closed-hip poses because we haven’t begun to externally rotate the thighs. Sitting at a desk chair is also a closed-hip posture since our thighs remain parallel to one another. This generates tension and poor flexibility in the hips which can, in turn, along with a tight psoas, lead to low back pain.

You can discretely stretch your hips at your desk this way

You can discretely stretch your hips at your desk this way

The above is a seated variation on pigeon pose. To get into this posture, I recommend removing any high heeled shoes so your bottom foot can make full contact with the floor, and so the toes of the top foot can flex back. Next, pull your right leg up toward your chest. Set the outside of the right ankle on top of your left thigh and begin to flex the toes of the right foot back. As you flex the toes, begin to push the right knee down and away from your chest. If your top knee stays at a 90¬ļ angle, this will provide the most intense stretch.

The Shoulders: Similar to the neck, our shoulders often bear the brunt of our body’s stress. Take a moment to visualize what the standing body of a tense, threatened, or stressed person looks like. Their jaws and facial muscles are tight, maybe creating some wrinkles in the skin between the eyebrows- they may also be hunched forward slightly, and their shoulders are likely drawn up toward their ears. Even intuitively, we know our shoulders carry loads of tension.

Further, while we sit at our desks, we use very little of the full range of motion that our shoulders are designed to access. The shoulder joint is the only one in the body that is both a ball-and-socket (like the femur into the pelvis) as well as a sliding joint (the shoulder blade along the back). This enables our shoulders to move in many different, unusual ways.

Shoulder stretch, option 1

Shoulder stretch, option 1

You can try the stretch above both on the back of your chair as well as on the edge of a desk or table. Keeping your hips stacked over your ankles, place the bottoms of the elbows on a hard surface as you draw the palms of the hands together until the hands touch. Begin to work your head between your upper arms. Try to relax your neck as much as possible. This posture will cause a deep rotation in the shoulders, opening the triceps and other muscles through the armpits, chest, and upper back. After a long day at the office, I sometimes like to spend a few minutes in this pose.

Shoulder stretch, option 2

Shoulder stretch, option 2

Eventually, with more open shoulders, this is what your shoulder stretch will look like. As you can see, I’ve pressed my head all the way through my upper arms, and the bend in my elbows has decreased from 90¬ļ to a much more acute angle- however, my hips are still stacked over my ankles.

The Hamstrings: If you ever played an organized sport in middle or high school, you’re probably familiar with the hamstring. It is a large muscle that runs along the back side of each¬†thigh. You can flex the hamstring by bending the knee while keeping the thighs parallel to one another, or even lunging. Runners, swimmers, hikers, and anyone who plays cardio-centric sports like tennis, soccer, or basketball are likely to have tight hamstrings due to repeated use of the muscle. Alternatively, habitually sitting¬†also shortens the hamstring. Since this is such a large muscle, releasing tension here can feel¬†amazing, no joke.

A hamstring stretch for your desk

A hamstring stretch for your desk

The attendees of the event I mentioned earlier were impressed by how much of a stretch they felt in this posture. To begin, scoot yourself to the edge of your chair and grip the undersides of the chair with your hands. Keep the left knee bent and straighten the right leg out in front of you. Flex the toes of the right leg back toward the right knee (this lengthens the back of the leg, beginning the stretch), and fold the chest forward and down toward your thighs until you feel a good stretch in the back of the right thigh, or in your right hamstring.

Stay tuned for my next post, “Office Yoga: Part II,” in which I’ll give options for stretching after you’ve come home for the day. These stretches will be focused on the same body parts mentioned above, but will go deeper into the body¬†and, as some of the event attendees pointed out, would look pretty weird if you busted them out at your desk, if that’s something you’re worried about.

If you have any feedback or suggestions for other stretches, please let me know in the comments! Many thanks to fellow yoga teacher Jessie Carlson for taking all the above photos for me. Love to all.