Ekphrasis & Health

Recently my husband and I visited our son and his girlfriend in Olympia, Washington. There is always the joy of seeing them, plus travel brings another benefit – the opportunity to have my eyes opened to new people, places, sights, sounds, tastes, ideas and words. Most interesting word during this trip: ekphrasis. This explanation from the Poetry Foundation helps clarify the meaning.

Ekphrasis came out of a wide-ranging conversation with Katryna. We also talked about the role of inequality as a strong influence in people’s health and well-being. Katryna works for the State of Washington to assist people with health care questions and issues regarding Medicaid. As part of that conversation she shared with me this list of Social determinants of health and health inequalities from the Government of Canada, as well as the chart below from the Kaiser Family Foundation policy brief Beyond Health Care: The Role of Social Determinants in Promoting Health and Health Equity.


We also talked about epigenetics, and how health can be impacted by events that happened to an individual during their life, as well as by how a person’s parent(s) or grandparent(s) fared. From there we discussed race and what, exactly, the word means. On a basic level consider this: humans make up words and give them meaning. How has that process impacted the way we treat people who do not look not like us? To that end Katryna told me about Dorothy Roberts’ book Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century. This was a book Katryna read for a course in college so I was not surprised (but a little disappointed) that my local library does not have a copy (and I just realized I can request for a copy to be ordered!)

The words in the title of this post, Ekphrasis and Health, may or may not have any relationship (I haven’t thought about that in any deep manner) but they are placed together so as to not lose any of the bits of information. Perhaps at a later time I will return to them and write separate posts. Suffice it to say that Ekphrasis fascinated me both for the sound of the word and its meaning, while the issue of inequality as a determinant of health has long been a topic of conversation in my home. My husband and I both are aware of the research and statistics, and believe that numerous issues in the United States could be made less horrific if the massive inequality was mitigated.

Being a bit “gut”sy

In 2015 I wrote a post about the gut. Then, this past Fall, I had my own interesting (and not very comfortable) reintroduction to my gut in the form of a GI (gastrointestinal tract) rebellion to an antibiotic given as a prophylactic to stave off a possible blood infection from a bee sting. (The length of that sentence should give you an idea of the duration of my discomfort!) While it took just one night and two full days on the medication to provoke a reaction that caused me to lose three pounds over as many days, over the course of almost four weeks it also depleted my energy, found me on a BRATT diet (bananas, rice, apples, tea and toast), spurred my doctor to test me for a variety of not-so-good possibilities (thankfully, all came back negative), and had me missing numerous full or partial days at work.

This might have all been water under the bridge, never finding its way to a post, but then a friend at work shared The Power of Poop video with me that I find fascinating. 
Still, this post almost did not get written, until my dinner last night. I met two friends for a meal at a local restaurant where I ate a delicious Beet Salad: organic roasted beets, ruby red grapefruit, sunflower seeds, some type of greens, and avocado, all topped with sherry-ginger dressing. The salad was quite filling with four full-size beets. Came home, relaxed, took a bath, and then the all-too-familiar GI discomfort began at one in the morning. Big sigh…

As it turns out, an abundance of beets can have that impact (nothing like experiential learning). Hence, the motivation for this post as a vivid reminder of the power not only of poop but of the GI tract, in general, and the powerful gut-brain relationship, in which  the two entities are more equal than you might imagine.

Worship the normal curves

I learned a lot about the human spine this summer in the Experiential Anatomy online class led by the highly talented teaching team of Judith Hansen Lasater, Mary Richards and Lizzie Lasater. First of all, in fairness to Mary Richards, I need to get the nomenclature correct! As she noted, the vertebral column is a column or chain of vertebral bodies, whereas the spine is an anatomical term relating to a bony feature or ridge on various bones. Vertebra is singular; vertebrae is plural. There are some 33 bones in the vertebral column, most which move independently but several that are fused together and move as a unit.

The vertebral bones are arranged by size and shape, these being influenced by the curve in their respective part of the spine, and all of these attributes influences the function of that part of the spinal column. In order to bear more weight the bones get bigger from top to bottom of the column. In addition, the cervical vertebrae have less stability and more mobility, and progressing down the spinal column the lowest portion has more stability with less mobility.

Worship the normal curves 

is the mantra that began the study of the vertebral column, giving new meaning to the age old exhortation to sit (or stand) up straight. Years ago I was able to memorize the number of vertebrae in each area according to meal times: 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebrae, 5 lumbar vertebrae (breakfast at 7, lunch at 12, dinner at 5). I guess the snack is the sacrum, with 5 vertebrae fused into 1 bone, and the coccyx (aka tailbone) that consists of anywhere between 3 to 5 vertebrae.

The cervical curve is the neck area, and has as its first two vertebrae C1, the Atlas (named for the Greek God who held the heavens on his head), and C2, the Axis, which is responsible for head turning. The thoracic curve’s 12 vertebrae all attach to two ribs each, one on either side. The lumbar, or low back vertebrae are the most massive of all the vertebrae; think about how much weight they must bear, hence the need for their size. As noted in a prior post, there is maximum pressure on the vertebral discs when sitting, medium when standing and the least amount of pressure when lying down. Turns out this is why we are a tad taller in the morning.

slinkyEver play with a slinky? If not, that’s a picture of one at the left. It is a spiraling column of wire that can “walk” down stairs and any movement in it reverberates throughout the entire slinky. This is similar to our backbone, which is a kinetic chain – “a connected chain of moving parts” where movement gets transferred up and down the spine.

The trio summed up the vertebral column as the central organizing axis – a giant, curved, coiled antenna receiving signals from the whole body. This axis connects to the hip axis, which is the central axis of movement. The part that connects these two axes is the sacrum, part of the vertebral column at the lumbrosacral joint (the joint between the last lumbar vertebra and the first sacral segment) and part of the pelvis at the sacroliliac joint (between the lowest part of the scarum and the iliac bone in the pelvis.)

My next post will explore each part of the vertebral column in a bit more detail.

Advice from a Yogi

Sometime over the summer I took notes on a podcast conversation with a yogi. I am fairly certain that yogi was Judith Hansen Lasater being interviewed by her daughter, Lizzie Lasater, though I did not write down the source. Nonetheless, the advice sounds very much like what I imagine Judith would provide, so I’m going with her as the source (and the podcast that I think this comes from is here.)

There were two items of note that stood out to me – thoughts on language and thoughts on communicating, all related to leading yoga practices. All of the suggestions seem like they should be part and parcel of any yoga training, and being reminded of them simply helps to reinforce ways I want to be as a yoga teacher.

On Language:

  • use words to encourage and support
  • use humor
  • the hardest part of asana is to not be competitive with yourself
  • end with silence; it is “the residue that you take with you”
  • set an intention or suggest one, such as “take it to your gentle edge and then step back” and continue to remind yogis of this throughout practice

On Communication:

  • a belief in what you are saying is felt by others, thus the importance of speaking from your heart
  • it is about what the other person hears, not about what I say
  • use OBSERVATION – look at what students are doing, then revise and restate so students understand


Yoga Class as a Refuge

I recently watched Cyndi Lee in an archived  2017 online Yoga Alliance talk: Making Your Class a Refuge During Stressful Times. The title appealed to me partially because of how politics are unfolding in the U.S. and even more because I recently had a bit of stress around a reaction to a bee sting. (Little insect, big reaction, but the biggest reaction was to an antibiotic that was administered to make sure there was no blood infection. There wasn’t – yea – but my GI was terrifically unhappy with the medication.) I figured listening to the calming voice of Cyndi might prove a useful balm. (It did 🙂 and am relieved to say my GI has normalized after 11 malcontent days!)

While I didn’t glean new insights from Cyndi’s talk, there were plenty of reminders that I can never hear too often.  

  1. Think of yoga as a refuge for self-care, not an escape to avoid unpleasantness.
  2. Stay open and hold the space for everyone. Unless someone says something, there is no way to know what they are feeling or dealing with. So true, and not just during yoga!
  3. Trust the practice and lead with clarity, confidence and compassion.

Cyndi continued with four specific points.

  1. Create a safe and friendly haven. For the first two and a half years I shared poetry during practice and then let it slide. People enjoyed the poetry and often asked me to email them the poems. I have now recommitted to bring the poetry back! 
  2. Provide a quiet and spacious environment. I liked Cyndi’s distinction between “right speech” and “noble quiet” as she suggests finding the rhythm between the two. (I teach in a magical, calm space that looks out on a harbor.)
  3. Avoid stressors in the space. This relates to temperature, lighting, air quality and smells. I was reminded to add a line in my weekly email to wear layers for comfort.
  4. Keep up a personal practice. Yes! After a summer of almost daily swimming I have returned to morning yoga on my mat, WQXR playing in the background, my husband reading nearby. Ahhhhh…

I enjoyed Cyndi’s talk and was motivated to borrow Yoga Body, Buddha Mind from the library. Am enjoying her writing, finding it both calming and informative. A beauty of my yoga, both practicing and teaching, is I’m always learning.


Book Review – Blink

Yesterday I finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. This post, with a minor change, is from my Goodreads review.

When this book first came out I had the sense that it was a popular psychology type of book – one that utilized contrived studies to try and explain human behavior. I have always raised an eyebrow at such studies because I think human behavior is more complex and “in the moment.” Thus, manufacturing a “false” set of circumstances to test for a specific behavior seems destined to provide a false set of results that do not hold up in “real” life.

If that is the case, why did I read this book almost 15 years after its first publication?

This summer I was a student of Experiential Anatomy in an anatomy class offered by three amazing teachers – Lizzie Lasater, Mary Richards, and Judith Hanson Lasater. Not only did I enjoy their interactions and teaching styles immensely, my understanding of human anatomy and how it plays out during yoga increased manifold and led me to do a bit of research on the teachers. That research led me to Judith Hanson Laster’s December workshop at Kripalu: Relax and Renew, Learning to Teach Restorative Yoga.

It is the syllabus for the training that caused me to read Blink, it being required reading for the workshop. (I am not taking the workshop, but as a restorative yoga teacher am eager to soak up as much guidance from Judith as possible.) Just a few pages into my reading of the book the connection that immediately came to mind was that during a restorative yoga session the yoga teacher often has to make snap calls about what might be going on in a student’s body. Do they look comfortable? What is the expression on their face saying? How are they holding their hands? Is there tension within that is manifesting on the exterior body?

I am nowhere near an expert at guiding restorative yoga or of reading the bodies of the people who practice yoga with me. However, I can appreciate that the skill to do so in the blink of an eye, particularly when it is a class rather than a private one-on-one practice, is a skill that is worth developing and will grow over time the more I practice it.

On further reflection, another message of Blink as it relates to leading yoga is that making snap judgements based on visual perception may likely lead to incorrect conclusions. Unless a person tells you what is going on in their body, there is no way for a novice (like me) to ascertain someone’s physical history – any medical or structural conditions that might be impacting their practice. My role as a yoga teacher is to get to know the people who practice with me, offer suggestions based on what I know and what I observe. That ability, for me, is an ongoing practice, just like yoga. 🙂

Plums & Discs, Plumb Lines & Posture

A really juicy plum is sweet and full. Prod it with your fingers (palpating it!) and you can  feel the give-and-take within the body of the fruit. With that image in mind, imagine your plumvertebral column, the curvy, almost “slinky-like” chain beginning at the base of the skull and continuing down to your pelvis where the lumbar spine meets the sacrum.

The vertebral column is made up of vertebral bodies, and between each vertebral body is an intervertebral disc (IVD). Think back to that juicy plum, the give-and-take as you gently prod it. The IVD works in a similar fashion by providing cushioning to the vertebrae and acting as a shock absorber. During the day the intervertebral discs  sustain the pushing and prodding of the spine as it moves in all directions. As a result of gravity, by day’s end the IVDs have become compressed. There is maximum pressure on the discs when sitting, medium when standing, and the least amount of pressure when lying down. Indeed, after a sound night’s sleep you are a tad taller in the morning because the intervertebral discs have become plump with water and are less compressed.

As for that sweet juicy plum, once you have bitten into it the plum no longer responds the way it did beforehand. Perhaps the flesh of the fruit comes spilling out via drips and small chunks, and maybe you even round your back, jutting your head forward so the yummy mess doesn’t wind up on the front of your shirt! While puncturing the plum is good for your palette, this equivalent action in an intervertebral disc would be counter productive for your spine. Protruded, herniated or prolapsed discs occur when the nucleus of the disc breaks through the area surrounding it, much like your bite into the plum lets the center break through the area surrounding it.

PLUMB LINE (or What are the normal curves of the vertebral column?)
Place a book on your head and try walking without having the book fall off. The walking rhythm with the book staying put is the neutral position of your head in relation to the vertebral column.

To sit or stand with your vertebral column in its normal curvature you first need a sense of what that is within your body. In construction a plumb line is used to determine that something is vertical. In the body a plumb line is a vertical line that you can visualize on the outer side of the body. “It passes through the external auditory meatus of the ear (outer ear), the center of the shoulder joint, the hip joint, the center of the knee joint, and finally the lateral malleolus of the ankle (outer side of the ankle joint).” (From the online course Experiential Anatomy.) The plumb line touches upon body parts that, if vertically aligned, give rise to the normal curvature of the spine.

To find your plumb line ask someone to take a look at you from the side. Stand with your eyes slightly lower than the top of your ears, relax your shoulders, arms loose at your sides, feet and legs supporting your body. If you tend to tuck your tailbone, untuck it. According to Judith Hansen Lasater and Mary Richards in Experiential Anatomy, tucking the tail takes the body out of joint and inhibits the functional muscle patterns that support the core.

Ask your plumb line assistant to tell you what they see. If they note that your head is forward of the plumb line, and if this is not due to a structural issue, it is likely that the jutting of the head is due to sitting with a rounded back. Why might someone have a rounded back while seated? Think: driving, sitting hunched over a computer, looking down at a cell phone…

Sitting with a rounded back impacts the cervical spine and produces a forward jutting head (the head comes forward of the plumb line). When this happens, the weight is no longer being efficiently borne through the vertebral bodies. The result is flexion in the lower cervical (lower part of the neck) and back bending in the upper cervical, neither of which is beneficial to the spine.

POSTURE (adapted from Experiential Anatomy)
Come to your normal standing position. If you feel comfortable, close your eyes a moment and sense your body in vertical space. Reach the crown of your head towards the sky. Sense your normal curves within your vertebral column. If your eyes are closed, open them. These curves are what bear the weight of your body as it responds to gravity. Has anyone ever asked you to “sit up straight” or “stand up straight”? Physiologically it is impossible to straighten your spine because it just isn’t built that way; it is curved, not straight. The only “straight line” in the vertebral column is the line of force – the way gravity is carried through the column.

seated postureNow find a chair and sit on it. Not sure of the way to sit for optimal posture? The key to sitting is all in the pelvis! Once seated, roll slightly forward onto the pubic bone, feet comfortable on the floor or on a small stool if the chair seat is too high. The pelvis should be elevated above the level of the thigh bones, creating an approximately 120° angle between the torso and the thighs. (Not only did I learn this in Experiential Anatomy but also from Mary Bond’s Google Talk: The New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand and Walk in the Modern World, where she suggests perching rather than sitting.)

To enjoy your posture as much as you (perhaps) enjoy your plums, work on keeping your posture in synch with your plumb lines, honoring your pelvis (pubic bone tilts forward in sitting, tail bone untucked in standing). And maybe take a yoga class!