The Joy of Movement

This blog post is both a book title, The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage, and an apt reflection of how I feel about moving. The more I move, the happier I am. A day without ample movement is a day where my body and mind feel less than content, less focused, and less agile.

Author Kelly McGonigal has detailed numerous stories about people who have undertaken either extreme physical challenges or undertook movement to heal their bodies (or both!) Along the way, she inserts  glimpses of the neuroscience behind human body movement.

This morning I posted my review of her book to Goodreads, and am including here some of my review, along with additions.

I found portions of the book that resonated, the first dealing with music.
When listening to music, we listen with our muscles. -Oliver Sacks (pg 98)

I have taken three Dance for Parkinson’s trainings, and was heartened to see McGonigal include this approach to movement, the premise of which is that music coupled with dance training is beneficial for people living with Parkinson’s. In addition, I have written a bit about the impact of music on the brain and movement, including Music as Therapy: Music, Movement, Cognition! on the SharpBrains blog

This next quote is applicable across so much of life, not just movement. These are words of encouragement coupled with a firm belief to not give up.

If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving. -Martin Luther King Jr (pg 107)

As a lover of human anatomy and a teacher of yoga who occasionally suggests turning the corners of the mouth up towards the eyes, I especially appreciated learning the name of the muscle responsible for this movement: zygomaticus major. This muscle “contracts reflexively, similar to when a physician taps your kneecap to make your leg swing.” Our external movements, from facial expressions to body position, let us “talk” to the world.

The body is how we translate what is happening inside us–thoughts, feelings, desires–into something observable that other people can understand. (pg 116)

Finally, one more vocabulary word that speaks to yoga as well as movement in general: proprioceive. I have long known that proprioception is an individual’s sense of where their body is in space; this is something we consciously or unconsciously consider whenever we move. McGonigal discusses how empathy while watching someone else move causes us to proprioceive it.

When you watch others move, you don’t just perceive this action. You proprioceive it. You receive it into yourself. This is what empathy does: It creates, in your mind, a felt sense of what you are observing. (pg 149)

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

I recently completed the reading of this almost 500 page book. Reading about cancer might not be your idea of a “good read” but Siddhartha Mukherjee is a natural story teller and a doctor, and he tells the story of cancer with depth, discernment and loving kindness. (My Goodreads review of the book is here.)

I was intrigued by the discoveries of what cancer is, particularly that its possibility exists within each and every one of us. I don’t want to forget the explanation of how cancer gets turned on, hence this post.

As best I understand the explanation of genetics, each human cell contains two prominent genes – oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. Oncogenes help cells grow and replicate; tumor suppressor genes inhibit cell growth. Mukherjee likens these two types of genes to putting your foot on a gas pedal (cell growth) and putting your foot on the brake (tumor suppressor genes.) When both types of genes are properly doing their job, all is well.

It is when a mutation occurs to a gene that the balance is thrown out of whack. Imagine a mutated oncogene, the gene that helps cells to grow; it would be as if the gas pedal was stuck in the down position, allowing cells to replicate with abandon. Imagine a mutated tumor suppressor gene, the gene that inhibits cell growth; it would be as if the brake was unable to be depressed, thus removing the function in the gene that stops the replicating of genes. As Mukherjee further describes the history of the discovery of how cancer comes to life he discusses specific proteins.

Genes encode proteins, and proteins often work like minuscule molecular switches, activating yet other proteins and inactivating others, turning molecular switches “on” and “off” inside a cell. … Proto-Oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes, cancer biologists discovered, sit at the hub of such signaling pathways.

Cancer, in short, was not merely genetic in its origin; it was genetic in its entirety. Abnormal genes governed all aspects of cancer’s behavior. Cascades of aberrant signals, originating in mutant genes, fanned out within the cancer cell, promoting survival, accelerating growth, enabling mobility, recruiting blood vessels, enhancing nourishment, drawing oxygen–sustaining cancer’s life.

These gene cascades, notably, were perversions of signaling pathways used by the body under normal circumstances. … Down to their innate molecular core, cancer cells are hyperactive, survival-endowed, scrappy, fecund, inventive copies of ourselves. (p 387-88)

In case you are wondering why my interest in what cancer is, I do not have a morbid curiosity. Rather, in 1998 I was diagnosed (thanks to mammography) with Stage 1 breast cancer, and treated via lumpectomy, radiation and tamoxifen. Among other things, this has made me a big proponent of mammograms and a huge fan of proactive, preventive care. I had my annual gynecological visit just a week prior to getting the mammogram, and a physical breast exam did not uncover any malady, precisely because the tumor was incredibly small. While cancer can be slow growing, it can also be fast growing, and my next mammogram would not have been for another year.

I conclude with a final quote from the last page of the book.

…to keep pace with this malady, you needed to keep inventing and reinventing, learning and unlearning strategies. (p 470)

While some cancers can be prevented (remove carcinogens in the environment such as asbestos and cigarettes), and others can be mitigated via treatment (surgery, transplants, medications), there are still others that are elusive and obstinate. Coupling the therapeutics of caring for someone with cancer, with all the myriad and sometimes debilitating approaches, and the study of cancer is insured a future history. Perhaps technology will help pave the way for deeper understanding of how our very human selves function, in turn leading to more humane approaches to care and treatment.

It’s Alwayz Now!

Circling back to a post from 2010, in December of 2018 I crafted my first blog post on my newly created professional yoga site. Since then, having written several more posts, I’ve opted to include them here as they are relevant to our always firing neurons.


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NOW it’s now… NOW it’s now… NOW it’s now… It’s ALWAYZ now!

These accurate words were categorically stated in the December 14, 1986 Boston Sunday Globe comic strip, Rose is Rose. A young ice pop munching child asks for “Nudder ize bop pleez!” and his mother replies “No, you may not have another ice pop!” You might think the discussion is over, but being a typically concrete (and ice pop loving) child, her son asks, “Not EFFER?” and his mom comes back with “I don’t mean not EVER… I mean not NOW!” Of course, as you can see in the comic, the child has a reply.

Mom’s conclusion, as she and her son sit down to more ice pops: Your philosophy better not be rusty when you’re in charge of the ice pops!

This comic has graced our refrigerator, and more recently a wall, since 1986, when my father-in-law cut it out of the paper and sent it to us to commemorate our then two year old’s absolute love of ice pops.

It is always now. That is what yoga celebrates, to focus on the moment at hand. It is the only moment there is. Take a respite from what happened the moment before, and take a break from imagining the future. Breathe in a soothing inhale, breathe out a calm, slow exhale. Now be present in this moment and breathe again.

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Catching Up With Life & Death

Last year at this time, I had recently finished reading Frank Ostaseski’s book The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, and written a post about it here. Around that time I also subscribed to the Metta Institute‘s newsletter, which seems to come infrequently. The “Institute was established to provide education on spirituality in dying” and it grew out of the Zen Hospice Project, founded by Frank Ostaseski.

The most recent newsletter arrived about a week ago, and from it I learned that Ostaseski had experienced several strokes. Since my Mom also had a stroke, I was a curious to know how the experience impacted Ostaseski, and relieved to see that the newsletter also included a link to a recent interview of him at the EndWell conference, where he spoke about The Paradox of Vulnerability. (The video is also embedded at the end of this post.)

I was stuck by the pacing of his speech, which may or may not be his typical way of speaking, and by the sound of his breath, which may or may not be related to having had several strokes. But there were two comments that most impacted me. One was his reply to Courtney’s question about what he now thinks is bullshit as opposed to prior to his strokes he saw as “okay” bedside approaches to people on the journey of dying.

His response was to tell a story of a man who was dying from AIDS. Frank was sitting by the man’s bedside as the man reached for something, in the process knocking over a glass of milk. Frank told the man it was no big deal, that it could be cleaned up. The man, incensed, angrily retorted that it was a big deal. In stopping to think about this, to that man it was a very big deal to lose control of one’s body and of one’s abilities.

This, in turn, had me thinking in general terms of how often I have said to someone “it’s no big deal” in my attempts to ameliorate their discomfort. Yet, maybe I should reconsider this comment and think more intentionally about validating what the person may be feeling by at least acknowledging the way they are feeling. Much to ponder about this.

The other comment of Frank’s that still has me thinking is his story about conversations doctors and therapists have been having with him. They keep talking to him about recovery, which just now I looked up online in order to see the specific definition: Recovery is a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.

To Frank, it is not a matter of recovery. Rather, and to my mind profoundly, to him it is about discovery – what he is learning about himself and the world in each moment. Perhaps it is akin to seeing the world through a new lens, and it is definitely about accepting what he is discovering rather than fighting against it. Another online search yielded several clarifying definitions for the word discover: Find something or someone unexpectedly, become aware of, be the first to find or observe, perceive the attractions of an activity or subject for the first time. 

Perhaps this feeling of discovery is a practice of self-compassion, of accepting oneself for who you are at that very moment, of going inside and not turning away from what you find. In my yoga practice and my yoga teaching this approach surfaces in meditation and in practicing loving-kindness towards oneself. I suspect it is something with which Frank Ostaseski is quite familiar as a Buddhist.

WHO Report on the Power of the Arts

I have posted a bit about the power of dance and, in particular, about Dance for Parkinson’s (here and here). After taking trainings with Dance for PD I became a subscriber to their site for resources and updates. It was a recent email that brought to my attention the World Health Organization’s (WHO) report reviewing “the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being.”

A few sections stood out for me – the general overview of the benefits of the arts, in particular dance and music, and the sections specific to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

GENERAL BENEFITS

The report organized the benefits under two categories: Prevention and Promotion, and Management and Treatment.

Within prevention and promotion, findings showed how the arts can:

  • affect the social determinants of health
  • support child development
  • encourage health-promoting behaviours
  • help to prevent ill health
  • support caregiving

Within management and treatment, findings showed how the arts can:

  • help people experiencing mental illness;
  • support care for people with acute conditions;
  • help to support people with neurodevelopment disorders;
  • assist with the management of noncommunicable diseases; and
  • support end-of-life care.

While the report focused on a wide range of arts, my specific interests are on the performing arts of dance, music and singing. In the report several case studies are mentioned, including Systema Europe and Dance for PD programs worldwide.

The section on Cognitive decline mentions playing a musical instrument has been found to improve or preserve…general cognition, processing speed and memory…. and dance has been linked across the lifespan with better learning and memory. Dance has  been shown to…support functional improvements in balance and attention. 

A later section in the report discusses the benefits of music to help the development of new neural pathways…and to enhance structural neuroplasticity for people who have had a stroke, as well as enhancing mental health and well-being. In the same section on neurodevelopment and neurological disorders the report details the benefits of dance to improve the motor ability of people living with Parkinson’s. Just as meaningful as the physical and cognitive benefits is the impact on participating in a Dance for PD program: …dance studies involving people with PD have also typically shown high compliance rates, low dropout and continued activity beyond the study period.

I was not surprised to see a section about how the arts can positively impact caregiving across a wide range of areas including empathy, communication, understanding, clinical skills, personal skills, and personal mental health. Music has been found to improve mood and reduce stress while working, as well as improving levels of concentration, efficiency, enthusiasm and ordered working.

If you or someone you know is dealing with any number of health related issues, there is a good chance that some form of participating in the arts can prove beneficial. To that end, I urge you to peruse the WHO report to find those sections that have meaning for you, and then jump in to find an approach or program local to you or the person for whom you are caring.

Book Review – Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life

From my Goodreads Review

Having read Tharp’s The Creative Habit and The Collaborative Habit, I was eager to learn what more she had to say about life, creating and moving. At first, to my surprise, I found it difficult to get into the flow of Tharp’s writing this time round. However, as she often advises throughout her books, I kept going and, perhaps as with many a difficult activity, the more I read, the easier it became to relax into the flow.

Not surprising is that four of the five pages I bookmarked were all about movements to try. I need to move. Not just walk, because that is a daily necessity if I have any hope of leaving my comfy bed and doing anything! I am talking about truly moving by doing yoga, dancing, jumping, swirling, twirling, walking quickly, jogging short distances, bouncing up stairs, playing with my body in space as it relocates from one position of groundedness to another.

I prefer moving to standing, standing to sitting, and sitting only when tuckered out. If I must stand in place then I prefer moving in place to standing still. My psyche – body – blood – brain – the whole shebang is infinitely more content during and after intentional movement.

Taking cues from the movement maven Twyla, here are the movements I bookmarked.

Jump for Joy
Sky Jump – Stand with both feet together. Bend your knees. Jump straight up. Reach to the heavens with your arms. Repeat many time–at least three.

Ski Jump – Feet together, jump out to the right; arms go high to your left. Then jump back to center. Reverse. Repeat. Many times–at least four.

March in Place – Feet slightly apart, weight on your right, lift your left knee high. Then jump onto your left foot and bring your right knee high and slap that knee with the opposite hand. And reverse. Repeat many times. Try six.

Traveling – First to the front, weight on your right foot, jump forward to the left foot. From there back to the right foot. Then place both feet together. Reverse. Go for four each leg.
Same pattern, only now jump to the side, right and left. And then to the back. Repeat many times. Try eight. Note, as ever: the body prefers moving forward to going backward.

Then she adds a new component: MUSIC! I love, Love, LOVE moving to music! Especially when one of my favorites comes on or it is the ringtone I have for my husband or either of my sons. Look out floor, my feet automatically stat moving; it is not a choice! Tharp listed some samples of what she calls “irresistible can-do music.” I now have some of them on my iPhone and yup, she was correct, my feet found each one irresistible and they simply had to move. Her suggestions: “Boogaboo” by Jelly Roll Morton, “Stompin’ at the Savory” by Louis Armstrong, “Flying Home” by Lionel Hampton, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from his Ninth Symphony.

Of course, the more you move, the more you will build stamina, and that is the goal of the Build Your Stamina activity. To do this she suggests finding a physical activity that your body knows as a unit of time (heart beats, stair climbing…), then begin moving slowly and work up to multiple repetitions, breathing in on the preparation and breathing out on the work. “Enlarge your numbers daily. That is how we build stamina.”

As with The Collaborative Habit, there are occasional activities that are just pure fun, could make for entertaining ice breakers, and are useful tools for teaching public speaking or understanding language. I enjoyed the lure of dancing your verb – choosing a verb and finding the many varied ways of illustrating it through dance and movement. I smiled at the idea of “big” expressive language via body movements. “During the day when you have something to say–anything–you wish to say, stand up and illustrate it with a movement–any movement–of your choice. Jut a hip out to the right, pull up the left knee and slap it with the right hand. Give physical emphasis to all the points you need to make.” Indeed, this is an excellent tool to use anytime you want to make a point for your audience to remember.

Lastly, it is the rare individual who does not sustain one type of injury or another during their lifetime. Particularly as Tharp has spent most of her life dancing, its surprising that by age 78 she has sustained a relatively small number of injuries. This does make me think that the more fit we are, the more we nourish and nurture our movable bodies, the fewer injuries we may have and the easier it will be to recalibrate and heal. She borrows from the Japanese to liken the process of healing to that of kintsugi, patching a damaged vessel with gold. As she says, “The patched porcelain knows how to handle vicissitudes.”

Book Review – The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life

From my GoodReads Review

I probably read this book too quickly, eagerly gobbling up Twyla Tharp’s anecdotes, sharing of her experiences, and passing along of her words of wisdom. The Collaborative Habit, her second book published six years after this one, is on my side table waiting to be read, and her most recent book, Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life, is on reserve at our local library. Obviously, I am hooked.

I discovered Tharp’s writings late in my career, as this is my final year in the realm of independent school teaching. On the other hand, I have seen my interests and passions morph over the years from technology to movement. I put together sequences for sharing as yoga practices, I think about music to accompany those practices. Sometimes I have more energy to put in to the process, sometimes I go with my gut, but always being on my yoga mat is a form of creativity, be it for my personal practice or to guide others in their practice.

While I may be phasing out of the independent school world, I am continuing to teach, only instead of teaching children in a classroom, computer lab or MakerSpace, I am teaching adults in an open space. Either way, my preference is always to introduce the learner (or practitioner) to the world of possibilities, to pave the way for safe exploration of their interests and ideas, or in the case of yoga, their breath and body movement.

Each chapter in this book resonated, and if it didn’t happen on the first reading, a second reading might lead me to an experience in my own trajectory. (In retrospect, I did not always stop to sufficiently ponder and reflect.) Regardless of what field someone is in, including parenting, there is wisdom to take from Tharp’s ideas.

Tharp concludes each chapter with a set of exercises – not necessarily physical, though some are physical, but activities that may assist in forming, understanding and nurturing one’s own creative habit. The chapter titles might speak for themselves, or perhaps you will have no idea what they are about and that will inspire you to read this book! For me, I hope they will remind me of the meat of the chapter, and if not then I will borrow the book from the library to help me refuel my understanding,

1 – I Walk into a White Room
2 – Rituals of Preparation
3 – Your Creative DNA
4 – Harness Your Memory
5 – Before You Can Think out of the Box, You Have to Start with a Box
6 – Scratching
7 – Accidents Will Happen
8 – Spine
9 – Skill
10 – Ruts and Groves
11 – An “A” in Failure
12 – The Long Run