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

PLUMS & DISCS
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…

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!

Tom Myers explaining Fascia

YogaUOnline provides “online yoga education for every body” and recently I listened to a free interview of Tom Myers discussing “Fascia and the Power of Movement in Mind-Body Transformation.” Myers is the explainer and proselytizer of anatomy trains, a way of studying human anatomy via the connective tissue that wraps, supports, separates, and attaches individual muscles and organs. I have listened to Myers in the past and was not always swayed by his style of talking; however, this time round I found his comments compelling.

This change in my reception of what Myers has to say is perhaps because I have recently begun a deep dive into the study of anatomy, which fascinates me, and because, as a yoga teacher going into my fourth year teaching, my anatomy knowledge feels woefully limited. So it was that this statement by Myers completely grabbed my attention, followed by his description of the physicality of muscle and fascia.

There isn’t any muscle attaching to any bone anywhere at anytime in any body!

Muscle is like hamburger, it can’t attach to a bone. It needs to be organized by the net of the fascia. So there’s fascia going around the muscle, there’s fascia going through the muscle, and when the muscle runs out, that fascia from the outside and the middle of the muscle spins into a tendon, just like yarn. And then that tendon blends not even with the bone at the other end but with the saran wrap coating around the bone, so the muscle is actually pulling on the fascia, which is pulling on the saran wrap, which is around the bone.

Myers went on to say that most injuries happen to the fascia, which also intrigued me because most internal “ouch” sensations in my body I have described as a pulled or sprained or strained muscle. Those are the vocabulary words and body parts that have always simply been in use. Do I now think “oh, that must be a fascia strain?” Something to contemplate…

In explaining why the injury tends to happen to the fascia, Myers said that muscle is usually trained before the fascia, with people overbuilding the muscle and under training the fascia. The question becomes: how do you train the fascia? And the answer is to train long kinetic chains rather than individual muscles. Yoga does just that, it moves, trains and works on long kinetic chains of fascia. Myers stated that it is important in yoga to vary poses so the entire body is being trained and not the same parts over and over.

One of the ways Myers describes fascia is as the body wide extracellular net that holds us together; the fascial system is a regulatory system, our “shape shifter” and the “organ of form.” In describing the development of a new baby and the growth of fascia, it turns out the “fascial bag develops first and then the organ’s cells grow within the bag.” Again, this is a completely new piece of my learning about anatomy. Over life it turns out that:

Fascia reorganizes itself based on activity (yields more organized
fascia) or
 non-activity (yields more random organization).

Negativity Bias in the Brain

I previously blogged about Rick Hanson here in November 2017, and recently came across him again in an interview as part of the Mindfulness & Compassion at Work online summit. A friend sent me the link to MCW and I wound up watching two of the Day 1 interviews.

Hanson’s talk began with a review of brain development, which he likened to floors.

  • Floor 1 is the Reptilian brain – the brainstem and cerebellum located at the top of the spinal cord. This floor deals with safety.
  • Floor 2 is the Mammalian brain containing our limbic system – the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. Floor two deals with satisfaction.
  • Floor 3 is the Neo-cortex – the cerebral hemispheres, and deals with connection.

Hanson’s pithy analogy, which sums up his interview and also explains how these floors interact and function as a whole is:

The body (hardware) makes the mind (software).

What most interested me was Hanson’s discussion of the brain’s negativity bias. (For more detail you can read his article Confronting the Negativity Bias.) In the MCW interview he describes our brain as being like “velcro for the bad; teflon for the good” which was a necessary survival mechanism back in the days of living in the wild. Back then there was an over focus on safety because otherwise a person might become another animal’s dinner.

Over focusing on safety meant continually scanning for anything that could be detrimental to one’s life, thus the tendency to attend more to the negative factors (velcro for the bad) and less to the positive factors (teflon for the good). Fast forwarding to the twenty-first century, our brains have not forgotten how to self-protect; however, in our modern world we have far fewer heavy duty stimuli to protect against.

Instead, because the self-protection apparatus still resides within us, the system kicks in to protect us against the stressors of daily living instead of from becoming a lion’s next meal. This can become a problem if we do not learn how to ameliorate our limbic system’s natural tendencies to release cortisol whenever stressful situations are encountered. When cortisol (aka the stress hormone) is released, it sensitizes the amygdala to be on the alert. This, in turn, weakens the hippocampus, which would normally calm the amygdala and signal the hypothalamus to reduce the signals for the stress hormone. Not learning how or being unable to control our limbic system’s responses can result in living with chronic stress.

Hanson, who is the author of numerous books including Resilient, and Hardwiring Happiness, talked about the benefits of building self-reliance and “positive neuroplasticity.” According to him, just 10 minutes a day is all it takes to bring all three floors of the brain into a more positive, cohesive system. To quote him:

  • During the day look for about half-a-dozen little opportunities to feel a nice experience and notice that experience.
  • Acknowledge one thing in particular that you want to grow inside yourself and look for pathways to grow it.
  • Reset yourself by re-centering to drop into a safe, content, connected sense where all three levels of the brain are working in unison.

This resilience practice can help us manage with a strength that is calm, confident, contented, and coping rather than reactive. Via a deep breath or sigh establish a feeling of stability and move forward from there. For a slew of “simple practices” to hep build this resilience check out Hanson’s resources here.

Book Review – The Body Keeps the Score

I just finished reading Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. This is a powerful, at times quite difficult body of work to read. Being confronted by stories of other people’s trauma was at times shocking and at times cringe-worthy. I had to focus my eyes to stay on the stories yet disassociate myself from the actions behind the words.

With that said, this is a work of major importance for anyone interested in beginning to understand what trauma is and how it impacts people. In January of this year I participated in a trauma-informed training with the idea of teaching yoga in prisons. What brought me to the training was my brief experience co-leading a yoga class at the Westchester Correctional Facility in Valhalla, New York where I felt woefully unprepared. However, the training did not begin to adequately address my questions. In search of more information, I was introduced to a woman who offered to meet with me and share experiences and information. As both a lawyer and a yoga teacher in prisons, she  highly recommended Van Der Kolk’s book, and her suggestion was spot on.

There is so much information that this first read felt more of an overview. However, the book is quite in-depth, providing an overview of how the human brain functions and processes trauma, exploring how children’s brains develop and are impacted by trauma, explaining traumatic memory, and concluding with descriptions of multiple different paths to recovery. I have no idea if I will ever reread the book, but if I were to pursue the field of teaching yoga to populations impacted by trauma then this book would be on my book shelf and wind up with sticky notes coming off numerous pages.

It took me awhile to read and it is one week overdue at my library! Each chapter deserved attention and time to process. I found myself jotting down a quote or comment here and there as something caught my interest, beginning with the idea that trauma is held in all the cells of the body. I began to better understand the meaning of interoception, which is to feel and experience our body and visceral sensations. This ability can be deeply impacted by the experience of trauma. Furthermore, memories of somatic trauma are implicit, within body sensations, not explicit as narrative. In other words, memory of a trauma is held within the body, not within the frontal lobe where story telling would originate.

In order to have a sense of agencythe feeling of being in charge of your life, there needs to be interoception, attachment and attunement, these latter two a crucial part of healthy childhood development where the child develops a sense of self. Attachment is the act of developing a bond with a primary caregiver, usually a mother or father. Attunement is the synching of emotions and physical actions with another person, again usually the primary caregiver. This relies on mirror neurons, which Van der Kolk aptly describes as neural WiFi allowing one to pick up the movement, emotional state and intention of someone else.

I worked to understand what Van der Kolk referred to as the essence of trauma: Dissociation. 

Dissociation [happens when] the overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed. (pg 66)

If the first two hundred pages are all about the brain and an explanation of trauma, told via other people’s stories, the last hundred and fifty are about recovery.

Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself, of what I will call self-leadership…The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind – of your self. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed. (pg 203)

Alas, while I wanted to leave this book with a sense of hopefulness, I found myself as discouraged as Van der Kolk when he noted in his conclusion that our western society does not seem compelled to visit the causes of trauma. Currently in the United States our various civic and political structures often undermine the very approaches that research tells us would help ameliorate the base causes of trauma. As he concludes: The choice is ours to act on what we know.

 

Book Review – The Art of Dying Well

from my Goodreads Review of The Art of Dying Well – A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life by Katy Butler


My father died in a nursing home; my mother died in her home, having set the conditions for how she wanted die. I prefer the latter, which is why I am drawn to books about (as this author calls it) the art of dying well. It is a handy “practical guide to a good end of life.”

As I am not in this phase of life, most of the book does not currently pertain, causing me to chuckle at the start of most chapters. Katy Butler begins chapters with “you are likely to find this chapter useful if…” followed by a list of descriptors, most which pertain to someone who is edging close to or ready for death. However, precisely because I am not at these stages yet, her book is helpful in thinking about death and how it can be a better process than most of us might otherwise imagine.

Sitting in my desk drawer are several versions of forms, any of which when filled out will stipulate the types of life-saving procedures I do or do not want administered. I have at least three versions and they are currently all blank. Butler is adamant that some type of “authorized representative” form be filled out that will let someone else interact with Medicare and have access to medical records, along with a Durable Power of Attorney for Finances, a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, an Advance Directive and a Living Will. All of these forms are designed to be of guidance to anyone who will be helping you in any capacity when a time comes that you are unable to make decisions (be it temporarily or permanently) for yourself.

She further suggests Choosing Wisely to help eliminate unnecessary health screenings and Drugs.com or the Beers List from the American Geriatrics Society. The list helps check for drugs that are unhelpful or even dangerous for elders, and the Society is a useful resource tool.

In general, she recommends an HMO and Medicare Advantage, which she feels is better than a fee-for-service Medicare plan. And she absolutely states, multiple times, the importance of having a DNR and POLST or MOLST, creating multiple laminated copies and mounting one on the frig, keeping one in the car, giving copies to your doctor and those people most likely to meet you in an emergency situation or at the hospital.

POLST stands for Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment and more about this can be found at the National POLST Paradigm. MOLST stands for Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. These vary by state, so you would need to find the form for your state. Nonetheless, you can learn more about this at MOLST. Overall, Butler urges going for “comfort care.”

In the final chapter, Butler describes a program that I found phenomenal in its care of and approach to aiding not just an individual who is in the final stages of life, whether the individual has months ahead of them or just days, but also aiding their family. The program began in Syracuse, New York, although there are a few versions elsewhere around the country. The Syracuse program is PACEStay in the home you love. Get the care you need. This is based somewhat on the Eden Alternative, an organization I have read about in the past, it is dedicated to creating quality of life for Elders and their care partners, wherever they may live.

If you are of a certain age or have ideas or concerns about the dying stage of life, I heartily suggest reading this book. It might help dispel fears, and it certainly will provide what, for some people, will feel like a more positive alternative for facing and dealing with death, be it your own or someone you know. Further, Katy Butler provides multiple bits of information (many linked to in this review) that, unless it conflicts with your religious views, can be of tremendous assistance to you and those who might care for you if need be.

I think it an important enough book to have my husband and children read it at some point in the future and at the very least it is a prod for me to revisit topics with them that I have discussed in the past. (And sooner rather than later I should fill out one of the forms sitting in my desk drawer!) (And by the way, those forms can be revised as minds and circumstances change.)

Living Your Yoga

Last night I finished reading Judith Lasater’s Living Your Yoga – Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life. I found this book while doing research to satisfy my curiosity about her, as Lasater is teaching an online class (Experiential Anatomy) that interests me. I was hooked by the book and last night wrote this brief review on Goodreads:

While I rarely understood the translations of any given chapter’s opening Yoga Sutra or verse from the Bhagavad Gita, I completely understood Judith Hanson Lasater’s explanations. By illustrating each with a personal story she makes the teachings accessible and relatable.

I found myself wrapped up in the short chapters and Lasater’s writing, the combination which caused me to pause for introspection in a way that other, similar type books have rarely managed to do. I paused several times in the reading to jot down a quote or a thought that sprang to mind. Those notes, and my response to the book, are going to wind up in a blog post in the near future!

And THIS is the blog post. 🙂

THE FIRST POP
The first piece that struck a chord was from Spiritual Seeking, the first chapter. Lasater writes that “Suffering is caused by the emotional reaction we lay on top of our pain. By becoming aware of our emotions and thoughts about pain, their hold on us can be released and our suffering can be lessened.” This approach resonated partially because I have a high tolerance for physical pain, and also because I can recall numerous times either I or my children counted backwards while getting a shot.

Taking my mind off the thought of the pain that might come from the shot, and switching my concentration to counting backwards, proved to be a perfect antidote to the “getting” of the shot. It is now not unusual to be completely unaware of when the shot is actually given.

THE SECOND POP
In the third chapter, Letting Go, I immediately thought of when my Dad was living in a nursing home and dealing with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Lasater talks about shifting perspective and opening yourself to seeing things the way they really are. With the help of yoga (I began my practice while caring for my Dad) I learned to truly appreciate the moments spent together without letting the sadness interfere with our visits. While yoga did not resolve or negate my sadness, yoga did help me make space for my sadness and at the same time hold space for spending positive time with my Dad in smiles and joy.

THE THIRD POP
During my 200 hour yoga teacher training Paula, one of our three teachers, shared this pithy approach to life: A good “no” is better than a bad “yes.” Imagine my head nodding in agreement upon reading Lasater’s words in Service, chapter sixteen: You can say no if that is more truthful than a resentful yes.

The idea here is that being of service, giving service, is all well and good and important, but not at the expense of the person giving. The caregiver needs to take care of themself in order to be truly able to care for another. So, too, with being of service as a volunteer. It is okay, indeed necessary, to sometimes say “no” or to take a break so as to recharge and not forget the joy in and reason for volunteering in the first place. Sometimes you need to relax and renew in order to sustain.

THE FOURTH POP
Early on, in chapter two on Discipline, Lasater provided thoughts related to practice. All those years of piano practicing as a child in order to “get better” and here are words of wisdom stating that while practicing can improve skills, the heart of practicing isn’t to “get better” but rather what you put into the practice in heart and soul.

Do what you can and do it fully.

Practice is not about what you get, it is about what you give.

thoughts

I do not utter any mantra with regularity or even occasionally. However, I do have these two sentiments on slips of paper, provided during two special yoga classes. I just happened to randomly chose each slip, and both sentiments were spot on for what I needed then and continue to need. These slips sit on the shelf above my bed; they are my welcome reminder to practice what they state.

They are reminders to be here now. While some of my musings on Lasater’s book may seem disjointed, the items that popped out serve as continued reminders to make space for what is and be in the moment.