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.

Trauma Informed yoga training

In September of 2018 I volunteered at the Westchester Correctional Facility in Valhalla, New York, co-guiding yoga for men living in the mental health ward. It was apparent to

me

me that I would benefit from a training focused specifically on leading yoga in jails and prisons, and that led me to this past weekend’s Liberation Prison Yoga (LPY) training.

In New York a jail is where a person is sent if they cannot afford bail and have not yet been sentenced. Prison is where a person winds up 

once they have been sentenced. Interestingly, we were told that people in prison, particularly maximum security prisons, know the duration of their sentences and therefore are often more accepting of yoga, participation in which is a choice for them.

That’s me on the first day, almost ready to head out the door and meet my friend Stephanie to attend the training together. Usually I attend trainings on my own and it was especially nice to have a friend and colleague with whom to share the experience and debrief.

Understanding Trauma
LPY is a trauma informed yoga training. According to the American Psychological Association “trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” I was disappointed that the training did not include a more comprehensive discussion of trauma (the focus was on sexual trauma), and what happens neurologically as a result of trauma. (The National Institutes of Health provides an in-depth look at traumatic stress: effects on the brain.)

Anneke Lucas, our workshop leader and founder of LPY, shared Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) as a framework for understanding the nature of people and how a person’s system might devolve. Anneke noted that “self-esteem acts as a moral compass” and “in the moment of trauma there is a pause in emotional growth and development.”

Power Dynamics
While there was not as much as I would have like regarding the physiology and neurology of trauma, Anneke did spend time demystifying power dynamics, which I found quite interesting. She explained that abuse is a trauma-based system where the abuser has the power and the abused comes to love the abuser as a matter of survival. The abused feels a lack of self worth and therefore begins to think the abuser must be okay. For those of us wanting to share a trauma-informed yoga practice, the question becomes how do we share healing?

These are the stages of power dynamics:

  • Authority – student projects authority on the teacher, perceiving them as an authority figure in the healing role
  • Placating – student tends to placate the teacher
  • Humility – teacher needs humility to not accept the praise/placating of the student
  • Testing – student moves beyond placating to testing the teacher in their healing role
  • No Judgement – as long as the teacher is physically safe then s/he can be non-judgmental of themselves and of the student by not playing the role of the authority figure
  • Affirmation – the teacher says something positive and real about the student, thereby flipping the power dynamics around

Ultimately, as Anneke said, this work is all about personal empowerment. Thus, those of us interested in being of use should view this work as serving rather than helping or fixing. The distinction being that serving implies a connection and a sense of being equal, whereas helping suggests a relationship of inequality, and fixing focuses on a part that is broken rather than looking at the whole person. These distinctions called to mind a similar conversation regarding healing versus curing that took place in a recent yoga therapy training I took this past November and December.

Trauma-informed Yoga Practice
The second day of the training was especially informative as we broke up into small groups and practiced what a LPY yoga session might be like. We also heard from a LPY teacher who, with grace, heart and humor, shared stories and lessons from her experiences.

The highlights of a trauma-informed yoga practice include:

  • bringing conscious awareness in the form of body awareness, fostering of emotional intelligence, and journaling
  • inviting language with no commands – “I invite you to…,” providing choice, speaking in first person (I am lifting my arms…) or first person plural (we can bend the front knee…), no Sanskrit
  • connecting with the student – mats are in a circle, teacher practices with students and does not walk around, beginning with group discussion, teacher does not present as authority, no sustained silences, teacher checks in often with students, have fun, simple and direct communication
  • creating a safe space
  • self-acceptance via body-positive language and cueing that the student cannot do anything wrong
  • self-care via non-competitiveness, students respect their own limits and choose what to do
  • relaxation via meditation
  • respect for student by teacher being part of the class rather than the authority
  • trust resulting from teacher arriving on time and keeps students informed if s/he will be absent
  • mindfulness of one’s inner experience without judgement
  • meditation that highlights one’s inner light
  • living yoga philosophy by following these guidelines

Privilege
Our first day concluded with an extensive and passionate discussion about privilege. Privilege comes in many forms, among them age, money, race, sex, religion, citizenship, class, ability, sexual orientation, gender, physical attractiveness and where you live. While these were listed on a handout, the bulk of our group discussion revolved around race, sexual orientation and gender, and a relatively few people dominated the conversation.

Perhaps the best summation of the exploration is the quote that concluded the handout.

Recognizing Privilege simply means being aware that some people have to work much harder just to experience the things you take for granted (if they ever can experience them at all.)

This quote works two ways, in that those of us in positions of privilege need to work much harder to understand those of us not in positions of privilege.

Resources

Below is our group photo as posted on Instagram.

instagram

 

Okay, I’m stressed. Now what?

We can change the way we cope, both
physiologically and psychologically.

Acute stress and the body’s response to it is typically a one-two-three quick and it’s over situation, with the body soon returning to its healthy wellness balance. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is ongoing, providing precious little opportunity for the body to return to its healthy wellness balance. It is the chronic stress that causes the damage, and the damage can be physical, emotional or psychological, or any combination of these. From Robert Sapolsky, page 245 of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers:

…the hormones of the stress-response should be nice and quiet when nothing bad is happening, secreted in tiny amounts. When a stressful emergency hits, your body needs a huge and fast stress-response. At the end of the stressor, everything should shut off immediately.”

To understand what happens when the stress-response doesn’t shut off immediately I suggest you read Sapolsky’s book, as he goes in-depth into how undue stress impacts us, with focus on multiple stress-related diseases. Thankfully, he also provides some insight into how to ameliorate the impact of ongoing stress, citing four factors the management of which can make a positive difference.

  • Having an outlet, “especially a healthy outlet, especially physical activity” is primary because the stress response primes the body for physical action so what better approach than to provide an outlet for that physical need! In any case, the frustration generated by the stress needs to have a positive outlet.
  • Being part of a social network or having a close friend to provide support to you but also, equally important, for you to provide support to them. Social support is a two-way process of receiving and of giving.
  • The importance of predictability, the ability to have a sense of what will happen by having “accurate information and in manageable quantities,” though Sapolsky noted that too much predicability can lead to boredom and too little can lead to stimulation, some of which might be exciting and too much of which can be stressful.
  • The importance of control, the ability to have an impact on the direction of events. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst” and “control what can be controlled.”

Sapolsky says that the loss of predictability and control are closely related. The sense of being able to predict and control something provides the perception of things improving, which can have a positive impact on managing the response to the stress.

He further suggests that meditation can be a balm when done regularly and sustained over a period of time. Finally, it is important to pick the right strategy at the right time.

Repetition of certain activities can change the connection
between your behavior and activation of your stress-response.