It can be seductively easy to gravitate towards the mainstream movement trends that we see buzzing about social media and other popular platforms, and equally easy to forget that each of our needs are not the same. Each of us is unique, meaning the latest fitness and diet trends may work for some, but not all. Let’s take a step back from the chaos of social trends and work towards becoming fearless experimenters.
Discovering the lifestyle and health-conscious choices that work best for our own bodies requires experimentation. Whether you’re content in your current routine or frustrated by a lack of progress, mixing things up can help you identify positive (and negative) patterns to figure out what works best for you and your body. Even when things are going well, we can’t tell if they could be better unless we reach beyond our comfort zones.
Where to begin? Before mixing things up, it’s beneficial to go back to the basics. Two essential processes that often get overlooked are breathing and stretching.
Breathing is the only autonomic physiological function that we can voluntarily control, making it a unique target for conscious control, meditation and therapy. The problem is that most people have no idea that they are breathing wrong. How can you tell? Inhale deeply: do your neck and shoulders rise vertically when you inhale? This is termed “vertical breathing” and can actually lead to a variety of negative health consequences, by constricting muscles around the neck. There seems to be a common misconception that “vertical breathing” corresponds to deeper breathing; as we move away from this misconception, we can train ourselves to breathe more optimally. To practice breathing optimally (“horizontally”), start by sitting up straight, and inhale through your nose. Pay attention to your upper abdomen – it should expand along with your chest, not your shoulders! Breathe slowly and fully in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth.
Pilates is extremely popular today, and one of the core (ha, ha) precepts of Pilates is proper breathing, using not only chest and abdomen, but the often-ignored muscles of the back of the rib cage. Various yogas, especially pranayama (see below) focus on breathing as meditation and incorporate different breathing patterns.
Stretching & Fascia
We have all seen animals stretch, especially cats, who have an innate genius for effective stretching. In humans, stretching is most commonly associated with increasing flexibility and warming up before workouts. Ballet, barre training and Pilates all incorporate stretching moves for suppleness and posture. Like breathing, stretching is an innate activity that we can all perform with minimal training and equipment. Something as simple as mindfully stretching every morning and evening can improve sleep quality and reduce stress, muscle pain and joint stiffness.
A key target of stretching is fascia, the densely-woven, soft tissue layer of the connective tissue system. Disruptions in fascia have been linked to various chronic conditions such as chronic lumbar backache, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and many others. Dr. Robert Schleip, a leading researcher in the field of fascia and movement therapy, has discovered that many stretching techniques positively influence connective tissue and alleviate symptoms associated with joint stability and musculoskeletal pain. Additionally, Specialists at Mayo Clinic have found that stretching is connected to stress relief, which is a major contributor to the symptoms of autoimmune conditions. Thus, stretching presents many benefits beyond increased flexibility.
Beyond the Basics
The following movement options are good places to start to activate your mind and body by adding something fresh to your routine. You may find yourself stretching and strengthening muscles you didn’t even realize you had, or unlocking a new passion for years to come.
Yoga may seem old hat to hipper readers, especially those in the big urban centers of the East and West Coasts. But new types of yoga practices seem to be springing up all over these days. For those who have tried yoga, you have most likely tried one of the variants of hatha (physical) yoga, popularized in the US from the 1960’s-80’s. But there are many yogas: physical, mental and spiritual practices developed over many centuries in India. For example, yoga therapy, which emphasizes practices specifically to manage disease and improve health; pranayama, practices that harness breathing, and kundalini, which combines asanas, pranayama, mantras (sounds) and visualization techniques. With so many different types of yoga to choose from, you can alternate between more physically demanding options and relaxing, meditative styles.
2. Tai Chi
The mind-body practice of Tai Chi stems from ancient Chinese tradition, combining martial arts exercises and meditative practice to achieve harmony of mind, body, and spirit. This practice is finding a growing Western following, and although the practice of Tai Chi looks rather simple, it targets a variety of different muscles, so you may find yourself feeling sore the next day! According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 2.5 million Americans practice Tai Chi to increase energy, stamina, flexibility, muscle strength and definition, and balance.
The Feldenkrais Method has two approaches. Both use focused mindfulness and slow, gentle movements to retrain the body, but one approach is passive (performed by a practitioner on the student’s body), while the other is active (performed by the student). Most people start with a practitioner and then move on to more active practice as they master the techniques. The slow, mindful movements of Feldenkrais have been linked to improved posture and balance, reduced pain, elevated moods and increased flexibility.
Making moves towards wellness
In seeking to promote a culture of optimal wellbeing and reduce the startling statistics of chronic disease prevalence, we must embrace fearless experimentation, find joy in self-care, and keep moving! Together, we can create a new norm for healthier, happier selves and future generations.
Discover more movement therapy options, from underlying research to expectations and potential benefits of each experience, by downloading Dr. Bonnie Feldman’s ebook here.