Balance & the Value of Learning to Fall

I saw something sad in the park this morning. A boy was trying to learn to ride a bicycle, but I could see that he never would — not with his present approach. Why? He had one training wheel, and the bike was leaning about 15-degrees off vertical as he struggled to use the bicycle as a tricycle. I could see that the metal arm that supported the training wheel was starting to bend from the strain — thus making the lean ever more pronounced. [Incidentally, with two training wheels, I think he might rapidly learn to ride because he’d experience tipping from one side to the other, through the balance point.]

I’ve told yoga students before that there are three timelines for learning inversions (upside-down postures, which all require one’s body to learn to balance 180-degrees out of phase with the balance we all mastered as toddlers.) The first timeline is if you are willing to learn break-falls (i.e. how to safely land when — not if, it will happen — one loses balance.) If so, one can learn any inversion (that one is otherwise physically capable of performing) in an afternoon. Second, if one gets near (but not up against) a wall, and only uses the wall when one is falling towards over-rotation, then one can learn the inversion in a month — give or take. Finally, one can lean up against the wall for a million years and one will not spontaneously develop the capacity to independently do the posture. Why? Because one’s center of gravity is outside one’s body, which means one is in a perpetually unstable state, and one cannot stabilize into a balanced position from a state of falling (and leaning is just falling with a barrier in the way.)

Finding balance requires that the body be able to adjust toward any available direction to counteract the beginning of a fall in the opposite direction. I was fortunate to have studied a martial art that required learning break-falls from the outset, this made learning balances (not just inversions, but also arm balances, standing balances, etc.) much easier because there was no great concern about falling. I knew my body could fall without being injured.

Without falling there’s no learning balance, and if you only fall into the under-rotated position, you are still not learning to achieve stable balance. At some point, you will need to experience the dread fall towards over-rotation.

Time to ditch the training wheels.

BOOK REVIEW: BrainComix by Jean-François Marmion

BraincomixBraincomix by Jean-François Marmion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This nonfiction graphic novel surveys the brain and what it does, including: sensory processing, memory, attention, unconscious activities, learning, language, emotional experience, etc. It also reviews some of the more intriguing brain disorders (e.g. synesthesia, apraxias, phantom limb syndrome, etc.) and what they tell us about the nature of the mind.

If you’re looking for a soup-to-nuts overview of the brain that covers the gist without getting in too deep, and which is quick and easy, this book is hard to beat. If you have read much about neuroscience, you probably won’t be introduced to anything new. The book employs the usual suspects of pop-sci neuroscience and cognitive psychology: Phineas Gage (i.e. rebar through the brain guy,) H.M. (i.e. couldn’t form new memories after brain surgery guy,) the rubber hand experiment, the gorilla basketball experiment, etc. However, because it’s such a quick and light read, it’s not much of an investment to review these topics, and – who knows – maybe you’ll retain more due to the graphics.

The premise is a simple one, the brain is being interviewed for a Larry King-style talk show that at times becomes a Jerry Springer-style show as “characters” (e.g. a neuron, a homunculus, the conscious mind, etc.) charge the stage to get in their two cents. This might not be the most creative or clever approach that could’ve been taken, but it also doesn’t distract from the objective of teaching about the brain – as a more intense plot might have done. The art is crudely drawn, though I suspect this is on purpose to make clear this is not a textbook, but rather a pop-sci book.

If you are looking for an introduction to the brain, you should check this book out. (Also, if you’re looking to review, quickly and concisely, you might find it of value as well.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Prescriptive Stretching by Kristian Berg

Prescriptive StretchingPrescriptive Stretching by Kristian Berg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Many people have problems that they are only aware of through symptoms like head aches or back pain that result from imbalances in muscle tightness. This book explores stretching, systematically.

The book is divided into four parts. The first, entitled “Stretching Fundamentals,” presents fundamental principles and background information. Besides basic guidelines for stretching, it also discusses anatomy and physiology of the muscular system at a rudimentary level.

The second part is about targeted stretches, and it forms the heart of the book. This section, literally, goes from head to toe (and then back to the arms) explaining techniques for stretching major skeletal muscles. For some muscles, there is more than one stretch shown, but for others there is just one. Each entry on a muscle is divided into two parts. The first, “Muscle Facts,” describes the muscle, the causes of tightness, the symptoms of tightness, tests to gauge how tight the muscle is, and any precautions that should be considered when stretching the muscle. The second presents the stretching technique with a line drawing and mention of any mistakes to avoid. There are a mix of solo and partner stretches, as well as those using a ball.

The third part presents programs for pain relief. There’s a useful section that discusses morning aches and pains, and the ways in which one is sleeping might be leading to a crick in the neck or shoulder pain. This section not only lists the muscles that one should stretch to address various issues, but it gives little anatomical drawings in the context of the stretch that both help show what one is stretching and gives a reminder of the stretch.

I came to this book from the perspective of a yoga practitioner and teacher. If you’re wondering how these stretches differ from yoga, a major factor is that balance is taken out of the equation. The stretches in the book are done in a stable position. The downside of this is two-fold. First, if you want to build and maintain balance, you need to do an entirely separate set of exercises for that (depending upon the condition of the individual that could be necessary or a waste of time.) Second, one needs access to a wide range of equipment such as tables, adjustable benches, etc. (not to mention a partner, in some cases) to make these exercises work. The upside is that the individual is in a safe and stable position, so if they have poor balance they are at minimal risk.

The last section is one assessing flexibility and muscle balance. People think more about the former than the latter, but for most people, how balanced opposing muscle groups are probably contributes more to painful problems in the body. Because some muscles are easier to stretch than others, a book that shows how to get to the more challenging muscles is a great thing to have.

The ancillary matter includes a variety of graphics (mostly line drawings and anatomical drawings), a section upfront on the major components of the muscular and skeletal systems, and a references section in back.

I found this book to be useful and informative. I’d recommend it for individuals such as trainers, yoga teachers, athletes, and others who want to understand stretching at a level beyond technique.

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POEM: Sensation

i can feel my heartbeat
i shouldn’t feel my heart beat
but i’m sharply folded
when i stand and blossom
the warmth rushes through me
and the pins and needles
trickle through my body
subtle the sensation
time attuned sensation
now i know my heartbeat
subtle silent heartbeat

5 Books to Introduce You to Your Gut Microbiota

5.) The Wild Life of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn: This book takes a broad look at the role that hangers-on have on  human life.

 

4.) The Psychobiotic Revolution by Scott C. Anderson et. al.: This book focuses on the role that our gut microbiota have on our mental well-being–which increasingly appears to be substantial.

 

3.) Missing Microbes by Martin J. Blaser: The focus of this book is on how our love of antibiotics in every form– from pills to antimicrobial soaps–is killing us by denying us microbiotic diversity and robustness.

 

2.) 10% Human by Alanna Collen: Collen’s book addresses many of the same issues as the other books mentioned, but–as the title suggests–it emphasizes the fact that a human has 10 times as many hangers-on of other species as it does cells that are contiguous to the body. (If you’re wondering how this could be, it’s because the human body has some pretty big cells [some macroscopic, in fact] and the bacteria and other single-celled species tend to be relatively tiny.)

 

1.) I Contain Multitudes by Ed Young: This is probably the most highly-regarded of the books on this subject. It was considered one of the best science books of 2016.

5 Essential [and Sometimes Hilarious] TED Talks About the Human Body

5.) 3 Clues to Understanding your Brain by VS Ramachandran: Ramachandran discusses three afflictions that offer insight into the working of the brain. Capgras Syndrome occurs when individuals think loved ones have been replaced by impostors. Phantom limbs occur when there is an amputated limb which the brain continues to feel the presence of. Synesthesia is a muddling of sensory inputs /experiences.





4.) Charming Bowels by Giulia Enders: How we poop. How our gut nervous system influences our central nervous system. Why there is such a thing as “too clean for your own good.”





3.) Can We Create New Senses for Humans by David Eagleman: Our senses are narrowly attuned to taking in that information that offered evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. How might technology help us transcend those bounds?





2.) 10 Things You Don’t Know about Orgasm by Mary Roach: Eyebrow orgasm, thought-induced orgasm, orgasm among the deceased, and how orgasm may cure your hiccups.





1.) The Biology of Our Best and Worst Selves by Robert Sapolsky: Sapolsky explains that one can’t look at one biological system to understand violence or cooperation. Instead, genetics, environment, our nervous system, our endocrine system, and even the digestive system come into play. He also considers how we change.

5 Facts about Hyperkyphosis

Source: William Crochot via Wikipedia

 

Hyperkyphosis (a.k.a. Excessive Thoracic Kyphosis, “Dowager’s Hump”, or often just called Kyphosis) is an excessive outward curve of the thoracic (chest) region of the spine. There are many causes and contributors to this problem, but–for the purposes of this post–I’ll be focusing on postural kyphosis. There is a natural curvature in this part of the spine that is healthy. However, as is also true of the lumbar spine, the amount of curvature can become excessive, leading to a number of health conditions.

 

5.) Hyperkyphosis increases the risk of injurious falls in older people. Having one’s head forward, when combined with a lack of capacity to respond quickly to loss of balance, makes it more likely one will fall and hurt oneself.

Source: Kado, D.M., et. al. 2007. Hyperkyphotic posture and risk of injurious falls in older persons: the Rancho Bernardo Study. J Gerontol A Bio Sci Med Sci. Vol. 62: 652-657.

 

4.) As far as the muscles of your upper back and neck are concerned, an 11 pound head can weigh 40 to 50 pounds when it’s forward positioned. Hyperkyphosis and forward head position tend to go hand in hand. If you purposely slump your back you’ll see why.

Source: Hansraj, K.K. 2014. Assessment of stresses in the cervical spine caused by posture and position of head. Surg Technol Int. Vol. 25(Nov): 277-279.

 

3.) There is reason to believe the young are becoming more prone to hyperkyphosis in conjunction with “text neck” from spending lots of time slumped over their phones.

Source: in addition to the Hansraj journal article above, see also: Ward, Victoria.2015. Children ‘becoming hunchbacks’ due to addiction to smart phones. The Telegraph. October 16. Online edition; last accessed Nov. 7, 2017.

 

2.) Yoga can help reduce hyperkyphosis. A test group who practiced hour-long sessions of yoga three days a week for 24 weeks showed an improvement in the flexicurve angle of kyphosis.

Source: Greendale, G.A., et. al. 2013. Yoga decreases kyphosis in senior women and men with adult onset hyperkyphosis: results of a randomized controlled trial. J Am Geriatr Soc. 57(9): 1569-1579

 

1.) Older individuals may be at risk for fractures, particularly when doing spine flexing movements, but careful use of spinal extensions (e.g. hands free cobra or superman shalabasana [locust]) can build strength and reduce fracture risk.

Source: Katzman, W.B., et. al. 2010. Age-related hyperkyphosis: its causes, consequences, and management. J Orthop Sports Ther. 40(6): 352-360

BOOK REVIEW: Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland

Trying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of SpontaneityTrying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book’s paradoxical title is perfect for its paradoxical subject matter, which is famously expressed in such quotes as, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” [ver. 48 of the Tao Te Ching.]  Slingerland lays down the ancient Chinese wisdom of wu-wei and de, but provides something novel by putting it in the context of the positive psychology and neuroscience of today. Wu-wei literally means “no doing,” but can be more meaningfully defined as “effortless action.” De (pronounced “duh”) is a charisma seen in people who have mastered the effortlessness and spontaneity of wu-wei.

While the book is built around the varied approaches of four Chinese philosophers—two Confucians (i.e. Confucius and Mencius) and two Taoists (i.e. Laozi and Zhuangzi)—the author relates this philosophy to the present-day thinking found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of Flow, and the neuroscience of the subconscious.

The book consists of eight chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters outline the concepts of wu-wei and de using both Chinese and Western stories and examples to help clarify these arcane ideas and put them in the context of the social and spiritual spheres. Chapter 1 offers an extensive discussion of the operation of the brain as it relates to the discussion of effortlessness and spontaneity.

Chapters three through six make up the core of the book, and present the approach and thinking of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, respectively. This “boy-girl-boy-girl” Confucian-Taoist organization offers the reader sound insight into the varied approaches and allows one to see the evolution of thinking. Confucius gets the first cut, but his approach to effortlessness and spontaneity involves a great deal of effort and planning. It might seem that Laozi’s approach–which does away with effort and planning–might be more apropos, but it’s hard to imagine anything of benefit actually being spawned by such a loosy-goosy approach. The more nuanced approaches of Mencius and Zhuangzi offer additional insight, but do not eliminate the paradox. It’s this paradox that’s the subject of chapter seven.

The final chapter examines what the reader can take away–given that the paradox of wu-wei seems inescapable. The author proposes that, paradox or not, there is value in pursuit of effortlessness and spontaneity, and progress can be made by understanding and accepting said paradox.

The book has no graphics, but is annotated and has a bibliography–as well as an appendix table that summarizes the various approaches to wu-wei.

I enjoyed this book and found it fascinating. It’s highly readable, having humor and a wide range of examples from ancient myths to pop culture. The book offers a great value-added by considering the relevance of modern science and psychology to this ancient concept. I’d highly recommend this for individuals interested in Chinese / Eastern philosophy, as well as anyone hoping to bring a little more effortlessness and spontaneity into his or her life.

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BOOK REVIEW: Better Balance by Salamon and Manor

Better Balance: Easy Exercises to Improve Stability and Prevent Falls (Harvard Medical School Special Health Report Book 6)Better Balance: Easy Exercises to Improve Stability and Prevent Falls by Suzanne E. Salamon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Balance is one of those qualities that one takes for granted until it fails. Actually, given our bipedal stance, it’s extraordinary that we aren’t falling down all the time. Achieving a stable upright posture takes a lot of complex anatomy and physiology operating flawlessly. I picked up this book because I believe a yoga teacher should be cognizant of the range of capacities for balance that might be seen while teaching. If one teaches students in their 20’s to their 40’s, the need for balance modifications and capacity building might not come up much. It’s when one deals with the very young as well as older students that one sees flawed balance in large measure. [And—let’s face it—the very young can fall down 30 times, pop right back up each time, and be all the stronger for it, and so mature students are the major concern.]

This isn’t the first book in this series of Harvard Medical School Guides that I’ve read and reviewed, and probably won’t be the last. (see: “Your Brain on Yoga,” “Guide to Tai Chi,” and “Low Back Pain.”) I’ve found the series to be beneficial because it presents scientifically sound information, but isn’t afraid to give alternative approaches—such as yoga and tai chi—their due when the studies show that said activities are of benefit. This book is no exception. At several points the authors mention tai chi as being beneficial, and the book includes a yoga balance workout as one of the six that it contains.

The book is organized into 13 sections (i.e. chapters.) The first chapter describes how our vestibular (inner ear), visual, and proprioceptive (the nervous system elements that track where one’s body parts are) systems interact to keep us upright.

Chapter 2 presents an overview of a range of conditions that affect balance. Some of these influence balance specifically and exclusively, but many are conditions that one might not associate with balance problems though they’ve been shown to increase the risk of imbalance. There are sections about which medications have side-effects adversely affecting balance as well as what your doctor may be able to do about balance problems.

Chapter 3 is a “Special Bonus Section” and is of particular importance to mature readers or those who care for said individuals. The topic is preventing falls, and this section describes common causes of falls and offers checklists of considerations for setting up the environments in which those with balance problems will be active.

Chapter 4 introduces various types of activities that improve balance, and chapter 5 is a brief guide to considerations relevant to beginning a balance workout such as whether to consult one’s doctor and what safety precautions should be considered.

In chapter 6, the authors propose how balance workouts can be merged into one’s overall fitness plan. A lot of this chapter is an introduction to exercise—e.g. how much is needed, and what the benefits are. Then there are some tips about how to smoothly merge balance with other exercises.

Chapter 7 presents more specific considerations for beginning balance workouts. Unlike chapter 5, this section provides information about equipment, warm-ups, and how to interpret the instructions for the workouts. The latter is beneficial because the workouts are in a one page per exercise format, and this section negates the need to be needlessly repetitive.

The next six sections (chapters 8 through 13) are various balance workouts that are organized in an easiest to hardest format. The first is a beginner’s workout, which is performed with a chair—used for sitting in some exercises and as a prop in others. The second is a standing balance workout that features simple static balance maneuvers. The level of challenge is similar to that of the first workout, except that one is without a chair prop. The third workout adds in movement to help maintain balance through steps and motion. The next workout is similar but utilizes another prop, a 360 step (a circular step of similar height to the more common Reebok rectangular step, but circular.) The penultimate workout uses a pseudo-balance beam. The author’s mention a product put out by Beamfit, but other manufacturers produce a similar product. It’s a low, dense foam beam that sits on the floor. The last workout utilizes classic Hatha Yoga poses, and features both expected poses like tree pose (vrksasana) and others such as down dog (adho mukha svanasana) that might come as a surprise.

There’s a resources section and glossary at the end. The book presents many graphics, most notably photos of each of the exercises in the six workouts.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who needs an overview of the problems of balance and what can be done about them. It’s short, readable, and user-friendly.

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5 Tools to Hulk Your Way Out of Your Comfort Zone


5.) Take a class / Join a group: While I’m partial to yoga and the martial arts, the class could be in any area that presents a challenge.  However, there are a couple of advantages to the aforementioned two (to which I would add dance.)

 

First, these disciplines train one to be expressive with one’s body and to move more freely. This can do wonders for confidence. People store tension in their bodies without even realizing it. Many have postural problems that effect confidence and self-perception.  A 2014 New Zealand study found that posture can have a strong effect on emotional state.

 

Second, no matter who one is, one will be challenged by new approaches to movement.  The average person has great difficulty learning to use their body in new ways. One needs to drill in movements conscientiously to achieve competency. Our conscious mind, frequently gets in the way. Even the most athletic and coordinated people will need to work it, failing repeatedly until they succeed.

 

Why is the challenge so important? Many people go through life afraid to fail, but far too few fear never failing. Sounds idiotic. Nobody wants to fail. I have some hard news. If you’ve never failed, it’s not because you are unmitigatedly awesome in all things. It’s because you’re living in a box and cherry-picking life experiences that feel unthreatening.

 

If, like me, you’re an introvert, this approach offers the additional benefit of social interaction that is of a predictable / schedulable nature. One needs the interaction, but the problem comes when one has social interactions and / or sensory stimulation that go on too long and in an unpredictable fashion. Therefore, being able to schedule such time is a good way to go about being a more productive introvert.

 

 

4.) Writing  / Visualization:  These two approaches to mentally rehearsing allow one to keep one’s inner critic in check. The problem with simply day-dreaming it is that critic can chirp in without being that cognizant of it.

In visualization, one quiets the mind and can then non-judgmentally acknowledge and dismiss the negative thoughts. In writing–be it as a journal entry, poem, or a story–we may not notice the nagging voice of the inner critic on the first draft, but you can take note of it and undo it in rewrites.

 

 

3.) Travel / Living abroad: I should point out that not just any old travel will have the desired effect. Many people plan their travel with the objective of being comfortable at the fore.  They eat at places that serve the same kind of food as at home. They stay in hotels with virtually all of the comforts of home, and sometimes many more. This is understandable because the traveler might just be seeking rest.  However, if one is seeking the epiphany or enlightenment experiences talked of by backpackers and ashram-dwellers, that’s not something that comes from staying in resorts or eating at American fast food joint. Those kinds of brain changing experiences come when one is stripped from the familiar and has to surrender one’s attachments to the way one thinks the world should be. One’s perception of culture and worldview changes radically when immersed in a foreign environment.

 

 

2.) Game it / Roleplay: There’s a big movement to gamify all manner of everyday activities.  In her book, “Reality is Broken,” scholar of game design Jane McGonigal describes a game called “Chore Wars” that incentivizes the doing of mundane household chores.

 

What is it about games that help one move beyond one’s limits? First of all, it incentivizes actions. And if you’ve ever noticed people playing games on their phone or FB for hours on end, you’ll note that it doesn’t take much reward to keep people plugging away—as long as the game is structured well.

 

Second, good games provide a built-in process of “leveling up.” This means that the challenge keeps being intensified as our skill level advances. Those familiar with Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of “Flow” will recognize that matching skill level to challenge level is one of the most crucial elements in facilitating flow-state.

 

Roleplaying is a bit like the previously mentioned tools of visualization and gaming in that it’s a way to have a low-cost rehearsal. If one has someone with whom one can engage in such a roleplay, than one also has someone to help make you aware of your inner critic and its deleterious effects. And that brings us to the final tool:

 

 

1.) Have a spouse, partner, and or confidant: In “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” Robert Sapolsky tells a story of being interviewed by a magazine. He was asked what the number one thing that they could tell their readers about reducing stress.  To which he replied that the most well-established factor in stress reduction is to have a spouse / life partner with whom to share one’s challenges.  Unfortunately, this was a magazine for women business leaders, a significant portion of whom had given up on permanent relationships and families. They, therefore, asked him what else he had.  Still it’s hard to overlook the anxiety-fighting effects of having someone around with whom to share one’s dread.