Keep Looking Up!

surfergirl

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“Look up! Look up! Look up!!” my surfing instructor kept yelling to me as I moved to standing on my board. Keeping my head up and eyes focused on the beach kept me on the board. Your vestibular system, located in your head, is your balance system. Lose that, and you can no longer stand upright. Proprioception (senses the relative position of body parts to neighboring body parts) and kinesthesia (eye-hand coordination) are supported by this system. So when you keep looking down, balance and proprioception are affected. On a surf board, that means you’ll go into the water!

That lesson comes back time and time again. For instance, in Chi Running (as well as tai chi), putting your focus on the horizon – you use Yi’Chi (directing your intention and energy through your eyes). Not only does this relax you, but it helps train your proprioceptive system (and rely less on looking down at the ground) , especially as you move faster. Original Strength teaches one to keep looking at the horizon when rocking, rolling or crawling (and later, walking). The Vestibular system (Head Control) plays a major role in these components of OS and improves balance and movement. And a post from Nutritious Movement succinctly explains why looking up helps you ‘read the ground’ with your feet.

Text-Neck

http://westsubpainrelief.com/

Constantly looking down (computers and cell phones usage reinforce this habit) affects your balance, as well as your neck muscles and vertebrae. When you look up, you most likely will do so by lifting your chin to lift your eyes, thanks to your inherent righting reflex, combined with the habit of looking down. Your cervical spine pays the biological tax, especially if you are already extending your neck. Crunchy neck is no bueno!

You also might be looking up by lifting your chest which 1) puts a shear in your thoracic spine (and compresses the ribs in back, making it harder to get a good breath) and 2) constantly reinforces a shortened psoas muscle (tight back, anyone?).

Instead of looking up via a chin lift or rib thrust, keep your sternum vertical (ribs down), and ramp your head back up onto your shoulders. You will probably be looking down at this point. Without lifting your head OR your chest, move your eyes toward the horizon (look up!!!). Do this even if you are wearing glasses. You’ll feel a stretch in the bottom part of your eye muscles as your eyes roll upward. The more you habitually look down (at the screen or ground) the more you’ll feel it. Think of this as an eye stretch and do it frequently.

Keep dropping the chin back down to a neutral position (level) and keep the sternum level, as you walk along. You’ll not only feel taller (for me, that’s a HUGE bonus), but you’ll breathe easier, and over time, your neck muscles will release (bye bye tension). Now look up (use your eyes!) and watch the world around you. There is so much to see out there! And your proprioceptive system, along with your whole body health, will get better for it!

Bonus: as you walk, play with leading your head movement (side-to-side and nodding up-down) with your eyes. As you rotate your head, notice if your chin drops as your near the same side shoulder. This is because we tend to use our anterior (front) muscles to turn the head. You can put your focus on your posterior (back) neck muscles and ‘pull the head around from behind’. This not only keeps that cervical spine in alignment, but, at least for me, it results in greater range of motion.

 

Beyond the Heel Strike

What You Think It Is, It Ain’t
– Ida Rolf

Occasionally (three times in the last 24 hours), people learning about or practicing Chi Running tell me they are trying really hard not to heel strike. That is the major focus of their running, seemingly without regard to what the rest of their body is doing (both in running, and through out the day, but that’s another post…). I usually notice in their running an increased ankle tension (and sometimes tension further up the kinetic chain), that leads to lower leg tension, stiff gait cycle etc. Thing is, that foot landing/position is affected by many things, such as tightness in your calves, hamstrings, hip flexors (including psoas), shoulders…Running is a whole body experience, and trying to ‘spot treat’ a faulty movement pattern is futile, in the long run.

Everyone’s body moves differently, and while some differences may be genetic, many are based on how we’ve moved throughout our lives. We all have movement blind spots, and part of a good movement practice is developing an awareness of them. Our movement and stance have an individual flair (much like the accent in spoken language) that probably started when we were first learning to walk. We mimicked those who were our closest caregivers (more on that in Move Your DNA).  If you have pictures of you as a young child with your caregiver, look at how you both stand. It’s kinda creepy! That, and how you move (or don’t) throughout the day, and what you wear most frequently on your feet, can affect your alignment, which in turn affects how you run and where/how your foot lands.

Credit: Dr. Wm. Rossi.

Credit: Dr. Wm. Rossi.

Most people in our culture live their lives in positive heeled shoes, which has an overall effect on whole body. Even a one inch heel can move your body out of alignment, resulting in poor ankle mobility, shortened calves, tight hamstrings and psoas muscles, displacing your pelvis (moving your weight onto your forefeet) and upper body (leading to a rib thrust), among other things. When you take this body into a run, all those habits and positions (which are not CONSCIOUS, but what your body has adapted to) come with you, making it harder to move in a more efficient way. The body does what it is told most frequently, and trying to correct one body part’s position without addressing the whole body alignment doesn’t work.

The good news is you are more malleable than you think. But remember, you can’t spot treat a faulty movement pattern (like a heel strike); running and walking and standing are WHOLE BODY ISSUES. While Chi Running emphasizes a midfoot landing, many people miss that you have to create conditions for that to happen. In other words, start to become aware of

  • what your current movement habits are throughout the day
  • where your body is in space in both standing and moving throughout the day
  • the difference between cognating (aka analytically thinking your way through) a particular movement (position) and the felt-sense of that movement (position)

What can you do? Start with working on your alignment throughout the day, learning, in the process, more about your  particular structure (and possibly how it came to be). See the link above for a good reference. Notice where your feet are. What are your habits? Do you stand wider than pelvis width apart and thrust your pelvis? Do you load your weight on one leg and let that hip move out to the side? Most of all, notice what you do most frequently. While you don’t (and won’t be able to at first) have to stand and move perfectly aligned all the time, developing self awareness will help ferret out those blind spots. And increasing your frequency of moving toward alignment (as well as moving) will get you there faster than if you just worked on it once a day. Hence, throughout the day.

To get the body back towards its original alignment, here is one exercise you can do, throughout the day, that will help. This is the Calf Stretch. A good visual for common ‘cheats’ is here. Over time, especially when you decrease your heel-wearing time, as well as your sitting time, your posterior muscles will start to lengthen, your whole body alignment will start to fall into place, and that heel strike you worked so hard to avoid, will become a nonissue, making your running more of a moving meditation rather than an exercise in trying to spot fix a problem. You are how you move.

Better Body Biking

aligning your parts for a better ride…

Bike love loop at VP

Cyclofemme Seattle 2016 by Madi Carlson – check out her book Urban Cycling!

I love riding my bicycle. It gets me around – errands, camping, commuting, etc. But it does come at a cost to my body if I don’t balance it with other activities like walking. And if I don’t pay attention to my alignment, I feel it even more – neck, shoulders, hips, calves, to name a few spots. Modern inventions (chairs, cars, skis, etc), don’t involve using all the muscles walking does (and some not at all!) Muscles that aren’t being used (we’re talking micro to macro movements) frequently and for long durations, tend to get stiff, and some get ‘casted’ into shapes that can have a detrimental effect to other parts of the body (tight hip flexors, anyone?).  As I’ve been practicing whole body movement more, I’ve been pondering what I can do while on the bike to get movement to as many parts as I can. Improving my alignment allows that to happen. It isn’t that hard to do, as you’ll see.

Davey shows good alignment on the bike. Photo courtesy of familyride.us

Davey (G&O Family Cyclery) shows good alignment on the bike. Photo courtesy of familyride.us

First, make sure you have a good bike fit. Too far a reach can lead to hyperextending elbows, and too short a top tube can flex the back and kink the cervical spine. Find the frame size (or get adjustments) to make your fit just right.

Second, learn what your reflexive habits are on the bike. Get into a quadruped (all fours) position, with your knees right under your hips, and your hands under your shoulders. Notice how you arrange your body –

  • Is your back arched or is it flexed?
  • Are your ears up around your shoulders?
  • Are your ribs falling towards the ground?
  • Which way do your elbows point – to either side or toward your feet?
  • Are your elbows hyperextended?
  • What about your hands? Are they pointed towards each other or do they point away?
  • What’s your tailbone doing? Are your sit bones (those two spots that get sore when you haven’t ridden in a while) pointing toward the ground, or toward the wall behind you?
  • Extend one leg back. Does your hip/pelvis move (do you drop a hip?) Do you arch your low back?

What you do here reflects what you most likely do when you are on your bike. When your pedal crank is horizontal to the ground, you are basically in this quadruped position, at least on that side of the bike. Here are some adjustments you can make, while still on the floor, that translate to on the bike:

  • Hands and elbows – spread your fingers, palms to floor, and point the middle fingers to the front, and the thumbs toward each other (L shape). Note: you may not be able to get the thumbs perpendicular to the middle fingers, but try. Put a slight bend in your elbows (especially if you have hyper mobility here) and slightly squeeze the tips toward each other. That will put a slight external rotation in your arms; if it feels pretty tight, you probably have internally rotated shoulders. You can also hold a yoga block (lengthwise) between your elbows. On the bike, note your hand position (aim for shoulder width) and gently squeeze the elbows toward each other.
  • Torso – If your ribs are dropping toward the floor, try lifting your them til your upper back opens up between the shoulder blades – not like cow in cat-cow pose, but enough for the scapula to spread apart. Watch this video for a good visual.

If you have a flexed spine, untuck your tail! Imagine two lights on your sit bones and point them toward the wall behind you, not down, gently lifting your tailbone toward the sky. Stop as soon as you have a level back, with a slight arch in the lower spine. On the bike, notice if you collapse your sternum toward the bars (drop your ribs), or really round your back (flexed spine), and adjust.

  • Hips – what happened when you extended your leg back? Cyclists are known for having weak glutes (which affects lateral hip movement – hello IT band pain and knee pain!) and tight tight hip flexors (short psoas, tight back). For the weak glutes, this recently showed up on my newsfeed. You can also practice a pelvic list throughout the day. Watch this video for a great explanation and demonstration!

This will strengthen your lateral hips and help keep the knee and foot in line with the hip as you pedal – no more collapsing the knee toward the top tube!

  • For those tight hip flexors, you could try a bike like this. Or you can start opening them up with some of these moves. Most helpful though, is spend more time walking – balance your time on the bike with your time walking. If your hip flexors are really tight, you probably won’t get much hip extension at first (especially if you go back to sitting – on the bike or chair – most of the day). Plus your calves will be pretty tight (which also has a relationship to tight shoulders). Get yourself a half dome or roll up a towel or yoga mat and do this as often as you can throughout the day. Out on a ride? No problem! Find a curb (or in the woods, a log or rock) and stretch. Your body will be so happy!

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. Always check with your doc or PT if you have pain or issues that won’t go away. And be sure to check out the many ways to start working toward better alignment habits at Nutritious Movement. If you are in Seattle, two good teachers are found at Purna Wellness and Crescendo Wellness. Happy riding!