Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Sweet Spot

We are cyclical beings, living in a cyclical universe. Just like the moon and the seasons, we wax and wane. Just like the stars rise and fall and spiral around in the night sky, so do we. We are not separate from the physics of the solar system. We are part of it. We surely are!

All is change. Why is change so hard for some of us? Why are there individuals who dig in their heels, who try hard to hang on to what was?

I have several theories about this of course. One among them is that we just want to be comfortable. It's an offshoot of the survival instinct. We seek pleasure and comfort because that makes us feel safe. When we find a way to feel comfortable, whether it's physical, emotional or spiritual, we want to stop the cycle. We begin to believe it's possible to stay comfortable - maybe forever - even though no one has ever accomplished this, not ever. Never. Life is dynamic and cyclical. The longer we hold on, the less comfortable we become. We harden against change, hang on tighter and tighter, long after the time when there was comfort and pleasure in whatever we cling to. Becoming stuck, blocked, and/or stagnant is not good for body, mind or spirit. It's not natural. And yet we try.

I'm talking about some of us, not everyone, of course. Those who try desperately to hang on or stay put are called stubborn, stuck, blocked, or they're pathologized, labeled as regressed, phobic, lazy. The desire to feel safe, to be comfortable, is understandable. I can't blame anyone for that even though it doesn't serve any good purpose.

This is on my mind after watching The Wonders of the Solar System, narrated by the cheerful Brian Cox, also in light of the fact that several of my clients are now going through huge life changes that they were unprepared to meet, even though some among them consciously chose to make the changes. Somehow it didn't sink in that their lives as they knew them are now over and done with. The wheel has turned. Onwards and upwards.

There's no way to stay the same. Every sweet spot passes. Let it pass. Let go. Go with the flow. Shalom.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

This is your brain on evolution

For most of history, in the cultures I know about (only a fraction of earth's cultures, should say), the heart has traditionally been thought of as the center of our humanity. In my society, especially here and now in the 21st century, we think of the brain as the arbiter of everything that makes us who we are. I've been wondering why.

Back in the 20th century we were very interested in the brain, but until the old paradigm of hard wiring was replaced by plasticity as the theory du jour, brain research was more or less a study in mechanics, therefore perhaps not as fascinating as now. I'm sure the brain has always been interesting to some researchers, of course.

There's a way in which all this focus on the brain has lead people to think of the brain as separate from, or above, the body. I just googled "brain and body." Among the 402,000,000 results are links to a yoga franchise called Brain and Body, as well as many articles about brain research. The language of these sites makes clear this idea that the brain is separate from the rest of us.

There's a NOVA page called Brain + Body. Hmm. Other titles from the google search: "Feeding the brain and body", "How opioids affect the brain and body", "How does marijuana affect your brain and body?" There's a book named, "Change Your Brain, Change Your Body." A Huff Post headline: "Why the brain loves dancers over 60."

Did you know there is such a thing as brain to body mass ratio? I didn't.

I could go on, but it's probably not necessary.

I assure you, your brain is not separate from your body. It is human tissue, just like your elbow, intestines and lungs. Your brain is inside your body, inextricable except in sci fi movies. It is.

Is there an elbow to body mass ratio index? Of course not.

What has brought us to this obsession with the human brain? I'm sure you can guess I have a theory about that. I surely do.

I think we're hyperfocused on the brain at this moment in history because we're in the first stages of a major leap in evolution. That leap will involve the human brain.

We cannot continue the evolutionary strategy that depends on larger and larger brains as we have in the past. Our heads are so huge, we can barely be born as it is. No, in order to evolve, we must learn to use our brains differently. In fact I believe we are doing just that, stretching the limits of brain use through technology, as well as focusing our thinking with meditation, yoga and other contemplative arts.

Evolution brings chaos as the old pattern breaks down to make way for the new pattern. The jump we're now involved in has already yielded quite a bit of fallout. ADHD, OCD, and the entire spectrum of autism are some examples, as is Alzheimers and other dementias.

Theories about evolution of all kinds include the idea that it's a crucial part of adapting to changes in the climate. It's ironic that we have contributed so heavily to the climactic shift, now in full gear. I mean it's ironic that we were such a big part of it, because now we must hurry up and evolve, or die because of it.

We surely must evolve - or die - hence we decided the brain is plastic and can change. We're scanning and measuring and watching our brains like hawks. We're multi-tasking, we're texting while driving, we're skipping from channel to channel when we watch TV. We are bombarding ourselves with information. Our brains are adapting to the tsunami of incoming information. But we're also learning to quiet the mind through contemplative practices. Meditation, yoga and the martial arts are practiced by more of us than ever before.

We're connecting with each other in unprecedented numbers through the internet. The relationships we're now able to maintain would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. Our connections here and on social networks contribute to our leap forward. We're creating a global version of a neural net.

We're changing very quickly now. Hand an ipad to a 5 year old - they know exactly how to use it, or if not, they'll soon figure it out. Hand the ipad to a person of my age. For us, there is a learning curve. Even in two generations, the way our brains work has changed dramatically. Though the fallout is alarming, it is inevitable. We must change or die. We're changing.

We're evolving. May we prevail.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Tao of Goldilocks and Core Strength

When I was a kid, we were told to stand up straight. That meant we were to supposed to become stiff and armored, our chests puffed out, bellies sucked in hard, shoulders yanked backwards, chins lifted and jaws tensed. It was a military posture that was advocated at that time. They didn't tell us to make our jaws tense, but when you stand like that, it's kind of hard not to clench. Give it a try and see.

Then the 1960s arrived. Suddenly we were told to let it all hang out, get loose. We were supposed to let our bellies be soft. Our bellies softened, oh yeah. We over softened our bellies, because we in the U.S. tend to go to extremes. It is our way and I don't think we need to blame ourselves.

At that time, not very many people even knew what yoga was. The martial arts, too, were mostly unknown in America. If you doubt that we had no concept of the martial arts, watch any of the early James Bond movies. The fight scenes are kind of hilarious. No one even bothered to try to make it look real. Thank god for Bruce Lee! He showed us that martial arts are about core strength, balance, poise and awareness.

The practice of yoga, Pilates, Alexander technique and/or any of the martial arts will help develop what is now called core strength. Core strength means the spine and internal organs are supported by the muscles that surround the spine as well as all three sets of abdominal muscles. Core strength also refers to a self awareness, grace, and authenticity. With strong cores, we are neither too soft nor too hard. We are vivid and real. Does that make sense?

Please don't yearn for a hard body. Those who have pronounced six packs, for instance, have overdeveloped their rectus abdominis muscles. That can impair functioning of the organs and result in back strains or sore shoulders because the muscles are over-engaged. I can't figure out why anyone thinks that's sexy. A boyfriend you can kick in the stomach. He won't even notice. Is that sexy? A six pack indicates external armoring of the type that was once so popular. A hard body is not flexible or resilient.

Also, if I were you, I would avoid any exercise program called "boot camp." You wouldn't believe how many people come to me with strains and sprains caused by doing too much, too fast, in these over-ambitious exercise programs. I think these "boot camps" are our culture's version of spiritual austeries, meant to make people stronger through punishment. I think of those saddhu guys I saw in India, sitting within a circle of fires, meditating fiercely.

Do you want to improve your core strength? Here's a simple practice, borrowed from Pilates. Practice as often as you remember to do so. Your abdominal muscles will respond and over time become healthy and resilient, holding your spine and organs without squeezing them.

Core strength is neither hard as a rock nor soft as jelly. It isn't external, but arises from flexible, resilient, engaged muscles close to the spine and surrounding the trunk of the body. The Tao of Goldilocks is what you're looking for.

Stand up and take a couple of deep breaths. Now imagine you've just put on a pair of jeans straight from the dryer (they will be rather snug). Not tight, just snug. Imagine zipping up your jeans. As you visualize, feel your lower abdomen pull inwards as it would in that situation. 
Now imagine buckling your belt. As you imagine, engage the muscles around your waist. Feel it in your back as well as in the front body. 
Finally, button your vest, engaging the muscles towards the center line from your navel to the bottom of your breastbone. 
Let your belly be engaged but not tight. You shoulders will be relaxed, neither curled forward nor yanked backwards, and your head will align itself on your spine. It's kind of amazing to feel everything line up at the conclusion of the exercise.

Take a couple of breaths, smile and go on about your day.

So wrong.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Tao of Goldilocks in the Age of Modern Medicine

Modern medicine is emergency medicine. It is dramatic, heroic and always extreme. May I say straightaway I am grateful for modern medicine? Because I am, I really am. When I had pneumonia a few years ago, I did not try to get in to see the acupuncturist. After a few days of a raging fever and intense congestion, I went straight to the M.D. Once on antibiotics, within twenty four hours I was on the mend. Miraculous!

For chronic conditions, modern medicine is not often effective. It can be expensive, frustrating and scary as hell trying to diagnose and treat ongoing, non-acute symptoms through the lens of emergency treatment. Chances are you will be incorrectly diagnosed, receive prescriptions for strong medicines that make you feel horrible but do not address your symptoms, and frightened out of your mind when they decide to "rule out" diseases like cancer - diseases that require emergency care.

The other way it can go is that the doctors keep testing and testing and prodding, poking, removing tissue for biopsies, drawing vials of blood, taking your pee and poop to examine, scanning and radiating your poor, beleaguered body in every possible way after requiring you to drink poisonous dyes or starve yourself or drink gallons of water that you're not allowed to pee out. Modern medical testing is really uncomfortable, terribly frightening to the animal of the body. It is loud, cold, and dehumanizing. In an emergency, it's appropriate, but when you have a chronic runny nose and nothing else, it can be overkill. It surely can. Sometimes they keep testing until a crisis erupts, after which they will be able to treat whatever happened because it's an emergency.

I don't blame doctors for this. It's their frame of reference. It is how they're taught to think.

The wonders of emergency medicine won the confidence of my society, sadly to the exclusion of many modalities that are far more effective for chronic conditions. We've come to believe that instant cures, miraculous improvements, instant good health is always possible, that it should be possible. Sometimes healing is dramatic, but often, it is just the opposite. Often healing is tedious, requires patience, compassion and spaciousness. Healing is often a long term process that involves relapses and periods of discouragement. Sometimes there is no healing for what ails you. It happens all the time. Is it so bad to admit it?

There is compassion in modern medicine for sure, but not so much the spaciousness or patience for any malady that can't be dispatched ASAP with pills or surgery. The expectations are enormous and unreasonable.

Chronic conditions, such as allergies, persistent congestion or frequent headaches, stomachaches, rashes or other skin problems, also chronic conditions of the spirit such as what we call bi-polar disorder, depression, and such, are patterns that set in to the person who suffers from them. Chronic conditions are not pathogens that must be destroyed or removed, they are patterns that become, over time, part of the tapestry of body/mind. These patterns could perhaps be shattered through the heroics of modern medicine, but the price paid for the medical warfare can be almost as bad as the condition. For instance, I know someone who took antibiotics for ten years because it cleared her acne. Ten years? Can you imagine what that did to her immunity? It kind of freaks me out to think about it.

I'm on about this after reading this article from the New York Times, about the vast numbers of people who take antidepressants. It's depressing to read about the process by which many people who need them never get access, while those who are going through a rough time are drugged up even though the mood is transient. Taking a pill while going through a breakup often means the patient will be unable learn from his/her hardships. Suffering, in moderate doses, builds character and helps us integrate wisdom. Too much is horrible. Too little means we do not evolve. I am not for suffering, by the way. I see how it can be a great teacher, though. It shows us who we are.

In modern medicine, a diagnosis is very specific. Certain markers must be met in order to meet the diagnostic criteria. Chronic conditions are not specific. People who suffer from a chronically sour stomach that isn't an ulcer or cancer do not meet the criteria, hence there is no way to address their symptoms with modern medicine. They have symptoms that reflect imbalance, but nothing that can be cut out or obliterated. Their numbers are within the normal range, they should be fine, or so they are sometimes told. They're left out in the cold, or told it's in their head. They're told to lose weight, see a physical therapist. There's no helping them with modern medicine. It's sad.

Chronic conditions are patterns that set in over time. Instead of being shattered by emergency medicine, many people respond far better to simpler, gentler healing methods. A change in diet can often address the perpetually sour stomach, headaches and ongoing congestion many people suffer from. It can be as simple as that. You are what you eat.

Sometimes, people need more sleep, fresh air, a relaxing walk through the park after work.

The next step up would include what is ingeniously called "alternative" medicine. Chinese medicine including acupuncture and herbs has been around for thousands of years. It is hardly alternative. Massage therapy (not spa massage, I'm talking about therapeutic massage) can help unhinge chronic patterns, as can osteopathy, homeopathy, Reiki, Chinese medicine, herbal medicine.

Does every health situation have to be an emergency, treated epically? Must we ignore our symptoms until or unless they become unbearable? Must healing always be a matter of life or death? Honestly - no. We can pay attention to the subtle symptoms, to the nagging aches and pains. We can treat ourselves kindly, cultivate patience and self awareness. It's part of being a human.

None of the above will help if you break a bone - in that case go straight to the ER.

Modern medicine is the too big, too hard, too hot side of healing. Ignoring symptoms is the too small, too soft, too cold end of the spectrum. What's just right, the Tao of Goldilocks, has to do with paying attention, finding the right process for what ails, with kindness and patience.

Every symptom can not be cured or even addressed. We are complicated animals, we surely are. Things happen that don't require heroics, but still deserve to be addressed. We don't always need to be hit over the head in order to heal. Believe me!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bite it

Temporomandibular joint problems are rampant in the U.S. In fact, it's so prevalent that people don't even bother adding "problem," "disfunction," or "issue" after the letters TMJ. People say, "I have TMJ." Everybody knows what they mean.

We clench, we grind our teeth. For some, the joint where upper and lower jaw comes together is so tight they can barely open their mouths, or they have to move the bottom jaw at an angle in order to yawn. It's very sad. At night these unfortunate souls wear bite guards because they can't even relax the jaw while they sleep. For many people it actually gets worse when they sleep. It's a big problem.

I could write a post about chronic anxiety and frustration in my society, I could write about how we're jacked up on caffeine, sleep deprived, overworked and stressed out of our minds. Our behaviors become more than a sum of their parts. These behaviors define modern day Americans. It is very sad, and ... is it any wonder we clench? I'm a massage therapist and I clench, though not to the point of needing a bite guard, thank god.

There are ways to engage the TMJ that can help us feel calmer and more satisfied. What I'm saying is, we need to chew.

I bite, therefore I am. It's true that, back in the day, if you didn't have teeth to bite and chew, you would soon die. Teeth, the jaws, the ability to bite and chew is intimately connected to the survival instinct. The maseter muscle, responsible for closing the jaws, is the strongest muscle in your body. Yes, stronger than the quads, stronger than the biceps. There is power in biting and chewing. There is potential for moving a lot of energy by chewing. And yet, as important as it is, we don't bite or chew much these days.

Most of the food we eat is soft. A burger and fries, plus a milkshake? You could probably eat all of that without teeth. The same goes for the traditional Thanksgiving meal. It's currently in vogue to blend or juice food that could be crunchy, like carrots and kale. I see lots of recipes on the internet for blended foods, horrendous combinations of veggies and fruits, blended to a pulp, swallowed without any need to chew.


I know, people eat salads, but do they chew their salad or inhale it? We are really fast eaters in the U.S.

Digestion begins in the mouth. Chewing food is important. If you swallow it whole, or blend it until it needs no chewing, you're skipping the first step in digestion. The next time you're at the drugstore or health food store, check out the indigestion and reflux medicines. There are a million of them. Have you ever wondered why we have such a hard time digesting what we eat? There are many reasons, of course. One major reason is that we don't chew our food.

I see people rushing to the Metro, stuffing bites of scone into their mouths as they talk on the phone. How well do you think these people chew the scone before swallowing? Well?

In addition to assisting with digestion, chewing triggers satiety within the brain. It surely does. Chewing is satisfying on many levels. It's grounding, it's instinctual. Chewing makes us feel safe and well fed at a primal level. Chewing helps us think. It's calming.

We need to chew!

Chewing gum is not the same thing. A part of the satisfaction of chewing is feeling the food change in the mouth. Gum changes at first - softens, the sugar dissolves, but after that it stay the same. Chewing gum will only make your jaw stiffer. Just chew your food, that's all I ask.

I could say more, but I'll stop now. Please take care of your teeth. The people who study these things have linked bad teeth and unhealthy gums to many diseases including heart disease. Take care of your teeth so you can bite and chew. Yes? I say yes.