Image / Austin Barbisch
Recently, I was asked to give a radio interview about some of the work that I do at Dana Wyss Healing Arts, as part of a larger series on holistic health and healing practices. In the interview, I describe how I work with clients who come to see me for my signature sessions blending movement and bodywork.
My goal in these sessions is to assist clients in moving well, inhabiting their bodies more fully, and accessing the wisdom, joy and vitality that arise with embodied mindfulness. I do this by designing individualized programs incorporating mindfulness meditation, yoga and other movement practices, breathwork education, bodywork and energywork as needed to release areas of restriction and retrain movement and breathing habits to support ease and well-being. If you or someone you know would like to know more, please listen, share, and contact me to discuss your needs and goals.
Here's a brief look at some of the unique services I offer, who I work with, and how this all came about it the first place. Hope you enjoy listening to this interview as much as I enjoyed talking about my passion for helping others feel their very best!
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.
Photo: James Jordan / Flickr
In the previous post, we explored some of the physical causes of recurring or chronic tension in specific areas of the body. Hopefully, in these past days, you've started to become aware of the physical behaviors that create or intensify discomfort in your body, and have begun the process of adjusting your behaviors in response to what you're finding. If you're interested in moving forward with a little help, contact me or schedule yourself for a Move Well or Private Yoga Session with me, and we'll work together to find solutions you can weave into your daily life. If you'll be continuing on your own, be encouraged and reminded that changing habits takes time. Keep your head up, and keep looking in.
Today, we'll begin exploring some of the more subtle, yet powerful, contributors to recurrent and chronic tension in our bodies - our thoughts, emotions, and our breath. Our emotional state, our breath, and our physical tension all inform one another. When something startling occurs (i.e. a car cuts us off on the road) we often gasp, pull our bellies in, tense our shoulders and arms, and breathe high up into our chests. These short breaths leave our bodies feeling short of oxygen, and more shallow, quick breaths - gasping - will likely follow as we try to get enough air. When we breathe in this way, we recruit muscles in the neck and shoulders not meant primarily for breathing, which places an undue and unsustainable load on them. Retaining this muscular holding in the torso and upper body will create muscular tension, discomfort and pain. In this scenario, an outside event stimulated our nervous system, inspired feelings of fear or anxiety, and changed our breathing. We felt fearful or anxious, and our breathing and posture changed to reflect that. Ideally, once the immediate danger or threat has been removed or dealt with, we would return to a deeper, slower breathing pattern, allowing our diaphragm to move freely once again, removing the demand we placed on those peripheral muscles, and allowing our nervous system to continue to calm itself.
“One of the first things that happens when we respond to a stressful situation is to change the way we breathe. Such adjustments can create as well as be the result of physical, emotional, or psychological stress. Disordered breathing is the absolute best indicator to us that all is not well." - Donna Farhi, from The Breathing Book
But we don't always fully leave these moments of threat or danger, physically or psychologically. If we routinely have experiences we perceive as threatening (i.e. daily hours in rush hour traffic, frequent interactions with someone who puts us emotionally "on guard", or perhaps a running negative internal dialogue that frequently wounds us) we can begin to hold our bodies and our breath in ways that don't serve our ease and wellbeing. And we might begin to perceive these breath and tension patterns as normal - no longer noticing that they are even active. The loop works in the opposite way, also. If we hike our shoulders up high, grip our hands into fists, breathe high into the chest and restrict the movement of our diaphragm, we can actually generate feelings of fear and anxiety within our system. And those feelings would then reinforce the disordered breathing and the muscular tension that generated them. A cycle has begun.
When endeavoring to understand our own longstanding pain and discomfort, its important to enter the process with curiosity and compassion. Cursing our tight shoulders is not helpful here! Neither is an attitude of "attack and conquer!". The body is a friend, our feelings are messengers, and we're much more likely to get the information we seek if we treat them as such. It's also helpful to remember that by adulthood, most - if not all - of us have developed some tension patterns. You're certainly not alone, odd or damaged for having patterns of your own! Most of us react to pain by moving away from it or numbing it out in some way - that's a fairly normal human response. But when the pain originates within our own bodies and when it's consistent, our attention is being requested. What does our discomfort have to teach us about ourselves? What important messages might we be blocking or numbing? What in us wants to be seen? What does our body need from us?
“We depend on kinesthetic awareness, that is, sensing what is going on in our bodies and guts, in many ways to know how we feel. Kinesthetic and psychological awareness are linked.
– Greene & Goodrich-Dunn, from The Psychology of the Body
At this point, we would do well to consider whether we might benefit from professional help in entering into inquiry and dialogue with our pain. If we have great anxiety at the thought of exploring the sensations in our body, that might be an indication that help would be advised. If we know or suspect ourselves to have experienced trauma in the past, assistance and support may well be necessary to help us navigate our initial explorations. If we consider this and find an internal sense of relief and comfort in the idea of receiving professional support, we might seek out a somatic therapist, a psychotherapist, or a counselor/yoga therapist to assist us in uncovering our bodies' messages in ways that allow us to feel safe.* Such support can prove invaluable.
“If you are ready to turn your attention to entering your pain, you will probably need help – chances are you won’t know where or how to begin. One way to begin is by studying yourself." - Carolyn Myss
If after reflection we determine that we presently have the stability, resourcefulness and curiosity to explore our discomfort ourselves, how might we do so? We'll explore that question in the next post in this series, so stay tuned! Until then, breathe deeply, practice often, and be well.
*Additional provider recommendations and resources can be found here.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.
Photo: James Jordan / Flickr
“Pain is also a teacher, a messenger directing us to pay attention to our bodies or to move away from behavior and situations in which we are weak to those in which we practice integrity and strength.”
- Carolyn Myss
"My shoulders always hurt!"
"My neck is always stiff - nothing I do seems to change that."
"My low back is always stiff and sore, that's just how it is."
Many of us have areas in our bodies that seem to gather and hold tension, over and over and over again. These areas may be constantly on our awareness, or they may become such a part of our experience of ourselves that we block them from our awareness most of the time - almost forgetting these parts of our bodies exist at all! Many people first come to the yoga mat or the massage table in order to relieve the discomfort or pain of some area of chronic tension in their bodies.
Why does greater tension occur in certain areas of our bodies?
Why does it return to the same places over and over?
From a purely physical perspective, the ways we persistently use our bodies can impose postural habits and mechanical stress upon the body. We are subject to the laws of gravity and physics, after all! In order to change any tension pattern in our bodies, first we must see it, and then start looking for the ways we reinforce it in our daily lives. Here are some examples of things I commonly see in my practice:
A great deal of neck and shoulder discomfort and tension resulting from hours spent in a hunched over, neck-craned position while peering into a poorly lit computer screen.
Pain and instability in the lower back related to slumping on the couch for hours with no back support or abdominal engagement.
Pain in one hip, on one side of the lower back, or around one shoulder blade, related to habitually carrying an infant, toddler or car seat on only one side of the body.
Tightness and restricted motion in the hips related to lots of daily forward flexion (sitting for many hours, doing lots of old-school abdominal crunches) with no counter-balancing (strengthening and working the glutes and back muscles, opening through the fronts of the hips, abdomen and chest).
We want to identify the behaviors creating our discomfort, to begin noticing all of the ways we sustain the pattern through our daily activities, choices and movements. Awareness practices, such as massage and yoga, can assist us greatly in these efforts. Both invite our attention into our bodies and our breath, to notice what is happening within them in any moment. Both massage and yoga create the quiet, the time and the space for us to begin to make connections: between apparently disparate areas of our bodies, between our breath and our feelings, between our feelings and our tension. We begin to make connections on our mat or on the table - we practice there. And then we might start to bring the practice with us when we leave, learning more and more about ourselves in our daily life between massages and off the mat. Additionally, by momentarily interrupting our commonly held tension patterns, massage and yoga practices can offer us new patterns of moving and breathing, allowing us to become more aware of our old patterns as they reassert themselves. We start to notice when our discomfort begins, before it reaches the level of pain. We start to notice where the cycle begins for us.
“Emotional and psychological pain can also be a signal to pay attention. It can be a teacher, whether it originates in our emotions or our physical bodies. It directs our attention to the physical or emotional area that is begging for repair. Drugging pain prematurely or too much can be a mistake, because it can mislead us into thinking that we are healing when we are not. Instead of immediately medicating ourselves in every instance, we should examine why we have a pain or a pattern of physical aches and pains...”
– Carolyn Myss, from Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can
As we begin noticing where and how our physical pain manifests, we can be making supportive changes in our habits. Adjusting our sitting position to allow more ease in our hips, moving the kiddo to our opposite hip every other time we pick them up, giving ourselves lumbar support to maintain an erect spine while driving or working at our desk, creating an ergonomic desk arrangement, taking movement breaks every hour or two, and strengthening our back muscles to endure the daily stress we ask them to meet would all help to alleviate the discomfort of the patterns I mentioned above. Over time, with regular attention, these patterns and their related discomfort would likely improve.
Whenever we have ongoing pain or discomfort that does not change, we need to look a little deeper. In the next post, we’ll look at some of the more subtle – but powerful – contributors to chronic tension in the body.
Until then, breathe deeply, practice often, and be well.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The Deskjockey Warmup
Last week, we tossed around the idea that, as far as our bodies are concerned, we're always training. If you're about to spend 6 to 12 hours sitting at a desk, that makes you one serious athlete! Try giving yourself the following warmup daily for a week, and see how it affects you. As always, I'd love to hear how this works for you, so hop on over to Facebook and leave a message on the wall, or give me an update at your next session!
To begin, sit in a chair with both feet on the floor, knees over ankles and shoulders over hips. Take a few breaths and notice what's happening in your body today. Where are you most comfortable in your body? What's feeling really good? Where do you notice tension, discomfort or pain? What is your general energy level? Now that you've checked in, let's get moving:
1) Slow Head Turns: As you do this exercise, imagine that every turn of the neck initiates from between your shoulder blades on the back and from the middle of your sternum on the front. Imagine your neck "starts" at those points. Keeping the chin parallel to the floor, exhale and slowly turn your head to the right as far as you can with ease. On an inhale, return your head to center. On the next exhale, turn your head to the left as far as you can with ease. Move slowly with your breath, and complete 20 total repetitions, or 10 turns in each direction.
2) Shoulder Rolls: Let your arms rest at length, hands hanging at your sides (you may need to scoot forward on your chair to allow this). On an inhale, begin rolling the shoulders slowly up towards the ears, then exhale and roll them back toward your spine and then inhale forward and up again, making a big circle with your shoulder joint as you breathe. As you move, ask yourself: Could I keep performing this movement, with any less effort? If yes, keep on moving and reduce your effort a bit! Repeat 20 times.
3) Wrist and Hand Warmup: With your arms at your sides, or with elbows bent and hands in front of you, begin slowly rotating the wrists in big circles away from one another. Perform at least 10 rotations and then reverse the direction of your circles, now rotating the hands towards each other.
Next, hold your right arm out in front of you in a "stop" gesture, and gently pull back on the right fingers with your left hand, stretching the hand and forearm for 2-3 breaths. Then, keeping your arm in the same position, allow the right wrist to bend and the fingers to relax toward the floor. Use your left hand to gently press the top of the right hand back towards your chest, and hold for 2-3 breaths. Repeat both forearm stretches on the left arm. When finished, shake your hands out several times, or do a few more wrist rotations.
4) Outward Reaching Shoulder Rotations: Take your arms out to either side of your body at shoulder level, and actively reach through your fingertips throughout this movement. Drop your shoulders away from your ears while keeping the arms and hands level with the shoulders. On an inhale, rotate at the shoulder joint to turn the palms up toward the ceiling, and even slightly back (if your shoulders do that with ease). On your exhale, rotate from the shoulder joint to turn your palms down, facing the floor, keeping your elbows level with your shoulders. Breathe and repeat, rotating in each direction within your comfortable range 10 times.
You should feel pretty warm by now, so rest your hands on your thighs, take a few breaths, and check in with your body again. How are you feeling? As you go about your workday, feel free to repeat all or part of this series during short stretch breaks, to relieve tension, reinvigorate your body and refocus your mind. (By the way, this one's great for post-travel tension in the upper body, too!)
Happy holidays, dear clients! Wishing each of you healthy, happy times. Be well.
Certified Yoga Teacher
CI-Certified Personal Trainer
Licensed Massage Therapist
What are you training for?
Whether you recognize it or not, you're in training!
If recent data are to be believed, we are all spending way too much time training ourselves into pain and bad posture. Let's say that our body doesn't discriminate between "good training" and "bad training". Let's say that our body views all of the activities we spend lots of time performing as "training". Meaning, our body will become skilled at performing these activities as efficiently as possible, regardless of whether that's ideal for our long-term health. Let's say that what we do consistently with our bodies is what the body views as our program.
If our greatest number of hours is spent sitting slumped in a chair staring at a computer screen and we don't have a good deal of muscular strength and endurance in our back and abdominal muscles to support good alignment, our bodies will have to adapt. An efficient way to maintain that position over many hours is to "turn off" spine-stabilizing muscles in the abdomen, breathe in a shallow fashion and high up in the chest, and jut the head forward so that we can read the screen when we're tired. To a non-discriminating, efficiency-minded part of our body, getting really good at this makes sense, because we're likely to keep asking our body to do it. We'll pay for this, however, in lost energy, a diminished capacity to breathe fully and into our bellies, with neck and shoulder pain, headaches and a lumbar spine which lacks responsive support. What's a desk jockey to do?
Most professional athletes and coaches utilize the practice of cross-training: adding low-risk exercises and activities to develop weak areas and promote well-rounded balance and strength in the system. Consider yourself an athlete, regardless of your current level of physical fitness! What areas of your body need daily movement, exercise and stretching in order to balance the effects of your training? What movements - even those that are traditionally thought of as "good exercises" - might you need to discard from your current personal workout plan or movement practice? Why might you do that? Well, if an exercise or a stretch mimics the movements you're already doing way too much of, is it really healthy or helpful to you? Do you need to become even stronger in a hunching-forward movement (i.e. traditional sit-ups, some pushups)? Likely not!
Several newsletter episodes back, I spoke about my fondness for prescribing passive chest stretching on a half foam roller to my clients. The reason I'm so fond of this is that my clients tend to really like the way it feels, and so they do it. And because they do it on a regular basis, it works! So, that's one tool to combat the text-neck epidemic you read about in the articles I linked to above. Other tools may vary depending on individual bodies and lifestyles, but might include active chest stretches, and exercises to strengthen the back and all of it's supporting musculature (without repeatedly flexing/hunching the spine). Another intervention, which we can all implement immediately, is to hold our phones at eye level and read or text from there. Find good posture, and then alter the activity to fit it!
Perhaps this will get you thinking differently about how you're using your body, and perhaps you'll get a new idea or two about how to promote balance for yourself. If you need assistance looking into solutions to the questions above, I can help you! Move Well sessions do exactly that, and if you mention this post in the notes when you book your first Move Well session here, you'll get $15 off!
Now that you know you're an athlete, watch for next week's newsletter for professional instructions on how to warmup for your daily training. And if you're already doing a good job balancing the effects of your training - BRAVO! Keep up the good work, and enjoy feeling your best as the payoff!
Wishing you each a vibrantly healthy week! Be well, dear clients!