Life can really compile on us, with effects showing in our minds, emotions, and physical bodies.The amount of reflexive bracing our muscles can do in response to life stress can be fast and uncomfortable, to painful and dysfunctional. My shoulders were up almost to my ears last year, well into this, even as I tried consistently to process all that was unfolding; I saw it play out physically in my clients as well. In the ongoing onslaught, who could actually keep up?
Attending to our bodies with self-care can definitely get us through tougher times, and is ultimately required for continued health and well-being. Processing average to acute life stressors through supportive manual therapies can be life changing. Getting body work, doing a trade with a friend or partner, or working on oneself, can turn the tide from sliding down a sand hill, to getting over the other side of things and feeling stable. We can keep it simple, starting anywhere, noticing where and how the body braces. Feeling in the muscles if there’s a guarding, a holding pattern, a constriction. I do this throughout the day as a check-in with myself. If we release some of these patterns, even simply a fraction of an inch of less bracing for a while, it allows us to stabilize, breathe more deeply, and actually be more functional to move forward, both in form and spirit. “Baby steps” are actually big steps, after all.
I’m always amazed by how keeping muscle tissue healthy and balanced can keep the architecture of the body operating well and feeling good, even with strong structural imbalances present. I work on an 80 year old great-uncle of mine every couple weeks, helping rebalance his neck muscles with the cervical stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal) that gives him pain. And when I say neck muscles, I mean: neck, shoulders, arms, pec muscles, spinal muscles, etc. Meaning, having a chat with all the in-roads to the area, locally and from afar. Once we get any hypertonic/too-tight muscles more in balance again, my great-uncle can hold his posture better, allowing the bones to sit right; then that stenosis issue gets a little breathing room and pain levels go down or go away completely for him.
We all get pulled off-course, by life events, strong emotions, historic contexts (e.g., global pandemics), and muscle tissue imbalances. All these things will continue to happen, life being an ongoing flow of movement. Letting the architecture of our bodies shift, adjust, give feedback, and then responding to that movement flow by seeking rebalancing, over and again, is part of being an organic human animal; present and aware, knowing self-care is necessary and normal, and that it can have greater rewards than we ever realized.
I’ve been going to the climbing gym on and off for years, but not because I’m an amazing climber. Skill set isn’t what keeps me going. I love the movement. Small, specific, thoughtful movements happening throughout my body to push, balance, and flow up the climbing wall. It’s challenging, it’s different every second, and it’s fascinating even while it’s frustrating. The experience reminds me of how important it is to keep moving, no matter how simple or small. Meaning, if chair yoga is what one can do based on injury, conditions, or constraints, do it and explore that world. This can be likened to physical meditation. Feel and be as aware as possible when moving through exercise: what can the body do, what does it want to do, what should it avoid, what’s it trying to do, and what’s it trying to tell us.
Bodies are designed for movement, though restrictions can pre exist or occur. Either way, bodies are always in flux ongoing. Finding ways to be solidly in the physical body, experiencing subtleties in movement, noticing as much sensory feedback as able, we can learn forever in this wordless realm and honor the body, same time.
I love learning a new subject I’ve chosen. But that’s the key, when we choose the subject, something we’re excited about. It’s the difference between taking a required class versus an elective one. Care of the human form is both: a necessary class, yet a super interesting one we can find new ways to be engaged by all along. In our lifetimes, we don’t graduate from this class; it’s ongoing learning. If we allow ourselves to get into a mindset that’s curious and open, this required class and subsequent homework can be a huge, creative world.
Because we’re living in the homework we’re constantly working on, a certain level of detachment helps to keep good perspective. A challenge, but not so different from all the topics in school we’ve managed. And with this homework, it’s completely personal. The results are felt and seen by us daily. It’s more than well worth investing in this class, staying creative in the homework, and remaining alert to our results. Simple example, stretch just a few minutes daily, but do every day and be very in the feeling of it, rather than rote, repetitive action. Time in front of the TV is a great space for this. 5, 10, 15 minutes of stretching – whatever we can manage – is time put back into our class, our homework, our ongoing learning. Using the foam roller, full body, a couple minutes a day; while a meal is cooking, a movie is playing, family/friends are doing with us, or anywhere we can organizationally attach it to another aspect of daily living. Remember, we’re in school; projects and homework are normal. We just need to organize when and where to do them.
Being able to enjoy our ongoing learning about the body, the creative energy that goes into homework, and the positive results we achieve all feeds right back into supporting and promoting growth of more of the same. So for this lifelong class on living in and taking care of the human form, let’s keep finding ways to enjoy the homework.
I often tell clients that bodies are like plants. Organic matter needing continued, consistent care: water, food, fresh soil, sunlight, air. Plants poorly attended to, don’t thrive and will remain off-balance, usually resulting in steady decline. Bodies, too, need continued, consistent attention and support: hydration, good nutrition, movement, stretching, strengthening, aerobic exercise. All support us physically, while also affecting other aspects of our humanity (emotions, mind, and spirit).
A straightforward way of looking at self-care, part of why I use the example. Two other important reasons for the comparison. One, you can always buy a new plant, but the human body we’re motoring around in is not to be replaced, even if it may be repaired, retrained, and rebalanced. Two, most of us view things from an intellectual standpoint; we see ourselves as an ego, a personality, a set of emotions, a set of thoughts. The physical reality of needing to tend well, consistently, and in multiple ways to a human body – like caring for a plant – usually gets our attention only when we’re in discomfort or pain.
All bodies need a lot of care to thrive. And just like plants, each body is completely unique from any other of its kind. Caring for them as irreplaceable and totally individual is life changing and life enhancing.
Living in an animal body and having basic human ego creates clashes. Our minds want to be in control at all times; our bodies are wired to survive and thrive. The beliefs we hold in our mind versus what our bodies need often do not agree. If our body doesn’t allow us to do what our mind wants or believes to be right, we can feel anything from anger to depression to fear. Nature is definitely humbling, and not to be ignored.
I was very sick right after college, struggling with my health balance and body. The only exercise I could do was gentle movement in a pool; pulling and pushing my limbs through the resistance of water, feeling my heart beating hard within ribs, letting my lungs burn with labored breathing, fighting to pull myself out of the water with shaking muscles. I hated going to this olympic-sized pool where the master swimmers were performing, where I could barely get out on my own. But I went every day, moving my body in water, and ignoring all else because I knew it was what I had to do and I was grateful to move. Belief systems and viewpoints had to be tossed; body messages were the only thing to heed.
The more we can hear what our body prompts for, the better we can take care of our health, both present and future. Listen to what your body asks for, feel what it’s telling you, especially when it may feel opposite to what your mind wants. Go to bed earlier, drink more water, take in good nutrition, get out on more walks, use a foam roller, stretch daily – sometimes the simplest things are the most challenging. But they’re often the richest, deepest, and most rewarding.
Bodies can be tough. We can feel anything from great to terrible, and all that falls in between. Self-care through bodywork, exercise, eating well, and good sleep, can move us forward exponentially in how we’re feeling and thriving. But boosting our emotional and mental state also does wonders in changing how we feel in the physical body, along with how we experience our reality.
A powerful, simple tool I use daily for boosting my physical, emotional, mental feeling state is a gratitude list. I do mine in the morning or at night; sometimes both, and any time of day when stress is higher. The key to a positive effect is to feel the gratitude all the way into your body, to your very bones and muscles. As I focus on one gratitude at a time with sincere feeling, it sinks into my body, easing muscles and bones. If you focus with real intention and awareness on each gratitude, you can feel tense muscles opening, warmth flooding into them, blood moving more easily into the area, and anxious or depressed thoughts changing in intensity.
Done at night, it helps me sleep. Done in the morning, it helps me set my attitude for the day. A list of just a few gratitudes felt deeply, from the smallest, simplest thing to larger, more complex things in life, can do wonders for us. It’s not about false hope, guilt, platitudes, or denying the presence of stress in life. Done from that standpoint, gratitudes won’t be felt with any meaning or support in the body. Truly feeling the reality of just one gratitude lightens our spirit and our body. Falling into this habit, making it palpable by feeling it physically, only increases our awareness of more gratitudes in life. Often a challenge, but always worth the effort, for a life-changing, tangible result.
My own version of practical optimism lies not in pink clouds – hence the “practical” aspect – but in seeing and seeking that which is good out there, taking it in, and continuing to turn my attention towards noticing good things. Maybe this comes from me having always been very body-oriented: being aware of a full range of that which is great and healthy, to that which is off-balance or painful. Looking at our physical state and our outer world can be similar in this way. And while I’d never say we should ignore the challenging or darker aspects of life and living, if we don’t give attention to the great and inspiring things that can be present simultaneously, then how can we ever feel balance, in our lives or our bodies?
In light of the year turning, here is a link below to an amazing list of good news stories that occurred in 2019. Categories fall under conservation, global health, living standards, peace/safety/human rights, energy/sustainability. I hope you will read and be amazed and uplifted, body and soul.