Okay, I might not be quite the symbol of excess that Imelda Marcos was, and I’m sure she wouldn’t be caught dead in any of these shoes. But the fact remains that I have bought more pairs of shoes since becoming a RES™ than I have in several years previous.
Being a super tall woman, I was never one for heels, and many of my clients say they never wear heels! but in fact, they always wear heels, they just don’t think of it the same way I do.
You see, the term “positive” heel is a mathematical term, much like the thermostat, where ’0′ is nothing, and anything above that is more than nothing (or something), and anything below that is less than nothing. So in shoes, ’0′ is flat ground, where the heel and the ball of the foot are on equal ground, and ‘positive’ is when the heel is higher than the ball. Even 1 degree higher is considered positive.
So this cute ballet flat (J.Crew) has a positive heel, even though just about anybody would call it a flat, and indeed it is described as a ballet flat.
Granted, it is about as low a heel as I could find. Until recently. Now shoe manufacturers are making shoes with zero heel height, due to demand. (Imagine, even kid’s shoes have positive heels!). Running shoes usually have a positive heel of 1/2″ or more, and many people use them for everyday casual wear.
Any kind of positive heel affects your geometry in a not-so-positive way, so it is a good idea to go barefoot or in socks when you can (if you can – if you’ve been a high heel wearer for a while, you might need to do some calf restoration before you can drop your heel back down to toe land without damage). Then, when it’s time to select a new shoe, try to get one with a smaller heel than you are used to, eventually going all the way to zero. Eventually, you might have a shoe selection to rival mine:
Back row L-R: ballet flats from Town Shoes Toronto (not a flat shoe company, I just got lucky), Soft Stars, Vibrams Five Fingers, Zuuks, Altra Zero Drop, New Balance.
Front row L-R: Town shoes again, Sou Sou SF (Japanese split toe shoes), Keens, Kigo, Xero Shoes, Sou Sou SF split toe slip ons.
Here are some handy links to some of the companies listed above:
What is Shredding and should you do it as part of your fitness protocol? Is Burning something that muscles need in order to improve? Is a workout only worthy of your time if it makes you sore the following day or days? Do you need to get Ripped and Cut?
WHAT IS STRONG?
Let’s define that first and foremost, because most people will use that word in relation to their workout program. They work out to get strong, or stronger (than they were before or than some other standard like a peer group). They are strong (or stronger) when they can perform their workout with greater ease than when they started, in which case they will increase the amount of weight or reps so that they can reset their base line and keep increasing their strength. Where will it end? How strong is strong enough?
It really has to do with goals. A goal of lifting a certain amount or performing a certain number is a fitness goal, not a health goal. Unless your health goal is to save children and dogs from being pinned under cars which you are in training to lift. And even in that case, it is their health that benefits, not yours. You still have to deal with the fallout of that kind of fitness habit. Things like losing range of motion in your joints, decreasing circulation to tissues (of oxygen) and from tissues (of lymph), lowering your metabolic rate, pelvic organ prolapse, incontinence, osteoarthritis, tendonitis, bursitis, cardiovascular disease, increase of stress chemicals are some examples of fallout from a short or long term intensive strength and cardio exercise program.
So let’s define strength this way: a muscle is strong if it can generate enough force to move the joints it affects through an optimal range of motion, and enough force to maintain stability for that joint (or joints) when necessary, to prevent damage to that joint. A muscle’s electrical output can be measured by EMG (electromyograph) either by inserting needles into the muscle or electrodes on the surface (not as precise but less painful).
A requirement for a muscle to perform at its optimum is its ability to yield. A muscle can only perform one contraction (shortening) and then to perform a second one, it has to release. Then it can contract again. So in order to have strength, a muscle should be able to move joints to their full range of motion and have maximum yield so that they can return to their “contraction ready” position.
If a muscle is too short (learn why that happens here), it can only yield back to this shortened length, and its ability to generate force is diminished. If a muscle is too long, it also cannot generate optimal force. So a muscle can only perform optimally if it is at just the right length. That begs the question “how do I know what is the optimal length for any given muscle?”
Good question! The way you can tell if your muscles are the optimal length is by observing your bones. In Restorative Exercise™ we use 25 objective alignment markers. These points are the same on every body, regardless of your unique dimensions. These markers can tell us if you are out of alignment and the tests we administer can tell us (and you) if you fall short or long of the mark in terms of ability to use your joints optimally.
So let’s recap: Strength is the ability of a muscle to generate force. The amount of force generated should be enough to move and/or stabilize a joint as needed. The muscle can generate more force if it is the optimal length, determined by joint range and skeletal position.
Exercise to shred, rip or cut is a performance fitness goal or sport, and is not related to a healthy activity. If you like to indulge in these types of activities (and many do!) there may well be a biological tax to pay in the form of injury or illness sooner or later. I guess it comes down to: why are you doing this? Is it for fun, a social activity, competition? All legitimate reasons. But if longevity and healthy tissues are your goal, I’d say to look elsewhere. (For an explanation of the difference between fitness and health, and why muscles are more than just part of your musculoskeletal system, click here.)
If you are not functioning optimally, doing some of the things that your body should be able to do with ease will result instead in feelings of stiffness, pain and weakness. There may be soreness the days following. Using a muscle that is never used or attempting to increase a range of motion (slowly and safely) is hard work! But eventually the idea is to function in optimal range and move the whole body often, in which case sudden increases in activity will have less overall long term impact. For example, shovelling snow or raking leaves or walking a half marathon will leave you feeling it, but not damaged.
By the way, I have no idea what shredding is in relation to the body. Maybe I’m missing out on something, but I doubt it. But all this talk of shredding has me craving coleslaw. I’m off to shred a cabbage.
The first time I see a new client, I assess their standing position, and try to bring their attention to the habits they currently have standing, sitting and walking. In some cases, that is enough information for that client to make changes to those habits that result in relief of symptoms.
Although I am not a Doctor or a Physiotherapist, and cannot (and do not) claim to treat disease, the fact remains that a lot of people are seeking Restorative Exercise Specialists™ because there is generally a mechanical component to many forms of damage or disease. Oftentimes they have exhausted all other avenues, from orthotics to prescription drugs to a course of physiotherapy that may not have resolved the issue, and are facing interventions such as surgery. Not all medical practitioners are trained in biomechanics, and as such, we can be a helpful part of the alternative rehabilitative process.
But it takes a long time to create damage, and although changing your mechanics may result in instant relief (in some lucky cases), the damage is still there – you just aren’t exacerbating it by incorrect loading. The damage itself will take much longer to correct, and includes such other natural interventions such as rest, diet, the correct amount and type of movement, not to mention probable lifestyle changes (standing work station, shoe choices for example). Tissues can heal, but it takes time.
If tissues are so tight and unyielding that certain joint ranges are unavailable to you, it’s time to change that before it results in friction damage to that joint. (Actually, it’s likely the damage is there, but it might not be symptomatic – why wait until you are in pain to fix your joints?) In order to raise your arms above your head without compensation from the spine or improper and potentially damaging shoulder mechanics, or to bend over at the hips without sacrificing your vertebral discs, you will need to know how to increase that range safely. How long will it take before you can achieve this goal? It depends. It depends on how diligent you are in your muscle restorative program, and if you can limit or negate entirely the habits that are contributing to your issue.
Whether your goal is to alleviate painful symptoms, to increase your strength to weight ratio, or to learn how to move correctly, alignment can serve you to:
Preserve and Protect the Spine
Minimize Joint Damage
Our body will prioritize protection of the Central Nervous System housed within the spine. A muscle spasm is nature’s way of telling you that you were about to endanger this structure, whether through a disc herniation, or a shearing of one vertebra relative to another for example. Building the strength in the posterior leg musculature and learning how to analyze your movement abilities at the hip are part of the process for restoring the stability to the spine. Inability to access the full range of motion at the hip will sacrifice your spine for the simplest of tasks, such as putting on your shoes.
Circulation of oxygen rich blood to the tissues is essential for tissue health and regeneration of tissue cells. The circulation is optimized when the muscle is innervated. A muscle that is not used (or not used often) does not waste valuable resources – the oxygen delivery to that muscle will be decreased (through lack of capillary development). As well, the acidic waste of the cell will build up as the lymphatic drainage of this waste also depends on regular muscle activity. This is a recipe for unhealthy tissues! This is why I stress the importance of getting those tight muscles in your hands and feet to open up. Finger and toe stretching can be done almost anywhere, anytime. All 600+ of your muscles require the correct amount of use in order to generate the circulation of oxygen, nerve stimulus and lymphatic drainage. If we lived in such a way that all of our muscles were optimized in their circulation, we would enjoy a level of health unknown to even the most elite of athletes, or ablest yogis.
Alignment is something that I will practice every day for the rest of my life. I would like to know that the alignment I practice will have benefits and not detriments. That is essentially why I do what I do. Please join me!
Today I went out to clear some of the fresh snow that fell yesterday and found this:
So let’s call this guy “The Mailman.” The Mailman has a decidedly turned out foot position. Let’s see what happens when he continues down the walk.
(click on the image to get a better look) You can see that this is not just on the stairs but on level ground. The heels land almost directly in front of each other, as if he is walking with his heels on a narrow balance beam, with his toes sticking off the edge of the beam. The Mailman has weak lateral hips, and poor balance. (Call me Sherlock.)
The Mailman also has tight calves (and most likely tight hamstrings). I can tell this because he is wearing heels as evidenced by the print. If The Mailman were wearing flat (zero drop) shoes, the entire footprint would be flat, but as you can see, there is a gap between the heel print and the forefoot. I guarantee that The Mailman is walking with a quadricep driven gait pattern (hip flexion), and landing on a bent knee.
The Mailman is going to have to cut his career short if he intends on delivering mail well into his golden years. Oh wait, we just learned that our Canada Post home delivery service is going to end. Lucky for him he will have lots of time to study Alignment.
With a straight foot, and a wider stance (distance between feet) he can help save his knees from becoming osteoarthritic, and his hips will become stronger leading to a more balanced gait (and the potential to be independent longer). If he takes to wearing flat shoes and does some stretches to lengthen his calves and hamstrings he might never need Adult Depends, because it’s the pelvic floor that pays the price for the positioning of the pelvis that occurs in this scenario.
Compare The Mailman to the Delivery Girl, seen in this photo:
The Delivery Girl is much straighter in her gait pattern, although there is still room for improvement. The feet are a bit narrow but wider than The Mailman’s. She is wearing a flatter boot as well. I’d say the Delivery Girl is on the right “track.”
I’m pretty excited that after an absence of six weeks, classes start up again this week. My last venue closed and it took me a while to find a space, but a space I found and what a space! I’m stoked!
Firstly, the location is awesome — it is in Leslieville, one of “Toronto’s hippest place to dine, drink, shop and live” (according to the New York Times). I already know that, because I once owned a house in Leslieville that actually housed my first independent studio. I ended up moving a bit further East, but I always missed living with the vibe of that neighbourhood.
The studio is in the back of Barkside Bistro, an organic raw pet food store, run by one of my clients. The building is actually an old historic building that once was the home of Delta Motors. There are still the old hooks in the ceiling of the studio where they would hang the motors!
The floors are original hardwood, and I spent the afternoon soaking up the atmosphere of the space, and I have to say – I love it! I hope you do too.
Classes resume Tuesday Feb. 4 at 7-8:15p and Saturday Feb. 8 at 9:30-10:45a. If you are interested in taking part, please email me, as registration is required. Tuesday classes are “waiting list” but there is still space in Saturday’s class.
There’s also the possibility that more classes can be added to the schedule so don’t hesitate to ask!
Here’s a pic of the back half:
Just imagine that space with mirrors! Pretty cool huh?
Okay, that was probably not on your Christmas list. Or your kid’s list. But have you ever enjoyed a moment in the bush, “au naturel?” If you’ve ever traveled to a foreign country and found yourself facing a hole in the ground and you don’t have your squat mechanics ready to go, well, you can’t go. I was in Italy a few years ago, hiking the Cinque Terre, and after several hours hiking some pretty steep hills, we made our way into one of the five little towns for lunch and everyone took turns using the convenience, only a few members of our group were horrified to find it wasn’t actually convenient. Meaning, there was nowhere to sit; just two footprints on the floor and a hole. When in Rome…
There have been studies showing that the mechanics of voiding your bowels are optimized in the squat position, and products are available to assist you in this endeavour using the Western toilet. Companies such as Squatty Potty (U.S. – motto: healthy colon: happy life) and Lillipad (N.Z.) manufacture stools to allow the user to raise their feet to the level of the top of the bowl and squat to defecate.
Align-nerds in the Restorative Exercise™ program talk a lot about natural functions like this. We are an odd bunch. But facilitating things that need to come out of your body are all part of a natural existence. Birthing, pooping, vomiting, are all things that can be improved using better alignment. Seriously. Things work better if they are not fighting gravity or maneuvering kinks and bends in the road. Lots of problems associated with a less than optimal experience on the toilet are improved in the squat position (constipation, hemorrhoids are some examples).
So I’ve coveted a Squatty Potty (actually a brand name but fast becoming a generic term for the thing) for a while now, but shipping to Canada has proved prohibitive. If you live in the US you are in luck, shipping is only $10 or so.
Another reason my travel companions were less than thrilled to find the toilet part of the toilet missing is that a good many people don’t practice squatting. They simply don’t have the hip and knee mechanics to facilitate a deep drop like this. So even if they wanted to improve their bathroom experience, they don’t have the ability to do so. Enter Restorative Exercise™ he he.
Squatting is an important part of our protocol. There may be several things limiting your ability to squat without causing injury to your knees and back. You need a good range of motion in your ankle, strength in your posterior thigh and hip to support you and get you back up again, and full range of motion in your hips will allow the movement to spare your spine from flexing. We spend a lot of our time sitting, but we sit in a position where our hips never have to bend beyond 90 degrees. Even our toilets get higher the older we get. This is a case of enabling our disability, rather than addressing it head on. In Restorative Exercise™ we work toward improving our squat mechanics and give you modifications so you can squat correctly to whatever degree you can manage.
Your joints are actually designed to be used this way, to their full range of motion. Using this range of motion will ensure your joints remain healthy for a lifetime. Using a partial range of motion over a long time can result in tight muscles and arthritic joints. Going to the bathroom isn’t the only reason you should squat, but it is an elegant, natural built-in way to ensure that you use your joints to the full range.
So this morning a family friend dropped by with a Christmas present for me. It was wrapped in a garbage bag and I didn’t have a clue what it could be. I’d shown him the Lillipad website several months ago, when he was helping my husband build our porch. I was sure he thought I was off my rocker. He’s an inventor, a craftsman, not to mention a highly regarded architect. So imagine my surprise when I unwrapped the bag and found this:
Hand made! He had fun quizzing house guests over the holidays as to the purpose of his new project. No one guessed right (one person thought it was a shoe shine stand). It is happily installed in my bathroom right now and I’ll spare you the reviews other than to say it is beautifully made and definitely my favourite Christmas present of 2013.
I am doing a Restorative Exercise™ class this Wednesday, December 11. The class will be a primer on foot health, a little piece of my foot workshop. I call it the “High Heel Hangover” class, as this is the season that many business types (and others) find themselves standing around at seasonal parties in their dressy (uncomfortable) shoes. If you are a guy, you stand around in heels too – just not 3 inchers. Besides, every foot out there can use some lovin’ – amiright?
One hundred percent of proceeds will go to Interval House. The fee is $10, but feel free to pay more! Lots more!
Please RSVP to Rebalance Sports Medicine. I need to know how many people will be there so I can come armed with enough half domes.
The class takes place from 11:00-12:00 at Rebalance Sports Medicine, 110 Yonge Street, suite 905.
My last post was all about the psoas muscle and how it can affect the positioning of your spine and pelvis. Keep in mind that we are trying to assess bone position here, and if you have a lot of padding, don’t let that throw off your evaluation.
You may have discovered you were in a position where the entire spine is against the floor, without the normal lordotic curve of the lumbar spine (the waist area) so that all the way to the tailbone the spine is down but the tailbone itself is off the floor. The hamstrings are nowhere near the floor. If you were to take that spine to quadruped position, it would look like this:
So in this position, let your back relax to the floor.
There! Now just sit there for a while. Let the ribs down too. In the photo I’m keeping my head aligned with my spine, but you can let your head hang down too, so the top of the head is pointing to the floor. Let your internal organs drop forward toward the floor, to sit on the abdominal wall. Ahhhhh. Feels good. Let the tailbone float upwards. Hang out. If the knees are uncomfortable, place some padding beneath them.
If you want to, you can try this: lift the bottom rib in the front of your body down toward the pelvis (or up towards the ceiling – same difference). Try to do this without a lot of muscle. This will re-create the natural curve that should be in your rib cage. But it’s important that you don’t tuck the tailbone back under and round the lower back again.
With the hips and the knees bent like this, the pelvis does not have any muscular inhibitions to this action, other than the unfamiliarity with having a lumbar curve. Most chronic tail tuckers find this action very strange at first. As well, most people are surprised with how much they have to untuck to gain a neutral pelvis/spine. I suggest doing this beside a mirror. Let your spine go all the way at first. It probably won’t be too far. Once you correct the rib cage position, you won’t look like the old grey mare.
When you go about your daily activities, try to release the spine, sometimes that tail tucking is a habit, albeit one that is unconscious for the most part. If you are standing in a “bad puppy” posture, see if you can allow the tailbone to float back.
If you sit a lot for work (or on a horse), try not to curl the tailbone under and sit on it. This creates a lot of problems, not least of which is related to pelvic floor dysfunction. Your weight should be on the “sit bones” (ischial tuberosities) and tailbone should be floating above the chair seat.
About 100 years ago, before I became a full time Pilates teacher and then a RES™, I rode horses. I was one of those horse crazy girls from a very early age. I distinctly remember seeing a horse on TV before I could speak, and running over to the box and banging on the screen in an attempt to get the horse to come back. For whatever reason, I was passionate about them always!
I finally stopped riding about 7 years ago, as creating a business in the city was taking all my time, and truthfully, owning my own horse was not in the cards, and riding OP’s can be frustrating. I guess I will never realize my Olympic dreams.
However, I give a lot of thought to how the stuff I’m learning now would have been so helpful then. As well, my decades of riding horses are hard to forget, and I often use that movement background in order to help understand new concepts. When I have trouble sleeping, it’s not sheep I count, but tempi changes.
So I guess that whole world is still deeply ingrained.
It will come as no surprise to any rider that what they do when they sit on a horse will have a consequence in the behaviour of the horse, whether it was intentional on their part or not. Ideally, a rider desires to develop the horse’s natural abilities and does nothing to restrict him in achieving these abilities. But what if you are restricting him without your knowledge, or even with your knowledge but beyond your control? What if there were tension patterns inherent in your own body that prevented you from being fully in control of your own actions? Take those kinds of tension patterns onto a horse and your riding teacher suddenly has more to deal with than she can possibly hope to change (hard enough in a static body, never mind one on a moving horse!).
Take the psoas for example (psoa – Greek for loin). This is not one muscle that the name implies, but two. You have psoai (pl); one on either side of your body, deep to the spine, running from the level of your lowest ribs to the upper inside part of your thigh bone (called the lesser trochanter). They work independently, not symmetrically; in other words, they can do different things at the same time on each side of the body. If you are a meat eater, the psoas muscle is the tenderloin – that long, expensive, very tender piece of pork or beef that you see in the supermarket. (Since only about 50% of the population has a psoas minor, we will not address them here.)
Below the psoas, attaching to the inside of the pelvic bowl and running down to share an attachment point with it, is the iliacus muscle. This muscle has a very broad attachment on the pelvis and a very narrow attachment on the lesser trochanter. Historically, these two muscles have been unfortunately lumped together and termed the “iliopsoas.” I say unfortunately, because these muscles have different actions despite their one shared inferior attachment, and lumping them together has led to a great deal of confusion as to their individual functions.
Seen from the side, the psoas runs down through the trunk at an angle, from the spine forward towards the front of the abdomen, across the front of the pelvis and backwards again to the lower attachment point. It has many attachments, from the anterior transverse processes on the vertebrae, sides of the vertebral bodies, and even the intervertebral discs, running down to the inferior attachment point at the lesser trochanter.
As such it crosses many joints (spine and hip). Because your central nervous system is housed within the spine, the psoas is a mover of the central nervous system. It’s a large muscle that can reposition the rib cage, and also moves the legs. It can influence your upper, core and/or lower body. Hip flexion is but a small portion of what the psoas does, and it does this by bringing the femur out in front (it also has a part in chronically flexed knees) and not by anteriorly tilting the pelvis, as is often mistakenly believed.
The psoas major also has layers; the deeper layer and a more superficial layer. Deep attaches to L1-5 transverse processes, which means it has the potential to move lumbar vertebra relative to each other. Superficial attaches from T12 to L5 bodies and discs. It can therefore displace vertebral discs relative to the vertebral bodies.
Between the two layers is the lumbar plexus, which is a nerve complex responsible for nerve supply to abdominal muscles, back/spine muscles, pelvic floor, and adductor (inner thigh) muscles. Electrical flow to a muscle determines the health of the blood supply to those muscles. As well, the flow of lymph (waste) removal is dependent on this plexus and its health. So if the psoas is tight, and blood flow is restricted, all these tissues can potentially be negatively affected. (But hey, what do dressage riders need with abs, spine, inner thigh and pelvic muscles?)
We know that tight muscles that can’t release and yield back to their supple and original length will test as weak, and most of us have tight psoai (I’ll get to why in a minute). If a muscle is chronically shortened, it cannot generate force. If it cannot generate force, it cannot create vasodilation and increase blood flow to its tissues. If it cannot optimize blood flow, the tissues are not fed, and if they are not fed, regeneration does not take place, resulting in tissue disease and death. In the case of the psoas, not only is the psoas muscle itself at risk, but think of what a tight psoas does to the structures it attaches to, and the many nerve feeds to muscles around the trunk, hips, thighs and spine.
What does a tight psoas look like – how can you tell if you are tight, and in this discussion, how will that affect the rider? Here are some reasons the psoai can be tight: chair sitting (especially if you sit with a slumped spine and tail tucked), biking, running, treadmill walking or running, stair climbing, elliptical machines, tucking the tail (yours, not the horse’s), sucking in the stomach (to appear thinner or in a mistaken belief that this tones the abs), rib thrusting (either because the muscle is tight, or because culturally you have been trained to do so, or through sports such as gymnastics and ballet, or military training). All of these can result in a chronic rearrangement of the muscle fibres of the psoas.
Because sitting on a horse is still sitting, and most of us sit far too much as it is, even if you don’t do any of the other items on the list, it is very likely you have a tight psoas. Here’s how to test it:
Lie down on the floor, a hard wood floor is best for this. Lie on your back with your legs extended. The back of your thighs, your hamstrings, should be fulling resting on the floor. If they are not, this is an indication that your hips are flexed and your knees are bent (even minutely). Now, regardless of where your legs are relative to the floor, bring your attention to the rib cage. Are the bottom ribs on the floor, or are they too lifted? Sometimes the spine is off the floor all the way from the lower back to the upper shoulders. The broadest part of your ribs just below the bra line should be well grounded. One of the signs of a tight psoas is “shearing” of the upper lumbar vertebra. This is a term that means the upper vertebra are displaced forward (toward the front of the body) relative to the ones below them. This results in a “rib thrust” described above. So regardless of whether you have a rib thrust because your psoas is tight, or your psoas is tight because you have a rib thrust, you need to deal with that. Please note: the lower back or lumbar spine does not have to be on the floor. There has been some confusion as to what parts of the spine should be touching the floor if the psoas is long enough. The ribs, all the way down to the bra line should be touching, and the back of your thighs. The lower back should have its regular lordotic (forward) curve.
Do you see that in the above photo (of me) that there is daylight between my ribs and the floor, and my hamstrings (back of thigh) and the floor? If this looks forced to you, tilt your head and pretend I am standing. Not so different from a lot of postures out there. As a matter of fact, most people would think this was “good posture” maybe even for riding. (If you click on the photo it will enlarge for easier viewing.)
So if your psoas was optimal in length and could yield to its full length, the hamstrings on both legs and your lower ribs would be firmly on the floor. If one or the other or both is not, you have work to do. As well, one hamstring may be on the floor or closer to it than the other. Because we do not use our bodies symmetrically and the psoas muscles work independently, one can be tighter than the other. Standing on the ground, or in the stirrups in this case, will have the result of a pelvic/spine rotation. Do you find one lead easier than the other, or circling one way easier than the other? Has your coach repeatedly told you to bring one shoulder back or that you are leading with one hip? I don’t think I need to go into detail here how that would inhibit the success of any dressage movement (your riding coach can cover that).
The above demonstration just showed you how a chronically short psoas can change your posture, or position. If your goal is to achieve a free hip and leg, supple lower back, force generating abs for half halts and spine support on those big extended trots, inner thigh length for a deep seat, long, effective leg and deep heels, you cannot achieve an optimal position on a horse or anywhere else until you RELEASE the psoas! Stretching that sucker is not effective, because the fibres are chronically short – this means their resting length has been re-set to a shorter position. Stretching it will get you nowhere. The brain needs to be reminded where the attachment points (bones) need to be relative to each other in order to allow the muscle to release and eventually to yield and allow a healthy blood flow back to the area.
So far we have learned that a tight psoas can restrict your ability to move freely in the spine, hips and ribs, negatively effects the health of tissues surrounding it in the trunk, pelvis, abs, spine and thighs (potentially causing pain in any of those areas), can create rotations in the spine and pelvis, chronically shortens the legs by flexing the knee and hip, can create compression of the discs and shear the rib cage forward causing further damage to the discs (not to mention putting a large portion of our body out of balance with the centre of mass in the pelvis, and creating unstable environment for the shoulders – which would lead directly to contact issues). Holy cow – that’s probably enough to motivate anybody. But there’s more!
Your kidneys and adrenal glands are situated below the upper psoas attachment. The central nervous system is affected by a tight psoas, and anybody who works with animals knows that emotions can effect posture and vice versa. You know your horse is relaxed when that tail is loose and swinging right? What message does it send your horse when your CNS is clamped down? Your psoas clamps down when there is a reason to protect the vital organs in a “flight or fight” situation. Normally we would encounter such a situation very rarely, maybe a few times a year. However, in our society, we are more likely to have biological stress reactions on a far more regular basis. There is a chemical event that occurs during times of stress, and normally our body would be able to deal with these chemicals and clear them from our bloodstream and return to a normal state of health in a short amount of time. Because we are always giving this signal with a chronically tight psoas of the fight or flight response, our adrenal gland is constantly working, leading to adrenal fatigue, and eventually exhaustion.
How are you feeling when you walk up the centre line? A little nervous? Did your horse give you some “attitude” in the warm up? It’s very possible that the psoas shortens in response to the fear of being in front of a judge or riding a nervous horse that might decide to toss you on the ground at any moment! In any case, such a response on the part of the psoas is not going to lead to a relaxed horse or rider. So what can you do to release the psoas?
First of all, take this course: http://www.restorativeexercise.com/psoas-science/
For $40, or a lot less than one dressage lesson, you can listen to a 2 hour lecture by biomechanical scientist Katy Bowman on the psoas, expanding on what I have touched on here, and a one hour psoas exercise and release protocol that I suggest you do every day or as much as you can.
In the meantime do this release: in the test position above, bolster the shoulders and head/neck until the hamstrings are firmly on the ground. You can roll up blankets or use several pillows, a yoga bolster or even a sleeping bag rolled up. How much bolstering you need will be determined by how tight you are. The lower ribs are not on the bolster. In this position, you have nothing to do but allow gravity to act on the upper attachment of the psoas (lowest rib) and allow that to drop down to the floor. This might take 5 minutes, or 5 months. It depends on several variables.
This is only one psoas release but it is a good start. Remember, tucking the tail (posteriorly tilting the pelvis) and thrusting the ribs (lifting the chest and pulling the shoulders back) is not conducive to a relaxed psoas or a functional spine, pelvic floor or abdominals. That posture will only aggravate the issue.
Katy Bowman, M.S.
Alignment Matters: the First Five Years of Katy Says
Propriometrics Press, 2013
447 pp., $21.95
Disclaimer: I am a certified Restorative Exercise Specialist™ and hence, am biased to love this book. (I received this copy for free as a review copy.) So I will do my best to explain why this book should be required reading for movement educators and health practitioners, and what it has to offer to a casual reader, fitness nut, or someone looking for information or advice on many of the health and disease issues we are facing today.
The book in question is called Alignment Matters: The First Five Years of Katy Says by Katy Bowman. Bowman is a movement and health educator, director of the Restorative Exercise Institute, author of two books (so far), with a degree in biomechanics. You can read her bio here.
In Alignment Matters you will learn that you have the means at your disposal to effect the outcome of your physiology, this information is freely accessible, and you don’t need special equipment or fitness memberships to do so. Your alignment and your geometry are integral to your well being, and that information is often missing from your current sources of medical and fitness advice. In fact, what we are doing in our quest for fitness is actually the cause of some of those outcomes!
The book is a compilation of blog posts from the popular Katysays.com. As a regular reader of this blog, you might ask why would I want to have this information in printed form? Having a printed index is handy, as the search function on the blog can net you many choices and it’s sometimes hard to recall where you read that one snippet you are looking for. Also, the blog is written according to what Katy is thinking about and researching at the time, which can range from Pelvic Floor Disorders to Earwax, while the book is neatly arranged by category: Feet and Shoes; Knees, Hips and Back; Walking and Gait; Pregnancy, Childbirth, Babies and Children; Cardiovascular System, are some examples.
As an ancient person, I appreciate a paper book that you can load up with highlights and notes in the margins, carry on the bus and subway, read in the bathroom. The book also comes in an e-book version for people who have joined the 21st century. Also, not everyone has a computer or reads blogs. (I know – weird but true!) So although the material is available online, having it in an organized, easily accessible format is worth the price.
Bowman’s style is informal and conversational and as such, appeals to a wide variety of people. Her sense of humour is displayed on almost every page, which is appreciated when you consider she is dealing with often very serious subject matter. She is never preachy or judgemental (in this she is also my teacher) and lives the life she espouses, which continues to be an inspiration to the rest of us, as she drags us along to our furniture-free, vine swinging existence.
This is one of those books you will be quoting from at the water cooler and dinner table, annoying your colleagues and family with stories that invariably start with “Katy says…” (hence the blog name). You can read it from the beginning, or you can open at random. Most importantly however, don’t skip the Introduction section, which lays the foundation for the book’s premise. One of the best is “Manifesto” from 2011.
The information contained in this book is easy to understand, illustrated in many cases by photos and Katy’s own hand drawn masterpieces (not such an inside joke – but although they are often hastily and always simply drawn, they are effective at illustrating a point). The links that were hot-linked in the original posts are footnoted here. Research material that is cited is also footnoted. In other words, this could keep you busy for a long, long time. Or you could choose to adopt many of the simple changes to avoid or improve fallen arches, knee and hip osteoarthritis, osteoporsis, to name a few. But you will be drawn in to this book and it is a pleasure to read, not the dry, heavy eyelid inducing kind of read you suspect a book about alignment would be.
I think anybody can take something of value away from this book, and you are bound to come back to it again and again, as her words seem to linger in the mind and cast doubt on some of your hard held beliefs. Even if you choose to continue your current fitness habits, you will do so with new insights. Even small changes can have a profound effect.
A suggestion: if you do find posts that you are very interested in, go to the online blog and read the comments section. Katy often generously responds to readers questions with very detailed explanations and clarifications. It would have been impossible to include all the comments in a book, but some good information is still to be found there.
In the States, look for this book on Amazon.com. In Canada, you can order the book from the Restorative Exercise Institute online: http://www.restorativeexercise.com/book-store/
If you are local to Toronto, I hope to have copies available some time soon.