Friday, 30 May 2014

On 11:11 by Victoria Stanham in , , ,    No comments
Image by WikiImages

Change your perspective and your expectations.

Take a minute to consider what your relationship to exercise is founded on.
Why are you in this relationship to begin with? Your weight? Long-term health benefits? Beacause you have to exercise (everyone else is doing it)? Does the doctor (or your mother) say you should? Scrap that.

As with all relationships, the clue to real love (getting to the point where you “miss” it when you are not together), is enjoying spending time together. You need to learn to enjoy movement for movement’s sake, for the pure joy of feeling your body moving.
Stop thinking about what it could do for you long term: What does it do for you now?
Do you feel happy after moving your body? Limber & looser? Freer? More powerful? Does it clear your mind and your worries for a while? Is the world a better place after spending some time with your moving body?

If all you focus on is the long-term benefits, and you can’t see what it is already doing for you today, you will take all the joy out of your relationship. Start living your relationship in the present. Go back to why you like to move, not what it can give you long term.

Stop thinking so much about what It should be giving You: What can You give It?
As with all relationships the best you can give your partner is your full attention. Learn to read your moving-body’s nuances of tone, its changes in inflexion. Delight in the sheer pleasure of your body pounding, shaking, jumping the stress and tension out of your mind, body and soul. You can both then bask in the post-workout glow.

5 ways to apply this advice right away
1. List the reasons why you DO love to move. Refer to it often.
It’s good to remind yourself what it’s REALLY all about, for those times when going gets rough.

2. List the forms of movement that you DO love to engage in.
When going gets rough, there has to be a foundation of love to fall back on. Do not expect to love your workout routine tomorrow if you never loved it to begin with (or worse, if you hate it). Find yourself an activity you really enjoy doing and stick to that for now.

3. Start learning some basic body mapping. Apply it during your workouts.
You can try being aware of your feet, or your armpits, or your neck, during movement. The point is to start really connecting to your moving body, to learn to be present in the moment and in the movement. All true joy springs from this fountain.

4. Start researching possible places where you can go on workout dates.
Decide if you want to have some alone time on your date (perhaps a leisurely walk or run along the beach or a country trail… you can take the dog too), or you’d rather party with friends (a dance class, a pilates class, a yoga class, a functional fitness class, a tennis match… so many options, you can pick your party-style).

5. If your relationship is in real tatters, get some professional help.
A good teacher or coach can make all the difference if you find yourself hating your time together with your body during your workouts. What you need is to learn each other’s language. Only then will you each be able to communicate more clearly your needs and delights. An Alexander Technique teacher can help you get back in touch with what your body is feeling, with how to communicate clear directions to it, and how to grow together towards your true potential.

Let me know how it goes in the comments.

See you next week.

If you’d like to know more about how to get your relationship with your moving body back in shape, check out what my work is about or contact me.

Friday, 23 May 2014

On 19:12 by Victoria Stanham in    No comments
photo by Anja Osenberg

I used to hateworking out. Really, REALLY hate it. It made me sore, it tensed me up, it made me feel inadequate when I couldn’t perform half the movements in class, while the person next to me seemed to breeze through the workout without even breaking a sweat. I quit going to gyms completely and turned my back on anything that looked remotely like a PE class.
That has all completely changed for me. Now I find myself going to the gym 4 times a week where I run, jump, squat, ab-crunch, pull-up, push-up and generally do, with great gusto, all the sorts of movements I used to abhor.
What produced this change in me? Becoming fairly fluent in psychophysical language.
One of the keys to enjoying a workout is enjoying performing the movements that are an integral part of it.
Granted, no one “enjoys” doing three sets of 10 burpees (squat-plank-squat-jump) at the end of an hour long workout. But having good body mechanics can make the whole difference between hating your trainer’s guts or taking it all in good stride as part of what’s got to be done to complete that day’s workout.
Good body-mechanics is something most people have lost somewhere down their lives’ paths. At some point bizarre ideas about how your body works and where your body parts join each other have crept up on you, with the devastating result that you move expending way more energy than necessary, and using muscles ill-suited for the job at hand. No wonder you end up all tense and exhausted. The worst part is that strain injuries are only a step away from faulty body-use.
Any good trainer will have an eye out for lousy body-mechanics, and will give you pointers on how to correct your technique. The problem is that it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ll be able to put that advice into action. If your perception of where your joints are really located in your body-map is a bit (or a lot) askew, then you’re in for a lot of frustration.
Lousy body-mechanics will become more evident once muscle fatigue settles in. You’re on the third round of the workout circuit and suddenly your realize that your right shoulder and arm aren’t responding as efficiently as your lefts, making you rely heavily and overuse the left side. Or perhaps you’re at ab-crunch number 30 of the 4th round and you realize your previously symmetrical torso rise has become a lopsided affair: you twist up instead of rising up parallel.
This seeming trivial asymmetry wouldn’t have risen to the surface if you hadn’t taken yourself to the limit. Perhaps you weren’t even aware that you favored one side over the other, you were happily and unconsciously compensating. You might be tempted to think that all you need to do is “strengthen” the muscles on the weak side. However “logical” this reasoning might appear, it is way off-target. The asymmetry, or twist, that becomes evident when you take yourself to the limit, is not something that wasn’t there before, it was there all along, it is how you habitually activate the muscle pattern for that particular movement.
So, if strengthening the weak side isn’t the solution; what is there to do?
You figure out if you’ve got a stage 1, 2 or 3 problem.
Movement patterns are learned and integrated in 3 stages, following the standard neurological pathway of habit formation.  So correcting body-mechanics is really all about re-training habits.

The first stage is awareness.
You need to recognise 4 basic things:
1) The mechanics of what you want to do (e.g. what does a correct squat entail);
2) What you are in fact doing (e.g. what am I doing when I squat);
3) In what ways what you want to do and what you are in fact doing differ from each other;
4) What you need to (re)learn to get nearer to your goal.
Sometimes it’s hard to see this on your own (we can’t see what we don’t know). So a good idea is to find outside help. Personally, what I do is go to an Alexander Technique teacher or any other movement specialist who has a really good eye for movement patterns and can tell me what I’m physically doing that is manifesting as wrong muscle activation sequences. Such a teacher can also help me figure out what wrong ideas I’m harboring about my own body and its mechanics, and can help me see what mood is concomitant with this state of affairs.
Stage one is all about recognition, learning to perceive what you were blind to before. It’s basic body mapping, recognition of habitual muscle activations patterns, becoming aware of discrepancies between my perception of reality and what is really happening.
During this stage you lay down new neural pathways.

The second stage is directed conscious application.
Every time you’re faced with a cue for action (e.g. “squat!”) You need to practice NOT automatically doing how you did it before (this is harder than it sounds, believe me), and instead doing it the new way.  
Stage two is about being able to consciously deactivate the sequence that’s causing the faulty execution, and consciously choosing the new activation sequence, EVERY TIME the action is called for. This stage requires ATTENTION & THOUGHT, you need to be FOCUSED & PRECISE.
During this phase you’re strengthening the new neural wiring you laid down in stage one.

The third stage is using your new knowledge in physical reality.
Stage three is when you take your newly integrated pattern and test drive it in real life, in situations when you can’t over-think it, when speed and power are called for. During this type of training you get to see how much of the new sequence has become truly automatic and second nature.
After a while at this stage you will run into apparently new (but in truth really old) faulty mechanics. Patterns that used to be hidden under the old compensations will rise to the surface. But this time you’re prepared: you won’t try to deal with them with more reps of the same; now you know you have to get back to the drawing board.
Working out has become not only a pleasure, it is now also a science. You’re now not only stronger, faster, leaner, fitter, healthier; you’re also SMARTER.
So, if you’re stuck in your progress, if working out isn’t fun anymore, if it is just too painful, or if you don’t seem to get any better… then you might need to take yourself to stage one, and build yourself up again towards finally embodying your true potential.
See you next week.
If you’re interested in getting better and enjoying your workouts more, then check out what my work is about or contact me about lessons.

Friday, 16 May 2014

On 17:06 by Victoria Stanham   No comments
It took 3 things and none of them had anything to do with being a born and bred athlete (I’m actually more of the nerdy intellectual type).

The 3 things (in sequential-but-overlapping order) are:
1. A fine-tuning of my body-map.
2. A re-learning of muscle activation sequences.
3. A re-framing of my mindset.
Allow me to briefly explain each point.

1. A fine-tuning of my body-map.
Before getting this bit on board, gym instructors, sports coaches, PE trainers, they all would give me endless pointers to correct my execution of the movements, and I would do my best to follow them… but my best wasn’t enough. I was sure I was following instructions (I definitely had them all in mind) but it seemed my body wasn’t getting the memo. So I would try harder, tense up more, put in more effort… and end up hurting all over and still delivering a mediocre output. No wonder I got discouraged.
However, once I learned how to “speak psychophysical” I finally could get my mind and body coordinated so that both did what I wanted them to. This has meant more effectiveness in my movement, and more efficiency in my energy usage.
[Psssst…. If you want to start building your body-map, check out these posts: axila, neck, feet].

2. A re-learning of muscle activation sequences.
Put simply, I needed to learn how to keep the stability of my torso while my limbs are moving, in such a way that my movement reflected more a running cheetah, with super range of motion, and a flexible but stable and strong torso, rather than a zombie walk. It’s all about efficiency, using the right muscles in the right sequences, and for the right purposes. It’s impossible to achieve without a minimum grasp of the body-map. And you need to practice and master it first in low-intensity movements with great precision, before attempting to go all out in speed and effort.

3. A re-framing of my mindset.
During a high-intensity workout you will get tired. Your mind will start playing tricks on you, telling your body “you’ll die if you don’t stop now”. There’s actually more mettle to you than you believe. Knowing your body-mind language you can actually re-orient the conversation. The body can actually go greater distances if the mind will stop blabbering out useless gossip, and instead use its energy to tell the body how to keep proper form, how to be more efficient, how to do less of the unnecessary to do more of the real task at hand.
I love mind games, changes of perception, calling on innercharacters. So during high intensity workouts I put on a different hats, play the “as if…” games I used in theatre training. There are three of you at it: your body, your mind and your conscious attention & direction. Make sure your consciousness is keeping mind and body in order by calling on the right emotional mood for the moment. Play at make-believe like when you were a child, become a horse, a cheetah, a warrior, anything that bring on the right mood, the right psychophysical attitude. It’s fun. It’s effective.

And you… What has made you love your workouts? How do you keep your form under stress?
Tell me. I'm curious.

P.S. If you’d like to try this out for yourself, contact me. I can help you with all three steps, and recommend great places and people who can help you get your low-key initial workouts for muscle-tone prep and practice, and then test your mettle at the high-key ones.

P.P.S. If you’ve got joint pain (back, arms, legs) you can still build your way to this. You just need to learn how to get yourself out of the pain, into the shape, and onto the right mindset. 

Friday, 9 May 2014

On 21:34 by Victoria Stanham   2 comments
However, I forgot to mention a very important fact: when we set out to learn something new and totally foreign to us, we need to have an open attitude, an attitude of listening with our full being (body and mind), without fighting beforehand with the stuff we hear. Perhaps we’ll understand little at first; perhaps some of the things we learn will be so different from the way we’ve conceived them up until then that at first we might instinctively and reflexively reject them. But it’s worthwhile taking the time to listen, to accept that we don’t see the full picture and that some things will become clearer with time, and to acknowledge the fact that I can open up to the new experience little by little, by degrees, and only up to the point that I feel I can manage and integrate the new stimulus.
Let me give you an example from my past week that illustrates this point rather well.
Last Tuesday I went to a CrossFit lesson. I confess I was petrified. It’s been years since I practiced any sort of physical exercise that did not include the word “consciousness” in its description. But the point is I’ve been told I need to build up some muscle mass to achieve more stability, stamina and character strength. If we accept the concept of the psychophysical unity, the latter makes a lot of sense: I have a rather “ethereal” constitution, with a pronounced tendency to “take flight” towards higher planes of abstraction. Therefore, getting a more solid rooting to the Earth through body mass is something that I can understand as necessary, in my particular case. I already do Pilates training 4 times a week and have a fairly good and even muscle tone; but the philosophy and attitude behind the Pilates a practice is all about precision, care, fluidity and consciousness… and what I was recommended was little bit more of blood, toil, tears and sweat.

So there I was at the Box, at 9am, trembling and semi-convinced that I wasn’t going to last more than 20 minutes into the whole routine. But I was open to listening what they had to teach me; I was of course going to put my own safety and health first and foremost, but I was anyway open to experimenting the system without judging it negatively beforehand. The training has a definite “military” flavor to it, and it is taught and coached from that mindset. So to really dive into the experience, and sustain the demands it made on body and mind, I had to get into the spirit of the thing, into the right mindset, and go to that place within me that has something of the warrior to it and who could connect to what was (literally) written on the wall: “You don’t stop when you’re tired, you stop when you’re done.”
What does all this have to do with learning propioception and ‘psychophysical language’ that we were talking about last week?
A lot. Let me ennumerate the most important things.
To really learn a new language it is necessary to:
1) Become involved with and internalize the culture of which it is a fundamental part: Only thus will we ever grasp the subtleties of the language, and thus be able to go into the particular state of body and mind that it produces. The language that your body and mind speak to each other is part of a culture too: it is based on homeostasis, on the dynamic equilibrium between opposing forces, between stimuli and responses. To really ‘get’ this language and be able to speak it fluently, we need to understand it from within its own culture.
2) Know how to listen, see, feel the “natives”; that is, know how to perceive them in their totality: Only then will we be able understand the psychophysical attitude (the attitudes of body and mind) that is required to live the experience “like a native”. The language your body and mind speak has its rhythms, vocabulary, timings, cadences and intonations: it is based on this game of balance and counterbalance. In order to hear this language we need to open ourselves up to perceive this game of constant adjustments.
3) Open ourselves up to the experience, without believing that simply because we know other languages, or because we’re experts in grammar and linguistics, we automatically know everything about every other language: Every language has its wisdom which can only be acquired if we allow ourselves to fully live the experience it offers, without pre-judgments about how things “should” be. Needless to say that knowing about grammar and linguistics helps us learn a language faster, by understanding its underlying structure, but it does not make us fluent at it.
Returning to my CrossFit example, thanks to my study of the Alexander Technique, my training in Pilates, and my fascination with anatomy and physiology, mental processes and body-mind interactions (neuroscience and philosophy) I do have a good working knowledge of the linguistics of psychophysical language. However, this does not make me an expert in other body disciplines; I do have a working advantage when it comes to learning them, but I still need to be willing and open to learn.
This is the attitude with which you should approach the exploration of the language your body and mind speak: willing to allow yourself to be surprised by what you discover, trying not to assume you know what you haven’t experienced yet in all its facets, and giving yourself time to discover things, try them out and embody them.
See you next week.


Friday, 2 May 2014

On 09:39 by Victoria Stanham in , , , ,    2 comments
Did you know that your back pain, your chronic muscle tension and your bad posture could be products of your ignorance of a key language that is being spoken non-stop all around you, but that you somehow cannot perceive because you don’t know about it?
What would you give to learn to speak this language?
I’ve been giving English language lessons for many years here in Uruguay. Generally my students are adolescents who are trying to keep up with their school’s English requirement, or who are trying to pass one of the several English language international examinations. These kids come to one hour lessons weekly, sometimes two or three times a week. Some of them don’t even like English all that much. And yet, they understand and accept that, in today’s world, it is necessary for them to know and speak English. Their parents have made that point abundantly clear to them.
What strikes me as interesting is that we all live immersed in another language of which the vast majority no nothing about: it’s the language in which body and mind speak to each other. It is not a verbal language; it is a language of neural stimuli and physiological responses, and we perceive it through our physical sensations and emotional states. However, since we have never been taught this subtle language’s grammar, structure or vocabulary, our interpretation of it, and our ability to intervene in this ongoing communication in order to achieve certain desired results, ends up being limited, when not downright counterproductive.
Not knowing how to speak this tongue is much more limiting for our wellbeing than not knowing any other language. And yet, few people know about it, and even fewer take the time and effort to study it. The results of this illiteracy are serious health problems, both physical (hernias, chronic muscle tension, joint wear and tear leading to arthritis, etc.), and emotional (uncontrolled stress responses, anxiety, stage fright, etc.), as well as general unhappiness borne from not being able to achieve our desired physical and mental outputs.
You need to learn how to listen to and understand what your body and mind are telling each other, because it is this ongoing conversation that is dictaing your phsyical form (posture). Your posture (the end result of this conversation in this language you may know nothing about) has direct effects on your physical and emotional health, as well as on how others perceive you, which in turn directly affects your relationships and social life. Being able to consciously have a say in this conversation, in order to re-direct its flow towards the results you desire, should be a priority in our education, in much the same way that we are expected to speak a second language and know how to use a computer for most jobs.
If we accept the premise that to correct your posture and improve your physical and mental performance you need to learn a new language (let us call it the Psychophysical Language), it is to be expected that you won’t be able to master it from reading a book or taking a few lessons. However, you do not need countless years of lessons to get to a fairly proficient level; after all, you used to speak this language fluently as a very young child, so it’s just a question of uncovering what you already know but forgot. As with all language, it is possible to quickly learn to recognize some key words and phrases, and to learn to communicate with them to achieve basic goals. With time, patience and commitment you could become quite fluent at it, to the point of “blending in with the natives” so to speak.
This is why I would like to teach you some of these key words and phrases, so that you can start having a dialogue with your body-mind. Your mind is already conversing with your body, but it does so at an unconscious level. We’ll try to bring some of this conversation up to a conscious level, so that you can start hearing what your mind is telling your muscles, and can decide if perhaps it wouldn’t be to everyone’s benefit if you altered the tone of their conversation.
Let us start with the feet. What are your feet telling you?

Your feet are the base of support for your whole body when you are standing and of your legs when you are sitting on a chair. They are made up of a lot of little bones (26), muscles (38), joints (40) and tendons (over 100). Given all these available structures to articulate, your feet are able to “speak the psychophysical language” with a great nuances of tone and an ample vocabulary. If we give our feet the necessary space to move freely, they are able to adapt their shape to all types of terrain and thus help you keep your balance. However, we tend to have them cramped, compressed and bound up inside shoes that do not allow them to communicate all the information they have about where and what you’re standing on. Mostly, we only listen to our feet when they scream in pain after long hours of being tortured.
In my previous blog I told you about the importance of creating a spcae and time for practice. Conscientiously practicing a little bit of self-observation every day es the equivalent of studying the grammar of this psychophysical language we’re talking about today. The more you get to know this sensorial language in which your body and your mind speak, the more you’ll be aware of it, and how it affects your performance, in your daily life. And as soon as you start to listen in on these conversations and understand their general gist, you’ll be able to join in on the dialogue and thus avoid only finding about the important things when they’re already a health problem.
So this week I invite you to start by reconnecting with your feet. I’m leaving you 3 simple practices to jumpstart your exploration. It’s best if you do them with bare feet, so take advantage of your morning or evening shower to practice them.
1.     We tend to have the soles of our feet really tense and this generates tension throughout the whole posterior musculature of your leg, all the way up to your sitting bones. To release your feet think about the space between your toes and imagine that warm water runs between each pair of toes. Be aware that your toes are way longer than you probably imagine. Although they’re covered in skin, which makes them look like one big mass, your toes actually start halfway down your foot. They need the space between them in order to move freely and adapt and mold to different surfaces  and thus help you balance.

2.     When you are standing the weight of your body should be spread equally among 3 key points on your foot: the heel, the base of the big toe, and the base of the little toe. You are in essence standing on a tripod, or a three-legged stool. Check to see which of these three points you tend to favour the most, and which foot you tend to favour the most. Play with your body weight, alternating the emphasis on each point and noting the effect that it has on your posture and the amount of muscle tension you must put on your legs and lower back to keep your balance.
3.     We can now join exercises 1 and 2. Release the soles of your feet, remembering the space between your toes, and feel the weight of your body distribute itself on the 3 points of contact: center of the heel, base of the big toe, and base of the little toe. Imagine that at each of these three points of contact you have little suction pads that adhere your feet to the ground, connecting you with the earth. Move your toes around, opening them and closing them, while keeping the sole of the foot soft and the 3 key points in easy contact with the floor.

Practice these exercises for a week and let me know what you find out about the conversations your feet are having.
See you next week with more Psychophysical Language grammar and vocabulary lessons ;)
P.S. Alexander Technique teacher Angela Bradshaw has just published an excellent book on how to recover your body-mind balance and release unnecessary tensions, called “Be In Balance: A Simple Introduction to the Alexander Technique”. It comes with a lot of easily applicable exercises and ideas. The book is easy to read and full of great drawings, and makes for a great introduction to the concepts of the Alexander Technique for those wanting to explore it. You can get the book on on this link (US) or this link (UK).