Make feeling good a lifestyle by taking your yoga off the mat and into your life with the help of these seven tools.
One of the many reasons we get our yoga on is to be happier in our bodies, to increase their physical longevity, vitality and suppleness in a culture that is not setup to support happy, healthy, strong, flexible and pain-free bodies. The inevitable result of a sedentary, screen loving culture ranges anywhere from the occasional nagging “crunchy” back to severe chronic pain. The unseen effects are even more dramatic: low energy, inhibited breath patterns, headaches, decreased organ function.
Practicing yoga in community, receiving acupuncture, chiropractic and massage are incredibly powerful tools for living happily in your body but, even if received regularly, these short sessions are mere drops in the ocean compared to the way you treat your body and move around all day long.
Accepting the radical responsibility of living in a body means becoming our own teacher and our own healer. What therapeutic tools does asana point to for our everyday life in a body?
1) Roll that Bod:
Self-bodywork isn’t a luxury, it’s an integral part of a life plan for health, comfort, mindfulness and longevity. In the words of Jill Miller, self care is health care.
Who doesn’t love the sensation of the body all-of-a-sudden releasing a boatload of tension you didn’t even know that you were holding? Who doesn’t love the sense of clarity found in the alternate state of consciousness that comes with the deepening breath and increased circulation of a juicy yoga class or a massage? Don’t count on someone else to provide you with peace in your body- do it for yourself!
Keep practicing yoga in community and receiving the powerful healing wisdom of body professionals but make feeling good a lifestyle. Do you have a friend who plays tennis, golf, baseball or softball? Grab one of their balls, lie on your back and begin gently feeling into the spaces that give you grief. Self-bodywork means you get the perfect pressure in all the spots that need the most attention- you are in control.
It sounds so simple but please don’t pass this body lovin’ practice up. I can attest to the life-altering power of a tennis ball in body tissue. Taking ten minutes before bed five times a week to roll out the bottom of my feet or the muscles to the sides of my spine makes the difference of my back and neck aching or even spasming or not during a busy work week. Easy to access hot spots for whole body tension release: the erector muscles along the sides of the spine, the glutes and piraformis in the booty, the bottoms of the feet. Over time, you’ll get creative. There is no end to the terrain (and tension) you can release with gentle pressure on a ball.
Don’t wait until you have discomfort! Self bodywork is preventative medicine. By the time you “need it,” healing takes anywhere from two to 1,000 times more time and energy.
A more general tool than the ball is the foam roller. People love these things. In my opinion, it’s a gateway drug to the tennis ball but it is highly effective at stimulating blood flow and breaking up adhesions in large areas of the body, however, they cannot address your nooks and crannies with precision like a ball can. What is it about foam roller that makes people a little aggressive and masochistic? As with all self-bodywork: move slowly so you can benefit your tissue versus aggravating it.
2) Practice Yoga Ergonomics:
Sometimes I feel that I was sent to this earth as the yoga ergonomics messiah because I’ve been blessed with the gift of an incredibly sensitive back prone to spasm and chronic tightness in the shoulder and neck area. I can’t sit with improper alignment for more than a few hours without aching pain that lasts for days unless I work it out with foam rollers, movement, tennis balls and yoga. Whether your body is sensitive or not, take my advice: give overstretched and overly taut muscles a break- allow the architecture of your skeleton to effortlessly support your weight (that is what it’s for, after all).
If you wouldn’t do it in a yoga class, don’t do it for eight hours in front of a computer. If you are not easefully in alignment during your workday, your body is paying a higher price than your getting paid for the work you do (and your medical bills may ultimately reflect that). While jobs, projects and money come and go, the body doesn’t work in the same way.
We live in an era where most of us, even artists and yoga teachers, spend a considerable portion of our lives on computers for both professional and social reasons. The body is never going to operate well when it’s stagnant for long periods of time, but you can mitigate the damage of technology on your body by consulting an ergonomic diagram and getting the tools you need to allow your muscles and bones to be in as friendly a relationship with gravity as possible while you work.
If you have a laptop, please get a laptop stand. As a bodyworker, it is incredibly painful to watch a café full of students and professionals hunching over their computers, aggravating the tightness of their chest, the weakness of their upper and mid back, dumping weight into the low belly to compress the organs and the spine, straining the occipital muscles behind the skull, tightening the scalenes in the front of the neck and cutting off the range of the lungs, creating a shallow, hyperventilation breath. These physical results are exactly what happens in your body when you are stressed or in a state of fear. Through the nervous system, there is a feedback loop between physical posture, the breath and emotional tone, sitting in this way LITERALLY creates more stress in your workday. This is not theoretical.
If you are often on the move, try the portable yet durable cardboard stand from Foald. Most less expensive, compact stands will not be high enough so get creative and stack them on top of board games or books if you can. Or spring for an elevator stand if you have more space. Get yourself a Mac Bluetooth travel keyboard and a wireless mouse (and get up to stretch for 30 seconds every twenty minutes!) and see how much more energy you have for your workday.
If you have a desk setup, prop your monitor, lift your chair to the correct height, place your head on top of your spine and sit up off the back of the chair. Your loved ones and your bank account will thank you in 30 years- and your body will thank you right now, offering you increased freedom and ease. For more about yoga ergonomics see How are my friends and I sitting at our desks?
Are you also sensitive and prone to pain? Reframe: it’s not that your body is weak or cursed but instead you are lucky to have been invited into a deep conversation with a communicative body and gives clear instructions about how much self care you need to offer yourself in the world. Your body isn’t shy- it tells I like it is.
3) Free Your Feet
Wanna know where the money's at? I’ll tell you the big secret….
It’s in the feet.
Our meridians and nadis end in our hands and feet, massaging these areas translates to increased mobility and blood flow to all areas of the body, including the organs. So take your shoes off! Walk in the dirt, grass and over rocks to stimulate your poor caged and casted feet.
If you’ve never done a reflexology treatment to yourself- go now. Find a spot of high sensation in the bottom of your foot and stand on a ball for three minutes. This frees up the entire back line of your body. Don’t trust me- test it out: do a foreword fold then roll one foot out and see how much deeper you can fold on that side after three minutes. Rolling my feet is one of the most efficient and effective ways I manage my ongoing back pain.
Bonus: walking on natural terrain allows for the absorption of minerals and probiotic organisms that live in the earth through the skin. This primal practice, called Earthing, saves you money on expensive probiotics, builds the immune system and strengthens your digestion. Place as little rubber between yourself and the divine feminine as possible.
Most of us have very few opportunities to go shoeless. For those of us who go to work and live in the real, concrete-laden world all week- minimal footwear allows for more extension of the feet and more realistic strength building up the chain of the leg while walking and standing. It’s also one of the most restorative and grounding practices we can engage in before or after our masculine, vata-infused workdays. Katy Bowman is the master of foot health, see her book Whole Body Barefoot for more info on office appropriate minimal footwear and foot health practices.
Don’t forget to start slow with minimal footwear and bare feet so not to injure your weakling feet. Many months ago I started doing ten minutes or so every time I take a walk or run in nature to build up the strength of my weak feetsies.
4) Get Primal:
Despite the iconic image, even ancient yogis didn’t just sit and meditate in caves all day. They ran after animals, climbed and cut trees, made fires, pushed boulders, touched all manner of earthly textures with their feet, hands and bodies, walked long distances to get water and on and on.
Today, we do few to none of these things but we can reconnect with our primal roots, organically incorporating a greater variety of movements in diverse planes of motion around as many joints as possible by taking every opportunity to climb stairs, park farther away, sit on the floor instead of in a chair, get up from our desks to stretch every twenty minutes, crawl on the floor with babies, chase our dogs and children and each other, dance or move around and stretch in a free-form fashion, walk instead of drive, feel the grass and dirt under our toes instead of caging our feet, swing on swings or from the trees we pass on our walks or from the pull up bars we install in our kitchens and offices. The best part about these shifts is that they don't necessarily take up much more time in your day (unlike ‘exercise’), they just require simple shifts in how we think about value movement. Movement is medicine. But not just any movement- diverse movement.
Human 'conveniences’ have developed much faster than the human organism has. Certain species of apes began walking upright 25 million years ago and the earliest human-like primate arrived 10 million years later. The first communal home-like structure was built 400,000 years ago and agriculture only began 12,000 years ago. Cars, refrigerators, countertops, couches- we are talking a few thousand years while organisms take many millions to evolve significantly. In the grand scheme of things, our muscles, bones, organs and nervous system are not adapted to and repeatedly holding the shapes of chairs for a vast majority of our time.
If you run everyday after work and have washboard abs but slouch at a desk for eight hours a day and pass up the abundance of valuable opportunities to move your body, you may not be any better off then the rest of us. Biomechanist Katy Bowman call this “junk food exercise” and it’s not the solution. While the body is generally awe-inspiring in it’s ability to adapt to any habits we develop, the well-being of your organs, tissues and the amount of comfort you feel in your body will suffer. Read more about the pitfalls of junk food exercise from Brooke Thomas in Is Exercise causing you to Move Less?
Use your imagination to conjecture about how differently we might move if we didn’t have the unnatural inventions permeating modern culture (clue: it doesn’t look like a treadmill or elliptical machine). Go for full and frequent ranges of motion in all planes of movement. We breathe 21,600 times/day and have that many chances to heal our bodies, to play with it, explore it, get to know it, puzzle over it’s mysteries, feel into the details of it’s sensation and put it in funny shapes, all of which is part of the gift and responsibility of being a human in a body. Start small! What simple ways can you incorporate a minute or two of creative movement into your work day and home life?
5) Massage yourself
There is a reason the ayurvedic tool of abhyanga or self-massage, has been around for over 5,000 years. In some schools of ayurveda, no matter what ailment you go to your doctor with, she will still first prescribe you self-massage with infused oil.
How to? Before or after the shower- rub your entire body with oil and make it feel super good. There are more formal directions but I’ve found they get in the way with actually just doing this practice so I’ve dispensed with offering them to newbies. Bonus points: sing your body a mantra as you rub it. I alternate between: I love my body and Om Namah Shivya (I am the divine). You could wish your body health and comfort or assert that an ailing area is full of vitality.
This simple practice connects you with the intricate sensations of your body, increasing your power of interoception. The oil seeps into the joints and muscles, like oiling a machine, letting them fit and flow together more smoothly. If you warm the oil on a candle warmer or in a pot of water on the stove, absorbtion speed increases.
Explore what oil works best for you: sesame, almond, coconut, or you can spring for a fancy ayruvedic oil infused with herbs that balance your dosha (your constitution). I love these oils from Banyan but I still use plain fair trade coconut oil while traveling.
There are so many chances to massage yourself all day long without oil. Treat yourself like you’d treat your lover- make yourself feel good and get to know your body. Knowing a few acupressure points can be very helpful in releasing entire areas of the body with just a light touch. I’m always encouraging my student to rub their face, shoulders, scalp, neck and occipital ridge in class- places that harbor unnecessary stress and tension.
6) Get Clear on Your Intention
Why does taking care of your body matter? We all have different attitudes about why we are here and why it matters or doesn’t. As a tantric yoga practitioner, my take on this question is that, by honoring and respecting the radical responsibility we’ve been given in the form of the physical body, we create an environment where we can more fully offer ourselves and our gifts to the world. By placing our self care as a first priority, we make a statement to ourselves and the world, we can show up for our lovers and children when they need us, into our old age, we can spend time loving, feeling good and creating in the world instead of nursing injuries, disease and receiving surgeries.
Too often we hand the power over our healing to “professionals.” No one has the power to know your body like you can. Take full advantage of the knowledge and skill of your teachers and body professionals but get inquisitive about living in your vehicle and have fun exploring the pleasures of it’s unfathomable capacity for sensation.
Hungry for more body lovin' knowledge:
Self Massage 101 by painscience.com: Basic Self-Massage Tips for Myofascial Trigger Points