My core is not a new exploration for me, but like any meaningful relationship, it's one that evolves, deepens in understanding, and challenges me to know end. It's part of me that beckons and often times screams for attention. As it should. My core contains precious cargo.
From the top of my skull to my pelvic floor, my core includes my brain and central nervous system, my heart, lungs, and digestive, elimination and reproductive systems and organs. My skull, ribcage, spine and pelvic bones give it structure and protection. Muscles and miles of connective tissue mobilize it and hold it all together. My seven chakras, or energy centers, run up and down my core. It nourished, sustained and birthed my baby boys. The tissues of my core contain my feelings of self worth, memories of love and abuse, and my motivation to heal. This is just a broad brush stroke, a sweep, and it's enough to make me cry by it's shear beauty, mystery and magnificance. The core is a complex system and in every way is greater than the sum of it's parts.
But oh do I love to compartmentalize and make things easy and simple. I'm lured by the headlines: "5 Foods to Eat to Lose Weight," and "7 Things Happy People Do." By the looks of my news feed, everyone else loves these quick fixes too. Our knowledge of the core is often reduced to just a few muscles - the Rectus Abdominals (the infamous "six pack") and recently the Transverse Abdominals (the "navel to spine" muscles). It's tempting to go after a handful of targeted exercises and work 'em hard until we feel the burn in the belly. While this approach certainly turns on a few muscles of the core, it does little towards creating balanced, functional and integrated awareness and strength.
I have long struggled with pain in my low back, SI joints and Sacrum (literally, a pain in my butt). I added diastasis recti, an umbilical hernia and pubic symphasis disorder to the list of my core dysfunction while pregnant with twins. I've always chalked it up to years of abusing my body through grueling gymnastics practice and then to being pregnant. While these factors no doubt added strain to my system, they were not the reason my core gave out. Something bigger was at work. If you can't manage intra-abdominal pressure effectively, when you add extra pressure (crazy exercise, pregnancy, weight gain, etc.) something will pop. And pop it does! This is what happens with hernia, pelvic floor dysfunction, and diastasis recti.
Most often than not, we can't manage the pressure system well because our alignment is so out of whack, and I'm not talking about in Warrior 1. I'm talking about how we stand and sit, day in and day out. I'm a chronic rib thruster, which mean I habitually push my rib cage up and forward. This puts a big, archy load on my low back, which I've tried to correct by tucking my tailbone, only to shorten and tighten my pelvic floor. Gymnastics and yoga exacerbated this pattern (moth to a flame, baby!). Your alignment may be completely different from mine, but the result is the same.
Now I understand why, as a society, we are seeing so many people (including men and children) with hernias, incontinence, respiratory and digestive problems, pelvic/hip/low back pain and degeneration. The reality is everything we do affects our core because we use our core for everything. Standing, sitting, squatting, lifting, twisting, reaching, pushing, pulling, walking, and specifically how we do these activities (alignment) and how much we do them throughout the day, affects our core health more than anything. An hour of walking in the woods trumps a brutal 10 minute "ab" workout. (can you tell I've been following Katy Bowman? You should too.) In fact, my favorite core exercise is...wait for it...breathing! Yep, the diaphragm is one of our deepest core muscles and learning how to use it consciously is a game changer. Even better when you learn how to connect and integrate the diaphragm, the abdominal and back muscles, and the pelvic floor (also known as the pelvic diaphragm).
If you need a bit more direction, start by checking out my short video below. The first is a guided breath technique that teaches you to use and feel your core and how each part is integral to the whole. The second is a gentle yet effective core stabilizer. Then come to my workshop on March 29 all about core integration. Lastly, check out my inspirations Katy Bowman, Jill Miller and Ana Forrest and Julie Wiebe.
Most of us are touch-starved. Some of us go for days, weeks, even longer without a hug or healthy, affectionate contact. Be honest with yourself. How often does someone touch you in a loving, caring and satisfying way? We know that if babies don't receive caring touch and consistent attention, they run the risk of emotional, cognitive and even physical delays and deficits. But what about the effects of touch-starved adults? I recently learned that symptoms include irritability, anxiety, insomnia and depletion.
So how do you get the touch you need and crave? Just like the asana and breath work we practice, we need to also practice touching ourselves. I remember one of my first workshops with Ana Forrest and we were belly down moving into Boat (aka Locust Pose). She cued us to grab our butts. I complied, but was borderline mortified by the fact that I was touching my own rear in a room with 75 other sweaty people. The next day, we started practice with Brahmeri, a buzzing breath that you direct and vibrate into different areas of your body. She told us to put one hand on our genitals and the other on our perineum and buzz into our privates. I was flabbergasted, my face hot with embarrassment and disbelief. Were people really going to do this?! My eyes darted around the room and I realized I better quickly get with the program. I did it and I realized how disconnected I was from my own touch. My hands were clumsy, awkward and I was unskilled at putting my own hands on myself.
In my Forrest Yoga training we spent hours every day learning how to touch our students - gently, deliberately, and with the highest quality of care and energy. Ana calls it, "touching your beloved." But even more important, we practiced touching ourselves. Because if we don't know how to place our own hands on our beloved body in a loving, nurturing way, how can we do this for others?
One of my new rituals is to touch myself daily, and I'm not talking about the autopilot stuff like scrubbing my face or putting on SPF. Before I go to bed I grab my Castor Oil (so good for dissolving scar tissue) and I rub my feet, my legs and my belly. I've learned that I like a slow, soft touch. I touch myself with purpose and care and I focus on how to make myself feel good. It's this amazing time that I practice self-care and intimacy with someone I love deeply - me! It's also changing how I touch the people in my life - especially my husband, my twin boys, my dogs and cats. It's changing the quality and understanding of touching my students, too. Giving and receiving touch has become an essential daily vitamin in my life.
A long story to say, start touching yourself! Make it simple. For one minute (or longer), focus on an area of your body that's easy to reach. Let your instincts guide you as you touch yourself in a way that feels good. Throw in a sweet smelling lotion or some apricot oil with a little splash of peppermint or your favorite essential oil. Experiment with touching yourself in different ways and with different intentions depending on your mood or what you need. Do this for 7 days in a row and feel for what happens. Does your own touch make a difference in how you feel? How does it change how you touch others? Does it effect how receptive you are to someone else's touch? Does it make a difference in how you communicate about what kind of touch you want in your life?
If you need a bit more direction, check out these short videos. One guided pose with self-touch perfect for the morning and another self-massage sequence to get you ready for bed.
When I was 4 years old, my favorite songs were "Hot Blooded" by Foreigner and "Beth" by Kiss. My parents have the reel-to-reels (and the machine to play them) and the cassettes to prove it. Growing up with a musically-talented brother 7 years my senior, I was exposed to some sweet tunes at a very young age. He would play the guitar and I would sing (and if I didn't know the words, I would mumble and hum). Our rendition of "Crazy Train" was epic, but our biggest hit was "The Trees" by Rush. We even did an informal summer tour through Europe when I was 10 (playing at lodges and rest stops on our family vacation totally counts!).
I never learned how to play an instrument and over time, stopped practicing my singing because none of the cool kids were in chorus. But music is something that has always moved me. Move being the operative word. My bedroom (or more often my brother's) would become an elaborate set and I would create new, imaginative, spooky worlds with dance and music. In college, my dear friend Oscar and I would choreograph modern partner dances (if only So You Think You Can Dance had been around). Whether dancing, doing gymnastics, or just playing around, music is a deeply-rooted part of my life and helps me feel, express and put shape to my emotions.
Playing music in yoga classes is a bit controversial. Some people love doing yoga to music. Some people don't. It's such a personal preference and people's taste in music varies so widely. Music can be a source of so much inspiration for me and my practice, but there are also days when my breath is the most profound music I could ever want to hear. I like to mix it up in my classes, offering carefully crafted playlists some days and no music on others.
Students often ask me after class about particular songs or where they can find my playlists. I'm excited to share what music inspires me. Here's a 60 minute playlist I made back in June that I've recently returned to. You can find me on Spotify where I'll be making more of my playlists public. Until then, enjoy, and let the music move you!
100 days baby! That's right, today marks my 100th day of (almost) consecutively going upside down. A few years ago, I would have either lied or denied the parentheses, or totally given up on the challenge because I faltered. Today I celebrate the victory of doing my best in this challenge, but also not allowing the mistakes to sabotage the whole experience.
There were days I was so sick I could barely shuffle to the bathroom (creative horizontal bedstand). Days I just felt unmotivated (pjstand, ok there are lots of these). Days when I was almost too embarrassed and self-conscious (swimsuitstand). Or I just plain forgot. Regardless, I've kept trucking along.
If I had let my cruel perfectionist self win and given up on this challenge, I would have never experienced so much magic.
Not too long ago, I spent 8 days in the mountains of Colorado with my family. It's a place that speaks to all of us. We made time for hikes in spectacular nature, soaked in warm mineral springs, explored cliff dwellings, lazed around our camp and just stared into the hypnotizing fire. Doing a handstand in these places was a potent practice of not just witnessing beauty moments, but fully experiencing it.
My son, Oskar, asked me several times along the way, "Meems, why do you always like to do handstands?" I instinctively replied, "Because it makes me feel good!" His next probing question halted me in my tracks. "Does that mean that you don't feel good when you're not doing a handstand?" Nothing like the words of a 6-year old to make you feel like a junkie! But really, for me the experience of doing a handstand in these spectacular places was the difference between being an observer and being fully immersed, kinda like Dorothy going from black and white to Technicolor in the Wizard of Oz.
Watching my kids interact with their environment, they touch everything. They scream out in a cave to hear the echo of their own voice. They taste the sulfur mineral water even though it smells like egg farts. They roll like maniacs down the dunes even though they get a mouthful of sand. They don't just appreciate the beauty they are in, they fully immerse in it. Doing a handstand helped me connect to this practice. Put my hands in the warm sand. Fall down and log roll. Splash in the freezing cold river. Breathe deeply. Let out a big yelp. Feel my blood quicken. Feel. I want to fully feel the beauty that surrounds me.
Beauty with a capital B isn't perfect. It is not all soft sand and bath water mineral pools. It includes sharp rocks that cut your hands and water so hot it sears your skin. Ana Forrest teaches about Walking in Beauty, which comes from a Navajo ceremony called "Beautyway." When you walk in Beauty, you walk towards the truth of yourself. You open up to what is possible even in those ugly, painful experiences. I've created my perfectionist self (among other destructive behaviors that involve alcohol and food) as a place to hide so I don't feel these things. Like Brené Brown says in The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions."
Handstands and Forrest Yoga are helping me on my quest to un-numb and walk towards my truth. To see and taste and smell and hear it all. To touch and feel it all. The Beauty that surrounds me.
You can follow my 365 day handstand challenge on Instagram.
I used to spend hours in my room doing back bends as a little girl. My orange shag carpet was my yoga mat and the reverse planche was my apex pose. Back bends made me feel like I was going somewhere and I often, obsessively, practiced and measured my progress. Heard of Nadia? Mary Lou? They were cool and all, but I was on my way to becoming the next Kristie Phillips (I totally admit it, I even had her signature mushroom haircut).
My head was not destined to touch my butt in a handstand, but that didn't stop me. As I progressed in my gymnastics' career, I often woke up in the morning with a deep ache radiating around the sides of my low back. This went on for years and I made a habit of ignoring it. Only later would I learn this was a tell-tale warning signal of my over-arching lumbar, known as Facet Syndrome.
Fast forward 30 years and now I avoid back bends like the plague. I have spent years diligently lengthening and decompressing my low back, correcting my "duck butt." I have a deep-seated disobey reaction when I'm in a yoga class and the teacher announces wheel as the next pose, especially if I'm not properly warmed up. I feel like mama bear with my low back, and nobody's gonna mess with her. This attitude shift is a new thing for me. I've spent so many years abusing my back, ignoring the boundaries, in spite of her pleas. Now I have real fear issues of hurting myself again doing back bends, and hardened layers of emotional scar tissue around striving so hard to be something I was not.
So why the hell am I co-teaching a Forrest Yoga workshop on back bending next week? As Ana Forrest says, "Teach what you need to learn." So here are some of the things I am in the process of learning:
All of these things are leading me to healing.
Forrest Yoga gives you the tools to use back bends in a safe, therapeutic, healing way. If you are working with back injuries or pain, come to this workshop. If you are the king or queen of deep back bends, come to this workshop. If back bends scare the crap out of you, come to this workshop. If you are just looking to get yoga stoned, come to this workshop (cause back bends will do it every time!). We will deconstruct key back bends, talk about important warm up and sequencing, teach you how to use the mat roll in a variety of ways to aid in decompression of the low back, provide modifications for back injuries, and so much more.
I am so lucky to be teaching this workshop with my fellow Forrest Yoga teachers and dear friends, Anne Haskett and Briana Franco, who will add their wealth of wisdom, experience, and healing powers to the yoga ceremony. And this workshop will be a true yoga ceremony, which you will discover amps up the experience and healing potential exponentially. We will call in the Four Directions, smudge, chant, breathe deeply, practice, and close it out with Ana Forrest's Future/Wiser Self meditation. This meditation is a powerful pairing with the physical practice of back bending, creating space and support for your heart's truth, and the kind of courage you need to walk into the future and connect with the person you most yearn to be.
It never ceases to amaze me what I learn about myself in Forrest Yoga. I used to bend my back in an attempt to become like someone else, someone I didn't even know. I disregarded my own truth for so long, but I'm smarter now. I know who I am now, and my future self is all the wiser.