Last week I sorted through areas that have wound up cluttered in my home. I sorted through the kitchen cabinets and drawers, the bathroom cabinets and shelves, and the coat closet. I was also decluttering my brain. I believe that a lot of external behaviors, reflect our internal processesRead More
Late in the afternoon on Christmas Day my daughter found me spacing out in bed. I had retired there to binge watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and play puzzle games on my phone. I had retreated as a form of self-regulation. I was having all the complicated feelings I have on Christmas. Feelings of being seen and loved. Feelings of being inadequate and overwhelmed. Feelings. Lots and lots of them.
As she climbed up on the bed and settled next to me she said, “Christmas was a year ago. Think of everything you have accomplished since last Christmas.” Eleven-year-old mini-me was giving me a taste of my own medicine. Just the notion of taking stock of my accomplishments overwhelmed me further. “Wow. Yeah… Do you want go for a walk?” was all I could muster in reply. She happily accepted. We strolled down Fifth Avenue toward Washington Square Park and stopped for coffee and cocoa at The Marlton Hotel.
We talked about summer plans. We talked about Valentine’s Day plans. We kept talking about the future. Then I took a deep breath and said, “You know, you broke my brain when you suggested I think about all that I have accomplished in the last year.”
Last week I suggested we all think about of our three most profound memories from the year. It felt safe yet important. Three memories was manageable. But all the accomplishments! Well that just feels… what..? Too greedy? Too braggy? I would totally tell a friend or my daughter to celebrate all their accomplishments. Why can’t I?
My daughter is onto something though. She is proud of me. We should make space for our accomplishments. We should be proud of ourselves. This New Year’s I plan to really meditate on all I accomplished in 2018.
I will be spending the days between Christmas and New Year’s looking at where I have been, what I have done, and what I have accomplished. I use a Passion Planner, so I have a map to reflection. It is good thing too, because apparently I am overwhelmed and need a place to start. I will also be setting some goals for 2019 — professional, personal, and performance. I invite you to do the same. Write them down. Write down concrete steps to get there. Schedule the steps in your calendar. Then get yourself some cocoa, coffee, or tea.
Congratulations on all you have done in 2018! Here’s to 2019!
As 2018 winds down we will inevitably see a number of social media posts
Asking if it is 2019 yet?
Calling for New Year’s resolutions
I however, am in neither camp. As a believer in creating lasting change by moving slow and steady (when ready), I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I like a model in which we make small changes as we feel ready and see fit, as opposed to trying to implement sweeping changes when the days are short, energy is low, and we may not be in fact ready to make such a change.
To those who are ready to call it quits on 2018 I say, “not so fast!” Before we go jumping into 2019, to live the dream, to be the change we want to see in the world, or to just be #blessed, I want to invite you to take a few more moments in 2018, and to reflect on the your three biggest moments from the year.
Before you go reaching for the last three things that happened, flip through your calendar or journal if you keep them, and look at all the stuff you did — all of it. The cool stuff, the boring stuff, the awful stuff.
If we are real about it the bad stuff and the good stuff both take up space in these memories. The big good memories can be loaded with emotionally challenging stuff and the big bad memories can come with positive lessons or surprising silver linings. (Not always, but sometimes.)
One of the most profound moments for me this year was when I learned about the sudden death of a member of my barbell class. This loss shook me hard, but at the same time in the weeks after I realized how deeply I care about every client and member I work with. This gave me new perspective on what I do and how I spend my days. It also showed me that I had a lot of support inside my club and confirmed that being vulnerable where I train is ok.
I have also experienced many moments of recognition for my work and the growth of my platform. These are positive memories, but they are also loaded with more complicated feelings, as I grapple with both wanting to be seen and not wanting to be seen. Just like everyone else, my feelings are delightfully messy and complex.
One of my closest friends texted me, “Actually, 2018 was not bad. It was a challenging, building, and growing year. Huzzah!” She did not have it easy this year, but when she takes stock of where she is now, versus where she was at the end of 2017 she sees change for the better.
As we wind down 2018, I invite you to take 10 minutes to reflect on the year, and the moments you found to be the most profound. Celebrate your victories. Mourn your losses. Slow down for a few moments, and give yourself the time and care you deserve.
“Cueing” clients is a big part of a trainer’s work. It is the sum of all the things we say and do to help you, our clients, execute a movement correctly. For example I may ask you to “engage your upper back,” or I may say “put your shoulders in your back pockets,” or I may actually touch your upper back. All of these cues are driving the same movement. Cueing is part science and part art, and you can actually find a fair number of articles written on the subject. There are internal cues and external cues. We can cue with contact or without contact. We can over-cue our clients. We can under-cue our clients. Which cues are most successful can vary from client to client.
There are a number of widely used cues and then we have our own cues. Sometimes they are crafted with a client in mind but sometimes they just fly out of our mouths and stick. When they stick, they become part of our cueing toolkit.
If I were to have one of my own cues put on a t-shirt, it would say “Do it like you want to be here.” This phrase flew out of my mouth when I was working with a group of folks who had been lifting with me for a couple of months. At the moment they were moving like floppy noodles, not like powerlifters. The energy in the gym was low. The room was hot and crowded. The New York City subway had zapped the remaining energy from them during their commute. They showed up corporeally speaking, but they were not present. We all show up to things a little “checked out” sometimes. It is beautifully human.
I knew they knew how to lift, and I was so tired of hearing my own voice repeat a litany of the same cues that I knew they could recite and then execute on their own. I too was a bit of a floppy noodle.
They did know how to lift but it was uncomfortable to be there, in their bodies, in that hot gym, at the end of a long day. In response, they had checked out. And in response to their absence, I opened my mouth and shouted over the music, “DO IT LIKE YOU WANT TO BE HERE!” After we had a good laugh, most of them landed in their bodies, and they all began to lift just as well as I knew they could. From there I could cue them as needed.
“Do it like you want to be here,” has become one of my favorite cues but it probably doesn’t sound that constructive to other trainers.
After some time with a particular movement, you know how to do the movement, and eventually, at comfortable weights, it can become routine. The movements become part of your procedural memory. You have demonstrated the ability to do the movement, but as it gets harder you will probably need to be reminded to move correctly. Some things that may make it harder are doing more reps, using heavier weights, working with tempo, or you are just feeling like garbage that day. But if you have been doing the movement for some time, you probably already know what moving correctly entails and if you need cues, you can cue yourself. What you really need — is to be reminded is to be present.
Now you can use cues to stay present. I do. I use cues for myself almost like mantras. You can say those things to yourself, to keep yourself mindful of what your body is doing, the way in which one might count breaths when practicing mindfulness meditation at first. For a deadlift I say to myself as I execute each part of the lift, “Big brace. Push the floor away. Hips!” The reminder is simple. Being present for a whole workout is really hard.
I took karate for a couple of years and one of my teachers, Sensei David, would remind the class that we were there to “practice,” implying that we were going to make mistakes because that is the work of practicing to get better. I needed that reminder. Repeatedly. I also realized that this mentality applied whenever we use the term “practice.” For me this included having a mindfulness meditation practice in which I had to be reminded to come back to the present moment as often as 10 time in a minute! I was practicing coming back to myself in a controlled environment, so I could do it under stress.
Stress makes us uncomfortable. It causes tension. Maybe your heart races when you are under stress, and your breath gets shallow, even though you are just sitting on a meditation cushion. All this discomfort makes many of us mentally check out — even just a little. Or maybe we stay in our bodies, but those feelings are associated with fear so it gets scary, and we get more stressed out. But if we invite ourselves to practice staying with our bodies in a tolerable and controlled environment we are more likely to do so under stress. I realized the same went for powerlifting practice which I did four times a week. I needed to practice in a controlled environment, the gym, so when I was under stress, whether that was dealing with a personal conflict or competing I could still stay present and I could still pick up the very heavy thing.
Each time we train, we should be practicing the movements and we should be practicing feeling them. When we do this, we are engaging in a sort of mindfulness practice.
If you are working with me, I am going to make damn sure that you are practicing staying present.
Why? Three reasons:
You are more likely to do it correctly which leads to less risk of injury.
You are more likely to do it correctly which leads to more gains.
You are practicing being in your body, creating a conversation with your body, during the discomfort that comes with the stress of exercise. We are practicing tolerating the discomfort of your feelings (happy/sad type feelings as well as feelings like fatigue/excitement) by staying with the movement, even when it is hard for emotional or physical reasons.
Well yes, with cueing. I am going to cue you to feel into the moving parts as well as the stabilizing parts. And we are going to work on holding both in consciousness at once. You may be surprised, but this is hard.
I am going to ask you to feel a part of your body that is still but working on bracing and I am going to ask you to experience tolerable amounts of discomfort. Not what I deem tolerable mind you — that is up to you.
By starting off and warming up with the intention of fully arriving in yourself because sometimes we need time to land in our bodies.
A lot of good trainers do this without it being an explicit intention. Because if you are not paying attention to how you are moving, you are not going to see the same results as you would if you did. I did not reinvent the wheel, I am simply doing this with a very clear intention.
I invite you to play with this on your own. Next time you find yourself engaging in movement — whether that be lifting weights, walking, running, dancing, snowboarding, cooking, or gardening — practice staying engaged with your body. See if you can feel not just the moving parts but the support of your trunk, of your whole back, of your feet on the ground (if they are on the ground). Notice that when you engage with your whole body in some ways it may feel harder (takes more energy), but in other ways it may feel easier (lends itself to more controlled movement). Afterwards, take stock of the experience. Maybe you hated it. Maybe you loved it. Maybe it was a mixed bag. Regardless you now know yourself a little bit better and that in itself is pretty cool.
My aunt Nancy looked at me the other day and said, “Laur… I have something I would like you to write on.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“I want to you to write about when self-care becomes an obligation — another thing to do on the to-do list,” and she made a box checking gesture in the air.
Nancy is pretty damn wise, and also pretty damn busy. I have watched how she has parented, and tended to her family over the years — I mean her WHOLE family. I admire how she has handled a whole lot of life’s bullshit with grace. She cares for a lot of people, and she understands that, in order to do so, she has to care for herself too. There is never a big production though. She takes care of her health. She sees healthcare providers and follows their advice. She goes on walks. She attends a yoga class — a time she has made sacrosanct. All of this is woven into a schedule that involves a lot of tending to others.
Nancy’s schedule and M.O. may seem familiar to you. Maybe you do more or maybe you do less, but if you are doing any of these things in order to take care of your physical and mental health, then CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ARE DOING SELF-CARE!
Called the doctor: check, self-care.
Engaged in a simple hobby: check, self-care.
Made a point to get a solid night’s sleep: check, self-care.
I know, these are not really Instagrammable. That probably means it is more self-care than staging a bubblebath, bringing your phone with you, and photographing yourself taking the bath and posting to social media.
Nancy’s suggestion gave me pause. I talk a lot about self-care and what self-care is on social media. Am I making people feel like they are not doing enough self-care? Am I feeding the shame-beast? It turns out that I may be. Writing this has been a wake-up call to me to be more careful about my languaging. And now I am calling upon other health and wellness practitioners on Instagram to be more careful about how they post. I am also offering advice to everyone who consumes social media on how not to get sucked into the either doing self-care because it is another obligation OR because you are worried you are not doing it enough or correctly.
Self-care can be anything you do for yourself to take care of your health — both physical and mental. In my last blog post I wrote that “Self-care is about the intention” behind it. I think we need to also consider the impact (long or short term) it has on your health.
Nancy tried to recall a Brene Brown quote that basically said, if you are going to therapy once a week and yoga once a week you’re doing self-care. Nancy and Brene — both wise women — are right.
In our conversation Nancy kept referring to posts on social media from health and wellness accounts. It reinforced to me that self-care, a once radical concept born of the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements, has become commoditized. This leads marketers to find pain points in your self-care practice so they can sell self-care tools. Self-care has become another avenue into our shame-place for us to feel bad about ourselves so we then buy stuff. Businesses that make money off of self-care benefit if you feel bad about not doing enough self-care. If we all feel bad enough, and they promise us that with their product or service we won’t feel bad anymore, they make sales.
This gives me pause. I post about self-care on Instagram, and I am in the business of health and wellness — but I don’t want to make people feel they are not doing enough. That runs counter to my personal mission of increasing people’s agency in their care. I share advice and tools that cost little time and money to use — mostly ways you can move your body wherever you are — to feel better. I am not not intending to say “you should” do this. “Should” is the worst. “Should” makes us feel inadequate, wrong, or bad. “Should” may masquerade as a way to encourage agency but it is not. Should is laden with judgement.
My intent is to convey “this is an option.” I am all about increasing folks’ agency. And maybe I have been clear, but maybe I haven’t. It cannot hurt to make this more clear in my languaging. I don’t want be feed the shame-beast. I am not in that business — that business is harmful. I have been on that side of the self-care conversation, and it sucks. Do not feel you have to “keep up with the Joneses” when it comes to taking care of yourself.
While I will be more mindful of my languaging going forward, let’s look at some questions you can ask yourself when it comes to your current self-care routines and when thinking about your current self-care practices and trying something new.
I made you a flow chart!
Self-care needs to be accessible, approached with intention, and have a positive impact on your health and wellness. If you are creating more stress for yourself because you feel like you are not doing enough or because you feel like you have to spend a lot of resource (time, energy, money) doing it — you need to evaluate if this self-care practice is actually self-care for you.
Furthermore, I want to remind you that people — myself included — may appear to be doing more self-care than we are due to the nature of social media. For example I do write about journaling and encourage clients to try journaling in the gym. This was a helpful and regular practice for me in the past that I still turn to when it is useful. However, I do not journal regularly anymore. When something comes up in the gym, I do jot it down so I can remember to bring it up in therapy, but I do not process things by journaling.
I used to have a regular yoga practice. I do not anymore. I do a 5–15 minute sequence as needed to turn down the knob on hyperarousal. Some weeks that may be twice, some months that may be once. It varies.
I go through periods where certain tools and practices work for me, and I incorporate them into my routine, at the expense of less effective tools and practices. There was a period where it seemed as if self-care filled my schedule and I did little else. I had to live like that in order to survive. I was in the throes of trauma and that was the only way through it. But as I processed and healed I was able to drop certain practices that were taking time or money, and I was able to use those resources for personal growth in other arenas like developing my professional life. I was moving from surviving to thriving. As such I needed to devote less time to self-care. But I will never not need some. And at some points I may need more than others.
I have a stockpile of tools, but I don’t use them all the time. I can’t. I would be broke and my growth as a person would be stunted. I use them as needed. I use social media to share them as a way to give folks options, for them to take or leave. Not for folks to do them all and with regularity.
If you feel pressured to do more self-care as opposed to stoked, I refer you to the flow chart above. If you find yourself looking at that oval that reads “evaluate if this approach is right for you, right now,” I invite you to really weigh the costs and the benefits of taking on the activity while shortchanging neither. And I want you to give yourself permission to take a hard pass if that practice does not work for you right now.
In 2013 I was a weightlifter — meaning I participated in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting. Like most recreational lifters I was not very good; but I showed up and practiced the sport 3–4 times a week. Then, in 2014 I became a weightlifter who did karate, who then also took up powerlifting. I was under-recovered and overtrained, but I was not going to quit. Until my body forced me to. Eventually, I was a bed-ridden mess. But I learned from my mistakes in a fairly epic way. I learned that it is okay to switch sports, and it is okay to quit a training modality if it is no longer serving you.Read More
I spend a lot of time talking about “self-care,” particularly when I am advising my clients, colleagues, and loved ones to practice it. I tell people to take care of themselves or give specific instruction, to “eat,” “sleep,” or “get outside.” The more I preach the gospel of “self-care,” the more I feel inclined to explore the term itself and its history. Sometimes, what we, or our clients are already doing by “showing up”, is in itself all the self-care that can be mustered at the moment.Read More
The field of trauma treatment is rapidly growing which means that I spend a lot of time studying different clinical approaches to treating trauma, and as I do, I witness countless yoga teachers, therapists, somatic therapists, massage therapists, and physical therapists telling the stressed out to take a nice deep breath to get grounded. To this I say: STOP! Please do not insist folks take a deep breath.
On the surface, it makes a lot of sense to tell people to take a deep breath. We commonly think of deep breathing as a way to slow down time, our breath, and ultimately our autonomic nervous systems. But guess what — lots of people with chronic stress, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), will find this act at best, damn near impossible, and at worst, triggering.
Constriction in Our Breathing Muscles
If you live with chronic stress or trauma there is a good chance that you experience constriction in your primary breathing muscle — the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a flat muscle and as your body fills with air the diaphragm contracts and moves down and as you exhale it moves up. When we are breathing at rest (when we are in a parasympathetic state) it should handle most of the work.
Working in conjunction with the diaphragm you have a whole set of secondary breathing muscles — the intercostals, scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, pec minor, and your abs.
These muscles are of your neck, chest, and belly. And theoretically when you are at rest, they are too. And even when you are working hard (a sympathetic state), they are only handling some of the load. That said, if you live with chronic stress or trauma these muscles are often overused and your diaphragm does almost none of the work.
I am going to ask you to sense into your body and feel this out with me. Imagine you are hiking and you see a bear or some other predator you find threatening. Sense into your body. What does it feel like? What are your muscles doing? It is likely your whole trunk is constricted. This is a life or death situation and your limbic system has taken the reins and it is going to do its damnedest to save you with some defensive mobilization or immobilization. Now, imagine something in the distance gets this predator’s attention and it turns away and runs off in the opposite direction to tend to her cub. She is gone and you return to your hike completely predator free. Phew!
Now I am going to ask you to imagine that you are running late for a very important meeting and you are stuck in traffic or on a stopped subway train without cell service. You are going to miss something very important and have no way to let the others know. Sense into your body. What is your breathing like and where are you breathing from? Is any air making it into your belly? Probably not. Your whole trunk is constricted even though this is not a life and death situation — it is just very stressful.
In both cases — actual life or death and perceived by your limbic system to be life or death — you braced. And when you relaxed, did you really? Or is your diaphragm still holding on for dear life and is your chest doing all of the breathing? Many of us don’t realize that we have not relaxed our diaphragms and that we are always bracing our primary breathing muscle to some extent or another.
I work as a beginning strength coach with the general population in New York City and I can tell you that for the most part, New Yorkers are a bunch of chest breathers hustling and living in a very stimulating environment. It is common for people living with trauma or simply with a lot of stress to be stuck in a defensive orienting state — fight or flight. Their trunks are always bracing just a little and that diaphragm rarely gets the chance to move.
What happens to muscles that have not been moved? That’s right — they get stiff and eventually weak. It does not feel good when you become keenly aware your muscles are stiff and weak. Telling a constricted person to take a deep breath in invites them to realize just how tight everything is inside. For some people that may be okay, but for some people — people like me — it can feel terrifying. It can feel claustrophobic, suffocating, and absolutely triggering. Deep breaths are a goal for folks like us — not the starting place.
Alternatives to Telling People to Take a Deep Breath
The good news is that there are countless alternatives to get grounded, present and mindful of the body. The following are a few techniques you can use rather than going straight for the breath.
Neutral Places in the Body
Ask your client to tune into their body and find a place that feels neutral. Encourage the client to put their attention there. Neutrality is often found in places like the hands or the seat. People might feel funny that their butt feels good, but it often does. Let them get grounded by feeling into a part of their body that feels supported and easy, rather than going straight for the center.
For me, when I began to incorporate mindfulness meditation into my own treatment I realized that the only place that felt safe to focus on was my hands. So that is where I started. Only after many months of daily sitting, as well as using other healing modalities, was I was able to move to focusing on the breath.
For some folks, turning inward at all is dysregulating. Suddenly becoming aware of your state can be quite jarring at times. For clients who cannot ground by looking for resources inward, I ask them to become situated and present by looking around and naming five blue things, five red things, and five yellow things. It gets people to closely look at their environment and keeps their prefrontal cortex turned on as opposed to triggering a limbic response.
Sounds Far to Near, Near to Far
If I am encouraging someone to turn inward I will ask them to first listen for sounds far away — people talking outside, wind, cars and then closer sounds like water running through the pipes or cooking sounds in the kitchen, and then even closer from inside of their own body.
If I am trying to bring someone’s awareness back outside of them, I encourage them to do the same but in reverse — starting near and opening up to sounds far away.
If Breath is the Main Driver of Your Practice…
And if breath is the main driver of your practice like in yoga or certain mindfulness meditation practices, you can suggest the client follow the breath without manipulation. By being behind the breath (following it), the constriction can feel less stifling than being on top of it (focusing on it). But please keep in mind that for some people, following or focusing on the breath is a goal, not a tool to be employed right in that moment.
Getting the Diaphragm Moving Again
Lastly, if you work with the body you can help your client get their diaphragm moving again when they are ready. In strength sports we use a diaphragmatic breath and valsalva to brace for each lift. Singers, musicians, dancers, and yogis all use the diaphragm extensively. I instruct every person I work with to do the following, while I do it with them:
- Place their hands on their waste like a weightlifting belt so they can feel as they bring air into their belly.
- Then breathe in softly and slowly through the nose, until they fill with air. By breathing through the nose we are going to encourage the use of the diaphragm over the secondary breathing muscles. We are also limiting how much air comes in at once, telling the nervous system it is ok to stay relaxed. A sudden gasp for air will signal to the body it is “go-time” and will activate a sympathetic response. The body will brace again, and will defeat the purpose of this exercise.
- At this point many clients realize how hard it is for them to breathe this way and I reassure them that, yes, it is hard and comes with practice — and we are going to practice with every rep. (If your client is worrying that they won’t be able to take a diaphragmatic breath it will limit their ability to do so!)
- We do this exercise a couple of times together, me showing just how big I can get my belly and how even my thumbs on my back move because air is getting into my back and not just the front. In general there is often some giggling because it looks so odd for anyone to so publicly expand their stomach. This giggling is good — we are having fun! In general after about five breaths or so the client will see progress in getting increased air into the lower into their abdomen.
Deep Breaths as a Goal
Yes, now after years of diaphragmatic breathing, I can take a deep breath without panicking, simply because I can take a deep breath at all. But it took work. On behalf of the constricted breathers who panic when they notice their constriction, I am going to ask you to not start with the breath when working with trauma. Get creative or use the tools I listed above, but start somewhere safer — the extremities — or possibly outside of the body completely.
I spend a lot time telling people what to think about as they set up a lift and maybe what to think about during their next set, but I have recently realized that I need to start talking more about what to think about while executing the lift. Thinking about what our body is doing throughout the entire lift is crucial to a successful heavy lift. Furthermore, it is a skill worth cultivating if you are trying to heal from trauma.Read More