Always be gentle with your body.  Respect its boundaries.   Don’t push.

These are generally good rules to listen to when challenging yourself physically and trying to avoid injury, especially when learning a new activity.  But if one uses this kind of thinking to dictate how she should treat the body in all situations it can actually be counterproductive to health and well being. Stress (of all kinds) can actually be beneficial (and arguably necessary) for the body.  Our entire lives as mobile human beings is to actively engage with the oppressive and compressive forces of gravity and other natural forces.  For everyday activities from locomotion, to breathing we must combat and even use those gravitational forces to assist us in living healthy lives. Make no mistake. It is by intelligently dealing with stressful elements that we can strengthen all aspects of our physical bodies (and mental/emotional. duh.).  Knowing when to back off is a necessary skill, but don’t think you need to always use kid-gloves…

Here are examples of this behavior that we find significantly detrimental:

  • It is assumed that you need more props in your yoga practice as you age.  That’s a bit presumptuous.  Age, in and of itself, is not always a direct indicator of “level of ability” in a yoga class.  Yoga Journal recently had an entire spread about how to keep your yoga practice as you age and YJ suggested adding more props.  Wouldn’t one think that as we age it is more important to be confident in our bodies, knowing how to securely traverse space around us?  Stability is key for all of us.  In particular, stability can save us from a nasty fall, which can be harder to recover from as we age (falls are the leading cause of death in people over 65, you can look at the stats here .  If the idea is to use yoga to keep bones strong and improve stability, then lets create a practice that allows people of all ages to challenge themselves and encourage them (safely) to better manage themselves and their bodies without the fear of, “If I don’t have a wall or a prop I can’t do this, because I’m older.”  Perhaps props will be needed (as with anyone of any age) if the practice is new, but the eventual goal is to be able to manage your body without assistance, no matter what your age.
  • “Be careful with your back.” We hear from clients ALL THE TIME how they are careful performing movements that can “hurt their backs,” even though they do not currently experience back pain.  This often includes twisting (trunk rotation) and extension in the lower back. With the exception of people who actually do have back pain and/or were diagnosed with a condition (which is a VERY GOOD reason to actually be careful with your back), we find that a lot of people seem to have rumor-driven back anxiety. What’s interesting with this kind of spinal-anxiety is that if you pursue a line of questioning to zero in on his or her concerns, there is no real reason.  We hear, “I’ve heard that too much lumbar curve isn’t good”; “I don’t want to twist and possibly create a bulging disc”;  “Sometimes my back is sensitive, so I treat it tenderly.” It seems the fear of future back pain can create a hyper-awareness of any kind of sensation, painful or not.  This lack of discrimination leads to making choices about movement that are misinformed and can lead to neurotic, self-imposed limitations.  Try googling about back pain and getting out of bed (then try googling what Dr. Sarno has to say about bulging discs and back pain).  There are many, many articles advising people about how to get out of bed!  Some of these articles are written by doctors and physical therapists who would warn you to avoid twisting as much as possible when getting up.  Or even doing stretches before getting up.  If you can’t get out of bed without fear of hurting yourself, then don’t bother getting out of bed that day. Seriously… It’s not wrong to take special care of yourself especially if you have just suffered an acute injury.  But wouldn’t it be more helpful to assist a person to finding mobility that feels good and healthy that removes anxiety over the simplest of acts?  If you’re obsessing about how to properly get out of bed to avoid injury, then you should be equally as concerned with walking, carrying anything, eating, sneezing or going to the bathroom (which can actually cause a lot of internal pressure changes on the spine.)  Unless there are specific structural issues, getting out of bed, bending over to pick up your child or doing many other everyday tasks should be a gift that you should be able to take for granted.
  • “I don’t EVER jump or run, because it stresses my joints unnecessarily.”  Your body and joints are built to withstand a good amount of impact and stress in moderation.  But as with everything it is about how you perform any activity (how much load, how frequently and more importantly how you are using your body to do it).  Running and jumping are activities that have allowed our species to survive (Oh no, I can’t get away from this hungry lion for fear that I might hurt my joints… can you imagine?).  The structure of our feet and legs tells the story of our running and jumping ancestry (yes, we know short vs long distance is still being debated BUT, it can be agreed that we did run at one point or at least we sprinted!).  We agree that running and jumping with improper shoes on flat, hard or paved surfaces with feet that no longer fully-function because of being used to hard-soled shoes will inevitably cause problems.  However, it’s 2013… there are plenty of ways to get around this and plenty of people who can help train you to do these things properly. We are not saying that everyone has to run and jump. If you don’t want to, then don’t do it (hope you never get chased by a lion…). But don’t stop yourself because you are afraid that those things are bad for you.  What happens when you trip and fall?  What if that fall is the first real hard impact your body has to deal with?  Chances are, since it’s not used to handling those kind of intense physical vectors of force that travel through the body upon impact, it may not cope well (and we are not even getting into what the brain does and reflexes, etc).  People practice these things on the regular have better chances of falling and getting back up without much drama (obviously too much practice is not good either).  Also, jumping is great for moving lymph in the body and keeping bones healthy. So, don’t fear impact.  Engage with it intelligently and use it to your benefit.
  • “Organs are delicate”… Some people are afraid to get in touch with their organs figuratively and literally.  For some  it can be just plain gross, which is understandable (unless you are Kim, in which case she will just call you a pansy), but is an attitude that should be changed.  Bodies are visceral experiences (puns!) and allowing yourself to be familiar with what’s going on inside of yourself can bring up emotions, but the process is completely worth it.  Your body is your house and it is YOUR responsibility to take care of it.  Get to know what is going on.  Aside from that some people may advocate that we should use extreme caution when dealing with organs and that too much movement or touch can be hazardous to their well being…  Do understand that we REGULARLY put stress on our organs already by being alive (have you ever breathed or eaten anything or went to the bathroom?).  We sometimes bump into people or walls and this  jostles our insides.  Some of us are stomach sleepers with no fear of rupturing intestines.  Ever fall asleep on something like a remote control or pen?  Did you die?  Probably not.  In fact, they probably accommodated for that intrusion.  You might be a little sore upon waking up, but everything was intact. Reject the idea that your insides are super delicate. If they were delicate, we would probably not be designed skeletally with a big GAPING HOLE exposing our most delicate features… that would just be dumb… Your organs can provide immense support for the arrangement of the musculoskeletal system.  Remember this post? If you could watch a video of what was going on inside your body even while you are just sitting on the couch watching the Housewives of Beverly Hills (Yes, Melissa loves Bravo TV.  AND?!)  you would be amazed at how much movement you would observe (you might even stop watching Bravo, because your organs are way more interesting!).  Embrace their strength and rest assured that so much of your personal durability is because of your organs’ strength.

There are so many ways in which we try to control our life experiences in order to avoid pain and create safety.  We can create this control through fear or anxiety and limit the physical experiences in our bodies to ensure that we are not stressed.  The problem with this is 2-fold.
1)  You will inevitably have your safety bubble popped, because we live in a world full of stressors.  Relationships, environment, illness…You will be under prepared for handling them well when confronted.
2)  This fearful behavior will negatively color much of your attitudes towards movement.  You will limit and inhibit yourself, which can lead to many physical issues.  The body is a machine that needs movement (challenging movement) to remain healthy and capable.  You start to communicate fear to the body and allow that to manifest as physical anxiety and you’ve created a perfect storm for all the problems you’d like to avoid.  In other words, don’t wait until you are being chased by a lion to learn how to move… you’ll get eaten.

Remedy the fears.  Get rational.  Educate yourself.  Train so that you can be functional in an often dysfunctional world. Know what your body truly is and isn’t capable of and then you can start making the kind of decisions that will keep you healthy and happy.