As a Rolf Practitioner and therapeutic yoga teacher, I often work with intelligent, well-educated, earnestly interested people who are uninformed or ill-informed about what it means to engage in sensible body conditioning.
I believe we need to elevate common knowledge of the body, fitness and self-care to a respectable, constructive level.
Even when I work with clients who have exercised with “personal trainers” for years, I witness a trail of misconceptions and debilitating residue of harmful work-outs.
For the most part, the fitness world, including what is advertised as fitness yoga, is inadequate. The majority of people are adjusted to this low standard of information, often cruising by with minimal complaints for at least awhile, and unaware of the fulfilling body-integration experience that they are missing.
Pain, tightness, imbalance and injuries inevitably emerge and often lead those with curiosity about the body’s potential to turn to Iyengar Yoga, Feldenkrais, Structural Integration, Yoga for Structural Balance or another sophisticated body-conditioning methodology to supplement or replace the vague mess of “working-out” that they had been doing.
Gym exercise typically emphasizes toning for aesthetics, heavy exertion, sweating, pumping the heart and burning calories. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these goals. The problem is the context in which it’s all practiced: people are forgetting about the crucial prerequisite.
Prerequisite to safe physical exertion: be on the path to functional harmony.
“A mechanical analogy is that when your car’s wheels are misaligned, driving and turning them more will not improve matters; in fact, until you realign them, further movement will only increase the damage being done to your vehicle.”
~ Joseph Heller
People are working out in the midst of serious misalignment and muscular dysfunction. They go to the gym in order to receive the obvious benefits of any exercise—stress reduction, endorphin release, escape from sedentary-time, calorie burning. These are important factors but without shifting towards better movement techniques, they will pay the price later in other ways.
They continue with the same non-specific, perhaps pre-determined routine, thinking they are constructively “strengthening”and “getting in shape.”
Then something gives; the groin finally tears or the calves are so tight that plantar fasciitis appears…or the lower back spasms or worse.
Their perspective is: “I’ve been doing great, working out regularly, and then one day I just happened to get injured.”
My perspective is: “You’ve been working out in the midst of misalignment and muscle imbalance; your muscles aren’t working properly; you have way more strength than flexibility. Your strength isn’t balanced which causes overall fragility, your joints are compromised and largely immobilized. It’s not surprising that you got injured, and there is a world of joyful movement waiting for you with a little guidance.”
In the face of our culture’s ignorance about the body, our poor condition can often hide under “beauty” or superficial maintenance and go unnoticed until something hurts.
The average person cannot perceive what is going wrong because it’s not in the sphere of what we are taught by mainstream education or media. The common person can perceive those extra 10 pounds, or that little bit of cellulite, or flabby arms or bulky biceps—but perhaps those aren’t actually of consequence in the way we are conditioned to think.
Even many personal trainers don’t have the knowledge of anatomy, physiology and patterns of dysfunction to perceive muscles that are over-working or under-working, a dormant psoas, or a pelvis which is misaligned and paralyzed.
Until the body is in the state of harmony and balance in which a person can release the structural focus and be free to roam in exercise-wonderland, exercise needs to be a means to get there.
What are we working towards?
Let’s consider what we are working towards when we are taking the precious time out of our day to exercise; I often hear, “I want to be cut, hot, tight, ripped, skinny, tough.”
Unfortunately, much less often I hear “I want to be mobile, balanced, integrated, aware.”
> Fitness Value System vs. Integrated-Body Value System
> ripped, tight, cut vs. appropriate mobility
> isolated “strong” muscles vs. balanced strength
> develop more mass and power vs. as much flexibility as strength
> athletic performance vs. prevent injury
> weight loss vs. optimal body mechanics
> ”beauty” vs. order
> random “stretching” for five minutes vs. opening the restricted places
> burn calories vs. integrated movement
> tough, hot, strong vs. resilient, balanced, aware
> cardiovascular health vs. optimal physiology
> be seen at the gym vs. enjoyment of movement
> bikini body vs. integrated body
Knowing my clients’ bodies well, including their imbalances and injuries, I am often horrified when they show me what they are doing with their trainers. No wonder their problems persist!
I often ask them questions like:
Why did your trainer recommend this particular exercise?
How are you doing the exercises?
Which muscles are working or not working?
Is this exercise relevant to you and your body? If so, how?
If it’s going to help you burn calories but it’s bad for your spine are you going to do it anyway?
Frequently, clients respond to these questions blankly—baffled and uninformed. They are doing vigorous exercise without real purpose, without appropriateness. Though clearly motivated by an appearance-obsessed value system, I can’t imagine a logical or scientific framework that could justify or inform such poor movement choices and lack of technical detail.
Is it neglect, ignorance, lack of training? I’m sure there are exquisitely knowledgeable, elite trainers out there working brilliantly with a lucky few; I’m not speaking of them, but of the norm.
I give my professional opinion, which is to stop doing the inappropriate exercise and move towards a structurally-sound program. I see heartbroken faces, as people are attached to their trainers, they look forward to the work-outs, they’ve become comfortable with their goal of a “flat tummy.”
At that point, it’s a question of priorities and desire: How badly do they want to improve their body’s state?
Many gyms and trainers do advertise “balancing muscle groups,” “flexibility training” and “customized routines”—but my experience shows that these statements offer a vague, inadequate approach grounded in overly-simplistic ideas at best and are empty promises at worst.
All too often, it’s simply not good enough.
Luckily, there are resources available to solve this problem. I suggest a five-fold path to bringing a more enlightened approach to body conditioning to the mainstream.
We are conditioned towards certain aesthetics of beauty. Digging deeper into the meaning of beauty requires some contemplation and meditation; it’s an existential process which is both universal and personal. Culturally, we need to get past unrealistic, unhealthy, and ultimately debilitating aesthetic desires—like aiming for low weight, six-pack abs or bulky muscles.
When we grow to align our palates with the awe-inspiring beauty of nature and life, we open ourselves to seeing beauty in bodies and natural movement that reflect a human being’s uniqueness, vitality and life-force.
2. Let’s rethink medicine and healing.
Luckily, this is happening gradually. Western medicine is awesome in certain circumstances; many of us know it has major blind spots.
Western medicine requires “check ups” every year and we get tested for basic illnesses and abnormalities in our “vital signs.” But there’s so much that’s not considered or brought to our attention! Then when something eventually goes wrong, we are offered pharmaceutical, surgical or short-sighted solutions to “treat” our symptoms.
Someone might have tremendous lack of flexibility in their hamstrings and groins, a paralyzed pelvis, a psoas in contraction and hypertonic back muscles, but the doctor has no recommendations or maybe doesn’t even take notice. Then once the lumbar disc is herniated, the patient gets sent to a specialist and then to surgery.
We need to start studying ourselves regularly so that we can perceive our “trajectory” and respond holistically and accordingly. Even if not yet clearly an “illness” or a recognizable “diagnosis,” we can get to know where are our bodies have gone physiologically “off” due to the stresses of life.
Where do we need assistance to restore balance?
How can we take responsibility for our health by knowing our patterns, paying attention and acting preventively?
3. Let’s get inside the “human potential” paradigm.
We each have our own personal potential that is available for us to realize in our lives: physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, creatively. When we strive towards our potential, we honor both our gifts and limitations; we recognize our greatness and root ourselves in a journey of self-discovery and evolution.
4. Let’s learn sophisticated techniques.
There are people who have dedicated their lives to creating methodologies for refining and optimizing human movement, bodies and health. Let’s take advantage of their invaluable work and study diligently! Structural Integration, Yoga for Structural Balance, Iyengar Yoga, Feldenkreis Method, and many more.
5. Let’s commit to our own participation.
There’s only so much we can lean into a practitioner, healer, trainer or technique. We have to be engaged, learning and listening both externally and internally. We are the synthesizers of all that we learn; we must select what’s most helpful and appropriate for our unique bodies.
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Assistant: Terri Tremblett/Ed: Bryonie Wise