Kinetic Fluidity

Have you ever stumbled across a realization in one area of your life that unlocks the door to understanding in another? This can occur with relative frequency to the degree that you view your life holistically, rather than as a collection of compartments.

Modern science conditions us to think reductively, to the point that our primary approach in understanding complex matters is to break it down into its component parts and then study their interrelationships. We’ve amassed mountains of information about our physical bodies, for instance, by dissecting them into increasingly small bits. There is no doubt that this approach provided us with a giant leap forward in our understanding of how our bodies work and what goes wrong when they don’t.

That said, there are times where reductionism causes those who employ it to lose the forest for the trees. My riding coach and I had an interesting discussion the other day about suppling, that is, working with a horse in a way that reduces its resistances and muscular tension so that it can move with greater precision, balance and lightness. This topic has long been of interest to horseman, for these resistances stand in the way of just about every one of the horseman’s goals in any riding discipline.

The conversation started with a realization made in my own personal training, an “aha” moment that my trainer and I had some time ago about the importance of healthy fascia in human fitness. Little is known about fascia, likely because medical researchers and anatomists over the last two centuries have focused on the seemingly more important organs, tissues and cells that lie within it, but I found this description in an article in the June 2011 issue of Running Times:

Under your skin, encasing your body and webbing its way through your insides like spider webs, is fascia. Fascia is made up primarily of densely packed collagen fibers that create a full body system of sheets, chords and bags that wrap, divide and permeate every one of your muscles, bones, nerves, blood vessels and organs. Every bit of you is encased in it. You’re protected by fascia, connected by fascia and kept in taut human shape by fascia.

Why didn’t anyone mention fascia earlier? Because not many people know that much about it. Fascia’s messy stuff. It’s hard to study. It’s so expansive and intertwined it resists the medical standard of being cut up and named for textbook illustrations. Besides that, its function is tricky, more subtle than that of the other systems. For the majority of medical history it’s been assumed that bones were our frame, muscles the motor, and fascia just packaging.

In fact, the convention in med-school dissections has been to remove as much of the fascia as possible in order to see what was underneath, the important stuff. That framed Illustration hanging in your doctor’s office of the red-muscled, wide-eyed human body is a body with its fascia cut away; it’s not what you look like inside, but it’s a lot neater and easier to study and it’s the way doctors have long been taught to look at you. Until recently, that is.

The article continued:

What exactly does it do? It wraps around each of your individual internal parts, keeping them separate and allowing them to slide easily with your movements. It’s strong, slippery and wet. It creates a sheath around each muscle; because it’s stiffer, it resists over-stretching and acts like an anatomical emergency break. It connects your organs to your ribs to your muscles and all your bones to each other. It structures your insides in a feat of engineering, balancing stressors and counter-stressors to create a mobile, flexible and resilient body unit. It generally keeps you from being a big, bone-filled blob.

“Fascia is the missing element in the movement/stability equation,” says Tom Myers, author of the acclaimed book Anatomy Trains. Myers was among the first medical professionals to challenge the field’s ignorance of fascia in the human body. He has long argued for a more holistic treatment, with a focus on the fascia as an unappreciated overseer. “While every anatomy lists around 600 separate muscles, it is more accurate to say that there is one muscle poured into six hundred pockets of the fascial webbing. The ‘illusion’ of separate muscles is created by the anatomist’s scalpel, dividing tissues along the planes of fascia. This reductive process should not blind us to the reality of the unifying whole.”

What rocked the medical community’s world was this: Fascia isn’t just plastic wrap. Fascia can contract and feel and impact the way you move. It’s our richest sense organ, it possess the ability to contract independently of the muscles it surrounds and it responds to stress without your conscious command. That’s a big deal. It means that fascia is impacting your movements, for better or worse. It means that this stuff massage therapists and physical therapists and orthopedists have right at their fingertips is the missing variable, the one they’ve been looking for.

The perils of reductionism exposed! It pays to consider the unifying whole on occasion, lest we become so obsessed with the minutiae that we lose sight of the unity of the topic under consideration. In other words, it pays to take a step back every so often…a point well-worth remembering in your personal and professional life.

When it comes to horses, suppling can be seen to relate more properly to both muscles and fascia. I believe that it is entirely possible for a horse to be brought to the point where his muscles are relaxed and supple, while retaining adhesions and inelastic fascia (made so by injuries, improper training, incorrect movements over time, etc.). I’ve experienced this in my own physical training and I am sure that the concept translates perfectly into the bodies of our beloved horses.

How to restore that fascia to healthy function is fodder for a later post, but I know that in human fitness training and bodywork, therapists and trainers have had a lot of success by using techniques such as Feldenkrais, the Alexander Technique, Flexibility Highways in Motion, Rolfing and other approaches to myofascial release.

If our physical health can be improved by remembering to take a holistic view on occasion, so too can our lives in general. Forward movement is improved when all of the parts articulate in coordinated agreement. If you are moving in one direction in one area of your life, say towards greater integrity and refinement, while maintaining destructive and conflicting habits in other areas of your life, your progress will be impeded. It may seem like common sense, but in my observation, many take this very approach.

Think about your own life for the moment. Are there areas of chronic tension that don’t seem to line up with other areas in you and in your life that are more relaxed, flowing and easy-going? Those points are worth taking a closer look at, but sometime taking a closer look doesn’t mean zooming in, it means zooming out. Look at them in relation to the big picture. Get them in perspective. Doing so makes it infinitely easier to choose the right course of corrective action.


Inner Strength and The Spirit of Victory

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” ~ Marcus Aurelius

My eighteen year old cousin, Savannah Leigh Burns, was recently diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). Its onset was rather sudden and took Savannah and her family completely by surprise. The first two weeks in the hospital have been frighteningly volatile, to say the least, yet Savannah’s spirit remains as strong as ever, despite her present physical impairment after having suffered a stroke early in her treatment.

Savannah is a fighter and while it may sound cliche, to know her is to love her. Her friends and family describe her as fearless, beautiful, funny, smart, strong-willed and capable of conquering anything she sets her mind to. If I had to pick a word to describe her, it would be courageous.

As you might know, the word courage derives from the Latin word cor, meaning heart. If there is anything that describes this precious angel it is this, for she is ALL heart! The outpouring of support Savannah and her family have received from places near and far, from friends, acquaintances and people she has never met is a tremendous blessing and it amazes me to see how many people have been touched by Savannah’s radiant and magnetic personality, both backed by her enormous heart.

These types of sudden changes really get you thinking. Beyond the concern to help those in need such as Savannah by donating blood, for instance, by taking on new responsibilities if you are a co-worker of someone who is sick or by providing meals to the family members whose lives are also changed dramatically, you might ask yourself “am I holding back anywhere in my life?” or perhaps “what can I do to be a more generous person, to be a greater blessing to those with whom I am privileged to associate?”

No matter how hard we try to control life there are, and likely always will be, factors beyond our control. Some choose to see a higher power as being responsible for their ills, justifying this belief with the notion that we are mysteriously given challenges to overcome as a test. You might have heard someone say “He gave it to you because He knew you could handle it.” Others see life as nothing more than a stream of random mutations guided not by Providence, but by chance and the more extreme among them adhere to the notion of fatalism, which is rooted in the conviction that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.

My own belief is: (1) that a benevolent God would not contradict Himself and (2) that everything that happens to you is not always a result of your own personal actions or emotional state. You have the privilege and the responsibility to handle as creatively as you can everything that life brings to your doorstep. More often than not, as Marcus Aurelius observed, you do not have power over outside events, but you almost always (except in cases of mental imbalance) have power over your mind. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not what happens to you that matters,the important thing is how you handle what happens. You are wise to exercise the power you do have while never wasting time bemoaning that which you don’t have.

We live in an interconnected world and the decisions made by others – both contemporaries and predecessors – have a tangible impact on your life, health and function. Just as with APL where an imbalance in the blood can cause trouble in other parts of the body, bad decisions by a total stranger who lives in another part of the world can reverberate around the world through a chain of causality and wreak havoc in your otherwise perfect day. The health of the human race is established by the sum total of the health of every individual. Therefore, when one suffers, the whole body suffers.

Conversely, when one overcomes, the whole body is given a shot of the spirit of victory. Savannah’s life to this point has been a tremendous inspiration to many and I have no doubt that she will continue to do as she has always done for as long as I have been privileged to know her – inspire, challenge, bless and give heart to everything she touches – for all the days of her life.

I love you, Savannah.

A busy life

You are worried about seeing him spend his early years in doing nothing.  What!  Is it nothing to be happy?  Nothing to skip, play, and run around all day long?  Never in his life will he be so busy again.” ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, 1762

Having had a chance to spend the entire day with my children yesterday, I can assure you that I have never been busier! We jumped, ran, laughed, skipped, swam, ate, played, talked, joked, dug, built, demolished, shopped, walked, climbed and marveled at everything that passed our screen. To some such frivolities would amount to “doing nothing all day” but I can assure you that the three of us grew as a result of time well spent. (That said I did have four conference calls and answered 37 emails when they were sufficiently occupied).

I don’t know about you, but the busier my professional life is the harder it is to incorporate play on a regular basis. Rarely does it work out without prior planning and if I do not deliberately make the space for play in my day, it won’t happen. Play is the flint upon which the spark of life ignites. Play offers so many advantages. It encourages imagination, flexibility, vitality, sharing, rhythmic pulsations of activity and rest, socializing, curiosity and that’s just the short list that comes immediately to mind!

The older I become the more I realize how important it is to maintain a youthful spirit within an aging mind and body. As my sons and I walked through the outdoor shopping mall today I noticed that there were two types of seniors: those who had a spark of life in them and those whose spark had extinguished.

Those who maintained that spark took note of the boys, sent them a wink or a wave or even asked me about them. They were lighter in their step, brighter in the eye, generally more colorful and most importantly, radiant rather than absorptive. I recall one definition of the noun “boy” that perfectly described the creature: “Boy, n.:  a noise with dirt on it.” Those with life still in them were not offended by the noise or the dirt!

A life well-lived includes play and defies the entropic march toward rigidity in body, mind and heart that wears down the large majority of people far too early in life. Life must be given, expressed and exercised on a regular basis if the flow from the inside out is to remain in tact. Stop giving and expressing life and the wellspring of life will appear to go dry in your experience. Start giving and expressing life again and the wellspring gives freely of itself, proving that the well did not go dry, rather, the prime was lost from disuse.

Take time this weekend to play sporadically through the day – even if you are hard at work – and be sure to let the life that is waiting to be expressed has a means of so doing.

Have a great weekend!

A Change in Tactics

An article in the recent Equus magazine entitled “The Deworming Revolution: A Change in Tactics” fascinated me as much for its implications to the horse world as for its similarity to the the challenge we face with the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine (for an intro to the MRSA dilemma see my post “Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em“).

The author, Christine Barakat, notes:

For the last three decades, controlling internal parasites in horses has been a fairly simple proposition: administer a dewormer every eight weeks or so, alternating among products of different chemical classes at each treatment interval…And our horses are healthier than ever. In fact, reports of parasite-related problems have all but disappeared.

But amid these signs of apparent success, trouble is brewing. Research has shown that indiscriminate overuse of anthelmintic drugs has allowed some parasites to develop resistance to certain chemicals, rendering some agents ineffective against specific species of worms. More worrisomely, scientists warn that all agents now in use could eventually lose their effectiveness if current deworming practices continue.

Veterinarians and researchers are working to create a new solution, one that transcends the limitations of the current one-size-fits-all, treat whether it’s needed or not approach. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this problem in animal husbandry. In the 1970s, lambs in New Zealand received a similar treatment up until the point that none of the anthelmintics worked. A dangerous and costly situation.

We need new protocols for dealing with parasites in horses and parasites and other bacterial infections in humans.

One emerging alternative, which continues to use the current medications on a different basis, advocates a more flexible, customized approach that takes into account fecal egg counts, the efficacy of the drug to be used and the climate (which has a bearing on the life cycle of the parasites). In other words, treat according to the actual needs of the horse and the climate.

While this new protocol requires more thought on the part of the veterinarian and caregivers as well as greater trust in a more targeted and typically less frequent intervention, it appears to be working.

Another step we could take to protect our horses now as well as the generations of horses to come is to strengthen the host. A stronger host is more resistant to infection. Louis Pasteur himself is reported to have said on his deathbed: “Bernard avait raison. Le germe n’est rien, c’est le terrain qui est tout!” (Bernard was right. The germ is nothing, the terrain is everything!)

In this case, fortifying the digestive system with probiotics appears to help reduce the incidence and severity of parasitic infections. The same appears to be true in humans. There is a growing body of evidence showing that a large percentage of disease starts in the gut. Resolve, or better yet, prevent gut issues and you are likely to greatly reduce the need for drug interventions later in the process.

Just because we’ve done something in a certain way for years doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be open to new and better approaches, especially when the familiar approach is no longer working. A valuable lesson in any department of life!

Mind moves matter, if you let it.

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” ~ Marcus Aurelius

The practice of yoga is more challenging – and more rewarding – than it looks. One of the lessons I took home with my shaky legs and becalmed mind was that your mind can stand in the way of easy progress in your life if you let it. Likewise, it can be the key to forward movement, healing and growth if you let it.

My yoga instructor used an example that made a lot of sense to me. She described the fact that scar tissue, limitations in movement and inflexibility that come from physical injuries can often be worked through and healed if you are willing to work through the mental hesitation and mental convictions of disability that block the way to restored function.

The positions you get into and hold for what seems like hours in yoga have an uncanny ability to expose the parts of your body – and the aspects of your mind – that are in need of stretching or strengthening or both. A new pose, like Reclining Hero Pose or Half Moon Pose, brings you swiftly to the edge of your personal performance envelope, the quickly narrowing corner where the power of your mind, the depth of your conviction about the power of outside events and your present physical and mental agility and fortitude meet.

Relinquishing limiting assumptions unleashes hidden inner strength. Call it life force, qi, prana or elan vital, but as with any flow system, when you find a way to open the pathways, flow is restored. While some physical limitations are irreparable, I would venture to say that the large majority of them are reversible. What stands in the way is more a state of mind than a state of matter.

MENS AGITAT MOLEM. Mind moves matter.

Pathological Disbelief and Intellectual Terror

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…”  ~ Isaac Asimov

One of the great obstacles to progress in scientific understanding was well described by Nobel Prize-winning Cambridge emeritus professor Brian Josephson as “pathological disbelief.” Josephson used the term in a lecture he gave that mirrored a lecture called “Pathological Science” given by chemistry laureate Irving Langmuir.

In the abstract to the lecture Josephson noted:

Langmuir discussed cases where scientists, on the basis of invalid processes, claimed the validity of phenomena that were unreal. My interest is in the counter-pathology involving cases where phenomena that are almost certainly real are rejected by the scientific community, for reasons that are just as invalid as those of the cases described by Langmuir.

Josephson cited the example of Alfred Wegener’s theory on continental drift, proposed in 1912, which hypothesized that the continents slowly drift around the earth. Wegener was unable to come up with a convincing mechanism to explain this movement and though his theory was correct, it was not generally accepted until 1950. What is most interesting about Wegener’s experience was the vehemence of the attacks launched against him and the outright dismissal of his theory, despite the overwhelming evidence in its favor.

Josephson also noted that:

In such situations incredulity, expressed strongly by the disbelievers, frequently takes over: no longer is the question that of the truth or falsity of the claims; instead, the agenda centres on denunciation of the claims. …In this “denunciation mode”, the usual scientific care is absent; pseudo-arguments often take the place of scientific ones.

Fanaticism reigns supreme when intellectual terror usurps the place of honest scientific enquiry. The same holds true in religious circles, for every time that blind faith supplants gnosis, man is imprisoned by his so-called understanding.

I’ve been following the current vitriol aimed at anyone who dares to suggest a link between vaccination and autism. The phenomenon of pathological disbelief is present in the medical community and you needn’t look further than the treatment Dr. Andrew Wakefield received after publishing his 1998 study of the MMR vaccine. The press constantly stated that Dr. Wakefield claimed that the MMR vaccine caused autism, but even a layperson reading the study could see that he never made such a claim. What he did claim was that children with autism often suffer from bowel disease, a hypothesis with an abundance of evidence in its favor.

Will we get to the bottom of what has caused Autism’s 60 fold increase in just 30 years? If we find a way to set aside the pathological disbelief I am confident that we will. If not, I fear for the future health and wellbeing of our children’s children.

Josephson noted that the unscientific attitude he called “pathological disbelief” is embodied by the attitude “even if it were true, I wouldn’t believe it.” When it is put that way it is a little scary, isn’t it?

Science without conscience is the soul’s perdition.” ~ François Rabelais

How to Put an End to our Nation’s Health Crisis

The other day someone mentioned to me that America’s health crisis could be largely resolved if people would avoid everything in the middle of the grocery store and only buy items currently on the outer walls.

I had to think about the statement for a moment, but once the picture of the last grocery store I visited filled the screen in my mind it occurred to me that he was on to something. Perishables – vegetables, fruit, juices, milk, eggs, fresh meats, fresh breads and so on – line the perimeter of just about every big-box grocery store. The middle of the store, conversely, showcases heavily processed, sugared, salted, chemically-enhanced conveniently packaged whole and fresh food substitutes.

My brother-in-law and I were chatting the other day about how few people have a chance to see their food in its original, live state before it is butchered, harvested or processed. Chickens to most children nowadays are slabs of clean, skin-free meat enclosed in styrofoam and shrink-wrap. Cows, pigs, lamb and fish suffer the same misunderstanding. There is hardly any connection between the original plant or animal and its eventual consumer anymore.

In my mind this creates a situation where healthy food choices are more difficult to make. Everything in the grocery store is put on equal footing, the primary difference typically has little to do with the item’s provenance and everything to do with its price to the average consumer. Fair enough, but I have to wonder if we are missing something by accepting the “big-box” distribution system which is backed by industrial agriculture as the only possible solution.

I came across a courageous talk given by an 11 year old, Birke Baehr, at the recently held TEDxNextGenerationAsheville. Sometimes children put it best, despite their lack of life experience.

Wasn’t that wonderful? Don’t you love the fact that he wants to be an organic farmer when he grows up? I wish Birke well. What an inspiring story.

Is our present system sustainable? It’s hard to see how it could be. If we are to escape from the downward spiral we are presently on relative to the health of our nation, we need to take Birke’s advice and learn about ways to get back in touch with real, wholesome and nourishing food. Believe me, there’s more to it than getting sufficient macronutrients.

I’d love to hear what resources you use to help you make healthy food choices as well as any success stories you’ve come across…