Dropping the can’ts, a love letter to a dog.

If you have ever skinned your knee or torn your ACL or woken up with a crick in your neck – that is, if you are human – you know pain. But something funny happens on the way to our brains. Instead of punctuation, pain can begin to feel like a sentence: something we will always have, a nagging reminder of ways we can’t.

I see this in my clients (as well as myself and everyone I know) – how body discomfort narrows the horizon of possibility, and spins us into an irrefutable list of broken: We’re injured, out of shape, pushing 40 (30, 70), we don’t move this or that particular way, our bank account is low. For very good reasons, we feel circumscribed by what we see as the limitations of our bodies.

And then, I take my dog for a walk in the woods, and the whole lie is revealed.

More accurately, I take him on a little cross country ski expedition on the trails behind the dump in our small town and watch him transform into a fluid, joyful form.

Charlie is not a small dog. Or a young dog. He is a long-nosed, constantly shedding, 90 pound, Shepherd Collie mix. Nearly a decade into his life, his muzzle is graying, and when he lumbers across the yard, you can almost hear his joints creaking. Like most of us, he has spent the last few months curled up in a ball by the wood stove, waiting for spring.noname

But once in the woods, there is no lumbering. Charlie careens like a puppy.  He is a streaking blur of movement and limbs. We encounter two other skiers, each with their own off leash dogs. One exclaims, “He’s so big but…so playful!”

We marvel at him together.

He has a beautiful disregard for his size, his age, for mortality or limitation. He is himself – skimming along – a wordless, embodied creature.

… but not a linear one. At night, Charlie circles a million times before he comes to a flop in a big, graceless exhale. He isn’t consistent either – barking wildly at the plastic bag that has blown across the lawn, but oblivious to the scratch scratch scratching of the mouse that wakes me in the night the one time I would like him to bark, to make some kind of exhortation and startle this vermin away and he… sleeps on.

When my daughter was 3 we ended up in the emergency room to treat her small, dislocated elbow. It was an excruciating experience, not being able to take away the pain she felt. But the doctor performed a quick osteopathic maneuver and – within minutes – she was laughing and playing with toys in the waiting room. Over it. The doctor said to me, “Children and animals aren’t stupid like grown ups. They hurt when they hurt and then they don’t when they don’t. None of this trying to be better business, none of this worrying or pretending.”

I remember this as I watch Charlie fly through the woods. There is something in that unpredictable, take-it-as-it comes careen that is a revelation. Given the chance to be outside, to be moving, to be with his people – the dog almost visibly hums with the joy of it all. True, the other 98% of the time he’s laid out on his side by the fire, showing age in the way he moves. But he seems to say something else: Yes, I am achey and older, but also resilient. Perhaps this is the trick to health: to drop so fully into the present that the can’t stories fall away.

Now if I could just get him to scare off that mouse.

The Foundational Extras


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Recently, a friend asked me if I had any new hobbies. “Hobbies?” I stammered.

“Yes,” he said, “like macrame or jigsaw puzzles or beading. Hobbies.” I was stumped – was he joking? Making funny small talk?

But he was serious – and strategizing. This summer, he explained, he played baseball.  And it was amazing. Every week, he saw friends, got outside, skinned his knees. There was so much good that came from that weekly routine. And with summer over, he was  looking for something to fill the gap. “I’m thinking of taking up sewing,” he said.

Which got me thinking. There are those activities that, from the outside, look like extras. Whether it’s baseball or dance, writing or running, these things might seem superfluous. When we say “hobby,” we’re not usually talking about Something Important. But it is often these activities that are the foundation of our balance. They are competitive or playful or sweat-inducing or relaxing, and they bring us back to simply doing what we’re doing: no long term goal, no need-to-complete, just a bit of ease and focus.

Call them hobbies, or practice, or lifelines, we commit to these activities because it’s time that feeds us. Even when we’re tired. Even when there are other more important things to do. Consider how you feel at the end of the run/massage/writing/bowling game. You might even catch yourself smiling.

In my work as a massage therapist, I get to witness how those clients that have committed to regular massage sessions reap profound benefits simply by showing up, consistently and intentionally.  They’ve found one activity in which practice helps them feel balance. But there are so many different kinds of hobby commitment.

You may have noticed this too: During the busiest times, we drop the “extras.”  When it doesn’t feel like there’s enough to go around, and it’s more important to get the [thing designated important] done, we simply don’t show up.  We skip class or practice or don’t make time. And in the absence of those things that bring us real joy or play or release, the needle spikes into that intolerable place we know as overwhelm.

It’s something I find often with my clients (and, ahem, myself). Those things that seem extraneous often reveal themselves to be the golden thread that’s actually holding it all together.  

So, as summer turns to fall, I wonder, what’s your hobby? I’m ready to commit to some new ones.

Maybe I’ll take up macrame.

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Vacationland…for Non-Vacationers

photo 1In Maine, we wait about 10 months of the year for just this spot: The zenith of summer, the beach days and campfire nights, the sweetness of porch sitting without a jacket (or at least not for warmth – mosquitoes, though, that’s another story). The truth is, most people come here for just this sweet time. All those Vacationland license plates don’t lie. What this means for many of us is visitors. People we love. People we wait all year to see. People we take to the beach, and to the ice cream stand and down to the lobster shack. We talk late into the night, cook giant meals, we wash sheets and pick flowers. This is – as I’ve written about elsewhere – the season of yang. Active and abundant, and sometimes so much so that we can forget about that most fundamental of rhythms: our own.  photo 2 I was thinking about this the other day, relishing time spent with friends from far away, when I realized I needed to do an almost-nothing-something, just for myself. And it was surprisingly simple. I made chicken noodle soup. I picked and dried calendula (with a cup of bulletproof coffee on the side). I worked on a sewing project with my four-year-old. I went to bed early. With that – order restored, inner-animal fed. So long as we truly include ourselves, we can find beauty and nourishment in most anything. Even the dishes.

I’m looking forward to the next batch of visitors. photo (29)

3 Health Trends for the Trend-Averse

 

Favorite spa... the back garden.

Favorite spa… the back garden.

My sisters could vouch that I am many things, but trendy isn’t really one of them. In the third grade, I found what I thought was the perfect shirt – blue, with a wide red stripe in the middle – and wore it for the entire year.  In high school, during the grunge-rich 90s, I honestly listened to Bulgarian folk music and questionable 70s bands that included Steve Winwood (yes… I did). I would generally rather talk physics than fashion, will happily read tomes on soil science, and can laugh at the same dumb joke, regardless of how many times you tell it. I am, as many can attest, a nerd.

So when it comes to trends, I’m more of a bringing-up-the-rear sort than an early adopter. Still, lately I’ve come across a few newish notions that – despite by natural skepticism – actually seem compelling. Friends, I give you Three Health Trends for the Trend-Averse:

  • Low-FODMAPS Diet – An acronym for (get ready!) Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols, FODMAPS describe a group of short chain carbohydrates that even healthy people have difficulty digesting. For those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Disease, symptoms of these unabsorbed sugars can run from uncomfortable to debilitating. The good news: Many of my clients say they feel dramatically better when they reduce FODMAP intake. The bad news: It requires commitment! And limiting fructose is…limiting. A recommended food list is here  (and this is what to avoid).
  • Yamuna Body Rolling – Developed by Yamuna Zake, the technique uses rubber balls to stretch the fascia, helping free joints and loosen muscle tightness. It’s a lovely self-care tool for bringing mobility into the tissue, and there are some great classes in and around Portland to get you started.
  • Bulletproof Coffee – I’m not sure if I’d consider this a health trend, but… when clients ask about coffee, I confess this is my preferred style. The concoction involves blending butter, coconut oil and coffee (and maple syrup, if you like), and while there is some debate about the actual health benefits… it’s low-FODMAP and tasty!

Feel free to try any of these this summer – or not! Above all, I’d encourage you to listen to your body, the one true expert on what is best for you.

Accessorizing 2014: Lupines.

2014 Accessorizing Trends: Lupines.

 

 

Yin Time

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A few years ago, I went through a period of waking up every morning at 3 a.m. I was overextended and desperately  needed the rest, but lay there, awake and lucid, unable to fall asleep again until about 5 a.m. Has this happened to you? No amount of cajoling or chamomile tea or daily exercise convinces your internal rhythm to let you sleep through the night, and – if we’re maybe a little bit alike – leaves you feeling cranky and irritable the next day.

I was utterly frustrated: Didn’t my body know this was a very stressful time and what I needed was not insomnia but actual REST?

In fact, that’s precisely (and paradoxically!) what my body knew.

When I told an acupuncturist friend about this habit, she suggested something I never would have considered. My body, she said, was claiming its yin time.  Yin time? Was that even a thing? Yes, she said, and evidence of a foundational principle in traditional Chinese medicine.

She explained that when we are busy, stressed, filling every moment – operating in the yang, you might say – our body feels the absence of time spent not doing. Whether we are daydreaming or walking without destination, those “unproductive” spaces where time lies fallow also feed us.  Yin is quiet, heavy and dark. It is a balancing force to all that heat and movement.  In waking hours, my body was so busy that it never had time to experience stillness. And so, at 3 a.m., I was forced to.

Yin is the winter to yang’s summer, so it might seem a little funny to bring up this phenomenon at just the moment when we see spring bursting forth. The thing is, we still need pauses.  Out breaths follow in breaths, music beats wait until the next – even when the sun comes back and we are outside and moving, our bodies crave yin time. It may even help us sleep.
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Heart Openers: 3 Techniques

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Coming out of winter, many of us have been sitting for months with our chest sunk behind our shoulders.  We’re cold! We’ve been watching House of Cards. We just feel a little tired, okay?

Totally okay.

But pause for a moment as you’re reading this and notice where your chin is in relation to your throat. Notice how your shoulders are sitting in relation to your sternum.  On the table, we can work into the congestion that sometimes gathers beneath the clavicles and help you open the spaces between your ribs. It’s remarkable how this helps clients bring their heart forward and shoulders down; they literally breathe easier.

Thankfully this is work you can do on on your own, too. Here are three techniques for opening up your heart and chest:

1. Things you like to smell. Really! Flowers, sauteed garlic, pine boughs, babies: Scent gets into the limbic system – that deepest realm of brain – and is one of the most direct sensory pathways to our nervous system. So, inhale…over a delicious pot of soup.

2. Find your people. You know those friends around whom you relax into just who you are? The ones who listen well and know how funny and smart and beautiful you are? Call them. Go for a walk. Commit to talking about how you actually are, in real time (not, cough cough, over social media).

3. Supported heart-opening poses. Yoga is a *great* tool for opening the chest and heart (and hips and shoulders and…). I’m a big fan of restorative-style yoga, particularly this pose, supta-bada konasana:

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And this sequence of poses (confess I loved the line drawings – no fancy-ness required!).

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Images thanks to thingswelove2.blogspot.com.

 

 

Make time for tea

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I confess to something of a gardening magazine habit. Some people like People (I’m not saying I’m not one of them…), but in March, give me glossy pages of Moroccan succulents and English roses. Riots of garden color feel like a salve and a promise of the possible.

I don’t usually thumb through these magazines expecting to find revelation or reflection. Pretty pictures are just fine. But then, reading an interview with a South African gardener, I stumbled on this, the “three most worthwhile tips for every gardener:”

Make time for tea – to sit, to look and appreciate. Weed selectively and encourage self-seeders. Mulch and look after your best friend – your soil.  
— Gardener Julia Wylie

And really, is there more to it? There is, of course, but this is why Root Therapy is called what it is: The metaphors for growth translate so beautifully to the body. We all need time to savor and enjoy, to weed out what hinders us and let what nourishes multiply. And our soil – our foundation and roots – truly is a best friend, one that deserves tending.

I think I should probably subscribe to this magazine too, no?

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From the Oaxacan Botanical Gardens (a.k.a. far, far, away)

 

Right-Sized Bites

Down on Broadway – South Portland, not New York – is an electronic sign with a running countdown. “Only 15 Days to Spring!” it says in green digital letters. Technically, we know this is true. But it is 20 degrees and snowing.  An icy crust covers all surfaces.  And we haven’t even gotten to the part where the snow melts, and months of detritus begin to emerge from the banks.IMG_2707

This is a season that can really test our trust.  Also our patience, our senses of humor, and our desire for fresh produce not trucked in from 3,000 miles away.

Last month, my family and I trucked ourselves 3,000 miles away, to Southern Mexico. Cloudless days, hot afternoons – we went outside without coats and ate roasted corn from pushcarts. I love (love!) being in warm places, and I’ve learned not to expect immediate arrival; it takes me at least a few days to stop squinting and start breathing, to actually land.  Coming back, I had a keen sense of how many time zones and latitude degrees we crossed in order to get from there to here. 

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Back in Maine, it is still winter. The season feels like a not-subtle metaphor for body discomfort: Like the pile of snow at the end of the drive, the aches in our bodies don’t go away at the pace we want them to. We want springtime, blossoms, and t-shirt days just as we want easy backs and unhindered shoulders. We are not accustomed to waiting, and it’s hard to trust the pace that gets us from here to there.

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Seeing the coming change at the level of tissue is a little easier. Tissue really does change; muscles unwind and let go, shoulders open.  But for that change to unfold, we have to pace carefully. We want just the right amount of work to invite something new.  Too little, and we feel unmet, too much, and we can react like seedlings in hot sun, over-taxed and overwhelmed.  When I work with clients, I think about what it means to take the right-sized bite; how to exercise patience and long-sightness so that they can  integrate change. 

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So I’m thinking this very long-in-coming spring is its own right-sized bite. Perhaps, with this much time to let winter run its course, we will really occupy spring when it comes. We won’t need automated signs to tell us when the season is here, because we’ll know it from the inside.

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Increments of Change: Trying Something Different

photo 5There are days – particularly when the thermometer in the kitchen says three degrees, as it does today – when the idea of movement and change feels like just too much. Take your yoga class, we think, your trips, your enlightenment – I’ll be here under the ugly red blanket watching The Bachelor.

It isn’t only that the effort feels demanding, but the stakes feel high. What if, we wonder, change jeopardizes all this? What if the battleship of the small manageable now gets sunk by opening, by unwinding? No, thank you. Pass the popcorn.

The thing is, there may be something between the small curled up ball on the couch and the running-through-the-field fantasy of freedom. The increments of change we invite can fan out over time – that tiny angle of difference becoming (in hindsight) a wide ray of change.photo 2

One of the reasons this work is endlessly interesting to me is that I get to witness this kind of change at the level of tissue. As muscles release I see how my clients’ shoulders open, how they breathe more deeply. It takes courage to allow movement back in, but the return is bountiful: They get more information from their own bodies.  That is, they get more of themselves and their own aliveness.

A question I often hear from clients at the end of the session is, “How do I stay open when I’m off the table? How do I stop from tightening up all over again?” And my usual answer is, try something a little different. Stretching is good. Water too. But small things that move us out of habit and into attention – that’s movement too. You can still watch bad shows and eat popcorn, but becoming aware of patterns – places where we’ve forgotten choice – is a lovely way to stay open.

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Here are 5 Ways to Step Out Of Habit – but I bet you could come up with 11 more:

1. Do you habitually cross one leg over the other? Switch it up.

2. Take a different route home.

3. Eat / make / order  a food that surprises you – one that you normally overlook

4. Introduce pauses in your day. A few minutes in your car before you head into the grocery store? Totally okay.

5. Slow your gait. Just a little. Notice how your arms swing, your feet fall, where your eyes are.

Habit can take so many forms – movement, talking (to ourselves and others), silence, belief. And it can become so much like that old crack in the ceiling: We stop seeing it. Friends, you are so brave with your selves – why not change things up a bit, just to notice how far you’ve come?