SMARTer bodies

From the Blog

8 Reasons Why Martial Arts Will Make Your Kid a Better Person

mmaAs a general statement, I think that movement (especially learning skilled movement) is important for young children. While there are arguments for and against specializations in sports at a young age, it seems that a variety of movement and skills can be more transferable to everyday life and can provide more options for movement choices later in life as we age. It’s also important that kids have fun and enjoy whatever activity they are doing, so that they are more likely to stick with a healthier lifestyle. Considering all of this, I decided to enroll my (at the time) 3 year old daughter in martial arts classes. I’ve seen her benefit in so many ways! Here’s a few I wanted to share:

1. Straight up self defense: Although it is always best to avoid confrontation and to tell a trusted adult, there will be times when your child may be in physical danger with no one to help him or her. Knowing how to defend oneself is a useful skill to have just in case.

2. Cultivating empathy: While it would seem that introducing your child to potentially violent techniques might entice them to physically bully other children, with a good instructor, the opposite is usually true. In classes that allow sparring, children will be faced with opponents that they may not be able to overcome at the moment. This humbling experience often teaches an aggressive student not to underestimate their opponent. They also learn what it feels like to be on the receiving end of physical oppression and this can help them create compassion and empathy. Some children may even speak out about violence they see in school or elsewhere.

3. Athletic ability: Many martial arts require varied movement and skill sets which will help your child create useful athletic adaptations such as increased speed, strength, power, coordination and cardiovascular output.

4. Transferable skills: A lot of the athletic adaptations above are learned through skills that can easily be adapted to other sports. Running, jumping, kicking, punching (throwing) and learning how to fall and tumble are skills that can help in other sports and in everyday activities.

 

5. Self confidence: In the same way that (with a good instructor) an aggressive child can be humbled through physically oppressive situations, a timid student can be encouraged to overcome adversity with appropriate challenges. If a smaller student develops good technique and is able to overcome a larger and more physically imposing student, this can be a huge confidence builder and may teach the student to take on bigger and bigger challenges in life.

 

6. Respect: In most martial arts, there is a system of hierarchy or a belt system. Students are required to show respect to their teachers and other students who are higher up on the ladder than they are. The higher belt students are not always the biggest and the strongest or oldest, so this system teaches children a more sophisticated form of respect. They are also often asked to help newer students to learn. I have personally seen children learning to become more helpful to their parents and of younger children and to become more respectful of their elders outside of their classes.

7. Focus: Not to take away from the value of play, but it is important for school age children to appropriately discern time to play and time to focus. A good martial arts instructor will implement both in their classes to teach their students to focus when necessary. Being more skillful always leads to more options.

8. Teamwork and relationships: Many martial arts require a partner to learn various techniques. Working with a partner in such an integrated way requires the student to be able to assess and adapt to the other person’s mood, energy level, physical ability and personality. This can teach the student patience, tolerance, acceptance and many other valuable  characteristics to help build strong friendships and relationships.

How to Stay Centered While Hurtling Toward the End of the Year

Inegativespace-14 may sound like a grumpy grouch, but truth be told, while many love this time of the year, I find it destabilizing. All the activity, along with Duane Reade’s unnecessarily early displays, emphasizes how the end of the year is looming upon us. Basically, once Halloween ends, the deluge of Christmas/Holidays decorations, songs and general vibration is overstimulating to my senses and triggers all kinds of stressful thoughts. Like? Allow me to share:

  • The true meaning of any holiday seems to be lost on us and is replaced by violent over-consumption.
  • Nobody really knows how these holidays came to be and that’s annoying.
  • Can we enjoy the introspective quiet that accompanies the Fall and Winter? No, because of increased crowds and obnoxious ecologically-unsound light displays.

This sense of speed and frenetic excitement can be fun. For those of us that don’t enjoy it, the importance of a centering practice or ritual cannot be overestimated. Here are a few I enjoy:

  1. Essential Oils on Demand – keep a few scents on hand, so that in the middle of your day or a crowd you can take one out that you find soothing. Get time to slow down by breathing in the scent and taking a moment of stillness.
  2. Embrace the darkness – light a candle and use it’s light to illuminate dinners, meditation, or television binging. They add warmth and low-key cheer to any environment. My favorite candles are beeswax, which give off a beautiful light and are non-toxic.
  3. Tea, bitches – Yes, you can make a ritual out of making yourself a lovely cup of tea. I find Lemon Balm calming in the evening. A great choice for anyone dealing with depression or S.A.D. I prefer loose leaf, so I can really take my time and focus on the preparation again creating a time out from the surrounding chaos.
  4. Abhangya – This one comes from Ayurveda. It’s a massage you give yourself using sesame oil. The purpose is to ground and protect yourself. You can totally think that’s a load of crap, but still just enjoy the moment of self-care. Pick an oil you like and pamper yourself a little. I do practice with the Ayurvedic intent and start the morning by rubbing on the sesame oil and then taking a quick shower, so that I feel warmed and moisturized.

      You need something to get your through 5am when you aren’t a morning person!

5.  Enjoy quiet activities – Time to de-stimulate, so no, playing with your phone doesn’t       count. Read a book, magazine, graphic novel or craft something. Basically, give yourself       a break from electronics. It won’t kill you. I swear.

                                             Good luck and let me know if any of this helps.

If You Are a Woman and You Aren’t Strength Training You Are Making a Big Mistake.

If You Are a Woman and You Aren’t Strength Training You Are Making a Big Mistake.

Not all strong women have to look this way. But we appreciate her obvious work.
Not all strong women have to look this way. But we appreciate her obvious work.

The following post is by one of our apprentices Marcus Hudnell.

When I say “strength training,” what do I mean? Strength training is considered “any type of physical exercise specializing in the use of resistance to induce muscular
contraction which builds the strength,anaerobic endurance, and size of skeletal
muscles.” This isn’t to say that the idea of strength training is constrained
to only lifting weights. There are countless bodyweight and plyometric exercises that
can be done anywhere, without using heavy weights or any weights at all. All over the
world, women are eschewing traditional strength and resistance training exercises, and
as such, they’re missing out on the bevy of benefits afforded by a smart and focused
strength training regimen.

When properly performed, strength training can provide significant functional benefits and improvement in overall health and well-being, including, but definitely not limited to: increased bone, muscle, tendon and ligament strength and durability, improved joint function, increases in bone density,changes in your metabolism, improved cardiac function (your heart is, after all, just one big muscle), elevated HDL (“good”) cholesterol. The physical benefits are awesome, but a good strength program can greatly affect your mental health as well. This is an aspect that is overlooked, but the intersection between mental and physical health should always be a point of focus in any fitness regimen. Putting yourself under greater physical stress in the gym will lead to a greater ability to deal with stress outside of the gym. Plus, haven’t you ever done a crazy hard workout and left with an endorphin rush that had you feeling like you could take on the world? Blame the post-workout endorphins, but there is also a shift in self-confidence and the belief that you truly can take on more than you ever imagined.

Nobody should miss out on the amazing transformation of both your physical and mental health that is a direct result of adding any sort of strength training routine to your normal workout plan. Here’s a great place to get started: This article on Gymlad.com gives a sampling of strength training exercise videos that are a great reference. The article also emphasizes the rest necessary when starting a new strength program.

Who I am and a bit of background (and my issues with body image)
I’m 26 years old, and I’ve been an athlete for my entire life, and was lucky enough to have been able to play the sport I loved at both the High School and College level. With that being said, I have a naturally lean body type that I feel extremely blessed with, because I’ve never had to worry about being overweight and watching what I eat. But I always had a difficult time gaining and maintaining the amount of body mass that I needed to compete (both effectively and safely). All too often we see professional athletes and fitness models with physiques that many view as unattainable. When putting the emphasis on aesthetics, it’s easy to forget about all of the awesome functional and internal positives that arise through proper strength training. Wouldn’t it be great not to stress over having to carry your groceries or move a couch across the living room (if you’re in NYC this probably isn’t far, but carrying groceries to your 5th floor walk up…)?

So I did a search for a few of the most common misconceptions out there regarding women and strength training, so that you might better be able to make an informed decision on what’s best for you.

Myths/Facts
1. Weight lifting will make you “bulky.”
This is BY FAR the most prevalent of all the myths floating around out there and is possibly the one that frustrates me most. As someone who spent a fair majority of my teen and young adult years ‘trying’ to be bulky and on an endless quest for mass, I can tell you it’s not easy.
▪ I also have assuaged fears from clients that curling this, or pressing that, will eventually turn them into their own unique versions of ‘She-Hulk’ and it’s simply not the case. In reality, many, if not all of the bodybuilders and fitness models you see work very VERY hard to attain these physiques, and their diets/programs are tailored towards achieving a certain aesthetic. These programs often include multiple workouts per day, and daily caloric intakes that are off the charts. Not to mention supplementation both natural and of the other ilk.
▪ At the end of the day, every body is different, and your genetic makeup may not even permit you to ever look like the person on the cover of ‘fitness’ magazine. The real benefit in strength training comes from the actual functional benefits such as: improved heart health, and increase in bone density, and the others I mentioned earlier in the article. These are positives that will show up in anybody through a proper and consistent program no matter who you are.

2. Lifting heavy weights is the only way/lifting super light weights will tone you.
▪ This one is a bit of a 2-parter, and is interesting, because the myth deals with two extremes. I’ll be honest, there was a time before I fully understood the physiological mechanisms that actually stimulate and cause muscle growth in the body, and I too believed that all someone had to do to become shredded was do tons and tons of reps with light weights and TA-DA! Instant shred. This isn’t to say that you can’t tailor a workout to maximize gains in either muscle size or strength, but the two are not mutually exclusive. As your muscles grow larger, they will undoubtedly grow in strength, however you can grow stronger and not necessarily put on size. However, for gains in strength to occur, the muscle must be worked to fatigue, no matter what weight you’re using. So instead of doing 100 reps with the 3-pound weights, grab a weight that you del comfortable doing 10, 15, or even 20 reps with and make sure that whichever weight you choose, your muscles are screaming for you to stop by the end of the set. Not only will you notice the strength gains much faster, but you’ll be way more efficient in the time you use for your workouts.

3. Cardio Burns More Fat.
This is another commonly misunderstood perception, and rightfully so. But have no fear, I’m here to clear it up for you! Muscle tissue is inherently the most metabolically active tissue in the body, and your body has to work to keep it around. This means that the amount of calories that your body will burn at rest, (resting energy expenditure or REE), is directly correlated to the amount of muscle tissue you have. While fat contributes to about 4% of your REE, muscle tissue contributes closer to 22%. To see the article click here. Therefore, adding muscle to your body will be one of the greatest factors in changing your metabolism, and affecting your physique. This isn’t to say that you should toss your running shoes, or give up on that elliptical. Traditional aerobic exercise may still be the quickest and most efficient way to burn fat and shed pounds, but for a sustainable change in your body chemistry (and the countless other benefits that I’ve harped on over the course of this article), you absolutely MUST expand your arsenal of exercises to include moves for strength and power.

4. Muscle will turn to fat.
This is also one that almost everyone has heard before and it is 100% untrue, and the reason why is actually very simple. Muscular tissue and fatty or adipose tissue are two completely different types of tissue. Muscular tissue is made up of fibers that will hypertrophy or atrophy, meaning it will grow larger, or shrink. This behavior depends on different factors such as age, gender (genetics in general), diet, and the type of training regimen, or lack of. Fatty tissue cells will also shrink or expand, but this is entirely independent of your muscle tissue fibers. If a person begins a strength program and sees gains in muscle mass, but then they stop training, naturally your muscle fibers will atrophy, and you may begin to store larger amounts of fat, but this has much more to do with factors such as a decreased daily caloric output due to your decrease in physical activity.

Maybe conclusion-ish?
Unfortunately, the nature of the fitness industry lends itself to the propagation of misinformation, whether it’s on the web, in print, or simply through word of mouth. With that being said, it’s always best to educate yourself and do the proper research before starting any routine or training regimen. The more you learn, the more effective you can be in making sure that you’re putting yourself in the best position to achieve your goals, whatever they may be. Ultimately, every body is different and the only way to find out what works for YOU, is to experiment and over time you will learn.

Bad Yoga Tip #4 REVISITED – Yoga for Headaches. Our Mistake Rectified..

One of our readers pointed out an error we’ve made when describing a function of the blood brain barrier. We had claimed that the BBB was responsible for controlling the volume of blood surrounding the brain, trying to keep cranial pressure safe. Turns out we were wrong. The comment and original post is listed below. It felt important to repost and share. We are not afraid to admit we are wrong. We are extremely grateful to the people who read and share our posts. We are REALLY grateful to those who contribute comments and keep us on our toes. Thank you to Lindsey for making us smarter. This community is essential in our endless journey for knowledge. Remember, fact check, fact check, FACT CHECK!
**************************************************************************************
Lindsey said: You’re not wrong about the volume of blood in your brain, but it’s not the blood brain barrier making it happen. The BBB isn’t within the circulatory system, but wrapped around it. It prevents molecules of a certain size crossing the capillaries to enter the fluid in your brain. This protects your brain from a lot of bloodstream infections and inhibits many drugs from reaching the brain tissue. However, it doesn’t limit the flow of blood into the vessels that supply the brain. That is managed by the same smooth muscles that regulate flow throughout your body. The brain can eventually be injured by remaining inverted too long, although with training I suspect that period can be extended by active muscular control and positioning.
Sometimes the metaphorical language of something can be very helpful, like, “Breathe into your kidneys.”  You can’t actually ever breathe into any other organ other than your lungs, but directing someone’s attention to their kidneys with their breath can be extremely useful. But when making scientific assumptions you need to have your facts straight.  One’s use of scientific jargon must be clear and definite, particularly in the efforts to legitimize the benefits of yoga in the eyes of the mainstream medical community.

Recently, we stumbled upon an article on Yahoo that touted the benefits of certain yoga poses to treat headaches.  Check it out here. Unfortunately, there were too many false statements in this article that jeopardize the legitimacy of yoga as a physical practice and therapy.  Obviously, Kim and I had to put a stop to that.  To be clear, we are NOT criticising the potential positive experience of using these poses in a therapeutic manner. What we are critical of is the “scientific reasoning” that the writer uses to back these statements. The poses themselves have merit when spoken of and applied correctly!According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Headache pain results from signals interacting among the brain, blood vessels and surrounding nerves. During a headache, specific nerves of the blood vessels and head muscles are activated and send pain signals to the brain. It’s not clear, however, why these signals are activated in the first place.”  They identify at least 7 different types of headaches with varying symptoms and effects. The treatment for each kind is just as varied as the symptoms. That being said, it would be hard to imagine a situation in which just 5 yoga poses relieve any and every kind of headache.As stated in the article we are critiquing, “full relaxation” could certainly help with certain kinds of headaches, like tension headaches, which are thought to be caused by tight muscles of the head and neck. However, often trying a new type of physical activity does not manifest as relaxation, but rather the opposite until the body learns the movements efficiently. To a seasoned yoga practitioner, who knows how to do these poses properly, this might actually help a tension headache. To a beginner, the thought process to figure out how to do the pose on top of the muscular tension caused by doing something new may actually make a headache worse.

“Downward facing dog inverts the head to allow blood flow to increase to the brain.” This is something we have heard a lot and is not only not true, but detrimental to the brain. The brain needs a consistent volume of blood for it to work properly. Too little blood to the brain is not good, but neither is too much, which could actually cause a stroke! Luckily, our brain does not allow this to happen and the above information is not true. There is tissue called the “blood brain barrier” that regulates the amount of blood going into the brain and does not allow the volume of blood to the brain to change too drastically when we go upside down. In fact, there is a lot of information out there about this. Jon Burras, a Wellness Consultant and Yoga Therapist, has written an excellent paper on the 8 Myths of Inversions.  As far as downward facing dog relieving a headache, maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. But it will not be due to this reason.

“The cobra pose stretches most of the back, including the hard to reach lower back.”  In cobra pose, you are extending your spine, retracting your shoulder blades, and pulling them down. All of these actions actually cause a large majority of the muscles of your back to contract, not to stretch. In order to stretch the back muscles, you would have to do something like plough pose, to flex the spine. That being said, will stretching the muscles of the back relieve a headache? Not so sure how that is related to a headache… BUT that is not to say that someone couldn’t have that experience from cobra pose, but again it would NOT be for the aforementioned reason.

“Like Downward Dog, the Seated Forward Bend allows blood to flow toward the brain by inverting it a bit. This is a gentler inversion, but perfect if the pain you’re experiencing is behind the eyes or in the forehead region.”  Actually, a forward bend is not an inversion at all.  The force of gravity in this pose is not enough to “increase the flow of blood to the brain” (which we just discussed how that doesn’t work anyways due to the blood brain barrier).  The position, however, is enough to further aggravate a headache if hanging your head forward puts a further strain on your back or neck muscles.  To make the most of it try to consciously release your fluids, brain and eyeballs.  If this sounds inaccessible then use a prop to rest your head on and release into that.

“The ultimate relaxation pose (Corpse Pose), this can be useful if you are having trouble relaxing.”  Savasana in and of its self is not a guaranteed gateway to relaxation in the face of physical challenge.  We’re sure someone has already tried lying down, they just didn’t call it Savasana, and it didn’t work. You’ll have to “try” a little harder to relax then just lay on the floor.  Use props under the knees and head, or an eyemask if you’re feeling sensitive to light.

“The Cooling Yoga Breath (Sitali) is great to help lower blood pressure and help the blood vessels in your brain to relax and ease your pain.”  There is no explanation in the article as to how this might work.  In fact, using Sitali actually constricts the volume of air you are able to take in one breath.  This can cause a feeling of panic until one figures out how control the timing and depth of the breath.  Think of suddenly breathing through a snorkel tube.  The stress can actually raise your blood pressure.  You have better chances of lowering your blood pressure by slowing down your regular breath.

My Personal Transition…the Great Unknown of Peri-Menopause

My Personal Transition…the Great Unknown of Peri-Menopause

The Following post is by one of our apprentices Abby Kaufmann:

About a year and a half ago, I started having some symptoms that I self-diagnosed as perimenopausal. I am not a doctor, so how would I know that these symptoms were indeed possibly the signs of perimenopause? The big clue that something was up with me was missing a period. Since age 13 I have been a straight up 28 day regular as clockwork kind of woman. I knew I was not pregnant, and I do not have any other issues that typically cause changes in the menstrual cycle. I, therefore, assumed it might be the beginning of perimenopause. I was 47.

I began first, to look online, where all the information of the universe is held. Oddly enough, I found almost NO information. I was somewhat surprised. After all, people can go onto the internet to find out how to do so much, understand all kinds of things, get resources and support for myriad concerns. Yet, I felt let down by my search. Maybe I hadn’t looked properly? This WebMD page is certainly a good start. I didn’t even know what it was that I wanted to know, other than what to expect from my body. What I did find was that ANYTHING could happen.

I called my mother. She is a pragmatic person, and told me, “Oh, it’s no big deal”…. And yet, I recall her being miserable for what seemed like FOREVER. My aunt suggested I have the doctor test me to see where I was in the perimenopausal cycle. Although that seemed to be a reasonable suggestion, I wasn’t sure why I would NEED to do that. My grandmother was suddenly widowed around the time that her perimenopause probably took place. Her hair turned white almost over night, and I suspect that in her stress, at 51 with an immediate need to find work she may have been too grief-stricken and traumatized to notice that she was having hot flashes. She claims she never “went through any changes”. In a family of three formidable women, I was still lost. All I knew on my own was that I was, indeed, on my own. like!
It seems that although it may be typical to begin perimenopause around mid to late 40’s. that many people don’t start until later, although many start earlier or even EARLIER…. In the words, everyone’s experience of transitioning is different.

These posts will be about MY experience, thus far. Perhaps I can share something that will be helpful, or resonate with other women. The postings will NOT be about bashing others, promoting products or drawing lines. I don’t want to be pushed into a box for the withering, drying up ladies… At the same time, I do not wish to be a seeming alpha female who never seems driven off track. No, I am a real person, and this is an experience that has it’s ups and downs. I am not happy, because this is a milestone that heralds TO ME that although I am a vibrant, productive and energetic woman, I am on the road towards the end. I can no longer pretend that I will live forever. That bums me out. Yet, with this experience, I actually don’t want to either…. I was also hoping to open up the discussion in a embracing way so that our partners might find some insights as well. I don’t want to become invisible to society, to my community or to myself! I want to be empowered with knowledge, yet I am offended by gratuitous remarks such as “they aren’t hot flashes, they are power surges”…. NO DAMMIT!! Hot flashes are incredibly disruptive to me and uncomfortable. They, however, neither accentuate nor diminish my “power”.

Bad Yoga #17: Don’t Use Your Glutes in Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

Bad Yoga #17: Don’t Use Your Glutes in Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

I love treating my group classes like an open forum for discussion of all things yoga, movement…and reality TV. Picture me in a toga leading the class through Socratic dialogue. Recently, in one of these glorious moments of learning a student asked, “When we’re in bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) aren’t we supposed to release the glutes?” I had never heard of this cue, but others definitely had as evidenced by every other student in the class saying that they were also struggling to relax their butt muscles while holding the bridge shape.

No, people, you don’t understand. I thought I might actually pass out. This had to be one of the most egregious cues in the history of movement anything. I asked the student what the purpose of this cue was and she said, “We are told to relax our glutes to release tension and strengthen the quads.” Honestly, this is a moment that, even in memory, leaves me dumbfounded. It’s just so bad.

This fine tidbit is one of many tragic misinformation bombs that are dropped daily in yoga classes. Ok, so here’s why not using your glutes while in bridge is a bad idea. You need to use your glutes to get your pelvis in the air in the first place. Ideally, the muscular work of this bridge is then distributed along the entire back line of your body. But the gluteals, hamstrings and calves are the dominant muscle groups used to maintain the shape and height of your bridge. What I’m describing here is a kinetic chain; a group of muscles working together. To interrupt an integral part of that chain by releasing the buttock muscles could be injurious especially with repetition. (Note: The push of the feet into the floor with a strong and well distributed force is also essential to the shape of this asana. But for the sake of time and keeping this post at a decent length we’ll not go further into that.)

So, is it even possible to do bridge pose without the glutes?! Maybe…weird shit happens all the time, but it’s doubtful.

You could probably eventually train your butt to relax when you’ve reached the top of your bridge. If you are successful you can expect your pelvis to drop, which means you won’t get to experience the full length that your hip flexors and quads reach while achieving this hip extension. This stretch in the front of the body is a great reason to do bridge, especially if you spend a lot of time at a desk sitting (perpetual hip flexion). However, when the pelvis (i.e. physical support against gravity) drops in your new sad-bridge, those same quads and hip flexors could be overworked in a terrible compensation pattern resulting from desperate attempts to maintain length. Imagine an arch. This is the shape we are creating. But we are human and not stone. In order to create a nicely integrated shape it must be dynamic and the muscles of our backline contract to support the shape against gravitational and other compressive forces. Thus, in this asana: no gluteal support = inefficient compensation patterns. Also, the pelvis dropping a bit from its position  could aggravate already present low back issues (chronic pain, stiffness, herniations, etc.).

On an entirely superficial note, who doesn’t want strong, well-developed booty? I know I’m Puerto Rican (and Mexican) and, therefore, biased. But why not safely practice yoga and look good while doing it?

 

If you’re afraid of getting giant, bubbly booty because that’s not your thing (again, unimaginable in my world) do not worry. It takes more than a regular yoga practice to get that look. On the other hand, if you are interested in it, Kim and Marcus, the SMARTer personal trainers on our team can get you there. Be prepared to eat. A lot.

Now, I want to know, have you heard this cue? If so, ignore it! If you believe it, help me understand. One last thought: when I explained all this to the misled student mentioned above she said, “Well, shouldn’t we learn to do this pose supported by our bones?” I ask, “What moves your bones???”

 Want to hear more about this topic? Listen to this awesome podcast from our friend Ariana and colleague who interviews a cool movement teacher Joanne Elphinston. Then listen to all her other podcasts!

Want to train that butt and legs? Watch our apprentice, Abby, demonstrate killer bridge pose variations.