SMARTer bodies

Category: Book Reviews

Actual Anti-aging Information: Telomeres and Cellular Age

The internet is, unfortunately, full of misinformation regarding the aging process. We all want to know how to age gracefully or, ideally, not at all. Let’s just get that out of the way.

*Deep breath*

We will all age.

We will all die.

*Deep breath*

That being said, we do, as conscious human beings, have the ability to influence our physical aging experience. Let’s start by understanding telomere length as a potential marker of health.

(All information in this post comes from the book The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel One of the authors made the groundbreaking discovery of a biological indicator called telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes telomeres.)

What the heck are telomeres?


(one of many Google images of telomeric representation)

See the red caps on the end of the DNA segments in the above photo? These are repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the end of chromosomes. Every time your cells divide (and they do A LOT throughout our lifetimes) the telomeres shorten. This shortening is a determining factor for how quickly your cells age and when they die. Before you freak out and invest in dangerous products that claim to keep your telomeres long or even restore lost length, take a moment to grasp that cells must divide and they must die. To prettily sum up a complex cellular principle: It is the balance and speed of this division of cells and death of cells that keep us healthy.

If your cells divide normally, but dead cells are sticking around in your body, this can create a weakened immune system and chronic inflammation. It’s a vicious cycle. The faster your cells die and the less efficient your body is at removing dead cellular matter, the worse the inflammation gets. On the other hand, if your cells divide and do so quickly without telomere shortening (i.e., cellular death), then cancer is the most likely outcome. So stay away from products, both external and internal, that claim to keep telomeres long.

Ideally, we want to support our bodies in keeping cellular balance as we age. The authors refer to the spectrum of a health-span and a disease-span. As we age, the physical self can experience discomfort and chronic health problems of varying degrees of severity. This is a state known as the disease-span. Healthy life choices can help us remain in the health-span for as long as possible and enter the disease-span (as influenced by the above and other cellular processes) later in life; imagine remaining in the healthspan into your 80s and 90s versus experiencing the disease span in your 40s and 50s.

(Of course, the above statement refers to what is within our control. We cannot control every environmental or genetic influence over our health or disease-span.)

What are those healthy life choices? Clichés turn out to be true; it’s all about good quality:




These three factors affect telomere length as well as physiological health all over your body. We already knew that, though. Telomere length as it relates to cellular health is just one of the many biometrics that reveal how well we are treating our bodies and how well our bodies are reacting to our environments.

In the face of seemingly obvious information, the authors take their findings a step further to present their most inspiring (to me) information. Our response to emotional and mental stress has a profound and undeniable impact on our telomeric state of being. The doctors are not referring only to the usual cascade of nervous system, adrenal gland, catecholamine, flight or flight responses. We can now chart changes in our cells and DNA that reveal our resilience in the face of life’s challenges.

The authors recommend mindfulness practices. Conscious breathing, meditation, and other various forms of stress reduction/management practices are now believed to be as important as the food/exercise/sleep trifecta effect on our physical selves. This quadrant of lifestyles choices can make it much easier for all of us to make sure we are reaching the standards necessary to support our bodies to live long in our health-spans. The proof of these choices is now measurable in ways we hadn’t previously imagined possible!

As the book claims, “Genes load the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.”

Scientifically verifiable findings continue to evince the undeniable mind/body/emotion connection. It is our individual responsibility to make the choices that feed our minds, bodies, and spirits.

How do you plan to replenish your total well-being? Do you meditate? Have a routine workout throughout the week? Abby prefers the moving meditation of yoga. Our friend José prefers to suck the blood out of virgins, which are getting harder to find. What about an activity that creates a sense of ease and play?

Here are two sources that you might find helpful:

A book about stress management.

A quick movement practice to reduce stress at the end of the day.

Let us know what you plan to do!

Book Review: The Vital Psoas Muscle by Jo Ann Staugaard-Jones

Book Review: The Vital Psoas Muscle by Jo Ann Staugaard-Jones

The Vital Psoas Muscle: Connecting Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Well-Being promises to help readers see the link between the anatomy of the psoas and its influence on some of the esoteric aspects of the human-movement experience. Tall order for such a small book, only 128 pages. Ms. Staugaard-Jones deserves applause for bringing readers reference material about a largely unmarked territory. Well, it’s territory that many have explored and continue to attempt make more clear: the melding of the physical and emotional body. This work is useful for healing (as reported by many seeking help from pain or difficulties of many kinds), but can seem vague and difficult to put into a concrete framework of guaranteed protocols.

Isn’t that what all of us movement professionals are really looking for?! The manuals that help you treat weird and out-of-this-world (seemingly so) shit by saying, “Work on this muscle here, release this emotion, follow-up with said movement. Breathe. All better!

The author has already won my admiration for attempting to illuminate us on such a complex subject, the psoas as influencer on emotional state, digestion, gait, posture and everything else. But I was disappointed with the delivery. Psoas function is still a hotly-debated topic in the movement community. Is it primarily a hip flexor? Does it mostly stabilize the lumbar spine? Does it matter? Should we stretch it?! The author posits that the psoas is the most important muscle in the body, because it is the only one that connects the upper and lower body. This vexes me greatly! Hello?! What about the Latissimus Dorsi???

What I did truly appreciate is the information about the nerve plexus that runs behind the psoas, which is intimately connected with its function and manipulation. At SMARTer Bodies we do believe movement of the muscular system will always affect nerve pathways in such a manner as to influence the emotional/cognitive experience. This book does present 3 case studies that exemplify the importance of incorporating a client’s emotional state while trying to address physical pain or dysfunction. These human elements inextricably and dynamically constantly relate to one another.

The last section of the book describes the Chakra system and its connection to the psoas. Love that concept. But it is overly simplistic by suggesting yoga poses as a way to affect that system and the muscle. In my opinion, this is the kind of overly prescriptive habit that movement teachers employ when discussing yoga, the human body and the complex energy system that drives it. This way of describing the effects of yogasana is a slippery slope to overgeneralizing such a sophisticated organism and trying to prescribe asana is a guaranteed way to set up failure. Doing so without knowing the idiosyncrasies of one’s client is anathema to the standard the book sets up in the beginning: one’s relationship to the psoas (as with all parts of ourselves) is sensitive and unique.

Read it if you’re unfamiliar with the ideas presented here. Otherwise, tell me what book about the psoas you prefer.

Book Review: The Perfect Score Project

Book Review: The Perfect Score Project

We have said before that your emotional state will have an influence over the success of any undertaking. The neuroscience and psychology behind learning are brain-candy to us nerdy women. So, a book like Debbie Stier’s about conquering the SAT and turning it into a positive experience for all those taking it piqued our interest. Debbie’s academic odyssey is both fascinating and healing for those of us who have horrible memories of that damnable test. Check out Mel’s review (below from her GoodReads account) and buy a copy for yourself, as well as for any individual preparing to take the marathon exam: The Perfect Score Project. The author’s blog is full of fascinating facts about the test, its history and tips of how to perform at your best. Even if you’ve already survived the SAT you’ll want to check it out!

This book was a complete and exceedingly entertaining surprise! My own experience with the SAT was scarring and traumatic. I definitely had reservations about reading a book that would take me back to that disappointing experience. But from the beginning I was easily swept up by the author’s determination to dispel the mysticism that adds to the test’s enormous intimidation. Debbie approached the goal of getting a perfect score with the belief that consistent and methodical hard work can make it happen. The over-achieving nerd in me, who always believed the same despite abysmal SAT scores, was hooked!

Debbie’s journey as a student was the most engaging aspect of her story. I hadn’t realized how many unresloved bad feelings I still had for the standardized testing process until I rediscovered them witnessing Debbie take test after test after test. It is a profoundly inhumane process. For myself, I found witnessing her varied tutoring/study approaches and testing experiences fascinating and emotionally healing. I know there are many other teenagers and adults who identify as smart, ambitious and nonplussed by the disparity between a shining high school track record and terrible SAT scores. The abundance of tips Debbie learns and SHARES in the book had me thinking, “Had I known that!” Those tips made me better understand where I had gone wrong and even had me thinking I might try a test just for myself again one day. The fact that I was feeling inspired to try the damnable SAT again was shocking and a testament to the book’s valuable information.

I actually wanted to try again, so as to reclaim my experience and do away with having felt S-T-U-P-I-D. Debbie’s book is an invaluable guide that every teenager, parent, guidance counselor and educator should read!!! Parents will be inspired by her willingness to go a step beyond the usual to help her typical teenage son (smart, but disinterested in the SAT) understand that with the correct and individualized strategy the SAT can become a less torturous undertaking with better-than-hoped for results. I applaud the author’s courage for honestly sharing the tension this project caused in the relationships with her children. It’s fair to say that they were not as inspired or excited by her enthusiasm (self-professed) for beating bad-test-score fears. It benefits everyone who reads to see how well-meaning parents can have difficulties trying to help their children do their best. There is no perfect parenting formula that will instantly create bonding families and loyal/gracious teenagers. As in life, this book has exciting moments as well as events that will have readers commiserating with a, “That sucks!”

The Perfect Score Project helped me to reconcile my shame about hiding behind the “I’m a bad test taker” label by realizing I was under-prepared and on my own. I can now be proud of what I was able to accomplish without any parental guidance (which I would say is CRITICAL) or preparation. I still managed to graduate from Smith College in 2003 with fond memories, both academic and social. But I can now look back with pride and no more shame about standardized testing. I dare say, I really might try again…at least play around with a few College Board questions.

Book Review of Fierce Medicine by Ana T. Forest

Book Review of Fierce Medicine by Ana T. Forest

First of all, nothing but deep respect for Ana Forrest as she shares her life story and how she triumphed over incredible obstacles including extreme childhood trauma and several addictive, self-destructive behaviors.  In the book you’ll learn techniques for disrupting and breaking physically and emotionally unhealthy habits.  Most of these techniques Ana discovered while facing the negative consequences of a brutal upbringing.  As readers, we observe her personal evolution as she discovers the power of yoga, meditation and Native American spirituality to help refine the methods of self-improvement she uses to sustain her progression to a more-realized being.

This really is the most fascinating and rewarding part of the read.  Ana’s ability to share the sadness and triumph of her story with unflinching truth, but without relying upon a sensationalist rendering of her abuse is a testament to her determination to “Mend the Hoop of the People.” Her use of the Native American spiritual framework refers to Ana’s mission, “to create in each of us a sense of freedom, a connection to our Spirit and the courage to walk as our Spirit dictates, and thus enable us to do our part in Mending the Hoop of the People.” (as taken from her website)  The effort to connect individual’s with their spirits is at the heart of Forest yoga and the book.  Ana shares valuable information about how to overcome seemingly impossible circumstances through a real life application of mindfulness practices and yoga postures.

That being said, the yoga aspect of the book is the least valuable. The inaccurate anatomy and superficial descriptions of the physical effects an asana practice couldl have on the body are easily disputed with a basic understanding of anatomy and physiology.  An example would be how Ana says that in order to get cerebrospinal fluid flowing optimally you have to practice lengthening the spine (you obviously know this isn’t true since you read our post about that yoga myth). But if one is able to look beyond the erroneous physical attributes of the yoga practice it can be a valuable tool to a person struggling with feeling more comfortable in her own body, especially when handling deep-seated emotional trauma.  The strength and courage with which Ana confronts emotional detritus is a powerful demonstration to students that have been running from unresolved histories.  In this regard, Ana’s light as a teacher shines brightest.  Ana keeps it REAL! She does not allow her “status” as a yoga teacher to interfere with her ability to help readers and students to really see the uglier sides of ourselves that we would rather ignore, for she knows this ignorance is malignant.

If you are ready for intense/soulful work buy this book.  If you are not ready for intense/soulful work buy this book.  Fierce Medicine will help you to stir up the energy you need to take charge of creating a better life for yourself. The guided meditations in the book (particularly the Death Meditation) are gold.  Afraid to sit down with yourself?  It’ll be like Ana is there with you showing you how to find the courage to continue into your personal darkness to emerge into light.  Her energy medicine is some crazy good healing shit!  Do the yoga, because it feels good and don’t internalize all she says about the anatomy.  But do take in what she says about being in charge of and transforming the energy inside and around you.

We thank Ana for sharing her story and her work for Mending the Hoop.

The Book of Yoga Contraindications: Good? Bad?

There is a new e-book on the yoga scene called, The Contraindication Index for Yoga Asanas.  The synopsis goes like this:

The Contraindication Index for Yoga Asanas is an essential reference guide to injuries, ailments, and medical conditions that can be exacerbated by certain yoga postures.

It’s organized according to the medical condition, rather than the posture and provides guidance as to whether a position should be avoided altogether, or can be modified and practiced with increased safety. It cross-references extensive research on 35 common medical conditions, injuries and ailments and 112 fundamental yoga poses, explaining which ones should be avoided, which ones can be modified and how.

Clearly this a well-intentioned book!  This yoga teacher wants to create safe practices and with the ever-increasing concern for safety surrounding mainstream yoga (asana) it seems like it couldn’t have come too soon.  But we are more likely to lean towards what Amy Matthews, movement educator and general anatomy genius says, “There is nothing inherently negative or beneficial to a shape we make with our bodies in the context of yoga.”  This may be anathema to what many of us yoga teachers have learned from teachers, books, workshops and teacher trainings.  We’ve all been told, “forward bends are calming,” “don’t invert when menstruating,” “do shoulder stand to help your headache.”  There are many reasons as to why this kind of formulaic reasoning should no longer be the foundation for the choices we make as yoga teachers.

There are many people that the above edicts apply to, but more importantly there are many more people to whom their experience is contrary to what we have previously learned as truths across the board.  “There are always exceptions to the rules,” Amy assures us when we worriedly bring up how to approach a student that presents complications (as most of us have in some form or another).  As teachers, our goal should be to approach a movement practice so that an individual can connect to their bodies, what makes them unique and how to experience integration and freedom within their bodies and within their practice.  Limiting someone or making them afraid of something may not be the best way to allow for that kind of experience.  That being said, common sense should not be ignored.  If someone has a neck injury then until that gets resolved full-on shoulder stands are probably not a good idea.  BUT that does not mean that the essence of that particular posture should be denied to that person.  In fact,  exploring how we would approach that particular posture might hold a clue as to how a neck injury occurred in the first place.

Basically, a practice based on limitations also limits experiences that may be beneficial.  Yes, sometimes it is necessary to proceed with caution, but proceed you must. Pain, particularly chronic pain, is a neurological issue.  Telling a client to avoid something can put them in a state of fear/anxiety, which can actually trigger that particular feedback loop and he/she may experience pain by just thinking about the movement to be avoided.  It is our job as movement educators to help our clients face their limitations and work with them.  If you aren’t comfortable with that process than you need to get better educated.  This is exactly why there needs to be a more indepth study into the science behind yoga and how it relates to the body, every body.  We are not saying telling you not to buy this book.  BUY THIS BOOK, but use it for what it is:  a starting point to a necessary dialogue that contributes to an informed movement practice that focuses on what to do as opposed to what not to do.