Constant idleness should be included in the tortures of hell, but it is, on the contrary, considered to be one of the joys of paradise.~ Charles de Montesquieu
Constant idleness should be included in the tortures of hell, but it is, on the contrary, considered to be one of the joys of paradise.~ Charles de Montesquieu
My life is always better when I treat myself as if I were someone I care about.~ Hugh Hollowell from, https://www.soverybeautiful.org/how-we-treat-ourselves/
I’m really good at digging in and schlepping through the hard work. I’m really good at figuring out how to make three strange pieces fit together so these four people can make some progress on those five incompatible goals. Lift heavy things. Break a sweat. Get shit done. Go above and beyond. Get this letter to Garcia. Abuse English.
Know what I suck at? Treating myself as if I were someone I care about. Can I say, “no, thank you,” to some opportunity because I’m already overwhelmed? Can I take a nap in my hammock, without first spending significant time weighing the merits of giving in to passing out from exhaustion, versus just. work. a little. more. Can I choose to go do that fun thing with my friends, when my weekly plan says I should get some peak heart-rate workout time today? I’m often heard preaching about self-care, taking time to look back and think, “if this isn’t nice…” but, can I actually do those things?
When we have a bit of time to relax, we tend to spend time on activities that provide us with a quick dopamine hit. This is especially the case when we spend our downtime in the digital world. The key to relaxation is to invest in strategies that make your mind less stimulated. Usually this means spending more time in the analog world.~ Chris Bailey from, https://chrisbailey.com/the-key-to-relaxation-how-to-relax/
That analog world can be outside moving or inside doing some yoga, sipping coffee, reading, or spending time with people physically present. The more time I can spend in the analog world, the better my life is.
I have a lot of hard-learned knowledge around what works for me in the morning, and I urge you to experiment to find out what works for you. For years I’ve been using the word “surfacing” to refer to that moment when I transition from simply being myself, to engaging with the world through technology. Surfacing is a submarine reference; Like a submarine, at some point each morning—sometimes after Noon—I sneak up to periscope depth and without making a ripple on the surface I peek to see what in the world might be close at hand. I know that once I break the surface, my life that day changes. One moment, I’m out of sight being self-directed (not necessarily selfish, but rather directing myself) and the next moment there’s an endless world vying for my attention.
My point is not that there’s something wrong with the world. (There is, but that’s not my point.) My point is that the world is simply present. It is ever-present. It’s not the world’s responsibility to not bother me. It is my responsibility to choose. I must choose when to engage and when to be the void. I must choose how to be present for those to whom I am beholden, and I must choose to not waste my energies on everything else. Because there is literally an infinite amount of everything else and chasing that is a fool’s errand.
Every time I’ve had a low-back problem on the road, it was because I jumped right into a bend and twist activity (moving luggage, picking up a kid, once it was dragging a vacuum) without being mindful of the mechanical situation my body had just been through the last few hours. The body needs a transition zone—just a little time to remind it of all the other positions it might have forgotten it could assume after repeating a single shape or pattern for an extended period of time.~ Katy Bowman from, https://www.nutritiousmovement.com/travel-well-do-this-for-your-low-back-once-you-arrive/
In addition to some wonderful movements you’ll find therein, there’re endless movements you can find on your own. Movement to be found in a chair, or standing by a table, or with a lacrosse ball that you manipulate on the floor with your feet… Movement to be found hanging, or leaning, or endless inspiration in yoga and tai chi… There are so many ways you can move, but it seems to be too rare that people set aside time to experiment. “What if I laid on the floor and tried… ?” or “What if I took my shoes off…” “What if I stood on one leg while…” There are just so many things to try.
I’m gobsmacked. I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time on breath work. In the last few days, something new clicked into place for me. Hopefully, this saves someone somewhere some time on the learning curve:
Ashtanga yoga is about breathing. You may also notice there is some movement involved in Ashtanga; Don’t be distracted by the movement! The movement is irrelevant if you haven’t discovered the importance of the breathing.
I’ve written a lot about my personal restorative practice. Breathing and relaxing into the things I do has been an important part of it for a loong time. I cherish my 15 years of study in a style of Aikido where breath is integral to the physicality. I spent a few years regularly practicing Tai chi, and later a few years with Yinn yoga. But Ashtanga yoga never clicked for me. Sure, it’s always a great workout. But I could never really get into it as a practice. I’d bet I’ve been in hundreds of situations where someone (random warmups, movement and martial artists of every stripe, and proper yoga instructors of countless flavors) has led what has aspired to be Ashtanga yoga. Without exception, it has always been a bashing struggle for me.
Because it’s about breathing. No two people are going to have the same breathing. Absolutely, I can imagine that at advanced physical and mental levels, people could synchronize their breathing and then they could do Ashtanga yoga in sync. But that’s not me. Not me at all.
To be really clear: I’m not bashing on Ashtanga — nonono. I’m freakin’ excited because now
I feel like …scratch that! Now I can practice Ashtanga. I look forward to it! I’m looking forward to practicing it for a while, and then finding an instructor and taking a class to get help improving. Rather than my old, “please lead me through the sequence”, I’m looking forward to, “please help me improve my sequence”. Which I’m betting will be instruction on breath, and maybe some instruction on movements too.
If you talk to someone about “relaxing,” they will usually think of that as the opposite of “trying hard.” They think of lying on the couch, muscles relaxed, not doing anything. “Relaxing” is equated with “laziness” for a lot of people. So “trying hard” and “relaxing” are seen as two opposite things. What would it be like to try hard while relaxing?~ Leo Babauta from, https://zenhabits.net/dao/
I’ve long known I have a bias to action. So trying hard used to always look like activity—often physically strenuous activity. Eventually I came to refer to that as my “bashing” mode. Imagine the Hulk working on anything; Bashing. But this leaves a trail of destruction more often than not. As I’ve worked to value recovery, rest, and relaxation—because, hey, why couldn’t one’s life be mostly peaceful relaxation?—I’ve gravitated towards “work” that can be done in a relaxed state. If any of this is news to you, as always, Babauta does a great job suggesting ways to get into it.
Building models is a fundamental part of trying to understand the world in any systematic or organized way. The world has too many details and complexities to be taken in all at once. In order to really understand a particular phenomenon, we need to focus on certain essential details while ignoring others.~ Todd Hargrove from, https://www.bettermovement.org/blog/2016/are-models-of-pain-accurate
I often remind myself that all models are wrong, but some models are useful. Maps, metaphors, similes, and even some storytelling are all models.
Two things top of mind: Why oh why!? doesn’t similes pluralize via -ies? (Say the singular and plural forms of smile and simile… wth English?) And second, I use a related-to-models test for what I mean by, “I always tell the truth.” (To tell the truth, I always say the thing which helps the other person build an accurate model of reality.)
When we try to do it all and have it all, we find ourselves making trade-offs at the margins that we would never take on as our intentional strategy. When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people—our bosses, our colleagues, our clients, and even our families—will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important.~ Greg McKeown
In the last year, I’ve been regularly returning to my personal mission. It’s a blazing beacon on the horizon. Every time I am aware that I should make a choice, I can honestly say this choice right here is in service of my mission. (The corollary of course is that those times when I’m not aware that I’m making a choice, my mission doesn’t help me at all.)
And I do literally mean all the things are in service of my mission. My choices about my commitments to people, family responsibilities, taxes, friendships, volunteer work, rest, relaxation, food, and many more things are all intentional choices now made in service of my mission. All those things, which others might say seem to be off-mission, are in fact making me a functioning, decent person who is then able to pursue a mission. There’s a whole suite of things that people incorrectly talk about as “home” life, (or “personal” life, or sometimes just “life”,) which they need to balance against “work” life. No. No no. No no no. I tried splitting my universe into work and life and that’s simply not reality.
There’s only “life” time. Stare unflinching at those choices that seem to be on the margins, for they too are just as much important choices about your life.
The approach is to learn to find peace with chaos.
As with everything I’ve ever seen Babauta post, I agree. If you’re feeling scattered, you could do a lot worse than to read that article. It provides perspective, and some small, actionable things to start on.
But, my Dear Reader, sometimes the problem is ourselves. We said ‘yes’ to one, or two, or twenty, things too many. And the yes’s are insidious. We are all so eager to help, that we rush in. (“The rescuer,” is one of the corners in the Karpman drama triangle. For which I refer you to M B Stanier’s, The Coaching Habit, p138.) So, if you’re feeling scattered: Check for drama.
The hard part is when you learn to start to set boundaries. Dealing with how setting boundaries feels when you’re comfortable being the rescuer is hard. Dealing with how it feels when everyone knows you as that person is hard. It takes cahones to relax and sink, to save yourself from the drowning swimmer you were trying to save. It takes chutzpah, when a friend asks you for what they think is a small favor, to pause for several seconds, to do the mental calculus, to set your boundaries for just how much effort you’re going to put into the thing… and only then answer them, ‘Yes.’ It takes brass to be kind enough to yourself to ensure you have boundaries that work for you.
7. Consistent and repeatable results come from a process. “True style does not come from a conscious effort to create a particular look. It results obliquely—even accidentally—out of a holistic process.”
That articlette is about a book, 101 Things Things I Learned in Architecture School. The 7th point, in bold, is the penultimate of a best-of-the-best selection from the book. The inner-quoted part is Matthew Frederick, the book’s author.
This point about a holistic process—the idea that mastery isn’t some higgledy-piggledy mish-mash of throwing things together—is an idea I’ve held dearly for a long time. Every time I see it, like in this articlette, I want leap up, flipping my desk over and scream, “Hear! Hear! …and again, louder, for those in the back staring at their handheld devices.”
Every single time that I’ve decided to take a process, and repeat it in search of understanding, (for example, my 10,000 rep’s project,) the learning and personal growth has paid off beyond my wildest dreams. At this point, I’ve done nearly 200 recorded conversations—I’m not stretching the truth, it’s actually hard to figure out exactly how many I’ve done. I’ve started another show recently as part of the Podcaster Community (25+ episodes and counting) and I’ve set up all the moving parts for yet another show as part of Movers Mindset “shorts”. And I keep wondering…
What would happen if I did 500, 1000? …what about 10,000? Not because I want to be famous and whine, “but I did 1,000 episodes why doesn’t anyone love me?!” But because I can see, in myself, how much I’ve learned and grown after 200. What would happen if I did a lot more?
25 days ago I started a wee challenge: Trying to train every day for 100 days straight. I’d done this challenge in 2017 to mixed results. Physically it was mixed; training every day is too much and I ended up defining some recovery days as “training.” Mentally it was also mixed; I wasn’t trying to build a new habit, so the “daily” part didn’t work towards that, and it became a serious drag forcing myself to train every day.
When I finished the 2017 challenge I knew it sucked and definitely didn’t want to make that a thing I did often, nor even yearly. When 2020 rolled around—my physical activity was exactly as usual, with me outside doing various things just as much as 2019—but I started thinking about doing some more rock climbing (outdoors, on real mountains.) That prompted me to think about getting into better shape. For me, that’s primarily removing fat. For the first couple months I concentrated on diet, which means focusing on when and how much I’m eating.
After I peeled off 10 pounds of blubber, that’s when I had the idea to take on a fresh 100-days-of-training challenge. It was exactly what I remembered it was like: It sucks. In years past I would have just embraced the suck and pushed through the thing. Note that I would have constantly considered myself to be failing. Entirely missing a day here and there, realizing I need a rest day and defining recovery as training, and just generally nagging myself with, “I should go train.” Instead I simply punted on the whole thing and deleted it entirely.
…aaah, yes, the power of “no” when you have a bigger “why” burning inside you.
When’s the last time you punted on something?
“The pleasure in thinking and doing things well is…deep-wired.” I think this is absolutely true. Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond, in part, to do nothing — to just observe and live deliberately — but he also wrote a first draft of a book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, while in his cabin. He then left the pond to move in with Emerson, where he wrote another book, this one about his experience at the pond, then another soon after, Civil Disobedience. Thoreau found peace observing nature; but his real pleasure was in producing enduring work.
I’ve long ago lost any real sense of which life changes have had the most benefit. But if I were to pick one, it would be making time to reflect. I’m often making adjustments here and there to my life, and those changes are always based on a period of reflection. What have I been doing that has been making me feel well? What have I been doing that has been making me feel unwell? …and so on.
For a while—three years to be specific—I’ve been trying to begin each day with some basic movement/stretching and then some sort of physical activity. I’m talking about first thing each morning. Get out of bed, deal with necessities (eg, coffee :) and then begin with movement and activity. 3 and 2 years ago, that activity was running. For the past year, the physical activity has been a sort-of-like-Olympic-weight-lifting program called Happy Body.
This is not working for me. Sure, when I manage to start with activity then I’m awake and moving and it’s good for my health and I get lots of what I want done each day. But it’s a struggle every. damn. day. blech! What I really want, first thing in the morning, is to NOT be physically active, but rather to be mentally active.
Starting today, I’m overhauling my first-thing-each-day routine to be:
I encourage you to build a reflection habit. It can be first-thing each morning or whenever works for you. (Many people allocate time for reflection as the last thing each day before going to sleep.) You should intentionally choose what to do as your reflection practice. I’ll go so far as to suggest you perform a few weeks experimentation with each idea you come up with, until you find a reflection practice that works for you. The more you reflect the more you’ll want to iterate and improve creating a virtuous feedback loop.
That’s the plan anyway. It’s certainly the best plan I’ve come up with for me, so far.
(Part 36 of 37 in series, Study inspired by Pakour & Art du Déplacement by V. Thibault)
In certain circles it is said, “what was once your workout will become your warmup.” In my journey of rediscovering activity and play, there was a long period—20 years now, perhaps—where I was able to focus primarily on growth, forward motion, and transformative change. This made for a very long period where my workouts did gradually became my warmups. Certainly I’ve always had rest days; nearly 10 years ago, when I started parkour, it was all I could manage just to recover over the course of the entire week before heading back to the next hard training session. Rest and recovery were always in the mix, simply because I began my journey of transformative work in my 30s.
I’ve found it increasingly challenging to remember the importance of recovery now that I’m no longer shoving the needle of progress ahead day by day. Truth be told, I’m squarely on the mid-life plateau and it is time to take life more freely. Sure, the days of working every day for seven years on the house, climbing mountains, jumping on stuff, and doing things which cause police officers to say, “…and you sir, how old are you? You should know better!” are not over. (As far as I can tell.) But these are also, certainly, the days where spending a couple hours, every day, sitting still reading and writing is truly blissful.
A distinction I’ve been making in recent years:
A goal is something specific. It will be clear when the goal is achieved. For me, goals should always be the classic specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time dependent, sort of SMART goals.
An aspiration is something directional. It will be clear when progress is made in the direction dictated by the aspiration.
The more goals I set, the worse my life becomes. I set great goals… big challenging, self-stretching goals. They pile on like dead weight and drag me down. Lose 10 pounds. Read an hour a day. …and so on.
Aspirations, being open-ended, don’t feel so daunting. Provided the aspirations lead to actual action, then I don’t need to worry about tomorrow. I can simply do the things—today, now—which are guided by my aspirations. Be someone who moves. Be exposed to lots of fresh ideas. Be someone who helps others. Be someone who creates value. Be someone whose mind works well.
What aspirations do you have?
They even offered some decent life strategies: look at everything, pick up anything you can, avoid wizards, and always haggle for jetpacks.
The quote has nothing to do with what I’m writing today. The only relation is the word coffee. That said, you should totally go read Welch’s piece. You should totally go read everything he’s written; it’s generally awesome and often downright alarming. I digress.
On a Sunday morning–June 23, 2019 to be exact–with a congratulatory high-five, I gave up my morning coffee. I’d been thinking about doing so for months. Truth be told, the catalyst that day was to support a particular lady’s efforts wrestling with migraine headaches. With a brave, “huzzah!” my fate was sealed.
There’s a song by Frank Sinatra, “Hallelujah, I lover her so,” which begins with a telling verse:
Let me tell ’bout a gal I know
She’s my baby and she lives next door
Every morning ‘fore the sun comes up
She brings my coffee in my favorite cup
That’s why I know, yes, I know
Hallelujah, I just love her so
Setting aside the completely wacked concept of your girlfriend living next door and bringing you coffee before dawn. (1969 America. amiright?) I want to just draw attention to the coffee being how he knows he loves her. That’s just wrooong.
Over a few decades we had settled into a morning routine that started with the coffee maker. As anyone everywhere will tell you, if you drink coffee every morning it just becomes the neutral baseline, and without it, things aren’t happy-land. Occasionally, obtaining the morning drug hit would be a challenge leading to un-happy-land.
But mostly, it just meant getting out of the freakin’ bed was rough. …and like the addict I was, I went to the drug quickly.
Is it easier to get up now? Absolutely.
Do I spring out of bed like a happy rabbit? Absolutely NOT. But it’s better. I still need a bit of time to wake up fully–which I do via some morning stretching and movement.
Do I still drink it? Absolutely. Anytime I go anywhere, and I find myself near a real coffee shop . . . hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.
(Part 9 of 13 in series, Changes and Results)
One of my favorite ideas from Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, is the idea of a keystone habit. Keystone habits create a chain reaction; Changing and rearranging your other habits as you integrate the habit into your life. According to Duhigg, “keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate”, and they “start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”
After self-awareness and self-assessment, my 20 minutes of stretching and recovery work every morning is by far the single most important thing I’ve changed in my journey. (“Every morning” is the goal, not always the reality.) Initially, it was the one critical first little piece of success from which I launched a pile of awesome changes. It continues to be my reliable fallback position when things go off the rails.
Every time I get stuck, fail at sticking to a good habit, or make a mistake with diet, I repeat to myself: Start again tomorrow. Start again tomorrow with one small bit of success first thing in the morning, (and a cup of coffee.)
Declare 20 minutes of “me-time” first thing in the morning. Literally explain to others that you are creating space for yourself to start your day. It’s not leave-me-alone time. If there are others in your household, they are welcome to visit you and interact. You may find they occasionally join you.
Go straight there, as soon as you can. Ok, yes, make a bathroom stop and obtain your beverage of choice on your way to your morning session. But you do not need to arrive at your space awake and ready to exercise. You only need to get there. The stretching and moving will gradually wake you up. It will also wake up your mind; You’re going to have twenty minutes every morning to peacefully review your yesterday, plan your today, or even practice some mindfulness meditation. But only if you want! Your initial goal is to simply get to your space ASAP each morning.
Create (or designate) a space. This is really critical. It cannot be a place that you have to setup; It has to be a place that always exists, that you can simply stumble into first thing in the morning. Find a few square feet and make it your own. A light, a little clock, maybe some music setup ready to go, maybe a yoga mat. Having a physical space (as simple or as complex as you choose to make it) will help your mind shift automatically. “I do this sort of stuff in this space,” becomes automatic.
Music? For a long time, I was really into electronica-esque music for this. (Sometimes I still use the music.) I fanatically groomed a Pandora station with electronic music that has absolutely no vocals—but obviously use whatever works for your, including no music if you prefer. When I use music, I want it to help me zone in on what I’m doing and forget the world.
Props, mats, weights, etc. Start simple. As you go along, you’ll discover things—an article on the Internet, a yoga class, a friend’s ideas—and you’ll take in new moves, stretches and exercises as your own. I started without yoga blocks, then one day found a new stretch I wanted to be able to use when I felt I needed it, and bought two simple yoga blocks for the purpose. This way everything you have in your space, has a purpose rather than being something that nags you, “oh, I should be using that.”
Simply stretching and moving is your first activity. What does your body want to do first? Just learning to be able to answer that question honestly each morning is a great lesson. Then what does it need next? Move when you feel like it. Engage muscles when you feel like it. Engage your brain when you feel like it. Twenty minutes goes by in a blink.
Take some yoga classes. Find a Yin yoga class and spend a few months learning.
No. Right. Now. Oliver Emberton has a great article, How to Debug Your Brain. It’s funny and really exactly what’s wrong with our brains. Emberton’s idea of hijacking a “transition” led me to aim for “first thing in the morning.” I hijack the, “I just got out of bed” transition as many mornings as I can. My rationale is: I was literally just ignoring everything when I was unconscious, so I can continue ignoring everything for a little longer while I put me first.
Focus on what you can control. Iterate. Steve Kamb wrote an article talking about each Avenger’s super power, and Tony Stark’s power specifically, What’s Your Avengers Superpower. Stark is not actually a superhero. Stark simply knows the rule: you can’t edit a blank page, and you can’t improve a machine that hasn’t been built yet. Iterate.
Set intentions at the start. When you start your day, or any meaningful activity, check in with yourself and ask what your intentions are for the day or that activity. Do you want to be more present? Do you want to move your mission forward? Do you want to be compassionate with your loved ones? Do you want to practice with discomfort and not run to comfort? Set an intention (or three) and try to hold that intention as you move through the day or that meaningful activity.
Long ago—maybe ten years?—this idea of setting intentions made a huge impact on my life. I’ve talked about first learning the twin skills of self-awareness and self-assessment as the first steps on my journey. Once I began developing those skills, I was able to begin setting intentions and that lead to the long period of growth I’ve recently been experiencing.
But there’s a problem, or at least there’s a problem for me. Once I started down the road of setting intentions I’ve fallen prey to a vicious cycle. Practicing continuous improvement by setting intentions and assessing progress makes me focus forward, treating my intentions at targets before me. I used to think the “focus forward” part of that was a good thing. After all, it clearly has led me on a long journey of improvement.
I set good intentions which force me out into my un-comfort zones and it turns out that I usually don’t quite reach the goals. If I do reach a goal, then I realize I could have set a better goal by stretching for a farther intention. In that way, every assessment ends up reporting that I fell short, didn’t make it, didn’t live up, didn’t achieve, didn’t succeed, didn’t, didn’t, didn’t, didn’t… and that leads to a dark place.
Recently I’ve been more intentional about what intentions I set.
(That’s a red flag right there; I’m still intentions based.)
None the less, I’ve been trying to set easier-to-achieve intentions so that I can check off more wins. I find this very hard to do since it feels like artificially lowering the bar so I can cheer-lead myself away from the dark place. Worse, this is still looking forward and assessing progress made towards goals.
I wonder what would happen if I could manage to turn around, make progress towards the goals, (they now being behind me,) while staring back at the INSANE MOUNTAIN OF AMAZING THINGS I HAVE ACCOMPLISHED?
Maybe I should try that for a while?
One of the most liberating discoveries I ever had was that thinking has an insidious snowball effect. Thoughts trigger other thoughts, and if your initial thought carries even a hint of insecurity or worry, subsequent thoughts can explore it and magnify it until you’re profoundly agitated. You can end up pulling your hair out and dreading the rest of your life, just from idle thinking.
The snowball effect is probably my biggest problem. Small things—now that I think about it, it’s always small set-backs—kick off these long trains of thinking.
Have you ever heard a freight train start to move? It’s called “stretching out” because every rail car adds a few inches of slop… space in the couplers, etc. If you’re at the front, you hear the engine throttle up, and this crashing sound starts at the engine and moves away along the train.
If you’re not at the front, if you’re just somewhere randomly along the train, what you hear is this eerie, rolling-crashing invisible monster that comes tearing along at high speed and goes past you, but nothing is moving. Yet.
This reminds me of my trains of thought. They start with the first nudge of negative thought which sets this terrible monster running along the train. At first, nothing appears to be moving. But slowly that nightmare train begins to move, and if it gets up to speed it can take me days to recover from the ensuing disaster.
This is an insane, 3-hour-long interview. Which I listened to twice. (So far.) Christopher Sommer ( https://www.gymnasticbodies.com/blog/ ) is an Olympic Gymnastics coach and this interview has broadened my horizons– about training, about strength, about recovery, about success, about goals, about gymnastics… I could not even decide what to pull-quote.
(Part 63 of 72 in series, My Journey)
Somewhere in my 30’s, slowly, year by year, the frequency of my back problems increased. I’m not talking about, I helped a friend move over the weekend, or, I did climb-ups for an hour at Parkour class, and now my back is “out.” I’m talking about,
I sat down to put socks on — because I cannot hold my foot up to reach it standing — and my lower back “just” gave out.
I was just standing at the sink washing dishes.
For me, these incidents where I was clearly not doing anything amazing and was still somehow injured, became a clear sign that I needed to change something. In hindsight, this is the article I wish I had found first and so I hope it helps someone.
Elsewhere, in my Changes and Results series, I’m laying out all the big things I’ve changed, project by project. But there was never any one thing that I worked on specifically to fix my back. It simply turned out that many of the things I did contributed to — knock on wood — resolving my back problems. Of course my back still gives me trouble when I deserve it. But these days, I know when it’s going to be a problem. I can feel when my back is getting tired, and if I listen to that quiet signal I can avoid the worst of the problems.
Although I had been doing some intentional, general improvement efforts, such as losing weight and getting better sleep, my back-focused improvement journey really began when I heard Ido Portal say something to the effect of:
Your legs are for moving you through your environment. Your arms are for manipulating your environment. Your spine is for orienting yourself within the environment. So your spine should be this incredibly mobile and powerful system with a huge range of dynamic movement.
(That’s not an exact quote because I don’t feel like going through the entire “Rewild Yourself Podcast” episode where Daniel Vitalis interviewed Ido Portal. It’s episode number 8: Ido Portal on the Movement Diet which you should probably go listen to.)
When I heard that, I realized that my spine was nothing at all like Ido’s vision of a human spine. Mine barely moved at all, and when it did, I often felt nervous about impending disaster. After hearing Ido’s way of describing the spine, I had this new perspective where each time I’d do some movement, I could see how much my spine was right at its limit of ability. I realized that my spine should be an incredibly varied mover, and that my spine’s flexibility (the total movement possible) and range of motion (the smaller space of movement where my back is usable, comfortable and strong) are critical, foundational elements to all of my health and movement.
I realized that for years I had tried to “stabilize” and strengthen my spine as a defense against movement causing injury to my back. But I now see that this is an erroneous reaction to weakness. If instead of being immobilized as a defense, my spine is strong, then it can be mobile, able to make all the movements I need, and not be injured.
The first step was to learn to avoid injury. This sounds trivial, but it was not at all obvious to me at the time. When I was so fat and inflexible that putting my socks on regularly endangered my back, it was a terrible, humbling experience to admit that I had to change how I put my on socks.
I had to identify all the landmines, and own up to them. I had to learn that stretching — really just moving around — was mandatory each morning. I had to stop automatically rushing to help everyone move heavy objects. I had to stop trying to be “the strong guy,” and generally dial down all my activities to a level my back could handle. I had to acknowledge those random days when my back felt “off”, and learn to take a rest day for recovery.
All of which forced me to face that I was no longer indestructible and to own up to the deteriorated state of my body. Awareness and honesty were the only way that I could stop taking frequent steps backwards. They were the only way that I could begin to make glacial forward progress.
(I’ve written more about the Philosophy of the changes I’ve made in my Changes and Results series.)
Losing weight is obviously not easy. But every pound that I peeled off paid dividends to my back. It turns out that weight around your middle drastically increases the load on your lower back. “Lost weight” is a woefully inadequate summary for this element of fixing my back, but hopefully I’ll get around to writing out everything I did to lose weight.
What began as endless massage work by my spouse, slowly morphed into self-massage and then into mobility work; Basically, I learned to lay on the floor moving in all the ways my spine was meant to move. I mastered the use of a foam roller and Lacrosse ball for myofascial release and self-massage. As my back got stronger, I was able expand this recovery practice to a more general, whole-body movement, stretching and — much later — general strengthening.
(I’m writing a separate post on my “20 minutes of morning stretching” which is one of the cornerstones upon which I have built the whole new me. It’s not yet published, but will eventually be part of my Changes and Results.)
Finally, chiropractic has saved me countless times. I know many people who believe chiropractic is quackery. But for me, it doesn’t matter how or why, it simply yields results.
Years of sitting, and progressive weakening of my back, took their toll. Worse, the hunched back, rolled shoulders posture was so common in my environment, that it seemed normal. So I didn’t even realize what was happening to me.
The first baby step to improving my posture was when I learned how to understand, and control, the orientation of my pelvis through learning to sit as part of martial arts training. The traditional Japanese seated posture, seiza where you sit with folded-under knees and pointed toes is great for learning posture. Of course, this type of sitting initially rewards you with agony from the knees and ankles. But once your legs adapt, there is a delightful feeling of peace and centralized weight when you learn to center your pelvis and to balance and align your entire spine. But maintaining this alignment, even in a statically balanced seated position, required a certain muscle tone. A tone which I had lost through endless sitting in a poor posture.
I soon realized that the orientation of the hands as they hang at your sides is indicative of your upper back posture. Palms turned to the back, (the shoulders being in interior rotation,) with that “knuckle-dragger” appearance is a sign of a week upper back and poor scapular position. I began incorporating various exercises, (the ‘Sphinx’ pose from yoga, ‘shoulder dislocations’, and thoracic extension in supine position, etc.) into my daily recovery work. (For a great introduction, read De-Quasimodo Yourself.)
As I’d gained weight, I hadn’t realized that I had also, slowly transitioned to a “dumped” lower abdomen: guts hanging out the front, pelvis tipped forward, and lumbar spine pulled forward into a maximum arch. This led me to lower back agony whenever I spent time on my feet, especially if I over-worked my lower back by strolling and slowly shift my weight from one leg to the other. But as I’ve lost fat from my typical abdominal male pattern, and as running and jumping in the context of parkour have strengthened my glutes, it has become easier to maintain a neutral pelvic position and a neutral curve of my lumbar spine.
Solvitur Ambulando ~ It is solved by walking
Today, I have a ton of stuff here on my site about walking.
But it all started, long ago, when I read a blog post by Steve Kamb, about Walking to Mordor. “One does not simply walk into Mordor!” Except, that is exactly what Sam and Frodo did. Elsewhere I’m writing an entire post about my efforts and progress related solely to walking; But all of my walking was kick-started by Steve’s Nerd Fitness blog post.
This was the least obvious thing which improved my back: The closer I get to living barefoot, the better my back feels.
Long ago, I was wearing “normal” shoes, and then I started taking some parkour classes. Turns out that I want to wear the lightest weight, and thinnest soled, shoes I can; because I want to use my feet and toes. Anyway, roll with me here when I say: I wanted to wear minimal footwear for parkour. So, I started wearing Feiyue shoes to class — not the fancy French brand of shoes, but the el’cheapo, crépe sole, martial arts shoe. They have no structure, no arch, and just some padding and protection from most (not all) things you might step on.
I started to run in Feiyue. I ran 10 feet and my calves cramped up. I kept at it. For years. I relearned how to run. Then I relearned how to walk. Then I relearned how to use my knees. Then I realized that to get things working again, I needed to stop wearing “normal” shoes entirely. So I started wearing Feiyue everywhere.
I went on reading about feet. …and about minimal shoes. …and about barefoot training. Then I learned about the amount of nerves in our feet, (the same as in your hands,) and I had some discussions about sensory input through your feet. …and balance. …and acupressure points.
It is not an exaggeration to say that learning about my feet has changed my life.
Today, I exclusively wear an old-school track running shoe called Bullets, made by Saucony. I remove the insoles, so that from the midsole to the toes there is ZERO padding; just a few millimeters of hard rubber sole between my foot and the world. I wear these same shoes for everything. All surfaces, all activities — everything.
It was at this point — after all of the above changes, and after I had spent about two years full-time in minimalist shoes — that I realized my back was fundamentally different.
Then I set out to write this, over the course of 18 months. :)
Despite all that I’ve written here, this is still only scratching the surface of information about the back and spine. Take a look at the Human Back and Spine topic over on Hilbert’s Library.