Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Brain Scientist on The Cost and Benefits of Hot Yoga

In this short essay I talk about the benefits, the drawbacks and what you can do to maximize your experience doing hot yoga. Much of what is written here applies to all types of hatha yoga. Coming from the perspective of brain science I emphasize that it is very important to stay relaxed and supple during any type of exercise. In many types of yoga, especially Bikram, there is a serious risk of overstraining specific muscle groups during a pose. While you are bending deeply into your body’s tightest muscles it is very important to have calm muscles, a calm face, a calm mind, and calm breathing, otherwise you traumatize the muscles. If you are experiencing stress, your brain associates the use of these important muscles in the spine and shoulders, neck and pelvis, with shallow breathing and this will cause you to breathe shallowly whenever you use them. This also causes these muscles to develop continuous strain, forcing them to tighten up, lose circulation and atrophy. You want to derive isometric strengthening from yoga, not injury from repetitive strain. One of the most important attributes of yoga is the removal of muscular tension and the increase in circulation so let’s talk about how to make sure this is your outcome.

The Benefits: Postural Strength

Hot yoga, specifically Bikram, has done so much for me. It has made me a much stronger person. Consider this, the first few times I tried it I nearly passed out. It was excruciatingly exhausting, I had trouble breathing, I could barely finish the standing series and I started to blackout (syncope) a few times (head spinning, light headed, visual field going black). By the fifth time I took a class none of these were problems any longer. After two months of biweekly classes my endurance in everything was noticeably better. When I was sleepy and tired, I no longer felt weak because my spine could support me. After doing Bikram for 6 months, I went to play basketball and I felt like a freight train running up and down the court. I can sit up straight for long periods, while everyone else is slouching. I became three times the tumbler, wrestler and gymnast I was before. The strength gains come with considerable muscle mass gains. They don’t make you look like a weight lifter, but because they involve postural musculature they help you look more like an athlete. The ease that this creates made me feel as if I was in some kind of supportive, mechanical exosuit. My lower back became so much more hardy and robust, that sometimes it felt like I was sitting in a harness. I got all of these benefits from Bikram despite the fact that I was wincing throughout every class and breathing very shallowly. The drawback to this was that I had several points in my body that became very tense and susceptible to injury.

The Costs: Unnecessary Strain

Hot yoga is performed in a heated room where you can bend more fully into your postures. This allows you to stretch and flex deeply into your underused postural musculature creating strength where you had weakness. But the fundamentals of the Bikram routine cause people to flex some muscles too deeply, for too long. When these strained muscles are in your spine, it can be debilitating. The first 2 years I did Bikram I would ignore the many small muscles that reached fatigue before the end of the posture. This is a common occurrence in exercise, small stabilizing muscles fatigue early and are forced to remain active after they fatigue. This causes a host of injurious cellular changes related to “adaptive muscle shortening.” This will cause muscles to atrophy, joints to degenerate, and ligaments to become painful. You don’t want that.

Please read this entry for more information: Rest Once the First Muscle GroupReaches Fatigue

Let me give you a concrete example. I developed a knot on the back/inside of my left knee from the “standing separate leg stretching pose.”  Every time I assumed the posture I would straighten my right knee completely but leave my left knee bent a little. This bent knee would fatigue very quickly and then continue to strain. The problem was, I didn’t notice it. I was wrapped up in trying to keep up with the class, and I was holding the posture with intensity so the muscles in that left knee learned to hold the strain. I subsequently had to do other types of yoga to realize what had happened and to make an effort to straighten, stretch and strengthen the knee. This example helped me to see that I had similar muscular cramps all over from Bikram. My right hip was cramped by the “half moon pose” (which I held my breath while doing), and my neck was cramped by the “standing deep breathing pose” (which I practiced with restricted range of motion). My lower back developed a severe cramp from the “awkward pose” which forced me to flex too deeply into one isolated portion of lumbar musculature without providing any exercise to the surrounding musculature. Straining too deeply, in very hot conditions, into isolated muscular postures is not the way to become a well-rounded athlete.

What You Can Do To Reduce Unnecessary Strain

Unfortunately, at Bikram the instructors attempt to force you to stay in the postures for the duration of the allotted time, force you to strain deeply into the postures, and force you to hold still while in the posture. You cannot let them do this to you. Instead:

1)      You must stop as soon as you notice that something is straining even if the instructor is “commanding” you to get back into the posture.

2)      You must ease yourself into the postures and recognize when to bend less deeply. For instance, I was stretching way too enthusiastically into the half moon pose.

3)      You must attempt to alter and vary your poses so that they are not static and isolated. To do this you want to lean in different directions, play with the posture, shifting your weight and your flexion, and alter the geometry of the pose to get a more well-rounded exercise.

4)      The rigor of hot yoga makes it is extremely important to relax completely during the recumbant corpse pose. Try to notice pockets of tension while you are lying down and attempt to let them go.

5)      Make sure that you maintain balanced posture to support you. Keep your neck retracted, your shoulders back and down, and your gluteus flexed most of the time. This should be emphasized much more in these classes.

It is a shame that Bikram yoga doesn’t give you time to relax and stretch leisurely in the heat. You can do this after class and I strongly urge you to do so. In fact, before and after class you should do some of the more basic yoga stretches to release accumulated tension, and stretch and flex the muscles that Bikram doesn’t reach.
The Costs: Shallow Breathing

Shallow breathing severely compounds the strain. I will even go as far as to say that if you cannot breathe deeply and diaphragmatically (long interval, high volume breaths) throughout the 90 minutes, you shouldn’t go to hot yoga.

Please read this entry for more information: How to Breathe Diaphragmatically

Anything that you perceive as stressful will cause you to stop breathing diaphragmatically and start breathing defensively (shallow, thoracic breathing). Bikram causes shallow breathing because 1) the heat is stressful and the humidity can be stifling. 2) There seems to be pressure on you to perform and compete with others. 3) The instructors are often authoritarian, hypercritical and rude. They also continually single students out causing the heart rate to speed up and the breathing to become shallow.

A Bikram class starts with the neck exercise known as “standing deep breathing.” The breathing exercise that the instructor describes during this pose is exactly how you should breathe the entire class. The instructor coaches you to breathe deeply and their instructions are clear, textbook guidance for diaphragmatic breathing. This is especially important for the first pose which is a neck extension. Unfortunately, the neck extensions probably go on too long and there is no rest for the neck until the end of the standing series causing neck strain that can persist for the first hour. If it were up to me I would either put the neck extension at the end of the standing series or allow people to rest their head after the first posture. However, the “standing deep breathing” exercise will protect the neck and keep it from holding strain, helping it to grow stronger and healthier. The fact that Bikram starts with diaphragmatic breathing is beautiful, every yoga instructor should start their class that way. Again, because diaphragmatic breathing removes strain from muscles, your first priority in hot yoga should be to maintain this type of breathing throughout the class.

The Costs: Facial Tension

We all hold far too much tension in our face. Because of social concerns the muscles are always flexing and this is exacerbated by stress. Heating the facial muscles up and then engaging in an arduous activity will cause you to strain them even more. Be very aware of how your face is contorted as you do hot yoga, and try to make it as calm as possible even if it makes you feel self-conscious. You also want to try your best not to squint. The heat, the humidity, the sweat in your eyes and the strenuous work will predispose you to squint. The fact that the squinting muscles (orbicularis oculi) are at a very high temperature, will cause the squint to become burned into your face. Look at all of the long-time hot yoga practitioners and teachers, many of them have purple bags under their eyes from the potentiation of the muscular contractions responsible for squinting. If you can’t keep your eyes relaxed and wide during hot yoga, then don’t do it. Remember, this tension in the eye muscles is extremely easy to see. You will see a visible, dark crease under the eye. Tension in other muscles is often hidden from sight, but just like their eyes, many hot yoga practitioners hold inordinate tension throughout their bodies.
Please read this entry for more information: How to Stop Squinting


Bikram was the first type of yoga that I really committed to weekly. I would recommend however that anyone interested in hot yoga start with Hatha and Iyengar yoga in order to develop more strength, flexibility and an appropriate emotional relationship with their body first. Otherwise, like me, you won’t know how to breathe, you won’t have a sense for how deeply you can safely flex into the postures, and you won’t have the overall flexibility and strength to safely adapt to Bikram’s static postures. Once you are doing hot yoga, I recommend that you do other types of yoga as well to complement it. I do. I have slowly learned to keep a calm face, to notice undue tension, and to breathe properly, and so I feel invigorated after class rather than exhausted. Moveover, the knots I developed when I started have since disappeared.

To find out much more about yoga and yogic breathing click here to visit my Program Peace website at www.programpeace.com.

I am a strong believer in the benefits of yoga for bodily and mental health. Here are a few of my favorite books on yoga:

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

My Experience with 23andme and Promethease

I think 23andme seems to be the best of similar personalized genetics services because the results they send are very detailed and interesting. It has been really fun to read all the information that they send, learn more about my own genome, and contrast my results with my Grandfather’s, my Mom’s, my Dad’s and my brother’s. It’s kind of interesting that even though my brother and I share 50% of our genes, I am 5 times more Scandinavian than he is, and he is 3 times more Italian than I am. There is a lot to analyze and figure out, and I have learned more about biology in the process. Three pictures are attached below with some of my test results. The testing cost is reasonable and all you have to do is spit in a test tube and mail it back. This is the website:


My brother and I have a genetic condition called hemochromatosis. Our original testing determined that we both inherited one bad gene from each of our parents, but we didn’t know until recent further testing that I actually received four bad genes (I am homozygous for both major hemochromatosis alleles). My parents were both carriers for hemochromatosis at two separate genes and I got both of the bad genes (it’s a 1 in 16 chance) from each of my parents. It was through “23andme” that I was able to obtain this information, and I want to recommend it to you.

The FDA recently took away the ability of 23andme and all other genetic sequencing companies to send health reports to their clients. However, we can still use the “raw data” available on the 23andme website to do our own investigating. Clicking on “browse raw data” you can see which version (allele or SNP) of each gene you have. You can then look up your version on snpedia.com to find out more about the health and trait characteristics of your version of the gene. This process is time consuming because you must do it one gene at a time, but I found another reputable company that will do this rapidly and automatically using the 23andme data.


Promethease Inc. is a popular service that will create a report for 17,000 of our 23,000 genes for only $5. You can obtain this additional service from promethease.com. You actually allow promethease.com to access the 23andme data by signing in to both at the same time. The whole process and the reports are pretty straightforward, but you definitely want to download the data to your computer because Promethease wipes their servers every month. Promethease is reputed to be a very legitimate company and the reports that it provides seem to be more detailed than the other companies that do the same thing. Check out this article on Promethease from MIT’s technology review:


I think it is worth the time and the $5 to use this additional service. The health report that they send gives you all of your genetic risk factors ranked from a magnitude of 1 to 4. I think it is important for everyone to see if they have any 4s, and to inform their health care providers about what they have learned. Again, I found out that I have more than one gene that predisposes me to hemochromatosis (both have a ranking of 4), and this has definitely changed my treatment plan. We also found out that we have genetic propensity for rheumatoid arthritis, and that my mother and brother have a problem metabolizing anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Again knowing this is important because now they know to take Tylenol rather than aspirin or Advil.

So far, a number of my friends and family members have done both 23andme and promethease. It is really fun to compare and contrast profiles because it gives you a much better understanding of your own data.


Here is an update from 4/3/2024. I wanted to post a letter that I wrote to a friend in February of 23. I was writing a friend who asked me if I would be a sperm donor. I am including the letter here because I wanted to make it available but not widely seen, so I am placing it at the bottom of a rarely visited blog post from several years ago.

Dear Xxxxxx,

So I have given this whole thing a lot of thought. And it’s been a few months now so I really had a chance to think.

I really like the idea. For a lot of different reasons. I passed the idea by my parents briefly. And they thought it was nice. 

It’s a beautiful concept.

There are some pretty important things that I think you need to know about me though. 

Firstly, I have a genetic disease called hemachromatosis. It has been called the European version of sickle cell. It’s not a huge deal as long as you know you have it because it can be treated very effectively with phlebotomies. Also, you need two recessive alleles to get the disease. So a baby has to get one from both parents. I doubt you carry a recessive allele yourself. And it’s something you could get tested for inexpensively. But I actually have two recessive alleles at two different genetic loci for the disease and I am not sure that is something you want in your line.

Secondly, I’m 41. Advanced maternal and paternal age is associated with increased risk of birth defects, health complications, and mental disorders. I was reading last week that the likelihood of some mental health issues are multiplied by six for fathers over 40. 

Thirdly, and much more seriously, I have been exposed to a great deal of stress in my life. I think it’s fair to say that I have at least a form of PTSD. 

Do you know much about epigenetics? The idea is that certain circumstances, especially high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can change your DNA. It doesn’t actually change the sequence of nucleotides. Instead, it adds metallic molecules to your DNA changing the expression profiles of specific genes. This is done through the process of acetylation and methylation.

I’ve actually done a lot of research into this, and I’ve written hypotheses saying that it’s adaptive. That stress programs our bodies to prepare in various ways for a bad environment. Basically, when stress hormones are high, the DNA is altered, making you act crazy and resulting in a reduced metabolism. These changes could have been advantageous in an adverse environment, but are debilitating in modern times. 

The scary thing is that this “epigenetic scarring” can be passed on to offspring. Meaning, it happens to eggs and sperm. And it can even pass through multiple generations.

So I can’t be sure to what extent this has happened to me, but I believe I can infer that I’m probably a pretty severe case. I’ve been held up at knifepoint and gunpoint. I've experienced a home invasion. I’ve been in fights all through my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. I’ve been in situations where I’ve almost had to kill two of my friends and a violent assailant. I’ve been in multiple ugly fights just in the last 10 years with large athletic men. Just a couple years ago I witnessed a man attacking a woman and ended up having to choke him out in the middle of the street, surrounded by spectators until the police came. In other words, I’ve had a lot of blood on me and my clothes.

One good indicator for how much stress has affected a man and how suitable he is to be a father or donor is the extent of balding. I have less hair than my dad has now, and I have less hair than either of my grandfathers had when they passed away. So clearly my hair loss is not genetic. Hair is lost when the follicles are exposed to cortisol in a process called telogen effluvium. And the more hair a man has lost the lower his longevity and the higher his risk of cardiovascular and other issues. There’s also a large link between hair loss, PTSD, and other psychiatric disabilities. Basically, there’s no way that my germ cells are not affected by these things.

So I want to be forthcoming about all of this. I assume that once you’ve read this you would no longer consider me to be a candidate. And I understand that. I have all but given up on having my own kids for these reasons. It’s one of the reasons I’m single. But unlike me, you have a world full of options.

All the same it’s a sweet and beautiful fantasy. And it’s been fun for me to imagine it. I’ve been playing out heartwarming scenarios in my head all week. 

If it’s OK with you, I would still like to have our initial conversation. I know it would be a fun conversation to have. Also, I’m interested in the process itself. But most of all, I’m interested in your plans for the future so I can support you in them.



Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The “Cracking Method” of Isometric Stretching

For the last two years I have been developing a stretching technique that I believe has greatly helped my posture and well-being. It involves finding the weakest parts of the body and stretching and flexing into them. I alter my posture and then flex into that position. What I try to flex towards is actually two sensations that are often found together: 1) soreness, and 2) the cracking or popping of the joint. You should notice that as you bring a joint into the range where it cracks it will feel sore if the muscles are held flexed when in that position. Once you have found a position like this, you want to stretch and flex into it. Whether the joint actually cracks is not important, what is important is that you flex into the underused position that is susceptible to cracking.

Stretching has gotten a bit of a bad rap because static stretching has been shown to be less effective for athletes than once thought. Static stretching does not involve flexure, it actually lessens the sensitivity of tension receptors in the muscle, allowing it to relax and stretch to a greater length. Studies have shown that static stretching can actually reduce explosive ability and promote joint instability. In fact, most stretching programs encourage hyper-flexibility of muscles which ironically results in premature arthritis due to mechanical instability of the joints. Also most athletes that stretch are using the same stretch routines time and again overstretching large muscle groups while leaving many smaller, supportive muscle groups completely unstretched. Static stretching increases “passive range of motion.” We are interested in increasing “active range of motion.” To improve posture and strength and reverse tension, we must turn to more active and dynamic forms of stretching. For example, forms of isometric stretching, and PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching have been shown to be very effective for athletes. These forms of stretching, unlike static stretching, involve flexing certain muscles during a stretch.

Try to stretch an area of your back or neck to the point right before it cracks, you can feel that it will crack, but don’t push it all the way, don’t let it crack. Instead, hold the posture for five to fifteen seconds just below the cracking threshold. While you are there try moving it around slightly, it will probably feel achy and possibly sore. The areas in your body that feel this way are the first areas that need rehabilitation. In fact, cracking is associated with joint degeneration so searching for areas that crack can provide you with a map of the areas of your body that need help the most. Sometimes I will wriggle and writhe until I actually feel a joint crack, then I freeze, hold that posture, and try to stretch into it for five to fifteen seconds. It is amazing how quickly this rehabilitates tense or atrophied muscles. After a few minutes a day, over the course of a week you may find that you have strengthened the muscles sufficiently so that they do not crack anymore. Cracking provides temporary relief from tension, but does not heal the tension - you want the permanent relief that is provided only by strengthening. This method gives you all of the relief that you get from cracking your joints, but does so in a lasting way.

Take your neck for example. There are many positions that you can put your neck into that are stiff and uncomfortable, that might feel slightly sore and that will crack if pressed in to. Try looking up and to the side, or down and to the side. Try touching your chin to your chest and then looking right and left for several seconds. Hold that uncomfortable position for several seconds while breathing deeply. I gently crane my neck in many different directions every day.  After you are done it is important to allow the muscles to relax, so lie down and allow the flexion to subside completely. You will find that if you do this in a specific position a few times a day, that each day you do it, it will feel more comfortable and you will not only expand your natural range of motion but improve your posture as well.

At first it feels unnatural to hold a posture that cracks for a prolonged period. Usually, you want to feel the crack and then allow the muscles to relax immediately. Avoid this inclination. You might choose to crack the joint after the exercise to reward yourself – this is fine. The first time I went to a chiropractor he made a comment about how tight my neck was. He was able to crack it in several locations. This influenced me to go home and try to flex into the same neck postures that he created when he performed the adjustments. Now, two years later, when I go to a chiropractor they have a lot of trouble cracking my joints. When they try spinal manipulations my joints are flexible and supple and move and bend with the manipulation smoothly without cracking. In fact, I can no longer find a chiropractor that can successfully crack my neck or lower back. Some have told me after feeling the muscles in my neck with their fingers that it is healthy and does not need to be adjusted. This is all due to the method described here.

Even if flexing into a certain position doesn’t cause it to crack, but does have the same sore sensation, try to flex within that posture. I have become addicted to pursuing those sore sensations everywhere in my body. The soreness corresponds to overused, tense muscles. These are muscles that are so overused that they have begun to stiffen and atrophy, and you generally have lost all control of them. Pursue them and give them the exercise and the circulation that they are asking for. However, if you experience a tight pinching or burning sensation then there could be an injury or nerve damage so discontinue immediately. After 6 months of this method I could crack dozens of joints throughout my body at will. I could crack several in my neck without even touching my neck. I couldn’t do this before for two reasons: 1) the muscles were too tight and weak to allow me to reconfigure the positioning of the joint, and 2) I developed much better proprioception, knowledge about where my muscles are in space and how to move them to get a great stretch. But being able to crack joints is not the intention, the intention is to improve your posture and eradicate the tension that constrains it. Yoga practitioners often describe stretches as “delicious” or “yummy.” Flexing into and strengthening postures that crack is the best way to teach yourself how to create a savory carriage for the head and spine.

I spend a lot of time stretching whether I am at home or out in public. When I take yoga classes I alter the stretching poses to create novel postures to flex into. I believe that most of the benefit that I get from yoga comes from the additional flexing work that I do throughout the class. You may also want to try flexing into postures of strength on the trampoline. I will bounce up and down while flexing my gluteus, while flexing my chin to my chest, and while pulling my shoulders back and down. The accelerations and deaccelerations from jumping can help you gently flex deeper into some of your biggest problem areas. You should also combine this method with massage and compression. The sore muscles are much more apparent and easy to flex into after myofascial release.

After a few months of using this routine I found that I was cracking all over. I could crack joints easily all over my body, and because I knew that my posture and physique had improved tremendously I began to tentatively conclude that cracking might be good and that it might be the overall goal. After another year of this routine I found that much of the cracking subsided. Many of my joints were much healthier; they cracked less and less until they stopped cracking completely. This made me realize that cracking is a means to an end. In other words, as you employ this technique you can expect to go through three phases; an inability to crack, excessive cracking, and then a cessation in cracking. I wasn’t able to crack my joints at first because I did not have the strength in the surrounding muscles to leverage my way in to the very unhealthy muscle. The joints didn’t crack because I couldn’t even flex the muscles surrounding them. After six months my joints were cracking a lot because I finally had some strength in the muscles that would support my efforts to flex into the weakest muscles. After another year of employing this method, the cracking subsided because even my weakest muscles and joints were no longer degenerative. The point is that you want to stretch and flex into sore joints all over your body, using cracking as a diagnostic tool. As you do this the joints will stop hurting and stop feeling like they need to be cracked.

Lift Light Weights, Dynamically, Without Bracing

For the past few years I have not allowed myself to lift heavy weights. Doing yoga and pilates and a lot of isometric stretching has shown me that lifting weights that are too heavy causes muscle strain and cramping all over the body. I used to lift heavy weights every day and it took a huge toll on my muscles. In fact, I used to wake up every morning in disturbing amounts of pain. My chest, my shoulders, my neck and my back felt like they were “locked up” and the pain was often “crushing.” I felt like I was in a straight jacket and I knew that it was not natural to feel this way. It got so bad, and the flexibility of my upper body became so poor that I knew I had to change something soon. Upon waking I would try different stretches and this helped, but to reverse the cramping I had to stop my unhealthy lifting routine.

I would lift weights that were too heavy for me, and I would breathe very shallowly. Lifting heavy weights causes the muscles that you are using to grow in size in the short term, there is no question about that. But it can actually be bad for those same muscles in the long term. Several masseuses have pointed out to me that I have silver dollar sized patches of scar tissue along my pectoral muscles. I developed these from bench pressing too much weight. I actually have inflammation, muscular knots, and scar tissue all along my shoulder girdle. Excessive weight puts too much strain on the muscles responsible for the motion but it can be especially damaging to the muscles responsible for stabilizing the weight. Every exercise involves stabilizing muscles which contract isometrically, keeping parts of the body steady so that the primary muscles can do their job. These muscles are integral to posture; they literally hold you together. Excessive strain makes them painful, tense, reduces their oxygen supply and leaves them more susceptible to injury.  In fact, I sprained my shoulder in a fall from a skateboard and I am sure that the muscles that I injured were the muscles that I had strained from lifting weights improperly. Because of the shoulder injury I had to stop lifting weights and my upper body muscle mass atrophied very quickly. However, the pain, the tension, the knots, and the scar tissue remained as if I had never stopped working out at all. What this tells us is that lifting heavy weights has benefits that are easily lost, but comes with costs that persist. The muscular bulk comes and goes very quickly. You can quickly lose all of the bulk but retain all of the strain. I felt that I had to get this tension out of my upper body, and so I developed an alternate way to lift weights.

When you lift heavy weights there are a lot of muscles that never rest in between reps. This is especially true of the weaker, stabilizing muscles (such as the muscles surrounding the scapula during bench press). As you do each repetition you want there to be moments where even the weakest links in your muscles can relax. You can sense the overused muscles because they will usually feel sore and tender as you are doing the rep with low weight. You will feel a pinch. Now I go to the gym, sit on practically every machine on the floor, and use the lowest weight setting to do between 20 and 80 repetitions trying to achieve, and work through, that subtle pinch. For example, there are muscles around the periphery of the scapula that are very tense. During a deep tissue massage these will be very painful. You want to make it so that during each repetition there are moments where these painful muscles both rest and flex. When you work out with very heavy weights, only the strongest muscles are given a chance to rest between reps, the weakest muscles are forced to stay tense the entire time. This overuse is what forces them into a low metabolic state that is painful, causes them to get weaker, and inevitably destroys our posture.

There are even muscles that don’t even rest in between sets. These are the stiffest, most painful and most susceptible to injury. These muscles generally stay tight even when we sleep. If we can get these to relax, then we can exercise them and strengthen them, but lifting heavy weights will only keep them atrophic. The best way to get them to relax and become stronger is to use the machines at your gym at a very low setting in an attempt to stretch and flex in to them. Pinpointing them with low weights will get them to open up. Bulldozing them with heavy weights will force them to close down further. My goal is to slowly build up to lifting heavier weights, and since I started my routine I have been able to increase the weight a little every month.

Most everyone lifts weights from a compromised position. When you lift weights that are too heavy, you brace and lock up your entire spine. Most people perform, not only their bench press, but all of their exercises with their spine and shoulder girdle in the same invariant position each time. This is crippling, and leads to weakness rather than strength. If you reduce the amount of weight you can lift without bracing yourself. Now you can alter and vary your posture with each rep, changing the distribution of weight loading, and stimulating growth in areas that are usually stiff. I used this method to reach the weakest points throughout my neck, shoulders and spine. Notice where these weak points are, and try to engage them. Exercise them until you can “feel the burn” lightly.

I spent 6 months lifting very light weights and have slowly moved up to moderate weights. I try to do it athletically, with perfect posture and perfect breathing. While going through the repetitions I stretch constantly, pushing and pulling, twisting and bending. I flex kyphotically and lordotically throughout my spine while lifting. I do a few reps with my neck flexed to each side, then again with my chin to my chest, with my neck retracted, with my neck flexed backwards. In a way it is like yoga for your upper body. It is also an intense, high energy workout, for the little muscles. In another blog entry I try my best to describe the feeling of high muscle tension and how to flex into these particularly sore muscles. You can read more about that here.  

I used to always tilt my neck a little bit to the left so that I could come across to others as nonoffensive. This lead to a soft tissue injury that I could only exercise while doing pull-downs in the gym. I would position my neck at that angle and perform the pull down slowly and easily. It took weeks to work through it. There are many orientations of skeletal muscles that reveal these types of weakness, we must work through them.

When you build muscle from lifting heavy loads your create tension in your muscles. Whether your chest and arms grow from bench press or your glutes and legs grow from squats, you are also introducing strain into these muscles as well. This strain makes the muscles painful and unhealthy. It also makes it so that the muscle can quickly and easily atrophy back to its original state. You want your muscles to be large but you don’t want them to be hard and tight because hard and tight muscles atrophy quickly once you stop lifting. Compression, massage, deep breathing, and light weight lifting complement your workout routine, removing the excess strain and making your gains less temporary and more permanent.

Rest Once the First Muscle Group Reaches Fatigue

As you take part in various exercises and activities, different muscles will reach fatigue before others. Once the first muscle group has fatigued, it is extremely important to stop what you are doing and wait for that muscle group to return to baseline. This allows it to rest and allows fresh blood to pump into it so that it can do more work. Far too often we continue to push ourselves in physical activities until the large muscles groups fatigue and we can no longer perform the work. When we do this, some of the smaller muscle groups go into deep fatigue where they can be damaged. When we ignore the weakest links and force them to keep exerting they become chronically strained, and enter a weakened metabolic state that causes them to atrophy. This also leaves them extremely susceptible to injury. Many people find it annoying to have to interrupt a workout, but it usually only takes 5 to 30 seconds for these muscles to regain their strength and blood supply. We all keep walking, ignoring the fatigue in our feet and knees. We keep dancing, ignoring the pain in our ankles. We keep lifting weights ignoring the pain in our shoulders. We keep sawing, driving nails, or carrying loads ignoring the pain in our wrists and elbows. We keep sitting ignoring the pain in our lower back. We keep typing ignoring the pain in our neck. Even in the yoga studio there are many muscles that remain tight throughout multiple postures. This is why I take regular breaks. While doing yoga I try to ignore what everyone else is doing, and lie down for a minute or two at least twice per session in order to reinvigorate the overused muscles in my neck and back.  

In the past, I would go all day without resting my neck. I guess I didn’t realize how fatigued it would get. Today I lie down for 1 to 3 minutes every time I feel any kind of strain in my neck. I believe that most everyone accumulates neck strain from failing to give their neck any respite over the duration of their waking life. As you toil all day, the flexibility in the neck, and the blood flow to the muscles diminishes, compounding the strain. Today I try to rest my head at least 3 times a day, even if I have to lie down on the floor. I lie down, wiggle my hips and my shoulders a little and concentrate on letting every muscle go limp.

In fact, the muscles surrounding our entire spine take on a stubborn inflexible contour that doesn’t shift much throughout the day. Then when we finally lie down to sleep, this contour doesn’t match the contour of our bed and the muscles remain stiff all night. I recommend that you have a roommate, family member, or spouse press down on the back right before bed. A good masseuse will do this to begin a massage. Have them use two hands, and press down firmly in at least 5 different locations between the neck and the lower back. It will feel very tight at first in certain places, but you will notice the muscles loosen up.

In order to get the muscles to relax, sometimes you have to stimulate them in a different way. After a workout, I always go for a walk, holding my arms straight up in the air for several minutes at a time and also swinging them around in order to engage all of the deep muscles and tissues in my upper torso. I try to work the little muscles in the shoulder girdle to exhaustion, and then give them equal time for complete relaxation. This helps to both exercise and relax the collateral, and stabilizing muscles that were not targeted directly by the work out. My shoulders used to remain fixed in a permanently raised position. Now I make sure to walk several minutes every day with my shoulders, back, arms and chest limp and drooping. You can actually let your shoulders go limp while still retaining good posture by standing straight, keeping your head up, and rolling your chin toward your chest. It is important to practice walking while completely relaxed in this way because this is how you want to sleep so that your muscles can recover overnight.

I used to have bad elbow pain from doing bench press and swimming. I did not know how to get rid of the problem. If you look it up online, you find out that it is called tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, or epicondylitis. The disease is supposed to be chronic, degenerative (enthesopathy), and idiopathic, meaning no one knows what causes it. Worse yet, most of these painful conditions that involve the muscle, tendon, and bone have a poor prognosis and no real treatments besides rest, pain relievers, and surgery. The problem is often easy to fix, you just have to work on relaxing the muscles. When I first tried massaging the muscles around my elbow, I realized that they were constantly sore and painful, regardless of whether I exercised them or not. I used to leave the swimming pool after doing laps in an extremely tense state, without even realizing it. I would even go to bed like that. I wondered why my elbows hurt so much in the morning, and I naively attributed it to aging. Now, when I swim or lift weights, I stop completely every few minutes. I take a full minute to monitor the accumulating tension in my arms, focus on going limp, and allow the tightness the mental attention it needs to subside. Afterwards, I will squeeze and compress these muscles to reduce the tension. My elbow pain was bad, yet now I haven’t had any elbow pain in years.

Here are a few of the muscle tension relief products that I use regularly:

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Diaphragmatic Breathing During Exercise

I believe that breathing diaphragmatically during exercise, is a great breathing retraining activity that strengthens cardiac muscle and the muscles of respiration. Try taking a short jog focusing on the sensations you feel when alternating between inhalations and exhalations. You are likely alternating far too quickly. Try blowing nearly all the way out, and breathing nearly all the way in with each breath. This creates an intense even uncomfortable feeling, and ironically many people breathe shallowly while exercising because they are concerned that they will not get enough air if they were to breathe deeply. As long as you are breathing heavily, you are getting plenty of oxygen. I think that it is especially helpful to breathe diaphragmatically when the heartrate is elevated because it is the sensation of elevated heart rate that makes you want to alternate prematurely between inhalation and exhalation. Your heartbeat begins to hurt, sending you signals to breathe shallowly. Ignore the panic signals from your heart, and ensure that you breathe all the way in and out near full capacity. To do this you have to fight to resist the reflexes in your chest that prematurely interrupt a full exhalation.
Diaphragmatic breathing during exercise produces the same discomfort that diaphragmatic breathing at rest produces, just highly amplified. As long as you stay calm and keep breathing diaphragmatically you will habituate to this discomfort and learn to breathe more deeply and evenly.  I believe that when you feel your heart beating hard in your chest and you keep blowing out, that is when you are doing the most good, you are restructuring your unhealthy breathing patterns and demolishing the trauma that underlies them. Endurance athletes usually have the lowest resting heart rates, I believe this is because they naturally learn to breathe diaphragmatically during exercise. This may be because they naturally learn to stop breathing thoracically during exercise.

Breathing Exercise: Diaphragmatic Jogging

Take a light, 5-minute jog, extending your inhalations and exhalations. Focus on the effort involved and the accompanying sensations. Instead of panting at a rate of multiple inhalations per second, try to breathe in for 1 to 3 seconds and breathe out for 2 to 4 seconds. After you get the feel of this, use this technique for all aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Duration: 5-10 minutes. Proficiency: 2-4 sessions a week for six weeks. Maintenance: 2 times per month. Five stars.

To find out much more about diaphragmatic breathing click here to visit my Program Peace website at www.programpeace.com.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Myofascial Release for the Nasopharynx, and Soft Palate

The Tension Behind Your Face

You have a large muscular knot behind your face. This knot becomes tighter every time you feel stressed. It also becomes tighter when you are in social situations. It makes you wince and grimace and it gets worse every day because it is never touched, massaged or released. Worse yet, the tension accumulated from years of misuse makes the muscles ache, sending pain and panic signals to your brain. Ischemic compression, soft tissue mobilization and myofascial release are very popular remedies now. Here I am advocating that you perform this specifically for your nasopharynx. It is painful at first but it is easier every time and it only takes a few weeks to completely get rid of the pain. Afterwards your face feels amazing, you feel much calmer and have much more social composure.  Here, I will explain how to provide myofascial release for the tonsils, the uvula, the palatopharyngeal sphincter, and the nasopharynx.

How to Get the Knot Out

I recommend that you provide compression and self-massage to your nasopharynx. You do this by donning a plastic glove, putting your thumb into your mouth and up into your nasopharyngeal opening in the back of your throat. To find this opening you want to feel the roof of your mouth, traveling away from the teeth and towards the area where the hard roof of the mouth (hard palate) turns soft (soft palate). An inch posterior to this border is the uvula, the hanging fleshy structure and just behind the uvula is the opening of the nasopharynx. The nasopharynx is an invagination that you want to explore and massage using either your left or right thumb. You insert the finger into the mouth, with the fist pointed to the sky, as if you were sucking on your thumb. If you have never done this before the opening will feel tight and painful, and pressing against it will initiate a gag reflex. The best way to get through this is to always perform the soft tissue release while breathing diaphragmatically, preferably to a breath metronome. The discomfort that you feel when stimulating this area is proportionate to the pain signals that this area sends you every day, throughout the day. This was the single tightest and most painful muscle in my body, and it was also the easiest and quickest to rehabilitate. Suck it up, and massage it, you will be glad that you did.

With your thumb inside your nasopharynx you can place strong pressure on many muscles and soft tissues throughout the nasopharynx, and nasal cavity. You want to press against each of the walls and folds of the nasopharynx and even up into the nasopharyngeal ceiling. When you start out, simply insert the thumb past the first knuckle and keep it still. It will be uncomfortable and it will feel sore as if you have an infection. It feels like an itchy, scratchy sore throat. Next try to swallow a few times and feel the nasopharyngeal sphincter tighten and loosen around your thumb. The first few times this is very uncomfortable but it should be painless within a week. Next you want to gently press your thumb into different areas, massaging the soft tissues, stimulating the nerves, reducing tension in the accompanying muscles and brining needed blood to the area. I recommend doing this for five minutes a day, five days a week. Within the first week you will notice that it is less painful, that your face feels calmer all the time, that you breathe better, that mucus clearance is easier, and that your face actually looks more aesthetically pleasing.

The main muscle that you want to rehabilitate is the nasopharyngeal sphincter. The padded side of your thumb (without the finger nail) will come into contact with this anterior muscle. You want to grab it firmly and flex it rhythmically in order to exercise it and gain conscious access to it. Doing this helps you know how to use it and how to relax it. Do this at the most inferior portion (near the opening of the nasopharynx) and the most superior portion (a lip of muscle near the roof of the nasopharynx). For me the superior portion was the most painful and it took a week to remove all of the pain from it.

Why This is Helpful

While reading about orofacial pain disorders I began to think about the tension behind my own nose and eyes. I figured that a strong form of stimulation could increase the circulation to my nasal tissues, alleviate the trauma that they held, and help reduce the tone in my facial musculature. My nose was broken 15 years prior (at age 17) and was numb and painful at times. I really felt like my nasopharynx was a tense rock in the middle of my head, and I hoped that myofacial release could help me better incorporate it into a calm, healthy facial posture.

I am convinced that soft tissues in this area can become traumatized due to stress, cold, physical injury, sickness, or undue tension and then remain excessively tonic (tense) so that: 1) circulation decreases and inflammation increases, 2) the muscles atrophy and undergo “adaptive muscle shortening,” 3) the neurons in the area relay pain messages to the brain, and 4) this causes the muscles to become excessively tense further exacerbating the psychological stress. I am also convinced that reduced circulation diminishes the immunological response rendering these tissues more susceptible to upper respiratory tract infection. I believe that firm pressure, applied to these soft tissues (that are rarely, if ever, stimulated), reverses these four degenerative processes.

The stimulation and physical compression of the tissues helps to reduce past trauma, and in my opinion is much like massaging a sprained ankle. Massage and isometric stretching is really the only way to return the ankle to its premorbid state. Of course it is painful to massage, but compressing the muscles is the best way to reduce their tone. The fact that the muscles and soft tissues deep in our nasal cavity are never stimulated allows them to “remember” past trauma. They become a “somatic anchor” deep within the face for pain. Each time you do this the treatment becomes less painful. One of the reasons we hold tension here is because we are afraid to breathe through our nose and mouth at the same time in front of other people. We are afraid that we will look “too” calm to others. Once the area is no longer painful, this look becomes authentic and breathing using both the nose and mouth simultaneously becomes preferable.

I believe that this technique has the potential to help anyone, but may produce the best results for people that focus concertedly on remaining calm before, during and afterwards. Influencing how your brain interprets intense forms of stimulation is incredibly important to how your body copes with them. The way that you breathe surrounding an injury helps the body to appraise the injury and determine how best to deal with it. I recommend making calm a priority after the procedure and attempting to breathe diaphragmatically, employing deep breathing exercises. I would recommend doing this at home, before sleep or a rest. I do it a few times a week and it is the last thing I do before I go to bed.

After applying pressure to these areas you become aware of muscles and tissues behind your face that you never noticed before. The first time I laid down for several hours with my eyes closed in order to focus on the accompanying sensations. You feel these muscles tighten and release after the procedure. While this happened I tried my best to memorize what it felt like for these areas to release and I tried to keep them relaxed. Simply turning your attention to these sensations builds somatotopic and musculotopic maps in the cortex which help you sense and control these areas. I believe that after using the technique people want to build these cortical maps so that they can notice when these areas become tight later. As I did this I used other facial muscles, flaring and constricting my nostrils, in an attempt to link these new cortical maps to existing ones. It would be interesting to follow the efferent nerve pathways from these areas up into the brain. Pain signals originating in the nasal cavity are probably sent to subcortical threat/stress areas such as the amygdala, and end up in cortical ones such as the anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula.

After the procedure I went on a long walk and I noticed that my face felt surprisingly calm. As I passed people on the street I was worried that perhaps I would appear “too” calm. I realized that I should embrace the calmness and try to take full advantage of my current state and really focus on allowing my face to remain placid. I focused on breathing deeply and evenly, with eyes wide while looking upwards. I figured that if I practiced this over the course of a few days it would look natural. It really did. I no longer have a perpetual pained and fearful expression on my face and I no longer look like someone who had their nose broken violently. It does have a cosmetic or aesthetic component and definitely helped me to develop a more relaxed countenance.

Try probing your nose with q-tips. Again, at first this was very uncomfortable but became much less painful with time. I didn’t press very far but would make circles with the q-tips just past my nostrils while breathing deeply. Afterwards you want to think about how to build this relaxed nasopharyngeal posture into your normal day-to-day facial posture.

Here are some books that I like on myofascial release: