November 9, 2013

How to be Uncomfortable

Physical discomfort. That's the second thing I thought of, when I was thinking about why people quit meditating. They will sit rigid, in incredibly uncomfortable postures, trying to hold still, hoping their minds will settle, while their mind runs through an increasingly tight loop of being distracted by discomfort, and attempting to ignore the discomfort, returning to the object of meditation, and being distracted again. Pretty soon the object of meditation drops out of the loop altogether, and all they've got is the discomfort and the attempt to ignore it. It's not surprising that after a session or two of this people conclude that meditation is not going to work for them.

There's a right way and a wrong way to sit, and there's a right way and a wrong way to handle physical discomfort. If you do either the wrong way, your meditation practice is probably not long for this world.

Will Johnson wrote a wonderful little book, The Posture of Meditation. If you aren't clear on how to sit, and don't have a teacher handy, I strongly recommend getting it.

Meanwhile, here's what I'd advise:

1) If you're going to sit cross-legged, or in some variation of lotus, put something soft under your feet, and get your butt up high enough that your hips are at least as high as your knees. Don't be shy about stacking cushions or pillows up. Stack them two feet high, if you have to. Once you're up that high, if your knees still won't go to the ground, put yet more cushions under them. (But they still shouldn't be higher than your hips.)

2) Or sit in a chair. Being able to sit comfortably in a lotus position is not something that's determined by how enlightened you are. It's determined by how much you sat that way when you were growing up. For most of us Westerners, that's not very much. Give yourself a break.

3) Whatever you're sitting on, scootch forward so you're sitting on the edge of it, so that your pelvis tilts forward. If you don't do this, your spine won't form its S curve -- it will be more like a C -- and soon, soon, you will be miserable. Trust me on this.

4) Sit up as straight as you can. I always picture (was this an instruction somebody gave me at some point?) Milarepa reaching down from the sky, seizing me by the hair at the top of my head, and pulling me upright. That straight. Then let it all settle a little, so it's comfortable. Let your shoulders hang loose. Put your hands anywhere that makes that possible -- put them on your thighs, or fold them in your lap.

5) Sway a little, in a circle, and make sure that you're really plumb to the floor. Picture yourself as a stick that someone's trying to balance on end. Find that balance point. Then let your head sway in a little circle. It should balance the same way, on top of the stick. Keeping yourself upright, at this point, should take very little muscular exertion. Almost none.

(Some people, by the way -- is it a Zen thing? -- have these cool kneeling-board thingies. I don't know anything about them or how you sit on them.)

Okay. now you're ready to sit. Very soon -- often immediately -- you will be uncomfortable. Something will ache or tickle or twitch. But if you're sitting properly it should be a manageable discomfort

Some traditions are very strict about sitting absolutely still, and "white-knuckling" your way through the discomforts. That works for some people, but I don't think it's necessary, or (usually) desirable. All that you need to do is delay your response. Work with it. The back of your hand will itch. A lifetime (at least) of habit will urge you to scratch your hand. Don't do it. Let the itch be there. Experience it as vividly as you can. If your attention has left the object of your meditation, put it back, without trying to block out the itch, or make it go away. If you refrain from scratching once, and just notice the itch, without trying to make it go away, you have just done something with your experience that is profoundly different.

Doing that, just once, is good enough. You can go ahead and scratch after that. Or you can push it further. Keep on refraining from scratching. Watch how your mind reacts to that. (It's usually pretty entertaining to watch.) But if you come to the point where your whole mind is occupied with the struggle not to scratch -- just scratch.

Stay with the object of meditation, or return to it, if you've dropped it -- and just start fresh. You have NOT failed. You have done exactly what you set out to do -- practiced a new habit of mind. A habit of awareness, rather than knee-jerk reactivity. And again, if this happens five times, ten times, a hundred times in the course of your sit -- so much the better. So much more practice.

Itches are a great place to start. Pain is a little trickier, because it's always possible that the pain is a real signal that your body is resting in a way it shouldn't. In the very beginning, if you've got a pain telling you to shift somehow, just shift. Get comfortable again. If it was a real signal, it will go away. But usually what happens is that you'll find that -- lo and behold! The new position, too, is a painful one! And if you shift again -- so is the next! Even though, really, you are sitting in a position that's far more comfortable than the position you usually adopt to sit at the dinner table, or to sit at a keyboard.

Two things are probably in play at this point. One is that you need to develop the muscles that hold you upright in the meditation position. Either they're getting uncomfortably tired, or they're giving up the job and letting you sag into an uncomfortable position. With practice -- not very much practice, because the real muscle needed to sit properly is not very great -- the muscles of your back and abdomen will get stronger.

The other thing in play is that your mind is afraid of holding still. It's your mind, not your body, that's uncomfortable. As you get more practice, you get better at distinguishing mental from physical discomfort. The lion's share even at the start is almost always mental, the mind latching on to some little molehill twinge -- something that you wouldn't even notice if you had the ordinary level of distraction in place -- and making a mountain of it. You can practice with this, exactly as with the itch.

It's important to keep a light heart and a sense of humor. It's not a tragedy if your mind pulls a fast one on you. This is comedy. A little broad for sophisticated tastes, maybe. In the slapstick line. But it really is funny.

When you do give up on holding still, you'll usually find that shifting just a little bit doesn't do you much good. It's better to really change position for a while. Hug your knees to your chest, or stick one leg out in front of you, or even get up and walk around for a little bit.

Enduring discomfort of this sort is a little like "finding the stretch" in yoga. You go just a little past comfortable. Not a lot. It doesn't have to be a lot; in fact it shouldn't be a lot, usually. And a little past comfortable won't be the same on Thursday as it was on Wednesday. Some days letting a fly walk around on my face might be just past comfortable -- some days that might be unendurable. On those days, "just past comfortable" might be sitting still when a fly buzzes past my ear. Or even, sitting still when I know it's in the room. Objective measures are useless. Which is good, because it means that wherever my mind is, whatever state I'm in, I can always "find the stretch." And the stretch is equally valuable, no matter where I find it. If sitting still for three seconds after I realize that the window's open and a fly might get in the room is a stretch, then that's the stretch. And it's as valuable as any other stretch.

October 20, 2013

Lines, Gleams, and Shadows

You know, if your body disgusts you now, it will disgust you after you've lost 20 pounds, after you've toned your abs, after you've developed your glutes. If you can't see your body as an extraordinary feat of biology, by virtue of being alive and having got you here, as having risen to amazing demands upon it, as being warm living flesh wonderfully reassuring to touch, and as creating heartbreakingly beautiful lines, gleams, and shadows – right now – then my advice would be, fix that problem first. And it's relatively easy to fix. Really. Just go out and practice. Look at people, touch them if that's allowed in your culture, and practice thinking about how wonderful they are, how much you enjoy their skin, their hair, their grace of movement. Practice. You don't need to carry this poisonous judgmental attitude one step further. Just drop it now. It will never serve you. Never. It's not keeping you from "going to pot." It's just a cup of media-stirred poison. Don't drink that crap.

October 9, 2013


When I was a graduate student, a career or two ago, and purportedly on my way to being an English professor, people would confess to me. Strangers. The fact of my intended career would come up. A moment of silence -- shame struggling with the desire to be made clean -- and then the stranger would say, breathlessly, maybe compulsively, "English was my worst subject. I can't write."

I hated this. I would see myself as they saw me, a member of a judgmental, vengeful priesthood, always on the lookout for malefactors. "Oh yes," I would want to say, "when I meet someone, of course my first thought is 'are they worthy? Can they write?'" And I would be tempted to whisper my inmost heretical thought to them: "You know what? I don't give a damn. Who cares if you can write? What does it matter?"

Now that I'm a stress-relief professional, people have a different confession to make. "I can't meditate," they tell me. The impulse seems much the same. "You may as well know this at once: I'm someone you'll despise. Don't bother trying to teach me. I already know I can't do it." And usually, as with the English confession, there's a pinch of defiance mixed in: "and you can't make me try to learn it, either."

But in this case I do care. So I usually try to find out what they mean. There are a few people who really can't or shouldn't do quiet meditation -- there are a few conditions, physical and mental, that make it impossible or inadvisable. But these are rare. Nobody who has confessed to me has referred to such things. What they say is that they sit down, and their minds go crazy; thought piles on thought; their anxiety increases, if anything; and if their minds settle at all, it's only for a moment.

Most experienced meditators will look a little perplexed at this description of meditative failure. "Yes," they'll say, "that's what happens to me, too."

What people usually describe sounds like perfectly good meditation. The problem, apparently, is that they expected something else to happen.

Of course I know what they expected, or hoped for, anyway. Stillness; a transcendent experience; clarity; something to ground oneself on, to center on. A tranformative experience. An end to anxiety. The beginning of a new life.

And it can be any of those things, or all those things. And (I'm told) sometimes it happens that way, bang, first time out of the box. Beginner's luck is a real phenomenon, in meditation. Having no idea what you're doing or what you're going to find out is the ideal state to be in when you're sitting down to meditate. Unfortunately you only get that state for free once.

But mostly -- you know what's going to happen. That's precisely why you hadn't been sitting quietly in a spot where nothing happens, hitherto -- because you knew that being alone with your mind would make you nuts.

The thing to bear in mind is that it isn't sitting down and being quiet that has made you nuts. You were already nuts. Sitting down and being quiet has just given you the chance to notice that you're nuts. Your mind is doing that all the time. All day, all night; a ceaseless fret of worry and desire, fantasies of the future and replays of the past, a constant evaluation of everything in terms of what it means about me. What does the fact that I'm sitting down to meditate mean about me? What does the fact that my mind won't settle down mean about me? What does the fact that I'm worrying about what things mean about me mean about me? It rolls on that way, playing out as dream at night, playing out as "reality" in the daytime.

If you've discovered that you can't meditate, you have already learned the first of the only two things meditation has to teach you, to wit, that your mind is not under your control. There is only one thing more to learn. (No, not that it can be under your control. It will never be under your control. Give that up, it's a lost cause.) The second thing meditation has to teach you, is that the mind can be still. "You" can't make it hold still, because "you" are the problem. But it can be still. Put the conditions in place, and eventually -- eventually -- it will become still. As you practice, it will become still more easily, it will quiet down faster and it will stay quiet longer. It's not a linear progression, not by any means, but it is a reliable progression.

And when the mind becomes still, it's just as wonderful as everyone says.

September 15, 2013

How to Be a Sobbing Mess

I was struck by your comment about seeing that moment of letting to and feeling safe. It's been a difficult year for me and I find myself craving the relaxation and tenderness of a massage. But I also know that the tenderness would open up the floodgates, so to speak, and I'd be a sobbing mess within minutes. Right now, not letting go is the only thing keeping me together.

What are your thoughts regarding clients crying? Have you had that happen to you? What is the best way for a client to handle the situation?

I responded:

Oh, of course! It happens all the time. There's nothing to handle, except of course you'll want a big box of kleenex to hand. (It's a sadly unprepared massage therapist who doesn't have a box of kleenex in the office!) It's not a problem. You cry for a while, maybe say whatever you have to say, sniffle & blow your nose, and the massage goes on.

What the does the massage therapist do? Sit quietly, maybe hold a hand in both of ours, maybe rock them a bit: it really doesn't matter. We listen. We do need to remember that we're not trained as talk therapists, and we're not healers, whatever our clients may say. Our job is easy. As Kristen Burkholder says, "Keep your heart open and your mouth shut."

I think some people are worried that they will dissolve into tears and howl for hours, if they get started. But however big a deal it is on the inside, on the outside it's usually just an upwelling of tears and a sob or two. I work in-home, so people can howl all they want, but mostly they don't. The tears come and go.

People warn me, sometimes. "I might cry this time." But often those aren't the people who do: often it takes people by surprise. I don't think it's always even very emotional: sometimes it seems more a purely neurological response, something the nervous system does in response to touch, as part of a long-delayed transition from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic state. In any case – it doesn't come as a surprise to me, or to any experienced massage therapist. And it doesn't wreck the massage; not for me, not for you.

In general, I would say: if you need to have a good cry, the sooner the better.

September 7, 2013

Three Fun Facts about Biological Clocks

Reading this book about biological clocks, and picked up these fun facts: 

1) there are light receptors in the eye that apparently are never used for vision: their function is to inform the clock center (there is one) about the amount of light. Blind people may or may not still have the use of these receptors: if they don't their biological clock won't synchronize with day and night properly. If they do, they synchronize as well as sighted people. 

2) It's a LOT brighter outdoors than indoors. Even on a dark day, lots more light showering down outside than in a brightly-lit room. The numbers really surprised me. If you're having trouble synchronizing your clock with the day and night cycle, getting outside as soon as you wake up will probably do you a lot more good than dimming the lights before bedtime. 

3) People vary, but most commonly, if kept in a space with nothing to reveal what time of day it is, most people will settle to a circadian cycle longer than 24 hours. So the system *tends* to run late. If you don't keep nudging the clock by getting that blast of light in the morning, the natural tendency will be to stay up a bit later every night.

September 3, 2013

Pin That Thought

Lots of lovely comments on my last post, from people wishing I was in their neck of the woods, so they could get a massage from someone who would accept their body as it is. I'm grateful for the comments and for all the readers who came this way from Go Kaleo -- a flood of people! But you know, the problem is not that I'm not in your neck of the woods, the problem is that you're imagining the therapists who are in your neck of the woods are any different. They're not.

Of all people, massage therapists may be the ones least susceptible to the media images, to that whole bizarre photoshopped world of sixteen-year-olds posed in adult costumes. We work on real bodies. We don't get our clients from Central Casting. The line in the grocery store this morning -- those are my next five clients. Every imaginable shape and size, at every imaginable age and level of fitness. You may feel that you should look some other way, but we don't. We really don't.

So if you want a massage from someone who accepts you as you are -- and a lot of you are clearly longing for one -- then call up the nearest massage therapist and make an appointment. Do it now. The person who thinks your body is not fit to show to a therapist is not the therapist; it's you. If you're a fan of Go Kaleo, as I am, you're probably in the process of making peace with your body. And if your first impulse is to think, "well, maybe ten pounds from now" -- hold it right there. Pin that thought to the wall and watch it wriggle. That thought is the enemy; that's the thought that's keeping you from treating yourself kindly. It's that thought, and not the ten pounds, that's in your way.

Wherever you are, there's a massage therapist who will honor and cherish your body as it ought to be honored and cherished. You just need to find them. I'm betting it won't be hard: in fact, I'm betting you'll win first time out of the gate. Take the chance.

September 2, 2013

What People Really Look Like

Women have cellulite, men have silly buttocks.

I’ve been a massage therapist for many years, now. I know what people look like. People have been undressing for me for a long time. I know what you look like: a glance at you, and I can picture pretty well what you’d look like on my table. 

Let’s start here with what nobody looks like: nobody looks like the people in magazines or movies. Not even models. Nobody. Lean people have a kind of rawboned, unfinished look about them that is very appealing. But they don’t have plump round breasts and plump round asses. You have plump round breasts and a plump round ass, you have a plump round belly and plump round thighs as well. That’s how it works. (And that’s very appealing too.)

Woman have cellulite. All of them. It’s dimply and cute. It’s not a defect. It’s not a health problem. It’s the natural consequence of not consisting of photoshopped pixels, and not having emerged from an airbrush.

Men have silly buttocks. Well, if most of your clients are women, anyway. You come to male buttocks and you say -- what, this is it? They’re kind of scrawny and the tissue is jumpy because it’s unpadded; you have to dial back the pressure, or they’ll yelp.

Adults sag. It doesn’t matter how fit they are. Every decade, an adult sags a little more. All of the tissue hangs a little looser. They wrinkle, too. I don’t know who put about the rumor that just old people wrinkle. You start wrinkling when you start sagging, as soon as you’re all grown up, and the process goes its merry way as long as you live. Which is hopefully a long, long time, right?

Everybody on a massage table is beautiful. There are really no exceptions to this rule. At that first long sigh, at that first thought that “I can stop hanging on now, I’m safe” – a luminosity, a glow, begins. Within a few minutes the whole body is radiant with it. It suffuses the room: it suffuses the massage therapist too. People talk about massage therapists being caretakers, and I suppose we are: we like to look after people, and we’re easily moved to tenderness. But to let you in on a secret: I’m in it for the glow. 

I’ll tell you what people look like, really: they look like flames. Or like the stars, on a clear night in the wilderness.

reposted in Elephant Journal

August 27, 2013

Not Good at Being Pregnant

“I am not good at being pregnant,” you said, with a wan smile.

And you said, “my hips hurt, and there's a pinching here” – indicating either side of the sacrum. “But I don't know if there's anything you can do about it...” the brave patient face suddenly collapsed, and a dangerous woman with dark eyes abruptly said, “God, don't fix anything!”

I grinned. “I won't, I promise. No fixing.”

My hands on the small knotted belly, seething with the newcomer, the messenger, the bringer of morning sickness. Sheets of flame: an effulgence of new life.

Everything's in order: everything is fabulous, in fact. The overall impression of vigor and good health is unmistakeable. So is the worry, and the stress, and the fatigue, and the lingering effects of recurrent nausea. It's often this way: a strange double-exposure effect. It's not my place to say, “not to worry, it only gets stranger.”

It's also not my place to say, “My dear, you are magnificent at being pregnant.”

But. You know? You're magnificent at being pregnant.

August 15, 2013

Losing a Toenail

I have been incorporating resistance exercise into my wimp parkour: in fact each session has a couple “lift to failure” components, sometimes with dumbbells, sometimes with body weight. Lifting to failure is a pretty simple concept. You just do something hard – very slowly and mindfully – till you can't do it any more. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes: if it does, next time you do it with more weight/resistance. The concept is easy. It's fun to do (despite its name!) because it's fierce, all-out effort. By God, you know you've exercised! And it's actually less likely to cause injury than the endless repetitions so many of us were led to believe were good exercise – i.e. calisthenics and aerobics and so forth – which entail a lot of wear and tear on the joints. It gives a clear message to the body: we better ramp up the strength and endurance here: we can't do some of the stuff we need to do!*

So – I am quite a bit stronger than I was a few months ago. And I've been savoring that strength. I sling my table around with ease. It's not a “portable” table: it's a solidly built, custom, Robert Hunter table, slightly oversize. I love carrying it around, and I love the skill with which I shoot it into the back seat of the Honda, swinging it on its handle, using its momentum, using just the right pivots and leverage, resting it briefly on one knee, and powering its last little scoot over the drive-shaft bump with an easy flex of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. Knowing how the body's muscles work has all kinds of side-benefits, and it pleases both the massage therapist and the engineer in me; not to mention the teen-aged boy.

Well, pride goeth before a fall. Last night I pulled the table out of the car, let it swing out, then up along the side of the car as I straightened, and then let it swing back to rest one corner on the ground – except I blew it. My sandaled foot was half an inch too close to the car, and instead of just clearing the ground, the corner of the table snagged the nail of my big toe. Nearly tore it off. The pain blossomed in a brilliant wash of gold and red, saturating my body. Extraordinarily intense.

I gave out a stifled roar and then bit my lip, hard. Then – I've noticed this response to intense pain before – I found that finishing the task I was engaged in when I was hurt, in this case of getting my gear into the house, assumed immense importance to me. I loaded myself up with my duffle, linens bag, and table, and walked into the house with them. I put them carefully away, and then sat down on the couch to let the pain subside.

It took ten or fifteen minutes. I just sat and observed it. I am interested in pain, professionally, now. What was most interesting was that, while the initial pain was as intense as any pain I've ever experienced, my assessment of its importance was so low that my emotional distress was minimal, and the pain evaporated very rapidly. Soon it was not there at all. I'm limping today, favoring it, but so long as I don't move it, it's fine, and I expect it will heal up in no time: the nail might or might not sluff off, but basically I'm fine, and it's not impacting my life at all. I'll go to work as usual, and do a massage tonight, no problem. I've lost toenails before: I know they just grow back. It's no big deal. This is a great example of how even blindingly intense pain can have a really minimal impact on one's life, if – and only if – one is thoroughly convinced that it has no importance.**

* See Doug McGuff, Body By Science

** See Lorimer Mosely's video, Why We Hurt

July 21, 2013

How to Stop Eating Too Much, in Ten Moderately Difficult Steps

  1. Find out how much you normally eat. The only way to do this is to measure and record it. This is a little tedious, but it's really important and you just can't skip it. There are excellent tools out there that make it easier. I use (I don't pay any attention to how much they tell you to eat – it's way too little – nor to how many calories they say exercise consumes – it's way too much. But it's free, and it makes recording your eating much easier.) Measure your waist and weigh yourself every day, too.

  2. Don't try to fix your eating yet. Don't try to eat less. Just find your present base line. Find out what you eat now. If you binge, don't beat yourself up about it: that's just part of the binge pathology. No need for beating up. Just write it down. For now, you're just gathering information. Just record it: all of it: for a whole month. That should be long enough for you to go through the whole range of your eating behaviors. I guarantee that if you do this faithfully, you will discover several startling things about how you eat. Mechanics say: you can't fix it if you can't see it. Your first job is to see it.

  3. Exercise. The CDC has an excellent recommendations: follow them. You can do this at the same time as you're recording, if you like. The exercise will not, of itself, make you lose weight: in fact, if you're starting from sedentary, you ought to pack on some pounds of muscle as you ramp up. This is fine. This is good. You want muscle. It will make you feel good to have muscle. Trust me. But we're not losing weight yet, okay? We're getting the body ready to be metabolically healthy. More important BY FAR than losing weight. If you never get farther than this step, you'll still be way ahead of the game. 

  4. Don't try to fix the eating yet, though. You're not ready. 

  5. Okay. You've faithfully recorded every single damn thing you eat for a month, and you're following the CDC guidelines for exercise, right? I know, it's hard. But if you haven't done these steps, don't do the next ones yet. Just start over and get the first ones down. Don't get discouraged: if it was easy, we'd all already be svelte, and we wouldn't be having this conversation. It's hard. But hang in there. Get these steps done. We'll wait for you.

  6. Now we're going to start fixing the eating. We're exercising, and we're tracking what we eat. The next step is to eat good food. You don't have to stop eating bad food. Not now, not ever, though you may have to eat less of it eventually (that's step 10.) There's lots of good food, and you're bound to like some of it. Basically, if it has no white flour, added sugar (including of course sugar's evil twin, corn syrup), processed oils, or preservatives in it, it's probably good food. Vegetables, fruit, nuts, meat, eggs, beans, tubers, minimally processed grains – all good stuff. But the tricky part is that we've learned to eat them in hyper-palatable forms. We eat potatoes – great! Wonderful food! – but we eat them drenched in salt, butter, and sour cream. We eat green salads – terrific! – but swimming in sugared, processed oils. We eat pork – a great meat! – but in the form of bacon, awash with nitrates and soaked in salt. Your job is to start eating these things fairly plain. Add some salt to your potatoes, sure. Dress your salad in cold-pressed olive oil & vinegar. Roast your fresh pork in the oven. They're great foods. (See Stephan Guyenet's blog posts on why people eat too much: Whole Health Source.)

  7. Don't stop eating bad food yet. Making these changes are hard enough: you're going to need your comfort foods to see you through them. This is the hardest part, and it's going to take a lot of work. If you're like most contemporary Americans, this part involves learning to cook, which is a big enterprise: learning to shop, learning to store food, learning to prepare food and keep a good, functional, ongoing kitchen. Learning to know when food has gone bad and needs to be thrown out. It means cleaning up after most meals, so that the kitchen is functional again for the next meal. All this stuff is hard. It's time-consuming and discouraging. If you learned to do it as a kid, thank your parents devoutly. (Really, call them up right now and thank them.) If you didn't – take a deep breath, lean in, and get going.

  8. So now, you're going to do some calculating, and figure out what your caloric needs at your goal weight are likely to be. I like this calorie calculator. Pick a sensible goal weight, not an extravagant one. If you don't have one in mind, I'd pick the highest round number that's considered to be in the “normal” range. Then use the calculator to find the number of calories you'll need to support that weight at your current activity levels.

  9. Now – you're still faithfully tracking your eating, right? I'm sorry, it's a bitch, but you've got to do it – now your aim is to eat that many calories every day in good plain food, the kind you learned to make and eat in step six. Eat as much bad food as you like, too! At this stage, that's important. Go ahead. Binge if you need to binge. Eat your treats. Reward yourself. You're making really difficult changes. You can eat anything you damn well please BUT – you have to eat your goal weight calorie requirements in good plain food as well.

  10. You've done this for a month? Excellent. Now, you're ready for the last step. You've been tracking for long enough now to see if the calculators were right, and make your adjustments accordingly. What has happened in your month of eating enough good plain food? If your weight and waist measurements have been going down – for many people they will be – then you're done. Just keep eating this way. But if you are not moving toward your goal weight and goal waist size, you're going to need to run a deliberate calorie deficit. Make it a modest deficit. A 500 calorie daily deficit is a whopping one: I'd go for 200 or 300 calories fewer per day, or maybe 1,500 or 2,000 fewer per week. (If you like more variation in how much you eat day by day, weekly totals may work better for you.) Don't cut out all your treats. Just eat mostly good plain food, and run enough of a deficit to lose at most a pound a week. If you're losing more than that you're probably just storing up trouble for yourself. It may take years to lose the weight. If it does, that's just fine. As long as you're eating mostly good food, and you're not gaining weight, you're playing the winning game: it's the long game, but it's the winning game.

There you have it: that's my advice. I want to stress that this doesn't describe my own journey: it's just how, looking back, after years and years of struggle, dead ends, and failures, it seems to me that it would have been easiest to do it, and it is how I do it now. I also want to stress that it's really hard. It's not hard because you're hungry and deprived: you're not. It's hard because it takes a lot of work and discipline to keep feeding yourself enough good plain food. That's what's hard. And there's no short cut, no quick and painless way around that. You have to learn to make it, eat it, clean up after it, and make it again. It sucks. But it works.

July 17, 2013

Moseley: Why Things Hurt

I often send this link to clients (and friends) who are experiencing chronic, apparently disproportionate pain. Partly I'm just stowing it here so I'll remember where it is.

A big obstacle in dealing with this kind of pain is that there's a widespread, fundamental misunderstanding about what pain is, and how it is created. It is not a direct perception of tissue damage. It's an alarm that's set off by one part of the brain (unconsciously) in order to get the full attention of the conscious part of the brain. How loud that alarm will be depends on a number of things, but it boils down to a unconscious assessment. The nervous system makes a preliminary judgement: just how bad is this thing that just happened? And it sends off a correspondingly loud alarm.

Here's the problem: it's really not very good at this. It takes some input, does a lightning quick check of fearsome things that can happen that might match that input, and if it finds something really scary, it blasts the siren. Better safe than sorry, is its motto. And remember, this happens before the conscious brain has any input. You don't get a chance to interrogate the nervous system. You don't get to say, "hmm, are these the sort of signals I might expect after overusing my back muscles, or are these the sort of signals I'd get from a spinal disk slipping out of place?" The first thing you -- meaning your conscious brain -- know, is a blast of intense and terrifying pain. It's completely real, as real as pain ever gets. But it may not mean there's anything particularly wrong.

Very unfortunately, though, the pain itself gets added to the database. And the next time your back muscles twinge, one of the fearsome things that show up in the unconscious brain's quick search is that this thing can REALLY hurt! Better intensify that alarm! Send up an even louder alarm than last time!

At this point, we're well on your way to what we commonly, and erroneously, call "a bad back." What we actually have is glitchy nervous system. Since there's nothing particularly wrong with the back, nothing we do to it is actually going to help very much (unless we inadvertently manage to reset the nervous system's responses.) If we don't understand that the nervous system can trip over itself like this, we're likely to undertake all kinds of things -- some of them drastic, such as fusing vertebrae -- in order to fix something that is not broken.

May 30, 2013

Wimp Parkour: How It Started

Well, in the beginning – you know Parkour, right? Also known as free running? It looks like this:

So I'd been watching these videos, and I had two thoughts right away. I bet you had the same ones. First, it looks like the most fun a person could possibly have; second, if I tried to do anything of the sort, I'd come to humiliating grief within ten seconds. It made me sad. I've never envied professional athletes: that level of specialization seems joyless, industrial even; and embarking on a career with such a short sharp arc seems foolish. Who wants the peak of their life to happen at age 25? But I envied these guys. Flying over rooftops and springing over rails – oh, what fun! What sweet freedom! And such a playful relationship to have with the physical world. Children have that relationship, but adults mostly lose it. Imagine the world as these traceurs see it: a playground of infinite possibilities!

Meanwhile, in my little house in Portland, I was moping. We moved last year, further from the downtown, where I work, and the miles that added to my commute discouraged me, especially when the rains came. Riding my bike was not fun anymore: it was a chore. I was doing it less and less often.

So there I was, feeling sorry for myself. I read the CDC recommendations for exercise – which are sharp and on the ball and exactly right, by the way! I was agreeably surprised – anyway, I was reading these and wondering how I could possibly work half an hour of exercise a day into my daily routine, if I didn't commute by bicycle. There's no gym nearby, not that I know of; not that I've ever much liked gyms. And I've always hated running, all my life. So here I was, stuck. No way to exercise.

It was at this point that some spirit borrowed from those soaring traceurs got a little irritated at me. You have a half hour in front of you, it said impatiently. You have the run of an entire little house, full of interesting obstacles, and objects that can be climbed over or lifted. You have a handy body weight of two hundred and some pounds to sling around. You're a clever lad, with an embarrassment of academic degrees and all the resources of the internet at hand. And you're telling me you can't find a way to fill a half hour with exercise? Really? Really?

Something began to wake up. I got up off the couch an embarked on my very first session of Wimp Parkour. I trotted through the kitchen and down the two steps to the laundry room. Laundry baskets on the floor! I sprang over them. A full three yards to the bookcases. Quick turn! Back over the baskets! Up the steps, back down the steps backwards, hopping back up. Back up to the kitchen counter, jump up to sit on it, again, three times. See if I can stretch to the ceiling. Dash back to the living room. Bear walk to a plank, do a pushup – can I still do a pushup? Yes! – bear walk back to a squat, and stand up. Sprint into the bedroom; shoulder roll onto the bed. Yikes! Dizzy as all hell. Haven't tried going head over heels for a while. Lie on the bed till the whirlies go away. Out to the living room. Seize the arm chair and lift it over my head: trot this way and that with it, swing it around a little. Imagine I've tripped and drop to the floor. Practice getting up off the floor without using my hands: back up, back down, back up, back down. What's the hard part? That first lift from cross-legged to being on one knee. Practice that, then. Up and down and up and down.

Within ten minutes I had exhausted myself. I finished my half hour's exercise with twenty minutes' walk around the neighborhood. I was happy. I was alive. My mountain-goat mind was awake, looking at everything as something to skip over or balance on. It was deeply, ridiculously gratifying.

March 23, 2013

When You Can Object

Most of us, I reckon, have some opening spiel with our clients about letting us know if they don't like something we're doing. Mine goes like this. It's usually the last thing I say: the client's on the table, all covered up with the sheet & blanket. I've laid hands on their back. I lean down a bit and say, “If anything I do makes you uncomfortable, for any reason, tell me right away.” They make some little sound of acknowledgment, or a little nod. I go on, to drive it home, “Don't lie there thinking, God, I hope he stops doing that pretty soon. Just tell me.”

In other words, the answer to “when can you object?” is clean, simple, and categorical. Any time.

This is important. It's on my mind because I found myself reiterating it recently, with a client I've seen many times. Because it's easy for a sense that one shouldn't object to grow up, maybe even especially inside of an ongoing therapeutic relationship.

It got me thinking about various reasons you might decide you couldn't object. Here's three:

He knows what he's doing, and I'm here to avail myself of his expertise. A client of mine once said, when I was checking whether something was OK, “You're the boss!” and was, maybe, surprised by the forcefulness of my response. I said “No, you are the boss. You're hiring me, and you're the expert on your own sensations. I am not the boss.” I don't want any vagueness about that at all. The client is the boss, by virtue of paying me, and they're the owner of their body, by inalienable right. I refuse to be the boss of anyone else's body.

I haven't objected to this before, so I have no right to now. I don't know how common this is, but I sometimes worry about it. What okay one time might not be another. There are places that are sensitive and vulnerable, by nature, by culture, or by personal history. Every therapist knows this, and approaches them cautiously if at all: the abdomen, the inner thighs, the inside of the upper arms are common ones, but it can be practically anywhere. I've had clients who could not stand to have their feet worked, or to have their ears touched. There are certain positionings that for one individual or another are too much: I know someone for whom, due to old trauma, lying on her side for a massage nearly always brings tears. The first time we work a delicate area or reposition you, we usually check in ahead of time, and are alert for signs of discomfort while we work. But after we've decided it's okay, we may not be watching out, even though we know these things shift. You should always object if you're not liking it. It may take a while for you to figure out you don't like something, after all. And you don't have to object for all time. It is perfectly legitimate to say “Oh, not the calves, not today.” And it's still legitimate, even if you really liked the calves last week. That was then.

I can't object without impugning his motives. You may be thinking: I know he's not trying to grope me, I know this is my own discomfort and comes from my own history, so I shouldn't lay this old baggage on him.” This is nonsense. Saying “I'm not comfortable with this touch” is not an accusation, and no legitimate therapist would ever take it as one. If you do think your therapist is trying to grope you, rather than just objecting, you should end the session and go inform the state massage board. We don't want those people in the business. But if you're unsure, the best way to make sure is to say, clearly, “I'm not comfortable being touched there.” Any legitimate professional will stop at once, and be grateful for the feedback. They may explain why they were doing that particular move in that particular way, and they may ask for clarification about where “there” is, which is fine: but if they try to convince you that you should be comfortable with it, or try to keep doing it, red flags should be sprouting before your eyes like crocuses in Spring. Those are not professional responses.

I'm sure there's lots more reasons why you might think you shouldn't object, but this is one of those few questions that has a simple, clear, straight-edged answer. When can you object? Any time. You don't need a reason, or a precedent, or a principle. You can just say, “I don't want to be touched there,” or “I don't want to be in that position,” or “I don't want to be touched that way.” And if objecting doesn't feel entirely comfortable or natural to you, it may be all the more important to do it. You might even just want to practice – object to something even if you are comfortable with it. You can just cheerfully say, “I don't want my stomach touched.” And – without being offended, or asking for justification, or being perturbed in any way, I will simply not touch your stomach.

Of course, we will (hopefully) have asked you in the intake interview if there's any areas you want us to avoid, or any place you don't like to be touched. When I'm asking I usually add some examples: “Face? Feet? Abdomen? Glutes?” But you don't always know ahead of time, and before the first massage you don't really have any idea what my touch is going to be like. Even if you like heavy work on your feet, you might hate a light touch there. When you realize that I might actually do light tapotement (drumming) on your belly – I've been known to do it, it's a standard in tui na massage – you might decide in a hurry that it's not the touch you want there. You don't sign away your right to control how you're touched by signing the intake form!

Any time. And sooner rather than later, please. The massage doesn't work if you're not comfortable.

March 21, 2013

Why I Do That Parent Special

Okay, so I'm not a big HuffPo fan in general, but this article by Una LaMarche, How To Be a Perfect Parent in 5 Easy Steps... or Probably Never was so funny and so true. Here's step 5:
5. "If Mama Ain't Happy Ain't Nobody Happy" Sounds Like a Tyler Perry Movie But Is Also Totally True
All of the organic, fair-trade, pasture-raised artisanal Play-Doh and 800-count recycled hemp crib sheets in the world won't matter if you as a parent don't feel at least reasonably happy and cared for. This means taking time -- by force if necessary! -- to eat, sleep, and do things that matter to you, whether that's work or crappy reality TV or a manicure or a spin class. If you find yourself flailing, and contemplating buying Brooke Shields' "Down Came the Rain" for Amazon overnight delivery, as I did, get help. See a therapist, get meds if necessary. Or just schedule a night out with friends when you can bitch about your problems and get tipsy and feel like a free person again. Whatever gets you to a better place. Your happiness matters. It matters just as much as your child's happiness, because your child's happiness depends on you. Everything depends on you. NO PRESSURE OR ANYTHING, JESUS.

Which is why I do that massage for parents of kids under Four special. Those first few years are hell on wheels.

March 2, 2013

How my Mother Saved my Life

Last year I was riding my bike up a narrow street, with cars parked on either hand. Suddenly a car door popped open, right in my path. Too late to swerve. I clenched the brakes, hit the door, and flew off the bike.

A moment later I was on my feet, fifteen yards down the road, jolted but perfectly fine. According to bystanders, I had flown over the door, gone headfirst toward the pavement, done an elegant shoulder-roll, and come up on my feet, and trotted to a stop. “That was pretty impressive,” said one of them. The onlookers seemed more shaken than I was.

A nice bruise developed on my hip: I think I slammed it against one of my handle-bars on my way off the bike. But no other injuries: not a scratch, not a scrape.

I was absurdly fortunate. People get killed that way. All I remember of my flight is seeing the pavement coming and ducking my head. A “tick” as my helmet tapped the ground, and then being on my feet. But it was familiar. I'd done it before, somewhere, sometime... when?

It was months later that it suddenly came to me: gymnastics. Grade school. I was always terrible at sports, in grade school, with the single odd exception of gymnastics, which I had some talent for. My mother had even taken me to extra gymnastics lessons, somewhere: I had a single vivid memory of mastering forward flips off a springboard, in a place that is otherwise unfamiliar to me: floor mats, sweat, sour dust, the leather handle of the horse, chalk on the uneven bars. Forty some years ago, I had learned what to do when hurtling headfirst at the ground. Duck your head, give way with the foremost shoulder, and let the roll happen. If you're still moving too fast when you come out, let another roll happen.

What strikes me now is that my body remembered what I had learned forty years before, called it up in a flash, and used it, while my conscious mind had so thoroughly lost the memory that it took months to find it again.

Thanks, Mom. I doubt I was properly grateful at the time!

I think there's two obvious lessons here: one is, see to it that your kids do some gymnastics, formally or informally; and the other is, what your body learns in scary circumstances, it doesn't soon forget.

February 10, 2013

Posture and Deskwork

Clients often tell me they're working on their posture. I'm a massage therapist, right? I'm supposed to approve of people minding their alignment: sitting in perfect, harmonious balance, with their arms in the exact neutral position. So they're surprised, possibly a little hurt, when I say, “There's nothing wrong with your posture. Forget about it.”

I'm rather abrupt because 1) worrying about your posture ups your stress and will tend to make the problem worse, 2) people virtually never change their posture, whether they worry about it or not, and 3) it draws energy and attention away from the real problem. The problem is not how you're sitting, the problem is how much you're sitting. And the answer is to get the hell out of the chair and do something, whenever you can. Really get up, and move around. Go jog around the parking lot a couple times. Lie down on the floor for five minutes, pulling your knees up to your chest a couple times. Waggle and twist.

If your workplace culture frowns on this, then shame on them. But do whatever you have to do. Sneak out to the stairwell. Jog in a bathroom stall. Slip out to your car and lie down in the back seat: if someone sees you, pretend you're looking for your phone. Whatever. No amount of exquisitely balancing your head on your neck, and centering your rib cage above your pelvis, and positioning your arms on or off the arms of the chair, is going to change the fact that sitting for even a few hours doing desk work is damned bad for you, and that sitting for nine or ten hours is even worse. If you're doing that, and then going home and spending five more hours doing the same, as your leisure relaxation, then God help you.

A stand up desk won't help much either. Even one that adjusts so you can either sit or stand probably won't make a lot of difference. Again: it's not how you do it, it's the fact that you are doing it. To work with a screen and keyboard means that you're holding most of your body rigid while you do fine motor work with your eyes and fingers. Doing this for hours at a time makes demands on your body that it's not designed to meet. The problem is not your alignment, or your level of enlightenment, or your emotional maturity: it's that you're stressing your body beyond its design tolerances.

Most corporate ergonomic interventions begin with the assumption that a person should be able to sit doing deskwork for forty or fifty hours per week: companies that employ people to do it are understandably reluctant to question this assumption. But if you want a nice long working life with a happy neck and back, you had better question it. I see people every week whose neck and back pain has rendered them unable to work. Young people, some of them: thirty- and forty-year-olds. Don't join them. Get out of the chair and away from the desk.

Massage is wonderful. I highly recommend it. And it will even help somewhat. But there's no way that even twice-weekly massage – more than most people can afford – will offset what a day spent mostly at deskwork is going to do to you. You need to get serious: realize that you're challenging your body to do something very difficult for it, and bring your ingenuity to bear on mitigating and relieving its hardships.

Further reading:

Feldenkrais-trained Todd Hargrove's wonderful set of posts on posture.

A great essay on sedentary workplace survival: Paul Ingraham's piece on “microbreaking."