Easing Pain with Yoga

Erich Schiffman Moving Into Stillness 2009

There are many reasons to practice yoga although it is essentially a practice intended to make us wiser, calmer, and better able to understand things. If you breathe, you can do yoga. If you are willing to pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, you can do yoga. And if you suffer from chronic pain, yoga can be a powerful compliment to physical therapy, medical treatment or surgery. The key to understanding chronic pain , pain lasting longer than 3 months, is exactly what modern science and yoga teaches: a mind-body connection that doesn’t differentiate physical pain, such as chronic neck pain, and emotional pain, such as depression. Practicing healing breathing and meditations, done anywhere, and at any time, can diminish this kind of suffering.

Calming the Nervous System
Our brain does a fine job of alerting us to incoming threat signals for our safety, but with chronic pain, the body and the nervous system becomes hyper alert, out of proportion with the actual physical pain. Stanford University professor  Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. ,in her book Yoga For Pain Relief, explains how you can thank our nervous system and its ability to learn in response to experience, called neuroplasticity,  for that. When you balance on one leg, she writes, the nervous system  becomes  more sensitive  to signs that you are in danger of falling. It also becomes more skilled at using that information to trigger a physical response to keep you in balance. The same holds true for pain, in that the nervous system “gets better” at being in pain, detecting threat and producing the protective pain response. It turns out this also leads to increased sensitivity in areas of the brain that detect any other kinds of conflict. Neuroplasticity can also be a solution, she writes. You have to teach your mind and body something new. The Yoga Sutra , the classic  text on yoga , describes  conflicts and false perceptions, such as” I am never going to get rid of this pain”, as Avidya. Avidya literally means “incorrect comprehension.”It clouds of perception of things.
3 Minute –Meditation

Teach yourself something new by redirecting your mind to your breath, the life force in all of us. Practice this simple meditation to reprogram the biology of any pain you have, and allow your body to heal and thrive. (Adapted from Emotional Freedom by Judith Oroloff M.D.)
•    Find a comfortable quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Settle into a  relaxed position, or prop yourself  on your bed, with pillows supporting you, so you won’t fall asleep.
•    Focus on your breath to quiet your thoughts. Eyes closed, gently place your awareness on your breath. Be conscious of only breathing in and out. Notice your thoughts, but don’t attach any judgment to them. Just let them float away & gently return to focusing on your breath. Relax a little more.
•    Breathe in calm, breathe out stress. Let yourself feel the sensuality of inhaling as you first fill your chest and then fill the abdomen, and exhale as you release the abdomen and then finally empty the top of the lungs. This stretches your spine and straightens your back. With each slow, deep breath, feel yourself  inhaling calm, sweet as the summer jasmine, then exhale frustration. All negativity is released. Your body unwinds, lulling your biology. You’re cocooned by the safety of stillness. Keep refocusing on your breath and the calm. Only the calm.
There are many ways to describe the meaning of yoga beside the classic definition of one with the divine. No matter what name we use for the divine, anytime we feel in harmony with a higher power, that  too, is yoga. One of the most influential yoga teachers of our time, Sri T. Krishnamacharya,  spent  most of his life helping people with all sorts of illness. For one person, it might have been a more physical practice, for another, prayer and meditation might have been more appropriate. What ever you choose, practice it if only for a few minutes each day, as simple as breathing .

Connie Aronson is an ACSM Health & Fitness Specialist located at the  YMCA in Ketchum, Idaho. She is currently at her annual yoga retreat, with big Montana skies.

A Changing Army: Ditching Sit-ups After 30 Years

Soldiers can forget about sit-ups. For the first time in 30 years, the US army has up-dated its fitness testing to better prepare soldiers for the demands of combat. Lt. General Mark Hertling, the general in charge of the Army’s initial training, collaborated with a 16 member team to revise the Army’s Physical Readiness and Combat tests. Going are the full sit-up test, and the 2 minute push-up and 2 mile run are being revised. Instead, the first test will expand from 3-5 events. The full sit-up goes for several physiological and safety reasons: they don’t do much to strengthen the core to translate to battle strength, and the full flex movement, the actual crunch part of the sit-up, puts an unhealthy strain on the back at its weakest point. The push-up  pace increases to assess upper body endurance, and the run gets shortened to 1.5 miles to assess the anaerobic capacity needed for high intensity bursts in the battlefield. “This is about training smarter, not training more”, Hertling said. Added are a no-rest standing long jump and 1 minute row to look at immediate fatigue and failure.

The out-dated PT test” does not adequately measure components of strength, endurance and mobility. The events have a low co-relation to the performance of warrior tasks and battle drills” said Hertling, who holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology.

Combat veterans trying out the new tests say they are tough. For the Army Combat Readiness test they are in full combat gear while carrying a rifle. They have to excel at sprints, move through hurdles and maneuver balance beams while holding heavy ammo tins, drag a 180 pound sled, and run  sprints.

Specific gender and age standards, from under age 30 to 60, for the test scores will align with the American College of Sports Medicine and Cooper Institute to establish standards and a thorough review before the tests are approved. “Soldiers like to be challenged. This will definitely challenge them”, Hertling said.

Training for the Rest of Us/ Bringing Boot Camp Home

Most of us want to look and feel good and the only battle we face is aging well. But we can take elements of the new testing to inspire us to work a little harder in our work-outs by going beyond where we thought we could, into the “somewhat hard” zone, even if it is only 30 seconds or a minute. High-intensity exercise toughens you up, writes Dr. John Ratey,author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science Of Exercise and The Brain.”It’s why we climb mountains and sign up for boot camp and Outward Bound trips.” Studies show that by adding a single spurt of sprinting for 30 seconds, on a bike for example, generates a 6 fold increase in human growth hormone, the ” fountain of youth” hormone. Remember, he writes, that by middle age these hormones dwindle to 1/10 of what they were during childhood. The sprints and agility tests that the Army will practice build fast-twitch muscles, which add power to movement. For us mere mortals, these new muscle fibers enhance our metabolism and help us become better at burning fats and carbohydrates for up to 4 hours after training, as well as lowering blood pressure.

Keep the push-ups.Push-ups are a great full body exercise strengthening many muscles at once: abs, front of your legs, arms and back. According to the American College of Sports Medicine fitness test, a 40-49 year old  female or male  performing more than 18 or19  push-ups, respectively, with the chin touching the floor and back straight, scores an “above average” rating. The tests are designed to help you develop a fitness program based on your results. The ACSM and Cooper Institute will also be involved in the Army’s establishment of test standards.

Connie Aronson is an American College of Sports Medicine Health & Fitness Specialist and personal trainer located at the YMCA in Ketchum, Idaho


In Health, Small Changes Count

Regarding your health, small changes matter.

Popping up into a handstand  is easy. All you need is straight strong arms and  up  you  go. I used to do them easily. But then I developed chronic nerve pain in one of my legs, and going up was out of the question. I avoided them for years in yoga class. When my symptoms healed and  it was time to go up, fear took over. All I could think of  was buckling, which I did, again and again. In  Fierce Medicine, author and yoga pioneer Ana Forrest  writes about a Brave-Hearted Path. What if we became the hunter, and tracked down our fear, to turn from prey to predator? What if we let go of the old stories that hold us back and make a very small change? For most of us, small changes are realistic and attainable. The next time I tried a handstand, I tracked down the fear, (Have fun!) and up I popped, exhilarated! All it took was one small change in a very brief amount of time. When it comes to your health, tiny steps can help change a laundry list of habits.

Four Real New Year’s Resolutions

Access  Readiness.

Motivation has to come from within. Ask yourself what is the real objective you are after. Keep asking “why”. Uncovering the real reason of saying “I want to lose weight”, with further prodding, might really be that you want to have more energy and not miss out on hiking in the Pioneers next spring with friends.

Set your intent

Instead of waking up, tossing some coffee down our throats  and  rush  headlong into our day, Forrest suggests that you  set your intent, and not  make it overwhelming. Make one change that appeals most to you. If you are tired of a stiff neck from sitting at your computer, you might add 10   big shoulder rolls in each direction every hour you spend at your desk that day. Schedule a long overdue massage. If it’s out of control eating that bothers you, promise yourself to sit at the table every time you eat.

Small Enough Steps

Everyone knows it’s a good idea to park your car further away from where you need to be. Not only are the extra steps good for you, but it is also a time when you can take notice of the day. For those few moments, appreciate the environment you live in, the sun, or even the lack of traffic that day, and be grateful for that. Instead of feeling guilty about not getting on the treadmill for an hour, try just 10 minutes. You’ll be energized by the effort, and may even stay on it longer that you’d thought you would.

Nip an Unhealthy Habit in the Bud

As you strive to make health-enhancing resolutions materialize, Edward Philips, editor of the Harvard Health School Report, recommends taking a good look at any unhealthy habits that you can’t seem to shake. A daily diet of cookies for lunch could wreck havoc on your energy later in the day. Likewise, excessive amounts of time surfing online, for example, can leave you less opportunity to engage in healthier pursuits, such as deepening social ties, or a walk.

Your day to day choices, no matter if it’s practicing handstands or healthier eating, all count to help  bring vitality and well-being in the New Year. Happy holidays!

Connie Aronson ACSM Fitness Specialist located at the YMCA in Ketchum, Idaho.







Exaggerated Health Claims- Do You Believe It, Really?

Encyclopedia Britannica will soon cease to exist in print. Many of us grew up with those thick hardcovers, searching for information and answers. Today, at the click of your mouse, we are bombarded with pesky health and exercise claims. Infomercials and manufactures promise quick and effortless results with the next great gizmo or device, a product that cures a wide range of unrelated diseases, or workouts that burn 1000 calories an hour. Writer Colum McCann said that it’s easy to be cynical but much harder to be idealistic and have optimism. Our information age is wondrous, yet a large portion of health and fitness information online, and in the media is misleading. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Exercise scientist Steven Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina has no problem identifying pseudoscience, lazy journalists, celebrity experts and unqualified practitioners as quacks.


The archaic word “quacksalver” is of Dutch origin, literally meaning “hawker of salve” In the middle ages the word quack meant shouting. The Netherlands has the world’s oldest skeptics group, who in 1881 campaigned against misleading medical claims, and today grant awards to the worst offenders. No-one is literally shouting at us  today, but we can become better advocates by looking at the evidence itself. Look at high-quality peer-reviewed publications or websites. Strict criteria is used to evaluate the entire body of research on a specific topic, resulting in evidence –based recommendations. The weakest form of evidence , says Blair, is personal experience, in that the broad diversity of an individuals’ age, medical status, and level of fitness need to be considered. Not that personal experience has no value, he notes, but because a certain exercise or product” worked for me” doesn’t mean it’s well suited for the majority of the population. Some people’s success with any given product may be due to a remission in their disease, or from earlier use of medical treatments, rather than the use of the product itself.


Burn 1000 calories , seriously?


Infomercials are notorious for bold claims, and you’ve probably heard of cardio equipment that ‘burns twice as many calories as a treadmill”, but are the manufacturers stretching the truth? Dr. David Swain, a professor of Exercise Science at Old Dominion University, and originator of the VO 2 reserve concept for exercise prescription, says believing that you indeed can goes against basic exercise physiology. The amount of energy used during exercise depends on the amount of muscle mass used and the intensity of effort used with that muscle. Our cardiopulmonary system has an absolute limit on the amount of oxygen that moves from air to our blood, to muscles. These increases get incrementally smaller as the  absolute Vo 2 max is approached. For example, Swain sites running uphill on a treadmill as eliciting the highest VO2 of any mode of exercise because all the large muscles of the body are engaged: the legs and hips ,and also the back and upper body. Highly trained athletes in Nordic skiing or biking can slightly increase their treadmill value  (by 3-5% ) when performing sport-specific tests. So if a world-class athlete in their specific skills gain only so much more, how will the latest claim on some new machine enable you to get twice the results? “It’s not feasible to think that a new mode of exercise can exceed treadmill Vo2 by a huge amount” , says Swain. Most equipment is similar in it’s effectiveness if the workload is matched. There’s no gadget or machine to replace putting in the time and work to be fit.



www.ncbi.nim.nih.gov/pubmed- a search engine from the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes for Health





Published in the Idaho Mountain Express  March 17, 2012

Connie Aronson is an ACSM Health & Fitness Specialist in Ketchum, Idaho


Foam Rollers: Your Own Personal Masseuse

Photo credit  PTonthenet.

Photo credit PTonthenet.

If  you’re  active and participate in any of the fun sports this valley has to offer, you might benefit from daily foam roller stretching to alleviate soreness and promote recovery.  Round foam rollers are either 1 or 3 feet long. Popular with savvy athletes, and used in sports medicine clinics for rehab, use of the rollers can help bring blood to tight muscles, help manage chronic problems, and can be used before or after activity. Rolling out your muscles can also warm up cold muscles before deeper stretching. Most gyms have them out for members to use. Similar to massage, in that pressure is applied to a knot, or trigger point, the technique is a form of self-massage called myofascial release. Your body weight resting against the foam roller acts like a steam iron on a wrinkled shirt, smoothing out these knots. As these knots warm up within the muscle and fascia, and unbundle into straighter alignment, you are able to access areas that are difficult to treat with conventional stretches. The technique is to simply stay on the tender spot for 20 to 30 seconds, until the pain starts to subside.
Muscles imbalances, misalignment, and overuse patterns usually create various aches and pains. Many can be addressed with self-myofascial release with the roller. Golgi tendon organs are  proprioceptors , deep in tendons. The pressure of rolling on the roller relaxes  muscles and other soft tissues so they  begin to “let go”.
A Common Problem…. and RX
Sore knees are a common complaint among runners. An assessment of the lower leg, for example, might find that the individual excessively rolls their ankle and lower leg inward. A tight iliotibial band ( IT) may be the root of the problem. The iliotibial band attaches the gluteus  maximus to the lower leg. In a normal gait, these muscles help control the leg as it moves over the foot. Since the IT band attaches to the lower leg, the excessive inward rotation of the leg can, over time, cause inflammation and pain in the IT band. In this scenario, here’s where the roller comes in:
Place the roller perpendicular to the outside of your thigh and lie over it. Roll over it at a rate of one inch per second, looking for any sore or tender spots. Hold your body weight there for 30- 40 seconds until the pain starts to subside. Try to relax, even if it is uncomfortable. Continue rolling down the side of your hip towards your knee. Roll each leg every day, for about 1-2 minutes. Make sure you don ’t  roll over the knee joint.
Check out www.power-systems.com, www.gaiama.com or www.amazon.com to purchase one. Start off this fall stretched and ready to get outside and play!