Physical Enlightenment

I had a flash of enlightenment lately. Like many of my flashes of enlightenment, it was something I already knew. I just hadn’t been paying attention.

Ready to be enlightened? Here it is:

Using your body correctly when doing any movement is vital to both good performance and good health.

This advice comes from a mashup of a couple of things my (wonderful) physical therapist said combined with other things I know (but haven’t been thinking about lately) from training in Aikido, Tai Chi, and Qigong,  and taking classes in Alexander technique.

While this advice applies to playing sports or lifting weights or dancing, the real pay off for me is that I’ve figured out how to get in and out of chairs and walk up and down stairs without pain. 

Back when I was training in Aikido — and after I had trained enough years to stop trying to force technique when it wasn’t working — I was pretty good at working to do a movement correctly rather than pushing to “win.” But somehow I’d forgotten how important it was to move correctly in every part of your life. 

Now the truth is, most of us don’t know a lot about how to use our bodies. All too often physical education classes are focused on effort, not on the best way to use your body to do a particular motion. 

Adult exercise classes these days are more of a mixed bag. I’m sure some yoga and Pilates teachers spend a lot of time on how to do moves well, but many of the classes out there are all about the burn. 

I was fortunate to pick up a lot about movement in Aikido. There was a time when I did an Alexander class just before an Aikido class, and putting the two things together really helped me understand movement. Tai Chi and Qigong classes expanded my understanding.

Anyway, I spent a lot of 2021 in pain. When I first started having some problems, it was the beginning of the year, when the pandemic was out of control (not, unfortunately, for the last time) and vaccines weren’t yet available, so I didn’t bother to call the doctor. I knew the best approach would be physical therapy and I wasn’t going to go spend hours inside a medical facility, even to stop hurting.

I finally got around to calling for a doctor’s appointment in the summer, but then it was a couple of months until I could see the doctor and then another couple of months to see the PT. (Even the medical providers who aren’t doing directly Covid care are backed up these days.)

So I spent a lot of time trying various things to deal with what became a messed up shoulder and arm, a knee that didn’t like to bend, and an aching hip. (I messed up the shoulder trying to favor the knee and the hip and the shoulder problems are connected.) 

The exercises I tried were OK; in fact, my shoulder was doing much better by the time I saw the PT. But I had reached the point where I dreaded the stairs. Since I live on the second floor, that was an issue.

The PT gave me some exercises that are healing the underlying problems. One of the key pieces of advice he gave me was to be sure I was using the right muscle for those exercises. So, for example, when I’m doing clamshell exercises for the hips, the most important thing is not how high I lift my knees, but whether I’m doing the move using my glutes and my abs. 

It’s not going to solve the problem unless I’m working the right part of my body.

Then he told me that, when I walk either up or down stairs, to lean forward slightly. And when getting in and out of chairs, I need to lean forward quite a bit.

In practicing these things, I remembered something critical: human beings don’t have a hinge at their waist. We bend at the hips. (We bend at the neck, too, but for the purpose of bending forward in going up and down stairs, you want to use the hip.)

So right now, every time I go up or down the stairs, I bend my knees just slightly (because, as I finally remembered, you always want a slight bend in your knees when you move), and lean forward a few inches, bending at the hips. 

Neither my knees nor my hips scream when I go up and down the stairs like that.

Doing it going down stairs may seem counterintuitive, but the key thing is that you’re giving both your hips and knees a little space. All too often we stiffen our knees and/or crumple at the waist when we use stairs, and that’s putting extra pressure on the joints.

I immediately got the principle when my PT gave me the bend forward advice, because I had run into it before. I just hadn’t been applying it.

I’ve been very glad to discover just how good modern physical therapy is. My therapist was able to look at the way I moved and see what some of my issues were. He also listened to my description of where I hurt carefully and asked useful questions. Those things gave him enough information to give me some very useful exercises and advice.

Everyone needs to get this kind of advice, even when they don’t hurt. Too many of us move badly most of the time and as we get older, our habits cause pain. But unless you know what to do about it, you figure you’re stuck with it.

But you’re not. I guarantee it. 

OK, I’m not running up and down the stairs. I don’t plan to run ever again. But I’m not hurting, either.

Not hurting is itself a form of enlightenment

2 thoughts on “Physical Enlightenment

  1. I used to be better at moving intentionally. Now (aside from my truly horrific posture) I just keep forgetting to remember, unless something is specifically hurting. I am trying to reinstate the two best pieces of advice I got from a PT decades ago: always keep my knees slightly bent, and drop my shoulders. That second one is hard–I find that the more stressful the world is, the more my shoulders rise to my ears (see “truly horrific posture” above).

    It’s a work in progress.

    1. Your PT was so right about shoulders and knees. I’m reasonably good about keeping my shoulders relaxed, but despite all those years in martial arts I find I straighten my knees when I feel off balance, which — trust me — does not help. (Also, I clench my entire upper body when I drive, especially on the freeways.)

      I should point out, in the interest of giving good movement advice, that I hurt my arm and shoulder by not using my whole body — particularly my lower body — to pull something heavy. That’s something else I knew, of course, but when your knees hurt, you tend to do a lot of movements with other parts of your body to compensate. I suspect this causes a lot of back pain, just as an example. The rule should probably be that if one part of your body hurts and you can’t use it to do a task properly, you shouldn’t do that task. But that makes us feel like wimps.

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