Better & Bolder the Blog

Hit Play

BW creep

More magazine asks if we “Want to Get Fitter Faster?” Their November 2013 article contrasts three old rules with three new rules. 

One old rule is to squat when our thighs are parallel to the floor, and the new rule is to go as deep as is comfortable. In other words, move like an animal. Just play.  Just do it. Squat. 

Recent research explains “doing squats with a deeper range of movement is particularly effective at strengthening the big muscles in your butt....”  These deep squats won’t hurt your knees if your knees are healthy. That’s the key: if it hurts to squat deeply, don’t squat that deeply. Don’t do what hurts. 

But if it doesn’t hurt, don’t let fear determine your range of movement. Do keep your head up when you’re squatting, though. Remember your head is heavy and if you look down, you can throw your weight over your knees. Those knees are meant to open and close, not bear weight, so don’t put your weight on your knees. That’s also, by the way, why I urge people not to lean their hands on their knees. Instead, place your hands high up on your thighs as this increases your stability. 

Here’s a great video showing animal movement basics. I love this guy, who looks like some kind of 70s punk rocker. Despite the dramatic music (“Requiem for a Dream” theme song by Kronos Quartet), all the moves he does look like things you and I can do. 

This type of movement is hitting the gyms in Animal Flow, which according to Equinox is "a new system of fluid, fundamental movements that combines (sic) Parkour, break dancing, gymnastics, free running and circus arts, and was born out of creator Mike Fitch's fatigue of free weights.” Fitch’s video is especially dramatic (what’s up with the fire? is that supposed to be especially primal?), and some of what he does (hey, he’s swinging from a tree branch!) looks like Guy Stuff to me. Young Shirtless Guy Stuff. 

This guy in this video looks more like you and me. He stops to adjust his shirt. I see him huffing and puffing a bit, like, whew, this is kind of hard (it is). He’s a little jerky and off balance at times, which I appreciate. The sequence is formal, brief, easy to follow, which means it’s something we can do on our own. 

The idea in animal movement workouts is to warm up, do movements in a static position while switching (one hand to another, flipping from front to back, bringing a leg through to the other side), do the movements traveling, and then do the movements in a sequence.

This one shows an excellent warm up that invites us to evaluate our bodies before every workout. How are my ankles today? Where am I tight right now? I noticed I wanted to start playing, rolling and speeding through the movements. When I slowed down to mimic what he was doing, I could sense where my thighs and hips were tight (surprisingly, more on the left than on the right). 

The trainer, Andrew Read, emphasizes that we need to re-set our bodies after years of sitting and of performing traditional exercises. When we were very young, we simply moved and played. Then we started school, and we became people who sat hunched over our desks. We associated learning with sitting rather than learning by playing. Read says we practice “inner child abuse” by not letting our inner child go outside to play. 

Most of us don’t need any fancy training plans if we’d just take off our shoes and crawl around for a while. This, by the way, is not so far from Nia’s Five Stages training, which invites us to return to our earliest movements, including creeping, crawling, and standing to walking.

Part of what I crave is not just the movements but the element of play, or chaos, using the movements. Check out this video from Adele Kirby. First, look at the training video. The bottom one (the flow series) shows at one point, she’s lifting her hand and foot just a tiny bit. What an easy, great way to begin to build balance and strength. Everyone can do this. 

In the top video, it shows her and another guy playing around with it. They’re just twisting and turning on the ground in floor play. Doesn’t watching it make you want to just move? Just move. Play.

Besides Animal Flow, there’s Primal Flow. Paul Swainson describes it this way

“Primal Flow is, in a nutshell, a bodyweight training system which maximises the movement potential of the human body. The system allows you to create an unlimited number of exercises using natural movement patterns such as pulling, pushing, squatting and crawling, and put them into a workout structure which has a more functional carry over to sports and activities than traditional exercise formats....”

With less emphasis on swinging from branches and doing hand stand push ups (all worthwhile movements!), Primal Flow from the UK may be more friendly to the average mover. Both of these programs (or programme, as they write it in the UK) use bodyweight conditioning, which is kind of the hot new thing in fitness this year. 

Generally, I don’t jump after the hot new thing in fitness. What this feels like to me, though, is the bridge between classic Nia and athletic Nia, between floorplay in which we’re seated and the floorplay in which we move through the room. 

There’s a song in my classes in which we play Terminator (squatting down in the position that the Terminator is in when he first arrives), and then we jump up and scurry about the room until we stop and squat and assume the Terminator. It’s so fun (and random - like, what, really, I’m 50 and playing Terminator? Yes, yes, I am). What Animal Flow and Primal Flow teach me is how to condition ourselves so we can do more of this play more safely and more energetically. So I’m super excited about the possibilities.

One of the selling points of Animal Flow, according to their website, is joint mobility, which is an element “that’s most often overlooked in training programs.” I’ve often thought that’s part of what makes Nia different, the focus on increased mobility and natural flexibility. We gain mobility and flexibility through movement itself, not through stretching. 

Like Nia, Animal Flow also moves us through the planes. What Animal Flow adds is "All of the animal movements place the body in a ‘four Pillar’ position which is with hands and feet in contact with the ground. This position allows all of the stabilization systems to be on and coordinating between each other.” This position also enhances our movement through the core of the body. 

Another point in More’s article is that instead of crunches, we improve core strength with exercises that engage many muscles. The plank is one of the best. “The most effective of all were complex exercises with a balance component,” which means a moving plank (move one arm or leg, for instance). This also is a feature of animal workouts and body conditioning. 

Repetitive crunches have been shown to be harmful to our spines because, well, they crunch, and they crunch again and again. Our abdominals are endurance muscles, so they can keep crunching for a long time, but out spine is not meant to be crunched and uncrunched a hundred times in a row. (There are a ton of articles explaining why we shouldn’t crunch; here’s just one

The beautiful thing about a plank is that there is no spinal contraction and that it’s self-limiting. If I’m not strong enough to hold a plank, I have to relax and rest. My whole body has to get stronger in order to hold the plank longer. 

If you’re still doing sit ups, you can let go now. There are far more fun and efficient ways to build core strength.

The third point in More’s article cites yet another piece of research that explains why we want to add some fast and furious sweaty movements to our workouts. 

When we add intensity, enough to get our hearts pounding, we induce metabolic changes so we burn fat longer. Here’s the really lovely piece of this. I don’t have to run as fast as an Olympic sprinter. I have to go my fastest and hardest. More cites a study in which women did high-intensity jogging or walking. They weren’t sprinting. They were doing supersets at their limit. They burned more fat than the women who performed low-intensity jogging and walking. 

This study has similar results to a 2012 study at McMasters University in Ontario. Middle-aged and older patients who’d been diagnosed with cardiac disease performed 10 one minute intervals (one minute exertion, one minute rest) for a total of 20 minutes. Not only did their hearts get stronger and they got more fit, but their blood sugar regulation improved (“How One Minute Intervals Can Improve Your Health” Gretchen Reynolds). The researchers believe that, because the intervals were brief, the participants’ hearts were able to handle the load. If cardiac patients can safely do intervals, I’m guessing most of us can. If you have questions, check with your doctor. Check with your intuition. But don’t listen to your fear. 

Interval training isn’t new to fitness classes. Tabata training became popular a decade ago, and many instructors around that time, myself included, added interval bursts to our cardio classes. Bootcamp programs often include bodyweight conditioning as well as high intensity intervals. 

When we add muscle, we burn more fat. When we add cardio intervals, we burn more fat. So these programs have been touted as weight-loss programs. I’m hesitant to promote any exercise for weight loss, even though I know this can be an important component of health and well-being. When we feel stronger and more agile, we often feel more confident. We may feel more alive. We may feel sexier and juicier and more vital. Our fatigue and depression lifts. Yes, yes, to all of that. 

I’m a bit of a purist, though. I want people to move for the sheer joy of moving. When I began to run 18 months ago, it was to feel like an animal, loping along the trails. The injury to my achilles is significant enough that I can best promote healing by not running for a while, and this loss is deep for me, not because I gain weight (which is kind of sad) but because I’m missing out on this physical experience I love. I really love hitting mile 8. My happy sensors buzz for hours after a long run through the woods. 

I spend a lot of time at my computer. I’m hunched over, providing feedback on papers, grading. While I love researching (for instance, reading about animal movement and checking out the videos), I’m definitely not in animal mode, and I can end up feeling both stagnant and sad, even after the joyful experience of learning. 

I love to dance. I love to run. I love to play with my body by crawling around, flipping over, squirming and inching along. I’ve seen you in floorplay at Nia, crawling under someone who’s making a bridge or pushing gently against another body or pulling someone along slowly by the arms or legs.  I’ve seen you playing like an animal. 

I am designing Hit Play so we can get stronger all over. It’s animal play and bodyweight conditioning and intervals, all together.  

Hit Play helps us train for our other sports, such as running and skiing. I need Hit Play so I can burn fat through the winter months and because at 50, I’m noticing, heck, yeah, my strength is decreasing. I used to do push ups in sets of 10, and I could get through a set of 20. I’m down to five in one set before my form suffers and I know I should stop to rest before another set. Five. Five. I don’t need to be super hero strong or as strong as my 40 year old self. I do need to be so strong that I can keep playing, jumping, hopping, crawling, pushing, pulling, and do it without straining myself. 

Here’s how you know if Hit Play is for you.

  • You like to move, and you want to check out something you haven’t done before.
  • You are training for a sport and want increased core strength, balanced strength (front and back) through your legs, increased mobility in your hips and ankles, and superior cardio conditioning.
  • You can’t quite do a handstand push up yet --or a regular push up yet-- and you want a series that will help you build the strength to do so. 
  • You love when in Nia we do things like Terminator and want to do more.
  • You don’t love all that dancing in Nia but want a safe workout that encourages sensory awareness and playfulness.
  • You love all that dancing in Nia and want additional strength and cardio training to enhance your pleasure and options when dancing Nia.
  • Like me, you’re noticing decreased strength and increased efficiency in storing fat, and you’d like to reverse those.
  • Intervals rock your world because you love to sweat. Anaerobic conditioning is the bomb and you want someone who will push you to go there. 
  • Hit Play sounds like fun, and being strong and agile sounds sexy. You’re in. 

Bonus Years

 I feel old in a way that I didn’t in my 40s. I feel very un-fly. 

In the past week, though, I’ve twice gotten the “you totally don’t look 50” comment, which is nice. Part of me is happy and part of me feels like, well, you know, this is what 50 looks like, and part of me thinks that I almost sort of want to look 50. Because I am. 

I feel un-fly in part because I make the horrible mistake of comparing myself to my thinnest and fittest self. For many women, that self was in her 20s or 30s. Mine was in my 40s, in fact, even just a year ago. I could compare myself to my pudgiest and feel much better, but that’s not how comparison works. I see pictures of professional athletes, women in their 20s and 30s with completely ripped abs, and I’m jealous. Why don’t I just pound myself over the head? It would be quicker and more efficient. 

I realize part of my problem is my footwear. Really. Heels and boots make me feel that much more Wow. My elf shoes never, ever help me feel Fly. 

Since giving up good-looking shoes, I thought for a second that I could be quirky, like those women who wear bright colors and graphic prints, or pointy glasses in daring colors. Alas, I am sporty, not quirky. I look best in slightly tailored prep wear. I look best wearing shoes with some height. I feel better in barefeet or shoes that keep me close to the ground. I’m not always happy about it, but every time, I choose the pleasure of being grounded over a few hours of looking fly. I’ve given away my best boots. 

Lately, I’ve been dressing to hide my middle section, as if I am ashamed to have a belly, ashamed to be 50 and not one of those women who are so fit and so strong and so disciplined that they don’t carry any extra body fat. I dress like a middle-aged mama. 

I’m looking over the notes I wrote at the start of this year, as 2012 ended, a year that in my memory was glorious and happy. What I wrote on 1/1/13 about 2012 was my body shame. I wrote that I had in 2012 so much self-hatred and body-hatred. I wondered if that came up because I was burning it off, or was I simply wallowing in it? Was I indulging in an old emotion? Why? Really, if ever there was a year for body pride, 2012 was it. I had run off a good ten pounds and I was in good shape. How then did I find myself still not being good enough? Ah, well, wherever you go, there you are. Wherever I go, I take this stuff with me. It’s not about my body, for sure. Add or subtract ten pounds, and I still find ways to beat myself up over not being some other ideal. That shit is getting really old. 

I read today that in the mid-19th century, women lived on average to 45. Whooops. I’m way past my expiration date (today it’s closer to 85). I’m getting some incredible bonus years here. I better start enjoying them, like, now

New Normal

running out

At the start of each year, I hold a workshop at the studio to let go of the previous year and invite in the new one. As I was filing papers this week, I came across my notes for the start of this year. 


2012 had been a rich, full year, but it hadn’t ended particularly well, especially around the holidays, so by January, I felt worn out. Taxed. I wrote that I wanted to be able to slow down and to savor.


Now, here’s the funny thing about writing down our deep desires and intentions. They will make themselves happen.


At the start of 2013, as my ankle and feet problems worsened, I took off my shoes to run, and I found I had to slow way down. I had to slow down my walking as well as my running. I had to savor my steps. Well, there you have it. 


Here’s the other thing I wanted in 2013, the thing I’m not sure I knew how to manifest. I wanted to shut the fuck up. I wanted to be with “I hear you, sister” instead of “Here’s some advice.” I didn’t want to be the person who knows things and has something to say. I wanted to be kind, in connection, and curious.


I wrote down who and what I wanted to journey with me in 2013. I wrote down my allies. Kindness is an ally, and so is art and music. Lately, I discovered that if I sing, I feel much better. When I’m driving in the car, I put on songs I can sing to. It’s like a mini therapy session.


In addition to my family and friends, my allies are sunshine, warmth and hot baths. Massage, rolfing, acupuncture, greens, grains, and sensation are my allies. Being inspired by my kids is my ally. 


I wrote down a list of allies to help me deal with my lingering and useless self-hatred. Running. Good food. Pleasure. Patience. Persistence. Willingness to change. 


Doing less. Knowing less. Discovering more. 


The day I wrote all these intentions, the first day of the year, was the day I knew that it was time to let go of owning and managing Studio Sway. I was driving to the studio for that New Year’s Day workshop at which I would write all these things, and I heard The Voice. It was the message-from-Spirit moment. I heard it and knew there was no arguing with it or thinking about it differently. I heard it and would act on it, and that was that. 


I didn’t realize it would take 10 months to make it happen. 


That moment in the car was magic. It was a gift. Had this been a decision, had this been something I thought about, it would have been much more difficult to let go. There never has been for me a moment of wondering whether this was the right decision. I didn’t make a decision. I just listened and knew.


That January day, I felt then that something big was dying and going away and I already was grieving. I would be turning 50 soon after my daughter turned 18, and there was going to be a shift in our lives.  I grieved from December straight through to the day we left our daughter at college in Santa Cruz. I grieved all the way up until the next day, when I woke at home, and everything was just fine. 


My daughter is grown up, and that’s fine.  Really. I’m still mom. I’m liking this new normal too. I’m not as thrilled with the whole being 50 thing, yet I’m able to feel appreciation for being a bit wiser as I’ve gotten older. I’m clearer on what I don’t know, where the mysteries are, and how to live in a way that’s a bit more patient and kind. I'm looking forward to what's next. Better and bolder, baby, that's the choice.