Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Achieving Alignment, Part 2: Integrating Mind and Body

The word “calisthenics”  comes from the ancient Greek kallos (κάλλος), which means beauty, and sthénos (σθένος) meaning strength.  Hence it consists of exerting strength in an aesthetically pleasing, or artistic, fashion.  The beauty one can see in calisthenic movements arises from the alignment of the athlete’s body.

Last week I finished a 6 week cycle of heavy calisthenics training and this week I have lowered the volume and intensity of training to allow my body to recover.  Through this past cycle I have learned more about my self.

As I work on achieving a gymnast quality handstand, I have to unravel the issues embedded in my left shoulder joint, which started when I injured it in training some 40 years ago.  Although I can raise my left arm into almost full flexion, when I do so there is deep tension in the anterior deltoid and pectoralis, and impingement in the anterior shoulder. 

As I have mentioned in my first post, I have a rotation in my pelvis due primarily to deep tension in the right pelvic muscles including the psoas and the buttocks, which produces a restriction in the range of motion of the right hip that is the mirror image of the left shoulder.  When I bend my right hip, as in squatting, L-sits, or scales, I feel restriction deep in the right groin as well as the buttock.

(Can you see the diagonal pattern?  I feel tension and restriction in the right hip and left shoulder compared to the left hip and right shoulder.)

During this cycle I made some significant progress toward correcting this.  After reading a handstand tutorial in Yoga Journal by a former gymnast, I started practicing the wall supported front scale with arms extended overhead, followed by split leg wall supported handstands, as part of my wall handstand routine three days weekly.

Through this practice I got a deeper insight into how the alignment of my left hip with my left shoulder influences the ROM of the shoulder.  When I practice the scale standing on the left leg while reaching overhead to create the handstand alignment, the left anterior shoulder impingement  remarkably reduces!  Apparently the gluteus and hamstring engagement required to maintain the scale adjusts both the posterior rotation and hyperextension of the left pelvis, which brings it into alignment with the shoulder girdle, and this allows the muscles of the shoulder girdle to align so that they allow complete shoulder flexion (arms overhead) with less impingement. 

I was already aware of this relationship but did not really have an idea how to correct the misalignment.  Since starting practice of this sequence I have seen some correction of the imbalance.  I can feel that standing on the left leg in this fashion engages and strengthens the deep internal rotators and adductors of the left pelvic girdle (as well as the left buttock and hamstring).  Related to this, toward the end of this cycle I started practicing a variation of the  “wind-relieving pose” (pavanmuktasana) as part of my Egoscue routine.

Pavanmuktasana.  Source:  Yoga In The Dragon's Den

I was doing the pose with the more extended leg bent at the knee with the foot on the floor.  When I pull the right leg toward the chest, I felt restriction inside the right groin, and a sensation in the left posterior pelvic spine area that I find hard to describe, but it feels like the pelvis is moving into a long unused range, but with a sense of instability. 

One day last week, Tracy saw me working with the pose and it just happened that in her yoga class on the previous day she learned the details of proper execution of of the pose with the leg fully extended.  Basically, the extended leg should be held active as if one were standing on it in Mountain Pose.  I suddenly realized that this was just a reclining version of the scales I have been practicing, and with a little practice, I was able to engage the left pelvic muscles properly, which almost completely relieved the restriction I was feeling in the right groin.   Now I can see a little progress in relieving the pelvic rotation.

In addition, when I put the arm in full extension, as when I do reverse planks / extended bridges (video below), I have crunching sensation around the scapula.  I worked this movement thrice weekly in this cycle and have felt some improvement.

I started this cycle doing semi-pike pull ups and chin ups after back levers, and by the third week I was getting 3 sets of 5 repetitions despite performing them right after working tucked back lever.  However, in addition to my major issues with the left shoulder, I was noticing a little discomfort and weakness in my right shoulder girdle during pull ups and sometimes when swimming freestyle.  Also, one day I pitched a tennis ball for one of our neighbor’s dogs, and I felt some pain in the posterior of the right shoulder. 

Since I never kipped my pull ups or chin ups, and always performed them with a controlled cadence, sometimes even Super Slow, I thought I was doing proper scapula retraction and depression to set up for my pull-ups.  However, my calisthenics quest has taught me that I have basic movement problems that require remedial training, so I decided to “empty my cup” and adopt a “beginner’s mind” in order to find out if I really did have enough scapular retraction and depression strength to practice semi-pike pull ups properly. 

So I studied a couple of pull-up prep and practice tutorials by Ryan Hurst of Gold Medal Bodies while suspending my belief that “I already know and do that.”

Well, in that state of mind, I realized that I didn’t do it correctly, or to the full extent.  Basically, I only depressed and retracted about half way.  When I did the full depression and retraction in my next training session, I wasn’t able to do even one full pull up.  I had to break the “packing” of the shoulders to achieve a pull up. 

So, I stopped doing pull ups and started practicing full scapular activation in the pull up position.  At my first attempt, I found it very difficult to do 3 sets of 5 scapular activation pull ups, without attempting to do a bent arm pull up.  My left shoulder felt jammed and my right shoulder also did not have the required strength to practice the retraction and depression.  

This was a hard pill to swallow, particularly since, before getting into calisthenics, I had at one point worked up to doing (what I now know to be improperly performed) chin ups for 3 sets of 5 with an additional 50 pounds attached to my waist.  A part of me wanted to believe that full scapular activation puts the humerus into a mechanically disadvantaged position that makes a pull up impossible, in spite of witnessing Ryan Hurst do it correctly. 

Then I discovered this video of Steve Atlas performing pull ups with proper scapula activation; the view from the back shows what is meant by calisthenics (beauty-strength).

He fully activates the scapula then pulls cleanly for reps without losing the “packing” of the scapula, which truly does make the movement more aesthetically pleasing than if the scapula is not properly activated and instead moves up and down with each repetition.  

When I engage scapular depression and retraction to ‘pack’ the shoulders for pull ups, I feel pain in the left clavicle and side of the neck; not a bad pain, but a pain of weakness. This might explain why I have had trouble with neck pain and stiffness after training sessions.  Failure to use the scapula properly probably put strain on my cervical musculature. 

As I said, this week I cut back on my training to allow my body to recover from the stress of the past 6 weeks.  On Monday I did wall handstand skill work, then a couple of easy German hangs and a few sets of scapular retraction and depression with reduced load focusing on mobility, not strength.   The mobility work with the scapular activation

Afterwards I reflected on how skipping basic foundation work that seems “too simple” or “too easy” in order to jump ahead to “more impressive” skills or activities can keep one from attaining the sought after skills.  I realized that if I had undertaken the step-by-step path I am taking now ten – or better yet, 30 – years ago, before even getting involved in barbell or martial arts training, I would now be in full possession of the skills I desire and then some, and probably would not have suffered the recurrent injuries that plagued me over the past. 

Part of the problem lies in the “physical education” that I received as a youth and through various arts.  No one had time or knowledge to correct any individual’s alignment.  Every one was sort of expected to be “ready” to run, jump, flip, crawl, fall, and so on with whatever “alignment” they had.  When I tried out for the Junior High wrestling squad, no one did any evaluation to determine whether I had any postural or movement problems that needed correction before I started trying to throw people around.  The “physical” I got from a physician did not involve any testing for orthopedic imbalances that might lay the ground for injuries.

Similarly, when I took up various martial arts, no teacher evaluated any student for basic movement abilities before teaching skills.  It was apparently assumed that everyone had a body that was "functional enough" to learn the so-called basic skills.  However, the rate of drop out and injury among students probably told a different story. 

Nevertheless, I absorbed and adopted the modeled approach of trying to develop basic or advanced skills and abilities without laying an adequate foundation in basic physical alignment.  In my case, I did so even when aware of deficiencies of physical alignment and the way that they impaired my joint functions.  This means that I did not align my actions (mode of training) with my knowledge of my limitations, at least not to the degree needed to correct the defects and lay a proper foundation.  Instead, I wanted to start at a "higher level" than I was prepared for, in haste to get to even higher goals.  My reasoning was that my "higher level" was not that high, so why should I start at a lower level?  As time passed and I grew older,  part of me became more resistant to going back to a "beginner" stage of training, even though I needed it.  This part believed time was running out, and that I needed to skip as many steps as possible in order to get to my goals before I reached X age. I let that part drive the vehicle instead of using a more adult wisdom.  As a result I never got much beyond the level at which I would start.

This work has made me more aware of those immature parts of my mind, and helped me to transcend them, and achieve a greater mind-body alignment day to day, which is actually of far more value than learning to do a gymnastic quality handstand or pack the shoulders in a pull up.  I still have those goals, but I am not going to sacrifice integration of mind and body in an attempt to rush to their achievement. 

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