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ArmadilloCon, a retrospective

In 2011, I had just moved away from the arid desert climate of Idaho into the most miserable summer heat I had ever, ever experienced of Texas (yes, THAT miserable summer).

I had completed my bachelors degree in English, and had attended a well-known writers workshop the year before, but still felt like I knew next to no one in the writing world, knew less than a handful of short story markets to submit to, and had never even realized until it was too late that there were conventions I could have attended in Utah.

In moving, I had left all of my dance, yoga, and Pilates jobs in Idaho, and knew that my paychecks would be slow to build to anything substantial, as often happens when there’s a gap between leaving successful setups in one location and moving to another.

In the midst of this, I knew that what I needed, even though it HURT to spend the money, was to go to this event that I’d somehow stumbled across online called ArmadilloCon. I was hungry for friends, I was hungry for knowledge, and I knew that my “can-do attitude” had taken me as far as it could on my journey to being a writer.

So I showed up to ArmadilloCon, not even knowing where I was going to sleep because I knew that I couldn’t afford the convention hotel prices.

And then the convention started. An hour or two in during Meet the Pros, I met someone that is now my best friend (and was very gracious about letting me share her hotel room that weekend -thanks again, Megan!)

I met more friends over the weekend, and formed my first writer’s group with some of them.

Between all these new friends and the informative panels, my eyes were opened to DuoTrope, to other Texas conventions, to new short story markets, to writers I needed to be reading, to OTHER wonderful friends, to ideas that had been hitherto alien to me.

I’m sure there are other things I was introduced to that have greatly improved me as a person and as a writer, but can’t remember them now because memories are slippery things.

All in all, it’s safe to say that ArmadilloCon 2011 was hugely influential.

But the best part is that wasn’t a one-off experience. ArmadilloCon is always awesome (although the years where I was juggling a baby or toddler are… perhaps lower on the list, for reasons).

This year was just as rejuvenating as my first, though obviously in different ways. I reconnected with old friends (some of whom are those first friends I made in Texas, thanks again, guys!), I made new friends, shared my Pilates passion with a roomful of fellow fans and writers (thanks again for coming, guys! Go forth with your Couch Potato Pilates knowledge and conquer!), sold a couple books, had a blast in panels and readings, brainstormed novels, and hopefully didn’t say too many stupid things or talk too much.

There are wonderful people at these conventions, y’all. People with beautiful stories to tell, talents and knowledge to share. I feel privileged to have been among them and, hopefully, give someone a much-needed boost in some aspect of their life.

Thanks to all the volunteers for helping out so we could all come and participate in a Weekend of Awesome. You are The Best, and I salute you. To all the people I chatted with, waved at, taught, gave candy to, thanks for being you. I hope you had as good a time as I did.

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Shape Up Saturday: Ow! My back!

To begin, I’ve already seen so many people with lower back pain that I believe this week’s exercises won’t work for everyone at any given moment. Like those exercises I’ve picked in my previous posts, these are some of the safest exercises/stretches I can offer, BUT I can’t emphasize enough that it’s important that you know your body and listen to it. Developing an awareness of how you hold your body and why can go a long way.

So, you know. Consult your doctor and all that, especially you people with herniated disks and stuff. A lot of times you can still do these exercises, but every situation is different.

With that out of the way, let’s point out – again – that posture plays an enormous role in how much tension you carry in your shoulders, neck, and back. So take a look at this photo and see which one best represents what your posture looks like on a regular basis:

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Be honest with yourself – which way to do you stand?

Correcting your posture (using gently engaged core muscles) will save you from a lot of discomfort.

So, assuming that you’re experiencing an uncomfortably tight lower back, but your spine is otherwise healthy, here’s a gentle stretch that feels lovely, particularly after standing for a long period of time:

Notice that my back is relaxed here – the goal is not to touch the toes, but to stretch the sides and the back. This may extend the stretch into the hips a bit.

Another pose that may gently stretch and release the back is Child’s Pose. Your knees hurt when you bend them like I am, you say? Then roll up a small blanket and place it between your hips and your heels.

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Child’s pose.

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Modified child’s pose – see which one feels better, and do that one.

Often gently rocking the pelvis forward and back (using the abdominals, not pushing with the feet or squeezing the rear) can remind the back to relax. It’s also a great way to practice correct posture. In this first picture I’m arching (I know my clothes make it hard to tell the difference) and in the second I’ve pulled the front of my hipbones up, which aligns my spine without much effort involved.

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Arched lower back – my spine is not happy in this uncomfortable position.

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Abdominals gently engaging to create a comfortable neutral spine.

From that neutral spine you can also roll up into a Bridge, trying to lift off one vertebrae at a time, and then slowly lower back to the ground the same way. If you care about breathing (and if you’re reading this, you’re alive and I assume therefore that you care a great deal about breathing), you inhale to prepare, exhale while rolling up, inhale at the top (zipping the abdominals together), and exhale while rollling down.

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From neutral spine continue rolling all the way up to a Bridge – notice my ribcage isn’t pushing up.

Here is Bridge in its 6 second glory: https://vine.co/v/hppbqjBV5hY and https://vine.co/v/hppb9E7TYgj. Why are the clips sideways? Because my husband accidentally filmed them that way, and I let it go this time… this time.

Gentle spine ‘twisting’, such as the Mermaid (or Merman, of course) I am demonstrating below can also help relieve tightness in the back. Keep the ankles and knees gently drawn together as you lay there. Notice my face is turned away from my knees – this increases the stretch. I’m also -gently!- keeping both shoulders on the ground. If you can’t keep the shoulders on the ground just yet, that’s okay! It will come, grasshopper.

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Another incarnation of Mermaid – ahhhhh. So nice.

The last exercise I’ll offer for strengthening the back is Locust. While lying on your stomach, forehead resting on the ground and palms facing the ceiling, engage the abdominals so you feel like you’re ‘lifting’ them away from the ground. Lengthen the legs and arms behind you and then lift them off the floor while lengthening and lifting the head forward. (It is key that your body works together as a unit here.) Take a few breaths here, and then lower the body and rest in Child’s Pose, like I demonstrated at the beginning of this post (you always want to round the back after arching it).

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And here is Locust, if we’re talking yoga. Flight if we’re talking Pilates, and planking if we’re talking pop culture.

And there it is for today. This only begins to get into exercises for the back, but I can only crack this can of worms open so far before I end up writing “Your Back and You: A Promising Relationship” and ignore all my fiction writing, which would make me sad. That’s not my book to write.

Let me know which exercises worked best for you!

Shape Up Saturday: Mermaids – and why we should all love them

My apologies for the break in Shape Up Saturday posts. Saturdays seemed to get a little crazy there, and somehow I kept delaying videoing these simple exercises on Vine. But I’m back on it, and today’s post is short and sweet.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years of teaching and observing is that the universally relaxing stretch in Pilates seems to be the Mermaid (or Merman. Take your pick. It’s still the same exercise.), which is also known as Side Stretch.

This stretch is fantastic because it has so many variations. I use it in class on ALL of the equipment, and it can be done sitting or standing. You may have seen it show up in yoga as well. I love this stretch because it releases endorphins, stretches and strengthens the waist, and is just a great, basic way to get people to breathe and relax.

The basic movement, whether you’re sitting or standing, is bending your trunk sideways, exhaling as you bend and inhaling as you lift back up to the top. Here I am doing Mermaid on my kitchen chair:

Notice I’m lifting my opposite arm over my head. Doing Mermaid without lifting your arm is okay… I guess… but I get way more out of it when I create that long arcing curve from my hip to the tips of my fingers. My opposite hand doesn’t HAVE to cross over the body to hold onto the back of the chair like that, but it’s a nice basic way to help you keep your body and balance stable.

In case you want to impress all your friends with your sweet moves and there ISN’T a chair available, you can do it standing. (In yoga this has been called Crescent Moon). You can use the same breathing.

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Swaying with the breeze and it feels so nice.

So we’ll leave it at that for today. I still need to do a quick report of FenCon, which was two weeks ago and gloriously successful in the baby-toting realm, so I’ll be posting that in a day or two.

Tell me how Mermaid (or Merman, no judging!) feels for you! Next week I’m planning to give a few tips on relieving back pain, but I’d love to hear what else you’d like me to cover.

Shape Up Saturday: Shrug Off that Tension!

Welcome to Week 2 of Shape Up Saturday! This week we’re talking about letting go of all that ridiculous tension in the neck and shoulders.

Out of all the strange and painful things that people unconsciously do to their bodies, I find the stress in the neck and shoulders to be the most interesting. Nobody wants to have all that tension up there. And yet when we’re trying so hard to do a plank, drive in crazy traffic, or spend a few hours on Facebook on the computer writing or studying, our neck and shoulders get tight and we mess up our posture.

Why do we keep hurting ourselves like this?

My opinion (freely and frequently stated during my Pilates classes) is that we have all this energy constantly running through our bodies. Even if you don’t feel particularly energetic, the potential for energy is still there. Anytime we tighten a muscle we’re directing a small amount of that energy to a particular part of our body.

The problem is that we don’t always use our energy efficiently. That plank you were holding? The work should have been more like this:

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Shoulder tension can’t save you now!

 

And driving? Sitting at the computer? If you think about it, hunching your shoulders does nothing. Those jerks that cut you off and those trolls on Huffington Post feel nothing when you tense your shoulders. You are the only one that feels that pain.

IT DOES YOU NO GOOD. Your stomach doesn’t get stronger from tensing your shoulders – in fact, it makes it harder to properly target the correct muscles for whatever you’re doing. You’re taking this beautiful skeletal structure and unnecessarily lifting it up.

So let’s transfer that somewhere a little more useful… like our abdominals. We want the energy to go into the muscles that can actually help us with our task, and we want to send the bad feelings away from us completely. Right? Right.

So.

I took it upon myself to set up a Vine account yesterday when it occurred to me that Vine would actually be a useful tool for quickly showing the proper positioning for the exercises I’ll be recommending throughout my Shape Up Saturday series. Because I’m awesome I asked my husband to video me demonstrating this neck stretch – and because I’m lazy you’ll see me with no makeup. Yep.

So here it is. Try this the next time you’re sitting at a stoplight or waiting for a webpage to load:

In case using Vine was a terrible idea and I totally wasted my time and dignity posting that clip and you can’t view it, I’ll post pictures:

Sitting tall, exhale chin to chest (it’s less about tucking the chin to the chest and more about lengthening the neck while you’re down there):

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Inhale and roll head to one side, nose pointing forward, neck long.

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Exhale and roll head back down to the chest, still keeping the neck long.

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Inhale and roll head to the other side. The more you lengthen the neck the better the stretch will be.

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Repeat until the light turns green. I know this is a super simple stretch, but we all need to decrease the load on our shoulders, whether we’re writers, readers, or candlestick makers.

Did you try it? How do you feel? Did the Vine clip work for you? If you want me to cover a topic, let me know!