User Rules of Spinal Flow Yoga
Optimizing the Balance of SAFETY and PROGRESS
If you currently have spine pain start with Spinal CONTROL-5 (SC5) alone, for at least a few days...
...but if at all possible not longer than a week or two before starting Spinal FLOW-5 (SF5). Then do both in tandem as needed, with SC5 done first to grove proper movements and positioning before moving into SF5. Then if SF5 is going well, you can pare back SC5, eventually omitting it when mastered.
The first 10 weeks go easy, don’t miss workouts.
With SF5, in the first 10 weeks, One hundred percent intensity is certainly too hard and 5 minutes is probably too long, so it’s better to start at about half intensity and half the time.
SF5 needs to be a lifetime habit. Research suggests 66 days is the magic number to form a strong habit, so you don’t want to miss any of those early days. Ten weeks without a miss takes you through that point, to where SF5 becomes a normal thing to do. In the beginning you want SF5 feel like no big deal, you aren’t sore afterwards, and you don’t have the slightest apprehension about doing more next time.
Besides habit formation, going easy lets you concentrate on learning proper technique and determining which level of exercise is most appropriate for you. If in doubt, start at Level-1 and work up from there, getting your mind, muscles and joints ever more ready for max efforts around the 10-week point.
Start at what feels like 50% of your capacity, straining neither muscles, nor lungs, then adding a rep or few per workout. What’s more, the normal 1-2 minutes each SF5 exercise can be surprisingly difficult, so doing only half the time at first isn’t a bad idea either. Do the 2 minute exercises for just a minute and the 60 second exercises for just 30 seconds, making SF5 really only 2.5 minutes. This is very much how I did it myself, as when I first attempted L3 Lunges, wondering how many I could do, I could not last the entire time.
If you fall off the wagon, get back on the wagon, ASAP.
Notwithstanding Rule 1, best laid plans often go astray and for some reason people think because they have messed up a day with their exercise, diet, or anything, it’s all over and they then give up on whatever they were going for. One thing I have noticed is that where I have succeeded is that if I do have a bad day, I get right back on it, the very next day. When I do so, damage to the habit, and my fitness is almost imperceptible. Missing one day is not good, and it definitely does not help discipline, but each additional day off the wagon really does screw you over, when you try and get started again. So if you do miss a day, learn a quick lesson as to what caused it, and attempt to mitigate that cause for the following day. Otherwise don’t beat yourself up for it, and keep moving forwards.
Don’t train through increasing injurious pain.
This means if you have 4/10 pain at the start of an exercise, so long as you pain doesn’t get worse, during or immediately afterwards, you are usually good. The next keyword is ‘injurious’. Muscle burn is not injurious, nor is effort, nor is delayed onset muscle soreness that sometimes comes on 1-3 days after a hard workout. However, neck pain, back pain, joint pain, nerve pain, numbness and tingling that extends down the arm or leg, etc. are all ‘bad pains’. If any of the bad pains are increasing with an exercise you should stop immediately. These kinds of pain are associated with new or increasing injury and training through them holds you back in the long term. The quicker you stop an exercise causing bad pain, the quicker you’ll heal and get better. If you stop a problematic exercise quickly, you can often continue with other exercises in workout without a problem. On the contrary if you push it, everything afterwards may be a wash, and so might the following day.
Unless limited by Rule 4, always push for a little more, better, cleaner, and/or faster of repetitions.
After the first couple weeks when you have learned the exercises and situated yourself in the correct exercise level, you want to gradually ramp things up aiming to be at 100% of your ability at about week 10. From then on, barring problems, you are always pushing. If you can max the reps on a given level with no pain and good form, move up a level, and begin again with lesser reps as needed. If you always work out the same, you’ll always look and feel the same, which is missing the entire point of Spinal Flow Yoga. Strength and fitness really do protect the spine, and you won’t gain either if you don’t continually push yourself to do more than you are used to. That said, pushing for and getting are two different things. Some days won’t be as good as others, and as you get nearer and nearer your potential, gains will slow, but by continually making the 100% efforts you should continue to make long run progress, literally for years, in spite of short term variations in performance.
Know your K.I.S.W.T.
K.I.S.W.T. is shorthand for how you assess your performance individually on each exercise. It’s quick, simple, doesn’t take up much room on a page or exercise flow sheet, and records all that is needed without getting into detailed pain descriptions that lead to overthinking/ruminating about pain.
K = O(K): K means you did every rep correctly and without any increase in injurious pain. If you did all your repetitions of an exercise with good technique, through a full range of motion, that’s a K. If all the repetitions you did maxes out the level you are on it means you should advance to the next level and lower the repetitions (often substantially) next time you workout. Then again, gradually work your reps, cleanness of technique, and speed up from there.
I = (I)ffy: I is you early warning system. It's when you have an injury and you are wondering if during an exercise you feel it or not. Or you are wondering if you have a new injury or not. You wouldn't call it a pain, you aren't sure, but it's that iffy feeling something maybe feels a bit off. If the feeling is in the spine, inside a joint, or a muscle maybe feels strained, this is usually your chance to stop before something bad happens. If you stop in time, based on what happens you can decide how to handle the same feeling the next time, and you'll get further next time before feeling the same thing (probably).
S = (S)ore during, OK after: If you feel an increase in neck pain, back pain, or arthritic type joint pain or a ligament strain during an exercise this is your warning to stop immediately. S can sometimes be ambiguous, particularly with tendinitis*, however in general if you stop the exercise as soon as you feel an S, you’ll probably quickly recover and be able to do the same exercise with perhaps a few more reps the next time.
W = (W)orse after: Meaning you did the exercise and you feel worse after. This unambiguously (with any type of injury) means that you went to far. The exercise level, reps, or exercise itself were too much for you for now, and you need to reassess and back it down the next time. You might need to omit the offending exercise for a few sessions, weeks, or forever. While I think all the Spinal Flow exercises are, in general, fantastic, they are not all great for everyone all the time, and knowing when to stop is a big part of what makes Spinal Flow Yoga work.
T = poor (T)echnique: It means when you did the exercise your technique wasn’t perfect. This can be for a few reasons. It could be you don’t know what good technique is and you just need to practice it. Or it can mean that you aren’t strong enough to maintain the good technique that you know. If fatigue makes it so you can’t work through a given exercise with full range of motion, within reason this is fine, and in fact desirable to train through. That’s because the additional partial repetitions increases intensity by allowing you to continue to work when you would have otherwise have stopped. However, if most of your reps on an exercise are a T, you should back down a level. If the exercise is too difficult and you are “breaking form” by bending and twisting your spine, this is the bad kind of T. You can generally safely train up to, but not beyond this point, as you are both excessively risking injury and reinforcing bad movement patterns. In either case of a T, don’t “level-up” on an exercise until you can max the levels maximum number of reps with good form and full range of motion, replacing that T with a K.
Rule 6 is in my mind the most absolute of all rules, and based on the most experience. I’m not sure exactly when I came up with the notation, but I’m sure it was more than ten years that I used it full time in my physical therapy practice, and I’ve yet to seer a better system of how to decide whether you should move forward or back off. And with spine pain, few decisions are more crucial.
Keep a notebook, daytimer, google document or similar…
... and record your bodyweight, what exercises you did, what level, how many reps you got, and whether each exercise was a KSWT every day. Tracking your progress is a great way of ensuring progress. Recording your KSWT will, over time, give you a very intuitive sense of your body, what pain there might be, spine pain or other, so you’ll truly learn how hard you can safely push to avoid injury and see progress. When I was rehabbing people in physical therapy I would write down every set, every weight, and whether it was a KSWT and this never failed to help me make good decisions. With SF5, where it’s only 5 minutes of exercise, one set each and everything is bodyweight recording what happened is much simpler than my hour long weight training routines. However, writing down your bodyweight (your exercise resistance) each day it will hone you into what’s optimal for you. Will you get more Pushups, Lunges or LoBrids if you lose three pound of fat, or gain one pound of muscle? Are you dieting so hard you are getting weaker or not dieting enough to lose anything? Do you need to eat more to gain muscle and get stronger? These are all things your logbook will tell you. My logbook very much told me what to do with both my diet and exercise, as I was developing SF5 and it was NOT always what I expected.
APPLY the neutral-spine awareness, ability, and self-control…
...developed in the Spinal Flow Yoga sequencers as much as you can throughout your day. Doing so is another big part of Spinal Flow. Though often counterintuitive, you’ll almost certainly find your spine won’t get stiff for not purposefully or slothfully stretching it. Rather it will better remain youthful, uninjured, or heal to the greatest extent possible. This healing and lessened inflammation often restores lost range of motion, so when you need it, it will be there, and it won’t hurt. And when you need muscular bracing you’ll know how, and HAVE both the muscle and habit to maximally protect your spine.
Buy a scale, use it daily.
The scale is your friend, and literally the only one that won’t mislead you, the nicest people you know are the worst offenders. When I was overweight, had high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, my own mother was telling me how great I looked. At the time I had the ‘dad bod’ build, not a slob, but definitely a gut forming and measurably less healthy). So get a scale, and target your ideal weight. Ideal weight is not just healthy and looks good, it’s very likely where you’ll find your performance on SF5 at it’s best. Besides the fact that, an elevated body mass index (BMI) physically overloads the spine, it’s also been discovered that excess fat cells increase systemic inflammation, wreaking havoc on the entire body. “Healthy at any size” is a lie, akin to “cigarettes aren’t harmful.” Inflammatory cytokines are thought to chemically accelerate degenerative disc disease and resultant spine pain. Contrary to what pop psychologists will tell you, daily weighing has been consistently shown in the research to be both mentally healthy and an effective aid for weight loss and maintenance. Research shows dieters who weigh themselves eat on average 347 less calories that day, and those who weigh themselves daily usually lose weight, those who weigh weekly, stay about the same, and those who weigh once a month usually gain. And about judging your fitness by how your clothes fit? That’s what fat people say.
The scale and is an anchor protecting against eating disorders the other way as well. If you are significantly (>10%) under ideal weight, you’re perhaps at risk for an eating disorder, and probably going to need to gain some muscle to continue to set new records on SF5. Likewise in those with hypermobility syndrome, who are often taller, thinner, with less muscle tone. This population tends to be “good at yoga” but much in a way that a person with emphysema is good at coughing, where more stretch merely doubles down on an existent weakness. Efforts to gain muscle tone and size, up to, or near, ideal (which SF5 is designed for) will help support joints and blood vessels, with both research and my experience suggesting this will lessen all chronic pain, lightheadedness, anxiety, and panic attacks.
Probably you should start today. As Rules 1-2 show, I’ve made starting, very easy.
So easy as to not even come close to breaking a sweat. I just want people to get the ball rolling with ten full weeks to get used to things before hitting it hard. I add this rule because the “stages or readiness for change” thing seems to be something that’s filtered down to society's collective conscious. Which is all well and good, except for two things.
First, your health is continuing to decline while you are deciding whether it’s worth fixing it or not. I liken this to the boiling frog phenomenon, where a frog simmered long enough probably isn’t going to look very good when it finally decides to hop. Life is short, spine degeneration is cumulative, as are most other negative health effects related to not exercising. And there is most certainly a point the body won’t “hop” back from. Like when your doctor says, “your knees and vertebra are bone on bone,” your coronary arteries are 95% occluded,” or “you have cancer.”
Second, it turns out the “stages of change” thing (aka, the Transtheoretical model) doesn’t even work! Rather it was just made up by some psychologist, packaged, and popularized, becoming the dominant model for behavioral change in healthcare in spite of the fact that no research showed it worked. And research has since has shown the Transtheoretical model doesn’t work. Wikipedia has a well referenced (which I checked) write up demonstrating the lack of effect.
Rather it’s just delay and an extensive delay at that, after which my experience is that most people forget they even intended change in the first place. The above wiki article has a suggested timeline, where you spend 6 months in the “precognitive phase” another 6 months in “contemplation” and still one more month in “preparation” before you take action. I have no doubts that clinical psychologists can wring a lot more money out of their patients using this model but I think it’s demonic. A way of making weak excuses sound learned. Anything worth changing is worth changing now, and with habits built in two months you can be well on your way where others are still deliberating.
*Tendinitis (more correctly termed tendinopathy)...
...is an exception to the don’t train through pain rule. While diagnosing and treating tendinopathy is currently outside the scope of Spinal Flow Yoga, it is one of my areas of intense study and practice. You can read my specific thoughts in relation to tennis/golfer’s/shooter’s elbow, trochanteric or gluteal tendinopathy, or coracoidopathy. Unlike neck pain, back pain, or deep joint pain, with tendinopathy you don’t want to be afraid to train in the “S” zone, as it usually takes that level of intensity to get the tendon to remodel and heal. As the tendon warms up it with the exercise it should actually feel better within minutes, as well as immediately afterwards, so it should still never be a “W.” As Spinal Flow Yoga matures I hope to add additional blogs/articles on how to self treat other tendinopathies, such as Achilles, patellar, and rotator cuff with Spinal Flow and/or weights. So if anyone has specific questions feel free to ask in the comments, and time permitting, I’ll do my best.