When most people think of exercise, they usually think about it in terms of the health of the body. However, it also is necessary for the health of the skin! Movement, exercise, and support for the nervous system all greatly influence skin health, so helping clients figure out how to safely and effectively incorporate these practices into their lives is critical. At the same time, it can also be challenging. The industry of exercise is often misleading and confusing; most sources of information consistently overlook the importance of mindfulness and awareness when working with the body in favor of focusing on the visible results.
For example, in my experience with working with clients, exercising in moderation is uncommon — people are either pushing themselves too hard with daily workouts or they’re neglecting movement altogether. This variation in extremes can lead to deficiencies or stagnation within the body that has a direct impact on skin function. Take the client who does a spinning class every day; that kind of overexercise can lead to increased cortisol and other hormone imbalances, which can in turn lead to rosacea, dermatitis, inflammation, and breakouts. On the flip side, a total lack of exercise can result in decreased circulation, which can have a negative impact on overall body and skin function.
Tiffany Cruikshank is one of my primary teachers around physical movement and meditation. I have practiced with her both in person and online for over 15 years, and she is the first teacher who made both the physical and mental practice of exercise make sense to me. Tiffany’s teaching style is incredibly practical, strategic, and always backed with a thorough explanation of anatomy and biology, which made it easy for me to build trust in her as a teacher. Years later I continue to learn so many valuable tools from her, whether short tutorials on breathwork and meditation or longer physical movement practices. I appreciate the way she sets up her classes so that you really understand exactly why you are being asked to move or breathe in a certain way, as that really resonates with me. I have learned to turn to her work in times of stress, fatigue, illness, or when I just feel like I need to shake things up and move. I now view the wide range of physical movement as a way of healing and have witnessed that first hand from Tiffany’s guidance over the years.
We’re pleased to share this interview with her about her philosophy for mindfully and constructively incorporating movement into your life.
Broadly speaking, what are your thoughts on the main reasons for one to exercise?
It’s different for everyone and it changes with the phases of our lives, but for myself and in my experience with patients, I find the best laid plans are when we exercise to feel good and be healthy. When we exercise to look good, we usually end up in a recurring cycle of doing nothing then doing everything and struggling with motivation all along the way. And our connective tissues, the casing for our muscles that are the most common site of injury, do not like this method. These are tissues that slowly adapt to demands over time, whether that be sitting all day or exercising a certain way. They don’t respond as well to the ‘weekend warrior’ or ‘one month exercise program’ mentality.
The flip side is that when I show up to feel my best and be healthy, I’m also looking for practices that support my health rather than just beating myself up as many do. When I worked at Nike, I often had patients come in and make statements about needing to get back in shape and start running again as if the two were synonymous. As if we have to beat ourselves up to be “in shape.” But I strongly believe exercise should be something we enjoy, and we should be looking for practices that support both a diversity of movement and modalities as well as the ever-changing aspects of our health. When we show up to do something we enjoy, it leaves positive memories behind that help to motivate us to do it again, which helps create important patterns for long term health.
I also believe that when we support our health as the foundation of what we do, the other stuff falls into place. In Chinese Medicine we call this ‘treating the root cause’; when you do this, the branches or symptoms naturally come back to balance. In this treatment strategy, the side effects are positive, we see symptoms we might not have suck out treatment for starting to dissipate as well. As a Chinese medicine practitioner, I believe there are many effective ways to support our health and wellness on an ongoing basis and my role is to help my patients find what works best for them and their lifestyle.
Having poured myself wholeheartedly into studying holistic medicine from the age of 16 and making it my life’s work since then, I have many tools in my toolkit that I use with myself and my patients. What I love about yoga is that it doesn’t require any fancy tools, it simply requires that we show up with a curiosity in our experience in our body/mind/spirit. The beauty of yoga is that it teaches self-inquiry, which is a key component to optimizing our health and wellness. It’s why I love having our Yoga Medicine® Online platform to offer both classes and education for those who want to do this work on their own, without having to pay thousands of dollars to have someone like me guide you. To learn to use your home practice to feel better and appreciate your life. I believe movement is a form of therapy for our mind, body, and organs, so I love providing deeper discussions on what and how to do this for those who are motivated to feel their best.
How else should we be thinking about designing a weekly physical movement program? Essentially, how can we start to think about movement and exercise more individually?
This is a tricky one since there is so much to consider. It’s why poking around online can be so overwhelming, with new articles each day on “Five Things You Must Do for XYZ…” Since this is what I do for a living, I’m constantly combing through research to see new information coming out. The landscape of health and wellness is changing every day, though the gist of it stays familiar (eat whole foods, move, breath, reduce stress). This question mostly depends on your needs and goals. I’ve worked with many professional athletes in different sports over the years, and for each of them their routines and goals are quite different, but recovery and injury prevention is a full-time job for all. Most professional athletes will spend more time preparing, cross training, and recovering than they do training for their sport, which often includes things like yoga, nutrition, massage, myofascial, cold tubs/cryotherapy, physical therapy, acupuncture, etc. Many of those things are done daily. Obviously, for a non-professional athlete this would be out of the question, but it shows you that we can take our body to extremes and still provide the support it needs to be resilient. Our bodies are made to be resilient and respond over time to ongoing demands. For women, the ebb and flow of our cyclical hormones is also an important thing to keep in mind when developing an individualized program.
With that in mind, what I think many people miss is recovery support for the tissues, brain, and nervous system, as well as connective tissue training. Research is strongly suggesting that a large majority of sports injuries are happening in the connective tissue, not the muscle itself. So training this tissue is incredibly important through things like myofascial release, eccentric training, repetitive flowing movements (as we see in yoga) to lubricate, inversions, strength training, mobility training (active and passive), and really just a diversity of movement and training. The recovery side is key whether you’re an athlete or a competitive desk sitter; our nervous system needs that downregulation at the end of a long day. It’s like a computer that you can either slowly shut down and let all the programs close or you can yank the cord out of the wall or push the power button. We all know how that one usually ends eventually. Things like restorative yoga, yin yoga, meditation, and pranayama (breath work) can be helpful ways to support the nervous system as our stress management system to help keep us at peak performance.
In fact, your question is why I created our weekly wellness lineups, which are designed for those who have some familiarity with yoga but want to support their overall health and wellness. It’s unique in that it includes both yoga conditioning challenges, flow classes, strength work, and myofascial release as well as restorative and yin classes to support the nervous system and organs and meditation and pranayama to support cognitive health, among other things. It’s an easy ‘plug and play’ system for those who want cutting edge research and well-rounded programs: we do the work for you so you can just show up.
Current trends and exercise science acknowledge the importance of rest and recovery, but ‘too much vs. too little’ can be very specific to individuals. How do you help clients determine what is appropriate for them and how that can change over time, based on symptoms, goals, etc.?
This is where the introspective and reflective nature of yoga is so helpful. Rather than going through the motions of a set plan, I think it’s important to take a moment each day to consider, “What do I need today?” There might not always be a clear answer, sometimes it’s simply to move or shed stress and that’s perfect. From there I can either choose a suitable practice or step into my chosen practice with a different focus or purpose, which in and of itself can change everything. A big part of it is simply acknowledging that our needs are changing daily and hourly. I think the hardest part for most of us is being truthful with ourselves, both in the days when we feel heavy or lazy and know we’ll feel better if we move but don’t want to, and on the days we feel we have to do a certain workout but our body really needs the nourishment of some downtime. It involves both cutting ourselves some slack at times and also pushing ourselves at others. A lot of my job when working with patients is teasing that out, but for my patients who are already regular yoga practitioners it’s much easier.
I’m curious how you incorporate Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with your approach to movement and exercise?
Learning Chinese Medicine diagnosis takes years of diligent study and can be quite complex. However, it is helpful to keep in mind that more exercise isn’t always better, and that each person is unique. So, you don’t always have to overthink it if you don’t have access to a practitioner or time for a longer course but remember to listen to the response from your body both during, immediately after a workout, and a day or two later. Vigorous exercise can be a great way to move qi and blood, which becomes stagnant from sitting all day, but for those with internal heat (those who tend to sweat a lot or wake up hot at night), too much can just exacerbate the problem. So, experiment with slower longer routines or shorter more intense routines followed by some recovery work (restorative yoga, yin yoga, myofascial release, etc.) to cool down the system.
Do you recommend a specific dietary approach or certain foods before and after workouts? General guidelines based on your research or more specific based on individuals? (I get asked this question constantly.)
It depends a bit on the person and when they like to workout. For those that workout first thing in the morning, I generally recommend some liquid nourishment. I recommend either a matcha tea with coconut milk and collagen powder or a high quality organic greens powder mixed with water, MCT oil and collagen powder in a shaker bottle if they’re short on time. The key is to get some fuel in that will support the blood sugar through the workout and leave you feeling good after. Everyone’s digestion and blood sugar is a little different so if it feels like too much, leave the fat or protein out, or if you’re running out of fuel mid-workout or crashing after, you may need to add more fat or protein or go for a full smoothie with more in it. So go with what feels best during and after your workout.
Do you recommend an optimal time of day – AM, midday, PM – for exercise/movement based on nervous system support (stress load)?
Theoretically it’s good to support the natural cortisol rhythm by exercising more vigorously in the morning/early afternoon and doing more restorative practices in the evening. Though I’ve seen some people who just sleep better when they do vigorous exercise at night. I’m less picky about when – it’s more important that you find a time that works for you and stick with it to create a routine. The body likes routines.
Aside from breathwork/breathing techniques, what do you think are the best ‘tools’ for clients to manage stress (downregulate nervous system and support immune function) on a regular basis?
For me it’s about decoding what works for that person, and that often takes some experimentation. The key is to find one you like and stick to it. There’s always a lot of buzz in the media about that “One Magical Thing that Will Melt Away Your Stress,” but it’s not that simple. Those tricks can be helpful for some but they’re a Band-Aid. What’s more helpful long term is to train the nervous system through regular practices, that way it’s an easy state to come back to. So find what feels helpful to shed stress. I love restorative yoga, yin yoga, myofascial release, meditation, or even movement classes that also have some more introspective practices or breathwork at the end. Find what unlocks your stress and put it on repeat. It doesn’t need to be for long, just 10-20 mins several times a week can be enough for most people. Then when you hit those stressful moments or periods in your life you have this awareness as a reference point to come back to.