Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Syd shares her story of how she found a career in coaching and consulting, and how small simple everyday practices help her arrive at a new calm while she empowers others. Holistic, integrative therapies and daily movement can effectively alleviate pain and allow the body function more optimally--maybe starting from your big toe.
The following is written using she/they pronouns interchangeably. Project Green Beard aims to be an inclusive space, embrace diversity, and unite people in movement and health.
Captured from Syd's lens, left to right: Their 2 week old kitten, favorite forest trails, and getting outdoors.
A study by the esteemed Dr. Kress found that one in five people experience debilitating chronic pain (1). People experiencing chronic pain often face treatments that are either insufficient, or implemented too late. This is a concerning issue that bleeds into the mental well-being of our society as a whole. It is reflected by a suicide prevalence as high as fourteen percent by those suffering from chronic pain (1). The notion that drugs are the solution neglects to see that chronic pain as a component of an interconnected well-being of the mind-body, and even spirit. There is a way to achieve a pain-free and happier life: a holistic, integrated approach asks for the person to practice dynamic movement, increase stability, and make mindfulness a habit. If holistic practices sound a bit like a hippie's dream, rest assured that there have been studies throughout the decades to prove its effectiveness.
Syd picked up the phone on a Sunday morning, cheerful though a bit worn after a busy morning of corralling a two-week-old nugget of a kitten, and a three year old cat. There's an interesting depth to her when she speaks, even in the most jovial moments. When Syd defines "healthy" and "fitness", they explain it as finding "deep personal alignment". Syd describes her healthiest moments as when she experiences "an immediate connection of accessing [wants and needs] and... doing that".
What Syd describes is holistic practice. A foundational part of holistic approach is to acknowledge the person's conscious experiences to address the pain as a fragment, or fractal, of the person as a whole (4). Acknowledging needing to treat the person as a whole means it is critical to address the psychological or mental well-being simultaneously with pain treatment to generate some lasting, life changing results (1-5). Empowering people to move freely is congruent with achieving an elevated quality of life.
On an open Santa Cruz field a decade ago, Syd was introduced as a head coach of the Womxn's Ultimate Frisbee Team, SOL. Her coaching brought structure to a scraggly team of varying athletic background and ability. Leading an eclectic bunch to play strategically and competitively in an unconventional sport only partially showcases Syd's ability to impart the satisfaction that comes with accomplishing the “impossible”, individually or as a team.
Now living in Portland, Syd has found a career in "making work not suck" for clients looking to build a foundation to their new business or put HR systems in place. Her journey hasn't been absolutely direct; Syd was doing international work as the remote chief of staff for a financial tech company, and used some professional coaching herself before paving her own path. She continues to provide invaluable management consulting to organizations, e.g. coaching managers and executives to better align their work and teams, and helping set more inclusive systems in place within their HR. Her larger scale work helps her fund her personal coaching practice, and provide discounted rates to women and POC-owned or operated organizations. She continues to "empower [people] to do something they didn’t think they could do".
Ten years since her coaching days in a surfer town, she's shifted gears to focus on empowering people at an even more personal level. Building a relationship, understanding individual goals, establishing plans to successfully build a business from the ground up, or implement systems to make the corporate environment a more strategic, inclusive, better-managed place. There’s no rigid game plan; rather, the entire approach personalizes the approach to understanding an individual’s needs and values, then placing practical steps to align their life and work to reach an end goal.
Much like finding a sweet spot in building your career, a seemingly fortunate serendipitous milestone, finding healing methods and movement patterns that work for you can take consistent open-mindedness, intention to create better habits, and a bit of trial and error.
Since age thirteen, as a multi-sport athlete, Syd has been in and out of physical therapy for much of their life. First for a stubborn shoulder subluxation, leading up to multiple shoulder surgeries, and tacking on lower leg surgery, and knee and back injuries over the years. It takes grit to stay motivated to find a treatment strategy that is well suited to your needs, and even greater persistence to continue practicing exercises that effectively restore proper functional movement. Despite it all, Syd stays active, and finds joy walking or taking a jog through the forest on some of her favorite trails. "I listen to myself, and if I want to go, I do...it's delightful," she's almost convinced me to daydream about trail runs instead of beach lounging.
Common injuries, including chronic knee and back pain, can prove to be a challenge beyond the raw perception of pain itself--the fear of making things worse, or re-injury, can make a person more stagnant and permit the body to limit mobility over time. People suffering from chronic knee injury, difficult as it may be to pin the cause, have also benefited most from treatment involving multifactoral assessment (3). This implies not exclusively looking at the knee alone, but considering the alignment of the body as a whole (i.e. the hip and above the chain, as well as the ankle and feet below it) and includes mental and other forms of health.
Syd takes a walk or jogs through the forest to find that mental tranquility. Between the Douglas-fir and red cedar, the path gives way to each step. In that time, they can zone in to focus on each stride, how their foot meets the ground, how their body is responding to movement that day. They also go through a daily routine that can be done just about anywhere and doesn’t require an exorbitant amount of time or equipment. “Can I tell you them? They’ve changed my life,” their voice has a lightness to it and is contagious, “it’s all about alignment. I do this one twice a day.” Syd goes on to detail movements, describing holding her leg like you would a coffee cup, and shares some wisdom on her regimen. The exercises are actually quite commonly seen in physical therapy clinics and aid in re-educating the body towards developing a truly stronger core. (Scroll to see Syd's exercise recommendations below.)
A trot through the forest might not be your cup of tea, but there surely is a practice that might be. As studies on holistic care continue, the incorporation of yoga and Pilates movement into physical therapy and other healing routines is becoming more mainstream, and even makes its way into pediatric physical and occupational therapy (5). These practices envelop the foundational goal of achieving a "stronger core"--two words that are occasionally thrown around all too casually.
A strong core involves the deepest layer of muscles, oftentimes the smaller stabilizing muscle groups as well. Without developing this foundation, you’re building a home, temple, or skyscraper in earthquake city without proper seismic retrofitting. No matter your health goals, your stabilizing muscles keep things in place, help with your alignment, and welcome better mobility across joints. Yoga and Pilates challenges these target muscle groups, but more importantly also lend focus to equally important mental health. Going through meditative, mindful, intentional practice isn’t as aggressive as deadlifts and heavy barbell cleans, but there is an underlying factor. As with the best athletes, perfect practice makes perfect--deliberate, intentional, focused work achieves results (6). Syd has achieved her current state of "healthy" by putting in hours in guided practices and physical therapy manual work, confirming the payoff over the phone, “Oh, I have less pain. One hundred percent.”
She goes on to finish describing her routine with a set that is done in a seated position. She lifts her big toe up and towards the heart, without using the others as leverage. If you've seen Kill Bill, you'll have fun with this one. “If the toes overlap, it doesn’t count.” She’s familiar with putting her body through physically demanding sports and activity, and doesn’t hesitate before saying, “if everyone did these little movements everyday, they’d feel so different. It’s challenging but is also so wildly beneficial.” Everything is connected. By recognizing that pain is a symptom of our body's system, we allow ourselves the attention to work on overall health and enable our body to carry us through the moments we really cherish.
The resources at the end of this piece are fantastic to add to your routine, or begin creating one if you are looking to develop greater stability, improving your balance, or enhance your ability in sport performance. There are also suggestions on methods to practice mindfulness, and bring focus to your goals.
The following exercises are featured in the article/are common recommendations from our physical therapy team, but are not intended to be used as prescriptive movements. Readers should be advised to seek care from a primary physician or licensed therapist for proper assessment if they are experiencing notable pain/discomfort.
1. Pelvic Alignment Pt 1; Transverse Abdominis Activation with Hip Adduction
Position yourself comfortably on a mat or firm surface. Bring the soles of your feet to the ground and try to bring your shoulders into the floor and away from your ears. Place a ball (or use foam roll, rolled towel, or similar material) between your knees.
Bring your low back gently into the floor and maintain a tight core (protecting your spine). Squeeze the ball firmly, but do not over exert. Hold for 5-10 seconds and repeat 10 times. Rest a few seconds between repetitions, focus on breathing, and do this twice a day.
2. Pelvic Alignment Pt 2; Gluteal Isometric Activation
Begin laying on your stomach, resting your head on your forearms comfortably. Try to "scoop the tailbone"under you--it might feel a bit like you are engaging your abs to do so. Keeping your knees and legs about hip width apart, bend at the knee to achieve a 90 degree angle and bring the heels together. Squeeze your heels together firmly, but do not overexert. Maintain a 5-10 second squeeze about 10 times and try to do this twice daily.
3. Barefoot Toe Exercises
Sit with good, upright posture and bring your knees to a 90 degree angle (about hip width apart) with your ankles under your knees. For this exercise, you can try to do one foot at a time. With weight evenly balanced throughout the foot, try to lift your big toe up and towards the mid-line (no crossing other toes) and with control. Try to do this without using the other 4 toes as leverage. Practice 5-10 times slowly on both sides.
Try also to lift the 4 other toes, keeping the big toe on the floor and weight evenly distributed throughout the foot. Practice this 5-10 times slowly on both feet.
Watch out for your ankles and knees--they'll want to help you get the toes up!
Some moves for more practice/back pain help:
1. Syd's Partial Wall Sit with Snow Angels
Conventional wall sits involve 90 degree angles at the hips and knees, this one only requires you to be about half the way down!
In your partial wall sit, bring your shoulders towards the wall by squeezing the space between the shoulder blades a bit. Keep your hips and most of your back adhered to the wall for this. Try to have your knees above the ankles/mid-foot, or shin perpendicular to the ground.
Slowly glide the back of your hands up and down on the wall (like you're doing snow angels) with controlled movements.
Try doing this in 30 second, 1 minute, or 90 second increments depending on what your body allows.
2. Cat Cow
Begin in a quadruped: hands under your shoulders, knees under your hips.
Find the position where your back is flat and in line with the base of your skull.
Find your calm breathing pattern, then when you are ready and with weight even, round the spine--create space between the shoulder blades and exhale bringing belly to sky. You will notice where some areas of your back allow more movement than others.
As you inhale, return to neutral-spine slowly then inhale, dipping the belly towards the ground with control and lengthening the crown towards the sky. (Avoid arching up to look at the sky; instead, keep the gaze relaxed.)
3. Child's Pose
Begin in a kneeling position, and reach the hands high then fold forward. Plant your hands on the floor, spreading the fingers wide and pushing through the entirety of the palm and fingers. Continue long deep breaths as you bring the chest low towards the ground.This pose requires your active engagement. Perform for as long as it feels good!
4. Low Back Rotation
For this move, lay on your back with feet and knees together. Plant the soles of your feet to the ground, spread your arms into a "T", then find a calm, deep breath. Slowly bring your knees over to one side--your knees will want to "unmatch", so try your best to keep that top knee stacked or flush on top. Be sure to keep both shoulders grounded throughout. Take deep breaths. Rest on each side for about 30 seconds before returning to neutral for 1 repetition. Repeat about 2-3 times on both sides.
A Few Accessible Mental Health Tools:
App: "Headspace"(check for discount if you are an essential worker during COVID-19)
Podcast: "Mentally Yours"
Podcast: "The Dark Place"
Syd's Coaching for Individuals and Business Professionals:
I am not paid to endorse any of these listed resources.
Hans-Georg Kress, “A holistic approach to chronic pain management that involves all stakeholders: change is needed,” Current Medical Research and Opinion, Volume 31, Issue 9 (2015), 1743-1754, accessed May 26, 2020.
Gerald M. Aronoff, M.D., “A Holistic Approach to Pain Rehabilitation: The Boston Pain Unit,” New Approaches to Treatment of Chronic Pain: A Review of Mulitdisciplinary Pain Clinics and Pain Centers, NIDA Reseach Monograph 36 (1981), accessed May 26, 2020.
Vicente Sanchis-Alfonso, “Holistic approach to understanding anterior knee pain. Clinical implications,” Knee Surgery, Sports Traumatology, Arthroscopy 22 (2014) 2275-2285, accessed May 27, 2020.
Søren Ventegodt, Suzette Thegler, Tove Andreasen, Flemming Struve, Lars Enevoldsen, Laila Bassaine, Margrethe Torp, and Joav Merrick, “Clinical Holistic Medicine (Mindful, Short-Term Pschodynamic Psychotherapy Complemented with Bodywork) in the Treatment of Experienced Physical Illness and Chronic Pain,” TheScientificWorldJOURNAL 7 (2007), 310-316, accessed May 27, 2020.
Christina Jackson, Kristen McLaughlin, Beverly Teti, “Back Pain in Children: A Holistic Approach to Diagnosis and Management”, Journal of Pediatric Health Care, Volume 25 Issue 5 (2011) 284-293, accessed May 27, 2020.
Angela Duckworth, Grit: The power of Passion and Perserverence, Scribner, 2016.
Syd Fleischer, Interview, May 23, 2020.
Founder, Project Green Beard
UCSC Banana Slug