Posted by: Yoga in Borve | July 27, 2015

Book review: ‘Keep your joints young’

Time for the next post in my series of yoga book reviews! People in my classes often ask about resources to support them doing yoga at home, so I’m (slowly) working my way through a growing mini-library of potentially suitable books. You can see my previous book reviews here and here.

Sarah Key’s Keep your joints young: Banish your aches, pains and creaky joints is not, strictly speaking, a yoga book.  Sarah Key is a senior physiotherapist who works between Australia and the UK (she is physio to the Royal Family) and is the best-selling author of The Back Sufferer’s Bible.  Key is, though, a big fan of yoga, and if you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you’ll recognise many of the exercises recommended in Keep your joints young. She describes them herself as ‘a series of yoga exercises to help restore full mobility to your joints’ (2006: 14).

This book is not what I expected when I ordered it online. I was looking for straightforward books providing simple practices people could do at home. I assumed (on the basis of a few reviews I read) that Key’s book would be a short practical manual of joint exercises. It does indeed contain such exercises, but there is a lot of other information too (250 pages of it). I found it really interesting, as I’m increasingly fascinated by anatomy, but it might be a bit much for anyone who was just looking for an exercise routine. However, if you want to know how your joints work and how to look after them, it’s well worth reading – and will give you new levels of gratitude and appreciation for any of your joints which are currently doing their job properly!

Keep your joints young has ten chapters, one each for your low back, thoracic spine, neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, ankles and feet. Each chapter is clearly structured following exactly the same format. To take an example at random, ‘Your knees’ begins with ‘What is your knee?’, a section explaining the structure of the knee joint. The chapter then goes on to ‘How does your knee work?’, ‘What are the accessory movements of the knee?’, ‘How do knees go wrong?’, ‘The common disorders of the knees’ and finally ‘What can you do about it?’ This last section of each chapter gives specific exercises for the joint under discussion, divided into Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced levels. At the end of the book is Key’s 30 minute daily regime, for those without specific problems who want to keep all their joints in good working order. You can, of course, add into this daily regime other exercises from the ends of each chapter, if you have any particular joints which need a bit more attention.

I’ve worked my way through nearly all of the exercises in Key’s book then done the daily regime over the course of a week. So, what’s my verdict?

Firstly, Sarah Key has a prop called a BackBlock, used in one of the key daily exercises, which is available for purchase at the back of the book or via her website. It’s expensive and seems similar to the (much cheaper) yoga block I used instead – so I wouldn’t rush to buy a BackBlock. Key herself suggests that a stack of books can be used instead of the BackBlock.

forearm twist

Forearm twist

As for the exercises: many of these I was familiar with from yoga and pilates, but some were new to me, or a new variation on a familiar theme.  Some felt effective but uncomfortable to say the least – for example, the deceptively straightforward looking ‘forearm twist’ in the Advanced section of elbow exercises.

This will vary a lot from person to person, though, depending on your proportions, fitness, flexibility, history of injury, and so forth. I can think of several people I know who would balk at the Beginners exercise ‘Walking on the knees’ but some of them would probably manage the Intermediate knee exercises. To take another example, Key’s Advanced hip stretch ‘floor lunge’ is

Floor lunge

Floor lunge

what I know as ‘pigeon prep’ in yoga.  These days I find it easy and lovely, whereas many people I know find it tough to impossible. On the other hand, although I’ve done yoga for more than a quarter century, I’m not comfy in any variations of Plough, whereas many beginners take to it almost straight away.  So – it’s crucial to proceed at a pace appropriate to yourself.

Overall, there are many effective exercises in the book but my reservation is if you are new to these types of exercise, it could be hard to tell if you’re doing it right. For example, the Shoulder Hang was completely new to me, and I couldn’t see what I was doing whilst in it, but knew I didn’t seem to be feeling it in the areas Key had said I would. I ended up wishing I had a

Shoulder hang

Shoulder hang

physio there to advise me. Also, I know I err on the side of caution, but there are a few exercises included which I personally wouldn’t recommend newbies to try without the supervision of an experienced teacher (i.e. Plough, Plough extender, Headstand, Handstand).

I notice physios and osteopaths are often quite relaxed about working through discomfort, sometimes stating this is necessary in order to restore proper joint function. Depending on your personality and your experience of yoga, physiotherapy, etc. you might be able to judge how much and what kind of pain is good pain…but what if you can’t? The BackBlock, Knees rocking and Reverse curl-ups sequence is great, but years ago when I had back problems, I think I’d have been apprehensive about doing it. Reading parts of the instructions – ‘It should not be agony but it should feel as though it means business […] After 60 seconds, or less if you cannot tolerate it,… […] It always hurts to raise your bottom off the BackBlock. Don’t be fazed by this: the longer you have been lying there the more it will hurt to lift off’ (p233) – would not have encouraged me. I’d have wanted Sarah Key at my side reassuring me I was doing it right and my back wasn’t about to go into spasm!

If you are fairly new to exercise, it’s particularly important to read this book thoroughly and work through the exercises gradually over a period of time. Key says herself ‘you must follow them carefully and slowly, knowing your own limits. It is better to do just a few exercises properly than rush through the whole set badly’ (p14).  If you have injuries or other joint issues, I’d suggest showing the book to your own physiotherapist/osteopath, who might have recommendations for you, or simply be able to observe and guide you the first time you try some of the trickier exercises.

I don’t want to sound like I don’t approve of the book – I found it fascinating and I will definitely draw on it for my own personal practice and in my classes. Just remember not to be too gung-ho with your pain barriers if you’re trying it at home!

I’ll finish with an extended quote from Sarah Key (pp12-13), to give you a flavour of her writing style and her take on yoga:

‘…yoga not only stretches your body, it involves discipline, meditation, breathing control, elevated states of mental awareness and so on. Perhaps not all those avenues are readily accessible to the hurried habits of Westerners, but each of us has something to gain from its practice. Apart from the centring and rarified sessions of inner stillness, the supreme gift of yoga is its physical prowess; quite simply, its ability to restore accessory movements to the joints. The fruits of yoga are plucked along the way, on the journey, not the destination. This simple tenet is readily misunderstood by yoga’s dismissive band of doubters. There are also people who say “It hurt too much so I didn’t think I should do it” or, “I’ve never been able to touch my toes”. But yoga is the most simple and effective way of keeping the joints apart, of keeping them young. There is no great value in reaching the destination, no great value in reaching your toes. The value lies in the process of getting there and this is where we can get it wrong. By concentrating upon point scoring, getting the goal, end-gaining for the sake of it, we fail to appreciate the subtlety of our bodies opening out en route, the little improvements along the way, feeling looser in your own skin, feeling lighter and, yes, feeling younger.’



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