Hold Your Head Up

Don't you hate it when you get a song stuck in your head? For the last two days I've had Hold Your Head Up stuck in mine. Not the Macklemore song. No, I've got the ubiquitous 1972 Argent anthem stuck in there. I was in junior high school. This song was a staple for every cover band that ever played a high school dance through out the 70's. If you wanted to be cool you had to like this song. Whenever it started to play the cool kids instinctively bobbed their heads in rhythm with a feigned lack of self-consciousness and a false sense of bravado. Party on! I wasn't much of a rocker when this song debuted. Who am I kidding, I've never been much of a rocker. But I remember listening to the 8-track tape in the back of my cousin's RV when we were on summer vacations in upstate New York. Oh yeah, baby! Green shag carpet, contact paper that looked like wood covering the cabinets that doubled as a twin bed for three of the kids, and 8 track tape players in the front cab and  the back. When the grown ups were gone we'd listen to the rock 8 tracks, and play Pitch. Bitchin'!

I used to know someone who could plant a song in your head just by saying he was going to do it. In fact he called it "planting" and it was his super power. He had a gift for the power of suggestion. But that's now how this song got stuck in my head. I think it's there because I woke up a couple day ago with neck pain. Trust me, there's a reason we call annoying things 'pains in the neck'. Neck pain is a pain in the neck. You can tell them I said so.

"But I know I'm not alone", he said bravely as he looked out over the horizon toward the rising sun. Indeed not. Studies have shown that 5 in 1000 people over 50 have symptomatic spinal stenosis. Stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal (which houses your spinal cord) or the lateral foramen where the nerve roots exit as they begin their journey to your (in the case of cervical nerves) arms, and hands. The narrowing can be the result of a number of causes. These include thickening of ligaments within the spine, osteophytes (bone spurs) along the margins of the vertebrae, bulging spinal discs, and thickening of the cartilage that line the joints of the spine. Studies that looked at the incidence of spinal stenosis in asymptomatic individuals have shown up to a 35% occurrence in subjects under the age of 30 years. Yowzah! Keep in mind that these folks didn't have symptoms which suggests that many people are stenotic and just don't know it. Hopefully they never will. The symptoms that stenosis can create range from joint stiffness, to local pain with movement, to irritation of the nerve root and the myriad symptoms of discomfort that can cause. If you'd like to read a scientific article about spinal stenosis and access the extensive reference list that it resulted from, then please have a look at this:


Spinal stenosis may be caused by trauma or genetics but it's clearly linked to the aging process; bad news for accident prone Boomers like me whose genes swim in a murky pool. Regardless of its origins, or whether or not you're symptomatic the research would indicate that it behooves us to treat these tunnels and canals with loving kindness and respect. After all your very nerves depend on it.

I can tell you from the biomechanical point of view that movement changes the amount of space in these tunnels. Looking up, bending to the side, and rotating your head narrows the space that nerve roots exit and creates tension along certain ligaments in the spinal canal. It also compresses the spinal facet joints on one side while it gaps them on the other. These movements can be painful depending on where the stenosis is located and what is causing it. Bending your head forward (flexion) compresses the front of the spinal discs causing their inner nucleus to move backward and to the side. This can contribute to narrowing of the space where the nerve roots exit and can be painful. It can also produce pain to the disc itself in the presence of pathology.

So why do we knitters and spinners give a wooly sheep's behind about this? Because most of us spend far too much time looking downward when we knit or spin! I totally get it. We feel this reliance on our vision to make sure our hands are doing the right thing. We're terrified that we'll drop a stitch and the Rapture will commence. We are sure that if we look away from our hands while drafting the wheel will spontaneously change its brake tension and globs of precious fiber will be yanked from our hands and wound into a twisted snarl on the bobbin. All the sheep will die. There will be no more yarn. Children will starve all over Europe. It will be dreadful!

My mission this year has been to get my students to stop doing this.  And I've been pretty successful. Here's a group that attended a class earlier this year. They're not only walking while they knit (a feat I also taught them) but they're looking up as they do it. And they're in a beautiful Marin County forest.  (I have a tough job.)

The Marin Gals loving the forest as they walk and knit.

The Marin Gals loving the forest as they walk and knit.

Don't they look like they're suffering?

Lest you think that this is a skill only the women in Marin County possess, here's another group from a class I taught at Stitches West last February with students from far and wide in attendance.

Swatchbucklers at Stitches West 2014 led by my favorite gal from Georgia.

Swatchbucklers at Stitches West 2014 led by my favorite gal from Georgia.

How did these folks manage this feat of daring do? Simple, they swatched for it! And that's what I want you to do. You CAN do this. Trust me, but more importantly trust your hands. You've been training them to knit or spin for years. They know how to make stitches without you watching them all the time. Helicopter knitter!  Tiger spinner!

For knitting, start with a bit of yarn that isn't terribly dear but that is cooperative (i.e., not prone to splitting, not novelty, etc.) Get yourself a set of needles that pair well with the yarn and, while sitting, knit yourself a garter stitch swatch without looking at your hands. If this is too much and you're getting hives at just the thought of it then start smaller. Only look at every 3rd or 4th stitch. You'll soon gain confidence and comfort, I promise. Remember our knitting ancestors knit complicated garments while walking and working. You can handle garter stitch on your couch. Once you get comfy doing the knit stitch, then turn the swatch into stockinette. Use this technique when you're swatching more complex patterns that you'll use in an upcoming project so you'll be comfortable looking away once in a while.

In spinning, start with a fiber and a drafting technique you're comfortable working with. Establish your wheel settings and the diameter of singles you want to make and spin a few yards. Then look away. Keep spinning but look forward. Listen to your hands - they're pretty smart. Look down when  you need to join your fiber supply or check your bobbin, but try not to spend your whole experience in this head down posture.

Of course there are times that we need to look at our hands and work. My point is that we don't need to witness the miracle of birth of each stitch or draft we make. We look down so much these days! Tablets, smart phones, hard copy on desks and tables - why add stress where you don't need it?

There are so many benefits from looking up from our work. We can breathe more fully because we're not hunched. We can relax the strain on our necks and shoulders. We can watch the movie on TV and not just listen to it as a sound track. (Did you know there are moving pictures that go along with Harry Potter? ) You'll see if your S.O. is giving him or herself more wine than they give you. So hold your head up! And rock on.

Knitting helps me look forward. Ergo, I Knit.