Thinking about bodywork in self-awareness and healing

This week, I am going to have my first session with Howard Rontal, my body worker, in more than a month.

Photo: Howard Rontal in his office
Strong hands and a sharp mind

I stopped massage therapy when it became clear to me that I needed to take a step back in dealing with my iliopsoas meltdown because the “injury” was not going away and, in deed, seemed to be worsening. I needed to take a different perspective, and also back off my own efforts to get a handle on my body. I also stopped going to yoga classes because I felt that my approach to yoga (taking it deeper, finding my edge) might be complicating the condition even though I was trying to be mindful when doing my vinyasa practice. My neuro-myofascial system operates at a subconscious level: I don’t explicitly decide to use specific sets of muscles to twist or turn; it’s handled by another part of the neural system.

In any case, I felt that I needed to reduce my treatments in order to see if and how I was improving and what was having an impact. I only had so much time and money to throw at the problem.

How bodywork changed me

The break from Howard‘s hands allowed me to reflect on how six months of treatment (since September last year) has affected me.

Working with a massage therapist requires a suspension of personal boundaries: each session, I strip down to my boxers, lay down on the sheet-covered table, and allow Howard to rub and probe with his hands, forearms, elbows and assorted instruments over the surface of my body and dig in deep to reach other layers of fascia and muscle. I submit myself to his experience, skills and aptitude to somehow transform my flesh into something that’s more sustainable, healthy, functional. My originally intention — that this treatment will relieve me of the bizarre combination of numbness and pain (peripheral neuropathy) — may not be completely attainable, but it will alleviate the stiffness and lack of range in my neuro-myofascial matrix. I know that the experience was transforming my yoga practice: every time I get on the mat, there are sparks of discovery, as I am able to access muscles more deeply, overcome resistance caused by the years of stress that I’ve stored in my sinews.

Because Howard comes from the Hellerwork tradition, there is a strong psychological component in his technique so we can talk about a lot of emotional issues that are being expressed in my muscles and tissues. So as I am taking off my clothes, I am telling him about the aches, pains and numbness of my body, the stressors of my job and my intentions for the session. I am exposing myself to him, but also becoming more self-aware of my own mind-body connection.

As the focus of the treatment moved away from the neuropathy issue to the muscle spasms, Howard and I engaged in a kind of detective work to find out which were the protesting muscles, and which muscles were merely squealing in sympathy. We narrowed it down to the illiacus and psoas on the left side, and maybe the ligaments connecting my hips to my sacrum or the SI joint. But these muscles may have been over-compensating for the right side being over rigid. But these tissues are so deep in the body that it’s really hard to access them, but it was amazing to experience how Howard could influence that inner core.

What I learned about body care

There are things that I can do for my body that Howard can’t: in a yoga vinyasa I can employ the whole span of my body and balance it in gravity. Howard has to be more focused on single muscles, fascia, torso or limbs. In crescent lunge, I can engage the full anatomical chain from my fingers down to my toes as I swing through full extension. I can also treat myself to self-message, either by using a roller or Yoga Tune-Up balls (or other balls of varied form and density), with the advantage that I can focus on tight areas, deepen or soften the touch at the point of contact, or explore at will. Each evening, as a minimum, I roll my rhomboid muscles and it is one of the most delicious sensation — tension spills out of the tissues. I had not realized that stress had been building up there, a kind of secret repository. I’ve also start massaging my feet, especially my arches, during the day to prevent tension from building up in my legs. In other words, I’ve been learning to self-heal and self-soothe.

I now realize that I have to take charge of my own process of healing and well-being, but also recruit the intervention of other specialists to help me take the best path forward, which means that I will have to explain what I have learned from undergoing treatment with a chiropractor and an acupuncturist.