Tying a bow on my birthday present

I’ve now been taking treatment from Howard Rontal for a month now, currently with a frequency of once a week for 60 minutes. As a birthday present to myself (turned 62 yesterday), I took an 90-minute session in which Howard gave me his “ligament treatment” — basically going progressively from soles to neck and stretching out all the muscles and assorted fascia, with special attention to places that were seriously compromised (in my case, hips, sacrum, lower back, neck — Howard was much more specific in naming muscles and ligaments).

A full 48 hours later, I am still feeling the impact of this body readjustment, a different kind of experience than what I had experienced in previous sessions. Rather than just relieving symptoms like numbness, tension, or pain (which I did on Tuesday), I’ve felt as if I’ve been put thorough boot camp. I’ve gone to bed feeling exhausted and sore, and woken up feeling fatigued and sore, especially in my hips, thighs, shoulders, arms, forearms. I almost felt as if I had flu symptoms — or something had gone wrong with the treatment. Obviously, something different is happening; it’s no longer just the “happy talk” of relieving tension and pain. Because of the work done on my core, I am using muscles differently, in new ways, with new lines of tensile stress. I’ve only done one Hatha yoga class (Tuesday evening) and my evening yin yoga sessions, so I’ve not be overexerting myself in a more traditional way (as if I’d gone to the gym for weight lifting for the first time in years). Rather, I am carrying myself (body frame and muscles) in a different way. So the very process of holding myself upright, walking, bending over is more physical exertion for me.

Howard told me that giving me a massage is like stroking a tree trunk: my muscles and fibers are thick, dense, hardened, inelastic, stiff, some more than others.  It takes an enormous amount of energy on his part to get a response, but eventually my body does respond. There’s not a lot of give in my fibers.

I don’t look like someone wound too tightly. I’ve always been slender, un-athletic, and relatively lightly built. At around 40, I put on 25 pounds; when I quit smoking the first time, I added another 10 pounds; and by the time I finished my MS degree, I had added another 15 pounds, pushing me over 210 pounds. So I’ve bulked up over a relatively wiry, tight frame, adding layer over layer.  And for the past seven years, I’ve been trying to reverse that tightness while reducing my weight, with moderate success since I can do a yoga class without looking like a complete klutz. I half joked with Howard that he’s lucky he did not have to work with me when I started yoga.

So what Howard did on Tuesday (and probably in a less concentrated form previously) is to start stretching out some of those sinews, freeing them to movement. Which means that instead of relying on rigidity to hold together and mobilize my body, my muscles are having to work. To use a metaphor, instead of using wooden struts to prop myself up, I am using the tensile strength of wire that has to be adjusted continuously to keep me upright. I may have felt it less before because we’ve tended to focus on a single area (feet and calves, core, shoulders and chest, neck and back). This time we were more ambitious in treatment scope.

Howard explained to me that the model for understanding the body is based on geometric principles — called Tensegrity:  rather than thinking of “flesh hanging off of bones,” it’s better to think in terms of a dynamic tension in which the bones are suspended by the fascia much like a suspension bridge. The concept is fascinating, but right now I am dealing with the discomfort of the transition to being a more embodied form of plasticity from a wooden prototype.

Happy birthday to me

I see the time and money that I now am investing in this treatment as more than just pain relief or injury repair, but as a down payment on future well being in my “seniorhood.” This past year, with my parents’ deaths and all the upheaval and disruption in my personal life, I let my personal care slip and saw a dramatic drop-off in my well-being as my peripheral neuropathy and other symptoms worsened dramatically. With the myofascial release massage, I feel a renewed interest in my yoga practice.

What is really surprising is that the therapy seems to have more than transitory effect (relieving pain or loosening up muscles). You would think that “moving around muscles and ligaments” would eventually mean that they fall back in place. I suspect that if I might slip back into old patterns if I did not do yoga (or exercise or stretching) to lock in the new range of movement.