Tag Archives: bodywork

Breaking the silence

I’ve been silent too long on these pages so I am going to force myself to sit in front of my computer and explain what’s been happening. Over the summer, the demands on my time and energy have pushed aside blogging. Something had to give. I’ve also felt that I really did not have a lot of insight to inject into the blogosphere, especially about my own yoga practice or yoga as a part of US mainstream culture or the DC yoga scene. I had a couple of drafts in the hopper and could never focus enough to get them done.

Honestly, I was battling through some injuries that kept me from going to yoga class. I developed a problem with my iliopsoas and SI joint, this time on the right side. I stopped going to yoga class and kept up treatment with my chiropractor. But I also developed a problem with my left knee about the same time (early September), which has gradually gotten worse. I first felt a twinge of pain in the knee, but did not think that it was anything serious [“Must have twisted my knee in my yoga classes”]. I started  taking Aleve in the morning and evening to get by. I saw my orthopedic surgeon as soon as I could get an appointment. He examined it and found some inflammation, but nothing showed up on the x-rays. He injected cortisone. I was supposed to wait 2-3 weeks and if there was no improvement, I should get an MRI and go back to see him. The idea being that I may have some cartilage floating around in there, and would need do another arthroscopic surgery to clean up my knee, as with my right knee.  My doctor told me to stick with doing stationary bike for exercise and keep my yoga simple so that I do not stress my knee joint.

I found myself in a kind of  downward spiral: I didn’t go to yoga class to avoid worsening my core (iliopsoas) issues, so my neuropathy worsened; my neuropathy led to bad body mechanics (walking), which causes pain in my knee; I didn’t exercise to avoid hurting my knee, which reduced my stamina and resilience; my general fatigue reduced my ability to manage and tolerate pain; my pain kept me from sleeping early and soundly and led to sleep deprivation, which turned me into a zombie during the day. That sounds like a familiar formula — I went through something like it last year.

I think I have things under control now, thanks to working with my chiropractor and my body worker, and monitoring my symptoms. I have never stopped doing my evening routine of self-massage, hip openers, stretches and restorative poses so I have not stopped doing yoga. If anything, it’s what keeps me going physically, emotionally, intellectually, psychologically.

And in August, my desktop’s hard disk went out, which required installing the Windows operating system, my applications, working files and music. I am still trying to get the computer back to where I feel that it meets all my needs. Fortunately, having a laptop kept me going with e-mails and other essentials.

In any case, I did not feel much like blogging during these past six weeks. I’ve wanted to make some changes in the layout and features, which have had only minor tweaks from the original WordPress template, but that’s going to have to wait for a while. Just maintaining my websites takes a lot of time.


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.

Hip abductor meltdown

With all the web chattering about how yoga can hurt your body (or not), it was only appropriate that I get to experience it first hand.

Graphic: hip abductorsOn Monday, in Jessica Apo’s vinyasa flow class at Thrive Yoga, I was in Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana) with the full bind (under my top hand reaching behind my back and graspoing my bottom hand under my leg). It was the first time I had been able to do the bind since coming back from my knee injury (2009). I could clasp my hands without straining and fumbling to connect my hands (or using a strap); usually I just stick with half bind. In my massage therapy session with Howard Rontal a few days before, we had been working on loosening my shoulders and arms so that probably contributed to the change.

Doing the pose on the right side, I discovered the freedom in my shoulders, and even transitioned towards Bird of Paradise (Svarga Dvijasana), but did not come up to the one-leg balance because I didn’t want to risk an unsteady pose. On the left side, I decided to keep it simple and really sink into the pose, exploring how my body felt with this new range of movement. But the success with the bind that night probably took me into uncharted territory for the rest of my body, especially my core and lower back. When I released the bind to exit the pose, I felt a muscle spasm in my lower core — lower back (left side), groin, left hamstring. It was as if I had been hit by a stun gun. I rested in child’s pose. I did not feel any lasting pain so I continued with the class, modifying or skipping any pose that might overexerted my back.

I didn’t feel the injury at all during the next day or while doing my simple desk yoga. However, I tested my lower back in malasana, going deep into my hips, feet flat on the floor, and releasing my lower back. The injury flares up with a vengeance. I had to fall over on my side to get out of the pose because I could not lift up without severe pain.

That experience made me cancel any yoga classes for the rest of the week and call Howard. He managed to fit me in on Saturday for an emergency session. We spent the session working on the hip flexors and lower core. I am really fortunate that I have a therapist who already knows my  body and where my knots are tied. We had an interesting exchange in which he would apply some strokes and then I would test out how my body felt, giving him feedback, and then we’d go back on the table for additional work.

I actually felt more muscular aches and fatigue after the session. Oddly enough, I felt the pain on both sides evenly, as opposed to just the left.

Today I feel fine, a little stiff, but I will hold off on a class until tomorrow.

Does massage really help heal fatigued muscles?

The New York Times may be in the dog house for its yoga coverage (How Yoga Can Wreak Your Body), but it just won some points with me because it covered new scientific research showing how massage helps muscles heal after exercise.

How Massage Heals Sore Muscles

They found that massage reduced the production of compounds called cytokines, which play a critical role in inflammation. Massage also stimulated mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses inside cells that convert glucose into the energy essential for cell function and repair. “The bottom line is that there appears to be a suppression of pathways in inflammation and an increase in mitochondrial biogenesis,” helping the muscle adapt to the demands of increased exercise, said the senior author, Dr. Mark A. Tarnopolsky.

Of course, the next question is what about the myofascial aspect, because the muscles themselves only do part of the exersion. The neuro-myofascial web is a bigger player in dealing with symtoms of fatigue after exercise.

Yoga injuries, bodywork and a media controversy

I have refrained from commenting on the most controversial topic of yoga in America this year, but it’s time to break my silence.

I am referring to the William Broad’s article How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body in the January 8 issue of New York Times Magazine. it’s a chapter from his book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards (Simon and Schuster) which came out a few weeks later. It resulted in a massive wave of discussion, reaction, even hysteria about the possibility that you could hurt yourself doing yoga. For a representative sampling of the web writing on the topic, see Yoga Dork’s Guide. Really, she’s just scratching the surface. The reaction has been visceral because it also touches on how Americans do yoga, which gets into the evolution of a transplanted and transfigured discipline that started in India and ended up in Manhattan, Hollywood and Dupont Circle.

A personal digression

The short answer is “Yes, of course, you can hurt yourself practicing yoga.” I learned it the hard way when I tore my meniscus in 2008 and underwent surgery to repair the knee. More than the physical damage and the disruption to my practice, the injury shattered my own misplaced faith that yoga was a superior form of mind-body practice that could not harm me. I injured myself and I didn’t even feel it at the time. It was only the next day that the pain hit me. But what injured me was actually not the particular yoga pose that I did in an advanced Anusara workshop, but the patterns of use and abuse that I had locked into my tissues over decades of self-inflicted stress.

Luckily, I did not give up on yoga. As my practice slacked off last year because of the disruptions of my parents’ deaths and my own illness, the experience ended up convincing me that I needed to deepen my practice through increased awareness and self-discovery. It also convinced me that I had to enlist additional help to make sure that I did not harm myself. That’s why I have been treated by a massage therapist since August.

Back to the article

This blog entry got started because I came across an interview with Glenn Black, the veteran yoga instructor that Broad used in his article to wage a finger at the excesses of American yogis. Eden G. Fromberg: Yogi Glenn Black Responds to New York Times Article on Yoga:

EF: What is the best way to overcome injuries from yoga?

GGB: Remedial exercises that overcome the source of the injuries. And people need to get bodywork. Not just any bodywork. They need to look for people who work on really moving the joints and connective tissues.

Well, that just confirmed what I’ve come to comprehend after practicing yoga for nine years. Because my peripherial neuropathy and its repercussions (sleep deprivation, mainly) threatened my livelihood, I was prepared to spare no expense. I’ve been lucky because I can afford the luxury of doing both yoga and bodywork.

And the lesson that we can learn from the “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” controversy is that yoga matters in America. It’s reached a kind of critical mass in the American mainstream, and this discussion is about how it can contribute to Americans’  need for wholeness and wellbeing.

A new face and name for an online resource

I tapped into a resource that helped me understand my body better.

I’ve been a fan of Yoga Spirit as it pioneer the use of online audio and webinars with leading yoga teachers and other experts, like Amy Weintraub, Leslie Kaminoff and Judy Hanson Lasater. It disappeared from the web for a while only to come back to life as part of YogaTherapyWeb.com. In January, the site turned itself into Yoga U. Most content requires payment for downloads, but there are a lot of free resources that can wet an appetite for the for-pay material.

I signed up for Tom Myers‘s two-session webinar: Fascial Fitness – An Emerging Revolution in Movement Science (January 25 and February 1). It also comes with other material, including some videos of fascial fitness routines. He wrote Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists, 2nd edition and I plan on reading it as soon as I get through the dozen other books piled up on my desk. That’s why I signed up for the webinar — I can capture the essence of what Myers is teaching in a couple of hours. The first session clarified in my mind that I am on the right track in trying to deal with my peripheral neuropathy. He has an elegant compelling conceptual framework for parsing the body and its internal matrix, backed up by the latest scientific research on the role of fascia. In this webinars, he is tailoring his message specifically to yoga instructors and giving suggestions for optimizing sequencing to improve fascial fitness.

This webinar, along with other webinars and interviews, will be recorded and available for purchase at a later date at YogaU Online.

Third week of my yoga challenge

I have not had much free time to post about my progress. That’s what happens when I focus on practicing yoga, pranayama, meditation and mindful living, all while holding down a 9-5 job and balancing family life. Some things get squeezed off the schedule. Or there just is not enough mental energy to sit down and digest the whole vinyasa of life. Rather than being something like a retreat (single-minded concentration) or a bootcamp, it’s more a question of consciously interweaving the yoga-plus with my daily routine.

Ice and fire

Last weekend, I did not take any classes. On Saturday, all class at Thrive Yoga were cancelled because we had our first snow/ice/slush/rain event of the winter and no one could make any plans overnight. Then, on Sunday, I went to class, but we got no further than the opening chants when we smelled burning plastic. Out in the hallway, a candle had somehow lit up some personal belongings that may have been hung too close (or fallen on the candle or whatever). Flames were climbing the walls, and smoke covered the ceiling. Fire alarms went off. Luckily, there were lots of blankets to throw on the fire and it was brought under control quickly. We hauled the smoldering debris outside. Susan and Dave got to explain to the Fire Department how it all happened. Ironically, a hook-and-ladder truck, plus an ambulance, a fire truck and assorted cops, arrived to deal with a fire in a lower level/basement of a strip mall. I decided to go to the gym to do some aerobic exercise. Thrive Yoga reopened later in the afternoon so there was no serious damage done. My yoga sessions that weekend were all at home, but I did get back to Thrive for a class on Monday evening.

Outside leverage

Photo: hands are placed on the back of a supline yogini
Sometimes another person can help disipate the stress that seaps into the back

It was unfortunate that I did not get to any classes over the weekend because I had had my first massage therapy session in over a month, and wanted to gauge how my body would respond on the mat. Howard Rontal had been traveling over the Holidays so we took a break, and I’ve cut back from once a week to twice a month. For the first session, we started working from the feet up, and made it up to my hamstrings. My tissues had tightened up substantially over the past month, despite my own attempts at self-massage, and we needed the full hour to peel away the superficial layers of tension. I am looking forward to combining the rigors of my 40-day challenge with bodywork. In my classes since the therapy, I can tell that there are some sharp contrast between muscles that I have habitually used (and overused) in my practice and more raw tissues that have been opened up by the therapy session.

Try to keep my intention

I had big plans for this week of attending yoga class everyday, but work got in the way, and then Thanksgiving Day did not come with a free morning so that I could go to Susan Bowen’s two-hour glass. Instead, I started on Friday morning with my first class with Dave Bowen. Today, I took Susan’s hot vinyasa class. After both classes, I went to the gym to put in 60-75 minutes of cardio work to build up stamina and strength. I need to build up continuity in my formal practice, and just going on weekends to class will not do that.

As I go through the routines in class, it’s an odd feeling because my weekly body work with Howard Rontal and nightly self-massage and restorative practice have loosened me up tremendously. I’ve removed a lot of the old restraints and false bottoms, but I really have not got control over all my muscles to take advantage of it. For instance, something as simple as Warrior III or Half Moon require me to sustain my hips, but I can’t hold them for long. But I can point to some poses where I feel a real difference:

Plow pose (Halasana): today, I was able to get into the pose and not feel as if I was suffocating. Three years ago, I could do this pose without any problem, but after putting on more weight, it became extremely uncomfortable. It seemed as if my intestines/stomach/liver were pressing down on my diaphragm and obstructing my breath, while my collar bone seemed to cut my wind pipe. Something like deadman’s pose (a modification of plow that brings the knees closer to the chest) was out of the question.

Reclined Hero’s pose (Supta Virasana): Following my knee operation, I considered this pose forbidden territory. More than stressing the knees, it seemed to strain the small of my back. Another complication was that my feet were too stiff to let my shines rest firmly on the mat, so I was always starting up high.

Wheel or Upward Bow pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana): My tight shoulders made this pose a real challenge for me. It took me ages to loosen up enough, but since September it’s a liberating experience. I find myself doing push-ups in wheel, lowering my head to the floor and then extending up again. I also feel the pose as expression of my legs, more than the arch of my core and back.