Tag Archives: core

From the yoga mat to the massage table and back

I found myself in a curious position over the weekend in yoga class. I was unable to sustain myself in a pose modified for novices or people not used to sustaining their body weight. It should have been easier for me.

Modified side plank

The pose was side plank (Vasisthasana) — most vinyasa 1 practitioners grind their teeth when they have to get into this pose from plank. In this case, the teacher decide to use me as a demo for the pose and its modification, which required me to place the lower knee on the ground to support my core (as illustrated in the photo to the right). I found that I could not keep my leg directly under me and aligned in the same plane as  my body because I could not fully open up my hip. It seemed to reach a limit at about 45 degrees. It was more difficult resting on the right knee, but I also had issues with the left variant. When I tried to muscle my way into a more open expression, it was as if I butted up against bone, with no give. It actually hurt.

Continue reading From the yoga mat to the massage table and back

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.

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.

A chain reaction from the core

Since coming back from my knee injury and yogic abstinence, I noticed for the first time that I have access to the muscles at the base of my spine. I can tell the qualitative difference between allowing my hips to tip forward and engaging my mula bandha (or maybe some other combination of muscles) to support the stem of my spin. When I do it right, it sets off a kind of chain reaction up and down my body. My abdomen automatically firms up; the same of my back feels an instant release from tension as it straightens up; my shoulders loosen up and I am actually able to access my shoulder blades to move them closer together or farther apart; the shift in my thoracic spine means that my chest girdle opens up, broadens and allows a deep breath. On the lower end of my body, my hips immediately line up under my thighs, encouraging the energy spirals that the Anusara teachers love to emphasize; the alignment automatically kicks into the rest of the leg all the way downs to the soles of my feet.

A couple of times when I’ve had to stand all the way home on the Metro, I’ve been sensitive to this new alignment and can engage and sustain it consciously as the car sways and lurches. “Correct alignment” is much less tiring than a slouch (just letting it all hang together loosely); it’s almost like the kundalini rising up from mula bandha. But I can’t seem to maintain the alignment when I am not consciously enforcing it. I will get distracted in something, then snap out of it and see that I’ve lost the posture.

This new awareness has also driven home the need for core strength, but aligned correctly. The days that I don’t have yoga classes, I am trying to fit in exercises that strengthen my core.

The knotted serpent

During my yoga class tonight, we were going through a series of twists. I was again contemplating the lack of range that my body has, especially when dealing with my core. After three years plus of yoga (of which a good 18 months could be considered consistent and persistent), I am still very far from half lotus, from eagle arms, etc. I’ve worked at tackling specific issues, like my hips or my shoulders, but that does not seem to make a difference, except when measured against months of time.

While I was trying to relaxing into the poses, I thought about doing something drastic, like taking a day or week off and work on nothing but my hips, or using sandbags (weights, my wife’s body) to push me past my limits, or hiring a personal trainer to whip me into form or a private yoga instructor to show me whatever I am missing to get through these obstacles.

In yoga, kundalini is the female energy that lies coiled at the base of the yogic body, a sacred power that rises out of the loins, coils around the spin and rises upwards towards the crown; the goal is to enable the free flow of kundalini, Well, my kundalini seems to be firmly knotted around my hips and wound tightly around my spin.

Then, I thought that perhaps it’s not the physical side that is holding me back. There must be something non-physical inside me that is tightly bound and thoroughly even entangled. I like to pretend that yoga and meditation has made me mellow and grounded, but I am just deluding myself: hidden underneath the surface is a small boy who’s afraid of moving or even fidgeting and freezes his muscles to the bone. When the musculature has been locked in position for nearly 50 years, it’s excruciatingly difficult to ply it loose.

Yoga and Chocolate – Postscript

Here is what I can resurrect from my memory about the two sessions I had with Dave Romanelli at Thrive Yoga last weekend, one of his yoga and chocolate workshops:

Two-hour sessions are a delicious experience. Most of my classes are in the 75-90 minute range, though most of my teachers usually go over their time allotment. But when you have a full 120 minutes, it gives you a chance to dig deep into your body and mind. First, Dave had us do several vinyasa sequences and then he asked us to do another couple of rounds at our own speed. Although my teachers have requested me to do just that, in the workshop setting, I just then realized how it can be an opportunity to explore the poses and movement. There was no sense of having to rush through the vinyasa so that I could catch up with the others. The other reward of the 120 minute setting is a long, long, profound savasana at the end of the class. (On Thanksgiving, I have another two-hour class with Neva Ingalls at Thrive so I will be doubly grateful that day.) It’s when you can really dive into the interior space that you created.

Core, core, core and more core. As a 50-something adult, I know that I am not endowed with the same physical attributes as I was as a young man, but this weekend I realized how much I needed to improve the strength of my core muscle, especially between my hips and rib cage. It’s probably the single most important aspect that is holding back my practice. I’ve decided to step up my home practice for those muscles.

Scoring points Dave said that if yoga were a competitive Olympic sport, you would be judged by the quality of your breath, not on the difficulty of the pose or the fluidity of your movements. That confirms a conviction that I have been developing over the past couple of months as I try to balance my breath with the pace of my classes. Sample your breath and you’ll get a glimpse of honesty. I have reconnected with my own pranayama practice, especially the Art of Living kriya.

Presence of a cloud Dave had us start out lying on our mats, still, listening and it built from there. Dave and his music were a constant stream of ideas, sounds and vibrations, but never intrusive or domineering. He had to manage 40-plus participants so he had his hands full, but he never seemed to interfere with the interior process. At the end, I said to myself, “Boy, that was smooth!” the sign of a balanced, subtle teacher.

Rewarding Prior to the Yoga and Chocolate weekend, the two teachers with whom I study most frequently at Thrive, Kim and Anya, had taken a yoga teacher retreat with Shiva Rea at Triangle Yoga in North Carolina. They came back with the idea of shaking up their yoga classes, breaking out of familiar, cozy sequencing of vinyasas and urging us to explore the full experience. It meant that for two weeks I had some challenging classes. It was a perfect prep leading into Dave’s sessions, rewarding the effort of pushing my practice a little further and seeing blessing in unexpected places. For that matter, the chocolate that Dave gave us was a savory morsel of payoff for focusing on the senses — an apt metaphor of the whole experience.

Focusing on obstacles

I have continued with my yoga practice, but with a twist. In home practice, I concentrate on core strength and balance. Although there are so many things in my yoga practice that need to be improved, I decided that I would benefit most from these two areas. In class, we may do a few balancing poses, like Tree or Warrior III, but it’s only for a short time and a few repetitions. To get better, I need to sustain the poses longer and do lots of reps to train my muscles. For instance, whenever I tried to do Warrior III, I would immediately fall out of it because my hips seemed to have a mind of their own.

The core strength issue has been a long standing one — a sign of moving to the far side middle age: I can no longer do good ol’ sit-ups. I suspect that the lack of abdominal strength also translates into less flexibility in the hips.

Another milestone: is this flying

This morning in my yoga class at Thrive, I was able to jump back from forward fold [Ardha Uttanasana] to staff pose [Chaturanga Dandasana] in the vinyasa sequence for the first time. I had tried it a couple of times before and it was always a jarring experience, with a lot of pressure on my lower back and knees buckling to the floor. One time, I bashed my nose into the floor. Because the jump back landing felt as if I was going to fall apart, I refrained from including it in my routine. I transitioned by stepping back, one leg at a time, to staff pose.

It was strange this morning because I was suffering through the class, in part because I think I was underhydrated. Halfway through the class, I was feeling thirsty and I do not normally need to have a bottle of water with me. In any case, I was being cautious about not over-extending myself so it surprised me that on the last vinyasa of the morning, I decided to try the jump back. I landed it without any problems. After class, I tried the move a couple of times, just to confirm that my success was not a fluke or a stroke of luck. I guess I am being rewarded for the work at strengthening my core.

Since I’ve been able to do wheel [Urdhva Dhanurasana] and crow poses [Balasana] almost every class, I feel as if I am consolidating my practice. The biggest flaws are my one-leg balances and inversions, like headstand and shoulderstand.