The military is opening up to non-traditional ways of treating trauma in veterans and wounded soldiers.
Warrior Pose — One way to help veterans with PTSD? Lots of yoga. – The Washington Post
Starting Friday night and running through Sunday, Thurman and 17 yoga teachers from five states will be gathering at Yoga Heights in the Park View neighborhood of the District for yoga for PTSD and trauma training. The studio will host workshops specifically designed to heal and help veterans suffering from both the emotional and physical wounds of war.
I am late with the blog entry, but I have to register the article.
Yoga teacher Shannon Paige delivers a moving TED Talk about her battle against cancer, depression and the damage they brought to her body and mind. Her talk, Mindfulness and Healing, took place at the 2012 TEDxBoulder event so it’s not seen a lot of exposure. She owns Om Time Yoga Center.
For Shannon, the battle with depression was actually as hard as battling cancer. Through this, Shannon discovers that while, yoga can’t heal depression, getting into your body can change the mind and create a state of empowerment, stability, and release.
Sharon also reminded me that I had failed to maintain a dialogue with myself and whoever else wants to listen to tales from the journey down the path of prana. This will have to do for now.
I’ve been reading and thinking about a book that surprised me by its fresh perspective on yoga practice and yoga teaching. The book is Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD (Boston: North Atlantic Books, 2012). The book should be required reading for anyone who plans to teach yoga, even if they are not going to specialize in yoga therapy or deal specifically with populations that undergone high levels of trauma (war veterans, sexual abuse victims, battered wives, etc.).
The credentials behind the book are impressive as well. It has two forwards, one by Peter A. Levine, PhD, author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma and a leading advocate for a somatic approach to healing trauma, and a second one by Stephen Cope, the head of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living and an author of yoga-inspired books. The introduction is by Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD, the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center and one of the intellectual thinkers behind this approach to treating trauma through yoga. The lasting physical and psychological consequences of trauma is a growing field of investigation, theory and application. Certainly, the mangled bodies of veterans from two decades of American wars abroad and related stress have forced greater attention on this issue. But trauma is also present in child and sexual abuse, which are both widely prevalent in our society. Trauma can also be the result of neglect, of lack of human affection at the most formative stages of life.
In the past, I’ve been reticent to use a chiropractor to treat injuries or other problems because I’ve heard stories about how the profession was allied with ambulance-chasing lawyers ready to sue people involved in accidents and their insurance companies, as well as the charges that chiropractic is not based the scientific method, especially when compared to the conventional Western medicine.
Over the past few months, I’ve been forced to change my mind. I noticed that several friends visited chiropractors regularly. I’ve also confirmed that Western medicine does not adequately address all health concerns. Finally, my iliopsoas spasms made me re-examine whether it was worthwhile to call in different opinions.
A new healthcare provider
During the 40-day yoga challenge at Thrive Yoga, Susan and David Bowen brought in Dr. Donald McGriff to give a talk to the group about chiropractic and general well-being. I missed the talk because I wanted to take a yoga class at the same time. But Susan and David said that they used his services so that was high praise.
On April 15, I got an appointment at McGriff Chirpractic to see if Dr. McGriff could do anything for my iliopsoas spasms. He looks more like a professional wrestler than a doctor, a burly build topped off with a shaved head. After an initial examination and a check of my medical history, he sent me off to get an MRI of my lower back. That took a little longer than expected because of scheduling conflicts, but I was back in his office on April 27 with the CD in hand. After taking a look at the MRI, Dr. McGriff came back with the news that I might have a spinal disk herniation (4-5 L vertebrae), but the MRI was not really that clear. I also seemed to have a displaced sacroiliac (SI) joint on the right side. Since I did not take notes, I can’t be sure three weeks later whether I’ve misunderstood anything. In any case, he prescribed 2-3 visits a week to his office to work his magic.
The nice thing about Dr. McGriff’s practice is that he opens at 6:00 am on three mornings a week so I schedule my visits so that I hop out of bed, get into fitness clothing and drive over for a 6:30 appointment, usually on Monday and Friday. I am out of his office in time to go back home, shower, dress, grab breakfast, and head to the Metro by my usual time. There are also office hours on Saturday.The location of his office, which is only 10 minutes from my home in Rockville, sealed the deal.
Treatment starts with 15 minutes of electro-stimulation with hot pads on my lower back. There are four electrodes sprayed with some kind of liquid to increase conductivity (The spray must come right out of the refrigerator because it is cold). Hot pads are placed over the lower back (to compensate for the cold electrodes, I guess). The electrical current goes through varying patterns of pulsing, but can be adjusted to the point where it does not cause discomfort or pain.
After chilling for 15 minutes, Dr. McGriff leads me to his examination room where he checks my alignment and then usually has me lie down on my left side and gives me a firm twist of my torso to the right. My SI joint usually pops with the adjustment. That’s usually followed by adjustments to my hips, rib cage and upper spine, and upper neck. He has a firm touch in his adjustments that gives confidence in his skills.
Once he’s done with me, I may get an additional ride on fancy equipment: a table that stretches my spine, a vibrating platform that loosens my hamstrings.
Dr. McGriff applies more than an exclusively chiropractic focus, emphasizing the value of holistic approach that includes nutrition, corrective exercises, physical therapy, fitness and life style coaching. His web site has lots of information to understand his approach, the general practice of chiropractic, and other services.
Passing the grade
Has the treatment improved my injury? That’s hard to say. My iliopsoas have not been a source of pain or discomfort recently. With a more than a month of rest and avoidance of aggravation (no yoga classes), my hips and lower back may have healed itself. I simply have not been testing their limits. On the other hand, I do feel the effects of the treatment: after a session, I feel general muscular fatigue by the end of the day, which is usually a sign that my muscles are adjusting to a realignment of my frame. I have noticed that my thighs seem to set further apart. I can sit in easy pose more comfortably and my knees fall closer to the ground naturally.
My daughter warned me that I should avoid active yoga classes or gym work on that days that I have chiropractic treatment. Dr. McGriff told Howard Rontal, my bodyworker, that it’s best if the bodywork happen the day before a chiropractic session to be the best results out of his sessions. Finally, Howard told me that I should not have acupuncture and bodywork done on the same day (within 24 hours of each) since the Oriental meridians run through the myo-fascial tissues. So there are now a whole new slew of scheduling factors that I have to take into account when planning my healthcare.
With less than a month of treatment, it’s far to soon to say that my chiropractic has worked miracles or otherwise. In the real world, it’s almost impossible to isolate the factors (chiropractic, acupuncture, rest, restorative yoga, relaxation exercises, body work, positive thing, placebo effect) so I have to go with just my gut feeling. It has not hurt me.
This week, I am going to have my first session with Howard Rontal, my body worker, in more than a month.
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.
This past year has had some huge changes for me: the deaths of my father and mother in a four month lapse, my own attempt to play out my role as the “good son,” and the progressive deterioration of my well-being as I no longer could keep up with the “protocols” that maintained my persona (exercise, yoga, meditation, self-development, etc.). I was only partially aware of how these changes were affecting me, but they became concentrated in one symptom: my peripheral neuropathy and its manifestation of numbness, phantom pain (pin pricks in my feet that kept me at night) and sleep deprivation. This symptom distracted me from seeing the deeper “dis-ease” — I feared losing my hold on life’s moorings (as seen in my parents’ deaths), on my capacity to deal with life’s daily tasks and uncertainty, and on my condition as an adult who has to take full responsibility for his life.
This fear of losing my grip translated into a systemic physical trait — I held on ever more tightly through my myofascial tissues. I was the personification of being “uptight” — stiff, constrained, and suffocating. My ligaments, fascia, tendons, muscles and other tissues were engaged to the maximum until I was strangling myself, to the point that large parts of my body was numb, unfeeling. There was a hidden lever in my head that was constantly winding me up, with minute twists to the gears, constantly engaged should some external force or internal flaw make the whole machine blow up under the pressure.
For years, I partially sensed this problem. That’s why I sought out yoga seven years ago. But this problem is so much bigger than starting an exercise regime, developing good work skills or changing eating habits because of a food allergy. That’s why I have put off writing about it here; just one entry is not going to cover it adequately.
A lighter touch
Since my diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy and the start of treatment with myofascial release therapy with Howard Rontal in August, I have begun a gradual process of releasing the tension, of letting go. My weekly therapy sessions were opportunities to explore the psycho-somatic nature of my condition and the mind-body connection. There was no promise of “curing the disease” but increasingly I saw the possibility of controlling my worst symptoms and even finding and developing a more relaxed state.
As of mid-December, my treatment with Howard has been suspended because of the Holidays and travel, so I’ve experimented with techniques that can help me self-soothe and self-heal (more on that in another blog entry). I’ve also made it back to yoga classes, put some time in at the gym and even done some jogging.
I have to apologize for how I left my previous entry hanging ominously on the diagnosis of having idiopathic peripheral neuropathy and my doctors’ seeming inability to determine the cause or prescript a treatment that could relieve my pain. I already knew that I had more options for treatment and even the prospect of a happy ending.
After I meet with my neurologist, I had already lined up an appointment with Howard Rontal who practices myofascial release therapy. He is a certified Hellerwork practitioner, a Certified Myoskeletal Therapist, a Certified Structural Integrator SM, and am licensed as a massage therapist by the Board of Chiropractic Examiners, State of Maryland. More importantly, he’s been at this vocation for more than 20 years, and currently teaches around the country.
I had contacted Howard because I wanted to work with an experienced bodyworker who is aware of yoga, comes out of the currents of structural integrators that include Ida Rolf, Joseph Heller, Moshe Feldenkrais, Tom Myers and others. It’s safe to say that Howard is not just a massage therapist. I told him that I had multiple problems that included plantar fasciitis, peripheral neuropathy and assorted body tightness. Howard was very honest up front and said that he could not guarantee anything in terms of the neuropathy, but he could certainly help my plantar fasciitis. Another reason that I picked Howard is that he is located about 15 minutes from my house and could treat me in the morning.
I’ve now had six sessions of bodywork, one hour each, with Howard, and the results have been jaw-dropping. As just an initial example, the first two sessions focused exclusively on my feet, ankles and calves. Howard does intense stretches of the plantar ligaments (soles of the feet) that are sheer torture. In the first session, I could just barely tolerate the pain on my right foot; I could not feel anything on my left foot. It was as if a local anesthetic had been applied to my left foot. On the second day, I could actually feel the ligaments on my left foot being stretched. By the end of the session, the sensation of relief in my lower legs was overwhelming, but was even more surprising was that it seemed to ripple up my whole body. I could tell that I was in the right hands and was on track to managing the pain and even healing my body.
Over the next four sessions, I found that even working on another part of my body (say, shoulders and neck) could end up relieving the tension in my lower limbs. The pin pricks that had been keeping me from sleep at night are much less intense, and only distract me at times. Other symptoms, like numbness or blunted feeling, do tend to come back gradually between sessions, but each time with less intensity. It might even be a case of new circuits of sensation that I am feeling and interpreting as being symptoms, but are actually a new phenomenon.
The bodywork has also changed my yoga practice as I find that my body is pulsing with more sensory feedback and awareness in muscles that I had not been able to access fully. In one session, Howard dramatically freed up my diaphragm and made my breathing smoother and fuller. The experience has made clear to me that any mature adult (45 or older) who starts doing yoga should also seriously considering using a structural integrator because there are so many issues that have been “baked into the muscles” (bad posture, trauma) over the decades. In the past, I’ve frequently felt as if I’ve been fighting against myself, and now I know I have been struggling against some real resistance.
This treatment has been eye-opening for me, and there are so many lessons in it that I could not possibly give a full account in one sitting. I am going to come back to this facet of my mind-body experience because of its transformative power.
I was approached by the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts to share with my readers an invitation to attend their open house on September 24. I am not going to make it that day because I have a prior commitment, but I encourage any one willing to test their hearts in the face of compassion to stop by the Smith Center at 1632 U Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009 (3 blocks from the U Street Metro):
From 11 am to 4 pm on Saturday, September 24, Smith Center for Healing and the Arts will open the doors of our newly expanded and renovated U Street community center for an open house event–giving the community the opportunity to tour the new state-of-the-art teaching kitchen, program space, and tranquil rooftop terrace, and expanded Joan Hisaoka Art Gallery. Attendees will also be invited to take part in sample workshops and classes, view an art exhibit, and enjoy music and entertainment, refreshments, cooking demonstrations, and giveaways throughout the day.
The opening event will highlight Smith Center’s legacy of offering time-tested integrative care programs and resources for people with cancer, and introduce a variety of exciting new health and wellness programs and classes for the local community at large. Attendees will get a sneak peak into some of our newest programs, including nutrition and cooking classes, creativity workshops, health and wholeness lectures, yoga and stress reduction classes, and more.
I lost my brother to lung cancer three years ago and my mother to the sequela of breast cancer in April so I need no prodding to back the Center’s work of cancer support, creativity and community building.
WSJ MagazineFrom Navy Whistleblower to Warrior Pose is the story of Paula (Coughlin) Puopolo who was the focal point of the U.S. Navy Tailhook scandal in the early 1990s. This story tells her story well and also how yoga allowed her to come to peace with herself and the repercussions from the public airing of her ordeal in a hotel corridor in Las Vegas. She now owns her own yoga studio, Ocean Yoga.
Of all the yoga styles she’s experienced since then, the one Puopolo has focused on is a tantric variety called Anusara, created by the American teacher John Friend in 1997. Its guiding ethos posits the inherent goodness of human beings. Over time, it replaced smoking and prescription pills, and her anger at her attackers receded, until Puopolo decided she wanted to teach others about the restorative powers she found in the practice. “I wouldn’t be talking to you if I didn’t really think I was finally getting some clarity,” she says. “The philosophy opened me up to the idea that I could really stop hating so much stuff.”
The Wall Street Journal keeps a lot of its content behind fees-based barrier so you may not be able to access this story after a few weeks. Enjoy it while you can.