Tag Archives: Howard Rontal

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.

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.

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.

Healing the body with expert hands

Drawing of a left human footI 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.

Drawing of the humna leg musculature
And the foot in intrecately bound to the calves, the knee, and the hip.-- and so on

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 FeldenkraisTom 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.