Friday, 22 August 2014

Applying Relaxation Principles To Save On Chiropractic Bills

Photo from a website on self massage.  A good yoga practice can be your own form of self massage! []

This week a student asked me to help her by pressing on a particular spot on her back, like she noted her osteopath or chiropractor did when her spine got out of whack. 

On the one hand she trusted me enough to ask me to do this.  On the other hand I am not a manipulative physio or chiro or osteo so I said, ‘maybe let’s try something else.’

‘Show me what is going on?’ I asked.

She did a forward bend and pointed to a spot on her back, adjacent to her spine. 

I felt around the spot.  ‘Yikes, ‘ I thought to myself.  ‘This is very tense.’

‘Aaah,’ she said to me, ‘that is very sore.’

We had both felt the same thing. 

A lot pain in general is due to muscles being very tense.  This is one of the reasons I begin all classes by asking people to tense less and why I avoid saying ‘tighten this’ and tighten that’.

‘I really feel like I just need to stretch it out and stretch and stretch and stretch,’ she said. 

This is a common response many people have. 

But I wanted to offer an alternative because, at the beginning of my classes I also advise people to stretch less.

By now some of you might be wondering what on earth I am doing in my classes if I am telling people to tense less and also stretch less! 

You are probably asking, ‘What is she telling them to actually do?’

Well, I am telling people to move more.  That the main aim of my practice is to move circulation and energy through the body and that by stretching less and tensing less they should be more effective in doing this and should be able to move and do more. 

In my mind I though the best way to use my knowledge and skills was to help her find a way to move circulation into the area and to see if we could find a way for the tight muscles to relax. 

So this is what we did. 

First, I used the approach I posted about a few weeks ago, on trying to figure out how to help tight muscles relax (in that post I was responding to a question posted by another teacher about how to help ‘stretch’ a student’s tight calf muscles and was trying to guide us to an approach that was less about stretching, which is often people’s default answer to tightness).

I am going to leave technical language aside to make this more accessible to everyone.  Do not mistake this for me suggesting that you should go out and do this on your own!  Here is the blurb about being careful and respectful of yourself and others:

Students, I would be very wary of letting teachers touch and adjust your bodies unless you are very sure they are competent in doing so and know their limitations. 

Teachers, unless you know what you are doing please do not do this to other people.  There is nothing potentially more damaging than experimenting with other people’s bodies. 

Importantly, if you are reading this here and this is the first time you have ever heard of such a thing then appreciate you need to go and get training in person from an experienced practitioner.   Or appreciate that this is the sort of thing you want your teacher to know before you let them ever adjust you in class.  Know that this information is out there.

Ok, back to the point. 

The muscles that were tight were ones along the side of her spine that caused spinal extension (back bending or straightening of the spine).  They were more in the lower to middle part of her back and only on one side. 

The opposite movements were possible some lateral flexion (side bending) or forward bending.  I chose to use forward being as the opposing movement here.

The muscles that forward flex the spine are in your tummy. 

Now it got a bit tricky.  Remember, going on from my approach to helping the back muscles relax, I needed to see if I could get her to firm the muscles that caused the opposite action while the tight muscles were in a lengthened position. 

My problem was I could not assume she would know how to firm her tummy muscles in the right way.  Many people are not even aware (this was me back in the beginning too!) that there are different ways to firm your tummy.

 I wanted her to be able to firm her tummy in a way that she would still be able to move the breath there.  So that the breath did not flare the ribs. 

(As an interesting but related aside, I noticed in mediation that the student was chest breathing and I already thought I would go and speak to her after class about some breathing). 

So I spent about 4-5 minutes just working on figuring out how to breath with the belly muscles relaxed and then with how to firm the correct tummy muscles in a way that she could still breathe into it. 

This is such an important step.  It changed my entire practice when I learned to do this and apply it to my postures.  It is a key component of my arm balancing workshops as it is a way to develop internal power with a feeling of ease and lightness. 

Anyway, once we had revised how to breathe again, and then to firm the tummy muscles while feeling like we could still breathe, I was able to take her into the desired position that created length in the tight muscles.  This was paschimottanasana with bent legs. 

In paschimottanasana the back of the spine is in a lengthened position.  Many people do not activate their belly muscles when coming into it, and instead flop in passively with the assistance of gravity and a soft tummy. 

This approach was not conducive to me trying to find a relaxation response with active movement.  So we came into it by using the belly firming while still being able to breathe into it technique that we had just learned. 

She maintained the lengthened position, while breathing calmly, naturally, for no more than 30 seconds. 

Then came the big test. 

She sat up. 

I felt the muscle that had been tight.  It had already softened to my touch. 

‘Can you feel that?’ I asked.

Indeed she could.  Already it felt a bit better.  It was still tight but was not causing the discomfort she had felt previously.  Importantly, now she had the tools to work on this herself at home.

‘I think I might have just saved you thousands on annual chiropractic fees!’ I joked. 

She laughed, said thanks, and added that she might be able to save on her annual massage expenses as well.

I agree.  When you practice in a way that promotes movement, with less tension and stretching, you feel as though you are giving yourself the best massage.  Sometimes you might still need to go to a professional but I would suggest that if you are regularly going to such professionals because of too much tension in your body that perhaps you are not practicing yoga in the most effective way. 

[This is not to say these other things are not valuable.  Please do not misunderstand.  If what I had showed her did not work I would have said she needs to go to seek further treatment from appropriate professionals.  Again, I emphasise that I am using my knowledge as an OT and yoga teacher here and I am only working within my skill set].

The thing is, as a teacher, one of my aims is to help you become your own best teacher.  To be your own best masseuse.  Your own best therapist.  I hope that one day the only reason you come to class is because you like my company and that you are practicing on your own because you have been equipped with the tools to do so.

I learned some of these things by carefully choosing the best teachers to study under.  These include Simon Borg Olivier, Bianca Machliss, and Paddy McGrath.  I really recommend you seek out the best possible teachers as it makes a world of difference. 

Happy and safe practicing!

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