Here's the first piece I said I'd get done in the post from earlier today. It's about a deep self-healing process I've gone through this week. - JF
Yoga means “to yoke”, meaning integration of mind and body to a higher spiritual consciousness. For most people, however, it is a form of exercise, and that is what I’ll address here.
One problem I see in learning something like yoga or martial arts is that people learn it as an external form, something they do according to precepts they’ve memorized without internalizing it and making it their own. This is why I chose to call this “self-yoga”, because it is something that should be unique to each individual according to their needs. It is important to understand principles of stretching and using the breath, but the actual use of these principles should vary according to one’s own innate wisdom.
The principles are pretty simple: First, come out of a stretch by reversing the way you went into it. When we stretch we lengthen muscle fibers. I see people go into a stretch one way and then jump out of it without thought, in a completely different movement pattern. This can cause fibers to cross and bind, creating more problems than were there before. Old-time kahunas in Hawaii used this principle to punish troublemakers, twisting joints to cause crippling pain. The only one who could unlock the damage was the person who created it in the first place, being the only one who knew the direction in which the movements had been chained together.
The second principle is using the breath. Most folk think they know how to breathe because obviously they’ve been doing so since birth, or else they wouldn’t be alive. Yoga has made a science of using the breath, however, which goes beyond merely inhaling and exhaling. While those are the two directions of airflow, the effect of breath on the body can be profound. Through the interconnectivity of muscles, tendons and ligaments, it is possible to direct the force of the breath to any part of the body. By focusing our attention where we desire an effect, we can direct the pressure of inhalation to stretch or open up areas of tension, and use the exhale to release the tension. Using different postures or positions (asanas) is a way to direct this effect to specific areas. If we hold a stretch, the relaxation on exhale lets us take up the slack which is created during the tension part of the cycle. The next inhalation can then deepen the stretch. Exhale to move into a stretch, and use the inhalation to move back out of it. Inhaling is like filling a balloon with air; imagine yourself as one of those big parade balloons rising as it fills up. Let the breath create the movement and pay attention to the quality of your stretch, both going in and coming out. You’re working on your body to heal it, so don’t rush; mindfulness is significant!
The third principle is to not use force. Often when we try to do something that is not comfortable, the body will tense up and create resistance to protect itself. If we consciously remind ourselves to relax, this allows the body to trust what the mind is telling it to do. It may take a moment, it may take many sessions to learn, but once the trick of letting go has been learned, one can feel tension melting away as the breath opens up the area of focus in the stretch.
There are some exceptions to non-force. One is dynamic tension. This is a process of tensing parts of the body for brief moments, and can be done either through internal resistance, such as tightening a muscle internally, or by pressing or pulling to create the resistance against other parts. This has several effects. On the one hand it increases blood flow to the muscle, and uses what Eastern arts refer to as “local chi”, energizing that specific body part. At the same time it tends to fatigue the muscle, which by using up excess energy allows it to reset to a more relaxed state.
Some teachers advocate holding the breath for 8-10 seconds while tensing, others say to allow it to release slowly. I tend to use whatever feels appropriate to the moment. If I’m just exercising I usually release the breath, but if I’m trying to unlock a difficult to reach area of tension in my body, I may hold the breath to force it deeper into the spot that I’m squeezing tightly. Generally I’d say that the slow and gentle method will get the job done, but once in awhile I’ll use this method when I can’t seem to reach an area that has become chronically locked up.
This past week I had a very dramatic example of self-healing using these methods. About two weeks ago I got a kink in my back, right between the shoulder blades at mid-sternum level. Most of us think of the sternum as a single plate, but this is a spot known to more knowledgeable chiropractors as a hidden joint of the body. I’ve had seven whiplashes, the result over the years of being hit multiple times from behind while stopped at red lights in my car. Consequently this area has been tight, the result of my body holding the tension from fear of further injury to a spot previously hurt. I’ve been to a number of chiropractors who have had limited and varying success in releasing this. I’ve been told that at best it is something I’ll probably have to live with, that the best they can do is relieve the worst of the symptoms.
Now the only real difference between something like chiropractic treatment and yoga is whether the activating energy is external, internal, or a combination as in acupuncture. Just think of any of these as ways to move energy. By this past weekend, the pain in my back was pretty severe, affecting my breathing and posture, to say nothing of my mood. I began waking up in the middle of the night from the pain, rolling on the floor and stretching to try to release the spot where the tension was held. Finally on Tuesday I awoke around 4am and decided I’d had enough; without expectation that I would get help from anyone else, I realized that I would have to use what resources I knew on my own to get in and try to fix things.
I was beyond using preset patterns of stretches; this was writhing to get to the source, which is where intuition came to my rescue. There are two processes I used to get results. One was rocking, the other stretching.
The rocking process is one I came up with on my own. I’ve studied a variety of massage methods since 1977, and the closest I’ve seen to this is Breema. As my spine seemed misaligned from mid-upper back to the base of the neck, I began by laying on my back, interlocking my fingers and cradling the back of my head in my hands, flexing alternate wrists to rock my head side to side. At times I pushed the heels of my hands closer together, raising the head up, and pressing with the heel of the hand to change the angle and range of movement. As my neck began to release I changed position to standing. This allowed me to move my head forward or back with the rocking, hitting tension at different angles.
After awhile I felt the need to work lower, so I unlocked my hands and dropped them onto my upper chest, rocking my upper torso side to side. By anchoring my hands this way, my shoulders and chest moved as a single unit, as opposed to letting the hands swing separately; it is a different effect. I stopped a few times to use dynamic tension, pulling my shoulders back to try to isolate and break up the tension, then returning to the rocking motions.
As I felt things grinding and loosening up, I then went into an upward stretch, locking my fingers together except for the index fingers, which I pointed upwards to direct and extend the stretch. As I filled with breath, I would stretch upward, then hold the position in the exhale; classic yogic breathing. With the next breath I’d continue to stretch. It felt like the breath was climbing inside me, each one progressing upward a few centimeters at a time.
Several years ago during a bout of bronchitis I learned to breath into the left or right side of my chest separately, and to cough the same, in order to clear the lower part of the lungs. Now with this I was discovering how to breathe into, and clear, the upper parts of my lungs, and consequently found myself clearing large and unexpected amounts of phlegm. Nasty, but that’s how it works; tension accumulates in a variety of ways. In this process one learns to be aware of the internal architecture of the body in unexpected ways.
Finally, as pressure from the breath focused into my neck, I instinctively began bending backwards. Over the next 8-10 breaths, as I found myself in a deep back bend, feet firmly anchored, I then began to use the breath to lift the chest upward while remaining in the back bend. I found it curious that I felt so stable in this posture, but being focused on the process, I felt secure and in control. I could feel my shoulders opening up and releasing tension, until there was a tiny “crack” from the center of my pain, and it was gone.
At that point I stopped stretching (after about 2-1/2 hours total time) and began doing some morning chores. About an hour later for some reason I reached over my shoulder and touched my back, and my hand came away wet! I thought it might be blood but it looked clear, so I went to a mirror to take a look. There, in the center of my back where it had hurt the worst, a patch of skin about the size of a silver dollar had split and peeled away, looking like a bad sunburn!
As I examined this in the mirror, I began rolling my shoulders and was surprised at the fluid range of motion, and the complete lack of pain. I then did another quick upward stretch and realized my arms were behind my ears, when for many years they had been alongside or even slightly forward!
The result of this experience is that my range of motion is vastly increased from what I’ve had in a long time, both in my back and my right shoulder, which has been impaired since a motorcycle accident in 1982. Both shoulders now move about the same, and pain-free. Whatever spot was locked up in my back all these years, has now been broken up.
For those familiar with the concept of kundalini, I feel like I’ve been raising and releasing this energy for the past few months. One possible reason is I’m in a relationship with a new girlfriend. We have a deep connection, and that has brought new energy into my life in many ways. I believe that when we are healthy and happy we don’t compartmentalize ourselves. Conversely, we create blockages when things aren’t going as well. By entering a new state energy was freed up, but the old block at the heart chakra had not yet been released. When energy hits a block, something has to happen. As long as the block was there, the energy built up until it manifested as pain, and continued to do so until I was able to dissolve the block.
Does this mean the process is complete? Of course not, because being alive is itself a process. I can feel that most of that backed-up energy has moved upward, just like heat from a flame.
As the neck and tailbone tend to reflect each other, I later did some stretches in deep horse stance to open the hips. These consisted of resting my hands on my knees to support my body weight so I could swing my hips freely. This resulted in a powerful release in my right hip that went right down to my knee, unlocking a block I hadn’t even fully recognized. I then wondered if I could extend the release into my foot, and with a couple of weight shifts I was able to release the pain I’d had in my right ankle since dislocating it nearly 2 years ago! This went all the way to the big toe, eliminating a hot pain I’d been carrying in the instep of my foot. Didn’t I say everything was interconnected? I haven’t felt this good or connected in years!
Now I have to monitor these results to see what comes next. Old patterns don’t just disappear, so though I’ve felt incredibly good the past 48 hours, I recognize that tension can again accumulate in a habitual manner. It’s so easy to forget how hard it was to get to this point and just return to business as usual, when in fact a breakthrough like this should be the start of a new phase and not just the end of the old.
As I said at the beginning, this is about trusting one’s own inner wisdom, letting intuition be the guide rather than being a slave to technique. Though rooted in established principles, the actual methods I used were unique and unorthodox, but allowed me to achieve exactly the results I needed so badly. I’ve outlined the process and results as guidelines only. I know that many people carry aches and pains on a daily basis, the result of living in a body. If we depend on others to fix us, we will never be as free as when we are able to find our own solutions and follow through to reach the goals we set.