Sunday, June 15, 2014

Achieving Alignment of Mind and Body: My Calisthenics Journey

Although I have had an interest in learning to do handstands since late childhood, I did not start working systematically on developing this skill until late 2012/early 2013 at the age of 51.  In the course of years of lifting heavy things and doing martial arts, I had injured myself a number of times, and, in retrospect, didn’t have adequate rehabilitation after the injuries.  Consequently, I had restricted range of motion in my left shoulder, my lower back, and both hips.  Also, I was prone to left elbow tendonitis, left knee pain, and repeated lumbar strains.

These photos, made in 2010, show the misalignments that I had before I started my calisthenics journey.

In the anterior view, my left arm looks a little shorter than my right, even though in fact they are the same length.  If you look at my left shoulder, you can see that it is rotated forward; this makes the arm look shorter and also reflects in my left hand, where more of the back of the hand is visible, compared to the right.  This imbalance results in excess transmission of force into the left elbow, making me prone to left elbow issues. 

If you were to drop a plumb line from my neck to my umbilicus, you would see that the latter is to the right of the centerline.  This occurs because the left pelvis is rotated forward and the right, backward.  See how the right hand side of my abdomen looks shorter than the left?  Also, my left thigh seems to be ahead of the right, but the left foot is in fact a little behind the right (when I stood or squatted, the left heel was always a bit behind the right).  This is caused by deep tension in the right psoas and other pelvic muscles, which I feel as restriction of range of motion in the right hip, and weakness in the left hip and piriformis area pain in the left buttock especially when seated in a chair.

Looking from the rear, you can see that the right shoulder is a little lower than and posterior to the left.  More of the palm of the left hand is visible, and again, the left arm looks a little shorter.  The waist band shows the right hip higher than the left.  This is due to tension in the right lumbar and psoas muscles.  The excess tension in the right lumbar muscles (erectors, quadratus lumborum) is revealed by the shorter space and deeper crease between the rib cage and the hip.  This imbalance results in lumbar instability, hip pain, and transmission of excess force into the left knee, resulting in left knee issues.

Looking from the side, my waist band is lower in the front than the back, and allthough I am lean, my belly sticks out further than my chest.  This reveals excessive lumbar lordosis due primarily to tension in the lumbar muscles along with weakness in the abdominal muscles. 

In my case, the misalignments seem rather minor, and most people would not see them without guidance, but these central imbalances radiate to the periphery much like a wobble in a hub is magnified in the wheel.  I worked in a bicycle shop as a mechanic for a number of years in college.  Just a small slop in adjustment of a hub can produce a large wobble in the wheel.  In the same way, a small imbalance in the central torso muscles can produce a large imbalance in the alignment of the elbows, knees, wrists, and ankles. 

Over the years, I have worked on the imbalances with various modalities.  I did Feldenkrais work, including getting private Awareness Through Movement Lessons from Jeff Haller, who was at the time the head of the Feldenkrais guild.  I got Rolfed twice, but that didn't help much; the first Rolfer couldn't do much work on my right psoas because it was too painful and sensitive.  I did yoga and other therapeutic exercises.

At one point in my early 30s, I did achieve a release of the pattern for a couple of weeks after a 3 month period of intensive yoga, Feldenkrais movement training, tai ji chuan and gong fu hip and leg training, a strictly plant-based diet, very deep tissue self-massage, and acupuncture treatments.  However, only a short time after that, I moved about 1000 pounds of boxes in one afternoon, and when I put the last box down, my back went into spasm and I reactivated the pattern.

Over the next two decades, in spite my efforts to replicate the corrective process that occurred in those three months, I did not achieve re-alignment.  Through my process of working through this, I now see that during those two decades, I spent a lot of the time living out of alignment with my purpose, values, and heart.  I lifted that half ton of boxes in order to get my belongings into a train, because I was moving my residence across the country, for an educational purpose, and with a woman, and I had conflicting feelings about both commitments. I had other goals that would have been better served by staying put.  I have a sense that my body was expressing my inner opposition to the move.  I did not have my thoughts, feelings, and actions in true alignment, and it seems that this manifested in my body.

In addition, working on the core muscular issues took a lot of time and patience and, due to the depth and duration of the imbalance (see below for a little more history of it), it would change very slowly.  I would get impatient with working on 'simple' things like training postural muscles in Mountain Pose, or doing the painful work of deep psoas massage.   I would work on it just long enough to get a little better function, which I deemed "good enough," then shift my attention to other fitness goals.  I rationalized that my alignment was "good enough" because I was able to do some things like front splits and sit in lotus posture for a half hour at a time, despite the imbalance and restriction I felt.  I let my impatience get the best of me.

In late 2012, I decided that I needed to change this, largely because I was experiencing more upper back, shoulder, and hip pain in activities of daily living, more issues with my left knee, and also started experiencing numbness and tingling in my left foot after I did a day-long meditation retreat during which I sat in lotus posture for many of the rounds.

I decided that I had to drop barbell training and adopt the mission of getting my body in correct alignment.  I chose to switch to gymnastic strength training –  aka calisthenics.  Also, since I had already had success using some of the exercises in Pete Egoscue’s book Pain Free to address acute muscle spasms I got from lumbar strains, I obtained a copy of his earlier book, The Egoscue Method of Health Through Motion.  This book is in my opinion superior to Pain Free, as it lays out a menu of exercises designed specifically to address the type of misalignment seen in the above photos.  I adopted this menu as a daily discipline since early 2013. 

Working with my body in various calisthenics has been quite enlightening.  To achieve my goal of a gymnast-quality handstand – the one in the center of the photo below – one must have the hands, shoulders, hips, and ankles in alignment.  I have that as my aim and currently use the standards of Coach Sommer of as my guide.

Photo: #throwbackthursday

The GB way is to always strive for the highest standards.  Refinement is an ongoing process.  Refuse to settle for less than your best.
Source: Gymnastic

Before I started this path, I could execute basic barbell exercises (squats, deadlifts, presses, weighted chin ups, etc.) without the same level of attention to the details of body alignment that is required in gymnastics.  Basically, I – or, more correctly, my body – had found ways to function ‘well enough’ to carry out basic movements despite the limitations imposed by the misalignments and muscle imbalances.  In contrast, I find that some basic calisthenic movements are simply impossible to achieve with incorrect body alignment and full joint range of motion, so, unlike barbell training, calisthenics training makes me clearly aware of where and how I am out of alignment and what I need to do to achieve my goals. 

I have for been using the Egoscue method, deep tissue work with tennis balls and foam roller, basic calisthenics, and Iyengar yoga postures to correct the muscular imbalances that underlie my misalignment.  Since I started this program, my alignment has improved considerably, but I have a ways to go.  This pattern has been holding for more than 20 years, so it is going to take some time to unravel it and re-educate my nervous system to accept a new alignment.

I find it an interesting process.  Working on the areas of tension and weakness frequently brings up memories tracing the emergence of the pattern, as if the memories are stored in the stuck tissue and released by working on it.  I have remembered having trouble with my left knee when sitting prolonged periods or stimulated by barbell squatting as far back as high school, and that was before I had any lumbar strains.  So the pattern is very old, probably stemming in part from an injury I had in childhood.  One day I was playing hide and seek with some other kids in the loft of a barn.  I jumped off a stack of hay bales onto the slatted loft; my right foot landed on a slat, and my left foot went through the space between two slats and my fall was stopped when the head of my left tibia slammed into the two slats.  I limped for a while after that. 

Moreover, I see how I in past years have not been patient enough or kind enough to myself to devote to the tedious work of undoing this imbalance, and instead indulged my ego in attempts to move forward without establishing a solid foundation. That also was an expression of the general misalignment of thoughts, feelings, and actions that I already mentioned above. That failure to establish an alignment between my thoughts and actions and my long-term goals and my short-term needs just complicated my condition.  So I see that my physical misalignment was perpetuated by a spiritual misalignment. 

I will be posting more about this as I journey farther down this path.  In the meantime, if you want a woman’s perspective on the process of self-discovery through calisthenics training, visit Tracy’s blog posts on this topic.

From Break Down to Break Through~Learn To Ride The Waves

Fitness, Alignment, and Putting Your Butt To Use!

Releasing A Big Pain in the Neck! | My Healing Journey Continued



No comments: