Beware the YINJURY!

I couldn’t ignore the truth.  My hip was sore.  Real sore.  It was wince-inducing sore.  And while I limped in denial I began to hear stories similar to mine:  a recurring shoulder pain that increased after Yin practice; a wonky knee that ached the next day; a lower back that refused another forward fold.  All injuries reported by Yin Yoga students.

I refused to believe my beloved Yin was to blame.  It just had to be something else.  Yet, listening to these my students describe the course of events that led to their discomfort and considering my overstretched hip flexor with an objective mind the truth was obvious:  we had YINJURIES – the Yin equivalent to falling asleep in the tanning bed.  Sigh.

For a time the science of flexibility seemed to be changing like the wind.  When I trained as a sports massage therapist long held static stretches were all the rage.  Now the trend leans toward fast dynamic stretching.  I’m confused.  If science supports short and sharp stretches where does Yin fit in?  Does it hurt more than it helps?

I asked anatomist and philosopher Gil Hedley, circular strength training coach Michael Rook and personal trainer Steven Rice their opinion.

Gil offered this:

Virtually anything can be harmful or helpful.  That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to how you are feeling when you are doing something.  I’m no scientist, but I’ve overstretched and endured the consequences, and I’ve also relished the feeling of stretching and moving and enjoyed the benefits.  I personally believe that most anything you do over and over again represents a rut eventually, and like to change things up a bit myself.  While a practice is expanding you and your horizons, enjoy it.  When it becomes a tedium or mere repetition to satisfy a habit, move on.

There have been moments in my Yin practice when I’ve taken the poses almost ‘by rote’ – without thinking.  Without feeling.  Perhaps when we lose our mindfulness in the practice we open the door to injury?

Michael, who attended Paul Grilley Yin Teacher Training with me a few years ago, was frank in his opinion:

To be honest, I’m not surprised to hear about this.  The science is relatively clear that stretching before resistance training (some of my students attend Yin and then lift weights the following day) can harm performance and lead to injury.  Even more so before using kettle bells, I would say.  Personally, I don’t hold stretches for more than a minute (and it depends on the stretch).  There’s also a lot of deep flexion in many Yin poses that can play havoc with the lower back (if you’re posteriorly rotated).  Ultimately, all practices need to be tailored to the individual.

That sounds like obvious advice, but how often do teachers really attempt to do that?  In a large class that’s virtually impossible.  While it’s the instructor’s responsibility to guide the class safely, does it really come down to the individual listening to their body?

Michael then referred me to Charles Poliquin’s Blog and the Gymnastics Bodies website.

Finally, local trainer Steve “Mr. Science” Rice gave me this to chew on:

My understanding is that the ligaments should not be stretched as that will lead to joint laxity, and they don’t recover from that.  However it is also possible for the ligaments and capsule to get a bit glued together and need a bit of loosening.

Tendons of course are attached to muscles so I don’t know if they can be stretched separately.  A stretch will affect the tissue most willing to lengthen which is likely the muscle, and the length of a muscle is determined first of all by the brain. 

Traditional static stretching, like holding a yoga pose, has become depreciated in the sports world because it has been shown to decrease performance.  Current thinking emphasizes dynamic warm-up and mobility work.  End ROM (range of motion) positions are moved into and out of under control so the entire neuromuscular chain is engaged.  For example, instead of hanging in a forward bend with gravity pulling you down, walk and on each step do a high kick.  My stretches last no more than one or two seconds.

And then, just to inject a bit of controversy, Steven wrote:

Incidentally, Poliquin is a smart guy and leading fitness authority but also controversial in his interpretation of research.

So there you have it.  Static stretching out.  Dynamic stretching in.

Not so fast.  I love Yin not only for how it feels in my body but for how it soothes my spirit.  There’s no way I’m trading those five-minute dragonflies for some high kicks!  But here’s what I might do:

Offer my body more support in poses that are challenging for me.

  • Hold some poses for less time.
  • Avoid weight training for 24 hours after a Yin practice (I can assure you that won’t be a problem).
  • And then, more than anything, I’m going to listen.

Fitness trends emerge and fade, theories behind the science of flexibility change, our bodies cycle through movements that feel good and movements that don’t.

It seems that the only thing we can do is listen.

The Gil Hedley Experience


Image via Wikipedia

Last Monday morning I picked up a scalpel for the first time since seventh grade biology class and made a tentative incision.  Six days later at 3:00 in the afternoon I saw a brain that had been meticulously dissected with the spinal cord intact.  I touched the bundle of nerves in our lower back we call Cauda Equina and watched as the white filament in the middle of it all – the filum terminale – was teased into view.  It was like looking into the center of universe.  It was the Source.  It was what I came to see.

When we meet our cadaver for the first time we begin by lifting a fitted rubber sheet.  This exposes her form, covered in layers of white gauze.  Each layer of the shroud is a long veil.

As the days progress we continue to remove layers. Skin, fat, tissue, viscera, bone, brain.  Each layer is another beautiful veil and each time a layer is eased away, a new secret is revealed.

And as the veils on our form are drawn back, so our own veils are, too.  How we perceive, our beliefs, our longing, our pain – it all floats to the surface, is taken up and the next layer revealed.

Gil Hedley is an unconventional teacher.  For six days we did clinical work, named muscles, found ligaments, traced nerve paths and looked inside the brain.  And while we were doing that, we were listening, too.

On death:

“We are walking in the land of taboo.”

On life:

“We resist the life that we’re given.”

On the body:

“The spine is a string.  It’s not an instrument of compression but an instrument of levity.”

“We don’t need to choose between the heart and brain.  The body is the shape of the heart.  The body is the shape of the brain.  And they’re braided together.”

“How do we feel about the body?  Sometimes we feel we’re a victim of the body.  Sometimes we’re taught to be disgusted by the body.  Sometimes we’re taught to love the body.”

“Instead of thinking ‘look at the body I’ve been given’ why don’t we think ‘look at the body I’ve chosen’.  And aren’t some folks incredibly brave and courageous for making the choices they make?”

On learning and teaching:

“If you’re afraid of making a mistake – of hitting the ball into the net – put down the tennis racket and don’t play.”

“You attract a different crowd of people by being vague.”

“Will you dare to embrace your power?  Dance through all your layers.  Is your heart free to dance?”

So today, after everything I’ve seen this past week, it’s time to ask myself:

“Is my heart free to dance?”

Inner Space

The body is a holy and wondrous thing. Broken or healthy, it is a miracle. I know this to be true – but my belief is something I’ve cobbled together from books and good teachers – not from first hand experience.

In a few hours I’m boarding a train for San Francisco and will spend the week with fifteen or so other somanauts exploring the body’s inner space with Gil Hedley of the popular Fuzz Speech.  Tomorrow we’ll begin with the dermis and superficial fascia.

I will confess to being apprehensive.  Even this morning I ran through excuses that would keep me home. For a moment I convinced myself to head for the City, hide in the apartment I’m borrowing from clients, skip the workshop and treat myself to a week of isolation and stillness.  A silent retreat.  No one would know.

And then I came to my senses.  I would know.

Earlier today I wrote this to a friend:

Taking train to City today for cadaver week…to be able at last to see it all in front of me – to cut into it (which still seems to me such a violation)…I may be making too big a deal of this but I feel as though I’m stepping though a portal and will emerge in six days a different woman.

People ask me why I want to do this.  Some are incredulous.  Those who have worked with the cadaver are excited for me.  To answer their question “why?” I tell them about being a kid and flipping through the volume of Encyclopedia Britannia that had the transparencies of the human body.  Remember those?  You could flip from the circulatory system to the nervous system; you could see all the muscles and count all the bones.  I got lost for entire afternoons just looking, looking, looking. I was so curious.  I’m still curious.

And curiosity trumps apprehension any day.  I’ll see you in a week.

Reading for Pleasure

I read for pleasure yesterday.  Yes, that’s correct.  I read.  For pleasure.

The morning began like every other morning.  I woke, came down the stairs in the house where I’m taking care of Frodo the Magical Golden Retriever, and opened my notebook to check emails while the coffee brewed. (The dream I had last August of continuing the morning meditation and yoga practice begun during Yin Teacher Training has collapsed.  Old habits die hard – but that’s for another post.)

On this Saturday, my heart just wasn’t in the emails.  Or working on my novel The Growing Season.  I wanted more from the day than the same old routine.  And so I put down the laptop and picked up Gil Hedley’s Reconceiving My Body, cozied up on the couch, and opened to the first page.

Six hours later – with a few breaks for lunch and dog walking – I read the last sentence, “I truly appreciate your interest” and closed the book.

I’ve mentioned Gil Hedley before.  I’ve posted his “Fuzz Speech” online, as have many of my friends from Yin training.  I’ll be participating in a one-day anatomy intensive with Hedley in February and a one-week cadaver intensive in April.  Reading this book was the beginning of my preparation for these workshops.

The thing is, Gil Hedley is an odd duck.  Admittedly, so am I.

Reconceiving My Body is a love story.  Sort of.  It’s the story of how Hedley went from wanna-be-Priest to PhD to Tai Chi Guy to Rolfer to Somanaut to Husband to Father.  It’s a deeply personal story and yet the story he tells belongs to everyone.  Who hasn’t struggled with faith, with sexuality, with finding their path?  How many travel through life playing the role of the victim until we finally learn to take personal responsibility for our actions? Ultimately it is trust – not faith – that leads to redemption.

Good teachers are hard to find.  Based on what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard and now, what I’ve read – I found one.

(I know, I know…you’re heads are still wrapping around the idea of a “cadaver intensive.”  That’s all right.  So’s mine.)


Dealing with Trauma

Last night I had dinner with friends.  One was recovering from a bad motorbike accident a few days earlier that left him bruised, with several broken bones. My friend was particularly agitated because he had only just begun a new fitness regimen – and now all that hard word would be lost.  He was in pain, frustrated, impatient and determined to heal.

We discussed his options.  He understands muscle ‘memory’ and is concerned that ‘memories’ of the accident will make it difficult to regain the strength and flexibility he had prior to the accident.  My friend isn’t certain what sort of physical therapy he’ll have – he’s still waiting to find out if he’s going to have to undergo surgery – but he’s anxious to do whatever he can to encourage healing.  He wondered if body therapy in the form of Rolfing might be of benefit.

I had two bits of contrary advice:

Rest. Give the body time to process. The physical trauma is recent – only days old – and the body is still trying to figure out what happened.  That’s true on an emotional level as well.  When trauma occurs we need time – at least seventy-two hours, longer depending on the injury – for our physical body and our spirit to process what has happened and how our life might change.

Keep moving. The longer he stays still, the more time his connective tissue has to tighten.  So move.  Even a little.  And as silly as it sounds, the more you move, the more you’ll move.  (If you want to know more about connective tissue and why we must include a flexibility practice in our fitness regime watch The Fuzz Speech.)

My third bit of advice falls between the first two:

Multi-task. I told my friend that as soon as he can climb on a table, to book a massage appointment.  A soothing massage will rest the nervous system and manipulate the muscle fibers – it will increase circulation and help break up forming adhesions and scar tissue.

And Rolfing?

Funny enough, when I woke up this morning I saw an article posted on Facebook by my friend and Rolfer Michael Murphy.  You can read the article here.  And you can meet Michael here.

One paragraph stood out:

In that regard, he said he viewed the treatment as an extension of practices like yoga, which also offers relief without drugs. “Yoga is in many ways analogous to Rolfing because it takes tendons and it stretches them into a position of discomfort,” Dr. Oz said. “They’re just doing it for you without your doing it yourself.”

So true!  Especially considering practices that include a Yin or Assisted Yin element. Assisted Yin combines yoga with massage.  Think slow motion Thai Massage.  The practitioner supports the client in Yin derived positions for up to five minutes.  The effect is a profound stretching of the connective tissue that breaks up scar tissue, dissolves adhesions and deeply soothes the nervous system.  The work can be challenging but is not painful.

Disclaimer:  I’ve never been Rolfed.  I don’t have an informed opinion.  My ideas regarding Rolfing are based on anecdotal evidence. I have, however, experienced the trauma of being thrown twenty feet off my bicycle by a moving vehicle.  Would I want to be Rolfed after that?  No thank you. Still, Rolfing appears to be an intensely powerful experience – one that I think I’d like to try.  But as far as my friend is concerned, my advice is for him to wait until his bones have healed and the bruising is gone.  The best thing he can do right now is practice gentle, mindful patience.

Fascia, Fuzz and Fear

A few weeks ago my fellow yogis and I gathered in The Pine Room at Land of Medicine Buddha to watch a video called The Fuzz Speech. Basically, the film is a short history of fascia.  Fascia is a type of connective tissue that runs throughout our body.  As we age, or if we are immobile, it begins to contract and stiffen.  After we watched the short video, we were certain of two things: we would always, always, always stretch our bodies and we wanted to study with Gil Hedley.

Gil Hedley is the anatomist and theologian who delivers The Fuzz Speech.  It’s worth the five minutes it takes to watch.

I hope to complete a six-day workshop with him during April in San Francisco.  And yet I’ve not registered for the class.  What’s holding me back?  One simple phone call.  To enroll in his cadaver study intensive, I need to call him.  But I’m afraid I won’t know what to say.  Or maybe there’s a part of me that’s hoping if I put off ringing the number long enough, the course will be full.  In other words, I’m sabotaging my potential success. I’m my own worse enemy.  But fear is a funny thing, isn’t it.  I’m not afraid of the intensive.  I’m not afraid of confronting death.  If anything, I’m afraid of life.

Last night, when a neighborhood in San Bruno exploded in flames, we were reminded that it could all be over in a flash.  Of course, bad things happen all over the world all the time.  But this is our Peninsula, and San Bruno is just down the road.  When tragedy on a massive scale hits this close to home…

I think it’s time to stop navel gazing and time to live life.  Excuse me; I have a phone call to make.

Oh – one more thing, while you’re fiddling around watching The Fuzz Speech, take a look at these photographs of bones.  The way you think about yoga and alignment will never be the same.