Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Recliner


I don't think it pays to be too doctrinaire about rest and relaxation. Suffice it to say introducing some real rest and relaxation into one's life may be as important a health measure as eating right and getting exercise. And for many of us practicing rest and relaxation is either a luxury we don't think we can afford or else a capacity we don't really believe we have. Perhaps it helps to retire, or to think of oneself as temporarily retired, to allow for what can be considered the ultimate indulgence. Rest and Relaxation.

A good way to start is to purchase a good recliner, certainly one of the greatest inventions since hot baths. I can always tell when somebody isn't indulging sufficiently their God given right to rest and relax. They often don't have a recliner anywhere to be found in their home. I think I would buy a recliner before a refrigerator or stove. A good recliner can put you into the perfect position to rest and relax. Slightly bent in all the right places, the body is most inclined, in this position, to release tension and to slip into a deep state of rest and relaxation.

But you need to find the right recliner. It should afford a feeling of complete support for all your parts. I once bought a recliner in haste, and when I tried it out at home, I felt I was slipping out of it feet first. It didn't induce a sense of relaxation or security but instead a feeling that I would slip out if I didn't exert an effort to stay put. I sent it back to the store and replaced it with a La-Z-Boy that has served me well for the last ten or fifteen years.

We all deserve some real rest and relaxation in our lives. It could be the missing ingredient that many of us are seeking but rarely find. Forget the jewelry, cars, and complicated electronics that get pushed on us to buy for ourselves or for others. Let there be peace on earth and good will towards men this holiday season and a good way to start is either to climb into your own recliner and totally relax or else get yourself a good recliner. It's the gift that truly keeps on giving.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Diaphragm and Right Breathing


"Right physical breathing comes from a movement of the diaphragm. If it is in order it is not the result of a doing, the breath comes and goes of itself. If the movement of the diaphragm is in any way impeded, it is replaced by a movement of the auxiliary muscles located higher up. This is a sign that a person is held tightly in the circle of his I even in his breathing. Shallow breathing high up in the chest-shows that a man is tense and caught in his I without knowing it."
From: Hara, The Vital Centre in Man
by Karlfried Von Durckheim.
Above diagram is the diaphragm viewed from below.

Make that "I" in the above quoted paragraph the ego. The ego is located in our breathing function or more accurately in our breathing dysfunction. The diaphragm is a key structural muscle and our principal breathing muscle.

My sense of the diaphragm in myself is that it is the muscular culprit behind my spinal scoliosis or my twisted spine (a spinal curvature that was diagnosed while I was in junior high school). With strong tendons attached to the lower thoracic and upper lumbar vertebrae, (the crura in the diagram), it has yanked one or two of my vertebrae out of alignment. The spine adjusts, as best it can, to this kind of strain taking on all sorts of distortions and eventually suffering some real deterioration.
I don’t think this is an uncommon occurrence in people, but the muscles that are involved in doing the straining and distorting can vary among individuals. The diaphragm is certainly one of the three or four key muscles in our body usually playing a part in creating and distorting structure. And for most of us we have only the vaguest notion of where the diaphragm is located or how it works let alone that we have one or that it may be tight, short, and causing some real strains and distortions (in both body and in mind).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


"When He is born, man is soft and weak; in death he becomes stiff and hard. The ten thousand creatures and all plants and trees while they are alive are soft and supple, but when they are dead they become brittle and dry. Truly, what is stiff and hard is a 'companion of death'; what is soft and weak is a ' companion of life'. Therefore 'the weapon that is too hard will be broken, the tree that has the hardest wood will be cut down'. Truly the hard and mighty are cast down; the soft and weak set on high."

from the TAO TE CHING
translation by Arthur Waley

People are interested in health and their well-being. Health centers, spas, and clubs proliferate. Books on exercise, diet and relaxation fill the shelves of bookstores and libraries. There is genuine concern about health, and yet we often have only the vaguest idea of what real health is. Since disease in its many forms has been classified and studied extensively, we seem to know more about disease and understand it better than we do health.

However, certain trends are beginning to emerge that shed some light on what it means to be healthy. We are discovering that disease is very often psychosomatic in nature where stress, tension and emotional disturbances are frequently a factor. The body and mind work together, an attitude or a way of life can make us tense and physically sick. Most of us suffer from tension and yet few of us ever really feel the degree to which we are tense or where those tensions reside. Becoming aware of our tensions can come as a shock and a surprise.

Oriental medicine has the concept of tension as a cause of disease. Oriental medicine understands tension as blocked energy, tension can be experienced as a blocking or a dammed-up force. Tension can feel like a heavy weight pressing down on us or it can be a gripping or pinching sensation. There is a word for this sense of our internal state of tension. This is the kinesthetic sense. It is a deep awareness of the self and for many people it is a buried and lost sense. The tensions that contribute to making us sick are usually more than a temporary condition. Our patterns of tension are often laid down at an early age and stay with us for a lifetime. This is not the way it has to be, but the way it usually is. These patterns of tension shape our character, our way of life, thoughts, feelings, and of course, our bodies. We are not in good shape as long as we remain chronically tense. Traditional exercise and diet will not in themselves make us much healthier as long as tension has us in its grip. Deep muscle and organ relaxation are important components to really good health.

Good health is characterized by a state of ease and relaxation. The relaxed body breathes fully and has a sufficient supply of oxygen in the blood. Relaxation permits the blood and lymph to flow to all the tissues of the body and for toxins and waste to flow away. Tension limits this flow and so the tissues and organs affected have decreased vitality and greater susceptibility to breakdown and disease.

Excessive tension is a waste of energy. It is energy directed against oneself and against the natural course that life would take if unimpeded by chronic stiffness and tension. Tension twists our bodies out of shape to the point where many of us really have no idea what a body in good shape looks or feels like. Chest up, stomach in, hard muscles, tight gut, shoulders back, are not the characteristics of a healthy body.

There are three direct and related approaches to restoring natural equilibrium and good health to the body. These three approaches to better health are:

1/ Stretching all the muscles in the body, especially those that are contracted with tension. Also limbering and loosening every joint, including those in the spine.

2/ Meditation or any of a large number of relaxation techniques including Transcendental Meditation, Progressive Relaxation, Autogenic Training, or the Relaxation Response.

3/ Massage, especially the deeper massage strokes found in Swedish massage, Shiatsu, acupressure, trigger point or Rolfing.

Each method can be used separately to restore the organism's health and equilibrium, but used together they constitute a powerful tool for human growth and development. Each method offers difficulty. A stiff, tight body does not want to stretch too much because it hurts to stretch very tight and short muscles. The pain of chronic tension, and the increased arousal that comes with stress, makes us restless and busy and so the stillness required in meditation and relaxation techniques can seen disturbing or uncomfortable for even a short period of time. The pressure of fingers and thumbs on tense muscles can bring out the soreness in these muscles. A tight body is often a very sore and painful body and a little pressure can bring this soreness into awareness.

These are probably the most effective means available to relax the body and to awaken us to our lost sense, our kinesthetic sense, a true gauge of health and well-being. Once we are aware of ourselves as blocked and gripped, stiff and tense, we can begin to take responsibility for our own health. We cannot depend on doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists, or physical education instructors to make us healthy. Sensing the kinesthetic, we then have a better idea of what we must do and how to do it. The kinesthetic sense becomes our guide, teacher, and inspiration. We have discovered what it is our bodies really want and need to do to become healthy, and may even find the time, the energy, and the self-discipline to do it.

Monday, April 30, 2007



"Hygiene 1: A science concerned with establishing and maintaining good health. 2: Conditions or practices conducive to good health." From The Merriam Webster Dictionary.

Most of us associate the word hygiene with cleanliness but the dictionary defines it more generally as those "conditions or practices conducive to good health". Civilized people usually brush their teeth every day and many of us take a shower or bath on a daily basis also. Eating right and getting some exercise and even taking vitamins can be an important part of our everyday health maintenance program. Many of these common practices are taught to us as children by our parents and even in school as part of our general physical education. And just like we need to learn to read, write and do some arithmetic to get by in this world, it is also equally important to learn how to take care of our bodies and our health.

Yet the kind of physical education many of us experienced in school comprised a lot of activities that may not have stood us in good stead in preparing us for the rest of our lives. Baseball, soccer, basketball, weight lifting, gymnastics, wrestling and track and field all certainly all have their place in any program of physical education. In the final analysis, though, they may not really be the kind of skills that will help us maintain our health and well being as we lead our lives and grow older. The exertions and stunts that characterize what usually passes as physical education may be appropriate for teenagers and people in their early twenties but what about those of us who make it into our 40s, 50s and older. And how many of those young athletes who engaged in all those exertions, strains and stunts in their youth end up broken and nearly crippled by the time they get to 40? Many of them are laid low by middle age by the slings, arrows and insults their bodies took when they were younger.

One of the areas that could be emphasized (but rarely is) when we receive our physical education is how to take care of our spines. Although we all know we have spines, we usually only have the barest knowledge of what the structure of our spines is really like and even less knowledge of how we can take care of them. We find as we age that our neglect and ignorance of our spines generally comes back to haunt us. Back pain must be one of the commonest complaints and ailments for people in our times. Look at the proliferation of orthopedic doctors, osteopaths and particularly chiropractors now. In some cities and towns there are more chiropractors than MDs. Doesn’t this tell us that a lot of backs are hurting out there? And as helpful as these practitioners can be, we can’t rely on their ministrations every day of our lives, and yet every day we may need to do something to maintain the integrity and health of our backs and spines. It is these daily practices conducive to spinal health that we might call ‘spinal hygiene’.

We have all seen cats and dogs engage in their own versions of spinal hygiene. They stretch and limber their backs quite effortlessly or else roll their backs on the ground until they are satisfied that all is as it should be. Animals are still in touch with some natural impulses and moves that help maintain their spines. By rolling their backs and stretching and relaxing they are giving themselves the kind of treatments that humans probably could also use. Many of us, without much thought, like to move and stretch when we get out of bed in the morning. Have you ever lied down on a firm floor and felt your back sink towards the floor and elongate as you continued to relax? Our own feelings of ache and tension can be our guide in treating our backs. Doing what seems to relieve those little aches and tensions might be just the kind of treatments we need to do, on a daily basis, to avoid the bulging discs and contracted muscles that characterize the more seriously ailing back. This is preventive medicine, and we should ideally learn these things when we are young from our parents and our teachers but unfortunately rarely do. Just as we brush our teeth and wash our hands and face as part of our daily health regimen, we someday may limber our backs and open our spinal joints as part of a regular program of spinal hygiene.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Inversion, Traction, a Roller, and a Chair


An effective inversion technique can be practiced at home with a simple back roller and a chair. There is an optimal angle for placing the body in an inversion position for the traction and spinal lengthening that can benefit our spine and back. Discover for yourself what that angle may be. A modest, but sufficient, amount of inversion can be attained by simply draping the ends of your legs over a bed or chair and then propping up the hips on a thick cushion or back roller. A roller is preferable because it allows for more freedom and movement of the back as it sinks towards the floor. Try different heights of support for the hips to test what positioning seems most comfortable and delivers some sense of traction and spinal lengthening. Rest for a few minutes or more in this position.

Let gravity work for you. Let gravity (and not any muscular exertion) be the force behind this inversion and traction technique. When we are past 35 or 40 years of age our spines often begin to show the effects of age. Disks dry up and shrink and the vertebrae may start spurring and deforming as gravity and the human posture begin to take their toll. Inversion techniques can give the entire spinal column a gentle stretch with a positive opening effect, a therapeutic expansion, to each vertebral joint and the structures in the joint and surrounding it. Five minutes of inversion and gentle traction can have a powerful effect towards relieving the strain and the back pain that many of us live with in our daily lives.

Feel the stretching and lengthening of the spine as you simply rest into the position and let gravity work for you. You may feel some gentle pulling sensations in those areas of your spine that have become strained and distorted. Surrender to these sensations and allow the therapeutic stretching action and spinal lengthening to occur. Experiment with how high you wish to support the hips and where support is best located. Let your inner body sense, the kinesthetic sense, be your guide in this technique. You may be surprised at how powerful and therapeutic a simple position like this can be.

Support your head on the seat of a chair and use the roller against the middle and lower back. By supporting the head in this way, the spine can remain relatively straight while the roller is manipulating and massaging the middle back. Your own sense of what feels right and what works best should be your guide. Massage the ribs on either side and feel for any sense of ache or tightness. The diaphragm attaches all around the lower rib cage and to the spine in this area. This technique can help free up the diaphragm, our major breathing muscle.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Roller Under the Hips Routine

Here is a complete Spinal Roller routine where the roller remains stationary and maintains a single position under the hips. This simple, gentle, and easy to execute routine opens the hips and pelvic area and gives effective traction to the entire spine.

Figure 1. Roller under the hips full extension.

Figure 2. Roller under the hips for spinal traction.

Figure 3. Roller under the hips with pelvic stretch.

Figure 4. Roller under the hips knees to chest.

Figure 5. Roller under the hips legs spread.

(Figure 1) The roller is placed beneath the hips and the legs and arms are placed as shown. Allow gravity to do the work and be the force behind this stretch. Surrender to the roller and the force of gravity. Feel how the muscles deep in the pelvis and hips slowly lengthen and stretch. Rock slightly from side to side to deepen the stretch. Hold for a minute or two.

(Figure 2) Roller remains beneath the hips and the legs are positioned as shown. The arms can be placed above the head or down by the side of the body. Let gravity slowly draw the spine down towards the floor. Surrender into this relatively easy position and allow the roller to support and hold up the hips. Feel a gentle (or moderate) traction of the entire spine develop in this inverted pose. Hold for a few minutes or until the sense of stretch and spinal opening subsides. Rock your middle back from side to side or roll your head slowly from side to side to enhance the spinal traction effect in different areas of the back and neck.

(Figure 3) Roller remains stationary and under the hips. Soles of the feet are placed together, as shown, and drawn up towards the body, knees fall out by their own weight. Feel the stretch into the hips and groin.

(Figure 4) Roller is underneath the hips. Gently pull the knees up towards the chest. Feel the spinal elongation, traction, and stretch. Rock from side to side or roll your head from side to side slowly and gently. This extends and enhances the manipulation and spinal adjustment.

(Figure 5) With the roller underneath the hips the legs can be held up, stretched apart, or moved in big circular motions as if riding a bicycle. This is probably a more comfortable way to attain the circulatory benefits of inversion without much strain or effort.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Recent letter on the Roller and a Reply

I've just never understood why, when I take your rollers and show my yoga classes, no one is ever interested, despite my recommendations. Do you have a clue as to how to understand this? (From D.K., Woodbridge, CT.)

Allan's reply:

The look of a roller is deceiving and unimpressive. The feel of the thing can be another story. For some people it can be just what the doctor or the guru ordered. When the spine becomes the prime focus of a practice, then some things become more evident like the need to open up the spinal joints or a need to relieve some sense of strain and distortion in the spine and back. I use the floor for spinal work and various rollers. And, in the course of spinal work, it sometimes becomes evident that certain key muscles attached to the spine are short and tight. Two muscles particularly come to mind, the iliopsoas and the diaphragm. They are both key, structural muscles in creating strain and distortion in the body and spine, and they often need to be stretched and lengthened. Rollers, and other tools, can help give some focus to that effort, but they are certainly not absolutely necessary or the only way to go. And it may be helpful to keep in mind that the tension we feel in these, and other muscles, often represents the grip and control we exercise over ourselves. We are attempting to break some bad muscular and structural habits (or tendencies) when we practice yoga and to experience a greater sense of ease and freedom. We are tearing down and ripping up an old structure with our practice (with or without the use of tools) and allowing a freer, more fluid, and eventually a more powerful self to emerge.