Part 2: The Nervous System
In this section we will examine the nervous system in greater detail and how massage treatment affects pain through it. The nervous system includes the brain, spinal cord and all the peripheral nerves that go to the muscles, organs and skin. The nervous system uses hormones and electrochemicals to turn stimulation into sensation and act through movement of muscles and other tissues. If it happens in the human body, the nervous system is involved at some point.
When we consider the nervous system in bodywork, we recognize two things: first, that we feel pain because a part of our brain tells us we do…through the use of hormones, it is the modulator of sensation; second, that we feel things because our nerve-endings have sent sensory information to our brain via the spinal cord, our brain makes sense of it, and instructs our muscles to react based on that information. In certain cases however, the brain is taken out of the equation: we call this a “reflex”. We have a few reflexes already pre-programmed into our muscles so that when certain stimuli is experienced, the signal goes to the spinal cord and speeds directly back to the muscle as action. This is a part of the “fight or flight” mechanism; our body’s way of removing itself from a potentially painful event. Certain parts of the brain eventually get clued into what has gone on during a reflex reaction and records it, a bit like an external hard drive for your computer.
One such reflex is the “stretch reflex”. When a muscle is stretched too far, too fast, the stretch reflex causes the muscle to contract very quickly to protect itself from tearing. Another is called the “GTO response”. This is roughly the opposite of the stretch reflex; when a muscle bares too much tension, the GTO response causes the muscle to relax all contraction to protect itself from spasm or strain. Over time these reflexes can make patterned imprints on the brain (that external hard drive), leading to what is typically called “muscle memory”. Some massage techniques work directly with these reflexes to help reduce painful spasms, increase the length and pliability of muscle tissue, and reset the memory of a particular muscle or group of muscles. Ahhh, pain relief!
We should also consider “gate theory” when speaking about the nervous system and pain relief. Gate theory states that the nerve signal for pressure sensations are faster and stronger than the nerve signals for pain sensation. That is a handy revelation when most massage treatments employ the application of pressure at some point. If you apply pressure to tissue that is in pain, the pressure signal “beats the pain signal to the gate”, and the brain only acknowledges the pressure sensation. Ahhh, pain relief! This may be why we instinctively press on an injury…the pain of a bump, a scrape or even a cut will benefit, at least temporarily, from immediate applied-pressure.
Because the brain uses hormonal information in feeling various sensations, we try to use that to our advantage in bodywork. Part of what makes a massage such a relaxing experience is that our brain turns off the “fight or flight” response of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)–a condition where our brain and body are flooded with stress chemicals such as adrenalin and epinephrine–and turns on the “relaxation response”. This Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is the part of the nervous system that allows the body to recover and heal after high-stress events. When we massage the skin, muscles and organs, the PNS signals the brain to turn off adrenalin production and increase the production of endorphins, dopamine and serotonin–our on-board supply of pain killers and euphorics. Our brain slows down our breathing, increases our healing and rebuilding processes, and gives us the sensation of rest and comfort. Our nerves relax and slow the flow of information and the perception of pain is reduced. Ahhh, pain relief!
Ultimately, as the communication network between our outer and inner worlds, the nervous system is the key focus in any pain relief treatment. Massage and bodywork can address it very generally in the case of parasympathetic stimulation, or directly when utilizing specific reflexes and circulatory functions. Over time, regular massage treatment can help inprint the brain with a higher tolerance for painful stimuli and keep the Sympathetic Nervous Response to a minimum.
Check back soon for the last installment in this series: Energetic and Emotional Release.
Counteraction is the key to stabilizing our joints.
The movements of the shoulder blade play an integral role in the stability of your core, but many of us have very stuck shoulder blades. Cat/Cow is a great way to mobilize AND strengthen this system to become a better foundation for all of the poses which bare weight in your hands. Read on for the breakdown, so you can build up your Cat/Cow. Read the rest of this entry »
Ah…The ultimate question. It is a complex, or at least multi-layered question to answer. In many ways it depends totally on the approach of the particular practitioner you are asking, therefore I will respond generally and in sections:
- Muscles and Fascia
- The Nervous System
- Emotional/Energetic Release
While all of these areas overlap at some point during your treatment, they are more easily understood separately at first.
Part 1: Muscles and Fascia
First let’s consider the tissues we work on directly: Skin, muscles, fascia (connective tissue) and joints. Treatment massages often address all of these tissues because they all tend to be connected. Most of us are familiar with all of them except fascia. Fascia is the web in which all of our cells are suspended. Made mostly of water Read the rest of this entry »
Yoga Immersion Retreat at The Yoga Lodge
Whether you bunk in the Lodge, camp on the property or sleep at one of Whidbey’s various B&B’s, we’ll gather together to explore the Solar power of your Summer yoga practice.
Only a few spots remain available. First come, first served! Sign up now to ensure your bunk in the Lodge and your space in the studio.
Mightily espoused by yogis world-wide, and most commonly quoted as the fundamental reason yogis “should” be vegetarian, it is one of the more clearly stated ethical boundaries adopted by those on the eight-fold path of Yoga. Clear in it’s message of kindness, and yet one I see thrown to the way-side in so many classes in which I participate.
Violence. A word that is endemic in this modern world: wars, gangs, crime, abuse, neglect, and every -ism you can name. Sometimes it makes headlines that make us cringe, or headlines that make us think. Many times violence is obvious, overt, in-your-face. These forms are easy to denounce, to rail against, to decry. Our practice on and off the mat is often used to counter the social atrocities that surround us: fund raisers, festivals, concerts, seva. Service. We offer our bodies and our hearts and our voices and our dollars at the alter of doing good for others.
And yet as we step on the mat each day, so many of us step right into the arms of Violence against ourselves. We come to the mat for solace, for effort, to burn off our stressors and dive deep within. However, this act can become unkind when pursued from a place tainted by competitive ego. We can move too fast, we can push too hard. We can refuse to listen to our inner voice when it whispers to us and only hear it when in screams at us from a truly deep injury.
Our asana practice is a tool to bring us into deeper alignment with our true Nature. If we approach it with a blind eye and deaf ear, we are no longer in a practice. Our asana can work against us if we don’t have a basic understanding of the Nature of our body, for our body is what we bring to the mat first. We cannot focus only on our muscle and bone, but neither can we discount it.
My own practice is deeply rooted in this physical exploration and though I have studied anatomy and physiology for going on two decades, I am still surprised and amazed by observations being made across the physical industries. This article by Michael Boyle MA, ATC, “Is Rotation Training Hurting Your Performance”, references just such observations with respect to twists in the low back. I found it eye-opening and gut-clenching all at once. Drawing from the research of Shirley Sarhman and her book, Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, it describes the importance of rotating our spine at the Thoracic level (mid-upper back) instead of our Lumbar levels.
This article was a wake-up call to me that even as closely as I observe and converse with the inner workings of my body, that I was ignoring some very basic functional anatomy and inflicting violence upon it with many of the movements in my practice. I have since made adjustments and found that my lingering back pains have disappeared.
This article also made me begin looking deeper at my spine in practice from top to bottom and along the way I have made some rather startling personal discoveries. As I teach these new alignments to my students, they are discovering their own new levels of freedom and strength. I will be offering intensives on this work in the months to come, so STAY TUNED.
Not only do we need to pay attention each time we step on the mat, but we must remain aware that new information is available for us to feed our knowledge base and grow in the intelligence of our asana. It’s not always about going farther or holding longer. Making those distinctions is part of our practice of Ahimsa. Be kind to your body.
The following is a clunky metaphor, to be sure. Don’t think I’m not aware of it. But it is a picture I recently drew for a student caught up in the type-A push and pull of yoga practice: how to be patient and remain present in the process when all you want is the freedom of a quiet mind.
Imagine you encounter a dog. A big dog. Let’s say a VERY big dog. This dog is not tethered, is not leashed to any stake. You like the look of this dog, your heart is joyous and full at the prospect of petting and loving and squishing this beautiful dog. And the dog knows it.
The dog gets VERY excited and begins leaping up onto you; paws in your face, tongue in your nose, your ears, your mouth. You try to push it down but it leaps at you again. You try to make it sit, stay, lay down, but it insists on climbing all over you. In it’s desire to please you and love you and be your companion, it actually pushes you away. You leave, quickly, and it takes a long while for you to approach another friendly dog.
But what if this same dog had discipline? What if all of that eager Love were channeled inward and tethered the dog to it’s seat? If you encounter this dog, his tail wagging wildly, bobbing gently from side to side, you may be drawn forward. As you approach this dog it lays down and offers it’s belly to be scratched, so ready to accept your Love instead of imposing it’s Love upon you. You bend down to him, rub his belly, scratch his ears, curl up with him on the ground and cuddle and play. You find that you and the dog have engaged yourselves, together in the moment. One has not overpowered the other, there is no control to gain. When you both are exhausted, you can walk away and the dog curls up in his place and naps.
Now I invite you to roll this around in your head. What if you were the dog and the person was your practice, your quiet moment, your mindless freedom. Which dog do you want to BE?
As yoga teachers, we feel responsible for so much: safety, ego, emotional health, students getting what they think they need, getting students in the door…and that’s just IN the studio. My own personal view: Start Small and Keep It Simple.
A colleague of mine recently emailed regarding a message I offered in one of my last trainings: Stop teaching rhetorically and think critically about what you are offering your students. I am posting her inquiry here and my response; I invite your take on this and an open discussion. Just remember to be nice
I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about the “rhetoric” that plagues yoga instruction…
I’m really challenging myself and my colleagues to more clearly define what we are doing and why—and for our cues to reflect that.
Specifically, I’m struggling with the cue “open.” I say it so much but I want to get away from that—I want to be able to explain what I mean by “open” to a beginning student.
So I wonder how you would define this idea of “opening” an area of the body, or a tight, specific muscle.
Does that make sense? Please let me know what you think when you have a chance.
I am thrilled to hear you talk about this. The words we use are important, and clearly communicating our intention is a big part of being a successful teacher. You are correct, a word like “open” can be ambiguous at best. I prefer to describe the particulars of the tissue, structure or joint I am referring to…because your description of “opening” may be vastly different for each area.
My own style of teaching has evolved to limit descriptors as much as possible so I can communicate more information in less time. Ex: “right hand reaches to windows” instead of reach your right hand to the window wall”. At first, it may sound robotic, but over time, your voice, your cadence, your tone all bring meaning to these details without using extra words. You can be more direct when describing simple or basic movements. That way, when you begin to describe something more specific, the hip joint for example, the mere fact that you use more detail, or full sentences, draws attention to it’s importance.
I might describe the joint itself:
“there is a fibrous ligament that spirals around the head and neck of the femur bone, holding it into it’s socket. When we sit all day, the fibers of this ligament can get stuck together like velcro, and proper movement here can help pull those fibers apart and soften the tissue. We want to unwind the stickiness that extends through the connective tissue of the muscle and joint for more freedom. If we rush into a deep stretch or bully our way through these sticky spots, our tissue will fight us and even bite back…slow, movement, blood flow…that will serve us.”
I’ve taken a few extra seconds to draw them a mental picture of what their action can accomplish, what they are truly working on. I often refer back to “finding the middle ground”, “explore the edge but don’t push past it…it will move outward on its own”, “balance between length and strength”, “unwind”, “soften”, “melt”; instead of “open”.
I like to teach my students something about the body they’re in. You gotta start small, one little piece at a time. But those little pieces will begin to meet up in their minds to build a bigger view of what they are doing and why. Any time we are offered a meaning for the actions we take, we are more likely to take care in those actions.
I hope that helps! ~R
New Events In Austin, Tx; Seattle & Whidbey Island, WA
I’m pleased to announce the dates for my latest bookings: SAVE THESE DATES!
April 28th, Body of Knowledge: Length and Strength for a Healthy Chaturanga 2-7 pm; Sutra Yoga SEATTLE registration details here
May 19th, Austin Yoga Expo: Heavenly Hips 4:30-5:45 pm; Palmer Events Center, AUSTIN details here
You can look forward to my newsletter outlining these AND more local events. If you are not on the mailing list yet, use this link to join.
My deep thanks to all of you who can and do support my teaching around the country. I appreciate you sharing these dates with anyone you know who may be interested in exploring this practice with us.
Immerse yourself in the details of the spinal tissues and functions, strengths and weaknesses, relationship to our energetic body and nervous system, and how our Asana practice impacts this magnificent feat of engineering.
Sunday, January 29th, 2012; 10 am-2 pm $65 @ Lionheart Yoga Training–3102 30th Ave S., Seattle
Through a combination of Lecture and Asana Practice we will uncover the deeper workings of the spine in our practice to bolster the quality of our teaching. We will outline and discuss the tissues that build the spine, hold it together, and allow for such an amazing range of motion. We’ll cover the common ailments of the spinal tissues and how to best avoid them.
Using 2- and 3-dimensional visual models we will examine the musculature that supports this boney frame and creates the dynamic movements we take for granted each day. Identify the most vulnerable points in the spinal column and learn in detail how to fire the correct muscles to support these places.
Take control of your practice by inviting in a more detailed view of your internal terrain. Observe your own limitations and hypermobilities to improve the quality of your personal practice, and learn to look for them in your students.
While this course is designed for yoga teachers, it is open and appropriate for yoga students eager to gain deeper knowledge of their Asana practice.
Space is extremely limited, Pre-Registration is mandatory! Use this Body Of Knowledge Registration Page to save your space. Only registrants who are paid in full will be guaranteed a slot.
You may submit registration and payment via check payable to Unity Therapeutic, c/o Lionheart Yoga Training, 3102 30th Ave S, Seattle, WA 98144
Shop locally AND invest in an experience instead of more stuff!
Share the Gift of Health and Wellness with your loved ones this giving season. When you purchase a Certificate of Healing for your family and friends, you offer them the opportunity to build a routine of self-care for reduced pain, increased strength, mobility and vibrance. Each recipient can choose to spend their hour-long session in one of the following:
- Therapeutic Massage Treatment
- Therapeutic Yoga Treatment
- Private Yoga Instruction
Richelle will bring all the needed supplies to the recipient’s home for treatment in the comfort of a familiar atmosphere.
Each certificate is $75, inclusive of all travel and setup costs. This is a $100 value for just $75!