This business of having a body is deeply confusing . . . Bodies are so messy and disappointing. Every time I see the bumper sticker that says, "We think we're humans having spiritual experiences; we're really spirits having human experiences," I (a) think it's true and (b) want to ram their car."
This is what pulled me toward training in Structural Integration bodywork and the work of Ida Rolf and Joseph Heller. Intuitively, I began to see how posture affects health, and that's what drew me to yoga. Once I took my first hike and swam my first lap, I was hooked on exercise and its benefits and studied exercise physiology at UCLA, eventually going back to school in my thirties to become a chiropractor. I gained an invaluable education in anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and all things medical. It is the culmination of these things I can offer people; it is what I am best known for. Without really thinking about it, it is how I live and what I do.
The Stages of Healing
In my practice over the years, I've noticed a pattern. Perhaps it's just human nature, or a lack of knowledge about ourselves or our bodies. What I've observed is that people get to a place where they think they are well, healed, out of pain, all better, and then they stop working at whatever the issue is. It's similar to the whole idea of going "on" and "off" a diet; once you stop practicing healthy eating habits because you've reached your goal weight, you will most certainly return to your old weight, or even heavier, if you don't continue eating in a healthier way. If significant lifestyle habits don't change—an energy shift in your behavior—then you return to your set-point and are back where you started. Our bodies like set points, and it takes mindfulness and focused commitment to change one that has been in place for awhile. This can be excruciatingly hard for many of us and, I admit, it makes me mad when people slide back without trying to maintain. Does a person dying of cancer slide back without trying? No, they do everything possible to stay alive. Why should it be any different healing low back pain? Living without pain—any amount of pain—enhances your quality of life immensely, and we shouldn't settle for anything less (in my view).
Acute Stage. In anatomy, we talk about the stages of healing this way: First, there is the acute stage, in which a person may suffer an injury that creates inflammation of nerves and significant pain. It could be injuries from a car accident, overuse injuries from athletics, falls that tear ligaments or fracture bones, pain from syndromes created by poor posture over time, repetitive and overuse syndromes, disc herniations, inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and gout, cancer, and many more that eventually cause the kind of pain that gets your attention—acutely.
There is a homeopathic law that states that when a person is suffering an acute injury, everything chronic disappears. I've seen this happen time after time; like magic, as soon as the acute injury is healed, the chronic condition returns. Acute pain is generally sharp and noisy and may look red and angry on the outside. At that stage, there is nothing to offer but palliative care, taking steps to return the injured tissues to a place where no pain is felt. Depending upon the injury, this could take anywhere from a week to a year. Most surgeries, for instance, take the good part of a year for permanent healing to take place. This is because there are usually deep wounds, layers of tissue that must knit together and return to a place where the body forgets about the trauma of the surgery. But how soon we forget.
Sub-Acute Stage. The second stage of healing is called the sub-acute stage, in which the person is out of pain, moving fairly normally, and can return to activities of daily life—with caution. But this stage is where most people reinjure themselves. Relieved to be moving more normally again and eager to return to the activities they missed—running, soccer, even work-related activities—they eagerly jump in and are surprised when they find the injuries they thought had healed become inflamed and painful again. In the sub-acute stage, the tissues may appear normal, but they are not. They are fragile and not strong in the way that the original tissues were before the injuries occurred.
Chronic Stage. This is not the time to stop paying attention. In a sense, this is when treatment really begins. Otherwise, the body may move into the third stage, the hardest one to heal, where it becomes a chronic condition. Chronic conditions are the hardest to heal; because they have been "set" already, the body is used to them and won't easily give them up. They are stubborn. It is best to cut it off at the acute stage, which is the easiest stage to heal, rather than reinjure tissues and lead to the chronic stage where they become, well, "comfortably chronic."
As we get older, many of us are less confident in our bodies' abilities; we lose the faith in ourselves to do simple, yet important things. Balance becomes an issue. When my mother was about eighty, she came out to California to visit me—her last trip since then. She announced to me that it would be her last trip, even though I could see that she had more ability than she thought she had. Today, being eighty is on the fringe of being old, as opposed to thirty years ago when being eighty was on death's door. Many people don't have confidence in their bodies' abilities and give up too soon; she's not alone here.
At the time of her visit, I was driving a large SUV, and she panicked, thinking she wouldn't be able to climb in and out of it. I carried a small step stool in the back for her to use for this purpose. In less than a week, she realized that she didn't need to use it, that she could use her strong legs to get in and out of the front seat. We convince ourselves sometimes that, because of our age, we can't do certain things. She also thought she wouldn't be able to get up from the ground when I laid down a yoga mat for her. "Mom," I said, "you're here with me; wouldn't this be a good time to learn, in case you're by yourself one day and need to get up on your own?" We spent some time on this, and she realized that she could do things her mind was telling her she couldn't.
The "Age" Study. Elaine Langer, a neuroscientist and one of the first to study the mind/body connection, is famous for a study she did more than thirty years ago. It was the "Age" study, which looked at whether how old we think we are is how our body acts on a physical level. She brought together men in their eighties—at that time, elderly men—and isolated them in a retreat setting. The men received baseline tests before they began, and then were surrounded in an environment that appeared to be twenty years earlier than the current time. All the newspapers and magazines they read were dated twenty years earlier, along with the books they read, television shows and movies they were allowed to watch. They were encouraged to talk about events that had happened twenty years before, and were given exercises that younger men would do.
By the time the study was finished, these men, who had been stooped over and moving slowly when they began, had changed their appearances to vigorous sixty-year-olds! Their posture changed from stooped to long and graceful, and all the tests taken at the end of the retreat showed changes that looked like the test results from men that were in their sixties, not their eighties.
The bottom line from this study: Think of yourself as being younger than you are, live that way, and you will most likely feel and appear to be much younger than your chronological age. In a recent New York Times article on Elaine Langer's work, she is currently working on the same attitude concepts for people with stage IV breast cancer.
What better gifts than these to meditate on at the close of this year, the idea of bringing a change in attitude into the next, maintaining thoughts of vigorous health, happiness, peace and loving kindness to yourself and others. Let us begin . . .
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,