When you bump up against physical challenges, it can be helpful to seek guidance from a professional who will shed light on the problem while also encouraging the body to re-orient itself into a more ideal alignment. But there are so many options – how can you know the right person to go to?
YogaCityNYC's Alex Phelan spoke with four practitioners of different healing modalities that all work to help bring the body back into balance by increasing awareness and the body's natural ability to heal in different ways. Debbie Turczan is a licensed physical therapist in midtown who practices the alternative modality known as CranioSacral therapy. Dan Rindler practices the functional Integration launched by Moshé Feldenkrais in Brooklyn. Marisa Bonfanti does Thai Yoga Bodywork. Maya Ray is a Rolfer who practices the system of Structural Integration founded by Ida Rolf in Brooklyn and Manhattan
Alex Phelan: What Does Your Modality Work On?
Debbie Turczan: It tries to bring the body back into balance by looking for restrictions in a deep system in our body called the CranioSacral system. The brain and the spinal cord are surrounded by a big sac. That whole sac, called the dura, is like a closed ziplock bag that is filled with fluid which feeds the brain and the spinal cord -- it delivers nutrients and removes toxins. That membrane can get snagged, compressed, restricted and can lead to a variety of dysfunctions including decreases in range of motion and tightness.
Maya Ray: If you think about an orange, there's the pulp and then you have the white stuff that wraps around each little kernel of pulp and then wraps around bundles of pulp. That is basically what fascia is – it is what gives the body its structure. Rolfing looks at where fascia is gathered together hard and works to open that up. The idea is that if some places are gathered and hard, then other places way far away are being pulled because of that tightness.
Dan Rindler: We do work with the muscles a little bit, but we think 90% about the skeleton. For example when you sit, is there more weight on the right sit bone or the left; where are you lacking support for your skeleton such that the muscles are having to work when they don't necessarily need to?
Marisa Bonfanti: Thai Yoga primarily targets the parasympathetic and central nervous system. It aims to balance the nervous system by both calming and stimulating both sides, so you feel alert and relaxed. An effective session requires the receiver to participate energetically, to open themselves up and surrender to the experience. It works anatomically, through acupressure and using your body weight to stretch in ways that open up the fascia, but also energetically to unlock trapped energy.
AP: How Does It Work?
DT: The CranioSacral rhythm is the flow of that fluid that flows through the dura and there are certain points in the body that you can feel that widening and narrowing. So I can, for example, feel on the right half of your pelvis things are moving well but on the left half of your pelvis they are not moving at all. That's a signal that I need to look more closely at that.
MR: One of the best ways we talk about it is like a sweater. If you have a snag in a sweater it changes the whole shape of the sweater. So by working on a snag it will change the whole shape. A lot of times because of imbalances in our body, certain muscle groups are overworking and other ones are falling down on the job.
Rolfing looks at the whole shape - what is moving well and what is not moving well - and then works to address what is not moving so that everything else moves better. A lot of the time if you address the place that isn't moving at all, then the place that is moving too much stabilizes because it isn't being asked to do so much.
DR: We get into habits as we get older and we get more and more limited in the ways we move. The Feldenkrais process can open back up the possibilities for movement just by simply doing novel things. The brain starts working around movement again.
Our definition of good posture is an evolutionary one. The idea is that with a lion coming on the attack from the left, the way I'm sitting right now, I'd have to make all kinds of adjustments, and even go towards the lion for a moment, before I ran away. An ideal posture is one that allows the most directions of movement, without preparation, with the freedom of the head and eyes to be looking at what is happening.
What is nice about it is that someone can come with something that's not going to change, like a hunchback or a longer leg, and I have this model for finding ideal posture for them. It doesn't have to be head up, legs perfectly even, it's a more adaptable idea to begin with.
MB: I think the distinguishing aspect of Thai Yoga is the energetic connection between the giver and the receiver. If I had to sum up what Thai Yoga is, I'd say that it is a meditation on loving kindness. You can tell that when people open themselves up to that something happens on a very deep level.
The Thai tradition map of energy lines is extremely intuitive. It is about being present with the person you are working on and feeling where the energy blocks are and doing what you can with the techniques to release them. It is more about not intellectualizing it and surrendering to being present in your body; that's where the healing happens, in the letting go. The intuitive, hands on, loving kindness approach is emphasized far more than the encyclopedic, intellectual part -- it's not diagnostic.
AP: How Does It Complement A Yoga Practice?
DT: Because when you are practicing yoga your core muscles are, ideally, working but you are not necessarily stretching the dura. You are going to hit that barrier of stretching a muscle long before you ever get to a point where you are working on dural tension. So Cranio can help release dural tension which you can't access when you are doing yoga but will then accentuate, over time, your yoga practice.
Hamstring length is a good example of this. Everyone thinks their hamstrings are tight and for most people that is true because we sit all day. But also the sheath around your sciatic nerve could be restricted and that is an extension of the dura. The dura itself may be somewhere along the lines tight and that could restrict your forward fold. That's not something you can get to while you are practicing, but you can if you are on the table. With that release of tension around the sciatic nerve or whatever restrictions there may be in the dura, you may find that your forward fold changes.
MR: Some people joke that Rolfing is the lazy man's yoga. Rolfing gives awareness to areas that are a little sleepy. There's only so much work, I've realized, that we can do on our own. Sometimes you just need to go to someone because you can't quite sense when you are off.
For example, I've always had really tight quads. No matter how much I stretched them, they never seemed to change. After rolfing 10 series, I felt like it was the first time I could access them enough to begin to stretch them. Sometimes our tissues get so bound that we start to stretch at the joint but not actually in the tissue. And I think that that is a real pitfall of yoga. It is so easy to stretch your shoulder joint but not actually get into the musculature around it. Rolfing helps to differentiate tissues around the joint so then the work you do is much healthier. Looking at patterns and unwinding patterns and a little bit of differentiating things that are stuck allows the body to heal itself.
DR: It's not just moving the muscles around, it's that the muscles connect to a brain. If we do something that makes sense unconsciously to your nervous system, then your body can feel that it is taken care of and then you can find length. We are trying to integrate as much of you into all movement as possible, which is another way of letting go instead of just countering or moving in the opposite direction.
MB: It complements the receiver's practice energetically because prana is flowing more freely; your body gains a memory of what it feels like to be in balance. It opens you up physically, so if you were to go to a yoga class the day after having a session you would feel more pliant. You would feel stronger because your energy is more vital; you would be able to engage your body in a more effortless way so you don't have to work as hard. You can start to work more with than against your body.
--Alex Phelan teaches anatomically influenced and alignment conscious yoga in New Orleans.