Mind Over Matter

4th October 2013

Seeking a remedy for postural issues isn’t easy, as our overworked bodies get twisted and hunched
in individual ways. Jack Watkins finds an ancient meditation technique offers the way forward.

“You must learn to listen to your body,” my personal fitness coach told me, about twenty years ago, when I first began to take such things seriously. Unfortunately, the fact is that we only listen to that which we can comprehend. I’d gone to him because, on the verge of thirty, I’d suddenly realised what poor shape I was in. My posture was so bad that, standing in a crowded tube carriage, it was actually quite difficult for me to reach the over- head bars, and I was having regular headaches.

The trainer introduced me to the gym, which was a revelation. Although I was a great trier on the football pitch and a decent rider, I’d never excelled at sport. At school I’d detested the open-sided trampolines (bare springs and no mats on the wooden floor if you bounced off) and precipitous vaulting horses.

This time it was different though and I became a confirmed gym addict, attending three times a week and participating in a full gamut of activities. I toned up, and my attitude to life in general became more positive. Everything was great, or so it seemed initially. According to my sports massage therapist brother, however, the trouble is that postural problems stem from issues with core muscles, which are not the areas targeted by the average gym programme. “I’d certainly say core muscles do not respond to the same method of training as the mobile or superficial muscles – the ones we tend to work in the gym to try and improve our appearance to look good,” Steve explains. “Core muscles stabilise movement rather than create it, and you really need to go to a personal trainer or massage therapist in the first instance if you have postural issues.”

But of course, I had been to a trainer in the first instance who probably, if only indirectly, had been trying to deal with these issues in the exercises he’d given me. This comes back to my first point. If you are not receptive in your mind, then any progress that you make is going to be limited. Trainers are brilliant at reeling off a string of exercises to perform, but if we dutifully do them without a sound grasp of why, and which muscles groups we’re working, there’s limited hope of any real long term benefit.

Anyhow, my gym frenzy hadn’t lessened the daily headaches and my diet featured – still does – two, three, often four Anadins a day. My skull was x-rayed, my eyes tested; I did eye muscle exercises, and I tried acupuncture. No cure. By 2006, I was actually getting mysterious creaking noises in the back of the head and neck. What was this about? I’ve always been a ball of tension, but was there anything abnormal about this?

My first step towards awareness came in a hotel room in Madrid that spring of 2006. After a stressful day, lying on the bed I had the sudden insight that my tension was so extreme, my cheek muscles had ridged up tight like two rocks. When I ‘released’ them in my mind, the headache pressure seemed to clear. Next day, the pressure was back, but by the same mental release process, I discovered that it was possible to ‘roll back’ the tension over the coming weeks and months, out of the face, and down the shoulders. The headaches would always return, but the pressure points seemed to be getting lower down the body.

I later discovered that I had actually stumbled on a form of Vipassana: ‘clear seeing’. Vipassana is a Buddhist meditational technique that can be taken to a deep spiritual level, but that superficially is also a superb remedy for stress. It is incredibly powerful. I can take my mind to any part of my body and release the tension.

Yet it was no cure-all. Unfortunately, my levels of held-in tension and postural issues arising from years of sitting at desks were so great, that I was in perpetual discomfort. Working at the computer was, and still is, agony – like trying to write with a monkey clambering over you. Poor posture leads to muscles glueing together over time, and my release technique was like chipping away at solid rock with penknife.

Seeking further professional advice, I went to see Mel Cash, principal tutor at the London School of Sports Massage, who also has his own practice in Willesden Green. I told him of my hours in the gym, my practice of yoga. By all accounts I was a fit man, not like some souls I saw dragging their bent bodies around. Why was I still having problems?

“You have to compare the amount of exercise time with how many hours you spend at a desk,” Mel said. “The trouble is you’ve got so rounded by your sitting position, you’ve lost the full movement in your back, and muscles around it are having to work harder to compensate.”

He gave me a simple exercise of rolling up a towel into a log shape and placing it under the back, lying on it, knees raised, to get the back muscles to relax and loosen. Remarkably, this is an incredibly similar process to Vipassana, so I’m back in a full circle. Eight months later, I’m still in discomfort, but the muscles are certainly loosening. Steve has also given me three exercises for lengthening the core lower back muscles, and I can honestly say that there is now feeling where previously there was only numbness.

But it’s been a lonely process. I’ve not met a soul who doesn’t look blank when I explain my relaxation technique –even the therapists raise their eyebrows. So in case there’s anyone out there who wants to try, here’s one way into it. Lie on your back, breathe in, inwardly counting to three as you do so, and repeat on the out breath. Once you have the breathing under control, long and slow, take your mind back to some traumatic event in your past – not, and this is key, a current cause of worry which you are still grappling with – and let the full stressful impact of how you felt flood back over you… and then, knowing that it can’t hurt you now, let it go. If this induces a heightened state of relaxation, then you are on the way towards the point where you can relieve the pressure points in your body.

Therapists can push and pommel you and frustrate you with their different approaches, but the optimum cure, for me at least, is through the mind.

The London School of Sports Massage has an online directory for those seeking a qualified therapist in their area: www.lssm.com/therapist-directory

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