How do you get from a back spasm to a tournament win in 24 hours?
With a steady movement practice and movement literacy.
The season to qualify for the fencing world championships in October began last weekend in San Jose, California. I woke at 3 am to catch an early flight. Not enough sleep and rushing around, I did an awkward movement of bending and compressing the spine—yep, the same motion I teach to avoid. And just like that, out went my lower back!
I was unable to bend at all! My dear wife had to tie my shoes and put my fencing bag—more than 50 pounds—into the trunk of our car! I foolishly tried driving to the airport but had to trade places with Kasia, as I couldn’t operate the pedals without pain.
At the airport, I checked in and waited with trepidation to board. What am I doing here? Should I cancel my trip? What if I can’t walk off the plane after sitting all those hours? Will I need a stretcher? Will I be able to compete?
First line of defense: breath and relaxation
With pain and negative thoughts jabbing at me, I kept breathing slowly, activating my diaphragm to calm my fears. It worked. I can get through this. I decided to board.
Seat 19D, economy, but at least an aisle. My guardian angel, a flight attendant, brought an empty plastic bottle to put behind my lumbar vertebrae. I hooked my neck pillow to the top of the chair to allow elongation of the cervical spine. Ahhh…. A little relief. With restored lumbar and cervical curves, I regained confidence that I would survive the flight.
There was a lot of turbulence, but I was fine as long as I avoided any flexion (thank you, plastic bottle!). My back muscles worked overtime to prevent forward bending—I so appreciated their service in this time of need!
I used my knowledge and passion for anatomy during the flight to help myself further. I visualized the last two lumbar vertebrae in three dimensions: the disc between L4-5 and L5-S1, the spinous and transverse processes, the facet joints, and the foraminal holes (the opening for nerve roots exiting the spinal cord). I then imagined giving myself a Feldenkrais® Functional Integration lesson. The sensory image of putting my thumbs on the bodies of vertebrae, gently supporting and decompressing the clenched tissues, felt good. Thank you, Dr. Feldenkrais!
For the entire six-hour flight, I kept the mental practice of mapping the sensory image of my lower back’s tissues, dozing off for a couple of minutes, and then back to the visualization.
Although far from perfect, I felt better by the time we landed. I was able to walk off the plane and pick up my bag. I was even able to drive from San Francisco to San Jose.
Limbering movements next – lessons from a circus performer
Dr. Hans Kraus told me how he learned to treat injuries through gentle movements instead of complete immobility with plasters or splints, the common practice. He asked his friend, a former circus acrobat named Heinz Kowalski, why he never referred people with tendon and muscle injuries to him.
“Doc, you know how to treat fractured bones and do surgeries, and these are the people I send you. But you don’t know how to treat soft tissue injuries. You typically immobilize them for weeks, and healing gets delayed. When I was in the circus, and I sprained my knee or ankle, I had to be ready the next day for a performance.”
Kowalski told him that he would wrap an ace bandage on the sprained area, pour 90% alcohol on the wrap, and expose it to steam. The alcohol would evaporate quickly and thus cool the injured tissue. Then, he would begin gentle movements that didn’t trigger pain. This technique inspired Dr. Hans Kraus to invent the ethyl-chloride spray (the magic stuff you see in sports arenas) and his philosophy of early mobilization (limbering movements).
Limbering for me meant a day and evening of slow, tiny, gentle movements toward extension and returning to neutral spinal lordosis, all within the range of comfort and with frequent rests.
The following day, getting dressed was still challenging, especially putting on my fencing socks and shoes. But I felt considerably better. I taped my back with KT tape to prevent forward bending of the spine and headed to the convention center for the competition.
I gave myself an extra two hours to limber up. I assessed if I could advance or retreat first, then started with very tiny lunges. Within the margin of error, I felt well enough to compete. Watchful in my preliminary bouts, I didn’t chase my opponents and stayed within my comfort zone.
The rest is history—a happy ending!
Lessons from evidence-based rehabilitation medicine and Buddhists
I still needed a teammate to help me put on my sweatpants for the medal presentation. My fencing buddies teased me that I was an expert in physical therapy and should know how to prevent such injuries. Not funny!
It would be unusual to go through life without spinal trouble. Statistics show that over 80% of people worldwide will experience back pain at some point. Buddhists teach us that we will have trouble, pain, disease, and difficulties in our lives. There will be old age, deterioration, and, yes, finally, death.
The lesson is to learn how to handle these challenges and not spiral into despair and anger, which typically leads to more pain.
As I write, my back is still slightly sore but much, much better. I am confident it will heal. A hearty thank you to my life mentors and the myriad learning opportunities.
Every day, in every way, we can get better and better.
My professional dream is to teach others how to heal, cultivate meaningful awareness, and better understand how our bodies and minds work. I want to spread movement literacy.
My Invitation to you
Inspired by my experience, I would like to invite you to a FREE online Feldenkrais workshop, The Power of a Steady Movement Practice for Your Health, Physical & Emotional Wellness & Growth.