Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Physician Heal Thyself

Early this morning, as I stirred under the covers and eased myself into the child's pose, my mind turned to this blog and its next subject. Was it time to do something about Christmas, particularly my first white Christmas, which took place in Nova Scotia, in 1943? I was especially prodded by recent events, as yesterday we hiked along the old Burlington Northern right-of-way in a successful search for a tree, which now stands beside my living room chair creating one of the treasured scents of the season. In keeping with the way we do Advent, the tree goes up as late as possible, and stays for the twelve days of the season.
One of my motivations was my sense of justice. As I had, in an earlier blog, spoken ill of my experience with singing instruction in my Nova Scotia school, I was looking for an opportunity to balance the record by speaking of something positive about the Atlantic province. For the most part, I had a very good time there, with fifteen months or so filled with the adventures of books and the bush and friends, yet I have naught been able so far to dwell much on those days, through the process of fiction. As it was in the school library in Eastern Passage that I discovered fairy tales, and in an old church hall in Dartmouth that I received my first catechism class on the Holy Trinity, I obviously owe considerable to the land of the Bluenose.
But before I arose at four for keyboard practice under the earphones, I tried what I thought would be an innocent experiment with the latest variation on the child pose. This variation is simply the extension, from the completely folded position, of one leg. That is, with the left leg folded under the torso, the right is stretched straight back. This allows for a yet deeper sinking of the left torso with a resulting extra stretch in the left quads, hamstring, and butt muscles. The groin also gets some increased attention. After a few minutes, one switches, so that the muscles of the right leg get equal treatment. Day by day I get looser and looser, all over those areas, and in the last couple of days especially I have found almost total ease in my right upper leg when I cross it over the left as I sit in my chair. This is with my feet on the floor. And actually, except for when I need to stick my legs straight out under the board holding the rubber piano,I have stopped using the footstool that has been my custom for years now. Being able to alternate the crossed leg routine is the automatic unconscious and easy stretch for my lower back after walking.
But the in-bed experiment crocked my lower back. For the first time in a long time I got up stiff as the proverbial board, and had to sit on the Swiss ball at this monitor to put my socks on.
What brought on the affliction was my decision to do some arm work while in the one leg extended position, lifting myself off my belly, raising my upper body off the mattress and holding it thus for a few minutes with my arms straight. This felt reasonably comfortable at the time, but when I came out of this form to head for the keyboard, ouch. Damn. Once again, a little learning is a dangerous thing.
I tried a few loosening procedures downstairs, and they helped a bit. Bending over to rest my forearms on my knees, kneeling on the rug in front of my chair to read a little. But from four or so on is keyboard numbers research time and I wanted to get on with it. So I set up the rubber piano on its board and sat in the chair to forage into my next discoveries, but I made a point of sitting with my feet on the floor, not stretched out on the footstool. That prevented the situation from worsening.
By the time I was done with keyboard practice, I had half-an-hour to kill before coffee time, so I went back to bed. I lay for a couple of minutes with my knees pulled up to my chest, lying on my side - apparently Thomas Aquinas slept in this position - and then once again went into the child's pose. I stayed in it for over ten minutes, then shifted to one straight leg at a time for a couple of minutes each - this time keeping my nose to the mattress like an infantryman under machine gun fire - and when I got up most of the stiffness and pain had gone.
A nice Christmas present, when you think about it, and certainly a solution no ordinary Western medicine man has ever told me about.
On the other hand, I now suspect, as a result of some breathing experiments on yesterday's search for a Christmas tree, that the Eastern pundits may not have the full story on nasal breathing. Nor had I - to the degree that I have it - until yesterday. There is a price to pay for a lack of complete cross-training.
With my mind and my fingers getting closer to having the use of the harmony tetrachord nailed in all keys and song structure combinations, my voice has started to get back the old and original co-operation from the Muse. I have indeed been able to sing with more or less full resonance here and there, but more by way of promise than the fulfillment I'm used to when the breath of God himself is in full operation. So yesterday morning before the climb, puttering methodically at the real piano in A flat major, I happily rumbled away from A flat below great C to A flat two octaves higher, all in resonance, and then more or less falsetto for the third octave. The resonance can be there too, but only after enough warm up down below has made me comfortable with the higher notes.
One of the great beauties of yoga is its insistence on breath work being the most important part of the procedures. It's not easy to get this impression from browsing the models in a yoga magazine, but this is the emphasis for real teachers. Breath becomes for a yogi like vocal resonance for an actor or a singer, and of course here the performer and the wise stretcher share the common wisdom of lungs and their attendant muscles understood. My anatomical lesson yesterday was to study the location and function in respiration of the pyramidalis and the transversus abdominus. These are the little gaffers that, from the bottom of the torso, squeeze out the last bits of air. That is, insofar as this can be done. Even after the complete and final squish, the lungs are still fifty percent full. Probably part of God's plan to prevent the overly ambitious from committing suicide. Every sport has its odd balls.
Thus, when I set off up the hill, I was in good breathing condition. My dining room around the piano had been turned into a Tibetan cave, with O Ah Um and more droning like a squadron of water bombers. And yet I wasn't at peace with my nasal in and outs for a number of blocks. No combination of steps in and steps out gave me the freedom and capacity to forget about it that I wanted. Two in, three out; Three in, four out; three in, three out: nothing quite worked.
And then I had a brainwave. Could it be that the essential part of nasal breathing was on the exhale, for the sake of ensuring that the oxygen got maximum abstraction time in the lungs, and also - following the recently studied Konstantin Buteyko - allowing sufficient creation of the carbon dioxide needed to process the oxygen fully?
So, I breathed in two - it was the steepest part of the walk, just before the right of way and its welcome flatness - and breathed out a very easy, very easy, four.
And then, and only then, could I relax. As soon as weather and festivities permit, I'll be running again, to see how this fits on the track.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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