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Bodywork and Yoga: Partners for Life

by Carmela Carvajal

When we view the body holistically, it becomes clear that there's no one-size-fits-all recipe for healing. Often it's not just one but a combination of approaches that finally puts a person on the road to wellness. Receiving bodywork and practicing yoga can be excellent ways to explore the state of the physical body and find greater ease within it. Both modalities have the capacity to increase flexibility, muscle length and range of motion; increase blood flow; release toxins; make the body less prone to injury; promote relaxation; and cultivate inner awareness. Individually, bodywork and yoga are powerful: when used together, they can be even more life changing.

Malachi Melville, a massage therapist and yoga teacher for Yogaworks in Santa Monica, California, knows a thing or two about how bodywork and yoga fit together. Malachi began receiving massage in high school. A cross-country runner who often logged 10 miles a day, Malachi turned to deep-tissue massage to find relief from escalating musculoskeletal pain—including a herniated vertebral disk—brought on by intense training. Weekly massage sessions had a strong beneficial effect, unwinding Malachi's overworked muscles and easing the pain of her back injury. But Malachi knew little about how to maintain this relief. "My idea of stretching at that time was to hang my heels off the sidewalk curb for a few seconds before running," she recalls. Without knowing how to address restrictions in her body on her own, Malachi discovered that each week the pain would come back.

When Malachi discovered yoga, something clicked. She found that regular yoga practice helped the pain in her body subside more permanently. She attributes this to the active role that yoga requires. "With massage, your body is in a passive position—it doesn't necessarily learn how to let go on its own. This is what yoga teaches. That's why you hear therapists say they like working with yoga students: because (the students) really know how to let go."

With the help of an experienced teacher, the student of yoga learns to explore her body through a range of physical postures, or asanas, gaining a subtle awareness of where she experiences strength or weakness, openness or limitation. "On a physical level, the goal of yoga is to uncover and move past those areas in the muscles that are unyielding," explains Rosie Spiegel, an Advanced Certified Rolfer and Iyengar yoga instructor in her book Bodies, Health and Consciousness. "Yoga enables you to directly experience tension in your body so you know just what you are working with."

Yet even the devoted yogi may discover areas he can't fully access or release through the asanas. That's where bodywork can come in. Certain adhesions in connective tissue and limitations of deep intrinsic muscles, for example, may benefit highly from manual therapy. "Yoga can release a lot, but it's not like someone manually going in and working on, say, the psoas," remarks Melville. One form of bodywork known to be highly effective in releasing holding patterns and enhancing the work of yoga is Rolfing.

Rolfing structural integration involves 10 sessions in which the practitioner works primarily with the connective tissue to physically change the client's structure, bringing him closer to an optimal state of alignment. By addressing physical blockages and restrictions, Rolfing creates an energetic shift, allowing the body to function with less effort yet greater efficiency and fluidity. Another component to Rolfing is movement education, usually taught during or after the 10 session series. Rolf Movement helps the client embody and maintain his new structure by addressing the way he moves and lives in his body.

Just as yoga uses the body's position in gravity to open and release in various ways, the Rolfing 10 series helps the body find maximum ease and efficiency in gravity. Both yoga and Rolfing also recognize the importance of breath as a point of focus and tool for transformation. Rolfing guides the breath throughout the body so tension is released and energy levels rise, much as the practice of pranayama, or breath control, in yoga helps the body reach its greatest potential. The deep, conscious breath emphasized in both healing arts creates a feeling of opening and spaciousness in the body.

It's no accident that Rolfing has so much in common with yoga. Dr. Ida Rolf, the biochemist who created and developed Rolfing, was an enthusiastic student of Iyengar yoga and drew upon the principles of yoga, as well as osteopathy and homeopathy, to develop her unique system of bodywork. Dr. Rolf believed in yoga's goals of lengthening, aligning and balancing the body in order to give it more strength, flexibility, energy and endurance. "Dr. Rolf declared that yoga was the best exercise system ever devised, if the student worked with a good teacher," says Rolfer and archivist Jeff Linn. However, Dr. Rolf believed that something other than yoga—like hands-on manipulation—was needed to fully free the structure and achieve ultimate length and separation in the joints.

When Malachi Melville received the Rolfing 10 series, she noticed a definite effect on her yoga practice. Having practiced and taught yoga for years, she went into the series with a sense of integration in her structure. But as she continued through the work, she found that it enhanced this feeling and released her body on a deeper level. About midway through the 10 sessions, she noticed a marked change in her yoga practice. "I felt like I was dealing with a different body," she explains. She began to feel a sense of opening in areas of her structure that she now realized she had been avoiding, or working around. This was an important discovery as well as a challenge. "At first I felt loose and wobbly—a little off kilter," remembers Melville. But as she became used to moving through these previously blocked areas, she was able to gain a newfound sense of strength and a more intimate awareness of how each part of her body could be integrated into the whole.

Yoga allowed Malachi to explore the expanded capabilities of her structure after Rolfing. Through the movement of yoga, she was able to begin internalizing new, more efficient ways of moving—an important goal of Rolf Movement as well. And Melville isn't the only one to believe that Rolfing and yoga are complimentary. "If you use both Rolfing and yoga, your body will really feel lighter, you'll have more flexibility and range of motion, and you'll have an increased awareness of your body. And by using both these practices together I have seen people cured of chronic back pain, tightness in their hips, neck problems and headaches," says Allison Litchfield, a Rolfer and Ashtanga yoga teacher in Boulder, CO.

Just as receiving Rolfing and other bodywork has informed her yoga practice, Malachi believes that practicing and teaching yoga helps strengthen her massage practice. "As a (yoga) teacher, I've learned a lot about people's range of motion and energy," comments Melville. A regular yoga practice can help bodyworkers delve deeper into how their own bodies move and respond, and this self-knowledge can only help them to become more sensitive and empathetic practitioners for others. Because yoga cultivates the ability to stay present in the moment, it can add richness and quality to session time with clients. Bodyworkers can use the consistent and intentional use of breath in yoga, for example, to stay grounded and relaxed—something clients often sense. By teaching deeper physical awareness, yoga can also help therapists refine their body mechanics as they work, learning to move with more strength and ease.

Just as we educate our clients not to search for the quick fix or to think in absolutes, bodywork and yoga teach us that the greatest change often happens when we allow ourselves to explore. Through a combination of both modalities, we are given an exquisite opportunity to listen to our bodies, love and care for ourselves and discover our own path toward wellness.

Copyright 2005