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Living Well: Healthy Backs and Necks at Esalen
September 19, 2013 - By Sage Knight
DRAWING BY DAN MAZUR
We landed in the class by divine accident. Trying to book a summer weekend at Esalen is like trying to park a bus at Topanga Daysunless youre registered for a workshop. Of the twelve offered, one still had space: Healthy Backs and NecksThe Anat Baniel Method.
Never heard of it but the idea of a five-day vacation in paradise with my man sounded delicious. (He could sign us up for Advanced Bondage for Kitties, and Id go.) He had decided to visit Big Surs Garden of Eden after his nephew had played a song encouraging listeners to live before you die. Esalen made the bucket list and guess who got to join him?
We drove leisurely up the coast, stopping at Pismo Beach to eat and shoot our second home movie on my iPhone. At 3 p.m., we checked in and realized we had 24 hours to play before the workshop. Let the bliss begin! From the cliff-side Rolf House our private balcony overlooked the baths and the oceanwhat a way to end the summer. Friday night we ambled into the Huxley conference room, taking two adjacent floor mats. Supposedly, this was to be a movement class. I was ready. But our fearless leader, Neil Sharp, did not look like a movement teacher. Dressed somewhere between business casual and Sunday brunch, he was not YogaWorks material. He talked. We introduced ourselves. Then he played a video and I wept as Amy, the mother of a child, Cypress, diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, recounted her sons struggles. Told that her three-month-old would never walk or talk, she and her son had endured mainstream physical therapy for six months, both of them hating it, until she found Neil. She cried through most of the first session, until Cypress finally rolled over and they stopped all other therapies to watch him blast the limits of his diagnosis. By the end of the movie, spanning three years, Cypress was jumping for joyliterally. Several of us cried. Once we regained composure, our first movement was a basic toe touch. Neil instructed us to bend down and let our heads drop, touching our toes if we could do so easily. Then we came up, placing hands above knees, letting them bear weight, elbows straight, to do a yoga cat/cow stretch. Breathe in while arching the back (cow), and breathe out while dropping the head and pulling the belly up (cat). Several times, then rest. We did a lot of resting and non-effortingour first lesson in learning to be lazy.
One woman exclaimed, I havent been able to touch my toes since I was a child! One man rediscovered awareness of his mid-back and can now run like a boy. Me? I thought the whole thing was a bit simplistic. Im quite flexible, and everything seemed too easyuntil Saturday.
Id awakened with a stiff neck, back and headache, which I rarely experience. When we showed up in class, Neil led some simple head-to-knee movements. This would normally be a cakewalk for me. Yet on that day, I felt my back cry out in tight resistance, my head still aching. Hed instructed us to not go as far as we could, to keep the movements minimal and slow, and then, REST.
I noticed how often I used the resting time to change my hair, move my glasses, rearrange my towel, etc.self-care workaholism! At one point, Neil came by and said, You could be a little kinder to yourself. I laughed. Ya think? By lunch all pain had vanished. Where did it go? I wondered. Neil chuckled. Dont look for it!
What is the Anat Baniel Method? An evolution of Feldenkrais work. Anat was a star student and then collaborator who took the ball and ran with it. Her program is based on Nine Essentials, including slowing down, movement with attention, and variations. Through practice, you can learn to move with less pain and effort. This is key. Function is also key. When you think you need to build muscle, ask yourself, What is the function?
Perhaps you already have enough muscle to do the task. Also, which muscles are you using? For example, it may be easier to turn your whole body instead of just your head. What I walked away with: Lazy is good, healthy, and sometimes the most efficient route to the goal. There is no such thing as a neck separate from the spine; it is but the portion of the spine that extends above the ribcage. Stretching is not as powerful as retraining the brain. Small movements can be more powerful than gross movements: a little goes a long way, literally. Its helpful to move from bones, not muscles, and to ask: How are my bones stacked as I walk, dance, sit, make love? How are my bones moving? How do I get from here to there? How can I make it easier, lazier? The result is a more sensual, present-moment style of movement. It, like Esalen, is delicious.
By the way, according to Neil, Cypress just turned five and started at a regular Kindergarten. Just before the summer break, he was told off for running at preschool! Not bad for a kid who did not walk independently until he was 3½ years old and whose parents were told that he would never walk or talkhe really NEVER stops talking! He is incredibly sociable, especially with pretty women, and is one of the most vital people that I know.