In The Forest

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.

          "The body assembles functions to point beyond itself."
                         Andrea Cartwright, yoga instructor/
                                            somatic educator
          "I must have slept wrong or something, because my neck..."

          Sound familiar? For anyone out there just beginning practice, you should be warned that this phrase will reverberate throughout your career. Even if you stop actually seeing patients, you will hear it anyway from friends or strangers who find out you went to PT school.

          The insidious onset of stiffness in the spine might reasonably be considered the expression of a process and I have written of this many times. Lately though, something else has come to mind, something in the form of an analogy that my patients like more than my usual lectures on physiologic dysfunction. (I wonder why?) Here it is:

          Suppose you were lost in a forest. The trees are randomly scattered and you wander for a long time without making any progress. Suddenly the forest begins to thicken. As your options for movement diminish, something becomes apparent - a path. In this situation it would be a welcomed sight. It should be remembered, however, that without a lot of trees, the path would never have been defined.

          If you search through as many schools of bodywork as I have, you sometimes wonder how so many ideas about dysfunction and treatment could come from just one species. One common thread that runs through a lot of good work is that therapeutic movement or change has an effortless quality. Feldenkrais insists on this, Alexander wrote volumes about it, and yogic tradition depends upon it for every bit of lasting progress.

          When the trees in the forest are scattered and few, I am not often aware of whether or not I'm trudging through the underbrush or cruising along the path out. If I start hitting tree trunks, unless I move with precision, it becomes easy to tell the difference.

          Is it possible that we misinterpret stiffness as the problem when it really represents the solution? Might the brain organize our muscular function in such a pattern as to make any movement that was not corrective difficult? Surely we are smart enough to do this, and we will probably do it at night when we are less likely to consciously interfere with the thickening of the forest. Maybe dreams that help us understand our emotional life show up then for the same reason.

          Many people live with chronic, low-grade restrictions to movement that never quite resolve and occasionally grow to include frank dysfunction and pain. In this state they occasionally walk into a tree, but most of their time is spent slightly off the path. The effort necessary to do this is mistaken for weakness, so they start lifting weights to relieve their pain (it doesn't help).

          If a traditionally trained therapist encounters the patient in the forest, they might suggest modalities and mobilization. To me, this is like arming them with a heating pad and a baseball bat. Somebody else might tell them to lie quietly, hoping that the forest will disappear in time. Others offer something akin to chemical defoliants or maybe a chain saw. I think you get the point.

          Let me be clear. I am suggesting that the unconscious mind creates stiffness specifically to make effortless correction easier to accomplish; easier because it is the only motion left us. This happens at least as often as I hear that comment about having "slept wrong." In other words, a lot.

          We are all of us in the forest and it is time we looked at the trees in another way.