London Rolfing has been having some lovely downtime over the holidays, and I’ve been largely spending my time reading by the fire, lamenting the newly dead, and getting back into my personal yoga practice. As a manual therapist, my work is physically demanding in itself, and I’ve more or less escaped the tyranny of desk-based work, my self-assessment tax return notwithstanding. Gone at last are days of unproductive meetings, and rummaging through the plastic-wrapped biscuits for something to enliven the torpor. Gone, too, is the almost constant lower back pain that I used to have, and the hamstrings that ached for days after a single yoga class.
Nevertheless, I go through phases of greater or lesser attention to my body, and I fall into bad habits. This Christmastime, I’ve been diligently back to yoga and meditation every day, and after a creaky day one, feel substantially better for it. It’s hopeful, and exciting, when you see your body starting to respond and change, even if there’s more to be done. I’ve found myself frequently reminded of the quotation that I have in my London clinic, by the avant-garde composer, John Cage: ‘Begin Anywhere’. I don’t know whether my clients have noticed it, and I’ll admit that the motivation is probably more for my benefit than theirs.
Although in Rolfing we do begin with a particular theme and at a definite location, the greater task at hand involves working around and around the body in different ways and with different emphases, considering, for example, the ribcage not only classically in sessions one and three, but also a little in sessions 4, 5, 6 (with the client lying on their front, this time), 7, and, oh, why not, probably session 9 as well for good measure. This travelling around the body pays heed to Ida Rolf’s famous dictum, ‘Wherever you think it is, it ain’t’, in effect cautioning Rolfers against assuming that the place of the symptom (a painful knee, for example) is the place of the ‘problem’, be that faulty biomechanics, a site of scar tissue or tissue adhesion, or a persistent place of held tension. That’s not to say that sometimes the work isn’t a little more straightforward than that, but as Rolfers we often see clients only after they’ve first been to see a number of other kinds of therapies, without resolution.
Beginning anywhere also reminds me of something that I heard from Gael Ohlgren Rosewood, a senior US Rolfer originally trained by Ida Rolf, at a course in 2015. As ever, there’s a degree of neurosis in the community around locating the source of the client’s pain, or what might be called the ‘primary lesion’ (the bit that started it all). We’ve all had experiences with brilliant Rolfing teachers who declare (of a model client) that the pain in (say) their right foot won’t resolve until we address something going on in their left elbow. Yes, I’m exaggerating a little (but only a little).
Gael, whose capacity for body-reading was the most astonishing demonstration of expertise I’ve ever witnessed, nevertheless reassured us by taking a blanket, scrunching it up into a ball, and then asking how we would go about straightening it out. ‘You could start by pulling a little from this corner,’ she said, ‘but you could also pull a little from the other corner, and that would work too.’ There isn’t only one right way of doing things. Begin anywhere.
A little look at an etymological dictionary suggests that the word, ‘begin’, may be derived from a West Germanic part-word, ‘ginnan’, with meanings around the idea of ‘opening’. I like that a great deal. To speak truthfully, I felt pretty rusty and ropey on my first day back to yoga, and I quickly realised that I needed to acknowledge how my body was actually feeling before launching into the set sequences of the surya namaskara, or sun salutations. I let my shoulders hunch, and my belly hang, and started again, from there. While views on the origin and meaning of the sun salutation differ, one way to think of them is as a joyful, even reverential series of movements that ‘opens’ the body, by lifting the heart, raising the arms, and saluting the new day. But (and as I was once challenged by the great French Rolfer, Hubert Godard), where is the sun? And how does one find it when frankly one is not feeling terribly bright or sunny right now?
Far from being the deportment police, Rolfers are encouraged to bring the client back to where they actually are, asking people to stand for the body-reading, for example, not with some preconceived notion of forced ‘good posture’ (shoulders BACK! stomach IN!), but as they actually feel and as their body is today. How are you today? For many people, the problem is less with their authentic posture than with the compensations designed to conceal the supposedly ‘bad’ posture (the tummy overhang or slumped chest). Begin from where you are, and if that’s not where you’d ideally like to be, it means that you are on a journey which will be the more rewarding for requiring you to develop a measure of compassion for your supposed imperfections, your actual reality. As time goes by, I become more convinced that a certain kind of yoga teaching that focuses on one-size-fits-all alignment cues and military-style drills, only compounds our frequently faulty relationship to our bodies.
So if you’re feeling a little jaded on New Year’s Day, not quite your best self, don’t despair. Begin anywhere. But more than that: begin somewhere; begin softly. Begin. Happy New Year.