A Lesson In Pain

“When we allow ourselves to compassionately be with the fullness of our pain, connected to the beauty of life in the pain, we become vehicles for spirit and not obstructions to it.” 
-Robert Gonzales

A Lesson In Pain
[From my following description the training with Albert at the Original Yin Qi Gong Gym in Vancouver may seem unorthodox, comical, and even frightening.   Compared to most types of body work and training it is.  However, I want to emphasize that the training is also very effective.  And, although I am still undecided about some of Albert’s approach, I have a great deal of respect for Albert’s skill, knowledge, and commitment to supporting healing and vitality for those he works with.  And the results speak for themselves.  I have heard of more than one story of someone recovering from a very serious injury or condition, including crippling back problems, to the point where one would not know that this person had ever had the injury or condition.  Indeed, I have seen the remarkable results with my own eyes.]

“Eric, I will stretch you now.”
I pretend I don’t hear Albert.  His style of stretching is not my idea of a good time; that is to say, I’m scared.  My eyes are closed and I’m whirling and flying around in random circles on the Gyro apparatus.  The Gyro is a fun workout; getting stretched by Albert is a lesson in pain.  So I keep my eyes closed and hope in vain that Albert will go onto someone else in the room.

“Eric, I will stretch you now,” Albert repeats, only slightly louder.  Conceding to my fate, I let the Gyro  come to a stop and dismount.

Albert has learned a type of stretching from his master (a master that remains mysterious to me) that releases blocked energy, opens up the chest, diaphragm, and core muscles, all of which greatly enhances healing and strengthening for the body, or so Albert tells us.  (I think he learned this stretching from his master.  He may have developed it partly on wholly on his own.)  Basically, the stretching brings a new standard to the maxim, “No pain, no gain.”  It’s torture, and when I’m in the thick of it, I hate it and want it to end.  I’d like to think I could get to a place where I love and embrace the pain, but I’m doubtful; that place seems far, far away.  At the same time I want to be stretched because it feels so good, after it’s over.  Furthermore, I am noticing improvements in my body.  My neck and shoulders haven’t been this loose for a long time, my posture is improving, and my left hip muscles are actually considering something other than clenching together as if life depended on not letting go.

Often there are four or five of us training on machines in the gym while one of us is getting stretched by Albert.  From a quantum awareness of our shared field of energy, Albert does his best to keep the mood light and relaxed with jokes and dialogue so that the rest of us don’t tense up while listening to the cries and gasps of the victim/the one being stretched.    Sometimes Albert will mention that he could have stretched someone deeper if others in the room had not tensed up as they did.  Other times, when someone has gone particularly deep, Albert will mention how the work done by that person has benefitted all of us in the room.  When I know my turn to be stretched is coming, I can get anxious from imagining what is to come.  I force a smile on my face, focus on my breath, and start thinking of all the blessings in my life.  Apparently, the brain doesn’t know the difference between genuine smiles or fake ones, the same neurotransmitters get fired either way.  My personal experience seems to validate this research as I sometimes manage to find my way to a place of peace.

When Albert stretches me, and I don’t think I can stand the pain any longer, I get angry and let loose guttural growls and roaring cries.  I attempt to love the pain and consciously enter into it, but usually anger takes over.  So I try to love the anger.  These angry outbursts sometimes seem to travel forward from periods of my past during which I felt overwhelmed and powerless.   I had forgotten what an angry boy I could be.  Albert and I joke that my expressions of anger are not what one might expect to hear from someone with the label Nonviolent Communication Trainer.  Releasing this old anger will certainly free up more energy for peace and compassion.  And my body feels so much better after the stretching, more loose and aligned, and I can breathe like nobody’s business.  However, I’m not sure that the growling and howling is the best way as I’m often left feeling drained.  I work towards getting beneath the anger to the deeper emotional releases (the stretching bench is often a mess of sweat, saliva, and tears when I’m done).  An expansive peace greets me when I get to the tears, and I breathe big breaths with floppy exhales.

Albert’s stretching is focussed on the shoulders and the hips.  He tells us it is based on martial arts, and I believe him as he puts us in positions where he could easily do some serious damage.  We are usually stretched lying face down with Albert sitting at the bottom of the spine on the sacrum.  In order to stretch a shoulder, he gets us to lift an arm backwards and upwards.  He likes to tap the arm and say, “Up, up, up, up,” the pitch of his voice rising with each up.  The hand of our upraised arm gets tucked beside his neck and then he uses his body weight to apply more upward or sideways pressure.  With his free hands he “massages” (see: digs into) tight spots.  Sometimes he will take the arm, bend it at the elbow, and move it to the upper back like a police officer apprehending a suspect would.  Then he might dig his thumb into a bicep.  He seems to have limitless knowledge of painful places.

When it’s time for the hips, Albert gets us to lift a leg backwards and upwards while still lying face down.  Again, he will tap a leg and instruct, “Up, up, up, up.”  Albert places the leg, just above the knee, on his shoulder.  Then he bends the knee down, puts a hand on the hip, and stretches the leg forward towards the head.  The quadriceps and psoas are the muscles that get stretched.  These are large muscles that do a lot of work and are much more familiar and comfortable with bending in the exact opposite direction.  I try to tell mine that the more we fight it, the more painful it will be, but they don’t believe me.

Stretching both shoulders and both hips takes somewhere around twenty minutes; a twenty minutes that is just shy of eternity.  It is a relatively short part of our six hour day of training, but it takes a tremendous amount of energy to endure that much pain.  Albert stretched me like this for four days in a row last week.  I tried my best to stay with it, but I was completely wiped by the end, the anger draining me as much or more than the pain.  Now here I am again for another four days, and I’m really not sure that I have the energy to survive the stretching and still do the other training.  (I’m trying to make the most of my time in Vancouver, which is why I’m training approx. six hours a day.  However, it is up to each person how many hours a day he or she chooses to train.  Also, there is a three-hour break between the morning and afternoon sessions during which I often nap.  And, much of the other training involves lying in different body-opening/aligning positions which can be quite restful.)  My sense is that we need to slow down. As usual, Albert is tuned in and, before I say anything, he informs me that we need to do stretching that is gentler until I build up more strength.  Music to my ears.

A couple of days later I’m lying face down on the floor, and Albert is sitting on my sacrum facing towards my feet.  “Up, up, up, up,” he says while tapping on both legs.  I gamely lift both legs and he takes my ankles and tucks them under his underarms so that my feet are sticking out behind him towards my head.  This isn’t too bad.  I’ve done this kind of bow-type pose in yoga many times.  Then he leans backwards onto my back, which puts his weight over my diaphragm and lungs.  The stretch is still manageable, but the breathing isn’t.  I imagine that barely being able to breathe is somehow an important part of this stretch, important in some way I don’t yet understand.  I breathe with the shortest of gasps for as long as I can.  Then Albert starts to gently bounce.  I would laugh if I could breathe.  Instead I cough out a large gasp and Albert lets me go.

Then Albert turns around so he is sitting on my sacrum facing my head.  I’m still lying face down.  I lift my upper body after the standard up, up, etc.  Albert grabs on, not onto my shoulders, or my chest, or even my head; he clasps his hands around my throat and pulls into another bow-type pose.  In all my years of yoga the breath was emphasized like few other parts of the practice; Albert-style stretching ain’t yoga.  This stretching seems to have more emphasis on facing pain and fear, which is congruent with this period of my life, so I’m going with it:  Pain and fear are part of the terrain one would expect to find in journey to the unknown.

I stretch back and slowly rasp out my breath through my squeezing-closed throat as Albert pulls further and further back.  Believe it or not, this stretching is more gentle, less painful, than the stretching that focuses on one shoulder or one hip at a time.  Right now, I’m happy to trade in some of the pain for most of my breath.

From the previous week:
I’m lying on my stomach expressing something between a growl and a scream.  Albert has got my leg on his shoulder so I’m stretched like a bow.  It’s all I can do to manage the pain in my hip and quadriceps.  I want it to end, but Albert takes it up another notch.  I cry out and almost ask him to stop.  As if reading my mind, which I suspect Albert might actually be capable of, Albert calmly says his trademark line, “You will survive.”  I know I will survive, at least I’m pretty sure, and I know how incredible it will feel afterwards, so I hang in there.   Albert let’s up slightly and asks me, “What’s your P.I.N. number?”  I’m baffled by this question.  Why would Albert want to know my P.I.N. number, and which P.I.N number does he want?   And why ask me now when my mind is focussed on survival?  Is he trying to be helpful by distracting me from the pain?  Is he asking me to trust him with a P.I.N. number because this is the level of trust required for this level of healing work?  It strikes me as bizarre and then humourous, and all I can manage is to answer with a few chuckles.  Then I realize that with his accented English he is asking for my pain number, as in the level of pain from one to ten that I’m experiencing.  I’m grateful for his accent as it has given me much needed moments of distraction from the torture.
Walking to my van at the end of the day, I can’t get over the mobility in my hip.  The very familiar gripping tightness is gone.  I don’t know how long it will last, but right now I’m celebrating the freedom I feel in each step.