by Lang Maria Liu
Not everybody takes a three-year trip to India to get their health back, but then again, not everybody works with their body for a living. When at 36, I was told both by an Osteopath and an Arthritis Specialist that I had premature Osteoarthritis and that my Femuro-Acetabular joint (my hip-leg joint) looked like that of an old person, my world came crashing down. A hip replacement by the time I hit my late 40’s was not how I had envisioned my life.
I have always been active, welcoming the challenge of training martial arts from the age of 16. It was a source of pride to me that I could take on men twice my size, first in Japanese Jiu Jitsu, then much later in Brazilian capoeira. By the time I was diagnosed, I had run two capoeira schools and dedicated myself to the study of this art form for many years through a Doctoral thesis in Education. (For more information, see Bimba’s Rhythm is One, Two, Three, published on Amazon.) After all these years, my body was saying no and a strong mind was not going to be enough to save me this time. In fact, as I would come to learn, it might even have been the cause of some of my issues.
Having trained intensely all my young adult life, I was a mess of injuries that caused me increasing pain and discomfort. Something that had once been a joy – training capoeira – had become a chore. My body hated it. Only in rare moments did some of the old spirit return, usually when I was playing a relaxed game. That would prove to be part of the puzzle, but it would take me over three years of searching in India to realize that my body had known what would cure it all along.
After spending several months in India trying out various yoga classes and Ayurvedic treatments, and often injuring myself, I stumbled upon a small clinic in a remote village of the Himalayas. It was called the Bone and Body Clinic. The healer was from Manipur, a northeastern Indian state close to the Burmese border, and his British wife ran the clinic. The stretching was based on some of the warm-up moves from the martial art, Thang-Ta. I was to spend three years with them, turning my back on yoga. (I have since returned to my practice, but from a more knowledgeable position, having learned about healthy posture through the Gokhale Method. I now teach the method.)
Like many people, I initially idealized the people of this clinic and their treatments, but with time I came to be more discerning. There were tensions and I eventually left the clinic, but I am grateful for my time there. The classes taught me a lot about myself and the practice was part of my healing. I saw patients walk away whole and satisfied, while others were left angry and disillusioned. In the end, however, the considerable amount of money and time that I poured into my treatment bore fruit, though not of the kind I had expected.
There were small but important improvements to my hip flexibility, and my body was grateful for all the care and attention. Living in a quiet village with a community was also part of the therapy, as I discovered. Most of the patients were from North America and Europe, with a handful of Israelis, Indians and others thrown in the mix. The charisma of the healer and his wife was undeniable, the hope palpable. Many of us had had our lives fall apart due to injuries, and would have done anything to be functional again. Was I saved by the clinic? I would like to give a straight answer – a YES or a NO – but the truth lies somewhere in-between.
Dedicating my life to healing was the first step. De-stressing was the second. I cannot tell you how many naps I took that first year and how many chais were sipped with friends on long afternoons, turning our backs on the mad rush of modern life. The money I had saved went far in India and, for the first time since I was a child, I had time to think about my life. It helped that I had learned discipline throughout my years of martial arts – I never missed a class and made sure my healing came before anything else. The massage and steam treatments surely contributed, too. I have come to believe, however, that stretching was the key to my improvement.
A tight right hip had thrown my spine, back and neck off kilter. Whether I was born this way or had a fall as a young child, I will never know, but years of regular stretching and yoga had not improved my range of motion much. The pain was easily triggered by day-to-day life, nevermind more strenuous activities like capoeira. I was 41 and, like many others of my age in the industrialized West, I was suffering from ailments that came down to compression and distortion of the spine. Too much improper sitting, not enough movement and poorly executed movements (from sitting to standing to bending and walking) had created unhealthy patterns of movement and extremely tight joints (especially the hip joint). The S-shaped spines that emerge from these sedentary lifestyles and poor postures, I later learned through the Gokhale Method, create havoc in our lives. Most people run to pills and surgery, yet few get better. I was determined that this was not to be my fate, even if it meant changing my whole life.
Every morning from 7 to 9 we stretched. We stretched every joint in our body and strengthened ourselves too. From the ankles to the hips, and from the hips to the neck and arms, we stretched. And stretched. It was grueling and exhausting, but after 5 days I already felt a new kind of energy. My body had come alive again and it had something to do with the lubrication of the joints through dynamic, yet controlled movements. Something about the breathing - a nostril breathing of a particular kind - helped too. Even without the knowledge I have today about what constitutes strong, primal posture and how to be more careful with my form, back then I could already feel an improvement.
For a few years, the clinic was my life. I sometimes helped in the office and taught the classes when needed. When they moved from the Himalayas to South Goa in the winter, I moved with them. Life was simple and beautiful, though I knew I would have to begin earning money soon if I wanted to continue. I also began to suspect that my hip problem was not going to resolve itself, despite the assurances of the clinic, and although this disappointed me greatly, a sense of empowerment had begun to infuse my life. While my injuries did not magically disappear, I had learned to listen to my body and to work with it, rather to impose the harsh militaristic training I had been used to (a mixture of Western concepts of health and martial arts). It was becoming obvious that my body had a wisdom of its own, one that was often far superior to my mind’s knowledge. If I but listened, it would guide me to do all the things I loved… safely.
Five years later, I still do the dynamic stretches regularly and have begun to teach a weekly Stretch and Strength Class online. I have returned to yoga as well because I find that my body loves the balance of dynamic and static stretches. I can now train capoeira once or twice a week without injuring myself, albeit at a slower pace than in the past. I have realized that if I do not nurture my body – and that means stretching almost daily in some fashion – I lose my range of motion and therefore the ability to express myself fully in my body. Our spirit may be what animates us, but without our bodies, we are limited in the physical realm! Modern life is so far from the ways of our ancestors – the ways they lived and moved for thousands of years – that we are at a real danger of losing our quality of life at increasingly younger ages.
Diet, environment and many other factors like “Grounding” also enter into the equation, of course. (I encourage everyone to watch a documentary called “The Earthing Movie” and to learn about the epidemic of inflammation in the world. I plan to write about the impact of this discovery on my life shortly.) But there is something about stretching, whether it be the dynamic method from Manipur, yoga or another method that, when done safely and correctly, has the potential to rejuvenate the body. Being our best selves, expressing our full potential, is something that we all yearn for on a deep level. The wisdom of the body will teach us if we are willing to listen and to make a place for it in our busy lives.
For more information on Stretching and Capoeira classes, please visit www.FDBToronto.com
or write to Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part ethnography, travelogue and personal odyssey, it bridges many genres in its search for truth and hope. The reader is taken deep into the Afro-Bahian world of capoeira on the northeast coast of Brazil, where slave ships once plied the shores.
During three trips to Brazil undertaken for her Ph.D., the boundaries between research and personal experience blur. Recently divorced and having left behind the capoeira school she co-founded with her ex-husband in Canada, the author finds herself falling in love with a capoeira master. Will she find her place in this world, one so different from her own? And can the wounds of her past, stretching back generations, ever be healed?
Here, amongst the Afro-Bahians whom she fears at first, the author learns about our common humanity, and that the act of surrender – something she has fought all her life – may be the only true path to joy.