Left, Right and Center: Learning to Walk, Literally

Posted by on 12.21.07 | No Comments
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The other day I saw a boy rolling across a parking lot on
those sneakers with wheels in the heels. He was loving it, taking a few steps
to get momentum then gliding forward with his right leg in front, a few more
steps, a glide leading with his right. I watched him cross in front of me and
smiled at his pride and delight. But I wanted to catch him and say “You need to
switch your lead from time to time. You need to use your body the opposite way
and not only the way that comes naturally.” I have long lamented the fact that
nobody ever taught me how to walk, that nobody teaches children the mechanics
and symmetry of their bodies, that children who do not do sports in school can
end up virtually crippled by middle-age, simply from lack of balance and
symmetry in the way they use their bodies.

I spent most hours of my childhood years curled in a chair
with a good book. I always sat the same way, with my knees bent and legs pulled
up to my left side, torso twisted the same direction to see the book that
rested on the knees. Nobody ever said, “Hey, that’s going to make you
cockamamie, sit the other way now and then.” Or better yet, “get up off your
bottom and run somewhere.” In the past 15 years, with the assistance of various
teachers including yoga and Brother Psalm, I’ve become gradually aware of how
crooked I am. Brother Psalm used to walk around the town where I lived with his
hands pressed together in Namasté, bowing to people he met or embracing them on
both sides. He preached the benefits of “right-side-left-side” casually when
someone offered to shake hands, and from the pulpit with his poetry at open
stage. For Brother Psalm, the right-handed left-brained dominance of the
military-industrial complex, which he called Babylon,
could be mitigated by everyone using both sides equally.

Like any spiritual path the road to health and healing
requires both discipline and acceptance. I’m not good at either, but I did hear
the wisdom in Brother Psalm’s words and actions, and began to explore using my
left side equally with my right. Ever notice how almost everyone reaches into a
hug toward the right, putting left shoulders and cheeks together? We are a
right-handed culture. We drive on the right and hug on the right. I started
small, trying to hug to the left, brush my teeth and write with my left hand. I
became proficient in the latter but only if I wrote cursive backwards, so that
it could be read through the back of the page or in a mirror. It took many more
years of noticing the subtlety of my right-sided dominance before I became
aware that it was nearly impossible for me to sit with my knees bent toward my right
side.

I’ve suffered chronic pain for years. I’ve tried
purification diets, Tai Chi, and yoga off and on for years. Tai Chi helped,
there’s no doubt about that, but when my teacher moved away I lacked the
discipline to find another. Yoga means unity, we are taught, and perhaps it has
been my lack of discipline in not doing a daily asana practice that has caused
me to still have daily pain. Yet yoga remains a steady source of comfort and
has kept me from feeling worse than I do, while the diets, which always feel
terrific, never last. I am a carb junkie and I love a martini in the evening. I
also enjoy cannabis more than I ought, and have suspected for years that it
might be contributing to pain in my joints (no pun intended). Chinese and
Ayurvedic traditions would likely concur with this hypothesis. Most major
joints on my right side and some on the left have swelled, ached or been
incapacitated at some time over the past 35 years, and my right hip has been
giving me fits for the past three. Intuition suggests that the source of this
problem originated, or the first symptom appeared, in my right ankle when I was
14 years old and trying out for the track team.

A sharp persistent pain accompanied by stiffness was
diagnosed as osteochondritis dessicans
by a Greek doctor who prescribed a cast to the knee for one month, followed by
a permanent excuse from all P.E. classes through the rest of high school and
college. A small triangular tip of bone in my ankle was dead, he said, and
showed the gray spot on an x-ray. It did not get blood supply. Why, I wanted to
know. It just happens sometimes, was his answer. He said, “If you overdo with
this ankle the bone will break and you will have to have surgery to have it
removed, and your ankle will be weak forever.” For seven years I favored that
ankle. I quit running and jumping and I danced only cautiously. I didn’t roller
skate or ice skate with the other kids. I was gleefully relieved at no longer
having to participate in field hockey. Of course, the irony of his prescription
was that it made my ankle weak forever anyway, and my whole right side even
more out of kilter. But I did not begin to understand this until recently.

Ten years ago at the age of 38 both my knees blew up to the
size of a football two days apart. The first knee I took to my friend the
doctor, who drove me to the ER and drew off 80 cc’s of fluid, then x-rayed it
and told me I had the knees of an 80-year-old. The next day the right knee blew
up. I iced it and stayed off it for a week, then spent the next six months
learning to walk again. For awhile I went up and down stairs on my ass. Later I
carried lawn chairs out into the woods so that when I walked the dogs I could
stop and sit every few hundred feet. A few sessions of PT taught me that I’d
been hyper extending my knees during an assiduous program of forward bends, but
at $6 a minute I quickly let go of the PT and turned back to yoga to strengthen
my quads. It worked. It helped, anyway, and my knees became functional again.

Since then I’ve been told by various therapists, yoga
teachers and doctors that: my lumbar curve is backwards, I have a touch of scoliosis,
there’s a little arthritis in my hips, my thoracic curve is backwards, my right
leg is a little longer than my left (and
that it isn’t), my left hip is canted back, and several other malfunctions I’ve
forgotten. A massage healer and friend I used to see sometimes pointed out that
the tissue of my right thigh felt distinctly more dense than that of my left
(which I had noticed), and (which I had not noticed) that I did not swing my
left arm when I walked and that I stood always on the same leg when doing
dishes. I began to consciously swing my left arm and to stand on each leg alternately
or on both while at the kitchen sink. Now I can’t remember, was it the left leg
or the right leg that held the weight for all those years with the opposite hip
cocked out?

Still, despite a conscious effort to practice
right-side-left-side for more than a decade, I am plagued with the pain of
asymmetry. I offer these tiresome details only in the hope that they may mirror
someone else’s and thereby be of help. I’ve been on a discouraging odyssey of
doctor visits and medical tests for the past year, after yoga and valium failed
to solve this persistent hip pain. Every doctor wants a patient’s problem to be
his or her own thing – until it isn’t. They’ve all said “I think it’s X, let’s
try Z.” Nobody suggested “It could be this, or this, or this, or this… let’s
explore all the possibilities.” I saw Dr. J in the local clinic in the summer
of 2005, and she said “Take it easy for a few weeks.” She gave me Vicodin for
the pain and Valium to make it possible for me to back off the gardening I was
so intent upon accomplishing. It got better. I went back to gardening. It felt
like joint pain, so I pursued it with my yoga teacher, whose instruction helped
alleviate the discomfort. I thought I was on the right track, but it came back.
It diminished and increased, seemingly according to which yoga postures I
emphasized.

A year ago I went to see Dr. D, an osteopath. Five
treatments and nearly a thousand dollars later he asked me the question that
severed my relationship with him: “How many days a week are you in pain?” On
the surface, a good question, but since I’d filled out a 12-page intake form
detailing location, intensity and frequency of daily pain, I lost all faith in
him. Having broken with Dr. D, I went to an orthopedic surgeon, Dr.
K. Dr. K
recommended an MRI right off the bat. The MRI revealed
nothing wrong with the structure of my hips besides the beginnings of arthritis,
but did show ovarian cysts. Dr. K couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. “I
don’t know anything about these internal things, I’m just a bone doctor,” he
said, and recommended Dr. M, a gynecologist. An ultrasound and a blood test
later she offered a hysterectomy. I had high hopes that surgery would solve my
hip pain.

“A hysterectomy for hip pain?” you may ask, incredulous. Only
surgery could confirm whether or not the cysts were cancerous (which they
weren’t), but Dr. K, who’d requested the MRI, two other doctors I haven’t even
mentioned, and lots of hits on the internet suggested that women with back and
hip pain often find relief after a hysterectomy has been done for some other
reason. Dr. M was happy to report in the recovery room that my left ovary had
been fused to my left pelvic wall, “and that,” she said, “could have been the
source of your hip pain.” She never had gotten quite clear that the pain was in
the right hip. But maybe that was the source, I encouraged myself; often back
pain on one side is caused by a problem on the other. For the first three days
after the surgery I was ecstatic. I had no more hip pain! Then I started
cutting back on the codeine and discovered that indeed, my hip still did catch
when I stood, hurt when I walked, ache when I slept.

I was again discouraged, and fear came back into the
equation. My mother died of a rare brain disease which causes multiple system
atrophy, meaning all the muscles shut
down, from the limbs to the esophagus. Most patients die of this disease from
choking on their food or saliva, or from starvation. Others from injuries
sustained in falls. The cause of the disease is unknown, but it has a genetic
component. My mother also suffered from chronic pain in her right “flank,” as
she called it, and I never bothered to dig into exactly what that meant to her.
My right hip began to hurt the autumn I was helping her to die. I could have
the gene that predisposes to this disease. Her flank pain could have been a
symptom of it. My friend Darlene kept attributing her shoulder pain to a fall
she’d taken, at first insisting it was from the impact, and when time ran out
on that reason she decided it was from something being torqued out of place, a
muscle or vertebra… turns out it was a tumor wrapped around her spine. She was
dead three months later. Why should I not worry when I cannot identify the
source of this chronic right hip pain? When I begin to think like this I mix
another martini and try to forget.

Six weeks ago, lifting a giant tortoise to carry him
outside, I felt a twang on my left side. This developed into sciatica. My one
good side was gone. I was truly at the end of my rope. It hurt to sleep, it
hurt to wake up. It’s hard to want to get out of bed and face the day when it
hurts to move. Last week, having hobbled to the health food store to order dog
food, I ran into a woman I hadn’t seen in years.

“You look great,” I said, and she said “I feel terrific. I
discovered this book and I’ve been doing these e-cises forty-five minutes a day
for five weeks. My shoulders don’t slump anymore, my back doesn’t hurt….” She
went on about this program and her radiance persuaded me to look into it. I
ordered the book, Pain Free: a Revolutionary Approach to Stopping Chronic
Pain
, by Pete Egoscue. Egoscue believes that almost all chronic pain can be
attributed to musculoskeletal misalignment, and that the human body evolved to move, in bilateral symmetry, not to live
the sedentary life of the 21st Century. In our early years as a
species, when we wanted food we had to spend the day hunting and gathering it,
not get up from the couch, take ten steps to the fridge, pull out a bowl of
mashed potatoes, and flop back down on our butts in front of the TV. He didn’t
say it quite like that.

After all these years of sensing that the source of my pain
lay in asymmetry, trying to decipher and link symptoms, I may have found the key
to correction. After four days of practicing Egoscue’s e-cises, the sciatic
pain has all but disappeared, the tendonitis in my right elbow acquired last
spring during forced labor on the irrigation pipeline is just a twinge, the
ache in my left shoulder from sitting at the computer is minor, and the chronic
pain in my right hip is much improved. Already getting out of bed is no longer
a challenge. If this program of e-cises does solve this hip problem, I will be
even more infuriated at the amount of money spent, time compromised, and
anxiety wasted over the past three years working within bounds of the medical
system. And I have to wonder, if Egoscue’s method works so well, why is this
book, this practice, not a staple for every doctor who deals with muscular and
skeletal pain and dysfunction? Perhaps because then hip and knee replacements
would become rare, arthritis drugs redundant, rotator cuff surgery obsolete?
Insurance companies would go broke if people could treat themselves at home for
free. The medical industry would collapse.

And all those questions the doctors couldn’t answer: What
caused the lack of blood flow to that little piece of ankle bone all those
years ago? Was it sitting curled always to the left in my childhood, pinching
that right groin and restricting blood flow into that right leg? Did I sit
always curled to the left because it was uncomfortable to sit curled to the right,
perhaps because my little growing ovary was even then fusing to my pelvic wall
on the left side? Who knows. Did wearing a cast on that right ankle and
favoring that leg for years cause misalignment of my right knee and hip, lumbar
spine, left shoulder, right elbow? Or is the source of my hip pain not my ovary
or my ankle bone, but that I spent most of 1988 driving around the country in
an automatic car with my left foot braced out the window? One thing is certain.
The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the hip
bone, the hip bone’s connected to the back bone… I’ve been crooked for nearly
50 years. I think I may finally be straightening out.

***

So it was after Day 4 of e-cises. (Egoscue calls them this
because they are more passive than we generally think of exercise, and because
it’s his system and his name starts with E.) All my aches and pains were
diminished and getting out of bed was easy. But on Day 5 I had some soreness in
my low back. By Day 10 it hurt to move again. What was new about this pain was
that it was evenly distributed. Both sides of my low back hurt equally. A lot,
but equally, “right-side-left-side.” I chalked this pain up to my body
adjusting to its new alignment. I have kept at the program of e-cises –
discipline at last – for at least an hour a day, usually two. Now, on Day 16, I
wake and walk easily, bend to load the woodstove easily, and the aches and
twinges that come on me don’t last long. I have a new appreciation for the
importance of motion in moving
through a day.

I’ve begun to incorporate yoga back into my program, and
find my downward dog is longer, both in stance and duration, and easier. I can
sit lower in Virasana than ever before. In addition to pain-relieving routines
for every joint pair in the body, Egoscue prescribes specific routines for peak
performance in many sports and a daily maintenance routine that incorporate
some of the yoga poses I’ve been doing for years. It seems that the release on
my right side and the apparent realignment derived from his pain-relieving
program have enabled me to deepen my experience of yoga postures. I see now
that my yoga teacher asked me over the years to do some of the very same things
outlined in the Pain Free routines. Somehow I was not able to accept their
benefits in the same way. Egoscue offers a “supine groin stretch” that he
encourages you to hold for as long as an hour if you are in severe pain. I did
this on the second or third day, and I am convinced that this did more than
anything else to restore balance to, to open, my right hip. Not only did the
groin pain diminish dramatically after that first one hour stretch, but at last
I could actually feel my right heel press into the floor.

In standing poses yoga teachers always say “press into your
back heel,” and I could never feel it on my right side. My ankle did not bend
enough, my calf did not stretch, and even when standing straight in Tadasana I
could not feel my right heel pressing
into the ground. I feel my heel connecting now in all these poses. When I walk,
climb stairs, bend to reach for something on the floor, my right leg feels
different, straight, right, as though for years one part of it hadn’t been
working at all and another had been locked in the wrong place. Perhaps it is
this quite literal grounding that makes my spirits soar this morning. There is
nothing like waking up without pain to give a body energy for living.

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