Friday, March 30, 2012

Sound medicine

Sound is vibration. We hear it because the vibration jiggles tiny bones in the inner ear that tap a membrane that jiggles some goo that sends a signal to the brain. But the vibration of sound passes through every part of our bodies, jiggliing many different kinds of tissue that are not wired to send signals to the brain. Depending on the kind of sound and the decibel level, these aural vibrations can be healing, calming, soothing - or the opposite - they can perk us up, make us angry, or at least bring anger to the surface.

The sound of a certain person's voice can shift biochemistry. Birdsong, ocean waves or rain, a beautiful breeze blowing through leaves, making that Shhhhhhh sound ... ahhhh.

Music is a form of sound I could write a book about. There are such things as music therapists, officially trained and certified, but it's true too that many of us are our own music therapists, choosing the right symphony or rock song to get us from one day to the next. Baroque music fosters the connection of neural networks and smoothes the firing synapses, making us smarter, or so they say. Some music inspires, some incites.

It's too bad so few of us make our own music these days. A hundred years ago almost everyone could sing or play an instrument. Perhaps the results of the family gathering around the piano after dinner were not as perfect as a listener could hope. Not everyone is Adele, after all. So what? One of my teachers said everyone should sing every day. It opens the throat, that jam-packed part of the anatomy so crucial to almost everything we do.

There's a new wave of thought in mainstream medicine that centers around humming. The vibrations from whole-hearted humming shake loose the stuff in sinuses that can get infected if it doesn't move on and out of the head. The Gregorian monks probably never had sinus infections. Chanting is a lot like humming, with percussion. I like to OHM every day, a version of humming that is a little clearer. It works for me.

Noise is a kind of sound vibration that can be simply annoying or very destructive. Loud noise isn't just bad for your hearing, it's bad for everything. Extremely loud noise can shatter glass, break bones, even kill you. When I think about this it makes me wonder why I chose to stand right in front of the stage during my punk years. I know what it did to my hearing, I wonder what it did to the rest of me?

Perhaps it's best not to know!

May your day contain beautiful sound, not too much noise, and a healthy dose of quiet. Shalom.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Take a walk

I find it alarming that many people of my age (I'm 59) can no longer walk farther than from the parking lot to the shopping mall. These people rarely ever walk more than a block or two at a time. Yikes! I'm grateful I live in a city where everyone walks, takes public transportation at least sometimes. Maybe if I lived somewhere else and had a car, I too would lose my ability to walk.

For literally millions of years our species evolved in the direction of standing upright. How sad that as soon as we had the technology to make it possible, we immediately sat down! It would be funny if it wasn't sad.

If you are not in the habit of walking, please start right away. I've read articles in which people are advised to begin by parking their cars at the edge of the parking lot so as to increase the number of steps from car to shopping mall. Please do NOT start this way. Dodging cars in an ugly parking lot will not inspire anyone to take up this essentially human activity. Please go somewhere pretty, or walk around your neighborhood. Spring is a nice time to begin because of the generally nice weather, pretty flowers, butterflies, fluffy clouds and other lovely sights.

If it hurts when you walk, take a minute to notice very specifically where and how it hurts. Is it the standing up that hurts, or does the pain flare when you actually take a step or two? Is it in your lower back, hips, knees? Elsewhere? Try shortening and lengthening your stride; sometimes a change in gait is all that's needed. Or walk more slowly, or more quickly. Find a pace that works.

Receive a therapeutic massage, or an osteopathic or chiropractic adjustment, or two - or twenty. See a physical therapist. Take care of what makes walking difficult. Wear a hat that provides shade for your eyes, wear sunglasses and comfortable clothes. Take some deep breaths and let your mind wander. You will not regret it!

Walking is great for strength, flexibility, respiration, digestion, immunity and definitely supports mental health. It's free. We are built to walk, so get out there, please? Breathe in fresh air, stare at things near and far, check out the weather and sky, maybe take some pictures. Walk about, y'all, yes? I say yes.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pay attention, be creative

I have a friend who keeps several different pain relievers in her purse. She knows that an aspirin will work a different kind of chemistry than ibuprofen, for instance. Pain is a catch-all word for many different kinds of sensations. My friend has paid attention to the headaches she suffers from. When she needs relief, she is able to choose what will work best, based on what kind of headache she has, whether or not she's at work and so on. I hate it that she has so many headaches, but her approach to dealing with them is very creative, as it should be.

We are dynamic beings living in a dynamic world. Healing is not ever a cut-and-dried process. For those who pay attention to symptoms, there are many opportunities to creatively address whatever is going on.

I understand that diagnoses are important. Naming is a powerful act. Once diagnosed, there are tried and true methods for dealing with whatever ails, which is great in some situations. When I had pneumonia, once diagnosed I began straightaway swallowing powerful antibiotics that cleared my lungs in a matter of a couple of days. Thank god! Sometimes, however, I think we are too quick to pathologize every situation, too quick to decide what's the best course of treatment. Or we choose treatment options without considering individual quirks of personality and health.

For instance, the way breast cancer is treated depends not only on the type of cancer and how developed the disease is, but also on the age of the woman suffering from it. Younger women are treated much more strenuously than older women, in part because of the role hormones play in breast cancer, or at least this is the prevailing theory. I wonder if any oncologist has ever considered the personalities of the women involved, their temperaments and constitutions. I know people who tolerate chemo very well, others who really can't handle it. One elderly lady I knew almost died during a harsh bout of chemotherapy for lymphatic cancer. At last, when everyone including her doctors thought she was about to die, she stopped treatment, hoping she might feel a little better during her last days. But when the chemo wore off and her appetite returned, she improved dramatically and lived six more years! Nobody could have predicted that, of course. I feel sad that no one thought creatively about her condition until they decided she was about to die. Sometimes it's the medicine that makes people sick.

It's difficult, scary sometimes, to pay attention to symptoms, to notice how the Advil works but other pain relievers don't, or that acupuncture is great for allergies but perhaps not as effective for other problems. Scary or difficult, the practice of paying attention really helps! No expert is capable of understanding the miraculous and complicated machinations of your body/mind as well as you. There is no cure out there for any condition that works exactly the same way for everyone. Getting to know your own constitution and temperament can help you make good decisions if and when you're ill.

Right now, take a moment to scan your physical, mental and emotional state. How is your stomach? What did you eat yesterday or today? Did the food sit well, do you feel nourished, hungry or something else? Are you experiencing pain anywhere in your body? Are you worried about something? How did you sleep last night? Pay attention, then be creative. If you're tired for instance, or have indigestion or muscle aches, maybe you can take it easier today than you might otherwise. When you feel good, you can take on the world with confidence.

Paying attention and thinking creatively is a kindness you can do for yourself. Yes? I say yes. Shalom.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Spring is here officially in the northern hemisphere. The natural world is surging back to life. Flowers are blooming, green shoots are bursting dramatically from the ground, the trees are popping, and the pollen is flying around.

Have you ever looked at microscopic photos of pollen particles? They're very cool looking: spheres of many colors (though mostly in the yellow to green range), punked out with spikes. Pollen is a lot like the loop side of a strip of velcro. The particles stick to whatever they touch, and stuff sticks to them. I suppose that's the point.

Allergies have become much more serious in the United States in recent decades. I don't think there is any official theory about why. My guess is that it's complicated, the result of the way we live here now, sealed off from the natural world so much of the time. We bathe too much, we medicate ourselves too much. And we don't really move around as much as we were meant to, hence we have made ourselves weaker.

I also think allergies are worse, particularly in cities, because pollution clings to those spiky spheres. We breathe in pollen that's laden with molecules of lead from auto exhaust and other toxins. The pollen lodges somewhere in our sinuses. The next thing you know, we're sneezing like maniacs, that is, if we have immune systems that are functioning.

Most people who have serious allergies take some sort of medication to alleviate the symptoms. There are many different medical approaches, some more elaborate than others. Some of us prefer herbs, tinctures, and homeopathic remedies to the harsher mainstream remedies. Others drink medicinal tea, receive acupuncture. Then there are those of us who do all of the above. The itching eyes and nose, the sneezing and dripping and tearing of the eyes can be every bit as bad as having a bad case of the flu. We'll do anything to feel better.

When there are a million different remedies out there for any malady, what that means is there is no reliable way to deal with whatever is making you suffer. This goes for colds and the flu as well. Whatever you do, you'll feel better in 3-7 days. With allergies, when summer arrives and the pollen settles, you'll be able to breathe.

If you're allergic to spring, have you tried to figure out the particulars? I, for instance, am most virulently allergic to oak and grass pollen. Here in DC where we have zillions of oak trees, there are days when you can literally see green dust floating through the air. On those days I stay indoors, close the windows. This is a kindness I do for myself because I'm violently allergic. During the rest of the season, my formula includes regular acupuncture, a cocktail of homeopathic spritzes, Chinese medicinal tea, and Claritin. Does it work? I don't know, but I have to try.

I have spoken at great length with my acupuncturist about plant allies and enemies. Almost everyone is allergic to poison ivy, for instance, while it's rare to find anyone who doesn't love the smell of lavender. Why do we think we shouldn't be allergic to certain plants, or to certain parts of the life cycle of the natural world? He told me once that if I were "saintly" (his word) I could abide peacefully with the wild green orgy of the oaks. I am decidedly NOT saintly, and may I say that in the midst of their springtime orgy, neither are the oaks!

If you're saintly, then you're set. If not, take good care this spring, if you have allergies. Gesundheit!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

You are what you eat

There was a time when, if something broke, before throwing it away we always attempted repair. For those not mechanically gifted, the broken item: a percolator, toaster, vacuum cleaner, iron or whatever, could be left at a repair shop. That was a long time ago and I only mention it because sometimes I wonder about the impact of the throw-away state of mind on our ideas around healing.

I hear people say, "The South Beach diet didn't work for me, so now I'm doing the Eat For Your Bloodtype diet." (Or whatever. Probably both of those diets have fallen out of favor and have been replaced by the newest, trendiest diet.) My point is, these diets require nothing from those following them except to obey the rules. In a way, they are a lot like throw-away devices we don't know much about. It's unusual to think of tinkering with these diets, trying to fix what won't work for us. In fact the people who design the diets tend to command us to follow their rules explicitly. If we can't follow the hard and fast rules of these diets for one reason or another, we toss them out lock, stock and barrel, turn to the next big thing in dieting. OK. Some people do, not everyone.

Everyone should spend time thinking about what kinds of foods agree with them, and which ones don't. There is no expert who understands your digestion as well as you do. There are foods that are supposed to be good for you, but make your stomach hurt, give you gas or reflux. There are foods that are supposed to be bad for you, but if you love them, it's better for overall health to eat just a little bit. When embarking on a diet, everyone should think carefully about the particulars. Knowing what agrees with you will help you modify the details of the diet to increase your chances of success. Please take this in: there is no diet that works for everyone. Work with the diet you choose, tailor it to fit you like glove.

I've been using the word "should" a lot here. I'm vociferous because diets and dieting are nothing but snake oil. If they worked, wouldn't everyone be the size they wish to be? In a world in which I had the last word, diets would be something people took on in order to improve health and well being, decrease suffering and help create the possibility of living fuller, happier lives. It would never - not EVER - be about a number of pounds to be lost - or gained, for that matter.

Excess weight is currently blamed for just about everything. Only gluten has as bad a reputation as weight. My hope is that the popularity of this theory will peak soon. It's a natural urge we have, to lay blame for the ups and downs of health, but in truth, we're just guessing, as we always have. Two hundred years ago they thought drilling holes in the skull was healing. During the 1980s we believed eating lots of carbs, noodles, and breads was the basis of perfect nutrition. I could go on, but you get the point. I wonder what future historians will make of what we think is healthy and unhealthy in 2012. It boggles the mind.

Spring is a fine time to go on a diet. Please diet gently. The process is very hard on heart muscle especially, but also on the liver and kidneys. Extreme diets kick the survival instinct into gear. Most bodies will try hard to keep the weight on. Gentle diets are kinder all around.

May you be healthy, happy, and wise. Shalom.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The simplest medicine

Cheeky ducks, begging shamelessly in front of the American Indian museum.

Have you ever read "The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett? If not, I highly recommend you do. What a wonderful book. When I had what we called the German Measles, my sister read the book to me by candlelight, ironically indoors with the shades pulled down to keep out all natural light. It was thought at the time that the measles could damage eyesight, hence the enforced darkness.

The book is about a little boy who heals himself of a mysterious chronic ailment that makes him too weak to walk by spending time outside with friends, gardening, telling stories, breathing fresh air and eating fresh food. This book had a huge impact on me.

There is no evidence to support it, but I believe there is no illness or injury that can be completely vanquished without fresh air and sunshine or the perfect pearly gray sky that those in the Pacific Northwest love dearly, or the windy foggy weather of the west coast of the U.S. In the book, it's the scent of the heather on the moors that cures the boy. Here in Washington DC in springtime, the soft air, sunshine, birdsong and blooming trees can help cure any number of problems. At least it feels like it can, it really does.

If you haven't spent some time outside today, why not nip out for a few minutes, breathe some fresh air, check out the weather? If it's rainy or blustery where you are, you don't have to stay out very long, but check in with Ma Nature, will you? And for those who discover a beautiful spring (or fall) day awaiting, why not take the afternoon off work, walk somewhere, drink lemonade or tea or vodka, whatever! Commune. It'll do you a world of good, I guarantee it!


Sunday, March 11, 2012

How much is enough?

How much healing is enough? In some cases, it's easy to tell. The scab falls off and your skin looks perfectly normal: that cut you were nursing is healed. The cast comes off, you finish a bout of physical therapy: your broken bone is healed. You wake up hungry and energetic: you have healed from the flu.

What about emotional wounds? It's so much trickier trying to find a clear endpoint, if indeed there is one. Everyone has been wounded emotionally in many ways; that reality as well as the way we choose to deal with it says much about us. Some folks decide to ignore the wounds. These are usually the people who revere all that's rational, distrust everything that isn't. I have a friend who, when confronted with her own sad history, says, "Is there a pill for that?" She takes a few pills to keep her emotional history at bay. It seems to work somewhat from what I can tell. I see her point - sometimes getting into the process of healing emotional wounds makes people feel worse for a little while, or they get mired in the old feelings, unable to remember to bring themselves back from the trauma. Addressing emotional wounds feels dangerous.

I believe that examining emotional wounds, honoring and grieving our losses and traumas, builds character and is redemptive in many ways. By facing emotional wounds, we break old patterns, learn about our heart's deepest desires, become stronger. But it's easy to become impatient, realizing how deep some of these wounds go. In particular for very old emotional hurts, the spiral of healing is multi-faceted, hence we can address an issue psychologically, take it apart, remember, grieve, honor, yet still not reach the essence of the wound. There is a visceral aspect to emotional wounds that perhaps can not be healed.

I guess that's true for many physical wounds as well. The bone heals and the patient regains full use of his arm, but that arm will always ache before a change in the weather, or scar tissue will restrict range of motion from then on, a reminder of the original injury.

One of my great teachers said we are born perfect. She meant that our energy fields at birth are intact, resilient, flexible and coherent. Sometimes even in the first minutes of life, shit happens. Certainly by the time people come to see me for massage their energy fields are dented, scraped, scratched, punctured, roughed up, also patched, glued, lumpy or uneven in some other way. These inconsistencies in the energy field describe emotional as well as physical wounds; it is a living history of our lives. We are complicated beings!

The body is intelligent, so when we break a bone or cut ourselves, corporeal wisdom takes over and begins the healing process straightaway without conscious intent. In the case of emotional wounds, we have to decide to work with them. It takes courage and brings wisdom.

If you're addressing emotional wounds, may you be patient and compassionate with yourself, may you remember how hard the work is. May you be well. Shalom.

Friday, March 9, 2012

I don't get it.

Is massage a luxury? A friend of mine believes so, and she isn't the only one to hold that opinion. As a massage therapist, also as a receiver of massage over many decades, I do not consider it a luxury. No matter how high minded I might think myself to be, I am also an animal, and the animal of my body needs touch. My muscle attachments need to be warmed up in ways not possible by stretching (something I also believe is not a luxury). My lymph system does not have a pump, hence massage means my lymph will be circulated. On the table I can collect my thoughts, release tension, gather my wits about me. Massage is a powerful experience that has been proven in dozens, maybe even hundreds, of studies to increase immunity, lower blood pressure, reduce insomnia, anxiety, and pain. When I receive massage it helps me remember to occupy my body. I become aware of the smaller strains, aches and pains I would usually ignore. During massage (and because I receive it regularly), I am able to address the totality of me. Recently I read that even M.D.s are now being instructed on how to touch their patients therapeutically because it increases the chances of a quicker recovery. So how is it that therapeutic touch is still seen as a luxury?

I think it must be because massage isn't painful, that it brings calm and sometimes even bliss into the mind/body of the person receiving. Bliss itself is healing, and a state of calm is an absolute necessity in the midst of the crazy world we inhabit.

I guess this falls into the category of what a person chooses to do with money left over after paying the mortgage and buying food. I know people who love buying clothes but say they "can't afford" to go out to dinner, or those who dine out four nights a week but say they "can't afford" new clothes. The decision about where and how to spend what's left after the bills are paid is a clear indicator of a person's values.

When I miss a massage appointment for one reason or another, I notice how stiff I feel, I develop cricks in my neck, my lower back aches. I always think to myself, "Oh. This is how other people of my age feel all the time." I mean those who do not receive massage. It makes me sad to think how many people suffer with chronic pain because they think massage is a luxury.

I value my good health above every other concern, hence I "can afford" massage and receive it regularly. Needless to say, I love seeing my clients before and after they receive massage. If you could see how much they shift during that experience, you too would be puzzled by the idea that massage is a luxury. Oh yeah.

May you take good care of yourself in whatever way you believe to be right. May you feel happy, calm, flexible. Shalom.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

This, too, shall pass

We are cyclic beings living in a cyclic universe yet we try so hard to be linear. I wonder when that began - was it during the Enlightenment?

Trying to force ourselves into the paradigm of a straight line never works well. For instance, those who diet reach their "ideal" weight and then believe they can, they SHOULD be able to maintain that weight no matter what, a very frustrating experience for many, since the natural cycle of weight ebbs and flows with the seasons and life phases of all humans. It doesn't ebb or flow extremely if we eat well, exercise, breathe, sleep, and such, but it does vary. I feel sad for folks who weigh themselves every day and worry about a pound or two of difference from day to day. Those two pounds might reflect the cycle of fluid retention, a full stomach or other variables. We are encouraged, culturally, to worry about the slightest of changes even though it's perfectly normal.

I have a client who is working to learn a second language. Some days all the synapses click and she can speak fluently. Other days she feels "off" and can't remember how to conjugate a simple sentence. Part of that has to do with her age (it's hard to learn a new language after forty) but it also has to do with the ebb and flow of the mind. The ability to focus can be practiced; that's why I meditate, but I'm not consistent in my ability to stick with my breath, even after meditating for thirty years. It's cyclic, sometimes I'm with it, other days not so much. Meditation practice does not follow a path of accomplishment. It's not about being a beginner, intermediate, or advanced practitioner. Some days I'm all three simultaneously! It's not a straight line.

One of my mantras has to do with remembering that whatever is going on at the moment, physically, mentally or emotionally, will not last forever! Change is inevitable because we are cyclic beings. If you're having one of those years during which you catch every cold, this doesn't mean you will now be sick every winter forever. It's likely that next year you'll do a lot better. Likewise if you're moody right now, try to be gentle with yourself. Your mood will pass like the ever-changing moon. If you're stuck in a mood, seek some help to move more smoothly into the cycle of emotion (that help might come from a therapist, an acupuncturist, or massage therapist, or might entail getting outdoors for some vigorous exercise or making sure you have some nights of solid sleep).

I think aging is difficult for many because we have such a hard time identifying as cyclic beings. We are achievers, wanting to climb ever higher, become ever better. We want to climb the infinite mountain of goodness and greatness without ever glancing back. What a lovely fantasy, though unfortunately it has nothing to do with the nature of life. The cycle of youth passes - it does! We baby boomers had our time, now it's someone else's turn to be young, full of piss and vinegar. For many of us, especially of my generation who promised never to trust anyone over thirty, the truth comes as a bitter shock.

We are dynamic, cyclical beings, ever changing. Whatever is going on for you right now that you don't much care for, no worries, it will pass. Sad to say that whatever is happening that's just perfect at the moment will pass, too. Make sure you enjoy the moments when you're happiest and most satisfied.

Nothing is cast in concrete, nothing, because we are cyclical creatures. There is no end to the circle, no end. Shalom.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Dreaded Epidural

When the topic of childbirth comes up in conversation, it seems everyone has an agenda. There are those who are absolutely dedicated to pain relief and ease for the mother, no matter the impact on the baby (which they see as negligible) or the length of time it will take the mother to recover. On the other side are the people who are virulently opposed to any kind of medical intervention. In the minds of those from the second camp, no matter how miserable the mother is during labor, they believe the mothers must be urged to give birth "naturally," as they call it. They speak of the impact of drugs on the health/recovery time of the baby and mother, but there is also a very strong theme running under their arguments, that an unmedicated birth is a badge of courage, a sign of the mother's strength or fortitude. I find this harsh, inflexible, unforgiving attitude cruel and ironically macho. Childbirth should be anything but macho, hey?

Yesterday I attended a birth. One of the nurses who is studying for her nurse/midwife degree said, "Women beg us all the time for epidurals, but of course we do everything we can to talk them out of it."

Really? A woman in labor is in such excruciating pain that she's BEGGING for help, yet the people there to allegedly smooth the process feel proud to say they always try to deny relief? It's kind of sadistic, if you ask me. I liked this nurse very much, but when she said that, there was definitely a smirk on her face. It's so weird!

Women who wish to work with midwives ordinarily hope or plan to give birth without medication. Once they're into it, though, if things turn out differently than they imagined, is it so awful to change direction, to opt for some assistance? I don't understand why. I wonder if the nurse with the anti-epidural attitude takes an aspirin when she has a headache. I bet she does! She insisted that the mother take ibuprofen for 24 hours after the birth because "it really helps." She also offered Percocet. It's OK to seek relief after birth, but not in the midst of it? Someone please explain this to me.

What was my agenda in my role as doula? My attention was solely focused on what the mother wanted or needed. I've attended births during which I had to advocate against medical intervention. Yesterday I had to advocate for the dreaded epidural. I say "dreaded" because midwives speak of this intervention as if it were the devil himself. In the case of the woman who gave birth yesterday, after more than 24 hours of hard labor, the epidural provided exactly what she needed. She was able to rest for awhile because of the epidural, after which she pushed her baby out. She worked hard, felt it, but wasn't out of her mind as most unmedicated women are at that moment. Is that awful? I thought it was great, and I welcomed her baby girl into this world with tears in my eyes.

Epidurals are not what they once were. Women who receive them can move their legs and definitely feel the contractions, the pushing, and the delivery of their babies. They feel pressure and sensation, but not pain. Is that a bad thing? Once upon a time they deadened the entire bottom half of the body, but not so any longer.

If the laboring mother is doing OK without the medication, then great - I'm all for it. But if they're ground down by pain and exhaustion, why oh why is it so bad to ask for some help?

As of yesterday I am officially retired from my role as doula. I have had many wonderful, amazing and miraculous experiences attending births. I wouldn't trade them for anything, but I've now completed that aspect of my professional life.

L'chaim! And shalom.