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Straighten Up

New Stances Sharpen Traditional Disciplines

Aligned Against Pain

Can perfect posture relieve severely debilitated victims of chronic pain? While the American Medical Association's jury may still be out on the quantifiable benefits of postural and biomechanical therapies like yoga and Pilates, more and more medical doctors--as well as alternative health practitioners--are seeing patients achieve remarkable results from working with master teachers in these modalities.

Pat Lundgren Guyton of Colorado's Boulder Osteopathic Center and Sara Bates, who maintains a private rehabilitative practice in Santa Monica, California, are two such master teachers. Guyton, a Pilates instructor, has been working with doctor-referred clients since 1987, and Bates, a graduate of Iyengar teacher training in San Francisco, has been designing individualized yoga programs for fibromyalgia sufferers since 2001. Both maintain high enough success rates to attract a steady stream of medical referrals as well as invitations to lecture or teach at local and national medical conferences.

Both Guyton and Bates bring formative personal experience to their work.

Guyton's background as a modern dancer gives great precision and intuitional depth to her style of Pilates. Today, when she talks to a group of medical doctors about why bodily alignment, awareness, focus, and balance are the keys to pain-free movement, she makes them learn it the way one of her clients would learn it: by feeling it in their own bodies. "And that's a process," says Guyton.

"It's like yoga in that it's a discipline and it's a study." Whether she's helping people with multiple sclerosis or low-back pain, Guyton works their bones and muscles from head to toe until they learn to "consciously organize their posture in a vertical gravitational field so that their postural muscles become strong enough to support good alignment."

An ideal alignment creates more ease and energy in the body with which to fight the effects of aging, injury, or auto-immune malfunction. Yoga's emphasis on proper alignment, breath work, awareness, and balance is indeed similar to Pilates principles, but Bates, a former occupational therapist who used yoga techniques to recover from her own disabling bout with fibromyalgia, would add that a thorough understanding of how emotional trauma affects posture and organ function informs the yogic approach to alleviating chronic pain.

But what kinds of exercise can you do with people whose nerve endings are so hypersensitive that they experience any sensory input as pain? In its most acute stages, fibromyalgia can cause its victims to experience even minimal amounts of heat, cold, light, pressure, or sound as pain. What Bates tries to do--with a varied selection of yoga postures, visualization practices, and breathing exercises--is break this spiraling feedback loop, which has been known to defeat even the strongest pain medication.

"If there's a line between the mind and body, I haven't been able to find it," says Bates, who recognizes the despair and frustration of her patients as yet another form of bodily injury. Since almost anything can trigger fibromyalgic pain, and repetitive movement of the same area can make it amplify and spread throughout the body, Bates teaches gentle, careful postures that slowly lengthen, strengthen, oxygenate, and align muscles so they can rest and heal Unlike doctors who don't share her personal experience, she warns all who suffer from fibromyalgia or any of the auto-immune syndromes like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, CFS, or MS not to trigger their pain cycle by doing the same posture or exercise every single day.

"Rotate your practices," advises Bates. "If you walk one day, then do yoga the next." -- Carol Cooper

For more information on finding qualified yoga or Pilates therapists for chronic pain, search pilatesmethodalliance.org or yogaalliance.org.

Published in: Village Voice, September 17-23, 2003