CONCLUDING that I’m as much in need of a crash course in relaxation as anyone, I gladly accept the assignment of covering a stress- and pain-reduction class at the Daniel and Grace Tully and Family Health Center in Stamford, Connecticut. This is Stamford Health System’s recently opened facility devoted to outpatient services, which include diagnostic treatment and preventive medicine.
“Who doesn’t rush on a daily basis to get so many things done?” asks Elaine Petrone, a lithe-bodied former dancer and tension-easing expert during a pre-class interview in the centre’s cutting-edge Health and Fitness Institute.
“If you live on a farm, maybe you can choose to take life at your own pace, and you’re more independent,” she says. “But when you have to punch the clock, get on the highway, have children and husbands, perhaps marriages that don’t work out, a barrage of noise, media ? sensorially, our bodies are constantly responding to all that stress.”
Obviously, everyone feels the heat. Life’s daily tug is enough to press the angst button of even the most resistant among us. Even Petrone, whose soothing voice belies the fact that as a young dancer she, too, had a lot to be stressed about. Suffering from a progressively worsening back injury that sidelined a promising career, she turned to healing herself through relaxation techniques based on a variety of grass-roots therapies. They worked. Once she became well, Petrone decided to help others; it’s been her business for 20 years.
Following her own non-exercise method called Ball Therapy, Petrone uses pliable grapefruit-size balls placed under various parts of the body to reduce muscle tension. By doing so, she says, “your body self-aligns”, removing stress.
According to Petrone, the Ball Therapy programme has aided hundreds of people suffering from a variety of maladies including headache, low backache, TMJ syndrome (temporomandibular joint disease causing pain and dysfunction of the jaw joint), shoulder and neck tension, depression, fatigue and carpal tunnel syndrome.
In addition, she says, it has helped curb anxiety attacks and insomnia and has been effective for post-operative and accident recovery plus injury prevention.
This morning, the coed class is filled mostly with seniors in loosely fitting togs , eager to start melting away tension and/or pain. Each individual is equipped with a mat and stool.
We’re instructed to sit cross-legged on the floor or on stools. “Close your eyes and make sense of what your body feels like and where your parts are in relation to each other,” Petrone says to the group, which includes many faithfuls attending class twice weekly since the facility opened last May.
Urged to exhale loudly and as long as possible on the sound of “s”, we’re told to notice what our breathing is like.
“People tend to breathe minimally,” Petrone explains. “It takes a lot of muscle tension to stop breathing. It’s totally unnatural. Most people have a tight ace bandage wrapped around their chest. Once you take it off, it allows you to get more oxygen, which allows all aspects of health to improve.”
Keenly aware of our breathing, we hiss away unashamedly as we’re told to move our heads slowly from side to side while Petrone walks around the room, occasionally tapping individuals on their back to “let the oxygen into the muscles”
Then comes the floor work. We’re instructed to lie on our backs and tuck a ball under the crook of one elbow, choosing our tighter side. “The learning process is to let go,” she explains. Most of us during the day resist gravity ? shoulders are hunched up over our ears, eyebrows are curled, backs are arched, our muscles tend to shorten. When you feel weight, it allows these muscles to release. It allows you to breathe. That reduces the cycle of stress.’’
The feeling is serene; my elbow floats on a soft sphere in the middle of nowhere. We remove the ball, then replace it in the same area, while our heads roll slowly from shoulder to shoulder, and our mouths make the sound of a steaming radiator.
We next place the balls under our heads and necks, dropping our jaws. Petrone suggests we open our mouths frequently each day. “There is a lot of tightness in the jaw,” she says. “Try to feel that hinge and let it hang a little. Try not to force, but to have the muscles move according to their natural alignment.”
Soothingly, Petrone puts us through the paces. The ball goes under the other elbow, is removed and, after a while, replaced. Next comes the pelvis. Each time the ball goes under a body part, we are reminded to notice our breathing and the way our body feels with and without the ball. We are not to rush. Everything is done slowly, gently.
At other times, we are directed to walk our fingers on the floor or stretch our arms and legs. “Ideally,” she says, “what we want is to move as effortlessly as possible; that is what the moving around is about. We don’t all want to be just jellyfish.”
At times, the balls shift under our bodies. “That’s your body’s realignment system,” Petrone says. “Anybody who feels they are holding themselves completely still, you are working too hard. Your body is never still, you are always shifting.”
Indeed I am. Her theory is working. I feel great. Apparently, so do Stamford residents Dorothy Casper, 79, and her 85-year-old husband, Irwin. “I love it,” says Dorothy. “It’s making me feel much more limber.” Irwin, who had trouble walking before he started coming to the centre, says “It’s beginning to make me over.’’
Tiffany Chang, a Stamford woman in her 50s, says the class has cured the insomnia she’s struggled with for 16 years. “I had gotten up three or four times a night,” she says. “Since I’ve been taking the class, I’ve been sleeping through like a baby.” – LAT-WP