Sunday, January 22, 2012

Back to Basics

Last October, as a guard against holiday weight gain, I dusted off the P90X dvds and, with K's invaluable help, started to adhere to the rigorous low-carb diet that accompanies the exercise program.  After a month, I was feeling pretty good about my progress, and by late November my midsection started to get a chiseled look that had never been there before.  Then, in early December, a soreness in my right shoulder started to creep into all the push-ups, pull-ups and weightlifting and, instead of resolving itself, gradually grew worse and worse until, the week before Christmas, I was unable to move my arm without pain.  Even lying flat on my back, the weight of the arm caused my shoulder enough discomfort that I had trouble falling asleep at nights.  I started to worry that I had torn something. 

I quit exercising and hoped that pain would go away.  I tried to keep my elbow tight against my body all day, but the pain just got worse.  By Christmas it became clear that I needed to see a doctor, so I spent the better part of Boxing Day waiting to get diagnosed at the local walk-in clinic.  The doctor told me I had tendonitis, handed me an anti-inflammatory prescription, and gave me some exercises to improve my range of motion.  The exercises made me gasp from pain, and I became convinced that I would easily crack under torture.  Luckily, the medication seemed to do the trick.  

Two weeks later, the pain was mostly gone, but when I went to my regular physician he determined that the tendonitis had just been a symptom.  He sent me to a physical therapist with a diagnosis for right rotator dysfunction.  Kelly, my therapist, prodded my arms and shoulders, had me raise and lower them against resistance, and gave me her opinion: the muscles surrounding my shoulder were too tight, which explained the inflammation--not enough room for the joint to move around.  What surprised me more was when she concluded that my back muscles were "weak."  How could this be?  Here I was, doing yoga, kenpo, pull-ups and arm lifts, as comprehensive a workout as my body had ever had, and yet Kelly explained that some of my stronger muscles were actually masking the weakness of the others.  Instead of those weak muscles getting stronger, my strong muscles simply overcompensated until they themselves became injured.

It was the same story with my right knee.  I told Kelly that I had knee stiffness after a few miles of running, and again she found that the symptom in my knee was actually because my quads and hamstrings were too tight and putting intense pressure on the joint, and that the tightness in those muscles was because I wasn't using my hip muscles to run.  My knee hurt because I was running from my strength rather than my weakness.

The exercises Kelly has me doing for therapy are almost insultingly simple.  I lie face-down on the edge of my bed, let my arm hang down in front of me, and lift my arm off the floor with the thumb pointing up.  I lie on my side, put a rolled up towel under my arm, and raise a one-pound weight with my elbow tight to my side.  I lie on my side and open and close my knees like a clamshell, careful to use my hips rather than my legs.  It frustrates me how time-consuming these exercises are, because while I do them I imagine all the strength and definition in my other muscles slipping away, as the rest of my body returns to the soft, doughy state it has favored all my life.  I would stop doing the exercises, except that I know that Kelly is right.  Simple as they are, the exercises quickly fatigue my shoulder and hips, making clear just how ignored those muscle groups have been all these years.  It's obvious I have been favoring the other groups, subconsciously choosing my movements to capitalize on areas where I was strong, and the accumulation of all those subtle choices has left me with some systematic and persistent weaknesses.

There's a life lesson in here somewhere, but I'm not sure exactly how to express it.  So far, my experience has taught me that playing to your strengths is often, in the short term, the easy thing but not the right thing, that it may produce crippling weakness in the long term.  Sometimes doing what feels natural is not what the system needs--sometimes what feels natural is simply what is habitual, and we need to tear down those habits, build them up again, build them slow to build them whole.  The older I get, the more impatient I seem to feel about my personal growth, and though my rational mind understands that this return to basics is necessary to move forward, the rest of me just feels held back.  How very hard it is to be humbled, how hard to become like a child.