A Body Tuning Session with Shmuel Tatz

Peter Brook’s production of the Indian epic The Mahabharata was stunning. But for Tara, whose hip joint and upper back have been giving her problems, watching the drama was an excruciating ordeal. The play began at one in the afternoon and ended at midnight; to add to the effect of antiquity, the seats in the specially remodeled theater in Brooklyn had been converted to bleachers with only light padding.

Though she loved the play, Tara’s hip and back ached as she left that night.

To add to the problem, Tara has just completed a five-day vipassana meditation retreat, a 14-hour-a-day regimen of hour-long sittings alternating with mindful walking. Despite her best attempts at yoga stretches and an ergonomic variation on a zafu for sitting, the course had left her hip and back in poor shape to endure the day-long play.

Luckily, Tara has an appointment with Shmuel Tatz at his Carnegie Hall studio.

At the session’s start, Tatz has Tara up on his bodywork table, lying on her left side. Tatz himself strikes a thoughtful pose before beginning to work.

“Before I touch anyone, I try to tune my own body,” says Tatz as he takes a comfortable t’ai chi stance, one leg a step ahead of the other, his body balanced between. Taking a moment to center, Tatz then gently places one hand on Tara’s back, the other on her ailing hip.

“I find the person’s rhythm of breathing, whether fast or slow,’ he says. “I breathe in tune with her.”

Then, pressing on Tara’s sacroiliac, he begins top massage her lower back with his left hand, checking to see if she is relaxed. Wherever he finds some tightness, he relaxes it with massage, then gently rocks Tara’s body side to side with his right fist.

The pressure at the sacroiliac releases tensions there and in the lower spine, while the rocking motion helps Tara’s tight muscles relax, at the same time letting Tatz see if they are indeed relaxing as they should.

Tatz himself rocks his legs in time with Tara’s rocking, simultaneously coordinating each press of the fist with her breath: pressing in as she breathes out, relieving the pressure as she breathes in.

This careful movement, finely tuned with Tara’s own natural rhythm of breath, typifies Tatz’s work as he moves his focus on her lower back, checking the motion of each vertebra with the fingertips of his left hand as he rocks her side to side with his right. As his fingers examine her spine, he stops between the third and fourth vertebrae. “Feel that?” he asks. “Yes, it’s painful there,” Tara answers. The diagnosis is right.

Trained as a physical therapist Tatz sometimes uses X rays to find the exact cause of compression between vertebrae – whether a disc problem, calcium deposits, or poor alignment, for instance. With Tara, he uses his fingertips to massage between the discs, softly forcing open space between them as he rocks her from side to side.

Shifting his attention to her legs, he lifts her right leg at the knee, working it through it’s natural range of motion. In doing this, he sees that the quadriceps is shortened, a mass of tightness in the quadriceps and tendons of the leg, each problem playing into the other. The back, too, is part of the same pattern; nerves running between the back and hip can cause a problem in one place to travel to the other.

In order to help free the hip, Tatz works with the leg, easing the muscles into relaxation through a combination of massage, guided movement, and acupressure. The body is so interrelated, he says, that working on a zone far from the central problem is all part of a holistic strategy aimed at the center. For instance, with Tara’s leg extended, he presses an acupressure point to the side of her ankle, tugs at the leg, extends it as though it were in traction, massages her abdomen, and tugs at her hands raised over he head – all to open the joint at the hip.

As she lifts her leg and waggles it, Tatz says, “Always I ask a question of the joint or muscles. As I lift the leg, I ask the hip joint, ‘How’s your internal rotation?’ If it’s okay, I go to the abductors and ask how they are. If they answer, ‘Very tight,’ I give some help.

The session ends with a touch of the Alexander technique, Tara walking around the room with Tatz holding her neck from behind in a balanced position where it is not fighting gravity. He explains that jutting the head forward, as most people do, creates constant tension in the neck and shoulders, as the muscles there struggle to counterbalance the 10 pound of the head.

The walk is just part of the re-education of Tara’s body. Tatz also gives her some homework, showing her a series of movements and easy stretches to help her body to hold the changes he has made in it.

After the session, Tara’s report is that she feels “great: free of pain, more balanced, and relaxed.”

Yoga Journal

By Daniel Goleman, PhD. – a psychologist and contributing writer on behavioral science for the New York Times.