BREAKING OLD HABITS WORKSHOPS -- The next workshop at the Washington Community Therapy Guild will happen Saturday, August 22, from 10 to 1, at 2467 18th Street NW. Cost is $15. Additional workshops are planned for September 22 and November 7. For reservations, call Anne Anderson, 483-2660, or Monica Fleischmann, 333-4304.
Although weekends in Washington offer something for everyone, I never thought I'd find myself one Saturday morning using a tennis ball in strange ways to discover how my body works in an "anti- exercise" class that has nothing to do with tennis.
This was my first of a series of surprises at a three-hour workshop titled "Breaking Old Habits" -- a program of "anti-exercises" for people who hate traditional exercise but want to release tension and energy and change their body image.
Heaven knows I qualified for the program as an exercise dropout riddled with the tensions of Washington life and still aware of an old injury. For my body-image change, I dreamed moving effortlessly without thought or discomfort, as a playful child does. This fantasy was actually more complex than my teenage dream of having a total magazine makeover with hairstyle, makeup and fashion experts transforming me into a sophisticated woman. My current adult dream involved turning the clock back to before sedentary work and its bodily abuse, to rediscovering the joy of movement.
The workshop by the Washington Community Therapy Guild attracted a small, diverse group of men and women including some repeaters who returned "because it made me feel so good."
Everyone chuckled as we went around the room making funny faces and shaking hands under the direction of workshop leaders Anne Anderson, a feminist counselor, and Monica Fleischmann, a sports massage and new games trainer, who constantly reminded participants to breathe during the anti-exercises. Like many others, I tended to hold my breath or breathe too shallowly when absorbed in a task.
The bible for the workshop was the French bestseller, "The Body Has Its Reasons," by physical therapist Therese Bertherat who developed a series of "preliminaries," or movements to promote flexibility and body awareness of how all parts of the body relate to one another. Bertherat maintained that most figure faults -- from flabby stomachs to jodpher thighs -- and many deformities result from tension, shortening and stiffness in the posterior muscles of the body, the inevitable effect of the body's daily movements. Her anti-exercises painlessly stretched the muscles from the skull to the back of the feet, and changed the body.
We started by standing up, placing a tennis ball under our right foot, and gently massaging the bottom of the foot with the ball. "Imagine," said our leaders, "that there's ink on the ball. You want to ink your entire foot -- under the toes, the sole, around the edges. Ink it well. Take your time. Now, let the ball go. Put your two feet together. What do you feel?"
Voices from the group reported: "My right foot is sinking into the floor." The right foot feels as if I wer walking on sand or foam." "The left foot feels awful -- abnormal in comparison."
"Now," Anderson and Fleischmann instructed, "bend over and let your arms hang in front of you." Exclaimed one excited participant, "I can touch the floor with my right hand but not my left. We all looked to see nearly a four-inch difference in where her hands were. All of us found that we, too, became more limber on the right side. This was the start of an amazing lesson: By relaxing the muscles of the foot, the muscles of the leg and back on that side also loosened up because the body operates as a whole.
To avoid feeling lopsided, we did the same thing with the ball and our left foot. That little tennis ball got a lot of off-the-court activity at the workshop -- under buttocks, feet, hands -- and not one case of tennis elbow was reported during the three-hour session.
Next, we played with our toes on our right foot -- pulling them gently as if to unscrew them and spreading the toes at right angles just like babies discovering their feet. "Lie down on your back and compare the two sides of your body," instructed the leaders. Almost everyone noticed that their lower back was closer to the floor on the right side and that the entire right side rested easier.
We did some simple small movements of our neck and shoulders while holding first the neck muscles in our hands (like grabbing a cat at the back of the neck) and then the upper trapezius muscle and noticed greater mobility afterward on the side of the neck and shoulder worked. To complaints of tightness, pain or "noise" in the shoulder, Fleischman responded, "Unhealthy muscles are tight, granular, bumpy, or fused together. Healthy muscles are smooth and are aided by blood, lymph and energy flowing smoothly throughout the body. You should be aware of a body part only if you are tense."
"Joggers are often really tight people," noted the sports massage specialist, "but if they do some of these preliminaries before and after jogging, they not only won't be tight but will also improve their aerobic work. I have a 60-year-old client, a jogger, who reported a big change. These anti-exer cises don't take the place of aerobic exercises but are supplements. American society is focused on what we're supposed to do to be fit. Tune in and see what your body wants to do, because there's no need to do every preliminary, only the ones your body needs at the time."
We broke for fresh fruit and herb tea, supplied by Anderson and Fleischmann, and some conversation. Then back to work with our trusty tennis ball for a mindblowing "facial" that rivaled results obtained at a salon.
"Lie down on your back, arms at the side of your body, fingers stretched out. Touch the ball with your right fingertips. Push it toward your feet, then bring it back toward your palm. Continue pushing the ball and bringing it back. Take the ball in your hand. Press your elbow down and lifttthe ball up. Let the ball roll gently in your palm which is made into a bed where the ball can rest without being touched by the fingers. Remove the ball."
Aside from feeling more relaxed, participants looked around and noted an interesting change. The right side of everyone's face appeared to be softer -- more relaxed. The right eye generally seemed to be more open and lower than the left eye, and the right corner of the mouth more relaxed. To avoid lopsided faces, we then teased the ball with our left hands and afterward massaged a partner's shoulders, arms, face and neck.
"Be gentle with yourselves for the rest of the day," counseled our leaders, "and drink plenty of water to flush out your system. Even though you may not be aware of it, you did a lot of work here and are cleaning out your system, increasing your blood flow, and operating as your own chiropractor."
We left feeling better, warmer and more relaxed. Anti-exercises certainly beat the "real stuff." I then went out and bought some fuzzy tellow tennis balls to use only in the privacy of my own home.