Bodies on a bender

Flexibility faux pas? Drop the doc and contort thyself

Not too long ago, Ron Gaches dreaded walking into the capital building in Topeka. It wasn't his lobbying job or the politicians that bugged him, but rather an agonizing foot pain amplified by marble floors. "You can't imagine a less forgiving material to be on all day long," he says.

But now Gaches, a 55-year-old Lawrence resident and president of a lobbying and advocacy firm in Topeka, says the pain, which feels as if four quarters are lodged under the ball of his foot, has begun to subside. This wasn't the work of a podiatrist, physician or medications. Instead, Gaches turned to Rolfing, a method of body realignment through pressure and tissue manipulation.

"I don't want to take pain medication to ease the pain," he says. "I want to find the cause of my discomfort and address those causes."

Like Gaches, many Lawrence residents are starting to drop their prescriptions and enlist in alternative physical therapies for their ailments. Although bodyworkers like Rolfers, yoga instructors and masseuses generally get certified for their practices, they're unlicensed and unregulated by the State of Kansas. Still, instead of a typical MD, many residents say they prefer to peel away from the passe and use alternative techniques from Rolfing to yoga for an ailment panacea and fitness fillip.

Gaches, who has completed four monthy Rolfing sessions of the 10-session process, says he's noticed a drastic reduction of the woes near his toes. Rolfing, named after its creator, Ida Rolf, was developed in the 1930s and improves posture through soft tissue manipulation. Today, there are only about 1,500 Rolfers in the world, and at least four of them practice in Lawrence.

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Submitted photo

Alice Steuerwald preps for yoga class, in this 2008 file photo, by rolling her tongue into a ball and performing breathing exercises. She teaches her students a different breathing exercise for each season.

For his Rolfing fix, Gaches sees Mindie Dodson, a one-time American Gladiator contestant who became a certified Rolfer after growing tired of her 9-to-5 desk job. She says Rolfing uses hands-on pressure and movement to help the body become more open, spacious and balanced.

"We're not trying to get him to walk like a robot," she says about Gaches. "We're trying to get his feet to not hurting."

So, she applies pressure in certain points of his foot-between tendons and near joints-to release connective tissue. This tissue is like a plastic that runs through the body and provides support: tendons, cartilage and ligaments, to name a few. By releasing these tissues that have built up over time, the body begins to correct itself; in Gaches' case, his legs will learn to find their centers again. He has the tendency to walk on the outside of his feet, magnifying his pain. Dodson says by aligning his legs and his feet, his back and hip pains will also subside.

So far, it's working. "I'm able to perform at a much higher level with much less discomfort," Gaches says.

In addition to Rolfing sessions, Gaches also gets biweekly massages from Alice Steuerwald, a local body worker, masseuse, certified herbalist and yoga instructor at Be Moved Studio. She makes a living off of massage, but with yoga, she teaches a lifestyle of inner-peace through foods, strength, flexibility, ritual and movement.

"I teach seasonal yoga," she says. "Each season, I have a breath, a sound and a food for that season. It really keeps you in rhythm. A lot of yoga is the same thing, every day, all year. It didn't really make sense to me."

Yoga, Steuerwald says, can also help with flexibility issues in joints and tendons. While Yoga can help with overall flexibility, Dodson says it can also help retain changes connective tissue manipulation from Rolfing sessions.

Aside from physical benefits, Steuerwald's teachings employ visceral rituals. She encourages people to eat whatever comes out of the ground during that particular season (for spring, foods like radishes and dandelions are a must). She tells students to open their hearts and reach to the skies. And as she begins her class, she suggests a mantra: "Let's find ourselves in our breath."

As the sun begins to set, a saxophonist plays jazz outside while an Indian raga hums within Be Moved Studio. A small golden frog looks onward from the corner of the room. Steuerwald's students meditate while singing drone vowel sounds and appear to be at peace with the earth.

After meditation, the yoga session begins. Students are young and old, limber and stiff. Everybody's trying to contort their bodies like a Boy Scout knot, sans tension. Some yoga-goers are engulfed in the moment while others giggle at the awkwardness of positions.

Get bent at Wakarusa

Alice Steuerwald, a local bodyworker, masseuse and yoga instructor, will teach free yoga sessions every morning at the Wakarusa Music Festival's Revival Tent. This is her fourth year teaching yoga at the festival. Sessions will run from 8-11 in the morning, "A beautiful way to start the day," she says. Do it.

Still, no matter how much Rolfing, yoga or massage increases flexibility and eases the mind, the state won't license these practitioners, recognize them as health care providers or require them to carry malpractice insurance.

Mark Dwyer, director of Rehabilitation Services at Olathe Medical Center and president of the Kansas Physical Therapy Association, says that in Kansas, anybody who feels qualified to practice Rolfing, massage therapy or teach yoga could do so.

"In Kansas, there's no need for a license," he says. "You could just walk out there and say 'Eh, I could do that,' and just do it."

People who want to pursue physical therapy careers could attend KU Med. Center and become licensed physical therapists. Tools like Rolfing and massage are things that physical therapists might use to help a patient, Dwyer says, but people who practice separate techniques are different from licensed physical therapists.

"The words physical therapy are not protected. You can't go out and say you practice medicine, but you could go out and say you perform physical therapy. You couldn't say you're a physical therapist." That title, he says, is reserved for somebody who attended physical therapy school and is lisenced to treat those with movement disorders.

Still, Dwyer knows that there are many hospitals looking at these alternative forms of body therapy and that some people are simply fed up with medications and would prefer alternatives. "A patient might say, 'Hey we don't want to take this pills anymore,'" he says.

So, for residents like Ron Gaches who would rather get to the root of a problem rather than seek a prescription to dull the pain, alternative therapies still exist as a natural solution to long-term problems. Steuerwald says that pain can bring a loss of balance within peoples' lives-if people are to live freely and adapt within the world, they must correct that balance.

"Change is the only truth in the universe," she says. "The seasons can change, but people can't." »

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