Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Healing the Homos
By: CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
Of gay people experiencing physical pain and stresses, chiropractor George Russell warns, "If we bury our history… then it generally bites us in the ass."
Do we have gay bodies? George Russell has some interesting insights, not to mention clinical experience, about that question.
A chiropractor, Russell has grown a unique practice melding his medical training, his background in dance, and his interest in spirituality. His practice, while not exclusively targeted to gay people, has informed his perspective about gay bodies and the emotional forces that affect them.
Russell graduated from Wesleyan University with a major in intellectual history and dance, then earned a masters degree in movement studies from the same institution. Afterward, he choreographed and danced in modern dance companies in New York and taught college-level dance courses.
In his 30s, he returned to school for his chiropractic degree, graduating with honors from the University of Bridgeport in 2000. Russell sees clients in an airy office off Union Square and is an instructor at the Swedish Institute and the Kripalu Yoga Center in Lennox, Massachusetts.
He's also a guest choreographer and dance master at the De Facto Dance Company in New York City.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: What happens in your examination room, for goodness sake?
GEORGE RUSSELL: You never know! My work varies greatly depending on the patient's issues. This week I released muscles and joints in a frozen shoulder and helped a woman to move her arm more efficiently and fully. I did bodywork on a man with chronic pain and gave him imagery for coping with his pain and relieving it; and I helped a yoga teacher discover why she has lost hip mobility. I released muscles and coached her poses until she could sit in a full lotus position again.
And one college-aged patient remembered that she had surgery on her big toe as a child, which explained why I had noticed she twists her spine and takes a short step when she walks on the left foot. I fitted her for orthotics that would allow her gait to normalize and her spine to be even.
CM: Do people usually come with something clearly busted or in pain?
GR: Yes, I'd say so. Injury - be it mental, physical, spiritual, ecological, economic - is usually the intersection of long-held habits with an unfortunate event. In the case where the woman remembered the surgery in childhood, it was new back pain from sitting at a desk that made her decide to get help. But it was her gait that had to be corrected so she wouldn't be vulnerable to re-injury. Of course I treated her back as well.
My simple job is to provide relief from the pain. My complex and ultimately more important job is to identify the habits and the stressors that underlie them, and to help patients adapt their lives to make their systems more resilient.
CM: How do you understand the spirit/body connection?
GR: Well, the two words are two ways of approaching the same phenomenon. Science tells us that energy and matter are actually the same thing, but even scientists are having trouble catching up with that idea. And we barely have words in our language for talking about how the soul - if you want to call it that - and the lower back, for example, are always influencing one another.
I mean, there's a reason why feelings are called feelings - they happen at a physical level. And so trauma - or ecstasy, for that matter - at any level will manifest on all the others. We talk, and we generally approach injury and pain, as if the body were merely physical. But we all know intuitively that it isn't really so. In my work, I help people bring it all together.
CM: Are LGBT people any different in this? Do you see a lot of LGBT folk?
GR: I'd say the process is no different, but LGBT people generally have a history - or a present, alas - of trying to deny aspects of ourselves as they manifest in our bodies. And the habit of holding a space between our spontaneous sexuality, gender, and social orientation really dies hard, no matter how much we've come out. It forms a part of our subcultures, our psyches, and, certainly, the way we hold and move our bodies.
Imagine the way you walked down the hall in eighth grade. The awkwardness, the hiding, the pretending, the sense of disconnect between what's required to survive and our spontaneous impulses have effects that often last throughout life.
Did you ever see a big bodybuilder - and when you looked closer you could still see the frightened scrawny kid inside the shell of muscle? Sometimes what looks like our strength is really our armor, and a suit of armor is heavy to carry around. Of course, the way we've overcome adversity also provides us with tremendous physical and character strength as well.
CM: So you think people physicalize homophobia and transphobia.
GR: Oh, definitely. And it doesn't all wash away. We start with a certain genetic nature. And how we nurture ourselves as LGBT adults has a lot to do with recognizing how the culture that nurtured us - and oppressed most of us - has affected our whole selves, including the physical.
If we bury our history - especially the minute physical history of how we responded to an environment that didn't have a space for who we actually were - then it generally bites us in the ass. If we can recognize the effects of the past on the present and deal with what comes up in the present with self-honesty and compassion, then we get the dividends that we see all around us in our community - compassion, wisdom, courage, and a power we didn't know we had to change ourselves and our world.
We'll have more power and information if we pay attention to our bodies. Body memory takes us right back into all the crucial moments of our lives.
CM: You must see trends in the kinds of issues people bring to you. What trends do you see among the queer people you work with?
GR: It's hard to generalize. A lot of the people who come to me - queer or otherwise (and a lot of my straight clients are pretty queer) - are aware that the exercise forms of our culture fall short of what we need to be truly healthy. They know that, for example, that emotion and physical experience run together, but they need feedback and ideas to help them integrate and improve their experience of self.
To have comfort and health, we need at least to be able to feel - from feeling the floor under our feet to feeling how someone's reaction to us makes us tighten our necks. Our culture hasn't done a good job of teaching any of us to really feel ourselves, and queer folks least of all, since we were told in profound and unique ways to act against our impulses. Many of my queer clients know this, and are aware of still working on some level to become more fully authentic.
CM: Help me understand the overall process of working with a client. I'm sure it varies, but what's usual in terms of process, length of time in treatment, severity of complaint, and degree of resolution?
GR: As long as we're alive, we are always healing - coming into, and out of, comfort, wellness, and ability. People ask me to step in and give them a boost in a difficult situation, or when they are having trouble moving in the way that they want to. It could be a yoga pose they want to be able to perform, or it could be - literally - that they've fallen and can't get up. Some people want ongoing help to feel fully alive and awake - to live fully - while other people want to be set right in the moment so they can continue on.
My clients and I set goals together. One thing I don't like to do is fix things. I don't think an approach like that respects human experience. It's great when your neck can move again when you couldn't turn it a half hour ago, but if you don't have an idea about why it happened, what it means to you, and how you can maintain your joy and power when you walk out of the room, I don't think I've done my job. I want clients to leave my office feeling more empowered, happy and wiser then they came in.
CM: How did you come to be doing this work?
GR: I always knew how to do bodywork - to work on muscles and bodies in a way that made people feel better. Maybe that had to do with being raised by a very physical Sicilian mother!
I was a modern dancer and I started working on other dancers, casually. Then people just started seeking me out to do this kind of work. I figured I'd better get some training to figure out what the hell I was doing, because it was all intuitive at that point.
I got all kinds of movement and bodywork training, and then I went to chiropractic school. I'm still studying - most recently, Focalizing with Michael Picucci, a body-based approach to resilience in all areas, Rosen work with Heather Brown, a psycho-spiritual bodywork form, Alexander Technique with Joan Arnold, improving alignment and ease of movement... the list goes on. I keep adding new things to keep me open and flexible.
CM: How does your background as a dancer influence your approach?
GR: It's all about movement. Irene Dowd, one of my primary mentors, said that whenever she had a question about a client, her teacher Lulu Sweigard would say, "Did you look at movement?" Everything about the self is reflected in our movement patterns, and I know a problem is resolved when I no longer see it in the person's walking or sitting or whatever.
CM: What advice to you have for queer people about how they relate to their bodies?
GR: Be courageous. Feel your body fully. Seek spontaneity. At work, on the street, alone, in the gym, ask yourself, "Am I having the experience I want to? Is my behavior reactive to an imagined criticism or danger?" And then see how you work with that information.
And, of course, drink plenty of water and call me in the morning.