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Stretching beyond the limit

With time and practice, the gains from yoga shine through

By Linda Zlatkin

Benjamin Gibson wasn’t doing very well in 2004. At the age of 33, the investment banker was waking up most mornings unable to move his neck. Often, his spine would crack. Popping Advil was his solution — until he discovered yoga.

“Today, five years later, my aches and pains are gone,” he says. “I knew that if I didn’t actively remediate my problem, I would eventually get a herniated disk.”

The Old Montreal resident began with Bikram Yoga in a heated room of 40 C, and now goes to the Moksha Yoga Studio on St. Laurent.

“I like the flowing aspect of it,” he says. “This helps to increase your mobility in your shoulders, spine and hips. That’s where my challenges were.”

For anyone who has never tried yoga, with its series of poses, stretches and regulated (some say nourishing) breathing exercises, it may seem intimidating at first.

But Melanie Richards, founder and director of Yoga Happy Tree in Westmount, says reaping the benefits is something you really can’t understand until you actually try it.

“Becoming more flexible is a gradual process,” she says. “How can you ever expect to get more flexible unless you actually stretch and do the work on a consistent basis?”

The back pain most people experience, says Richards, happens over time so it takes time to undo the damage. The gradual stretching of yoga poses extends the body and increases one’s flexibility, a process that produces the kind of results seen by Julian Giacomelli.

Julian Giacomelli, 40, has scoliosis (curvature of the spine). At the age of 18, he underwent major surgery where two 10-inch Harrington metal rods were placed along his spinal column, while seven of his vertebrae were fused together. At one time he wasn’t able to sit still.

“Yoga has grounded me,” says Giacomelli, who has been practicing the ancient art for 10 years.

“What caught my passion was that it made me feel so much better after every class — right from the beginning. It gave me a chance to allow more energetic movements to flow through my spine. However, it took about five years of concentrated practices to see a change in my body form.”

Giacomelli, who now teaches yoga at various studios in Montreal, says he has resolved most of his chronic back pain. “After my back operation, the sensitivity in my back had pretty much shut down,” he explains. “Yoga has had the interesting effect of uncovering and sensitizing me to my back issues.”

Today, he is 25 pounds lighter and his whole body shape has changed. And although he still experiences some pain on certain days, it is just background noise.  

Different types of yoga styles suit different people and Giacomelli recommends checking out to see what’s available. A good base is Ashtanga yoga. “Through Ashtanga yoga, you develop heat on your own and there are many therapeutic benefits,” explains Giacomelli. “I think hot yoga can be very therapeutic, too.”

Sara Gallagher of Moksha Yoga in NDG practices “hot yoga.” “Part of why we heat the room to 38 C is to make ourselves more malleable for the workout,” she says.

“What you do is breathe your body open and if you’re stiff, the practice really opens up the energy channels in your body.”

For someone who has back pain, small improvements can be found in every practice. “As you link your movements with your breath, you gradually strengthen and lengthen the muscles that are parallel to your spine. However, people need to realize that it depends on how long you’ve had the pain. If you’ve had it for 10 to 15 years, it’s not going to dissolve in two to three classes.”

For people, with arthritis and injuries, Richards of Yoga Happy Tree says you may also want to try Yin Yoga. “This is an intense stretch that lasts longer — from about two to five minutes — so it helps to heal your connective tissue called fascia which covers your joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles and bones.”

McGill University graduate student Jenna Preston started with hot yoga and has now included Yin.

“It makes me feel really healthy, stretched out and relaxed. I used to wake up at night from chronic back tightness, perpetuated by the tightness in my legs from running and inadequate stretching,” says blissful Preston.

“Now I’m sleeping through the night and not waking up with my back feeling pinched.”


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