The Yoga of Safety & Health

Tried-and-true methods, when creatively applied, can make the old seem new and boost safety and health, as well.

Michael Sears is a soft-tissue injury reduction specialist. He's one of the (too few, from my experience) exceptional breed of chiropractic physicians who, rather than focusing on scheduling ever-ongoing sessions with clients, instead emphasizes self-care and personal control of well-being. Perhaps this is because he's also a restorative Yoga instructor ( www.docbones.com).

Michael has a refreshingly systematic view of injury reduction and high-level safety. This is in sharp contrast to a world where soft-tissue practitioners are often sharply divided between Prevention and Treatment camps (though some medical Treatment people blithely contend their one-approach-fits-all methods works everywhere, with minimum adaptation).

Like his adept college basketball coach who focused on playing both strong offense and defense, Dr. Sears integrates prevention and soft-tissue injury treatment. Michael believes the time is now--with cost containment slamming head-on into spiraling health care inflation, more not fully insured, likelihood of further graying of workforce, need to overcome Presenteeism (working at partial capacity), and other factors--to move from such either/or thinking toward truly combining safety and health paradigms.

His "Offensive" strategy focuses on preventing problems by improving flexibility, relaxation, and position (relationship to gravity), all the while having both a personal as well as a defensive plan for nipping burgeoning problems in the bud.

No rack-em-stack-em-crack-em chiropractor (though in private practice since 1983 and a tester of new Chiropractors for the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners), Dr. Sears envisions himself as a "Convener" helping people become self-adjusting. That is, learning to monitor themselves to make several small changes that reduce the likelihood of cumulative or acute trauma injuries. Someone who brings people together from both the scientific and complementary sides to introduce them to the ancient practices of self-healing, he teaches that we can become more alert and make better decisions (Safety) by developing deeper self-awareness and can also heal ourselves (Health, rehabilitation), that a higher level of safety and health is within everyone's potential control.

His mechanism? In addition to latest soft-tissue physician practices (e.g., creative applications of Vladimir Janda, M.D.'s pioneer work on reducing myofascial pain and dysfunction), Michael teaches Svaroopa Yoga, a system with relatively nonexertive resting postures, as a practical means for both prevention and healing of injury. While there are many styles of Yoga (literally "Yoke," implying self-control), Michael emphasizes his approach is not what many think: no bending into pretzel shapes, no requirement to become an Eastern religion practitioner, no need to either sweat nor become queasy, certainly shouldn't further ratchet up pain and definitely not just a physical practice where your mind can wander bored.

Here are some of his key points that you can apply to soft-tissue safety and health in your company:

1. Understand that soft-tissue problems ("Everything but the bones") can not only be a primary cause of chronic pain, but also contribute to hypertension and cardiovascular disease through inappropriate reactions to the stresses of pain. And medication, while certainly at times helpful, usually just relieves some symptoms but also can hide other growing health problems.

2. Aim for simultaneous objectives of increased range of motion, pain/discomfort reduction, significant improvements in work activity functioning, and enhanced health indices (respiratory function, organ function, sleep effectiveness, immune functioning, and more). All may be either causes or symptoms of soft-tissue problems; by improving these indices, you can simultaneously reduce soft-tissue problems.

3. Soft-tissue safety and health is mental as well as physical. Help workers increase awareness of both environmental signs (what leads to greater physical and mental stress?) and internal cues of tension mounting, dynamic relaxation (using only those muscles needed to accomplish desired task without squandering extra energy). Effective protocols put the mind to work for healing the body.

4. Begin with self-healing rather than totally depending on an outside professional or system. A good first step is a slate of attention control exercises for relaxing the mind while simultaneously building awareness. Help others think of self-interventions as several small moments of tuning in (e.g., checking in for a few seconds to note state of tension in shoulders while talking on the phone), rather than one or two large, time-involved exercises that may be more difficult to actually do.

5. For best and lasting change of actions, combine a. postural balance (relaxed "neutral spine" for "befriending" rather than over-fighting the pull of gravity) with b. teaching critical angles of movement, c. visualization of physical objectives, d. mental relaxation, and e. breath release.

By helping both well and injured people--individually, in groups, and within organizations--elevate their perspective, learn to focus internally on kinesthetic cues, build external awareness, and work with and not against gravity, Michael Sears is catalyzing work- and life-styles that are simultaneously safer and healthier. The time is now for each of us to better balance our Safety and Health.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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