Paul Sherman celebrates two birthdays. The day he was born, 41 years ago and his rebirthday, the day he was brought back to life after being dug out of an avalanche at McGillvray Pass by his companions, blue in the face and unconscious.
He was 35 the day he spent 20 minutes buried under the snow — “when the snow stopped moving it got heavy and dark for longer than I can remember” — and already suffering the aches and pains of any athlete who’d raced competitive BMX as a kid, taught skiing for a living and kayaked at a pretty elite level. But after the avalanche, he was pretty broken — his shoulder and hip both so damaged that his surgeon told him to stop doing anything physical at all.
Last Monday, I dropped into his stretching class in Squamish.
It was really freaking hard.
But afterwards, I felt taller, lighter and tired out in the best possible way.
The ELDOA exercises Sherman coached us through are about creating space within your joints and decompressing your spine through myofascial release — that is, stretching the bag of connective tissue that your bones and muscles are sheathed in.
He’s been offering the classes in North Vancouver, Squamish and Whistler over the past year, working with Whistler Blackcomb Snow School instructors, at lululemon, with clients and athletes and the broken, chronically back-achey and desperate, slowly exposing people to this different approach to stretching.
It’s kind of like awkward yoga.
There’s something about the way Sherman says, “don’t stop until I tell you to stop,” that motivated us all to push and shake and grimace our way to the end of each posture. Maybe it’s the accent. Or maybe it’s that he is walking proof of the effectiveness of stretching your fascia.
A Scottish physiotherapist by training, the avalanche put Paul on a journey to self-healing that went deeper than any degree he’d completed, and drives him still, even though he’s now mountain biking, skiing, paddling and climbing as if nothing had happened.
Sherman’s education path had been unconventional from the beginning. He walked out of high school at 16 to go skiing, but realized, after 12 years of that, as he was starting to feel the wear and tear on his knees, that it wasn’t physically sustainable. Given the amount of time he was spending in physiotherapy he figured that would be the path. So he went back to finish high school — at the age of 28.
Ten years later, a chance encounter with Dr. Guy Voyer, a French osteopath, taught Sherman that he didn’t know anywhere nearly as much about the human body as he thought. Right under his skin, in the connective tissue that shrink-wraps the entire human anatomy, was the solution to his chronic, post-avalanche pain.
Fascia is so widespread throughout the body that original anatomists would just peel it off, so they could see what was underneath, get to the good stuff — the muscles and ligaments and bones. It took one radical thinker to undo 500 years of medical thinking, and say, hang on, this stuff we’re peeling away, that appears to be connected to everything, might it actually be important?
It also took one guy, who refused to take “sorry, you’re just going to have to live with the pain” for an answer, to bring it here. Sherman is now a student of Voyer’s, travelling around the world to study under him and master his understanding of the way the body works, to bring back to a client base here in the Sea to Sky.
The other day, my partner and I were arguing about our parenting strategies, in front of the kid, and I suddenly glimpsed the wide-eyed, wide-eared little boy quietly taking it all in, and thought, maybe we should take this into another room. Workshop in private. Come back, united, clear and confident, and lay that on the lad.
Too late. But in hindsight, maybe it’s OK that he sees how uncertain we are. Maybe, he’s learning how to be a human from us. A flawed one, but one willing to work on it. To stretch himself even if it’s uncomfortable. To sweat and grimace and look weird and then to laugh about it.
Maybe, as Sherman (and so many other amazing teachers and coaches and healers and counsellors in this neighbourhood prove), it’s our willingness to tackle our own brokenness that truly gives us the power to help others.
For the stretching schedule and more information about myofascial stretching, check out Paul Sherman’s website: www.functionalsi.com, or follow him on Facebook by searching functional structural integration.
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