By the time December kicks in and the new year feels poised to strike like a Venus fly trap, I don’t mind looking for some help. When this happened last year, I fortuitously collided with the possibility of taking an evening tai chi class offered by the Quest program at Walla Walla Community College.
There I met instructor Karin Collins, a recent transplant from Seattle and a tai chi practitioner for 20 years. Twice-weekly, hour-long tai chi classes during the winter quarter of school gently began to untangle my ruffled nerves.
From others in the class, I learned that Karin taught a class called MELT, which stands for Myofascial Energetic Length Technique. She taught MELT directly afterward, and from the others' enthusiasm and allegiance to MELT’s magic, I decided in spring quarter to sign up for both back-to-back classes. And that was like layering extra hot fudge on an ice cream sundae.
The duo of classes turned out to be such a treat ... I mean treatment ... for the non-stop drumming of daily demands which can too easily fracture my sense of well-being and positivity and wrack up stress disorders and bodily tensions.
Recently, I met up with Karin who now teaches tai chi and MELT classes on a steady schedule at the Walla Walla YMCA. On the side, she’s got a growing roster of clients seeking private MELT sessions to address chronic pain issues. Karin found tai chi and qigong helpful when she needed to overcome serious health issues, and now her knowledge base and personal practice is helping others get back to feeling well.
I was able to ask her a few questions about her craft.
Lifestyles (LS): MELT and tai chi? What are they about?
Karen Collins (KC): Both MELT and tai chi address the imbalances in our nervous system that we have now as a result of our modern lives. Most of us are too busy, most of us are on our phones or computers all the time. So it’s not surprising chronic imbalances start to show up in the nervous system. When it all starts to snowball, we might get chronic pain, or start getting sick more often. And so tai chi practice and the MELT method both allow the nervous system some time to reintegrate and calm down. Both of them switch us into a recovery mode. After a little bit of sensory experience, a little bit of breath work, a few soft compressions with one of the MELT balls, the nervous system starts to go, "Oh, I’m OK, I’ll be alright." Having these practices, we can do the things that we need to do in the world but we also know how to recover, and we want to give ourselves some space and time to do that.
LS: And you’ve found a receptive audience in Walla Walla?
KC: Yes, it’s as if people were starving or thirsty or both! Response to my classes has been, well, in a way initially that I couldn’t even keep up, it was like, "Oh, my gosh, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to work with this many people over the course of a week." But I’ve sort of settled into it now. In Seattle, where I worked for a very long time, there’s so much cynicism and sarcasm about how we have to live when we live there. Here, I’m meeting people at a completely different place. People are more willing, more interested, curious, willing to investigate, check it out. I feel that maybe I’ve created a bunch of tai chi and MELT addicts, but that’s fine.
LS: Would you describe the tai chi class experience?
KC: In tai chi practice we’re always standing. Tai chi is not necessarily stretching but it creates stretching qualities into it, depending, and I think folks who are dealing with joint issues gravitate toward tai chi because it’s gentle, very gentle on the joints. With tai chi, I try to emphasize that even if you are just doing a breathing practice or a little bit of rocking back and forth, you can call that a tai chi practice because you’re focusing your attention inside, you’re sensing your own self. That sensory experience is primary for tai chi to be beneficial, and then, of course, integrating and learning how to move joints fluidly, move through space fluidly.
LS: What’s the complaint you’re most likely to hear?
KC: I’ve had people gripe that I’ve spent too much time doing warm-ups. And it’s usually very specific because if I take a look around the room and I see people not sitting into their hips correctly, then we’ve got to take the whole room back and start doing those squats again so that we can get that action there. And too much repetition. People get bored. That’s part of the discipline and practice of tai chi — to figure out why we’re bored in the first place, you know, why we can’t be present with the movement?
LS: What’s MELT about?
KC: MELT is a neurofascial treatment, so we are simultaneously balancing the nervous system and treating the connective tissue and the fascia in the body. We integrate soft compression, using different size and density large and soft balls and a special foam roller, to help manipulate or hydrate the connective tissue, mostly superficial layers. But things like that can help to bathe the nerves in fluid so the nerves can communicate either up or down better. A lot of times, for example, neuropathy is a result of something that originates higher up, from the scarring of tissue from a surgery, and MELT is one of the few things I’ve found that helps with actual neuropathy, in some cases. MELT folks generally come from some pain issues because we do focus on MELT being a solution for chronic pain.
LS: What would you like to see next?
KC: I’ve been practicing tai chi for 20 years, it’s amazing. Quite frankly, a lot of the training that I’ve done, I haven’t been able to practice because I don’t have people here to train with. Tai chi in the beginning needs to be a really isolated and personal experience, but then the training gets bigger because tai chi is not just about doing a solo form; it’s really a martial art. A lot of my training is advanced, but not well practiced right now. So I want to integrate, I want to bring the two-person tai chi work here. I have a bunch of wooden swords, and tai chi sword form is my favorite thing in the world to do. It’s just so beautiful and graceful and it’s like a cartoon inside your head if you want it to be. But it’s fun. I’m hoping next year I can do a special workshop for sword.