Bob Cooley’s Gift of Flexibility
Explorations in Health with Santa Barbara’s Newest Bodywork Guru
It’s late morning on a Thursday, and my legs are being ripped apart in a small, brilliantly sunlit building just off Santa Barbara Street. Seven people have their hands on me, pulling and pushing my body parts to and fro as an instructor encourages me to resist their efforts with all my might.
My hips and hamstrings scream with a blend of pain and pleasure; my torso, held against a wooden board by both hands and straps, writhes with conviction. As the dance of pulling and pushing and resisting deepens, a strangely hot and thick sweat builds from my insides out as my brain becomes acutely aware of the physical process of thinking. I feel something breaking inside of me — a good sort of break, accompanied by an oddly calming rush of fear and exhilaration that rises with each breath and torque of my limbs.
I’m at least five minutes past my comfort zone when the instructor tells everyone to stop and commands me to get up and “see how that feels.” As I rise from the mat, my surroundings fade away, and, for the first time in years, I stand effortlessly, without pain or cracking bones or popping joints. “I feel perfect,” I report with a giggle and stupid grin, “completely perfect.”
It’s been five months since I first met Bob Cooley, and in that time I’ve made more progress in a long and twisting road back to health than in my previous three years combined. As readers of this newspaper may recall, the fates dealt me a rather disappointing hand a few years back, with the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and a rare form of pancreatic cancer — the headliners in a long list of wicked health fuckery. The tremendous team of doctors and healers working on my behalf are the only reason I’m alive today, but I’m increasingly convinced that my work with Cooley — a blue-eyed, intense, rollerblading-addicted, song-and-dance-loving, profanity-inclined, and occasionally harsh 66-years-young mad scientist of kinesiology — is why I am living so surprisingly well.
I’ve not felt this sound in mind, body, soul, and spirit for at least half a decade, a notion that was reinforced on my most recent visit to see my Stanford-based doctors. “Wow, you look amazing,” said one of the oncologists immediately after I walked through the door. “What the heck have you been doing?”
The answer is found in Cooley’s studio just behind La Playa Azul Café on the northeast corner of El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, and it’s likely the most bizarre, interesting, deeply restorative thing I’ve ever encountered during my 37 years on this planet.
The Origin Story
Officially called Resistance Flexibility and Strength Training (RFST), this sophisticated Frankenstein of yoga, Chinese medicine, psychology, and strength training isn’t necessarily anything new. For years, it’s been used by world-class athletes as a semisecret workout weapon, perhaps most famously by Dara Torres, the American swimmer who, at the age of 41, won three silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics thanks largely to her work with Cooley. Then there’s the long list of Hollywood and business-world A-listers who’ve had Cooley fix everything from chronic injuries and autoimmune diseases to overinflated waistlines and blown-out knees. (Confidentiality agreements prevent disclosure of client names, but many have singular, household names, some living right here on the South Coast.)
Yet with an emphasis on perfecting methods rather than raising the public profile, RFST remains largely unknown to the public at large, despite nearly three decades of small miracles, growing ranks of trained instructors, a book published by Simon & Schuster, and two bustling studios on either end of the continent. “I think it is hard for the mainstream to grasp the idea that one approach can help an acute injury as well as your psychology as well as chronic disease as well as your emotional health,” explained Cooley. “It is a mind-bending concept, to say the least, and big leap for most people to make.”
Cooley, who was born in Virginia, opened his first kinesiology think tank in Boston in the 1970s. And, though he dabbled as a math and quantum physics professor at the University of Massachusetts and Williams College for a handful of years, his obsession with body mechanics has been his guiding light ever since. The journey took a severe turn when, at the age of 28, Cooley and his friend Pam Mitchell were hit by a car going 70 mph while they were walking along Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Mitchell was killed instantly, and, though doctors and surgeons put Cooley back together, he was anything but healed.
In time, with his outward wounds healed, Cooley once again seemed the model of health, running more than 100 miles a week and swimming every day, a regimen he hoped would renew his sense of well-being. He also intensified his studies of anatomy and physiology, contacting experts from around the world in hopes of better understanding the situation. But with chronic pain worsening, a digestive system failing, and heart ailments continuing to plague his life, Cooley felt that he was dying on the inside. “The pain became unmanageable, and I just knew I was fucking dying,” recalled Cooley with palpable anger, explaining that the traditional physical therapy just didn’t work. “Eventually, I came to the conclusion that what I needed was to get flexible. I needed immediate and cumulative and lasting changes in my flexibility.”
And so Cooley started stretching with a borderline psychotic level of commitment. “I would do the same yoga pose for 12 hours a day, sometimes longer,” he said. “Almost immediately, I noticed specific effects on my body from specific stretches, so I kept going. I wanted desperately to come back to life, and I knew this was the way. I didn’t want to be dead inside anymore.”
During this monk-like phase, Cooley fine-tuned his methods and observations, eventually reaching out to a friend in California to share his findings. When he explained to her that intense stretching of certain muscles was improving things like his digestion and bladder control, she told him about Chinese medicine’s concept of meridians. Invisible networks that crisscross the body and are associated with specific organs, meridians serve as the road map for acupuncture. Needles placed along the correct meridian, for instance, can address imbalances in your liver.
Cooley had discovered that stretching the soft tissues along that same meridian would similarly benefit your liver. “I realized that maybe none of this was new,” he admitted, “but I was discovering it for myself, and I didn’t want to be distracted from my fucking path by preconceived notions. I hung up on her and got back to stretching.”
The next quantum leap was when Cooley, inspired by the stretching rituals of dogs and cats, added muscle tension to his stretches. “That is when things really started to take off,” he said. “I was getting very real and predictable results both physically and psychologically.” He started working with other people in his Boston studio. “I’d get 45 people in a room, have them all do the same stretch for an extended period of time, and then talk about what they were experiencing,” he explained. “The results were undeniable and very much predicted by my own experiences.”
RFST was born.
Becoming Flexible in All Ways
At the root of Bob Cooley’s work is fascia, a nerveless and dense connective tissue that permeates our entire body, surrounding organs and muscle groups from head to toe. As Cooley sees it — and he’s not alone in this view — fascia stores all of our traumas, both physical and emotional, and this buildup leads to denser tissue that eventually impacts our organs, our movements, and our overall health. As Cooley is fond of saying, “Everything you do is reflected in your fascia. Your whole life is in there.”
The problem is that extra-dense fascia, which cannot be detected by x-ray or MRI, doesn’t go away without intervention. So, in the same vein as rolphing or myofascial release techniques, RFST is designed to break up the excess fascia and free your body and mind from their burden. “Most people think about flexibility as a range of motion,” said Cooley. “But for us, it is all about the health of the tissue as you move through that range of motion.”
This is the essence of his work. By adding resistance to stretches — typically with trainers pushing or pulling your limbs as you move through various positions — RFST simultaneously lengthens and contracts a muscle. This directly assaults your fascia, breaking it down, transfiguring what remains, and allowing for oxygen and fluids to flow into the tissue. When you consider this rejuvenation of fascia in concert with the Chinese medicine meridians it is occuring along, you can start to see how RFST offers such sweepingly holistic benefits.
But that’s only half the battle for Cooley. Starting with those stretching sessions in Boston two decades ago, Cooley slowly developed an underlying theory of human psychology that’s Jungian in nature, although probably too mystic for the mainstream. “I would have people stretching in a pose that was along their small intestine meridian and suddenly the whole room would start to have similar personality traits,” said Cooley matter-of-factly. “I would change the pose to the liver meridian, and everyone would change accordingly to a new set of personality traits.” The same happened when he did gallbladder pose, the kidney pose, the spleen pose, and so forth. “They would all use similar words and phrases to describe each individual experience,” he recalled. “People have always talked about a mind-body connection, but, really, it is a body-mind connection.”
Today, Cooley believes that there are 16 types of people in the world, each with a corresponding and defining organ. Each type comes with a predictable set of “high” and “low” personality traits that can be impacted with purposeful stretching, and each type has a unique and predictable relationship with the other 15 types. In practice, certain personalities trend toward specific physical and emotional issues, which can be addressed by focusing on the dense fascia along the meridians of the associated organs. It’s holistic medicine on steroids, and a worldview that can color everything you do and every relationship you have.
Understandably, most aren’t willing to buy in at first blush, or at all. “I have no problem if someone doesn’t believe in what I am doing,” said Cooley, whose defiant tone indicates he is no stranger to naysayers. “This work isn’t based on belief. It is based on experience. Let me or some of my instructors stretch you out and tell me what fucking happens. Does it work or not? I have no interest in doing something that doesn’t work.”
Santa Barbara Connection
Last fall, with no real publicity or fanfare, Bob Cooley opened his Santa Barbara studio in a recently redeveloped, sustainably designed building that features 360-degree natural light, a large kitchen, and a steady stream of group and private stretching sessions. But Cooley first came to Santa Barbara back in October 2012, thanks to one of our region’s most beloved yoga teachers, Eddie Ellner.
The man behind the cultish-ly popular yoga-lifestyle center Yoga Soup, Ellner discovered Cooley through a yoga-teaching friend in New York and soon traveled to Boston for a weekend to check it out himself. He wound up staying for two weeks. “There were things that happened in my body during that initial visit that were just, whaaaaat?!” remembered Ellner. “I could tell immediately that this was the right, next direction. I still cannot believe how much help it has given and continues to give me.”
Ellner invited Cooley to Santa Barbara, and he began to come regularly with a half-dozen or so instructors to put on an intensive workshop at Yoga Soup as well as some private sessions. Ellner also started incorporating RFST into his classes. “I was doing it the wrong way back then,” said Ellner, “but even the wrong way was powerful.” Eventually, two advanced RFST instructors, Nick Ware and Luther Cowden, decided to stay and move into Ellner’s house. The migration was underway.
That’s when I first learned of Bob Cooley and his work. I was in the throes of illness, my body shutting down, and doctors struggling to properly diagnose let alone figure out a course of treatment for me. Friends and friends of friends were offering up all manner of suggestions, including advice to see Cooley. But before I could act on it, my health took a nosedive, leaving the scalpel my only immediate option. I forgot all about Cooley for about two years. Then his center opened, and I was once again advised to seek him out.
My first visit was intense and, to be honest, off-putting. Cooley, who now splits his time between Boston and Santa Barbara, is as likely to be harsh in his assessment of people as he is supportive and pulls no punches in delivering his evaluation of you. Some, I am certain, wouldn’t hesitate calling him an asshole. There is a steep learning curve in getting to know the quirks of his personality. For example, after 15 minutes of stretching only my right arm, he told me in a practically condescending nature, “I know why you got sick.” Such declarations are outright offensive to folks in the Big C Club, and I am no exception.
But I bit my tongue, kept an open mind, and returned for a second session and then a third. I learned long ago that quick fixes are nothing more than marketing spin so kept working with Cooley and/or his instructors at least twice a week, and, by the end of the first month, things began to happen. My body tingled with a sense of liveliness I hadn’t felt in years. Neurological damage that had left numbed my lower left leg and foot and kept them a half step behind the rest of me began to improve. Hip pain that I’d long since resigned myself to living with began to abate. The good feelings lasted longer after each session. And others took notice, too, including my wife, friends, and coworkers, who started commenting on how healthy I looked. But I could barely slow down to listen — I was too busy enjoying my renewed self.
The biggest surprise was what was happening to my mind. The anxiety and busy-brain syndrome that had plagued me since childhood — and increased tenfold since my cancer — began to calm. There’s no way I would have believed it if I wasn’t living it, but the bodywork was helping me both intellectually and emotionally, and interfacing with the world became easier. Since that first session with Cooley, I’ve been reclaiming a vitality of body and spirit that I had thought disease had taken from me forever, one stretch at a time.