Saturday, May 5, 2007

Linking and Unlinking Mind and Body

Abby, Denise and I were leaving the gym together after class this week when Denise asked, “Is Feldenkrais good for relieving stress? There’s so much going on in my life right now, and I am waking up with my jaw clenched.” She demonstrated. “It’s so intense.”

Denise is new; this week’s class had been her third. Abby is an old-timer; she has been coming for several years.

I was just opening my mouth to respond, when Abby jumped in. “Let me say something, Maureen.”

Turning to Denise, Abby said, “I began several years ago with group classes, and at the same time I did a series of individual sessions. I got a lot out of them. I remember one session especially, when I came in and my arm was really bothering me.”

After a little pause, Abby turned to me and said, “Maureen, I think we know each other well enough by now that I can say this.” Looking again at Denise she said, “Maybe I was complaining, but that day Maureen was pretty short with me. She touched me in a couple places and said, ‘It’s because you’re tense all over.’ The way she said it … well, it stung. But that was probably good because it made me shoot back, ‘That’s because I am dealing with a lot of stress right now!’

Turning again to look at me, Abby said, “And then you said the most amazing thing, Maureen. You said, ‘Well, maybe your body doesn’t have to get all knotted up just because your mind and your emotions are upset.’

Abby continued: "That was the most amazing idea to me! I had always thought, not consciously of course, that if you’re upset, your shoulders just have to go up to here,” and she pulled her shoulders up and her head forward and made her face tense. It looked pretty bad! Then she let that go.

I said, “Yeah! Usually in Feldenkrais we’re working on connecting the mind to the body, but it’s also to good to learn how to disconnect them. The body doesn’t have to always get tense when the mind is upset. It could be that the mind is upset – that’s how it is – but the body stays relaxed.”

Abby responded, “I’ve thought about that a lot. It’s a big job! But I’m working on it, and it’s making a difference for me.”

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Whole Body Integration

Here is a quote from Moshe Feldenkrais:

An action becomes easy to perform and the movement becomes light when the huge muscles of the center of the body do the bulk of the work and the limbs only direct the bones to the destination of the effort. (1)

As you can see in the photo, the woman is reaching for something with her left hand. She is also pushing with her right foot, rolling toward the reaching side, elongating her belly muscles and shifting her chest forward so she can more easily bring her head backward. The right arm helps to pull her head backward, and her eyes focus on her hand.

I find the quote and the woman's movement beautiful.

Healthy children have this coordination naturally. Through various causes in growing up, those “huge muscles” in the center of the body quit being activated, and the person -- you and me! -- becomes stiff. And then the smaller muscles have to take on “the bulk of the work.” It’s too much for them.

Feldenkrais is a way to re-active those central parts of yourself, regain beautiful, integrated movement and reduce strain on the smaller body parts.

(1) Feldenkrais, Moshe. Awareness through Movement. New York: Harper & Row, 1972, p 91.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Staying cool during an MRI

After class this morning Darlene told me a story. She began by holding her hands up near her face and saying, “I figured I could count to 5,000 on my fingers.”

A couple weeks ago, during the break between Quarters, Darlene had an MRI. Because she was worried about it in advance, she had made a plan: she would use her long-time, personal strategy of counting on her fingers.

Darlene did count, and in 50 minutes she got almost to 5000.

But Darlene needed more than counting. She hadn’t anticipated the clanging; the noise was awful. She knew the space would be small, but her claustrophobia was worse than expected. The technician inserted dye into her right arm, and she could feel the warmth of it as it moved through her body; it was creepy.

In response to all this, Darlene felt her jaw tense, her shoulders hunch, and her abdominal muscles tighten. Breathing was coming to a halt.

Then a memory kicked in! At the beginning of each Feldenkrais class, which Darlene has been taking for about 5 years, I ask the students to lie on their back, close their eyes, sense themselves, and relax any tensions that are not needed while lying down.

It was a breakthrough for Darlene when she realized: “Being in this tube is just like being in the beginning of the Feldenkrais class!” She closed her eyes and directed her mind to focus on relaxing all her body parts.

Memories of the class came back, and through the associations she felt the tensions ease and herself growing calm. By the end, the MRI tube wasn’t such a bad place. And she didn’t go out of her mind with the clanging or with the anxiety.

Thank you, Darlene, for sharing this story. It helps us all to be reminded that, often, when the natural response is to tense, the better response is to relax. And it does help to have practiced in advance.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Correction is perceived as error

After class this week Helen told me a story.

Helen is in her mid-thirties. She sits at a computer all day. A year ago she came to me for private lessons because her hands were numb.

In a few sessions, I was able to show her that the problem in the hands came, in the first place, from her neck. When she looked at the screen, she craned her head forward. Secondly, she was collapsed in her torso, and this also brought the head forward. The misalignment was cutting off the blood supply into her hands.

With each session, the tensions eased, her alignment improved, and circulation returned to her hands.

After a while Helen shifted into the group class. Week by week she felt herself relaxing in her life and better able to sustain good posture on the job.

Within this context Helen told me the following story.

“This past weekend," she said, “I was at a party. I was standing quietly by myself when I noticed a very pretty woman, about ten years younger than me. Her smile was so beautiful. And she had the most amazing upright posture.

My own posture has improved, Maureen, but I know I still hunch, somewhat.

As I observed this younger woman, something funny happened. My body slowly straightened up. I could feel it happening. It was like my body was following a cue she gave. For a moment I just stood there, taller and with a lift chest. I was looking around me from a higher place. It felt a little odd, and also good. It was like I was trying something on. Then a voice inside said, ‘But that’s not you.’ Slowly the better posture collapsed – I could feel it! I returned to what felt familiar.”

“Oh, my gosh!” I said to Helen. “This is what Feldenkrais meant when he said, ‘Correction is perceived as error.’

Sorry, Helen, the phrase is a little stiff. But what he meant was that the new thing, although one could agree, objectively, that it is better, feels wrong. It feels like ‘not I.’

“Just continue,” I said. “From my own experience, I know that with repetition, gradually, to the new and better way, that little voice inside will say, “This is me.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The whole system

One of the axioms of the Feldenkrais work is that the whole body is a system.

As an idea, this may seem simple, but to make it effective in practice takes detective work.

Claire, a professional woman in her 50’s, came in this week and said, “Oh, thank you, Maureen, for last week. I have been remembering to stretch out my left ribs, and my neck feels so much better.”

I was glad to hear it.

Do you know what’s the connection?

The previous week Claire had come in and after the briefest hello, and while rubbing the right side of her neck, had reported, “Maureen, this weekend was so bad. My neck just seized up.”

She shared that after a full work week she had taken a long drive to spend the weekend with family. On Saturday morning there she was having fun with everyone, except that her neck was killing her. Over the course of the next few days, some of the tension eased up by itself, but now, home and back at work, she still hurt.

What could I do about it?

I asked Claire to walk. I saw my clue right away.

Claire was holding contraction in the left ribs. It wasn’t extreme, but the desired fluid shift among the central muscles was missing. The contraction naturally pulled the head to the left. But Claire didn’t want to walk lopsided. So, something inside – some part of the brain – automatically pulled on the right neck muscles. They brought her head to the middle. But the tactic overworked the neck muscles, and they hurt.

I asked Claire to lie down on my table. I explored what was happening in those left ribs. The muscles were tight! They were happy to let go! When Claire stood, she felt that she was taller and that her neck was fine.

Over the next week, the left side contraction would come back in again. But Claire noticed it. She could move in a certain way and let it go.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Most of the people who come to me for private sessions are motivated by pain. As we work through the pathways that bring about relief, usually the person starts to feel a fuller breath. First a small improvement comes, and then more. A big breath means a big relief!

Today I was winding up a lesson with Maria. After having been lying on the table for a while, she was sitting and looking off into the distance, feeling that bigger breath, and enjoying it.

She turned to me and said, “You know sometimes when I am sitting someplace and wondering what I should do next, I say to myself, ‘Now you have time to just breathe.’

But then another voice inside challenges me, ‘You are not being productive!’

To this the first voice responds, ‘Yes, I am! I am producing calm, and well-being.’ ”

I added, “And these are in short supply.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Lie on your back

Most Feldenkrais classes begin with the instruction: “Lie on your back.”

Why is this so?

For regular students, the answer is obvious: “Because it feels good!”

There is also a deeper reason: to be sensitive you have to be relaxed.

In this context, relaxed means that your muscles are not activated for exertion. Especially the extensors, which are along the back, should be resting and quiet.

In his book The Potent Self, Feldenkrais talks about his thinking process behind this starting position:

“The most complete elimination of the extensors in an act of spatial orientation would in fact be a complete contrast with our habitual experience and as little as possible associated with normal activity. Furthermore, the effort involved should be the smallest possible so that we can distinguish the slightest variations in muscular effort. For all sensations are so related to their causes that the slighter the cause, the smaller is the change that can be sensed. If we lift a heavy weight, for example, we cannot tell whether a sheet of paper is stuck beneath it or not. But on lifting a single sheet of paper we know at once if another one is stuck to it or not. Similarly, in daylight we do not notice a light bulb shining. But in the dark we can see the glow of a cigarette. Near an airplane, we cannot hear anything because of the propeller noise; in complete silence we can hear a fly or our own breath. Thus the intensity of the stimulus must be reduced if we want to become aware of small changes.” (1)

Taking this thinking into action, Feldenkrais developed a large number of movement sequences, which he called lessons and which students perform mostly while lying down, although sometimes in upright positions.

For example, a lesson might ask you to lie on your back and move your arms and head in one coordination and then in another. You are asked at the same time, “Please notice how you feel while doing it the first way, and the second.” Since you are able to do both, the distinction is usually small, but one way is preferable. By paying attention, you refine your ability to discriminate between these small differences and to make the choices that are best for you. Gradually, these awarenesses accumulate and deepen, and you find yourself moving in a way that makes you feel better.

Often, a whole lot better!

(1) Feldenkrais, Moshe. The Potent Self. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985. Page 135.