There are many complaints for which my work is very helpful that the medical system has little to offer. In these situations, medical science is limited by how they frame the person’s problem. If you come in with a painful back for instance a Dr. will send you in for an X-Ray or an MRI to see if structural damage has occurred. If it has, usually they will first send you to physical therapy to stretch and strengthen your muscles around the damage and if that doesn’t sufficiently relieve symptoms and you find yourself unable to live with the pain, surgery will be suggested as your next recourse. This sounds very reasonable to most of us. I’m dreaming of a future with a very different approach.
After being certified in the Feldenkrais Method, the Anat Baniel Method, Mind Body Studies with Mia Segal and Leora Gaster, The Jeremy Krauss Approach for Children, and The Realization Process, and working with literally thousands of people of all ages, I have learned that many of our problems are a function of how we have embodied our experience. To go from dysfunction to desired health requires a change in how we live in our bodies.
To make this more concrete to you let me provide 4 graphic examples from my practice. In these examples I will describe what I saw and felt and how that guided the lesson.
1. Back pain and use of the self
Back pain of 3 years duration in young mom of 3 in her early 30’s the intensity of which has begun to destroy her quality of life.
I had her stand before me with her shoes off. I could immediately see and feel that her left leg was locked at her knee with her muscles up into her left hip and lower back stiff and hard as if she was bracing against an impending impact. Her left hip was slightly higher than her right hip and all the muscles above her left hip into her back and side all the way up to her shoulder were tighter than on her right side.
To get a feeling for what she was doing, stand up and imagine that there is a sharp pebble in your left shoe right below your heel where you put your weight. What would you do assuming that removing the pebble is not an option? Most would lessen the weight pressing on the pebble so as to lessen the pain. If you slow things down as you respond to the imaginary pebble you will notice that you lessen the weight on the pebble by tightening the muscles up your left leg and your entire left side, which in effect lessens your weight on the pebble. This also affects the tilt of your head, the weight on your right leg, how you breathe, turn, sit, and etc.
So this became a habit of her ‘self use’, how she habitually lives in her body, or how she holds herself as she goes about life. Why or when did this happen? It could have been a minor injury in her left foot, ankle, knee or leg years ago, or even a left shoe that more uncomfortable than her right or one of many other possibilities, but we do know that this compensation at some point became habitual, and we know that by eliminating the compensation, her pain will be alleviated. Or as Feldenkrais was wont to say, “Why this happened is an immature question, the more useful question is how can we make things better.”
So through touch and verbal cues designed to help her to become aware of and then let go of her habitual subconscious holding I gradually brought her to a state in which she could make a different choice than figuratively lessening weight on the pebble in her left shoe. So when she stood I helped her to let her weight drop on her left side so that her bones were supporting her instead of her muscular bracing and lifting.
As one of my teachers, Anat Baniel, liked to say, “The perception of differences is the basis of intelligence, learning, and change.” So I helped her to discern what it felt like to be bracing and lifting her left leg and side versus letting it support her naturally. I then told her that if she looked for it she would discover that she habitually lifted her side in all that she did, from waiting on line, to talking on the phone, to reading and writing, to cooking, thinking, being upset or confused, and etc.
So her role in order to be pain free was to first notice how she is creating it in all that she does, and then to utilize what she has learned and experienced in our lesson to let go of the painful holding. She said that she understood what her homework was and we made another appointment for the following week.
Two days later she called me, and with incredulity in her voice, she shared that she discovered for herself that she did in fact lift her left side in everything that she did. She could feel this as a fact. She also reported that she was having success in letting it go. Two days later she called again to cancel our next appointment. It seems that she was no longer suffering from back pain and would no longer be in need of my services.
Feldenkrais loved to say, “If you know what you are doing, you can do what want.” This woman for the first time learned what she was doing to cause her back pain so now she could be pain free. In our society it never occurs to us that we are doing something to create our problems because it occurs on a level of action that we are not trained to be aware of. This level of action does not exist in medical science.
1. Working with a situation where problematic use of self is far from symptom requiring help.
Painful, limiting plantar fasciitis in a young Dr. in his early 40’s
A young handsome Dr. with 2 children working in a big hospital, who had been a runner, now was finding exercise or even playing with his children very uncomfortable. He had consulted with 2 orthopedic colleagues who both recommended structural foot surgeries. This thought which badly scared him led to an internet search for another possibility. Eventually he found Feldenkrais and my listing as the closest available practitioner. When he came to see me I hadn’t worked with anyone with that diagnosis, but was hopeful that I’d discover how he was creating the strain in his feet.
As he stood before me during my discovery phase, I saw something very interesting. His whole body was torqued to the left as if avoiding an oncoming slap to his right cheek. It was as if he was avoiding looking at the world with his left eye. He wore glasses and yes the prescription was stronger for the left eye.
By having his head so far off center it was also severely compromising his balance on his base, his feet. To hold himself steady he had to strongly tighten the muscles of his legs and feet, thereby most probably causing his pain.
Being a doctor, he closely watched me examining him. In observing my body language suggest he realized that I was forming conclusions. He asked what I was thinking. When I shared my hypothesis with him he said that he thought it was one of the wildest most ridiculous things he had ever heard and that he felt as if he shouldn’t have come. I suggested that he do his best to relax with an open mind, try to let go of understanding, and to be as present as he could with the sensations and experiences of our work together during the session. He agreed.
After the session he felt a definite improvement and wanted to make another appointment. I helped him to become aware of his subconscious choices of how he used his eyes, held his head, and how this required tightening his legs and feet to maintain balance. As a radiologist he looked at and evaluated many diagnostic images throughout each working day and his habits of doing so were deeply ingrained and it would be challenging to work on change while maintaining productivity. I gave him suggestions of how to practice both using one eye without causing so much strain throughout this body and how to approach using both eyes while beginning to support his head and neck more centrally.
To make a long story short, he made a full recovery. His parting words to me were both to thank me and ruefully remark that in order to be successful in his career he had better forget the implications of what he had learned from me.
2. Working with an infant with torticollis
6 month old infant. Parents are out of towners who have rented a summer home. Just before they left they had taken their baby girl to their pediatrician who was appalled that the girl wasn’t getting therapy as he said that she had a severe case of torticollis (an observable consistent head tilt characterized by shortened neck muscles). So they were referred to me by friends and agencies in their vacation area.
You might be wondering what type of habits can an infant have, and how is possible to change an infant’s habits? In other words, how can the work as described so far work for an infant?
Well first off, although medical science says that the origin of torticollis is unknown, I have observed certain patterns that leave me confident of its cause. When a child is in utero, movement is constrained by the mom’s posture and how this positions her anatomy. If the mom habitually shortens one side of her torso, the baby will literally be pushed to the other side. This can manifest in an off-center baby bump. If the fetus is snug against the mom’s ribs, all movement in the direction of the ribs or pelvis on that side will be restricted. The fetus’ head might even be tilted the whole time due to how and where he or she is pushed. There is a lot of fetal in utero movement and all brain and movement sensations are developed around this restricted pattern. If a fetus can’t move in a certain direction or can’t move arms or legs, their brain, their self use does not register those movement possibilities. The baby is then born with limitations. These limitations are of a distinct type. They have the muscles and nervous connections necessary to normally develop in all planes, but they are in essence frozen out of those possibilities. They need help to thaw and kindle the fire of connecting motive, movement, and action utilizing that which had been restrained in utero. So a baby is born with habits, and for those thinking ahead, yes torticollis can be treated and prevented while the baby is still in utero by working on the mom.
So the family arrives and I see a very chunky ½ year old girl who is little more responsive or aware of the world around her than a newborn, with her arms bent at the elbows with her hands near her face – a common pattern for children who had little room to move in utero. Her head was way to the right, almost lying on her right shoulder. The Dr. was right, this girl badly needed help. I was as concerned by her lack of use of her hands and arms, and interest in the world around her as by her torticollis. So my goal was to try and free this infant from the invisible prison that was all that she had ever known. The first step was to make friends and get her attention. Through talk, touch, and determining how far away I had to be for her to maintain contact with me I succeeded in connecting with her. Then I slowly started to help her to get to know that she had hands and arms and how to use them. Soon she was reaching to touch my nose in return for a funny noise. “Wow, this girl learns fast!”
Then I started to utilize what we had gained with her arms to extend this movement into her chest, neck, and back while I supported and gently helped her extend her efforts by introducing mussical toy with soothing, but flashing lights. She was now awake in a way that she hadn’t been before, looking, interested, interacting, with her eyes focused and alive. Her mom was having a hard time believing what she was seeing and came over. I gave her the toy and she absentmindedly moved it above her daughter’s head. The girl immediately arched her back and reached over her head for the toy. Now I was having a hard time believing what I was seeing! I no longer had any worry about her development, this infant who been locked in an invisible prison, was now going through developmental milestones at warp speed.
This remarkable girl next came when she was 9 months old. By the end of her session she was doing “bear” (this term refers to when an infant’s only contact with the floor is through their hands and feet, just like how a bear ambles on its 4 paws) and coming up to stand.
This is not meant to suggest that this is a typical time line in treatment, but short time lines are best for shorter explanations of the work.
1. Feldenkrais in pregnancy
Woman in her late 20’s in the 7th month of her 3rd pregnancy. The 1st 2 pregnancies ended in a C-section as the babies’ heads were big and after hours of trying the babies couldn’t make it through her cervix and she was diagnosed as having a pelvis that was too small to ever have a vaginal birth.
When she called and asked if I could help, I honestly replied that I had no idea. If she wanted to try, I’d see if I could find the things that she was doing that might be making delivery more challenging. But I had no idea if I’d find anything.
On the day came and she had taken a 2 hour bus trip and then walked to my office. She obviously had a lot of determination, which I always take as a very positive sign. When there is a strong intelligent will, the way is opened.
I took one look at her and saw that her baby was being pushed way to the right, so far to the right, that I conjectured that the fetus’ head would make contact with her pelvic bones on the way down during giving birth and be directed past her cervix into her pelvis on the other side. In other words, her prior 2 children were born with bruises on their skulls because when she pushed during those labors, their heads were being pushed into her pelvis instead of towards her birth canal. I also discover that the muscles in the area of her pubic bone and sacrum were tight and rigid, the 2 places that must open during labor to allow baby to pass. We began work to bring baby to center, to relearn how to walk and stand so that baby stays central, and to open the places of constriction. I also asked her to make a request of her obstetrician. Given that she has had two C-sections while attempting delivery flat on her back with her legs in the air in stirrups with gravity pulling her fetus toward her spine instead of down and out of her birth canal, that she request that he allow her to try to deliver while squatting. I soon clearly saw that she had to be taught how to squat so that she’d have the balance and strength necessary to give birth squatting in a way that her baby could be pushed down and out instead of to the mother’s right side.
When she came the 2nd time, the baby was still central. Thankfully she had learned to live her life being more equal on both feet. She had had an ultrasound and asked her Dr. if the baby was more central. He let her know in no uncertain terms that it made no difference if a fetus is not in the middle. In any case, he reminded her that she was having a C-section, so it was irrelevant, in any case. Discouraged, but determined, she requested to be allowed to be given the opportunity to give birth squatting. He replied that a vaginal delivery was impossible. When she persisted, he relented a bit and said that he’d give her one hour in which she could squat or do whatever else she wanted, but not to get her hopes up. By this time my hopes were up because her baby was now central, the tightness from the trauma of her two preceding births was receding, and scar tissue was at a minimum with no involvement of abdominal muscular tissue to constrict the birth channel.
She came one more time to extend all of the progress we had already made, and her doula called me to let me know that after a half hour of squatting she had a vaginal birth, to the utter disbelief of her OBGYN and that she, the doula, was pregnant and wanted to come.
So let’s review what medical science would have had to offer these four souls. The mom with the back pain would have been referred out for physical therapy. Her problem was not caused by weak muscles. At best, just by doing exercises out of her normal routine, she might disrupt the pattern of holding just enough to get a respite from her pain. But by not eliminating the true cause and by potentially developing a new layer of holding from the strengthening regime prescribed, she could be creating a worse condition in the future. I see this many times.
The Dr. with the plantar fasciitis was offered a radical surgery which would have had no effect on the effort required to balance himself due to his visual habits and how they unsettled his posture. So after the surgery, his feet would have to recover from the surgery while under tremendous strain from his unbalanced way of standing. To state the obvious, there was nothing wrong with his feet that needed to be corrected, other than that they were under the strain and stress of balance issues caused by how he stood and misused his eyes. The surgery would not correct the original problem and would most likely create new problems in the future.
The infant with torticollis would have been referred out to Early Intervention, a free program sponsored by the state to help children from 0-3 get early help. This wonderful program has dedicated people who will do anything in their power to help the children they serve. Depending on the skill level of those assigned to her she might have just gotten her neck stretched to the other side or some higher level of care. Due to a focus on outcomes to be realized (rolling, crawling, sitting, coming to stand, walking) that are out of the context of how a child learns, the steps involved in such a process, and how children interact with cognitive development, progress is slower and often not as complete.
The prognosis of the mom in her third pregnancy is clear; every birth going forward would have been a C-section.
The scientific method has been based on the successes in physics, chemistry, engineering, and the other physical sciences. At the gross physical level these phenomena are neither alive nor do they possess consciousness. When dealing with conscious life with people, we cannot ignore the effects of how we learn and form habits, how this lives in our bodies and affects our health and wellbeing and how this knowledge can be utilized in both healing and growth.
I am talking about a missing factor in medical science, not a repudiation of its entire corpus. In the above situations, by reaching a level of action that had heretofore been inaccessible through informative touch and talk, desired outcomes were made possible. Today knee and hip replacements are common. When the damage has gotten so severe that there is no alternative other than surgery, I can no longer be of service. But almost everyone who needs such surgeries had foot and leg misalignments that went untreated for many years. If treated early using the methods described above, their knees and hips would not have deteriorated. The same is true for back surgeries, even when dealing with “idiopathic” scoliosis. “Idiopathic” is an aptly chosen medical term that means, of unknown origins. As medical science doesn’t recognize or study self use, the origins of scoliosis as well as torticollis and many other diseases are unknown to them. Scoliosis is not solely a spinal curve, it involves the whole self and can be cured with a knowledgeable, motivated, skillful, and dedicated student and teacher.
I dream of a future where the connections between body, mind, emotions, and spirit is better understood in mainstream healthcare so that alternative and self care can take the place of medical science where appropriate. Where this understanding would be generally accepted even in mainstream healthcare so that all people would have the appropriate and effective healthcare that they need.