Using the Feldenkrais Method for emotional, physical and mental wellbeing

International Feldenkrais Week.

This week celebrates Moshe Feldenkrais’ birth, over a century ago in war-torn Russia. His youth was a time of civil war, pogroms against Russian Jews, and at the age of 13 he walked across wartorn Europe to Italy, collecting children as he went to find safety in the Holy Land, then Palestine.

Whilst Feldenkrais was interested in self defence, and martial arts- first as a member of the Haganah,(a Jewish defence group in the 20s in then Palestine; as one of the first western Judo masters, when in France; as co-creator of what we now know as Krav Maga. And yet the Feldenkrais Method he created, is teaching people how to live in the world, find their autonomy and self trust, and live their unavowed dreams.

My Story

I discovered Feldenkrais over twenty years ago by accident on a music course. A time when I wasn’t really sure what I was doing, or how much value I added to the world. And I certainly didn’t imagine that I would be teaching this, or helping to run the UK professional body twenty years later.

In my twenties I was finding my way from a challenging childhood. I’d spent much of it in hospitals, and had more operations than birthdays. I was born with a cleft palate, and other complications, my parents were told I’d never walk, talk or hear at birth, and they could leave me at the hospital if she liked. I was bullied at school: not only did I speak with a speech impediment, and look different, I was terrible at sports, and clever. My saving grace was music. Children who played in orchestra didn’t seem to be as cruel as the other children at school.

Going to the shops, I would have to deal with strangers who would make faces at me, and squash their nose to look “like mine”. If I spoke to ask them to stop, they would mimic my speech impediment. And that was just the adults! To my face, from across the street, it didn’t seem to matter where I was, people were mean. How I looked, or how I spoke. Nothing was too petty. There’s only so much ignoring you can do. The cruelty seeps in. People treated me like an idiot because I spoke funny, or couldn’t be bothered to listen to what I said, only how I said it.

By the time I was 16, I had had enough. At one appointment, when the surgeons suggested delaying surgery again, I told them I couldn’t wait, I wouldn’t make it. So my Mum and I travelled to London, and I had 6 odd hours of restorative surgery to move my jaw forwards, to change the way I looked. To make me look normal.

It was excruciating, even with large amounts of morphine. I spent 12 weeks with a “halo”- a gold frame cemented around my teeth, my jaws wired together, attached to a metal frame drilled into my head to hold the top jaw in place whilst it healed. The extra room in my top jaw created with a bone graft, taken from my ribs.

I wasn’t allowed to talk, and was told if I didn’t take that seriously the operation might fail. (Sadly it did for the girl in the opposite bed to me, for that reason). Luckily my sister had taught us the most basic signs in Makaton (a simplified sign language), so I could tell my mother I was hungry or needed the loo without speaking! The nurses took a while to catch on to how she knew when I couldn’t say anything!

Self Image.

Finally, at some point post operation I was shown a mirror. It is one of the strangest things to not recognise yourself. My eyes were the same, but not much else. When I looked in the mirror I literally had no idea what to expect. I remembered my old face, and yet when I looked, someone else looked back at me. In the beginning it was shocking, even when I was expecting it. Then there was a phase where I wasn’t expecting my old face, but I couldn’t yet remember the new one, which was also changing weekly as the swelling went down. Eventually, the new one began to feel like mine.

It changed my life. From the outside I no longer looked strange. People who would ignore me prior when I said hello, started talking to me. Boys, for the first time were interested, rather than me being some point scoring kind of game to pretend to flirt with. And to be honest, the best thing was that strangers stopped mimicking me in the street. I could pass as normal.

I was different on the outside, so people treated me differently, but on the inside I hadn’t changed. Having a new face hadn’t changed my self image. I felt the same on the inside. I was not my face. I was not what the world saw. Having this fundamental realisation was difficult, I had to realise that how I looked wasn’t the cure-all remedy I had imagined it would be before the operation. “Who am I” was something more internal, more than face-deep.

My childhood had been full of dealing with huge amounts of physical pain, rehab: re-learning to walk and speak many times over; emotional pain with years of constant bullying. I was still the scarred, defiant, “ugly duckling” for whom life was difficult. One of my aunts said recently that it was unbelievable how well I had dealt with it. I suggested she leant a little harder on the unbelievable!

I hadn’t learnt the skills I needed as an adult. My skillset was survival: crisis management, pain management, pushing through, ignoring physical and emotional pain to keep going. I felt like a warrior that wasn’t equipped for peacetime. At the same time as having a new face, I left home for music college, surrounded by people whose experience of life was so incredibly different to mine.

Holland

So fast forwarding into my mid twenties. I was living in Holland and was diagnosed with IBS. I couldn’t go to the shops without needing to go home and go to sleep. The doctor, in true Dutch blunt style told me he thought it was psychosomatic. As each blood test and every other kind of test came back negative, I was grumpily forced to consider his point of view, and that perhaps he was right. Feldenkrais says “we act in accordance with our self-image”. I was still in my old one.

I went off to see Monique, a dutch therapist, who worked with mind and body together: she worked with me both physically (undoing tension in my neck, and seeing the impact of relaxation in my bowels), and verbally, talking about psychological concepts that I hadn’t ever thought about before. It was eye opening. It was the first time anyone had suggested that what my childhood experience might have left mental as well as physical scars: she diagnosed me with PTSD from the sheer amount of operations I had had.

Discovering Feldenkrais

It was at that point I came across Feldenkrais. By accident, whilst at a music course. And it blew my mind. (I’ve talked about that more in my “about me” page) It was at the same time, I returned to the UK, to be nearer my family. 

When I got back to London, I looked for a teacher, and had my first hands-on lesson with Scott Clark. I felt seen and held, in a curiously dispassionate yet compassionate way. He listened to, but didn’t dwell on the labels that I had been given by the medical profession, which I found curious. For the first time perhaps, I wasn’t seen as a problem-child, with a litany of medical problems, but as a whole person.

In a hands-on lesson, the movement is created hands on, kinesthetic questions are asked, much of it is quiet, (although in the first sessions I asked Scott to talk to me whilst he moved me, I needed to be clearly included in the conversation. Silently moving me was too reminiscent of the huge number of medical hands I had been in.)

I don’t remember what he said, only that he moved me in a way that felt like a conversation, and listened to me when he asked a question through our movement. And he respected when my physical self said no. Didn’t try and force movement, simply moved else where to somewhere I could let go of, could move, could trust him with. He listened to my breathing, to my ability to let go or need to hold on to part of me, and respected that.

I felt heard in my bones. It felt profound. This acceptance of who I was, looking for ease, finding movement miraculously led to me walking more easily, and playing more easily. Showing me non-verbally where I had ability, that I didn’t need to be defined by what I wasn’t. I could focus on what did work, and that they were part of a bigger picture.

After some individual sessions, I went to weekly classes. I realised I always felt emotionally better when I walked out, a feeling that would last for a while. I felt more grounded, at ease, more comfortable in my own skin. More accepted.

I learnt that I could move more and more of me to compensate for the parts of me that didn’t work optimally, and that I could accept myself more: scars, imperfections and all. I could even like myself. Appreciate both my potential and my limitations. Enjoy my good sides, and put a “work in progress sign” on the parts I’d like to improve.

As I studied, I realised that as I got better at regulating myself, sensing myself, including more and more of myself into my idea of myself. I could sense my self-image changing, shifting over time. I got better at negotiating the world around me. I felt the pain of my past less, and it became my history, rather than still being a over-large part of my present.

Feldenkrais as a somatic resource for grounding.

As a Feldenkrais practitioner now myself, I often work with people who come to me to work through their issues from a physical perspective. Many for anxiety, difficulties stemming from childhood abuse, trauma, or physical problems whether born with, or post-operatively.

I work together with people to find ways for them to feel safer in their own skin. It turns out that dysfunctioning of the nervous system is something that is part of trauma. When we’re traumatised or anxious, we have a narrower window of tolerance of levels of arousal before flipping into a fight/flight/freeze response.

When something has been particularly difficult for us we can use dissociation, so as not to feel the pain. We split our internal state: the part of us which holds the painful experience, and the other which gets on with our daily life. This can help us survive, but creates its own problems. It can make our life smaller: we don’t feel, which is safer, but we don’t feel: which can make our life monochrome.

I had one client who in the beginning never smiled. Life was always difficult, other people always had negative intentions in her. As we worked together, helping her sense parts of herself that she had shut down for protection, in her own time she gradually opened up. Both in mobility, and emotionality. Over time we noticed she smiled more, I heard her laugh for the first time, and then more frequently.

She learnt to not assume the worst, but find out more before judging. Both herself and others. She started making decisions that were more in her self interest, and was able to reduce her anxiety to create more of the life she wanted. She learnt more options of how she could move, that she could move not only leadenly, but also lightly, gracefully, some lessons she danced out of.

She learnt somatic (of the body and mind together) resources to better regulate her nervous system. Working with learning about ourselves, working with movement is such a fundamental thing. It’s non-verbal, it can reach the areas of ourselves that words can’t.

Often our emotions are heightened by the way we hold and move ourselves. When we learn how to identify triggers, and recognise our internal responses – what do we do physically when we feel different emotions, we can learn to find somatic resources. For example, if I know that when I feel shame I push a certain place in my lower back forwards, I can sense it, undo the physical holding, and the emotion isn’t reiterated by my body posture. It has less strength. I’m not ignoring it, or pretending it’s not there, but I am reducing its power in proportion to the other emotions. When I can let go of the physical manifestations of emotions, they can pass through more quickly, I don’t hold on to them in the same way.

As we learn more about ourself, and learn to unwind some of the tensions, embody new patterns of movement or postures, we also have more options for movement. We start to form new connections and networks in the brain. Which then widen our window of tolerance. We give ourselves more time to respond, rather than react.

Learning to listen to myself, trust my judgement, my internal authority of what is right for me is one of the gifts I have learnt from Feldenkrais. Being kind to myself, (something I also learnt through talk therapy) was modelled physically in every Feldenkrais lesson.

I have learnt that whilst I may have suffered deeply as a child, I have many resources, both physical and mental. Those challenges gave me some triggers, but also strengths. And I don’t need to be defined by my past. As I have had more knowledge of my emotional triggers, both my limitations and possibilities, I can be clearer about what it is I want to do, and how I want to live in the world.

From my experience of turning life around, I help others find their own resources, their own organic ability to learn and trust their inner innate wisdom. That their suffering can be alleviated by learning about not only their limits, but their possibilities.

I am grateful that I now get to work with some amazing people who come to me for a range of areas to work on: performance, musicians, children, those suffering with trauma and anxiety.

Here’s a short audio lesson I prepared for the Feldenkrais Guild UK as part of their International Feldenkrais offering.

As you can imagine it’s a theme close to my heart. Thanks for reading.


2 thoughts on “Using the Feldenkrais Method for emotional, physical and mental wellbeing

  1. Thank you for sharing your story Emma. It definitely struck a chord with me! I too came to Feldenkreis by chance and can honestly say that my physical and mental wellbeing has improved immensely over the last few months.
    Thank you for the amazing lessons and workshops. x

    Liked by 1 person

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