ELLSO- Feldenkrais for Amateur Musicians

I feel lucky that often, going to work is a real treat. I was invited to give a Feldenkrais Workshop for Amateur String-players at their Summer Camp in Tonbridge in August. It is a course run by ELLSO- the East London Late Starters Orchestra– a group I had heard of many times, but never encountered in the flesh.  People came from over 10 different countries, including the US, to join in the music-making.

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Its one of the few groups out there for adults who have recently started, or returned to playing, and one member told me how she joined after having seen an advert asking “Would you like to Start the Violin? the advert listed a time and place, and she rocked up to the venue to find out what was going on. After watching a short concert those interested in playing were given a short ten minute lesson, after which time they were playing in the concert with the others on stage. Maggy told me how wonderful it was, and many years on, the wonder hasn’t ceased.

I was asked to give a workshop on Feldenkrais and how it can help music making. Playing an instrument requires great co-ordination, and the ability to produce a good sound hinges on the ability to play with relaxed shoulders and arms and use your body weight to make the sound, rather than force (which creates a ‘hard’ or ‘scratchy’ sound that one hears with most beginners as they gain skill and control).

What I see in many musicians, amateur or otherwise, is a difficulty to recognise a base layer of tension in the body, and isolate precise movements. So when a direction to relax the shoulder/arm/fingers etc is given to someone by a teacher, they want to change what they are doing, but often they simply can’t, because their knowledge of the area in their  brain doesn’t include an awareness that their fingers (for example) are tensed already, or how they are being held.  So if you like, there is a failure in communication between the body part and brain. Unless one understands/ feels their current level of tension it’s simply impossible to ‘relax’.

One sees this with professional musicians too, but it manifests differently.  With amateurs, often they can’t produce the kind sound they would like to, whereas professionals mainly can, but the excess effort and tension comes out as pain either in the area itself, or referred pain elsewhere.

So the idea of Feldenkrais is to create cleaner and clear neural pathways which allow more ergonomic movement. After all neurons that wire together fire together, and we often include in the firing of an action unnecessary movements, which have become a habit.

To give an analogy- so if you imagine a strand of fine embroidery threads being wound together to make a hank, its as if we mix in a yellow thread into a strand which is supposed to only be blue. But its been there so long, we don’t see the yellow any more. By doing in Feldenkrais these unusual movements in particular patterns without effort we’re showing highlighting to the brain that there’s a yellow there, and actually we don’t need it- its been mixed in, but it doesn’t really fit. Once the brain is made aware of that, it can unwind the strands and take out the yellow ones that don’t need to be in there.

In an activity such as walking, getting rid of this extraneous effort, or what we would call parasitic movement, this can mean less constriction of the bones by the muscles, therefore less wear and tears on the joints, and greater flexibility and ease in quality of movement.

In playing an instrument, reducing effort (and therefore increasing body weight and relaxation of the self allows for greater vibration of the instrument, which then translates into a more sonorous, rounder sound with greater ease. Also dexterity tends to improve as the movement becomes more precise. Less tension and effort mean more energy left over, and therefore more stamina- if you don’t need as much energy you can play for longer.

Its always interesting for me the first time I meet a new group when teaching- Feldenkrais requires an open mind, not only to do the movements (some of them are pretty unusual, but also to follow directions from a stranger, when you have no idea of the outcome). A Feldenkrais lesson is like a 3D puzzle, but only the teacher is shown the whole picture. The process of the student working out the picture is part of the learning process (and one of the things that we can sometimes also find frustrating). And often people come to a Feldenkrais class not really knowing what it is.

The players at ELLSO were amazing- open and welcoming- I met people with a wide range of ages and movement capabilities. There were a few in their 80s and 90s, which was impressive.

We started with a scan of ourselves in standing, so they had a memory of how everyone felt in standing, and then stood on one leg to notice how wobbly or not we were.For musicians the easiest measure is how their instruments feel and sound, so I asked them to all play a little, so they had a few ‘snapshots of themselves to which they could then compare themselves to at the end of the workshop.

I asked them all to play at the same time, (so there was no worry about performance nerves) I have got pretty good at extracting sounds people are making to have my own picture of who does what how.

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I taught a few different lessons – focussing on the hips, shoulders, and hands, and then at the end joining it up in a movement pattern to include the whole self in rolling from one side to the other- I always find those big joining-up-oneself movements fun myself, when else do we get to roll around the floor as an adult? It was challenging for them and me- for them to maintain the high level of concentration for two hours; and  for me: people were in different positions due to their differing needs, so I had to adapt to that and give directions from the viewpoint of different orientations. Some people sitting, whilst others were lying. The lesson was one designed to be done on the side, but a few people were only comfortable on their backs. So I had to find a way to accommodate those variations and still teach the lessons with the movement patterns I wanted.

At the end of the two hour workshop I could see and feel a change of atmosphere in the room, and several people were noticeably taller and steadier on their feet.

The feedback varied from feeling more relaxed, to feeling straighter, taller, easier shoulders, more space across the chest, more grounded, invigorated. One colleague said she had come in with backache, and exhausted, but felt both less pain, and more energetic at the end of the session.  One lady came to tell me she had had no idea her fingers were so tense, and another that she felt both more grounded and lighter at the same time. As people got their instruments out again the sound in the room was also very different- there were rounder, fuller sounds coming from the various instruments.

I love this work. Facilitating change for people is one of the best things about teaching Feldenkrais for me. It is self-empowering in a positive, strong way. Those ‘aha’ moments I see of people’s self-realisation that they can feel different are amazing: that it that wasn’t hard, that it is easy (with help and direction) to learn how to move differently, and therefore feel differently; and it isn’t just inevitable that we ‘fall apart’ as we get past 30, so we should just put up with it. But rather that if we put time and effort into investing into ourselves we can easily learn how to move smarter, and therefore live better, age more gracefully, whilst at the same time fulfilling the dreams we have. In  ELLSO members case- of playing beautiful music together: having fun playing more easily and for longer with a better sound.

 

 

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Change and Comfort

I was asked by client recently about how one can be comfortable in a state of change.

For her, one facet of this was about being more aware of people looking at her as she walked around, now that she was more upright and open in her posture, and not finding it easy.  She wasn’t used to being looked at, and couldn’t immediately place an intention as to why she was being of interest.

Other clients I have had, have talked about feeling vulnerable in discovering postures that are more open or freer, and although they liked it, it felt foreign. It took time before they could own the sensation of having more space across the chest, or no longer rounding their shoulders. And that’s certainly something that resonates with my own experience.

With all of these clients the way they held themselves has changed and their posture has improved markedly as a result of our sessions together. But even if one feels better physically, sometimes we have to take time for the rest of us to catch up.

I think any change of awareness or in self-perception means the recognition of a habit, and with that can come temporary discomfort, or frustration. Once we are aware of what we’re doing then we can shift up a gear, but that phase of learning can begin with a period of dis-ease whilst we’re becoming clearer about something, which can be confronting.

Our lives are uncertain, and many of us like to create an aura of stability by staying stuck in our ways, imagining that habit and definitiveness creates security. But if our habits don’t allow for evolution then staying stuck can become more and more uncomfortable.

Perhaps for my clients it’s what brought them to my lessons…for myself that was certainly why I came to Feldenkrais.

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There’s a great video online where Abraham Twerski talks about lobsters. How as they grow, their shell doesn’t, and slowly becomes too small. At a certain point they have to go underneath a rock for a while to get rid of their old shell, and wait for a new one to grow.  Not the nicest of experience, until that moment where the new shell is grown and they can come out from underneath the rock again. This feeling of discomfort is the signaller that change is necessary. I think its a little the same for us.

Learning and seeing ourselves in entirety can be uncomfortable in the beginning, as we have to accept both good and bad. And in Feldenkrais lessons we spend lots of the time thinking about how we can rewire the brain to feel more as one entity, and accept ourselves as we are in all our glorious asymmetry.  It is at the moment of self acceptance where change is able to take place. In that space of self-acceptance we can be open to and more comfortable with change, and kinder about noticing habits/things about ourselves we would like to alter in some way.

 

Feldenkrais, for me, is not only about learning how we can be more physically flexible, but also how can we mentally find greater resilience and adaptability, whilst staying
grounded and ourselves? How can we choose new physical and mental habits that serve us better in our needs and desire, and be kind to ourselves in the process.

One of my favourite Moshe Feldenkrais quotes is “Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”

 

I look forward to your feedback.

 

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Cyclops and sight…

A few weeks ago I had a minor eye procedure. Unpleasant, as such things usually are, but what I hadn’t counted on was how much my world would shift as I was wheeled out with a white pirate patch shutting out the world on my left side.

Looking out of only one eye created a whole new picture of the world for my brain, and only on half a side. Obvious theoretically, as I write it, but the actual experience was unbelievably strange.

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Who knew it would feel so peculiar to not see my left hand? I had to swivel my head round to the left, and seeing it with the right eye meant it felt like someone else’s hand and arm for ten minutes whilst my brain adjusted. (Close one eye and try it yourself!) As the pad was pressed against a swollen left eye, there was this extraordinary fluorescent lilac colour imprinted on my left retina, so if I relaxed my right it superimposed its purple pulsating swirling on the outside world: my inner and outer worlds colliding.

Finding my way home involved much head swivelling, to the point I felt like a Cyclops, my right eye literally taking centre stage. I realised my stance had lowered and widened, I felt like a cross between a cowboy with low slung hips and a horse rider with wider apart feet. Not my usual mode of moving. The lowness of my chassis felt both strange, but firm. Given the lack of vision, clearly my brain decided to lower my centre of gravity.

I waited for the cab to pick me up, but it cancelled. How could he not find the hospital entrance with two eyes and a GPS when I could with one eye!

Irritated, I decided to abandon taxis and get the Underground home instead.

Which was fine, until I started my descent down to the underground station. There’s no depth of field with one eye! I couldn’t see how far away the step was from my feet; I could barely work our how far my feet were away from me and I could both see and feel them! Grasping the handrail I made a slow descent, feeling with my feet to check what my eye was seeing.

I found a cafe to have something to eat, only to realise I couldn’t judge where the till lady’s hand was in order to put money into. By the time I got home, having to pick up a few more things en route, I’d developed the adaptive behaviour of just sticking my hand out for change to be put into.

By the next morning I felt more in control of moving round my Cyclops- world, but was very grateful to take the eye patch off and have my two sided world back.

In many ways we all make these adaptive changes when something untoward happens to part of us. Our adaptive behaviour to form a new habit of moving is necessary at the time, but often our brain continues in the new habit, even though it’s no longer useful. Add a few years of these habits on top of each other and at a certain point we stop moving in all the ways that are possible, and limit ourselves more than necessary. Neurological ‘real estate’ is taken over incredibly fast by neighbouring brain areas, so the part of ourselves that has had a ‘rest’ has to work a little harder to take back its space in the brain.

For me, Feldenkrais is a way or unpicking these outdated movement habits in order to find a simpler, clearer way of moving and being. Taking time in a lesson to explore one part of ourselves, and how it connects to the whole is a way of retaking space in the brain for a little more clarity of what is really there. A sort of brain self realisation and acceptance.

 

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Walking and December dates

For most of us, walking is a daily way of geting from A to B, yet how often do we think about how we do it? What’s your idea of how you walk? How are your different moods reflected in the way you walk? Do you lead your walking with your feet? Or is it more that your back pushes you forward; or perhaps there’s another part of your leading the way forwards.

A few more questions to ask yourself: Does one foot seem to make a clearer connection with the ground? Do you sepnd more time on one foot than the other? What kind of movements do you make with your head as you pootle along?

Mostly we don’t think about how we move, unless we’re trying to hone a skill, or if a part of ourselves doesn’t work in the way it used to.

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For most of us, walking is a daily way of getting from A to B, yet how often do we think about how we do it? What’s your idea of how you walk? How are your different moods reflected in the way you walk? Do you lead your walking with your feet? Or is it more that your back pushes you forward; or perhaps there’s another part of your leading the way forwards.

A few more questions to ask yourself: Does one foot seem to make a clearer connection with the ground? Do you spend more time on one foot than the other? What kind of movements do you make with your head as you saunter along?

Many of us don’t think much about how we move, unless we’re trying to hone a skill, or if a part of ourselves doesn’t work in the way it used to…

I’ve been concentrating on “Walking” as a theme for the last weeks of my group classes this year- my last class is on Tuesday the 12th December, we’ll be starting up again from the second week of January.

In the meantime, please do join me in my December workshop: Refresh my Walking on the 10th December, whether you’re looking to oil your joints, free up those muscles, or to just to spend a little time exploring the possibilities that Feldenkrais can offer in thinking about how you move on your pins.

For a sneak preview try out a section of one of my lessons on feet:

(Every workshop, even if it has a similar title will be made up of a variety of different lessons concentrating on that theme- Moshe Feldenkrais wrote thousands of classes to cover all the possible movements of the human body, and I like to include different ones in each workshop- not only for you, so that you can attend a workshop on a particular theme more than once, but for me too!).

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From the Feet Up

feetwalkingHow often do you think about your toes? Are you someone who takes care of their feet, or do you shove them in shoes and ignore them? Are they a part of yourself that’s a bit too far away to think about? 

Feet are the most underrated parts of our body. But them working optimally: being supple and movable is crucial for our back and leg health.  Yes: how movable your toes and feet are affects whether or not you’ll be walking easily in later life.

The foot is designed that the whole length of the toes spread forwards and outwards to take your body weight as we walk around. The weight needs to be able to spread across the full width and length of the foot: in three main directions: the heel, the base of the little toes, and the big toe. If the toes are squashed together they can’t work properly, and will affect the working of the ankle, knee, and hip joints. As the song goes: “Your thighbone’s connected to your…leg bone..etc…” 

Don’t take my word for it, try it yourself:
 In lying, with the feet standing and knees bent, or sitting with feet flat on the floor on the edge of a chair: slide the big toe of one foot inwards, towards, and then on top of the second toe, as far as is comfortable. Return the toe to the starting position, and make the same movement a few times. What do you feel happening in the ankle? The knee? The hip?
 
Feel how the ankle moves inwards, and downwards, pulling the muscles of the inside arch of the foot closer to the floor. And the knee has no choice but to accompany the ankle in the inward slant. Which in turn pulls on the outside muscles of the thigh all the way up to the outside top of the pelvis.
 Try something else…
Lift the base of the big toe towards the ceiling, leaving the pad of the toe on the floor (if possible) Do you hold the knee or allow it to move? If you allow it movement, where does the knee go now? The knee is only a simple hinge joint. The complex movements of the leg are made in conjunction with the feet/ankle and hips.
 
If the feet and toes aren’t supple, its likely that there is excess effort in the knee joint and the foot, ankle and hip are compensating. If that’s the case for you do you have hip, knee or back pain?
Come to my workshop on the 19th of August, and we’ll explore together how you can easily improve the working of your feet and legs.
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We’ll be using sensory awareness and exploration (unusual movements in unusual positions) as tools to improve your co-ordination and understanding of how your body works. We’ll be working on breaking down your habitual patterns of movement to find new ones which may serve your needs better: something that’s hard to do alone, but easy to do with guidance. 
Feldenkrais differs from exercise modalities , in which it is assumed you should  strengthen your muscles if weak; if inflexible you should stretch; or if you think you have ‘bad posture’ you should stand or sit up straight.
I work with how you move and your habits of moving. We use your innate ability to learn, improve co-ordination and self-regulation of your movement by working with the nervous system.  Feldenkrais works with the language of the brain. Movement is the primary language of all of us.
It doesn’t matter how strong your muscles are if they can’t co-ordinate with other parts of yourself. We will be working smart, not hard.
Your brain might be tired at the end of the day, but most people feel refreshed, relaxed and energised after our workshops.
For more information, and to book a place: Email: themovingbrain@fastmail.fm
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Free the Neck, lose the millstone

For most of us, when we think of the neck, it’s only from the top of the shoulders upwards to the base of the head.

But actually, the neck is just the top part of your spine. If it didn’t have a separate name then we might think of it differently.

Begin at the coccyx, the base of the spine: between your buttocks, and feel your way up your back, one vertebrae at a time until you reach your head.

Does how you sense your neck change if you alter the concept of where it starts?

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Explore rolling the head between the hands in this week’s lesson, and find your inner giraffe…

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Feldenkrais & musicians: Sarah and cello

Sarah came to me through curiosity. She’s a world class cellist: a member of the Callino Quartet,and principal cellist of Academy of Ancient Music. Her playing involves

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Callino Quartet at Carnegie Hall

playing both modern and baroque cello, which require slightly different set-ups and techniques. For the modern cello the spike at the bottom takes the weight of the cello and the legs steady it. The baroque cello is different in that there is no spike, so the legs turn out more and the cello is held between the calves, in a slightly more upright position.

In her second lesson she brought her cello, she’d come direct to me from a rehearsal.

She’d talked about wanting to be more aware of what her shoulders and back did, so as she played by gently touching her shoulders with my hands- first the palms, and then more directly into smaller areas with the fingers, I gave her bio-feedback of what her shoulders do when playing, by touching and outlining each part of the shoulder, as she played her cello.

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Sarah

I moved slowly downwards the spine, noting which parts of her body were vibrating with the cello when she was playing — I could literally feel the sound through her, which was an extraordinary feeling. Especially as she played on the lower strings on the cello, which are exceedingly resonant.

There were parts of Sarah’s back which were working very hard, and the muscle tension was high enough that the vibration couldn’t move through it.

All whilst she was playing — dividing her attention between what we were both doing.

Then we moved the lesson to the table, I worked with tiny movements firstly with the head, and shoulders, freeing them, and showing Sarah’s brain the differences in how the shoulder blade can slide on the ribs. The back between the shoulder blades can be a very unknown area- we don’t feel it much in day to day life, except in lying against a surface.

I then worked with her on her side, with the musculature of the spine, gently showing her through my fingertips in which areas her muscles are working very hard, and which were relaxed, which helped her brain process the differences, in order to let go of unnecessary tension.

When we can learn to allow ourselves to be more relaxed in lying, we have more ability to use less muscles, move in a more ergonomic or if you like, lazier way. This creates less stress, strain and shearing on muscles and discs. If the movement is easier, we can do more complexity with less effort.

By working up and down the spine with my hands, I moved precise parts of her back more into the tension, in order for her brain to feel it clearly, and then it was possible to slow

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Moving the neck and shoulders

ly release the muscles’ over-work, so her lower back could more relaxed, which could be felt as being flatter on the table.

At the end, we worked in sitting for a while, asking (with my fingers) the hips to have greater participation in the movement of her spine. So as her hips came backwards, all of the vertebrae were in involved in gently curling the spine into a forwards “C”, including her neck and head. We built this up slowly; and then as Sarah rolled her hips in the opposite direction together we taught the whole spine to move into a backwards “C”. The idea was that it would be more communistic movement, that all the vertebrae moved a little, rather than a few areas doing more of the work- which over time can lead to problems.

When we came back to the cello, this translated immediately into a freer, rounder, sound. For Sarah, she felt a very different sense of her shoulders and arms moving in space as she played, and a greater feeling of freedom and fluidity in her back. She said that she felt more relaxed whilst playing, and it seemed less effort. My fingers felt the whole of her back vibrating with the sound, not just patches, and I saw and heard a large change in how she moved whilst playing from the start of the lesson.

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Musician’s Union Feldenkrais Workshops 22nd and 23rd August 2016

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I’m giving two workshops on the 22nd and 23rd August, open for the general public, hosted by the Musician’s Union!

In London on the 22nd August, 2-4.30 pm

https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/news/events/london-introduction-to-feldenkrais-for-musicians-with-emma-a

and Birmingham on Tuesday 23rd August, again, 2-4.30

https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/news/events/birmingham-introduction-to-feldenkrais-for-musicians-with-em

£5 for MU members, £8 for other Trade Union members, and £10 for general public.

Please do come along, I’d love to see you there. Contact me for more details.

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Awareness as Practise- use of the Feldenkrais Method for Musicians

A little over a year ago, I gave two workshops at the Royal College of Music, after which the players filled in a questionnaire. I was hoping to do more, so I could produce a longer article, but here it is so far:

The workshop took three parts- starting with a classic lesson on flexors and extensors; a central exploratory more hands on session, working in pairs whilst playing; ending with a lesson whose themes were co-ordination of head, eyes, trunk movements.  I wanted the students to experience a direct corrollation between quality or movement, and ease of playing, and see an immediate relevance of what we were doing with Feldenkrais to their journey of perfecting the art of their instrumental playing. So I asked the students to play at the beginning and end of each lesson to compare any differences, and to notice whether the work they were doing with self-sensing made any small changes to their ease of playing/quality of sound.

The 25 students were a cross section of instrumentalists: brass, wind, strings and piano.

The exploratory work in playing in the first workshop included guided touch: experimentation of outlining the bony structure of each other’s spine, (on the back) shoulders, arms, hands and digits, whilst static, and then whilst playing. The students were mostly engaged and enthusiastic about this part of the workshop. They took the weight of instruments from each other where possible, and then changed to moving arms, hands, individual fingers and thumbs from different joints for each other, to experience movement as a more passive action in playing. In doing so, for many it was then clearer to sense some muscular activities which were superfluous, and making their task harder. Some of this they were able to let go of, having discovered it for themselves.

Other discoveries they found were:

Some of the string players hadn’t thought of the thumb having so much of a role in moving the bow across the strings. Others found that leading the movement from different parts of the fingers and hand made a difference to ease and speed of movement of the fingers. For some just the exploratory nature of what we were doing allowed lateral thinking- the sackbut player and trumpet had to think of ways to carry out the task of moving the arm- in the end they settled for one taking the weight of the moving arm, and the effect was that the instrument felt lighter after the person took back full control. .

As the teacher I noticed large differences, of increase in volume and quality/roundness of sound across the board. The string players talked of greater ease of bowing across the strings, and lightness of fingers, and wind/brass an increase in ease and support of the sounds they were creating, both low and high.

In all of wind and brass I noticed a large improvement to co-ordination, and support of the sound with the breath. Most were able to notice this themselves, but a few not, even though it was evident to myself and those listening.

             tension

As this was my first questionnaire some of the questions were a little repetitive, so I’ve missed out a few. I realised afterwards the “a little” or “a lot” answers should have been qualifiers from “yes”- I ended up with some students circling both yes and a little/a lot and some only circling one or the other. Where this happened I’ve included the a lot/ a little answer rather than yes, but all three answers are obviously yes. I felt most of the questions self explanatory.

   pain

    

I am concerned that two thirds of the group suffer pain during playing already, at the physical peak of their adult life, Although I know many colleagues in the profession suffer pain on a regular basis, I hadn’t expected it would show up so early in their careers.

   

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I was pleased by how enthusiastic they all were, even those who couldn’t recognise their own changes in playing. It was gratifying to see that they all felt they would benefit from further work, and that they really all felt it should be provided for them as an ongoing resource.

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The change that changes one’s mind.

Sometimes, it’s not what you’re doing, its who you’re doing it to. I was up visiting my sister and her family, and talking with my brother-in-law who’s a GP about studies. We were talking about how I might be able to, in time, get some studies going with Feldenkrais in order to faciliate it being offered on the NHS (one should think big right?). Anyway, I had 40 minutes before getting my train, and I offered to show him (my cynical also consultant doctor sister was sat on the sofa listening and playing with my nephew.)

My offer was declined as my brother-in-law didn’t fancy being touched that morning, but unsually, my sister proffered herself in his place. This is one of the most intelligent, but deeply cynical people I know. And I know she isn’t so interested in what I’ve been studying for the last four years. I was nervous- more nervous than when I had to work with my teacher for the first time.

So I thought I’d start with her feet.She’s on them a lot at work, and is a mother, so on them at home too! I had an audience, and not really enough space, but thought I’d just get on with it. At least I wasn’t worried about touching her feet- I’ve known them a long time, and she’s not very ticklish.

I started work, with regular questions from the GP on the sofa, about what I was doing- he commented that it all looked like diagnosis, and other questions about what I was looking for, we talked about how it was a conversation- that I was helping her feel herself, feel her own habits through the medium of the feedback from my touch, and the questions I asked.
Twenty minutes later, I asked her to get up and walk around. One foot looked wider, and flatter, and softer in reaching and leaving the floor. My brother-in-law noticed it too. At that point my sister was aware that it felt more relaxed, but not much more. Continue reading

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