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  Case Study: The Vacation Story  
   Maureen McHugh, Feldenkrais Practitioner                                           703-751-2111

The Vacation Story
By Lisa Hylton

August 2000

 

Sit up straight  *  Walk like a lady  *  Calm down
Keep your hands in your lap  *   Stand tall
Sit still  *  Don't fidget
Don't slouch  * Head up, on top of your shoulders

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Relax * Do Nothing * Get Sloppy * Focus on Breathing

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When the rules no longer work for you

How often have you heard the first set of comments spoken to you? For me, it was all the time -- almost as far back as I can remember. At least since elementary school.

And, how often have you heard the second set of comments? WHAT????? For me, almost never!

In March of this year, I was introduced to the Feldenkrais Method. This came after nearly 20 years of searching for the cause of my physical pain, much less finding relief from it. Through the 80s and 90s, I'd pursued numerous medical specialists-internists, neurologists, dentists, psychologists, osteopaths, podiatrists, rhumatologists, orthopaedic surgeons-and been given numerous diagnoses, ranging from emotional stress to hypoglycemia to myofascial pain syndrome to fibromyalgia. And, depending on the doctor's specialty, I had been offered various treatment plans. Holding onto hope, I'd pursued most of them. They included strength
training, electrical stimulation, prolotherapy, therapeutic massage, heat therapy, osteopathic manipulation, biteplates, pain medications, and surgery. Yet, as each year went by, the pain continued. Some years were better than others but the bottom line was: I was seeing doctors more often, not less; I was using more pain meds, not less, and they were getting stronger in dose. Almost as a last resort, one of my doctors suggested Feldenkrais.

My first few lessons in the Feldenkrais Method led me to several, what I call, a-haaa's. I was given some basic information on how the human body is put together and moves naturally, which was news to me. And, I was given permission to sit, stand, walk, and move in ways that felt comfortable. Not a right way. Not a wrong way. Not this way. Not that way. Just comfortable, based on listening to my body. That was very, very hard! I was so focused on how my body was UNcomfortable and holding it in certain ways to avoid more pain that I'd lost touch with the alternatives.

For instance, sitting. Was I comfortable? No. Was there a way for me to get more comfortable? Maybe. Can you try? Yes, sit with one leg under my seat. But, that doesn't last long. Yes, with my legs crossed under me, Indian style. Then, a little lightbulb in my head began to flicker; an a-haaaa moment.

I was looking at how Maureen was sitting. She seemed balanced, relaxed, stable, soft but strong. And her question about being comfortable took me back to my childhood days. From the time I was 8-years old, I was riding horses-all the time-except when I was in school. And, when I did have to sit at school, I fidgeted; I'd sit first with one leg under my seat, then the other. Or I'd sit crosslegged, Indian style. Did I have pain problems then? No.

When did I first notice the pain? After graduating from college and going to work in an office. Hmmmmm. For more than half my life, I had positioned myself on a horse's back, my thighs straddling a horse's back. Similar to the seated positions I was gravitating toward. Not crossing my legs, as a lady does, or crossing my ankles, or sitting in a chair with my feet out in front of me. No, I was used to sitting with my legs at my side and under me, with my weight being transferred into my feet through the stirrups. Yet, when I was 22, I was told to get a real job, which equated to working in an office. There, I told my body to change positions-ALL DAY!-and ride horses less. And, at 25, I told my body to give up riding all together. Why? In order to fit in. To follow the "normal path" of college, marriage, career, etc.

And, the pain came shortly thereafter. Back then, the doctors called it tension headaches and said the muscle spasms in my neck were probably being caused by stress. The solution: take aspirin (up to 12 a day) and supplement them with prescription muscle relaxers as needed. I'd adjust.

So, this a-haaa encouraged me to reflect on the evidence, and I made a slight change. At the office, I started sitting in my chair with my legs on either side of the seat, feet flat on the floor. It helped! I may not look quite as neat or poised, but my neck and low back don't ache as much either. I was constantly asking my body to sit in a way it wasn't made to do easily based on all my years of riding. And, until now, I thought I just couldn't handle the stress, which honestly I could never identify in the first place. I just figured it must be in my subconscious or unconscious mind. When, now, it appears that my back and neck were the parts being stressed by forcing them (me) to sit like everybody else. So much for ergonomics!

And, my Awareness in Movement lessons have continued to provide me with information on how I can modify my movement to attain comfort. On several occasions, I have actually felt the method at work. I remember one of my first sessions, where she was helped me focus my attention on my right shoulder, which was almost always feeling achy and stiff. Maureen asked me to bring my attention to the right shoulder blade and the muscles surrounding the thoracic spine. At first I had no clue about how to do that. With her help and her touch, I was able to get in touch with some of that area, release some of the tension there, and restore some movement without pain. When our session was over, she asked me to slowly get up and walk around, and to feel for differences. I was amazed! At that moment in time, the aching in my shoulder was drastically reduced and, miracle of miracles, the throbbing that I always felt in my left foot has disappeared.

Do I know how or why this works?? Nope, not at all. Yet. Am I beginning to trust that Feldenkrais, with practice, can help restore my somatic health? Yes, absolutely. And, I'd like to share a few stories about how it is working for me, at play.

On my vacation trip the first part of July, I was given a fine send-off from Maureen: An assignment. She suggested that while hiking, sightseeing, and doing other things one does on vacation, I try to put into practice some of the new ways we were discovering my body could move. And, she also suggested that I really watch children move.

Off I went with my husband, Walter, to Glacier National Park, Montana, the land of uphill climbs, switchback drives, and endless hikes. And, of course I went prepared with OTC and prescription drugs, heating pads, and a medical prop or two. As we went through our adventure, some of Maureen's instructions would pop into my head, so I'd bring my awareness to them and try to put them into practice. Three of them were particularly effective for me and I'd like to share with you some of the results that followed.

 

Words of Wisdom

1. FEEL THAT! In the individual session, when Maureen does hands-on work with me, my body begins to relax, trust, and submit to releasing a movement that it has been protecting. As this happens, Maureen says to me, "Feel that!" "Feel that!" And once I can get in touch with that specific muscle group and the sensation of it softening, calming down, and feeling less restricted, I'm like a dog exhibiting Pavlov's response . . . I wanted to do it over and over and over. Because it feels sooooo much better. The reward was well
worth the price!

So, on my first major hike in the park, which was filled with uphill climbs and rocky footing, I had to pace myself. To reach my goal of seeing Avalanche Lake, its emerald-colored water, and the waterfalls that were emptying into it, I would be hiking for nearly six hours and at fairly high elevations. At first, I was walking the way I always walked, which meant I was keeping my upper body rather still, attentively watching my footing so as not to jar myself by any misstep, and holding my weight in my hip to avoid the discomfort that would come quickly if I put full weight on my left foot.

I probably hiked well over an hour before becoming aware of my walking pattern. My shoulders were elevated, my left foot was angling to the outside in my hiking boot, and I was taking a shorter stride on the left, with a bit of a hop as I moved onto my right foot. The strange thing about this is that none of it was probably noticeable to anyone else. The movements were so subtle (and I take such pride in not drawing attention to myself) that I've learned to effectively camouflage most of my pain. But, in reality, my left knee was aching on the outside, I desperately was hoping for more frequent breaks, and I was really having an internal fight with myself to avoid taking a muscle relaxer for the headache that was coming from my neck and shoulder tension. Only after noticing all that did the lightbulb go on. But, it DID go on. It's what I call an "a-ha" moment.

I remember thinking . . . 'How can I get some relief?' My memory took me back to several of the peaceful, pain-reduced moments after my appointments with Maureen. I started to concentrate on letting my weight move down past my hips into both of my legs and, then, into my feet. Yikes! Pain! But, I continued to invite my feet to relax and open themselves to the rolling motion of the heel, toe, heel, toe, heel, toe cadence. I also invited my upper body (the shoulders, the arms, the ribcage) to come along with me on the walk and have some fun-and began to swing my arms back and forth, twist my sides left then right as I took strides. I had to consciously remind my arms to work with my leg movements-equal and opposite- and to let my weight transfer all the way down my legs and into my feet. And, in awhile, it worked! The aches and pains began to subside. I was able to take larger, more confident steps and strides; I was covering more ground; and I was feeling less tired.

Amazing!! Very amazing!! And, of course, after that success, I wanted to repeat it over and over again, which I did throughout the week. I found that walking in the woods on soft loamy trails was so comforting to my feet that it helped me to practice transferring my body weight all the way down through my hips, through my feet, and to the ground.

 

2. GET SLOPPY! In one of my weekly sessions with Maureen, I was introduced to what is a rather foolish-feeling (and I'm sure foolish- looking) technique to help relax my neck and shoulders. She tells me to "Get Sloppy!" "Relax my tongue." She actually talks to me, slurring a bit, in hopes that by doing so I can emulate her. And, yes, my eyes are closed. That helps.

As part of that same long hike to Avalanche Lake, I also tried this second technique. There were multiple somatic problems as I mentioned earlier, one of which was a tensing of my shoulders and neck muscles. So, once I got the feel of my feet supporting me and my weight actually transferring to the ground, I began working on my shoulders and neck. I literally opened my mouth a bit to relax my jaw, my tongue "pushing" forward and out to touch my lower lip, almost like a dog who is beginning to pant. And, I continued to do this for several minutes at a time. This was relatively easy to do since we were walking single file (no one could see me, ha!) I was not having to talk to anyone, and the scenery was awe inspiring. When I reached level ground at lakeside, I took an inventory of my body and how I was feeling and was really happy with what I found. My knee was complaining less and I no longer was looking for that
muscle relaxer. My neck tension had gone away. So, once again, this new way of moving was something I wanted to do over and over again.

Another time I specifically used this method on my vacation as I was preparing to go horseback riding-for the first time in 25 years! Part of my somatic problems are traced back to a horse-back riding accident where I was slammed into a tree and knocked unconscious. Being an avid horsewoman back then, I never fell off! So, when I awoke, I was still in the saddle but looking at the sky from my mare's rump. Anyway, with the Maureen's encouragement, I had begun to dream about being able to, in some way, work with these marvelous animals once again. Up until now, I was convinced I would never again be able to ride, groom, clean stalls, or anything that physically demanding with horses because of the dysfunction and pain it would trigger.

But I was on vacation. And, when you're on vacation, anything is possible. So, I made arrangements (with my husband's full support and willingness to go along) to go on a 3-hour trailride to Grinnell Lake. Needless to say, I was anxious. So anxious, that on the morning of the ride, I awakened to knotted neck and jaw muscles that actually were causing my right forearm to cramp up, too. What's to do???? Return to Feldenkrais. What would Maureen say? "Get Sloppy!" So, that's what I focused on. The half-hour drive to the stables became my sanctuary.

While my husband drove, I sat in the passenger seat, eyes closed, relaxing my jaw, letting my tongue get very sloppy, and actually pretending I had no control over my right arm-that it was paralyzed, just rested in my lap as dead weight. Again, it worked!!! By the time we arrived at the paddock, I was feeling much more relaxed; I had been able to release much of the neck tension that had built up through the night, and I was almost eager to go on the ride.

I am thrilled to say that I did go on that ride and that I did make it for all three hours, and that it was like coming back home to old friends. Other than the fact that I don't have the strength I used to, being in the saddle felt natural and right. It was wonderful. And, now, I'm hoping I'll be able to ride again, or groom, or clean stalls--things that I'd given up on doing all these years.

 

3. WATCH THE CHILDREN. When one is learning something new, it's common for the teacher and the student to talk. This is very much true when learning about Feldenkrais, too. As Maureen's and my relationship has been forming, we've discussed some thoughts and ideas concerning the human body's capability to move and how that movement sometimes gets stifled or arrested as we mature.And, one of her suggestions to me is to watch children move. Left to their own devices, they are amazing acrobats, fluid skaters, and confident crusaders.

Again, my vacation gave me an opportunity to try something new. This time, it really was like playing. We wanted to hike through the alpine meadows of Logan Pass and to see Hidden Lake, a glacial lake that is secluded in a distant valley and one that was being described as very beautiful. So, we, along with probably 50+ other people (in dribbles and drabs) set out to hike a 2-mile boardwalk trail, built to protect the fragile meadows from footfall, leading to Hidden Lake.

When we started out, the sun shone warmly. The meadow was a carpet of yellow glacier lilies, the ground squirrels were chattering and foraging,and people were enthusiastically striding out. Among us were young ones and old ones, and big ones and little ones. In evidence were shorts, jeans, sandals, hiking boots, walking sticks and backpacks. Variety was the word for the day.

The higher we climbed in altitude, the cooler it got; we were climbing to nearly 9,000 feet. Well, we turned a corner and the boardwalk began to disappear under remnant snow. Then, we rounded another corner and the boardwalk was gone, only a 2-foot ice/snow-packed trail was there to guide us. And, the walking was getting tougher. Our feet were slipping out from under us a bit, causing us to take very small steps forward while, at the same time, digging our heels into the path with each stride. As we were walking up the path, some people were coming back down on the return trip. I noticed that almost everyone was walking very cautiously. Except the children.

They were having a blast! Some were sliding both feet sideways on the snow and ice as if on skateboards. Others used their feet and legs as they were cross-country skiing. Others, yet, were scooting down the decline on their rumps. The "a-ha" moment struck me again. Of course, watch the children! And, with a big smile I asked one youngster, "how are you doing that??" His answer was very simple: "I donno, I'm just doing it. It's fun!"

So, I made my decision then and there to continue onward to Hidden Lake, and I'm very glad I did. It was worth every slippery step it took to get us there. We crested the hill and looked out on a gorgeous 360 view of tall mountain peaks and U-shaped valleys, a glistening waterfall, and, of course the peaceful Hidden Lake down below. We also had a special treat by being fortunate enough to see several mountain goat families with their kids cavorting on the rocks and in the snow. And a gregarious hoary marmot sauntered into our area to become a photo model for most everyone with cameras.

When it was time for us to head back down to Logan Pass, I took a deep breath. Especially since we were now going downhill, with even less control and traction than we'd had coming up. Walter and I both started out very cautiously, following the lead of all the other adults around us. We were a sight, all looking like uncoordinated tightrope artists with our arms sticking straight out from our sides in an effort to remain balanced. Short utterances, such as "whooops" and "whoa," could be heard ahead of and behind us, too.

At certain points along the trail, hikers had to walk single-file--no two-way traffic there. One person would wait perched on the trail's shoulder while the other gingerly stepped along and around, and visa versa.

The decline increased and I began to feel a bit more uneasy. So. . . watch the children! As I looked ahead in the distance past all the
penquin-style adults, there were the kids . . . having a ball. They didn't seem to be afraid of falling; they weren't trying to control every blasted movement they made. They were just simply enjoying the moment and doing whatever worked best for them. So, it was time for me to do that, too.

I looked back at Walter, smiled at him, and started gliding my legs and feet together as one movement. Left swish, right swish, left swish, right swish. No more heel, toe, heel, toe moves. And, there I was-going downhill relatively fast, relatively upright, and having fun, too! When I reached my next stopping point I looked back up the trail where Walter and some of the other adults were. I connected with my husband's eyes and signaled to him "come on, try it" and he did. And, it worked. So, here we were, two full-grown adults, sliding down a snow/ice path just like the kids. We thought that was pretty neat.

When we reached Logan's Pass we looked at our watches. We had come down the trail in half the time it had taken for us to go up it.


So, it works. What Maureen suggests really works. It's hard work-for me, mostly in making the mind-body connections and in remaining gentle with myself. With time, attention, and practice, I'm hoping my body will relax more, move more, and get back in touch with play!

Relax * Do Nothing * Get Sloppy * Focus on Breathing

Lisa Hylton
Outreach Manager
National Technology Transfer Center
2121 Eisenhower Avenue, Suite 400
Alexandria, VA 22314
phone 703.518.8800, x 228
fax 703.518.8986
home email care4em@aol.com

August 2000