"My Hands and Shoulders Feel Good"
I thought I would write and tell you the story of how I arrived at your doorstep (and stayed). My path to you and Feldenkrais was on the express ramp away from the M.D.s that could not correctly identify and treat my chronic shoulder condition.
I started with a ‘snapped’ shoulder and the ensuing cramped, twisted feeling in the left shoulder and shoulder blade that always felt dislocated to me. This condition aggravated my upper arms, made my palms swell and turn blue, and I felt as if I had garden hoses swelling in my elbows. In short, I felt like a warped cookie sheet. It would come and go, but it hung around so much of the time I really needed to see the doctor.
The M.D.s at the prestigious hospital examined me only by sight (with great curiosity) and touched me lightly with their fingertips, as I might have cooties left over from childhood. They shipped me off for a buttery of lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, neurological and various autoimmune disease tests. I waited patiently for an eternity to be declared neurologically and otherwise fine, but was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Given what I know of the condition, what I experienced didn’t sound quite like that. I figured they knew something I didn’t. The specialist told me to wait to hear from my referring internist. No one ever called me. I was disillusioned beyond belief and afraid to let them near me with a Q-tip. I ran for the hills.
I was in chronic discomfort, if not pain, and I was scared: the big, shiny, name-brand hospital couldn’t fix it. Angry, defiant, and with renewed confidence in my resourcefulness, I vowed to find an answer to the program. I already knew that if I stretched out on my side and rearranged my arm the pain would be quickly (but not wholly) relieved. I drew the conclusion that if I could improve my own situation so much, there must exist a professional who could do more. I began to think about the people and the sciences that addressed the structure and mechanics of the body.
At this same time I read the bestseller, Spontaneous Healing by Andrew Weil, M.D. I am not a devotee of health gurus and their treatises, but several like-minded friends had loved it, and I was looking for answers. In his book Weil describes the overshadowed, original tenets of osteopathy and also mentions Feldenkrais as being more effective than regular physical therapy in many instances. I went looking for both.
It took a little bit of leg work to find an osteopath who used the traditional osteopathic manipulation as formulated by Andrew Taylor Still. I found an osteopath from a family of osteopaths. A good omen in my mind. My first visit was different from any M.D. appointment I’d had recently.
The osteopathic doctor spent a tremendous amount of time listening and touching: my shoulders, spine, neck, arms and hands. How sensible to work with your hands to heal! He truly explored my complaints. In no time he had answers for me that the well-known, high-tech hospital couldn’t conceive. Just as important, the osteopath began treatment that day, and it worked. I had a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome, as well as somatic dysfunction, a compression of the rib cage at such an acute level that I also had diminished lung capacity. So much for my fibromyalgia! I felt empowered and confidence in my ability to know my body and to find solutions to my problems. Next stop, Feldenkrais.
Feldenkrais was much easier to track down. I called the 800 number for the Guild, and they sent me all kinds of literature and lists of practitioners. Truly coincidentally, I received in the same week the county brochure on adult class offerings…and there it was, group classes in the Feldenkrais Method: Awareness through Movement. The price was right for something new and out-of-my-ordinary experience, and the location just a few miles away. I signed up, sure that all of those ballet and modern dance gym classes at my liberal arts college would have my ready for anything.
I began Feldenkrais thinking I’d done lots of similar things. As it turns out, I hadn’t. I was learning, slowly but with promise, a whole new language of movement more subtle than I’d ever expected could exist. I did so many things that seemed inconsequential: wrist lifts, ankle flexes, chin tucks, pelvic tilts, knee swings, arm sweeps. All of these things were seemingly minimal taken one at a time, and being naturally skeptical I wondered, "What the heck is this stuff, anyway?" I wanted the huge, sweeping, Martha Graham-style treatment: high drama, approximating man in flight. This was not that! I continued taking class, often times doing things wrong of out of synchronization, but I kept going to class. Lo and behold, I started to feel better, incrementally and almost mysteriously, and my body began to change in ways even the osteopath couldn’t impact.
My first series of classes had come to an end and I was betwixt and between about signing up again. I seemed to be at the bottom of my class, lacking rhythm and even mental coordination. I thought about stopping, but realized I had just learned something very different, very new. Armed with my family’s indoctrination of always being able to quit at a later time, I signed up for round two. I was better at this new language of moving, the subtle differentiation that reminds me of learning French vowels. I could tell, too, the teacher cringed less and said, "No, the other left…" half as often. Success! Okay, some success.
So, as with anything new, the foreign became familiar, and it became mine. My body spoke this new language and felt the effect of the re-education of nerves, muscles and mysterium. I enjoyed the changes that I had not been afraid to go in search of, on my own. I had taken control of what was done to my body, and I had chosen better than anyone who had erroneously diagnosed me. I had success and vindication. What I didn’t understand about Feldenkrais I took on faith, knowing I could always re-evaluate and change my mind. I figured I could be a believer until something convinced me to renounce.
I had gained enough confidence in my development with the group class to consider the individual, one-on-one treatment. As much improvement as I’d had with the ATM class, my specific complaint was diminished but ongoing, and not likely to be banished by all the general improvement. Functional Integration was completely different: in ratio, one-to-one; in attention, all my parts and their specific complaints; and in treatment, a practitioner performing gentle manipulation on me. Fill with respect for healing-from-the-touch-of-the-knowledgeable after my ongoing treatment at the osteopath, I would explore the parallel lane that Feldenkrais offered. I went to the teacher that I’d had for my group classes; we were familiar and enjoyed the foundation of trust already laid.
My first one-on-one session was so unlike what I expected that I had the same trepidations I’d had with the group classes. This was my own doing. Just as I expected huge movements in the group class, I had expected significant and obvious manipulation in the Functional Integration. My skepticism was going full-tilt when I was stretched out on the table and the teacher was gently manipulating my toes to treat my shoulder. Gently manipulating my toes to treat my shoulder. Well, if that did not activate my alarmist side and need for a chat with myself. "Are you completely out of your mind? Paying good money for toe mini-massages? There's one born every minute you know.… Another five minutes and we’re leaving…."
Well, I stuck with the Functional Integration too, and I found another person who understood what I had felt all along: that my shoulder blade needed a good push up and over. The teacher pushed up and over and put my shoulder blade back where it belonged. I began to feel better and better. With my teacher’s analysis that this part can’t move, that portion is frozen, she made the changes happen. They were gradual. Sometimes the biggest improvements were hard for even me to see at first. Then they came in seemingly rapid succession and to my greatest surprise and exhilaration. My perseverance had paid off, and it had paid off to me. My back actually flattened, my shoulders broadened to the place they should have been all of my 40 years. My breathing changed, from the change in capacity of my now-undiminished lungs to my awareness of how much you can control breath and how much it controls you.
I also came to realize how much I had been encouraging my round-shouldered shape. Coming from hearty stock that is 50% Russian and 50% German, I have the healthy, womanly, full-busted silhouette of both of my grandmothers. I had wanted to escape the future of that shape from the moment I thought Twiggy, the mod look of Carnaby Street and the Vogue ideal was the thing. I had spent years hiding in a curve, not wanting people to meet my breasts first. Or to meet me to meet my breasts. I have learned in just the past few years to be more unaware of my shape, and in the process, more at ease. In a sense, it is embracing the now-class anthem from the Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles, "I am what I am."
Before I started Feldenkrais, on a day when my shoulder was particularly bad, I looked in the mirror at my profile. I saw that I had become stooped and that my shoulders projected out far from my back. I truly wondered: if I look this way now, what will I look like as an old lady? Now my posture has changed so radically, is improved in so little time (compared to a lifetime) and is much closer to a dancer’s than I ever dreamed possible. When I think about which ravages of age I am staving off, I realize I have most improved my nineties and made significant changes to my eighties. It really works backwards in my mind: my sixties will be different, of course, because of this, but it is those later years of significant spine condensation that are being pushed very far way.
Feldenkrais has moved things up, over, down, back and here and there. At times I thought something might have gone drastically wrong, I would feel so strange and tired and very prone to naps after the Functional Integration. After learning that it is exhausting for the body to experience something back in its rightful position after years of never having been there in the first place, I welcomed the sleep as both true and symbolic renewal. I know how to do many of the group movements on my own, although they are always best when guided by a teacher. I am aware of the times I need a one-on-one session. And of the time I need to do nothing at all. Change is possible for the body, for the breath, for the mind.
Kate Raab is the pen name of an Arlingtonian with great posture.