Case Study: Journey of the New Me  
   Maureen McHugh, Feldenkrais Practitioner                                           703-751-2111

Journey of the New Me
by Kathleen Kerrigan

March 2004

Kathleen Kerrigan is a pseudonym for a resident of Arlington, Virginia. The name is fictional, but the experience is true.


It’s a wonderful Life!

Where do you begin when you are where I am in this new journey of awareness? I am an active and previously athletic woman in her early forties who was, like many of us in similar circumstance, stopped rather abruptly "dead in her tracks". Two years ago I was actively participating in Cardio Kickboxing six days per week (had been doing this for two and one half years) and felt "at my peak, the best in years", in cardiovascular, strength, balance and coordination health. While many of you may feel this is the end of the story, as we know how hard this form of exercise can be on our body, this is only the beginning of what I often refer to as the "journey of the new me".

In March 2002, nearly two weeks before my wedding, I was sidelined while on travel with severe pain in my lower right side of the back that resulted, three days later, in the inability to walk (literally, I could not lift my legs without using my arms to do so), bend, lift, laugh (due to sharp pain) or dress myself. So startling it couldn’t possibly be pre-wedding jitters! Thankfully, my brother was with me, an ardent believer in chiropractic care (I had never been to a chiropractor in my life). This was the first place we "landed" and I felt some comfort in knowing that, after a short examination, my spine was severely "out of alignment".

After x-rays and several appointments over the ensuing couple of weeks with orthopedists, neurosurgeons, osteopaths, chiropractors, physical therapist and pain managers, massage therapists and research on various needle therapies (such as acupuncture), my diagnosis was confirmed as Spondylolesthesis (defined as broken and displaced L/4 and L/5 vertebrae – my particular condition resulting in a 28 degree forward tilt of my pelvis from the spine – L/4 tilted backwards and L/5 tilted forwards).

Yikes, how did this happen unbeknownst to me? Apparently, the various doctor’s surmised that the breaks were likely pre-adolescent (remember, . . . . athletic young female. . .) thus, I had broken my back without knowledge over 25 years prior to my body boldly shutting down. I say boldly, yet I should say "wisely" – I was fortunate that my central nervous system had the good sense to stop bodily movement where damage likely would ensue, since ongoing pressure may have resulted in further permanent damage.

But, why did this have to happen now? I was told to stop all physical activity (makes some sense since I struggled even to walk, lay and sit up – yet, the question that lingered for me was, "How could the body get well without movement?"). I had pain every day that became debilitating and as much as I tried to stay positive, pain does take its toll (I must include that pain relievers and medication were not an option for me). Thus, I spent the next one and one half years exploring any therapy (chiropractic, massage, physical therapy and pain therapy modalities) that would reprogram my body and bring it back to functional health – this took patience, persistence and belief from all of my caregivers and family.

This approach took a fair amount of time as these therapies consumed 3 – 5 appointments a week for 4 months, tapering slightly thereafter. At the six month point I experienced a reversal and basically started on the arduous process again. As I mentioned, I was in severe chronic pain and through determination and the support of my newlywed husband, quit my job and focused on my physical health and emotional well being. The path of therapy continued while I sought other options that made more sense to me – while the various therapies all helped, I didn’t see any of them as a permanent lifelong solution to my diagnosis, since these therapies required manipulation or assistance/intervention of another practitioner and the therapies weren’t lasting – the pain would subside only intermittently. Since I wasn’t relying on the awareness of my body’s own ability to move (my spine was stiff and my upper torso didn’t want to move at all – partly fear, partly mechanics - in hindsight, since Feldenkrais, I now realize that even after all of those years of exercise, my body wasn’t "moving" effectively).

Somehow I knew that my search for a practice that could be incorporated into my daily life needed to be discovered in order to get well. I also believed that such a practice must exist as logic told me it made good sense. I knew that this new journey was intended to lead me into uncharted territory, that the "ride" was for a purpose, and that throughout the journey I would learn, grow and become a better person as a result (what if the pain would either subside or go away)!

Fortunately, through pure "happenstance" (although everything in life happens for a purpose) in picking up a brochure for classes offered by the County where I live, I learned of the Feldenkrais Method: Awareness in Motion for the first time in September 2003. In a brief description offered about the upcoming class (less than two weeks away) in the brochure, my interest was peaked and my spirit soared with the possibility that this practice might be the key I was searching for, the key to "unlock" the new me. I couldn’t wait to get home and research this method on the computer – alas, there was a sparkle of hope in something that made a great deal of sense to me as I continued to read on, and on, and on about the practice. Excitedly, I signed up for the group class.

The first group class I experienced was only five months ago. While the first class resulted in continued pain (I just didn’t get it – small movements are a good thing), I believe I "over did" the lesson (really, I didn’t get it, . . . yet)! By class number two I became aware that the benefit of this practice came in small increments and, since I had already spent a year and a half getting to my second class – I needed to slowwwwww down and take this gentle form of movement in an all encompassing manner. The first word that came to mind as I left the building the evening of my second class was, alas – I am ENCOURAGED! A light bulb went off and, before I could realize what I was doing, I already started moving in a new way. Hurrah, how wonderful to be encouraged that the possibility for reduction in pain did, in fact, exist (within two days of the second class, my pain subsided to a tolerable range – what a thrill).

After two more classes, my pain was gone – I became a believer in the Feldenkrais Method, my life has changed again – I’ve continued growing in such a positive manner. At about this same time, a wonderful opportunity placed to travel through the Middle East was placed before me, but how could I possibly manage a 12 hour flight and all of that arduous activity (walking, hiking, new bed and pillow, unfamiliar territory with "active violence")? Well, after six private lessons in three weeks I made that trip of a lifetime and sustained two weeks of travel throughout Israel, Jordan and Egypt, including a camel ride and climb to the top of Mt. Sinai (remember, it was just a year before that I could not climb the steps in our townhouse). Thank you Moshe Feldenkrais, thank you Maureen McHugh – I couldn’t have done this without the two of you!

Through the ensuing months with Feldenkrais in my life, I have gained the renewed confidence to use my body (I can sit, stand, lay, twist, turn, lift and step with my body – all of this movement had been discouraged and difficult during the time under my other care). Instead of relying on practitioner’s to manipulate my body into a "temporary" state of relief, Feldenkrais has taught me a newborn awareness of motion that "permanently" aligns my body, relaxes the central nervous system and "reboots" me to a new operating system. It is as though my conscious and subconscious thought has been reprogrammed through a new awareness that I can only equate to that of a small child – just watch children move, isn’t that the way we all want to move? Once again, the world is a much bigger place for me and the possibilities seem endless through this ongoing practice in movement education.

It is true for me that "our weaknesses can become our strengths" – without the revelation of my latent injury, I may never have found the Feldenkrais Method. Finally, after over forty years, my spine has become flexible and supple – it actually leads and works with the body to optimize movement - the ease and fluidity in which simple daily activities occur since Feldenkrais has become a part of my life is indescribable. I’m pleased to say that as I enter my sixth months of group lessons, I am now walking 2 – 3 miles each day and have started light weight training and swimming. Although Mr. Pain does creep in once in awhile (particularly as I "free" my movement on the "Z" axis – where most of my injury is most sensitive), I know that there are methods to employ that will relieve this short term pain (probably movements along the "X" and "Y" axis)!

I look forward to what tomorrow will bring and maybe, someday, I’ll be running, or ice skating, or dancing – things I was told I would likely never experience again. It is through awareness in everything we do, that we continue to grow and to expand our body and our mind – I wouldn’t mind growing another inch, either (a proven outcome of this practice). A friend of mine in her 80’s speaks of "dwindling disease" – she is getting shorter every passing year – one of my goals (even with a broken back), through Feldenkrais, is not to shrink at all, but rather to stand tall, graceful and pain free!

The Feldenkrais Method will be with me for life and I feel the journey has only just begun. When soreness or pain start to creep into my life, I have the principles of the Feldenkrais Method and a wonderful practitioner to rely on – this will be a lifelong journey for me in gained knowledge that I know will afford me a lifetime of endless possibilities. I look forward to the day when no one asks me "How is your back?" and I’m getting closer to that reality every day!