Painful movement is learned habit

Extract adapted from
The brain’s way of healing: Stories of remarkable recoveries and discoveries
By Norman Doidge MD Scribe Books

Most conventional treatments assume that function is wholly dependent on the “under-lying” bodily structure and its limitations. Feldenkrais discovered that his pupils’ difficulties were caused as much by how their brains learned to adapt to their structural abnormalities as by the abnormalities themselves – and sometimes more so, as happened to him with his knee. His original adaptations to his knee initially helped him to get around somewhat, but he learned even better ones by creating a new way to walk – which served him well for the rest of his life, and he never needed surgery.

There is always a brain component to a movement difficulty.

Feldenkrais first taught people to use his principles the way Judo was taught, in ATM group classes. Participants typically had various problems – sore necks, headaches, sciatica, herniated discs, frozen shoulders, postsurgical limps. Feldenkrais would get them to lie down on Judo mats. The huge antigravity muscles (the extensors of the back and the thigh muscles) would relax, and all the habit patterns triggered by “fighting” gravity to stand up were eliminated. He got them to scan their bodies attentively, so they became aware of how they felt, and what parts of their bodies made contact with the mat. He often told them to pay attention to how they breathed. Often subjects hold their breath the moment they get into a movement difficulty.

Then he had them explore a minute movement on one side of the body for much of the lesson, sensing subtle differences in how they made each minute movement. It was at this point that Feldenkrais’s knowledge of hypnosis and Emile Coue came into play; as he spoke, he gave almost hypnotic suggestions to encourage them to do the movement with least effort, with greatest ease, so that it felt very light. Typically he chose movements that were crucial at some point in early development, such aslifting the head, rolling over, crawling, or finding easy ways to come to a sitting position.”As a teacher I can accelerate your learning,” he wrote,

by presenting the experience under the conditions in which the human brain learned in the first place.”

He might spend fifteen minutes getting his class to roll their heads gently to one side and notice what they felt, how far they could roll them. Next, he would ask them only to imagine rolling their heads, and notice what they felt throughout their bodies. Often their muscles would contract, just at the thought of making the movement.

Then something odd would happen. Toward the end of the lesson, he asked them to close their eyes and scan their bodies again. The side they had worked on was generally closer to the mat and felt longer and larger. Their body images had changed, and they could roll their heads much farther. Tight muscles released. In the short time remaining, they switched to working on the other side and found that many of the gains made on the first side quickly transferred.

Feldenkrais would often ask pupils to spend most of the session focusing on the side of their body that was less distressed, discovering ways to move it with even greater ease. Then, pupils found it as though this awareness of how to move gracefully was spontaneously transferred to their distressed side. Feldenkrais sometimes said that the troubled parts of the body learned not from him, but from the side of the body that was moving comfortably.

If during a class a student found she had a restriction when she did a movement, she was only to notice it, not judge it negatively. She should not attempt to “push through” a restriction or “correct” an error. Instead, she was to explore different kinds of movements, to see which felt best, which seemed most efficient and graceful.

It is not a question of eliminating the error,”

Feldenkrais would say.

It is a question of learning.”

Thinking in terms of error and negative judgment puts the person’s mind and body into a tense state that doesn’t help learning. The pupil was to explore, and learn new ways to move, and in the process develop and reorganize the nervous systems and the brain, not fix them.

These classes were deeply relaxing, and people would get up from them noticing they had much less pain and a far greater range of movement. Soon people came to Feldenkrais for work with him,one on one, for help with their aching necks, knees, and backs, or for their postural and postsurgical movement problems. He began to have great success, using the same principles, one on one, gently moving their bodies on a table instead of telling them to do so.

Functional integration became Feldenkrais’s term for a half hour spent, one on one, with a client on the table. The goal was for the pupil to become able to function well, regardless of any underlying structural problem, and for the mind and all the body’s parts to find a new integrated way of functioning together. Hence the name “Functional Integration.” Since he conceived of this method too as a form of “lessons,” he called his clients “pupils.” Unlike the ATMs, when he suggested various movements, these sessions were almost completely nonverbal, except at the beginning, when the pupil might tell him his or her problem.

Feldenkrais would begin by positioning the pupil on the table in the posture that created maximum comfort, relaxation, support, and sense of safety to lower bodily tension. Often people habitually “hold” parts of their body tight without being consciously aware of doing so. To reduce strain or muscle tension in the lower back, he would place a small roller under the head, or knees, or elsewhere on the body. Whenever there is the slightest strain in the body, muscle tonus increases, making it harder for a person to detect the subtle movement differentiations essential for improvement, and to learn new movements. When the pupil was comfortable, and his muscle tension was as low as it could be, Feldenkrais believed the brain was most available for learning.

Feldenkrais would sit beside the pupil and begin communicating by touch, with the pupil’s nervous system. He began with small movements, so that the observing mind and brain would begin to make differentiations. This was touching not to impose on but to communicate with the brain. If the person’s body moved, he would move with it, responsively, never using more force in his movements than necessary. He did not knead the muscles or press hard, as in massage or in an authoritarian manipulation of the joints. He would rarely work directly on a painful area; that approach only increased muscle tension. Thus he might start working on a part of the body farthest from where the pupil thought the problem was, often on the opposite side. He might begin to gently move a toe, far from a painful upper body part. If he felt a restriction, he would never force it. What he discovered was that the brain would sense this relaxation in the toe, and the person would become immersed in that image of relaxed movement, which would soon generalize, so that that entire side of the body relaxed.

Feldenkrais’s approach differs from some conventional body therapies in terms of method and goals, in so far as they focus on specific parts of the body and hence are “local” in orientation. For instance, some forms of physiotherapy will use exercise machines, to engage specific body parts to move through stretching and strengthening. These approaches, often extremely valuable, are arguably more inclined to treat the body as though it were made up of individual parts and are there are more mechanical in orientation. They may prescribe particular protocols for particular problem areas.

Feldenkrais claimed,

I have no stereotyped technique to apply ready-made to everyone; this is against the principles of my theory. I search and, if possible, find a major difficulty which can be detected at each session and which may, if worked upon, soften and be partially removed. I … go slowly and progressively through every function of the body.”

Feldenkrais’s reputation grew. A friend of Avraham Baniel’s, Aharon Katzir, a scientist who made major contributions to neuroplasticity, took a great interest in Feldenkrais’s work. He passed the information on to the Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, and in 1957 Feldenkrais took Ben-Gurion on as his pupil. The seventy-one-year-old Ben-Gurion suffered from sciatica and low back pain so severe he could barely rise to speak in Parliament. After some lessons, Ben-Gurion was able to leap up onto tanks to give speeches to the troops. Since Feldenkrais’s house was near the sea, Ben-Gurion, before turning to matters of state, would go for a morning swim, then see Feldenkrais for his lessons. Once, Feldenkrais had him stand on hishead. A photo of the elderly prime minister on his head on a Tel Aviv beach was used in an election and seen all over the world. Soon Feldenkrais was traveling and giving Functional Integration lessons worldwide, including to pupils such as the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the British film director Peter Brook. As Feldenkrais worked with more pupils, he discovered that his way, as he called it, of “dancing with the brain” could improve many conditions in which serious brain damage had occurred – such as stroke,cerebral palsy, severe nerve damage, multiple sclerosis, some kinds of spinal cord injuries, learning disorders, and even cases where parts of the brain were missing.


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