Sandy Mercer works as an engineer in the training field as well as a professional singer. She first explored the Feldenkrais approach to recover from a gym injury. Here Sandy discusses how the Feldenkrais Method has been valuable to her in working through the physical effects of grief as well as her music and gym work.
Interview Sandy Mercer with Julia Sutton, February 2014
Julia: Can you tell me how you came to work with Sarah and get introduced to Feldenkrais?
Back Pain From Gym Injury
Sandy: The first time I went to see Sarah, I was suffering debilitating back pain from lifting something poorly at the gym. I could hardly walk and I tried to get in to see my physio. He was too busy so a friend suggested Sarah.
That first session Sarah did some very subtle stuff with me and that really helped with relieving the pain. She also gave me some homework exercises to explore. After that session I could walk more easily and was much more mobile. That’s how it started.
Julia: How would you describe the difference between traditional physio and the feldenkrais approach?
Sandy: I have had really good results with different physios in the past. I have good faith in physiotherapy treatment. When I went to see Sarah, I noticed what was different was that rather than just treating the area that seemed to be presenting as the painful problem, she looked at me more as a whole person. Sometimes I would be there because my back hurt and she’d be playing with my feet or she’d be playing with my head or my upper back or ribs. There were also no machines or violent or painful manipulations.
It was quite interesting to have that different approach of not necessarily pointing a finger at the pain. Sometimes spreading your attention away from the site of the pain is a really beneficial thing. As time has gone on, we’ve explored a lot more about my body like my ankles, ribs and jaw. In classes I have learned about how my eyes, or shoulders or legs affect other things in the way I move. I think one of the key differences I’ve discovered is that it’s more about learning what you do in your body. It’s about learning how you can better use your body rather than trying to fix a specific problem.
Julia: Do you find that you have to work hard to maintain the changes you make?
Sandy: No. I wouldn’t say you have to work hard, and that’s one of the messages from Feldenkrais, not to work too hard. I think there’s great benefit in doing the homework that you’re sent home with. It’s a team effort. Sarah does things that teach me more about my body and then I take that learning away with me. Then I do the exercises that she gives me and move my attention where I need to. That helps me maintain the change I’m after.
Sometimes I lose that a bit because my old habits take over. That’s when I might visit for a tune up or revisit my exercises or run through what I can remember from a class that helped. I’d also like to say that this approach is not about chasing away old habits – it’s more about giving you more options.
Grief And Feldenkrais
Julia: Sandy, you mentioned before that you’ve been widowed and you were suggesting that Feldenkrais had been a useful tool in that grieving process.
Sandy: Absolutely. Apologies if I burst into tears. Before I was widowed, my partner was sick for five years. Obviously I was very stressed for a long period of time with financial stress on top of the emotional stress, lack of control and all the rest of it. I was also spending all my time in the hospital which is not a great place to be physically or mentally. Then I was widowed.
I definitely felt the physical effects of that stress in my body and my body’s reaction to those pressures. I became very rigid and breathing was difficult. I also lost all confidence in my abilities in most areas of my life.
I had excessive tension throughout my body and that resulted in lots of pain and also low immunity, sickness and falling prey to any germ that came near me. I’ve definitely found through Feldenkrais that sometimes what I actually need to do is to put myself first. I need to allow myself to let go of excessive tension. Sometimes that involves just putting myself in a comfortable position and allowing myself the time to let go of the physical tension and get out of my head. Other times I can do it through movement. So rolling over the floor or rocking or doing something simple is useful.
I found just rolling slowly from side to side with quality and smoothness could help me to let go of that excessive tension and breathe better. I think for me that breathing better is one of those essential things because if you don’t breathe you die. It’s fairly important to allow that to happen freely and not be stopped by your stupid crazy head going off its rocker.
Julia: When you’re talking about getting out of your head, were you talking about allowing yourself to be still and comfortable and let the feeling be there?
Sandy: There’s two aspects of it. There’s what you’re saying which is allow yourself to be still. Allow yourself to feel what you need to feel, but also letting go of the thoughts that rise around your head when you’ve got too much going on and you’re trying to process too much. It’s trying to allow the feeling without the judgment and without over processing things.
Julia: There is a tremendous cultural pressure to cheer up, move on, be positive.
Sandy: Yes. I’m a very positive person. I’ve been enthusiastic and positive my whole life. My personality is life’s great and everything is beautiful. When I hit this snag it had a heavy impact on me. I was still enthusiastic and positive and all the rest of it. But I did notice that I wasn’t myself and I wasn’t living as full a life as I could do.
Feldenkrais Training Opens Up Options
I got to the point of not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and feeling quite … I don’t like to use the word depressed but very low and very limited in my options, in my life. I found myself towards the end of last year that I really had enough of feeling like that, which is a good thing. It just happened that the Feldenkrais Practitioners Course was coming up.
I enrolled for the first three weeks of the Feldenkrais Practitioners Course which was opened to beyond the people who were planning to do the full course. I went to that with no expectation other than I wanted to spend time on myself. I hoped to come out breathing better, moving more easily.
I had no idea what I was going to get out of it was going to be so transformative emotionally and mentally. I went into the training with this feeling that the walls were caving in and my options were limited and everything was ridiculously horrible. I started to feel within the first three days and definitely by the midpoint of the three weeks I felt completely limitless and like I could do anything that I wanted to. I felt more like I had been before my husband became ill, like the world was at my feet. Such a magic experience.
Feldenkrais & Music
Julia: You’re also a musician. I’d also like to talk specifically about singing and piano because that’s an important part of your life as well. Where are the influences of Feldenkrais come in there?
Sandy: There’ve been quite a lot of things happen. When I’ve got back pain or I’ve got excessive tension throughout my body, that makes my ability to sing or play piano quite … I can still play and sing, but it’s not as easy and it’s not as expressive as it can be. I found that working with Sarah on breathing directly helped my singing. Especially when recording vocals for my band’s EP, we worked on making my breathing more easy along with reducing my back pain and each helped the other, made my voice so much stronger and more full than when I was trying to sing while in pain, when I was restricting myself. All of the work we have done has helped with my music by reducing extra wasted effort. Simply sitting better helped my piano. Every bit of wasted effort costs you expression or technique, so getting rid of it is a win.
I even had an experience this weekend where I did a couple of classes, called Awareness Through Movement classes. They were to do with sitting down and standing with less effort. I went and sat at my piano straight after doing those and I could play with a lot more ease and so much more expression. I’m not a professional piano player. I just play for fun, but it was amazing to me how much better I was than even a week prior. The other thing that happened was I decided… that was so good I feel like I’ll play something I’ve never played before. I picked up a piece of music that I’ve heard before, but not played. My sight reading had improved out of sight.
Feldenkrais helps you move between the big picture and the detail with greater ease. In music that’s what you need. When you’re doing sight reading you need to be able to see the whole, but you also need to be able to pick up the data without getting sucked into it and stuck on each little black note.
Feldenkrais & Gym
Julia: Gym is another aspect of your life. Can you describe the Feldenkrais influence been over your gym work?
Sandy: It’s been fantastic. Before Feldenkrais, I used to train like a man. I did very old school, traditional weight training. I used to do 85 kilo bench presses and 240 kilo leg presses which are quite heavy training.
Since I’ve been working with Sarah I’ve been able to take aspects of my Feldenkrais work of thinking about my body and apply that to gym. I work with a trainer who is perfect for me in that she is focused on the quality of movement and working with me as an individual.
When we do any movement, we bring to it any observations from my work with Sarah. For example, I tend to bring on my back pain through overarching in my lower back and overextending my upper back. So whenever we do an exercise, we aim to avoid these – we use lots of imagery, which works really well for me. I might imagine I have helium balloons on my hands lifting my arms over my head for me, so that I don’t automatically overwork my upper back or take my shoulders to my ears. Or we think about the path my tailbone travels when I squat, or opening my hip joint at the front when I’m lunging, or just about breathing when I’m doing something really challenging to coordination. We experiment with what works for me. Very Feldenkrais.
The aim is to avoid overworking the muscles I tend to overwork. It means that the work is going more into the correct muscles than it would have if I was just doing it in my normal old habit. It’s helped me change the way I do certain aspects of my training.
Julia:Would you say your training is a lot more targeted or focused?
Sandy: Actually I’d probably say the opposite. Yes, the muscles that work are the ones that I’m wanting to work in a particular exercise, but it’s done by thinking about how my whole body needs to move.
Instead of just focusing on one particular muscle, I think what’s going on in the rest of me that I could help this movement?
Julia: How could you sum up the influence of Feldenkrais over your life if you had to talk about the big picture?
Sandy:I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever found. I think this is something that can be brought into and improve the quality of every aspect of your life. I think it’s a holistic approach to learning that I wish I had discovered earlier. There are so many things in life that you can never get to understand, kind of “black boxes”. To me the Feldenkrais Method means that your body no longer needs to be one of them. Instead of just accepting what you already do or have been told about your own body, you can do your own investigation and make up your own mind, take ownership of your body.
Julia: Thank you so much, Sandy.