The New Year has started off busily, with several new and interesting clients and students coming for lessons and classes. I’d like to describe a recent lesson so that you, the reader, can better understand what happens in a Feldenkrais lesson.
A professional woman called from her office at a major oil company to make an appointment. She said that she had pain in her right hand, which had persisted and increased for more than a year. She explained that the fleshy part of her thumb, and also her middle finger were constantly numb and painful. She had been referred by a co-worker who is also a client, and she was eager to get some help.
She arrived at my studio, and after exchanging some pleasantries, I spent a few minutes to see what might be going on in her hand. What does she spend her time doing? I knew she worked in an office, with long hours at a computer. However, she didn’t think that her computer use was to blame. She said that often her hands are already hurting when she gets to the office. The computer probably doesn’t help, but might not be the cause.
I started to work, with gentle listening touch at her neck, shoulders, and low back, and asked an occasional question. I then moved on to her right hand and showed her the amazing dance of her radius and ulna, as they criss-crossed to turn her hand toward her and away. She was fascinated with the soft and tiny movements, her hand and entire forearm feeling lighter and less painful as we went along. She suddenly said, “You know when it really flares up? When I’m ironing.”
She is a woman who actually enjoys ironing — and I get it. There can be something very meditative (under the right circumstances) and calming about the repetitive task. She also spoke of the satisfaction of seeing immediate results from one’s work. Since her job is with numbers on long-term projects, she finds ironing to be relaxing, enjoyable, and therapeutic. We agreed that washing dishes can also be meditative and satisfying, especially if there is a kitchen window over the sink, for gazing and getting lost in thoughts. I drew her out a bit more about the ironing and household tasks, and when she talked again about ironing, I knew that we were at the heart of the matter. She was in too much pain to iron. I asked her to excuse me for a moment.
I went back to the bedroom, dug my iron out of the closet, and returned to the studio. Her eyes widened. I put up a small tray table, and set the iron upon it, while she sat across from it.
“This won’t be exactly like ironing, because I am not going to put up an ironing board in here,” I said, watching her as she smiled and then giggled. Then, I asked her to simply reach for the iron, but not to actually touch it. She made this movement several times. “My whole neck tightens up when I do that! Why?” she said with surprise.
“Good noticing,” I said. “I’m not sure why, and it doesn’t really matter. Make the movement a few more times, without any hurry at all. What do you notice about your breathing?”
“I’m holding my breath! Why am I doing that?”
This time I understood her question was rhetorical. “Good,” I said. “See if you can also breathe while you reach for the iron — but don’t touch it yet.”
She practiced the movement a few more times, and clearly felt when she held her breath, when she started it again. She quickly was able to keep her breathing even and continuous as she reached for the iron. She remarked that her neck was no longer working as hard. We paused for a moment.
“Now, please reach for the iron, and get ahold of the handle, as if you were going to pick it up — but don’t. Just hold the handle, and then return your hand to your lap.”
As she reached for the iron this time, we both observed that her hand was stiff. Over several more movements, we also observed that her fingers were straight and widely spaced. Her thumb and forefinger jutted out from the rest of her hand, and her wrist had a slight bend or kink in it and she reached and gripped. Again, she noticed that she was holding her breath. She also noticed that the reaching movement was much quicker, and hard to slow down. Gradually, we worked with allowing her wrist and hand to be in line with her forearm, which required another slight adjustment in her shoulder. This was much more comfortable. We continued to work with touching and holding the handle more and more softly, breathing.
The last stage of the process was to actually pick up the iron. I asked her to explore how tight her grip really needed to be. On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate the strength of your grip? “About an eight,” she said.
“See how it is at a nine,” I suggested.
“That feels like the way I usually hold my iron,” she volunteered.
So, we explored her grip. Could she grip at a level eight again? How about a four? How about a two? Now lift the iron. What is the least amount of force and strength you can get away with, and still hold and pick up the iron? She was engaged and fascinated. And then, she began to talk.
“You know, I was taught to iron when I was a little girl, and I used the same iron that my mother and grandmother used,” she said. “And I was taught that you had to press down as hard as you could, as you moved the iron across the fabric. That iron was heavy!”
“It sounds like an iron that was really made of iron.”
She nodded.”Yes, it was. It was heavy, and made of iron, and you heated it in the wood stove.”
She realized that, although now she had a fully modern and relatively lightweight iron, she was still using the same technique she learned as a small child, with a big, heavy tool that took every bit of her strength. She was excited, she said, to go home and practice with her iron, standing at the ironing board, finding an easier way. She was eager to update and upgrade her modus operandi.
As she left, she said that the pain in her hand and fingers was greatly reduced. It may take a bit more time, but I am certain that she will learn to use her hands, and her whole self, in easier and more efficient ways.
My task in each lesson is to find out what the client wants to be able to do, and then to explore ways that they could do it a little easier. It could be an iron, a golf club, a piano keyboard, a computer mouse, or simply walking to the mailbox. The possibilities for improvement are endless!