21st Century Problems – Neck Pain and the Feldenkrais® Solution

Photo by Mingjun Liu on UnsplashIs your neck sore and painful to move from time to time?

Welcome to the 21st century!

It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Most of us sit too much for work, we binge on Netflix too many weekends, and we are glued to our smartphones. If we exercise, many of  us do so mindlessly and extremely. In urban areas (for example, cough cough, Houston!) we have the added stresses of standstill traffic, prolonged construction closures, and hostile, reckless drivers to add to the mix. While humans have always experienced neck pain throughout history, our modern lifestyles seem to create “the perfect storm” for most of us to end up with neck pain at some point. In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that 30 to 50% of the population will experience neck pain within any given 12-month period.

We’re stuck! And we remain stuck because most exercises and stretches recommended for neck pain are ineffective at best, and do additional harm at worst. Perhaps it’s time to try a different approach?

In the Feldenkrais Method(R), we approach pain with curiosity, first and foremost. In creating the change we would like to see (pain >>> no pain), we move slowly and gently, almost sneaking up on ourselves to disarm the overactive muscular contractions. We make a small movement first, noticing where the movement is possible and comfortable. And then, we explore a little variation. Through this exploratory process, things often change for the better, all on their own, and without violence. We can then begin to create new possibilities, and new ways to move with your whole self, that save wear and tear on that neck of yours. You might still have re-occurrences of neck pain in the future, but they will be short-lived, because you have learned a process for finding relief in any moment.

Try a few F*R*E*E mini-lessons while sitting at your computer (or phone!) today.  Resist the urge to binge-wiggle – perhaps do one during your next 5-minute break, and another one later. Be on the lookout for improvement, however subtle. You’ll be free of your pain-in-the-neck in no time!

My neck hurts! What kind of pillow should I use?

Sleeping womanThis is undoubtedly one of the most frequently asked questions I am asked by clients. I get the feeling they are surprised when I don’t have a favorite brand or store to send them to. Rather, I point them toward their own linen closet to fashion their own fully customized pillow!

You can watch our latest YouTube video here for the “how-to” instructions. Please let us know in the comments there if you try out our suggestions. Especially if you have some questions, or have some super-effective “hacks” that have worked for you, please do share with our growing community!

If you buy a pillow from a store, it will be standardized to a certain extent. In effect, it is “one size fits all – or many.” That’s the only way they can offer a product for sale and make money! But each neck is one-of-a-kind. YOU are one-of-a-kind, and what works for your spouse may not fit you at all. The Feldenkrais Method(R) offers virtually limitless variations of experience to fit you, your learning style, your nervous system, and your dreams and goals to move into your best future.

Join us in Houston for a group class or private lesson soon. Until then, happy YouTube-ing and sweet dreams!
To find a Feldenkrais teacher near you, search at Feldenkrais.com.

How is the Feldenkrais Method(R) like an Art Museum?

The subject line for this post may not be the most burning question you’ve ever entertained. You know that my mind can make strange associations sometimes, and this past weekend I attended an event that got my synapses firing! Here’s the short video about my mini-epiphany from the Menil Collection. (It’s a little under 5 minutes long.)
The Best of Feldenkrais with MaryBeth Smith, GCFP photo array
In fact, this is probably a good time to announce our new YouTube channel. TA-DAH! We have a new YouTube Channel! If you’re so inclined, give the video a “thumbs up” to show you liked it. Click “Subscribe” and click the little bell to get notifications about future videos. All of those tiny actions are important for the algorithm pixies, who ultimately make it easier for others to find videos about the Feldenkrais Method – including our videos. If you’ve ever wondered, “Why don’t more people know about the Feldenkrais Method?” you can help to increase those numbers with just a few clicks! Our channel is just a few days old, so our subscriber stats and views are still in the single digits. If you’ve ever wanted to get in on the “ground floor” of something, here you go, welcome aboard, and thanks.

As a student of the Feldenkrais Method, you know that tiny actions and small but noticeable differences add up to something big! Words can sometimes be elusive when your friends want you to explain this strange thing you do. Perhaps our videos will get your synapses firing as well. We hope our new content will be helpful and inspiring to you in your personal practice of the Method, as well as in feeling confident to share your experiences with others.

Our videos will fall into three main categories:

  • short demonstrations of mini-movements to help ease discomfort and/or improve function
  • conversations with other Feldenkrais teachers about how they help clients with specific movement issues
  • testimonials from happy students

And, we reserve the right to take flights of inspiration and whimsy when the spirit moves. I hope you’ll stick around for the fun!

Oops! Did you forget something?

feldenkrais-logoThis summer, I re-read the movement classic, “Somatics,” by Thomas Hanna. The following two paragraphs from the introduction had me cheering with clarity about the “WHY?” of somatic education generally, and the Feldenkrais Method(R) specifically.

“The fact is that, during the course of our lives, our sensory-motor systems continually respond to daily stresses and traumas with specific muscular reflexes. These reflexes, repeatedly triggered, create habitual muscular contractions, which we cannot – voluntarily — relax. These muscular contractions have become so deeply involuntary and unconscious that, eventually, we no longer remember how to move about freely. The result is stiffness, soreness, and a restricted range of movement.

“This habituated state of forgetfulness is called sensory-motor amnesia (SMA). It is a memory loss of how certain muscle groups feel and how to control them. And, because this occurs within the central nervous system, we are not aware of it, yet it affects us to our very core. Our image of who we are, what we can experience, and what we can do is profoundly diminished by sensory-motor amnesia. And it is primarily this event, and its secondary effects, that we falsely think of as ‘growing older.'”

While “forgetting” might be inevitable with age, decline is not. I frequently bring students’ attention to parts of themselves that seem to have “gone off the radar.” In a confusing moment, the student is not certain of what they are feeling, or sometimes even how to go about “contacting” the part of themselves that they are being asked to move. Other times, I speak of “re-establishing diplomatic relations” with parts of ourselves that we have not moved, freely or at all, in a very long time. Both expressions refer to the same phenomenon of sensory-motor amnesia of which Hanna speaks.

 

MaryBeth
MaryBeth D. Smith, GCFP

The Feldenkrais Method can help you to re-member and remember yourself, so that your actions in the world can be more effective. You are the teacher, learner, textbook, and laboratory! The syllabus is life, and the course materials are gentle body movement, curiosity, and ample good humor in the process of discovery. What better time to begin than now?

Contact us about classes, lessons, and workshops in Houston, TX.
Elsewhere, find a teacher near you at Feldenkrais.com

Your Personal Superpower

Moshe Feldenkrais (Credit: © International Feldenkrais Federation Archive/Photo montage by Salon.com)
Moshe Feldenkrais (Credit: © International Feldenkrais Federation Archive/Photo montage by Salon.com)

The newest book by Norman Doidge, “The Brain’s Way of Healing,” has caused much excitement in Feldenkrais circles worldwide.  I’m excited for the Feldenkrais Method to become more widely known because of the book’s popularity. However, I’m even more excited at the possibility that the idea of neuroplasticity – that the brain changes its structure in response to learning – will finally find acceptance among the general public, including those within the mainstream medical community.

I first heard about neuroplasticity in the year 2000, in my earliest Feldenkrais lessons.  I’ve probably thought about neuroplasticity almost every day for the past fifteen years, as I became immersed in the Feldenkrais Method, and began to work with students and clients. With accumulating experience, I have come to understand that neuroplasticity is a sort of superpower that we all have. And, like all superpowers, it can be a double-edged sword.

Neuroplasticity operates whether you are aware of it or not. We humans are built to learn, almost “straight out of the chute.” Our unconscious actions – those that we call “habits” – are constantly causing neurons to be recruited, strengthening neural pathways to strengthen the habitual patterns. This formation of neural pathways is sometimes stated as,”Things that fire together, wire together.” However, this innate capacity can have devastating consequences for some musicians, for example, who spend thousands of hours practicing fine-motor dexterity and agility, only to develop a lack of control and precision, and potentially jeopardizing their careers.

So if you have this superpower, you might as well learn to use it, and use it well. You can’t just assume that it’s going to work FOR you. You have to practice, and pay attention. Think of Luke Skywalker in his first encounter with the light saber. Obi-Wan was undoubtedly a patient teacher (in a short but memorable scene) so that Luke could learn to use this tool with skill and precision to match his intentions.

The Feldenkrais Method and neuroplasticity as metaphorical light sabers? Your Feldenkrais teacher as your personal Obi-Wan? Am I shamelessly exploiting Star Wars for my own literary convenience and amusement? YOU BETCHA I AM.

In lightness and with gentle humor, we learn and grow. There’s more to be said about all of this, but for now, I must practice my light saber. . .

Shark Week at the Feldenkrais Center of Houston

Your safety and survival is our top priority!

Photo: Creative Commons

Honestly, I just wanted to use the words “Shark Week” and “Feldenkrais” in the same sentence. I don’t know if that’s ever been done before, but I’m sure someone will let me know if it has. It’s just one more way that we’re pioneering on behalf of the Feldenkrais Method in Houston!

Shark Week is the longest-running cable TV programming event on record. The Discovery Channel originated Shark Week in July of 1988, offering blocks of shark-related programming and celebrity hosts. It has become a pop culture reference and has taken on a life of its own.

You may find it reassuring to hear that the Feldenkrais Center of Houston is a designated shark-free zone. While no place on earth is truly safe (Sharknado, anyone?), we have a perfect record, free of shark attacks. Sadly, we have also been a “Rob Lowe – free zone.” This was not intentional. However, since he is hosting the very shark-y event this year, we would consider inviting a shark to our office, if that’s what it takes to get Rob Lowe here. I love you, Rob. How about it? My Twitter handle is @divamover.

This week, as every week, the program at the Feldenkrais Center of Houston is about YOU. Everything we do – private lessons, group classes and workshops, and mp3 audio recordings – is meant to help you to improve your ability to function in everyday life. Whether that means a dancer can stay healthy and avoid injury, or a young mom can get her baby in and out of the car without hurting her back; a special-needs child discovering his potential, or a “Boomer” who wants to stay active and independent for as long as possible; you can dramatically improve your quality of life with the Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education. We have a lot of fun, for doing such potentially important stuff.

Book a private lesson, join a class, or continue your learning at home via mp3. We’re here for you, and for your learning – even when it’s not Shark Week.

How’s that office chair?

Creative Commons Image

SO — how IS your office chair? Individuals and companies spend countless hours researching the best ergonomic chairs and desks to enhance “worker productivity.” It is possible to spend hundreds of dollars on a highly rated set-up, and still find that you are uncomfortable. I’ll tell you what I tell my clients.

I find it interesting to dig a little bit to find out exactly what is meant by “worker productivity.” It is amazing how many people translate this to mean “able to sit in one position all day and work relentlessly with no price to pay.” However, more and more have heard the idea that sitting is the new smoking. How do you balance the need to get stuff done, with the need to maintain one’s health? Clearly, we need to think outside the chair.

Standing desks are trendy and cool, and can be a great solution. However, standing can be as problematic as sitting if you have a temperamental low back, or sore feet, knees, or legs. Walking meetings can yield the same dilemma. SO let’s question the basic assumption that people are supposed to be able to sustain ANY position — be it sitting, standing, or lying down — for up to eight hours at a time, and be OK. Humans are meant to MOVE. Expecting anyone to behave like a machine is obviously dehumanizing. It also disconnects the human from their ability to be effective. We are meant to adapt, continuously, to our environment. This adaptability keeps us moving, thinking, feeling, and sensing. Perhaps that can be a new definition of productivity?

The problem is in getting stuck in one position. This is true physically, as well as mentally. Get up and move. Change your position as frequently as you need to, at least once an hour. This can mean to stand up, walk to the restroom, stand while you are on the phone, you get the idea. When people are physically stuck in one position for long periods of time, they lose the ability to imagine how they might do something different. You can revive this specific use of your imagination in  Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® classes.Even if it feels silly, just change something, anything, for a few minutes, before returning to your original position.

People also ask me about bedding, pillows, their shoes, even their cars, as if there is one and only one best purchase or best position for everyone, in any given situation. I’ll say it again: Humans are meant to move. If you become uncomfortable while asleep, roll over. Wiggle in your car, stop more frequently on longer trips and get out, walk around. Your comfort and health are individual. Others can make suggestions and recommendations, but ultimately you must find what is right for you.

When I visit people’s homes and offices for ergonomic consultations, they feel relieved that I am not trying to sell them a bunch of new furniture, gadgets, or doodads.Rather, I spend time with each individual, watching how they move, what their tasks are, and then make a plan that includes efficiency of action as well as comfort and sustainability. Sometimes, they do need to make adjustments with desktop heights or chair alignment. Most often, they can learn how to move, to vary their positions, and to create health for themselves. If only this could be a trend! Thankfully, more and more employers recognize that true productivity is not simply a matter of getting work done, but also of living well and feeling well to work another day.

What are you learning this summer?

from MoveSleepEat.comWhat are you learning this summer?

It is great to take courses and classes to build a skill, learna language, or gain a new professional certification. As adults, we tend to forget that learning is not confined to classrooms and pre-packaged subject areas. Learning – organic, experiential learning – happens in virtually every moment!

Some of the most powerful and influential learning happens when we revisit something that we already know well. In fact, those “second nature” habits can become less useful and efficient over time. Learning something old in a new way can be a revelation.

Our daily movements and actions, our sleep patterns, and the choices about the foods we eat are all deeply ingrained. Although not “hard wired,” they are well-learned. The basics of life – how you Move, Sleep, or Eat – can be improved to an astonishing degree. Whether you want less pain, better coordination, a good night’s sleep, or to reach your optimal weight for healthy and longevity, learning old things with new information can lead to new results, and full, dynamic living.

Happy New Year. Now What?

party hats mosaic
party hats mosaic (Photo credit: Škrabalica)

The bottles of bubbly are in the recycling, confetti, streamers, and paper tiaras are crammed into over-stuffed trash bags along with the efforts of the end-of-the-year cleanup. You may have even bought a few more vegetables in your first trip to the market, stepped on the scale, or visited the gym. Happy New Year, indeed. Now what?

I invite you to depart from conventional thinking about New Year and the whole “New You” mentality. After trying it out for — oh, let’s say 40 years — (I think that is giving it more than a fair shot, by the way) my observations of self and others reveal that this approach doesn’t work. The whole mentality around “New You” strikes me now as being completely counter-productive. It does not value the wisdom, learning, and value that have accrued over one’s lifetime to this point. If the “Old You” is banished, the “New You” is left without experiences and reference points for future growth. The New You is doomed to repeat all the mistakes of the past. No wonder most people’s resolutions don’t last through the end of the month.

Another flaw is that the New Year’s conversation is almost exclusively focused on perceived personal failure. I’m not thin enough, fit enough, organized enough, financially secure enough, smart enough, you fill in your own blank. The message is, NOT ENOUGH! Is it any wonder that most resolutions fail because people want more of something they are not getting?

Don’t get me wrong. I make my living in the self-improvement biz. The Feldenkrais Method values and promotes continuous self-improvement. However, this self-improvement is not narcissistic, nor is it driven by feelings of shame or unworthiness. We start in the present moment, and we just notice and acknowledge what is here, now. Self-improvement in the Method is based on getting something in life to work a little bit better. Our jargon for it is “improvement of function.” Something that wasn’t working, now works better. Something that was working well enough, is now even better. My own take on self-improvement is that, if I want to make the world a better place (and I do), I should start with myself.

Suddenly, the Feldenkrais Method takes on increased usefulness. While improving the obvious things that people always want for themselves — posture, balance, skill, calm — one learns a process, a method, for improving oneself with increasing relevance and scope. Coordination, intelligence, teamwork, relationships, community, creative thinking, all can flourish in the environment of improved awareness. The Method teaches a way of taking actions that move us consistently toward something that is better. Even just a bit better can be a lot better, both in the moment and in the long run.

So, I encourage you to abandon your resolutions early this year! Rather than re-inventing the self improvement wheel to make yourself into something you wish you were, I encourage you to acknowledge something in yourself, or in your life, that is already going pretty well. Focus on THAT something that actually works. Figure out HOW it works, and do more of that. If you are doing more of what works, you will automatically be doing less of what doesn’t work so well. Voila! You are on a path of improvement.

For example: in the last few months, I have stumbled into better eating habits and exercise opportunities that seem to be working well. No resolution for me! I’m going to build on my recent successes and stick with the program, easing confidently into the New Year on a path that appears to be leading in a good direction. I will keep tweaking and adapting the plan so that it serves me better and better throughout the year, and throughout my life.

To me, this is the essence of the Feldenkrais Method: identify what works, stay engaged with it, enjoy yourself, play to discover the improvements that emerge. Movement is our laboratory in which abstract concepts become concrete. If this makes sense to you, then I invite you to join us for classes whenever you can. We are about the business of exploring how to get life to work just a little bit better.

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Returning with a Rant About Posture

Recently, I taught a workshop at the Houston NiaMoves Studio, called “Dynamic, Beautiful Posture.”  Lots of my clients express the desire for improved posture, so it’s a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about.

Every time I teach this workshop, I am still astonished by the level of psychological pain, self-loathing, perfectionism, and defeatism that students express.  My rant:  how did we, as a culture,create such a huge cohort of disempowered people?

At the beginning of the workshop, I asked the students (all women, this time, of all sizes, shapes, and ages) to simply walk around the room a few times.  You can try this for yourself:  as you walk, is there a voice inside your head, coaching and directing you in the “right way” to walk?  For most people, the answer is “YES.”

When asked what thoughts went through their minds as they walked, a flood of comments burst forth.  “Stand up straight.”  (What does that even MEAN?) “Hold in your stomach.” “Suck it in!” “Keep that ass from flapping in the breeze!”  All agreed that they were following old directions from a past authority figure while walking — not in the present moment at all.  I asked them how that voice made them feel.

“Not good enough.”

“Unattractive.”

“Anxious.”

“Afraid I’ll do something wrong.”

You get the idea.  There’s a definite pattern here.  This group of women was not unique.  The same responses come up, time and again, and from men as well as women, whenever I work with people and their posture.

So with the stage set, here comes my rant about posture.  If you want to skip the rant (although I think it will be entertaining and enlightening), the take-away is:  Get off your own case.  Stop criticizing yourself, about posture or anything else.  For all the years of criticism, has anything REALLY changed?  No.  Oh yeah — stop criticizing other people, too — especially about their posture.

Take a few moments to sit with these statements:  “I’m not good enough.  I’m unattractive.  I’m anxious.  I feel fearful.”  What do you notice?  Give it some time, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, you will begin to EMBODY these statements.  A feeling of sadness will begin to emerge.  Your gaze is downcast, your head bends forward, along with your shoulders curving forward. Your back slumps.  Your stomach, or your head, may begin to ache a little.  Your flexor muscles contract, pulling you along in a trajectory toward fetal position, the only safe place. Notice:  all your energy, vitality, and joy are drained out of you.  You may feel hopeless:  “What’s the point?  I might as well go back to bed.”  The point is this:  every bodily position, every habitual pattern of muscular contraction, has an underlying emotional tone and thought process — even if unconscious.  If you feel this crummy about yourself, your posture is, in a way, a reflection of your emotional state and self-image.  In this condition, it is impossible to “stand up straight.”  And if you do get close, it will be with such effort and artificiality as to be uncomfortable and unsustainable.

Critiques of posture start young, and continue throughout our formative years.  They come from people who mean well and want the best for us.  However, the Law of Unintended Consequences can be clearly seen.  We fight against ourselves, even years later, to win the approval of that authority figure still in our heads.  A child internalizes the message:  “There is something about you, about your fundamental essence, that is so displeasing and offensive to me, that I cannot accept it, or you.  Unless you can meet my standard of perfection, I will not love you.” And thus begins a life-long, unproductive battle, with the self and one’s environment.  Our only defense to make us feel better about ourselves is to find someone else to correct relentlessly.

Clearly, this is a fruitless and futile path.  And yet we’ve all trod it.  There is a better way.  (It’s coming soon, my solution.  But I’m kind of on a roll with this rant, so permit me. . .)

Our notion of “good posture” arises from a cultural aesthetic preference.  Great works of art, and artistic pursuits such as ballet and yoga reflect this aesthetic preference for the ideals of symmetry and elongation.   The real-world realization is that “Ideal” means “does not actually occur in real life.”  Ideals are meant to be beacons toward which we move.  Ideals are meant to inspire healthy striving and accomplishment (H/T to Dr. Brene Brown for expressing this wonderful distinction.) The closer we get to the ideal, we find the goal posts move.  Achieve the ideal, and you’ve become a butterfly specimen in a display case:  dead, wings pinned to a board, no longer capable of flight, growth, or continued inspiration. Rather straining to achieve an ideal, embrace a metaphor:  The Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is teeming with life, wonder, and beauty.

Face it:  nobody ever died from bad posture.  The problem is not in any particular position — the problem comes from getting stuck there.

Moshe Feldenkrais, iconoclastic thinker and movement educator from the last century, said that “posture” is a static state, like a post. (Post/posture, get it?)  That is fine for photographs and statues, but people’s lives are not static.  We’ve gotta move, and do, and be, and love, and work, and play.  We can’t do that in one, “correct,” static position.  So he coined a word, “acture,” to describe a dynamic state of curiosity about the world, poised for comfort and grace in movement without wasted energy.

You don’t teach that kind of fabulous, engaged “attitude” toward life by shaming, coercing, nagging, or making people walk with a book on their head.   Comfortable “acture,” along with the happy side-effect of looking aesthetically pleasing, has to be experienced and FELT.  Classes in the Feldenkrais Method seek to create the conditions where this dynamic internal spark can be re-ignited.  With deeper experiences of the felt sense of springiness, grace, ease, and length comes a changed emotional tone, changed thinking patterns and self-talk, and the ability to be one’s own authority in matters of comfort, effectiveness, and self.

The workshop participants made a beginning at trading in their perfectionism in favor of resilience, adaptability, and a sense of their own capacity for skill, grace, and comfort in efficient and beautiful movement.  They began to experience the old adage, “What you think of me is none of my business.”  When new possibilities open up, the potential for improvement is LIMITLESS.

Where is perfectionism blocking you?  How does perfectionism affect your relationships with others?

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