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!

Feldenkrais and Ironing, Really

മലയാളം: Charcoal Iron Box for ironing the clothes
മലയാളം: Charcoal Iron Box for ironing the clothes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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!

7 Ways to Get Out of Pain – Naturally

Hang around on this planet long enough, and Life will eventually deal you some pain and unpleasantness.  My feeling is, we get plenty of it without asking, just by showing up.  We certainly don’t need to go looking for it, or inviting it in the door.  If you’re a hard-core WHATEVER, my ideas here might offend you.  The  pursuit of extreme endurance and physical punishment is your choice — have a good time. However, it is a dangerous and completely inappropriate lifestyle for people who have real pain.

For people  with chronic or persistent pain (including emotional pain), it’s reality and it’s non-stop. There is no glory in hurting, and pain adversely affects your life. You MUST liberate yourself from our senseless “No Pain, No Gain” culture that drives you to ignore your common sense, your physical sensations, and your own well-being in pursuit of a bogus promise that pain will make you better.  Even if you simply have occasional aches and pains, here are seven techniques that can help you find your way out of pain — naturally.

Disclaimer.  This ain’t magic.  As my colleague Irene Gutteridge says, “Slow and steady wins the race.  Quick fixes are man-made. Not Nature-made.  Real change requires time.  Not impatience.”  Engage with the process, give it some time, keep an eye out for changes — and you can get out of pain.

1. Whatever you’re doing — stop.
You don’t have to stop it forever, just stop for right now. Just for a few minutes, for Pete’s sake.  Stop.  Really.
It’s like the old joke:
“Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”  
“Stop doing that.”
Stop for a moment, and feel all the muscles that have snuck up on you to wind themselves into a frenzy of tension.  Take a break to REST — 10 minutes, a few hours, a day — and you’ll be stronger and more comfortable when you continue.

2.  Slow down.
Perhaps you can’t stop what you are doing immediately.  Take a few moments to notice the rhythm of what you are doing.  See what happens if you slow down.  Does the movement feel more difficult, or more easy, at the slower pace? If you slow down, you can actually feel what you are doing. You might notice that you are working harder than you need to for the task.  Slow down and see if you can streamline the movement with a minimum of muscular effort.  You may need a few tries to “dial it down.”  Taking time to slow down can make your movements more pleasurable.

3.  Keep breathing.
Chances are,  you’ll find you’ve been holding your breath, or just barely breathing.  Notice what you are doing, before you try to change it.  Pay attention to your breathing as you continue.  Experiment with what works for you:  does it seem to make sense, or feel better, if you inhale during the action?  How does it feel to exhale during the action?  You may find a way to synchronize your breathing with what you are doing so that you are immediately more comfortable.  Your muscles and your brain need oxygen, in steady supply, and on a regular basis, to function well.  Notice when you hold your breath, and see if you can resume your breathing, lightly and easily.

4.  Think before you act.
Take a moment to consider:  is this action safe?  Is there an easier way?  Like it or not, we are all subject to the laws of physics.  Gravity can work for you, or against you.  If you are lifting something (even a purse, briefcase, or diaper bag), face the object and line yourself up with it before you lift it.  That means no picking up something heavy while reaching behind yourself. I see lots of people with very sore shoulders who have hurriedly tried to yank their purse out of the the back seat — an unwise action, resulting in completely preventable pain.  Think, move smart, and keep yourself out of pain.

5. Respect your limits.
If you are in pain, you will not solve your pain problem by ignoring it and pushing through.  I know IT SUCKS to not be able to do what you want, exactly as you want.  Tough.  This is reality.  When you feel yourself getting tired, or knocking at the door of pain, BACK OFF.  Work for shorter periods of time, and take frequent breaks so that you can rest.  It’s the RESTING that helps you recover — NOT some ego-driven idea of “refusing to acknowledge defeat.”

Frequently, people with persistent pain will have a day when the terrible dull ache lifts.  It’s as if the sun comes out.  They actually feel GOOD.  And on that day, the person will try to do everything that has been delayed, piling up, postponed.  They go non-stop for several hours, shopping, gardening, doing housework, cleaning the garage, socializing.  And the next day, they are worse off than before.  This discouraging cycle can be stopped if you pay attention to your limits and stay within them.

6.  Change your position frequently.
Human beings are not meant to be still or stuck in one position — no matter how “correct” you believe it to be.  For example: Your concept of good posture, handed down from parents, teachers, or your drill sergeant, might be too rigid and too generic to work for the long haul for you.  Fidget in your seat, get up and walk around, slowly and gently move your shoulders, arms and legs.  Extreme stretching, or quick movements to crack yourself, will not produce the long-term solution you seek.  Keep moving, just a little, to keep comfortable.

7.  Learn how to move, your way, from a Feldenkrais teacher.
You can make significant progress to improve your situation by exploring these experiments on your own.  However, if you need a little guidance, you can see a Feldenkrais teacher to help you learn more ways to move and live without pain. As you learn new ways of moving — or reconnect with the effortlessness you felt when you were younger — you can learn your way to a more comfortable existence.

[The preceding post is not intended as a substitute for medical advice or treatment where advised.  If your pain does not subside within a reasonable time, consult your healthcare provider.]

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What are we doing here?

ImageIt’s January 1, 2012 — a time when people are reflecting, resolving, reacting, re-treading, rebooting . . .

And so, I thought it might be a good time to clarify for myself, and for you, Dear Reader, what I intend to be doing here.

You’ll notice the tag line at the top of the website, underneath the title “The Feldenkrais® Center of Houston.”  It says, “Open to Possibilities. . .”

You might or might not know what Feldenkrais is, and “Open to Possibilities. . .” might or might not make you curious about what’s going on here.  So here’s my attempt at a short summary.

My audience is people who are “stuck.”  Dissatisfied in some way, wanting more for their lives.  Some of them are in physical or emotional pain, or both.  Some are on a frustrating plateau of achievement in their jobs or hobbies. In either a literal or metaphorical sense, they can’t move. They are people with a fundamental awareness that they might be able to discover and learn something new that will help.  If you’re stuck, you need new possibilities.

SomaQuest helps people to discover or create new possibilities in their lives, their thoughts, their emotions, and in their actions. The posts on this blog reflect on daily life, and on using a specific set of tools, known as The Feldenkrais Method®, to live a happier, better, more highly functional LIFE.

The major tools used by the Feldenkrais Method are 1. your brain, and 2. your body. Get the two working together, and you have 3. movement, and the “special sauce” is 4. awareness.  With these four tools, you can drastically reduce or eliminate your experience of pain; improve your posture, balance, and coordination; clarify your thinking to lead to effective and intelligent actions; enjoy a sense of child-like wonder and exploration in all that you do.  Whatever it is that you enjoy, that gives your life meaning — these tools can make it, and you, better.

I write a lot about how the Feldenkrais Method can help people.  I also write about food, cooking, culture, travel, people-watching, technology and gadgets, the arts, self-expression, relationships, and random streams of consciousness. Everything is fair game for reflection, and for exploring new possibilities. 

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.”



“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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