An Interview by Donna Ray on Recovery from Pain & Injury, The Feldenkrais Way

Donna Ray, Feldenkrais Practitioner, and Anne Frankl, a student of Donna’s, dialogued about Feldenkrais and how it helps with recovery from injury and pain.

Donna – Anne, how and when did you learn about Feldenkrais?

Anne – About a year ago—I had been seeing all kinds of health practitioners for chronic pain. One of them told me about Feldenkrais.

Donna – What kind of pain and difficulty were you having?

Anne – I had persistent pain due to many injuries to my neck over the years.

Donna – How many sessions before you started feeling relief from Feldenkrais?

Anne – I felt relief after my first session with Donna. Normally sitting for a period of time was really bad. After the lesson, I had to go to an event where I had to sit and stand for a period of time, and I was fine. It was pretty amazing.

Donna – So what are some of the subtle things you’ve learned from Feldenkrais?

Anne – I was a ballet dancer, so I have very good posture to begin with. I now actually feel taller and longer, with my shoulders more relaxed, and my upper body more fluid. I am more aware of myself when walking, and know how to move differently to be more comfortable. I’ve learned how to turn my whole body to look at something from the right or left when driving. Now I am a safer driver, because I can turn better to see the other car, and don’t feel the pain in my neck when doing so. I can stay on my feet longer, and don’t need to rest as often. I used to have to lie down for 20 to 30 minutes. I could not stay upright because of the pain. I felt physically weak. I’m also out helping my husband again when he is racing cars. I wash windows, check tires, and cheer him on. I used to be out there myself, but one of the traumas to my neck is from when I spun the car into a wall. I was depressed for a while because of the pain, but now that I’m learning how to move myself better, I feel hopeful, more energetic and capable. I have added strength and endurance, with a stronger vitality and sense of self.

Recovery from Hip Surgery

Donna – Do you want to talk a little bit about your hip accident and recovery? It is an interesting story. This was after numerous Feldenkrais lessons. Anne was doing very well with neck pain and the depression had lifted. She was more active. Because of that she was on a ladder…

Anne – I was on the 2nd step of the ladder, with things in both hands. I went to reach up to do something, and the ladder started to tip out from under me. I tried to catch it with my hands, but couldn’t. So it went out from under me. I landed absolutely on my hip. I heard horrible crack, that I thought was my neck. It turns out I had broken my hip. The bridge between where the femur comes up and the ball goes in (greater cantor) had broken into several pieces. So I had surgery. After 2 weeks, I went to see the doctor, and I was walking without a cane. He said, “Oh, that is not bad for 3 months.” He thought it was my 3-month visit. I said, “Oh no, it is only 2 weeks.” They were astounded! My first thought after surgery was to get Feldenkrais, so I could heal properly. So after 2 weeks I was walking without a cane. I used the crutches for a couple of days, and the walker for a couple of days. I know it is the Feldenkrais that helped me recover so quickly.

Donna – In a few lessons, Anne learned that she could rely on her new hip. Her movement was well organized, and therefore she recuperated quickly. Then we worked with how to climb the stairs.

Anne – The surgeon said not to expect to be able to climb the stairs very quickly – you are lifting five times your body weight when you go up stairs, so that can be quite difficult. Because of my Feldenkrais lessons, I was able to go up stairs normally within 3 months.

Donna – With Anne lying on her side, I moved her pelvis, spine, and head, gently organizing them for easy walking and stair climbing. The movements of extending the spine, looking up, and flexing the spine, looking down, related to clear movements of the hips and legs, create an overall movement that pertains to walking up and down stairs.

Anne – When I got home, I tried what I learned, so I could walk up the stairs. You are pushing your weight up the stairs, rather than trying to pull it up, which is easier. And we made it fun, so I was dancing up the stairs!

Donna –You arch your back, stick your tailbone out behind you, and raise your chest, to prepare you for going up the stairs. It organizes the whole back. When people think of lifting one leg then the other, it feels very heavy, but when they are moving their whole body harmoniously, it is like dancing up the stairs.

Anne – After 5 months I couldn’t even tell anything was wrong with me.

Donna – Those with hip replacements are often afraid to put weight on their legs and to move naturally. They have to learn how to trust their ability to move again. With Feldenkrais lessons you learn very quickly to rely on yourself and to move with ease and confidence.

Anne – My doctor said some people come in 3 months later still hobbling with a walker. So, in my case, to be walking with a cane after 2 weeks was amazing to him. I told him about the Feldenkrais method. I would like more surgeons to know about this because it was so helpful to me. If patients did Feldenkrais work both before and after surgery, they would prepare themselves so much better for a good outcome. Could Feldenkrais perhaps prevent the need for surgery?
Donna – It depends on how far the problem has developed and what is involved. If the deterioration is too far along, the hip surgery could still be necessary. Feldenkrais lessons before and after surgery definitely help you regain comfortable normal functioning rapidly.

Minimizing Injuries Through Efficiency of Movement

Donna – When practicing the Feldenkrais method over a long period of time, many problems can be avoided. The way we move creates our skeletal structure. When we move efficiently, all of the joints of the skeleton are involved, distributing the effort throughout the body, so there is less wear and tear on any of the joints. But at any age, we can use the Feldenkrais method to recover. It enables us to rely on ourself and feel whole again as quickly as possible. If you had a half a dozen Feldenkrais lessons right after any injury, you would get back to normal functioning quickly, and would avoid long-term problems. In the Feldenkrais method, you rediscover the natural way to move and feel good immediately.

Anne – Yes, you move differently after an injury. You are protecting yourself from pain, and therefore you put stress on other areas.

Donna – We develop faulty habits that lead to more problems as we grow older. So learning how to move well helps us to feel better in every way.

Anne – This is a good point to make with people. If you have an injury, you start to protect it. You can teach people to do it a better way. I had melanoma on one leg, with lymph nodes taken out, so it is heavier on one side, and I was changing how I moved. Now I know how to move well in spite of the difference in my legs.

Donna – Even so, you are functioning really highly.

For example, people are unaware of their changes in movement caused by wearing a cast, or whiplash collar. I can see the residual patterns of movement that reflect old injuries. It is interesting to see these old habits, and how quickly we are able to change them.

Anne – I wore a collar in the car for a while, to help keep my head up. But it was terrible, because it just made it worse. I stopped turning my head freely and had to learn how to turn my head along with my spine, shoulders, and pelvis.

Donna – Problems often seen as isolated (shoulder pain, knee pain, neck pain) are actually difficulties of integrated skeletal movement. I work with the skeleton and nervous system, and there is a neuromuscular response, which creates strength and stamina by functionally integrating movement. This integration is reflected by improved walking, turning, reaching. When we experience improvement in daily activities, the parts are no longer a problem, because everything is working together, and we can do what we want.

Injury from Isolated Exercise

Anne – I injured my neck when I was using exercise machines. It was a table with weights on it that were above my head. I had been doing this for about 6 months, and was in very good condition. Apparently something slid with the weights. I felt burning sensations down my back for some time afterward, and we finally figured out that there was some internal bleeding from something that had ruptured internally in the spinal column. I have continuing arthritis from it.

Donna – We need to talk about how people injure themselves using machines, being aggressive, and pushing themselves too far. The person’s health is actually sacrificed for achievement in exercise situations, rather than looking at what the person needs. They push too far. With machines there is a lack of sensitivity. That is a very big issue.

Anne – My trainer pushed me, and I pushed myself.

Donna – I think it is a general problem with exercise and fitness these days. People are losing sight of comfort and normal day-to-day achievement, and they push themselves too far. I see this constantly in my practice, where they hurt themselves doing various exercises and going to fitness centers, doing too much repetition of weights, pushing too far on the rowing machines, stationary biking, or in spin classes. Just recently I have had three people with sciatic pain from spin classes. There is repetitive motion, without stopping and being aware of how the movement is being done.

Anne – The no pain, no gain statement is not true.

Donna – Sometimes people suffer for a long time with that idea. Why would we want to hurt ourselves like that? The culture is becoming too obsessed with overexercising. What is the body meant to do, how is it meant to move? A lot of moves in the gym are isolated. Instead, there needs to be integrated movement.

Feeling Whole

Donna – I remember one day you were leaving and you said “I feel whole!”

Anne – Yes, I remember that – what a wonderful feeling! How does that happen?

Donna – During each Feldenkrais lesson, we teach people to use the whole self. For example, if you look down, you can bend the whole chest and spine, so you’re not moving the neck and head in an isolated way. People experience soreness or discomfort or injury, when they don’t know how to move themselves as an integrated whole. People tend to move habitually, isolating parts of the skeleton and it hurts every time, and they don’t know how to change what they are doing. So you learned to move from below the neck, so if you want to look down, you look down by lowering the chest and rounding the back. The same is true with turning the head; instead of just turning the neck, we turn the whole spine, including the head, neck, and pelvis, and the neck doesn’t hurt anymore. We spread the movement through the whole body. As a result of integrating the movement, the skeleton moves easily, the muscles stop working too hard, the brain and nervous system recognize and learn efficient motion, and ultimately people feel whole and even euphoric.

Anne – Not only do I feel whole now, and more like myself again, but I can do normal everyday chores more easily. Working at the sink used to be awful for me – awful! I would have to stop because my neck was so tired and painful. I’d have to lie down for 20 minutes to get the weight off, and let it all relax. Then I would get up, go back in the kitchen and start all over again, hoping it would last until I was finished. I haven’t had that happen for a long time. That is a huge improvement.

Donna – Yes, that is a lot of improvement! You’ve even gone on some big trips like to New York, to dancing parties, to weddings, and you’ve been surprised how well you’ve held up.

Anne – The combination of the Feldenkrais method and pain medication allows me to live my life more fully. I wondered if taking pain medication would interfere with my improvements with the Feldenkrais method, and if I would still be able to feel the difference.

Donna – Feldenkrais works in addition to medicine. It does not need to be one or the other.

Anne – I found in the beginning that having Feldenkrais lessons twice a week was most effective in maintaining comfort, but now I only need to come once a week.

Donna – Depending on the circumstances, sometimes people will have Feldenkrais lessons on a regular basis and then their quality of life is stable, and they come in because they feel good, and they can do what they want to do. Then there are others who will come in for a series of lessons, and will overcome whatever their difficulty is. That’s nice too. It just depends on what the person needs and what they want to learn. Along with receiving individual hands-on lessons, many students do movements at home, using recorded Awareness through Movement, or ATM, lessons.

Quality of Life — Living Fully, Even With Limitations

Anne – My injuries go back to my history of doing things physically, like in ballet. I started when I was 3 – my professional career was for 10 years. Hip replacements for professional dancers are fairly common. You are turning the legs in a way they are not meant to go.People ask me, when are you going to be the way you once were? Donna – When are you going to be 20 years younger? What about accepting how to live with an increased quality of life under the circumstances? The question is quality of life. How do you feel every day? Pretty darn good!

Anne – I’m smart about what I do. I’m not going to do gymnastics. I didn’t think I would ever play golf again, but surprisingly, my putting is even better now. I am able to accept some limitations, but I am always looking for improvements, and I’ve been surprised at how much I can do, and how much I have improved. The quality of my life I so much better now than it has been for years. I am grateful for having discovered Donna and the Feldenkrais method. People are often amazed that I am 70. I think the Feldenkrais method makes me look and feel younger. Wouldn’t everyone love that? !