Figuring Pain Out with The Feldenkrais Method

Current research into pain supports the view that the pain you experience is a message – your nervous system is signalling to your conscious brain that something is happening that shouldn’t be happening, or possibly something isn’t happening that should be happening (more detail on this subject here). Although it is natural to assume that the problem is where the pain is, that is not necessarily the case, particularly when the pain is ongoing or recurring.  Acute pain can be simple to understand and the response can be faster than thought – we have all found ourselves dropping something hot before we have had time to notice the burning sensation we are about to experience.  Although we may recognise when a pain has shifted from acute–into recurring–into chronic, the reason this has happened is not always easy to figure out, and that is where a Feldenkrais practitioner can be very helpful.

When someone brings me a pain mystery to unravel they have usually explored more familiar therapies first…

…they have often already tried stretching or strengthening specific muscles

…they often have manoeuvres or exercises they know will bring relief

…they may well have had therapeutic adjustment or correction of their structural organisation, via skeletal and/or fascial manipulation, or deep tissue massage 

…and they have often discovered the limits of pain medication.

I am not saying that other methods do not work, but rather that people often only discover Feldenkrais as an alternative once they have given up on many of the other therapeutic approaches available – only those in the know tend to come to us at the earlier, more malleable stages of a chronic or recurring condition.

Beginning the investigation…

When a person comes through my door for the first time I feel like a detective, poised to use every strategy at my disposal to get to the root of the problem they are experiencing. Usually they are experiencing some pain and they have been experiencing it for some time; often the pain may be the only part of the problem that is recognised, although as they have come to see what Feldenkrais has to offer, they usually suspect there is a bigger picture to be revealed. Only rarely do people come to me earlier in the process of developing a chronic problem. Early warning signs include movement restriction, postural changes, and being able to perform some vital action for less time; such as using a keyboard, playing an instrument, or sitting in an office chair. It is astonishing how much debility people will tolerate before they are ready to look for anything other than medical answers. There are warning signs that appear at even earlier stages in the process of developing ill health, and I will discuss these in blog posts to come, as they are part of a much bigger picture.

I begin by asking questions, like any good detective should; where, what, how long, how often, sleep patterns, what relieves the pain, what exacerbates it? And of course at the same time I am observing how this person moves and behaves – this is particularly important as I already know that the solution is going to involve a change in the way they act. This is not a cavalier statement – if you are already moving and acting in an ideal way, why on earth would you develop a problem that is so intractable?

Gathering the evidence…

Once these first impressions have been taken I can begin to gather more material evidence. I might ask to see a particular action or series of movements, and I might confirm what I am seeing with my hands. This is a prelude to the more detailed observation that happens once the new client lies down on my table and I can use my hands to ask more direct questions about skeletal movement, muscular awareness and ability to consciously let go of muscular activity.  If this sounds a little strange, think about how much you can tell about another person’s state of bodymind* simply by taking hold of their hand.  Many human cultures have a version of greeting that involves joining hands precisely because contact from the skin/bone/nervous system of one person to the skin/bone/nervous system of another is such an effective way to get to know a little something about the stranger in front of you.

*I know bodymind is awkward, but I will have to keep using it till something better comes along; they are not separate in any scientifically valid way, and language that perpetuates the idea that they are perpetuates a medical paradigm in sore need of revision.

Some pains are easy to figure out – if you fall and twist your ankle you know exactly why you are in pain. Some pains require a little more explanation; if your wrists hurt you after a day in front of the computer it is natural and not unreasonable to make the same clear connection, but this time the story is more complex. Of course it is, or no one would be able to sit in front of a computer all day without wrist pain. You may feel that you meet so many people with the same problem that the connection is proven, but actually these kinds of pain are as varied as the people who experience them. The shorthand way to talk about that is to talk about “posture” – the problem with that is many of the methods that are offered for improving our posture do no such thing.

What is posture?

One way to think about posture is that it is the position you come to when you are at rest – thus the ‘posture’ of a pendulum is hanging vertically. As a very young child you spent a lot of time experimenting with your balance until you could stand upright, with your big clever skull balanced over your newly sort-of-stable feet – not an easy task, and therefore a pretty rewarding achievement. Many children shout in triumph on reaching this milestone, or clap in delight, like this little girl:


Fortunately our long evolution has produced a structural design that permits this state of balance, with the majority of the work being done by our strong skeleton, organised by powerful muscular “guy ropes”. The greater proportion of our muscles do not need to be activated to enable us to balance effortlessly over our feet, leaving them available for performing the astonishing range of skills that humans alone are capable of.

The same is true of sitting, only now it is the sitting bones that are organising our skeleton to support our weight, rather than our feet. Good posture can be defined as the least amount of muscular effort we can perform in any position. When our posture is compromised it means muscles that could be at rest are working–sometimes very hard–to do a job they were not designed for, so these muscles are under chronic strain from overuse, and less available for us to react spontaneously to whatever we encounter in our day.

Unnaturally raised shoulders are a classic example of this. It is easy to see that lifted shoulders appear to be trying to hold the person upright in an ongoing battle with gravity, and one can also see that the shoulder girdle cannot contribute to standing in this way – so why are these shoulders working so hard? Well there are usually several overlapping reasons, and we Feldenkrais teachers help our students figure those reasons out for themselves, enabling them to sense more clearly what more freedom in their shoulders feels like (they usually feel “relaxed”) and then giving them movements to practise at home or at work that will help them retain greater freedom in their shoulder girdle between lessons, with the goal that they will get better and better at noticing this unnecessary work, work that their shoulders have gotten so used to doing that the muscular effort involved has become an unconscious habit, one that the person has become almost completely unaware of.

If you recognise your own situation here, your shoulders may be struggling to do the work of your postural muscles and/or your skeleton. However they could also be maintaining an ’embodied’ sense of duty and conscientiousness. You may be the kind of person who is wary of relaxing because you fear your own laziness–in other words you may be in pain because you are enacting a muscular metaphor–miming an aspect of your own nature in order to please an internalised judging audience; “look how hard I am working”; “look how much I care”. Of course this is probably not how you would choose to treat your poor hard-working shoulders if you had a conscious choice in the matter.

This is a simplified example, in actual fact any disorganisation of our skeleton in any one aspect naturally and unavoidably effects all the other aspects of self – we certainly are not divisible into separate, distinct parts in the way anatomy books can seem to suggest.

When Feldenkrais said “When you know what you are doing, you can do what you want” this is exactly what he meant. During the second year of my training the chronic holding behaviour in my own arms suddenly released; they felt useless to me for several days while I got used to the unusual sensation of not bracing my shoulder girdle all the time. Until I adapted to this peculiar new sense of freedom I simply did not want to “do” anything, I felt strangely disengaged from all my usual activities. When my jaw and tongue root relaxed soon afterwards I started to sing as if my tongue was somehow obstructing my voice. I sounded like Cleo Laine to myself for a while, and had to reboot my own singing voice to incorporate the unfamiliar sense of ease and freedom inside my mouth.

Because this process takes commitment from both client and practitioner to get to the heart of the pain mystery I have an ongoing package deal of 3 one-to-one sessions, to be taken within 30 days, to make that commitment as affordable as possible – don’t hesitate to call me to talk about your own situation without feeling that you have to be ready to make a booking, I am happy to chat about what I do and give you time to think it over. The self-use detective is always interested in your puzzle. If you would like to understand the process a little better you can see a sample of a lesson filmed by the Guild and featuring my colleague Scott Clark with a newly-qualified Feldenkrais practitioner:


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