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 that something isn’t happening that should be happening.

Although it seems logical to assume that the problem is where the pain is, that is not necessarily the case, particularly when the pain is ongoing, or recurring. A sudden acute pain can be immediately recognisable and the response from our nervous system may be faster than the thought that accompanies it. We have all found ourselves dropping something hot before we have had time to consciously register the burning sensation we are about to experience in our hand. 

After a while we may recognise that a particular pain has shifted from ‘acute’ into ‘recurring’, and may even have become “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 story about their pain, it is often more of a mystery to unravel than they realise. Often a new client has already explored one or more familiar approaches first…

they have often already tried stretching, or strengthening specific muscles

…they often have manoeuvres or exercises they have discovered that bring relief

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

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

I am not saying that other methods do not work, they certainly do. However, people often come looking for Feldenkrais as an alternative approach only after they have not experienced the improvements they were hoping for from some of the other therapeutic methods available––it is frustrating that only those already in the know are likely to come to us at the earlier, more malleable stages of a developing 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 have some pain, and often they have had pain for some time; often the pain is the only part of the problem they have clearly identified. When a person is seeking 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 issue. The most common early warning signs include movement restrictions, postural changes, and being  less able to perform some vital action for the length of time required; walking, standing, using a keyboard, playing an instrument, or sitting in a work chair. It can be quite surprising how much discomfort and disability people will tolerate before they are ready to look for anything other than simple medical solutions.

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, as any detective should; where; what exactly; how long for; how often; sleep patterns; what brings relief, and what exacerbates? And of course at the same time I am observing the way 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 perform everyday actions. I am not making a cavalier assumption – if you are already moving and acting in an ideal way, why on earth would you develop such an intractable problem?

Gathering the evidence…

Once these first impressions have been noted I can begin to gather more material evidence. I might ask to see a particular action, or a 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 client lies down on my table; once a person is lying down and fully supported I can use my hands to ask more direct questions about their skeletal integration, muscular awareness, and ability to consciously let go of unnecessary 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 nature of the unfamiliar person in front of you.

*I know bodymind is awkward, but I will keep using it till something better comes along; our different functional elements are not separate in any scientifically valid way, and language that perpetuates the idea that they are is also perpetuating a medical paradigm in dire 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 wrist/s hurt you after a day in front of the computer, it is natural – and not unreasonable – to make a connection, but this time the story may be more complex. In fact it usually is more complex, or no one would be able to sit in front of a computer all day without developing wrist pain.

You may have encountered so many people with the ‘same’ problem that you feel the connection is proven, but actually the story behind these emergent chronic pains are as varied as the people who experience them. One of the terms we use – as a kind of ‘shorthand’ – when we talk about our individual self-organisation is to talk about “posture”; the problem with that is that many of the methods that are proffered to us for improving our posture do no such thing.

What is posture?

One way to define posture is that it is the position you come to when you are at rest––thus the ‘posture’ of a pendulum is hanging vertically downward. As a very young child you spent a lot of time experimenting with your balance until you could stand upright, with your big, clever head 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:


‘Dynamic stability’ in standing and sitting

Fortunately our long evolution has produced a structural design that permits this state of ever-shifting balance, with the majority of the anti-gravity work being done by our strong bony skeleton (a flexible inner ‘scaffolding’), organised by powerful musculo-fascial “guy ropes”. The softer tissues that maintain efficient organisation of our skeleton in gravity have evolved to be perfectly strong enough to do the job – when we learn to stand with ease we do not feel those muscular structures making any sort of effort to hold us up – that only happens when our structural organisation has deteriorated in some way. The greater proportion of our musculo-fascial structures do not need to be activated to enable us to balance effortlessly over our feet, meaning that all that extraneous muscle capacity is intended to be available for performing the astonishing range of skills that humans alone are capable of performing. 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 being able to maintain our fluid balance in any position in Earth’s gravitational field with the minimal amount of muscular effort necessary.  Moshe Feldenkrais described this as being able to move in any direction without preliminary adjustment or reorganisation. 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 become susceptible to chronic strain from overuse, and are thus also less available for us to react spontaneously to whatever situations we encounter through the day.

Your pain is a message

Unnaturally lifted shoulders are a classic example of this. It is easy to see the way that chronically raised shoulders appear to be striving to keep a person upright in a perpetual battle with gravity, and one can also recognise that the shoulder girdle cannot contribute to our anti-gravity stance in this way (just as we cannot “lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps”) – so why are these particular shoulders working so hard?

There are usually several overlapping reasons, and our job as Feldenkrais teachers is to lay the foundations for our students to figure those reasons out for themselves, enabling them to sense more clearly what better organisation and ease in their shoulders can feel like – an experience they often at first simply describe as “more relaxed”. These lessons also provide our students with movement sequences to practise between sessions so that they can learn to retain this greater “functionality” in their shoulder girdle.

For Feldenkrais teachers the goal is that the client-student will get better and better at noticing this sort of unnecessary work. As practitioners we are aware of making these self-observations and establishing better self-organisation as a vital part of ‘walking our talk’. 

We know from our own experience that the excessive muscular effort involved has become an unconscious habit, one that the person has become almost completely unaware of.

If you consider the bigger picture, what this means is that there is a self-healing intelligence behind that chronic pain, an intelligence that leads us to keep searching until we find a way to make the necessary beneficial changes to our mode of being and doing.

“Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution. It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it.”

Niels Bohr (Physicist)*

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 our self. We certainly are not divisible into separate, distinct parts in the way anatomy books – or my use of the word “shoulders” in this fictionalised ‘case history’ – might 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 reversed; it was a strange experience. Both arms felt useless to me for several days while I acclimatised 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. I was working as a professional singer at the time, so when my jaw and tongue root relaxed, also somewhat abruptly, soon afterwards, my voice changed and the new sensation during singing and speaking was as if my tongue was somehow obstructing my voice because it was taking up much more space in my mouth. In my own head I sounded like Cleo Laine for a good while, and I needed to take the time to re-organise my own singing voice in order to incorporate the unfamiliar sensation of ease and freedom inside my mouth and throat.

Discounts for regular private lessons

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 mystery––don’t hesitate to get in touch and ask me more questions.


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