She helps you understand why you are experiencing discomfort, and discover how you could be moving more easily and comfortably. Through small, gentle movements, one can explore how one moves, where pain comes from, and how we can move differently to stay pain-free.
If you’ve never tried an Awareness Through Movement (ATM®) class before, they can seem entirely mysterious and strange. Even many classes in, they can feel mysterious. What are these small gentle movements doing? Why do I feel so much taller, more grounded, more mobile, when it seems like I barely did anything for an hour? The answer is in the name - awareness.
We all have physical, emotional, and mental habits. Some of them serve us well, but others get in our way. Many of those less useful (and sometimes damaging) habits are often unconscious. Small, gentle movements combined with awareness in ATM classes give us time and space to begin to recognize our physical habits, as well as the emotional and mental habits linked to physical habits. If you don’t know what you’re doing, how can you change?
For example, let’s say you’re someone with lower back pain. At the beginning of an ATM class, you’d likely be asked to lie on your back, check in with your lower back, and find out how far from the floor it is. The further from the floor it is, the more tension is being carried there. Habits on the floor are indicative of habits in the rest of life, so if your lower back is working hard while lying down, imagine how hard it’s working when you’re upright. Later in class, you might be asked to lift your leg while staying attentive to what’s happening in your lower back. By recognizing that your lower back tends to work hard all the time and giving it your attention, you can train yourself in a new way of moving that takes care of your back and only asks it to work when helpful. With enough time and practice, a new habit is born and your lower back pain is gone.
This method applies to more extreme circumstances too, not just aches and pains. The fact that I can walk, dance, and hike is proof of that. I was born with hip dysplasia, which means I have shallow, oddly shaped hip sockets. I have had many surgeries and spent a couple of years on crutches as a kid. My right hip was so unstable at one point that a surgeon talked about the possibility of fusing it. Thanks to many hours of ATM classes during my Feldenkrais® training, I’m not in pain these days and I’m hopeful for no surgery for many years.
The reinforcement of those hours and hours of classes taught me how to treat my hip joints as if they were healthy, round, and stable, even when they weren’t. 15 years ago my right hip joint had some squared-off painful edges - this year’s x-ray shows two shallow but beautifully round hip joints. Over time, not only did I change my habits, but I actually changed the growth patterns of my bones. Everything is changeable, but it all has to start with awareness.
If you’re reading this article, chances are you suffer from migraines and/or headaches. I bet you also clench your jaw a lot. Take a moment to check in with your mouth. If someone put a pressure meter between your teeth, what would it read? A few ounces? A pound? A lot more than one pound?
What part of your mouth is your tongue touching? How hard is it pressing? When you open your mouth, do you experience popping and clicking?
The vast majority of tension headaches and non-hormonal migraines I see in my practice are linked very directly to jaw tension. There are, of course, many factors that play into migraines, but jaw tension is often a major one.
Clench your teeth and stick your tongue to the roof of your mouth, gently try turning and nodding your head a tiny bit, and notice how far you can easily move your head.
Open your mouth a little, unstick your tongue from the roof of your mouth, and again try gently turning and nodding your head. Notice how much more movement you have available with just that small change.
When your jaw is clenched, the pressure created affects the mobility of the top two vertebrae of your spine, C1 and C2. When those two vertebrae get stuck or pulled out of place, headaches and/or migraines often follow.
Here’s another thing to try:
Open your mouth and see how wide you can comfortably go. Notice any popping or clicking.
Let a little space between your teeth. Gently and slowly slide your jaw forward, backwards, and side to side. Only go as far as is available and easy. Go each direction a few times.
Tip: If a direction is hard to find, place your hand on your jaw so you have a target for that direction. For example, if going to the right is hard, place your hand on the bony part of the right side of your jaw and push gently towards it.
Try opening your mouth again and see if you can open further or with less popping and clicking.
Doing a little of this everyday, especially when you wake up if you’re a clencher, is a great way to take care of your jaw. Practice leaving a little space between your teeth with your lips closed. (It’ll feel like you’re slack jawed, but you’re not and it’s worth it. This is neutral.) Take a moment now and then to unstick your tongue from the roof of your mouth. If you’re a clencher and you don’t have a night guard, get one and protect your teeth while you work on this. I can’t promise these tools will make the headaches and migraines go away, but it’s a step in the right direction.
As the year goes through its seasons, our bodies develop different self-care needs. For many people, winter is the most physically challenging time of year - the cold weather aggravates inflammation and joint stiffness or pain, cold air might bring back your lungs' memory of bronchitis you had years ago, short dark days can worsen depression and deplete energy levels... There are very real reasons that many mammals hibernate in winter. We don't need to spend all winter asleep, but we do need to conserve energy and take care of ourselves.
Because winter can be so tough, winter self-care can seem daunting. Here are a few easy things you can do to help keep yourself more comfortable until spring comes and wakes us up again.
Rest. Maybe it sounds obvious, but with winters crowded with holidays, shopping, and giant family gatherings and parties, we forget about it all too often. If your body is telling you it needs more down-time, sleep, and food, listen to it. It might be telling you that if you're getting sick a lot or always feel tired. It's not laziness - it's self-care.
Gentle movement. If the cold weather is making your body and joints feel stiff and sore, don't push yourself immediately into your day. Give your body a few extra minutes to warm up in the morning or before you start exercising. Stretches are great, but maybe your body needs a little joint lubrication? Try some gentle, slow, small circles where you're stiff - every part of your body that can move in a circle (head, ankles, shoulders, wrists, hips, rib cage, and more) will benefit from gently moving that way. Don't worry if they're crackly square-ish circles, but stay away from circles that hurt.
Wake up your circulation. When your body is cold, most of your blood leaves your skin and goes to your core to keep your essential organs warm. Here's an easy trick for bringing more blood to the surface and to your limbs - using soft open palms, quickly tap all over your body. Tap your feet, lower legs, thighs, hips, back, stomach, chest, shoulders, arms... anything you can easily reach. This practice is also useful for increasing your energy, for proprioception (the ability to feel yourself in space), and for numb skin.
Got a more specific question about winter self-care that didn't get answered here? Got a favorite tip to share? Comment below or contact me!
Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to teach an Awareness Through Movement class during Two Dog Yoga's Free Week. About 2/3 of the class were brand new to Feldenkrais and after class, I had two of the new students ask the same question, "How small is small?"
In case you haven't ever taken an Awareness Through Movement class, students are verbally directed through gentle movements and asked questions to help guide their attention and draw connections between different parts of their bodies. Students are specifically asked to make their movement slow and small. But how small is small? One student's definition of "small" is probably completely different from another student lying on the floor next to them. Why do teachers ask for small movement anyway?
Small, slow movement allows you to sense and feel more about what is happening in your movement. Try this:
At each of these distances and speeds, notice what level of detail you can feel in your arm and shoulder. 1. In one big, fast movement, lift your right arm in the air. 2. Repeat, but cut the distance and speed in half. 3. Repeat, at a quarter of the original distance and speed. 4. Without actually lifting your arm this time, imagine lifting your arm.
There is no official answer to the question, "How small is small?", but each person will find a sweet spot at which they can learn about how they move. The bigger you're moving, the more likely you are to move only in your habitual way. Small and slow movement allows your brain to create new movement patterns so that you can do something different.
I regularly get asked by prospective clients if the Feldenkrais Method is more like massage or chiropractic. For most people, those are common baselines for what hands-on somatic work is, and there are just a few specific experiences associated:
1. Intense deep tissue massage. 2. Relaxation massage. 3. Chiropractic manipulation with immediate temporary relief.
What makes this question tricky is that Feldenkrais shares qualities with all of them, but isn't really like any of them. We'll start with the similarities. It offers immediate relief like chiropractic. It reaches the same places as deep tissue massage. The client's experience on the table is similar to relaxation massage, because it's extremely gentle and feels good while it's happening.
Now, on to the differences and what makes Feldenkrais unique. Most Feldenkrais practitioners use a type of touch so gentle and subtle that it can sometimes feel like barely anything is happening during a lesson until the client sits or stands up and finds they have a completely different way of moving available to them. Where massage and chiropractic work with specific muscles or joints, a Feldenkrais practitioner will have their hands on a specific muscle or joint but their focus is on how the client's musculoskeletal and nervous systems are working together or not.
Unlike massage or chiropractic, the client is very consciously involved in a Feldenkrais lesson. They may be asked to pay attention to a particular part of their body or a relationship between a couple of parts. They may be asked to talk about their somatic experience so they can better understand it. They may be asked to do a movement on their own so they can learn it kinesthetically. At its heart, Feldenkrais is an education modality with therapeutic benefits, not the other way around. It's about gaining an understanding of what you're doing so that you can learn how to do something else.
Each of these modalities serves a different purpose, and each can be beneficial on their own or paired with others. It's up to you to try them out and see which ones are the right fit for you.
Only three days after the horrifying attack on a Latin music night in a gay bar in Orlando, I've decided to write about the physical manifestations of grief, and some tools for working through it. Partially, this post is for myself and my own processing, since as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this hit me very hard personally. I hope it offers you some reprieve too, for whatever type of grief you're experiencing. The tools here are useful for all types - communal grief like Orlando or the loss of a friend, a family member, a beloved pet, a relationship, and more.
Grief can of course manifest very differently person to person, but for many it comes in three forms. A sense of physical heaviness (did you know the phrase "heavy heart" has been around in the English language since at least 1300?), a sense of disconnectedness from the world despite feeling heavy, and a burning anger that usually doesn't have a clear outlet.
So what can be done with these giant, seemingly overwhelming sensations and the emotions that pair with them? Here are a few things to try.
Breathe. Think of the breath you take when you sigh or yawn. It's a full lung breath, all the way from your diaphragm at the base of your ribcage to the tops of your lungs, all the way up under your first rib, under your collarbones. Try placing your hands around different parts of your ribcage (front, back, sides, up, down) and breathing into the gentle pressure of your hands - literally help yourself open places in yourself that get closed off by grief. Go easy though. Breath is a very powerful tool, and if you disrupt its normal pattern too abruptly, it can set off a sense of panic. If at any moment it feels like too much, pause and back off, then come back later.
Stomp. Do it. Sitting, standing, on grass, on a floor, on a sidewalk, do it. The earth can take your anger. It won't get scared away, no matter how big and fiery your anger is. Stomp so that you can feel your own connection the ground. Feel your bones reverberate with the impact. (If you aren't in a physical place where you can full out stomp, just a few strong taps with your heels can do a lot of good.)
Define your space. Bring your hands in front of you. How far do you extend your hands in front until you've found what feels like the edge of your space? To the sides? Backwards? Above your head? In the midst of grief, that boundary could be really close or really far away, and both are okay. Find out for yourself, what kind of boundary is it? Acknowledge it and its importance. Is it the space of your sadness, of your anger, of safety, or of something else? Does it have a hard edge or a soft edge? Does it change if you define it with your hands in a different position?
Cry and laugh. Both are enormously physiologically important for dealing with stress and grief. If you feel like you can't cry or can't laugh, be patient with yourself and they'll show up in their own time.
Got some more tools that have helped you? Feel free to leave them in the comments so other people can try them too. Also, go find someone to give you a really good, solid hug.
The term "hypermobility" covers a whole spectrum of excess joint mobility. It refers to everything from being able to bend your hand back towards your forearm to being a contortionist with the skill to control and coordinate all that mobility. It also includes a client who I've been working with regularly for a few months. Here's a little about the story of working with her. I'll call her K.
K is a middle-aged woman with full-blown hypermobility. She can bend and move in ways that most people never will. When she originally contacted me, she was looking for effective stretches, because being so hypermobile, what feels like a stretch to you or me just feels like movement to her. She came in with this ability to move wildly, but never able to be comfortable. It was immediately clear upon meeting K that she needed two things: to find her connection to the ground to stabilize her, and coordination to be able to control her movement.
K is a fascinating person to work with on many levels. Despite this deep sense of disconnection from herself that she felt when she first came in, she could, and still can, tell me precisely what she was feeling physically at any given time. She uses continually surprising language to describe her experience, often with sound effects. (To give you an idea of her language, during her first lesson, we started doing some hands-on work and she told me, "I thought I was coming to a class. It's like I was expecting a cupcake and I got a WHOLE GIANT BOWL of tiramisu!")
The majority of people who come in my door need to learn how to add extra movement to what they're already doing. For example, someone with lower back pain often needs to learn how to allow more movement in their legs, pelvis, and lower back so their lower back doesn't have to work so hard.
K is a different story. She is a constant reminder for me of a Feldenkrais motto, "less is more". The simplest movement pattern I can think of holds huge power for her. Early in working with her, I introduced her to the idea that her torso and pelvis could move as one unit, like how a barrel rolls, and it was stunning to her. After a lifetime of no control, K revels in being able to control how she's moving, no matter how small.
After a lifetime of no control, K now revels in her ability to control her movements. She has learned that she can: 1) choose how big a movement is, and 2) that a small movement might be more satisfying or comfortable than a large one. The knowledge has made dramatic changes in her day-to-day life. Hypermobility (both extreme like K’s and milder) can cause serious injury and joint damage long-term. K’s new repertoire of limited movements will help her joints stay healthy longer than they might otherwise, and offer her constant discovery along the way.
Learning how to advocate for yourself or someone you’re taking care of is one of the hardest things to do. From providers who don’t believe you, to insurance companies making your life difficult, it takes real skill to make sure you’re getting the care you need. I’ve experienced this struggle myself, and I see it all the time in my clients. Here are 5 steps to help you figure out who the right providers are for you.
If your provider isn’t listening to you, that’s a huge red flag. This comes in many forms - dismissing pain or the severity of pain, running a test when you say you don’t want it (or the opposite), claiming their expert knowledge trumps your experience of what’s happening…. You are the expert on the experience of your body. You deserve to have providers who respect that and take you seriously.
Ask all of your questions. If you are confused about why an exercise, medication, or test is being prescribed, ask for clarification. Think about what’s been happening before you arrive at your appointment and write down your questions so you don’t forget them. There is no such thing as a stupid question.
Get a second opinion. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with your provider. We are not machines that can be fixed easily like your dishwasher. We are infinitely more complicated. Even if you aren’t totally sure you disagree, but just suspect you might, find a second opinion. See what your situation looks like from a different point of view.
Bring company. Want to make sure there’s someone who will be brave enough to speak up if you aren’t yet? Bring a trusted friend or family member to your appointment. You don’t have to be your only advocate.
Trust your gut. You know when you’re being taken seriously. You know when you think someone or something is wrong, even if you don’t know why. You know when an exercise hurts when you’ve been told it shouldn’t. You know how much pain you’re in, or how far from your normal you feel. Don’t let someone’s expertise get in the way of your own self-knowledge.
Here are a couple of examples I’ve come across recently of situations where my clients needed to be advocates for themselves:
A 16-year-old girl is given back surgery for her lower back pain. The lower back pain does not improve post-surgery, and new pain shows up during her recovery in a seemingly unconnected place. She’s told not to worry about the new pain.
A woman in her late 60s with advanced arthritis in both knees is told by her physical therapist to do full squats to help decrease swelling, even though bending her knees to go up and down stairs hurts.
Things like this unfortunately happen all the time, in big and small ways, and it’s your job to keep irresponsible providers honest and on their toes. Trust your gut to tell you when you’re with a provider you trust, and when you need to be asking more questions, getting a second opinion, or dropping a provider altogether.
As a pose, Spinal Twist offers all sorts of benefits. From gaia.com, Spinal Twist "encourages movement and mobility in your spine and vertebrae; massages, stretches, and tones your internal organs; improves your digestion; stretches your chest, shoulders, lower back, hips, middle spine and your upper back; alleviates pain or stiffness in your lower back, spine and hips."
As a movement in an Awareness Through Movement class or a Functional Integration lesson, even more benefits can be found from the same idea. If you were to come to class on a day when we were doing this lesson, you'd be asked a wide variety of questions about the experience of leaning your knees - not just what happens once you get to the floor, but how you get there, regardless of how far you move.
You'd hear questions like these:
As you begin to lean your knees, how does your weight shift behind your pelvis?
How much rotation is happening in different parts of your spine? Does that change when your knees come closer to the floor?
As you lean your knees, what does your head want to do? Could you do something different with it? Is there more than one option?
As your knees come closer to the floor, notice how one side of your ribcage lengthens and opens. What does the other side have to do?
What changes in your torso if you put your feet in a different starting place, closer to or further from your pelvis, and then lean your knees?
Stretching feels great, but slowing down opens up hidden possibilities and brings movement to places where we hold on tight in a way that stretching never will. There's so much useful information about your body to be found and questions to get curious about when you take your time!
If you're anywhere in the west of the US right now, you're probably living under smokey skies. Depending on your sensitivity to smoke, you might be experiencing itchy eyes, congestion, sore throat, headaches, sore or heavy lungs, fatigue, or difficulty breathing. After a bad case of bronchitis in my mid-20s, I've had every one of these symptoms this week, so I speak from experience. Here are some easy things you can do to protect your lungs and ease congestion:
Limit your time outside and wear a mask when you are outside. Medical masks and scarfs will not protect your lungs from tiny smoke particles, so get yourself a mask from the hardware store rated N-95 or higher. Here are instructions on how to wear them effectively. They're not comfortable, but they get the job done.
Keep doors and windows closed. Smoke particles will settle to the floor within about 30 minutes in a closed space. Avoid vacuuming, as that will kick them back up into the air. If you're sensitive to smoke, running a HEPA air filter will keep the indoor air cleaner and make a big difference in your comfort level. Here are instructions on how to make your own filter out of a box fan and a furnace filter.
Try self-massage on your lymphatic drainage system. Here's a great tutorial on how to do it. It's very easy to do and can help a lot with congestion, sinus pressure, headaches, and plugged ears. If it makes you need to cough or clear your throat, or if your eyes water, those are all good things. This will come in handy again during cold season.
Self Lymph Drainage Massage by MassageByHeather.com in Louisville, KY - YouTube
If your lungs are hurting, here are a couple of extra things to do. Like the lymphatic drainage, they'll also likely make you cough.
Shower with eucalyptus oil. It's very helpful for clearing lung congestion. I like leaving the bottle open in the shower so it enters the steam. You can also make it more intense by putting a drop in your hands, holding your hands over your nose and mouth, and inhaling.
Thump on your chest, sides, and back. Using the open, soft palm of your hand, slowly thump all over your rib cage. Not enough pressure or a stiff palm will make a slapping sound - aim for a thumping sound to send the pressure deep into your lungs and allow congested areas to shift.
Do you have other tips to share that have been particularly effective for you? Comment below!