- The Method
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By Dr. Carol B. Low & Julie Francis, GCFP
Psychologist Dr. Carol B. Low and Feldenkrais Practitioner Julie Francis often team up to work with people who exhibit complex symptoms that haven’t responded to standard medical interventions. They find that the combination of trauma-informed psychotherapy, often enhanced with hypnosis, and neuromuscular integration using the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education provides the ideal environment in which clients can heal. Here they share their observations on the process.
Carol: For many years, I have had the amazing privilege to work with clients who have chronic medical issues. These clients are special to me because they come in feeling just this side of hopeless, often after a dozen or so failed treatments over half as many years, and most often, within a few sessions, hope begins to enter their lives. And when they use my guidance to discover the means to heal themselves completely, I have received a gift beyond measure.
I believe in the power of the mind, and in the particular way we can guide the mind using hypnosis. And perhaps my clients would have gotten better with only my direction and their own practice. However, the remarkable speed with which the combination of clinical hypnosis and the Feldenkrais Method can achieve what many had accepted as the impossible when they came to me, is priceless.
My part in guiding the process of self-discovery is the work of detecting that is key to my ability to help clients with somatic problems. Why is this problem present now in this person? Why is this the problem versus something else? Why is it not going away with all of these potentially effective medical treatments? What can I learn in conversation or observe in my client’s body that can help to inform me? What has been tried and helped, versus not helped or made things worse? My part in this complex process is the uncovering, teasing apart the process by which a given client has gotten and maintained a chronic illness that has failed to follow the rules of medical treatment. The client and I embark upon an exploration, with and without hypnosis, of the fears and traumas, the successes and failures, of the unique individual before me. We work toward the mindbody solution, hopefully stumbling upon the reason the illness has developed, but more importantly, allowing it to remit safely, without stirring the client’s defenses. This process operates essentially from the top down—both cognitive and unconscious solutions are explored. The brain is put back in charge of the body, the dissociated limb or process is reassociated, the dysfunctional process is gotten back into its natural pattern.
It was while I worked at the pain clinic of anesthesiologist extraordinaire, David C. Flemming that I discovered the Feldenkrais Method® and its remarkable effects on the habituated body. Being me, a mere introduction was far from enough—I demanded the practitioner tell me and show me what the thing with the weird name was, and why I ought to send my clients to him. Over the years, I have met many Feldenkrais practitioners and read much about the Feldenkrais Method, and each separate experience has enhanced my understanding of a concept so remarkable and a treatment so effective that I rarely see a patient with a somatic symptom without making a referral for Feldenkrais lessons. The referral for Feldenkrais lessons allows for the solution to be explored from the bottom up: for the body to be used to cue the brain that the dissociated limb is there and intact, for the held breath to be permitted to fill naturally, for the stiffened or underutilized extremity to come to life. The combination of rational emotive work and unconscious work using hypnosis and sensorimotor therapy with the sensorimotor education represented by the Feldenkrais Method essentially doubles the speed at which healing is completed, creating an integrated healing of the bodymind.
Julie: The path to healing is indeed a two-way street. As a Feldenkrais practitioner, I often see clients whose physical progress is impeded by deeply held belief systems and habitual patterns of behavior. Though the unconscious learning inherent in the Feldenkrais Method’s sensory motor lessons has the potential to shift unsupportive habits of its own accord, I find that combining Feldenkrais lessons with psychological treatment significantly increases the rate of change. This is no more evident than in the case of somatically-based illness (resulting from trauma accompanied by dissociation) and chronic pain. As Carol points out, the top-down, bottom-up combination of trauma-informed psychotherapy and Feldenkrais lessons provides the double reinforcement necessary to keep creative dissociation under check.
There are numerous strategies a Feldenkrais practitioner can use. The goal is to integrate the nervous system, helping the client to develop awareness of self in relation to self and to the environment. The Method relies on gentle touch and slow, verbally guided movements. At its core is honoring the innate ability of the human nervous system to learn.
Typically, I begin by eliciting the client’s support in creating an atmosphere of trust and cooperation that brings them into deeper attending to their actions and reactions. This is done verbally and through gentle touch. The quality of touch used in the Feldenkrais Method is unlike that used in massage or other forms of bodywork. Rather than simply “touching,” Feldenkrais practitioners are trained to connect through touch at a skeletal level that requires a kinesthetic attention on the part of the practitioner. This quality of touch signals the over-excited nervous system to attention and in the process creates a background of calm from which re-organizing and re-wiring can emerge. In this state, the possibility of shifting existing patterns of muscular effort can be explored.
Without exception, clients who exhibit dissociative tendencies also exhibit restrictions in their breathing patterns. This becomes the focus of our early sessions. Rather than simply give a client breathing exercises, I use my hands along with verbal cueing to help the client’s neuromuscular system feel where the breath is free, where it is not and where, with support, it can let go of unnecessary effort to allow the breath to become freer and easier. This begins to release the muscular patterns of trauma and moves the entire neuromuscular system toward a state of neutrality.
Once the breath begins to shift, I do give clients breathing “lessons” to play with between sessions. Unlike exercises which can be done by rote, Feldenkrais lessons (commonly referred to as Awareness Through Movement® lessons) require the client to focus. They also rely on the introduction of options mimicking healthy infants as they explore themselves and their environments.
When the breath becomes softer and more supportive, I shift the primary focus to integrating all parts of the person into a single whole. This entails cueing a client to bear weight clearly through the feet and sit bones, and supporting them in finding and accepting a neutral carriage of the head. This is done even in cases where someone has dissociated a limb and/or experiences severe pain when touched.
The beauty of the Feldenkrais Method and one of the things that sets it apart from other body-centered approaches is the use of gentle yet directed force through the skeleton to guide integration. A practitioner can access any part of the body from any other part. The hip bone truly is connected to the leg bone, etc.
As pain lessens and movement patterns begin to normalize, I engage the client in physical activities that place an increased demand on the vestibular system and require the integrated use of the whole body. This is done through more complex Awareness Through Movement lessons as well as through targeted play. The client learns that there is more than one alternative to right and appropriate action.
Carol and I regularly share insights about clients and brief each other on what happened during our sessions. Having the extra set of eyes as well as hands gives clients the ability to come apart and re-integrate quickly. It also keeps the focus on integration as the general goal and allows for much more rapid healing.
Dr. Carol B. Low is a clinical psychologist and educator who enjoys a wide-ranging clinical practice at the Centre for Conscious Living at Naperville, IL. She has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals.
Julie Francis is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm and Assistant Trainer with more than twenty years’ experience teaching clients how to change their brains by changing their movement patterns. Julie’s office is located in Glen Ellyn, IL.