- The Method
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By Joel Roth, GCFP
Among the most powerful, transformative experiences are developmental ones. We see the pride, excitement, and sheer exhilaration of babies appreciating their first steps. One of the reasons it’s so interesting to be around babies is that there are so many of these moments.
It is a cycle that builds on itself. Our capacities expand when our body parts and their functions come together in new ways, in better ways, as an integrated whole. We become more potent humans, with an expanded vision of our own possibilities. Confidence follows ability, with the effect that all learning—especially the developmental functions that support our autonomy—improves the parameters of our emotional climate as well.
Each of us carries the code of this essential optimism. It belongs to the species.
One reason that the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education is effective because we place developmental learning as the primary focus. Both group classes and private sessions provide an environment where the brain’s remarkable abilities to adjust, associate, and adapt can exhibit their creative magic.
Each day provides opportunity for many hours of this learning… if all the ingredients are there.
I remember one baby, six months old, who seemed quiet and inward at an age we’d expect him to be vigorously exploring his environment.
After a few minutes of squeezing and tapping his limbs to clarify his body image, he was introduced to a rattle, a simple, traditional toy that fit nicely in his hand. He soon discovered it would make a sound when he happened to move his arm. In a few more minutes, he developed these small motions into intentional whole body movements that produced a loud sound. The auditory feedback of the rattle synchronized to the rhythm of moving his limbs gave him a satisfying sense of agency. He began to vocalize, connecting his diaphragm to his movements. This created yet another layer of feedback and reward, including the smiles and murmurs in those who were watching. He had found a new passion for interacting with the world around him and had become energetic and happy.
What is wonderful is that this learning can happen at any age, and any level of functioning, which I’d like to illustrate with the story of one of my clients.
She was ninety-two years old, a mother of five children and a pharmacist who had worked vigorously up to age 86. She had remarkable, knowing eyes, dark marbles that looked at you quietly with a discerning interest.
Those who had seen her at her worst three months prior, could hardly believe this person was now sitting at the table, intently focused on eating, using a busy pincer movement of her chopsticks on the dish, while finding opportunities to gesture humorously at her family.
Although limited by her condition, she had regained the ability to feed herself. She had a healthy appetite and appreciated good food. She closely observed people around her and found unique ways to communicate with each one.
She could say a lot with a pointed word and facial expression, could speak up for herself whenever she needed to, and told vivid stories about her childhood. Sitting on a chair or at the edge of her bed, she could play a game of catch, which she enjoyed. She could write the names of her children, a task she undertook with characteristic focus. It was a remarkable transformation.
After inflammation from a stroke destroyed most of her brain’s right hemisphere, I was honored to have watched and assisted as she repeated the basic human developmental sequence, including such primary functions as chewing and swallowing.
It was humorous and a little eerie to see her right hand with a mind of its own, a week after she came out of a coma. It seemed like an animal that lived under the blanket. It would come out and patrol the edge of the bed. It was energetic and could move quickly through a sequence of tasks, straightening her pajamas, straightening the blanket, plunging back underneath the covers. It could also socialize, shake hands, greet and gesture. It was surprisingly strong. You wouldn’t have believed it was connected to an old person.
Quite a contrast to her head, which was stuck. It was turned to the right, with the back of the head pulled back, eyes looking up at nothing.
A person’s head is meant to be stable. Moving it provokes defensive reactions, so I used the Feldenkrais® approach of touching and moving parts connected to her head: her shoulders, arms, chest, pelvis, and legs. I used touch to wake up her sensations of herself, and also to influence her upper spine, neck, and head.
To talk to her head directly, I used a strategy of gently moving her scalp, which allowed me to suggest movement of the head without directly challenging the muscles that were keeping it frozen in place.
Eventually it became possible for her to look downward, bringing her chin closer to her chest. The freeing of her head and neck led the way to further improvements. Significantly, it allowed the rest of her body to enter her visual field.
Fortune and opportunity were with us one day. Her right hand was doing its usual busy routine. I had worked with her for a while, so she was calmer, softer, more aware. In a moment of inspiration, I said, “Please look at your hand!”
I’ll never forget what happened. When her eyes met her hand, it was a moment of intense fascination. She stared as she moved the hand this way and that, this way and that. It became her hand. She became a person with a hand. The hand became part of her.
Later, I taught her to bend and twist her wrist in different directions using a back scratcher with a round handle the size of a tennis ball. Lying in bed and holding the back scratcher, she could look at, reach, and tap objects nearby on the nightstand, and then parts of her body, even on the left side, which she had been neglecting. (Learning to reach across the midline is important for babies as well, and its necessary for them to be able to roll.)
Although she never recovered voluntary use of the limbs on her left side, this exercise brought her left side into her awareness, and she gradually recovered the ability to face left of center. Considering the level of damage to her brain, the improvement was remarkable. She had a good quality of life at home with her family for the final three years of her life.
All of us all can repeat the steps of development when we come out of an illness or injury, and can benefit enormously when this process is facilitated in an Awareness Through Movement® class or private Functional Integration® session.