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On Being

By Pat Buchanan, PhD, ATC, PT, GCFT, Chair, Esther Thelen Research Committee

As often as I can, I reserve Sundays as days of mindfulness. Part of my ritual includes listening to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” (http://www.onbeing.org/) on National Public Radio. Each week, she does an in-depth interview with a person working in an area that connects with spirituality and being in touch with our selves and our world. Along with spiritual teachers, she talks with scientists and scholars in varied disciplines. I find these stories frequently reveal intersections among my spiritual traditions, scientific training, and Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education practice.

And so it was with a recent interview with Bessel van der Kolk, Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University Medical School. His medical practice and research focus on finding more effective ways to help people affected by trauma, beginning with his work with Vietnam War veterans, persons who experienced single traumatic events, and more recent efforts with groups who survived major natural disasters. He observed that the people affected by trauma have memories surrounding those events that are not simply thoughts within their brains, but are embodied feelings and sensations that are resistant to change.

According to Tippett, Dr. Kolk “seemed to have noticed early on…that traditional therapy was ignoring this sensate dimension of these experiences in trying to reduce it to talk therapy, which absolutely didn’t fit with the experience.”

Indeed, Kolk acknowledged, with few exceptions, “Psychiatrists just don’t pay much attention to sensate experience at all.”

Kolk argued that they should, and that we should. He referenced Charles Darwin’s treatise on emotions (The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872, thirteen years after The Origin of the Species) “in which he talks about how emotions are expressed in things like heartbreak and gut-wrenching experience. So you feel things in your body. And then it became obvious that, if people are in a constant state of heartbreak and gut-wrench, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body.” Kolk continued, “And so what became very clear is that we needed to help people…feel safe feeling the sensations in their bodies, to start having a relationship with the life of their organism…”

My Feldenkrais® teacher and developmentalist researcher ears perked up. That excerpt points to the brilliance of Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais’ Method. Create a safe space for students. Guide them to get intimately in touch with themselves, their feelings, sensations, and thoughts. Have them move. And just let the remarkable processes of a self-regulating, self-organizing system do its thing. The Feldenkrais Method® can help people resolve the strong emotions of traumatic events or the feelings stirred up by the lesser struggles of daily living.

Depending on the student and what is happening in that person’s life, for one student, a Feldenkrais lesson can be calming and induce what Dr. Herbert Benson termed and titled his book The Relaxation Response. For another student, the lesson can be invigorating and release creative juices. For all students, we hope they learn more about their habits, open up to the possibilities for more flexible and adaptable behavior, and leave behind the frustrating sense of being in stuck in doing things one way. As Feldenkrais said, it seems that “the only thing permanent about our behavior is our belief that it is so.”

Dr. Kolk’s research into the benefits of somatic practices for helping people recover from trauma began with yoga. But he recognizes the value of martial arts, qi gong, and other embodied practices, and has direct experience with Rolfing (Ida Rolf was a colleague of Feldenkrais). After a childhood marked by illness, Kolk completed a series of Rolfing sessions and “became flexible and multipotential again,” with increased capacity for adapting to the changes that come with life.

My Feldenkrais practitioner’s mind was thinking how much this Method fits into this discussion. My heart was hoping it would get mentioned. It did! Kolk stated: “And for my patients, I always recommend that they see somebody who helps them to really feel their body, experience their body, open up to their bodies. And I refer people always to craniosacral work or [the] Feldenkrais [Method]. I think those are all very important components about becoming a healthy person.”

The discussion may have centered on helping people adapt to traumatic events in life, but Kolk was well aware that the lessons from his research and practice have broader consequences. He stated, “As much as trauma has opened up things, I think the other very important arm of scientific discovery is how the human connection is being looked at scientifically now and what really happens when two people see each other, when two people respond to each other, when people mirror each other, when two bodies move together in dancing and smiling and talking.” Here, again, I thought of Dr. Feldenkrais and his description of what happens in a good Functional Integration® lesson: It is like two people dancing together and no one can tell who is leading. It is a collaborative, compassionate endeavor.

And it is an endeavor that invites being collaborative and compassionate with one’s self. Kolk continued, “And so what we have learned is that what makes you resilient to trauma is to own yourself fully. And if somebody says hurtful or insulting things, you can say, hmm, interesting that person is saying hurtful and insulting things…” The Feldenkrais Method helps us learn to observe ourselves and to know what we are doing so we can do what we want. We learn that our sensations, feelings, thoughts, and actions are integrated. We are more than a brain, more than a body, more than our history. All of that is packaged together and situated in the world. When we compartmentalize ourselves, we don’t get the full picture. We miss out on the 3D surround sound, multisensory experience. It’s just not the same. We don’t have all the information possible to us for changing course, for responding efficiently, for creating new possibilities.

Pain, whatever its source, screams at us to pay attention to ourselves and take action. Of course, we need not wait for pain to yell at us to create change in our lives. But we need to pay attention. As Kolk said, “...you need to actually feel that feeling. You need to know what is happening in your body. You need to know where your right toe is or your pinkie is. You need to sort of be aware…”

The Feldenkrais Method is one avenue to develop awareness, resiliency and potency in our lives. At the 2013 Feldenkrais Method Conference, themed A Potent Practice, we explore this path to potency along with the contributions of research. As part of opening night activities, the “Esther Thelen Research Forum: Improving Action, Smoothing the Road” will showcase recent research specific to the Feldenkrais Method. Panelists will offer updates on activities relevant to research, and share ideas for integrating research into practice. Attendees will strategize for progress along the research road. Please join us in embodying our multipotentiality.

Pat Buchanan, PhD is a Feldenkrais teacher, physical therapist, and athletic trainer in Des Moines, IA.

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