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Rolling With It

By Lavinia Plonka

When Steven first came to see me, it was about his yoga practice. He explained to me that he had been born with spondylolisthesis (horizontal shift of one vertebrae relative to the next). This, he informed me, gave him lots of back pain, short hamstrings and an inability to do good forward bends. As we worked together, we both learned about how determined his lower back was to remain in an arched curve, and how his pelvis preferred stability to any kind of movement.

After a combination of private Functional Integration® and Awareness Through Movement® group classes, Steven’s back and pelvis were allowing occasional moments of actually reaching his toes. That was when he confessed his true wish. It turned out that he had been studying Aikido for almost 20 years. In all those years, he had been unsuccessful at doing a forward roll. Because he had been at the same dojo (school) for many years, people assumed they could just throw him down and he would roll. But because of his back, it was always a painful crash. While Steve loved the martial art, he was getting weary of his injuries and frustration.

Instead of trying to “fix” his lower back, I decided it would be more rewarding for Steven to work with the actual practice of rolling. Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais had developed many lessons around the Judo roll. One of the benefits of learning how to roll properly is that it offers an avenue of reversibility when falling. If your only option upon falling is to crash-land on the ground, fear of falling can interfere with every step – whether you are a martial artist or a person walking down a street. By discovering the option of rolling, there is less chance of injury when you do fall.

While the Judo roll is slightly different than the Aikido roll, the development of the soft, rounded back and the smooth diagonal movement across the back are the same. I piled a bunch of yoga mats and blankets in the middle of the studio and Steven and I began to “deconstruct” the roll. We began very slowly, actually doing lessons lying on the back that explored the possibilities of flexion in the spine. This eventually led to variations on back rolls. For many weeks, each time Steven rolled back, we’d both feel the “thwack” of his lower back flattening against the floor. I noticed that as he rolled back, he held his breath and tightened his stomach. Slowly, these parasitic habits Steven had developed over years of pain and fear of re-injury began to release their hold.

Eventually we came to hands and knees, exploring lessons where Steven learned to bring his head and arm under the arch of his opposite arm. Each exploration proceeded with great slowness and care. Steven’s alarm system was so finely tuned to danger, that the slightest stress would return the powerful tonus (tension) to his lower back. Sometimes, we would stop doing the movements completely, and I would return to Functional Integration, helping to remind him about all the different ways he had learned to bend and breathe.

The day Steven rolled without crashing was a complete surprise. He just rolled, without preparation, without anticipating failure or success. It was to be the reference movement for our lesson. From a standing position, he executed a perfect Aikido roll. He was so shocked, he couldn’t repeat it that day. But we both knew that something had changed. He had learned a new way of moving with the whole of himself, without interference, without fear.

Although I moved away shortly after that, I heard from Steven that he is still enjoying his rolls, his practice and has continued to integrate the Feldenkrais Method® into his daily routine.

Lavinia Plonka is Director of the Asheville Movement Center in Asheville, NC. She can be reached at: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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