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By Annie Thoe, GCFP
While I’ve been blessed with many inspiring teachers in my life, nature has been my consistent mentor throughout my career as a Feldenkrais® practitioner.
One of my clients, “J,” wanted help with her breathing and with reducing anxiety. During our first session, we talked about what made her feel safe. It was a pretty short list. I needed some information so I could begin our lesson establishing some sense of trust. As we talked, J’s eyes mostly looked over my right shoulder or toward the floor. I noticed my own chest tightening in response to her halted breathing pattern. I sensed J was preparing for something bad to happen at any moment. The topic of safety seem to make her squirm until I saw her eyes lock onto something behind me.
“Wow, that is an amazing pine tree outside your window,” she remarked, pointing in the direction beyond the two large windows that lined the south wall of my office.
“That big tree is right behind you, where you are sitting… But you know that, don’t you?” she asked.
I nodded. The pine’s trunk stood just a few feet from my window and overlooked a quiet city street. I loved the tree, which was unusually large and close to an office building. The trunk was wide enough to be a generation older than myself, a true elder. The diameter of its ‘root crown,’ the area where the trunk meets the ground, spanned from my side of the building to the sidewalk nearby. A thick wall of common Northwest evergreen shrubs—viburnum, laurel, and blackberry, flanked the far side of the street.
She continued, “I can feel the strength in that tree. Look at those big branches.” The thick arms of the pine were covered with clumps of blue-green spiky needles. The tree looked like a mythic protector of my room and the entire building.
“You are lucky to have that,” she said, nodding toward the tree. I nodded in agreement. Memories of many years of working close to the pine doing Feldenkrais sessions washed over me.
She sighed then and said, “While I don’t feel particularly safe inside my own house, that pine tree reminded me I do have a giant cedar tree close by in my front yard.”
“The cedar is why I bought the house. It’s enormous and beautiful, with lots of big branches. It’s the reason I live there. I can sit next to the cedar and feel OK.” She sighed for the first time with a much more comfortable breath.
We talked about the cedar, which the Northwest coast people call the “Tree of Life.” Native peoples used every part of the cedar tree for survival: cedar plank long houses, canoes, tools, bark for clothing, bentwood boxes, baskets, medicine, cordage, spiritual smudging, and many other things. Native teachings recommend sitting with your back against a cedar tree when you are depressed, afraid, or weak and the tree will restore your strength and vitality again.
As the session continued, I consciously included the pine tree as part of our environment, stopping now and then to look out the window for inspiration. Whenever I felt J’s breathing become more shallow or held, I imagined the roots of this tree nearby, underneath us in support.
Feldenkrais work is about connecting with the skeletal support of the body so the musculature and nerves are free to function. If a client doesn’t start with a strong sense of support and safety, he or she will always be on guard of “being dropped” or feel vulnerable. So even though J and I talked about the abstract feeling of safety or anxiety, I worked with the concrete principles from the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education to physically connect J with her own trunk and roots of support, her spine and legs, in a very clear way. As J sensed her bones better, she could eventually feel the floor through her legs. We slowly made connections with parts of herself that could sense the floor or table. She noticed the change in her breathing and attitude. The muscle tension in her shoulders and chest softened. She felt safer and could breath much deeper with ease.
How can anyone begin to trust, if they cannot feel support and the ground beneath them? This is especially challenging if a person has been tricked or violated in their life and lost their sense of stability and power.
The cedar and the pine remind me of the power of gravity and how to stand upright in the world. I believe our nervous systems can mimic and learn from this intelligence in nature simply by the intention of mingling with trees! Perhaps it’s our “mirror neurons” at work, tuning in to the intelligence of trees and plants that know how to grow upright, with vital juices flowing up, and down the core of their trunks.
When a person points his or her awareness to sense these simple things like gravity and the massive weight of the earth, his or her bones seem to orient and organize to connect. The skeletal connection to the earth is the “groundwork” and core of the Feldenkrais Method. Without this connection to his or her environment, the lessons don’t stick for long. Once a client can truly feel his or her bones connect to the floor and sense the differences, he or she can have the stability to grow and make choices. With this grounding support, a person can move beyond a limiting pattern that may have helped him or her survive a threat or injury for a period of time from long ago. Some plants get uprooted, but as humans, we are constantly rooting and uprooting ourselves. It’s not always easy, but the uprooting can lead us to more fertile territories to root again and grow.
At the end of the lesson, my client stood up and looked at her feet, “Wow,” she exclaimed, “I feel my feet and legs. They are really there. On the ground. I don’t think I’ve ever felt them before—at least not like this. Hey, it’s a lot easier to breathe. Thanks!”
Her body looked taller, lighter, and more compact to me. She walked out the door and I thanked the pine tree for another wonderful lesson.
Annie will be teaching September 1 at the Feldenkrais Method Conference about the possibilities in using our arms for creativity, “Learning from Nature: Reaching toward the Source of Creativity.”
Annie Thoe (1996) Assistant Trainer, has been integrating her naturalist, tracking and survival studies with the Feldenkrais Method for decades. If you’d like to read more about her work, check out her many articles, audio lessons, and resources on at: http://www.sensingvitality.com/