10 Ways to Boost Trauma Recovery: 2. The Feldenkrais Method®

Are you in therapy to recover from a bad experience, and wish you could see more progress faster? Well then, welcome to the second post of this blog series about different ways to boost the effectiveness of trauma therapy. I am interviewing professionals in the Boulder, CO area who provide services that experts recommend to help you optimize your recovery from trauma.

Feldenkrais for Trauma Recovery with Erin Ferguson

What is the Feldenkrais Method®? What is a session like?

Peg: Hi Erin! Thanks so much for joining me today. I thought maybe we could start with a description of what exactly Feldenkrais is, and what a session is like.

Erin: The Feldenkrais Method® is a form of learning about one’s patterns, that uses gentle movement and directed attention to improve movement and enhance human functioning. It's named after its founder, Moshé Feldenkrais, who was an Israeli physicist. The goal of Feldenkrais is to integrate the whole self in every movement, using your natural ability to sense what's easy, comfortable, and fluid. Everything is slow, small, safe and gentle.

Feldenkrais works with your sensory feedback. When you are able to sense what’s comfortable and what is not, the nervous system has a choice. Usually our choices are limited. We narrow our patterns and push through when we can't do something, instead of look for alternatives.  Feldenkrais introduces us to a different way of thinking about movement. That is to explore, be curious, and test many options, very much like babies learn. Babies play around a lot. As adults, we’ve forgotten how to do that. We've stopped asking, what’s comfortable? Do I like it over there? Oh, maybe I like it better over here a bit.

For some people who like to be told what to do, the process of sensory discernment might be uncomfortable at first because you have to rely on your own kinesthetic sense (the sense of bodily position, weight, movement and other physical sensations). I often explain the kinesthetic sense in contrast to our sense of taste. We usually have a clear sense of when something tastes too salty or spicy. We know immediately and just trust that. The kinesthetic sense is less developed. We don’t know when we’re uncomfortable because we’re so used to tolerating pain.

In terms of what a session is like, some people come to weekly classes, some to workshops. Some people work with me privately. In a private session, I help educate the nervous system with my hands. In a group class, we learn to listen to our internal kinesthetic map.

Peg: For a lot of the rape survivors that I work with, they’ve unlearned a kinesthetic sense. Because they’ve had bad physical experiences that make it feel unsafe to check into that.       

Erin: Exactly. There are all kinds of reasons that the kinesthetic sense might be lacking. The most important thing is to feel safe testing different movements. The slower and smaller you do them, the more you can feel. If we try to pull or stretch or strain, we stop making discriminations and start using our willpower. This is about sensing more and doing less.

Peg: So someone who is very tight and has little flexibility can still get the full benefit out of Feldenkrais? I guess that would mean, because we’re all different that way, in a group class everyone might be doing something slightly different. It couldn't really be about learning how to do one specific posture "the right way."

Erin: Yes, you can have beautiful posture and be in incredible pain. If the cost of maintaining a pretty posture is lots of muscle strain, then it’s not so pretty.  

How Does Feldenkrais Help With Trauma Recovery?

Calming the Nervous System  

Peg: For my clients, who are often recovering from some kind of trauma, I love this idea of gently learning to explore new options. They get pretty tired of always being in fight, flight, or freeze mode (which means their sympathetic nervous systems are really activated). And also our whole culture tends to be high anxiety. We’re all running around with busy schedules and things to tick off our “to do” list, etc. There is not a lot emphasis on balance.

Erin: My personal interest is highly sensitive people, following the work of Elaine Aron, who wrote “The Highly Sensitive Person.” That’s a nervous system overwhelm that I really understand. But it’s amazing what can change. The sense of making a decision about life from a place without tension and anxiety is amazing.

I keep asking myself, “Why do I love Feldenkrais so much?”  It’s the lowering of the excitation of the nervous system. The nervous system moves away from chaos and towards equilibrium, given the chance. The more choice you give your nervous system, the more you will get unstuck from ruts of all kinds.       

For people who have been traumatized, their baseline level of bracing and protection is really high, for good reason.  However, it takes a lot of energy to protect ourselves like that. And letting that barrier down is not an option until we feel safe. 

Reconnecting with Your Whole Self

Peg: I think learning to pay detailed attention to our sensations in a safe way – and I love how you keep emphasizing safety – is an important component of healing from trauma. When we can’t do that, we can’t tune in to our emotional reactions to things. We end up missing a lot of clues about what is going on in a lot of areas of our life. It’s hard to make a lot of headway in feeling more psychologically and emotionally whole and healthy if we can’t pick up those clues by noticing sensations and responses.        

Erin: One way to approach your experience without reliving the trauma is to do a lesson about the jaw. Or a lesson with the eyes or the toes. Some of the jaw lessons are really powerful because it’s a place where we hold a lot of tension, and its an antigravity muscle. We can do all kinds of things that will invite new movement into the nervous system without having to engage an experience that feels traumatic. We are a system so everything affects everything. It's amazing how connected we are.

Peg: Right, because if somebody has had some kind of physical assault or injury, they probably don’t want to start working on the injured part of the body. And sometimes the initial medical attention was already focusing so much on that part. Which can also be traumatizing. So, in healing psychologically, we want to start with our focus on where we can find a feeling of safety, and then try to work with how that helps us tune into the whole system again, without unbalancing the nervous system.

Re-activating the Thinking Brain        

Peg: Part of what we’re understanding now about trauma is that a very fast and simple part of our brain takes over to help us survive in an overwhelming situation. The slower and more advanced part of our brain is turned off to make that possible. So we experience what's happening with a part of our brain that registers sensory input and emotions, and not with the part that develops understanding and assigns meanings. This makes it confusing and difficult to process what happened. One piece of recovery is connecting those parts of the brain back up again. Basically connecting our memories to an understanding about what happened. I think Feldenkrais can help with connecting those parts of the brain. What do you think about that? 

Erin: Sometimes in Feldenkrais people get to the end of movements that they can do easily. Then, when you hit a limitation, it gets psychologically interesting, figuring out what to do. Most people push harder, get angry, cry, give up, blame the teacher, etc. Something that’s habitual and not very pleasant. But in Feldenkrais, you learn to start thinking outside the box and get creative. You learn to test different strategies, just like a baby figuring out how to roll over. 

Peg: From a brain perspective, that’s frontal lobe stuff, which is GREAT, because that is what gets taken offline by trauma, and needs to get reconnected during recovery. So learning how to take in sensory input and make a conscious decision about what to do is strengthening a neural pathway that gets weakened by trauma.        

Erin: Yes, you learn to develop a strategy for when you encounter something you can’t do, for example because of injury or having tight muscles. And that strategy is not to push harder but to take a different path. That is the moment that you do the real learning.        

Developing a Sense of Self       

Peg: When someone is recovering from trauma, there needs to be a lot of patience and gentleness. But it can be really hard to find that, when your life has been turned upside down and you don’t recognize your own feelings or reactions.        

Erin: Clients who are healing from big accidents will say, “Oh I can move again, I feel like myself again.” Movement and self are connected. That’s integration.

I think it’s really important to learn how to take care of yourself. That’s something we really focus on. How do you take care of yourself in this moment in this lesson, and how do you take care of yourself in life. How do you find comfort and calm, without telling yourself off.       

Peg: Yes. On your website I loved that you made a point that, “Your nervous system does not learn if you are mean to it.” I think there can be some aggressiveness in a lot physical activities. Even in practices that are supposed to be very mind-body connecting or nurturing, like yoga. There can be a sense that, “I’m going to power through this pain.” I do think that experienced and mindful yoga practitioners don’t do that. But us average folks can definitely get that kind of aggression going on pretty easily.        

Erin: I think Feldenkrais could be a kind of primer for yoga, because it is a learning method, instead of a particular physical practice. It teaches you to pay attention, and stop before you go to your limit. Your nervous system is the thing you pay attention to and educate. So you’re noticing, “Oh, that’s not right. How could I do it differently?”        

Erin’s Style of Feldenkrais Instruction       

Peg: What would you say about your personal style of presenting Feldenkrais?       

Erin: I really tailor the learning to the person. I care that the person has hope that they don’t have to stay stuck. Because I felt stuck. It makes me emotional to talk about it now. I remember in my 20s I couldn’t move, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t stand up. I felt hopeless. So, I think for me, I have a strong sense of compassion and what we call integrative listening. That’s just being present and allowing the person to be wherever they are in that moment, and providing the opportunity to change something.  

Peg: Maybe that’s why people want to come back. I know in the class that I attended, clearly those people had been coming for a long time.        

Erin: I would also say I’m kind of funny (laughs). I have a sense of humor, and I do a lot of joking with clients. I think it’s a part of really understanding someone. It’s very important to me to listen carefully and to “get” the person.        

Peg: A sense of humor can do a lot to help people ease into something new.

I also want to bring up that you usually have your lovely dog, Eppie, in your studio. She’s so sweet and friendly. But also super calm. And soft! I loved her breathing in her sleep during our private session. And in the class I took with you, everyone started by saying hi to Eppie, which did a lot to break the ice, for me as the newcomer. I right away felt like it would be easy to hang out there.       

Ideas for Getting Started       

Peg: Speaking of which, I also wanted to talk with you about how sometimes it is hard for people to get started with something new. Especially when they are anxious or have PTSD, or their nervous system is dysregulated another way. But one thing that seems special to me about Feldenkrais, in my limited knowledge, is that it’s a lot less intimidating than something like a yoga class can be. Sometimes people have an expectation for a yoga class that it will be filled with young, fit, flexible, beautiful people in their fancy yoga clothes. I feel like Feldenkrais doesn’t have that intimidation factor.

Erin: It’s very internal. It’s all about honoring your own pathway.       

Peg: Yes, when I was in a class here, I noticed that. I couldn’t tell you anything about what the other people in the class were doing. I didn’t look at them for a moment, after we all got settled. I didn’t look at myself either. And there are no mirrors on the wall.        

Erin: No, we never use mirrors. There’s no mimicking the instructor’s strategy. I’m only verbally instructing you, and part       of the work is for each student to make sense of those instructions in their own experience.        

Peg: So for people who are having trouble getting over the hump of trying something new, what could be done to make that easier. Aside from saying hi to Eppie right away?       

Erin: What I’ve done in the past is offer an introduction to Feldenkrais session.       

Peg: What would that look like?       

Erin: It’s for a group. It’s an hour, and it’s free. We start by just talking and saying hi, and then I have about a 20 minute spiel about Feldenkrais, then we do about 20 minutes of movement, and a then about 20 minutes of question and answer about how this method can help each person personally.        

Peg: That sounds great. Sometimes even walking in the door and figuring out stuff like where your coat goes, and whether to keep your shoes on and where the bathroom is can feel big at first, especially if it’s an established class where everyone else knows what to do.        

Erin: Being oriented to the environment is very important, and often with a big class it can be hard to get oriented. My class space is small, so we would have up to 6 people at a time.        

Peg: I’m also happy to offer that if anyone would like to meet with me before an intro class to have coffee or chat, and then go to class together, I’m happy to do that. Then you don’t have to feel anxious about going by yourself.       

Erin and I agreed that Saturday April 2, 2016 at 10:30 would be a great time for this. It’s in her calendar now. Sign up on her website at www.bodywisdomboulder.com.  Please contact Erin via her website for information about subsequent intro sessions.     

Conclusion & Contact Info       

Peg: Thank you Erin for agreeing to be interviewed! I’ve learned a lot, and I can see why people are talking about Feldenkrais as a way to help with trauma recovery.        

For anyone who would like to reach out to Erin for more information or to learn about Feldenkrais classes or anything else, please contact her through www.bodywisdomboulder.com. Also, please contact me (Peg) if you are interested in having me attend your first Feldenkrais class with you, at no charge, to provide support!       

Was this interview helpful to you in your journey to heal or help others heal? Is there anyone else you would like me to interview, or additional information you’d like to see in these posts? Please add a comment below!