A Lesson in Feldenkrais Functional Integration

Today I gave Ivan Lapcevic a second lesson. I had him lie on his left side on the floor.

I put my fingers on his spine, touching the spinus processes of his 2nd and 3rd lumbar vertebrae with my right fingers while my left fingers explored the spinus processes of somewhere around T5, T6, T7 and T8. For a long time I didn’t do any movement but simply felt the bony protuberances. I was trying to evoke a specific learning process: my touch poses the question to his neuromotor system, “Here are two links in the chain of your spine: can you fill in the missing links?” His neuromotor system realizes that although he can sense the two places where I am touching, the in-between space is indeed a kind of perceptual blank. Not only perceptual but a functional blank, in that there doesn’t seem to be movement happening there. If I touch with just the right amount of pressure – not so light as to be indistinct, not so heavy as to be intrusive, soon I begin to feel movement under my fingers. I actually feel his musculature, which had been inert and relatively hard to the touch, begin to soften, loosen, sometimes even tremble. Sometimes there are tiny ripples of movement through certain muscles along those vertebrae. His brain is actually filling in the blanks by activating the musculature of those blank spots. All these tiny ripples and movements are very subtle, but very valuable. If I move any part of his spine mechanically, I won’t get that neurological response. The neuromotor response to a less sensitive pushing is to feel it as an intrusion, an imposition, and to stiffen further in resistance. The inner parts of the joints in that case would remain inert.

Here I don’t move anything in those joints – I simply offer a certain sensation to the nervous system that stimulates it to bring movement to the joints on its own, ‘under its own steam’ so to speak. This is a very important distinction. Mechanical imposition of movement will never reach the inner parts of the joints that are having movement made available to them through this subtle loosening. The change is neurological, neuromotor in nature, and it directly concerns the ‘nuts & bolts’ of movement itself – how the brain can free the inner parts of the joints to move smoothly against each other.

When I was studying to be a practitioner I tried this kind of active/passive touch (active in its attention but passive in that it didn’t actually move anything) with a singular lack of success. I would touch the two places and wait, but nothing would happen. Everything stayed inert. There was no response from his neuromotor system, but it was me who was ‘numb,’ not him. There was no dialogue, because my touch was dumb. When I touch now, I don’t ‘do’ anything in terms of actual movement, but there is something about the touch that asks the alive question to the client.

The art of touch that establishes that dialogue takes years to learn, hone and perfect. It’s a lifelong study, really, with new discoveries even 20 or 30 years after one starts. That’s why this method is so rich, so fascinating and so exciting (and also I guess, so frustrating – in that period before you learn patience, before you know that results don’t come immediately).

If I only offered this gentle stimulation and left it at that, I probably wouldn’t achieve any lasting improvement. The sensations are too miniscule to be remembered and integrated into the normal stresses of everyday movement. But if I repeat this process in dozens or even hundreds of slightly varying configurations through a lesson, the brain builds up a radically new kinesthetic picture of that part of the body. Its memory bank of movement possibilities for that part is vastly enriched. When hundreds of tiny pieces of the puzzle are filled in, a basis is created for a more global and lasting change – real learning.

But integration comes much later. For now I continue my exploration, shifting my left fingers down to L2 or up to L5 and repeating the waiting process. It is fascinating to me to see how his neuromotor system can fill in the blanks so much more intelligently and effectively than I could by ‘imposing’ my perceptions. Eventually I shift my left hand down where my right hand was on his lumbar spine, and move my right hand up onto his iliac crest (that ridge on your pelvis that we think of as our hips), where I can easily manipulate his pelvis.

The presenting problem is a leg which he has broken several times over the course of his career as a professional handball player (Ivan was a gold medalist for Yugoslavia at the 2000 Olympic Games).  He came to me in 2007 because the doctors told him that the latest broken leg had effectively ended his career but he didn’t agree. After 8 months’ semi-regular lessons with me he returned to play professionally in Hungary and that year completed the 72-game season without a single injury (the only member of his team to do so) along with winning the league championship.

I suspected that the underlying cause of these repeated fractures is the organization of his right hip joint, and my work with him over the years has borne this out. At the start his toes were hyper-flexed, chronically contracted to the point of gross deformation. I worked to restore them to natural shape, not by forcing them to change their shape, but by investigating the neuromotor motivations for creating that shape, offering the brain a more detailed kinesthetic picture of all the parts acting on those toes. These included the ankle, calf, knee, thigh, hip joint, lower back, ribs, shoulders and neck! I had some success but not 100% – and even after he has been playing successfully for more than two seasons I feel that a deeper, more profound improvement is possible.

I also worked from the beginning to reduce stiffness in his ankles, but here I had a noticeable lack of success. Improvement in either the toes or the ankles necessitates a change in his hip joint; his brain seemed capable of making the changes needed to improve his toes, but not those that would help his ankle.

So today I focus on the hip joint. My right hand rests on his iliac crest, my left still gently sensing the spinus processes of L3 or L4. At first I just press firmly on the pelvis to give it a sense of security. Even the sense of the pelvis firmly clamped to the floor can begin to evoke a loosening in certain muscles that had been ’holding’ the pelvis in place.  My firm pressure effectively takes over the work of those holding muscles; the brain senses this and tells them to take the day off – their work is no longer needed.

Later I begin to explore, extremely gently, which way the pelvis might move easiest and what effect that has on the lower vertebrae. I don’t even move the pelvis, I just exert a certain pressure and sense how much resistance is offered, and what the quality of resistance is. After years of doing this you develop a ‘taste’ for types of resistance. It’s hard to describe – what does the non-connoisseur understand when someone describes a 1994 Bourgogne as dusky, smoky with a slightly fruity aftertaste? There’s a world of savory experience in those words about which the non-initiate hasn’t a clue. I’ll never forget the first time I tasted a first-class bottle of wine – I had always thought the people who spend their lives cultivating wines were wasting their time, now all of a sudden it made perfect sense. Doing FI is kind of like that. You develop a capacity to recognize qualities of neuromotor organization and resistances and you develop an intuitive repertoire of strategies and responses that best deal with them in a way that evokes change.

When I just hint at a movement of his pelvis in a certain direction, I sometimes sense a lot of subtle activity in his lower spine. All sorts of little muscle ripples and adjustments as his brain realizes that the movement is so small he doesn’t have to resist it automatically, but can instead begin to sense how that movement would want to move through the skeletal chain if it could do so unimpeded, and then to facilitate that by letting go of this or that holding muscle. I say, “his brain realizes” instead of “he realizes,” because Ivan is just lying there – I’m dealing with a whole part of his brain with which he has no conscious interaction most of the time. But through this lesson we are beginning to build a bridge between these two parts of himself.

I try his pelvis a little this way, a little that, sometimes not moving at all but just suggesting, sometimes actually moving a little bit, and monitoring all the time what sort of adjustments happen around his lumbar vertebrae. I have to go very slowly because the whole idea of any movement at all in this part of the body is quite foreign to his brain – the lumbar spine mostly works to support the entire torso and mostly it stabilizes to do so. Needless to say that Ivan, weighing in at 110 kilos and over 2 meters in height, has an especially strong tendency to minimize movement and maximize stability here.

But now he’s lying down, all the stress is off. And yet he continues to hold that part of his spine. The reflexes are so used to holding that it’s easiest for them to keep on doing it even when they don’t need to. But because he’s lying down, I can begin to introduce very subtle, tiny, exploratory movements that he doesn’t experience as intrusive or aggressive precisely because of their tiny nature. And every time a muscle down there does something different, it’s a learning. The brain records something different. A tiny yet significant alternative to the years of doing things one way, and usually not the most movement-optimized way, appears and is recorded for future reference.

Later on I expand on this theme by supporting his right leg with more pillows, so that it’s raised much higher but not expending any extra effort to do so. Because I’m not actively lifting his leg but it’s just lying there in an unusually open state (vis a vis the hip joint), again the neuromotor perception of his hip joint changes. I begin to use his leg in this position as a lever that evokes a small movement of the pelvis which in turn transmits through to the spine, and again I can feel with my left fingers a subtle adjustment of his muscles along the vertebrae.

There are many other variants I try, all of them related to the central theme of small pelvis movements evoking changes in the lumbar vertebrae. And over the course of an hour-long lesson, I can build up hundreds of these new patterns, which cumulatively acquire the potential for more significant changes to his overall movement organization. In short, all the increased potential for movement in his lumbar spine feels good, and it allows him to use his hip joint in a completely different way – a much more fluid and capable way, much less held – from his habitual. If all those new little patterns add up to something strong enough and distinct enough in its newness, his brain won’t want to go back to the old when he stands up.

The feeling of a hip joint that isn’t working all that well is a little hard to describe. Things don’t jive, but how they don’t jive doesn’t always clearly relate to the presenting problem. For instance, when Ivan lies on his back with his legs straight and I push up through his left foot, it feels like his femur is connected directly to his spine. I can’t even feel the ‘hitch,’ the little sideways turn that I know this movement takes from his hip joint through his pelvis to the base of the spine. But when I push through his right foot, it feels like the whole leg wants to shear off to the side, and the push misses his spine altogether. This is the feel of a badly organized hip. When we evoke an improvement in the organization of the hip joints, It’s as if we bring them in to rest directly under the spine, instead of being perceptually ‘off to the side.’ By the end of this lesson, Ivan’s right leg feels virtually as good as his left when I push through from the heel. His neuromotor system has ‘found the connection’ between his leg and his torso. It’s a physical connection but it’s a neuromotor process that cultivates it.

When Ivan stands up at the end of the lesson, he is significantly less knock-kneed than at the beginning, and standing more ‘like a monkey’ – his pelvis is further back in space, allowing his torso to be really over his legs rather than thrust out in front of them.

But I didn’t tell him, at least not verbally, to stand differently. I just gave him a huge amount of kinesthetic-perceptual information, and his brain used that information to stand him up differently on its own.

“Welcome to your skeleton,” I tell him. “This is how it wants to stand you up.” He’s looser but standing taller. I am showing him as well how to shoot the ball without losing this looseness, and how when the power for the shot comes from a loose, skeletal-chain type body, how much more accuracy and power he will have. If you watch slow motion pictures of Bjorn Borg playing tennis you’ll recognize that loose, skeletal-chain quality I’m talking about.

The bones have their own wisdom. The goal of my lesson is to facilitate his neuromotor system discovering that wisdom. The gentle stimulations are specifically directed to help him leave off all his habitual patterns of muscle contraction that have prevented that wisdom from emerging, and to allow his brain to better feel his actual skeletal structure. Once he has that picture in place, his brain itself will do the recalibration. This is what Feldenkrais meant when he said, “I don’t teach, I only create the conditions for learning.” We don’t impose, we facilitate discovery.

A week after this lesson, normal movement was restored to Ivan’s ankles to the degree I had been expecting for two years…

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