It’s difficult for verbal therapy alone to break this cycle of mind-body interaction.
No matter how hard, for instance, a therapist works with someone to raise her self-esteem, nothing much is going to happen while she remains slumped over herself in a frightened, defeated, and withdrawn posture. The message is just too strong, to herself and others, that this is who she is and that nothing will change.
The same is true for those trying to alter physical patterns without shifting emotional ones. No matter how hard some people, even movement professionals, have worked on their bodies, some somatic echoes will remain until they address their feelings about themselves—and improve their relationships.
Once you notice that you’re holding emotional tension in your body, you probably want to be free of it. You may also discover, if you haven’t before, that a bewildering number of methods and techniques purport to help you feel better in your body, improve your posture, strengthen muscles, and release trauma. How do you find a way that works for you?
Two requirements need to be met for you to counteract your somatic programming and reclaim your body: (1) relationships that make you feel safe and within which you are free to express emotions and feelings, and (2) awareness of your movement patterns and exploration of more functional options.
When these conditions are met, you can largely if not wholly erase trauma’s signature from your body. When they aren’t, no method or technique will create lasting, beneficial change, and may in fact do harm.
Using the Body to Teach the Brain
One of the most important modern discoveries is that not only can the brain affect the body, but the body can teach the brain. Alicia was particularly excited by the ramifications of this idea during her four-year Feldenkrais professional certification training.
The Feldenkrais Method was introduced to the United States several decades ago and paved the way for this realization. Using very gentle, small, and pain-free Feldenkrais movements, either on their own or assisted, stroke victims began to report gains in recovering lost function that had been thought impossible before.
This went far beyond building up or limbering muscles; it indicated a whole new area of learning. Clearly, the flow of information regarding physical function was not simply from the brain to the body via the nervous system, as most people had thought, but the other way around as well.
What’s more, athletes and even piano students have since confirmed another tenet of Feldenkrais: practicing a skill in one’s imagination is as powerful as actually carrying out the movements repeatedly. Obviously, thought (visualization) and action are one and the same to the brain.
Gradually, new neural imaging techniques began to explain this phenomenon and as they did so, to shed light on the very nature of learning. When a person learns something conceptually new, cells in the brain form connections around the idea or behavior or experience.
What’s more, learning different concepts (like a sport or language, but not additional information about a subject you’re already familiar with) stimulates the brain to keep on learning fresh things. New learning has, in fact, been shown to keep the brain active and to ward off Alzheimer’s disease.
Moshe Feldenkrais believed that enhancing people’s ability to function optimally in their bodies and thus stimulating their capacity to learn would increase their self-confidence and give them tools to solve any problems. As a tough Israeli who, as he once told Alicia, had walked out of Russia at the age of twelve and aided British Intelligence during World War II, he had little patience for psychotherapy or for focusing on emotions and relationships.18
We took his ideas a step further. We wanted to encourage the brain to open up to new options for thinking, feeling, and relating. We began to use Feldenkrais and other forms of movement to subtly release somatic patterns caused by trauma, to gently stimulate the brain to seek out more functional options in all areas of people’s lives, and to challenge the person’s limited system of beliefs and behaviors—the program.
We now address muscular-skeletal, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive patterns as basically the same thing. We teach people to use one to become aware of, and then change, the other. We bring movement into the Uplift Program and, when appropriate, hands-on work into one-on-one Fortinberry Murray sessions.
Working with the body was a vital aspect of Gina’s recovery from depression.
A single woman in her early thirties, Gina suffered from head and neck pain and fatigue as well as depression. Her desperate need to succeed at everything she did—from sports and grades in her youth to her current position as head of personnel for a large Manhattan consulting firm—contributed to her problems along with her feeling that nothing she ever accomplished was good enough.
When Gina first came to the Uplift Program, her favorite part was Repatterning Movements (RPMs), some of which are similar to Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® lessons. She found it an enormous relief simply to lie on the floor with her eyes closed and focus only on Alicia’s voice directing her through movements that were relaxing, intriguing, and pleasurable. She also enjoyed the more active and playful group RPMs, which entail laughter as well as learning. It was a totally new experience for her to follow her own comfort and curiosity rather than worrying about meeting other people’s standards.
After each RPM, Gina felt a dramatic improvement in her ability to move and a decrease in pain. Over the several days of the Uplift Program, her body began to let go of its habitual rigidity, especially around the neck, jaw, and shoulders. The severity and frequency of her headaches decreased and she had more energy. She began to feel a deep sense of letting go and of new possibilities for living based on pleasing herself instead of others.
Heartened by her physical improvement, and excited by these new thoughts and experiences, Gina began to pay more attention to other aspects of the Uplift. She allowed herself to look honestly at her past without idealizing it. She came to see how her parents’ criticism, coupled with unrealistic expectations, played a significant role in her depression and sports injuries.
Gina also remembered her parents fighting, sometimes screaming at each other and even throwing things. At these times she would hide in her room, curled into a small, tense ball. Since her parents sometimes argued over her, she was especially prone to imagining that all the fights were her fault. If only she had somehow been good enough, perhaps brought home even better grades or more wins, her parents would have loved each other more.
During the Uplift, Gina largely freed herself from the somatic imprint of the trauma. She also came to realize that, in spite of her unconscious guilt, the problems at home were really not due to any failure on her part. She began asking herself what she wanted rather than what the internalized parents would have demanded.
Gina kept in touch with us after the Uplift and reported her progress over the next six months. She told us that the relationship techniques she’d learned enabled her to make a number of new friends she could confide in and relax with. She was spending fewer hours at work but, to her surprise, seemed to be getting more done.
She’d even gone on a few dates and managed to enjoy herself.
Gina began and maintained a routine of RPMs and walking in Central Park in the mornings and on weekends with a woman who lived nearby. Throughout the day, she tried to stay aware of when she tightened certain muscles or stopped using her body fully and freely. Her physical pain and depression were mostly gone, and on the few occasions that she relapsed, she knew what to do to pull out of it.
We developed Repatterning Movement exercises to enable your brain and body to explore nonhabitual ways of moving, feeling, and being. Unlike most exercise, they are not about strengthening muscles or improving aerobic capacity.
Like Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons (ATMs), RPMs clarify communication between your central nervous system and your muscles so that you find yourself moving more easily, comfortably, and well. RPMs are also powerful tools for relaxation, emotional awareness, and meditation.
The short and simple RPM included here offers a safe and gentle way to begin to explore and change your somatic program. It is designed to help you walk with more ease and pleasure and without fatigue or injury. You can do this RPM any time you wish to relieve stress and enhance your connection to your body.
You might want to do this exercise once before going out for your daily walk so that you can notice the difference it makes. After that, as part of your regular walk, take a moment to remember how it felt to rotate your pelvis and shoulders in opposite directions during the RPM. For the first five minutes of your walk, take careful note of how much movement you feel in these areas, and whether increased movement helps you walk more efficiently. If you find yourself stiffening up again, make a mental note to redo the movements in full. You may want to note these continuing observations about your body in your Walking Log.
One RPM will get the ball rolling, but if you want to continue to reprogram your brain and body, you’ll need a variety of these kinds of movements. Several series of longer RPMs covering a full range of functions and areas of the body, as well as emotional and meditative themes, are available on audiotapes. Or look for a Feldenkrais ATM class in your area.
(extracted from) Creating Optimism: A Proven, 7-Step Program for Overcoming Depression, Based on the popular Uplift program, written by Bob Murray Ph. D., and Alicia Fortinberry, published by Mcgraw-Hill