“Ann,” a cancer thriver

One of my long-standing clients, let’s call her Ann, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She explained her situation to me after class one day and told me she might not make it to class because of her treatment schedule. She disappeared for a while and I thought of her often, wondering how she was doing. Finally, after a few months, she showed up at class with a big smile on her face. She was clearly happy to be back.

The class Ann attended was held on Monday evenings. People arrived in ones and twos, some of them straight from work. We laid mats on the floor and set up a low, padded table for a participant who couldn’t easily lay on the floor. At the appointed hour, I began: “Stand, and sense how that is – what muscles are working hard as you stand? Sense your feet and where the weight is in them; are your knees bent or straight? What are you doing with your shoulders? Where are your eyes looking?” I glanced around the room, pacing my questions so everyone had time to notice. Some people had closed their eyes. There was a shift in the room, from being outwardly oriented – thinking about the room and other people – to an inward orientation of each person attending to his or herself.

I continued to direct attention to internal sensations, as people laid down on their mats and made themselves comfortable. For 50 minutes, I suggested small, slow, gentle movements. The movements began very simply and became more complex. People experimented with different ways to do the movements easily. All through the lesson, I directed attention – to the eyes, to the breath, to places that weren’t moving – or were they? Most eyes were closed now, as people alternately focused on everything that was happening inside and then completely let go and rested.

As the lesson came to a close, the students again came to their feet and walked around, sensing the differences in themselves from the lesson. Ann was still smiling, but her face was softer now, and there was a look of wonder in her expression. We made eye-contact, and she volunteered, “What a relief! I feel like all my parts are connected again!”

What Ann experienced that evening was a common, practical result of the work we do. All people move in accordance with the image they have of themselves in their brains, an image that they are largely unconscious of. Some areas of the body are very well represented in your brain – your lips, tongue, and genitals, for instance. And for everyone, there are areas that are less clear, like the back of the lower leg. You could think of this self-image as a mind map, a map that can always be improved and refined. When you are ill or injured, the image you have of yourself changes and affects the way you move. You may move less or differently because of pain, fear, or anxiety. Unfortunately, these patterns of limited, protective movement may persist, even when you could comfortably move much more.

When Ann came to class, she brought a self-image formed by a cancer diagnosis and treatment. There had been various insults to her body and psyche, as well as a sense of having been objectified as a “patient,” a lab result, a pathology. During the Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® lesson, lying on a padded mat, in a dimly lit room, Ann was provided with the opportunity to discover how she felt and what she could do well and comfortably. The Awareness Through Movement lessons (there are over 1000 of them) are designed to be experienced without any time pressure, goals, or expectations.

Ann’s willingness to observe herself and to rest during the lesson increased her awareness of how she was and what movements were easy to do. Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, creator of the Feldenkrais Method said, “The body reflects the attitudes of the mind. Improve the function of the body and you must improve the state of the mind. The movements are nothing….What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains. What I’m after is to restore each person to his human dignity.”

Dr. Feldenkrais was a physicist, judo expert, mechanical engineer, and educator, born at the beginning of the last century. The Feldenkrais Method uses gentle movement and directed attention to improve human functioning. Feldenkrais understood that the improvement of physical functioning is not necessarily an end in itself. Improvement is based on a broader functional awareness, which is often the gateway to a more generalized enhancement of physical functioning. The feeling of connectedness and ease that Ann experienced at the end of the Feldenkrais lesson is just one example of the many improvements that this learning and awareness practice can provide a cancer thriver. Anyone can do this work, which makes it especially valuable for those who cannot currently exercise.  

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