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loose change

September 16, 2009

Last week I gave a presentation on the Feldenkrais Method to a group of massage therapists. They were a great bunch: genuinely caring and actively seeking injury prevention methods for their clients. Massage therapists are pretty much on the front line – the M*A*S*H* team for chronic musculoskeletal injuries, so to speak. They asked me lots of interesting questions, but a common and pressing issue for all of them was what to do with clients who ‘knew’ (read: had been told) that their pain was being caused by poor posture or movement, and who persisted in these habits knowing that another trip the the massage therapist would fix them. Believe it or not, good massage therapists are not overjoyed by return clients of this kind.

It reminded me of that old joke about the kleptomaniac who proudly told all his friends he was making great progress now that he was being treated by a psychologist. When asked if he had stopped stealing, he answered “No, but now I know why I do it. It’s all because my fam…”

Well, it’s a dilemma. Sure it would be great if everyone could just stop doing whatever it is that causes them harm. But even the briefest glimpse at history or science or literature shows that this trait is not a common human one. There are a myriad reasons we persist in harmful behaviour, but it’s not always possible or even desirable to stop it.

One of my current students, with chronic neck pain, is an architect. I well remember the physical demands of this kind of work, from back in the days when I was chained to the desk an architect myself. You can set yourself up in the most ergonomically ‘perfect’ chair/desk/screen arrangement as much as you like, but chances are you’ll still get aches and pains. Why? Because you’ll spend hours virtually motionless, eyes focussed at a set distance, intensely concentrating on an arcane arranging of lines, quietly sweating as the unrealistic deadline looms. Even if you do have a reconstructed boss who gives you plenty of time, coffee breaks, and a rich variety of tasks, the very nature of computer based work demands that you absent yourself from your body for prolonged periods of time in abstract tasks. On a good day, we call this ‘flow’, and it’s this kind of sustained engagement with a task that makes ‘work’ fulfilling.

So my architect student has choices. She can continue doing what she does now, with frequent visits to a range of therapists to relieve pain. Clearly this isn’t a great option, although after my chat with the massage therapists, it’s the preferred one for many. She can give up the cerebral world of architecture, and find work which doesn’t oblige her to remain near frozen at the screen. A bleak and radical option, usually a last resort after developing RSI. Or, perhaps, just perhaps, she’ll find a sustainable solution in the Feldenkrais Method, by learning to become aware before pain strikes, when she needs to have a break, do a mini lesson, and look after herself.

So, belatedly, here’s my answer to the massage therapists: what needs to change is not people’s work environments or propensity to poor posture and movement habits – although we can suggest improvements. What needs to change is what people can recognise that they can do for themselves within those constraints. This is the wonderful premise of the Feldenkrais Method – it empowers us all to take responsibility for our own selves.

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