When destructive habits become our normal

Mandy’s story

Some years ago Mandy contacted me. Mandy was a mother in her early forties. One of her biggest passions and pleasures was partner dancing with her husband.

They had been doing so for years and were very talented dancers. It had become their social life when not spending family time with their lovely kids..

However, during the years dancing became more and more painful for Mandy. And not only that. Also, many daily life activities had become a struggle. Her neck, back, and shoulder gave her excruciating pain whenever she would turn or lift her arms. She often had headaches and felt dull. Last 10 years she had visited many movement professionals. And often after a treatment, she had felt relieved only to fall back in pain after a couple of weeks. She had lost faith in her body and in recovering.

Most chronic pain situations grow out of repetitive daily life movements and habits that strain and fatigue the body. 

When she came to visit me she looked so defeated, with no sparkles in her eyes.  She wear a tube skirt as she walked in carefully holding herself. Her skirt was almost like a harness that had to stop her from moving too freely and spontaneously.  I observed her gait. Her pelvis, back, and head were like one piece and her face looked taut.  As we explored looking over her shoulder and looking up and down I could see how she held her back rigid as not to bend or spiral while turning. Her pelvis and hips did not come along and she hold her breath and belly.

I could have told her and show her how I thought she should move. Instead, I met her where she was and helped her to become aware of what she was doing and how that might cause her to struggle with pain. 

No habit comes to existence out of the blue. Once there was good reason for the person to act this pattern out. In order to change a pattern, it is important to understand what sensations and feeling states are underneath., What thoughts, what intentions, what behavior leads to it. Some muscular holding patterns we learned due to what our caregivers or early teachers told us to do. Just that something is called education does not mean that it is good education. Other holding patterns are reactions to something that happened in our environment that made us feel very unsafe or unloved earlier in our lives.

I asked her if she could sense what she was doing, how she moved her back, her shoulder blades, her chest bone, and ribs. When someone gains awareness of what one does at the moment one acts and moves. When one becomes aware of the holding pattern that developed, the muscular tension, the way of breathing while moving, someone can consciously start to subtle change the way of moving.

The first thing she noticed was the tight skirt that was irritating her as it stopped her to move and breathe  with more freedom. She made a joke about how the skirt was a mirror for how she felt the last year.

Normally there is no need for people to undress for a hands-on Feldenkrais Functional Integration session.  I do ask people to wear clothes that give them the freedom to move in.

I asked her if she preferred to take it off. She said that she had wanted to change after work but opening the zipper on the right side of her skirt had been too painful. I asked her if she could just set the intention to open the zipper, and very small and slow initiate the start of the movement.

She began to turn to the left to open the zipper on the right. At the first movement, she holds her breath and moans in pain. ‘This’ she says, hurts so much. I ask her if turning to the right hurts too. She looks at me confused. She has never tried that before she says apologetically, ‘it’s not good. ‘MMMMh’ I ask her if she wants to give it a try. ‘Go very slowly, very small, a first approach’ I say.

Many muscular holding habits are right under our eyes. We have become very intimate with them, meeting them in all our daily actions. They have become so normal that we don’t notice them or question them anymore. They are part of our life. And so often people confuse them with who they are. Habits as part of our identity.

She starts to turn and keeps on turning. The breath slowly releases as does her facial tension. Then suddenly she stops, in her eyes a mixture of wonder and bewilderment. “What happened?” “This is so much easier, I don’t feel any pain I think,” she says. She can’t quite grasp what is happening. She is looking for pain and does not understand that ‘the wrong way’ hurts less. I ask her why this way would be wrong? Where or how did she come to that decision? She tells me that her mother taught her years ago to do it the other way, that being the right way. She is getting upset now. None of the movement therapists in the past 20 years have pointed out to her that changing what she does could get her out of her pain and give her back her freedom of movement, the dances with her lover. All those years, all the suffering, all the painful therapy, and massages, all the money she spent…

Sometimes we hear things and memorize parts of it which puts something we learn in a different context. We repeat what we remember and each time we perfect only that.
The great thing is that we can unlearn something by creating other options that feel better. By combining awareness of what we are doing, thinking, feeling, and sensing, and exploring other options, we create new choices for our brain. We can choose what feels best in a given action. Our nervous system is by nature wired to make the most pleasurable choice. It will release the patterns that hurt when it has another, better option. The beauty and burden of being aware are that we cannot become unconscious once we are aware.

For her, it was very clear what felt better. We continued that session by exploring ways we could bring more of her into movements of daily life such as twisting, turning, bending, and stretching and restore the relationship between body parts. She left pain-free for the first time in a long time. The next morning she called me. Her voice sounded excited. She told me that she had vacuumed behind the couch and, for the first time in years, had no pain. She had turned the other way for a change and it had been pleasantly easy to clean.

Mandy and I had two more sessions, where we continued to re-pattern the relationship between muscles, breath, connective tissue, and nervous system through gentle hands-on movements. After these sessions, the pain and tension were gone and her movements were so much more fluid. Mandy had even danced with her lover again in between sessions. And more importantly, she had her confidence and belief in her body back. She had found her own wise. She now knew that she could do something different if pain or tension occurred. That she had something to say about it and that she was free to explore her body, when and with everything she did. She had her sovereignty back. By taking responsibility for her actions, by staying attentive and following the sensations, she could continue to consciously choose pleasure.

I met Mandy a few years later. She had changed in every way. She moved with confidence and joy and her eyes were sparkling. Mandy kept on nurturing her sparkle and zest of life by choosing her body’s way over anybody else’s way.

(the client’s name has been changed for reasons of privacy)