At the senior center: Gentle exercise yields change

The phrase “use it or lose it” is often heard by those who suffer muscular or joint pain in their search for relief. But how can you “use it” when it is painful to do so?

One alternative to assertive forms of exercise is the Feldenkrais Method, which offers a gentle path to finding a more comfortable means of moving the body.

Cathy Paine, a certified Feldenkrais instructor based in Norwalk, has begun teaching a class at Wilton Senior Center on Friday mornings at 10. The one-hour class began two weeks ago and will continue through the end of the year. If there is enough interest, Ms. Paine will continue to teach it on a regular basis. For each class there is a drop-in fee of $5.

At the second class, on Nov. 8, nearly a dozen people filled the senior center dance studio. At Ms. Paine’s invitation they described the problems that brought them to the class. One woman’s foot had never felt right after surgery, another had shoulder pain after rotator cuff surgery. Hip pain, arthritis in the knees, the aftermath of meniscus surgery, and the effects of chronic Lyme disease were also mentioned. Many said getting up and down from the floor was a major obstacle.

Given their concerns, Ms. Paine focused the class on working in a chair with the eventual goal of making it possible for everyone to get down on the floor and back up again.

First, she said, “we will make it possible, then easy, then elegant.”

She also told the class, “If you feel pain of any kind, and if you feel something gives you pain or discomfort, don’t do it.

“This is about paying attention to yourself.”

She promised to help members of the class “find easy ways to do things.”

Ms. Paine’s own physical problems led her to find Feldenkrais. She had been a professional dancer for more than 20 years when she felt stabbing pains in her right hip and discovered she had early arthritis.

She tried many traditional therapies but it wasn’t until she happened upon Feldenkrais through a friend that she found relief and was able to extend her career by a decade. She also became a Feldenkrais practitioner.

The method is named for Moshe Feldenkrais who, in the 1930s slipped and aggravated an old knee injury. Faced with surgery that offered only a 50% cure rate, he set about to rehabilitate himself. With his expertise in physics and judo, he examined how the body moves and set out to uncover alternative ways people in pain could move.

The foundation of Feldenkrais is in gentle, subtle changes — changes that are as much intellectual as physical.

Ms. Paine spent a fair amount of time asking her class to close their eyes and pay attention to what they were feeling. She asked everyone to consider how their seat bones were connected to their chair. Was their weight evenly distributed? Were the soles of their feet flat on the floor? What parts of their body moved when they breathed?

She moved on to another tenet of the Feldenkrais method, which is tossing out old notions of posture that lead to discomfort. Still seated, she invited her students to slump.

“How well can you slump to let your back relax?” she asked. When everyone sat up tall again she said their back muscles would not re-engage with the same tension as before because they had been allowed to relax.

To help people rise from a chair more easily she had them roll slightly forward and backward on their seat bones and then had them flex their ankles. The point was to take some pressure off the knees.

“This helps get your feet further underneath so you can use them to help you get up,” she said.

Making under-used parts of the body shoulder some of the load takes stress off overworked parts, such as the knees.

Eventually, Ms. Paine had the class bending forward and running their hands down their legs, tweaking their movements — perhaps through turning their head or adjusting their breathing — until they were able to put their hands on the floor.

“What did you learn?” she asked. “You learned to do something different. That will help you get down on the floor. It may not be the most beautiful thing, but it is possible.”

She went on to add, “When you become uncomfortable, stop and think what might make it easier.”

After class Ms. Paine explained that “making people more self-aware is a big part” of Feldenkrais. The key is recognizing that the way a person moved all their life just isn’t working anymore and being open to trying something different.

“What we know how to do is to work hard to do better,” she said. “What we are not taught to do is working less to do better.

“When you are doing less, you are able to feel small differences,” she said. “The small differences add up to big change.”

She likened it to lifting a weight. If a person lifts 10 pounds and a dime is added, the person won’t feel the difference, she said. If a person lifts a feather and a dime is added, he will feel the difference.

Her students seem to agree.

“It’s very good,” Libby Bufano said. “It was making me more flexible to move around. It’s more subtle than other exercise classes.”

Pat St. Pierre concurred, saying, “It’s a more mild type of exercise. It takes the pressure off your joint so your not as aware … it’s not doing leg lifts with weights.”

Marlene Byington looked forward to future classes, saying, “the more accelerated, the easier it will get with everything.”

One woman who did not give her name volunteered that the “little tweaks” were “amazing.”

“Doing something over and over again doesn’t help if you are doing it the wrong way,” Ms. Paine said. “This is learning by exploration what makes us feel good.”

Information: 203-834-6240.