Translation of several articles about Helga Bost and her Book “Discovering the Unexpected” in the german magazine “Feldenkrais Forum” No. 111, 2020. Please compare the figures with the original PDF on the right side.
1 | A word with Helga Bost | by Cornelia Berens
Being touched is so important
Cornelia Berens: Following up on Bettina Falk’s review of your book I am curious to know how your work has changed as a result of the Corona pandemic and the restrictions associated with it.
Helga Bost: My last advanced training, scheduled for early September, fell victim to Corona. In its place, I advertized a three-hour online presentation. This gave me a good opportunity to touch base with ten colleagues. In this setting, it is, of course, impossible to fully get across the central aspect of my work, namely touch and the quality of touch. However, I have been able to give 20 online sessions to two clients with spinal cord injuries. I am giving ATMs that are highly tailored to my clients’ individual needs. One young woman who suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury in a motorbike accident is now coming to my practice. We have been able to build on the ATM work, and she says that being touched is something completely different, as it enables her to sense a great deal more; that is just so important.
A second client whom I am able to work with online had to have his hands tied into boxing gloves to be able to propel his wheelchair. After many years, he was shocked to be able to start learning and gradually develop his self-image through listening to his body.
CB: How has your Feldenkrais work changed in general as a result of working with people with spinal cord injuries?
HB: It has changed a lot. I have witnessed the initiation of movement patterns, namely, how the Method works. That gives me orientation. Also, the research I performed after coming into contact with fascia work has given me new avenues of thought. These have not replaced what was there before, but rather expand on this. To me, they connect everything up in a new way. Not only the bones or the muscles connect us together. Rather, the fascia connect the bones and the muscles to each other while at the same time serving as a communication system and our largest sensory organ. As a result, I now teach ATM as well as FI in a different way. I have gained greater clarity. That is something my clients and participants in my advanced trainings can feel.
CB: Thank you, Helga. I could go on listening to you for hours if only we had more space available …
2 | Assigning meaning to even the smallest impulses | by Bettina Falk
Helga Bost’s fabulous work book “Discovering the Unexpected” now already in its second, expanded edition
In February 2012, Roger Russell and the non-profit association Förderverein für Feldenkrais und somatisches Lernene.V. invited interested colleagues to the Uferstudios Berlin to present and discuss their projects in the making. I met Helga Bost in my role as moderator of the preparatory meetings to the symposium. Her presentation addressed one of the central methodological questions, namely “(How) Does a person’s attitude toward their own body change through Feldenkrais?” and examined the results of her year-long work with a client. At the time, I was not yet aware of how fundamental her insights would later become for Feldenkrais practice at large. Seven years later, in May 2019, she presented “Discovering the Unexpected”, a momentous workbook compiled with unbelievable care. Reflecting its importance, the present issue of the Feldenkraisforum is devoted extensively to this work.
In October 2020, the revised edition of her book will be released and includes a supplementary fifth case report as well as an excellent English translation. And that’s not all! Both books are currently being prepared for online publication featuring video documentation of each case report. This will be available via a password-protected area on Helga’s website. Helga Bost is also making the new material contained in the expanded edition available to all those who purchased the book previously. Everything else can be found at www.helgabost.de. Until then, have fun delving into the focus topic of this Feldenkraisforum issue.
Our colleague Helga Bost has written a fascinating book entitled “Die Entdeckung des Unerwarteten”. In it, she documents her work with people who came to her with paralyses resulting from spinal cord injuries. Through Feldenkrais, her patients learned to sense themselves and regain movement below their site of injury. In doing so, she provides insights into her rich experience gained from more than 30 years of working as a Feldenkrais practitioner. Following its first edition in 2019, the book is now being re-released in 2020 in an updated and expanded edition, concurrently with its translation into English by Conrad Heckmann and Helen McKinnon, entitled “Discovering the Unexpected”. Both editions include password-protected access to more than 70 video clips of Feldenkrais lessons totaling more than 4 hours of video material.
In the introduction, the author describes her own path to the Feldenkrais Method and how her personal experiences during that time later enabled her to better understand her “clients’ process of regaining and reorganizing sensory function (p. 11)”. Having previously given up sports activities due to a severe pain condition, she underwent several hip operations but was nevertheless forced to quit her job as a school teacher at the age of only 32. During a Feldenkrais workshop with Gaby Yaron, she found “for the first time what you might call a ‘user manual’” for dealing with the changes in her body. She was then able to leave the room without walking sticks, an experience that set her pondering what Feldenkrais was ultimately about and how it could be that changes were sometimes felt immediately and sometimes only after months of “maturation” (p. 11). These introductory passages reveal the author’s interest and capacity to sensitively listen for connections behind phenomena.
The heart of the book
The heart of the book consists of case studies, numbering five in the new edition. Helga Bost’s way of describing the process of working together with her clients provides us with perceptive portraits. We are introduced to five individuals: four adults, each of whom was torn out of the flow of their life by an accident, and a young girl.
Michael was the first client with a spinal cord injury whom Helga worked with. With him, she made her first “discoveries of the unexpected”. He has been coming for Feldenkrais lessons since 1991, when he suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury at the thoracolumbar junction (T12-L1) in a motorbike accident. Even now, in 2020, he is still learning something new every time.
Andrea worked together with Helga for four years starting in 1992. She was paralyzed on her left side from the neck downward in a traffic accident when another vehicle struck the driver’s side of her car.
Werner started coming for Feldenkrais lessons in 2009, nine months after sustaining a complete spinal cord injury from the fourth thoracic vertebra downward as a result of falling from a ladder.
Lilly was born with an open back (L1-L5). When she first came to Helga in 2017, aged 18 months, she could not yet use her legs.
Micha came to Helga in early 2020, one and a half years after sustaining an incomplete spinal cord injury (L1) in a motorbike accident.
Helga Bost introduces each case report with an in-depth interview. We learn about the circumstances of the accident, the client’s progress and the doctors’ prognoses. She asks: How did you cope with your difficult situation mentally and physically? Did you have job alternatives? How did you sense your body? How did you find out about Feldenkrais? And what made you stick with it?
I was captivated by the book from the start. I had already felt drawn to the title and the cover design (see Figure 1) and when I then held it in my hands it was clear to me that I had acquired a workbook. Its sturdy double metal spiral and large format make it easy to open, leaf through, and flip this way and that despite the volume. And that’s no luxury, as the book will also serve as a travel companion and have to tolerate movement. The book invites you to jump back and forth, look up cross-references while reading, and to try out suggested FI and ATM sequences in one’s own practice or in quiet for oneself.
How everything began
After a session in side-lying, Helga wanted to prepare Michael, her first client with a spinal cord injury, for integrating the many movement experiences he had just had. At the end of the session, he was again lying on his back. In her own words: “But Michael had no sensation in his feet. On that day, I decided to present him with this suggestion of standing from the top downward, as in a shoulder or head stand. I placed my hands on either side of his seventh cervical vertebra, where I was in good contact with his skeleton and felt confident. From here I pushed lightly downward towards his feet. Something very unexpected happened right before my eyes. Michael responded to my suggestion with a large movement below the site of his spinal cord injury, initially without any sensation of his own movement. I had never before witnessed such a reaction in healthy persons. This initiation of movement can be clearly seen in the film recording. His legs turn inward, his feet pointing forward toward the ceiling. There is an increase in muscle tone from his legs through his pelvis all the way up to his chest. I could clearly see how Michael’s whole body was preparing itself for standing. […] Michael’s system was converting the impulse […] into visible movement.” (p. 29)
She had never seen anything of the like. She bought herself a camera and began documenting, enabling her from then on to catch on video the unexpected in the moment of its becoming experience, preparing the ground for yet more things unexpected. Time and again her open curiosity and beginner’s mindset were rewarded. We repeatedly get to feel the inviting style that Helga Bost adopts in her work and how it emanates a sense of safety. Beginning to work with anew client consists of first becoming familiar with herself, with her client’s current possibilities of sensing and moving, as well as the client becoming familiar with both her and themselves. Then the dance between two nervous systems begins. “Michael seemed able to sense my compressive touch on his left thigh: ‘That feels tingly’. That told him where my hands were. From his knee downwards he could sense some kind of touch, but couldn’t tell where. When I moved his foot into flexion he had no sensation of this” (p.28).
What fascinates me most is the space and significance that Helga Bost allots to her clients’ sensations. The core of the Feldenkrais Method consists of guiding a person in learning to sense themselves; residing in the subjective realm, however, it often remains hidden. Again and again, Helga Bost encourages her clients to sense themselves. It is her own interest and her constant drive to explain herself that enable her clients to appreciate their own sensations and to recognize them for what they are – a part of themselves. It is touching to read how her clients put into words what they feel, how they discover their own language in assigning meaning to even the smallest impulses, and to witness their joy in all this. And so the work becomes infused with movement and liveliness. For example, since 2015, Werner has nurtured the process of developing his body image through new sensations by engaging in artistic reflections, where he uses different drawing colors to represent different qualities of sensation on the picture of a wooden doll. In the book itself, passages describing new sensations are also highlighted in color.
Every session follows a similar pattern of questions, movement experiments and reflection. But no two sessions are exactly alike. Each builds on the experiences of the preceding ones. Over the years, this results in a “spiral of experience and sensation”, a concept developed and rendered in visual form by Helga Bost in cooperation with Michael while preparing the film “Michael” in 2000 (Figure 2). It is important for the clients to hear again and again that every sensation causes the brain’s body image to be rewritten. As philosopher Alva Noë says, “To perceive is not merely to have sensation, or to receive sensory impressions, it is to have sensations that one understands.”
It becomes clearly apparent in all clients how their self-image expands, creating new possibilities, including in their everyday lives. The measure of success is not in being able to walk (again like they used to) but in finding differences that make a difference as well as the way by which such differences are found. In some cases, it is also the ability to sense pain again.
For example, in the interview Michael says: “I realized that I had a body again” (p. 27). Werner, after learning over time to sit freely without needing his hands to stay upright, takes up painting and returns to his job on a part-time scheme. And Lilly we see in 2020 proudly riding her pink tricycle. Helga Bost’s in-depth knowledge of the treasure chest of the Alexander Yanai lessons, acquired during her time as co-editor of the German version alongside translator Uta Ruge, has proven to be a stroke of good fortune. Among the lessons she returns to repeatedly are, for example, “AY # 256 “Lines crossing”, AY # 303 “Self-image, the line of a ball that rolls”, and AY# 524 “Head and anus backwards”. Beyond this she refers to lessons in which Moshé Feldenkrais has his students explore movement patterns from evolution, such as AY #501 ff. (“Introduction to walking”, “Walking and crawling”, “Reptiles”, “On the stomach, face to the knee”, and “Supporting the head”).
How do sensation and movement come about?
In her reflections on the sessions Helga Bost successively develops working hypotheses on the question of how sensation and movement come about. In Michael and Andrea, large movement patterns can be visibly initiated even through touch below the site of injury, while Werner learns to sense the associated inner lines of force. Feldenkrais referred to these movements from evolution that work according to the “all or nothing principle” as “primordial movements”. These are genetically encoded central patterns such as rotation, crawling, creeping, standing and walking. Although visible to her, her clients are initially unable to sense the movements they are performing. By focusing their attention and engaging in movement experiments they then learn to sense them as well. Another thing to be learnt is movement inhibition. Michael needed five years before being able for the first time to inhibit a movement at will; later he recovered the ability of spontaneous inhibition.
In 2009, on her 20-year practice anniversary party, Helga Bost’s colleagues presented her with Thomas Myers’ book entitled “Anatomy Trains”, which describes the fascial network as our “largest sensory organ as well as a finely-tuned communication system” (p. 15), where communication happens below our level of awareness for the most part” (pp. 16/35). Here she finds explanations for phenomena that no one has been able before to account for satisfactorily. Working from AY # 303 – 307, in which “Feldenkrais instructs his students to imagine a ball rolling along their ventral and dorsal lines of effort” (pp. 51 ff.), she describes in detail how these lines of force evidently match Myers’ myofascial meridians (Superficial Front Line (SFL), Superficial Back Line (SBL), Deep Front Line DFL) etc.).
It is very intriguing to read her description of how organically this additional information influences her thinking and doing, prompting her to explore movement directions and relationships between “bony stations” (e.g. AY # 526, AY # 124, AY # 303 ff.). The sensations emerging in the process trace the myofascial meridians closely and faithfully, as can also be seen in Werner’s artistic reflections (Figure 3).
When she compares the processes of her clients Michael, Andrea and Werner in detail in a synopsis, Helga Bost is surprised to find a wealth of commonalities. She subtitles her synopsis “Stages of learning through sensation” (p. 169). It lists 23 stages (Figure 4), a work in progress.
The book shows how we work
The book’s language and makeup allow the reader to create an experience of their own: Helga Bost succeeds in bringing Feldenkrais one-on-one sessions to life in her descriptions. She is an extremely attentive observer with a talent for verbally expressing her thoughts, actions and sensations in a way that gives the reader a feeling of being right there, immersed in the situation – a feeling of simultaneity of acting, feeling, sensing and thinking that we normally only experience in situations where intention, acting and sensing all come together. This book makes for easy reading. Helga Bost creates a lively narrative that puts her readers into a flow state, using small details to guide their focus of attention and vivid metaphors that invite them to navigate their own experience. The verbal interaction between client and practitioner is rendered in direct speech, making their experience and the contact between them during the process tangible and relivable. The narrative takes on a physical quality.
This in itself makes the book exciting to read. At the same time, it can serve as a form of reference book that is accessible not only to insiders such as Feldenkrais practitioners but also to anyone else interested in the topic, including clients. “It shows how we work!” (2)
The way the text has been structured with unobtrusive highlighting makes it agreeable to read and provides a good navigation aid. Direct quotes from the film clips are rendered in blue font and significant new gains in sensation or movement capacity in brown. This gives texture to the text without impeding the reading flow, structuring the reader’s experience much in the way that a change in a storyteller’s tone of voice does in a listener. While I initially ignored it, I later found the color formatting to be a great help as I searched the text for specific highlights or sensory experiences. Reflections, insights and strains of reasoning are set apart from the text body in boxes with gray background and quotes in boxes with light brown background. The film clips are referenced in the margin along with a still picture next to the relevant text passage. I would here like to reiterate an extensive quote by Feldenkrais from “Embodied wisdom” that introduces the book, as it describes so well what Helga Bost’s book stands for:
“The way I teach my students to work is to bring them into conditions where they can learn to think. They have to learn to think without words, with images, patterns, and connections. That sort of thinking always leads to a new way of action. […] You are thinking in the elements of thinking. […] Maybe whatever you do has already been invented by somebody, but you have invented it yourself. You have created it. You […] begin to think for the first time in your life, originally, creatively. You will be surprised what you can do. I was surprised.” (M.F., Embodied wisdom, 2010, p. 88)
Noë, A (2004) Action in perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 33
Carl Ginsburg commented on Helga Bost’s film“Michael” in 2000 as follows: “With these video recordings we have the possibility to show what we do. We can present this research in a way that people can see it and understand it…”
Please compare the figures with the PDF from the magazine on the right side.
Figure 1: Helga Bost presenting her book and her film on “Michael”.
Figure 2: The spiral of experience and sensation
Figure 3: Werner’s artistic reflections
Figure 4: The 23 stages of learning through sensation
- First undifferentiated sensation – the start of an exciting year-long process
- Movement is experienced from within and/or visibly performed with the involvement of myofascial meridians
- Reactions below the threshold of awareness
- Internal timing – internal rhythm
- No active, conscious inhibition of initiated movements
- Spontaneous inhibition though guided attention
- Voluntary inhibition of initiated movement
- Active planning and control of movement
- Sensation and unassisted further development and practice of lessons
- Sensing oneself after a session
- Steps of integration
- Self-sensation before the start of a lesson – a new body image begins to emerge
- Spasticity changes through sensing oneself
- No warning pain –no sensation of external temperature
- Three-dimensional perception of the inner space
- Plantar fascia
- Artistic reflections project
- Overwhelming night – experiences of the past years have matured to a whole new level
- “Bony stations” (Myers)
- “As if a sticky mass was loosening bit by bit”
- A new, different body image develops and establishes itself.
The author: Bettina Falk
Feldenkrais training from 2016 through 2019 with Larry Goldfarb
(AIFTT5 – Amsterdam International Teacher Training).
Since 2018, attendee of the Feldenkrais Training Academy led by Jeff Haller
3 | Rewarding, lively and with long-lasting effect | by Katrin Springherr
In June 2019 the title “Discovering the Unexpected” caught my eye. I had just returned from the island of Ruegen, where a client in my Feldenkrais seminar had at first been somewhat handicapped due to an operation she had undergone for a brain tumor. At the end of the week she was quicker than all of the other participants, at which she commented: “The change came unexpectedly”.
Helga Bost’s book accurately documents her almost 30 years of research work on more than 200 pages. It all began in 1991 with Michael, who arrived on her doorstep shortly after she had completed her training. He had sustained an incomplete spinal cord injury between his thoracic and lumbar spine in a motorbike accident. Helga picked up her video camera right at the outset and documented their work together. At the first European Feldenkrais Congress in Heidelberg in 1995, she presented the first results of her work along with numerous questions. Following Michael, other clients with spinal cord injuries found their way to Helga. As a result, from its earliest stages, Helga’s work led to many advanced trainings for us Feldenkrais colleagues and also for professionals from other somatic disciplines.
Taking her up on the publication of her book, I invited Helga to an advanced training in Hamburg. She immediately accepted and said that she was looking forward to sharing her ideas with us colleagues from the North. After we had quickly found a date and a venue, the seminar with Helga took place in Hamburg from January 24 to 26, 2020. We also invited Thomas Hassa, with whom she has a long-standing collaboration and who had already given various presentations for the Förderverein für Feldenkrais und somatisches Lernene.V. Thomas Hassa is a Feldenkrais practitioner as well as a qualified neurologist, with a private practice in Radolfzell on Lake Constance.
First, Helga gave us an introduction. How did she begin working with clients with spinal cord injuries? What was her own personal story? What stumbling blocks did she encounter? She shared with us her discoveries, her assumptions and the story of her small and, ultimately, large successes. She told us about how everything began, the people that she met who presented her with new challenges. Helga Bost’s approach is best described, I believe, as the art of taking small steps: of quietly feeling one’s way forward toward the other person, finding out what works, what they can sense and perceive and how they do that; what path the forces take through the body and what impulses are needed to enable the brain to make new connections. Dealing with phantom pain, a common accompaniment of traumatic injury, is just as much a part of her field of research as exploring the human fascial system.
Helga allowed us to share in her experiments, giving us space in ATM and FI work to follow our own path of exploration and recreate her findings in our own experience. Central patterns (perhaps best explained as primordial movement patterns) play an important role here as an aspect of our evolutionary heritage. They are initiated even before the client is able to sense their own movements.
On the second evening of our advanced training, Thomas Hassa took us on a journey into the world of neuroscience. His questions revolved around “Self-image, body schema and the rest of the world – where is ‘I’, and what does it do?” The room was filled with experienced colleagues, students of the sixth Hamburg training and interested professionals from other fields.
Thomas introduced us to current scientific body concepts, using two Alexander Yanai lessons to demonstrate how intimately self-use (cf. Moshé Feldenkrais: “The potent self”) is connected to a person’s body image. For example, immobilizing a hand in plaster leads to reduced cerebral activity after only 24 hours. The excitability of the part of the motor cortex responsible for the hand decreases significantly. Another insight was that a person’s direction of view and focus of attention have a major influence on their body perception. Thomas Hassa clearly illustrated the impact that research results (can) have on our work as Feldenkrais practitioners. The event concluded with many questions along with a lively discussion. On Sunday, equipped with new insights, we re-entered the process of exploration in ATM and FI work. All things told, our weekend was an enriching, lively event full of long-lasting impressions.
As I have heard, Helga, responding to Corona, gave her first online training in early September.
4 | Relearning to sense paralyzed body regions | by Gabriele Wittman
(…) In Helga Bost’s practice, people with spinal cord injuries (…) learn to expand their inner perception of themselves. Lying on her treatment table is a man with an incomplete spinal cord injury named Michael. (…) Helga Bost ventures a light push from his seventh cervical vertebra downward, and the miracles takes its course. Michael’s legs turn inwards, his muscles gain tone, and all of a sudden his right knee lifts and bends as in a walking movement. (…) How can that be? How can body regions that are bereft of all sensation, split off from a person’s awareness of themselves, become capable of reacting and being felt again? (…). Can it be that the myofascial network “talks” directly to the person’s evolutionary heritage? Or that stored movement patterns such as crawling, creeping and walking can be recognized and activated again as a result? (…) When Helga Bost touches a client with her hands, she is thinking of their bones, muscles and myofascial meridians. (…) In doing so, she offers the person different options. From these, their system will select the movement for which it has the greatest use. Another important principle of the Feldenkrais Method is the Weber-Fechner law. Simply put, this principle states that the less force a person uses to perform a movement, the more refined their sensation of the movement can become. (…) For Werner, these minute differences are what has opened up new pathways back into the world of his body. (…) In working with her clients, the Feldenkrais practitioner always starts out from a place where they can still sense themselves. For Werner, this was only the region from his head down to his chest. (…) First, he needed to sense his own head, and only then, its connection to the pelvis. During the seventh week he learned to find what was the middle for his head and body. To do so, he imagined diagonal lines crossing in the middle connecting different body regions with each other. (…) At first it was only imaginable to him in thought, yet he gradually started to be able to sense this as a truly existing part of his body. Over the course of six years, Werner learned to sense himself again below the site of his injury.
Gabriele Wittman from the February issue of Rollstuhlkurier, Hamburg
5 | My touch – knowing and inquiring at the same time | by Sandra Möller
A year with Helga Bost
Oh, how I enjoyed those hours that I was allowed to sit in as Helga gave her clients FI sessions. Helga often worked with clients who had spinal cord-injuries. People also came to her after hip or knee surgery, with vertebral disk problems or round backs. This included adults as well as infants. Every time, I was able to witness how relief and freedom spread through the body as well as the whole person. Their pains would leave them, they would achieve greater freedom of movement, experience connections they hadn’t before and make new discoveries: sometimes with astonishment and sometimes with a deep sense of satisfaction; and always accompanied by Helga’s unshakeable poise and confidence. Very often, their faces beamed with joy at having discovered something truly significant for their own life during the session, at having overcome their limitations and not only on a physical level. It was as if they had become a little closer to themselves. Especially infants gave free expression to their feelings: a long look, a kiss, a moment of pause, tenderly leaning against a trusted person and listening into them.
After every Feldenkrais session Helga and I would sit together for a long time, reflecting, discussing and exchanging our thoughts about what we had experienced. This was extremely rewarding, both for me and, as Helga said, for her. Simply having one’s own spatial perspective in the room or one’s own background of personal experience, enabled each of us to notice things that the other had not. I inundated Helga with questions, asking what she had been thinking of during specific sequences of the session and where she had been directing her attention. In this way I gained insights, on the one hand, into fascial connections and relationships, enabling me to better understand the clients’ reactions. On the other hand, I learned to look at movement sequences in the context of central patterns. This had an immediate impact on my own teaching: Central patterns became an important part of my work with children, where I presented them as movements of animals such as fish, lizards or cats, amongst other things.
Following one’s own path of learning
After I had spent some time as an observer, Helga guided me while I gave her clients FIs myself. This was extremely instructive for me, as I received immediate feedback from the client based on the specific differences they sensed between Helga’s touch and my own. My own senses quickly grew more refined and my style of touch changed. Clients were best able to learn when my touch was knowing and inquiring at the same time. How can that be? When I, as the practitioner, know in what direction a movement might go, yet at the same time continue asking how the client would like to move: in other words, when knowing and inquiring come together, a learning space opens up for the client in which they can entrust themselves to the practitioner and show themselves in their state of not yet being able to do something because they feel comfortable enough to do so. It is a space where, in the presence of a practitioner providing assurance and orientation, the client can follow their own path of learning, no matter how skilled or unskilled they may be at any moment.
Helga has opened up new spaces for me in terms of the connections I can follow in my thinking, while the clients have taught me to refine my touch. Together, these two aspects have enabled me to become aware of the special quality of this learning space. Finally, I would like to mention Helga’s contagious joy and enthusiasm during the process of discovery and exploration, as well as her deep roots in her own intuition. Her way of freely using these qualities in her work has encouraged me to embark on my own journey of discovery, guided by my own intuition. Clients sense this inner freedom and respond to it. I am extremely grateful for all these experiences.
The author: Sandra Möller
trained primary school teacher with a focus on music
Feldenkrais practitioner graduated from the 2010-2014 training in Heidelberg with Ulla Schläfke and Roger Russell
Self-employed in the fields of Feldenkrais, coaching and sound with an emphasis on
facilitating learning, attention, change processes and independence in action
Sandra lives and works in St. Wendel in Saarland.
Read more at www.lernspirale.de
6 | A more focused approach attained through collecting phenomena and developing hypotheses | by Dr. Thomas Hassa
This is not a book review, but rather an attempt to summarize some of the thoughts, ideas and questions that Helga’s book evoked in me. As such, it is a personal account of my own resonance with it. In spite of wanting to assume an objective standpoint, I find myself returning time and again to the personal “I”. Having been in close contact with Helga over the past years, I will allow myself to simply call her Helga.
Progress documentation, some spanning decades
Helga has followed and documented, in some cases over decades, the progress of the clients she describes. That, in itself, is already exceptional. In doing so she has not only described the thoughts and hypotheses that accompanied her or that she encountered along the way, but also recorded with great accuracy her clients’ sensations and feedback. In the process, she has provided us with a rich account of their development. Many of the findings that appear self-evident and a logical conclusion in her book first had to be developed by her and were surely not as obvious at first during the process. Together with her clients, however, she found ways to create order in their sensations. Moshé would perhaps have put it like this: She has helped their nervous systems introduce order to chaos. This, in itself, is quite extraordinary and, indeed, unique within Feldenkrais literature. But that is not all. Thanks to her consistency in documenting this process on video she has given us direct access to these findings, allowing us to be right there in the process and immerse ourselves in the experience. That is absolutely unique.
Individual case descriptions and generalizations
Individual case reports are not well regarded in (neuro-) science nowadays. They are considered “anecdotal” and somehow coincidental, rather more of a story than a description of connections that reach beyond the case under study. However, this view overlooks how individual case reports have often opened the doors to new insights in the history of medicine. For example, Broca described his cortical language area based on an individual case history; Lurija with his individual case descriptions laid the founding stone of modern neuropsychology, and much of what we know today about the facets of memory function goes back to the meticulous examination of a single patient. Our scientific community is only just beginning to understand that insights from controlled studies are only part of the truth, and that phenomena that get lost in averages may be very significant indeed.
This is a question we are confronted with, in particular, in applying the Feldenkrais Method, since every single lesson is ultimately a unique event. We can always repeat what we did in a one-on-one session. Often, however, what brought about a profound change on one day will yield only a feeble semblance of that effect when tried on another client the next day. Or am I the only one to whom this happens? But even if experiences like these disappoint us to a degree, we can always learn something from them and make use of this with our next client. By living through these processes we distill these into conclusions that lead to their generalization, however individual each may have been. And that is exactly what Helga has done and described in her book. This is wonderful.
Figure: In “Discovering the Unexpected” Helga Bost has written a standard work for Feldenkrais practitioners as well as persons outside the profession.
Hypotheses and baselines
In addition to its hypotheses and baselines Helga’s book contains a wealth of interesting details waiting to be discovered. For example, her client Werner describes how during the initial period after his accident he perceived his legs as fixed in the position in which he had seen them in the moment of falling. This description of a body image fixed in trauma left a strong impression on me – I had never before met with as clear and direct an illustration of the embodiment of experience. Or the importance and implications of being able to sense one’s legs in three-dimensional space as described by Werner; or the quality of ease in how Helga wins the trust of her child client Lilly: These are just a few examples of the wealth of observations and phenomena gathered by Helga. However, she did not content herself with gathering and describing these phenomena: She also attempted to order and understand them. But only after years was she able to discern patterns, be they commonalities or differences. From these she derived hypotheses which she proceeded to apply to her further work with her clients. Are these hypotheses “true” in a scientific sense? I would not say that they provide a full description. But that is beside the point, in my view. What counts is that over the years she has gathered phenomena in her treasure trove of experience and developed hypotheses which she has then put to use in order to make her work more focused as well as richer. This vindicates her approach: Rather than restricting our thinking, hypotheses encourage us to be creative and embark to new horizons. That is how I understand Moshé’s work.
What is meant by “central pattern generator”?
Does the fascial system explain the connections that Helga has discovered and utilized in purposefully stimulating new development and progress in her clients? I do not know. As a neurologist, I am hard put to conceive of learning as being able to occur outside the nervous system. I would consider it quite possible for clients to learn to decode leg movement information through sensation of tensile forces propagated to the chest region, i.e. beyond the site of their spinal cord injury, via fascial tissue. Is it important whose interpretation is correct?
Figure: Slipping beneath the breastbone
Figure: Michael learning to sense himself from pelvis to head
Not at all, in my view. The beauty of the Method, as well as its robustness, lies precisely in the fact that it also works without any theory. One of the central technical terms used in the book is that of central pattern generator, or CP for short. CPs were discovered in the 1970s in (rather unpleasant) animal experiments where it was shown that cats whose spinal cord had be severed could be made to perform rhythmic leg (i.e. running) movements by applying electrical stimuli to certain nerve cells. These movements were marked by alternating activation of flexor and extensor muscles and coordination between the extremities, with one leg flexing as the other extended. This complex movement pattern could only be stored in the spinal cord, since there was no longer a connection between it and the brain. This kind of self-contained, rhythmically firing circuitry also seems to exist in the human spinal cord. There are indications that these circuits are active during specific brief moments of the swinging and the standing leg phase during walking.
What could be the “idea behind” this circuitry? It is assumed that it helps spare resources in the higher brain centers. In other words, while walking to the baker’s store we can think about what we are going to buy rather than having to think about every step we make. But beware: CPs are not identical to walking. These rhythmic patterns are regular in time, with no modulation, where as in normal conditions walking is modulated, otherwise we would immediately fall over if the ground was even only slightly inclined or if we stepped on a stone. CPs alone do not enable us to walk. These patterns need to be modulated through impulses from the brain, and this largely occurs through inhibition. In perfect keeping with this, Helga describes how these patterns initially appeared involuntarily and only came under inhibitory control over the course of time. This inhibition is absolutely essential. In rehabilitation, we see patients develop involuntary movement patterns, also known as spinal automatisms, some weeks after sustaining a spinal cord injury. This is assumed to happen because the spinal circuits “notice” that there is no inhibition coming from the brain. Such spinal automatisms are generally a negative sign, as they only occur after severe damage to the spinal cord when inhibition from the brain is missing. Incidentally, they can also be elicited by touch alone, i.e. without any involvement of the fascial system.
CPs are characterized by rhythmic alternating movements and therefore cannot account for all of the phenomena that Helga describes. It is not meaningful to speak of a CP of standing, as there is no alternating movement here. I would rather describe these phenomena as movement patterns, where one movement builds on another but where there is also change and refinement at each stage of development, similar to child development. In a state of health, control is exercised by the higher systems, while the lower layers appear to have vanished. After an injury, however, finding itself a state of emergency, the nervous system resorts to the lower system – it regresses. There are many examples of this. And so too here, it could be that the occurrence of “primitive” movement patterns is utilized to stimulate the motor learning process until they can be replaced again by more complex behavior.
A new standard work of the Feldenkrais literature
Does the book stand up to scientific scrutiny? No, certainly not in every sentence. Is there a coherent scientific explanation for the phenomena that Helga has gathered? I believe not. Does this detract from the book’s importance? Most certainly not!
For whom has the book been written? Well, first of all, of course, for us Feldenkrais practitioners. It provides us with material to use with clients with spinal cord injuries. But it contains far more than that: thoughts about the Feldenkrais work as a whole, examples of interacting with clients, rich documentation of one-on-one sessions, intentions, etc. Is it also a book for people “out there”? Absolutely! Helga is always telling the reader along the way what is happening in the sessions, what exactly she is doing and what her intentions are. She writes in such a way that outsiders can also understand what is going on in a one-on-one session. Is the book suitable for entering into a dialogue with scientists or professionals from other fields? Every bit! I know from my own experience how difficult it is to share our experiences with my fellow physicians. If I was challenged to choose a book that I would hand to them in order to win them over for the Method, it would be “The case of Nora” by Moshé or Helga’s book – with Helga’s book in the lead because it has videos. This book is very well suited for representing the Method in fields where it is unknown. Here, at last, we have something we can place on the table and say “OK, these are our experiences and this is how we work with them”.
Helga has documented her life’s work in this book. It is impressively rich, true to detail, lucid and multi-layered, stimulating in every way and, at the same time, immensely readable. The case descriptions are outstanding. With this book Helga has presented us with a new standard work of Feldenkrais literature.
The author: Dr. Thomas Hassa
Feldenkrais practitioner graduated from the 1996-1999 training in Nijmegen
Private Feldenkrais practice in Radolfzell on Lake Constance
Neurologist with more than 2 decades of professional experience in neurological rehabilitation; neuroscientific research on neglect, mirror neuron systems, fatigue, the motor system, motor learning, conversion paresis. Lecturer in the degree program on motor neurorehabilitation at the University of Constance.