Improve your posture and performance in and out of the saddle with the Feldenkrais Method.
“But it’s my horse who has the back problem, not me!” Sandy complained as I led her to a scuffed chair in the barn aisle. After she agreed to humor me by sitting down, I asked her to notice how her seat bones felt against the flat-bottomed chair.
“I feel perfectly even,” Sandy said, even as I could plainly see she was putting more weight on her left seat bone. Sandy habitually held the right side of her pelvis higher than her left, giving her the appearance of a “collapsed hip” and causing her to throw more weight onto her left seat bone. No wonder her horse’s back was sore and he had difficulty bending!
Discovering your Asymmetries
But it all felt perfectly normal to Sandy, who had probably been sitting like that for several years. So I asked her to slide her hands under her seat bones. “Ouch!” she exclaimed, as she pulled her hands free. “My left hand was really getting squished!” Then the light bulb went on. “Oh, I get it now,” Sandy continued. “That must be what my horse feels when I’m riding him. No wonder his back is sore and tight! I feel terrible. I never realized how unbalanced I was.”
It wasn’t surprising that Sandy didn’t feel her own crookedness, since the nervous system often adjusts to a feeling that is habitual, even if it’s asymmetrical. Sitting heavier on one side, as Sandy was doing, is a very common problem. It often goes unnoticed by the rider – but not by her horse, who is forced to compensate for the unbalanced load.
Now that Sandy knew she was sitting crooked, she immediately tried to straighten herself out. She thought that stretching out her right side might help, but it did not change her long-standing habit. It merely caused tension and imbalances in other parts of her body. Instead, I suggested to Sandy that she use the Feldenkrais Method to discover healthier ways to move and sit. Doing so would improve her posture and effectiveness in the saddle and allow her horse to move freely. Enhancing the flexibility of her spine could also help 32-year-old Sandy avoid back problems of her own.
The Feldenkrais Method is named after its originator, Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais (1904–1984), a Russian born physicist, mechanical engineer, judo expert and teacher. It uses gentle movement and directed attention to teach people how to stop interfering with themselves. Years of sitting behind a desk, driving a car, dealing with stress and nursing old injuries often leads to the development of unhealthy and restrictive movement patterns that overuse parts of the body and lead to pain and stiffness. These habitual patterns become so ingrained that they are lost from our awareness. The restrictions feel familiar and thus seem “normal”. We no longer realize we have the potential to be flexible, coordinated and graceful. The freedom of movement we had as children seems a distant memory. Feldenkrais can help you recover it.
What is unusual about the Feldenkrais Method is that it does not attempt to correct or manipulate. Rather, it encourages exploration and curiosity. By honing their attention with the non-habitual movements of a Feldenkrais lesson, equestrians develop body awareness and coordination. This sensory learning approach contrasts with making postural changes through force of will. The familiar refrains of “sit up straight, pull your shoulders back, sit evenly,” and so on often fall short of their goal as they usually create tension and instability in the rider. Not to mention the discomfort and disconnection they cause for the horse.
Help for Equestrians
When equestrians improve their body awareness through the Feldenkrais Method, they are better able to feel their horses’ movements too. This skill improves a rider’s timing and coordination, and helps develop the often-elusive horseman’s “feel”. As a rider gains independent use of each hip, seat bone, leg, shoulder and hand, she can match her actions with her intentions, resulting in a more pleasant experience for horse and rider. Balance improves, confidence soars and riding becomes a true pleasure.
Although I also work with riders in the saddle, I generally start by working off the horse. With Sandy, for example, I had her remain sitting in the chair while I led her through a Feldenkrais® Awareness Through Movement® lesson that has helped many equestrians learn how to be balanced over their seat bones. This lesson can also help improve posture while it relieves back and neck pain caused by tight, tense muscles. Enhancing the rider’s flexibility and balance helps the horse move freely as well!
Feldenkrais® Method Basics
• Let comfort be your guide.
Move only as much as is easy and comfortable for you. Pain interferes with learning and can create tension and other unhealthy movement habits. Think “no pain, more gain”!
• Small, slow movements equal big improvements.
Gentle movements done with attention allow you to feel more than large or fast ones do. The more you feel, the more your brain will be able to create new neural connections, resulting in easier, more efficient movement.
• Attend to your breathing.
It is very common for people to hold their breath when they are doing something unusual or challenging. Do you have a habit of holding your breath? Allow yourself to breathe in an easy, relaxed way.
• Embrace novelty.
Moving non-habitually can stimulate flexible bodies and minds. Each time you do a Feldenkrais movement, change something about how you do it. Find ways to reduce tension around your eyes, jaws, fingers and toes, for example. Where else can you let go of tension? How can the movement be easier and more pleasant? Bring novelty and ease into your everyday life as well. Do you habitually saddle your horse from one side? Can you use your manure fork in a different way? Try using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth, comb your hair and stir your food.
• Use your imagination.
Did you know that when you imagine doing something, you use many of the same parts of your brain as when you actually do it? Use your senses when you imagine moving and you’ll gain many (and sometimes more!) of the benefits you would as if you were actually moving. This is especially important when pain, disability or your environment prevent you from moving. Imagine your movement as easy and elegant.
There are several ways you can access the benefits of the Feldenkrais Method®.
• Visit Feldenkrais.com to locate a certified practitioner in your area.
• Private Functional Integration® sessions: Scheduling private sessions with a Feldenkrais practitioner is a wonderful way to address individual challenges. Sessions are held in an office setting and are often done lying down or sitting on a padded table. Wear comfortable clothes that you can move in, such as yoga pants.
• Awareness Through Movement® classes: Also referred to as ATM® Classes, these classes for the general public are an economical option. You can also get a group of your riding buddies together and ask your local practitioner to see if he or she would like to offer a class for equestrians.
• Educational products at home: Audio and video products are available that allow you to experience the benefits of the Feldenkrais Method® in your own home.
Mary Debono is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm and the creator of the SENSE Methodsm for animals. A lifelong horsewoman based in Encinitas, California, Mary travels internationally to improve the performance and well-being of horses and humans. Feldenkrais®, Feldenkrais Method®, Functional Integration®, Awareness Through Movement® and ATM® are registered service marks of the Feldenkrais Guild of North America. Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm is a registered certification mark of the FGNA. SENSE Method is a service mark of Mary Debono. For more information and educational products, visit SENSEmethod.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 858.842.4006.