After years of putting it off I finally decided to take the plunge and go hiking with a group of mates. For years I have avoided the invitations to go on hiking trips with them. There are multiple reasons I have swerved this call and chief amongst them is that I don‘t walk that well. In my early 20s I was given a shocking diagnosis that I had severe osteoarthritis in my two big toe joints. This news was delivered by a pompous consultant in a big London hospital and his actual words were, this is « the worst osteo-arthritis I have ever seen in someone so young. » He then guffawed in a supercilious kind of way as he delivered the news, I have never quite forgiven and it may well be the subject of another blog post.
A few weekends ago, however, I did accept the challenge to walk with my friends. It turned out to be very eventful.
From as long ago as I can recall, I have had what is technically known as Hallux Rigidis in both big toe joints. I could never figure out when I kicked a football, as a boy, why the ball might well fly off at an odd angle. It was because the stiff, swollen toe joints were already in place by my early teens. Having been a very fast runner at around the age 8 things seemed to deteriorate. I could see the lumps on the joints and we agreed that, maybe, I was developing bunions like my mother, but actually the Hallux Rigidis is much more debilitating. Bunions are nasty but usually the joint moves; they are unsightly but they move! It did not really impact my young life ( or so I thought) and I carried on being active, even developed a taste for gymnastics and particularly tumbling, which, when I look back on it, was an especially big challenge for someone whose big toe joints do not articulate!
For years they got painful quickly and I just accepted it as part of being me. By the time I was in my early 40s, I would baulk at walking anywhere! Running was totally out of the question. The knock-on effect of the arthritic toe joints was very poor alignment, which involved, by then, chronic low back pain, and a pronounced stoop. I would resist walking upstairs and would be in too much pain to contemplate a walk to local shops half a mile away. When I finally signed on for the professional Feldenkrais training in Lewes, I had NO IDEA that it would solve my walking and pain issues. It seems SO odd now; because I really did know quite a lot about Feldenkrais Method, and had seen videos of Moshe Feldenkrais working with people with severe cerebral palsy, for instance, but had, I repeat, NO IDEA that it would have an effect on my pain. This is because the method is experiential. It can never be understood on a cerebral level. It has be to be experienced, and preferably over an extended period. The first year, in fact, was often too painful for me to engage properly in the lessons. I was often miserable or frustrated.
After a year of the training, through quite a lot of out-of-school investigation, I happened upon something which felt to me, even as an experienced movement teacher that I could, in fact, move, or rotate my pelvis while I walked. It was like a bolt of lighting from the sky. At one point, I asked a fellow student to come outside with me and put her hands on my hips as I walked and to feel whether they were moving or not. It was all THAT unclear to me. The trauma of walking in pain for so many years had dulled my perception to such a degree that I simply had NO IDEA of what I was doing. That moment was the big change. Within a year, I had a dog and was walking him regularly. With in 2 years, and I can remember it like it was yesterday, I walked twice round quite a small park in Oxford with NO PAIN in my back. The feeling was like I had been blessed. I felt that I was being given my life back. The feet were also clearing up too. I had no idea why or how; but I do now and will share before too long.
Sometimes I feel, that being a Feldenkrais practitioner who teaches smart ways to move and to perform better, I have to be brilliant. At everything. Sometimes, also, other people think, when they know what I teach and practice, that I should be good at things. It's a slightly self-perpetuating circle. I learn lots about the power of awareness though movement, and I rave about it. I teach it and those who come regularly to lessons KNOW how good it is because they FEEL it in their bones and their lives start to change for the better. Others, friends included, have a mildly expectant attitude towards my ability in various quarters. I have two responses. One is actually to live what I teach and attempt to improve and progress in as many areas as I can, from swimming to cooking, to speaking, to canoeing, and of course, walking and the other is to stay within myself and know that my own sense of expanding ability and ease will be with me, especially if I practice regularly, for ever and that, in it's own way, it will find it's way into other people's lives when and if it is appropriate.
This brings me to the Snowdon weekend. Since I am so unused to this kind of caper, I had failed to prepare well. I struggled to find the jacket I wore skiing a couple of years back, never found the walking boots that I had bought specially (I have recently moved house) and I lacked any of the basic accoutrements, gloves, flask, walking sticks. On a side note, I had joked with my friends before the trip that if we were on Snowdon we might need crampons. It appeared to just be a joke until we found ourselves without a choice as to whether to go for the summit or not. See below!
We really needed crampons! In fact, the chap on his bum is Ed Butler, an old friend who had swapped boots with me earlier down the mountain because mine were not supportive in the ankle. Ed was extremely gallant and had a horrible time scrambling though the frozen stuff without any grip or support from his boots!
I am not perfect; far from it. Sometimes, though, because I give out so much advice (and people sometimes say, "wisdom") on things to do with movement, when it comes to moving, I should be good, and I am held to slightly higher standard than others but the truth is that we are all, ultimately, measured only against ourselves and whilst I am not used to walking up mountains, just the fact that I was, even with all the the wrong kit, felt like something of a triumph. I am not as fit as I would like to be. I am carrying more weight than I would like to be AND, although, I can live my ordinary life of work and play, without pain, in extraordinary circumstance, the pain will revisit! Old muscular patterns will be given a chance to re-establish. Because, Feldenkrais or no Feldenkrais, my feet are still arthritic and stiff. It's just that the rest of me has" improved" so much that the feet are included in a generally more easy and less painful "organisation". One of the upshots of tricky feet is that I am prone to sprain my ankle and rolling over on it. I did that at the beginning of the walk. I thought nothing of it an got on with lecturing my walking buddy, of that stage, about awareness techniques! But half way up the mountain my lack of fitness, lack of practice at climbing and dodgy feet all conspired to almost fling me down the slope careering into a couple of men who only just managed to stay upright! It was embarrassing.
To cut a tortuous story short, we managed to reach the summit and had a very quick sandwich and gulp of flask coffee before making a bit of a mess of getting down again. I was shattered by the time we got down and my back was hurting alot. One thing I learned is that I have a strategy now, from Feldenkrais, to ease back pain that really works; every time. I am not a back clicker or osteopath but of course, people do come to me with bad backs and on the whole I can help them. It is partly because I know how to manage my own pain that I can help others with theirs. I learned that chronic pain rarely completely disappears; it seems to lie somewhat latent and that I need to remain vigilant and onto of my awareness work to keep things working smoothly. I learnt that I am on a journey; I am not great at everything and the mark any success that I may have is to respond to difficult situations with humour and resolve. I have learnt that I need to be fit; or at least fitter. Awareness Through Movement can lead to complacency because it really does help you to feel so good, but I actually need to get back in the pool and also lose some weight too. I am planning to expand my kettlebell practice and hope to be able to report back on progress before too long. Last of all I learnt that you have to attend to the simple things! Preparation is key; I should have got the right kit to go on a mountain; "if I am going to spend 6 hours chopping down a tree then I will spend the first hour sharpening the axe" someone wise once said.
I practice the one to one form of Feldenkrais Method we call Functional Integration in Charlbury, where I live, Oxford where I used to live and London where I lived before. This is primarily for people with chronic pain, or neurological impairment of some sort ( although it can be highly effective in performance-boosting). I also teach classes in all the above places. They are called Awareness Through Movement lessons and are designed to be part of a lifestyle which seeks to find more ease and joy in everyday activities and more specialised function, including sport, dance, music and theatre.