Walking and Feldenkrais

Are you one of the one in three women and one in five men who suffer from depression? If so, Feldenkrais and our own Repatterning Movement exercises may have some hidden benefits, because they are powerful mood lifters.

As a Feldenkrais Practitioner and psychotherapist, I continue to be amazed at how much more optimistic and at peace with themselves people feel after even a few minutes of hands-on work or Awareness Through Movement. For this reason ATMs are included in our international Uplift Program, which has a 94% success rate in lifting mood (based on follow-up questionnaires) and in our new book,Creating Optimism: A Proven, 7-Step Program for Overcoming Depression (McGraw-Hill, 20004).

Another great benefit of Feldenkrais is that it enables you to get the most from what medical researchers are now touting as a vital part of any treatment program for depression-walking. James Blumenthal, PhD of Duke University, says that a brisk 30-minute walk around the athletic track three times a week may be just as effective in relieving the symptoms of major depression as a standard treatment of anti-depressant medications.

But when you’re depressed, walking or any movement often becomes more difficult. Depression actually slows down the brain, and that is reflected in lethargy and slow, sometimes even difficult movement. I suffered from depression for many years, and my husband Bob, who is a psychologist, said he could accurately gauge my mood from the speed of my gait. The lower my mood, the slower my movment. I remember it used to feel as if someone had dialed up the gravity level. Now I see the same phenomenon in my clients.

In addition, depression (and its flip side, anxiety) often shows up as physical pain in a process called “somatization” (from the Greek “soma,” or body). This can take the form of fibromyalgia, back and neck pain, and even heart disease and osteoperosis. Also, moving stiffly and without awareness can cause injuries. Unfortunately, the same circumstances that mostly cause depression–childhood trauma and fear of abandonment–also cause us to hold ourselves rigidly and defensively, and even sometimes to feel we deserve pain.

Here’s where Feldenkrais–or Feldenkrais-like exercises–can be a virtual life-saver, as it helps you to discover new pain-free options for moving with ease and even pleasure, without pressure or the fear of failure (which can be a real downer!) Specifically, look for Awareness Through Movement Exercises (ATMs) that bring your awareness to your pelvis and shoulders and how both interact as you walk. My own Repatterning Movement Exercises (RPMs), which are designed to have added emotional benefits are ideal.

One of the most powerful discoveries I made about walking as a result of Feldenkrais was that looking around me (and hence rotating the head freely) made walking more functional. Since my parents were angry, unpredictable people who kept secrets, I was used to walking with my head fixed in a forward (don’t look!) and down (submissive) position. Thus the very circumstances that helped cause the depression in the first place also set up neuromuscular patterns that impeded my walking, and my recovery.

Research shows that criminals target people who walk slowly and stiffly with their head down and don’t look around them as victims. Now that I make a conscious effort to look around me as I walk not only is my balance better, but I’m actually safer.

One final tip: In Creating Optimism we suggest that people walk in nature, even if only a park, at least four times a week. We also suggest that they do our walking ATM (but any ATM that addresses free movement of the pelvis will do) so that they can be more aware of how they walk most comfortably and well. It’s a good idea to keep a log of your walks, even if only for a few weeks, in which you record what you notice each day that is particularly compelling or new. This includes new ways of moving. It could also include the scent of jasmine in spring, the crunch of frost beneath your feet in the early morning or the sound of birds above your head. This encourages you to direct your awareness outside yourself, enhancing your sense of connectedness to the world around you-another powerful antidepressant.

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