Ellen O’Farrell is a teacher, helping people by hosting classes in yoga, dance, chair-based movement classes for the elderly, and teaching the Feldenkrais Method.
She has always been interested in movement, practicing dance and gymnastics in her earlier years. It was in the 1980s that she first got interested in yoga. Then, after suffering with back pain, she stumbled onto the Feldenkrais Method.
Now, whether one-on-one or in a group setting, she’s helping others find relief from pain.
Overview: Relieving Pain Through the Feldenkrais Method
If you haven’t heard of this method, you’re not alone. Before talking with Ellen, I hadn’t heard about it either. Upon my admission of ignorance, Ellen chuckled and shared that most often when she shares about it, people typically respond…
Although it hasn’t reached the same level of prominence as other movement methods, the effectiveness of it is hard to ignore. Essentially, the Feldenkrais Method approaches both physical and mental aspects to explore body movement patterns with awareness.
You see, the brain has an innate capacity to learn. It’s easy to think learning stops after primary school or university, but that’s far from the truth. Our mind has the potential for lifelong development and growth.
This movement method is all about identifying and understanding our patterns, then learning and acquiring alternatives to relieve pain, increase well-being and live a life of ease.
Feldenkrais applies to a wide range of situations, including:
- Relieving Pain
- Improving Neurologically-Based Difficulties
- Strengthening Those With Learning Disabilities
- Increasing Overall Mobility
- Enhancing Athletic Performance
As a student of Feldenkrais, you’ll learn how to change your life for the better. It’s not about where you start, but how you move forward that matters.
Working With Emotional Signatures
Everything we do leaves a signature on our body – even the emotions we encounter. Ellen explains this quite well,
Emotional states are not something that can happen separate from our body… When we’re angry, our heart rate is higher, our blood pressure is higher. There are all these things that are very measurable, but are all tied into our emotional state.
Regardless of what we’re feeling, all emotional states start to leave their signature. This could be something as simple as anger, or even more complex states like chronic depression or anxiety. Over time, our bodies conform to the signature we’re leaving.
Ellen has seen this quite a bit. She shared a bit with me about the specific signatures of depression and anxiety:
Depression has quite a curled up, introverted sort of signature. Rolled in shoulders, flat chest cage. It affects our breathing and how we hold our posture.
People that are very tense and anxious, there is a bodily state that reacts to that. Tends to be hunched shoulders, a tense neck and slightly furrowed brow.
All of these sort of things have a physical signature about it. What Ellen finds so interesting (and so do I) is that you can work with these signatures at that very physical level.
Opening Up Your Body and Mind
Life is all about opening up. And it’s easy to see how mindfulness practices encourage people to do that through movement. Yoga, for example, has various asanas that focus on opening your chest. This isn’t by accident. It’s to help us start to open up.
This logic isn’t limited to yoga, either.
Ellen shared how she’s seen people working with others that have had mild depression. Instead of medicating them for something so mild, they go through a simple exercise. She says,
There have been studies that have given people homework. The homework would be something simple, like counting chimneys or trying to notice the differences in tiles on rooftops. Then the patient is to report back what they saw in the next session.
One of the things this does is force people to get outside of the movement of depression by making people look up out of the introverted depression state. If you’re looking up at rooftops and chimneys, then your body has moved outside the typical depression signature (i.e. introverted, rolled in shoulders, looking down).
It’s all about breaking habits and getting outside those learned, negative movement patterns.
Practicing One-to-One, in a Group or at Home
What I really love about what Ellen shared regarding Feldenkrais, is that you can do it in a group setting or even from the comfort of your own home.
Feldenkrais is really unique because the same methods and formats work one-to-one and at a group level.
The need for ongoing, long-term help is one of the challenges for the people dealing with chronic pain. Because insurances often fail to cover this type of illness, people end up having to pay for the treatment themselves.
In many movement methods, you need one-on-one treatment to truly experience a pain relieving benefit. That type of out-of-pocket expense isn’t feasible for most on a permanent basis. So there’s something really powerful about being able to get the same thing from group as you would one-to-one using the Feldenkrais Method.
For those looking for help but who can’t afford classes or one-on-one, Ellen shared a really great online resource for this method. It’s a place called openatm.org. They have a completely free, shared repository of lessons. There are a few hundred lessons and free recordings covering a wide range of things, regardless of your level of movement.
Unlike yoga, it is possible to get started with this practice without input from a teacher. It’s a very safe movement practice that you can develop without worrying about injuring yourself.
A Closing Message from Ellen on Hope + Empowerment
In closing, I asked Ellen if there was anything else that she wanted to share. What she said inspired me, and I’m sure it will inspire all those suffering with chronic pain and illness:
The things that we think are fixed about ourselves, really aren’t. And although it may take some time, the things that we’ve learned can generally be unlearned. Things like depression, chronic shoulder pain, that twinge in your lower back, or any other number of illnesses…
They are not permanent features.
They are just how we find ourselves in the moment… Because of history, because of injury or patterns we got into. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be changed.
Start with finding a movement practice – even if you’re out in the middle of nowhere.
We oftenhave lives that are way too static. We simply don’t move enough. Nearly any embodied movement practice is going to be a good place to start and will help. Others outside of the Feldenkrais Method we’ve talked about today, include:
Any practice that encourages mindful movement is helpful.
For people that can’t get out to classes, there are plenty of online resources – both paid and free. These are things you can do at home, sitting on the chair, on the sofa or even flat on you back in bed. Regardless of your condition, there is always hope.
What a powerful message we should all heed!
I’d like to once again thank Ellen for taking the time to do this interview with me. She’s a wonderful person and it was a pleasure getting to learn more about the work she does.
If you’d like to learn more about the work she does, you can visit her website here.