Ira Feinstein: How did you become interested in exploring how the Feldenkrais Method® can help those living with neuropathy?
Becci Parsons: I’m a Feldenkrais® practitioner living with neuropathy.
Over the course of my active life, I've had a number of disc injuries. My original disc herniation was in 1992, a year after I became a Feldenkrais practitioner. I managed pretty well for a few years, largely because of what I learned during my professional Feldenkrais training. When my disc fragmented and the fragments traveled and compressed my spine nerve root, which innervated my foot, surgery became a necessity.
After my first spine surgery in 1997, I had partial foot drop and a little bit of numbness. My balance on my right side was terrible. If I caught my heel on a rock or uneven surface, I fell. As a former professional dancer, this was pretty devastating to me. I used to be able to, jump, turn on a dime and point my foot, but after that injury and surgery, I had muscle weakness and loss of motor control. I was aware that it was neuropathy, but it wasn't too horrible.
IF: You mentioned that your first spinal surgery was in 97. How many have there been?
BP: Two—the second surgery, in 2013, was to repair a herniated disc above the original surgery site. Afterward, the neuropathy was severe. I had a more pronounced foot drop, as well as increased numbness, and tingling. For a few months, I wasn’t able to drive. My skin was hyper-sensitive to the point that I couldn't stand to wear socks and shoes. I wore Ugg slippers everywhere. As my nerve began to heal and I could function well enough to drive, I realized that I needed to step up my game and began to work with myself as I would with any client in my predicament.
IF: How do you think that the Feldenkrais Method uniquely benefits those with neuropathy?
BP: The Feldenkrais Method has long been viewed as a resource for folks who are dealing with neurological issues affecting sensation and movement. We have an amazing track record for helping people with Parkinsons’s Disease, brain injury or developmental difficulties. Neuropathy is right up our alley.
We understand that the nervous system has a biological imperative to be changeable, adaptable and malleable to ensure our survival. The brain can literally change its structure and function in relation to those needs. Anytime we learn or experience something new, we’re working with that process of neuroplasticity.
Damaged nerves, whether from chemotherapy or structural injury heal slowly. The good news is that something interesting happens when we use movement to improve and build on lost movement abilities. The nervous system is beautifully redundant. Take the act of balancing. Our balancing capacities are rooted in our ability to sense the ground via proprioceptors in our joints and soft tissues. There's also a part of balancing that has to do with the eyes and the inner ear. Each of these complex avenues for coordination, become active pathways for learning and improvement, especially when we challenge them to work together in novel ways.
IF: What did you do to recover?
BP: I used rollers and balls to challenge my balance, which also miraculously decreased my skin sensitivity. I explored a variety of standing Awareness Through Movement® lessons that focused on clarifying the connection between my feet, ankles, knees, and hips. I spent many hours engaged in a slow-motion exploration of ‘walking the wall’ with my eyes open and closed.
My tai chi class was also extremely helpful. The slow-motion weight shifting from two feet to one to balancing is built in. It’s an aesthetically pleasing and satisfying way to dance through many ‘mindful’ repetitions of challenging movements.
IF: Were you able to make a full recovery?
BP: I want to say that I’ve fully recovered, but that isn’t exactly the right term. It’s more like my neuropathy is in remission and I have to keep up with my movement explorations to sustain my gains and continue to improve. I still have nerve damage. I have structural and functional damage to a noticeable degree. I work, I walk and do light exercise but if you asked me to point my right foot it’s clumsy and imprecise. I experience hypersensitivity if I'm getting into a hot tub or walking barefoot on the patio. However, I can now wear socks and tennis shoes, and even some of the cute boots that I used to wear. And while I think I have the biggest limp in the world because I know how I used to walk--most people don't see any limp at all.
IF: You now teach classes to others suffering from neuropathy and balance issues. What improvements have your students reported experiencing?
BP: One of the main things that I find myself doing is helping my students reframe their relationship to the ‘dead end’ of their diagnosis. A lot of the students who come to my class are entering the room in a state of hopelessness. They frequently report, “I tried the medication for neuropathy, but couldn’t tolerate the side effects. My doctor said there was nothing else I could do.” Feldenkrais practitioners work with the person, not their diagnosis, which means we aren’t limited by other’s definitions of what’s possible. Once I set the tone, describe neuroplasticity and speak about my previous limitations, I find that the students are excited to dive in and play with the movement.
A majority, if not all, of the students empirically notice an improvement in their ability to balance and shift their weight (as in walking). I make sure to point out that their improvement—no matter how minor--means their nervous system is thriving on the new information and that more improvement is possible. However, a person can't take a class for four weeks and go, “Cool, I'm healed.” They have to create and commit to their own lifelong neuropathy program. Many are motivated to do a little something from class every day and appreciate the difference it makes.
IF: What might a lifelong program look like?
BP: Continually strengthening one’s neural pathways. This could be as simple as playfully balancing on your roller for five or ten minutes a day. Or practicing weight shifting while waiting for the kettle to boil. The key is consistency—consistently using the tools from class and consistently paying attention to the tiny movements that are a part of everyday actions. I had one student ask me if she could use her roller while watching TV. I told her what makes this work so potent is that it asks us to focus deeply on sensations that often fly below the radar of our perception, so while she could technically use her roller while watching “Jerry Springer,” she wasn’t going to get as much bang for her buck if she took that route!
IF: For those interested in learning more, what’s a good place to start?
BP: They can try this short roller lesson.
Becci Parsons is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm (1991) and dancer with over 40 years of experience in the movement arts. In addition to her private practice in Seattle, she leads study groups and mentoring programs for local practitioners and serves as a part-time faculty in the Dance Department at Cornish College of the Arts. Find out more at www.becciparsons.com or email Becci directly at email@example.com.