Bicycling and the Pleasure Principle
An Interview with Michael Wolk, GCFP
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
by: Jeff Kerr

Section: Athletes

Michael Wolk is a practitioner in Portland, Oregon, who enjoys combining his love of bicycling with teaching the Feldenkrais Method®. He graduated from the Vancouver, Canada training in 1997, and has been a Physical Therapist for over 20 years.

JK: When did you first hear about Feldenkrais® and what was your first experience with the Feldenkrais Method?

MW: I knew nothing about it! (laughs) I was working as a PT in rehab settings – strokes, spinal chord injuries, amputations, etc. I was hungry and restless because I felt like what I was doing wasn’t enough, that there was something I was missing.

I was exploring a lot of options and I heard about a 2-day workshop with Frank Wildman, who was preparing for his Portland training (this was back in 1991 or ‘92). We didn’t talk at all in class at first, we just lay down and started doing an Awareness Through Movement® lesson. After the lesson, I stood up, and I said to myself, “I have to unlearn everything that I’ve ever learned, to learn how to do this stuff.” And I just sort of stood there dazed and Frank walked by. I said that to him and he said, “That’s exactly right.” So for me, that was in and of itself intriguing enough to follow up.

JK: The Feldenkrais Method, then, works with people’s habits, unlearning poor habits?

MW: Well, there are certain adages that really ring true and one of them is that “as soon as you’re aware of something, it changes.” So, my intention in working with people is not necessarily to change habits, it’s to help them become aware of what their habits are and a number of options for change. In many cases, that’s all that’s really needed, with people who are curious.

It’s all about the chaos theory- if you make a small change in a large system, it can result in large and/or unpredictable changes in that system. Because I work alone, work out of my house, and because I don’t work with doctors, everyone I see comes to me via word of mouth. Many of these people have experienced other treatments, other therapies that didn’t work. So when they come here, some people are hungry to learn. It’s sort of self-selecting that by the time they make it here, they’re often willing to learn what it is they can do to help themselves. When they become more aware of what they’re doing and how it affects them, often times they “self-adjust” or the change takes place spontaneously in themselves. I can add this, I can suggest that, I can add something else, sometimes relatively small things- and they’re prepared for it, and run with it, in ways that I wouldn’t be able to predict.

JK: When did you first start focusing on bicycle riding in your practice?

MW: I started bicycling because I was born with severe congenital hip dysplaysia and contracted suppurative arthritis when I was seven. So, I’m missing significant ranges of motion, especially my elbows and hips. For me, bicycling fit my dysfunction perfectly, although I have other sport activities. I started riding a lot after age seven, to spare my hips, and I’ve been an avid bicyclist since then. When I say avid, I don’t mean guys with the two thousand dollar bikes and all the fancy clothing. I just like riding a bike. To me, bicycling is meditation in motion and a restful way to get exercise. I ride about 70 miles a week, rain or shine.

I feel most at home on two wheels, so for me, bicycling has always been about pleasure and about joy and about calm. It’s hard to remain calm when you are riding in the city sometimes, but I know some ways that make it easier.

From the beginning, I’ve always had my bicycles adjusted differently than the “correct” way, because I wanted to be comfortable. If you’re going to do something because you love to do it, you might as well be comfortable doing it. For me, it wasn’t a passion, where I tried to get everybody to listen and change to my parameters.

I never intended to be a bicycle specialist and I’m still not a bicycle specialist. I just wanted to be comfortable on my bicycle. Over time, I became better and better at choosing equipment and adjusting for myself; then I would see clients and friends and they would tell me they were having trouble with their bicycles. So, I would spend time with them making a few adjustments and they would say, “This is like a different bicycle; I feel great!” Then I became even more interested in the variety of frames and components available for my bikes and then the equipment on other people’s bikes and the next thing you know, it became a part of my regular practice.

JK: So what does the Feldenkrais Method contribute to bicycle riding?

MW: The principles are very, very simple. When I’m working with someone and they want to be more comfortable on their bicycle, I’m using two fairly specific criteria for when the person can know that the bicycle fits them as well as it can. One: the quality of breath. Two: how far can you look ahead, around and behind you? 

If you have difficulty breathing, that mimics the feeling of anxiety or fear. If you get on the bike and you start out having difficulty breathing and thus a feeling anxiety or fear, then chances are the pleasure quotient is going to be pretty low. If you get on the bike and you can’t look ahead, on either side or behind you without hurting your neck, you’re not going to want to look and that’s going to make you feel less safe. And if you feel less safe, you’re going to be more anxious. And if you’re more anxious, you’re not going to feel joy in riding your bike.

These are the two main criteria and from that point, we can work on handlebar configurations; we can work on the tilt and the type of seat that you use; we can work on whether the crank is long enough or short enough; whether the frame is appropriate for you, and then you can work with that or you can change it. So, in a sense, there’s a lot of variability in how you fit a bike. But if you start with those two criteria- how easy is it to breathe, how easy to turn and look around you- and get to the point where you’re really happy with how you’re functioning, chances are riding a bicycle is going to be a real pleasure, you’re going to be and feel safer and you’re going to ride more often.

JK: Is there a common situation where someone comes in, complaining of something? I know that I feel, and other people also, have issues with the neck. The neck is hurting or you’re feeling like you have to crink your neck to look the way you want to look?

MW: A lot of times, that’s an issue with the position and the tilt of the seat, and the type of handlebars that you’re using. Maybe the handlebars are not appropriately sized or shaped to your advantage or the position your hands on the bars are in when you’re riding inhibits motion in your ribs and thoracic spine, so when you turn your head, there’s no integration between the base of your skull and your pelvis and hips. The way you use your arms and the way your back is positioned, if that interferes with your ability to integrate turning the neck all the way down to the pelvis, then your neck is doing too much work and you will hurt.

Try this yourself: lift your arms in front of you, with straight elbows, below shoulder level and turn your arms so your thumbs face each other, then pay attention to your quality of breath and range and comfort looking to the side and behind you. Now, turn your arms so your thumbs face upward and repeat the same evaluation of your breath and range. Almost everyone I’ve seen will immediately sense a dramatic difference between the two. So, when you’re heading downhill on dirt tracks, thumbs pointing towards each other is a good position to absorb impacts, but it makes it more difficult to breathe pedaling uphill. That’s why most mountain bikes have add-on perpendicular bar ends, to allow the riders to position their arms “thumbs up”, and to breathe more deeply heading uphill. So, the mountain biker has two optimal choices for arm positions.

The road biker resting on the brake / shifters (known as “brifters”) starts out in the thumbs-up position, so breathing and looking is already advantageous. However, that position can get tiring, and the other available positions are either the same arm position at the bottom of the bars or thumbs pointing together on the top of the bars – neither of those choices are advantageous to the recreational rider. And we all know what happens with only one or two choices!

So, some suggestions for better bars: If you want a more comfortable road bar, the Nitto Noodle bar is the best I’ve seen and has a great reputation for comfort.

If you are a city/commuter biker, try the Moustache bar (my fave - it’s on my road, city, and mountain bike, and allows for 4-5 hand positions), and Albatross bar, both made by Nitto; and the “Moose Horn” touring bars, with 3-4 different hand placements.

Also, adjustments in the positions of the shifters and brakes on the handlebars, as well as the height and length of the stem will make a big difference. Experiment!

JK: You did physical therapy for ten years before you trained as a Feldenkrais practitioner. What are some of the differences between an approach a PT might take and a Feldenkrais approach?

MW: To me, the gross lesson of what the Feldenkrais Method is and specifically when we’re talking about the bicycle stuff, is the difference between expertise and being an expert. To me, the Feldenkrais Method helps you become your own inner-expert, so that no matter what an “expert” tells you is right or wrong, bad or good, correct or incorrect: you judge what’s best for yourself, because you’re the expert. There are genetic, accidental, congenital, cultural, familial and so many differences between so many people that “correct” becomes a destructive rather than a constructive word.

In a conventional physical therapy sense, there’s correct and there’s incorrect. If you have this much flexibility then you’re good, but if you have that much flexibility then you’re bad. I see people, like myself, who have limited flexibility, who rarely hurt - and I see people who are really, really flexible, who are always in pain. So, which is correct?!?

To me, the whole essence of conventional physical therapy is documentable range of motion, strength and correctness of body mechanics, versus learning how to be comfortable in your own skin – that’s something that conventional medicine can’t document and really hasn’t been able to get a grasp on.

JK: In a Feldenkrais lesson, you’re trying to provide an environment in which learning can take place? In other words, you’re trying to provide a basic environment so that they can figure out what works for them and they can learn in that environment?

MW: I think that’s a secondary part of it. The primary part is that I try to help people to gain the confidence to know or figure out, what’s right for themselves- to become their own expert. If they learn how to pay attention to themselves, they can eventually find a way to be comfortable in their own skin. Then, learning not only becomes easier, but is eagerly sought out.

If someone has difficulties figuring something out, then someone like me, with my experience and expertise, can help them figure it out. But really, it’s saying, “you can do this, you can figure this out: you know what’s right for you: I can help you along, but you’re the person who’s in charge.”

Contact Michael at:

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