Volunteering at the Richmond VA: Mary Hobbs Helps Vets Explore Movement
Ira Feinstein: Can you tell us about what you led you to become a Feldenkrais® practitioner?
Mary Hobbs: I had hip replacement surgery at age 48. Afterward, I was not walking as well as I wanted to, so I started going to see Nancy Dawe. We ended up working together years. When I got into retirement, she suggested I take a training with the words, "It will change your life." How could I say no to that? I started training at age 62. I completed my training in 2016.
IF: What does your practice look like?
MH: I’ve been a teacher my whole professional life—it’s in my blood, so I especially love teaching ATM® classes. I’m part of a group of volunteer practitioners who’ve been teaching a Feldenkrais class at the Shepard's Center, which is a center for senior citizens and that's been going on for over 20 years.
IF: That is the longest running class I've heard of!
MH: It’s been able to run for so long because local practitioners rotate who teaches. There's a very collegial group in Richmond. We get together once a month for dinner and a lesson. We’ll explore the lesson, eat, and talk about our practices. It is a safe place to discuss challenging sessions and solicit feedback.
IF: It’s my understanding that you’ve also been teaching classes at your local VA Hospital. How did that come about?
MH: About a year and a half ago, I was looking for new opportunities to teach. I know firsthand how beneficial the Feldenkrais Method® is for arthritic pain, so discovering new avenues for connecting with people struggling with that sort of pain were at the top of my list. I ended up speaking with a neighbor who works at the VA about my what I was looking for and she connected me with Dr. Timothy Hudson, who runs the pain center at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center-Richmond.
Dr. Hudson was interested and invited me to attend a staff meeting. When I explained the Feldenkrais Method and its potential benefits to veterans, they were impressed. I thought it was full steam ahead from that point on, but that was just the beginning of the wheels starting to turn-- and oh, do they turn slowly.
IF: During that initial staff meeting, did you have to provide research to prove the legitimacy of the Method?
MH: I didn’t provide research. Instead, I told them about how much the Feldenkrais Method has benefited me. I talked about my “Advil lesson,” which I do when I'm hurting and tight and sore and how when I’m done, I feel like I’ve taken two Advil and they got it. I really expected a lot of hard questions from them, but the only question that threw me at first was when one of the medical professionals asked if I’ve ever dealt with phantom limb pain? My answer was no, but then I went on to tell them about how Feldenkrais practitioners work with the side of the body that moves the easiest, the shoulder, the hip, the leg, whatever. We start with the easy and make it easier. And then I talked about how that movement experience transfers through the brain to the other side.
IF: I’m kind of surprised that the VA, which I think of as conservative when it comes to wellness, would be so open to the Method.
MH: The pain center is a more inventive group. They employ less traditional methods of handling chronic pain, such as acupuncture. In other words, they're all a little bit off the main track anyway, even though they have standard medical training too. I think it was just the right place for me to land and they've been very kind and supportive.
IF: What was the path from that initial staff meeting to teaching?
MH: It started with a request for referrals and references followed by a physical. They drew more blood than I knew I had. Next was getting Hepatitis B shots. Then, I had to go online to fill out my background information, which started from the day I graduated from college, in 1971. They took my fingerprints and sent them to Quantico. Just when I thought I was done, they requested more references. The entire process took eight months. And then I started going to the VA on Wednesday mornings as a volunteer.
IF: All that just to volunteer?
MH: Yes. And I couldn't do any FI® work, just ATM® lessons.
IF: Have people been attending the classes?
MH: One of the challenges I’ve had is that when people are in the VA system, they depend on reminders and scheduling to keep up with all of their different appointments. Since I’m not a paid staff member, I'm considered “WOC”-- without compensation, the vets receive no reminders about upcoming classes. I believe that has kept the numbers of attendees low.
Right now, almost all the attendees are people who attend a fibromyalgia support group that meets right after my class. Initially, I was teaching an hour lesson, but when I realized that my students were immediately going into a meeting afterward, I shortened it to a 30 or 40-minute lesson and then gave them quiet time afterward, which has worked nicely.
IF: What differences have you noticed between working with veterans, as compared to the general populace?
MH: The most marketable difference is how compromised their nervous systems are. I remember introducing a simple lesson where you sit at the table in a flat chair and slide one hand forward on the table and you bring it back and then you take that hand to the right and then you take that hand to the left. I was looking for all kinds of softening of the ribs and back and shoulders and neck. I hadn’t been there but two or three times and the ladies I was working with that day slid their hand three inches on the table and stopped.
I thought, “How can this be that hard?” And then I stopped myself and said, “You're not in their bodies and you don't have their nervous system; take whatever you can get.”
So, I backed up and said, “That's really nice. Can you go a little to the right? Can you go a little to the left?” And we just did it so much slower and so much smaller than I would have ever expected. But the small movements, the gentleness of dealing with yourself: I really see some healing.
IF: That's beautiful. Thanks for bringing the Method to those who need it.
MH: I just feel like this work can make such a difference. These people have served us; they deserve this help.
Mary Frances Hobbs, GCFP, graduated from the Baltimore Feldenkrais Center in 2016. Frances was employed as a chemistry teacher for thirty-three years in the Richmond area. She brings her teaching experience and enthusiasm for the Feldenkrais Method to her classes that are open to all. She has worked with clients who are recovering from broken bones, surgeries, damaged vertebrae, arthritis, and automobile accidents. She also partners with parents to work with children who have special needs.
Her own path to the Feldenkrais Method came after much pain and finally hip surgery almost twenty years ago. After retiring from teaching she realized that the good advice she had been given to attend the four-year training might help her age gracefully and deal with ongoing arthritis pain. Not only has that happened, she's now able to play on the floor with her grandchildren and help others to follow their own curiosity to find a way to "Move In Ease."