Murphy, a Chow-Shepherd mix, a big bear of a dog, was found by the side of the expressway about eight years ago by a dear friend of mine. Murphy had a number of physical problems that my friend tended to, but while she noticed that he “was a little off” in his hind end, she didn’t feel it was anything serious and so didn’t address it at that time.
But this year, this old boy started falling going up the stairs. Then he started dragging his hind legs after long walks. Normally a very active dog, he stopped running altogether. He stopped wagging his beautiful curved tail, started carrying it down by his legs instead of proudly over his back.
Murphy had other issues as well—his sight and hearing weren’t as sharp as they had been, and he suffered a seizure. My friend spared no expense in caring for him, taking him to specialists, getting a diagnosis, following up with treatment. But no one seemed to be able to help Murphy with his hind end problem. The attitude seemed to be that this was just something that happens when big dogs get old.
After searching out options, my friend decided to try hydrotherapy. The theory was that swimming would help Murphy strengthen his back and hind end muscles, which would allow him to move more easily on dry land. I explained that movement is good, but if the movement isn’t correct, it can’t help the condition. In other words, exercising a body that is out of balance will not help put it into balance. My friend wanted to try it anyway. Murphy had three hydrotherapy sessions with a well-known and well-respected veterinarian; the sessions also included light therapy. His condition worsened.
When I saw Murphy a few weeks later—my friend had come to visit—he was not the active, happy dog I remembered. He seemed very old, very sad. My friend said she was not going to continue with the hydrotherapy and asked if I would work with Murphy, doing a series of neuro-muscular retraining sessions across distance. I agreed. But before she and Murphy left, I “played” with his body for about ten minutes. I showed him each foot, each toe, so he could feel a stronger base underneath him. I took his sternum in gentle circles. I put a tiny bit of pressure up through each seat bone. I sent gentle pressure up through his tail and along his spine. In short, I showed him the big bones of his body, his support system, and showed him how to use his feet.
When Murphy stood up, his tail was up over his back and wagging. His eyes were bright. We went outside for what was to be a quiet little walk, but he charged around, running in happy circles. I’ve continued working with Murphy (across distance) and he continues to be able to move with relative ease. If he runs too hard, he may be sore the next day, and he can’t take the very long walks he used to take, but his quality of life has greatly improved.
While the results often make it seem so, neuro-muscular retraining is not magic. It is soundly based on the principles of the Feldenkrais Method® of movement re-education for humans. The sessions are referred to as lessons, and the goal of each lesson is to teach the body to move with efficiency, grace, and power.
I know this work from the inside as well. I suffer from a mild case of scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, which used to often result in painful muscle contractions on the side of the curvature. My body was trying to protect itself from harm, but the contractions could last for months and were intensely painful. My body just didn’t know how to let go and rebalance. I tried many therapies, but nothing had a lasting effect.
I learned about The Feldenkrais Method® while training with a Feldenkrais practitioner who had developed a method for animals. (I trained for two years, and have been in practice for twelve). Because I came to this work after my inefficient movement patterns were solidly established, it took a bit of time to overcome them, but now I move with much more balance and ease, and rarely experience pain.
But a few weeks ago, I took a wicked fall from my mare. I landed on my right hip, but the terrific impact shot through my entire pelvic region. My pubic bone took such a hit, I was virtually unable to walk for days. I had to waddle like a duck—tipping sideways onto one leg, then the other. I could only extend a leg a few inches in front of me at a time.
I knew that walking like this was going to put unusual stress on other areas of my body, and that I would most likely need help rebalancing. Sure enough, after about a week of my duck walking, my left glute (the large muscle in the middle of each of the cheeks of your bottom) hardened into a cement-like block. I could poke it, pound on it, and not feel a thing. But its constant state of contraction made walking extremely difficult, even now that my pubic bone wasn’t nearly as painful. And the right side of my neck felt as though it had hot nails driven through it; the pain was like nothing I’d ever experienced.
I had a variety of treatment options, of course, but my experience with Feldenkrais indicated this was the best way to go. I did not want my body manually adjusted or pressure put on the sore areas. Some friends suggested I just needed to move around more, that exercise would help. But I know that exercising a body that was in a state of contraction would not help. I wanted my body to be reminded how to move more efficiently so that it would release the painfully contracted muscle and rebalance itself.
And this is exactly what a little over an hour with a Feldenkrais practitioner accomplished.
Some years ago, when I came back to horses as an adult, I rode in a large commercial barn with at least a dozen school horses. Often, the horses would begin the lessons “off,” and the instructors would tell their students to just make the horse “work through it.” The problem with this approach, although I didn’t know it at the time, was that the body most likely wasn’t solving the problem but was merely compensating for it, stressing other parts of the body. Do this repeatedly over time, and the body will break down.
All movement is not created equal. To be useful, to be healthful, to be a thing of beauty and grace, movement has to come from a position of balance, where each part of the body moves in fluid cooperation with every other part. Ignoring discomfort or pain—either in our own bodies or those of our animal companions—is not the answer. Moving through the pain is not the answer either. The best approach, in my opinion, is to address the cause of the imbalance, to teach the body to move freely again. And the sooner you are able do this, the better.
Until next month . . .
*This column originally appeared in From the Horse’s Mouth in October 2008.
© 2008 by Pamela Sourelis