Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Touch That Releases Fear

Wisconsin and me July 2010...touch as a form of communication that provides the freedom to move in unison: in cooperation.

I had never been touched that way before. I left that room in awe that there was a way to have an interaction including touch that had no expectations, no strings, no manipulation attached.

When I came in, he asked me how I was doing. I said I was tired and my back hurt from the labors of the day. I had been doing the mucking out of fifteen stalls a day for about a year and it was getting to the right side of my low back. In the horse world, where I worked as a groom/secretary/stall help, I was basically expected to work all hours in exchange for five lessons on horseback a week. The lessons could have been awesome, except for the sarcasm, and the impatient yelling of the trainer, who really didn't want to be bothered. But I was young, and I wanted to learn more than anything, so I subjected myself willingly and it was starting to tell on my body. It was talking and it was saying it didn't appreciate the abuse.

I lay on a low, wide table. In contrast to the hectic schedule at the barn it was exceedingly calm in this large studio with undertones of zen Japanese design; panels of rice paper and beautiful calligraphy decorated the walls. I had spent the day, as usual, first feeding 40 brood mares, doing stalls, getting one young horse after another ready, tacked up and shining for her ladyship while she trained the horse I had just provided for her to mount, followed by a few more hours of paperwork related to sales of horses worth more than I had ever made in a year, a lesson and evening feeding...It was all a bit much after a while.

But I was told this practitioner person could help me with my back pain and so I showed up for myself, game to try something new, something I had never heard about a few months before, something not mainstream: the Feldenkrais Method. This man touched me ever so gently in ways that informed me of my own tension and the muscles of my shoulder seemed to relax of their own volition. I hadn't realized I held myself so stiffly there. But what amazed me most was the touch of a man that did not demand a response. There was not call for me to do anything, and I was used to having the touch of a man be a call to action, to sexuality or to submission.

In my own family, my father was ill-at-ease with any kind of intimacy, especially touch. He did not even meet my eyes when he spoke to me for the first decade or two of my life. I never knew what that was about, I thought there was something wrong with me, but I think he was just not a social person, he lived in another world, the world of theoretical numbers and theorems. My mother was affectionate, when she was not drunk, but when she was drunk she sheared my sense of confidence away from me with snide insinuation and sarcasm, often related to things I did not understand at the time, or had no experience of. Again, I thought it was me. And from her I learned that men are to be disdained and manipulated and used. I did realize that it made no sense in the grand scheme of things, yet, it was the only power she bequeathed to me, after she stripped me of all self-esteem...

So, this person, this practitioner of this strange method that no one I knew had heard of, save a small group of enthusiastic horse people who were interested in working with horses that have behavioral issues, he touched me with with a quality of presence that I had never experienced before. He touched me with a sense of intention that was about the release of pressure, rather that the building of it. He made me wonder what I had been missing all these years. Was there, in fact, another way to be - one that did not include hyper-vigilance? I was not even aware that I had been constantly watching my back in case I did something wrong in the eyes of the people in charge of my survival...I had no clue that I was a bundle of tension I had no sense of carrying. Over a couple of weeks, I found that I was releasing a whole new supply of energy to live that had previously been tied up in living defensively, an unconscious habit that my body was beginning to rebel against with back pain. It was telling me that something had to give and if it wasn't going to be me taking better care of myself and my own need for rest, it would be my back. It was pretty loud and clear.

A few months prior to this I had had my first experience of what the Feldenkrais Method could do for a horse. In a public presentation, a woman named Linda Tellington-Jones brought out a large Hanovarian stallion, dark in color, high of head and pushy and unsettled in front of the arena full of an audience of thirty or so. Using nothing but her intention, her hands and her expectation, which she conveyed to this animal clearly, through the lightest of touches and the projection that he could do this thing that she asked of him, he began to settle. His head came down and his eye became soft - in a matter of 20 minutes of less. Having handled stallions of varying degrees of training, I knew how precarious it could be to work with them firsthand. I was impressed. This animal, who had come into the arena irate and irritable, disrespectful and full of intimidation tactics, was dramatically different. He was calm, relaxed and there was a light of understanding in his eye, a new intelligence: a presence.

Later, in asking more about her work, I discovered that it was based on Feldenkrais. That's why I went off to experience it myself when my back began to give out again. I have always been more interested in the source than the derivatives, so I went to discover what it was all about for myself. Yet, I got more than I bargained for. I was, in those first moments of being touched with that level of respect for the innate knowing of my own body to come up with it's own solutions to my pain, struck by the power of pure presence, and the gift of being shown how much was possible for me. I was given a new lease on life, in essence a new-found hope that I could live in a body that was relaxed and comfortable enough to be straightforward and direct without fear of recrimination. What would it be like to live without fear, in a body without constant apprehensive tension? It was a revelation; a revelation for what is possible for me, but also for what is possible in relationship between women and men: a world where respect and mutual support generates fertile ground for love, creativity and a kind of interaction that is rich in subtlety, delightful in it's depth and color. This is true freedom for all.

Oh, and, by the way, did my back pain go away? You bet. But that was just icing by comparison!

Many thanks to Ezra Marrow of for his help with Wisconsin!


  1. Allegra2:45 PM

    Hey Gabrielle,
    This is a great article. Moving, personal, and informative. I'm very touched by what you wrote, you are courageous and tender both, and sensitively intelligent. I love how all that comes thru in your writing. Yes, the Feldenkrais Method has so much to offer the world. Be well!

  2. Frederika Zylstra9:33 AM

    Wonderful article! How true that our bodies (and those of our animals) hold negative emotions in the form of tension and pain. I have to remind myself of this often - whenever I am frustrated or angry, I try to tune in to the fact that it is doing me more harm than good. I, too, as a young person was much more reticent to say anything when someone was crossing the line - but now, feel quite comfortable doing so.

    And, what wonder massage and Feldenkrais hold - the very lack of demand is an oasis of compassion and empathy.


Comments and questions are always welcome.