This is a transcript from Mary’s presentation at the 2017 Feldenkrais® Festival in Los Angeles, CA on May 6, 2017
To listen to the audio version, please click the play arrow below:
Mary Debono: Do you remember when you were a little kid and you couldn’t wait to get older? Maybe you were four or five, and you thought, “Gosh, I can’t wait to be six, or seven, or maybe eight.” It was all this hopefulness and this idea that the older you got, the more you got to do, the more independent you were, the more you could do things. You could play baseball, or go on rides, or whatever, but at some point, that changed, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard a 30-year-old say, “I can’t wait to be 69!” (Laughter) or 78, or 84, so there’s a difference there, isn’t there?
As a matter of fact, a lot of us actually dread getting older. We worry that we’re going to have stiffness, and aches and pains, and we won’t be able to do the things that we love to do. It’s kind of the opposite, and we worry about our dogs too. We worry when they’re starting to get older. Maybe they’re developing arthritis, or hip dysplasia is bothering them, or many different things as they age.
What I’d like to tell you today is that there’s a lot more under your control than you realize. There’s a lot we can do to really be active in the aging process and minimize the downside of aging. I’ll tell you a little story.
There was this dog named Cassie, and Cassie was a fairly big dog, 70 pounds, a pure white, mixed-breed dog, and she was at the park one day with her person. Her person’s name is Michele, and Cassie loved to chase squirrels, so she took off chasing a squirrel across the park and what Cassie didn’t realize was she was in a fenced-in baseball diamond and unfortunately, she just kept chasing that squirrel in a blind run and right into the chain link fence. (She hit the fence) Really bad. Michele ran over to her, and she saw that Cassie was stunned, but otherwise okay.
She was okay, so Michele took a few minutes and then said, “Okay, let’s start walking home.” Because they live near the park, they could just walk home. Cassie usually had this pretty effortless trot, but she started getting slower and slower until finally she just like plopped down on the sidewalk and didn’t want to move.
Michele thought, “Well, it’s a really hot day and she’s been running. She’s probably just hot and tired,” so she gave her some time and after a few minutes she coaxed her up and they slowly made their way home. Once they got home, Cassie did the same thing. She plopped down on the floor and she wouldn’t move, so Michele was like, “Oh boy, this is something else.”
Get “3 Simple Steps to Help You & Your Dog Feel Better at Any Age” cheat sheet. Click to grab this FREE, illustrated resource now!She was able to take her into the car and rush her to the vet. The first thing the vet did was when he heard the story about her hitting the fence, he opened up her mouth and he saw that her gums were bloody and shredded. She had hit (the fence) really head-on, so he said, “Okay, we have to X-ray her neck, and make sure she didn’t really damage her neck.” They X-rayed her neck and the X-rays were fine, luckily.
He gave her an injection for inflammation and pain and sent her home with pain pills. Cassie seemed okay. A day or so later though, she went down again. She couldn’t move. Michele rushed her to the vet. The vet said, “Okay, we’re dealing with something else besides her neck,” because her neck was okay.
This time he X-rayed her whole spine and her hips. What he discovered was Cassie had a lot of spinal arthritis, which dogs get just like people get. She had really big arthritic lesions in her lumbar spine, and he said, “Oh boy. This is the problem. This is what’s happening.” Now it doesn’t mean that the arthritis developed the day she hit the fence. It had been there brewing all along hidden just below the surface, but when she had that trauma it brought it to the surface and became a problem.
She wasn’t responsive at all to the medications he tried. She kept going down, so he said, “The only thing we could do is we could do surgery and it’s very risky. She could become incontinent, or she could be paralyzed, and I have no guarantees that this is going to help her.”
Michele thought, “That’s not such a good risk.” Michele started looking around for alternative methods to help her dog. She went to canine massage therapy. She went to … wonderful, wonderful modalities that can be very helpful, but none of them helped Cassie.
Cassie started actually having more and more of these episodes where she would lie down and be completely unable to move, just not want to move at all. One of the professionals that she had gone to had recommended me, so she brought Cassie to me and what I noticed about Cassie was first of all, she was in pain, even with the pain meds, but also that she was overusing some parts of her back and underusing others.
We do the same thing. We overuse parts of our body and underuse other parts, so some parts get a lot of wear and tear, and that ages us, doesn’t it? It certainly was aging Cassie. What I did was, first thing I did was just very light kind of rhythmic movements with her to help calm her down, to help her realize she was in a safe place. I wasn’t going to hurt her, and she started to relax.
Then I used my hands very, very gently to remind her how all the parts of her body could help the movements of her spine. This is something we do in the Feldenkrais work. We’re very much about distribution of effort. The more parts of you that participate in a movement, the less wear and tear, the less aging. It’s a more youthful way to move, to be. I just very gently, using non-habitual touch, (that’s important), woke up all these places in her back so she could learn to use her back in a healthier way, in a more efficient way. She could use her ribs, and all the different parts of herself.
We did two sessions, and after the second session I said to Michele, “She’s good. She doesn’t need to see me anymore.” Michele said, “Oh, no. This has been going on for months. How could she be okay?” Like, “You only saw her twice. We’re coming back next week.” Okay. They came back again, because you know you can always get better, right? You can always improve. Always there’s room for improvement, so we did another session.
I’m happy to say Cassie never had another episode of that falling down and not moving after the first time she saw me. She never again … she lived for many years and Michele, and I write about her in my book actually, Michele said it went from here she thought her dog was pretty near the end and she went on to live, and to run on the beach, and run through that same park again for years.
And she never had the surgery, but because she learned to use herself in this more efficient, this healthier way, so she became younger. That’s really, really important, and it’s a real important piece of what we do here in the Feldenkrais Method, is help you use yourself in a very efficient way. Now you have to wonder though, why did Cassie get that way? Why did she use herself in an unhealthy way? Anybody have a guess?
Male: Habit and activities that she did?
Mary Debono: Exactly. Habits. You said habits, yes?
Mary Debono: Habits. We all have habits. Sometimes those habits work against us. They usually start because there’s a valid reason for a habit. Maybe she was protecting something. Maybe she had gotten injured a long time ago, and she was protecting a part of herself. For example, if you hurt your left foot and you limp for a while, that’s a pretty good solution if my foot is hurt, but once that heals you might have what I call an echo of a limp, that maybe you’re just tilting your pelvis a little bit or holding in the rib cage, or something else, maybe one shoulder gets higher because you’re kind of compensating a little bit. When you don’t let that go, over time it could lead to a bigger problem.
We don’t know the cause of Cassie’s habit of why she did that, but just so you can experience this yourselves, if everyone would please interlace their fingers. Just interlace your fingers. How many of you have the right thumb on top? Okay. I assume the rest of you have the left thumb on top. Now, if everyone would slide their fingers over so the other thumb is on top, it’s important you slide all the fingers over, how does that feel?
Mary Debono: Yeah. Weird, right? One of my students said “it feels like holding hands with a stranger.” Isn’t that good? Now, that’s just a habit. Some of us had the right thumb on top and were perfectly happy with it, and others had the left, and that felt normal and natural. That’s an example of a habit, but we also have habits about how we use our lower back and pelvis, for example, how we hold the muscles around our hips, maybe what we do with our shoulders, how we hold our head and neck.
These are all habits that we’ve developed over time, and they’re either helping us or, like in Cassie’s case, they’re actually harming us. It’s really important that you figure out what you’re doing so as Moshe Feldenkrais said, so you can know what you want to do, so you’re able to do what you want to do. (You have to know what you’re doing to be able to do what you want.)
Let’s talk about a couple of things you can do to change your habits. If everyone would sit forward in the chair a little bit, and if anyone has a jacket with them, or a sweater or something, if I can ask you to take it off and put it on. Does anyone want to borrow my jacket? Eleanor?
Eleanor: Thank you.
Mary Debono: Pay attention to how you put it on, which arm you put in first. Yeah, it has to be a jacket. Well, that might work, but that won’t be the same as like a … Yeah, because we’re really going to talk about which arm you put in first.
Female: Wow. [inaudible 00:13:16].
Mary Debono: And then do the other way. Did you try (the non-habitual way)?
Mary Debono: Yeah, if you have a vest, a vest would work too. That’s it.
Female: So weird!
Mary Debono: Isn’t it weird?
Okay. Now you can’t … Yeah, yeah. Isn’t it funny? Okay. How many felt weird putting it on the other way? Weird, right? It’s like crazy weird. Think of what you have to do. There’s side bending. There’s all these things involved when you’re putting on a shirt or a jacket, right? We get so habitual about how we do it. It’s almost like, “How else would I do it?” It’ll open up a whole window into learning to use yourself better.
I’ll tell you a funny story. I was teaching a two-day workshop for horses and riders. This was a little while ago. On the morning of the second day I asked the group if they had any comments or questions about what we did the day before. This gentleman raises his hand and he was a real cowboy. He had the cowboy hat. He had the big silver buckle. He had the cowboy boots, and he said, “Mary, I was putting on my pants this morning and I couldn’t stop thinking about you.” (Laughter) I was standing there thinking, “Where is he going with this? I don’t know.” He was a big, handsome dude too. Then he went on, mercifully, to say, “I realize I always put my pants on with my right leg first,” because I had told them that the day before to explore that.
He said it was so difficult to put on his pants using his left leg first. Think about that. We have a whole way of moving, like we may go up the stairs always using, say, the right leg first. I see that a lot. It’s so funny, because a stairway can be over there, and you walk to it, and your stride automatically adjusts that you’re going to go off on your right leg. Have you noticed that?
Now, these are all things that over time can actually age you. If you’re overusing certain parts and under-using others, creates much more wear and tear, and the dogs do similar things. They get into habits. They might always go in certain direction, like we talked about, so that means a certain lead. They’re using their body asymmetrically, and over time, it’s very damaging.
I would invite you to explore things like that, how you put your clothes on and off, and if you could vary it. It really gets you thinking. Even more important than that, it wakes up the brain in a different way; creates new neural connections. That’s very rejuvenating. Really learning what your habits are and deciding to say, “Ah, I’m going to be curious about that and see how else I can do it.” That is really, really helpful. Now, with dogs, there’s things you can do differently as well. I was talking to this lovely couple here earlier, and they were saying how, was it when you play fetch the dog always goes …
Female: Our dog always run clockwise (when we toss the ball.)
Mary Debono: Always clockwise. The dog always runs clockwise. You need to change that up so that your dog can run counter-clockwise too.
Mary Debono: Even things like, a lot of people, when they walk their dogs they’ll always have the dog on their left, for example. Horse on the right, dog on the left, that’s tradition. I usually tell people, unless you’re competing, teach the dog to go either side, because otherwise you really get a one-sided dog, you know? Things like that are really important.
For you, for the human, even when you pet your dog, petting with the non-dominant hand can be interesting, attaching the harness and the leash with the non-dominant hand, doing new activities with your dog, teaching your dog a new skill, learning positive reinforcement training, all things that get your mind going, stimulate you as well as the dog. It’s super important to do stuff like that. Again, we get so habitual in our movements and in our thinking, and that can really age us. That make sense?
I’ll give you another example of a dog I helped with a different situation. This dog had a hamstring injury, and the vet had said, “Oh, it’s a soft tissue injury. The dog will be fine,” but several weeks passed and the dog wasn’t fine. They brought the dog back to the vet. The vet said, “It’s a soft tissue injury. I don’t know why it’s not healing, but there’s nothing I can do.”
Then someone told them about my work, and they brought the dog to me. He was one of those big, friendly boxers that just like bowls you over when he sees you with the tongue, and the ears, and the whole thing. He was great. His name was Otis. They called him Oti. What I noticed about Oti was that his whole back was very tight. Now, you think, “Well, what does that have to do with the hamstrings?” The dog’s hamstrings are in the back of the hind legs, like our hamstrings.
If the back is tight, it creates tension in the hamstrings. I didn’t massage his hamstrings. What I did was I helped him feel how he could use his back in a better way. I helped him release the tension in his back, I reminded him, for example, that the chest helps in rounding and arching the back. That’s so important for us and it’s so important for animals. It’s a big, big thing.
The chest, that means the sternum and the ribs, softens when the dog rounds his back, and comes up when they arch. (Click on this link for an article that illustrates this concept in dogs.) If they don’t do that, and a lot of them don’t, you get a lot of wear and tear damage in the spine. Same as with us. That’s one of the things that will age a human and age a dog, or a horse for that matter. I saw Oti twice, and his hamstring injury completely went away because he learned to use himself in a healthier way that allowed the hamstring to release. He didn’t need to keep it so clenched. That gave him an opportunity to heal. (Try this short, easy Feldenkrais-inspired exercise to improve your own hamstrings!)
Just to give you a little example of what I mean by softening the chest, if everyone would just come a little forward in their chairs, please, with the feet flat on the ground. Just take your right hand and slide it down your right leg, and up again. Do that a few times, very slowly though. Very slowly though. Really think about your chest softening as you do that, your sternum and ribs going down. You could even take your other hand, your left hand, and press a little bit on your sternum down, so down towards your feet, down … That’s it. Down towards the pubic bone. Can you feel your chest folding and softening?
Then allow the sternum and ribs to come up when you lengthen and come to sitting. That’s it. Then switch hands when you’d like. Really think about the chest softening and the back rounding. Feel how you go on to the back of your sit bones, and then you come forward on them as you sit up. If you exhale as you round down, you have more softness, more folding in the chest. That’s very nice. Very, very good. Feel that.
Then you could play and actually have your right hand go on the inside of your left leg. That will change what you do with your chest. That’s it. Very slowly. Very slowly so you can feel what you’re doing. Very nice. Feel how you can round the back. Exhale as you go down. Inhale as you come up. Switch so that your left hand is now in the inside of the right leg. Go very slowly, though. That’s it. Very nice. Good, good, good. Okay, and leave it. Lower your hands and just sit in your chairs. Notice if even just those couple of minutes has given you a different appreciation for your chest and your spine. Good.
Now, as you’re sitting comfortably, what I’d like to do is lead you through a little, it’s like a little meditation that you can do with your dog. We’re going to have to pretend your dog is around. If you don’t have a dog, you can visualize anyone you wish. Before I go into it, I’ll tell you a quick story.
Many years ago, this gentleman brought his dog to me. The dog was an 11-year-old Australian shepherd named Rocky. Real handsome dog. When Rocky came in he was dragging his hind legs and just kind of falling. He couldn’t walk normally. That’s the reason why Bob brought him to me. He had done all the veterinary things, but they said, “He’s old. He’s really weak. He has a lot of arthritis. There isn’t much you can do.” Someone else, one of his neighbors, had brought their dog to me with good results, so he took a chance.
Rocky comes in, such a sweet boy, and he lies down on the mat that was in my office. I remember this as clear as day even though it was about 20 years ago. He was lying down on his side, and I just put my hands on his lower back to give him the sense of relief, to really like take over the work of his muscles, to let him feel, “Oh, I don’t have to work so hard.” As I did that, I thought, “I am so grateful that this dog put himself literally in my hands.” It was just this overwhelming sense of gratitude I had. As I thought that, it was like an explosion happened in my chest. It was unbelievable. I thought, “Wow.” From that moment, I could feel everything that Rocky was feeling. It’s like I knew that where I put my hands, whether this was really important to him or not, I could feel the difference in my own self.
I did a very technical lesson. I used rollers, and what we call artificial floor, and all kinds of real fancy stuff. At the end of the session, the dog got up and walked around the room. This is all thanks to Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais. It was all his genius. I’m just putting it into play. I kept thinking, “I want that feeling again.” When Bob said to me, “Do I need to bring him back?” I said, “Oh, yeah.” (Laughter) “He needs to come back next week,” because I thought that was unique to Rocky, that feeling I had. It was so delicious. It was amazing. I was like on cloud nine for all week after that.
He brought Rocky again the next week, and it happened again, but even better than that, I realized I could create that feeling with anyone I worked with. I think Rocky was some kind of big teacher for sure, but if I entered into that state of pure appreciation, I could get that with anyone. Didn’t matter the species or anything. That’s what I started doing, and I teach this work. I teach people how to work with animals, and that’s the first thing we do, is I do something called Connected Breathing, where you breathe together with your animal and you really enter into this state of appreciation, which promotes heart rate variability coherence. It’s a really wonderful state. It’s considered a high-performance state. You physically get more powerful. Cardiologists use this a lot to control blood pressure as well as other heart things.
It’s a wonderful state to be in. A lot of spiritual teachers say it is our natural state. It’s an amazing stress reliever. This is what I tell people. Even when your dog isn’t around, or if your dog is passed over, or whatever, you can imagine your dog is with you when you do this. I have the full meditation available for free on my website.
I’ll give you a taste of Connected Breathing now. What I suggest you do is to put your hands over your heart area, and now maybe you want to close your eyes. Or maybe not. It’s up to you. But just start to pay attention to your breath, and think of your heart as a filter, that your breath is going through your heart and then as you exhale, you can imagine like a beautifully colored light emitting from your body, whether you want it emitted from every cell, or your hands, or just from your heart, whatever you’d like, but choose a color. Really imagine this.
You’re going to inhale. Think of it going through your heart, coming out. Now send that love to someone. Could be your dog. It could be a human. It could be whoever. You choose. Now this bit is important too. When you inhale again, imagine that that whoever you sent that love to is sending that back to you. You’re creating this wonderful, virtuous cycle where you’re sending and receiving love, and it’s really important to do the receiving part, because it’s just like with anything in life, there’s a balance. To be balanced you need to give and receive. So much of the time we worry about taking care of others that we don’t take the time to feel that love back to us, and really embody it.
Now, we’re going to pretend you have a dog or someone in front of you, and you would just put your hands lightly now on the dog’s rib cage. The dog could be right in your lap. You’re not reaching (not straining.) You could do this on a couch. You could do this on the floor, wherever you’d be comfortable with your dog, but what I tend to do is just put my hands lightly on the dog’s rib cage, the chest. You’re just listening to the breath.
Female: The dog’s lying on his side?
Mary Debono: The dog could be … generally on the side is best, but even if he was lying like on his sternum (like a sphynx) you could do it as well, but if they’re comfortable lying on their side that’s actually best, because they’re most relaxed.
Just feel the breath, so you can imagine this now if you have a dog in mind. You would just feel the breath, and dogs know the difference between a listening touch and a corrective touch. You’re not trying to change the breath. You’re just listening to the breath. Again, you want to have this loop, this virtuous cycle of giving and receiving love from your dog, or whoever, whoever you choose. It could be a cat, could be a human, could be a horse, whoever, fish, you know.
Notice how that lowers your stress. You can’t be worried and grateful at the same time. You have to be really in the present when you’re feeling this sense of gratitude. That’s a wonderful way to start doing some hands-on work with your animal. Now, people do this with humans too. You can go home and do it with your human friends as well.
I’m going to give you this handout later, whoever would like one, but that’s Step Number One: Breathe and Appreciate with your dog. This is going to be rejuvenating for you as well as your dog. Puts them in a whole different state. (Click the orange box below to get the handout!)
Get “3 Simple Steps to Help You & Your Dog Feel Better at Any Age” cheat sheet. Click to grab this FREE, illustrated resource now!
There was a woman who attended the (Feldenkrais) Festival last year here, and she’s a physical therapist. Her dog had a hip injury and had to have the neck (top) of the femur removed, so she had a FHO, what they call a femoral head osteotomy. The dog, even though she healed, would not use the leg. She tried different therapies. She had the dog doing swim therapy and everything, which was very good, but the dog wouldn’t use the leg. The vet was like, “Well, the dog should use the leg. There’s nothing structurally wrong anymore.” She got my book, and she did that exercise (Connected Breathing) with her dog, and the dog started to use her leg (click here to read the therapist’s review). She even sent me a video of her dog running around.
Now, you think, “Well, why would Connected Breathing help her learn to use the leg?” Well, this is what I’ve discovered about this. You know when you have a computer problem and if you don’t have someone smart like Ralph around, what do you do? Either you throw the computer out the window, or you restart it. That solves a lot of problems. Just restart.
I think of this as like a reset or a restart that you’re giving the body and the brain a chance to let go of all that stuff and just have a clean slate. It’s amazing how powerful this can be. You can think of it as a little restart, a reset. I think that’s why the dog had what I call a global change of state. Instead of being worried about the leg, the dog was able to get to a place, (the dog’s name is Zoe), that she could just feel herself again, and all that noise in the background dissipated. It seems simple, but it’s a very powerful thing to do with your dog.
Whether you have two minutes, or 10 minutes, or whatever, I would really encourage you to do it. Like I said, there’s a full explanation and an audio on my site that can lead you through it. It’s all free.
Step Number Two is to Cultivate Curiosity. You already did some of that here when we talked about putting the jacket on the different way, putting the pants on differently, noticing how you go up steps, doing things non-habitually with your dog. Just remember my cowboy, and think about how you put your clothes on and off.
Step Number Three is to Embrace Ease, this feeling of effortlessness, not having to push for everything, slowing way down.
What I tell people is to think about associating pleasure with movement. Usually, a lot of times people are working out and they just think, “Well, this has to feel difficult.” No. What if it felt pleasurable? That’s going to be rejuvenating, because that means you’re using yourself in a healthier way. If a movement feels difficult, whether for you or your dog, chunk it down. This is where these skills of a Feldenkrais practitioner come into play, and they can help you a great deal with that, with being able to take movement and break it into baby steps, to chunk it down so that you can do it effortlessly.
Embrace that feeling of ease. You really have to know whether you’re …. You might think, “Well, I feel okay right now,” but do you feel comfortable or does it just feel familiar to you? There’s a difference. Really think about that, and the slower you go, the less effort, the more you will feel.
Again, you want to associate movement with pleasure for you and your dog, because that’s what the brain will want to recreate. (It wants to recreate pleasurable experiences.) Getting back to my story about Cassie, if I were to try to force movement in her …What would happen was if she wasn’t ready for that, if it didn’t feel pleasurable, she would not have recreated it. Her body would’ve discarded it and maybe braced even more. Associating it (movement) with pleasure is really, really important, extremely powerful stuff, okay?
Just to review, breathe and appreciate with your animals; cultivate curiosity, both in you and in them, and embrace ease. As a matter of fact, I’ll leave you with one little thing here, a little homework, if you will. Think of one thing you can do differently with your dog today, for those of you that have dogs. If you don’t, think of something you can do with another animal or with yourself. What could you do differently? Then email me and let me know if you wish. I’d love to hear from you guys.
There’s lots of, like I said, free resources on my website. This work is so amazing. I can’t thank Dr. Feldenkrais enough, and all my wonderful teachers I’ve had over the years. I really hope you go out there and take advantage of all the wonderful Feldenkrais practitioners we have here, okay?
I’d like to share one more thing. We were talking about associating movement with pleasure. Some of you may have heard in dogs what they call CCL injuries (cranial cruciate ligament injuries/tears). The CCL is a knee ligament similar to the ACL in people. CCL injuries are very common, unfortunately, with dogs. It’s one thing that I’ve seen over and over. Say the dog has torn his left CCL. The CCL is in the hind leg. Their knees are back here, in the hind legs. These are wrists (carpal joints) up in the front legs. These are called knees in the back legs.
The knee ligament, for example, if it gets ruptured or torn, they may have to have surgery, or somehow they can … they also have braces and different things, but what people often do when the dog doesn’t want to use the leg after it should have healed, what do they do? They pick up the opposite leg and force the dog stand on the leg that had been injured.
Don’t do that. Instead, there’s ways of working with the dog, and I talk about that actually in my book, of how you can make it so it’s pleasurable and non-threatening for the dog to stand on that recovered leg. That’s very, very important, and also, to address the compensation in the back, etc., because if you don’t do that, you’ll just end up creating more problems and again, that’s something that’s going to be very aging for your dog. Your dog will get older faster. So will you. Does that make sense?
Well, thank you so much for your attention. I really appreciate it. Thank you. (Applause)
To listen to the audio version of this presentation, please click the play arrow button below:
What is something that you can differently with your dog today? Please leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to hear from you!
If you’re not on my list, please sign up for my free newsletter.
Copyright © 2017 Mary Debono