Sciatica, Fibromyalgia, and the Purpose of Pain

Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution. It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it.

Niels Bohr (Physicist)

Pain is something of an issue for Feldenkrais Method (FM) teachers. First of all, we really are teachers despite the apparent therapeutic nature of lying down on a table and being touched.  Moshe Feldenkrais was very clear on this, although not all of those who practise his method share his clarity. He died while in the process of formulating an effective training program and we have been arguing about the parameters of our work ever since. We exist as one approach to a whole host of problems that have many differing potential solutions, and most of our competition promises easier, more immediate answers to those problems than we do. People don’t usually think “I am starting to suffer from lower back pain every time I sit at the computer for more than a couple of hours – I must find someone who can teach me how to use movement as a way to expand my kinesthetic awareness in order to enhance my ability to make creative choices about how I do what I do, how much of it I do, and whether I might want to do something else entirely instead”. Feldenkrais aligned it to achieving full maturity and called it living your “avowed and unavowed dreams”, but then he was more of a romantic than many people realise.

What FM teachers do all agree on is that we can work more quickly and easily with people who are not in pain – unfortunately most people only think of coming to us once they are in pain, and then all too often they either feel better quite quickly and disappear without fully integrating the changes they have made into their everyday activity, or they don’t feel better that quickly, and then they lack the incentive to stick with the process until they do begin to feel the benefits of their increased mobility. The people who get the most out of Feldenkrais are the ones who commit – but that is true of all the alternatives as well. Maybe they commit because the pace of improvement matches their involvement in a way that makes clear sense to them, but often it is simply that they recognise that the Method suits their nature and that becoming a more aware, more “developed” person is already one of their goals.

It was frustrating for me to discover that people were just as likely to halt the learning process early because they were out of pain after only one or two lessons – that is rarely long enough for a new way of being to establish itself. Of course part of the reason for this is that it is natural to experience the pain as the actual problem, even when good sense tells you that in fact your pain is the message your brain is sending to tell you there is a problem.

If pain is like the check engine light on your dashboard, then you may be able to turn it off with a bit of quick maintenance, but if the problem is being generated by a deeper ongoing issue then the light will eventually come back on again. Relying on pain killers is like removing the bulb for a few hours at a time, they may ease the pain but they do little or nothing to prevent it returning, or the underlying issue worsening – although in the short term they can be very useful to enable important activities like earning a living and getting some sleep.

So the pain is there to tell you something, but what exactly?

Sciatica and my ongoing learning process…

When a new client appears complaining of sciatica I am pretty confident that I can be of use, because of the myriad kinds of pain we are all dealing with, sciatica is especially well-suited to the whole self re-organising approach. My relationship with this particular warning light has been life changing in a very literal sense. My first experience of Feldenkrais was a day workshop that included both group work (Awareness Through Movement) and a brief individual lesson (Functional Integration). Very much as luck would have it, I limped through the door in the morning and strode out at the end of the afternoon. I had been experiencing short bouts of acute sciatic pain over several years; the pain and the movement difficulties would usually last about a week, but this latest attack was over less than 24 hours after it started. Here’s the luck part – it took me several years but I eventually made the connection that if I hadn’t been in pain on that day I might not have realised just how right Feldenkrais was for me.  As it was it took me less than a week – a week when I would usually have been limping about and struggling to climb stairs – to decide to do the training.

Sciatica has been a reliable teacher of mine for much of my adult life.  Until a couple of years ago I thought I had it sorted, and then two weeks of flu and relative immobility brought it back into my life. Of course I was delighted to get a chance to figure out what it had to teach me this time.  I will share what I have learned so far with you: your own pains may be teaching you similar things, or they may have entirely different messages for you; don’t ignore them, give them the respect and attention they require.

Pay attention to the warning signs – pain is what your brain uses to tell you that you have a problem that requires attention and action. My sciatica appeared after I had refused to recognise that my frequent injuries in dance classes were a sign that something needed to change in my treatment of myself.

Keep moving – this is common knowledge with sciatica fortunately, even your doctor will tell that movement is more effective than bed-rest. My first proper discovery came when I used a side-bending-in-sitting action as an emergency treatment for sciatica brought on by lugging heavy bags around London on my way to Edinburgh. Next I realised that exaggerating this action in walking gave me a way to prevent attacks – by then I was learning to respect those warning signs.  Walking in a well-organised way can be a method of pain control and is definitely a great way to improve your posture and the health of your spine.

Pain is a great stimulus to self-awareness – habits are really useful to us, until they’re not. Functioning on automatic pilot can free up more of the brain for thinking about other stuff, so it isn’t surprising that wandering about in a daze is associated with the absent-minded professor archetype. Feldenkrais isn’t the only self-improvement process that focuses on increasing awareness, and the relationship between attention to what is actually going on “in the moment” and attention to our sensory input is well established in many meditation techniques. Pain demands attention, and it can be a great stimulus for better self-use.  My sciatica always reminds me not to stoop when I am bending over the sink to brush my teeth. It prompts me to walk with a wiggle and fidget when I sit for too long.

The previously mentioned downside to this is that attention to important self-care can drift when the pain eases, so

Rehab should not stop just because the pain has gone away…

 …and there is another aspect too, particularly true of chronic pain, that it can bring about the paradoxical situation, that we may find our physical selves such a source of discomfort that we stop paying attention to our body’s feedback altogether*. Self-medication with alcohol and cigarettes and eating sugar for comfort can all be ways of ignoring incoming information from the nervous system by deadening our sensitivity. This self-recognition took much longer to surface, and it turned out to be a deeply established element of my nature and thus a much more difficult habit to give up.  I think it is the reason for my fibromyalgia, a different kind of warning light, and one that demands more global changes that my sciatica does. Diet, lifestyle, compulsive thoughts and actions – all of these elements need to be examined when these kinds of chronic conditions emerge.

*I have always found quantum physicists to be a great source of spiritual comfort and inspiration, so I am going to finish as I started with a quote from the delightful Niels Bohr – one of my all time favourite thinkers:

“There are trivial truths and the great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.” Read more of his wit and wisdom here.

Pictures of Colin courtesy of Jonathan Thrift©


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12 Responses to Sciatica, Fibromyalgia, and the Purpose of Pain

  1. Bela Borfoei says:

    Congratulation Maggy, very good writing!
    Love from Switzerland

  2. Jess Glenny says:

    I’ve noticed that there’s a sciatica body type. Have you come across this?

    • Maggy says:

      That is an interesting suggestion but I haven’t noticed that myself. There are many different ways of ‘typing” people and I find them all interesting so do say more. I certainly can say at the moment that I am working with an ectomorph and a mesomorph who both made exactly the same comment about not being able to put their socks on in the morning!

  3. Jess Glenny says:

    In terms of yoga, in my observation, they are generally people with tight hamstrings who repeatedly force their forward bend by rounding their back and pulling on their feet rather than hinging forward from the hip and pulling away from their feet (or more usefully pulling away from a belt, since these people can only reach their feet by creating a huge amount of flexion in their spine). So far, everyone I’ve taught with sciatica has this hamstring limitation and is pushing it. There are many, many forward bends in the primary series of astanga, so if it isn’t taught with correct alignment it can actually create sciatica in vulnerable people. If the alignment is taught correctly, it can help rehabilitate it. Just my experience.

  4. divamover says:

    Thanks for a very useful and enlightening discussion of pain, and its purposes. I LOVE the analogy of pain as the “check engine light.” I appreciate the image very much, and will use it with my clients!

    • Tim Wilson says:

      Hi Maggy,

      I also love the check engine light as an analogy for pain. How wonderful when we can see things in our everyday lives that can teach us about ourselves. I was struck by the check engine light in my car recently and wrote almost the same thing on my own blog. What wonderful advice, simple clear and easy to understand! Keep up the good work!

      Tim Wilson

      Tim Wilson

  5. tinsel says:

    Hi Maggy, Hi Jess.
    Your work with pain is how I have worked with my fatigue. Initially I thought I was being ‘alternative’ because I did not seek a medical opinion and reached for herbs to change how I was feeling. The herbs worked for a while and then the fatigue came back. I changed herbs and they would work well for a while and then the fatigue came back on and on and on. I got to a stage when I felt so desperate because I could not turn off the fatigue permanently and all these thoughts of my bleak, bedridden, lonely future haunted me. I remembered from my work with you guys that this fatigue must actually be my teacher and have something really important to bring me. So I allowed my fatigue to be and I felt for the way of it for want of better words. This 360 degree shift changed everything. I could see how normal my fatigue was given my history of over work for several years. Permission to take a rest needed, you bet! Raewyn tells me I need to see you both because the gym wipes me out butI need to move a little, stretch a little. I have been an unreliable client in the past who has prioritised work over health but I really think I could do better this time and let you help me to be well. See ya in September….x

    • Jess Glenny says:

      Hi Tinsel. Lovely to hear from you – and here too. I’m glad you’ve also met up with Maggy and had the benefit of her expertise. What a wonderful insight! It’s very inspiring to know that the essence of what I’m teaching – and I’m sure Maggy too – is there when you really need it. I think you might find Phoenix Rising helpful. And you already know about slow yoga. Lots of love on the journey. Jess

  6. Maggy says:

    I am preparing a follow-up post, prompted by some of the comments you have been kind enough to leave, thank you all for your thoughts and expansions. I will include some information about the source of my imagery and a link to an article on pain written by a colleague.
    Please keep up your responses, they are most useful.

  7. vicki kenny says:

    Life is such a journey of learning and discovery and unless we find ways to change old habits then reoccurrences of pain or fatigue can re emerge. I have been doing feldenkrais for 12 years (as a student) it really helps to calm my frenzy of being in a permanent state of trying to recover. It helps me accept where I am learn something new and see what is positive in the here and now. After recently three bouts of vestibular neuritis and now dealing with some balance issues I am once again so relieved to have feldenkrais in my life and realising that a condition that can reoccur needs careful handling and more a need to look within me to bring a consistent change. This means listening to your body and respecting it all of the time not running round like a mad thing when I am well and dealing with it when I not. How many lessons do I have to learn in life to finally get this!!!!!!!
    My physio rehab for vestibular problems is intense- it helps a lot, but it really leaves me with a sore and painful neck as you have to do a lot of fixed movements using head and eyes. I am discovering with my feldenkrais teacher that I can do these in a more global way achieving same results but no pain in the neck!! Thank you feldenkrais!!!
    A word on chronic fatigue I had ME for several years. It was chronic and debilitating. Feldenkrais helped me so much but a wonderful training programme called the lightning process brought about a permanent change if not a near cure. No relapse in 5 years. It’s basically a three day training programme designed to shift your beliefs and negative thought processes. The physical change in my body from doing this programme was absolutely incredible. In FK we work a lot using our imagination and I was taught how to use this now rehearsing positive outcomes for events and situations in my imagination. Powerful stuff. Sorry to write so much! Keep up the wonderful work x

  8. Maggy says:

    Thank you for this Vicki – I have heard a lot of positive reports about the Lightning Process and I am glad it helped you, but I do feel I should mention here for anyone who is interested that it is not a cheap process, however you are the 4th person who has told me it has made permanent improvements to their fatigue symptoms. There is a very even-handed article about the Process on Wikipedia for anyone who would like to know more.
    I also feel compelled to mention that a relative of mine with ME has brought to my attention the frustration many sufferers feel that their condition is treated as synonymous with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – this website makes their position clear:
    I experience a lot of the symptoms of chronic fatigue myself and have recently come to recognise that it has a connection to Hypermobility Syndrome. If you would like to know more I recommend Isobel Knight’s book A Guide To LivingWith Hypermobility Syndrome – Bending Without Breaking.

  9. Jess Glenny says:

    Definitely a connection between hypermobility syndrome / Ehlers Danlos and chronic fatigue / ME in my personal experience. So glad this information is finally getting out there.

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