Five year-old George and a three-year old William taught me most about how to use the air balloons in a playfully experimental manner. When rolled to and fro while lying on their belly on an egg both boys would spontaneously extend their arms whenever they went forward and closer to the floor. At those moments the children’s condition (cerebral palsy), which normally kept the affected arm tightly glued to the chest, seemed to have no power any more.
When lying with their back on a ball, they quickly learned to open the front of their chest while arching the back and extending both arms overhead without fear of pain. And indeed there was no pain.
Straddling an EGG ball as if it were a horse – all my small eggs had horses’ faces drawn on them at that time – was a great substitute for expensive therapeutic riding lessons. While setting up the undulating movement of a horse’s back the practitioner is able to gently guide a child’s pelvis and spine from more or less dysfunctional organisation into something more comfortable and efficient.
William is now eleven years old. Over the years he has seen me from time to time and at present is coming more regularly again. His progress is worth describing in a little more detail.
“I really surprised myself" (Learning to live with cerebral palsy) William, my youngest assistant in the pioneering “Feldenkrais on Air” project
William was a sweet three year old toddler when he arrived in my practice. Hydrocephalis had made surgery necessary after birth (to create an artificial channel allowing excess fluid to drain away from his brain). Cerebral palsy had been diagnosed and the medical prospects were not good. Had it not been for his mother’s intuitive knowledge that her son was not doomed to a shadow existence and her determination to help him in every possible way to disprove the medical forecast, this might have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
She had decided to try the Feldenkrais approach instead of hurting William by pulling the spastic left arm away from his chest, as she had been instructed to do every day.
Since he had been badly traumatised in his early days the little boy at first saw me as another threatening adult. It took quite a while to gain his trust. Playing together was fine; but all I could do initially was to let myself be guided by William’s vivid flights of imagination while patiently waiting for the moment when he would no longer shy away from my hands.
Brightly-coloured EGG balls played an important part in our games; they became spaceships, fire engines, rafts, horses, and so on. One day when William was galloping on such a pretend-horse over an Indian-infested prairie (carefully supported by me from behind) he suddenly turned round and exclaimed: “ Ilana, you are actually touching me!” That was a breakthrough. From then on he simply entrusted himself to my hands as if that was the most natural thing in the world. Letting his left arm move out into space in order to grasp something with his “bad” hand soon became equally natural.
On one occasion he was chasing across the prairie standing in a chariot (a board that I was moving carefully forward and back on several rollers) whipping his horse (an oval ball), directing it right and left by make-belief reins. I was looking on admiring his growing balancing skills (William had been plagued by real problems with balance and orientation in space), but ready to jump and catch him should he fall. However the little chap was too fast for me when he quite unexpectedly leapt into the air and – to my great surprise and relief – landed on the back of the horse. I will never forget his delight as he exclaimed: “I really surprised myself”, adding after a moment’s reflection: “I thought I couldn’t do it, but I knew I wouldn’t fall off!” Those few words spoke volumes about his growing confidence. His self-image began most noticeably to evolve in a positive direction after that triumph.
At age eight William switched from pretend-horses to the real thing. One day I accompanied him to the stable (where he has been taking riding lessons ever since) and could hardly believe my eyes: I saw in William one of the most fearless, competent, and sensitive little riders I have ever observed, trotting, cantering, and galloping. His body was completely at one with the horse’s body, and there seemed to be no reason to fear for his safety.
Now aged eleven William still loves coming for his “Feldenkrais magic” because it always relieves the stiffness which keeps building up in his body with the stress of school and everyday life. Usually choosing to lie on the air table as the most comfortable and pleasant support for him, he is now working on learning to use and thereby strengthen his left hand. Comments like: “I will have to live with this illness, but I can still do something to make things easier for myself” show the phenomenal degree of maturity this child has achieved.
(William features prominently in the article “Feldenkrais Learning in the Light of David Bohm’s Dialogue Model")
Children as your best teacher