Verena Wenger , a student in MBS Academy’s Advanced Seminars, applies her training as a Feldenkrais practitioner and her studies with MBS to her work with individuals with mental illnesses in a psychiatric clinic in Switzerland. In October 2013, while participating in the Advanced Seminar in Bad Toelz, she shared some of her experiences.
“My job is simply to give some support,” Verena explains. “I offer a space,” she later puts it, with what might appear at first simply to be her modesty. In the “space” that Verena provides, patients start to expand their sensitivity, developing a fuller sense of their bodies, themselves and their own wishes and goals. It soon becomes clear that Verena chooses her words not just out of modesty, but precision; she says of the interaction between a patient and a practitioner:
“You can’t find your blind spots completely on your own. That doesn’t generally work. And so you may need a hand, some impulse comes from the outside. But the clarity of becoming aware, of noticing what exactly you’re doing: that comes from oneself.
An Outside Perspective
After completing her training as a Feldenkrais practitioner, Verena found a position working within a psychiatric clinic, giving one-on-one sessions to the patients. The individuals she sees display a full spectrum of disorders and conditions, including depression, borderline personality disorder, and bipolar disorder. While she has now had ample time to acquaint herself with different “diagnosis pictures”, Verena stresses, “I have – first of all – a person in front of me, and not a mentally ill person or a depressed person or a borderliner. This work is not about working with a diagnosis, but about the person in front of you, and seeing how that person changes. It isn’t even the same person you saw yesterday!”
With a few exceptions – individuals with severe psychosis or schizophrenia rarely attend Verena’s sessions – Verena works with the full array of disorders and diagnoses treated at the clinic. Patients may see her for anywhere from four to twelve weeks, once per week, for one-on-one sessions that may use either verbal or hands-on approaches.
“Any Person Can Become More Sensitive”
“What I can really say now, after two and a half years of working this way, is that body-related work for these people, too, can be very, very meaningful.”
As Verena describes her work, it sounds far more fascinating than challenging – though she acknowledges that there are both sides. “It’s very exciting. Working with individuals with mental illness is on the one hand very delicate. One must maintain great awareness. On the other side, they are people just like you and me. Knowing that makes it simpler. That any one of us could be in a similar situation.”
She deals with many of the same issues that any practitioner can attest to, if perhaps in more acute forms. “Often, the people I work with have no body image, and then I often have patients who don’t like their bodies. People who hate their bodies. Some simply describe their body as something outside themselves, and which they want nothing to do with.”
Where to begin, when a patient may have no interest – or a vested interest against – developing some measure of self-awareness? “For me,” Verena explains, “the first step is simply, verbally, to find out if touch is possible. Do they have any wish, any interest, to learn to sense their bodies better?” Where she finds some margin of openness, that’s where Verena starts.
When a session seems to get stuck, Verena advises that a practitioner be “creative” and let go of any
expectation of how things should proceed. Sometimes that means waiting, sometimes just listening, sometimes touching nothing but the feet, throughout an entire course of sessions.
There is optimism to how Verena looks at these apparent limitations. “I find it touching that any person can become more sensitive and can learn. If your heart’s going and you’re drawing breath, there’s still a chance – you can learn something. There’s a way.”
Responsibility and Berührbarkeit
“The important thing is simply taking this responsibility. That’s really the central theme of how I understand my work.” For many of the individuals who Verena sees, it comes as a surprise how the body and body image can be so connected to how they see themselves, their lives and their decisions.
“I often notice that for many people, as they become more aware, they start to realize… it’s about them. It’s really about them! And that’s often frightening. I respect this, too. Often the biggest task is just first of all finding out how we can work together. That is the first guidance, verbal or non-verbal, just to see if the patients can sense themselves. If we can ask, together, ‘Who is this person? And what is new here, today?’”
In discussing their work together, Verena regularly uses the German word berührbar, which translates to “sensitive”, “tangible” or “touchable.” With the word, she points to both kinaesthetic sensitivity and to bringing one’s self-image in sharper focus. “Our work is to clarify what it means to become berührbar.
As her patients develop “this wish to learn to sense themselves again,” as Verena puts it, they often begin to enjoy the session more and become eager to find out what will come next. “That for me is the most exciting part: that every person can find a pathway back in to this sensitivity.” Verena describes the process of taking responsibility as something very pleasurable: “The people simply begin to feel something like, “This is my life. This is me: I am my body. I am my body! And I can be as self-directed as I like.” Then the question comes, “What would I like?” It’s a question that many patients have little familiarity with, or answers to, when they begin their sessions. Verena notes, “that startled me at first. The sentence comes up often at the beginning: ‘I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what I wish for.’”
In line with Moshe’s fundamental teachings, Verena works with her students to explore and learn within a place of comfort. Part of the process is uncovering just what is really comfortable. Verena explains, “Suddenly, patients may say, ‘Oh, that is new,’ and only then, they notice that something hadn’t been comfortable before. But initially, they didn’t sense it either way.” Where does a practitioner begin, when the patients themselves aren’t sure what’s comfortable and what isn’t? Says Verena, “I simply notice where there’s some softening and we take that as really the first step. We try to work wherever it’s easy for the patient to notice that he can let go, maybe on one side, noticing where some reflex comes through, or noticing when this letting-go spreads.”
Among Verena’s patients, she has worked with several highly trained athletes. “They begin in the clinic having done really intensive sports, and yet they’ve never experienced such very sensitive things before.” The contrast of Verena’s sessions to their athletic training is powerful and shocking. “They’re surprised that with this fine work they can begin to sense what they were actually doing in their athletics. They can’t believe that up until then, they had been living without that sensitivity.”
The assumption of “no pain, no gain” or “bigger is better” isn’t limited to athletes. As many practitioners find, Verena also observes, “Sometimes patients really wonder at how we do such small things, and yet they can make such a large difference.”
Creativity and Continuous Learning
“Every day I learn so very very much from my patients. I’m really very thankful. I find this work so beautiful – and at moments very demanding – but at the same time, it’s always a learning situation. And that makes it very exciting.”
Verena is visibly moved by her patients, whose progress and whose sometimes surprising orientations she takes as a continuing education. She recalls the woman who burst into tears just as they began a scan, saying “I can’t do this... it doesn’t work.””
But the woman was scheduled to return the next week, and she came. “For the next session, I really had to think about what we’d do, and how I could work with this woman. I decided to take away the verbal part.She lay down, I began, and she would say ‘stop’ if it didn’t work. Of course, I always have to be ready to say ‘stop’, too, if needed. We did a very gentle and calm FI, without any big movements, with clear contact, and she sat up, and she said, “I’ve never experienced something like this before. I can feel my body now, in a way that doesn’t bring up any fear.”
In other cases, Verena’s students are uncomfortable with touch and verbal interaction is most helpful, especially a somewhat indirect approach. “Sometimes,” Verena explains, “I ask, ‘How do you wash yourself in the morning? How do you take the washcloth in your hand?’ or ‘What is different when you wash up along this arm? What is different when you go over your back? Your feet?’ Learning this touch. We might do this together, through contact, or just verbally, asking how it feels, how the person can sense differences.” In this way, Verena also extends their exploration beyond the session, itself, to other moments in the patient’s daily life.
Verena’s stories highlight the possibility she sees in her patients, but she includes, too, stories of uphill cases. Just as important as the ability to use touch or language to accompany in the patient’s way – to empathize – is Verena’s sense of when to let a patient rest and when to try something different. In more trying cases, Verena may circumscribe her intervention, letting less do more. “I often have good experiences just working with the feet,” she mentions with a smile, “or even just with the toes, finding the sensation there, finding how they can meet the floor. I do this with lots of people, lots of beginners.”
She thinks of a particular case where this worked to moving effect. “I would always just touch her feet, just feet, and she blossomed. She found how even this little toe, that’s part of me, of my whole body. The whole body (and the whole person) can move through the movement of a little toe.”