How to Hit that Ball Further with Feldenkrais

by Carroll du Chateau, The New Zealand Herald 10/6/2001

Your body can be taught to move and use just the right amount of tension to improve your sporting chances.

The other evening a friend called when I was writhing in agony with a sore shoulder procured, no doubt, from spending around 10 hours sitting at a computer keyboard for three days in a row.

“Just try this,” she said. “Turn onto your good side, stretch your arms out in front of you as though you were praying and gently move the top arm forward so the palm rests on the sheet.” Although it hurt a bit I was in no shape for an argument, so I complied. “Now move the hand back, making the movement come from your shoulder until it rests on your other wrist.”

This was followed by a couple of other extremely gentle exercises combined with slow rhythmic breathing, after which I hung up, and forgetting the anti-inflammatory recommended by our OSH nurse, went promptly to sleep.

And in the morning my aching shoulder had disappeared.

This is Feldenkrais, a subtle form of body manipulation that re-educates both body and mind by working on repetitive day-to-day movements and physical over-compensations.

“What it really does,” says Margaret McIntyre who teaches the technique to people ranging from skiers to golfers to those with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, “is teach the body to realign, rebalance and correct itself, making movements smooth and relatively effortless. “The technique works on both physical and mental levels to achieve a marked improvement in co-ordination.”

Latest in McIntyre’s lineup is golf coaching — something that lends itself brilliantly to the Feldenkrais technique. “The thing you need to do to be able to play golf well is how to twist, to wind up your body like a tornado,” says McIntyre. “Then you have to learn how to shift that weight, get power from your big muscles into the stem of your body, then release that power.” And, of course, drive that ball further with that satisfying smooth click that means you’ve hit it just right. Says McIntyre, “I can improve people’s co-ordination, I can improve their power and I can improve flexibility without stretching.”

Dunedin-born McIntyre, who now divides her time between Hawaii and New Zealand, is especially keen on using the Feldenkrais Method to improve sporting ability. “I’m someone who likes action,” she says. “And I firmly believe that as we grow older we can become more skilful, improve ourselves. Feldenkrais takes the effort out of movement - so if you want to excel in a sport you can do it. Life doesn’t have to be such a battle … you can find subtle ways to work harmoniously with yourself, do the best you can do other than just trying to protect yourself.”

At 58, McIntyre is a mighty ad for her own method. She whips out a brochure showing herself, brown curls flying, juddering down a slope on a snowboard and another catching a wave near Maui in the Hawaiian islands. “I really wasn’t any good at sport at school.” She says with a super-relaxed smile, “I couldn’t hit a ball, couldn’t run fast. But some of that co-ordination can be learned — at any age. We have a capacity for learning that is really trapped.”

So, in her early 40s McIntyre, who initially trained in physiotherapy, decided to un-trap herself. Already interested in Feldenkrais, she used its particular combination of body and mind control to improve her skiing technique. Then she took up snowboarding and, most recently, surfing. With each sport she found that by using Feldenkrais techniques, she could train her body to co-ordinate more smoothly. “It’s not about relaxation, it’s about having the minimum amount of tension in your muscles to do what you want to do,” she explains. “As you improve yourself and get more efficient in your movements, you minimize the excessive muscular work you do and are completely unconscious of doing.”

She admits the concept is complicated to grasp — and that one of the most potentially difficult people to convince could have been her father, Archie McIntyre, a neurophysiologist and former professor of physiology at Otago University. “He read the books and thought they were good, then I gave him some lessons and he said, ‘You know dear, my neck doesn’t hurt. You know dear, I feel taller.’”

She stands up and demonstrates how, by teaching them how to adopt a “dynamic posture”, she helps golfers to get more meterage out of their swings, with a slow cat-like twist of her body. “It’s all to do with balance and counter-balance,” she says. “Many people lock their trunk up tight, lock themselves up really — and overuse their arms and legs.” “There are several things you need to do to play golf well. First you need to know how to twist, to wind up like a tornado. Then you have to know how to shift your weight, how to get power from releasing the big muscles in your body.”

“It also helps to have balance. It’s a co-ordination thing — you have to be able to keep your eye on the ball while doing something else.” Every good golfer I’ve worked with has this amazing ability to twist around their central axis.”

Which is precisely what McIntyre will be teaching in her Feldenkrais golf and sports workshop to be held at Paraparaumu near Wellington later this month. “I’ve based my programme on two things. One, teaching people to unlock their trunks and two, how to learn awareness and to be able to use it specifically to do whatever they want to do.”

As she says, she probably won’t be able to turn an average golfer into Tiger Woods — who, incidentally, will be performing down the road in February 2002 — but Feldenkrais will help. “I went into this because it can improve anything at all about being human,” says McIntyre. “By improving our awareness of whatever action we do, we can lift our game and live the lives we want to in comfort.”


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