This summer certainly did not go as expected. I moved to Montpelier for the summer of 2023, having grown up there and wanting a summer break from my life in the city of Boston. Montpelier is the capital of Vermont, a small, charming city of 8,000 people. I once thought of the region as a climate haven, a place people will go to escape the extreme weather as global temperatures continue to climb.
In order to build a summer practice as a Feldenkrais practitioner®, I connected with the local synagogue to teach weekly Awareness Through Movement® classes and rented space at a church to see students for individual hands-on Functional Integration® sessions.
Awareness Through Movement (ATM®) lessons are the verbally guided approach to the Feldenkrais Method® and Functional Integration (FI®) is the one-on-one hands on approach. I love that we have these complementary approaches within the method for both groups and individuals and was keen on offering both while in Vermont.
In mid-July, I was in Boston as a heavy rain saturated Vermont. I woke up on July 11th to the news of road closures and a flooded Montpelier. Instead of rushing back like I might have done before my Feldenkrais education, I decided to stay another night in Boston.
The value of rest became deeply meaningful during my training. I knew that if I inserted rest before returning to whatever I would find in Montpelier, I would make better moment-to-moment choices. As a Feldenkrais practitioner, I had a keen sense of my nervous system and how it was responding to the stressful event. How would that awareness inform me in the days and weeks to come?
Both of my parents lived high on hills, but I was worried about my office at the Bethany Church: my Feldenkrais table and computer were there. I laid low and balanced taking care of myself (reading a novel and practicing Awareness Through Movement) while staying abreast of flood news.
I drove back the next day and was relieved that the flood water didn’t damage my things. But the church on a whole was hit very hard. The synagogue was spared, and it became a possibility to see clients there. Messages were flooding my phone from friends past and present. Vermont was the lead headline on the New York Times. My best friend’s four year old said he felt excited. Our nervous systems were indeed excited. Activated.
A local organization, Montpelier Alive, swiftly organized volunteers and set up headquarters downtown. The next weeks consisted of a massive community volunteer effort which was moving to be a part of and witness. That Saturday, a dear friend came to town from Burlington and we went down to the hub. We were directed to the rec center where a group of 30+ volunteers were unloading boxes of emergency supplies shipped in from churches across the country. We were incorporated into the assembly line of people passing boxes from one person to the other up the line.
I was transported into an ATM lesson and became absorbed by the repetitive movement of the task. I wasn’t experiencing this as grunt work – I was in a flow state.
In ATM lessons you learn to move with no sense of urgency, no pressure, no purpose to the movement except to enjoy. I was sensing the rotation in my spine and how my head and eyes turned, feet shifting weight: I was enjoying myself. There in that assembly line, the collective feeling was positive but serious and task-focused. The pace was fast, nonstop, the boxes flew by, feeling light in the momentum of many hands.
Next we were sent to a hard-hit pizza shop where the volunteering was grimmer. We donned masks and gloves and carried every item out of the kitchen, into a storage container outside. The immensity of the destruction began to sink in. Huge piles of mucky refuse amassed outside on State Street. There was a confusion in the air: business owners feeling overwhelmed with making decisions such as what food to keep and what to toss.
I thought of my Feldenkrais training: “what do you do when you don’t know what to do?”
Everyone comes to a point in an Awareness Through Movement® lesson where they are faced with a particular challenge that feels insurmountable. At these moments, feelings of frustration, “I can’t do this”, or giving up may get the best of us. ATM lessons teach us many options for meeting this moment: pause, proceed slowly, just do the very beginning of the movement, work in your imagination, ask questions. Over time I’ve gotten more comfortable at being in that place of not-knowing and finding options for how to move forward.
When I get stuck in the realm of Feldenkrais, I sometimes reach out to a colleague or mentor. At that moment in Montpelier when we didn’t know what to do, my friend and I walked around town and asked other business owners what they were doing. That helped us gain outside knowledge, but also to connect with others, feel less alone in our difficulties.
In all of the stress, overwhelm, despair, and shock that was the aftermath of the floods, cohesion began to emerge: my summer in Montpelier would not be without purpose. Because my belongings were spared I was left free to help others. When I didn’t have clients or classes, I could volunteer. Staying with the discomfort of the disaster felt like working through an ATM lesson when I was experiencing discomfort. Could I stay with the uncertainty and grief rather than running away or numbing myself? Could I be useful rather than feeling helpless and defeated?
One day after volunteering to remove mucky debris from a store basement, I realized I wasn’t feeling well – I had discovered my limitations. I’d heard stories of people ending up in the hospital with mold-related respiratory issues or rashes. There was social pressure to help and people were going beyond what their bodies could handle. Yes, I was able-bodied and had the time but didn’t realistically have the skills to volunteer as a demolisher. Rather than overdoing it and pushing myself, I backed off.
I needed to be able to show up as a Feldenkrais practitioner and not be depleted. In my discussions with friends and clients, we were asking ourselves, how could we help?, each within our own constraints. I thought of my Feldenkrais trainer reminding us in ATM lessons that “you just do what you can.” In ATM lessons, there is no requirement to perform each movement to the max – that mindset regularly leads to people hurting themselves. Rather, the priority is to do just what you can do: start small, take care of yourself, stay with the sensation, and rest whenever you need.
This is resilience.
One woman I worked with (L.Y.) came to me for an individual Functional Integration session to address a slumping feeling in her chest.
“Whether it was the anxiety, or the sadness, or the excessive pouring over news articles and messaging boards on my screens (or some combination of all of these), I felt my chest really collapse in the weeks after the flood. It was to the point that I was feeling a loss of coordination in my hands and fingers. I was also starting to feel weakness in my legs as I lost the sense of connection between my top and bottom.”
I learned that she was a singer and harpist and had spent many years doing interesting work in the tech industry in San Francisco. Her home was spared from the flooding so she had been volunteering, walking her dog, playing music, and trying to figure out what to do next. I observed how she tended to hold her chest and helped her carefully exaggerate it. I asked her to lie on her belly, which she was comfortable doing, creating a situation where she could let go of habitual contraction around her chest and shoulder blades. L.Y. wrote to me after-
“The 1:1 lesson I had with you was definitely helpful! On the drive home I felt a new sense of space between my torso and the steering wheel, and when I got home and took the dog for a walk, I felt like my stride was suddenly twice as long and like I was standing tall again. I feel much better than I did before our session.”
Another woman, Kathleen, had started coming to my classes at the beginning of the summer, before the flood. I remember her sharing that her shoulder pain dissipated after her first lesson, and I felt excited for her.
I came into the first class with great tension in my shoulder and upper back. I left feeling more grounded, but also lighter.
Kathleen came back to class regularly and once brought her son who was visiting from abroad. She told me she lived on the river and the sound of the rain kept her up at night with anxiety. She wrote:
In subsequent sessions, it was helpful to me to place a priority on the present moment, not to ricochet between what happened, or what might happen. I especially remember the session where we zeroed right in on hand movements, which I at first thought was odd. But when I did it, I saw how it brought me right into the present moment, which is all we really have, and kept me there.
Natural disasters like ours are confusing because the natural world, in my case, is my joy and a source of joy. The lovely river became scary and unsafe. The classes with you helped me recognize that I am safe and could release the tension from my body.
I was heartened that she was able to reclaim her sense of safety. Traumatic events introduce fear and loss of control. The Feldenkrais Method® can help people to regain their sense of themselves and order from within. Another student shared a similar sentiment, “The group Feldenkrais experience gently guided a safe connection within myself and this knowing, and offered shared space.”
As a Feldenkrais practitioner, what helped me survive the intense time of the flood aftermath was self-care, which sounds simple but looked like many different things. I increased my Awareness Through Movement practice, and exercised more. I played music just for myself. I connected with friends and took breaks outside the recovery zone.
What also helped me survive the time was doing something about it. I could have chosen to give in to the despair I deeply felt. The American Psychiatric Association defines “eco-anxiety” as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. Without hope people give up. If you experience this, you are not alone. We need to find ways of processing these heavy emotions (despair, anger, fear) because they hold a potential energy that can spur action. There is actually so much we can do individually and in community. Rather than become overwhelmed, we can take small steps to move forward. We hold a responsibility for future generations.
When environmental pressures are so stressful, we tend to lose our self-connection. In the face of a catastrophic event, is it possible to take care of yourself while helping solve problems? Is it possible to find a sense of agency and a belief that you can influence life? How will you work on building your capacity now to stay present during tough times? Amidst the brokenness of our world, where do you go to find your wholeness within?
Eve Boltax is a certified Feldenkrais® practitioner and a graduate of the Boston Feldenkrais Training Program under Aliza Stewart and Tiffany Sankary. She has taught group Feldenkrais classes in living rooms, synagogues, churches, and yoga studios. She has worked with musicians at the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival, Boston University Tanglewood Institute, and Berklee College of Music. She was introduced to Feldenkrais while in graduate school at the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She lives in Jamaica Plain and is a professional violist and Suzuki violin teacher.
Her website is www.eveboltax.com