Iryna Sagaidak, PhD
My eyes glide around the cabinet checking each and every detail: disinfected surface of the table, chairs and stools each in its place, velvety textured rolls and head supports resting in their basket, guest slippers waiting in the doorway. I sip the last bit of herbal tea. Five minutes to the next appointment.
I observe how my mind is clearing up and creating space for the approaching interaction. What will this person come to me with? Would they be trustful or defensive? Will they bring curiosity and magnify the experience of the session or security is of higher priority for them today? I wait and focus on creating a safe space of non-judgement for them to come as they are.
I came to bodywork out of my own need. The days of burning tension in my shoulders and neck, the pricking pain in the middle back and in between the ribs, the prolonged discomfort of the lower back ache, are all still fresh in my memory. I recall those times when for a couple of days in a row I could not find a place for myself to sit up without triggering any of these. I could only lie down or walk with comparative comfort. For many years, this radiating chronic pain was significantly influencing the quality of my life and my feeling of safety.
My professional expertise is, therefore, based on my personal experience of dealing with my chronic pain, and the extensive research, study and experimentation with different methods I had to go through to overcome it.
Story over a cup of tea
My journey into bodywork started with my own chronic pain.
I was in the middle of writing my PhD thesis when the first “side-effects” came. Okay, I just need to survive until I am done with the thesis, I thought, and then it will somehow sort itself out. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I took a physiotherapy treatment course, went to an osteopath, and did regular yoga classes. Despite the temporary relief, however, the tension started building up again within 24 hours, and in a couple of days, I was almost where I had started.
I finished the program and closed that chapter of my life with a PhD diploma in physical chemistry. No matter the fanciness of the diploma, my back did not seem to notice. A few months of rest did me some good, but as soon as I started my next job, the symptoms came back with fresh power. Another series of medical check-ups… no structural issues found… “stress less and do more sports” was the main recommendation I received…
By that moment, it had been 2 years since it all started, and my physical-health-related psychology became sensitive. I realized that I was afraid of doing any kind of strong movements as I could no longer trust my body. Most of the exercise programs seemed to be built on a “push through” approach, and I did not feel safe following them. Around the same time, I learned from the physiotherapist (only the fifth one I went to) that some of my joints are hyper-flexible and I should be cautious. That was frightening. By that time, I had been doing yoga on and off for more than 7 years with different teachers, and surprisingly enough, none of them corrected my locking of elbows or shoulder hyperextensions during the class. So, in many asanas, rather than using muscles, I was straining my joints instead!
I felt hopeless for some time. Overwhelmed and lost in my situation. I very much wanted to go the familiar path and say that there should be somebody who could help me, who would tell me what to do, and I will just do it. But it was not so easy. The more I stayed in it, the more I realized that, unfortunately, there is no one who will be able to wholeheartedly focus on my situation and dedicate time to learn all the aspects of it to be able to guide me.
Nobody but myself.
So I started to dig into all the aspects I could. I started with the anatomy and biochemistry of the human body. I trained in the classic forms of massage to be performed on others and in the self-massage with the help of foam rollers. I have discovered, for example, that in chronic pain, releasing the knots of tension before physical activity is as important to do as in the cool-down phase.
The real change came when I stumbled upon the concept of somatic education (when reading the book “The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk). Somatic education work was mentioned to significantly improve the quality of life for people with serious psychological issues that also strongly manifested in their bodies, including chronic pain. It worked directly with the nervous system, improving the body-mind connection and movement patterns through the movement itself. I got fascinated by its approach.
I had a feeling that this was exactly what I was searching for. This field seemed to be addressing the whole human on a fundamental level. I had to understand my body more to be able to deal with and eventually overcome my chronic pain issues one day. For the first time, it seemed, I was in front of something that addressed the roots of the problem and worked with the fundamentals rather than symptoms.
The approach was natural sciences based and, at the same time, coherent with the “Humanistic” movement of psychology, which I was already familiar with through my own extensive psychotherapy journey. Interestingly enough, it was also aligned with the main principles of Qi Gong/Taiji, which was the only thing I felt fully safe practising in my state.
So I started to dig even deeper and try every method of somatic education I could find online. It was hard to describe the experience in words, but the way I felt in my body after some of the online lessons I followed, made me come back and do more of it. I started to feel tiny glimpses of hope that I could eventually feel well in my own body.
The Feldenkrais method was particularly interesting to me. In Luxembourg, at that moment, there was only a handful of practitioners of the method, only one of whom was still actively practising, but they did not work with chronic pain cases and gave me a couple of names to go to in the neighbouring countries. So, I found a weekend workshop in Brussels and went there with a specific request to receive an individual hands-on lesson in addition.
I will never forget the experience of that first lesson and the feeling afterwards.
Soft and safe hands of the practitioner, gentle, at times tiny, movements of my body, and attentive and non-invasive presence. The hour flew by at the speed of light. And then, I stood up from the table. Standing felt easy, effortless and, at the same time, very grounded. I felt the weight of my body going into the floor and the floor supporting me in this quiet upright position.
Then I walked. For the first time in my life, I have moved with such ease. I had this analogy of feeling like a mechanism that finally had its rusty joints oiled. The difference in smoothness was tremendous.
I wanted to move, dance, and express my potential through it. I also felt well on an emotional level. I was serene. I smiled.
This physical experience gave me a taste of how I CAN feel in my own body, starting from right where I was. It brought confidence and excitement about the possibility of feeling this way in the future more regularly.
Shortly after, I started the 800h long Feldenkrais practitioner training and dived deep into it. First, from the perspective of personal learning, but very soon into it also from the perspective of sharing knowledge and skills with others.
One night I noticed that the way I turned in bed had changed. It was no longer the cumbersome dance of a bear pushing away with the arms and knees to roll myself onto the other side, but rather a coherent and effortless sequence of movement from the trunk balanced by the limbs, which felt smooth and effortless. I didn’t quite understand how I was doing it, but it felt nice. Then, I noted that I started to lift objects much easier, naturally squatting rather than bending over without even thinking about it. And it’s not that I learned these specific movements during the somatic education lessons. It seems that through the wide range of unusual yet simple movements I explored during the lessons, something has changed in the way I moved day-to-day. It was a marvellous discovery.
From then on, more things started to improve in my daily life. I was finding more ease in movement in the situations that before would lead to a tension increase. I felt empowered by being able to take care of myself better and better based on my internal sensations and feelings. I started to restore trust in my own body.
Eventually, I discovered that the only way to physical (and even mental) health is to take ownership of the process. To develop the internal skills of sensing oneself, listening to what the body has to say, and (re-)establishing a trustful relationship between one’s body and mind. In the end, these two are so intertwined that one can argue they are just two representations of the same one.
As the years pass by, I continue my journey of self-improvement and sharing my knowledge and skills with others, accompanying those in need on the way to finding their own path to a better, pain-free, and joyful life.