This is an inspiring interview of my client, Hester Riches, who I had the privilege of guiding weekly for 12 weeks. Before working with her, I had no experience working with anyone recovering from brain injury/surgery. I simply trusted this gentle, interoceptive practice would be beneficial in some way. I think she had great success due to a combination of things; 1) An intelligent practice for guiding people to their inner felt sense, 2) A good observer and space holder (that's me), 3) Her own curiosity and consistency with her home practices (not to mention her established awareness from decades of mindful body practices). Results always vary based on a person's unique circumstances. If you are curious about her story, give this a read.
What brought you to SomaSensing?
This was a practice that immediately made sense to me. I had participated in a demo session of SomaSensing at a global online conference in the fall of 2020 (with Yasmin Lambat, Founder). Out of 25 different classes that I took at the conference, this was the one that resulted in my actually feeling better afterwards. I kept returning to my notes on it.
What challenges were you having? And what else did you try?
I had a craniotomy for a non-malignant brain tumour five years ago, and was affected by mobility, fatigue and balance issues. Over time, the balance issues caused my left side to further weaken and my right side to stiffen up from compensating. At least, this is the story I had in my mind.
The scans said my brain had physically healed. A neuro opthamologist convinced me I was really one of the lucky patients for this kind of tumour. Yet balance issues persisted, and chronic pain in my right hip travelled up my right side to the shoulder and neck. Disabling headaches would last for days and drag down my cognitive abilities.
This wasn’t my first attempt at balance. A lot of chronic pain patients tell similar stories about not being heard, or being treated for symptoms instead of causes. Physios thought it was arthritis in the hip. (Spoiler alert: x-rays say there’s no arthritis.) Chiros would treat it as a piriformis injury. Massage therapists recommended more massages. An orthotics clinic said my left leg was shorter than my right and sold me shoe inserts. MRIs and more x-rays turned up unrelated issues that shouldn’t be causing this much pain, but were red herrings for a while. I tried laser therapy, walking barefoot, acupuncture, and yoga for brain injury. My GP gave me a prescription for extra-strength ibuprofen.
Were you seeing any relief from these symptoms?
Right before the pandemic lockdown I was making some limited progress with salt water swimming, float tanks and magnesium oils. I was working with a trainer at the gym on cross-brain training. There was promise with an osteopath and qigong classes. Through these latter two modalities, I became more familiar with the role of the connective tissue -- the fascia -- as well as the role of lymphatic fluid in helping to hydrate the fascia. My brain sparked with this approach -- I was onto something.
So after that first exposure to the practice, I researched SomaSensing online and saw mention of fascia, lymph, connective tissue, healing gel -- it really made sense to me. I’d been a longtime meditator and was familiar with “felt sense” meditation, and this seemed to bring that meditative style deeper into the body. I went looking for a SomaSensing practitioner in Canada and found Joy Somatics, offering lessons online only one time-zone away. (I’m in Toronto and Joy is in Winnipeg).
What was your first class like?
It was awkward for me at first, doing this as a private session on Zoom (I’m a camera-off person during online fitness classes). And I’m pretty hard-wired for nervous energy. But Joy helped me feel comfortable about keeping my camera on. It was worth it, because she was really paying attention and gave me some important feedback. Sometimes the feedback was offered the next week, with a course of action that indicated progress. I noticed she took notes at each session and had a plan for the next one.
SomaSensing is such a slow, meditative practice. Everything seems like a suggestion or invitation -- even though there is indeed some direct guidance on signature techniques. Working remotely, I gradually figured out the balance between following Joy’s guidance and letting my own intuition take over.
What kind of results did you get?
Far better than expected! I went into SomaSensing with curiosity and over 12 weeks developed a new way of moving through life. Joy gave me audio recordings to practice daily, as well as tips for incorporating some of the techniques into simple household chores. I was learning a gentler way of moving with my fascia. The inhalation techniques I previously learned for my muscles at the gym, and the stretching technique in yoga, seem not quite right for my connective tissue healing.
My big breakthrough on triggers for the headaches came during my second-last session. Joy was querying what happens when I’m experiencing the onset of a headache while doing nature photography, which is my favourite hobby/activity -- a pastime that had been nearly ruined by pain. The problem was revealed as an anticipatory movement, a bracing movement I was doing to guard against pain. I was tripping myself up and had no awareness of this. Joy spotted that half-second shift and pointed it out. Over the next week I used intuition to find some alternative movements.
Ten days later I was back out on the trails with my 500mm zoom lens. And instead of the camera weighing down my shoulders, I paused and used somatic sensation and breath to inflate and expand my shoulders from within. My concentration is improving as well, and I am reading at a pace that is equal to life before the brain tumour.
I love that one of the things Hester found has improved her enjoyment of her favorite hobby! Check out Hester's photography on Instagram @Hester.Riches
How will you be carrying on with SomaSensing?
Yes, I did three months of weekly sessions to get the hang of it, and continue to practice for at least 15 minutes daily. I’ve also been integrating my new 'SomaSensibility' into my Qigong and yoga practice -- that seemed to happen naturally. Now it’s a part of my life, and I plan to carry on with a monthly JoySomatics session to ensure it melds into memory. And perhaps some ball work to carry it into movement.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Although my story could sound unique due to the brain injury, it feels universal. When I hear my friends talk about their aches and pains, there’s always an element of habitual recurrence under certain conditions. The brain, the nerves, the central nervous system -- they are all implicated in the syndromes of injury and recovery. Someone sprains a left ankle, and the right shoulder starts acting up after a few days of hopping around. The ankle gets better but that shoulder never recovers, what's that about? Habits are formed, neural pathways carved out, Tylenol and heat packs are applied, and it’s not until you slow down and try something like SomaSensing that you get a sense of what really needs to happen. It’s a natural way to slow down.
The other thing I want to say to wrap up, a lot of the other practitioners and trainers I’ve seen in recent years, Joy was really listening to me -- not just in the pre-interview but in quiet attention throughout our sessions. That kind of focus is rare in the Zoom universe and is quite special in the real world.
Joy Onyschak is a Somatic Movement Coach (trained in SomaSensing TM), a Numa Breathwork Facilitator, Yoga and Bodymind Ballwork teacher. She lives in Winnipeg, MB and sees clients in-person at her St. Vital clinic space and online. She also teaches a variety of 'felt sense' weekly movement classes online. Check out her work at www.joysomatics.ca