Bones for Life 101: Nurturing dem bones that align the spine
Sep. 23, 2004
Ellyn Wexler
Staff Writer

Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette

Hedy Ohringer shows Bones for Life students a trick to help align their spines.

To our readers: This story contains corrected class times.

Make no bones about it: Hedy Ohringer of Bethesda is committed to Bones for Life -- personally and professionally. The certified teacher of the program insists the "subtle but powerful work" has transformed her.

"I've been searching for a way to stand tall and be graceful for years," she says. "Bones for Life gave me the answers!"

At mid-day on a recent Thursday, Ohringer and about a dozen mostly older adults met for an introductory session in an airy, sunlit room in the Friendship Heights Village Community Center in Chevy Chase.

Bones for Life offers a "journey into yourself," Ohringer tells the potential students, promising they'll "become aware of [their] skeleton and how [they] move." Furthermore, they will learn techniques to use in everyday life for relaxed, pain-free "glidingly smooth movement."

Ohringer studied with Bones for Life founder Ruthy Alon, who built her program on what she learned as one of Moshe Feldenkrais' first students. (Ohringer teaches the Feldenkrais Method as well.) To benefit people concerned about their bone health, Alon created a series of "movement processes that improve the quality of body coordination," according to "They are modeled after the primal patterns of locomotion in nature."

Ohringer describes them as "shortcuts" or "lessons in attaining aligned spines and ideal postures for safe weight bearing exercises that stimulate the circulation and bone rebuilding."

"Bones respond to activity and pressure," Ohringer explains. "Knowing that bones need springy pressure for healthy renewal, we align the vertabrae in the neck and in the lumbar region."

Neither Feldenkrais nor Alon subscribes to the "no pain, no gain" philosophy. Repetitive daily movements or exercise done unaligned can cause pain and injury.

Instead, "what we're looking for is 'no pain, more gain,'" Ohringer says, holding up a sign imprinted with this Feldenkrais mantra. "We do only what feels pleasant, easy and comfortable."

In contrast to the high level of exertion most regular exercise involves, says Ohringer, in Bones for Life, "anything we do is at 20 percent, no more than two on a scale of one to 10, to give the body just enough to get what it needs."

"It's OK to do less," she adds. "You can't do too little."

To illustrate, Ohringer asks participants to press the palms of their hands together with varying levels of pressure.

"Try 60 percent, then 40, then 20," she says. "What we want is a little resistance, just enough to feel pressure.

"If it gets uncomfortable, don't do it."

Ohringer notes that individual tastes and abilities govern whether the "weight-bearing gentle exercises with the spine aligned" will be executed on the floor, in a chair, standing, walking or even running in slow motion. Regardless, she says, "We move with pressure applied evenly through the spine."

Concentration and breathing are important factors in the work.

"When you pay attention to what you're doing and coordinate with your breath, you're able to let go and feel what you're doing ... [and] gain practical insights that will help you daily," Ohringer points out.

For a lesson on rising from a chair, she directs the group to sit as erect as possible, on their sits bones, several inches away from the back of the chair.

"Feel the weight in your feet. They're your foundation," she says.

"You're an educated child. Play around; adjust your stance. Your feet are not in cement," she counsels, encouraging them to find a position of maximum comfort and support.

Ohringer cues participants to roll forward, with back rounded, arms loose and feet pushing against the floor to assist the buttocks in lifting off the chair, then slowly rolling up to stand.

Eventually, we learn, Ohringer confides, that the "ideal spring point is the 'Roman sandal,' the base of the big toe and toe next to it."

Ohringer acknowledges she is "going a little bit slow on purpose" in order to facilitate "learning to feel" for these novices. The characteristic small, subtle movements, she says, provide an "opportunity to learn a more comfortable pattern."

The next lesson, on elongating the spine, is done standing, knees and ankles soft, with the back of one hand touching the lumbar region (lower back) to feel it lengthen and straighten.

The cues are continuous, the imagery varying to enhance understanding.

"Place your other hand on your belly. ... Shorten your belly until the pelvis begins to tilt upward slightly. Lean your back into your hand, but don't arch," Ohringer says, noting that good posture is somewhere between the extreme positions.

"Always search for the middle, the Goldilocks, what feels just right," she reiterates.

Once everyone goes through the motions a few times, Ohringer instructs them to walk, still maintaining their good posture, feeling the difference and enjoying the accomplishment.

Upon completion of each execution, she repeats, "Let it go," explaining that this pause -- taking time to relax and process what has occurred -- is essential to progress.

As important as the movement, she adds, is a "can-do attitude" nurtured by the "power of imagination." She asks participants to visualize walking "in a place you love -- on a putting green or a beach," examine the feeling, then switch to a negative ambiance and "feel the difference."

After working on a lesson to align the vertebrae of the neck, Ohringer proceeds to what she calls the "bread and butter movement" of Bones to Life: bouncing on the heels aka vibrating the bones. On this occasion, participants stand, rubber pads elevating the balls of their feet, pelvis suspended, neck in line atop the spine and regular breathing ensured by saying "pum, pum."

Participants try the movement in pairs, one partner providing the hand contact on the other's back. The exercise also may be done lying on a mat, feet against the wall, sending "gentle pressure through the skeleton from toe to head," she says.

Ohringer ends the class with a reminder that this session was designed to function as Bones for Life 101, a survey class. She directs participants to "go home and repeat the movements we've practiced until the little tricks become yours."

And make no bones about it: They, too, are on their way to moving in perfect harmony.

Hedy Ohringer teaches Bones for Life classes on Thursdays, Sept. 23 to Oct. 21, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and 7 to 8:30 p.m., in the Friendship Heights Village Community Center, 4433 South Park Ave., Chevy Chase, as well as Mondays, Oct. 4 to 25, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 3 to 4:30 p.m. in the Community Center at Sumner Village Condominiums, 4910 Sentinel Drive, Bethesda. Call 301-229-2346 or e-mail