It is easy to forget how a misalignment in one part of the body can profoundly affect function in another—even one where there’s no obvious connection.
That’s the idea behind Feldenkrais, a therapy designed to improve the body’s functional capacity through a series of guided movements.
For example, you may initially go to a Feldenkrais practitioner for help with a knee injury but it may be your lower back that feels subtly different after your first hands-on session. When you add a set of exercises to do at home, you might find that your knee eventually recovers.
Debra Wanner of East Village Feldenkrais in New York City says it’s no surprise to her that the back would be affected by treatment for a knee injury. “Everything in the body is connected,” explains Wanner. “The way you hold your jaw affects the way you use your pelvis. Changing your pelvis changes the way your feet move. In Feldenkrais, we work with the whole body.”
The Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education was devised by Moshe Feldenkrais, an Israeli scientist, inventor, mechanical engineer and martial artist who applied the principles of those disciplines to his own rehabilitation from a knee injury, yielding important insights into how the body operates. Feldenkrais is less about fixing a problem and more about discovering the underlying patterns, says Elizabeth Beringer, a San Diego-based trainer and practitioner who was among the first group of Americans taught by Feldenkrais himself in the 1970s.
“We’re studying habits,” Beringer says, “whether it’s how we tense up our shoulders or how we procrastinate paying bills. We become aware of what’s involved in maintaining those habits, and we find out that we have a choice of whether to keep doing them.
Then we can choose other, hopefully healthier, options.”
One goal of Feldenkrais practice is to release tensions that interfere with postural alignment. Proper alignment allows the bones to support the weight of the body with minimal effort. When the bones are habitually misaligned, part of the weight falls on the tendons, ligaments and muscles, which can cause joint pain.
According to Wanner, Feldenkrais differs from other forms of bodywork, such as chiropractic or massage, because it is largely a self-executed way of retraining the nervous system to function more efficiently. “Feldenkrais hands-on work is generally a gentle manipulation of bone and some tissue,” she says. “It is not out to fix but to educate.”
The practitioner will watch the client execute a move and then provide feedback, through words or touch, on how the client can move differently to maintain proper alignment. “This can result in relieving pain, improving a skill or daily function and deepening the self-image of the student,” Wanner says.
In a recent visit to Sixth Street Pilates in Manhattan, 12 women and one man were lying on pads on the floor. Lenore Wolf, Wanner’s partner in East Village Feldenkrais, urged them to turn onto their left sides.
“Bend your legs towards ninety degrees with one knee on top of the other. Extend your left arm in front of you on the floor with the right palm on top of the left. Take your right arm up toward the ceiling and then over toward the floor behind you, looking at your right hand. Repeat this movement many times, going slowly, sensing what is happening in your upper ribs and chest,” Wolf instructs.
Throughout the class, Wolf encourages the students to notice how far a movement travels up or down the spine, where they might be holding tension that makes a movement choppy and how a movement that starts in the lower half of the body affects the head. All this awareness takes effort, but afterwards students report feeling calm, refreshed and centered with less tension in the neck, a spot where many people tense up.
While working on a problem area at home, someone practicing the therapy can listen to Beringer’s voice on tape and be guided through a series of “Awareness Through Movement” (ATM) exercises three times a week for 30 minutes. These slow, gentle exercises involve often unexpected orientations of the body that can be challenging for people with restricted movement.
“No pain, no gain” has no place in Feldenkrais. Beringer advises repeatedly, “Don’t do anything that hurts. If something is painful, do the movement in a smaller range and more slowly. You can even do the movement in your imagination.”
In fact, says Wanner, imagining a movement can be more effective at re-educating the nervous system than actually doing the movement, since imagination involves acute awareness. However, it is also more difficult.
Some of the most important learning that takes place in Feldenkrais goes beyond the merely physical.
If you come upon a movement that hurts your knee, for instance, you may ignore the pain in your determination to “succeed” at completing the exercise. But that pain may lead you to stop doing the ATMs. That’s when your practitioner will speak with you about practicing the exercises in your imagination until your patterns shift enough to allow you to do them physically without pain.
People who are willing to take an active part in the process are likely to benefit more from Feldenkrais than those who just want to be “fixed” by the practitioner, notes Beringer.
With its emphasis on awareness, this method can be applied to other areas besides injuries, proponents say: Singers and speakers enhance their voices, golfers improve their swings and TMJ sufferers learn to relax their jaws. Children with cerebral palsy and other challenging conditions improve their functioning through the use of extended hands-on work. In one investigation, Feldenkrais exercises improved balance and mobility in older adults (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 1/10). Many people come to Feldenkrais from dance, acting and martial arts, disciplines that benefit from a deeper awareness of body mechanics.
Feldenkrais practitioner training entails 800 hours of classwork and hands-on practice, taken over a minimum of three years. The Feldenkrais Guild of North America offers certification, setting stringent standards for the education process. The International Feldenkrais Federation oversees programs outside North America.
To find a practitioner or an ATM class, or to learn about training and certification, see www.feldenkrais.com.