The development of the Feldenkrais Method, an educational process created to make movement easier and more efficient, was inspired by an accident. When Russian-born Moshe Feldenkrais, a physicist and mechanical engineer with a black belt in judo, had a debilitating knee injury in the 1940s, he developed sequences of movements that allowed him to regain his ability to walk comfortably.
Now Feldenkrais practitioners use his educational approach to help individuals who have pain or neurological or developmental problems. The gentle, easy-to-do movements, based on the mind/body connection, allow individuals to become aware of better patterns of moving that help them to retrain their bodies and their brains.
“This is an educational method rather than a medical intervention,” says Ben Law, a practitioner of Feldenkrais in Chicago. Feldenkrais believed in the brain’s flexibility, referred to today as neuroplasticity. It’s the ability of the brain to form new, lasting neural connections throughout life. Feldenkrais developed distinct sequences of movement to help people become aware of their habitually restrictive or dysfunctional neuromuscular patterns and to explore the new, more harmonious and graceful choices that emerge.
The Feldenkrais Method is taught in group classes, called Awareness Through Movement, during which the practitioner describes specific sequences of slow movement that gradually increase in complexity. Students follow along, focusing on reducing unnecessary efforts.
“We usually begin with students lying down,” Law says. “We ask them to roll over from their back to their side to their front, articulating different parts of their bodies—hands, hips, eyes, everything—in a variety of ways, so they get a sense of the of options available and develop a familiarity with how movement really works.” Other movements are done with students sitting on the floor, in a chair or standing.
Myra Ping, a Feldenkrais practitioner in Chicago, says that when teens and adults come to her they often describe having a problem moving one part of their body, sometimes accompanied by pain. “The traditional medical model looks directly at the area that the individual perceives as the problem, while Feldenkrais work is a whole-body experience,” she says. “The root of the movement dysfunction, such as a stiff neck, may come from the way the person is positioning their whole trunk or the way they are sitting on their pelvis or the way they are positioning their knees when they are standing.”
She explains that Feldenkrais work helps to peel away the layers of restricted movement habits that have come as a result of injury, illness or the emotional or physical stresses of everyday life so that people can move more freely and with a sense of wonder, the way they did as a young children.
“When people experience the orchestrated sequence of the movements, it captures their curiosity and their attention. They notice things they never noticed before, so they can release the old habits that cause tension and become aware of all the other innate movement options that got buried,” Ping explains. “They learn to move more effectively, the way we were designed to move with the whole body in motion and all the body parts supporting each other so the movement patterns are well balanced. When that happens, your breathing is more efficient and that harmonizes the way the body works. You feel more comfortable, at ease and more confident; you’re able to think more clearly, be more productive and have more energy.”
“Feldenkrais helps people do what they already can do, but in a way that is more comfortable and easier. [It help them] to be stronger and faster,” Law says, “and it can be used in a goal-oriented way to improve skills.”
Feldenkrais is also taught in private lessons, called Functional Integration, that are geared toward a student’s particular needs. During these sessions, practitioners use gentle touch to guide the student through movement.
Private lessons can help children with special needs become aware of a wide array of possible movement patterns. “In little children who have had challenges from the very beginning of their lives, the practitioner holds them and moves them in the softest possible way to help them feel ways of moving and how their body parts are connected that they have never experienced before. The practitioner can introduce—verbally or just with touch— movement options to help them notice other possibilities so they can tap into their potential,” Ping says.
Julie Francis, a practitioner of Feldenkrais in Glen Ellyn, says the method can help children with sensory and attention deficit and learning issues. She has worked for several years with a child with autism.
“In a very short time he went from scribbling in a coloring book to coloring within the lines,” Francis says. “He had a general agitation, like a buzzing sensation in his body, which happens with people with certain neurological conditions. His whole demeanor has calmed down. His need for sensory input was reduced.”
Francis points out that Feldenkrais also can help senior citizens improve their balance and flexibility and remain mentally alert. In addition, it can help people with orthopedic problems and chronic pain find relief.
Faced with constant discomfort, the brain begins to consider pain as a normal response, Francis says. “But the brain is a learning mechanism and can learn other possibilities,” she adds. “We use gentle touch and guided movement to help students learn to breathe. This calms the nervous system and helps to dissipate pain.”
Westmont resident Mary Knishka, who had back surgery and still suffers from chronic back pain, has been seeing Francis for private sessions for a few years. “I find Feldenkrais more effective than physical therapy,” Knishka says. “I get more pain relief from it, and it has helped my flexibility and mobility. When I leave a session, I feel like I’m walking differently. My whole posture is different. I’m more balanced, my muscles are relaxed and I have movement in my waist.”
Law, who is a professional dancer, points out that Feldenkrais has benefits for artists, too. “It improves subtle control of movements so they are able to find finer graduations of action,” he says. “The increased physical awareness also helps artists pick up on their intuition because they can feel a sudden impulse or drive more clearly and freely. I found that in performing it has made me a little more unpredictable because I’m more impulsive. I think it makes art more interesting and performers more compelling.”
Francis suggests that students with chronic pain or significant physical issues try three or four individual sessions before joining a group class. “Feldenkrais is a practice of developing awareness of oneself,” Francis says. “[It’s about] finding a moment of calm in the craziness of life. Those who practice often discover greater flexibility, physical comfort, mental clarity and emotional peace.”
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.