What is Feldenkrais®?

"Feldenkrais® is oriented to the language of human movement - that language is not linear, there are no words. Furthermore, there are multiple dialects; sensation, feeling, thinking, imagination, intention, visualization, support, self-image, choice, flow, breath - and much more!” -SH


What is Feldenkrais®?

Moshe Feldenkrais was born in 1904 in the Ukraine.  He left home at age 14 to walk to Palestine (now known as Israel). After ten years there, doing freedom fighting against the British  and teaching martial arts to the Jewish  young men, he went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne –physics, mathematics, and electrical and mechanical engineering. He earned a Doctor of Science, and began working with Frederic Joliot-Curie, director or the Curie Institute. During this time he learned Judo from Jigoro Kano, the Japanese Minister of Education. After obtaining his black belt he taught in France and wrote books on Judo.

Kano had tried before to train other westerners for this work, with no success. Kano saw that Feldenkrais had a special quality, and he did, indeed, successfully teach martial arts to many Europeans before WW II. Feldenkrais was on one of the last boats from France to England at Dunkirk, at the start of WW II and he carried with him, in a suitcase, lab notes from Joliot-Curie regarding research on nuclear fission, plans for an incendiary bomb, and two quarts of heavy water that were later used in the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. (Later, however, for personal reasons he declined an invitation to work for the Manhattan Project in USA). He worked in England for the Admiralty during WWII, helping to develop and refine sonar.

During this time he because interested in human development – especially human movement – and he learned much from observing babies in the office of his wife, Yona Rubenstein, who was a pediatrician. Feldenkrais had a photographic memory, and he studied his wife’s medical books, and in addition became a self-taught neurologist. Because of an old knee injury, he applied his new skills to curing the knee, and he succeeded in learning to walk again and even resume his judo.

He began to work – hands on – with friends in need, and he called this work Functional Integration®.  Later he developed a format for teaching these ideas to groups of people, and he called this Awareness Through Movement®.

In 1950 Feldenkrais returned to Israel and worked for their Defense Force, and was instrumental in starting Israel’s nuclear program.  He taught in Israel and Europe through the 1950’s and first taught in America in 1971.  He continued to teach often in America until his death in 1984 at age 80.

Today there are thousands of Guild Certified Feldenkrais® Practitioners® worldwide, with many thousands of students who have gained significant benefits from Feldenkrais’ work. Why is the Feldenkrais® work unique, different from all other kinds of body therapies?:


  1. Practitioners – to be certified – must spend hundreds of hours on the floor doing Awareness Through Movement® (ATM). Before teaching movement – we have to experience it in our own bodies. Then we can better help others with movement difficulties.
  2. We focus on human movement – not on manipulation, energy flows, tissue work, massage or osteopathic protocols, etc. When movement is rightly experienced, it can and does beneficially affect all those other things, but without focusing on them at all, consciously. That’s because our brain has evolved to let us move and accomplish things, without worrying about such things as how tight a particular muscle is, or whether the soft tissue of the right hip is too loose. In a Feldenkrais® context, for instance, we may do what looks like massage – but we’re thinking very differently than a massage therapist. We’re thinking about facilitating your awareness of that area, we’re thinking about improving your movement,  by doing that.
    • Our work includes the sensory-motor cortex (concerned with human sensing and movement) rather than only the lower brain functions. By contrast, many other types of body work focus on reflexes, releasing muscle tightness, aligning bones, stretching and aligning the soft tissue, nerve manipulations, energy work, clearing nerve pathways, releasing unconscious, deeply held muscles due to inability to express emotions, or past traumas,  helping the blood to flow, etc. These are low brain functions. The conscious mind of a normal person is not active in that arena. A lot of improvement can be had in working this way. Often such work is exactly what is needed.
    • Moshe Feldenkrais, however, was aware that the higher brain functions had a “supervisory capacity” over the lower brain functions. The question comes up – what does the “higher brain” or cortex, have to do with the lower brain functions? How can it “supervise”?  The answer is movement.   For instance, we can do “ordinary” movements either consciously, or automatically – unconsciously. We can breathe consciously, or unconsciously. When the understanding comes that the brain is mostly about movement, and movement includes all those lower brain functions, a whole new world of exploration and healing opens.  We can reconfigure how we move – making it more elegant, with less tension and stress and compression – even though the low brain had formed a strong habit of moving you in a different way. The conscious mind can intervene – through the cortex, or higher brain – and that process is called Awareness Through Movement® or Functional Integration®.
    • Using movement as the primary focus, bones can come into good alignment, nerve function can be restored, soft tissue can be reconfigured back to normal, over-tight muscles can learn to soften and lengthen, blood circulation can be optimized,  posture can be straightened, and much more. The wonderful thing about this, is that we are active participants, not helpless observers. That alone is unbelievably empowering and transformative. Every Feldenkrais® practitioner knows this, and wants to shout it from the rooftops, but we know people will think we are crazy. 
    • So with Feldenkrais® we start a process of creative exploration. It seems so simple, so silly, or juvenile to think of doing a “movement lesson”. That’s for kids! I know how to move. That is the typical adult thinking – I was that way. Early on during my Feldenkrais® Training, I got regular doses of humility pills – discovering how wrong I was. It is a lifetime study, and even then you only scratch the surface. That’s no exaggeration. Scientists can spend their whole career, for example, on just one area of the brain. The study of human movement encompasses all areas of the brain. And, there is a whole lot more to it than just learning how the brain works!
  3. The Feldenkrais®  touch is unique. Clients comment that you cannot get that “Feldenkrais® Feeling..the melt down…that Feldenkrais® zone” in any other place.  We are sensing the whole body with our hands, we are listening for learning opportunities, we are not imposing or doing something to you. It is a listening, “going with” touch, that is not invested in correcting, adjusting, or teaching – not directly. There is humor, trust, patience, allowing and profound acceptance in that kind of touch. It allows hidden resources, forgotten youthful hopes and dreams to surface – and these are potent healing forces - we all know this in our hearts. That kind of touch, all by itself, it a potent healing and transformative force. Combined with human movement, the results can be catalytic. In my opinion that’s why people experience “The Feldenkrais® zone” during private sessions. That’s why in one session, results can be obtained that were not forthcoming after many years of treatment with other modalities.
  4. We’re working with the whole person – not just body parts. The common thread is a restoration and refinement of the organic ability to move with grace, intelligence, ease, power and poise – which is nearly always accompanied by decompression of all the joints, clarified awareness of skeletal support,  better circulation, better sleep. Clients often are mystified: “How can something so gentle be so profound?”  Many clients look forward to their hour on the Feldenkrais® table as their “favorite time of the week”. Benefits come over time – some take less time, other more time.
    • The neurological activity in the brain – and the rest of the body also – is concerned mostly (some physiologists put the figure at 95% others at 97% or higher) about movement. If a modality does not include some type of work with human movement, how can it work with the whole person? Most of what the brain is about is being ignored.  This includes proprioception, balance, self-image, muscular coordination, vision, hearing, touch, environmental mapping, and memory of movement patterns, etc.  So, why not work with movement to enhance whatever else a person is trying to accomplish, whether that is healing through tradition medicine, sports, excellence in a professional career, dance, theater, pain relief, or you-name-it? Why not include what the brain is mostly “about” instead of focusing always on body parts as the problem? That is what seems juvenile after one has had some years of intense Feldenkrais® exposure.  In fact, it is true that Feldenkrais® practitioners work with physical therapy patients, dancers, athletes, children, adults and children with disabilities, healthy people with pain of some kind, and more. 
    • Thirty years of informal research, study and practice in the field of health, nutrition and personal growth helped me to recognize the power of the Feldenkrais® Work. That was 16 years ago, and I have not looked back.


Finally, it has to be said: The Feldenkrais® Method® requires participation.  Little benefit accrues unless you start doing some kind of movement or awareness work, or regularly see a practitioner for private work. I recommend 6 private lessons a year, or 12 ATM lessons. This means an hour a week, or more. That is not much time to dedicate to correct a lifetime of habits that may be causing you pain and difficulty. In my blog, stevehamlin.blogspot.com, I give many insights, movement “tricks,” practical suggestions. I hope you try out some of these.


Examples:

Movement is something we take for granted, but there is more there than meets the eye. Movement is what created your postural habits in the first place. If you have tried to modify your posture by will power, with little success, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find in the Feldenkrais® Method the very best, and quickest, most permanent method to positively improve posture. It really works, even for the elderly – even for Dowager’s Hump! I have seen that (tremendous improvement, complete pain  relief, but not a full restoration of erect posture, to be precise).

One 96 year old client was condemned to use a walker “the rest of his life” after a surgery – after six months of Feldenkrais® ankle work he could walk unassisted! Yes, ankle work – and not more back exercises, as the traditional therapists were having him do.

You may be stunned, as I was, to discover that the Feldenkrais® approach to human movement is vastly complex, and much more than a lifetime of study is there. In a four year Guild Certified Feldenkrais® Training, you only get a hint of what Moshe developed over a complete lifetime.

 

How does a Feldenkrais® Practitioner think? What are his experiences? Can you give examples? Yes, from my own years of experience:

A person may have neck pain because the pelvis is not able or willing to support the spine  in an appropriate way. Therefore the neck will always be overworking to keep the head upright and mobile. If the neck gets overworked and sore, does that mean the neck is the problem? No. Yet, everyone tries to treat and fix the neck. The pelvis needs mentoring to be a more active partner in movement and balance. Just strengthening “the core” or doing yoga stretches for the hips or low back, will not help with this. Many who think so, can spend years with little improvement on neck pain. This is not a criticism of yoga – I love yoga an often do a couple hours a week myself. It is just drawing a distinction about what yoga can and cannot do, compared to Feldenkrais®.

If the pelvis is holding the bottom of the spine rigid (usually the case), can you expect the upper spine to be relaxed and supple? People with chronic back pain can spend years chasing a cure, getting surgeries, etc, and never finding relief – if the cause is a “dynamically dead pelvis” and this is not addressed in some fashion. Sadly, most chairs today teach immobility to the pelvis. Anytime  a body part is held unnaturally immobile (as when an arm is in a sling) muscles grab.

There are lots of treatments to fix the neck. Probably they all work, some better than others. But to get to the root of the problem, very often, Feldenkrais® is the only permanent solution (Such was my case). I even did intensive Alexander Technique work for over 14 months, but I had to keep “directing” myself to have pain free neck alignment. With Feldenkrais®, I spent an hour or so per week, then forget all about it, the benefits kept on coming, automatically. That was because Feldenkrais® is organic – meaning the body only needs a few hints, and it makes necessary and ongoing improvements and changes.

After Feldenkrais® sessions, we do not go around all day trying to correct some problem with our posture that we think we may have (like pulling shoulders back, lifting the chest, etc). Never! Yet, posture – perhaps not instantly, but slowly and surely improves towards the ideal, effortlessly and naturally, and the improvement is permanent. It is incorporated in the new self-image.

Trying to artificially hold ourselves in ideal posture is often taught to kids by parents and teachers. The problem is: parents and teachers have not studied human movement! Not for one moment! They are not qualified to teach such a thing. Such artificially imposed holding is a gross imposition on the psyche that can lead to severe neurosis or worse. A lifetime of that can make you physically, emotionally and mentally a complete wreck. I have seen that! The body knows what is natural  - and Feldenkrais® is all about restoring what is natural, not about imposing a cure or a fix.  It works with learning, and re-educates how we use our whole body, and the self image in movement. If your pain is persistent,  of mysterious cause,  if the medical profession has nothing to offer you  -- except perhaps medication and a surgery with uncertain benefits, if you have tried many things and nothing works permanently, then Feldenkrais® may be your answer. It cannot hurt you, you can get many benefits by involvement even if  your problem is not resolved, you have nothing to lose (except a little time and money).

 

Feldenkrais® is not usually quick or dramatic, the changes happen a little at a time. It takes patience. We learned our habits of movement, posture, self image over many years of repetition. To expect to unwind all that in a short time is unrealistic. Many changes have to happen.

Old injuries or traumas, old surgeries often leave one with persistent aches and pains and movement and postural distortions. "Recovery" in the medical sense usually does not include this aspect.  Because of these traumas to the body, we learn to protect that area, and it quickly becomes a habit. Feldenkrais® is an advanced means to unlearn that. Feldenkrais® is surprisingly sophisticated and elegant- more than most people suspect. Surprisingly – to me at least – has been to witness such transformations, which did not require any “deep tissue work” or other strong interventions, which I used to think was necessary for such work.

Another example - an open heart surgery patient might immobilize with strong muscle-clamp-down the entire frontal torso (a guarding response from the surgery) -- so that any movement of the arms and legs must take place entirely in the movement of the joints, the shoulder joint and the hip joints. The scapulas, the ribs, the spine no longer participate in movements of the limbs. Therefore, hip and shoulder pain may become an issue with such persons. It will take a Feldenkrais®-trained person to understand – immediately – that the problem is in the rigid torso, and not in the shoulders or hips! If you seek medical intervention for such shoulder or hip pain, the focus will be on the shoulders or hips. Feldenkrais® looks at the larger picture.

 

From the unlimited field of possible movement choices and styles, we all select those few that distinguish us from all others. Each person has a distinctive walk, for instance. A few examples of the type of choices that have been made by all of us:


  • Some are hyper-mobile in the shoulder joint and the scapula and ribs do not move. For others, the scapula and clavicles move just fine, but still the ribs do not move. This will determine what type of shoulder pain you might develop later. A Feldenkrais® teacher will take this into account, if you go to him/her for shoulder pain relief.
  • Some people have learned to reach forward with an arm, while stiffening or shortening and compressing the spine and neck. So many people do this it looks normal to the uneducated eye. After about 30-40 years of doing this, there may be a “sudden onset” of neck, shoulder, wrist or hand pathology of some kind, and surgery or injections or traction may be recommended. A Feldenkrais® practitioner would first of all notice what is going on, and then attempt to teach you to reach “into length” instead of “into compression” and then  see what happens. Often, the surgery can be avoided. Pain will go away. And, this is in spite of the fact that the MRI or X-ray showed definite pathology of some kind, so that treatment by surgery, injections or drugs seemed extremely well-justified. There may even have been warnings of permanent paralysis if surgery is not performed in the very near future. This is not a recommendation to ignore your doctor, it is only a window into my own experience with selected clients. Every case is different.
  • For many, the rib cage, especially the upper rib cage, moves as a block, with no suppleness. Therefore, the neck and lower back must do much unnecessary work.
  • For some, the ankles are rigid. Often, for these persons, the hip joints or knees become hyper-mobile or guarded, locked-down. You may have persistent knee pain, and seek treatment for your knee, but the real problem is with your ankles.
  • A person with a rigid, tight neck will have to be hyper-mobile somewhere else to compensate. In such a case, the neck may never be a problem. Conversely, if the rib cage is over-tight, as is commonly seen, the neck must be hyper-mobile, or worse, tightly guarded to compensate. Feldenkrais® work to soften the rib cage will literally work magic for all types of neck trouble.
  • The pelvis and rib cage are often not supple and moving as they could. The lower back and neck must then take over their work of support, balance and movement. These overworked areas then become problem areas -- if they are then treated with the usual methods, relief may be found, but it is all too often only temporary. The problem will return in a new form or a slightly different area.
  • Watch carefully when you see someone do a backward bend -- for instance, a young gymnast performing on TV. Or someone in your health club. Often, just one vertebra or one very small part of the spine, is doing all of the bending. It is like bending a wire in one spot -- eventually it will break. Young people can get away with such abuse for a very long time. But eventually that part of the spine will become problematic.
  • You may make many conversational movement-gestures with your head- nodding up and down or left and right, as you talk. This creates massive compression on the neck vertebrae. A quick fix for this is to learn to gesture with your hands, not your head. Many people get amazing relief from neck pain or pathology, just by doing this. But – why is it that in the course of years of medical or chiropractic treatment, you were never told such a thing? It is because they have not studied human movement in depth, as we do in the Feldenkrais® Method.
  • You may have back pain, and never found relief. Perhaps you are not sticking your butt out as you bend down to lift, and instead you are tucking your tailbone under. That will cause back pain. Bending  to lift is not so simple as just “use your knees to protect your back”. You need to know if you are tucking your tailbone under as you bend down. If  you are doing that, nothing you could do with your knees will help your back. The only thing that will help is to stop doing that. Or, in other words “stick out your butt as you bend to lift or sit down in a chair.” Why have you never been taught this from some other professionals you went to for back pain relief? It is because they have not spent many years studying human movement, as Feldenkrais® Practitioners have done. Instead, they studied anatomy, physiology, manipulative arts, surgery, etc. So, they naturally look for the problem in  that arena, where they were trained; it is how they think. It is very good, and there is a time when that kind of intervention is most essential. Again, I am just drawing a distinction between them and what Feldenkrais® can do for you. 
  • You may have pelvic, back or abdominal pain because you are holding the floor of your pelvis, as well as your belly, uptight. Perhaps you thought that was necessary to have an attractive body, or “six-pack abs”.  Or, it may be a relic of toilet training, if you were trained before you could discriminate between tensing the sphincters and the entire floor of the pelvis. True, we don’t want a distended belly, but holding it up with tension all day is going to immobilize the low back, restrict breathing, destroy the coordination between the belly and back, create tremendous compression in the low back, and cause severe movement disorders. It is a prime cause of back pain! Yet – where else have you heard this? Certainly not in popular magazines, where flat abs are worshipped.
  • Most people think back pain will improve if you acquire flat abs, and a strong  belly. Never has a piece of popular, conventional wisdom, been so wrong, and caused so much pain and trouble. Ask any experienced Feldenkrais® Practitioner, and they can give you a full, detailed, scientifically validated and convincing explanation of this point – along with many stories of how people got relief when tight-ab compulsion was discarded. What is needed is good  coordination between the belly and the low back – they are antagonistic. There is nothing wrong with a flat attractive belly, as a momentary event, while you “suck it up”.  But if  you hold it like that all the time, how can you breathe? That over-tense diaphragm is going to crimp all the blood vessels going  to the pelvis, the legs and hips. That in itself will eventually cause a whole syndrome of complaints as aging progresses – like hip pain, sciatica, sexual dysfunction, bladder incontinence, and more. 
  • Consider Anorexia (these are just my own ideas, and as far as I know there is no “scientific” research to back it up). If a young teen-age girl holds the belly in all the time, say, and also has tight ribs due to self-consciousness about the developing breasts – how can she breathe? How can she get oxygen to even have an appetite or digest food? How? The ribs and the belly cannot move!! Usually the low back is also not moving. If she is lucky, she will be involved in athletics, which will cause a form of forced breathing, which will serve as a stop-gap. She will likely come to become addicted to or highly motivated to continue in her chosen sport, because intuitively her body knows it is  quite literally her lifeline. Whenever she stops doing her workouts, she will quite literally feel that her life is unraveling. Any athlete will be like that, if he/she holds the belly too tight, and his ribs cannot easily soften.
  • To restrict breathing – using forceful, determined tension in the abs and chest muscles - is a form of slow suicide; not wanting to eat, and stay thin, is just part of that package. In the medical field that is diagnosed as anorexia, and treatment is not always effective, and psychological therapy often works as well as anything else. There is a puzzlement about the true cause of the disorder. But who looks at it from this angle? Who? Has anybody done research from this angle?  You’ll get such unconventional, yet potent and to the point, wisdom from the Feldenkrais® Method – especially from an experienced teacher. You can never  predict  what a Feldenkrais® Teacher will tell you or how they will work with you, because they are not operating by rote – they will look at what is going on, and appreciate your uniqueness, and their work will reflect that.  You may not get it in words, like this, but your body will get it, and that kind of learning will serve you better, anyway, in any type of situation.
  • A distended belly – which is a different topic altogether, but related -  is better dealt with through diet, colon cleansing, getting rid of parasites, resolving food allergies, and doing intelligent workout  routines under the guidance of a competent coach or trainer (in other words, do not just do more sit-ups. Please! Any Feldenkrais® practitioner could first show you the better way to do sit-ups, where you are not co-contracting both the belly and low back).  Holding the belly uptight is not going to help you much, except to communicate to others that you like to be uptight.
  • Your back pain may be due to how you get up out of a chair. If you don’t fully transfer your weight first over to your feet while keeping  your chin in, before and during the process of getting up out of a chair, you will be grossly overworking your lumbar spine, the back of your neck, and your quadriceps. If that is the cause of your pain, whatever else you do or don’t do for back pain, it won’t help you unless and until you modify this habit appropriately. A Feldenkrais® teacher will make that a top priority, if you have back pain. And, a Feldenkrais®  Practitioner has spent many hours exploring getting out of a chair in all kinds of ways, so he/she really understands it thoroughly, and can therefore teach it confidently. He has studied it from all angles. For whom else can that be said? True – Alexander Technique teachers have gone through a similar training regarding  getting up out of a chair. I don’t personally know of anybody else.
  • You may have unexplained pain anywhere in your body. The MDs cannot find any cause. In Feldenkrais®, such pain is often resolved. It may be that your pelvis is held too immobile, causing other parts of your body to compensate. Or, your ankles may be rigid, and the rest of your body is constantly tense and guarded, to compensate for the impaired balance. Feldenkrais® balance and ankle work will take away such pain, very often – I have witnessed this numerous times.


Feldenkrais® work is mostly non-verbal. You have to experience it. In the above examples, you might see a Feldenkrais® Practitioner, or take lessons, and find relief,  yet never be told exactly what I say there. It is artificial to put the learning into words.  Yet your pain or trouble it gone. That’s because you body “got it” – your body got smarter, the best kind of learning – and to put it into words would have been superfluous. The best kind of teachers will give you that kind of learning. Here I have to write, just to give you a clue. But this kind of writing I am doing here is an artificial presentation of the work. I am hoping to stir your interest to actually get involved.  

In whatever way you hold yourself, a persistent pattern of pain or dysfunction can result. That’s because we are not meant to hold ourselves in any particular way! Yet, so many are not clear on this point. What we need, to optimize posture, are many movement choices, many movement lessons, a dynamically intelligent pelvis, and much more.  Attempts to straighten the posture or change movement patterns by various adjustments, orthotics, strengthening certain muscle groups, stretching,  yoga, aerobics, etc. often bring good results, and the situation may even be quite manageable for many more years, or a lifetime. This is possible, even if they do not get to the root of the problem (they frequently do!). 

 

However, Feldenkrais® work takes your healing to an entirely different level. You’ll gain an understanding of what you are doing to create pain and trouble, and how to stop doing those things - instead  of doing exercises to correct the trouble they are causing. Then, you can do faster, more athletic movements, or yoga or whatever, without further trouble. Feldenkrais®, in that sense, is like seasoning on food. It is not food itself, but it makes the food palatable. Feldenkrais® can make exercise and other forms of movement – even walking or running – pain free or “palatable”. 

In whatever way you have learned to move, that also will eventually cause trouble of some sort (unless your parents were Feldenkrais® Practitioners…or had absolutely no hang-ups of any kind and were very mature at all levels...). To diagnose trouble as being in a body part that is painful is so easy, and enticing, and comfortable (because no work is required). But as so many have discovered, that can be a dead end.

Most of us were mentored in movement by our parents, whom we imitated, but who themselves did not have good movement, and those early childhood years were laden with dependency, needing approval, etc. So, for example, if we thought holding up the floor of the pelvis  (to be toilet trained) or stiffening the back (body language  for panic, fear and obedient submission, as in “sit up straight”) was necessary to please our parents, we made those behaviors a deep and persistent habit. Today, it is mostly unconscious, and such behaviors, being so pervasive, are considered “normal”. Only rarely can you find, outside of Feldenkrais® work, therapists of any kind who will know how to recognize these things, and know how to patiently do the work that can correct such deep seated behaviors, that may be the root cause of certain chronic pains. 

Feldenkrais® work brings, in time, a reorganization of the entire system, and it is commonly seen that the symptoms or problems have vanished. Often, there is no logical way to explain the pain relief that can come.  It simply cannot exist in the new organization. All the pain, all the troubles, which were created in the context of, or by, the old organization, can no longer exist. Doing Feldenkrais® is like going on a journey – you change your environment. In this case, the environment is your body, mind, emotions and movements – the whole package. A caution: if you intensely get involved with Feldenkrais®, be sure your partner or spouse gets involved in the same way. Otherwise, you will change and transform so much, that you won’t have much in common anymore with your (soon-to-be-former) spouse. This is commonly seen in Feldenkrais® Trainings. Just a friendly warning.

Even in the initial stages of Feldenkrais® work great relief is often found, and one feels that "at last, here is an answer to my problem!"   The sooner in life one takes up Feldenkrais®, the easier will be the changes and progress.

© Copyright 2015 Steve Hamlin  www.mybodycanlearn.com