The Body in Motion

Movement Education Provides New Models for Wellness

By Lara Evans Bracciante

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring 2003.

Someone may tell you it’s all in your head. Yet you know it’s not, because you’re feeling it, in excruciating detail, in your body. Movement education pioneers F. Matthias Alexander, Moshe Feldenkrais and Milton Trager agree that it may have started in your mind — way back when your body and your brain were learning together how to crawl, stand and walk — but it didn’t end there. Movement education theorizes that when the body establishes responses to its emotional or physical environment, those responses are carried forward long after the original stimulus is gone. In other words, that pain in the neck, back or head may just be the latest chapter in a story that began long ago.

Learning New Patterns

Movement education — an umbrella term also known as re-education movement, somatic movement education, repatterning and movement therapy — employs the philosophy that one’s body structure and movements get stuck in habitual, unhealthy patterns. Movement approaches unwind the patterns and teach the body, as well as the mind, anew. This is done through a series of sessions where practitioners may use hands-on manipulation to teach the student different ways to move, sit, stand, reach, bend, lift and walk. This type of bodywork is especially beneficial for people suffering from chronic or recurring difficulties, but also for anyone trying to achieve higher levels of physical and mental wellness. Athletes, dancers and musicians have credited movement therapy for enhanced performance.

There are many variations of movement modalities, including the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method and Trager Approach. These are similar in their goals but offer subtle differences in technique and philosophy. However, the creation of each approach evolved essentially from the same origins: Alexander, Feldenkrais and Trager each experienced sub-par physical performance, which manifested as dysfunction and pain. They all sought an understanding of the cause of their problem as well as a solution to it, not just a cover-up of symptoms. And in their discovery processes, the originators turned to their innate healing mechanisms for answers and empowerment. Here, we will take a brief look at the evolution, methodology and philosophy of the techniques that came out of their explorations.

The Way She Moves

The Alexander Technique was created by F. Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), a Shakespearean orator who began losing his voice while on stage. Determined to discover and reverse the cause of his chronic laryngitis, Alexander began paying close attention to his entire body when he was speaking and soon realized that undue muscular tension was the source. He realized that reducing neck tension eased head compression, which in turn eased spine compression and allowed the spine to lengthen. By using his entire body to initiate an action, his movements became more unified and efficient. Doing this, however, meant changing the way he stood, walked, sat, spoke — essentially, the way he moved or didn’t move. Eventually, Alexander’s voice was restored and he developed hands-on teaching methods to treat the body as an integrated, dynamic whole.

Today, Alexander Technique therapists certified by the American Society for the Alexander Technique (AmSAT), the major certifying body, must have completed 1,600 hours of training over a minimum of three years to be certified. During a typical session, lasting 30 to 60 minutes, the client wears comfortable clothes and receives instruction on conducting everyday movements. The instructor may lightly touch the student while she moves to determine how much tension the muscles are involving and redirect the movement. Through gentle, physical and verbal guidance, the therapist teaches the student to release maladaptive behaviors. According to the Alexander Technique International, Inc., website, each lesson is unique to the individual, but generally a session teaches both mental and physical adjustments: “Basically you will learn an attitude of not trying to gain your ends at any cost and, at the same time, how to prevent your present harmful habits that cause unnecessary stress and restrict your capabilities.”

The Feldenkrais Method was developed by Russian-born Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984). Living primarily in Israel, Feldenkrais studied engineering and physics and earned a black belt in judo. His career in movement education evolved when an old soccer-derived knee injury vastly improved after he injured his other knee. He began researching and proposed that nearly our entire spectrum of movement is learned during our first few years of life. But, he believed, these movements represent only 5 percent of all possibilities available. By communicating with the central nervous system via the skeletal system, old patterns are replaced with new ones that lead to improved physical, mental and emotional functioning. Unconscious movement becomes conscious awareness. “What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains,” Feldenkrais said. “What I’m after is to restore each person to their human dignity.”

Feldenkrais education has two components: Awareness Through Movement (ATM) and Functional Integration. ATM classes are group sessions in which the teacher guides students through movement sequences. Functional Integration is one-on-one sessions, lasting 45 to 60 minutes, in which the student is fully clothed. The teacher uses gentle touch and movement to help the student become aware of existing patterns and new, more functional possibilities for neuromuscular organization.

Andrea Wiener, assistant director of the Feldenkrais Guild of North America, explains, “Feldenkrais doesn’t teach people the right or wrong way to move. It helps them become more aware of what they’re doing, so they’ll make choices where they’ll be more functional.” She notes that Feldenkrais is not best described as therapy but rather education. “Movement education is a learning process. It’s about a person developing their own awareness,” she says. “The benefits may be therapeutic but the intent is to provide an environment where the person can discover themselves.”

The Trager Approach originated with Milton Trager (1908-1997), who was born with a congenital spinal deformity. He worked to overcome it in his youth, and in his late teens began training as a boxer. After every workout, Trager’s trainer would give him a rubdown and send him on his way.

One night when his trainer was looking particularly tired, Trager offered to switch places with him and give him a rubdown. The effect was significant enough that Trager later offered to try bodywork on his father who was suffering from chronic sciatica. For the next 50 years, Trager performed his healing bodywork on people suffering from a variety of ailments, including emphysema, asthma, polio and multiple sclerosis.

Three elements make up Trager, including tablework, Mentastics — Trager’s term for “mental gymnastics” — and recall. During tablework, the client lays on a massage table in a warm room wearing either loose-fitting clothes or underwear. The practitioner uses gentle, rhythmic touches to free the body from restrictive movement. According to Anna Marie Bowers, certified Trager practitioner and administrative director for the U.S. Trager Association, “A practitioner works with the belly of the muscle to create a wave that goes through the whole muscle and body.” The session lasts from 60 to 90 minutes.

After the tablework, the student receives instructions in Mentastics, which teach the student to recreate the freedom and pleasurable sensory state experienced during the tablework, encouraging positive tissue response. “This is the take-home Post-it Note that people can use to recreate the feeling of freedom of movement during the session,” Bowers says. Each time Mentastics are practiced, the changes become more permanent. The third component, recall, is learning how to remember the feeling you had during the tablework, an exercise to promote relaxation. “When you remember an experience that made you anxious,” Bowers explains, “your body gets tense and your heart rate increases. In the same way, when you remember a peaceful experience, your body responds to that: you relax and your breathing slows.”

Are You Aware?

Movement education is proving to be an empowering form of healthcare available to anyone interested in self- improvement. The Alexander, Feldenkrais and Trager approaches were born of a desire to address wellness on a basic and fundamental level. And by teaching awareness, movement education has the potential to not only make a person’s body feel better, but also raise consciousness about other aspects of one’s life.