By Lynda McCullough
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine November/December 2011.
How can a movement practice be linked with other life changes? Moshe Feldenkrais taught that changing physical habits could have far-reaching effects; that since the body and mind are one, addressing one directly affects the other.
The Feldenkrais Method is simple and yet complex at the same time. In fact, says Feldenkrais practitioner Al Wadleigh of Longmont, Colorado, explaining what Feldenkrais is in 30 seconds “is one of the hardest questions for me to answer.
“For one person, I may talk about how it might help them recover from a recent injury, for another it may be about improving their balance, and for another it may be about improving their game.” But in reality, Wadleigh says, “that is just skimming the surface of what the method does.”
In his book The Elusive Obvious (Meta Publications, 1981), Feldenkrais writes about simple, fundamental notions and actions of daily life that through habit become elusive, out of conscious awareness. We develop attitudes and ways of being that may limit our self-concept and experience.
In Feldenkrais lessons, we have the opportunity to notice how we move and how we approach tasks. In becoming aware of and refining the quality of these movements, we also develop a broader repertoire of physical, mental, and emotional activity. Perceptions can change. We become more present, and we move about and interact with the world differently.
Wadleigh’s personal experience illustrates some of the breadth of the Feldenkrais Method. Wadleigh himself has explored Feldenkrais since the 1980s, as a student and publisher, and in the last eight years as a practitioner. He encountered the method when he was practicing Neurolinguistic Programming and had the opportunity to trade services with a Feldenkrais practitioner. “Afterward, I felt different for three weeks—I stood differently, I walked differently, and I felt different. It was a remarkable experience.”
Yet, it wasn’t until years later, when he found himself saddled with back spasms and breathing problems, that he sought individual Feldenkrais lessons with practitioner Jack Heggie in Boulder, Colorado. In fact, many only come to the method when they are in physical pain and haven’t found relief from other approaches, and they may, like Wadleigh, experience broader effects.
As a young person, Wadleigh says, “I had a lot of anxiety, was dyslexic, didn’t fit in socially. I was physically uncoordinated, not good at athletics—I was really a mess. I grew up with a lot of anxiety that really showed up in my body.” Over time his posture became stooped, and by his 30s he developed back pain and breathing problems.
During his work with Heggie, Wadleigh found that he stood more upright, had less pain, moved more easily, and even had to adjust the mirrors and seat in his truck to accommodate his new body organization. He also began to get relief from his anxiety, which helped him to function better in daily life.
“Moshe Feldenkrais,” Wadleigh says, “talked about a body pattern of anxiety—shortening of the flexors in front, shoulders rounded forward, neck sticking out to adapt to that, all putting a lot of stress on the back. The back muscles have to work harder against the powerful muscles in the front that become habitually contracted, and so that contributed to my back pain and difficulty.”
Because of his movement practice and related insights, Wadleigh now has a different relationship with anxiety. “Most of the historical anxiety I used to feel is gone,” he says. “It used to be all mixed up with present-day anxiety, which made it hard to deal with. I have learned to use my present-day anxiety as a calibration tool. It alerts me to things I need to pay attention to. It helps me manage my projects and priorities.”
While he previously would freeze when he became anxious, he can now take action. That path of anxiety, releasing those patterns, continues on today. For Wadleigh, anxiety is now information and a source of motivation. He can use it as fuel, so to speak, to accomplish things.
He attributes the shifts in his body and anxiety levels to neuromuscular changes in which old habits have let go over time. “The old things in the past that were holding on so tightly have let go.”
History of the Method
Moshe Feldenkrais was born in the Ukraine, moved to Israel at 14, and as an adult lived in France. He worked as a laborer, cartographer, and engineer before becoming a movement teacher. In-depth studies in jiu jitsu and judo influenced his path, and when he aggravated a soccer injury in his knee, he sought to repair it by moving carefully and consciously. As he studied his own movement patterns and consciously changed them, he developed the Feldenkrais Method, and in 1949 he wrote his first book on the approach. He soon began to teach others awareness through movement lessons and functional integration, and from the 1960s until his death in 1981, he trained teachers in the method.
Awareness through movement classes cover thousands of different exercises involving simple to complex movements and clear directions for attending to, and learning about, the physical experience associated with them. Students become more aware of the mechanical details, as well as the sensations of movement; with awareness comes greater choice about the patterns of movement. Feldenkrais said awareness of movement and choices about it directly relate to our self-concept.
In a functional integration lesson, or private session, a practitioner uses his or her hands to guide a client’s movement. The “hands-on” technique helps the student experience the connections among various parts of the body and learn how to eliminate excess effort. He or she learns to move more freely and develops a more relaxed and integrated way of moving and being. The lessons don’t aim to eliminate pain or “cure” physical issues, though they may provide relief.
What Does Our Posture Say About Us
A central aspect of the elusiveness of Feldenkrais work stems from the fact that we have come to view the body and mind as separate. This emphasis, combined with a fear and denigration of the body, has led us to believe that what we think is real and absolute. Yet, Feldenkrais and many others have said the body and mind are one. His unique perspective was that rather than trying to reconnect mind and body, we basically need to relearn that they are one.
In reality, we live most of our lives as though they are separate. We think all day of this task, this person, this struggle, and we react to situations based on prior learning. We are not aware of how we hold ourselves, how we use our bodies, or how our bodies reflect our internal states. We may not notice how a fearfulness from childhood manifests in the stooped posture Wadleigh describes, or how a feeling of needing to fight one’s way through the world may manifest in lifting and puffing up the chest. We may have habits such as leaning forward to be noticed, or of pulling back to avoid confrontation, which in turn lead to neck or back strain.
“Feldenkrais says we are all born with the fear of falling and that it becomes associated with other fears as we live our lives,” Wadleigh explains. “As infants, loud noises are one of the first things that get associated with the fear of falling. As we develop, other things become associated with the fear of falling and cause the same reaction in the body—a tightening of the abdominal muscles and other flexor muscles, causing a tucking of the pelvis and a rounding of the back and shoulders.”
In practicing the method, Wadleigh says a person can alleviate those associated fears so they are not overpowering. Feldenkrais lessons will guide a person through movements slowly and repeatedly, which are fundamentally different from their own, calling attention to various body parts and their relation to one another. Some of these lessons may be developmental in nature, others may be rooted in martial arts or some other creative notion. A student will notice how he or she moves, and may make adjustments until the quality of the movement improves. These movements can help “reprogram” the brain—primarily the motor cortex—bringing about broader changes in one’s body and sense of self.
“We make choices about the quality of our movement, and we take that back into our lives, and things begin to change,” Wadleigh says. “It isn’t necessarily about trying to change those habits in our lives—things change indirectly as the result of the practice. There can be direct changes too—when a person needs help reaching or bending over—but it is really more about working with the unconscious habits.
“When I work with someone, I don’t want them to think they have to do a, b, or c; I want change to become second nature, so they don’t have to think about it. They start to sense themselves, and they may find, ‘I can ride my horse more easily, I can drive on the highway without anxiety’—changes like that.”
After experiencing Feldenkrais lessons and going through a four-year training in the method, Wadleigh’s overall organization has changed so that he stands taller, looser, and more relaxed. He senses himself in a more complete way. His shyness has shifted so that he teaches classes and speaks in public with ease. “I walk into a room, and the room is mine,” he says.
Examples of Body-Mind Connection and Change
Lavinia Plonka, a Feldenkrais practitioner in Asheville, North Carolina, and author of Walking Your Talk: Changing your Life through the Magic of Body Language (Tarcher Books, 2007), also sought the Feldenkrais method to help with physical pain. An actress, she was constantly going to the acupuncturist, chiropractor, and massage therapist for physical pain, and she felt she was in a never-ending loop of discomfort and treatment. She began to look for another option. She read several books by Feldenkrais, and she took lessons.
She began to think that Feldenkrais would not only help her feel better, it might help with her performance and her career. What she found was that it completely changed her life, and eventually changed her career. The changes were physical, mental, and emotional, and they were all happening at the same time.
“I began to understand where my physical pain was coming from in my posture, my breathing patterns,” Plonka says. “I had bad posture from childhood habits, and I thought that’s who I was. I was caught in what Feldenkrais called an anxiety pattern that developed as a result of my own startle reflexes. I began to move differently, hold myself differently. I gained an inch. I became calmer, present, more able to listen to people. As a performer, I was more fluid, and my body was able to do more things. I was less tired.”
Like Plonka, we think the way we feel is who we are. “The thing about our body sensations is that these sensations are the feeling by which we know ourselves,” Wadleigh says. “This is how we feel, and most of the time it is outside our conscious awareness, and so we create these sensations in ourselves—certain muscle tonus, tension, or relaxation—and it’s how we maintain our sense of self.
“To really clarify your sense of self, one of the key ideas we work with is to clarify your skeletal structure. We cannot sense the skeleton directly—it only has pain receptors, and we don’t want to activate those. We sense the skeleton through our proprioception. We sense the hardness of the bones and the locations of them relative to one another through movement.
“In bringing awareness to how we hold ourselves, how we move, we may see a shift occur. In a Feldenkrais lesson, a person is able to experience things anew. As they sense and feel themselves, they experience a calmer state, they develop choice and a stronger sense of self. In addition, patterns improve, leading to an organized body.”
Our habits are very ingrained, and even when they cause problems, we hold on to them, Wadleigh adds. “We’ll do a lot to try and maintain that, even if it is uncomfortable. Someone who’s got pain, and has had pain for a long time, can’t imagine not having it. It’s like an old leather jacket that fits so well and is comfortable even though it is falling apart at the seams. So when I work with my clients, and I sit them up at the end of the lesson, and when the pain in the shoulder is gone, they say, ‘Wow, it’s gone. What is there?’ They are so used to the pain that they don’t have a way of categorizing the sense of comfort, these new sensations. I will help them, because I think it’s really important for them to know that they can be creative—I want them to fill that space up with something they can name and that is there for them.”
The Role in Health Care
Feldenkrais believed that health is founded on good function, and he said his method of body-mind exploration improved functioning or health by making individuals more aware. His method only indirectly addresses pain and injury. He made a point to emphasize this goal: “What I am after is more flexible minds, not just more flexible bodies.”
Is Feldenkrais therefore a health-care treatment? “Feldenkrais work is not covered by insurance,” Plonka says. “People who come for lessons take a leap, paying out of pocket for something they can’t pronounce. It is a last resort for many, and many seek it out to help alleviate pain.”
Others see Plonka because they have writer’s block, or they have gone through psychotherapy and still have anxiety. Others come because they have some kind of feeling such as “I can’t do what I want”; they feel some kind of insurmountable obstacle that they can’t see. One person may want to be able to climb stairs, and another may want to get to the next level in violin playing. Another may want to feel more comfortable in their wheelchair.
“I don’t ask what’s wrong with them, I ask, ‘What would you like to learn in these lessons?’” Plonka says. “It is a teacher-student relationship; I am not a therapist.
“So much research is now validating what Feldenkrais said in The Body and Mature Behavior. It was published in 1949, and science is just catching up with the things he said there about the brain, learning, the nervous system, and flexibility. Feldenkrais coined the term organic learning to explain the process of building new neural links.”
Recent research in the neurosciences demonstrates neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain and nervous system to change throughout our lives, corroborating much of what Feldenkrais taught and influencing other professions and approaches.
Awareness and Potential
Feldenkrais taught that awareness of body movement is related to overall self-awareness and to self-image, Wadleigh says. “We don’t fully develop, we don’t sense ourselves. There are parts of ourselves that are absent from our self-image. Feldenkrais describes self-image and how all of our parts connect three-dimensionally and move through space and time together. A lot of us—parts of ourselves—are absent. A woman I was working with recently was very focused on her shoulders. I started working on a lesson around movements of the pelvis and she said she didn’t feel that part of herself, so we did a lesson around integrating parts of the pelvis, and it was quite profound for her. She had never sensed how it moved, how it was connected to other parts of herself. I see this with many people, in many different situations.”
Wadleigh says Feldenkrais talks about the process of maturation. “In Higher Judo (Warne, 1952), he’s talking about people who are immature. He says we tend to mature enough to get by, to get our basic needs met, and then we stop. Most of us stop about the age of 14, but there are exceptions—some become more fully an adult.
“By doing these kinds of movements in awareness through movement classes or functional integration lessons, we are doing things to complete the maturation process. We do unusual movements where we bring awareness to what we are doing, and we start to sense what our habits are and we learn we have choices about the quality of those movements. We can improve our habits and improve the quality of our lives. You take that back into your life, and you start to change, without trying to do so directly.”
Plonka says, “Feldenkrais called our work ‘awareness through movement.’ He believed that working with sensing how the body moves is a way to self-realization and doing what you want.”
Feldenkrais, Plonka notes, said people put aside certain aspirations and dreams that seem impossible; by giving those up, we hold patterns of despair and anxiety in our bodies. He believed that by recognizing how these patterns are held in the body, we can reorganize ourselves toward “realizing our avowed and unavowed dreams. He often said, ‘If you know what you do, you can do what you want.’”
There are four components of action in Feldenkrais, Plonka says. We are thinking, sensing, feeling, and moving all the time, and yet what we are aware of is feeling (not sensation). “To sense myself and see my emotions is a huge amount of work; that is why we do it over time,” she says. “It is a skill—we are developing the kinesthetic sense, our sixth sense, and most of us don’t have it at all.
“By practicing the work of awareness and allowing gradual shifting in our patterns, our self-image changes. If we feel a huge shift in ourselves, we get overwhelmed and return to our default system. When the system is ready, it always chooses the more functional way. If there is too much danger or stress, we fall back on old ways. So we practice, just like learning to play the piano, letting it become a part of us and trusting the intelligence of our bodies.”
Feldenkrais in Action
While the range of reasons for seeking lessons is varied, so are the results. Many visit Plonka seeking help with frozen shoulders or wounded knees. “The way I feel I change peoples’ lives is not by looking at physical things but looking at how that physiological thing is related to the person’s perceived self-image.”
One student sought Plonka’s help with low-back pain. While many seeking this gentle approach are older, this man was in his 20s, and he was handsome, athletic, and successful. “He sensed something gnawing at him. He had a lower back injury that he blamed on high school football, and he had arranged his behavior around the injury.”
The holding was about being perfect, getting it done. He began to realize that throughout his childhood there was an emphasis on the need to perform in a specific way—he had a habit of grasping his lower back and glute on the left side. In the lessons, as he learned to notice the triggers that caused him to grip, he changed in the way he carried himself, and in the way he listened to others. He began to attend to others in a way that was about trying to hear what they were getting at. “He used this work to discover his own maturation,” Plonka says.
Another student was a middle-aged man with Crohn’s disease and a laundry list of pains. “Let’s take a look and see how you walk,” Plonka said to him. “In 10 years of medical treatment, no one had ever asked to see him walk. He had a rigid personality, a rigid forward walk. After a lesson, as he walked, his pelvis moved for the first time, which he didn’t like because it seemed feminine. But bit-by-bit, his movement improved, he began to open up, then started to stop and talk to others. He could turn his head, and he had less pain in his feet. He still goes to classes and finds value in the work,” she says.
Seeking the Elusive
Though there are numerous examples of the effectiveness of the method, Feldenkrais may continue to seem elusive to those of us who live in our heads. Yet, as we seek solutions to chronic pain or the stuckness we feel in our lives, it offers a way to explore, grow, and change. People continue to hear about it from an article, a friend, other health practitioners, sometimes community recreation centers.
“Some approaches are more dramatic in the moment, but may not last,” Plonka says. Feldenkrais is subtle, but far-reaching. As Feldenkrais trainer Russell Dolman of Marin, California, says, “The Feldenkrais Method works like a fine mist. You go outside on a rainy day and you either go back in, or wear protective gear so you can’t get penetrated. But if it’s a gentle mist, you don’t notice that it’s soaking through as you walk. Then you get home and realize you’ve been saturated.”
While defining Feldenkrais is elusive for Wadleigh and his colleagues, it is also rich with possibility. “The method is like a jewel with many facets,” he says. “I can explain one aspect to a person—the aspect that will be meaningful to them.
“I can’t explain it in one sentence. I can do it in 10 minutes, and I can convince you that it’s the greatest thing in the world. It is so deep and comprehensive, and in a way it is so simple. It is hard to put your finger on it and say it is this, because it encompasses so much more, and there is always that concern that someone will take away only one fact of the work, like, ‘Oh, it’s about posture,’ when in reality it is so much more.
“Yet, as Dr. Feldenkrais would say, there is so much potential in the Feldenkrais Method for us to learn and develop and become more fully human.”