Feldenkrais is an educational system which views the body and mind as an inseparable whole. Learning takes place through movement and directed attention and affects the whole person. Improvements include greater ease and fluency of movement, co-ordination and a sense of well-being. It can address a wide range of conditions, from ADHD to cerebral palsy, from chronic pain to injuries of brain and body and has been known to achieve extraordinary results.
It was developed as a response to seriously debilitating conditions and created an alternative to surgery for some, but is for anyone who wants to improve their quality of life. It is also much loved by dancers, singers and other performers for whom refining their somatic awareness is essential to their craft,
There are two aspects to the method: the exercise classes, called ‘Awareness Through Movement’, ( as opposed to Movement Through Awareness – this reflects Feldenkrais’ interest in people becoming more mature human beings, rather than better movers.) The one to one sessions are called ‘Functional Integration.’ Here the practitioner guides you through different movement patterns using touch, each lesson is unique as it is is tailored to the student’s individual needs.
You won’t huff and puff in a Feldenkrais class, but you will emerge with better alignment and stability. It works by making tiny incremental changes to habitual patterns of movement. It succeeds because this ‘baby steps’ approach stimulates the brain to become sensitive to and so able to rewrite its body map, thus creating new ways of moving. Where there is serious injury or disability, new neural pathways can allow a patient to learn ways of recovering lost functionality.
It was developed by Moshe Feldenkrais 1904-1984, a nuclear physicist, trained in electrical and mechanical engineering, who studied biomechanics, anatomy, neurophysiology, child development, psychology, evolution and eastern disciplines such as Judo and Shiatsu. He collaborated with others doing innovative research e.g.: Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, Karl Pribrin, the Neuroscientist.
We are more accustomed now to the idea that the adult brain still has the capacity to create new neural pathways, but when Feldenkrais was developing his method, the study of neuroplasticity was in its infancy and its principles not generally accepted. His research led him to the idea that the interdependence of mind, body and the nervous system was key to understanding how movement was organised by the brain and how new organisation could be created. Instead of treating injury or disability as a purely musculoskeletal problem, he would begin by encouraging a person to make small movements which would suggest to the brain that learning was possible. He described this as a kind of ‘switching on’. For example, in children born with severe tonus, that is where the muscles appear to be in such traction that movement is impossible, the standard treatment was to cut the muscle, or use severe and painful stretching. Instead, by gentle manipulations Feldenkrais was able to lead the children slowly towards finding ways of moving themselves. Often this involved returning to the kind of exploratory movements which babies make. There are a number of fascinating videos on You Tube demonstrating how the method works for all ages and for various conditions from sciatica, neck and back pain to torn ligaments and neuropathy. It’s clear from these that changes can happen quite quickly.
Feldenkrais said that the brain finds it easier to differentiate small movements. So by increasing awareness of these, we can learn new patterns of connecting the nervous system, our intentions and our mobility. He said: ‘ If we know what we are doing, we can do what we want.’
For some though, input may be required over years. For example, a little girl who was born with cerebellar hyplasia (missing a third of her cerebellum), had virtually no mobility and was labelled mentally retarded. She received treatment from Feldenkrais and one of his students, Anat Baniel, throughout her childhood and went on to take 2 post graduate degrees, to marry (and dance at her wedding) and to run a business. Sensational case histories do not by themselves confer credibility, but the work continues and is corroborated by an increasing number of independent studies. There is now a database on the website for the international Feldenkrais Federation which collates all the continuing research into the effectiveness of the treatment in areas of pain management, ADHD, Parkinson’s, MS, and a a whole range of musculoskeletal conditions, (www.zotero.org)
The life of Moshe Feldenkrais is extraordinary, heroic even, and you can see how the threads of his experiences contributed to his innovative approach. Born a Jew, at fourteen he left his family in Russia, escaping persecution, and walked to Palestine, gathering other children on the journey like a pied piper. En route he joined a circus where he learnt to tumble and fall safely. On arrival in Palestine he worked as a labourer and lived in a tent. Four years on he returned to high school, supporting himself by tutoring children other teachers had given up on. When Arabs attacked Jewish teenagers they put up their hands in instinctive but futile self defence. Trying to get them to stop this instinctive reaction failed, so he taught them how to turn the movement into a way of blocking their attackers. Later, in Paris he learnt Judo and founded the first Judo club in France. He qualified as a nuclear physicist and worked with the Curies. When war broke out they entrusted their research to him to take to England to keep it from the Nazis. He was recruited by Scotland to work in counter intelligence and developed a submarine tracking system.
While on a submarine he slipped and badly injured his knee. He refused surgery and spent hours moving it very slightly to learn how it worked. This set in train his ideas about mind/body interdependence. After the war he began his all-embracing research which resulted in the development of the Feldenkrais method. There are now training courses worldwide and practitioners continue to find new applications. One of his pupils, Anat Baniel specialises in using the method for children with special needs and her website contains videos and a lot of very useful information.
Simone Witney Kate Hilder, local practitioner, was the consultant for this article.