My own interest in the Feldenkrais MethodSM was sparked by my desperate need for the work. A fall on the ice left me disabled with a low back injury. After following the usual medical and chiropratic treatment for nine months with only occasional alleviation of pain, one lesson in Functional Integration* gave me a sense of well-being that bordered on euphoria. I knew immediately that I needed as much of that feeling as I could get and embarked on a quest for Feldenkrais that eventually led me to Moshe himself.
As a participant in his four-year Feldenkrais Professional Training Program held in Amherst, Massachusetts, I rolled around on the floor of a huge gymnasium for nine weeks each summer with 220 other curious people who felt similarly drawn to Moshe’s unique approach to learning. My personal learning not only freed me from the pain syndrome I had been locked into, but gave me a fluidity of motion and increased mobility, so that I now move better than before my accident. More significant than my body’s recovery is the change in my self-image and my expanded concept of what I can do. It has given me the confidence to make a major move from Washington, D.C. on my own and to re-establish myself here in Orange County, practicing a profession that is virtually unknown.
Moshe Feldenkrais was an Israeli scientist with a Ph.D. in Physics and Engineering from the Sorbonne in Paris, but his training program was absolutely non-academic. He led us through an experience of self-discovery that started with how our bodies function in movement. We repeated simple little movements, sequentially arranged, that somehow magically freed up our bodies, so that we could do larger, complicated actions with incredible ease and grace. As we played with these movements, he directed our attention to how the different parts of the body interact to create movement. He took us back through the basic functions of infant development – rolling over, sitting up, crawling, standing up and walking – to fill in the gaps in our initial learning, which were obvious to his practiced eye by how we moved in class.
Moshe was the first Westerner to hold a black belt in judo, and his books on the subject are well known in France. He understood human movement from so many points of view that few people could even begin to match his skill. Knowing that understanding of human functions must come from the inside out, he attempted to re-create for us the kind of experimentation and discovery that he himself had experienced in developing his method.
He interspersed the movement lessons with rambling stories that alternately fascinated and bored us, and with bad-tempered outbursts that inspired a whole gamut of reactions on the part of his students. Our frustration brought our habitual patterns of behavior to our awareness. We began to comprehend just how our emotional state influenced our ability to perform physically, and how our self-image and our habitual modes of acting limited us. All the time, we had the relatively concrete example of our constantly expanding repertoire of movement capacity as a reference point.
My own personal realization of this phenomenon came during my second year of training when I placed the sole of my foot on my forehead with comfort and learned to stand on my head. I had never done either in my whole life, even before I had a “bad back and bad neck.” I began to examine my other limitations.
In pushing the edges of my perceived limitations, I followed the model Moshe had taught us in movement classes that used feedback gained though the nervous system. We move, we feel and we know. The knowing cannot always be put into words, but a movement that is felt often seems more real than a thought. When thought and feeling are put together, a mind/body connection is established taking us into a realm of being which is fully integrated. Such harmony of action flows with an ease and efficiency that can only come when resistance has been eliminated.
By paying attention to very small movements, we learn how to discard the unnecessary components in building a more complex action such as sitting up, for example. Through this same process we can also learn to streamline our conflicting motivations into a clear intention. With this knowledge of how to direct our mind and body to do whatever we wish, comes a natural confidence that enables us to use our whole selves, physically, emotionally and intellectually. This integrated use of self, characterized by Moshe as Functional Integration* is the goal of this method.
Having previously taught French to uninterested high school students, I find it very rewarding now to be teaching people basic functions which can significantly improve the quality of their lives. A recent client was an eleven year old girl who had broken her hip and was still limping six months after the operation. I helped her learn to shift her weight to that leg more easily in walking. In compensating for the injury, she had also developed a pattern of twisting the shoulders and tilting her head to one side. If left uncorrected, in favoring the injured leg she might have further distorted the use of her body. This could have resulted in undue stress on the stronger side, eventually leading to ankle or knee problems. With increased awareness and attention she will now be able to resume her athletic activities in a balanced fashion.
Another student was a fifty-year-old businessman who took aerobic classes to get back in shape. An old shoulder injury prevented him from lifting his arms overhead, and strangely enough, the more he exercised the less flexible he became, despite his weight loss and firmer muscle tone. After three lessons in Functional Integration his aerobics teacher stopped the class to comment on his improved flexibility. I told this story to another client who promptly sent me her husband. A rather skeptical lawyer, he was certain that there was no cure for the stiffness of old age which was catching up with him. After his first three lessons with me, his aerobics teacher complimented him on his newfound flexibility. Still the skeptic, he jokingly inquired if I had a special arrangement with all the aerobics teachers in town. In both cases the improved flexibility came from using the trunk of the body more efficiently, rather than attempting only to stretch tendons and muscles of the limbs. They had also learned to relax chronically contracted antagonistic muscles which were limiting movement and causing them to become “muscle-bound” after their workout.
Although my practice in Washington, D.C. was primarily with healthy adults who came for management of stress and chronic muscle tension, I have also worked with people with various disorders of the neuro-muscular system such as stroke, ataxia and cerebral palsy. The work has effectively improved their balance in walking and given them confidence to attempt activities that they avoided out of fear of failure and possible embarrassment.
A six-year-old boy with ataxia confided in me that his dream was to climb a tree like his classmates. After he learned to relax the shortened hamstring and musculature of his contracted left leg, his gait improved considerably. In a few weeks he could climb up the tree, and in another week he could also climb down, which is harder. He progressed to jumping, standing on his head and other activities that his increasing self-confidence prompted him to try. He got very interested in the idea of his muscles directing his bones and told me he could almost see his muscles riding a bicycle.
This method of imagining the body kinesthetically in movement is an important component of the Feldenkrais Method. People with partial or complete paralysis can use their good side to teach the other side to move. In Awareness Through Movements classes we often do the movement on one side only. On the opposite side we simply imagine in minute detail how it felt to actually do it. Students often find that the learning transfers from one side of the brain to the other, and that the side which only imagined the movement can perform better than the other.
Learning can also take place on a strictly neuro-muscular level, with no conscious understanding of what is taking place. After six months of my working with an eight-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who doesn’t speak, her nurse and teachers noticed a dramatic improvement in her balance, the sensory ability of the affected right side and her ability to relate to others. With her, all the teaching and learning has been non-verbal, through gentle touching, to which the child responds very well.
As a practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method, I enjoy the freedom I have in determining how to work with a particular client and the variety of human functions that it can effectively improve. Moshe’s philosophy is that what we do is not so important as how we do it. I am very pleased to be involved in a profession which encourages my own personal growth through continually exploring the “how of doing” as I help my students live better lives.
Suze Angel, M.A. is a Fulbright Scholar and an authorized Feldenkrais∗ practitioner. Suze was disabled by a fall and rehabilitated herself completely through a four year professional training program with Moshe Feldenkrais, the originator of this unique and much acclaimed method of body/mind integration.