Exercise Method Puts Therapy in Motion

The Feldenkrais system of gentle movements can have profound benefits for your body.
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Photo: Paul Goldman

What do anthropologist Margaret Mead, pro golfer Duffy Waldorf, actress Whoopi Goldberg, basketball player Julius Erving and first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion all have in common?

All five have used Feldenkrais to either improve their game or cope with chronic pain.

(In fact, the famous picture of Ben-Gurion doing a headstand, at right, demonstrates what he learned through the Feldenkrais Method.)

The Feldenkrais Method is a type of somatic education that focuses on the nervous system and on how people move their bodies. The North American Feldenkrais Guild describes the Feldenkrais Method as "an owner's manual for your body."

Essentially, those who take Feldenkrais lessons learn to use their bodies more efficiently. In doing so, they can be free of chronic pain, expand their range of motion and improve physical performance. In fact, both practitioners I spoke with became certified instructors after using Feldenkrais as clients to recover from injuries.

"Lessons are exploratory, allowing you to experience different options for movement and find a way to move that is easiest for you. This 'sensory-motor' approach is similar to the way that we all learned to move as children," says

Barbara Leverone

, a practitioner in Sarasota, Fla.

Feldenkrais is an experiential type of learning -- as New Orleans-based

Evelyn Rodos explains, "You can tell someone all day to stand up straight

but if they don't know how, it won't help."

Sound Science

The Feldenkrais Method was developed by the late Moshe Feldenkrais.

Born in Slavuta (now the Ukraine), and trained as a mechanical and electrical engineer as well as a martial arts practitioner, Feldenkrais escaped during World War II and ended up in England. There he perfected the therapeutic work he had begun early in life in order to heal from a debilitating knee injury.

Putting his new methods to work, Feldenkrais regained his mobility, and in the 1950s he relocated to Israel and began to spread his teachings. He published numerous books on his system and trained hundreds of practitioners before he died in 1984.

Since then, numerous studies have shown the efficacy of the Feldenkrais Method for alleviating chronic pain, aiding multiple sclerosis patients with balance and even helping to heal eating disorders.

Two Techniques, One Goal

There are two types of Feldenkrais lessons. In Awareness Through Movement classes, students lay on the floor to begin with and are led verbally through a series of gentle movements. Unlike most types of exercise classes, students are encouraged to stay within their comfort zones and to rest often.

As Rodos pointed out before the Awareness Through Movement lesson I recently attended in New Orleans, she doesn't physically demonstrate the movements, as each person goes through them in his or her unique way.

Instead, I lay on a mat with my eyes closed while Rodos directs the class for an hour. After this, I slowly stand and walk around the room.

Although it feels I haven't done much but focus on my breathing and small leg and hip movements, upon standing the difference is profound: I feel centered and strong, and any tightness in my back has evaporated.

This technique of teaching illustrates an important factor of the Feldenkrais Method: It focuses the process of movement itself rather than on producing certain movements.

As opposed to a yoga or dance class, in which a student seeks to emulate an instructor's movement, Feldenkrais students concentrate on the process, staying aware of their own body's experience.

Many students of Feldenkrais also partake in one-on-one sessions with instructors that are customized to suit an individual's movement needs.

Whether it's seeking relief from carpal tunnel syndrome or improving a golf swing, private Functional Integration lessons often have profound results.

Clients remain fully clothed (although in comfortable garb which doesn't restrict movement), and lay on a padded table while their body is gently manipulated. As Rodos points out, Functional Integration lessons are nonverbal: The client remains relaxed while his or her body is carefully moved by the instructor.

My Functional Integration lesson didn't seem at all like an ordinary lesson; I remain passive while Rodos gently pushes at various places along my back and manipulates my arms, legs and head, causing a profound sense of relaxation and release.

After an hour and a half, I rise from the table feeling lighter, and even the simple act of moving, from sitting to standing, was easier.

After about six to eight Functional Integration lessons with Rodos, I regained good posture and nearly pain-free movements.

Even after a single Functional Integration lesson, however, it's easier and more comfortable to move and stand.

Finding an Instructor

Awareness Through Movement classes are taught throughout the U.S. and around the world. The sessions are not expensive, usually under $20.

Functional Integration lessons range from about $75 to $250 an hour, depending on the location and expertise of the instructor. According to Rodos, most students do both types of lessons, though many prefer the private sessions.

Instructors can be located

here -- the best way to make sure your practitioner has been trained by guild-certified instructors is to use this list.

Though clients often feel results after one lesson, expect to practice Feldenkrais for a number of months to resolve chronic pain issues. But after that, you just might be hooked.

Feldenkrais®, Feldenkrais Method®, Awareness Through Movement®, and Functional Integration® are registered service marks of the Feldenkrais Guild® of North America.

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Penelope Dane is a writer and sociologist living in Baton Rouge, La. She is currently working on her M.F.A. in fiction and conducting research on teen poetry.