The Feldenkrais method

A recent article in the New York Times by the health columnist, Jane Brody, Trying the Feldenkrais Method for Chronic Pain, described her very positive experience with the Feldenkrais method. Then, at about the same time a patient told me that Feldenkrais lessons made a big difference in her neck and back pain. I started to read about Feldenkrais (download an article from the Smithsonian Magazine), took a lesson with my patient’s teacher, and then invited this teacher to work in our office.

This method was developed by a Russian-born Israeli engineer Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984). He was a physicist who was educated at Sorbonne and worked with Frédéric Joliot-Curie, then worked in the British survey office and during the war, as a science officer in the Admiralty. In 1936, while in France, he became one of the first Europeans to earn a black belt in judo.

A knee injury led Feldenkrais to develop a movement method named after him. He did not call it therapy and always insisted that he did not treat patients, but rather taught lessons on how to move naturally. At the same time, his lessons often led to a dramatic relief of pain, improved movement and functioning in individuals who suffered from cerebral palsy, strokes, multiple sclerosis, back, and neck pains. He felt that the key to healing was to become aware of what one is doing. Dancers, artists, and athletes have been using Feldenkrais lessons to improve their performance and to heal and avoid injuries. In the early 1950s Feldenkrais worked with the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, whose decades-long chronic back pain dramatically improved. Feldenkrais quit his position as the first director of the electronics department of the Israeli Defense Force and decided to devote all of his time to teaching his movement method. He had trained hundreds of practitioners all around the world and they in turn trained the next generation of teachers.

Feldenkrais emphasizes gentle and often small movements that re-educate and re-establish the connection between the body and the brain. It also makes you do movements that do not come naturally and that we never do, such as turning your head to one side and moving your eyes in the opposite direction. It is difficult to describe this method in words, but even a single lesson can show its dramatic potential. Try this simple exercise. Check the range of movements in your neck – how far can you turn your head to one side, then the other without straining. Then, put palms of your hands on your cheeks and attach your arms to the body. Now, turn your body at the waist from the midline to the left and back to the midline, again only as far as you can comfortably do it. Repeat this 10 times and then 10 times from the midline to the right. Now, put down your arms and test your range of movements again. Most people, including those who have very tight neck muscles, will noticed a significant and a very surprising improvement. Surprising, because it happened without moving your neck. You can watch me doing this exercise on youtube; I also show another exercise that improves the lateral flexion of your neck.

A possible explanation is that our brains get visual cues indicating that our head moved far to one side, but the brain cannot tell if the movement came from turning the torso or the neck. Repeating the move 5-10 times trains our brain to allow such movement even when we only move the neck. This explanation has some scientific support. When vision and proprioception were incongruent, participants were less accurate and initially relied on vision and then proprioception over time.

This explanation has some scientific support. The authors of an article in the Experimental Brain Research, Untangling visual and proprioceptive contributions to hand localisation over time, conclude that “When vision and proprioception were incongruent, participants were less accurate and initially relied on vision and then proprioception over time” (proprioception is our sense of the relative position of our body parts).

Another fascinating phenomenon that provides Feldenkrais method additional scientific support is the observation that when we cross our hands, we feel less pain in the hand. The Journal of Pain published an article “Seeing One’s Own Painful Hand Positioned in the Contralateral Space Reduces Subjective Reports of Pain…” Scientific research using functional MRI images of the brain led to the publication of another article in the same journal: Crossing the line of pain: FMRI correlates of crossed-hands analgesia.

It appears that our visual cues are very important to our ability to move and feel pain and this may be one of the ways the Feldenkrais method improves movement and relieves pain.

Individual lessons can be expensive ($100-$200 an hour), but Feldenkrais is often taught in groups, which makes it more affordable. You can also learn it by reading books, such as Awareness Heals: The Feldenkrais Method For Dynamic Health , audio recordings – The Feldenkrais Lessons: Awareness Through Movement by Bruce Holmes , and youtube videos

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