What prevents a person from overcoming back pain? From easily reaching their toes? From walking with ease and confidence?

Carol—only 60—tried the Feldenkrais Method after being referred to me by her doctor. His extensive tests had not supported a conclusive diagnosis of why Carol was falling. She arrived in my office walking slowly, bending forward, and reaching out to a door or wall for support.

Many factors can introduce obstacles to free and easy movement in our lives: how we were raised, our developmental speed, the work and activities we do, how we adapt to injuries.

Consequently, we develop unintended, deeply embedded movement habits. In Carol’s case, the fear of falling—a primal one—had resulted in tense and constricting habits. Walking the way she did prevented her pelvis, hip joints, spine, and shoulders from moving freely. It also prevented her from reading the cues the body sends regarding balance—cues from her ankles, hip joints, and neck.

Unaware of these deeply embedded habits, we carry them into everything we do. If we tend to keep our shoulders up around our ears, we’ll do so whether we’re walking, practicing a yoga asana, swinging a golf club, or doing a sit-up. We’ll hunch them at our desks and then go to the gym where, shoulders still hunched, we march on the treadmill.

We usually remain unaware of our habits until they create interference. In Carol’s case it was loss of balance. Someone else might experience back pain. They might try to treat the symptom of their “bad back” with over-the-counter remedies or perhaps by visiting a doctor or physical therapist. Perhaps they’re told to tighten their abdominal muscles through exercise. Yet if soft bellies were responsible for back pain, toddlers everywhere would be in agony. Even if they seek out massage, the relief is often only temporary. The pain returns. The embedded habits that led to the pain remain.

As a Feldenkrais practitioner I often am asked, “Is it like massage? Yoga? Tai Chi? Chiropractic work?” The answer is: no. Massage attempts to affect change through soft tissue manipulation. Yoga involves the stretching and holding of various poses. Tai Chi requires training and practice of movements. Chiropractic involves adjustment and manipulation of the spine. In contrast, the Feldenkrais Method involves active learning. Through light touch and sometimes verbal instruction, it directs your attention to yourself as well as to your interaction with the environment. You learn to detect differences in your movements. You learn on the same level that a child learns how to walk—not through being told or through study or through repeated exercise. As a result, you release the habitual neuromuscular patterns that may be causing or contributing to difficulties.

Carol’s concern was keeping her balance. During her lessons, I helped Carol explore the connection of her head to her pelvis, using her four points—both hands and both feet—to explore losing and regaining equilibrium, shifting weight, and rolling. Never during our work did I try to “teach” Carol balance or talk to her about her habits and how to change them. Instead, her awareness of where she was in space improved.

Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais (1904 – 1984), a physicist who received his doctorate from the Sorbonne, was an avid soccer player and an accomplished Judo practitioner and teacher. After sustaining a serious knee injury, doctors told him surgery would have only a 50% chance of success. He began a study of anatomy, physiology, child development, movement science, psychology, and various Eastern awareness practices and somatic approaches. His insights allowed him to avoid the knee surgery. More important, these studies and his work with all kinds of people—from infants with Cerebral Palsy to performers; from Margaret Mead to the neuroscientist Carl Pribram—enabled him to develop the Feldenkrais Method.

His research led him to the conclusion that constraints, embedded in habitual movements, were a source of problems. By creating the conditions in which people could first become aware, on an experiential level, of their habitual patterns, and then allowing them to find options for moving more freely, he could achieve remarkable success with people. He developed a process and a means to communicate that process.

One client who came to my office told me she had never been “flexible.” How did she know this, I asked? “I can’t do many of the poses in my Yoga class. In fact, I can’t even touch my toes,” she said. I asked her to try to touch her toes. Instead of bending forward from the hip joints, she pushed her pelvis backward. She attempted to flex her middle and upper back. Sure enough, she couldn’t get her fingers to the floor. Yet she had a normal spine and hip joints. During the lesson, I taught her to let go of the work in the back and to flex at the hip joints. Within an hour she could indeed touch her toes.

In this type of learning, movement becomes the laboratory; the person’s own body, their classroom. Someone recently said to me, “You can’t cure arthritis.” This is true. But the person with arthritis can learn new motor behavior—different ways to move. When they do, they won’t stress the affected joints.

An article in the June 2003 Current Opinion in Otolaryngology & Head and Neck Surgery, which recommended the Feldenkrais Method as a useful tool in voice therapy, noted that it was its ability to change motor behavior that let people reduce excessive muscle tension, optimize their physical posture, and find improved breathing and voice production.
Dr. Feldenkrais said, “What I'm after isn't flexible bodies, but flexible brains. What I'm after is to restore each person to their human dignity.” Feldenkrais believed that reorganization of a person’s self image at the kinesthetic level could result in profound change for a person.

After her first visit, Carol did not fall again. Five weeks later, she walked differently—freer and more gracefully. Her fear of falling was gone.

Author's Bio: 

Dianne Fecteau, MS, is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner, a Qigong practice leader, and movement coach who embraced the Feldenkrais Method after 22 years of working in corporate consulting. She is the author of the two-CD set, "Sure Steps to Better Balance" and has written frequently about the Feldenkrais Method and alternative health.