Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What is Feldenkrais?

Buddha said Whatever you think, it won't be that way. Feldenkrais is that way. Beginners and experienced teachers both agree, it has to be experienced to be understood - just reading about it is not enough. All I can do here is give you some history, a few hints and some of my own insights.  

Moshe Feldenkrais was born in 1904 in the Ukraine. He left home at age 14 to walk to Palestine (now known as Israel). After ten years there, he went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne –physics, mathematics, and electrical and mechanical engineering. He earned a Doctor of Science, and began working with Frederic Joliot-Curie, director or the Curie Institute. During this time he learned Judo from Jigoro Kano, the Japanese Minister of Education. After obtaining his black belt he taught in France and wrote books on Judo.

Kano had tried before to train other westerners for this work, with no success. Kano saw that Feldenkrais had a special quality, and he did, indeed, successfully teach martial arts to many Europeans before WW II. Feldenkrais was on one of the last boats from France to England at Dunkirk, at the start of WW II and he carried with him, in a suitcase, lab notes from Joliot-Curie regarding research on nuclear fission, plans for an incendiary bomb, and two quarts of heavy water that were later used in the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. (Later, however, for personal reasons he declined an invitation to work for the Manhattan Project in USA). He worked in England for the Admiralty during WWII, helping to develop and refine sonar.

During this time he because interested in human development – especially human movement – and he learned much from observing babies in the office of his wife, Yona Rubenstein, who was a pediatrician. Feldenkrais had a photographic memory, and he studied his wife’s medical books, and in addition became a self-taught neurologist. Because of an old knee injury, he applied his new skills to curing the knee, and he succeeded in learning to walk again and even resume his judo.

He began to work – hands on – with friends in need, and he called this work Functional Integration®. Later he developed a format for teaching these ideas to groups of people, and he called this Awareness Through Movement®.

In 1950 Feldenkrais returned to Israel and worked for their Defense Force, and was instrumental in starting Israel’s nuclear program. He taught in Israel and Europe through the 1950’s and first taught in America in 1971. He continued to teach often in America until his death in 1984 at age 80.

Today there are thousands of Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioners® worldwide, with many thousands of students who have gained significant benefits from Feldenkrais work. Why is the Feldenkrais work unique, different from all other kinds of body therapies?

1) Practitioners – to be certified – must spend hundreds of hours on the floor doing Awareness Through Movement® (ATM). Before teaching movement – we first thoroughly experience it in our own bodies - it takes at least four year in a training!  Then we can better help others with movement difficulties. We feel, as a matter of integrity, that we must embody the ideas we are attempting to teach. Also, as a practical matter, we cannot teach what we do not thoroughly understand ourselves.

2) We focus on human movement – not on manipulation, energy flows, tissue work, joint mechanics, massage or osteopathic protocols, etc. When movement is rightly approached, it can and does beneficially affect all those other things, but without focusing on them at all, consciously. That’s because our brain has evolved to let us move and accomplish things, without worrying about details like how tight a particular muscle is, or whether the soft tissue of the left knee is torqued. In a Feldenkrais context, for instance, we may do what looks like massage – but we’re thinking about facilitating your awareness of that area, we’re thinking about improving your movement by doing that. The focus is movement, not muscles. 

Our work includes the sensory-motor cortex (concerned with human sensing and movement) rather than only the lower brain functions. By contrast, many other types of body work focus on reflexes, releasing muscle tightness, aligning bones, stretching and aligning the soft tissue, nerve manipulations, energy work, clearing nerve pathways, releasing unconscious, deeply held muscles due to inability to express emotions, or past traumas, helping the blood to flow, etc. These are mostly low brain functions. The conscious mind of a normal person is not active in those arenas, ordinarily. I don't mean to be critical of other types of work. I just want to draw a distinction. A lot of improvement can be had with these types of interventions and manipulations. Often such work is exactly what is needed. If I have recently had a car accident, and all my bones are jarred out of place, I'd prefer to see a chiropractor or osteopath rather than a Feldenkrais practitioner! Although, there are Feldenkrais Practitioners who can work effectively in that kind of situation. 

Moshe Feldenkrais, however, was aware that the higher brain functions had a “supervisory capacity” over the lower brain functions. The question comes up – what does the “higher brain” or cortex, have to do with the lower brain functions? How can it “supervise”? The answer is movement. For instance, we can do “ordinary” movements either consciously, or automatically – unconsciously. We can breathe consciously, or unconsciously. When the understanding comes that the brain is mostly about movement, and movement includes all those lower brain functions, a whole new world of exploration and healing opens. We can reconfigure how we move – making it more elegant, with less tension and stress and compression – even though the low brain had formed a strong habit of moving you in a different way. The conscious mind can intervene – through the cortex, or higher brain – and that process is called Awareness Through Movement® or Functional Integration®.

Using movement as the primary focus, bones can come into better alignment, nerve function can be restored, soft tissue can be reconfigured back to normal, over-tight muscles can learn to soften and lengthen, blood circulation can be optimized, posture can be straightened, and much more. The wonderful thing about this, is that we are active participants, not helpless observers. That alone is unbelievably empowering and transformative. Every Feldenkrais Practitioner knows this, and wants to shout it from the rooftops, but we know people will think we are crazy. We smile and accept the compliment when people tell us "you have healing hands", yet we know the Work is so powerful, that anyone who does it will be accused of the same thing. Moshe Feldenkrais was also told the same thing, and he once responded (and I paraphrase) "Then why are my students told they have healing hands, when that was not the case before they learned this work?"

So with Feldenkrais we start a process of creative exploration of movement, with awareness as the focus. It seems so simple, so silly, or juvenile to think of doing a “movement lesson”. That’s for kids! I know how to move. That is how I used to think. Early in my Feldenkrais Training, I got regular doses of humility pills – discovering how wrong I was. It is a lifetime study, and even then you only scratch the surface. That’s no exaggeration. Scientists can spend their whole career, for example, on just one area of the brain. The study of human movement encompasses all areas of the brain. And, there is a whole lot more to it than just learning how the brain works!

3) The Feldenkrais touch is unique. Clients comment that you cannot get that “Feldenkrais Feeling....the melt down…that Feldenkrais zone” in any other place. They'll say things like "Feldenkrais is like the Cadillac of bodywork." We are sensing the whole body with our hands, we are listening for movement potentials, we are listening for learning opportunities, we are not imposing or doing something to you. Who else will touch you like that? It is a listening, “going with” touch, that is not invested in correcting, adjusting, or teaching – not directly. There is humor, trust, patience, allowing and profound acceptance in that kind of touch. It allows hidden resources, forgotten youthful hopes and dreams to surface – and these are potent healing forces. Such touch, all by itself, is potent - and combined with human movement, the results can be catalytic. In my opinion that’s why people experience “The Feldenkrais zone” during private sessions. And why, in one session, results can be obtained that were not forthcoming after many years of treatment with other modalities.

4) We’re working with the whole person – not just body parts. The common thread is a restoration and refinement of the organic ability to move with grace, intelligence, ease, power and poise – which is nearly always accompanied by decompression of all the joints, clarified awareness of skeletal support, better circulation, better sleep. Clients often are mystified: “How can something so gentle be so profound?” It's really not mysterious. When you help a person do more easily what they do most in life, and what the brain is mostly about - and which gets more difficult with aging -  certainly that will be a wonderful internal feeling. It is no small thing to help people move in a better way!  Many clients look forward to their hour on the Feldenkrais table as their “favorite time of the week”. Benefits come over time – some take less time, other more time. 

The neurological activity in the brain – and the rest of the body also – is concerned mostly (some physiologists put the figure at 95% others at 97% or higher) about movement. Logically, then, a modality must include some type of movement work to include "the whole person." Human movement includes proprioception, balance, self-image, muscular coordination, vision, hearing, touch, environmental mapping, and memory of movement patterns, release of extraneous tension, etc. 

5) Learning is a primary focus in The Feldenkrais Work. Movement is the very foundation of how we go about the process of learning anything new. That's not immediately obvious, is it? Yet, we spent prodigious amounts of time and energy as infants playfully learning new movements. Feldenkrais students spend many hours systematically studying that process both with ATM and Functional Integration (FI),  and we use those insights in working with people of all ages. What babies are doing is extremely sophisticated  and unbelievably intelligent; yet the fact that it appears playful, random and not guided by reason or will power leads many adults to dismiss it as of little significance. 

Those of us who do this work believe, beyond any doubt, that the kind of learning process we were engaged in during our early years can and should be continued throughout life. Instead, so many of us walk, reach, stand, sit, breathe, work, talk, think, feel or even sleep and  rest with "frozen" movement patterns, with predictable neurological circuits always being activated, predictable muscular configurations, an unchanging self-image. Why not make the whole thing dynamic? Life becomes something very different, more exciting, then. You can maneuver your way through life, then, with much greater finesse. It is kind of cool to learn to walk in new way - your friends will no longer recognize you by how you walk! This is a common event.

Feldenkrais is little like cold ocean water. You put your little toe in the water - to test it. You wonder whether you could get used to swimming in that cold water. A wave may wash over you; you may have one intriguing experience with Feldenkrais. You may decide it was a fluke, and ignore the whole thing, or you may jump in the water and swim - getting regularly involved in doing ATM (Awareness Through Movement) or seeing a practitioner privately for FI (Functional Integration) work once or twice a week for some time. Personally, I feel the reason many people do not get involved is not because they don't know about it's transformative power. They do. It's because they do know, but don't want to change. 

I usually tell my clients, "All I ask is that you have a little bit of an open mind. The way your "world is" may begin to shift, and that's part of your healing. Maybe the reason you are in this trouble is because Life wants you to grow and evolve, learn some important lessons."

When a person becomes aware that a certain  habit is tormenting him - perhaps he wants to stop smoking, or improve his posture, or change his diet - it  is a very common experience to encounter many difficulties and repeated failures in the process of trying to change. Yet, when The Feldenkrais Work enters the picture, the situation takes on a different aspect. We no longer have to work so hard to change a habit, to learn new ways of doing things. It can happen playfully, effortlessly, easily! 

Personal transformation and growth is inherent in The Feldenkrais Work.  One can become so engaged in the process that one does not even know he is changing so much! That's why it is said: "If you attend a Feldenkrais Training, be sure your spouse or partner attends with you." Otherwise - and it's a common event - you'll see a lot of relationship break-ups during a four-year training. One partner changed, the other did not. One of my colleagues, who attended the Amherst Feldenkrais training (the last training  that Moshe himself conducted) said that when she met some old friends after the training, at first they did even recognize her!

So, movement and awareness encompasses a very large playing field. So, why not work with them to enhance whatever else you are trying to accomplish, whether that is healing through tradition medicine, sports, excellence in a professional career, dance, theater, pain relief, or you-name-it? Why not include what the brain is mostly “about” instead of focusing on body parts as the problem, or on limited physiological concepts such as stretching, strengthening, coordination enhancement, fitness etc as a solution? That is what seems juvenile after one has had some years of intense Feldenkrais exposure. In fact, it is true that Feldenkrais practitioners work with physical therapy patients, dancers, athletes, children, adults and children with disabilities, healthy people with pain of some kind, and more.

We Feldenkrais Practitioners are sometimes accused of being arrogant, of rudely dismissing other types of bodywork as not as good or not as scientific as what others do. I apologize for that, and I hope I don't communicate that here. I love what I do, and how Feldenkrais  has packaged all these ideas and insights, and perhaps my enthusiasm gets the better of me.

In all humility I must admit that "all roads lead to Rome" and that other types of work do incorporate much of what we in the Feldenkrais community sometimes think  is our exclusive property. Some psychiatrists today, for example, actually work with breathing and posture as part of their treatment. Moshe would be very happy to know that. The human  body and mind is the teacher, and anyone who is dedicated to being effective as a healer or teacher or coach - will most certainly, sooner or later - have the same insights as I have described as perhaps being unique to Feldenkrais.  It's just that Moshe was one of the first to put it all together like this. It's an attractive package.  I've found, for example, that the average massage therapist knows far more about movement, posture, balance, breathing, learning and transformation than is commonly appreciated. 

Massage today cannot be dismissed as simply an unintelligent process of "muscle  rubbing" to release tension temporarily. Some massage therapists, in fact, know more practical procedures related to somatic healing than many Feldenkrais students! That is a fact I no longer question, after numerous rude awakenings. I used to think we had a corner on the market.  As one of my colleagues bluntly puts it "If I have trouble with my body, give me an experienced massage therapist any day, compared to  a brand new Feldenkrais student! Those veteran CMTs can work magic, they really know what they are doing. They have worked with so many people, for so many years, hands-on!"  

The fact that the work is called  "massage" is quite clever, since it is a concept that the average person can understand, appreciate - and will pay lots of money to have it done to him. That's meeting people where they are at. But what they actually do - and anyone who has seriously studied massage can tell you this - can often be far more sophisticated than simply rubbing muscles to release tension and make you feel good. Just pick up any massage magazine at a newsstand, and thumb through the articles, you'll get a clue. 

Thirty years of informal research, study and practice in the field of health, nutrition and personal growth helped me to recognize the power of the Feldenkrais Work. That was 16 years ago, and I have not looked back.

Finally, it has to be said: The Feldenkrais Method® requires participation. Little benefit accrues unless you start doing some kind of movement or awareness work, or regularly see a practitioner for private work. I recommend 6 private lessons a year, or 12 ATM lessons. This means an hour a week, or more. I have found that can keep you out of pain and trouble as you grow older. That is not much time to dedicate to correct a lifetime of habits that may be causing you pain and difficulty. In my blog, stevehamlin.blogspot.com, I give many insights, movement “tricks,” practical suggestions. I hope you try out some of these.

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