Learning How to Learn – An Overview of the Feldenkrais Method

Rather than “fixing” the body, Moshe Feldenkrais taught how to expand its capacities and ranges of choice.  “I am going to be your last teacher. Not because I’ll be the greatest teacher you may ever encounter, but because from me you will learn how to learn. When you learn how to learn, you will realize that there are no teachers, that there are only people learning and people learning how to facilitate learning.” With those words Moshe Feldenkrais began his first North American training in June 1975. None of us were really prepared for this remarkable man or his method.

A powerful presence, Feldenkrais (1904-84) influenced and challenged almost all who came into contact with him. Physicist, engineer, mathematician, Judo master and student of acupuncture, Feldenkrais embodied the best of West and East. Sources of the Feldenkrais Method included Judo and Yoga, as well as physics, engineering, mathematics. He was also a man of many cultures and languages and in his work one can sense influences from Russian, German, French, English, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

Feldenkrais is known for developing Functional Integration and Awareness Through Movement, both of which are somatically based approaches to education and self inquiry. Functional Integration is tailored to the needs of the individual; through it one can establish, restore, or greatly improve functional action in the world.  It involves gentle, hands-on educational guidance which is done with the student clothed. It is noninvasive and is not painful.

Awareness Through Movement (ATM), the group work, consists of verbally instructed sequences and combinations of movements. They are done either actually or in the imagination, and enable participants to improve both the range and quality of movement. Despite its many varied themes, ATM is pervaded by two general injunctions: First, move only in your comfort zone. The idea is to work smarter rather than harder. The lessons take us beyond our limits by finding new combinations of ways to move. Second, carry out the instruction only as long as you can pay attention to what you’re doing. If the mind begins to wander, if the movement becomes mechanical, stop. Using these principles, Feldenkrais lessons often produce dramatic results. But to Feldenkrais, all results are trivial compared to the importance of directing one’s own learning.

Feldenkrais traced the origin of his work to a time in his life when he was directing antisubmarine research for the British Admiralty during World War II. He was required to be on a ship every day. Ships at sea pitch to and fro, and the constant jostling was wreaking havoc with a knee which had been injured years earlier in a soccer accident. He went to one of the best surgeons in England, who after examining him concluded that an operation would probably prove successful. Feldenkrais asked what he meant by “probably successful.”  The surgeon gave Feldenkrais 50-50 odds of either a successful outcome, where he would walk normally, or an unsuccessful one, where he would have to walk with a cane for the rest of his life. Feldenkrais’ response was that such odds were no better than mere chance. Upon informing the surgeon that he would fix his own knees, Feldenkrais was told that within six months he would return begging for an operation.

Undaunted, Feldenkrais began a detailed study of anatomy, kinesiology, physiology, and biology as they related to human movement. Through his wife, who was a pediatrician, he gained a thorough understanding of child development. He discovered that the information in the books he read contained the answers to other people’s questions but not his. Moreover, they tended to have a simplistic and mechanistic perspective on the body.

Nonetheless, from what he gleaned Feldenkrais began to make subtle manipulations of his knee. He kept careful records of his attempts: he would note the effect during the manipulations, as well as 30 seconds, a minute, five minutes, an hour, a day after each one. He gradually found the right combination of manipulations to restore his knee’s functioning. Or so he thought.

Walking on a sidewalk in London, Feldenkrais hailed a cab. Stepping off the curb onto what he assumed would be the street, he in fact stepped into a storm drain and reinjured his knee. Feldenkrais realized that, in his words, “I was like every other idiot who fixed a part and didn’t look at the whole system.”

He then began an inquiry into the activities of daily life that led him to his greatest realization: whether one walks poorly or gracefully, unless one understands how one does what one does, both are equally mechanical. Those who walked more gracefully or efficiently than others couldn’t tell Feldenkrais how they had learned to walk well, nor could they tell Feldenkrais how to do so. They didn’t know how they were doing what they were doing. As a habit, Feldenkrais believed, good posture is no better than bad posture. That is, if we are ignorant of the means whereby we acquired our habits then whether they are “good” or “bad” the underlying habit is ignorance.  He tried again to restore functioning to his knee, but now he knew he had to proceed very differently.

Each incremental step towards understanding seemed to undermine Feldenkrais’ intuitive assumptions about himself and the world, to the point where he said at times he felt he was going mad. He saw that the original soccer injury was due as much to his aggressive attitude on the playing field as to the accident. Yet how could he rigorously question his sense of the rightness of his habits? What his senses had told him was right now seemed wrong. How does one improve behavior if sensations can’t be trusted to provide objective data?

Grasping for explanations and in need of a way to prove or disprove his attempts at change, Feldenkrais developed a unique and comprehensive view of sensory motor functioning and its relation to thought, emotions and action. Because of his deep understanding of physics and the scientific method the counterintuitive results of his research did not discourage him. His work, while informed by science, came to parallel the Eastern path of joining mind and body, intention and action. In his research body-mind integration shifted from being a medical or scientific concern to becoming a path toward knowledge and beauty. As he proceeded Feldenkrais felt aligned to meditational disciplines in his recognition of the need to entrain attention and to develop the capacity to attend to what we do.

At first Feldenkrais was content to work on himself. Then came requests to work with the wives and husbands of colleagues. After successfully working with many individual students, he began to develop his group lessons, which coordinate intention and action as well as providing the means to “know what you are doing, so that you can do what you want.”

How does one decide where to begin a lesson? Again it’s instructive to look at an example from Feldenkrais’ life, taken from a time when he was a young Russian Jewish immigrant in Palestine in the 1920s. Attempting to protect his community, Feldenkrais, along with other young men, learned Jujitsu in a makeshift dojo. Subsequently there was a street skirmish, and many of those who thought they knew how to defend themselves were severely injured. Those who ran were spared.

Realizing the arbitrariness of his previous studies, Feldenkrais, utilizing the other young men decided to conduct an experiment. He staged armed and unarmed attacks on people and filmed their first reaction. Was it to cover up, to cower, to turn away? He then grafted onto that first reaction a defensive and/or offensive maneuver. Utilizing the person’s innate reaction and then extending it through a complementary Jujitsu technique, he trained the person anew.

To test the effectiveness of this new method, Feldenkrais put aside the martial training for six months after which he then simulated the attacks again. Those attacked were virtually all able to protect themselves. By building upon what people actually do, rather than what they should do, he eliminated the artifice and hesitation that had proved so costly in the previous way of training. The insight proved crucial to the development of his method.  He had learned that to be useful new learnings cannot grow out of what people “ought” to do but must grow out of both what people do and would do.

In the Feldenkrais Method, each person already presents the ideal body, the ideal way to move. For may of us this is a difficult concept to grasp. We take pain, “poor” posture, or limited movement as symptoms of something wrong. Yet each and every person makes the best choices possible given his or her perception of choices. Change is most possible in this realm of “perception of choices.” The practitioner’s task is to create conditions for more choices. It is not to correct errors, right wrongs, or straighten people out.  The practitioner’s task is elicit from the student new means of action and judgment.

In some systems of body work, the ends, such as perfect posture and proper alignment, justify the means, which can include force, pain, and shame. In the Feldenkrais Method the means — learning — and the end — learning how to learn — intertwine. The presence or absence of exemplary learning contexts in our past is reflected in the shape of our bodies. Our biological heritage includes well over two million years of successful adaptation and evolution. By basing his approach on the somatic wisdom of the species, Feldenkrais was able to make use of the human nervous system’s ability to organize itself around efficient, enjoyable, and interesting movement.  Given the means both to make better choices and to act upon them one improves organically, from the inside.

In their development, most children chart a more or less orderly path characteristic to our species. Rolling over, creeping, crawling, standing, walking and running, to name a few of the milestones, all take place without instruction.  In fact, parents often thwart optimal development by “helping” the child. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget has detailed how the child’s developing and maturing sensory-motoric coordinations construct its notions of time, space and knowledge.  Those “constructions” along with adult and peer instruction implicit in language, locale, diet, and acculturation condition the growing infant. The nearly infinite possibilities of the child’s nervous system are pruned and shaped to fit its culture.

During the developmental process, the original organismic wholeness of the child necessarily turns into an assemblage of parts. The hand, a part, serves the whole, the body, by feeding it with a fork or chopsticks. Language breaks the body into separate parts: the hand, the wrist, the arm, etc., which create a fragmented “body of thought” apart from our unified organismic body. To make language a part of our biology, we need to be able to read, gain access to, and use the organismic body’s “alphabet,” “grammar,” and “vocabulary.”

Habits also limit and divide us by pitting body against mind, thought against feelings. We endlessly repeat the same behaviors, while somehow expecting different outcomes. Yet anything learned can be unlearned. By observing and recognizing our learned patterns of behavior we can, given the means, intervene in our own future learning.

Feldenkrais invented ways of invoking a sense of somatic wholeness while simultaneously developing the capacity for learning without goals, comparison to others, or external standards. Lessons are viewed as contexts for learning. Most lessons take place lying or sitting. They are 30-60 minutes long. The thing to be learned is never demonstrated. Rather, students are given movement instructions and allowed to make sense of them kinesthetically, thereby connecting one part of themselves to another. Making seemingly impossible actions easy, Feldenkrais lessons question our assumed limitations. Though our quantitative range of movement may be mechanically limited, there are no limits to the quality of movement. The lessons revivify early childhood impulses to move, explore, and learn. Understanding the logic of the body becomes deeply satisfying.

Try this out. Make a fist and move it back and forth. Now pretend you have a wrist injury. To move the fist would cause pain. Now fix the fist in place with the other hand and move the forearm and elbow back and forth. You can readily see that this movement creates the same angles at the wrist but is now being initiated by the arm. If this is done carefully, even a person with an injured wrist will experience no pain.  Why?  Because, to the nervous system. moving the arm does not produce pain, as the pain is “in” the moving of the fist. Instead of initiating movement at a joint further from the torso, one is moving from a joint closer to the torso. The so-called “reversal of proximal (close) and distal (far)” is one principle Feldenkrais used to construct lessons. Feldenkrais employed many other principles, including “the principle of no principles,” which is invoked when one needs to act but doesn’t know how.

Even weaknesses can be used to facilitate learning.  As Feldenkrais said, “Most people spend their whole lives using their strengths to cover up and hide their weaknesses.  They expend tremendous energy in keeping themselves a house divided.  But if you surrender to your weakness, therein lies your pathway to genius.  A person who knows and utilizes his true weakness, who uses his strength to include it, is a whole person.  He may seem rough around the edges, but there are so few people like that that they lead their generation.”  On some many levels we are conflicted and cross motivated.  Somatically, one’s “good” side, one’s uninjured or more effective side, is separated form one’s “bad” or injured side only conceptually. By developing the capacity to see wholly and work accordingly, strengths and weakness are integrated.  The embodied sense of wholeness Feldenkrais got from Judo.

Feldenkrais met Professor Jigaro Kano, founder of Judo in Paris around 1930.  Kano was so impressed with Feldenkrais that he sent two of his top instructors to Paris to personally train him.  After two years of daily study Feldenkrais opened up a dojo that is still in operation.  Kano especially appreciated Feldenkrais’ down-to-earth Western descriptions of Judo principles.

A proud outgrowth of Japanese culture, Judo characterized the ideal of mind-body unification on the one hand and the engaged detachment of meditation on the other.  From Judo the Feldenkrais Method derives a number of important contributions.  By educating, differentiating and integrating the movements of the lower torso and upper legs, known as the “center,” one apportions strength to the strongest muscles, freeing the limbs for expression and sensitive contact.  With action organized from the center, the skeleton becomes a means for transferring force from the lower torso outward to the extremities.  One also learns how to turn the strength of another against him, how to transform the fear of falling into rolling, how to “reeducate” an opponent rather than destroy him.

Orientation and dimensionality go hand in hand in the martial arts, and they are useful in understanding Feldenkrais’ notion of posture.  Orientation is crucial to life, whether it involves locating predator or prey, finding one’s way through a city, or understanding a math problem.  Orientation can be determined relative to one’s body, to the environment, or both. Relative to my body, “up” is always towards my head and “down” is towards my feet, regardless of my body’s relation to the environment. Relative to the environment, however, I am upside down if my feet point towards the ceiling.  When first learning to do a Judo or Aikido roll, one feels upside down relative to the room.  Later one learns to turn the room around oneself, as it were, thus maintaining a sense of self relative to the body as a system of reference.  Ultimately one learns to let the situation guide the need to choose and utilize a frame of reference.

The Feldenkrais Method teaches headstands in a interesting way.  The static posture of the headstand is transformed into a process of falling safely. Getting into and out of the headstand become the focus.  By going slowly and clarifying our sense of orientation, falling forward and backward are made comfortable, easy, and safe.  In the middle of the fall one may pause while trying to decide whether to fall forward or backward. That pause could take from a few seconds to 15 minutes. To the outside observer, it looks like a headstand, but to the person doing it, it’s simply the middle of an arrested fall. Thus, learning to do a headstand is enveloped in a more general dynamic: finding a way of learning how to learn.

Dimensionality involves directional planes of movement. In Judo, one’s posture must permit, without prior readjustments, movements in any of the six cardinal directions — up/down, forward/backward, left/right. Most attackers or defenders move in one plane at a time — forward or back, left or right, up or down. They become predictable targets.

Accomplished martial artists, on the other hand, can move in three dimensions at once, such as forward, down, and to the left, making their precise next position very difficult to anticipate. Pretending to move in one plane, they can “fake out” an attacker. The expert can bait an opponent by appearing to move in a single plane and then shifting into a multidimensional mode. Sensitive to the attacker’s intention, the defender can present a target for the attacker, who is more than willing to take it.  The defender then blends with the speed and direction of the attack and redirects it into a throw or counterattack.

Actually, counting time, the martial artist moves in four dimensions, or rather becomes four-dimensional.  The personal self, which is bound to time and space, disappears.  This intentional multidimensionality, closely linked with what Feldenkrais called “awareness,” is one byproduct of changing our ways of moving.  Experienced Feldenkrais practitioners can view a person’s somatic orientation and predict the probable consequences of his of her future actions.

Feldenkrais saw orientation as an essential component in differentiating awakeness, consciousness, and awareness.  One who awakens in a strange city but is not yet orientated can only be said to be awake.  Once oriented — “Oh, yes, this is Vienna. It’s summer” — one can be said to be conscious, to be linked to a world.  When those links prove inadequate, awareness is used to forge new links with the world. Awareness is not a higher consciousness, but rather a means of reorienting oneself to the world. By way of an example, when reading, one focuses on the meaning of a passage; one is not conscious of the letters. To see the letters individually requires a sensory motor shift. The letters are there but our attention is otherwise occupied by our striving to derive meaning.  Awareness is the potential to make shifts of attention, to bring to the fore relevant features from the background, to find new combinations and patterns and therefore new meaning.  Awareness can broaden and deepen our lives.

Ways of thinking and seeing derived from science, engineering, and mathematics are implicit in the Feldenkrais Method, and these perspectives help individuals understand how they may have limited themselves.  The adult body has 206 bones with varying degrees of freedom of movement between them; taken together, the bones of the skeleton provide the largest possible set of movement patterns.  Evolutionary patterns of use created by the need for survival, maintenance, and reproduction comprise a smaller set.  A still smaller cultural set is delimited by the constraints of a particular language, geography, religion, etc.  The personal set, which is the smallest, is the set of possibilities we have settled upon as individuals.

The personal self thus emerges out of impersonal biological and cultural processes. Attending to these processes takes tremendous vigilance.  When the attention is not held back by personal history, when it sees the personal for what it is, history ends and a vast openness appears. In the summer of 1977 some people’s imaginations were captured by Carlos Castaneda’s books about Don Juan.  At the end of a long day of training someone asked Feldenkrais about Castaneda’s notion of stopping the internal dialogue.  After pausing for a moment, he replied, “Thinking is a holding back from action, a rehearsal of action. If you act completely with no holding back, then there is no thought and no dialogue. It can be the most violent or the most delicate of actions, but if it is total then it ends thought.” (The following was edited in the published version but is restored for clarification.)  Many people mistakenly hold that Feldenkrais’ work is opposed to thinking. In actuality mature behavior, for Feldenkrais, requires that thought and action mutually and reciprocally inform each other. Awareness is the consequence of using thought to improve action and action to improve thought. It is awareness that improves our connection to others and enhances the quality of our lives.

©1997 Dennis Leri

Unfettered Movement offers Awareness Through Movement® & Functional Integration® Feldenkrais Method® in Colorado & at Peak Peformance PT

Functional Integration® for Rehabilitation

What Functional Integration Is For
Functional Integration (FI) teaches your body and mind to work well together.  FI works with the habits of movement that have caused damage to your system over time.  Frequently we are unaware of the effects of habitual patterns of body & mind until the damage is done, and we are recovering from surgery or injury.   It is our old habits that prevent or slow the healing process.  FI unties the physical & mental blocks of your old habits, freeing you to move with ease, efficiency & coordination.

How Functional Integration Works
The movements you do are directed by your nervous system.  Old movement habits are actually neural maps created by repetition.  This is similar to a path worn in the grass by repeated use.  Functional Integration uses gentle movement with hands-on or verbal guidance to help your  nervous system release habitual patterns & create new pathways for more effective action.  While exercise is about moving strong, these lessons are about moving smart. You no longer have to take the worn out path that causes pain, instead you learn to move with ease in everything from the most ordinary activities to high performance sports.

Who Functional Integration Lessons Can Help
These lesson can help anyone whose ability to move has been restricted by aging, injury or illness.  Injuries including whiplash, fractures, sprains and ligament tears, as well as chronic or acute pain of the back, neck, shoulder, hip, legs or knee can benefit.  Patients with illnesses and conditions that limit movement such as stroke, brain injury, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy find relief from pain, regain lost function and improve balance, flexibility and coordination.  People who have arthritis learn to move in ways that don’t stress the effected joints so they find more comfortable and safer ways to do what they want to do.

Functional Integration Lessons can help you improve virtually anything you do.  Daily functions like rolling over in bed, reaching for something on a shelf, sitting comfortably, or getting up from the floor, a bed, or a chair, become easy.  You will find that activities which you wish to do, such as hiking, running, skiing, horseback riding, skating, playing a musical instrument or dancing, become attainable without pain.

During the Lesson
These lessons are done fully clothed in different positions – lying on your back, on your stomach, your side, sitting, or standing.  The positions we use depend upon what is comfortable for you and what needs to be learned.  Do not endure or push through pain or strain – both are counter productive to the lesson.  It is best to bring a relaxed attention to your experience as the lesson progresses.

How Functional Integration Works With Other Therapies
These lessons will help you integrate the work that Medical Doctors, Chiropractors, and Physical, Cranio Sacral, or Massage Therapists are doing with you. It is essential that we integrate the changes we experience into our whole system so that we heal thoroughly.  Functional Integration trains you to integrate the changes in your body & mind so that the results are long lasting.

After the lesson
You will be given specific movements to practice during the time between lessons.  If you do not understand the instructions, please tell the practitioner so they can communicate more clearly.

Quite simply the best way to keep your brain and body learning after a lesson is to bring awareness to your experience of movement during your day.  A good way to apply what you learn is to ask yourself questions while doing specific everyday activites, such as:

*Do you feel relaxed and supported while driving or sitting at your desk?

*Are your legs, pelvis and trunk moving with you as you reach for something on a shelf?

*Are you keeping your back extended and long as you pick something up from the floor?

*Is your whole skeleton involved as you get up from a chair?

*Are you supported as you bend over the sink to wash your face?

*Are your trunk and pelvis moving as you walk?

Movement and emotion are closely linked and some people experience an upsurge of emotions in the days after a lesson.  This is a normal part of the unwinding of old habits and tensions and it is important to experience them but not be overwhelmed. If you experience an upsurge of emotions, please do mention it to the practitioner.

Copyright© Unfettered Movement, Jeff Bickford, GCFP, 3-22-11

Unfettered Movement offers Awareness Through Movement® & Functional Integration® Feldenkrais Method® in Colorado & at Peak Peformance PT

Feldenkrais: Everything You ‘Know’ About Healing May Be Dead Wrong

Michael Sigman Writer/Editor, Music Publisher

A brain without a body could not think. — Moshe Feldenkrais

When I told her that cross-training on the exercise bike only added hip joint stiffness to my chronic shoulder pain, my Pilates instructor was incredulous. “Don’t you get it?” she asked. “Your body is telling you to stretch out those aching muscles and tendons.”

This made sense to me. But when Feldenkrais practitioner/physical therapist Stacy Barrows encouraged me to attend her class — which, I imagined, would be all about the stretch — I was wary. Our individual sessions were going well, but classes tend to induce peer pressure, and I worried about vigorous pulling on a still-tender area.

The class blew my mind. Virtually all we did was open and close our left hands as slowly as humanly possible. Okay, there was one other thing: imagining we were doing the same with our right hands.

It helped.

Feldenkrais, the strange, relatively obscure science-based theory put forward 55 years ago by physicist-turned-healer Moshe Feldenkrais, turns many of our cherished ideas about fitness and healing on their heads.

In Part 1, we saw that rather than treat an injury at its location, it’s often most effective to pay attention to remote parts of the body which may seem unconnected.

Here, per the Gospel according to Feldenkrais, are five other common misconceptions:

1. Faster is better. We’re brought up to think that faster is better than slower and the more reps the merrier. In fact, we need to slow down, slow down and slow down. According to Feldenkrais expert Fred Onufryk,”When moving or exercising quickly, you can only do things how you have always done them. It’s a habit. Moving slowly allows you be aware of what you are doing, lets you make distinctions and lets you choose a new and different way of doing things.”

2. “Stretching out” the injured area facilitates healing. Static stretching exercises for specific areas — hamstrings, calves, arms, neck — are frequently unhelpful and often counterproductive. Barrows: “Our modern lifestyle — the hours we spend driving, sitting at the computer, watching TV, etc. — saps the dexterity and mobility that we had as children. We’ve thought we could loosen up via static stretching regimens but research shows that what we really need is to reestablish the fine-tuned coordination necessary to access that childlike flexibility. Our nervous system has become accustomed to bodily tension and immobility, and sets ‘trip wires’ to protect and limit our movement.”

3. Good posture means standing straight and throwing your shoulders back. Posture is intimately related to movement, and we need many subtly modulated postures to maximize effortless movement. Think Michael Phelps gliding through the water. 
”Posture is generally taught as static when it’s really a dynamic alignment that relies on spontaneous calibration of movement,” Barrows says. “When people stop to think about how to stand or sit they often freeze in a position which sets up rigidity, and does not allow for resilience, adaptability with loss of balance, or shock absorption. The idea of straight is not an appropriate cue nor is pulling your shoulders back.”

4. Strength — as in six-pack abs and rippling glutes — keeps us in shape and prevents injuries. Obviously we need strength, but intense weight-lifting and heavy calisthenics to develop the kind of muscles touted in Men’s Fitness can hamper graceful movement.
Barrows says, “We tend to look at strength to solve our movement problems, but unwanted muscle tensions — what Moshe Feldenkrais called ‘parasitic contractions’ — are merely useless holding patterns that actually interfere with movement.” According to Jeff Haller, PhD., “Dr. Feldenkrais would say, ‘I’m teaching you to be strong.’ I believe he meant for us to have the internal resources to meet the necessity of the changing moment.” “This can only be accomplished with trained muscular sensitivity,” Barrows adds.

5. No pain, no gain. Feldenkrias emphasizes only movements that are comfortable. When something starts hurting, the teaching is to stop doing it.

As with other movement modalities like yoga, Alexander Technique and tai chi, body awareness, flexibility and resilience tie everything together.

After several weeks of Feldenkrais treatments and classes, my shoulder and hip are noticeably — though not dramatically — improved. I’m moving more freely and — dare this born-and-bred skeptical New Yorker say it? –enjoying a greater overall sense of well being and connectedness. Placebo effect? Power of suggestion? Maybe, but I’m giving long odds that this is for real.

I asked a very skeptical New York friend whether all this sounded a bit woo woo. He told me his son — whose various physical, mental and emotional pains had grown so severe they nearly led to suicide — tried a plethora of treatments, to no avail. My friend didn’t understand it and couldn’t explain why the Feldenkrais Method turned things around and helped save his son’s life. He just knew that it did.

If this is placebo, I’ll take two.

Unfettered Movement offers Awareness Through Movement® & Functional Integration® Feldenkrais Method® in Colorado & at Peak Peformance PT

Falling For Feldenkrais: A Patient’s Progress

Michael Sigman Writer/Editor, Music Publisher

What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains — Moshe Feldenkrais

For an obsessive swimmer who craves the endorphins, the past two years of failed therapies for a bum shoulder have been a bummer. I’ve been acupunctured, acupressured, cracked, Rolfed, electro-stimulated, nutritionized, lasered, therapized, osteopathed, hypnotized, rheumatologized, cortisoned, massaged, medicated, iced, heated, surgerized and more. Much more.

All these treatments have yielded benefits, except for the “much pain, no gain” neck-wrenchings of a certain Dr. Hertz. Our brief relationship ended when, after waiting an hour, I was asked to reschedule an appointment because Donald Sutherland had arrived. I love Donald — he was a super doctor in M*A*S*H! — but not that much. I would happily have stepped aside for his son Kiefer, a.k.a. 24‘s Jack Bauer, though, so he could save civilization as we know it before the next commercial break.

But it always seemed the healer was doing something to me or instructing me to adhere to a specific, do-or-die nutrition, exercise or stretching regimen. Some gave interesting advice that didn’t quite address the problem at hand, like the enigmatic Zen acupuncturist who said little during our sessions except “You must eat very slowly and chew each bite at least 40 times before swallowing.”

Advice is frequently contradictory. Ice or heat? Breathe in or breathe out? Rest or test? Meditate or medicate? Physical therapy or surgery? Yoga or Pilates? And where, exactly, is my core?

So when a friend told me I ought to check out Stacy Barrows, a Century City, CA-based Feldenkrais practitioner, I figured I had nothing to lose.

At our first meeting, Stacy took my history and then directed me to a massage table, I assumed for a vigorous shoulder workout. When she began touching my big left toe so lightly I could barely feel it, my New Age alarm went off.

My concerns about Stacy were assuaged when I learned that she’s a licensed physical therapist and an articulate student of neuroscience who achieved Feldenkrais certification only after undergoing a four-year intensive training program. That she’s also a certified Pilates instructor and a former competitive swimmer who’s giving a seminar next month about how to improve your stroke was chocolate icing on the cake.

As for the toe/shoulder perplex, Barrows explained, “The Feldenkrais Method often involves work in a remote area of the body by helping a person make internal connections to improve a far-away injured or underdeveloped area. An injury can trigger guarding patterns that make the sore spot resistant to direct treatment. By offering clarity to a more receptive part of the body, the injured area becomes more relaxed and amenable to healing.”

The Feldenkrais Method was named after Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-84), whose accomplishments included a mastery of physics, world-class status in judo and teaching 75-year-old former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion to stand on his head — Ben Gurion’s head, that is. Drawing from such thinkers/healers as Mabel Todd, Kano Jigoro and Gustav Flechner and such disciplines as dance, yoga, Rolfing, the Alexander Technique and hypnotherapy, Feldenkrais facilitates self-healing through a science-based approach to movement and posture.

Instead of telling you how to stand, sit or move, the practitioner suggests you experiment with various gentle maneuvers until you find your own comfort zone, always noticing even slight increments of discomfort and stopping before pain sets in. In other words: no pain, much gain.

You don’t need a degree from Singularity University to know that the mind can accomplish astonishing things. Last month, Google founder Sergey Brin, before a large audience, manipulated a robot limb thousands of miles away by sending brain signals through a computer program. So it’s hardly a stretch, pardon the pun, to believe — as Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee reveal in their book The Body Has A Mind of its Own — that another feature of Feldenkrais called motor imagery — imagining and visualizing an activity like piano playing or swimming — can be nearly as successful as actual physical practice.

I’m not talking about the faux philosophy of The Secret or the idiocy of Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt hiring a “healer” and a “Phrenology Consultant” to, respectively, impart positive thoughts to the team and examine the skull shapes of employees to eliminate “negatively karmic” influences.

Rather, by encouraging mindfulness of our body movements at a granular level, Feldenkrais claims we can weed out harmful physical patterns and replace them with healthful ones, like the way daily mindfulness meditation can enlarge those areas of the brain that produce healthier mental states.

After a couple of weeks of visits to Stacy and following up on my own, my shoulder feels a bit better and I’m able to swim for 20 or 30 minutes without too much pain. But, like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, I’m a skeptical empiricist and don’t want to get caught up in a pleasant narrative without more evidence.

Meantime, I pitched an editor friend — not a New Ager by any means — on a piece about Feldenkrais and the mind/body connection. He was interested, but said he didn’t know much about it — except that it had helped save his son’s life.

For more info: feldenkraisguild.com; http://www.feldenkraisinstitute.com/;

Unfettered Movement offers Awareness Through Movement® & Functional Integration® Feldenkrais Method® in Colorado & at Peak Peformance PT

Sitting Comfortably

‘Sit up straight!’.  ‘Don’t slouch!’.  ‘Suck your belly in!’.

For many of us, sitting is not something we’re very good at.  Odd, isn’t it?  What can be so hard about sitting?  It’s not brain surgery, you just put your butt on a chair and sit.  But often it’s uncomfortable if not downright painful.  And alot of work if we’re making a momentary effort to ‘sit up straight’ without the support of the back of the chair, pillows, an ottoman for our feet.

What makes it hard?  Is it that we’re lazy?  Weak?  Bad people?

Maybe, but there is a much more simple and basic answer:  we don’t know how.  ‘Don’t know how???’  ‘Butt, chair, sit – simple!’.  Not so simple.  But easy to learn*.

(*It’s always good to check with your health care provider before trying out new movements, particularly if you are experiencing chronic pain.)

Sitting comfortably requires a functioning relationship between all the bones and muscles that hold you up.  This relationship is governed by your nervous system.  Your nervous system doesn’t automatically know how to do this – it must learn how.

Some of us never learned, for various reasons, and many of us once knew how but injury, illness, or years of bad habits have caused our nervous systems to forget how to sit comfortably.

Consider these ideas:

– Spines are not straight.  We have curves in our spine and they are there for a reason.

– Except for very particular cases, we should not ‘suck our belly in’.  Let your abdomen be relaxed.

-Ergonomically correct chairs will not automatically make sitting easy and comfortable.

– Don’t tuck your chin in, pull your shoulders back, or stick your chest out.  It will just hurt.  And you look silly.

– ‘Noticing’ is not judging or analyzing.  It is just noticing.  Noticing is useful in and of itself.

– Stretching and straining as you move is an indication that you don’t know how to do what you are doing.

Don’t believe these ideas, just consider them – they may be at odds with what you’ve heard or been told to do.  Has what you’ve been told worked so far?

Here are some things you can try that may help you re-learn, or finally learn, how to sit up:

Sit on a chair, preferably one with a firm, flat seat.  Sit near the front edge with your feet on the floor.  Don’t sit ‘correctly’, just sit the way you’d sit if your mom and dad weren’t nagging away inside your head.

Notice how you are sitting.  Notice how you contact the chair.  Do you sit more on one side than the other?  Notice your breathing, where your head sits in relation to your spine, your sense of your chest and ribs, your belly, your lower back, your feet, how far apart your legs are.  Are you relaxed, tight, numb?

Find your sit-bones.  (‘Where did I put them?’)  They are on the bottom of your butt.  You are sitting on them.  If you can’t find them, tip to one side a bit, lift one side of your butt up, slide your hand under your butt, and sit on your hand.  You’ll probably feel a bone there at the top of the back of your leg where it meets your butt, more towards the center than the sides.  You have two of them.  Now get your hands off your butt.

Notice the pressure, or weight, you feel on your sit bones.  Are you more on one than the other?  Are you sitting towards the front of them or are you sitting behind them?  Just notice.

Try these rounding and arching movements:

First, round your back and look down like you are trying to see something on the floor between your feet.  Then return to sitting up.  Try this several times.  Keep it easy and relaxed – do not stretch or strain.  I repeat:  do not stretch or strain.

As your round your back, round your whole back.  Try to make a nice easy curve in your whole back, from your tailbone to the top of your head.  You might notice that doing this causes you to roll towards the back of your sit bones, tipping the top of your pelvis backwards.  Let your belly button go backwards, your chest move backwards, your shoulders just hang relaxed.

As you return to sitting up, notice that you come back on top of your sit bones – you might actually press them down against the seat of the chair.  Let your belly and chest return forward, your head come back on top your spine, your eyes look forward.

Now arch your back a little and look up.  Comfortably!  Do not stretch or strain!  As you arch your back to look up, curve your whole back, push your sit bones against the chair, let your belly come forward, your chest rise, your chin lift up (don’t just bend in your neck – let your neck be a continuation of your spine).  Then return to sitting in your ‘neutral’ position.

Now round then arch your back a few times, looking down, then up, letting your whole spine move, and your ribs, pelvis, and chest.  Notice what if feels like, notice if you’re breathing, notice if you are able to move within the range you are comfortable in or if you’re trying to prove something to someone (where are they?).

Try bending to the side:

Tilt your head a little to one side, as if cocking your head to listen, your ear going towards your shoulder.  Return, then go to the other side.  Notice which direction is easiest.

Tilt your head to the easy side, return.  Repeat this several times.  Notice what the rest of your self does, or can do, to make that easier.

Now add tilting your shoulder down to that side along with your head.  What do you do with your spine and ribs?

Sit in neutral.  Slip your hand under under your butt on the same side as you were tilting your head towards and find your sit-bone.  Gently lift your sit bone up, so you bring that sit bone up off the chair, tilting your pelvis to the other side.  You’ll notice right off that unless you help a bit by bending your trunk to the side your arm is not strong enough to lift your pelvis by itself.  As you do this, what do your ribs do?  You might notice that the same side shoulder begins to drop down as your hip lifts up.  How about your head?

Now remove your hand, then lift your sit bone as you tilt your head and shoulder towards it.  Voila!  Side bend!  Each time you repeat it keep spreading out the work so your whole spine is involved and your ribs are moving – even under your arm pits.

Try it on the other side.  Start gentle, small.

Now sit with both sit bones touching.  Gently bend to one side then the other, letting your whole spine, head, and pelvis be involved.

Turning your head and trunk:

Sit comfortably.  Close your eyes.  Feel your eyes resting in their sockets.

Roll your eyes to one side, then the other.  Repeat this several times.

Open your eyes, and turn your head to look first to one side, then the other.

Turn your head to one side and pause there.  Roll your eyes side to side, gently.  Return to turning your head side to side.

Turn your head to the other side and pause there.  Roll your eyes side to side, gently.  Return to turning your head side to side.

Now turn your head to the left, pause, look to the left, and leave your eyes looking to the left as you turn your head gently to the right a bit, then return, maintaining the look to the left.  Repeat.  Keep it small.

Try it to the other side.

Relax your eyes and turn your head to one side, letting your shoulders go along so the twist moves further down your spine.  How far down your spine do you notice yourself twisting?  Try it to one side a few times, then the other.

Turn head and shoulders to the right, pause there, and turn just your head back to center.  Now turn your head to the right as your bring your shoulders back to center.  Do this several times, rotating your head the opposite direction you’re turning your shoulders and spine.  (if you wish, you can add your eyes – either looking the direction your head is turning or the direction your shoulders are turning)  Keep it easy.  Try it to the other side.

These are the primary movements of our back and spine – rounding and arching, bending to the sides, rotating and twisting.  Do some of these movements from time to time.  Don’t make a program out of it, just try some out, easily, without any strain.  After a while you’ll begun to notice it’s easier to sit up.

Copyright© Unfettered Movement, Jeff Bickford, Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner, 2010

Unfettered Movement offers Awareness Through Movement® & Functional Integration® Feldenkrais Method® in Colorado & at Peak Peformance PT

Stretching: The Truth

From The New York Times Sports Magazine   By Gretchen Reynolds

WHEN DUANE KNUDSON, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Chico, looks around campus at athletes warming up before practice, he sees one dangerous mistake after another. “They’re stretching, touching their toes. . . . ” He sighs. “It’s discouraging.”

If you’re like most of us, you were taught the importance of warm-up exercises back in grade school, and you’ve likely continued with pretty much the same routine ever since. Science, however, has moved on. Researchers now believe that some of the more entrenched elements of many athletes’ warm-up regimens are not only a waste of time but actually bad for you. The old presumption that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds — known as static stretching — primes muscles for a workout is dead wrong. It actually weakens them.

In a recent study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent. Also, stretching one leg’s muscles can reduce strength in the other leg as well, probably because the central nervous system rebels against the movements.

“There is a neuromuscular inhibitory response to static stretching,” says Malachy McHugh, the director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. The straining muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching, which is not how an athlete wants to begin a workout.

THE RIGHT WARM-UP should do two things: loosen muscles and tendons to increase the range of motion of various joints, and literally warm up the body. When you’re at rest, there’s less blood flow to muscles and tendons, and they stiffen. “You need to make tissues and tendons compliant before beginning exercise,” Knudson says.

A well-designed warm-up starts by increasing body heat and blood flow. Warm muscles and dilated blood vessels pull oxygen from the bloodstream more efficiently and use stored muscle fuel more effectively. They also withstand loads better. One significant if gruesome study found that the leg-muscle tissue of laboratory rabbits could be stretched farther before ripping if it had been electronically stimulated — that is, warmed up.

To raise the body’s temperature, a warm-up must begin with aerobic activity, usually light jogging. Most coaches and athletes have known this for years. That’s why tennis players run around the court four or five times before a match and marathoners stride in front of the starting line.

But many athletes do this portion of their warm-up too intensely or too early. A 2002 study of collegiate volleyball players found that those who’d warmed up and then sat on the bench for 30 minutes had lower backs that were stiffer than they had been before the warm-up. And a number of recent studies have demonstrated that an overly vigorous aerobic warm-up simply makes you tired. Most experts advise starting your warm-up jog at about 40 percent of your maximum heart rate (a very easy pace) and progressing to about 60 percent.

The aerobic warm-up should take only 5 to 10 minutes, with a 5-minute recovery. (Sprinters require longer warm-ups, because the loads exerted on their muscles are so extreme.) Then it’s time for the most important and unorthodox part of a proper warm-up regimen, the Spider-Man and its counterparts.

“TOWARDS THE end of my playing career, in about 2000, I started seeing some of the other guys out on the court doing these strange things before a match and thinking, What in the world is that?” says Mark Merklein, 36, once a highly ranked tennis player and now a national coach for the United States Tennis Association. The players were lunging, kicking and occasionally skittering, spider-like, along the sidelines. They were early adopters of a new approach to stretching.

While static stretching is still almost universally practiced among amateur athletes — watch your child’s soccer team next weekend — it doesn’t improve the muscles’ ability to perform with more power, physiologists now agree. “You may feel as if you’re able to stretch farther after holding a stretch for 30 seconds,” McHugh says, “so you think you’ve increased that muscle’s readiness.” But typically you’ve increased only your mental tolerance for the discomfort of the stretch. The muscle is actually weaker.

Stretching muscles while moving, on the other hand, a technique known as dynamic stretching or dynamic warm-ups, increases power, flexibility and range of motion. Muscles in motion don’t experience that insidious inhibitory response. They instead get what McHugh calls “an excitatory message” to perform.

Dynamic stretching is at its most effective when it’s relatively sports specific. “You need range-of-motion exercises that activate all of the joints and connective tissue that will be needed for the task ahead,” says Terrence Mahon, a coach with Team Running USA, home to the Olympic marathoners Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor. For runners, an ideal warm-up might include squats, lunges and “form drills” like kicking your buttocks with your heels.

Athletes who need to move rapidly in different directions, like soccer, tennis or basketball players, should do dynamic stretches that involve many parts of the body. “Spider-Man” is a particularly good drill: drop onto all fours and crawl the width of the court, as if you were climbing a wall.

Even golfers, notoriously nonchalant about warming up (a recent survey of 304 recreational golfers found that two-thirds seldom or never bother), would benefit from exerting themselves a bit before teeing off. In one 2004 study, golfers who did dynamic warm- up exercises and practice swings increased their clubhead speed and were projected to have dropped their handicaps by seven strokes over seven weeks.

Controversy remains about the extent to which dynamic warm-ups prevent injury. But studies have been increasingly clear that static stretching alone before exercise does little or nothing to help. The largest study has been done on military recruits; results showed that an almost equal number of subjects developed lower-limb injuries (shin splints, stress fractures, etc.), regardless of whether they had performed static stretches before training sessions.

A major study published earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control, on the other hand, found that knee injuries were cut nearly in half among female collegiate soccer players who followed a warm-up program that included both dynamic warm-up exercises and static stretching. (For a sample routine, visit www.aclprevent.com/pepprogram.htm.) And in golf, new research by Andrea Fradkin, an assistant professor of exercise science at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, suggests that those who warm up are nine times less likely to be injured.

“It was eye-opening,” says Fradkin, formerly a feckless golfer herself. “I used to not really warm up. I do now.”

Unfettered Movement offers Awareness Through Movement® & Functional Integration® Feldenkrais Method® in Colorado & at Peak Peformance PT