Excerpted from “The Brain's Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries From the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity”

Feldenkrais’s approach can radically change the life even of people who were born missing huge parts of the brain, by facilitating differentiation in the remaining brain areas. Elizabeth, whom I interviewed, was born missing a third of her cerebellum, a part of the brain that helps to coordinate and control the timing of movement, thought, balance, and attention. Without the cerebellum, a person has difficulty controlling all these mental functions. The cerebellum, which means “little brain” in Latin, is about the size of a peach and is tucked under the cerebral hemispheres, toward the back of the brain. Although it occupies only about 10 percent of the brain’s volume, it contains almost 80 percent of the brain’s neurons. The technical name for Elizabeth’s condition is cerebellar hypoplasia, and there was no treatment known to change the course of the illness.

When she was in the womb, her mother felt there might be a problem, because Elizabeth hardly moved. When Elizabeth was born, she didn’t move her eyes. They flickered and were not properly aligned, gazing in different directions. At one month, they rarely tracked objects. Her parents were terrified she might not see normally. As she developed, it was clear she had a problem with her muscle tonus. At times she was very floppy, meaning she had too little or no muscle tension, but at other times she had too much tension and was “spastic,” making no exploratory, voluntary movements. She received conventional physiotherapy and occupational therapy, but the treatments were painful for her.

When Elizabeth was four months old, the chief pediatric neurologist at a major urban medical center tested the electrical activity of her brain. He told her parents that “her brain had not developed since birth, and there was no reason to believe that her brain would develop.” Most such children show persistent deficits, and it was believed the cerebellum shows limited plasticity. The doctor also told her parents that her condition was much like cerebral palsy, and he predicted that she would never be able to sit up, would be incontinent, and would have to be institutionalized. Her mother later recalled, “I remember he said, ‘The best we could hope for would be profound retardation.’” Elizabeth’s physicians were accurately describing their experience with such children who had conventional treatment—the only kind they knew about.

Still, her parents sought help. One day, a friend, an orthopedic surgeon, who knew of Feldenkrais’s work, said, “This guy can do things that no one else can.” When they heard that Feldenkrais was coming from Israel to a town near them to train practitioners—one of his major activities in the 1970s—they got an appointment.

When Feldenkrais met Elizabeth for the first time, she was thirteen months old and unable to creep or crawl. (Creeping, which usually precedes crawling, means scooting along on the stomach.) She could make only a single, voluntary movement: rolling over on one side. At her first hands on session with Feldenkrais, where he assessed her, she couldn’t stop crying. She had had many sessions with therapists, who had tried to get her to do things she was not ready to do developmentally. For instance, many therapists had tried to sit her up, over and over, and had failed. If the children’s bodies are spastic, these movements hurt them—hence the crying.

According to Feldenkrais, these attempts to leapfrog through development are a huge error because no one ever learned to walk by walking. Other skills have to be in place for a child to walk—skills adults don’t think about or remember learning, such as the ability to arch the back and lift the head. Only when all these pieces are in place will a child learn to walk, spontaneously. Feldenkrais saw that Elizabeth couldn’t lie comfortably on her belly, and when she was on her belly, she couldn’t lift her head at all.

He noticed her entire left side was in complete spasm, making her limbs rigid. Her neck was very tight, causing her pain. The fact that Elizabeth’s entire left side was spastic indicated that her brain map for that side was undifferentiated, instead of having hundreds of areas for processing different types of movements.

Feldenkrais touched her, ever so gently, on her Achilles tendon, and she was so tormented he knew he first had to do something to resolve that pain: he would have to settle her brain because otherwise it would not be available for learning.

“After Moshe examined her,” her father remembers, “he said to me, ‘She has a problem and I can help her.’ He was not bashful. My wife asked him to explain, and he proceeded to take our daughter’s foot at the ankle and bend it back, and he took my finger, and he said, ‘Touch this,’ so that I could feel the knot of muscle, and he said, ‘She can’t creep, because it hurts her to bend her leg. If we soften that up, you will see she can bend her leg. And as we do this—soften her muscles—her whole demeanor will change.’ But his technique did not massage the tense body part; rather, by moving her body, very slowly and gently, in a way that she could feel, he was able to send signals to her brain, to get it to stop signaling the muscles to contract. The physicist turned healer, had figured out how to use movement and awareness to turn off a switch in her brain. And it happened as he explained—a day or two after that, she was creeping.” Soon she was crawling.

The next time Feldenkrais saw Elizabeth, one of his young pupils, Anat Baniel, happened to be there. Feldenkrais asked Baniel if she’d mind holding Elizabeth throughout the lesson. He gently touched her, to begin teaching her to differentiate very simple movements. Elizabeth became intrigued, attentive, happy.

Feldenkrais gently held her head and pulled it up and forward, very slowly and gently, to lengthen her spine. Usually, he had found this movement caused a natural arching of the back and led the pelvis to roll forward—a reaction that happens normally when a person is standing. Often, when working with children with cerebral palsy and others who couldn’t walk, he would use this technique to engage the pelvis, so it would reflexively roll. But when he tried it on Elizabeth, Baniel felt no movement. Her pelvis was inert in Baniel’s lap. So Baniel decided that when Feldenkrais pulled, she would gently roll Elizabeth’s pelvis.

Suddenly there was movement throughout Elizabeth’s spastic, locked, inert spine and body. They gently moved her spine again and again. Next, they tried subtle variations of the movement.

At the end of the session, Baniel gave Elizabeth back to her father. Usually in his arms Elizabeth would plop down on him, not able to control her head. But this time she arched her back, threw her head back, then brought herself forward, again and again, facing her father. The subtle movements of the neck and spine that Feldenkrais and Baniel had done had awakened the idea of this movement and wired it into her brain. Now Elizabeth was moving the large muscles of her spine and back voluntarily, delighted with movement.

Yet there was still much to worry about: Elizabeth was profoundly disabled and carried a horrendous diagnosis. Feldenkrais could see that Elizabeth’s parents were clearly concerned about her future. He usually didn’t say a great deal on these occasions. But he judged a brain not by where a child was in her development but by whether, given stimulation appropriate to that stage of development, the child could learn. “She’s a clever girl,” he said. “She will dance at her wedding.”

Feldenkrais returned to Israel. Over the next few years, her parents heroically and tirelessly did, and put up with, whatever it took to get Elizabeth to see him. They brought her to see him in hotel rooms whenever he came to the United States or Canada, and went to Israel three times, for two to four weeks of daily visits to Feldenkrais’s office. In between these intensive visits, Elizabeth consolidated her gains with everyday activities.

When Feldenkrais was seventy-seven years old, he fell ill while traveling in a small town in Switzerland. He lost consciousness, and physicians discovered that he was bleeding inside his skull. A slow leak of blood had built up in the dura (the layer of connective tissue that surrounds the brain) and in the brain itself, putting pressure on it, endangering it. Unfortunately the only neurosurgeon in the town was traveling that weekend, so surgery to relieve the pressure caused by his “subdural bleed” was delayed.

Feldenkrais’s colleagues concluded that his many injuries from all the throws, falls, and concussions in judo had made him vulnerable to the subdural bleed. He recovered in France, but perhaps because surgery was delayed, he suffered some brain damage. But soon he was once again giving what he called his one on one “Functional Integration” lessons. And sensing that his time was limited, he continued to teach as much as he could, hoping to transmit his latest findings.

Back in Israel, he had a stroke, which affected his speech. His students gave their master daily Functional Integration lessons. Now in his late seventies and ill, he directed more and more of the children who came to him to Baniel. Baniel gradually took over Elizabeth’s care, flying in for three-week periods, giving her daily lessons. Elizabeth saw her on and off for years, and her progress quickened.

Today Elizabeth is in her thirties and has two graduate degrees. She’s petite, at five feet tall, and has a sweet voice. She walks, moving so easily that an observer would never know she had once been destined to end up immobile, in an institution, severely mentally retarded—at best. “Moshe,” she tells me, “said to my dad, ‘When she is eighteen, nobody is going to know that anything happened.’ And he was dead on.” She remembers “tidbits” of those visits to Israel, “and I sort of remember Moshe, the white hair, the blue shirt, and how smoky it was in there”— Feldenkrais smoked during lessons—“him whispering things into my ear, calming me down.”

Her two graduate degrees are from major universities: she earned a master’s in Near Eastern Judaic studies; then wanting something practical, she did a master’s in social work and got her license. She still has some residual symptoms of the cerebellar hypoplasia. She has a mild learning disorder with numbers, and so math and science are difficult. But other than that, she enjoys learning and being intellectual, and she became a voracious reader—all of Shakespeare, most of Tolstoy, and many other classics. Today she runs a small business and is happily married.

And yes, she danced at her wedding. 

When Moshe Feldenkrais was fourteen, after years of Jews being attacked in anti-Semitic Russian pogroms, he set out alone to walk from Belarus to Palestine. A pistol in his boot, a math text in his sack, and with no official documents or papers, he crossed marshes and endured temperatures of 40 degrees below as he traversed the Russian frontier in the winter of 1918–19. As he walked from village to village, other Jewish children, intrigued, joined him. At one point, to survive, they joined a traveling circus, where the acrobats taught Moshe tumbling and how to fall safely—skills he would one day perfect with his judo. By the time he reached Cracow, fifty children had joined the much-admired boy on his way to Palestine, then more, until over two hundred young people were following him. Eventually adults joined his children’s march through central Europe to Italy and the Adriatic, where they boarded a boat. It arrived in Palestine in 1919, in late summer.

Like many new arrivals, Feldenkrais was penniless. He worked as a laborer and slept in a tent. In 1923 he began to attend high school and supported himself by tutoring children with whom other tutors had failed; he displayed an early aptitude for helping people overcome blocks in the learning process.

In the 1920s Arabs attacked Jewish villages and cities in British Mandate Palestine. Feldenkrais’s cousin Fischel was among those killed. The Jews requested from the British either more protection or the right to arm themselves—and were refused. So young Feldenkrais began to study how to defend himself without a weapon. Arab attackers usually came at their opponents with knives, striking from above, and directing their thrusts to the neck or solar plexus. Many Jews were killed in these encounters. Feldenkrais tried to teach them to block a blow, then grab and twist the attacker’s arm so that he dropped the knife. But his students were unable to resist the natural, anxious neurological reflex response of lifting their forearms up to protect their faces or turning their backs to the blow. So instead of fighting these spontaneous responses of the nervous system, Feldenkrais designed a block that used them. He now insisted that his students, when attacked, follow the instinctual tendency to block their faces, and he then sculpted that movement into a better block. He then photographed people being attacked from different angles and crafted blocks that molded their frightened, spontaneous reactions into effective defenses. The method worked and would become a template for his future approach to the nervous system: work with it, not against it.

In 1929 he circulated “Jiu-Jitsu and Self-Defense,” in Hebrew, the first of his many books on unarmed combat. It became the first self-defense manual used to train the armed forces of the fledgling Jewish state. That was the year he injured his knee, and while recuperating, he became fascinated with mind-body medicine and the unconscious. He wrote two chapters for a book called “Autosuggestion,” which included a translation of Émile Coué’s treatise on hypnosis. In 1930 he moved to Paris, where he completed a degree in engineering and began a Ph.D. in physics under Joliot-Curie (whose lab was the first to split an atom of uranium, setting up a chain reaction that released immense amounts of energy that came to be called nuclear power).

One day in 1933 he heard that Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, was in Paris for a lecture. Kano was a very small, frail person who had often been attacked by others when younger. Judo, a modification of jujitsu, trained its practitioners to use an opponent’s own power to knock him off balance and throw him. Judo, which means “the gentle way,” was also a holistic way of life, both physical and mental. Feldenkrais showed Kano his book on hand-to-hand combat.

“Where did you get this?” asked Kano, pointing to a picture of the block Feldenkrais had developed to use one’s spontaneous, anxious nervous response to protect oneself.

“I developed it,” Feldenkrais answered.

“I don’t believe you,” said Kano. So Feldenkrais asked Kano to attack him with a knife, and Kano did. The knife went flying. Feldenkrais became one of Europe’s first black belts and cofounded the Judo Club of France.

When the war broke out, Feldenkrais was asked by Joliot-Curie to sneak French atomic secrets, and “heavy water”, from his lab to the British, to keep them out of Nazi hands. He escaped the Gestapo, first on foot, hobbling on a knee that had been terribly damaged by a soccer injury, until he arrived at a port and boarded one of the last boats out of France. Arriving in England, a known scientist, he was recruited to work for British counterintelligence, to develop methods to track Nazi submarines threatening England.

During the war, he wrote a book that began as a meditation on the work of Freud, whom he greatly respected; unlike many clinicians of his time, Freud emphasized how the mind and the body always influence each other. But, Feldenkrais noted in Body and Mature Behavior, Freud’s treatment, talk therapy, focused little on how anxiety or other emotions are expressed in posture and in the body, and Freud never suggested that analysts work on the body when treating mental problems. Feldenkrais believed that there were no purely psychic (i.e., mental) experiences: “The idea of two lives, somatic and psychic, has … outlived its usefulness.” The brain is always embodied, and our subjective experience always has a bodily component, just as all so-called bodily experiences have a mental component.

He developed a method that integrated the role of mental awareness, brain function and the body, to heal himself, and then others. One of his chief contributions was to understand that in injury or illness, the brain areas that process movement and sensation in the body become underutilized, and waste away in the “use it or lose it brain.” The brain processing areas lose the ability to encode fine detail, and hence become “undifferentiated” with disuse. By doing slow movements, with great awareness, he found he was able to “re-differentiate” brain processing areas, and radically improve function.

When the war ended, Feldenkrais learned that all but a few of his relatives had been murdered by the Nazis. Luckily, his parents and sister had survived. He finished his Ph.D. dissertation and graduated. But on returning to France he found that the Nazis, with the collusion of a French and a Japanese judo colleague, had written him out of the history of the judo club he had cofounded, because he was a Jew. So he settled in London instead, pursued some inventions, wrote another book on judo, called “Higher Judo,” and began a book, “The Potent Self,” in which he articulated his healing method, which he was now using to help fellow scientists and friends. As a physicist, he had met the greats: Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and Werner Heisenberg. He was deeply torn: should he continue in nuclear physics or, given the wonderful results he was getting, pursue healing? He chose healing. His mother said half-jokingly, “He could have got a Nobel Prize in physics, and instead he became a masseur.”

Excerpted from “The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity” by Norman Doidge, M.D. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Norman Doidge.

“She will dance at her wedding”:
Healing the girl born without part of her brain

A Girl Missing Part of Her Brain

Origins of the Feldenkrais Method

​  ​​​ Body Mind Freedom

"The more comfortable we are in our bodies,

the more comfortably we move through life."

– Donna Gianell

The Feldenkrais Method 

By Lynda McCullough

 Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine November/December 2011. Copyright 2011. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

How can a movement practice be linked with other life changes? Moshe Feldenkrais taught that changing physical habits could have far-reaching effects; that since the body and mind are one, addressing one directly affects the other.

The Feldenkrais Method is simple and yet complex at the same time. In fact, says Feldenkrais practitioner Al Wadleigh of Longmont, Colorado, explaining what Feldenkrais is in 30 seconds "is one of the hardest questions for me to answer.

"For one person, I may talk about how it might help them recover from a recent injury, for another it may be about improving their balance, and for another it may be about improving their game." But in reality, Wadleigh says, "that is just skimming the surface of what the method does." 

In his book The Elusive Obvious (Meta Publications, 1981), Feldenkrais writes about simple, fundamental notions and actions of daily life that through habit become elusive, out of conscious awareness. We develop attitudes and ways of being that may limit our self-concept and experience. 

In Feldenkrais lessons, we have the opportunity to notice how we move and how we approach tasks. In becoming aware of and refining the quality of these movements, we also develop a broader repertoire of physical, mental, and emotional activity. Perceptions can change. We become more present, and we move about and interact with the world differently.

Wadleigh's personal experience illustrates some of the breadth of the Feldenkrais Method. Wadleigh himself has explored Feldenkrais since the 1980s, as a student and publisher, and in the last eight years as a practitioner. He encountered the method when he was practicing Neurolinguistic Programming and had the opportunity to trade services with a Feldenkrais practitioner. "Afterward, I felt different for three weeks--I stood differently, I walked differently, and I felt different. It was a remarkable experience." 

Yet, it wasn't until years later, when he found himself saddled with back spasms and breathing problems, that he sought individual Feldenkrais lessons with practitioner Jack Heggie in Boulder, Colorado. In fact, many only come to the method when they are in physical pain and haven't found relief from other approaches, and they may, like Wadleigh, experience broader effects. 

As a young person, Wadleigh says, "I had a lot of anxiety, was dyslexic, didn't fit in socially. I was physically uncoordinated, not good at athletics--I was really a mess. I grew up with a lot of anxiety that really showed up in my body." Over time his posture became stooped, and by his 30s he developed back pain and breathing problems.

During his work with Heggie, Wadleigh found that he stood more upright, had less pain, moved more easily, and even had to adjust the mirrors and seat in his truck to accommodate his new body organization. He also began to get relief from his anxiety, which helped him to function better in daily life.

"Moshe Feldenkrais," Wadleigh says, "talked about a body pattern of anxiety--shortening of the flexors in front, shoulders rounded forward, neck sticking out to adapt to that, all putting a lot of stress on the back. The back muscles have to work harder against the powerful muscles in the front that become habitually contracted, and so that contributed to my back pain and difficulty."

Because of his movement practice and related insights, Wadleigh now has a different relationship with anxiety. "Most of the historical anxiety I used to feel is gone," he says. "It used to be all mixed up with present-day anxiety, which made it hard to deal with. I have learned to use my present-day anxiety as a calibration tool. It alerts me to things I need to pay attention to. It helps me manage my projects and priorities." 

While he previously would freeze when he became anxious, he can now take action. That path of anxiety, releasing those patterns, continues on today. For Wadleigh, anxiety is now information and a source of motivation. He can use it as fuel, so to speak, to accomplish things.

He attributes the shifts in his body and anxiety levels to neuromuscular changes in which old habits have let go over time. "The old things in the past that were holding on so tightly have let go." 

History of the Method
Moshe Feldenkrais was born in the Ukraine, moved to Israel at 14, and as an adult lived in France. He worked as a laborer, cartographer, and engineer before becoming a movement teacher. In-depth studies in jiu jitsu and judo influenced his path, and when he aggravated a soccer injury in his knee, he sought to repair it by moving carefully and consciously. As he studied his own movement patterns and consciously changed them, he developed the Feldenkrais Method, and in 1949 he wrote his first book on the approach. He soon began to teach others awareness through movement lessons and functional integration, and from the 1960s until his death in 1981, he trained teachers in the method. 

Awareness through movement classes cover thousands of different exercises involving simple to complex movements and clear directions for attending to, and learning about, the physical experience associated with them. Students become more aware of the mechanical details, as well as the sensations of movement; with awareness comes greater choice about the patterns of movement. Feldenkrais said awareness of movement and choices about it directly relate to our self-concept.

In a functional integration lesson, or private session, a practitioner uses his or her hands to guide a client's movement. The "hands-on" technique helps the student experience the connections among various parts of the body and learn how to eliminate excess effort. He or she learns to move more freely and develops a more relaxed and integrated way of moving and being. The lessons don't aim to eliminate pain or "cure" physical issues, though they may provide relief.

What Does Our Posture Say About Us?
A central aspect of the elusiveness of Feldenkrais work stems from the fact that we have come to view the body and mind as separate. This emphasis, combined with a fear and denigration of the body, has led us to believe that what we think is real and absolute. Yet, Feldenkrais and many others have said the body and mind are one. His unique perspective was that rather than trying to reconnect mind and body, we basically need to relearn that they are one. 

In reality, we live most of our lives as though they are separate. We think all day of this task, this person, this struggle, and we react to situations based on prior learning. We are not aware of how we hold ourselves, how we use our bodies, or how our bodies reflect our internal states. We may not notice how a fearfulness from childhood manifests in the stooped posture Wadleigh describes, or how a feeling of needing to fight one's way through the world may manifest in lifting and puffing up the chest. We may have habits such as leaning forward to be noticed, or of pulling back to avoid confrontation, which in turn lead to neck or back strain.

"Feldenkrais says we are all born with the fear of falling and that it becomes associated with other fears as we live our lives," Wadleigh explains. "As infants, loud noises are one of the first things that get associated with the fear of falling. As we develop, other things become associated with the fear of falling and cause the same reaction in the body--a tightening of the abdominal muscles and other flexor muscles, causing a tucking of the pelvis and a rounding of the back and shoulders."

In practicing the method, Wadleigh says a person can alleviate those associated fears so they are not overpowering. Feldenkrais lessons will guide a person through movements slowly and repeatedly, which are fundamentally different from their own, calling attention to various body parts and their relation to one another. Some of these lessons may be developmental in nature, others may be rooted in martial arts or some other creative notion. A student will notice how he or she moves, and may make adjustments until the quality of the movement improves. These movements can help "reprogram" the brain--primarily the motor cortex--bringing about broader changes in one's body and sense of self.

"We make choices about the quality of our movement, and we take that back into our lives, and things begin to change," Wadleigh says. "It isn't necessarily about trying to change those habits in our lives--things change indirectly as the result of the practice. There can be direct changes too--when a person needs help reaching or bending over--but it is really more about working with the unconscious habits.

"When I work with someone, I don't want them to think they have to do a, b, or c; I want change to become second nature, so they don't have to think about it. They start to sense themselves, and they may find, 'I can ride my horse more easily, I can drive on the highway without anxiety'--changes like that."

After experiencing Feldenkrais lessons and going through a four-year training in the method, Wadleigh's overall organization has changed so that he stands taller, looser, and more relaxed. He senses himself in a more complete way. His shyness has shifted so that he teaches classes and speaks in public with ease. "I walk into a room, and the room is mine," he says.

Examples of Body-Mind Connection and Change
Lavinia Plonka, a Feldenkrais practitioner in Asheville, North Carolina, and author of Walking Your Talk: Changing your Life through the Magic of Body Language (Tarcher Books, 2007), also sought the Feldenkrais method to help with physical pain. An actress, she was constantly going to the acupuncturist, chiropractor, and massage therapist for physical pain, and she felt she was in a never-ending loop of discomfort and treatment. She began to look for another option. She read several books by Feldenkrais, and she took lessons.

She began to think that Feldenkrais would not only help her feel better, it might help with her performance and her career. What she found was that it completely changed her life, and eventually changed her career. The changes were physical, mental, and emotional, and they were all happening at the same time. 

"I began to understand where my physical pain was coming from in my posture, my breathing patterns," Plonka says. "I had bad posture from childhood habits, and I thought that's who I was. I was caught in what Feldenkrais called an anxiety pattern that developed as a result of my own startle reflexes. I began to move differently, hold myself differently. I gained an inch. I became calmer, present, more able to listen to people. As a performer, I was more fluid, and my body was able to do more things. I was less tired."

Like Plonka, we think the way we feel is who we are. "The thing about our body sensations is that these sensations are the feeling by which we know ourselves," Wadleigh says. "This is how we feel, and most of the time it is outside our conscious awareness, and so we create these sensations in ourselves--certain muscle tonus, tension, or relaxation--and it's how we maintain our sense of self.

"To really clarify your sense of self, one of the key ideas we work with is to clarify your skeletal structure. We cannot sense the skeleton directly--it only has pain receptors, and we don't want to activate those. We sense the skeleton through our proprioception. We sense the hardness of the bones and the locations of them relative to one another through movement. 

"In bringing awareness to how we hold ourselves, how we move, we may see a shift occur. In a Feldenkrais lesson, a person is able to experience things anew. As they sense and feel themselves, they experience a calmer state, they develop choice and a stronger sense of self. In addition, patterns improve, leading to an organized body."

Our habits are very ingrained, and even when they cause problems, we hold on to them, Wadleigh adds. "We'll do a lot to try and maintain that, even if it is uncomfortable. Someone who's got pain, and has had pain for a long time, can't imagine not having it. It's like an old leather jacket that fits so well and is comfortable even though it is falling apart at the seams. So when I work with my clients, and I sit them up at the end of the lesson, and when the pain in the shoulder is gone, they say, 'Wow, it's gone. What is there?' They are so used to the pain that they don't have a way of categorizing the sense of comfort, these new sensations. I will help them, because I think it's really important for them to know that they can be creative--I want them to fill that space up with something they can name and that is there for them."

The Role in Health Care
Feldenkrais believed that health is founded on good function, and he said his method of body-mind exploration improved functioning or health by making individuals more aware. His method only indirectly addresses pain and injury. He made a point to emphasize this goal: "What I am after is more flexible minds, not just more flexible bodies."

Is Feldenkrais therefore a health-care treatment? "Feldenkrais work is not covered by insurance," Plonka says. "People who come for lessons take a leap, paying out of pocket for something they can't pronounce. It is a last resort for many, and many seek it out to help alleviate pain."

Others see Plonka because they have writer's block, or they have gone through psychotherapy and still have anxiety. Others come because they have some kind of feeling such as "I can't do what I want"; they feel some kind of insurmountable obstacle that they can't see. One person may want to be able to climb stairs, and another may want to get to the next level in violin playing. Another may want to feel more comfortable in their wheelchair.

"I don't ask what's wrong with them, I ask, 'What would you like to learn in these lessons?'" Plonka says. "It is a teacher-student relationship; I am not a therapist.

"So much research is now validating what Feldenkrais said in The Body and Mature Behavior. It was published in 1949, and science is just catching up with the things he said there about the brain, learning, the nervous system, and flexibility. Feldenkrais coined the term organic learning to explain the process of building new neural links." 

Recent research in the neurosciences demonstrates neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain and nervous system to change throughout our lives, corroborating much of what Feldenkrais taught and influencing other professions and approaches.

Awareness and Potential
Feldenkrais taught that awareness of body movement is related to overall self-awareness and to self-image, Wadleigh says. "We don't fully develop, we don't sense ourselves. There are parts of ourselves that are absent from our self-image. Feldenkrais describes self-image and how all of our parts connect three-dimensionally and move through space and time together. A lot of us--parts of ourselves--are absent. A woman I was working with recently was very focused on her shoulders. I started working on a lesson around movements of the pelvis and she said she didn't feel that part of herself, so we did a lesson around integrating parts of the pelvis, and it was quite profound for her. She had never sensed how it moved, how it was connected to other parts of herself. I see this with many people, in many different situations."

Wadleigh says Feldenkrais talks about the process of maturation. "In Higher Judo (Warne, 1952), he's talking about people who are immature. He says we tend to mature enough to get by, to get our basic needs met, and then we stop. Most of us stop about the age of 14, but there are exceptions--some become more fully an adult.

"By doing these kinds of movements in awareness through movement classes or functional integration lessons, we are doing things to complete the maturation process. We do unusual movements where we bring awareness to what we are doing, and we start to sense what our habits are and we learn we have choices about the quality of those movements. We can improve our habits and improve the quality of our lives. You take that back into your life, and you start to change, without trying to do so directly."

Plonka says, "Feldenkrais called our work 'awareness through movement.' He believed that working with sensing how the body moves is a way to self-realization and doing what you want."

Feldenkrais, Plonka notes, said people put aside certain aspirations and dreams that seem impossible; by giving those up, we hold patterns of despair and anxiety in our bodies. He believed that by recognizing how these patterns are held in the body, we can reorganize ourselves toward "realizing our avowed and unavowed dreams. He often said, 'If you know what you do, you can do what you want.'"

A Practice
There are four components of action in Feldenkrais, Plonka says. We are thinking, sensing, feeling, and moving all the time, and yet what we are aware of is feeling (not sensation). "To sense myself and see my emotions is a huge amount of work; that is why we do it over time," she says. "It is a skill--we are developing the kinesthetic sense, our sixth sense, and most of us don't have it at all.

"By practicing the work of awareness and allowing gradual shifting in our patterns, our self-image changes. If we feel a huge shift in ourselves, we get overwhelmed and return to our default system. When the system is ready, it always chooses the more functional way. If there is too much danger or stress, we fall back on old ways. So we practice, just like learning to play the piano, letting it become a part of us and trusting the intelligence of our bodies."

Feldenkrais in Action
While the range of reasons for seeking lessons is varied, so are the results. Many visit Plonka seeking help with frozen shoulders or wounded knees. "The way I feel I change peoples' lives is not by looking at physical things but looking at how that physiological thing is related to the person's perceived self-image."

One student sought Plonka's help with low-back pain. While many seeking this gentle approach are older, this man was in his 20s, and he was handsome, athletic, and successful. "He sensed something gnawing at him. He had a lower back injury that he blamed on high school football, and he had arranged his behavior around the injury."
The holding was about being perfect, getting it done. He began to realize that throughout his childhood there was an emphasis on the need to perform in a specific way--he had a habit of grasping his lower back and glute on the left side. In the lessons, as he learned to notice the triggers that caused him to grip, he changed in the way he carried himself, and in the way he listened to others. He began to attend to others in a way that was about trying to hear what they were getting at. "He used this work to discover his own maturation," Plonka says.

Another student was a middle-aged man with Crohn's disease and a laundry list of pains. "Let's take a look and see how you walk," Plonka said to him. "In 10 years of medical treatment, no one had ever asked to see him walk. He had a rigid personality, a rigid forward walk. After a lesson, as he walked, his pelvis moved for the first time, which he didn't like because it seemed feminine. But bit-by-bit, his movement improved, he began to open up, then started to stop and talk to others. He could turn his head, and he had less pain in his feet. He still goes to classes and finds value in the work," she says.

Seeking the Elusive
Though there are numerous examples of the effectiveness of the method, Feldenkrais may continue to seem elusive to those of us who live in our heads. Yet, as we seek solutions to chronic pain or the stuckness we feel in our lives, it offers a way to explore, grow, and change. People continue to hear about it from an article, a friend, other health practitioners, sometimes community recreation centers. 

"Some approaches are more dramatic in the moment, but may not last," Plonka says. Feldenkrais is subtle, but far-reaching. As Feldenkrais trainer Russell Dolman of Marin, California, says, "The Feldenkrais Method works like a fine mist. You go outside on a rainy day and you either go back in, or wear protective gear so you can't get penetrated. But if it's a gentle mist, you don't notice that it's soaking through as you walk. Then you get home and realize you've been saturated." 

While defining Feldenkrais is elusive for Wadleigh and his colleagues, it is also rich with possibility. "The method is like a jewel with many facets," he says. "I can explain one aspect to a person--the aspect that will be meaningful to them.

"I can't explain it in one sentence. I can do it in 10 minutes, and I can convince you that it's the greatest thing in the world. It is so deep and comprehensive, and in a way it is so simple. It is hard to put your finger on it and say it is this, because it encompasses so much more, and there is always that concern that someone will take away only one fact of the work, like, 'Oh, it's about posture,' when in reality it is so much more.

"Yet, as Dr. Feldenkrais would say, there is so much potential in the Feldenkrais Method for us to learn and develop and become more fully human." 

Lynda McCullough is a freelance writer and yoga teacher who lives in Loveland, Colorado. She has written for magazines and trade associations that support mental and physical well-being. Contact her at


The Feldenkrais Method
The Feldenkrais Method: Mind/Body Awareness (and Pain Relief) Through Movement
By Dr. Mark Wiley of the Healthy Back Institute

Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are those non-mainstream treatment modalities that mainstream physicians have deemed useful as a complement to their pharma-based treatments. The whole idea of CAM is obnoxious, as it looks for bodywork and energetic methods to support a drug-based therapy. Doesn’t it seems more appropriate and natural to use pharma as the complement to so-called alternative therapies, should the alternative herbals and supplements not be strong enough… but that is another story.

In this article I would like to share with you one of the lesser-known alternative therapies called The Feldenkrais Method, named after its founder, Moshe Feldenkrais. It is a method of educating people through movement about the function of their body and its relationship to thought. Its movement practices, while helping with tight muscles, muscle imbalances, impingements and pain, are also focused on “refining the use of the self through somatic awareness.” In other words, it is a mind/body practice… and that’s a good thing.

Who Benefits from Feldenkrais?

The Feldenkrais Method is the perfect therapy/tool for anyone wishing to improve their general awareness, their thought-to-movement relationship, and their range of motion and to reduce restriction, tightness and pain. It is specifically good for those who suffer chronic tight muscles, limited range of motion, osteoarthritis and for athletes of all kinds.

Indeed, practitioners of this method are fond of saying: “Learning to move with less effort makes daily life easier.” More than that, they remind us “we learn to use our hands well enough to eat, our legs well enough to walk. Our abilities to function with a greater range of ease and skill, however, remain to be developed. The Feldenkrais Method teaches—through movement—how we can improve our capabilities to function in our daily lives.”

Two Forms of Learning

The Feldenkrais Method is taught is two phases, or forms: Awareness Through Movement® and Functional Integration®.

The first form, Awareness Through Movement, is taught in a class setting where participants are led through movement sequences through the verbal instruction of the teacher. The class is generally 30-60 minutes in duration and explore thinking, sensing, moving and imagining structured around ordinary functional movements of our daily lives. The movements start out slow and easy and build over time to more complex series that provide greater release and range of motion. Awareness Through Movement aims to “make one aware of his/her habitual neuromuscular patterns and rigidities and to expand options for new ways of moving while increasing sensitivity and improving efficiency.”

Since each class is organized around a specific function, several classes would be needed to learn the physical movement sequences necessary to rebalance your mind and body to reduce pain and free restrictions.

The second form, Functional Integration, is the hands-on aspect of the method. This is similar to the work of a massage therapist or stretching coach, but without the harsh rubbing, pressing or pushing. A practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method guides the client through movement sequences that are gentle and non-invasive. Practitioners say their method is a form of “tactile, kinesthetic communication.” Through the session, the practitioner is able to feel and sense what is going on in the client’s body and tell them how they organize their body, and shows them through guided movement, how to move in more expanded functional motor patterns.

In Functional Integration, the practitioner creates a lesson plan for the client, based on their specific needs. The work is carried out while the client is lying on a low and wide table, sitting or standing… depending on the exercises.

It is apparent that the Feldenkrais Method is somatic, energetic, intelligent and helpful to the body and ultimately the life of those who become involved with in at various levels. It is a painless healing method that reconnects people with their natural abilities to move, think and feel. The gentle lessons can improve ones overall wellbeing and make them whole again while sitting at the desk, in the car, engaging in gardening or sports or playing with their children or grandchildren.