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“Feldenkrais” What Is It?

A few years ago, a fellow yoga teacher asked me if I’d like to come along and try something new – a Feldenkrais class.  I’d never heard of it before.  I went along, and the class was a little different than anything I’d ever done, with unusual movements, but all done gradually, gently and quietly.  And at the end of the class, I felt so different---invigorated and delighted.  I walked out of there standing taller and more relaxed, feeling great.  That was about 10 years ago, and I’ve continued to study this movement system as a student; then, two years ago, I took the plunge and began studying to become a Feldenkrais practitioner myself.

So, what is it?  Feldenkrais is a kind of guided movement exploration.  It was developed by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984), a European physicist and engineer who was looking for ways to heal his own physical injuries from an active sporting life.  In the late 1940s, he started reading and experimenting and eventually gave up his other career as a scientist/engineer to focus exclusively on what we now call Feldenkrais.

There are two aspects to it:  first is his Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lessons – he developed about 600 of these.  The lessons are mostly done with people lying down on mats and the teacher guiding – if you looked in the window while a class was underway, you’d probably think it was a yoga class.  Each lesson has a particular focus – ie easier movement in the hips or reducing tension in the jaw – and over the course of about 45 minutes, the ATMs suggest simple movements that build, until at the end, there is often a great change.  Students are encouraged to let go of any ambition, to keep movements small and comfortable, not to think about stretching or pushing.  These movements are “speaking” to the nervous system, not stretching the muscles.  Everything is done with awareness; in fact sometimes it all feels like a 45-minute moving meditation.  Afterward, you feel as though you have stretched, but it’s more of a reorganization and waking up – when everything is in your awareness and aligned and doing it’s job, then you feel relaxed, connected, younger.

The second way that Dr. Feldenkrais worked with people was hands-on, one on one, in sessions he called Functional Integration lessons.  With the client on a Feldenkrais table (lower and wider than a massage table) he very gently manipulated arms, legs, head, trunk, to bring attention to areas of stiffness or dysfunction.  Once again, the emphasis is on “speaking” to the nervous system, so it can be very small movements, and gentle.  Many of the movements are similar to the ones in the ATM lessons, but they are done through touch instead of words.

The beauty of the method is that it’s gentle and can be done by anyone, no matter what their capabilities, be they an athlete who is recovering from an injury, or someone dealing with a chronic illness, or someone like myself, who just finds it interesting and loves the feeling of moving better and feeling younger.  For me, it’s fun!  And there is the possibility of real, lasting change.  A number of studies over the last few years have found that Feldenkrais’ approach, which continually draws attention to easy movement, which encourages experimentation and “problem solving,” these help the brain to learn in a really powerful way, a way that can build new neural pathways and actually change our way of moving.  We find ways to recognize dysfunctional habits (ie holding the breath) and experience something better, and with enough experiences like that, we begin to change.

I’ve been asked a few times how this is different from yoga, and the first thing that comes to mind is that Feldenkrais emphasizes movement – nothing is ever held.  Of course, yoga is often a moving practice (ie Sun Salutations) but Feldenkrais is even more so.  Feldenkrais is usually done while lying on the ground, while yoga is mostly done in standing and sitting.  Dr. Feldenkrais wanted people to explore and make mistakes, to develop their own, best way of moving, so he didn’t demonstrate the movements – because that would be his way of moving.  You could say that there is no proper “form” in Feldenkrais as there would be in most yoga classes.  There are some similarities to yoga too – in the approach of listening to your body, going slowly, in the meditative aspects of both yoga and Feldenkrais.  I find them to be complementary practices, each helping me with the other.

I have been studying this method through the Kelowna Feldenkrais Training since June 2021 and will soon be certified to teach ATM; the course continues until March of 2024 and when I graduate, I’ll be qualified to do the hands-on work as well.  We meet for 7 weeks each year in Kelowna with guest teachers from around the world, and continue to work for the rest of the time with our study groups every week through Zoom.  The course is full of interesting people, many of them physical therapists, teachers, social workers, massage therapists.  There are 10,000 Feldenkrais practitioners worldwide.



~Cheryl Smith

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