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Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Body Can Learn, by Steve Hamlin

What is Feldenkrais®?
As Buddha said, whatever you think, it will not be that way. All I can give here is a little history, a few hints, and my own insights. Feldenkrais® is a study of human movement, and that encompasses all aspects of life. There is no end to ways of looking at it. And it’s really not possible to get a grip on what it is, without getting involved, taking classes.
Moshe Feldenkrais was born in 1904 in the Ukraine. He left home at age 14 to walk to Palestine (now known as Israel). After 10 years, he went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne –physics, mathematics, and electrical and mechanical engineering. He earned a Doctor of Science, and began working with Frederic Joliot-Curie, Director, Curie Institute. During this time he learned Judo from Jigoro Kano, the Japanese Minister of Education. After obtaining his black belt he taught in France and wrote books on Judo.
Kano had tried before to train other westerners for this work, with no success. Kano saw that Feldenkrais had a special quality, and he did, indeed, successfully teach martial arts to many Europeans before WW II. Feldenkrais was on one of the last boats from France to England at Dunkirk, at the start of WW II and he carried with him, in a suitcase, lab notes from Joliot-Curie regarding research on nuclear fission, plans for an incendiary bomb, and two quarts of heavy water that were later used in the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. (Later, however, for personal reasons he declined an invitation to work for the Manhattan Project ). He worked in England for the Admiralty during WWII, helping to develop sonar.
During this time he became interested in human development – especially human movement – and he learned much from observing babies in the office of his wife, Yona Rubenstein, who was a pediatrician. Feldenkrais had a photographic memory, and he studied his wife’s medical books, and in addition became a self-taught neurologist. Because of an old knee injury, he applied his new skills to curing the knee, and he succeeded in learning to walk again and even resume his judo.
He began to work – hands on – with friends in need, and he called this work Functional Integration® (FI). Later he developed a format for teaching these ideas to groups of people, and he called this Awareness Through Movement® (ATM). His ideas, while based on solid science and common sense, still run counter to many popular beliefs and methods. When you do movement work, you’ll certainly find many of your beliefs challenged by what your own body is teaching you. I’ve never seen an exception.
In 1950 Feldenkrais returned to Israel and worked for their Defense Force, and was instrumental in starting Israel’s nuclear program. He taught in Israel and Europe through the 1950’s and first taught in America in 1971. He continued to teach often in America until his death in 1984 at age 80.
Today there are thousands of Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioners® worldwide, and thousands of students who have gained significant benefits from Feldenkrais work.
Feldenkrais is much more than just an alternate form of body-therapy; it’s used by dancers, artists, performers and others to enhance their work. Some practitioners teach in the school system. Psychologists use it. It’s used by many just to feel good or improve posture, and some use it to enhance their spiritual life. For many, it’s a way of life. Yet, because most people first come to Feldenkrais as an alternate “therapy,” that’s how I’m presenting it. So how is Feldenkrais different from other therapies?

1) Practitioners spend hundreds of hours on the floor doing Awareness Through Movement® (ATM). Before teaching movement – we first thoroughly experience it in our own bodies – our four years of training is just the beginning. This way, we can better help others.
2) We focus on human movement – not manipulation, energy, tissue work, joint mechanics, emotional clearing, massage or osteopathic protocols, etc. When movement is rightly approached, it can beneficially affect those other things, but without focusing on them, consciously. Our brains have evolved to let us move and accomplish things, without worrying about details like how tight a particular muscle is, or whether, say, the soft tissue of the left knee is torqued. Yet, our low brain does know about, and “supervises” all that.
Using movement as the primary focus, bones can come into better alignment, nerve function can be restored, soft tissue can be reconfigured back to normal, over-tight muscles can learn to soften, blood circulation can be optimized, posture straightened, and more. We are active participants, not helpless observers. That alone is unbelievably empowering and transformative. Every Feldenkrais Practitioner wants to shout that from the rooftops, but we know people would think we were crazy. We smile and accept the compliment when people tell us you have healing hands, yet we know the Work is so powerful, that anyone who does it skillfully will be accused of the same thing. Moshe, when he was told that, once responded (and I paraphrase) Then why are my students told they have healing hands, when that was not the case before they learned this work?
Studying movement used to seem silly. I thought: I know how to move. Early on during my Feldenkrais Training, I got regular doses of humility pills – discovering how wrong I was. It is vast - a lifetime study, and even then you only scratch the surface. That’s no exaggeration. Scientists can spend their whole career, for example, on just one tiny area of the brain. The study of human movement encompasses all areas of the brain. And there is a whole lot more to it than just learning how the brain works!
3) The Feldenkrais touch is unique. Clients comment that you cannot get that Feldenkrais Feeling....the melt down…that Feldenkrais zone in any other place. They'll say things like Feldenkrais is the Cadillac of bodywork. We are sensing the whole body with our hands, listening for movement potentials, listening for learning opportunities, not imposing anything. Who else will touch you like that?
It is like a expert dance partner, that is not invested in correcting or teaching – not directly. There is humor, patience and profound acceptance in that kind of touch. It uncovers hidden resources and potent healing forces. Combined with human movement, the results can be catalytic.
4) We’re working with the whole person – not body parts. We’re helping people move with ease and poise – which is always accompanied by decompression of all the joints, clarified awareness of skeletal support, better circulation, better sleep. Clients often are mystified: How can something so gentle be so profound? Many clients look forward to their hour on the Feldenkrais table as their favorite time of the week.
Neurological activity in the brain and body is concerned mostly (some physiologists put the figure at 95% others at 97% or higher) with movement. Any modality must include some type of movement work to include the whole person. Human movement includes proprioception, balance, self-image, imagination, thought, emotions, muscular coordination, vision, hearing, touch, environmental mapping, and memory of movement patterns, release of extraneous tension, etc.
5) Learning is a primary focus. We all spent prodigious amounts of time and energy as infants playfully learning new movements. Feldenkrais students spend years systematically studying that process both with ATM and Functional Integration (FI), and we use those insights in working with people of all ages. What babies are doing is extremely sophisticated and unbelievably intelligent; yet because it is playful and not guided by reason, adults dismiss it as of little significance.
That early learning can be continued through life. Instead, many of us walk, reach, stand, sit, breathe, work, talk, think, feel or even sleep and rest with "frozen" movement patterns, with predictable neurological circuits always activated (or not). Why not make the whole thing dynamic? Life becomes very different, more adventurous, then.
We’ve all had difficulties breaking habits. When the Feldenkrais Work enters the picture, the situation takes on a different aspect. We no longer have to work so hard to change a habit, or to learn new ways of doing things. It can happen playfully, effortlessly.
Personal transformation is inherent in the Work. One hardly knows he is changing so much! If you attend a Feldenkrais Training, be sure your spouse attends with you. Otherwise - and it's a common event – a break-up may happen. One of my colleagues, who attended the Amherst Feldenkrais training (the last training that Moshe himself conducted) said that when she met some old friends after the training, at first they did not even recognize her.
Feldenkrais® has a universal aspect. The human body and mind is the teacher, and anyone who is dedicated to being effective as a therapist, healer, teacher, coach or trainer will certainly, sooner or later - have the same insights as I have described as perhaps being unique to Feldenkrais. It's just that Moshe was one of the first to put it all together like this in an attractive package.
The Feldenkrais Method® requires participation. Little benefit – and only superficial understanding - accrues without movement or awareness work. I recommend 6 private lessons a year, or 12 ATM lessons. This can keep you out of pain and trouble as you grow older. That is not much time to dedicate to correct a lifetime of habits that may be causing you pain and difficulty. In my blog,, I give many insights, movement hints, practical suggestions. I invite you to try out some of these.
- Steve Hamlin