What Is Feldenkrais?

Dear Audy,

Today I’m going to be writing about an alternative therapy that actually isn’t very far removed from mainstream physiotherapy, it just has a fancier name: Feldenkrais.

Feldenkrais is a movement therapy named after its creator, Moshe Feldenkrais. It sounds complicated and elusive to us Westerners, but that’s just because it’s a foreign word to most of us (it’s not “Feldenchrist”, but it sounds like that without the “t”).

Did you know what Pilates was before this century? It took almost a hundred years for the genius of Joseph Pilates to go mainstream. Pilates is now accepted as a valuable form of strengthening and maintaining health, you can take classes in gyms all over the world.

This sort of recognition, appreciation and widespread practise is the kind of future that I hope Feldenkrais is headed toward. It has helped me so much and is so simple, perhaps it’s simplicity is why it has spent so long in the shadows of other therapies. I mean, you know, aside from the fact that there’s no medication element and much of pain management research is funded by pharmaceutical companies.

Feldenkrais gives me hope, it gives me a degree of control over the functioning of my body. Feldenkrais helps to reduce my chronic pain, it helps to improve my everyday movements so that I trigger less pain flares. Feldenkrais enlightens me, it shows me my body and nervous system in a way that I’d never seen them before – clearly.

When I first started Feldenkrais, I needed mobility aids in order to get anywhere or do anything. I was on crutches/in a wheelchair/using a cane for years. Nowadays, I only need mobility aids if I’m particularly flared up. My regular posture is closer to ideal than it has ever been.

I find it easier to implement activities into my life when I can grasp the reasoning behind them. Let me explain Feldenkrais to you in the way that helped me to understand…

(I’d apologise for the length of this piece, but really, this is the information that I would have liked to have been able to google when I first heard of Feldenkrais. I ended up having to buy books, like an olden days person!)

First, meet this guy. This is Moshe Feldenkrais:

Moshe Feldenkrais

Click image for source

Moshe Feldenkrais was a physicist and engineer who suffered knee problems that inspired him to create a method of healing without surgery. He taught his body to work around the problem and in doing so, both walked freely once more and brought forth a new concept in healing that is based on the human nervous system’s ability to learn and evolve.

“There is the learning of a skill; there is the kind of learning in which we enlarge our knowledge or understanding of what we already know. And there is the most important kind of learning which goes with physical growth. By this last I mean learning in which quantity grows and changes to a new quality, and not the mere accumulation of knowledge, useful as this may be. Often we do not see this kind of learning at all; it can go on for more or less lengthy periods of time, apparently aimlessly, and then new form of action appears as it from nowhere.”
-Moshe Feldenkrais, quoted from The Case Of Nora

The easiest way to understand the type of learning that Feldenkrais is talking about is like this: lift your arm up above your head, or just lift a finger, or any body part if you are unable to do the arm thing.

OK, you can put it back down again. What sort of thinking did you need to perform this movement? Did you think, contract bicep 60%, lengthen tricep 20%, adjust angle of shoulder blade by 40 degrees, rotate radius red balloon degrees, or any other similar but less made up thoughts?

Higher level thinking and language based logic are not how movement works. However, movement does work and it is learnt, just not in the intellectual way that you learn grammar and mathematics.

Brains have evolved in a rather organised, build-on-what-you’ve-got, fashion. Here are a couple of images that will you give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

Click image for source

Click image for source

Different species of animals have evolved to require different amounts of neuromuscular learning when they arrive here on Earth. The lower down the evolutionary chain, the less training, or apprenticeship is required. Think of herd animals; a baby cow or horse will be able to stand within moments of its birth, which is beneficial to species that needs to be follow its family or be left behind. Think of a mountain goat, born atop the jagged rocks of a cliff face…

“Obviously all the connections, the wiring in the nervous systems of these animals must be made before they are born. In short, it is the species that has handed down the learning, the evolving, the reflex organisation, the instinct that enables them to survive in precarious conditions. However, most birds, dogs, kittens of all sorts, even tiger kittens, have to have some kind of coaching by their parents to finish the wiring in, establishing functioning patterns of their nervous systems. What makes this pattern reliable, autonomous, or automatic is an apprenticeship of a few weeks.”
-Moshe Feldenkrais, quoted from The Elusive Obvious

Human beings are the most effectively evolved species on the planet, if you define effective as a capability to take over the planet with our adaptable bodies and nimble minds (If you define effective as just plain lasting a long time, then we’ve got nothing on crocodiles)…

“The human infant has the longest apprenticeship of all the species, to my knowledge. Although everything necessary to maintain life and growth is already connected in the nervous and glandular systems at birth, the specific human functions are not wired in at all. No baby was ever born who could speak, sing, whistle, crawl, walk upright, make music, count or think mathematically, tell the hour of the day or night, or know what it is to be late. Without a very long apprenticeship lasting several years none of these functions has ever been observed.”
Moshe Feldenkrais, quoted from The Elusive Obvious

Really think about that for a moment. We learn just about everything. Aside from instinctive bodily functions such as breathing, digesting and circulating blood, all of our behaviours are the product of learning. This is why every person is just a little bit different from the other people. Learning behaviours is the product of both capability and experience, things that are exactly the same in no two people.

Earlier this month, I wrote about neuroplasticity and the ever changing brain. Everything that you learn is done so by your brain putting together a pattern of synaptic impulses. It’s all produced by patterns so complicated that science can’t fully comprehend them yet.

“Complicated” is defined as consisting of many interconnecting parts or elements. In relation to learning, there are a lot of moments where the signals could take a slightly different path and create a different result. There are also a lot of crucial parts in the pattern where changes can be influenced; changes that can lead to an improvement in function.

The techniques that Feldenkrais taught seek to improve movement through improving the underlying patterns of the nervous system. He believed that the human body is capable of adapting to any conditions in which life can exist. His method searches for the deepest, most reflexive patterns of movement and strengthens them through awareness and practise.

Simply put, Feldenkrais figured that if there were so many different possibilities during the development of movement patterns, then they could logically be improved by re-learning those movements from scratch and discovering the movements from their smallest beginnings, kind of like a baby does.

Chronic pain in the case of CRPS is a malfunction of the nervous system. The Feldenkrais method is designed to improve nervous system function. It’s not hard to see how this therapy could theoretically be helpful for a person managing CRPS.

Theory is lovely, but experience is even better. I have experienced enormous improvement to my CRPS symptoms and ability to function around them since beginning Feldenkrais practise almost two years ago.

When using Feldenkrais to manage chronic pain, it’s helpful to remember that the technique is not designed to cure (even if it effectively does sometimes) it is designed to improve. In the instance that Feldenkrais practise leads to total relief of pain or other symptoms, the body was not cured, it was simply improved enough so that you’d hardly notice the difference.

“Posture can only be improved and not corrected. Only the concept of an ideal posture might be considered correct, but such a posture can exist only with an ideal brain and nervous system. Ideal models like this do not exist in reality. They can be approached more or less, but only approached, and there are almost as many directions of approach as radii in a circle.”
-Moshe Feldenkrais, quoted from The Elusive Obvious

Practising Feldenkrais and expecting to be cured in a short amount of time is unrealistic. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to change the patterns in your nervous system. Thankfully, it’s hard work that requires little physical exertion.

The mental dedication side of things is more difficult to maintain. Feldenkrais requires time spent in a relaxed but aware state that is rather like meditation. If you have tried to use meditation as a pain management technique and not found it helpful, Feldenkrais might be a good option for you.

In my experience, having the tiny movements to focus on makes it easier for me to shift into a meditative state than trying to clear my mind using other mindfulness techniques. I think it’s because I feel like I’m doing something useful while I’m meditating, you know, more useful than just meditation on its own.

What does practising Feldenkrais mean?

Feldenkrais therapy exists in two separate, but related forms.

Group classes, or exercises practised at home using lesson recordings, are known as Awareness Through Movement classes. One-on-one sessions with a practitioner are referred to as Functional Integration.

Awareness Through Movement is a nice a descriptive name, these exercises seek to discover exactly what they are titled after. ATM is often conducted in group classes, but can also be practised at home using recordings, or even freestyle once you have a good understanding of what you are doing. Instructions are often gentle and vague, allowing each person space to fill in their own gaps in understanding their own movements.

Did you know that just imagining your body doing a movement sends a few signals through the nervous system pattern that would be activated in order for you to actually do that movement?

This is why people who are learning to play music can find themselves improving even if just going over the lessons in their mind. They are practising the nervous system patterns associated with playing their instrument at a very low level, just by thinking about them.

ATM sessions are not exercise classes. The movements are most helpful when performed in the slightest manner possible, with the most relaxation and without increasing pain, but with a heightened level of attention from your conscious mind. Sometimes, this means just imagining a movement if the execution of even its tiniest incarnation is too painful.

When I write about practising Feldenkrais as a method of pain management, I am talking about practising Awareness Through Movement sessions at home. These are hugely variable in both length, intensity and which part of the body they are targeting. I’ve been at it for a while now, so I have a fairly good idea about what sort of ATM session will help with whatever symptoms I am experiencing on any given day.

Functional Integration sessions are much more passive for the patient. When I think of FI sessions, it is like picturing a massage of the nervous system. My practitioner will move my body in tiny but varying ways that help it to realise that all its parts are connected to one another.

No part of the body exists in absence of the rest of the body. We can accustom ourselves to moving things in isolation, however this is not the way that a well organised nervous system functions.

“Things learned can be half learned, and they can even be badly learned. Hence the great variety of human postures which are obviously not all as good, one as the other.”
-Moshe Feldenkrais, quoted from The Elusive Obvious

Functional Integration allows the practitioner to teach the patient’s nervous system healthier patterns of movement. The practitioner is trained to observe the flow of movement and connectedness of the body and work to create improvements. When the body is well organised and connected, tension and pain can be dissolved.

What does practising Feldenkrais feel like?

When I feel Feldenkrais reducing my pain, it is almost like shifting into an alternate nervous system. It’s easy to slip back into the patterns that I’ve learned on top of the healthy ones, but repetition incites neuroplasticity and thus, the more I practice the healthy patterns, the stronger they get.

The more I practise ATM sessions at home, the more value is added to my FI sessions. My nervous system is learning throughout all of this and it remembers. Underneath the malfunctions of CRPS, my body remembers that there were movement patterns and that they didn’t hurt. Feldenkrais helps me to uncover those, but I have to do my homework.

Practising Feldenkrais involves a lot of focused attention, attention that is shifted off of my pain and problems. In this way, it gives me a meditative break without sitting still and trying to quiet my incessant mind. By focusing so intensely on what I am physically feeling, I give my brain a break from thinking too much about things in the words that I have taught it to use and the limits that such words can impose.

“If you are told that somebody cannot do something, logically there is nothing you can do about it. Every diagnosis in words inhibits the brain from thinking for itself. If words say ‘incurable’ the situation will not be changed by saying ‘curable’. But if you use your sensory ability to look, learn, listen, and touch you may find new data which will make you see what you can do to help.”
-Moshe Feldenkrais, quoted from The Case Of Nora

Feldenkrais is about improvement; whether or not your condition is curable is irrelevant as to whether or not your nervous system function can be improved. Even the tiniest improvement is an improvement and that is where it must always begin. Improving the connectedness of your nervous system and your internal awareness of your body can help you to improve any activity that you can think of.

Want to swing your golf club more effectively? Re-learn the technique from the beginning, pay physical attention to each part of the movement, practise each part of the sequence slowly and in order, and then feel as you swing more efficiently than ever before.

Just don’t expect it to happen in a hurry. You didn’t become an adult with learned behaviours overnight, it’s unrealistic to expect your brain and nervous system to learn things faster now that you’re older. If anything, that works the other way around. It’s easier to create patterns where there are none than to attempt to change existing ones.

Benefiting from Feldenkrais takes time, but that doesn’t mean it’s an uninteresting journey. I have been consistently surprised by my body along the way and amazed at parts of its function that I’d never paid attention to before. I have been blown away by the way my body increasingly responds more quickly to the same sessions, that’s evidence of learning that I can literally feel. I’m doing the same thing again and again, but filling in more details, realising more about the movement.

My Feldenkrais practitioner describes my body now as a completely different to the one that I first showed up in, she can see and feel the difference too.

The Feldenkrais method has opened up my mind to ways of learning that I’d never known of before and this has spread through every aspect of my life. I no longer see things that I can’t do, I see things that I haven’t learnt to do yet.

I recommend Feldenkrais to anybody who wants to know their body better, to anybody who feels awkward in their movements, to anybody who wants to improve a particular skill. All of the skills start with your brain and your nervous system.

You wouldn’t build your home on a shaky foundation, would you?

Find out more information about Feldenkrais at The Australian Feldenkrais Guild.

Would you try Feldenkrais if sessions and practitioners were readily accessible and affordable? Or, have you had experiences with Feldenkrais that you’d like to share?

Thanks so much to everybody that has been supporting me in the NHBPM challenge! If you like what I am doing, please share these posts with the people that you share things with or click that little thumbs up. It’s CRPS Awareness Month, which is why I’m choosing to disclose a little more about my health on a daily basis. The more awareness that we can raise, the easier it will get for people who are navigating the choppy waters of chronic pain.

Love & Laying Down Carefully,
WEGO, CRPS Awareness Month, #NHBPM

This post written as a part of National Health Blog Post Month, run by WEGO health. Check out what people have been contributing via #NHBPM on Twitter, or joining the NHBPM Facebook Event.

  • More about me…
  • Follow me on Twitter
  • Like Rellacafa on Facebook
  • Subscribe on Youtube
  • 2 thoughts on “What Is Feldenkrais?

    1. Esther Niego Palatchi

      Me ha encantado tu artículo sobre Feldenkrais, has descrito exactamente en que consiste y sus beneficios. Te agradezco la difusión que haces de éste maravilloso método, eres un ejemplo a seguir.

    2. rachel potasznik


      Thank you for sharing your experience and the benefits of the Feldenkrais Method. I will share it
      with folks suffering from pain and think it can be very helpful. All the best to you in your training and your
      journey of discovery!

      Rachel Potasznik, GCFP, CYT’

    Comments are closed.