ALL THE RIGHT MOVES
by Elizabeth Kaufmann
American Way Magazine (11/1/97)

Kathy Miller, thirty-six, couldn't walk normally and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Stephanie Hofmann, forty, suffered chronic pain after herniating a disk in her back. Michael Williams, forty-nine, simply wanted to improve downhill-skiing skills. As different as their complaints sound, these three actually had a common problem: they couldn't move optimally. And each found an answer in a blossoming alternative movement therapy called the Feldenkrais Method®.

Named for Russian-born Israeli physicist, mechanical engineer, and judo master, Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984), the method emerged from Feldenkrais' own problems with his knee. When an old injury flared up in the Forties, Feldenkrais began an intense study of human movement and behavior, focusing on such areas as how babies learn to roll over, crawl, and walk. In the process, he not only found relief from his knee pain, he developed a method, using gentle movements, to enhance the communication between muscles and the central nervous system, ultimately allowing greater freedom and fluidity of movement.

At the age of fifty, Feldenkrais gave up his physics career to share his method with others, including early pupils Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and violinist Yehudi Menuhin. In the early Seventies, he brought his teachings to the United States, and in 1977 established The Feldenkrais Guild®. The Guild has certified nearly 1,000 Feldenkrais® practitioners in the United States; each has undergone more than 800 hours of training in a four-year period.

What does this mean for you? Popular in California, Europe, Australia and Israel, the method appeals to people who are interested in holistic healing and who wish to take an active role in their own health care. The Feldenkrais Method addresses more than just physical issues, too.

"We look at how a person moves and we see that there are certain things he or she doesn't quite see in their self-image," says Miami practitioner Angel Di Benedetto, who trains others throughout the world. "Let's say somebody was smacked across the face a lot in childhood or told that they were stupid or ugly. They may go through life holding their head down, or hiding part of themselves, or tucking their pelvis in a certain way. Even after psychotherapy, this person may feel better, but the nervous system is still carrying that physiological attitude." The main goal of lessons, she says, is to unlock the body and to help a person redistribute the body's "work" more evenly.

Unfortunately, except for athletes and performers, most people don't think about how their bodies move until something hurts. The aging process, stress, and injury, disease, or habitual patterns established over a lifetime can all shrink the range of movements in our repertoire.

"What the Feldenkrais Method does is provide a situation where you can experience something that you haven't experienced for a while, maybe since you were two years old and first learning how to move and explore," says Myra Ping, a Feldenkrais practitioner and physical therapist in Chicago. "The premise is, once that information is introduced to you, you have the potential within you to learn from a very deep level - to learn organically."

Before she began taking Feldenkrais lessons with Ping, Kathy Miller was having difficulty advancing her right leg when she walked. Miller has multiple sclerosis, a disease that causes extreme fatigue and interferes with control of movement. Her right knee would flap back and become rigid, causing frequent falls. With Ping's guidance, Miller discovered that if she rotated her right shoulder more toward the left as she stepped onto her left foot, then her right foot would lift up more easily to step forward.
"It's the most natural walk I've had since I've had MS, and it's so much less fatiguing," Miller says. "I'm convinced that if I hadn't started Feldenkrais, I would not be walking well today and maybe I'd be so fatigued that I don't know if I would have chosen to walk."

Stephanie Hofmann herniated a disk in her lower back when she fell while coaching a high-school track team in Miami. She was deemed a poor candidate for surgery and felt no relief from conventional therapies until receiving a series of epidural steroid injections, which, she says, lowered her pain level from a ten to a five, on a scale on one to ten. Then she entered a pain-management center, where a staff member gave her literature on the Feldenkrais Method. Hofmann went to see Angel Di Benedetto. With Di Benedetto's tactile guidance and verbal cues, in one memorable lesson, she was able to isolate one vertebra and get it to move.

"After a while my body was starting to move again in places where I'd lost mobility," Hofmann says. She now puts her pain level at a two, and says the Feldenkrais Method has helped "more than anything."

You don't have to be suffering from a serious illness or disability to benefit from Feldenkrais. Dancers and musicians have used the method to improve coordination and movement efficiency. There's also potential payoff for skiers. Michael Williams, a Tampa attorney and recreational skier, tracked down Feldenkrais practitioner Jack Heggie in Boulder, Colorado, after reading his book Skiing with the Whole Body. Heggie, who also wrote Running with the Whole Body, incorporates the Feldenkrais Method into private skiing lessons. Williams, who describes himself as a strong intermediate skier who couldn't master bumps or speed, hired Heggie for two days of lessons in 1994, 1995, and two days' worth in 1996.
"You take the lessons and you do the stuff he says and you say, 'This doesn't have anything to do with skiing,'" Williams recalls. "You ski across the hill without your poles and you do the twist on skis, okay? But when you finally figure our what it's supposed to do and do it, you say, 'Aha!'"

"The inability to turn skis independently of the rest of the body may be the biggest barrier intermediate level skiers face in attempting to break into full parallel skiing," say Heggie. Instead of rotating the hips and shoulders from side to side while the skis face downhill, fearful skiers tend to assume a rigid position which interferes with the natural momentum of turning. Practicing the twist on skis reminds the nervous system to relax the upper body and allow it to move naturally.

Whether you're struggling to ski or struggling to walk, living is, in great part, about moving. It doesn't take the work of Moshe Feldenkrais to make you realize that much of the quality of life itself depends on the quality of movement. But it could require some lessons in the method he devised to optimize your quality of movement. "Movement is life," Feldenkrais wrote. "Without movement life is unthinkable."


Elizabeth Kaufmann is a writer and physical therapist in training in Chicago.


"Feldenkrais Worth the Search, Fans Say" / San Diego Union-Tribune


"Felden-what?"
/ Lawrence Wm. Goldfarb


"The Feldenkrais Method" / Dalia Sofer, Health Map Magazine


"Exercise in Awareness" / Liz Brody, The Los Angeles Times

"Yoga & Feldenkrais"
Taught by Kevin Kortan


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