Master the Art of Awareness
When you go for a Feldenkrais session, don't expect wild theatrics or table-shaking, to-the-bone manipulation. The process is much more subtle than that--so subtle that as you're moved about on the table, gliding through a sequence of movements, you'll barely realize that you're being touched.
Here's how a session may go. You lie on a cushioned table as the practitioner begins manipulating various parts of your body. She touches your stockinged foot as gently as if it were made of blown glass, lightly pressing, turning it ever so slightly. She does the same to your leg, lifting it from the table and bending it gingerly at the knee, then slowly setting it down.
The session's not over yet. The practitioner will use foam pieces and styrofoam rollers to help support your body and allow you to be as comfortable as possible. The practitioner will then gently guide you through a series of custom-tailored movements to help you learn new motion possibilities.
Among the many goals in Feldenkrais, two are especially important: One is to help you become aware of habitual body positions and movements, which, unbeknownst to you, may be causing discomfort and fatigue. The second is to help you discover new ways of moving that are more compatible with your body's natural design and potential. It's a learning experience.
Sometimes the impact of a 45-minute session is immediate. When you rise to your feet, you'll feel like a free woman: You may feel taller. The movement of your arms and legs may seem fluid and flowing. Your range of motion may be greater. Sometimes the impact is felt later. You suddenly find that you can reach that jar on the top shelf without a stool. Dancing all night doesn't give you a creak in your neck anymore.
The Feldenkrais Method was developed by Israeli scientist Moshe Feldenkrais in the early 1950s after he suffered a crippling sports-related injury. Through studying how movement of the body influences the natural power of the brain, Dr. Feldenkrais was able to teach himself to walk again. He felt that people should reduce stress and fatigue and ease pain and stiffness through learning how to develop efficient and flexible movement.
More than just a few muscles are affected by rounding your shoulders or slumping your back. Over time, your entire body, from your feet to your head, will start to feel the strain of cramped movements and out-of-balance posture. It's not uncommon, proponents say, for this to lead to unexplainable chronic conditions such as headaches or lower-back pain.
It's not that we're unable to move our bodies in healthy, comfortable ways, says Amber Barbara Grumet, a Feldenkrais practitioner in New York City. It's simply that as we go through life developing habitual ways of moving to accommodate old injuries or traumas, we develop physical rigidities. Clenching our jaws, for instance, or favoring one leg after an old skiing accident may have served you well at one time, but those movements may be hindering you today without your realizing it, says Grumet.
After a single Feldenkrais session, says Bob Chapra, a Feldenkrais practitioner in Philadelphia, "I've had people say, 'I realized for the first time my habit of sitting with my shoulder up to my ears and clenching my teeth.' "
FEELING FOR PAIN
It's not surprising that Feldenkrais practitioners are as gentle as other body workers are vigorous. Their job, quite literally, is to feel what your body is trying to say. And often the messages are subtle: a little bit of stiffness here, a slight twinge there, a range of motion that's narrower than it used to be.
A Feldenkrais session isn't meant to solve your problems. The purpose is to help you become aware of your body's strengths. Once you discover your body's natural ability to move, you'll find more comfortable ways of standing, sitting, walking and so on.
Finding a balanced relationship in movement can have far-reaching effects. Not only will your body feel better, but so will you. And once your brain becomes aware of a more efficient way to move, your body can follow in that direction.
"We use our hands to bring movement into areas of your body that are not cooperating fully," says Grumet. "We try to allow people to learn to function in ways that are easiest for their systems and to help realize their human potential," she says.
Although many men attend Feldenkrais sessions regularly, it's an approach that's particularly appealing for women, says Sarnell Ogus, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner in East Hampton, New York.
"Women have very demanding lives these days, with children, jobs, husbands and parents who are getting older," she says. "This gives women an opportunity to take control of how they move, which can affect their lives and their health.
Indeed, Feldenkrais can also be a natural helpmate for pregnancy and childbirth. "Regular classes or lessons can help a pregnant woman adapt to the changes in her body and to her new relationship with gravity as she moves. A natural delivery is easier when you see yourself as a connected whole to push the baby," says Nancy Forst Williamson, a Feldenkrais practitioner in Lincoln, Nebraska.
A LONG-TERM PLAN
The Feldenkrais Method uses not one but two techniques: The first, known as Functional Integration, involves one-on-one sessions on a padded table. The second involves movement classes called Awareness through Movement. Each modality uses simple yet challenging movements to gain new possibilities of functioning with comfort and ease at work and play. Some of the most important benefits of the Feldenkrais Method occur when you begin attending classes.
It's important to note what the classes are not. First of all, they are not dance classes. Music is never used. Nor are they aerobics or stretching classes. Instead, the point of each class is to introduce participants to movements that will help them move with greater freedom and acquaint them with new ways to function, says Marcy Lindheimer, director of the Feldenkrais Learning Center in New York City.
Each class focuses on different functions, which may include movements such as bending, arching, turning or reaching, says Lindheimer. The point is to introduce your body via your brain to new movement choices. Some of the movements you may never use outside of class; others will become part of your daily life. The goal, says Lindheimer, is to help you function more effectively in your life.
The movements that you'll practice in class are often quite simple--turning your head a few inches at a time, for example, or tilting your pelvis, says Williamson.
A Feldenkrais class will usually cover 12 to 15 movements built around a specific theme in each 45-minute session. Each movement is done gently and is generally repeated 10 to 15 times, explains Anat Baniel, a Feldenkrais practitioner and trainer in Greenbrae, California.
"Every movement variation in the lesson is one piece of the puzzle," she notes. "The variations are functionally connected from one to the other so that by the time you've done ten variations, all the movements of the lesson become easy and pleasurable, and your skill level increases."
A Feldenkrais practitioner is trained in techniques meant to help you take charge of your emotional and physical health--techniques to improve posture and breathing and reduce stress and fatigue. Here's how to locate a Feldenkrais practitioner near you.
Number of practitioners in the United States: Approximately 800.
Qualifications to look for: Certification by the Feldenkrais Guild.
Professional associations: The Feldenkrais Guild, P.O. Box 489, Albany, OR 97321.
To find a practitioner: Contact the Feldenkrais Guild at the address listed above.
Approximate cost: $50 to $175 per session, depending on where you live.
Purchasing information: To order a copy of Relaxercise: The Easy New Way to Health and Fitness by David Zemach-Bersin, Kaethe Zemach-Bersin and Mark Reese, call 1-800-735-7950.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Some Feldenkrais classes are designed for beginners, while others are more advanced. It's important to find a class and an instructor with whom you're comfortable. If you're just starting out, you should be able to join an ongoing class after three or four introductory lessons. If you've been involved in Feldenkrais for a long time, you will want to find an advanced class that will continue introducing you to new lessons.
If you stick with Feldenkrais for a while, you'll find that the movements gradually get more intricate and challenging--but are still safe. At some point, you may even find yourself doing somersaults and rolls, says Baniel. "Everything in Feldenkrais progresses. It helps people feel taller and lighter--more vital. It makes it easier and more enjoyable to walk, to breathe, to run, to move."
Most people experience meaningful changes within the first class. Attending class twice a week for ten weeks will bring about significant changes and improvements in flexibility, strength, vitality and self-awareness for almost everyone. After that, Baniel says that you can cut back to once a week, to keep yourself limber and in touch with your body. Or you may continue more intensely to get even more out of the method. Baniel notes that even weekend or weeklong seminars are offered, which provide an excellent opportunity for even more rapid learning, intensity and change.
Most people enjoy attending Feldenkrais classes because of the camaraderie and teamwork. But if classes aren't available in your area, or if you'd rather learn Feldenkrais techniques on your own, you can purchase illustrated Feldenkrais lesson books as well as audiotapes and videotapes in bookstores or from most practitioners.
WORKING ON YOUR OWN
Because the movements used in Feldenkrais are often quite subtle, it's a difficult program to master on your own. However, here are a few simple tips that experts say can make a big difference in your daily life.
Give your face a hand. In today's stressful world, it's often impossible to go a whole day without clenching your jaw, which is the body's natural reaction to stress. Over time this can lead to jaw pain as well as headaches.
While there's no easy trick for stopping stress, there is one for relaxing a tense jaw. Several times a day, take your left arm and fold it across your body, with your left hand holding your right elbow and your right hand pressing against your jaw, Jack Bennystyle. "That automatically makes the jaw feel lighter and will make you less likely to clench your jaw," Chapra says.
Pay attention to your body. Awareness is where a sense of choice starts. It's helpful to spend a few minutes every day quietly sensing your body's movements and sensations, no matter how minute, says Williamson. For example, pay attention to how you're sitting. Some people tend to lean to one side much more than another, and over time this can affect the shape of their spines.
"It's difficult to change your movements unless you know what you're doing in the first place," says Williamson. "But many of us have never had the opportunity to learn to sense ourselves accurately."
Breathe easy. When you're exerting yourself--trying to wrestle the lid off a jar, for example--you may find yourself holding your breath. It's a bad practice, says Grumet. "Breathing helps with everything: your posture, your strength and how efficiently your body uses oxygen. You'll be surprised at how much easier everyday tasks become if you remember to breathe," she notes.
Here are some simple movements suggested by David Zemach-Bersin, Kaethe Zemach-Bersin and Mark Reese, authors of Relaxercise: The Easy New Way to Health and Fitness. These movements are designed to restore flexibility to your spine, improve your posture, loosen up your neck and back and help you bend with ease. Remember, these movements should be done slowly. Always make sure the movements are small and easy, and relax as much as you can.
Sit on the front part of a firmly cushioned chair and rest your hands comfortably in your lap. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart and flat on the floor. They should be directly below your knees forming a right angle.
Without straining your neck, slowly raise your head toward the ceiling. Your eyes should be looking toward the ceiling. Take notice of how far above your eyes you can see without feeling any strain. As you are looking up, let your back arch slightly. Exhale as you do this movement. Return to the starting position and relax.
Slowly raise your head and arch your back slightly while gazing downward. Relax your shoulders, neck and eyes. Because your eyes and head are moving in two different directions, you'll notice that the movement of your head and neck is limited. Exhale as you do this movement. Return to the starting position and rest briefly.
Slowly raise your head and eyes toward the ceiling while arching your back. Your back may be arching with more ease, and at this point, you may notice that you can comfortably see a little higher above you. Exhale as you do this movement. Return to the starting position and rest briefly.
Slowly lower your head and eyes toward the floor. Let your back round when you look down. Relax your shoulders, neck and chest. Exhale as you do this movement. Return to the starting position and rest briefly.
Slowly lower your head and round your back. Raise your eyes toward the ceiling. Because your head and eyes are moving in two different directions, the movement of your chest and head is limited. Exhale as you do this movement. Return to the starting position and rest briefly.
Slowly raise your head and eyes toward the ceiling while arching your back. You may notice that your middle and upper back are arching a little more without strain and your eyes can see a little farther above you. Exhale as you do this movement. Return to the starting position and rest briefly.
Slowly hang your head down. Rest your chin comfortably close to your chest and slowly arch your back. Your pelvis may be tilting forward slightly. Keep your shoulders, stomach and neck relaxed. Exhale when you do this movement. Return to the starting position and rest briefly.
While slowly raising your head and eyes toward the ceiling, arch your back. Make sure that your body is comfortable. You may notice that your pelvis tilts forward a little, your chest lifts and moves forward, your shoulder blades come together and your body stretches higher. Exhale when you do this movement. Then slowly lower your head and eyes toward the floor while rounding your back. You may notice that your pelvis tilts slightly backward, your chest flattens, your shoulders become rounded and your body is shorter. Exhale as you do this. Return to the starting position and rest briefly.
Slowly turn your upper body to the right. Make sure that your body is comfortable. Then raise your head and eyes toward the ceiling while arching your back. Lifting your left hip up slightly may make this movement easier. Keep your legs, shoulders and neck relaxed. Exhale while doing this movement. Then lower your head and eyes toward the floor while making your back round. Continue to keep your legs, shoulders and neck relaxed. Exhale while doing the movement. Return to the starting position and rest briefly.
Slowly turn your upper body to the left. Make sure that your body is comfortable. Then raise your head and eyes toward the ceiling while arching your back. Lifting your right hip up slightly may make this movement easier. Keep your legs, shoulders and neck relaxed. Exhale while doing this movement. Then lower your head and eyes toward the floor while rounding your back. Continue to keep your legs, shoulders and neck relaxed. Exhale while doing the movement. Return to the starting position and rest briefly.
Slowly turn your upper body to the right while arching your back as much as you comfortably can. Raise your head and eyes toward the ceiling. You may notice that your left hip raises slightly and your shoulder blades move closer together. Then bring your body back through the starting position while lowering your head and eyes to the floor and rounding your back. Slowly turn your upper body to the left while arching your back as much as you comfortably can. Raise your head and eyes toward the ceiling. This time, your right hip may raise slightly as your shoulder blades come together. This movement should be continuous and smooth. Lower your head toward the floor and round your back while bringing your body back to the starting position. Exhale after each movement.
This movement will allow you to see how your flexibility has improved. Lift your head and eyes toward the ceiling while arching your back. You may notice that you can comfortably see much farther above you than before and your spine bends with ease. Then relax. Your weight is equally balanced over your "sit bones," and your posture has improved.