Explore your potential in body and mind

Fitness Life Magazine

Motion Wellness.


Practitioner David Sullivan shows Anya Kussler how to move to improve. Feldenkrais® uses movement to enhance the communication between the brain and the body, thereby releasing stress and bringing us back to our natural way of functioning.

"...When you know what you're doing you can do what you want."
- Moshe Feldenkrais

I had heard much about the various benefits of the Feldenkrais® Method before I asked one of its dedicated followers, practitioner David Sullivan, to give me a hands-on demonstration - and a verbal explanation of this rather mind-boggling modality. Feldenkrais, David tells me, uses subtle movement to improve our overall body-mind connection, which can help us function with greater ease, fluidity and motion, improving our health long term.

David explains: as we grow up, we tend to become locked into doing things the same old way, due to our individual experiences. "We do what we think we can do, because we don't know any alternatives." He gives the example of someone who has broken their leg at a young age and therefore begins putting their weight on the opposite leg. When prolonged, this movement may eventually cause pain and even lead to immobility and disability. "It is when our boundaries cause pain that our habits become a problem," David says. "What it boils down to is 'use it or lose it."

The Feldenkrais Method offers a way to reverse this downward spiral by creating a framework within which a person can learn new possibilities other than the old habits and improve or revitalise the functioning of the body. David assures me that this type of learning has nothing to do with how we learned maths at school, but is similar to how we learnt to walk when we were babies (without the falling over).

While I have no idea how this is supposed to work in practice, I trust an introductory self-help Feldenkrais lesson will teach me how to walk (without falling over). "Just stand and gently shift your weight between your feet," David says. "Notice how that feels. Are you breathing easily? Do you feel that you tend to lean to one side more than the other?" None of these questions require an answer, only awareness of my own movements. "Now slowly extend your left arm in front of you and turn your palm inwards, facing you. Then, with your torso facing the front, move your arm to the left and towards the back as far as you can. Don't strain, just stop when you feel even the slightest resistance. This is your reference movement."

(I manage to turn about 110 degrees).

"Now turn your head to the right and focus ahead. Keeping your head still, try moving your eyes to the front without straining them, then do the reverse: keep your eyes facing ahead and try turning your head to the right. Now repeat the reference movement..."

This is where it gets spooky. Suddenly, effortlessly, I am now able to move my arm way beyond 180 degrees without any restrictions. In fact, I am almost certain I could do a 360-degree turn and tie myself into a knot if I wanted to (okay, a little effort may be required). Then David tells me to walk up and down the room a few times. While I normally tend to put more emphasis on my left hip (I injured my knee in an ice-skating accident 17 years ago), I feel grounded, balanced and light at the same time - one could say I have a proverbial spring in my step.

So what exactly has brought upon this change, this apparent increased mobility? David smiles at my questions: "This is one of the great things about Feldenkrais - the effect happens as a surprise. This is because it is not a cognitive experience, but learning that happens in a deep place inside your brain."

One way of learning is by engaging in slow, non-habitual movements (such as moving my eyes from side to side while holding your head still). By doing this, I have not only extended my own parameters physically, but also mentally which allows me to move freely. "A neurosurgeon might say you are strengthening your neural pathways," David explains, "creating new connections within the brain. But it's really how you organize yourself internally to interact with your environment. To really grow as a person is to increase the quality of your internal organisation, for example your quality of movement such as standing, sitting, walking..."

The Feldenkrais Method is the brainchild of Moshe Feldenkrais, a Russian-born nuclear scientist, as well as judo expert. A painful chronic knee injury he suffered in the 1940s prompted Moshe to explore the relationship between the mind and body - to improve physical movement and function as a way of avoiding surgery. He developed his therapy based on his observations that our senses, thoughts and emotions cause muscular changes in the body and vice versa. Because it is easier to control our muscles, he figured movement was the best way to improve awareness and, as a result, improve our flexibility, mental and physical potential, as well as other aspects of human functioning. It certainly worked for Moshe: he learned to walk again without pain.

Feldenkrais offers two types of approaches - a group or self-help lessons, Awareness Through Movement®, such as the one David introduced me to at the beginning of our session, as well as an individual hands-on treatment called Functional Integration®. The latter is performed with the client lying down in any comfortable position (in my case on my side, in my preferred sleeping position, clutching a pillow), with towels and blankets supporting my neck, head and limbs. Then the practitioner applies gentle touch and wave-like movement to all the limbs. There is no set model or order in which to do this, but David starts at my head, then works his way down to my feet. Both approaches utilise slow and subtle movement to enhance self-awareness and thereby give our nervous systems a choice of moving and functioning in different, easier, smoother ways.

Learning how to move in such hitherto unknown ways can assist us human beings long-term and on many different levels. It can help with chronic or neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, make ends meet with stress-related illnesses, assist in sustaining our general vitality and even help children with certain types of learning and development. It is also a powerful tool in improving athletes' performance and technique, which is why many Olympic sprinters and professional golfers have worked with Feldenkrais practitioners.

David, personally, has a Feldenkrais success story to tell. At age 17 he was diagnosed with scoliosis, a condition that manifested itself as severe lower back and knee pain. David was introduced to Feldenkrais after a ski injury to his chest in Switzerland in 1994. The method not only improved his mobility, but also alleviated his lower back and knee pain. Hence David trained as a Feldenkrais practitioner in Germany and Australia for four years then practised in Munich before returning to Auckland two years ago.

So far, David has seen some excellent results. One of his clients, Nicky Butler, had her leg amputated above her knee seven odd years ago. As a result she experienced severe chronic pain and was confined to crutches - until she was introduced to Feldenkrais. Says an ecstatic Nicky: "It's the one time in my life that I felt completely and instantly relaxed - and that after just one session! That was a definite first for me. I now understand how I was always trying to hang onto my pain, because that's what I knew. Even my jaws used to ache." A combination of regular one-on-one and self-help sessions later, Nicky is able to walk without crutches and is largely pain free. Another of David's clients, Kirsten Hunter, suffered from migraines, RSI and poor posture until she experienced the positive effects of this therapy. The most spectacular result, she says, was when she experienced OOS so badly, that she could hardly use her arm. She first began taking group lessons through her work, which she says immediately improved the mobility in her neck. Her most spectacular result to date is when she recently experienced a bad bout of OOS. "It was so tender, I couldn't bare David even touching my arm. So he did some movement work on my back and I actually fell asleep. And when I woke up, the pain was gone completely. I don't know how he did it, but it worked."

While I have had no major physical trauma in my life, other than the compulsory stiff computer shoulder as well as a tendency to hypertension and constantly worry about the trivialities of life, David's light and easy hands-on movements nearly put me to sleep as well - not to mention ease away any residue of stress. In fact, my mind feels so pleasantly still and my body so at ease and almost 'fluid', I have to cut our interview short and arrange another time to meet - when my muscles have awoken from their divine hibernation (or shall I say intervention).

- Anya Kussler
Fitness Life Magazine
March, 2006

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