Working with Children & Developmental Challenges: A Feldenkrais® Perspective

The birth of a child is a miraculous event.  And even more miraculous is witnessing the stages of their development. A child is born completely dependent on it’s parents or caretaker for everything.  Human beings are not born walking like most other animals and there is a long apprenticeship before we reach maturity.

Jean Piaget demonstrated that young children move to learn. It is through movement that the child learns all necessary functions. Do you remember the first time you watched a baby roll from their back to their belly, or reach for a toy while lying on their stomach?  As parents we do not have to get down on the floor and teach the child how to roll over.  The child wants the toy and begins to move, sometimes backwards and sometimes forward, seemingly random movements that are felt and perceived by the learning brain (a feedback system).   Many trials and errors, adjustments this way and that way until there is a lengthening forward or a crawling and… success.

This process of crawling, reaching, rolling-over, sitting up, standing, walking, running, skipping, jumping, is both miraculous, and something we often take for granted.  But for children with developmental challenges, these biological functions are often disrupted, or not readily available. Cerebral palsy, brain and nerve injuries, birth defects, genetic disorders, sensory integration disorder, autism, various kinds of learning delays all present challenges to normal development—and to the child’s parents, care givers and teachers. There are many traditional approaches for these challenges, like physical therapy, occupational therapy, medical interventions, certain types of massage and bodywork. One alternative is the Feldenkrais Method®.

In a Feldenkrais approach the practitioner focuses on what the child can already do well (because every child, with any condition, will have some things that he or she can do well), supports the child in learning to do that even better, and then helps the child build upon that success.  This process may take the form of guiding the child through simple, gentle movement sequences or movement challenges that strengthen neural patterns while also building movement confidence.  Moshe Feldenkrais discovered that improvement of one function usually improves other functions.  By focusing on the child’s strengths in one area, a foundation is built for learning and strengthening other areas.

So let’s take rolling over: All Feldenkrais Practitioners, as a part of their training process, re-experience the developmental process that an infant progresses through – from sucking, to rolling to a side then to the belly, rolling up to sit, to standing. Check out this video of an infant and you’ll see the process this baby uses to discover rolling.  The video also clearly shows the process, and the sense of discovery, that a Feldenkrais Practitioner might use when working with a very young person.

Awareness Through Movement® – A Truly Slow Movement

S-L-O-W…. slow food, slow money, slow parenting, slow travel, slow art and slow body movements are just a few examples of a new trend which Wikipedia defines as a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace. Our current life style is hurried, busy, with lots to do.  Our advances in technology continue to speed us down the fast lane.  This isn’t necessarily all bad but we do need balance and the slow movement may have much to offer.

Moving our bodies slowly with awareness through such modalities as tai chi, qi gong, yoga and the Feldenkrais Method® have been shown to be beneficial for dealing with stress.  There are also a growing number of pain clinics and Integrative Health centers that offer slow movement, awareness-based modalities for pain including pain caused by cancer and cancer treatments, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions. “Some experts suggest that these slow methods…increase the parasympathetic relaxation response which in turn reduces the stress response, promotes immune function that inhibits inflammation and stimulates healing…Slow movement is like Slow Food in which all acts related to eating – shopping, preparing, ingesting, and digesting – are done with awareness and presence.” (Slow Movement with Awareness: Better than Exercise? by Alan Fogel)

The Feldenkrais Method® group classes called Awareness Through Movement® is slow movement. In these classes you are encouraged to move slowly, to take time to feel how you are moving and assimilate it. The movement sequences that are taught are unusual or novel.  This encourages you to break free from the habitual ways that you move.  It also encourages you to feel how you are moving in order to become aware of yourself.

Moving slowly also allows you to notice if you are using unnecessary effort, what I refer to as parasitic action.  A simple example of this might be holding your breath while you are learning a new movement or activity, or even tightening your jaw, or clenching your fist.

Research and evidence suggest that it is not only moving slowly that is beneficial—but it is moving slowly with awareness. Awareness of how we act is essential if we are to change.  The Awareness Through Movement® aspect of the Feldenkrais Method® helps us to actually use movement to become aware of our thinking, sensations, feelings and how we move (It’s not Awareness OF Movement, but Awareness THROUGH Movement).  The way we act/move can change once we are aware of what we are doing.  That was one of the brilliant realizations of Moshe Feldenkrais over 50 years ago that led to the development of the Feldenkrais Method®. With ample research now supporting this understanding, perhaps the Slow Movement Movement is ready to gather momentum.

Posture: Getting it Straight, Part 2

A Feldenkrais perspective…

In Part 1, I presented the idea of straightening out our thinking about posture–from a model of static, effortful straightness to one that allows for free and effortless movement and responsiveness.   The key words here are thinking and model (as in a conceptual model).

So let’s try an experiment: stand up straight, pull your shoulders back, pull your belly in, lift your chest and chin toward chest (please don’t hurt yourself doing this!).  OK, now maintain this position for the next 10 minutes.  In the meantime, move around the house or office as if you were doing everyday things, playing tennis, practicing your golf swing, or any type of familiar activity for you.

What did you notice about how long you were able to maintain this position while doing other activities?  If you are like most, you slipped back into your normal, habitual posture pretty quickly.

And what about the quality of your movement? If you maintained that position as instructed, you probably noticed that your movement wasn’t very comfortable or fluid; it probably wasn’t very efficient either—lots more effort involved than actually required.

From a Feldenkrais perspective, “good” posture is first and foremost, dynamic—it is not a fixed stance or position.  Rather, it is the ability to respond to the ever-changing environment, needs and opportunities that we face daily as human beings, with flexibility, efficiency, and ease—and with a level of effort that is appropriate to the situation.   But how do we achieve “good” posture?

Earlier, I stated that posture has something to do with thinking, with the mental models that we each hold about how we should stand, sit, move, and so forth. Perhaps you were given images or instructions by your parents, or by a role model, or your peers growing up.  We can pick up these images anywhere.

If you are a parent, you might remember marveling at the naturally perfect posture that your young child spontaneously developed, without any instructions.  Infants haven’t yet been given mental models or external ideals to achieve.  No instructions about how to crawl, stand, sit and walk.  As infants we learn to do these things through direct experience and experimentation with gravity and with objects in the world.

As we grow older, the external models or instructions accumulate, often undercutting our nervous system’s natural ability to learn and adapt.  Instead of a dynamic, responsive state of uprightness, we force ourselves, often unconsciously, into rigid positions that over time become our habitual “posture.”

From a Feldenkrais perspective, the key to improving posture is to cut through our habitual (i.e., unconscious) patterns with awareness.  Through slow and gentle movement sequences taught either in classes or in one-on-one sessions accompanied by a gentle touch, we become much more aware of our movements, the level of effort that we exert, and subsequently, to the external models that we have been operating from that actually form our posture and movement repertoire.  Feldenkrais practitioners don’t provide external models or show someone how to stand, sit or walk.  Instead, they help individuals to unlearn and relearn what it really means to move easily and without effort.

As this new awareness seeps in (called learning), our habitual patterns begin to dissolve—along with many of the byproducts of these patterns, such as reduced mobility, chronic pain, and overuse/repetitive stress symptoms, and our body naturally begins to align and balance itself in new ways.  “Good” posture emerges as a byproduct of this fluid awareness in movement, rather than something to be achieved through effortful striving toward external ideals.

Feldenkrais: Everything You ‘Know’ About Healing May Be Dead Wrong

Here is a follow-up article by Micheal Sigman about the Feldenkrais Method®. It’s great to read an article about the work that I do from someone experiencing the value of learning and healing through movement.  Here’s the link: Feldenkrais: Everything You Know About Healing May Be Dead Wrong

If you have any questions or comments let me know, I’m always interested.

Posture: Getting it Straight, Part 1

A Feldenkrais perspective…

How many times have you been told to stand up straight?  Don’t slouch.  Pull in your gut.  Lift your chin.   Most of us have grown up hearing some version of these instructions.

Although we have an idea that good posture has something to do with standing (or sitting) up straight, very few people actually understand what good posture is from a functional perspective.   What does “good” posture allow us to do—or to do better than “bad” posture, and what actually is “good” posture?

This two part blog is devoted to getting straight our beliefs and assumptions about good posture, and how to “do it.”

Let’s start with a brief retrospective: The Riddle of the Sphinx dates back to about 2,500 years ago.  It is said that the Sphinx guarded the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes, and would only grant entry to one who correctly answered the riddle, “Which creature in the morning goes upon four legs, at mid-day upon two, and in the evening upon three?”   The correct answer (given by Oedipus, the story goes) was “Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two feet as an adult, and then walks with a cane in old age.”

This riddle describes the postural changes of man.  It suggests that to grow old is to become crippled.   Many today also associate growing older with a long list of physical ailments including stiffness, tightness, difficulty moving, and chronic pain.  This is a long-held assumption to be sure, but one that isn’t necessarily true.

And then there is the Brace Position, the classic posture long promoted by the military, characterized by a ramrod straight spine, pulling back the shoulders, sticking out the chest, sucking in the gut, arms held by the sides.  Although it was abandoned some 40 years or so ago by the military, this ramrod straight stance still remains for many the most enduring model of “good” posture.

As the military research showed (and Feldenkrais practitioners see every day), a ramrod straight posture is actually the culprit of all sorts of chronic and painful conditions. This flattened, straight and rigidly held spine creates tension and pain in the neck, jaw, upper and lower back, as it goes against the natural curvature of the spine which is so fundamental to good function and musculoskeletal health.

When we are not “fighting with gravity,” our skeleton is able to support us effortlessly, we have full range of motion, our breathing can be full and deep, and our overall health and well-being is naturally supported.

So with all of these benefits, why is it that good posture is so elusive for so many? In the next part of this blog, we’ll explore some of the common pitfalls that hinder our attempts at good posture. We’ll also look at some specific actions that we can take to achieve a truly functional and dynamic posture.

Kathy James is a Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner, in private practice in Petaluma.

This post originally appeared in under Alternative Health.

Moving Out of Pain – The Feldenkrais Way

We all experience physical aches and pains at some time or another.  Some of these are acute (from an injury or accident), while others may stay with us or develop over time (chronic).

If you’re like many others, you may have had the experience that your physical pain is aggravated by movement—which is accurate:  Our body’s natural response to pain is often to increase muscular tension, restrict movement, and make postural changes to guard or protect the painful area.  But sometimes this natural protective response, while serving an important purpose in the short term, can actually create different, and more complicated, problems over the long term.

It’s worthwhile noting that dealing with chronic pain is usually more challenging than acute problems.  We are now learning that this is because chronic pain follows different pathways in the nervous system than acute pain—which explains why pain medication that alleviates acute pain often doesn’t have the same effect on chronic pain.

Fortunately, there are a variety of alternative approaches to chronic pain that may be effective, and which don’t entail costly drugs or surgery.  As a Feldenkrais teacher, my perspective is generally to start with the basics:  How is a person moving—walking, sitting, standing, and how might their habitual (unconscious) movement patterns be contributing or even causing the pain.

Let’s take Mary as an example… Mary limped into my office complaining about severe pain in her right hip when she walked.  She often woke in the middle of the night with pain, but couldn’t figure out what was causing it.  Although she had broken her ankle (and had surgery for it) three years earlier, that couldn’t be the cause of her hip pain, could it?

I first asked Mary to walk back and forth a few times, so that I could observe how she moved.  I then asked her if she noticed how differently each of her legs swung when she walked, and how she always placed her right foot way off to the side, while the left foot came down right under her hip?   She was surprised to realize that she was doing that, and commented that this was exactly how she had walked when her leg was in a cast after her ankle surgery.

In other words, Mary was walking today, three years later, as if her ankle were still broken and in a cast. Though her ankle injury had long since healed, the habitual way she had compensated for this injury had continued, and was now causing problems with Mary’s hips.  At some point, she might well start feeling pain in her spine, or even neck, if this habitual pattern of movement continued.

The key word in all of this is “habitual.”  Our bodies have tremendous wisdom, and will often (if we listen) inform us how best to respond to life’s immediate challenges.  But sometimes we continue responding the same way long after the immediate challenge is over.  This is clearly what was happening with Mary.

Over the next several sessions, Mary and I worked on helping her to sense and feel her habitual movement patterns more clearly, and to practice new ways of moving that were easier and more comfortable for her.  Just by focusing her attention on what she was doing, Mary started feeling differences almost immediately.  Pretty soon her limp had disappeared and she was walking normally again.  Without all of the added strain of having to walk in such a lopsided way, her hip pain also vanished, letting her sleep through the night comfortably.

Most of us take our movement for granted.  We do what we do, and we do it the same way, every day.   The next few times you stand up from your chair or sofa, pay attention to how you actually do it—how you shift your weight, where you put your feet, how you use your head, what you do with your hands.  You’ll probably notice that you do it the same way every time.  Is this a problem?  Not necessarily, since we all need to be able to do some things without thinking too much about them.  But it may be a problem if you’re caught in a cycle of pain, discomfort or limitation that just doesn’t seem to go away.   In that case, becoming aware of these habits, and learning new ways of moving, with greater balance and ease, may be exactly what your body is asking for.

This post originally appeared in under Alternative Health.

Feldenkrais: The Power of Movement

The Feldenkrais Method® is unusual, unusually deep, subtle, and powerful.   It’s a revolutionary approach to understanding how we function both physically and mentally, as well as providing tools for our improvement.

So for example, if you are someone who experiences pain and have been told to exercise it is a step but it may not be enough. Our tendency to move in the same ways, guided by the same postural habits, sensory cues and mental images are strong.  What an individual needs to learn is how they are moving and how their way of moving may relate to their pain or problem.  Feldenkrais Practitioners are trained movement specialists, who help people move and live with greater comfort, flexibility and ease.

Before being introduced to Feldenkrais in 1975, I had spent about twenty-five years getting ready for it.  I started with dancing— tap, jazz, ballet, whatever.  I danced through my entire childhood, compelled by the sheer pleasure I experienced through movement.  I didn’t think much about the importance of movement for health or well-being when I was young; I just knew that it made me feel good and gave me a sense of confidence.

In college I became interested in science, but continued to dance off and on.  I yearned to find a way to combine the two, somehow.  Then I took this workshop consisting of simple but unusual movement sequences that seemed so trivial—yet after each class I felt great!  I still remember one of the classes, just turning our heads around to look behind us and then back to the front, repeating it several times.  We then turned our heads while moving our eyes in the opposite direction, still very gently, repeating each movement.  After a series of these strange variations, we were asked to repeat the original movement:  I was shocked to discover that my range of movement had doubled with almost no effort, just be paying attention to my movement in new ways. This was my introduction to The Feldenkrais Method®.

After completing my degree in Zoology, I continued dancing, while looking for ways to integrate my two passions—scientific inquiry, and movement.   When I heard about a training program with Moshe Feldenkrais, I knew that I had to do it.  The four-year program began in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1980, and culminated in Tel Aviv, Israel, where Moshe Feldenkrais lived.

That was almost thirty years ago.  Today, most people have still not heard of the Feldenkrais Method®, but many folks have tried it, and have been helped by it.

The Feldenkrais Method® consists of two basic forms—one on one individual sessions, called “Functional Integration®,” and group movement classes known as “Awareness Through Movement®.”

In Awareness Through Movement® classes, the Feldenkrais practitioner verbally guides people through a sequence of gentle movements.  Many of these movements focus on simple daily actions such as reaching, looking behind yourself, breathing, sitting, improving balance, bending down, walking, or more complicated patterns such as yoga postures.  Regardless of the specific movement, the point is always to move gently, and work at your own level.

Functional Integration® is the one-to-one, hands-on session in which the Feldenkrais practitioner and client work together to increase the client’s movement awareness and capacity, in supportive and non-invasive ways. Usually, the practitioner works with the client (fully clothed) on a low table, using gentle touch and verbal direction to guide the movement sequences that encourage new awareness and learning.  The result is improved pain-free movement and improved performance in almost any area—be it sitting, walking, running, playing tennis, playing piano, gardening—whatever involves movement.

Moshe Feldenkrais was a true innovator, developing thousands of movement lessons that produce impressive changes.  Worldwide there are more than 6,000 Feldenkrais Practitioners, using movement awareness to help people with all sorts of challenges, ranging from back, neck, shoulder, knee, hand or foot pain, to neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy; head injuries from accidents or strokes; chronic conditions such as chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia; to musicians and athletes who wish to improve their performance.  Some practitioners have even applied their work to animals with impressive results.  My favorite quote from Moshe Feldenkrais sums up our approach nicely: “To make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant.”

This post originally appeared in under Alternative Health.