Feldenkrais (Pixabay: © Irina Logra)

Most of our habits and movement patterns are unconscious to us. They may feel right—out of habit—but they're not always healthy. Especially in the physical realm, we eventually feel this through tension, back and headaches, immobility, or joint problems. The Feldenkrais Method shows us ways to become aware of and change these habits.

"Movement is life. Life is unthinkable without movement."
Moshé Feldenkrais

"What I am after isn't flexible bodies but flexible brains.
What I am after is giving each person back their human dignity."
Moshé Feldenkrais

The Feldenkrais Method, or simply "Feldenkrais," is a holistic approach to movement. It was named after its developer, Dr. Moshé Feldenkrais. According to his own statement, it is a method of learning. Through conscious movement, a learning process is initiated that aims to enable new gait and movement patterns and can have holistic effects on our personality. The method does not see itself as treatment or healing, although by learning anew and relearning, new abilities and possibilities can be made available to individuals. These can indeed have a healing effect. Therefore, Feldenkrais finds its application in many areas: working with people of all ages, from childhood to seniors, in prevention, rehabilitation, the workplace, the arts (acting, singing, dancing, etc.), sports, disabilities, etc. Every person can learn at any age, and the insights of Feldenkrais are neurophysiologically based.

Table of Contents

  1. Definition
  2. Goal
  3. Origin
  4. How Does Feldenkrais Work?
  5. The Self-Image / Ego Image
  6. Developmental Stages
  7. The Special Thing
  8. Tips for Practicing
  9. How Can I Try and Experience Feldenkrais?
  10. Exercises to Try
  11. Applications
  12. Further Reading

Definition: What is Feldenkrais?

Feldenkrais is often described as bodywork involving slow movements that lead to relaxation. However, this is rather superficial and does not do justice to the method. The Feldenkrais Method deals with our patterns of posture and movement. We have learned our movements and daily habits at some point and have developed our individual way. They have become second nature to us, often to the point where we are not even aware that we learned them at some point. Not every movement is healthy, although we are accustomed to them and constantly use them. While many movement patterns have proven to be beneficial, others are counterproductive and sometimes harmful. Incorrectly acquired posture and movement can lead to tension, wear and tear, and pain, often also to symptoms of illness. The whole person is affected by this. However, new movement sequences can be learned at any time, regardless of age or mobility. The Feldenkrais Method provides a learning field for this. The main aspect is to perform movements with ease. If something cannot be done with ease, it is omitted.

The method is used in two different ways. Moshé Feldenkrais called them "Awareness Through Movement" in the form of group lessons, and "Functional Integration," where the application is carried out and guided for an individual. Both terms, "Awareness Through Movement" and "Functional Integration," are protected.

Goal of Feldenkrais Exercises

  • Improving control over one's own body
  • Correcting faulty movement patterns
  • Unlocking and developing new movement possibilities
  • Expanding the choices of movement and behavior
  • Improving body coordination
  • and much more

Origin of the Feldenkrais Method

Moshé Feldenkrais (1904 - 1984) was versatile and talented. He studied physics and was interested in neurophysiology, was an engineer and researcher. He was also a very athletic young man. He was a Jiu-Jitsu teacher and was the first Westerner in Judo to earn a black belt. While playing football, he suffered a severe knee injury. He had the option to undergo surgery, but the chances of success were 50:50. There was a risk that he would end up with a stiff knee after the operation. Despite his severe pain, he decided against the procedure and began experimenting with new movements himself. His scientific thinking came in handy. He now focused on the movements of the human body, researched muscles, and the nervous system. Through observation and constant experimentation, he developed his method—quite contrary to the prevailing opinion at the time about what could work and what could not. Feldenkrais simply experimented until he discovered what worked. Meanwhile, his discoveries have long been confirmed by neuroscience. During the Second World War – in 1943/44 – he was evacuated to Scotland with other top scientists considered significant by the British government. There he presented his new approach to stimulating the human brain to the group of scientists present: through simple and easy-to-perform floor exercises. There were always heated discussions about it, but his theses were based on neurophysiology. Feldenkrais continued to research in the following decades, especially regarding practical application. He exchanged ideas with well-known scientists and therapists, including those from neuroscience, anthropology, psychotherapy, and body therapy. After initially teaching smaller groups in his method, he only started larger seminar series in the USA in the mid-1970s. Ultimately, his students were involved in spreading his method. In 1985, the Feldenkrais Association was founded in Germany (FVD Feldenkrais-Verband Deutschland e. V.), which aims to spread and apply the method in many areas of life.

How Does Feldenkrais Work?

By relearning body postures and movements, new neural connections are also formed in the brain. Moshé Feldenkrais was already convinced of this when he began to change and explore movement sequences. At that time, this was not scientifically proven, but research has since confirmed his belief. The functioning becomes more easily understandable when we take a closer look at his concept of the self-image or ego-image.

The Self-Image / Ego Image

"We act according to the image we have of ourselves.
I eat, walk, speak, think, observe, love according to how I perceive myself.
This self-image, which one makes of oneself, is partly inherited, partly acquired;
to a third part, it is formed through self-education."
(Moshé Feldenkrais, in "Awareness Through Movement")

Self-Image (iStock: © GoodLifeStudio)

Our self-image arises from the way we perceive and see ourselves. According to Moshé Feldenkrais, the image we have of ourselves consists of four components: thinking, feeling (emotion), sensing (kinesthetic body sensation), and doing (movement). All these elements are interconnected and involved in every action, to varying degrees depending on the situation. Once we change one of these components, it also affects the other areas. Therefore, changing our movement patterns also affects our thinking, our feelings, and bodily sensations. Thus, we can change our self-image. Feldenkrais used movement as a pathway: by changing movement, a change in self-image and behavior can occur. Our self-image influences what we believe we are capable of, our beliefs about our abilities, possibilities, or limitations. According to Moshé Feldenkrais, self-image is closely linked to our body image, including how we perceive and assess the relationship of body parts to each other, their arrangement, and size.

By interrupting old habits and practicing new movement patterns, the structure in our brain is also influenced. New neural connections occur between the nerve cells, leading to a restructuring.

As an illustration, when you read this text, you are likely sitting, but you may also be standing or lying down. While engaging in this activity, your focus is on reading and understanding, which involves thinking. However, your body is also engaged in moving your eyes, perhaps holding a tablet or smartphone, and maintaining your posture and head position. All of this happens without you paying special attention to it. You probably haven't noticed, until now, where your back touches the chair or how your feet are positioned on the floor while reading. All elements are involved: thinking, feeling, sensing, and movement. Perhaps you are now paying more attention to how you sit or stand than you were at the beginning of this text. You might even slightly adjust your position to make it more comfortable. All these small movements can already bring about a small change in your experience.

Developmental Stages

Feldenkrais proposed three developmental stages of human behavior.

  1. The first stage corresponds to a "natural" stage. It is the common natural human heritage, occurring in all peoples and at all times. Naturally, we begin to speak, think, crawl, walk, etc. Children learn these things effortlessly and automatically, with ease.
  2. The second stage is an "individual" stage. Here, every person develops their own characteristics from a certain stage of development. This is their own way of walking, moving, speaking, acting. These individual habits are familiar to us and are part of us: it feels right to do it this way, even though it does not necessarily indicate whether they are permanently healthy for us.
  3. The third stage, finally, is a "methodical" one. In it, the essence of an activity or movement is discovered and elaborated. From now on, this activity is carried out methodically, no longer naturally. Those who master this activity particularly well can teach it to others. In this way, the advancement of humanity is possible.

These stages are reached at different speeds in various areas of life and activity. In very complicated areas, the methodical stage is often reached very early, such as in mathematics or technology. Other areas, such as our natural movement, often reach the third stage quite late. Here is where Feldenkrais work can intervene and support.

The Special Thing about Feldenkrais

In many therapies or treatments for illnesses and disabilities, what the patient cannot (no longer or not yet) do is often repeatedly trained. This is usually associated with great effort and often very frustrating when the corresponding "performance," namely the movement, does not occur despite all efforts and practice. The Feldenkrais Method starts where a person can do something with ease, even if they are just small movements. The goal of the Feldenkrais Method is to create conditions under which new movements can be learned and performed with ease.

However, since Feldenkrais is not treatment or therapy, the method is usable for every person in every situation. The focus is on developing one's own potential and expanding one's own possibilities. Thus, it can be used to improve sports movements as well as for health-related questions or in prevention.

Consequently, the guidelines for practicing are also significantly different from those of other methods or training units.

Tips for Practicing

  • Movement should be done lightly, comfortably, and gently, similar to cutting soft butter. As soon as you feel a slight pulling or tension, this indicates the limit of that movement. Therefore, stay just below that limit for the best success.
  • Move slowly enough so that your brain can follow the movement. With a fast movement, it automatically runs, and your brain can no longer keep up. The pace should be slow enough for you to observe what you are doing and how you are doing it. Slow down by 100 to 200 percent so that you can think along and a change becomes possible.
  • It must be pleasant what you are doing. As soon as it is no longer pleasant, when you become tired or restless, it's time to stop. Use your well-being as an indication of how long you can continue. If it brings you joy, you can do it for as long as you want.

How Can I Try and Experience Feldenkrais?

Awareness Through Movement ®

Feldenkrais lessons are usually offered as group courses. This form is called Awareness Through Movement, or also referred to as ATM - Awareness Through Movement. The exercise sessions encompass the entire spectrum of human movement, such as rolling, walking, bending, stretching, squatting, turning, using the eyes, the fingers, etc. Most exercises take place on the floor.

In these sessions, the exercises are not demonstrated by the leader but are only guided through speech. This way, everyone can find out for themselves how to perform the movement and observe their own patterns. It is also important here that it feels comfortable, without exertion, and proceeds at a calm, individual pace. It's not about performance.

Functional Integration ®

This involves individual sessions with a Feldenkrais Practitioner. Clients usually lie on a low table. Occasionally, the exercise may also take place standing or sitting. This depends on what the client wants to improve in their movements or what their general concern is. The practitioner will guide the client's movement very sensitively with their hands to find out which movements are easy, where the client's potential lies, and what the next steps might look like.

All terms - Awareness Through Movement and Functional Integration - are protected.

Exercises to Try:

Changing Habits

Folded Hands
Folded Hands (iStock: © Alexander-Burzik)

A well-known yet very effective example: Please put your palms together and interlace your fingers, as if praying. Which thumb is on top? You probably do this automatically, and the same thumb ends up on top every time. Now, change this hand position and interlace your fingers so that the other thumb is on top. How does that feel? Probably somewhat unfamiliar, maybe even wrong. You've only shifted your fingers by one position. This is how habits form. They don't necessarily have to be sensible or healthy; they just feel right because you've always done them that way. However, you can change habits again.

Avoid Unnecessary Effort

We often exert more force than necessary for many things. Especially for muscle movements that are inefficient and exhausting and have become a habit. This results in using energy for unnecessary efforts. Here are two examples:

  • Hold one arm in front of your body. Now pay attention to how you hold your hand. Is it stretched out? Many people do this automatically. But why is the hand stretched out? Just let the hand hang loose. It's not necessary to stretch it when lifting an arm.
  • Pick up a pen with your thumb and index finger and hold it for a moment. Then gradually let the fingers relax a bit. You may be surprised at how much less force is needed to hold it. You probably automatically used more force than necessary out of habit.

These are small things where we are not aware of how much effort we put into them and that it can be done with less. Holding a pen may seem insignificant. However, for someone who draws or paints, wants to learn calligraphy, or uses their fingers to play an instrument, this does make a difference. This could be a reason why no progress is possible: because energy is being spent in the wrong way.

Discovering New Possibilities

Now, please turn your head to the left and then to the right and back to the starting position. How did you do that? Did you turn your head together with your shoulders and eyes simultaneously? That's usually the easiest. Now you can develop some alternatives and start a learning process:

  • Turn your head together with your eyes to the left and to the right. Keep your shoulder where it is.
  • Now, please only turn your head to the left or right while keeping your eyes on the text here. Take your time and try it, even if it feels unfamiliar.
  • Now, turn your head and shoulders while keeping your eyes on the text.
  • Now, only move your eyes to the left and right while keeping your head and shoulders straight.

These are some ways to move your head, eyes, and shoulders separately or coordinate the movements. Try out some more options, whatever comes to mind spontaneously. Again, only do what feels easy and comfortable for you. It's not about being perfect or demonstrating performance. None of the movements are better or worse - they are alternatives to how you may automatically turn your head. You may notice that some movements are easier for you now or later. Perhaps the next time you turn around at a sound or in a different situation.

Applications of Feldenkrais

In the Workplace:

  • Tensions
  • Postural problems, incorrect sitting posture
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Back and intervertebral disc problems
  • Headaches, etc.

In Sports:

Sport (iStock: © ljubaphoto)
  • Optimization of movement sequences
  • Coordination
  • Flexibility
  • Prevention of injuries, etc.

In Acting/Theater/Singing:

  • Posture
  • Respiration
  • Concentration, etc.

In Music

Musical Instrument
Musical Instrument (iStock: © suteishi)
  • Dexterity of fingers
  • Handling of the instrument
  • Posture, etc.

In Rehabilitation:

  • After accidents
  • Back and spinal problems
  • Joint pains
  • Post-surgery
  • After stroke, cerebral palsy
  • Paralysis, etc.

Further Reading, Sources, and Book Recommendations

Feldenkrais Association Germany: www.feldenkrais.de

Feldenkrais (GU Multimedia Body, Mind & Soul)

80 pages, GRÄFE UND UNZER Verlag GmbH (August 3, 2015)

(FVD) Feldenkrais Verband Deutschland


Feldenkrais: Movement - A Path to Self: Introduction to the Feldenkrais Method

96 pages, Junfermann Verlag; Edition: 3 (October 8, 2002)
ISBN 387387511X

Anna Triebel Thome


Feldenkrais: Experiencing Movement Consciously

96 pages, BLV Buchverlag; Edition: 5 (June 6, 2016)
ISBN 3835415603

Carola Bleis


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