I have spent the past four years participating in a training program to become a Feldenkrais Practitioner. Why Feldenkrais? And what have I learned? It is only now that I can begin to put words to my experience.
The Feldenkrais Method is often a last resort for people in pain* who have exhausted all other therapies. This was true for me, as well. When I was in my early 20’s, I experienced painful back flare-ups that would last for several days. In between the flare-ups, I had a constant, nagging tightness in my lower back.
As a personal trainer, I have helped clients with similar back pain issues by using a protocol of targeted stretches and strengthening exercises. So I applied this same protocol to myself. Additionally I went to physical therapy. Despite my best efforts and those of my physical therapist, my symptoms persisted. My life became seriously impacted by these flare-ups. After two years of unsuccessful attempts to relieve my pain, I was introduced to the Feldenkrais Method.
My first session was unremarkable. Although I experienced some immediate relief, it was not long-lasting. I was not surprised by this. My back pain had been developing for several years so I didn’t expect it to go away in one hour. But there was something that intrigued me about the method. The relief that came to me was not done by force and was never uncomfortable (as I had felt often during physical therapy and also during a chiropractic session). I felt safe during this session, and curious too.
I continued seeing the Feldenkrais practitioner over the next few months. Every now and then she would laugh with delight at something I did and she would exclaim, “See how easy this is now!” I wasn’t really sure what she was seeing, or what was happening during the sessions, but I do remember that I would leave each time with a sense of lightness. It was as if moving was effortless. Several months after my first session I realized that I hadn’t had any painful back episodes since working with the practitioner, and I also realized that the nagging pain was no longer an issue! There hadn’t been a specific point at which I could say, “That did it,” which is why it takes time to show people the benefits of the method. It’s not a quick-fix strategy.
I came to learn that this is because it takes time to reorganize your body to move in a different way; you have to unlearn the bad habits that the body has picked up over a lifetime. But once the nervous system finds a more congruent and efficient way to move, the results are long-lasting and integrated. You won’t have to THINK about how to move well. You’ll simply do it.
My experience with the Feldenkrais Method was not only a personal success story, it also altered my professional life. In my work as a personal trainer, several of my clients would make good progress in strength training and cardiovascular improvements, but every so often they would present with pain recurring in the same spot. Although I had been trained in the use of strategies and protocols for relieving pain, these strategies were not consistently effective. One of my clients had such significant pain, that I ultimately referred them to the Feldenkrais practitioner who had successfully worked with me. It was at that point that the light bulb went off: Why refer out when I could acquire the skills to help these people myself?
And thus began my journey in the 4-year Feldenkrais Practitioner Program in New York City.
I’d like to say that as soon as I began the program, I was confident that this was the right plan for me, but after completing Year One, I couldn’t really explain to myself (or others) what I was doing! The teachers kept saying, “You are experiencing the Method for yourselves” and “learning is a process,” but it was so vague and intangible that I began to get nervous and wonder if I was wasting my time.
After Year Two, I was able to teach a version of Feldenkrais classes, but my challenge was in recruiting people to attend the class. The typical conversation went something like this:
Them: “Why should I take this class?”
Me: “Because you will feel better.”
Them: “How does it work?”
Me: “Well, I really don’t know.”
Them: “Haven’t you been studying this for 2 YEARS??”
Me: “Yup.” :-(
The nagging doubts continued….
Following Year Three, I could now actually perform some hands-on work with clients. I could roll the head, lift a shoulder, turn the pelvis, etc…. But I still couldn’t answer exactly what I was doing with them, nor did I feel comfortable practicing even these small skills because I wasn’t sure of the whole picture.
At the beginning of Year Four, I was VERY anxious. Had I just spent 3+ years doing something that I didn’t even know how to explain, let alone do? Had I wasted my time and money? Despite all the doubts, my curiosity and desire drove me to continue my study. I was curious because even though I was unsure of WHAT was happening during the sessions, I knew that each time I participated, I felt better. What could explain that?
I also saw practitioners doing great work with students --- relieving someone of pain caused by peripheral neuropathy and another from referred pain (both issues had been ongoing for years) in just one session! These were just two of the many improvements our class witnessed. I had a strong desire to improve my own skills so that I could be as successful as these practitioners. But how long would it take?
And then, about mid-way through my fourth year, something clicked. I began to feel comfortable observing people’s tendencies, assessing what they did easily, and understanding what I could do to work with them. The articles and research I had been studying about the method all started to make more sense! I began to review the recordings of lessons and talks that I had experienced over the past four years. It struck me that all of the information had been there since the beginning -- I just hadn’t been ready to take it all in. But now that I had four years of “scaffolding,” my brain could make sense of and integrate the new information I was learning.
I became more confident and more willing to try something new, as well as more comfortable not knowing something. What’s interesting, though, is that while it took time for me to grasp the concepts in order to express them, my body was able to make the changes immediately (which is what kept me coming back)! It’s a hard method to sell because of this. It has to be experienced to be understood. But the good news is that the nervous system does not need four years to understand the method before it can feel the improvements! (After all, sensing and movement develops before language.)
The lessons and practical in-class experiences were certainly essential to my learning. However I believe that the most critical piece that is taught in the Training Program is “learning how to learn.” There is very little in the method that is taught explicitly, which is frustrating for people- “just tell me where to move!” I understand the frustration, I too felt it. But it is not realistic to have to think about the correct way to move all the time when 95% of our behavior is unconscious. The genius of the method is to teach to the unconscious parts of the brain, and in order for learning to occur there, it is not a matter of a detailed explanation, but an experience. You are presented with options, you make mistakes, and your nervous system learns (and then integrates the learning).
Some people are not willing to give the time it takes to experience the benefits of this method, especially in the fast-paced world we live in today. People want solutions now. But I can’t think of a better thing that we all need to do: slow down, take some time to learn how you move, and learn more about yourself in the process. We are all capable of making positive changes at any age! I am eager to continue learning as well as helping others appreciate what is possible for them. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, [We can] “make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant,” and I intend to do just that!
*Note- this reflection focuses on pain because that was my personal reason for coming to the method, however, there are so many reasons that people use Feldenkrais unrelated to pain! Be on the lookout for an upcoming article in which I discuss other benefits of the method.