Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Norman Dodge( Doidge) on Feldenkrais

New hope for aching, creaky yuppie bodies

The National Post, October 6, 1999
by Dr. Norman Doidge

Anyone who is subject to the grim tug of gravity might count themselves lucky
that one day, about 50 years ago, Moshe Feldenkrais, in his late thirties, while
standing on a wet submarine deck, slipped and aggravated an old knee
injury. They should also be grateful to the doctors who told him he would
never walk again without surgery (surgery that offered only a 50% cure rate),
because Feldenkrais decided to fix himself, and invented a new treatment in
the process.

Feldenkrais was a remarkable man and a genius. Born in 1904 in Russia, he
fled pogroms to pre-state Israel when he was 14. At the time, the British
Mandate prohibited Jews, but not Arabs, from carrying arms, so Feldenkrais
trained himself in unarmed combat, then tutored others.

With the money he made tutoring he went to Paris where he trained as a
mechanical and electrical engineer. He then became a physicist, working and
co-authoring papers with Fr├ęderic Joliot-Curie (who with his wife received the
Nobel Prize in 1938). Feldenkrais, in the meantime, became one of Europe's
first black belts in judo, and set up the Jiu-Jitso Club de France with the
founder of modern judo, Jigoro Kano.

Feldenkrais and Joliot-Curie were working on the French atomic-research
program when the Nazis invaded Paris. Joliot- Curie knew Feldenkrais would
be arrested as a Jew, so he arranged for him to escape to London - with two
suitcases full of the French atomic secrets, thereby keeping them out of Nazi
hands. Through the intervention of the British scientist J.D. Bernal, he worked
for the British anti-submarine program.

Feldenkrais also led the training of British paratroopers in hand-to-hand
combat. After the war, he completed his doctorate in physics at the Sorbonne.
When the State of Israel was created he became director of the electronics
department for the Israeli Ministry of Defense, and wrote the book on hand-to-
hand combat for the Israeli army. He now spoke Russian, Hebrew, French,
German and English.

But back to the bum knee. Feldenkrais used his incredible scientific mind,
extraordinary observational skills, and his expertise in judo to determine what
made his knee better or worse. His new treatment was based not just on the
understanding of individual joints, muscles, and ligaments, but on the role of
awareness in movement and body mechanics.

Animals have an enviable grace, and so do babies and young children, but
that grace is often lost as we age, thought Feldenkrais, not because we age,
but because we learn bad habits. These include postures which have
emerged to protect injuries, but which now add chronic bodily insult to injury.
Feldenkrais taught limping people to walk by first teaching them to crawl like

The method can be used for a variety of conditions - back, neck, head and jaw
pain, problems due to artificial hips and knees, fused spines, and arthritic
conditions. It is useful to anyone who has to sit at a computer all day, or for
those who have to be particularly physically active or aware, including
athletes, soldiers, surgeons and actors.

Many musicians in New York have a Feldenkrais practitioner. Yehudi Menuin
swore by Feldenkrais, and so does Yo-Yo Ma. The director of the Royal
Shakespeare Theatre, Peter Brook, was a major fan as were anthropologist
Margaret Mead and neurophysiologist Dr. Karl Pribram, who thought
Feldenkrais in tune with the most advanced knowledge we have of the brain.
Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, sought out Feldenkrais when
he was 75 years old and could barely stand in Parliament because of his
serious back problem. After treatment, "the old man" could leap onto tanks
and stand on his head.

Feldenkrais eventually used his approach in extreme cases, helping people
with strokes learn how to read, speak, and walk again, or for treating people
with cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis.

Many well-known treatments for musculoskeletal pain treat the problem
locally, by strengthening the affected area (physiotherapy), using surgery, or
twisting the spine with force (chiropractics). Feldenkrais' method focuses on
general functioning. Regardless of the cause - an aching back, artificial joint,
arthritis, or tension - Feldenkrais assigns exercises to make his pupils aware
of movement. "Errors" of movement are not "corrected." Rather, lack of flow is
noticed. Then, in the low stimulus environment, barely detectable movements
are prescribed. These minute changes induce the nervous system to lower
the general tone of muscular contraction, so the sufferer can become
consciously aware of the unconscious movement patterns that exacerbate or
cause the problem.

Watching and listening to lithesome Marion Harris, who trained with
Feldenkrais, conducting classes at The Feldenkrais Centre in Toronto, I was
amazed to see how many of the concepts are similar to those used in
psychotherapy done properly - which is patiently. Feldenkrais knew, as did
Sherrington, the great neurologist, that most of the brain's activity is inhibitory:
it stops, retards or modifies the actions of our more flowing primitive animal
brain. Most bad habits include jerky inhibitory compensations or vestigial
"defenses" that once protected an injury, but now are locked in. Instead of
attacking bad postural habits directly (which often only makes them get
worse), the master practitioner finds ingenious ways to release the bad habits.

For instance, new non-habitual ways of moving are introduced, to confuse the
current pattern. People with bad posture secondary to knee problems might
be asked to walk backwards for a bit, both to scramble the bad habit, and
because bad compensations haven't yet attached themselves to backward
walking. Then, having experienced what it is like to walk without bad posture,
they relearn walking forward, spontaneously, in a re-organized, nimble way,
so they don't hurt their tender knees. The aim is always to move without
wasted energy or willpower. Often, at the end of a class, muscles have
softened, eyes are more open, breathing is deeper and pain has decreased.
People may stand an inch taller.

Feldenkrais also conducted one-on-one sessions, called Functional
Integration, where he used his hands to diagnose movement problems, and
then gently moved people's limbs, necks, and heads, teaching a suppleness
that could be generalized to all movements.

Feldenkrais died in 1984, but his work is spreading, especially in Europe.
There are too few Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioners in Canada, but
they are spread from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, and there is a
Feldenkrais clinic in the Ottawa General Hospital. Qualified practitioners who
are members of the Feldenkrais Guild can be contacted by calling 1-800-775-

Dr. Doidge is a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Toronto. His
column "On Human Nature" appears every other Wednesday in the National
Post. © Norman Doidge, reprinted with permission.

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