According to the 2015 National Health Interview Survey, chronic pain affects over 25 million American adults. To be clear, chronic pain was defined for that survey as pain every day for the preceding 3 months. Ouch. That’s a lot of people in a lot of discomfort.
And while over-the-counter pain relievers can provide temporary relief, few people actually know how to take action on addressing their chronic pain beyond drugs. That’s where Feldenkrais comes in.
WHAT IS FELDENKRAIS?
Developed by Moshe Feldenkrais, an Israeli physicist, the Feldenkrais Method is conceptually similar to Alexander technique in that it is a body reintegration technique used to retrain the body’s basic movement patterns both kinesthetically and neurologically. It’s all about teaching the body how to move in an easier, more efficient way by taking advantage of the wonders of gravity and human kinesiology.
While there are certain activities that we may blame for our pain—like dancing, old sports injuries, lifting that bag of rocks incorrectly last weekend—Feldenkrais operates under the theory that how we hold ourselves day in and day out is what causes the most pain and damage.
You know, overuse and misuse in all those little movements you don’t think about: sitting down, standing up, bending over, looking at your phone, walking, running, making coffee, you name it. Through body awareness techniques, muscular release and retraining exercises, the goal of Feldenkrais is to establish new neural pathways in the brain to encourage easier, less bound ways of moving through daily life. And the result? Less pain.
According to Dr. Feldenkrais, “If you don’t know what you are doing, you can’t do what you want.”
Many of us unknowingly use excessive force to perform even the simplest movements. For instance, when I am writing with a pen and paper and I am on a roll, I hunch my right shoulder to my ear, roll my left shoulder way forward, and clench my tongue and jaw muscles. For an activity that really only requires subtle motion from the wrist and lower arm, it should come as no surprise that I tend to suffer from a lot of shoulder tension and headaches when I am doing a lot of long form writing.
And that’s the point. Our unaddressed movement patterns and the misuse of our natural biomechanics in daily life are the under-appreciated sources of most of our chronic pain
WHY TRY FELDENKRAIS?
If you want to move easier and with less effort and pain, Feldenkrais is worth a shot. Chronic pain is often the result of years of misuse of the body. The goal of Feldenkrais is to encourage the stacking of the skeletal structure in such a way that you don’t need excessive muscular tension to keep it in place, i.e. anatomical balance. When your anatomical structure is sound, gravity begins to work in your favor and muscles can release their death grips. Regular movement becomes a lot easier and less painful because you aren’t asking the body to do anything it is not designed for. But be aware, there is a lot of mental work that goes into this training. Don’t be surprised if side effects of Feldenkrais training also include enhanced mental balance and resiliency.
A COUPLE OF BODY AWARENESS EXERCISES TO PLAY WITH…
While Feldenkrais is not Alexander technique, they do both rely heavily on increasing body awareness. Upon my initial training in Alexander technique, I was shocked at how little I actually knew about my body. I was in the habit of standing with a subtle torque in my hips, weight pushed into the left hip. I also spent more time on my left leg than my right, which begins to explain why I suffered from SI joint pain and shin splints on only my left side. Throughout my training, I learned to acknowledge these quirks without judgement before working to let go of them as unnecessary kinesthetic accessories.
But that’s the key: the first step is acknowledging your quirks and understanding what your body is currently doing. Here are two brief exercises that can help you begin to understand your own body with a bit more clarity:
Find an open, relatively flat space. This could be along a quiet road or your large living room. You want to be able to take at least 20 paces unencumbered. Now, walk. Listen to your footsteps. Are they like a metronome? Or do they swing the beat towards one side? Most of us are in the habit of spending more time on one leg than the other, meaning our walking rhythm will swing slightly. Listen intently but without judgement and without overthinking to figure out what leg you tend to favor.
Sit or plop?
How did you sit down in your chair? Did you allow your body to mindfully cascade towards the seat? Or did you just plop. Interesting. Next time you stand up, be conscious of both feet on the floor and come to standing. Are you using your hands a lot? Does your weight shift more into one foot than the other? Does your neck crick backwards as you jut your chin forward? Try imagining a loop at the very top of your skull and a hook steadily drawing that loop higher and higher up towards the ceiling. In fact, it pulls upward so much that you are brought to standing with barely any effort. Give both ways of standing a try; your unmindful way and the anatomically stacked way. This can be a tough thing to experience, so don’t be hard on yourself. Stop trying so hard. Just keep imagining and practicing in order to experience the contrast. It’s incredible how much excess energy we actually use to do something as simple as standing up!
If you discovered some eye-opening information through these exercises and would like more information on finding a local Feldenkrais class or practioner.