June 26, 2007

Feldenkrais Allows Body to Move Efficiently

Originally I intended to watch her teach the class for a few minutes and perhaps snap a picture or two. But after Hagit Vardi, who provides instruction in the Feldenkrais method through UW Health Integrative Health, introduced me to her class and stated my purpose, she told me that the best way to understand it was to do it.

That's how I ended up ditching the digital camera, kicking off my shoes and laying down on an exercise mat in the Sports Medicine Center's multipurpose room.

Created in the 1950s by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, a Russian-born, Israeli physicist and mechanical engineer as well as an expert in judo, the Feldenkrais method incorporates small, intentional physical movements with mental visualization to teach the body how to move more efficiently and effectively.

To say the goal of the Feldenkrais method is to feel better is accurate but incomplete. The Feldenkrais Educational Foundation of North America says the method can "increase your ease and range of motion, improve your flexibility and coordination, and rediscover your innate capacity for graceful, efficient movement."

Hagit, who has been teaching Feldenkrais for more than 2 years, sees it as a way of learning how to use the whole body the way it is designed to be used. Certainly the Feldenkrais method® isn't meant to replace physician-proscribed rehabilitation regimens. But its lessons of bodily awareness can teach anyone how to improve the way they move.

"The idea of this method is that a person might have pain and, if we attend to the pain without really seeing the entire body, it will return over and over," she says. "We say the place of the pain is not always the cause of the pain."

Hagit was first introduced to the Feldenkrais method® in a grade school physical education class in Israel, where she was born and raised. She returned to it when her husband, Uri Vardi, a classically-trained cellist and professor in the University of Wisconsin's School of Music, suffered an injury to his left arm that left him unable to play.

Uri Vardi attributes the success of his rehabilitation in no small measure to the Feldenkrais method. In fact, says Hagit, her husband believes the enhanced bodily awareness he learned from the sessions made him a stronger cellist, and he has included it in his teaching. Using a grant from the university to become a Feldenkrais practitioner, Uri Vardi offers a university-sanctioned two-credit course open to all School of Music instrumentalists entitled "Feldenkrais for Musicians."

Hagit initially accompanied her husband to his Feldenkrais sessions to sate her curiosity. She quickly realized she wouldn't be satisfied as a student. "I joined the training for my own development and when I saw how it can help people, it was too rewarding for me (to give up). I wanted to do it as much as I could."

She trained under the direction of the California-based Anat Baniel before opening her own practice, which offers classes in Beloit as well as Madison.

Which brings us back to a Tuesday afternoon in the Sports Medicine Center's multipurpose room and me, a physically rigid, borderline arthritic 35-year-old never known for his "graceful, efficient movement."

We started flat on our backs, with Hagit encouraging us to mentally note the feeling of various areas of our bodies - the ribcage, the sternum, the shoulder blades. Hagit then led us through a series of movements. Rolling onto our right side, we bent our knees and reached for the ceiling with our left arms. From that position, we raised our left legs slightly and lifted our heads toward our knees while maintaining the angle formed by our arm and neck.

The goal, Hagit stressed, was not to move vigorously or reach a certain position.

"People should work within their range of comfort," she says. "What distinguishes Feldenkrais® is that the process of actually doing it is more important than where you get by the end of the movement. The view of the person is from within the person."

The movements continued with slight variations, first on our rights sides and then our left. But the Feldenkrais exercises are not exclusively physical. The mental aspect is ever bit as important.

"When we do something new, a different portion of our brain is participating than when we do a habitual movement," Hagit says. "It's really a completely different experience for the nervous system."

Awareness is the key, and Hagit told us to take note of specific parts of our bodies and try to visualize their position and involvement. "We take different sequences that invite more and more of the person to be part of that movement," she says. "The sequences remind the nervous system that there are other things in the body that might get enlisted - not by forcing but by allowing them to be part of the movement."

My exposure to the Feldenkrais method lasted one hour and the results were dramatic. I've had back pain for years, stemming from an injury suffered in high school, and at the beginning of the class the tension at the base of my spinal column was noticeable when I was lying flat. We returned to that position at the end of the session and the tightness was gone. It seemed like more of my body was in contact with the mat, as though the movements had given my body permission to almost sag. When I stood up, I felt taller and looser.

"Sometimes the changes are instantaneous, because the person gets the idea, the sensation," Hagit says. "At the end of the session, they feel like, 'Oh, that's so easy.' People change their habits in such a profound way."

Carol Bausch of Oregon says Hagit's classes have given her "more options for movement." For years she struggled with pain in her right knee, a condition she thinks has improved due to her Feldenkrais® sessions.

"(It has taught her) alternative ways of moving my knee," she says. "You have more say over what you can do. You can't change something unless you're aware of what you're doing. If you can imagine the move, you can make the patterns change."

For Ann Bourque, another of Hagit's students, the changes were so pronounced that others pointed them out to her. A competitive amateur ballroom dancer, Bourque says her dance instructor perceived a physical change in her that she attributes to the ease of movement introduced by the Feldenkrais method®.

He said, 'You look taller, you look thinner,' " Bourque says. "People at the studio have noticed a difference. It's helped with stability and posture and alignment, and overall awareness. It makes it easier to move. I am positioning my body better without having to think about it."

It's a difficult concept to comprehend, but one upon which the Feldenkrais method is erected. You use the mind to convince the body to behave more efficiently, and the results are more a function of sensation than concrete thought. The body, Hagit says, will then "function at the highest level of refinement and organization."

Perhaps, as Hagit told me at the beginning of class, it's something you have to do to understand and appreciate.

or more information about Feldenkrais class offerings, please contact UW Health's Integrative Health department at (608) 262-9355. In addition to group classes, sessions for individuals are also available and can be scheduled by calling the same number.