Metro November 22, 2006

Get The Balance just right

The Feldenkrais Method can help heal the body and relax the mind, as Metro's Nadine McBay discovered


© Jonathan Thrift 2004

'Moshe Feldenkrais said: "When you know what you do, you can do what you want",' says Vanessa Smith, one of the few Scottish teachers of Feldenkrais, a method that aims to improve lives by increasing body awareness. 'It does seem a vague concept, I know. But if we had no idea of body awareness - if we didn'y know what we were doing already - we'd never be able to change anything. Feldenkrais believed that people fail at things because they may not be doing them in the most helpful way. His method is about learning new ways.'

The Feldenkrais Method was created by Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984). He came up with the ideas that inspired his method after refusing an operation for a knee injury during World War II. It is now more popular than comparable body therapy the Alexander Technique in Australia and some parts of mainland Europe but the UK has been slower to catch on.

Still, it's hardly an alien concept. Much debated in recent months for it's usefulness in treating depression and anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy also aims to recognise then change unhelpful patterns of thought.

Having first heard of the method as a young dancer at London's famous Laban centre, Smith now runs classes and individual sessions in tandem with her long-established Pilates classes.

'Feldenkrais is very different from Pilates and it takes a bit of switching off from that frame of mind,' she says. 'It uses movement, but it's more about the learning process. It's about noticing whether your weight is supported more by one side than the other; whether a part of your body has more contact with the floor than another.'

Unconscious Learning

During Smith's enjoyable class, when asked to 'notice' such things, my instinct was to 'correct myself'; if I felt I was leaning more on one side, or holding one limb longer than the other, I'd try to balance the weight or align the limbs. This isn't the point.

'You should simply notice what you do,' Smith says. 'It's not about trying. You'll learn to become more comfortable in your body, hold yourself better and be more at ease with yourself. Sometimes it'll be an almost unconscious way of learning. His method is about helping people to change their habits, in a more playful way of relearning.'

Physically, certainly. Though an effective stress-buster, unlearning the ingrained, traditional exercise class-mode of stretching and tensing muscles to instead focus on the quality of movement required a surprising amount of concentration. Indeed, what's going on in the mind is perhaps more important than the physical movements. At regular intervals, Smith asked us to imagine a particular movement as graceful, easy and balanced a couple of times before doing it. The physical movement after seemed much improved.

'The brain sends the same impulses to the body whether doing it or imagining it,' she says. Changing your life seems almost too easy.

The Feldenkrais Method- the key points

* Good health is about a 'flexible mind as well as a flexible body'
* The mind and the body are 'not just parts somehow related to each other but an inseparable whole'
* Changes in our perceptions affect changes in our physical abilities
* We can only deal with our weaknesses and difficulties by first being aware of them
* Noticing how we move is as important as movement itself
* our entire musculature and skeleton is involved in all actions
* Personal development and internal discovery are central, not physical competition with others
* Once we set aside habitual patterns, we can learn free, easier movement, improve our well-being and personal development