From a very young age I relished any kind of movement – dancing, running, climbing, biking, gymnastics, etc. Now in my early 70’s, I still love movement and am passionate about helping others to move better and feel good in their bodies! I began to study and practice yoga in my late 30’s, in addition to my other regular physical activities. My yoga practice began in an attempt to address increasing discomfort from scoliosis which was discovered in my adolescence. My studies were primarily in the Iyengar tradition.
Yoga helped me feel better, so I studied with many accomplished teachers and eventually became a certified teacher myself. It helped me to gain a greater understanding of my structure, strengthened and lengthened my muscles and gave me more confidence in my body and its movement.
Due to my condition, I also studied with teachers who specialized in addressing scoliosis – focusing on alignment and the use of props to lessen the uneven curves in my spine.
In the early 2000s I was in a yoga class with a teacher who adjusted my arm in a pose known as gomukhasana (cow face pose) where one arm is over one shoulder and the other arm goes behind the back. The aim of the asana is to join the hands on the back or a close approximation. The teacher pushed my lower arm toward the upper arm. It felt uncomfortable and after the class I began to experience a lot of pain in the shoulder of the arm that was adjusted. When the pain did not subside and my mobility was compromised I went to a doctor who advised that I might require surgery to repair an injured rotator cuff.
I tried traditional physical therapy, massage, acupuncture and rested as much as I could. I was willing to explore anything I could do to avoid surgery, relieve my shoulder pain and restore its mobility. By chance, after one of my regular yoga classes, a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement®️ class was being taught and I decided to see what this odd sounding thing was all about. Despite being heavily involved with all types of movement, I had never heard of it.
I was initially bored with the slow, minute movement suggestions from the Feldenkrais teacher. It felt like watching paint dry or grass grow and I thought “this is not for me”. I may have even left the class before it ended, I’m embarrassed to admit. But something, some little morsel of an idea, must have touched me because the next time I had the opportunity I decided to try it again.
This class was taught with the same slow, quiet movement instructions as before. But at one point, the teacher suggested that we move one shoulder very slowly, with minute tiny movements and, all of a sudden, I felt something release in my injured shoulder. I was amazed and felt that something dramatically new had occurred. I continued taking the class and my shoulder began to heal.
After this seemingly miraculous experience, I was intrigued and excited to learn more. I continued attending classes to learn as much as I possibly could about what seemed like a life changing method. I was fortunate to find a four year training course, led by a highly respected teacher. I applied and was accepted.
I could not have imagined how profoundly the Feldenkrais Method would impact my life. It provided me with a rich tool box that enabled me to understand my unique physical organization and empowered me to engage in any activity, physical or emotional with greater clarity, ease and understanding. This included improving and enriching my yoga practice.
I graduated as a Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner in 2008 and have taught Feldenkrais lessons to groups and individuals ever since. I have also taught yoga to individuals who wanted to improve their practice and have taught group chair yoga in senior citizen centers. All of my teaching is informed by the Feldenkrais Method.
So, what you may ask, distinguishes Feldenkrais from yoga?
Both are mind-body practices with the goal of healing and transformation which use movement and breath to create awareness. In yoga there are prescribed breath practices, called pranayama, whereas in the Feldenkrais Method the breath serves as a barometer of the degree of effort. The goal is to reduce effort as much as possible. When one is able to observe the quality of the breath, one often reduces effort and improves the quality of movement.
Yoga as practiced today is one of the eight ‘limbs’ of an ancient Hindu spiritual practice that originated in India. The physical aspect of yoga is based on poses (asanas) and breathing techniques which were originally taught to facilitate meditation. In the Iyengar tradition, ideal poses or asanas are modeled by the teacher and practicing to achieve the correct form is important. Poses may be held for some time. This typically requires effort and a regular practice. People often improve over time and can find a yoga practice both mentally and physically rewarding.
As yoga has become increasingly popular and achieved mainstream status many different forms of yoga have evolved from the original Hatha yoga traditions. Today yoga classes range from extremely physically challenging to more gentle forms, often referred to as restorative yoga. Due to the latest discoveries about the brain, documentation of injuries and more attention to mind-body connections, I believe yoga is developing into a more mindful practice. The use of props such as blocks and blankets were introduced by B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar yoga. These props enabled the practice to be more accessible and tailored to the students’ individual needs and are now standard equipment in yoga studios.
The Feldenkrais Method was created by Moshe Feldenkrais, D. Sc., a distinguished scientist, engineer and judo master. After a serious knee injury, Feldenkrais drew upon his extensive scientific and martial arts background – as well as physics, linguistics, biology, child development and athletics – to heal himself and to create a new and experimental approach. As a result, he was able to avoid surgery and taught himself to walk again without pain. This was the spark that launched the development of the Feldenkrais Method in the 1960’s.
Feldenkrais began teaching the Method to a small group in the 1960’s in Tel Aviv, Israel. He understood – long before magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology was available, that the brain is plastic and capable of change. He also realized that all movement begins in the brain and that non-habitual movements create new neural pathways that promote improvement of the whole person, physically, mentally and emotionally. He developed what is now called Awareness Through Movement which involves verbal instructions to move in unusual patterns, slowly, easily and with minimal effort. He also taught individuals with hands-on movements that he called Functional Integration.
Feldenkrais was a groundbreaking teacher of human potential and taught for the first time in the U.S. at Esalen in 1972. His revolutionary system of mind and body “re-education” achieved miraculous results for thousands around the world. He believed that what kept most people from fulfilling their potential was their own resistance – the contradictory motivation that is so habitual as to no longer even be felt. Once people become aware of their resistance, they become better managers of their own motivation, their action becomes fluid and what was previously felt to be impossible becomes possible.
Feldenkrais taught people of all ages from young children to those in their later years. Age and disability were not barriers to the benefits of the lessons. The method has spread and there are now teachers all over the world.
As news spread of Feldenkrais’s ability to foster healing, people with a range of conditions came to see him from all over the world. These people often had conditions for which no previous treatment had been effective. Students ranged from those with serious debilitating conditions such as stroke and cerebral palsy, to high level performers who wished to improve their skills, including musicians, dancers and actors.
Each person must find their own way of learning. The Method is unique in that the optimal way is what works for each individual and is not dependent on any other modeling. Each person is their own greatest authority – it is simply a matter of discovering their path. The Method teaches one to do that through the ingenious lessons that Feldenkrais devised. Students are not corrected but instead encouraged to explore their unique selves in a neutral non-judgmental way through attention to the nervous system and the relation of different body parts to the whole.
Students are often directed to first imagine doing a specific movement before actually carrying it out. This provides a means to improve that begins with the motor pattern in the brain. Slow, gentle movement is encouraged and frequent rests are incorporated into the lessons, as learning takes place in these moments. Students are encouraged to move slowly, stay in their comfort zone and to stop moving whenever they feel the need to do so, regardless of any other suggestions. “No pain, more gain” is one of the often repeated maxims.
Both yoga and Feldenkrais help to improve movement and well-being. However, Feldenkrais is more centered on neural plasticity and the unconscious habits that are often responsible for injury and pain. I find that the Feldenkrais Method®️ offers a safe and supportive foundation for yoga and any type of movement including the tasks of daily life. It has enabled me to be highly attentive to my body’s sensations, make adjustments and/or refrain from mindlessly following directions that would lead me into discomfort or injury.
Feldenkrais teaches us to give attention to the subtlest and often unconscious habits we have; physical as well as emotional. By observing ourselves as a neutral witness, we can uncover our unconscious habits, creating the possibility for profound change. Students often say that it is like magic. This ability to observe ourselves without judgment is a skill that develops with practice and fosters improvement.
Although yoga has entered the mainstream of American culture, Feldenkrais is still relatively unknown. But as more attention is being paid to mind-body health and the benefits provided by the Feldenkrais Method®️ become more widely known, hopefully more will learn about and benefit from the Method.
I still practice and value yoga. But due to my Feldenkrais foundation, I practice yoga – and all my activities – in a more mindful, healthy way. In yoga as well as any other activity, I only take classes with teachers who honor and respect the individual needs of students and who only touch a student with their consent. Feldenkrais empowered me to trust myself to know what is beneficial and what is not, and to refrain from any movements that do not feel right. The ability and confidence to say “no” is vital.
I hope that more yogis will learn about and have their practices enhanced by the Feldenkrais Method as I have.
Rachel Potasznik is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner, Certified Yoga Teacher, who among other activities enjoys, swimming, dancing, travel, cooking and nature. She also has a Juris Doctor, practiced law and held court for over thirty years. She served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Botswana, where she helped to establish and manage a community based wildlife project. She lives in New York City and since the pandemic has been teaching Feldenkrais lessons online. She is also trained as a teacher of Bones for Life, Ruth Alon’s Movement Intelligence program.
Her website is www.betterbodylab.com