The Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education
This is an article I wrote to provide a basic, thorough, yet relatively succinct introduction to the Feldenkrais Method. Thanks to Colleen Lang, Donna Maebori, Roy Waters, Jim Stephens, and Patricia Buchanan for research support and editing.
The Feldenkrais Method, often referred to simply as "Feldenkrais" (fel′dənkrīs), is a system of movement education created by Dr. Moshé Feldenkrais (1904–1984). The method, practiced by people of all ages in countries around the world, is a form of somatic education which emphasizes self-awareness in sensing, moving, feeling, and thinking. It aims to improve quality of movement, thereby expanding movement repertoire, boosting physical function (which may be experienced as healing and/or as performance enhancement), and promoting general wellbeing. The Feldenkrais Method takes the self-study of one’s movement habits as the entry point to wide-ranging possibilities for the integration of mind and body. Dr. Feldenkrais repeatedly emphasized that his goal was to enable people to “learn how to learn” and thereby to “realize their unavowed dreams.”
 Moshé Feldenkrais, “Self-Fulfillment Through Organic Learning,” in Elizabeth Beringer, ed., Embodied Wisdom: The Collected Papers of Moshe Feldenkrais (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2010), 90.
Born to a Jewish family in Eastern Europe in 1904, Moshé Feldenkrais immigrated to British-controlled Palestine in 1919. In the context of street violence between Arabs and Jews, he studied Jiujitsu and applied his gift for the observation of human movement to teach himself and others techniques for self-defense. In 1930, he published an instruction manual for unarmed combat. The danger of arrest by British authorities for this act, in combination with Feldenkrais’s desire for an advanced scientific education, prompted him to move to France.
While earning a PhD in engineering under the guidance of Nobel laureate Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Feldenkrais encountered Jigaro Kano, the founder of Judo. Impressed by Feldenkrais’s self-defense book, and believing him to be a person capable of transmitting Judo to the West, Kano sent a student to train Feldenkrais in Paris. Beginning in the early 1930s, Feldenkrais spent several decades developing his abilities as a Judo practitioner, eventually publishing three books on Judo and helping to found Judo practice centers in France and Great Britain.
With the onset of the Second World War, Feldenkrais fled France for Great Britain, where he aided the war effort as a scientist with the British Navy. During the war, he exacerbated an old soccer injury to his knee while walking on the slippery surfaces of submarine decks. Feldenkrais found himself faced with the prospect of a surgery which doctors warned might leave him with a permanent limp. He applied his knowledge as a scientist and martial artist to an intensive self-study of his movement habits, successfully avoiding the need for surgery. After serving as head of electronic engineering for the Israeli Army in newly formed Israel from 1951-1953, Feldenkrais devoted the rest of his life to developing and teaching self-awareness through movement lessons derived from his somatic work with himself and others.
From the 1950s till his death in 1984, he taught continuously in his home city of Tel Aviv. Feldenkrais gained recognition in part through media accounts of his work with prominent individuals, including Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (whom he famously taught to stand on his head), violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Tony-award winning theater director Peter Brook, professional basketball player Julius Erving, and anthropologist Margaret Mead.
Beginning in the late 1950s, he made trips to teach in Europe and America. Several hundred people became certified Feldenkrais practitioners through trainings he held in San Francisco from 1975-1978 and in Amherst, Massachusetts from 1980-1984. Anticipating the need for an institutional structure to carry on his teaching, he helped found the Feldenkrais Guild of North America in 1977. Feldenkrais developed the conceptual framework of his method in part through the publication of six books, ranging from the conceptually dense Body and Mature Behavior (1949) to the popular and accessible Awareness Through Movement (1972).
Since Dr. Feldenkrais’s death, the international Feldenkrais community has continued to grow and to develop its understanding of the principles, applications, and possibilities of the Feldenkrais Method. Writings by Feldenkrais practitioners are available in The Feldenkrais Journal and in many published works.
 One of Dr. Feldenkrais’s early American students, David Zemach-Bersin, maintains a web page for testimonials about the Feldenkrais Method from many different sources, including some of these individuals.
Dr. Feldenkrais was a scientist, martial artist, and educator whose method is a synthesis of diverse personal, intellectual, and practical sources. His formal training in physics and engineering gave him the scientific background to study biology, biomechanics, and the physics of human movement. His long experience with Asian martial arts provided him with a level of cultivated, embodied self-awareness that was rare for a Westerner in the mid-twentieth-century. David Kaetz has argued that Feldenkrais’s deep familial and cultural roots in Chassidic Judaism also had a strong influence on his method.
Feldenkrais acknowledged somatics pioneers F.M. Alexander, Heinrich Jacoby, Elsa Gindler, and Mabel Todd, as well as spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, as influences, and he engaged in dialogues with Ida Rolf, Charlotte Selver, Karl Pribram, Heinz von Foerster, and other contemporary somatics teachers and scientists. Like most mid-century thinkers, Feldenkrais engaged with Freudian ideas, though his take on the unconscious tended more toward the positive-suggestion emphasis of Emile Coué than Freud’s focus on subconscious drives.
In broad perspective, the Feldenkrais Method sits at the intersection of dynamic systems theory and body-centered phenomenology. The former, also known as cybernetics, indicates schools of thought concerned with complex self-regulating systems. The latter, though best known through the intellectual work of phenomenological philosophers (particularly Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty), also consists of diverse schools of somatic practice concerned with the transformative possibilities of embodied first-person experience.
In the decades since Dr. Feldenkrais’s death, Feldenkrais practitioners have found affinity with second-generation cyberneticists like Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, and they have cited the writings of human development researcher Esther Thelen as an intellectual model for their work. Due to its use of non-interfering, present-moment attention applied to first-person embodiment, Feldenkrais practitioners have in recent years begun exploring overlaps between their method and mindfulness techniques.
 David Kaetz, Making Connections: Roots and Resonance in the Life and Teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais (Hornby Island, Canada: River Centre Publishing, 2007).  Reese, 197, 395.  Reese, 85-92.  To date, there are few books on the history of somatics. Foremost is Martha Eddy's 2016 volume Mindful Movement: The Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). The Handbook of Body Psychotherapy and Somatic Psychology (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015) offers a wide array of essays concerning somatics and psychology, including valuable historical information. Two other notable books are: Barnaby B. Barratt, The Emergence of Somatic Psychology and Bodymind Therapy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and Mirka Knaster, Discovering the Body’s Wisdom: A Comprehensive Guide to More than Fifty Body-Mind Practices that Can Relieve Pain, Reduce Stress, and Foster Health, Spiritual Growth, and Inner Peace (New York: Bantam, 1996).  Patricia A. Buchanan, “The Feldenkrais Method® of Somatic Education,” in Arup Bhattacharya, ed., A Compendium of Essays on Alternative Therapy, 2012, 150, accessed April 2, 2016, http://www.intechopen.com/books/a-compendium-of-essays-on-alternative-therapy/the-feldenkrais-method-of-somatic-education DOI: 10.5772/30885  See for instance D. Clark, F. Schumann, and S.H. Mostofsky, “Mindful movement and skilled attention,” Frontiers of Human Neuroscience 9, June 29, 2015, 297, accessed April 3, 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26190986, DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00297
The Feldenkrais Method is taught in two formats. One-on-one sessions, known as Functional Integration lessons, usually last from 30 to 60 minutes, and students remain comfortably clothed throughout. Lessons are generally done lying on one’s back, front, and/or sides on a Feldenkrais table, though they often incorporate some sitting, standing, walking, and/or other functional movements. A practitioner uses manual contact and verbal feedback to direct the student’s attention to breath, body sensations, differences between familiar (though often subconscious) and unfamiliar movements, and differences between easier and more strenuous movement trajectories. Although some lessons involve large movements, often the movements are small and subtle. While this may outwardly give the impression of “not much happening,” students often report significant experiential effects. For example, a practitioner might slightly turn each vertebra in a student’s spine, one at a time, while she lies on her side. An outside observer would see little movement, yet the student, sensing alternatives in core motor habits around the spine, may experience new possibilities for holistic self-organization in movement.
Group classes are known as Awareness Through Movement lessons. They derive from a body of over 1,000 lessons developed by Dr. Feldenkrais, plus hundreds of subsequent lessons by other Feldenkrais practitioners. Classes generally last between 30 and 60 minutes. They are sometimes done while walking, standing, or sitting in a chair, though the majority are done while lying on one’s back, front, and/or sides. A practitioner guides students through a sequence of movements, encouraging them to move slowly, to stay within a range that is comfortable, to attend to meaningful differences (in sense of effort, between sides of the body, changes over time, etc.), and to notice holistic connections within the movements. For instance, while lying on the back and gently rolling the head from side to side, students might be directed to attend to their breathing and to notice and release unnecessary muscular work in the back, pelvis, or legs.
Feldenkrais is a creative and generative method, not reducible to a codified set of beliefs or principles. Even so, themes and emphases evident in Dr. Feldenkrais’s teachings stand out as hallmarks of the work carried out by Feldenkrais practitioners today. These guiding concepts include:
1. Self-directedness—Unlike most other forms of physical education, the Feldenkrais Method instructs students to make their own decisions about how to participate in lessons. For instance, students may choose to rest during parts of a lesson, to imagine a movement instead of executing it, or to engage creatively with a lesson in ways not suggested by the teacher. Although this principle can be surprising for beginning students, it is crucial to the method’s aim of empowering people to teach themselves.
2. Ease of movement—The Feldenkrais Method encourages students to do movements in ways that are easy, comfortable, and pleasurable. This principle aligns with the idea that attention is an influential factor in experience: attention to ease often causes it grow, and likewise, attention to difficulty often causes it to grow.
3. Quality of movement—Feldenkrais suggests that students do movements with a focus on quality, characterized by the smoothness and reversibility of a given movement, and its congruence with breathing. The method contends that doing a small number of movements slowly and with awareness affords greater opportunities for learning than doing a large number of movements repetitively and without conscious attention (as in many exercise programs).
4. Awareness of gravity and contact surfaces—In most Feldenkrais lessons, students are invited to notice their relationship to gravity and to contact surfaces (such as the ground, a table, or a chair). Somatic ignorance of the dynamics between body position, support surfaces, and gravity can set the stage for strain and other problems. Conversely, somatic education about those dynamics can facilitate positive changes of many types.
5. Skeletal awareness—Feldenkrais lessons commonly emphasize awareness of the skeleton and perception of skeletal contact (externally, between the skeleton and contact surfaces, and internally, in joints and other bony articulations). In walking, for example, a Feldenkrais student might visualize and sense the action of the femur, hip joint, pelvis, and spine. Although, as a holistic method, Feldenkrais does not view body parts in isolation, many Feldenkrais lessons place particular emphasis on the roles played by the spine and pelvis in balance, posture, and movement. This emphasis unfolds through experiential techniques such as lengthening the spine in various movements and learning to initiate movement from the pelvis and hips.
6. The self-image—Feldenkrais teaches a person to notice that he has a self-image in movement. A concept like “self-image” is necessary to explain why physically similar people demonstrate remarkably different capacities in movement. Feldenkrais lessons are intended to help students refine their self-images in the directions of physical accuracy and experiential potency.
7. Functional integration—Feldenkrais works from the premise that improvement at self-chosen functions should serve as the orientation for a person’s learning. (Out of innumerable possibilities, some examples of such functions might be: walking without pain, speaking confidently, getting to the floor and back to standing without assistance, checking the blind spot while driving a car, increasing the fluency of playing a musical instrument, etc.) In contrast to diagnosis-based modalities, Feldenkrais takes a student’s own, subjective movement goals as the standard to measure progress. As opposed to structural notions of correct anatomy or posture, Feldenkrais posits function as the arena of meaningful movement integration.
8. Inhibition and choice—Feldenkrais holds that healthy movement stems from having multiple means by which to enact desired functions. The ability to inhibit existing movement habits, especially compulsive ones, is often the first step toward acquiring new options. Feldenkrais lessons often incorporate many iterations of related movements in order to stimulate awareness of different possibilities. They also suggest frequent rests in order to allow the nervous system to incorporate the new movement options. Except in cases where a movement habit is biomechanically damaging, Feldenkrais does not suggest the removal of movements from a person’s repertoire, but rather the addition of new alternatives. The study of which movements are appropriate to particular and sometimes unique functions can become a lifelong practice.
A broad range of people practice Feldenkrais: healthy adults, children with developmental disabilities, athletes, artists, people with neurological disorders, and many more. For those involved in athletic or artistic performance, the method aims to serve as a grammar of movement. Whatever movement “language” people speak—playing piano, dancing, acting, running, swimming, and so on—the Method tries to help them “speak” it with greater clarity, ease, and refinement. For those who come to Feldenkrais in an effort to address pain, injury, or neurological disorders, the method attempts to educate their capacity to self-organize in healthier and more resilient ways. There are also many people around the world who practice Feldenkrais neither for healing nor to improve a type of performance, but rather as a life practice to deepen embodiment and enhance vitality.
ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE AND PRACTITIONER TRAINING
The Feldenkrais Method is practiced by more than 7,000 certified practitioners in countries around the world, with large concentrations of practitioners in Western Europe, North America, Israel, and Australia. The International Feldenkrais Federation (IFF) coordinates the activities of 18 member organizations as well as three training-accreditation boards (North America, Europe, and Australasia).
To become a certified Feldenkrais practitioner requires the completion of 740-800 hours of accredited training in a three to four year program. To be accredited, a training program must adhere to the IFF's International Training Accreditation Guidelines. Trainings involve immersion in Awareness Through Movement lessons, the development of skills to give Functional Integration lessons, education about the teachings of Dr. Feldenkrais, and exposure to bodies of knowledge, such as skeletal anatomy and kinesiology, that inform and complement trainees’ self-study of movement.
FELDENKRAIS IN RELATION TO WESTERN MEDICINE, ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, AND EFFECTIVENESS RESEARCH
Although the Feldenkrais Method self-identifies as an educational approach rather than a treatment modality, diverse groups of medical patients and allopathic medical practitioners have reported positive effects through its use, and many Feldenkrais practitioners advertise their services to these groups. In his New York Times best-selling book The Brain’s Way of Healing, Dr. Norman Doidge details Feldenkrais as a sophisticated method of neuroplastic healing. Dr. Oliver Sachs noted the Feldenkrais Method as a promising means of rehabilitation from stroke or injury, as did brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor in My Stroke of Insight. Holistic medical physician Dr. Andrew Weil maintains a page on his website recommending Feldenkrais to certain patients.
In North America, amongst Feldenkrais practitioners who also have traditional licenses, the highest proportion are physical therapists, and the second highest are massage therapists. Although it is most accurately categorized as somatic education or as an integrative mind-body intervention, Feldenkrais has often been grouped in the more culturally familiar categorization of alternative therapy or alternative medicine.
Whether grouped with allopathic or alternative medicine, medical designations lead naturally to the subject of research on the effectiveness of Feldenkrais. There have been well over 100 studies of Feldenkrais used in the context of medical issues for people of various ages, ranging from back pain to Multiple Sclerosis. A 2015 study, for instance, found that a Feldenkrais-based intervention reduced depression and improved quality of life for people with Parkinson’s Disease. A 2014 study concluded that Feldenkrais “is an effective intervention for chronic neck/scapular pain in patients with visual impairment.”
Recent meta-analyses of these studies conclude that, from the standpoint of evidence-based medicine, only a handful of them have been methodologically sound enough to produce highly valid data. A larger second stratum have produced less rigorous data, while an even larger number have used methods, such as case studies, considered inadequate by the standards of mainstream medical research. “Considered as a body of evidence,” notes one meta-analysis, “effects seem to be generic, supporting the proposal that [the Feldenkrais Method] works on a learning paradigm rather than disease-based mechanisms. Further research is required; however, in the meantime, clinicians and professionals may promote the use of [Feldenkrais] in populations interested in efficient physical performance and self-efficacy.” Another author writes that “traditionally trained researchers may reasonably evaluate the Feldenkrais literature and conclude that it is too heavy in case studies situated near the bottom of the level of evidence ratings, and is in need of more level 1-2, third person objective, analytical studies.”
Given the large sums of money needed to design, run, and analyze the randomized controlled trials that are the gold standard of evidence based medicine (commonly tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per trial), it is unlikely that the Feldenkrais Method will have access to such research-based verification until 1) established research laboratories take an interest in researching the Method, and/or 2) there develops a larger group of Feldenkrais practitioners who are simultaneously university professors or research scientists. That said, research studies of the Feldenkrais Method have increased in number in every decade since the 1970s, and that trend may foreshadow an improvement in the methodological quality of studies as well.
The question of research-backed effectiveness also touches into the Feldenkrais view of health—its definition and verification. In a 1979 essay, “On Health,” Dr. Feldenkrais wrote “it is certainly not enough to say that not asking for medical or psychiatric help is proof of health.” He proposed instead a model of health based on resilient vitality. This understanding is congruent with the definition of “health” put forth by the World Health Organization: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
In another instance of his writing on health, Dr. Feldenkrais said of his work that “it shows clearly that the faults in self-organization are due to arrested self-development. The correction of these flaws is neither conceived nor experienced as the treatment of a disease but as a general resumption of growth and development on all levels.”
 Norman Doidge, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, (New York: Viking, 2015), 168-176 and elsewhere.  Oliver Sachs, “Making Up the Mind,” New York Review of Books, April 8, 1993, accessed April 3, 2016, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1993/04/08/making-up-the-mind/. Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight (New York: Penguin, 2008), 122, 169. For Dr. Andrew Weil's page on the method visit www.drweil.com and then search 'Feldenkrais' in the search function.  Buchanan, 153.  On Wikipedia, for instance, Feldenkrais falls into the WikiProject Alternative Medicine, a designation that has led to difficulty in creating a page that satisfactorily represents the full extent and purpose of the method. Likewise, the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine considers Feldenkrais as a form of complementary and alternative medicine (Buchanan, 147).  Lavinia Teixeira-Machado et al., “Feldenkrais Method-based Exercise Improves Quality of Life in Individuals with Parkinson’s Disease: A Controlled, Randomized Clinical Trial,” Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, Vol. 21.1, Jan./Feb. 2015, 8-14.  L.O. Lundqvist, C. Zetterlund, and H.O. Richter, “Effects of Feldenkrais method on chronic neck/scapular pain in people with visual impairment: a randomized controlled trial with one-year follow-up,” Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 95 (9), September, 2014, 1656-1661, accessed April 2, 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24907640, DOI: 10.1016/j.apmr.2014.05.013. Epub 2014 Jun 4.  Susan Hillier and Anthea Worley, “The Effectiveness of the Feldenkrais Method: A Systematic Review of the Evidence,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, published online April 8, 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4408630/, DOI:10.1155/2015/752160.  Buchanan, 164.  Moshé Feldenkrais, “On Health,” in Elizabeth Beringer, ed., Embodied Wisdom, 54.  Quoted in Buchanan, 147.  Moshé Feldenkrais, “Image, Movement, and Actor: Restoration of Potentialiaty – An Interview with Richard Schechner and Helen Schechner,” Kelly Morris, trans., in Elizabeth Beringer, ed., Embodied Wisdom, 106.
Feldenkrais Guild of North America (FGNA): http://www.feldenkrais.com
International Feldenkrais Federation (IFF): http://feldenkrais-method.org
Multilingual General Bibliography of Feldenkrais Publications: http://www.feldenkraiszentrum.de/Feldenkrais-Methode/Feldenkrais-Library/
Multilingual Database of Research Publications on Feldenkrais: https://www.zotero.org/groups/feldenkrais_studies
Feldenkrais Science Network: http://feldscinet.org
Feldenkrais Educational Foundation of North America (FEFNA): http://www.feldenkrais.com/research
DR. FELDENKRAIS’S BOOKS ABOUT HIS METHOD
• Body and Mature Behavior: A Study of Anxiety, Sex, Gravitation and Learning. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949; New York: International Universities Press, 1950; Tel-Aviv: Alef Ltd., 1966, 1980, 1988.
• Awareness Through Movement: Health Exercises for Personal Growth. New York/London: Harper & Row 1972, 1977; Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1972, 1977; Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1972, 1977; San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990.
• The Case of Nora: Body Awareness as Healing Therapy. New York/London: Harper & Row, 1977.
• The Elusive Obvious. Cupertino, California: Meta Publications, 1981.
• The Master Moves. Cupertino, California: Meta Publications, 1984.
• The Potent Self. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985. Harper Collins, New York, 1992.
• Embodied Wisdom: The Collected Papers of Moshé Feldenkrais. California: Somatic Resources and North Atlantic Books. 2010.