Not only has Malcolm learned to do yoga ortho-bionomically-moving slowly so the body understands and integrates each step–but she has also seen firsthand its benefits in her own practice and life. “When you use O-B principles in yoga, you do your practice more gently and move into positions the way your body naturally wants to move,” she says. “You become much more inner-directed, and that new awareness brings about incredible shifts.”
Retraining the Body
Each and every time a Feldenkrais practitioner watches you walk across a room, sit in a chair, or turn your head, he sees your entire history on display. In his eyes, every physical and emotional experience you’ve had has been preserved in the way you use your body. For Feldenkrais workers–they’re also often called teachers, in keeping with the idea that the technique is a form of movement reeducation–the goal is to help you go beyond your known possibilities to discover more comfortable and efficient ways to move. “The work is about showing the nervous system that there are often easier ways to do things,” says Deborah Vukson, a Feldenkrais practitioner and yoga instructor in Eugene, Oregon. “I help a student’s body distinguish what is working and what is not.”
Of course, the human body doesn’t consciously create unhealthy movement patterns; they arise as we do our best to continue functioning in the face of physical or emotional trauma. In fact, according to the Russian-born physicist Moshe Feldenkrais–an engineer and judo master who developed the modality–when the neuromuscular system is given the chance, it will always choose the most effective way to behave. And providing that chance is precisely what both individual and group Feldenkrais sessions are all about: using gentle, repetitive movement sequences to retrain the body to move as efficiently as possible. With efficiency comes ease and comfort.
At the start of your first individual session of Feldenkrais–formally known as “Functional Integration”–the teacher will listen to your concerns and observe how you hold and move your body. Most of the work is then performed while you lie loosely clothed on a massage table, although some sequences are done while you are standing or sitting.
By very gently moving the bones, the teacher then explores the various rotations of a joint in order to detect the smoothest movement pathway for a given action, says Kim Cottrell, a speech pathologist and Feldenkrais teacher in Portland. Once found, this most efficient movement pattern is repeated several times to give the body a chance to integrate it. Occasionally, one session is all it takes for you to feel an ongoing difference, but Cottrell says working with a student a number of times is generally necessary to ensure significant change.
For example, if it’s your shoulder that is giving you trouble, a Feldenkrais teacher might first show you with her hands the ways you habitually hold and move the joint. Then, by gently maneuvering your arm in various positions around and across your body, she would present your neuromuscular system with all the other ways your shoulder can move in order to remind it what is possible and what is most comfortable. “This technique can show the nervous system that it has been holding the shoulder in one place, when it really has many options for relating to the rest of the body,” says Vukson.
Presenting people with new possibilities for everyday movements is also the goal of Feldenkrais group classes, known as “Awareness Through Movement.” For about the price of a drop-in yoga class, students are instructed to perform carefully planned movement experiences while sitting or lying on the floor. Although each lesson centers on a particular joint or area, noticeable benefits are often felt throughout the body as well as in the mind, thanks to the human body’s highly sophisticated system of neuromuscular linkages. “Not only does your body feel better, but your sense of who you are in the world may shift,” says Cottrell. In other words, although you may come into class simply expecting to improve your physical being, you might find yourself leaving with a stronger, more confident sense of self.
The fact that the movements of Feldenkrais can serve as a conduit to a deeper connection to yourself is one of the ways in which it’s similar to yoga. “When asked what you get from yoga, you could answer, ‘Better circulation, increased flexibility, and pain relief,’ but what yoga really does is change your life,” says Vukson. “The practice of yoga isn’t always pleasant, but it does make your life more authentic.” Feldenkrais does this too. “It is simply the use of movement to discover possibilities,” says Cottrell. “It’s learning how to be aware.”
The active healing techniques of both Ortho-Bionomy and Feldenkrais may seem a bit foreign if your idea of satisfying bodywork involves simply lying semiconscious while a skilled practitioner kneads your body into a looser, more relaxed state. However, if you are interested in playing a part in freeing your body of its restrictions or pains while deepening your sense of self-awareness in a way that can enhance your yoga practice, then you might want to give these two bodywork modalities a try.
Linda Knittel is a nutritional anthropologist and freelance writer in Portland. She is the author of The Soy Sensation (McGraw Hill, 2001).