Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Method aims to ease back, joint pain and gain body awareness

Tuesday, June 5, 2007


We've all done the Feldenkrais Method.

Named after the late Moshe Feldenkrais (rhymes with "rice"), a Russian-born physicist, judo expert and mechanical engineer, the method aims to increase ease and range of motion, improve flexibility and coordination and facilitate graceful, efficient movement.

At Palisades Rehabilitation Center in Cresskill, physical therapist Rashida Cassubhai and massage therapist Christin Harvey lead Feldenkrais group lessons, also called Awareness Through Movement.

Why at a rehab center and not at a gym? Feldenkrais is known to help ease back and joint pain in addition to the effects of multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, Parkinson's disease and stroke. But it's also used by dancers, athletes and performers to gain better body awareness.

You should wear: Comfortable, non-restricting clothing.

Class contents: The class runs about an hour. All moves are done while lying on a provided exercise mat, in stocking or bare feet. Head support is provided for those who want it.

Equipment used: None.

Muscles/body parts worked: Core, back, arms, legs.

Calories burned: Negligible.

For best results: Keep your mind clutter-free during the session and just relax.

Availability: Awareness Through Movement classes, 4 p.m. Tuesdays at Palisades Rehabilitation Center, 220 Knickerbocker Road in Cresskill ($15 per class; discount for a six-week series). Individual sessions are offered by certified practitioners in Demarest, Hackensack, Harrington Park, Jersey City, Montclair, Morristown, Northvale and West Paterson; see feldenkrais.com (click on Get Started).

The Feldenkrais Institute of New York offers a new 3-D audio program incorporating three lessons along with printed guidelines, $45 (includes tax and shipping); feldenkraisinstitute.com/Reg istration_Form.pdf.

Gentle and easy to do

More akin to yoga than aerobics, the verbally directed Feldenkrais movements are so gentle and easy that you can do the whole routine with eyes closed (in one-on-one lessons, practitioners are more hands-on and less verbal).

Cassubhai explained that Feldenkrais helps create an awareness of one's body and its place within the environment.

"You change your thinking patterns by changing your movements," she says. "I will be doing my tai chi or my yoga or my cooking, but doing it differently because I have learned to process things differently."

We begin by lying flat on our backs on an exercise mat.

"Take a couple of minutes to bring yourself to this place, to this moment," Cassubhai prompts us. "Bring your attention to your comfort and what you need to do to become comfortable. Notice the contact you're making with the floor. How is the floor supporting you? What parts of you do not feel in contact with the floor?

"Shift your attention to your feet. Compare the right with the left. Do you feel more weighted on one side than the other? We're just acknowledging these things. There is no right or wrong."

Focusing on body awareness

After mentally checking in with each region of our bodies, we bend our legs, feet flat on the floor. We cross right knee over left knee, then tilt them to the right and back to the middle a few times, slow and easy.

"As you do it, bring attention to your hips and pelvic area and see if there is any movement being translated to that area," says Cassubhai. "As you go further, also bring attention to the head and neck and see if they want to go in a certain way."

We are instructed to bring our hands together palm to palm and stretch them up to the ceiling in the shape of a triangle. We tilt the triangle to the left and back to the middle. Cassubhai then integrates the two moves, arms tilting one way and legs the other.

There are rest periods between each movement sequence even though I'm sure nobody is feeling exerted.

"Moshe Feldenkrais felt it was during the rest periods that one learns," Cassubhai explains. "It's a time to let what you have been doing process."

Exploring range of motion

As the class proceeds, we are directed to continue tilting arms and legs, while exploring how other muscles can be engaged to enhance the range of motion. For instance, if I press my right foot into the floor, I can engage my hips and achieve a greater tilt.

"We're bringing your attention to various parts of your body," Harvey observes. "The movement sequences are biomechanically efficient, and the person doesn't have to think about what their nervous system is learning. In fact, the more you slow down and the less effort you use, the more that learning can happen."

Over time, she continues, "your brain will make neuropathways for the easier movement patterns without your being conscious of it. And that will help with any function from lifting a weight to lifting the garbage."

Hundreds of Awareness Through Movement sequences vary in difficulty and complexity, for all levels of ability. The method is available in book and DVD form, including a Feldenkrais-based routine called Relaxercise.

Harvey reminds us that Feldenkrais used to say, "What I'm after isn't flexible bodies but flexible brains."

E-mail: leichman@northjersey.com