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Kathy Combs gets a Feldenkrais treatment from practitioner Nick Strauss-Klein.

Small movements may ease pain

Feldenkrais method retrains body’s habits

By the time people come to see Lisa Walker, they are usually desperate.

These injured athletes, dancers, musicians or office workers are trying to fix what’s broken. Some are looking for a way around the limitations caused by a stroke, Parkinson’s disease or cerebral palsy. Others just want to run faster, notch up their golf game or improve their horse riding.

“In a nutshell, I help people move better,” said Walker, who practices both in Rochester and near Red Wing, Minn.

Walker breaks down a single complex movement into smaller ones, which helps clients learn how to use their entire bodies to make any movement easier. “It’s about sensing for yourself the difference between what is efficient, effortless movement and what’s not,” she said.

The method is called Feldenkrais.

“Felden-what?” is how people usually first react, said Nick Strauss-Klein, a practitioner in Eagan, Minn. While it sounds like a religion or maybe even a cult, it’s just the name of the guy who founded the method.

Born in Russia, Moshe Feldenkrais was a physicist and mechanical engineer and a judo expert with a debilitating knee injury.

After rejecting surgery because it might not keep him out of a wheelchair, Feldenkrais used his extensive knowledge of the body and the mind to come up with a way to move more easily and walk pain-free.

Feldenkrais brought his method to the United States – first to the West Coast in 1977 and then the East Coast. Now it’s taking hold in the Midwest, according to Strauss-Klein.

“The lessons teach better alignment and more coordination between the muscles and the skeletal and soft tissues,” said Julia Pak, a Feldenkrais practitioner and the New York City director of the Balanced Runner.

Some practitioners offer group classes, where students lie down on mats and then are guided through a series of movements. There also are one-on-one sessions that zero in on the places where a client is unwittingly restricting movement. A slight change – sometimes inches, maybe millimeters – can cascade into effortless movement that helps resolve a high-school athlete’s chronic running injury, alleviates a violinist’s neck pain or allows an elderly woman to roll over in bed with ease.

“I’m finding the places where people are stuck neurologically,” Walker said. “It’s really about learning.”

For example: “If you have tight hamstrings, it’s because the way you’re moving is causing them to be short and tight,” she explained. “There are other muscles that should be working but aren’t. So the hamstrings are overworking and the other muscles are sleeping.”

While the method is very good at what Walker calls “rerooting old habits,” Feldenkrais has its limits.

“If someone has a torn ACL, I’m not your person. The medical profession has perfected that,” Walker said. “But this is phenomenal for people who don’t want to wear out their joints so fast, because when you move better you’re not putting stress on those joints.”

Tom Williamson, a 59-year-old Boston Marathon finisher and triathlete, was suffering from plantar fasciitis when he turned to Walker in 2004. After a couple of one-on-one lessons, he became an avid student in Walker’s Awareness Through Movement classes. Williamson said he now has a “low-impact” gait and has remained injury-free.

“You don’t consciously change your running style,” he said. But Feldenkrais has given him the awareness to know when “things are off” and given him insight to make adjustments that allow him to run more efficiently. “You’re not just running numb,” he said.

Still, he hasn’t been able to convert fellow runners to the Feldenkrais method. “People seem to think the name is goofy,” he said.

Dr. Margaret Houston, a family physician in Rochester, gets the same reaction.

“People roll their eyes because it’s an alternative therapy and nobody understands what it is, and it’s really hard to explain,” she said. “I explain that learning to relax the muscles in one part of the body can help them walk differently. I tell them to take it on faith. It works and it’s made a huge difference for me.”

Houston, who suffered neck and back pain, was introduced to Feldenkrais by her horse trainer. After she took classes, she said, the pain disappeared.

The change made perfect sense to her. “People often attribute pain to one thing,” she said. “They have pain in their knee or their hip but they don’t realize that everything in your body moves as a unit.”

Houston is quick to point out that Feldenkrais isn’t for everyone. “Some people just want a quick fix,” she said. “They want an injection or they want to see a specialist right away.”

And if that fails, that’s when they try Feldenkrais, said Pak.

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