By Frank Wildman, Ph.D.
The older we get, the more clever we must become. As
we age, it is more important to use our bodies more efficiently. We must
improve our quality and ease of motion, our coordination, our sense of
balance, control and comfort. After a certain age, our bodily wisdom tells
us it's too difficult to slam our bones, strain our muscles, and do the
things we used to do with will power and brute strength. However, there
is little available in our culture to help us learn to reduce stress while
increasing muscular efficiency in a pleasurable and comfortable manner.
Because of this, it is not natural for people in their 50's, 60's, 70's
and older to explore new ways of moving.
Old age, for most people, is a time of increasing physical
discomfort, stiffness, and fatigue. Everyday activities like walking up
a flight of stairs or carrying groceries becomes more and more difficult.
To counteract the process of apparent bodily decline, it is frequently
recommended that older persons perform traditional forms of exercise designed
to strengthen muscles or increase endurance. This not only seems sensible
and obvious, but contemporary research points to the benefits of strengthening,
flexibility, and endurance exercises for the elderly patient. But traditional
exercise programs often involve a degree of strain, fatigue and regimen
that most older people are unwilling to partake in. A seventy-year-old
woman who has difficulty with degenerative joint disease is neither ready
for nor enthusiastic about jogging or weightlifting.
An infant's body and its capabilities are quite different
from those of a five-year old, or a teenager, or a 40-year old. However,
most people continue through life with the same movement patterns that
were self-taught in the years between birth and the point at which one
considered his or her mobility to be satisfactory enough to do whatever
one wanted to do to get around in the world (i.e., walk, run). If an individual
was interested in athletics, further training would be undertaken but often
with little regard for how the body actually works, such that success at
sports was usually understood to be the result of talent and hard work,
rather than wisdom about how to use the body efficiently.
If one proceeds through life with the same set of movement
patterns that were developed and codified at age three, it isn't surprising
that eventually those neurological habits will no longer be applicable
to a changed body. As the patterns seem to become less efficient, the main
route that we usually proscribe for ourselves to deal with this is to try
harder to ingrain these patterns. And we attempt to do this with whatever
knowledge we have on the subject of somatic alteration, which, for many
of us, is quite limited.
The Feldenkrais® Method offers a thorough application
of current models of dynamic systems approaches to motor learning and motor
control. In Feldenkrais movement lessons, the student recreates the childhood
experience of learning to organize and control all the body's movements;
including all aspects of interacting with the environment and what one
has to do to move through that environment. The Method provides an innovative
and exciting movement program that can quickly enhance your ease of movement,
flexibility, relaxation, and posture faster and further than any form of
Awareness Through Movement® lessons
are an excellent course of study in focusing our awareness on how we move. Dr.
Feldenkrais has systematized the process of paying attention; a rare
and necessary element in the process of growth and change. Awareness
Through Movement lessons begin with the proposition that correct
movement is movement with minimal effort, and that most people have learned
to move incorrectly by straining with more than the needed effort to do
what is required. Awareness Through Movement lessons are
therefore designed to call into awareness the basic movement habits that
cause stress, and then to systematically release the body into more effortless
For example, when most people, especially the elderly,
move from a lying to a sitting position, whether in bed or on the floor,
they strain their abdominal and neck muscles. A Feldenkrais teacher retrains
student to sit up by first becoming aware of exactly how they strain and
where the focus of tension is, and then by altering the dynamic pattern
of the movement, so as to reduce fatigue. Rather than repeatedly doing
sit-ups, a person learns how they sit up and how many different ways they
can sit up, while learning how to sit with less effort.
At a movement program for older adults presented through
the University of California, I introduced students to the gentle and intriguing Awareness
Through Movement lessons developed by Dr.
Moshe Feldenkrais. The results were astonishing. The majority of the
people in the class believed their physical limitations and difficulties
were the inevitable result of aging. They had a self-image of pains that
don't improve, rigidities, and movement limitations. They had come to the
class with the idea of exercising their limited bodies to develop enough
strength and flexibility to continue on, but continue on within the same
essential body image. Instead of straining, groaning, and stretching, they
learned stress-free interesting movements that were easy to do and, most
importantly, changed the way they understood and used their bodies.
There were striking changes during the course of the
program. In the first class many participants needed help getting to the
floor and even more needed help in standing. Lying flat on the firm floor
was a painful experience for many. By the tenth class, people simply got
down to the floor and up by themselves. During class, they lay flat on
their backs without pain, some for the first time in decades.
The results of this class reached beyond improved posture
and muscular efficiency. The students of this Feldenkrais® course gained
an awareness of how to use their bodies better. They were able to perform
tasks previously accomplished with much force but little skill, for example,
standing up from a chair. It does not take much leg strength if done properly,
if there is an understanding of the relationship of legs to back to pelvis
to shoulders to head. However, if someone does not have a clearly felt
image of the relationship between body parts, it can be an extraordinarily
difficult task. The less information we have about how to coordinate a
simple action, like standing from a chair, the more effort it takes.
Some people had stopped going out alone because they
feared they would tire or lose their balance or not be able to get up from
sitting without asking for help from a stranger. When they learned how
to get out of a chair in a balanced, smooth fashion, they were amazed.
Some cried. The world had opened up to them again.
While anyone would benefit from learning how to sit up
more efficiently, it is older people who need such training the most. As
strength and stamina decline, it is necessary to learn how to make the
best use of available energy. To address the needs of the older population,
and the therapists that are dedicated to working with them, I have developed
an extensive program in innovative movement strategies for older adults.
This program includes discussion and participatory movement lessons designed
to teach therapists to apply Feldenkrais® principles to their work
with older patients. As an accompaniment to these courses, a series of
video tapes featuring Awareness Through Movement Lessons
designed specifically for older adults makes these fascinating movement
techniques available for instruction and home use. It is my sincere hope
that these revolutionary teaching tools will introduce new ways of moving,
and thinking about moving to a community that can benefit immeasurably
from their proven success.