Sit down, relax and take a load off - how to think yourself fit

Students of Feldenkrais don't get sweaty or out of breath, says Sam Murphy. No wonder this little-known mind-body discipline is so attractive
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The Independent Online

I'm lying on my back, utterly inert, while my legs are gently supported through lazy circles, flexion and extension. Then I'm gently peeled off the couch by one arm and lowered back down, repeatedly, until my shoulder and upper back loosen and relinquish their tension. It's all deeply relaxing. But Feldenkrais, which is what I am experiencing, offers other benefits: it can also help posture, movement, efficiency and sports performance.

Feldenkrais is named after its originator, Moshe Feldenkrais, who died in 1984. An engineer, physicist and martial artist, he developed his technique after sufferingsports injuries. His aim was "to make the impossible possible, the possible easy and the easy elegant", by increasing awareness and understanding of the link between how we move and how we think, feel and learn.

Despite the continuing celebrity-driven love affair with mind-body disciplines, Feldenkrais has remained firmly on the fringes in the UK. Its main devotees come from the performing arts – dancers, musicians, actors and circus performers. It is now on the syllabus of a number of performing arts-related degree courses. But it is also increasingly being applied within the sports arena. In the US, the method has been used to help rehabilitate injuries and improve performance in martial arts, kayaking, rowing, triathlon, tennis, golf and skiing. In Australia, Feldenkrais is being applied to surfing technique.

Currently, there are just 50 or so qualified practitioners in the UK. One of them, Julie Atkins, first experienced Feldenkrais while taking a circus-skills course. The curious warm-ups, which Atkins so enjoyed, were, she discovered, derived from the technique. She took a four-year part-time course and has now been teaching for three years. "Feldenkrais is about exploring movement and improving function," she explains. "It's very much focused on the individual, so there aren't rights and wrongs – it's about learning your own movement patterns, and working with them to maximise your potential."

It's hard to describe Feldenkrais to someone who has never seen it. Is it like the Alexander Technique? More fluid. Like Pilates? Less controlled. Like Shiat-su, perhaps? Just as physical, but less passive. "Feldenkrais is very good for activities which demand good balance and orientation, such as skiing, surfing and horse- riding," says Atkins. There is very little cardiovascular effort involved, but that doesn't mean it requires no effort. When Atkins, who describes herself as a tubby middle-aged woman, demonstrates going from a standing to a cross-legged position and then reversing it, she becomes instantly graceful, fluid and agile. When I try, I land like a ton of bricks.

But before you start thinking about using Feldenkrais to improve that golf swing or fine-tune your parallel turns and then wondering how long it will take, bear in mind that Feldenkrais is what could be described as an endless learning curve. You will need to leave that gym mentality at the door.

"The emphasis is very much on quality and not quantity," says Atkins. "There are no weights involved and you won't find yourself sweating or breathless. If you're stressing and straining, you lose awareness. And without awareness, you can't tell when something is wrong.

"If you were holding a feather and a fly landed on it, your sensory awareness would enable you to notice. But if you were holding a piano on your back and a fly landed on it, you wouldn't be aware of it."

According to Feldenkrais principles, with enhanced awareness we can tell whether our weight is balanced evenly over our skis or whether the leg that perpetually gets injuries when we run is landing slightly differently – perhaps more heavily – than the "good" leg.

There are two distinct ways in which Feldenkrais is taught. In "Awareness Through Movement" (ATM) group classes, participants are verbally led through a series of movements, usually centred on a particular theme. "Although it's a group class, it is completely non-competitive,' says Atkins. "It's up to each individual to interpret a particular exercise in their own way. I'll never tell someone what they're doing is 'wrong'. There's no blueprint of perfection."

Unlike most yoga classes I've attended, there is a strong male contingent in ATM classes. "I think men are quite open to Feldenkrais's work because he was an engineer and a martial artist," says Atkins. "Very scientific and male."

The other type of session is Functional Integration (FI), which is performed one on one. "This would be geared towards a client's own needs and interests," says Atkins. "It's very hands-on, with lots of physical touch and verbal communication." An FI session is often based around a client's particular sport or activity.

In our quick-fix society, Feldenkrais can seem quite demanding. Instead of being told, for example: "Your neck is very tense", or "Your lower back lacks flexibility", standard chit-chat in a Pilates session or physio-therapy, you will be asked: "How does that feel? Does one side feel more relaxed than the other?" So it's impossible to tune out – it's essential to be "present" throughout the lesson. "Some people find that too much," says Atkins. "When you watch people at the gym, you can see there's often very little awareness about how they're moving, how comfortable it is, how efficient. Feldenkrais aims to open up these channels of awareness. A lot of it happens in your head."

In one of the exercises I did with Atkins, one of my legs felt more floppy than the other. I presumed that Atkins would take the less mobile leg and work on improving its mobility. But she explained: "There's no point in trying to work with the 'bad' leg as it lacks awareness – the path of communication between the brain and the leg is inefficient. By working on the 'good' leg, I provide an example of more functional, efficient movement which can then be passed to the other leg."

If you are used to results-based exercise, you can't help wondering: "Where's the progress?" According to Atkins, "It's an ongoing education. There is no holy grail to strive for, but you will gain a greater awareness of how you move, you'll be able to function more efficiently and comfortably, and you'll gradually unlearn movement habits and patterns that aren't right for you. Feldenkrais is ultimately about discovering your comfort zone."

The facts

Julie Atkins teaches Awareness Through Movement classes (£7) in Greenwich and Blackheath, London, on Mondays and Thursdays. Contact her at Julie.atkins@btinternet.com for times and venues. She is also available for one-to-one Functional Integration sessions, which cost £30.

For details of other Feldenkrais practitioners, plus dates, venues and prices of classes and workshops around the country, contact the Feldenkrais Guild UK, East Holcombe, Shillingford, Tiverton EX16 9BR, tel: 0700 078 5506, or visit www.feldenkrais.co.uk (email: enquiries@feldenkrais.co.uk)

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