Feldenkrais: Core principles

Extract adapted from
The brain’s way of healing: Stories of remarkable recoveries and discoveries
By Norman Doidge MD Scribe Books

Over the course of mastering his knee problems, writing Body and Mature Behavior, and seeing clients regularly, Feldenkrais refined the principles that formed the basis of his new methods. Most of them are related to facilitating what Doidge calls the stage of neurodifferentiation, one of the key stages of neuroplastic healing.

The Feldenkrais Method principles are:
  1. The mind programs the functioning of the brain
  2. A brain cannot think without motor function
  3. Awareness of movement is the key to improving movement
  4. Differentiation – making the smallest possible sensory distinctions between movements – builds brain maps
  5. Differentiation is easiest to make when the stimulus is smallest
  6. Slowness of movement is the key to awareness, and awareness is the key to learning
  7. Reduce the effort whenever possible
  8. Errors are essential, and there is no right way to move, only better ways
  9. Random movements provide variation that leads to developmental breakthroughs
  10. Even the smallest movement in one part of the body involves the entire body
  11. Many movement problems, and the pain that goes with them, are caused by learned habit, not by abnormal structure


1. The mind programs the functioning of the brain.

We are born with a limited number of “hardwired” reflexes, but the human being has the “longest apprenticeship” of all animals, during which learning takes place!

Homosapiens,” Feldenkrais wrote,
arrives with a tremendous part of his nervous mass left unpatterned, unconnected, so that each individual, depending on where he happens to be born, can organize his brain to fit the demands of his surroundings.”

As early as 1949, he wrote that the brain could form new neural paths to do so. (1)

In 1981 he wrote,

The mind gradually develops and begins to program the functioning of the brain. My way of looking at the mind and body involves a subtle method of rewiring ‘the structure of the entire human being to be functionally well integrated, which means being able to do what the individual wants. Each individual has the choice to wire himself in a special way.”

When we have experience, he wrote,

the neural substrate [the neuronal connections in the brain] organizes it self.”

Feldenkrais often said, as his student David Zemach-Bersin points out, that when there is a neurological injury, plenty of brain matter usually remains to take over the damaged functions.

Moshe Feldenkrais was one of the first neuroplasticians.


2. A brain cannot think without motor function.

Wrote Feldenkrais,

My fundamental contention is that the unity of mind and body is an objective reality, that these entities are not related to each other in one fashion or another, but are an inseparable whole. To put this more clearly: I contend that a brain could not think without motor functions.”

Even thinking of making a movement triggers the movement, even if very subtly. When he got a pupil to simply imagine a movement, he noticed that the tonus in the relevant muscles increased. Imagining counting would trigger subtle movements in the throat’s vocal apparatus. Some people can barely speak if their hands are confined. Every emotion affects facial muscles and posture.

Anger shows in clenched fists and teeth; fear, in tightened flexors and abdominal muscles and in holding the breath; joy, in a lightening of the limbs and buoyancy. People may believe they can have a pure thought, but in a deeply relaxed state, Feldenkrais pointed out, they will observe that every thought leads to a change in their muscles.

Everytime the brain is used, four components are triggered: motor movement, thought, sensation, and feeling. Under normal circumstances, we don’t experience one without the other three. (2)


3. Awareness of movement is the key to improving movement.

The sensory system, Feldenkrais pointed out, is intimately related to the movement system, not separate from it. Sensation’s purpose is to orient, guide, help control, coordinate, and assess the success of a movement. The kinesthetic sense plays a key role in assessing the success of a movement and gives immediate sensory feedback about where the body and limbs are in space. Awareness of movement is the fundamental basis of Feldenkrais’s method. He called his classes Awareness Through Movement lessons (or ATMs). It may seem “magical” to think that movement problems – especially in people with serious brain damage – can be radically changed simply by becoming more aware of the movement, but it seems magical only because science formerly thought of the body as a machine with parts, in which sensory functions are radically separated from motor functions.

This focus on self-awareness and monitoring of experience is based in part on Feldenkrais’s exposure to the meditative aspect of Eastern martial arts, and it reveals him anticipating the current Western interest in mindfulness meditation by about fifty years. Feldenkrais’s insights have been reaffirmed by the neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, who showed that long-term neuroplastic change occurs most readily when a person or an animal pays close attention while learning. Merzenich did lab experiments in which he mapped animals’ brains before and after different kinds of learning tasks. When the animals performed tasks for rewards automatically, without paying attention, their brain maps changed, but only temporarily.


4. Differentiation – making the smallest possible sensory distinctions between movements – builds brain maps.

Newborns, Feldenkrais observed,often make very large, poorly differentiated movements based on primitive reflexes, using many muscles at once, such as reflexively extending their entire arms. They also cannot discriminate among their fingers. As they mature, they learn to make smaller, more precise individual movements. But the movements do not become precise until the child can use awareness to discern very small differences among them. Differentiation, Feldenkrais would show, would be key to helping many people with strokes, children with cerebral palsy, and even autism.

Feldenkrais found, repeatedly, that when a body part is injured, its representation in the mental map becomes smaller or disappears. He relied on the work of the Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, who showed that the surface of the body is represented in the brain by a map. Both the size of an individual body part in the brain map is proportional not to its actual size in the body but rather to how often and how precisely it is used. If the body part performs a simple function – the thigh, for example, mainly does one thing, moving the knee forward – the representation is small. But brain maps for the fingers, often used in precise ways, are huge. Feldenkrais understood that it is a use-it-or-lose-it brain, and that when parts are injured – and thus are not used often – their representation in the brain map decreases. By making very finely tuned – differentiated – movements of these parts and paying close attention while doing so, people experience them subjectively as becoming larger; they take up more of their mental maps, and lead to more refined brain maps.


5. Differentiation is easiest to make when the stimulus is smallest.

In Awareness Through Movement, Feldenkrais wrote,

If I raise an iron bar I shall not feel the difference if a fly either lights on it or leaves it. If, on the other hand I am holding a feather, I shall feel a distinct difference if the fly were to settle on it. The same applies to all the senses: hearing, sight, smell, taste, heat, and cold.”

If a sensory stimulus is very great (say, very loud music), we can notice a change in the level of that stimulus only if the change is quite significant. If the stimulus is small to begin with, then we can detect very small changes. (This phenomenon is called the Weber-Fechner law in physiology.) In his ATM classes, Feldenkrais instructed people to stimulate their senses with very tiny movements. These small stimuli radically increased their sensitivity, which ultimately translated into changes in their movements.

For example, Feldenkrais would ask people, as they lay on their backs, to tilt their heads very subtly up and down, aboutĀ  twenty times (or more), making the smallest possible movement – a hundredth of an inch – with as little effort as possible; they were to be aware only of the effect the movement had on the left side of the head, neck, shoulders, pelvis, and the rest of the left side of the body. Observing those changes will lead to decreased muscle tonus in the entire left side of the body (even though both sides of the body move when the head is tilted).

This change happens because the awareness itself helps reorganise the motor cortex and the nervous system. If the person were to scan his body before and after the exercise, he would discover that, mentally, the left side’s body image now feels lighter, also larger and longer and more relaxed, than the right side. (The cause is that the brain map for that side is now more differentiated and represents the body in finer detail. This technique of changing body tonus and brain maps is helpful because many movement problems often arise because areas of the body are not well represented in the brain maps.)


6. Slowness of movement is the key to awareness, and awareness is the key to learning.

As Feldenkrais put it,

The delay between thought and action is the basis for awareness.”

If you leap too quickly, you can’t look before you leap. He took this principle, of moving slowly in order to be more aware and learn better, directly from Eastern martial arts. People learning tai chi practice their movements at glacial speed, with virtually no physical effort. In his early books on Judo, such as Practical Unarmed Combat, Feldenkrais had emphasized the need to repeat actions very slowly and calmly and noted that hurried movements are bad for learning. Slower movement leads to more subtle observation and map differentiation, so that more change is possible. Remember, when two sensory or motor events occur repeatedly and simultaneously in the brain, they become linked, because neurons that fire together wire together, and the brain maps for those actions merge.

In The Brain That Changes Itself, Doidge described how Merzenich discovered how subjects can lose differentiation in the brain, and he explained that “brain traps” occur when two actions are repeated simultaneously too often: their two brain maps, meant to be separate or differentiated, merge. He showed that when a monkey’s fingers were sewn together and thus forced to move at – the same time, the maps in the brain for those two fingers became fused.

Maps also fuse in everyday life. When a musician moves two fingers simultaneously often enough while playing an instrument, the maps for the two fingers sometimes fuse, and when the musician tries to move one finger alone, the other moves too. The maps for the two different fingers are now “dedifferentiated.” The more intensely the musician tries to produce separate movements, the more he will move both fingers, strengthening the merged map. He’s caught in a brain trap, and the harder he tries to get out of it, the deeper he gets into it, developing a condition called focal dystonia.

We all are prone to less dramatic brain traps. Sitting at a computer, for example, we lift our shoulder unconsciously as we type. After a while we may find – as I did – that the shoulder is often up when it needn’t be. Neck pain soon follows. One way to begin to deactivate the process is to learn to re-differentiate the muscles that elevate the shoulder from those involved in typing. This first requires awareness that the two actions are being done simultaneously.


7. Reduce the effort whenever possible.

The use of force is the opposite of awareness; learning does not take place when we are straining. The principle should not be no pain, no gain. Rather, it should be if strain, no gain. Feldenkrais thought the use of willpower (of which he obviously had plenty) was not helpful in developing awareness.

Nor was any kind of compulsive driven action, which increases muscle tonus throughout the body. Compulsive effort leads to mindless, automatic movement that becomes habitual and unresponsive to changing situations. Compulsion is the problem, not the solution. We can eliminate a lot of muscle tension in the body by using awareness to spot how we often, without intending to do so, tense and use muscles that are not necessary for that movement. He called these movements superfluous or “parasitic.”


8. Errors are essential, and there is no right way to move, only better ways.

Feldenkrais didn’t correct errors or “fix” people.

He emphasized:

Do not be serious, eager, avoiding any wrong move. The kind of learning that goes with Awareness Through Movement is a source of pleasurable sensations, which lose their clarity if anything dims the pleasure of it all … Errors cannot be avoided.”

To teach people to leave a problematic habit behind, he encouraged them to try random movements until they found one that worked better for them. Instead of correcting errors, he encouraged them to notice lack of flow in barely detectable movements. They learn, he insisted, from their own movements, not from him.

In ATM lessons he encouraged pupils to set aside the critical faculty:

Don’t you decide how to do the movement; let your nervous system decide. It has millions of years of experience.”

In a sense, he was asking his pupils to perform a psychoanalytic free association – using movement, instead of words – so that their own spontaneous movement solutions would emerge.


9. Random movements provide variation that leads to developmental breakthroughs.

Monumental gains, Feldenkrais discovered, are made not by mechanical movement but by the opposite – random movements. Children learn to roll over, crawl, sit, and walk through experimentation. Most babies learn to roll over, for instance, when they follow something with their eyesthat interests them, then follow it so far that, to their surprise, they roll over. They learn to roll over by accident, based on a random movement. Infants sometimes learn to sit up because they are trying to put their feet into their mouths, notbecause they want to sit. Learning to stand and walk are momentous breakthroughs that infants make without training. They learn by trial and error, when they are ready.

Years after Feldenkrais made this discovery, Dr. Esther Thelen, arguably the world’s leading scientist of motor development, demonstrated that every child learns to walk in a different way, by trial and error, and not, as was thought, through a standard “hardwired program” applicable to all. Thelen revolutionized the scientific understanding of motor development, but when she discovered that Feldenkrais had said as much, she was “totally awed” by his clinical discoveries and told Feldenkrais’s students, “I think that the science may seem rather crude compared to the kind of intuitive, hands-on, brain … knowledge you people have.” She then trained as a Feldenkrais practitioner.

These insights contrast with the approach of many conventional physical therapies or the use of machines for rehabilitation, which generally give patients with “biomechanical problems” repetitive exercises, based on the assumption that there are ideal movements for lifting, walking, getting out of a chair, and so on. Feldenkrais hated it when his ATM classes were called exercises, because mechanical repetition of action was what got people into bad habits in the first place.


10. Even the smallest movement in one part of the body involves the entire body.

In a person who is capable of effective, graceful, efficient movement, the entire body organizes itself, as a whole, to do the movement, no matter how small. Consider the following paradox. We can lift a finger with ease; we can reach out to shake a friend’s hand or lift a glass with equal ease. When we unconsciously shrug our shoulders, as we speak, we do so with the same ease.

Yet how can these movements all be of equal ease? A finger is much lighter than a hand and forearm, and a hand and forearm are lighter than the entire arm. They are of equal ease because, in practice, when done with grace, we use the entire body for each action. When the body is well organized, muscle tension is limited throughout, and the load for all the actions is shared across the muscles, skeleton, and connective tissue.

Feldenkrais had learned from Kano that the great Judo masters are always relaxed and that

in the correct act there is no muscle of the body which is contracted with greater intensity than the rest. … The sensation is of effortless action.”

The practitioner need not be stronger than his opponent as long as his body as a whole is more coordinated or, as he would later say, better “organized”.


11. Many movement problems, and the pain that goes with them, are caused by learned habit, not by abnormal structure.

Most conventional treatments assume that function is wholly dependent on theĀ  “under-lying” bodily structure and its limitations. Feldenkrais discovered that his pupils’ difficulties were caused as much by how their brains learned to adapt to their structural abnormalities as by the abnormalities themselves – and sometimes more so, as happened to him with his knee. His original adaptations to his knee initially helped him to get around somewhat, but he learned even better ones by creating a new way to walk – which served him well for the rest of his life, and he never needed surgery.

There is always a brain component to a movement difficulty.

Feldenkrais first taught people to use his principles the way Judo was taught, in ATM group classes. Participants typically had various problems – sore necks, headaches, sciatica, herniated discs, frozen shoulders, postsurgical limps. Feldenkrais would get them to lie down on Judo mats. The huge antigravity muscles (the extensors of the back and the thigh muscles) would relax, and all the habit patterns triggered by “fighting” gravity to stand up were eliminated. He got them to scan their bodies attentively, so they became aware of how they felt, and what parts of their bodies made contact with the mat. He often told them to pay attention to how they breathed. Often subjects hold their breath the moment they get into a movement difficulty.

Then he had them explore a minute movement on one side of the body for much of the lesson, sensing subtle differences in how they made each minute movement. It was at this point that Feldenkrais’s knowledge of hypnosis and Emile Coue came into play; as he spoke, he gave almost hypnotic suggestions to encourage them to do the movement with least effort, with greatest ease, so that it felt very light. Typically he chose movements that were crucial at some point in early development, such aslifting the head, rolling over, crawling, or finding easy ways to come to a sitting position.”As a teacher I can accelerate your learning,” he wrote,

by presenting the experience under the conditions in which the human brain learned in the first place.”

He might spend fifteen minutes getting his class to roll their heads gently to one side and notice what they felt, how far they could roll them. Next, he would ask them only to imagine rolling their heads, and notice what they felt throughout their bodies. Often their muscles would contract, just at the thought of making the movement.

Then something odd would happen. Toward the end of the lesson, he asked them to close their eyes and scan their bodies again. The side they had worked on was generally closer to the mat and felt longer and larger. Their body images had changed, and they could roll their heads much farther. Tight muscles released. In the short time remaining, they switched to working on the other side and found that many of the gains made on the first side quickly transferred.

Feldenkrais would often ask pupils to spend most of the session focusing on the side of their body that was less distressed, discovering ways to move it with even greater ease. Then, pupils found it as though this awareness of how to move gracefully was spontaneously transferred to their distressed side. Feldenkrais sometimes said that the troubled parts of the body learned not from him, but from the side of the body that was moving comfortably.

If during a class a student found she had a restriction when she did a movement, she was only to notice it, not judge it negatively. She should not attempt to “push through” a restriction or “correct” an error. Instead, she was to explore different kinds of movements, to see which felt best, which seemed most efficient and graceful.

It is not a question of eliminating the error,”

Feldenkrais would say.

It is a question of learning.”

Thinking in terms of error and negative judgment puts the person’s mind and body into a tense state that doesn’t help learning. The pupil was to explore, and learn new ways to move, and in the process develop and reorganize the nervous systems and the brain, not fix them.

These classes were deeply relaxing, and people would get up from them noticing they had much less pain and a far greater range of movement. Soon people came to Feldenkrais for work with him,one on one, for help with their aching necks, knees, and backs, or for their postural and postsurgical movement problems. He began to have great success, using the same principles, one on one, gently moving their bodies on a table instead of telling them to do so.

Functional integration became Feldenkrais’s term for a half hour spent, one on one, with a client on the table. The goal was for the pupil to become able to function well, regardless of any underlying structural problem, and for the mind and all the body’s parts to find a new integrated way of functioning together. Hence the name “Functional Integration.” Since he conceived of this method too as a form of “lessons,” he called his clients “pupils.” Unlike the ATMs, when he suggested various movements, these sessions were almost completely nonverbal, except at the beginning, when the pupil might tell him his or her problem.

Feldenkrais would begin by positioning the pupil on the table in the posture that created maximum comfort, relaxation, support, and sense of safety to lower bodily tension. Often people habitually “hold” parts of their body tight without being consciously aware of doing so. To reduce strain or muscle tension in the lower back, he would place a small roller under the head, or knees, or elsewhere on the body. Whenever there is the slightest strain in the body, muscle tonus increases, making it harder for a person to detect the subtle movement differentiations essential for improvement, and to learn new movements. When the pupil was comfortable, and his muscle tension was as low as it could be, Feldenkrais believed the brain was most available for learning.

Feldenkrais would sit beside the pupil and begin communicating by touch, with the pupil’s nervous system. He began with small movements, so that the observing mind and brain would begin to make differentiations. This was touching not to impose on but to communicate with the brain. If the person’s body moved, he would move with it, responsively, never using more force in his movements than necessary. He did not knead the muscles or press hard, as in massage or in an authoritarian manipulation of the joints. He would rarely work directly on a painful area; that approach only increased muscle tension. Thus he might start working on a part of the body farthest from where the pupil thought the problem was, often on the opposite side. He might begin to gently move a toe, far from a painful upper body part. If he felt a restriction, he would never force it. What he discovered was that the brain would sense this relaxation in the toe, and the person would become immersed in that image of relaxed movement, which would soon generalize, so that that entire side of the body relaxed.

Feldenkrais’s approach differs from some conventional body therapies in terms of method and goals, in so far as they focus on specific parts of the body and hence are “local” in orientation. For instance, some forms of physiotherapy will use exercise machines, to engage specific body parts to move through stretching and strengthening. These approaches, often extremely valuable, are arguably more inclined to treat the body as though it were made up of individual parts and are there are more mechanical in orientation. They may prescribe particular protocols for particular problem areas.

Feldenkrais claimed,

I have no stereotyped technique to apply ready-made to everyone; this is against the principles of my theory. I search and, if possible, find a major difficulty which can be detected at each session and which may, if worked upon, soften and be partially removed. I … go slowly and progressively through every function of the body.”

Feldenkrais’s reputation grew. A friend of Avraham Baniel’s, Aharon Katzir, a scientist who made major contributions to neuroplasticity, took a great interest in Feldenkrais’s work. He passed the information on to the Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, and in 1957 Feldenkrais took Ben-Gurion on as his pupil. The seventy-one-year-old Ben-Gurion suffered from sciatica and low back pain so severe he could barely rise to speak in Parliament. After some lessons, Ben-Gurion was able to leap up onto tanks to give speeches to the troops. Since Feldenkrais’s house was near the sea, Ben-Gurion, before turning to matters of state, would go for a morning swim, then see Feldenkrais for his lessons. Once, Feldenkrais had him stand on hishead. A photo of the elderly prime minister on his head on a Tel Aviv beach was used in an election and seen all over the world. Soon Feldenkrais was traveling and giving Functional Integration lessons worldwide, including to pupils such as the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the British film director Peter Brook. As Feldenkrais worked with more pupils, he discovered that his way, as he called it, of “dancing with the brain” could improve many conditions in which serious brain damage had occurred – such as stroke,cerebral palsy, severe nerve damage, multiple sclerosis, some kinds of spinal cord injuries, learning disorders, and even cases where parts of the brain were missing.

(1) That neuroplastic point was already a theme in his Body and Mature Behaviour, Ch.5. In 1977 one of Feldenkrais’s students, Eileen Bach-y-Rita, introduced him to her husband, the neuroplastlcity pioneer Paul Bach-y-Rita (see Chapter 7). Feldenkrais read Paul Bach-y-Rita’s work and actively began to integrate his concepts, which fit well with his own. In 2004 Bach-y-Rita developed a project to study Feldenkrais’s results with head injuries but died before he could complete it. E. Bach-y-Rita Morgenstern, personal communication; also see her article: New Pathways in the Recovery from Brain injury: Somatics, Spring/Summer 1981

(2) One of the hottest current theories in neuroscience, the motor theory of thought proposed by the neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinas, was anticipated by Feldenkrais. Llinas points out that nervous systems are not essential for life but are forcomplex movement. Plants don’t need nervous systems because plants are not mobile. The link between movement and the nervous system, and the brain, becomes particularly clear in the simple sea squirt, called Ascidiacea. In early life, in its larval form, it moves around, like a tadpole, and has a primitive brain like group of300 nerve cells that receives sensory information from a primitive vestibular apparatus and a patch of skin. It eventually finds a stationary place in which to feed, and ceases to move for the rest of its life. No longer needing to move, it no longer needs a brain, and so it digests its own brain and primitive spinal cord, as well as its tail with its musculature. R. R. Llinas, 1 of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), p. IS.