The Feldenkrais Method is a type of exercise therapy devised by Moshé Feldenkrais (1904–1984). The method is claimed to reorganize connections between the brain and body and so improve body movement and psychological state. There is no good medical evidence that the Feldenkrais method confers any health benefits, and it is not known if it is safe or cost-effective, even though it is hard to conceive of serious risks.
In 2015, the Australian Government’s Department of Health published the results of a review of alternative therapies that sought to determine if any were suitable for being covered by health insurance; the Feldenkrais Method was one of 17 therapies evaluated for which no clear evidence of effectiveness was found. Accordingly in 2017 the Australian government named the Feldenkrais Method as a practice that would not qualify for insurance subsidy, saying this step would “ensure taxpayer funds are expended appropriately and not directed to therapies lacking evidence”. It is not known whether the Feldenkrais method is safe or cost-effective, though according to Ernst and Singh’s overview of alternative medicine “there are no conceivable serious risks”. David Gorski has written that the Method bears similarities to faith healing, is like “glorified yoga” and that it “borders on quackery”.
The Feldenkrais Method is a type of alternative exercise therapy that proponents claim can repair impaired connections between the motor cortex and the body, so benefiting the quality of body movement and improving wellbeing. The Feldenkrais Guild of North America claims that the Feldenkrais method allows people to “rediscover [their] innate capacity for graceful, efficient movement” and that “These improvements will often generalize to enhance functioning in other aspects of [their] life”. Proponents claim that the Feldenkrais Method can benefit people with a number of medical conditions, including children with autism, and people with multiple sclerosis. In a session, a Feldenkrais practitioner directs attention to habitual movement patterns that are thought to be inefficient or strained, and attempts to teach new patterns using gentle, slow, repeated movements. Slow repetition is believed to be necessary to impart a new habit and allow it to begin to feel normal. These movements may be passive (performed by the practitioner on the recipient’s body) or active (performed by the recipient). The recipient is fully clothed.
Similar to some other somatic methods, such as those started by F. Matthias Alexander, Elsa Gindler, and Gerda Alexander, the Feldenkrais Method originated in the efforts of its founder to work with his own bodily problem. In the case of Moshé Feldenkrais, it was a chronically injured knee. Feldenkrais first injured his knee while playing soccer in British-controlled Palestine in the 1920s. He reinjured it while negotiating the slippery decks of submarines while working as a scientist at the British Naval station at Fairlie, North Ayrshire, Scotland during the Second World War. Feldenkrais was by that time a Judo teacher and had mostly completed the work toward a D.Sc. under the guidance of Nobel laureate Frédéric Joliot-Curie. Facing the prospect of a surgery that could leave him with a life-long limp, Feldenkrais decided to apply the knowledge gained from his study of physics, engineering, and martial arts to an intensive self-study of his own movement habits. When his work provided him with relief, allowing him to avoid the knee surgery, he began exploring the methods he developed on himself with a small group of people at Fairlie, including scientific colleague John Desmond Bernal and John Boyd-Orr, Nobel laureate and first president of the World Academy of Art and Science. After serving as head of electronic engineering for the Israeli Army in newly formed Israel from 1951 to 1953, Feldenkrais devoted the rest of his life, from age 50 onward, to developing and teaching self-awareness through movement lessons. From the 1950s till his death in 1984, he taught continuously in his home city of Tel Aviv. Feldenkrais gained recognition in part through media accounts of his work with prominent individuals, including Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Beginning in the late 1950s, Feldenkrais made trips to teach in Europe and America. Several hundred people became certified Feldenkrais practitioners through trainings he held in San Francisco from 1975 to 1978 and in Amherst, Massachusetts from 1980 to 1984. Anticipating the need for an institutional structure to carry on his teaching, he helped found the Feldenkrais Guild of North America in 1977. Feldenkrais developed the conceptual framework of his method in part through the publication of six books, beginning with Body and Mature Behavior (1949) and ending with the posthumously published The Potent Self (1985). Since Feldenkrais’ death, the international Feldenkrais community has used a guild structure to regulate its activity, with training accreditation boards in the Americas, Europe, and Australasia overseeing guilds and associations in eighteen member countries. The Feldenkrais Journal, the annual publication of the Feldenkrais Guild of North America, serves as a forum for the Feldenkrais community to discuss the method and its applications.The development of the Feldenkrais Method was influenced by Moshe Feldenkrais’s involvement in the martial arts. After meeting Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo, while living in Paris in the 1930s, Feldenkrais transitioned to that practice. One of the main influences of judo on the Feldenkrais Method is the differentiation between rote exercise and attentive movement: “the methods of physical exercise in vogue … exert only the muscles without any other goal, and one needs much will to bind oneself unfailingly to one of these methods”, wrote Feldenkrais in 1952. “Judo is very different, each movement has a specific goal which is reached after a precise and supple execution.” Before he focused on the creation of his own method, Feldenkrais influenced the teaching of martial arts in Western Europe through the publication of five books on jiujitsu and judo, as well as teaching at practice centers in France and Great Britain. Feldenkrais was born into an Hasidic family and community, and he acknowledged the influence of Hasidic Judaism on his method. In his 2007 book, Making Connections: Roots and Resonance in the Life of Moshe Feldenkrais, David Kaetz argued that there are many lines of influence to be found between the Judaism of Feldenkrais’s upbringing and the Feldenkrais Method – for instance, the use of paradox as a pedagogical tool. Feldenkrais also acknowledged the influence of the Russian spiritualist George Gurdjieff on his work, in particular Gurdjieff’s teachings on automatism and freedom in embodiment. Feldenkrais earned his doctorate in a program at the Sorbonne intended to bridge theoretical physics and industrial engineering. Feldenkrais’s biographer, Mark Reese, argues that Feldenkrais brought this emphasis on practical scientific inquiry to the understanding of embodiment expressed through his method: “Feldenkrais was critical of the appropriation of the term ‘energy’ to express immeasurable phenomena or to label experiences that people had trouble describing”, notes Reese. “He was impatient when someone invoked energy in pseudoscientific ‘explanations’ that masked a lack of understanding. In such cases he urged skepticism and scientific discourse. He encouraged empirical and phenomenological narratives that could lead to insights.” Feldenkrais incorporated the views of other scientists into his teaching; for instance, he asked questions of both the neurosurgeon Karl H. Pribram and the cyberneticist Heinz von Foerster at trainings in San Francisco in the mid-1970s. Cybernetics, also known as dynamic systems theory, continued to influence the Feldenkrais Method in the 1990s through the work of human development researcher Esther Thelen.