We have a serious problem in this country. Nora D. Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse writes that, "an estimated 52 million people (20 percent of those aged 12 and older) have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons at least once in their lifetimes." More troubling is the mindset associated with this alarming trend. Volkow attributes this to:
"a consumer culture amenable to "taking a pill for what ails you" and the perception of prescription drugs as less harmful than illicit drugs...."
How sad that so many see medication as the first line of defense, given that built into our neurophysiology is the capacity to engage the natural healing processes of the body and mind, and bring about remarkable physical, emotional, and cognitive healing.
Meditation, for example, has been shown to have profound health benefits. Recommended by many physicians now for treating anxiety, meditation has been shown to have a positive affect on health markers that are negatively impacted by stress, such as blood pressure and cortisol levels.
But what about the body? If you are among the estimated 116 million people suffering from chronic pain, especially the kind brought on by repetitive stress or maladaptive use of the body over time, what can you do to bring about relief without resorting to pain medication? The key may be awareness--kinesthetic awareness.
Certainly, every case of pain is different. The first step you should take any time you experience unexplained pain is to see your doctor, and in some cases medication may be your best option. But there is growing evidence that the neuroplastic capacity of the brain can promote changes that in turn promote healing in the body. Tapping into your brain's potential in order to change from within may be easier than you think.
In his most recent book, The Brain's Way of Healing: Remarkable Recoveries and Discoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, best selling author Norman Doidge, M.D., discusses accounts of noninvasive methods that appear to re-pattern the electrical signals in the brain and it's physical structure, which in turn activates the brain's healing capability. The common thread in the interventions Doidge covers is that they are forms of energy that pass through the body's senses. He writes:
"Just as the discoveries of medication and surgery led to therapies to relieve a staggering number of conditions, so does the discovery of neuroplasticity. The reader will find cases, many very detailed, that may be relevant to someone who has, or cares for someone who has experienced, chronic pain, stroke, traumatic brain injury, brain damage, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, autism, attention deficit disorder, a learning disorder (including dyslexia), a sensory processing disorder, a developmental delay, a part of the brain missing, Down syndrome, or certain kinds of blindness, among others. In some of these conditions, complete cures occur in a majority of patients. In other cases, illnesses that are moderate to severe can sometimes become milder." (Doidge, Kindle Ebook: Loc 138 of 8039)
One of the forms of healing energy that Doidge investigates is motion, and he dedicates a couple of chapters in his book to the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, D.Sc., (1904-1984), who made significant discoveries with respect to the body's ability to heal through movement. The key, Feldenkrais determined, was that movement required a specific quality of attention by the mover, to both the movement and it's sensation, in order for it to be effective as an agent of change and healing. Doidge writes:
"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." (Doidge, Kindle Ebook: Loc 2929 of 8039)
Feldenkrais disagreed with the then widely accepted model of the body and brain as separate entities. He argued that the mind was a synthesis of the nervous system, with body and brain functioning as an interconnected system in which moving, thinking, sensing, and feeling are all necessary, interrelated aspects of self awareness and of good self use.
An engineer and physicist by training, Feldenkrais became interested in the role of movement in healing due to his own history of knee pain brought on by an injury. He formulated a hypothesis that movement done with great care and attention had a natural organizing principle, and would promote healing at the level of the nervous system. In his book, The Elusive Obvious, he writes: "
"The structure and the function of the nervous system provide the principles and the means to guide us to efficient use of ourselves. This is essential if we are to learn to function in harmony with ourselves. Harmonious efficient movement prevents wear and tear. More important, however, is what it does to the image of ourselves and our relationship to the world around us." (Feldenkrais, 44)
Feldenkrais put his hypothesis to the test for over forty years as he honed his teaching skills while working privately with clients from all walks of life. Along with several books, he published one fascinating case study of a woman who suffered speech, thought, and movement difficulties after a stroke in, The Case of Nora: Body Awareness as Healing Therapy. He also famously helped the first Prime Minister of Isreal, David Ben-Gurion, learn to stand on his head, which led to a famous photo-op of Ben-Gurion in that exact posture at the beach.
Feldenkrais also taught weekly public Awareness Through Movement lessons in Israel. The lessons, which number over one-thousand, explore virtually every aspect of human motor function. Through teaching, Feldenkrais gradually honed his understanding of the kind of learning that promoted integration and healing. The primary key to success, Feldenkrais learned, was using movement as a means to cultivate awareness. As Doidge observed,
"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."(Doidge, Kindle Ebook: Loc 2929 of 8039)
On the most basic level, Feldenkrais knew that his students were aware of the feelings and sensations of the movement they performed during the lessons. They knew what felt pleasant and knew what caused pain. On a deeper level Feldenkrais believed that the physical experience of the lessons was deeply connected to the process of thinking.
Movement, from Feldenkrais's perspective was not a result of thinking, but was in and of itself an expression of thinking that could be observed. And because it could be observed, it could be changed. The implication of this for you, should you be experiencing chronic pain, is that you can begin to identify movement habits that may be contributing to your pain. You can also begin to become aware of mindless repetitive habits that you didn't recognize as such, thereby opening up new pathways that do not trigger your pain.
"Awareness through Movement leads to knowledge of oneself and to previously undiscovered resources in oneself," wrote Feldenkrais in The Elusive Obvious (94). While an individual in pain might see the primary goal of garnering these inner resources to be finding a way out of pain, Feldenkrais saw a deeper purpose and more life-affirming application for his work:
"...practicing awareness in movement or action remain[s] the most absorbing and interesting time in our lives. The feeling of being alive relates to the awareness of growing to be oneself." (The Elusive Obvious, 96)
During his lifetime Feldenkrais created over one-thousand Awareness Through Movement lesson structures, and teachers of his method continue to build new lessons based on his process to this day. Individual lessons are generally focused on one particular movement idea or pathway, but explore multiple variations of that pathway. For most individuals the process is pleasurable and comforting, and many people notice improvement in ease of body use by the end of their first lesson.
For those with long-standing habituated pain, lasting benefits may require a commitment to doing the lesson process regularly for a period of time. And as Feldenkrais predicted, in addition to a reduction of pain symptoms and remarkable stories of recovery, many individuals experience improvement in their cognitive and emotional states, which in turn leads to a renewed sense of possibility.
To experience Awareness Through Movement yourself, seek out a qualified and certified Feldenkrais teacher. There are also a growing number of publications and audio programs available online. Below is a link to an online self-study program by Andrea Higgins, Director of Kinesthetic Edge and the author of this piece. Andrea also teaches a live online class which runs monthly. Click here for a full program description. If you would like to read more about Feldenkrais, Doidge, and the meditation connection, please see Drowning in Thoughts but Find Meditation too Difficult?
Doidge, Norman. The Brain's Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity. New York: Viking, 2015. Ebook.
Feldenkrais, Moshé. The Elusive Obvious ; Or, Basic Feldenkrais. Cupertino, CA: Meta Publications, 1981. Print.
Volkow, Nora D. "From the Director." National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIH, n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2016. <http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/director>.
by Andrea Higgins
©2016 by Andrea Higgins
Feldenkrais Method® and Awareness Through Movement® are registered service marks of the Feldenkrais Guild® of North America. They are indicated in this article by the use of italics.