Why I Do Feldenkrais Instead of Yoga.

Via Ilona Fried
on Feb 4, 2015
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When I was trying to be a yogi, I wasn’t being myself.

I didn’t intend to stop doing yoga.

I had practiced fairly consistently for more than a decade, beginning with ashtanga, switching to Baron Baptiste’s Power Yoga (Boston, Denver) before migrating to Forrest yoga (Denver) where I ultimately and joyfully did a handstand. But a leg and foot injury I sustained while completing Spain’s El Camino de Santiago in autumn of 2012 made many standing yoga positions painful if not impossible.

My quest for relief led me to a podiatrist, two physical therapists, a deep tissue masseuse and a Rolfer. Despite dry needle treatments and a third set of custom orthotics, my injury showed few signs of healing. I couldn’t spend much time on my feet, period, let alone hike, dance or do yoga, activities that boosted my spirit and kept me from teetering into depression. I took up swimming and, after doing laps daily, developed a chlorine allergy.

That summer, I rented a room in Boulder so I could swim in its reservoir. That wasn’t enough to keep my spirits afloat. When I stumbled across and limped into a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement class, I was desperate. The Facebook ad said the class involved slow, gentle movements.

Those I could do, even though I yearned to do large, vigorous ones.

In that first lesson, a handful of us in street clothes lay down on folded, denim blue moving blankets. The teacher guided us through a series of movements that, for me, were excruciatingly slow and numbingly repetitive, with no obvious goal. He told us to move even more slowly and not approach our full range.

Then, he told us to rest.

My monkey mind went berserk: “Rest? We have barely budged! We have not broken a sweat!!” “This is boring!” “This is for old people!” “When will this nonsense be over?”

After enduring 45 minutes of self-inflicted torture while moving slowly, I heard the teacher tell us to stand and notice any differences. To my astonishment, I felt refreshed and extremely present, as if someone had hit the reset button on my nervous system.

Gone were the anxiety and despair I had experienced less than an hour before, even though my life circumstances were unchanged and my leg still hurt. But I had changed, in a way that I couldn’t immediately comprehend, let alone explain. The shift in my sense of self felt more profound than anything I had ever experienced in yoga, despite years of practice. My leg injury, which had dominated my emotional landscape for months, suddenly receded into the background. I knew I’d be fine even if I never bagged another peak.

Each time I returned to class, I experienced magic. I stopped resenting the unglamorous, pose-less and pointless movements and appreciated that they helped me learn to pay extremely close attention to myself.

I began reading books by Moshe Feldenkrais, the Jewish physicist, engineer and Judo master who developed his method while healing his own incapacitating knee injuries. I became more fascinated with, than frustrated by, the mechanics of my injury and began to view my chronic but intermittent hip pain, for which I once found temporary relief in pigeon pose, as a puzzle to solve or a code to crack, rather than continuing to believe what many yoga teachers had said, that “grief is stored in the hips.”

The more I practiced Feldenkrais, the more I appreciated its premise. In a society acculturated to fast, dynamic or sexy moves, the Feldenkrais Method can seem baffling. But the idea behind the small and sometimes barely perceptible movements is simple: moving very slowly, in a limited range and with awareness helps the brain discern differences so it can choose the easier pathway. The brain, like a wine connoisseur, samples small amounts to make distinctions. It requires periodic pauses to integrate the new information.

Moving quickly or with too much effort is, from the brain’s standpoint, a bit like getting drunk: it might feel good temporarily but is less likely to lead to improved functioning.

The more I immersed myself in Feldenkrais, the more I valued its low frills culture. That students often wear regular clothing was a huge relief from the Lululemon “look” infiltrating the yoga world. That I didn’t break a sweat meant I could attend class without needing to shower afterward, simplifying logistics. That there are no poses, only suggestions for movement, allowed me to find my own way of doing things, without comparing myself to others or being adjusted. That the Feldenkrais classes lacked the beehive vibe of many yoga studios made me, a highly sensitive introvert, feel more comfortable.

I liked Feldenkrais so much I enrolled in a training program to deepen my somatic awareness. I’m still years from being certified, but even after 11 weeks of training over nine months, here’s a short list of what I’ve observed from moving slowly while lying, sitting or rolling on the floor:

  • My hip pain has resolved almost completely, which hundreds of pigeon poses didn’t address
  • My vertebrae stack comfortably and effortlessly when I meditate, without my having to adjust my alignment
  • My breathing is consistently deeper and more relaxed
  • My body moves with an unprecedented lightness and ease that feels miraculous

Since the Feldenkrais Method makes all movement easier—whether that’s getting out of a chair, onto a horse, or into chaturanga—many yoga poses are probably more accessible to me today than when I was trying to be a yogi. And that, I see now, was precisely the problem: when I did yoga, I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. With Feldenkrais, I feel more like myself and more at one with the world.



Relephant Read: 

 Are we Ready for a Slow Yoga Movement? 


Author: Ilona Fried

Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Wiki Commons 


About Ilona Fried

Ilona Fried is a writer, meditator, tea aficionado, sushi lover and Feldenkrais trainee. Her blog is dedicated to bringing awareness to the menu of life. She lives in Boulder, CO and can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest.


49 Responses to “Why I Do Feldenkrais Instead of Yoga.”

  1. Cynthia says:

    How wonderful to find a way that helped you be in touch with so many aspects of yourself.

  2. Nancy Harden says:

    While I began from a different vantage point (physical therapy) my journey which began many years previous has been remarkably similar. Thank you, Ilona, for this delightfully transparent expression of your experience.

  3. Paul Rubin says:

    A lovely, light, and lucid article on a topic not easy to write about. Well done, Ilona Fried! (Disclosure: I am a Feldenkrais teacher, too.)

  4. Feldenkrais is the awesome sauce, the motion potion.

  5. hollybonasera2014 says:

    Hi Ilona, I am happy you have found a way back to your vibrant self. I entered a Feldenkrais training profoundly depressed and after the first week, my mood started to lift. Although I have periods of sadness, they are brief and make sense in context. I am able to shift my attention more easily to positive thoughts and feelings. Feldenkrais helps me find the joy in living.

  6. Michele Westlaken says:

    Ilona – I am a practitioner in San Jose and a big fan of your writing. I love how your insightful observations capture the depth of this work. I am delighted to report that the spiraling curriculum of learning is – so far- endless, and the ah-ha’s are behind every tiny corner. When we slow down, pay attention, breathe and notice… Life and our part in it continues to fascinate. Keep on sharing your growth and development!. All the best.

  7. Ken says:

    I am working with a Feldenkrais practitioner now, and my chronic hip problem is finally releasing. I've been doing chiropractic, massage, cranio-sacral, acupuncture, rolfing, and visceral therapy, and it's finally releasing. I can't say it's just the Feldenkrais, but I think that's a big part of the picture.

  8. I am happy you found a way to re-connect to yourself. The practice of Contemplative Movement, which I like a lot, is also very similar. Yoga is supposed to be slow too, but it's been completely usurped and appropriated by the West into something it's not! The best Yoga experiences I have had were when the teacher didn't try to 'adjust' me and instead let me do my thing, even if it was completely different from what the rest of the class was doing. For example, the rest of the class could be standing, and I could be just laying on the ground, just truly connecting to myself. Yoga means "Union" and so as long as I am in Union with myself, the poses are not that important. They are just a doorway. That's how I see Yoga.
    Another favorite mind-body practice I like is "Uzazu". I do it on a regular basis. Check it out.
    Your article reminds me of the following quote:
    "Imagine having the wisdom to walk in the world with both your power and your tenderness.
    Imagine being able to sense what kind of movement would be most healing and energizing.
    Imagine feeling inspired to move in that way, rather than having to force yourself to exercise." – from "Full Body Presence: Learning to Listen to your Body's Wisdom" by Suzanne Scurlock-Durana

  9. iRene says:

    Ilona, I feel deeply touched by the words you've chosen to make clear why Feldenkrais works and heals what others couln't make happen. How this method changes, almost as in a miracle, the interaction with your own body, with y o u as a person. Teaching Feldenkrais for around 12,5 years already (a reason to celebrate as we in Holland do when your marriage is a happy one), my students tell me the same story. That they couldn't believe that those 'simple' lessons, could have such a profound and astonishing impact. And how they, as they joined a class after all, every single lesson enjoy practicing them.. I wish you and the people you are going to teach, those moments of happiness being each-others teacher.

    Is it okay with you to share these words in Holland and publish them on my website? Would make us feel glad.. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Suzy van Eijs says:

    Thanks for sharing. And thanks for linking the g- spot grief article, very interesting.
    What I'd like to ad at your article… I feel it's not the yoga that is missing the big picture…it's modern society's interpretation of it. I guess translating and trying to put feeling and experiences into words makes that one loses the big picture and loses the essence. And the big picture in both yoga and in Feldenkrais is: feeling Yourselve. (and the capital I use is intentionally there) yoga in modern society has been translated and passed on in words a lot. Feldenkrais has been put to words much less and therefor lost less of it's quality. Learning through experience is essential to get it and to pass it on. Feeling Yourself and feeling others Selves (when giving/receiving Fi or teaching/joining ATM to a class) can change lifes. To get back to the gratitude…. I'm so greatfull to get the chance to studie with Mia Segal and Leora Gaster at Mbs in Bad Tölz. In the beginning it seemed their style, as I expierience it, of letting you feel and learn it through your body instead and capture as little as possible in words, was only very frustrating. Now..almost 5 years later and looking at my life and those of my classmates, this style is the insurance to keep the big picture. And pass it on, so we can make it Our own and pass it on. Everybody with a different sauce or style…but wìth the the Big Picture in mind. It's worth it.
    Enjoy your jouney, it will last forever.
    Kind regards Suzy

  11. Cynthia says:

    Such a powerful article. I would love to see someone write a companion piece, Why I do Feldenkrais and Yoga. I have a number of students who have been doing both for years. How the Feldenkrais Method helps anyone do anything they WANT with greater ease, efficiency and pleasure was Dr. Feldenkrais' goal.

  12. Stewart Hamblin says:

    I loved your article Ilona and my own experience can confirm something that you hint at in the last paragraph that the Feldenkrais Method is not necessarily incompatible with a yoga practice but can in fact enhance it.

    I used to work as a lawyer in London dragging a long a heavy bag of books from court to court on almost a daily basis. I was always a keen swimmer and used to go to a gym but often suffered from a bad back. One day I was waiting to cross a road when a van cut the corner and drove over my right foot. Lots of doctors later and eventually an operation resolved the cause of frequent and disabling pain shooting up my right leg but left me with a lot of residual compensations. I initially worked with some excellent Pilates teachers and learnt a lot about how movement can be used therapeutically and then took up yoga as a practice as I thought this would consolidate the progress that I had made. I tried lots of different schools of yoga but eventually found a home in Iyengar yoga because I liked the attention to detail and alignment and the much slower pace compared to the other schools which seemed to scream the ‘no gain without pain’ approach and I loved the way that Iyengar taught how to make yoga accessible by adapting the pose to the student rather than forcing the student into a pose. I loved being on my mat and the meditative quality that it brought to my mind, so much so that I eventually qualified as and now teach Iyengar yoga but I would readily accept that the practice of yoga and its teaching can be tainted by too much ambition on the part of teachers and students to forever go deeper in their practice and to push themselves to the limit in a way that can prove harmful on all levels.

    About 8 years ago such yoga ambition left me back pain. I could barely walk upright at the time. I came across a book by a Feldenkrais practitioner and remembered these funny classes that I used to attend in London (having now moved back home to the East Midlands) called Awareness Through Movement lessons. I think at the time my London life was so busy that I never really ‘got’ these lessons where nothing much seemed to happen and in which I normally fell asleep. I only attended a few classes and gave them up as what I thought was a waste of time. Now that I could barely move I started to explore these slow gentle lessons which encouraged me to move slowly and effortlessly (any other option wasn’t really possible) and to really pay attention to what I was doing rather than being caught up in the ambition of any end result and amazingly the pain began not just to subside but melt away and I was left a little shocked at how little my years of yoga practice had taught me about human movement as opposed to poses.

    Like you I became fascinated by Moshe Feldenkrais’s work, his own incredible life story and his Method of somatic education. ‘When you know what you are doing, you can do what you want’ is one of Moshe’s most famous quotes and as awareness of my own movement grew, and the often painful realisation that much of what I was doing both on and off my yoga mat involved a lot of parasitic effort, then gradually my yoga practice deepened and improved with seemingly much less effort.

    I too went on to train as a Feldenkrais Practitioner and am left a little awed every time I teach a class or give an individual lesson at the potential of this Method to make movement accessible to all. Moshe worked with individuals at all ends of the movement spectrum, from children with special needs to world class athletes, from the walking well to those affected by crippling movement disorders. There are people who come to my Feldenkrais classes who would never step foot in a yoga class who are simply focused on improving their own movement and therefore quality of life but also some of my yoga students who appreciate how this Method can help them to gain an insight into their yoga practice. As you say the Feldenkrais Method makes all movement easier and it now informs the way that I teach yoga too. One day soon, in the not too distant future, I too hope that it will become the household world it deserves to be.

  13. Brad Beldner says:

    Hey there IIona,

    What is the word that you would like us to spread to the population of practitioners that love their Yoga and have had their practice transform their lives, spirit, and health (like mine) in many ways?

    I am not clear on what message you are trying to articulate to Yoga students and teachers? It feels like there is a nuanced personal message in there from you to the Yoga world but it is stated in directly. You also may be just sharing a personal anecdote about your own healing in a system that worked best for your own body, psychological make up and world view.

    Yoga is very general term and there are hundreds of different styles, teachers and cultural traditions that represent the art of yoga. The Forest style and Baptiste style yoga are both in the modern yoga tradition holding poses for long periods and emphasizing heavy core work. The Baptiste Yoga is often taught in a Boot Camp format. They are both more aggressive fitness styles of Yoga.

    So, if you were speaking at one of the next World Yoga Conferences what would be the title of your talk and take home message that you would want to share with your brothers and sisters that have dedicated them self's to transforming their lives through their Yoga (and often intertwining spiritual) practice and community?

    I have been practicing Yoga since 1978 and Feldenkrais since 1997. I teach both ATM and Yoga weekly (as well as Mixed Martial Arts, Theater, and Somatic Psychology and Dance). It is wonderful to be able to have an open forum where we can share insights and practices from all these different art forms to help us all expand and grow and create unity and community with each other.

    Feldenkrais has a lot of wonderful benefits and (for me) has as many limitations one of which is shrinking viability. I am sure the intent of your article isn't to talk about the problems with of doing Yoga as that would likely isolate the Feldenkrais Method even more from the public eye as well as to the folks in the Yoga community. It would be hard to find a common thematic problem that you could relate across the board to the many different styles of Yoga. Although if there is, I would love to hear the hypothesis.

    Brad Beldner http://www.bradbeldner.com

  14. shen says:

    Great article Ilona! Unlike you, I've never given yoga a proper go; partly too lazy & too greedy! (Whenever I'd gone a couple of hours without eating I'd think "i could do yoga now…or I could have a snack :)
    I also live somewhere very remote, so not many class possibilities. But when I went to London, my mother invited me to her Feldenkrais class. She and her partner are around the 80 mark so, yes, it did feel like a gentle option for old people (using the presumption that gentle = ineffectual.) But I couldn't deny that, though half that age, I was at that point less flexible. Emotionally-caused chronic back pain was, partly literally, splitting me in two.
    Both times led to a huge emotional release ~ off to the bathroom to sob uncontrollably ~ (and, the first time, a sharp pain appeared in my back which didn't feel healing. But I think it can only have been becoming aware of the real dysfunction of what was happening in my body.) So, though I've barely touched on Feldenkrais, I've been left in awe at the depth of the body awareness it opens up. If there was a local teacher where I live, I'd definitely do it!

  15. Paul Rubin says:

    shen, contact me through http://www.feldnet.com and I will be pleased to send you links to a dozen or so lessons to download. No charge. As Ilona says, there are other sources out there, too.

  16. shen says:

    Thanks so much, Paul! I've just emailed you :)
    And thanks for your response too, Ilona. I'd meant to add that my overwhelming feeling in the Feldenkrais classes I went to was "But this IS yoga! Just taught at a much more refined level than I've ever been taught it!

  17. robert samiljan says:

    so true, try a little gyrotonic and mix and match with Feldenkrais, u get more traction

  18. jennifer says:

    Hi, I went through exactly the same process several years ago ; what, no effort, and such a magic effect compare to yoga ! that is feldenkrais no frill and super efficient and satisfying way of living and improving. Since I abandonned yoga, and started a professional path to feldenkrais, here in France.

  19. Roland Mathews says:

    I love doing Feldenkrais lessons. I became a practitioner after experiencing the benefits. I was an avid yoga practitioner and do asana less now because I am listening to my body more. That is what Feldenkrais has brought to me. However, I feel we are comparing apples and oranges!
    For one, majority of yoga in the west is not based on the traditional eastern interpretation of yoga. Really the focus in the west has been on asana practice, not the 8 limbs of yoga that are described in the yoga sutras. Feldenkrais can be compared to Alexander technique or Hanna Somatics vs. yoga. If you wanted to compare it to yoga, then yoga therapy would be the closest comparison but again not a equal comparison. Unfortunately, yoga in the west has become an exercise regimen, much like what martial arts has become. Comparing yoga with the Feldenkrais Method would be like writing an article comparing Judo to Feldenkrais Method. I believe we resonate with different practices at different times in our lives and I notice that Feldenkrais has helped me in my yoga (asana) practice, my tennis, and my everyday functioning. So I do Feldenkrais so I can do other things better, it has become a complimentary practice, not an exclusive one. I do hope Feldenkrais becomes more of a household name but comparing it with another modality only makes us sound exclusive instead of inclusive.

  20. I loved the “low frills culture” point, I am often anxious in marketing that Feldenkrais is not the “be fit, be sexy” image but you have opening a marketing idea in me, thank you.

  21. Christian Rabhansl says:

    Hey Ilona,
    I really love your post/article. Engaging on the wonderful path of Feldenkrais for a few years let´s me see the world with different eyes and more so myself. This work is just amazing. I see and agree with the low frills culture. If you want to go further, go slower and do less. Sounds like a contradiction but we know that it is not when done.
    Thanks for posting this.

  22. the article was very inspiring. This therapy method may also be effective for some of our patients.
    We will try to inform some of our patients to try ..
    Thank you so much for the inspiration

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