No Pain, All Gain

by Liz Janes Brown, The Maui News 1/19/2003

Are you comfortable in your body?

We’re not talking about that self-esteem exercise where you look at yourself in a full-length mirror and affirm the beauty of every dimple of cellulite, or a visit to Little Beach, or even the ability to run or surf or play golf. We’re talking about Feldenkrais.

On Maui, where there are a myriad of methods that focus on the body, from gyms with the latest equipment to classes in Ashtanga yoga, Feldenkrais is relatively rare and somewhat mysterious, even though most people are familiar with the term and the practice is well known on the Mainland.

“It’s hard to describe,” said Margaret McIntyre, formerly a physiotherapist and now a Feldenkrais Guild certified assistant trainer and practitioner who works out of the new Mana Ola Hui acupuncture and massage center in Paia.

With smiling eyes that change from green to blue, a mop of blond hair and an easy attitude, Margaret seems younger than her 59 years. She’s an avid skier, snowboarder, surfer and windsurfer, not bad for someone who didn’t really consider herself a sports enthusiast until adulthood.

Born in Australia, Margaret lived in New Zealand and Colorado before moving to Maui five years ago with her husband, “for the windsurfing,” she explained.

She discovered Feldenkrais after working as a physiotherapist for a number of years. Going through a divorce, she found her emotional anguish was lessened if she went for a run and began to explore the mind/body connection. A friend handed her a book on Feldenkrais and she was intrigued.

“I knew it was deeply good, deeply human,” she said. “I knew it mattered.”

She came to the United States for training and realized she had found her calling. Much of her work had to do with helping athletes improve performance, avoid injury and to continue to enjoy a sport on into old age. While living in Vail, one of Colorado’s top ski resorts, she became known for her “Integrated Skiing” seminars based on the Feldenkrais Method.

“Feldenkrais …… is reeducating my body to communicate with itself,” according to Troy Watts, a member of the U.S. ski team, after experiencing Margaret’s seminar. “I see the future of sports focusing more on these internal balances.”

But you don’t have to be an athlete to benefit from Feldenkrais. Maui’s Mayla Makana, who was in a wheelchair after a 1999 automobile accident, swears by the process. “It put me in touch with parts of my body that had disconnected,” she said in a telephone conversation. “In two minutes, she (Margaret) had me sitting straight without pain.”

The method was developed by physicist Moshe Feldenkrais. Born in Russia in 1904 he moved to Palestine as a teenager, then won a scholarship to the Sorbonne in Paris where he received doctorate in physics. For many years he was a colleague of Nobel laureate Frederic Joliet-Curie and the team conducted some of the very first experiments in atomic research. Feldenkrais was also the first European to receive a black belt in judo.

Suffering a series of sports injuries before his 40th birthday, Feldenkrais was given only a 50 percent chance of recovery with the possibility, if he opted for surgery, that he would never walk again. He thus began his study of the nervous system and the relationship between development, learning and movement. After two years of work, his ability to walk was completely restored and he continued to practice judo at the black-belt level until the age of 68.

News of the method grew and Feldenkrais gave up his career as a physicist and began working with people from all over the world, not only those with physical problems, but also musicians, athletes, dancers and others who wanted to expand their capabilities.

The Feldenkrais Method is presented in two ways — Awareness Through Movement® classes, and individual Functional Integration® sessions to address specific needs.

Those who ascribe to the “no pain, no gain” theory will be surprised. There may be awkwardness, but no pain. If a movement hurts, it is scaled down to the point where an action can be imagined rather than executed and still gets results.

“It’s extraordinarily respectful to your system,” Margaret told one of her classes. “There’s a direct relationship between your ability to sense and force — the more you force, the more your sensitivity goes down. Reduce the force and sensitivity goes up and something new has a chance to emerge.”

It’s not exercise. This is a learning system that involves the whole person, not just a sore knee, a stiff neck or an aching back, Margaret explained. Human beings are constantly moving against gravity so most Feldenkrais work is done lying down, out of gravity.

Feldenkrais isn’t a method for losing weight or developing muscles, although it could lead to these results. It is described as a learning system for the whole body that replaces old movement patterns with newer more useful ones. The movements are not learned intellectually, but somatically, a change from what most of us are used to.

As Margaret explained, “The emphasis is on awareness through movement, not movement through awareness.”

Without even realizing it, people develop inefficient habits of standing, sitting or moving that put stress on muscles and ligaments.

“Your nervous system will recognize something is easier,” Margaret said. The old inefficient patterns can come back, often in times of stress, but it doesn’t take much to replace them again.

Realtor Jan Anderson, who met Margaret through windsurfing, said she was in pain after a 1999 car accident. “After about an hour with Margaret, I could lie still and not have pain. It felt like magic. Whenever I can, I go to classes and I get a ‘tune up’ about once a year.”

But, Margaret stresses that Feldenkrais isn’t just for people in pain. “This work can help you improve any human function, she said. “It taps into the human capacity to learn.”

“It radically changed my posture,” said interior designer Bev Johnsen, who drives from Lahaina to take the classes. “I wasn’t even thinking about it, but I saw myself reflected in a store window and was amazed. I wasn’t even consciously aware of the change. Now clothes hang better. I can sit on the floor without having something behind my back and I can sit for long periods of time comfortably in the car or a theater.”

A body surfer, Bev expected to experience plenty of aches the first time she braved the winter swells after a few months’ hiatus. “Absolutely no muscle soreness at all,” she enthused.

Sounded like this was worth a try. In an individual session with Margaret, as I lay on the table, I tried to forget I was going to be writing a story and focused on allowing my body to feel and respond. It didn’t seem as though much was happening as for about an hour Margaret gently moved my legs, feet, arms, shoulders with a very soft touch, nothing forced. It didn’t seem that anything so mild would have any effect whatsoever.

When I got up, it was as if my body had slightly rearranged itself. My head felt lighter, my body felt looser somehow, and movement felt more fluid. After taking a short walk, I got into the car and realized the position of the driver’s seat, the position it had been in for a couple of years, felt completely wrong.

After adjusting the seat, I drove off, a little more aware and comfortable in my body than before.


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No Pain, All Gain by Liz Janes Brown, The Maui News »

How to Hit that Ball Further with Feldenkrais by Carroll du Chateau, The New Zealand Herald »

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Integrated Movement - Feldenkrais Method - Margaret McIntyre, Maui, Hawaii
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