Movement and Awareness: A Growing Approach to Physical Pain Management

A Q&A with Guild-Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner Cynthia Allen

In the mid-20th century, Israeli physicist Moshe Feldenkrais used the theories behind physics, biomechanics, and human development to develop a series of gentle movements and directed attention to help individuals improve range of motion, flexibility, and coordination. By connecting the brain and the body—the central nervous system—the method is now being used in pain management as part of many physical therapy and rehabilitation practices.

Guild-certified Feldenkrais Method practitioner, Cynthia Allen

PPM spoke with Cynthia Allen, GCFP, STMI, about how the method works. Allen is a chronic pain warrior herself who began experiencing pain throughout her body as a young child. By the time she was an adult, she had chronic knee and shoulder/neck pain, along with ongoing headaches. The Feldenkrais Method turned her relationship to pain around. After beginning a career in wellness and occupational medicine at St. Joseph Hospital in Nebraska, she became a certified Feldenkrais Practitioner and Senior Trainer in Movement Intelligence. Then, with her husband, founded Future Life Now, a holistic, integrative practice based in Cincinnati where the Feldenkrais Method is taught.

PPM: How would you describe Feldenkrais Method?

Allen: The Feldenkrais Method uses unique movement sequences to improve awareness, unravel harmful habits, and regulate the nervous system. We are born as curious explorers filled with a sense of potential. With these innate traits, we literally feel our way through essential steps of development. As we grasp the fundamentals of life, we also encounter stresses, trauma, or injuries. Such events can dampen our sensory system and often put us into a survival mode instead of the curious, playful mode we were born with. As we grow and become increasingly caught up in the rigors of school, work, and taking care of others, we often distance ourselves further from our sensory world. In the Feldenkrais approach, we seek to rejuvenate those early learning skills because that is the inborn operating system we each have, to not only solve problems but to open new opportunities.

At our practice in Cincinnati, we offer both private sessions and group sessions. During private sessions, a practitioner works with each individual to explore their goals and interest. The patient/client often lies on a padded table, fully clothed, and through the practitioner’s touch and verbal cues, the individual begins to feel themselves in new ways and to discover increased ease in movement.

Group classes are verbally led, and each class is different. Unlike yoga, there is no “form” or “posture” to master. Instead, students are guided through a series of novel movements to stimulate curiosity and clarify how their body is designed to function (see an example of a shoulder movement on YouTube).

Whether the session is in the group or private format, emphasis is placed on comfort and respect. We don’t teach a ‘right’ way to move. We facilitate finding easier ways to move. We follow the motto: ‘less pain, more gain.’

In this Functional Integration session, as the practitioner moved the client’s arm into this position, the client experienced the sensation of how easily her arm can move. Throughout the movement and resting, the practitioner’s touch highlighted the bones of her arm and their connection to the shoulder girdle. Bringing the hand to the face and mouth is important from infancy to our last days and is part of a developmental framework for other more complex uses of the hand and arm. (Courtesy Cynthia Allen, Future Life Now)

PPM: The Feldenkrais approach has been shown to help not only with awareness and functionality, but it also has been studied as a treatment approach for low back pain, for instance. What other chronic pain conditions might Feldenkrais practice help with?

Allen: Chronic diseases can be all-consuming. It can be hard to remember that there is more to life than the diagnosis. But in almost all situations, there is a great deal more.  We might boldly say that the chronic challenge is just one of many things and does not need to define a person’s life—even when the challenge is extreme.

In any chronic condition, life tends to become increasingly limited. The person may feel they are no longer at the center of their life. Instead, their life may seem to revolve around disease, treatment, or limitation. In the Feldenkrais Method, we don’t cure. Instead, we help put people back in the center of their lives so that choice becomes possible. And because of that, the person typically experiences a decrease in pain and improved movement and perhaps more importantly enjoyment, even pleasure.

The method can be valuable in helping any process that interrupts normal mobility. For instance, stroke, traumatic brain injury (TBI), Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis (MS) would be a few examples. Feldenkrais can also be a useful treatment for hypermobility issues, such as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), when a person has too much movement and needs to find ways to stabilize. I have also met some doctors who are referring patients to the method for help in the management of complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).

We also see a range of routine orthopedic issues that for some reason, the traditional model didn’t meet patients’ needs.

PPM: Where can patients seek out training in this approach to practice it at home, including online options if they have limited mobility?

Allen: Of course, most everything is better in person. In North America, one can find a local practitioner to work with through the Feldenkrais Guild of North America. There may be practitioners that aren’t currently active in the guild, so I also recommend they also google Feldenkrais in their geographical area.

YouTube has exploded with short Feldenkrais lessons. I, like others, have my own channel with brief lessons that can provide a nice taste of Awareness Through Movement. Some teachers offer live online classes. Those maybe a little bit harder to locate, but by joining a Facebook group such as Let’s Do Feldenkrais Today! one could ask for ideas. And then there are online, prerecorded classes to do at your own pace. As one example, my practice offers beginning and intermediate memberships.

This snapshot of one movement is from a classic 45- to 60-minute Awareness Through Movement lesson exploring rotation and lengthening from the hip joint up through the spine. Coordination of the eyes and breath is also included. (Courtesy Cynthia Allen, Future Life Now)

PPM: In your view, why is a body-mind (versus one of these alone) approach most impactful when dealing with pain?

Allen: The research is clear on this topic. A biopsychosocial approach (that is, affecting the body, mind, and socioeconomic factors) has been shown to have the best outcomes with chronic pain. The beauty of the Feldenkrais approach is that it really is a biopsychosocial so it can be extremely beneficial in a recovery plan. Chronic pain begins to change the inner and outer expressions of life fairly quickly. Neuroplasticity, that is, the ability of the brain to change in structure and function, is a wonderful thing when we are learning something we want to learn. But it can also have negative consequences because we can also get better at looking for pain, producing pain, become more afraid of moving, or becoming stiff. We now know that the brain is one of the major drivers in chronic pain. In the Feldenkrais Method, we aim to help each individual capture that brain power for the good.


-Q&A reported by PPM Editor Angie Drakulich


Updated on: 07/22/19