Feldenkrais exercises turned Ben-Gurion on his head

I first joined a private Feldenkrais group 20 years ago when the fingers on my right hand became numb due to a problem with the vertebrae in my neck — pretty scary for a journalist.

Fortunately, Devorah Hasdai, one of the star pupils of Moshe Feldenkrais, lived nearby. Feldenkrais was an Israeli physicist who used cybernetics, motor development, biomechanics, psychology and the martial arts to devise no-sweat, mind-body exercises.

Hasdai, now in her 80s, is still teaching.

Feldenkrais was born in Poland in 1904 and came to pre-state Israel alone at the age of 14. In his 20s, he went to Paris to study engineering and earned a doctorate in physics.

It was there that he learned judo and became one of the first Europeans to earn a black belt. He began introducing judo in the West through his teaching and books on the subject.

When World War II broke out, he managed to escape to England where he worked in the anti-submarine branch of the British Admiralty. After the war, he returned to Israel where he became the first director of the electronic department of the defense forces.

It was after suffering a crippling knee injury in a soccer match that Feldenkrais began to develop his renowned method. Using his own body as his laboratory, he began engaging in precisely structured movement explorations that involved thinking, sensing, moving and imagining.

He taught himself to walk again and in the process, developed a system for accessing the power of the central nervous system to improve everyday functioning.

Many of his exercises are based on developmental movements and ordinary functional activities; others on more abstract explorations of joint, muscle and postural relationships. Lessons consist of comfortable, easy movements that gradually evolve into movements of greater range and complexity, which enable greater ease of movement and an increased sense of vitality.

In the early days, many prominent people, including Yehudi Menuhin, Moshe Dayan, David Ben-Gurion and the head of the World Health Organization, urged Feldenkrais to establish an institute for his new method of treatment. In 1958, Ben-Gurion encouraged Feldenkrais "to help raise a new generation in Israel, sturdy in body and healthy in spirit."

Ben-Gurion himself turned to Feldenkrais for help with a recurring back problem. In the 1950s, a photo appeared in a newspaper of the prime minister standing on his head on a beach. The caption: "Moshe put Ben-Gurion on his head, Ben-Gurion put Moshe on his feet."

Feldenkrais, who died in 1984, taught workshops for several years at Amherst College in Massachusetts and in Berkeley. A Feldenkrais resource center based in Berkeley is a major training and resource center in the United States.

The Feldenkrais method is now offered in almost every health care center in Israel. There are 1,000 Israeli instructors in North America and 3,000 worldwide, with major centers in Europe, South America, Australia and Japan. The first group of Japanese practitioners recently completed that country's first four-year training program.

"Feldenkrais' methods were ahead of their time," said Moti Nativ, head of the National Association of Qualified Teachers in Israel. The method is geared to help those experiencing chronic or acute pain of the back, neck, shoulder, hip, legs or knee caused by stress, misuse, accident or illness. The method also has been used to deal with central nervous system conditions such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and stroke.

"We work a lot with disabled kids, especially with cerebral palsy and Down's syndrome, and with adolescent scoliosis," said Dr. Eilat Almagor, a neurophysiologist.

Practitioner Anat Baniel works regularly with members of the San Francisco Symphony. Almagor claims that the appeal of the method for people in the creative arts is that the exercises get to the brain through the body.

The idea is that opening up different ways of moving will also free up new ways of thinking and feeling. By using gentle movement and directed attention, musicians, actors and artists hope to extend their abilities and enhance creativity

Most of the exercises are done lying on a mat. "The body is less affected by the pull of gravity," says a trainer at the Feldenkrais Institute in Tel Aviv. Plus, lying on the floor gives information about the body, and makes it easier to break bad habits."

Elizabeth Beringer and David Zemach-Bersin, two of the foremost Israeli teachers, lead the new training programs in California and Montclair, N.J., respectively.

Both Beringer and Zemach-Bersin have worked to turn the Feldenkrais method into a respected profession. Zemach-Bersin has done post-graduate work in physiological psychology at U.C. Berkeley. Beringer, a fifth-degree black belt in aikido dojo, has worked extensively with athletes, dancers and martial artists.

Professional athletes who have turned to Feldenkrais include basketball star Julius Erving and PGA golfers Rick Acton and Duffy Waldorf. Celebrities who have used the method include Norman Cousins, Margaret Mead, Helen Hayes and Whoopi Goldberg.