What's in a name? When it's Feldenkrais, there's a lot

MINNEAPOLIS — By the time people come to see Lisa Walker, they're usually desperate.

These injured athletes, dancers, musicians or office workers are trying to fix what's broken. Some are looking for a way around the limitations caused by a stroke, Parkinson's disease or cerebral palsy. Others just want to run faster, notch up their golf game or improve their horse riding.

"In a nutshell, I help people move better," said Walker, who practices in Rochester, Minn.

Walker breaks down a single complex movement into smaller ones, which helps her clients learn how to use their entire bodies to make any movement easier. "It's about sensing for yourself the difference between what is efficient, effortless movement and what's not," she said.

The method is called Feldenkrais.

"Felden-what?" is how people usually first react, said Nick Strauss-Klein, a practitioner based in Eagan, Minn. While it sounds like a religion or maybe even a cult, it's just the name of the guy who founded the method.

Born in Russia, Moshe Feldenkrais was a physicist and mechanical engineer and a judo expert with a debilitating knee injury. After rejecting surgery because it might not keep him out of a wheelchair, Feldenkrais used his extensive knowledge of the body and the mind to come up with a way to move more easily and walk pain-free.

Feldenkrais brought his method to the United States — first to the West Coast in 1977 and then the East Coast. Now it's taking hold in the Midwest, with about a dozen trained practitioners in Minnesota, according to Strauss-Klein.

"The lessons teach better alignment and more coordination between the muscles and the skeletal and soft tissues," said Julia Pak, a Feldenkrais practitioner and the New York City director of the Balanced Runner.

Tom Williamson, a 59-year-old Boston Marathon finisher and triathlete, was suffering from plantar fasciitis when he turned to Walker in 2004. After a couple of one-on-one lessons, he became an avid student in Walker's Awareness Through Movement classes. Williamson said he now has a "low-impact" gait and has remained injury-free.

"You don't consciously change your running style," he said. But Feldenkrais has given him the awareness to know when "things are off" and given him insight to make adjustments that allow him to run more efficiently. "You're not just running numb," he said.

Still, he hasn't been able to convert fellow runners to the Feldenkrais method. "People seem to think the name is goofy," he said.

Dr. Margaret Houston, a family physician in Rochester, Minn., gets the same reaction.

"People roll their eyes because it's an alternative therapy and nobody understands what it is, and it's really hard to explain," she said. "I explain that learning to relax the muscles in one part of the body can help them walk differently. I tell them to take it on faith. It works and it's made a huge difference for me."

Houston, who suffered neck and back pain, was introduced to Feldenkrais by her horse trainer. After she took classes, she said, the pain disappeared.

The change made perfect sense to her. "People often attribute pain to one thing," she said. "They have pain in their knee or their hip but they don't realize that everything in your body moves as a unit."

Houston is quick to point out that Feldenkrais isn't for everyone.

"Some people just want a quick fix," she said. "They want an injection or they want to see a specialist right away."

And if that fails, that's when they try Feldenkrais, said Pak.

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