Feldenkrais clinic is alternative-health hideaway


By Kathryn Adisman

You’re greeted by…silence. The only sound — breathing. Both clients lie on tables.

John, a practitioner, sits on a stool and angles a board to the sole of Meche’s foot, lightly grazing each toe.

Pat, another practitioner, sits behind Chris. With one hand on his hip, one hand on his spine, she appears to be listening intently. As Pat rolls him forward, Chris exhales — a sign that the client, or “student,” is letting go of muscular contraction.

This is the scene the evening I go to observe what could be Downtown Manhattan’s best-kept secret in the health and wellness field. It happens in a room, tucked away on the 10th floor of a 19th-century office building on the corner of Union Square West. Every Thursday, four clients can book an appointment for an individual session, for a cost of just $25. Spectacular low fee, plus a view of the Empire State Building. Psst! It’s the New York Feldenkrais Clinic.

I’m late, and I missed the interview portion of the first session. Observing along with me is this week’s supervisor, Cynthia Kopyar. Behind the door with a sign reading, “Feldenkrais® Associates,” an unusual form of communication seems to be taking place. A full-service center offering classes, workshops and private sessions, Feldenkrais Associates, under director Amber Barbara Grumet, is home to the once-a-week clinic.

The clinic is volunteer. Its purpose is twofold: to serve as community outreach and an educational resource, making private sessions affordable — and at the same time, giving new practitioners a place to practice. It began nearly five years ago, the brainchild of co-directors Kira Charles and Karen Donelson.

Though from different backgrounds, both came to the Feldenkrais Method in the 1980s reluctantly. Charles, an attorney, tried it for writers block.

“Begrudgingly,” she said, she attended a weekend workshop “to get it over with.” At the end of the weekend, she said she realized, “What just happened to me?” Today Charles works full time as a Feldenkrais practitioner.

Donelson, a former dancer, was a physical therapist, when her supervisor talked her into teaching Feldenkrais classes to chronic-pain patients. She became a Feldenkrais practitioner to be a better physical therapist.

Donelson admits that at first she had the stereotypical attitude: “What’s all this rolling around on the floor? It didn’t make any sense to me. I’m an athlete and a dancer. This is for people who have pain and aren’t very active.”

She had reconciled herself to numbness whenever she sat for long periods. After the first summer of her training, the numbness was gone.

“It had totally changed my life,” she said. “All I knew was…I just felt great!”

The method that bears his name was developed by Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-’84), a Russian-born Israeli engineer, physicist and judo martial artist, after suffering a debilitating knee injury. It’s often defined by what it’s not: massage, chiropractic, osteopathy, physical therapy, Pilates, Alexander Technique.

“It’s a neuromotor learning method,” Donelson explained. “We provide movement experiences that educate the system into how it was designed to work.” The Feldenkrais Method is practiced in two forms: Awareness Through Movement (A.T.M.’s), done in group lessons, and Functional Integration (F.I.’s), done in hands-on sessions.

The day I show up for my “F.I.” with practitioner Marilyn Bakun, Donelson is the supervisor. In the interview, Bakun asks me, “What brings you here today, Kathryn?” I complain of difficulty walking because of pain in my right foot. After my session is over, I’m amazed that I’m standing more equally on both legs.

This is the magic of Feldenkrais. Instead of attempting to fix the problem part, the FM approach supports the person’s pattern. Huh?

Explained Donelson: “The distinction — in contrast with physical therapy — is really looking at what the person’s doing versus the isolation of a fix.”

Bakun concurred: “It’s a systems approach. Looking at the whole person, we recognize habits and that we can have more options in life than our habits afford us.”

Bakun — who noted, “I never got past Hatha I” — learned it was possible to improve. Her introduction to Feldenkrais happened in her West Village neighborhood when she bid on a lesson during a silent auction at P.S. 41. She got on the table, fully clothed, and when she got up, she recalled, “I had the experience my muscles had relaxed without being kneaded [as in massage]. It awakened my curiosity.”

Bakun teaches Feldenkrais at Gilda’s Club (named for Gilda Radner of “Saturday Night Live” fame, who died of ovarian cancer) on West Houston St.

Charles outlines three categories of people who can benefit from Feldenkrais: athletes and performing artists who want to improve their “game”; those with chronic pain, from arthritis to carpal tunnel syndrome, or who are seeking stress relief; and people with neurological issues, such as stroke, multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy.

Chris, a new practitioner, who was taking a lesson at Union Square, said of the method, “It’s calmed down my whole nervous system.”

Marion, a clinic regular and veteran of adult ballet, said attending an Awareness Through Movement class led by Charles showed her the effectiveness of Feldenkrais.

“I could feel things happening as I was doing them — without effort,” she said. The less effort, the more things flowed. The pain in her knee went away.

The “radical message” of Feldenkrais, said Marion, is opposite everything we’ve been taught: “no pain, no gain.” Based on the pleasure principle, Feldenkrais’s motto could be: “less pain, more gain.”

“My generation [boomers] prizes independence: You’re only good as long as you’re mobile,” she said. “We’re looking for something that will give us mobility.”

Interest seems to be spreading, as current research into neuroplasticity and aging confirms what pioneer Moshe Feldenkrais realized years ahead of his time about the brain’s capacity to learn. Chronic syndromes are more common than ever due to widespread computer use — all of which contribute to a quest for something that will alleviate stress and discomfort. Could Feldenkrais be the next big thing?

Meche, a psychoanalyst and clinic devotee, recommends it for people who want to feel better.

“It has to be experienced,” he said. “There’s an ‘Ah ha!’ moment… . No lesson is the same.” In contrast, he noted, “Yoga is repetitive. Boring.” Sadly, though, “People are reluctant to try new things.” Meche’s definition of Feldenkrais: “It’s an educational system that takes your body in a new direction.”

Said Charles: “A lot of people have heard about Feldenkrais, but have no idea what it is. The clinic offers a great opportunity to satisfy your curiosity without a big investment.”

Co-director Donelson said, “We’re in many ways ahead of our time. People are going to be catching up.” 

Stasia, who works as an administrative assistant when she’s not swing dancing, said she felt fortunate to have an opportunity to try one-on-one, which she wouldn’t have without the clinic.

“I’m astonished this is not a six-month waiting list!” she marveled.

During Stasia’s session, a practitioner, Pat Carrozo, asked her, “Can you slow down?” — a mantra in the method. Supervisor Kopyar pointedly asked what did Stasia “need to learn?” then redirected her attention from pain to: “Where do you feel more stable?”

Stasia admitted she experienced a shift: “This is a practice that’s a perfect example of no mind-body dichotomy,” she said. “You get a little shot of yoga, a little bit of breathing… .”

Psst! You can experience a Functional Integration lesson for yourself until the end of June, when the New York Feldenkrais Clinic breaks for the summer, before it resumes “functioning” in September.

Feldenkrais Associates is located at 41 Union Square West, Room 1009. (Weekends and after 5:30 p.m., enter at 22 E. 17th St.). For more information, call 646-638-1369 or visit www.feldenkraisassociates.com

Adisman is a Feldenkrais practitioner