The Brain’s Way of Healing by best selling author Norman Doidge, M.D. is being heralded in the Feldenkrais community for helping to put it on the map. I ordered it to put myself in the shoes, or eyeballs, of a person first learning about Feldenkrais through Dr. Doidge’s prose. As someone who writes regularly about Feldenkrais experiences that can be difficult to put into words, I was also curious how a best selling author would describe what can sometimes seem inexplicable. When the book arrived, I resisted the urge to skip to the Feldenkrais chapters. I’m glad I started at the beginning. The first of two epigraphs, an 18th century Chasidic saying, warmed my soul and drew me in:
“Just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so the routine of everyday life can keep us from seeing the vast radiance and the secret wonders that fill the world.”
It speaks to Dr. Doidge’s deep and wide ranging curiosity while alluding to what Moshe Feldenkrais, raised in a Chasidic family, might call the “elusive obvious“, that to which habit can blind us. While Feldenkrais doesn’t appear until the middle of the book, his thinking and ideas about learning and the brain are revealed early on. One example is in Chapter 2 (A Man Walks Off His Parkinsonian Symptoms). As Doidge writes: “The neuroplastic brain evolved in ambulatory beings who ranged around the world, always having to explore unknown territories. In other words, the brain evolved to learn.” Feldenkrais also understood that physical movement is crucial to learning of all kinds, which is why it’s at the core of his method. And this line about our inherent ambulatory nature inadvertently offered an explanation of the appeal of pilgrimages such as El Camino de Santiago, a 520 mile experience of exploring unknown environmental and emotional territory that ultimately led to my stumbling across, and limping into, a Feldenkrais class.
In that same chapter, we learn that the Parkinson’s patient, John Pepper, learned to reverse the major symptoms of his degenerative disease by training himself, through focusing on the minutest of his movements, to walk not just normally but for great distances and at rapid speed. As Pepper explained to Dr. Doidge in an e-mail, he “used his conscious brain to control the movements, which are normally controlled by the subconscious brain.” This study is a compelling portrait of what’s possible with determination, focus and a willingness to disregard medical prognoses. It’s also an illustration of why, in Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons, we take the time to move slowly and deliberately. Consciously directed attention sends new signals to the brain so that, when the lesson is over, something has shifted. Most of us have the luxury of needing to pay such close attention for just 45 minutes or an hour at a stretch, not constantly like Mr. Pepper. And, at the same time, I wondered how each of our lives could be improved and enlarged if we used our conscious attention more than we do, even if we don’t possess Mr. Pepper’s extraordinary self-discipline.
We learn also about “Constraint-Induced Therapy”, developed by Edward Taub to treat stroke patients. In constraining the stroke victims’ functioning limb by placing it in a cast, he was able to incrementally train the paralyzed limb to gain function. In the Feldenkrais Method a similar principle is applied, minus the cast or other restraining aids. By assuming somewhat unusual positions in certain lessons, habitual patterns are constrained and movement is forced to travel along different routes, activating parts of the brain and body that, due to habit, might have become underutilized if not dormant. Doidge also explains the stages of neuroplastic healing. including neurodifferentiation, in which a quiet brain can learn to make finer and finer distinctions, as happens in Feldenkrais lessons. Despite my admittedly biased desire to have Feldenkrais featured at the beginning, I’m glad Dr. Doidge structured the book this way: by the time readers learn about the method in Chapter 5, they are already familiar with many of its core principles.
That these ideas were utilized by other neuroplasticians places the Feldenkrais Method in a broader context and counters my temptation to conflate Moshe’s uniquely compelling personal story with the uniqueness of his work. In the words of Salon.com, “The origin of Moshe Feldenkrais’ therapeutic method reads more like a spy thriller than a neuroscience textbook”. I agree, and you can read an excerpt from Chapter 5 here. If you do, you’ll learn how the Feldenkrais Method helped heal a girl, born without part of her brain, who was given a dire prognosis by the medical establishment. It’s a tear-jerker of a story that demonstrates the how this method can “make the impossible possible”.
It’s not the only moving example shared. In Chapter 6, we learn about David Webber whose seemingly intractable blindness was reversed by Feldenkrais eye exercises: the “non habitual, differentiated movements, its slow pacing, and its rest periods prevented Webber from responding with his habitual, compulsive reflexes.” Those habitual reflexes had interfered when Webber had tried similar Buddhist and other exercises designed to restore or improve his sight. The distinctive structure of Feldenkrais lessons serves to interrupt ingrained patterns, allowing new pathways to form (as I’ve written here, my own vision improved thanks to Feldenkrais). Equally if not more compelling is what happened after Webber restored his vision. Because he had walked for years without being able to see, he had to “reorganize his body to integrate his new sight.” Doidge describes that in Feldenkrais Functional Integration Lessons, Webber experienced a “total reorganization of how he held his body as well as an emotional reorganization, the like of which is seldom seen except in a profoundly effective psychotherapy or psychoanalysis.”
That the Feldenkrais Method can also facilitate deep personal transformations, even in people whose situations are less dramatic than the ones illustrated here, deserves much more attention and a book of its own. In the meantime, I’m delighted that Dr. Doidge, in bringing his thorough research to life with engaging and accessible prose, has introduced this work to many who might not have learned about it otherwise.