The Feldenkrais Method was developed more than a half-century ago by Moshe Feldenkrais, an engineer and physicist who also practiced martial arts, so it is not surprising that the discipline emphasizes learning about body structure and movement.
But it may be surprising to learn that actors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have been using it for the past 11 years to improve their performances.
What actually happens in Feldenkrais can be difficult to pin down. There are two methods of training. Group classes, known as Awareness Through Movement, mostly involve very slow, gentle movements taught while students lie on the floor. Individual sessions, known as Functional Integration, which involves hands-on manipulation, usually are the starting point for people with debilitating physical problems.
"If we know what we do, we can do what we want," explains Feldenkrais practitioner Sherrill Rinehart of Ashland. "It is a method where I help people develop awareness of their body and how they move. If we give attention to what we are doing, we can make changes."
The goal of those changes is often to alleviate pain. Feldenkrais developed the discipline to help himself avoid surgery for a debilitating knee injury. But somewhere along the way he learned that being more in touch with your body also allows your mind to focus better.
"It gives the nervous system the chance to learn new ways, have more options and decrease pain," Rinehart says. "It's amazing what small movements and attention can do. It improves flexibility, balance, tension, pain from injuries, breathing, mindfulness. People who thought they couldn't move in certain ways learn they can."
Rinehart emphasizes that Feldenkrais Method isn't a "cookbook-ish" system, but is tailored individually to each person's needs.
While Rinehart arrived at Feldenkrais after working as a physical therapist, Darrell Bluhm, another Feldenkrais practitioner in Ashland, found his way there through his study of martial arts, a discipline he shared with Feldenkrais.
"I thought the training would augment my martial-arts practice," Bluhm says.
Mari Tardiff, one of Bluhm's students, got a bacterial infection in 2008 from drinking raw milk, which left her totally paralyzed for five months.
"I had to blink to communicate," she says about finding herself imprisoned in her own body. "I had to relearn everything: how to roll over, sit up, breathe."
It has been a long road back for the former public-health nurse. A few months ago, someone told her about Feldenkrais.
"It's been really fascinating and profound for me. I had so much physical therapy, but this is different. I had had a complete wiring disconnect. Darrell brought it back down to basic movements — it's given me the tools to start working on the mechanics of movement," she says.
"It's not like Darrell is telling me this is how you do it. He and I go through what is natural for the body, then I practice until my body finds the natural movement that suits it, what works for me. I'm still struggling, but I can honestly say it is unbelievably easier for me. I don't struggle like I used to."
Although he still runs a dojo in Ashland, Bluhm has found himself more and more focused on Feldenkrais. And he loves his work with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he has been teaching the method to actors and staff for the past 11 years.
"Actors understand they are their own instrument," Bluhm says. "I help them refine that instrument. Feldenkrais teaches conservation of movement. What an actor has to do is take prepared text and present it as if spontaneously generated. I try to help them recognize when they are over-efforting, to let go of what is unnecessary, so there's a feeling of effortlessness. People don't understand how physically demanding being a member of a repertory group is.
"Our culture tends to separate body and mind," Bluhm continues. "Feldenkrais is based on integrating body and mind. That helps them ease the tension and stress of performing."
How long it takes for the techniques to help varies with each person. Sometimes one class can clear up a problem; sometimes it takes a lot more.
"There's no set formula," Bluhm says. "Some people find right away they begin to sense themselves differently. It also depends on expectations and dedication. I offer a discount on five individual sessions, because they will know by the end of five if it is going to make a difference."
Group sessions vary in price locally from $12 to $20 each. Individual sessions cost about $80 each, or five for $350.
Feldenkrais teaches the integration of mind and body, movement with intention. Some find it helps to reduce tension, relieve pain and focus energy. For more than 50 years people have been turning to it to help them overcome disabilities, increase athletic proficiency and even aid in performing.
It may be hard to explain, but it seems to get results.