Israeli scientist Moshe Feldenkrais is not easily impressed. Over the years he has treated thousands of people, from statesmen (Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion) to violin virtuosos (Yehudi Menuhin), with his unique method of movement that—he claims and his disciples devoutly believe—results in a kind of heightened self-awareness and improved physical coordination.
So when Julius Erving, the Philadelphia 76ers’ $550,000-a-year star hoopster, recently became interested in the work of the 77-year-old mind-body guru, even Dr. J got a dose of Feldenkrais’ characteristic crankiness. “There shouldn’t be any professional athletes,” huffs Feldenkrais. “Everyone should be athletic. But if someone wants to sell his skills, it’s his business—not mine.”
Erving and more than 200,000 people from Tel-Aviv to Argentina regard Feldenkrais’ curmudgeonly ways as small price to pay for learning what he calls “Awareness Through Movement.” Essentially, the Feldenkrais Method is a program of exercises that suggest mind over matter, with the body programming the brain so that the whole system works in a new way.
Feldenkrais concedes there are no simple explanations for his approach (he even scoffs at such attempts), but it is akin to the “patterning” technique widely used to treat retarded children. Patterning involves repeated manipulation of the limbs, and the feedback from these motions stimulates the brain to accept the movements as normal.
“I am not interested in the movements themselves,” explains Feldenkrais, “but rather in how you do them. Any movement which is difficult and done over and over again can actually reorganize molecules in the brain and the way they send impulses.” Taking his mind-body philosophy on the road, Feldenkrais has just completed a four-day-a-week, nine-week training course for 235 of his pupils at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. Fee: $2,000 per person. This week Feldenkrais is leading a four-day workshop in Washington, D.C. before heading home. (There are 55 authorized practitioners of his method in the U.S. and Canada.)
The son of poor Russian Jews, Feldenkrais fled the revolution in 1918 and settled for a time in Palestine. In 1928 he moved to Paris, where he earned degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering and a doctorate in applied physics from the Sorbonne. When Hitler arrived in 1940, he escaped to England and went to work as a weapons scientist for the British admiralty.
An avid soccer player and the author of several books on judo (he claims to be the first black belt in the Western Hemisphere), Feldenkrais was told toward the end of the war he would have to undergo surgery when an old knee injury flared up. Rather than risk an operation, he set out to develop a series of therapeutic exercises that would help him avoid surgery and repair his damaged knee. The exercises worked, and that experience spurred him on to further research into the mind-body relationship. In 1947 Feldenkrais published his first book on the technique and four years later returned to Israel to practice and teach his method. One of his first pupils was then PM Ben-Gurion, whom he treated for back trouble almost daily for some 17 years, and to whom Feldenkrais bears an uncanny resemblance.
Decidedly overweight and a heavy chain-smoker, Feldenkrais is hardly a role model for healthy living. “There are no dietary restrictions in my method,” he shrugs. “I do everything sinful as long as I like it—even adultery.” Feldenkrais’ offbeat theories and cavalier attitudes toward excessive eating, smoking and drinking have placed him at odds with some critics in the medical establishment. San Francisco orthopedist Dr. Gilbert Kucera points out, “His method is not very well accepted by the medical profession.”
Nevertheless, Feldenkrais, who is divorced from his wife of 17 years, has managed to build a reputation as a miracle worker, largely on the basis of his impressive success in treating victims of cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and stroke. He bristles at the notion that these people are hopelessly braindamaged. “Who among us uses every part of the brain to the fullest?” he asks. “Most of us use maybe five percent of our mind-body potential. In that sense, we are all brain-damaged.”