The Brain’s Way of Healing

The Brain’s Way of Healing

Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science was the New York Times bestseller in 2007 that introduced neuroplasticity to millions of readers. Doidge defines neuroplasticity as “the property of the brain that enables it to change its own structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience.” As learning occurs, the connections among nerve cells increase. (Neurons that fire together wire together). Learning also “switches on” genes that change neural structure. The brain produces mental activity; mental activity shapes the brain. Brain cells being able to instantly communicate electrically with one another, and to form and reform new connections, moment by moment, is the source of the brain’s unique kind of healing. (The basis of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being and all psychotherapy.)

In his latest book, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, Doidge applies what we’re learning about how the brain works to heal all manner of brain disease and dysfunction. He describes interventions that all make use of energy – light, sound, motion – because the brain uses the body and the senses to connect to the world. Because our body and senses are so often the primary avenues to pass energy and information to the brain, they provide the most natural and least invasive ways to engage the brain’s ways of healing. Because thought itself is such a powerful stimulant of brain circuits, mental awareness (mindfulness) and activity (imagining, thinking, reflecting) is paired with the use of energy as well. Neuroplasticians have learned to use these avenues from the body to the brain to facilitate healing from attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, autism, chronic pain, stroke, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, reduce and impact of Alzheimer’s and the effects of radiation therapy, infection, and toxins on the brain.

In Reflections below, after describing Doidge’s stages of healing, I focus on the use of movement to rewire the brain because Chapter 5: Moshe Feldenkrais: Physicists, Black Belt and Healer, features the work of my colleague Anat Baniel and I’ve learned from her (and now teach) how awareness of movement can rewire the brain. I’ve included three of her exercises in the Exercises to Practice below.

I love that Doidge uses the discoveries of neuroplasticity and the brain’s way of healing to bridge two powerful but sometimes estranged medical traditions. Traditional Eastern medicine – including acupuncture, meditation, visualizations, tai chi, yoga have helped billions of people over millennia to use the mind to alter the brain, knowing that the mind can direct the brain’s own unique restorative process of growth.

Doidge is such a cutting edge neuroplastician and such a clear writer, it is my hope that understanding some of his key concepts and interventions to awaken and assist a brain that is not functioning well will encourage you to further learn how you can use your mind and your senses to improve the functioning of your brain and the brains of everyone you care about. Brains can become more resilient.


Doidge first explains that the brain operates, especially in conscious processing, by neurons connecting with each other in large neuronal assembles. (Doidge reiterates, neuroscientists do NOT yet know how the firing of neurons nor the connection of neurons in networks creates mental activity, thoughts, or consciousness; they do not yet know.) Thoughts, memories, perceptions, skills are not encoded in individual neurons but in the patterns that can be generated by different coalitions of neurons. Doidge’s analogy: the patterns are like a musical piece and the neurons are the orchestral musicians that play the piece. These encoded patterns can survive the loss of some of the neurons (if one member of the violin section is sick, the concert can still go on; the replacement violinist has access to the musical score.) The brain can use collective memories of these neuronal assemblies to restore functioning, even when some areas of the brain are damaged.

He then describes the essential stages of healing:

Repair of general health of nerve cells

Toxins, pesticides, drugs, food sensitivities, deficits of essential minerals all impact the brain and must be addressed or ruled out as underlying causes of brain disease. Doidge finds strengthening the general health of nerve cells especially important in treating autism, learning disorders, and in lowering the risk of dementia. He also cites cases of improvement in depression, bipolar and attention deficit disorder when toxins are eliminated and food sensitives (sugar, gluten) addressed.

Neurostimulation of brain cells

Light, sound, electricity, vibration, movement and thoughts all “turn on” the brain and revive dormant cells, improve the ability of a noisy brain to regulate itself again. [Sometimes distressed or damaged neurons keep firing, causing irregular rhythms in the brain’s synchrony and creating “noise” in the brain; too much is going on in a disorganized way and the brain can’t pick out the important information from the background noise and take appropriate action, a problem especially in aging, learning disorders, and Alzheimer’s.] Neurostimulation prepares the brain to build new circuits and overcome learned non-use in existing circuits. Brain fitness programs like Lumosity and Brain HQ are a popular form of internal neuroplastic stimulation.


Neuromodulation restores the balance between excitatory and inhibitory neural networks; it resets the brains’ overall level of arousal and quiets a noisy brain.

More detail from Doidge; this will already be familiar to many of you:

“The first such system is the reticular activating system (RAS) which is involved in regulating a person’s level of consciousness and the overall level of arousal. The RAS is housed in the brain stem (an area of the brain between the spinal cord and the bottom of the brain) and extends up toward the highest parts of the cortex. It can “power up” the rest of the brain and regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Stimulation with light, electricity, sound, and vibration often causes patients with a brain problem (who are usually exhausted and jittery from having a brain issue) to begin sleeping deeply, to wake up restored, and to develop a better sleep cycle. Resetting the RAS is essential to helping the brain restore its energy supplies which it will call upon to heal further.

“The second way neuromodulation works is by affecting the autonomic nervous system. Millions of years of evolution have equipped human beings with “preset” automatic, involuntary nervous system reactions, to prepare them for nature’s emergencies – as when predators suddenly attack and there is little time to think.

“This autonomic nervous system has two well-known branches. The first is the sympathetic fight-or-flight reaction, which mobilizes a person for action and shunts blood to the heart and muscles so he or she can fight off a predator or a dangerous rival or run away. Both fight and flight requires a large discharge of energy and an increase in metabolism to access the energy needed for immediate use. Designed for immediate survival, this system focuses all of a person’s activities on that purpose and often inhibits growth and healing processes. Many patients with brain or learning problems are often in a state of sympathetic fight-or-flight, feeling desperate, endangered, and hyper-anxious because they can’t keep up with unfolding events. The problem is that a person in fight-or-flight can’t heal or learn well in this state, which makes brain change harder.

“The second branch is the parasympathetic systems, which turns off the sympathetic system and puts a person into a calm state in which he or she can think and reflect. While the sympathetic system is often called the fight-or-flight system, the parasympathetic is sometimes called the rest-digest-repair system. When this system is turned on, it triggers a number of chemical reactions that promote growth, conserve energy, and increase sleep, all of which are necessary for healing. It also recharges the mitochondria, the power sources inside the cells, re-energizing them. Also, turning off the sympathetic system appears to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in brain circuits. Thus turning on the parasympathetic system is probably another way to quiet the noisy brain. The parasympathetic system also turns on a social engagement system, which allows us to connect to other human beings, and use them to soothe and support us and help us to regulate our own nervous system.”


Once fight-or-flight is turned off, the brain can accumulate and store the energy that will be needed for the efforts of recovery. Subjectively the person relaxes, and often catches up on sleep. Many people with brain problems are exhausted and poor sleepers. In sleep, special channels open us that allow waste products and toxic buildups (including the proteins that build up in dementia) to be discharged from the brain through the cerebral spinal fluid which bathes much of the brain. This unique channel system is ten times more active in the sleeping brain than in the waking state. This helps explain why loss of sleep leads to a deterioration in brain function: too much sleep deprivation leads to a toxic brain.

Neurodifferentiation and learning.

When the brain is rested, and the noisy brain has been modulated and is much quieter, the brain’s circuits can regulate themselves. The patient is able to pay attention again and is ready for learning, which involves the brain doing what it does best: making fine distinctions, or differentiating. Many brain exercises for learning disorders and those that are based on listening therapy, for instance, involve training a person to make increasingly subtle distinctions in sounds.

In Chapter 5, Doidge uses the core principles of Moshe Feldenkrais’s Awareness Through Movement to illustrate how neurodifferentiation rewires and heals the brain. Doidge considers Moshe Feldenkrais to be the world’s first neuroplastician; he used movement to rewire the brain long before anyone know you could rewire the brain.)

Doidge outlines core principles of Feldenkrais’ work:

1. The mind programs the functions of the brain

We do inherit from evolution a number of hardwired reflexes but the “long apprenticeship” of human development means much of the neural substrate is unpatterned, unconnected at first, so that experiences organize that neural substrate into patterns to fit the demands of the surroundings. Individuals can choose those experiences to organize the brain as well – that is how learning takes place.

2. A brain cannot think without motor function.

Every thought triggers a change in the body’s muscles, however subtle. Even thinking of making a movement, imagining the movement, triggers the movement.

3. Awareness of movement is key to improving movement.

Long-term neuroplastic change occurs most readily when a person pays close attention while learning. Feldenkrais anticipated the current western interest in mindfulness meditation by about 50 years. “It may seem magical to think that movement problems – especially in people with serious brain damage – can be radically changed simply by becoming more aware of the movement, but it seems magical only because science formerly thought of the body as a machine with parts in which sensory functions are radically separated from motor functions.” [Rather than as a unified, holistic whole, mind-body-brain together functioning as one.]

4. Differentiation builds brain maps

Making the smallest possible sensory distinctions between movements builds brain maps. When a body part is injured, its representation in the mental map becomes smaller or disappears. [The Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield showed that the surface of the body is represented in the brain by a map. But the size of an individual body part in the brain map is proportional not to its actual size in the body but rather to how often and how precisely it is used. If the body part performs a simple function – the thigh for example mainly does one thing, moving the knee forward – the representation is small. But brain maps for the fingers, often used in precise ways, are huge.] We have use-it-or-lose-it brain; when parts are injured – and thus are not used often – their representation in the brain map decreases. By making very finely tuned – differentiated – movements of these parts and paying close attention while doing so, people experience them subjectively as becoming larger, they take up more of the mental maps and lead to more refined brain maps.

5. Differentiation is easiest to make when the stimulus is smallest.

“If I raise an iron bar I shall not feel the difference if a fly either lights on it or leaves it. If, on the other hand I am holding a feather, I shall feel a distinct difference if the fly were to settle on it.” If a sensory stimulus is very great, say very loud music, we can notice a change in the level of that stimulus only if the change is quite significant. If the stimulus is small to begin with, we can detect very small changes. Small stimuli radically increase sensitivity, the brain map becomes more differentiated, which ultimately translates into changes in movement.

6. Slowness of movement is the key to awareness, and awareness is the key to learning.

The delay between thought and action is the basis for awareness. If you leap too quickly, you can’t look before you leap. Slower movement leads to more subtle observation and brain map differentiation, so that more change is possible. When two sensory or motor events occur repeatedly and simultaneously in the brain, they become linked, because neurons that fire together wire together and the brain maps for those actions merge. When a musician moves two fingers simultaneously often enough while playing an instrument, the maps for the two fingers sometimes fuse, and when the musician tries to move one finger alone, the other moves, too. The maps for the two different fingers are now de-differentiated. We all are prone to these dramatic brain traps. Sitting at a computer, for example, we lift our shoulder unconsciously as we type. The shoulder is often up when it needn’t be. Neck pain soon follows. One way to begin to deactivate the process is to learn to re-differentiate the muscles that elevate the shoulder from those involved in typing. This first requires awareness that the two actions are being done simultaneously.

7. Reduce the effort whenever possible.

The use of force is the opposite of awareness; learning does not take place when we are straining. The principle should not be no pain, no gain. Rather it should be, if strain, no gain. Willpower is not helpful in developing awareness. Nor is any kind of compulsive action. Compulsive effort leads to mindless, automatic movement that becomes habitual and unresponsive to changing situations. Compulsion is the problem, not the solution. We eliminate a lot of muscle tension in the body by using awareness to spot how often, without intending to do so, we tense and use muscles that are not necessary, that are superfluous or parasitic, for that movement

8. Errors [experimentation] are essential

Set aside the inner critic and inner judge; let the body move in an experimental way, learning for itself how it moves best. A kind of psychoanalytic free association – using movement instead of words – so that spontaneous movement solutions will emerge.

9. Random movements provide variation that leads to developmental breakthroughs.

Children learn to roll over, crawl, sit and walk through experimentation. Most babies learn to roll over, for instance, when they follow something with their eyes that interests them, then follow it so far that, to their surprise, they roll over. They learn to roll over by accident, based on a random movement. Infants sometimes learn to sit up because they are trying to put their feet into their mouths, not because they want to sit. Learning to stand and walk are momentous breakthroughs that infants make without training. They learn by trial and error, when they are ready.

(See Stories to Learn From below for the remarkable life journey that led Feldenkrais to develop his Awareness Through Movement therapy to rewire the brain to heal brain and physical injury.)


[All quotes from Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science]

The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a vrain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.

* * * * *

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. As people become immobile, they see less, hear less, and process less new information, and their brains begin to atrophy from the lack of stimulation and movement. Neuroplastic systems require thinking and physical movement to generate new cells and nerve growth factor.

* * * * *

We must be learning if we are to feel fully alive, and when life, or love, becomes too predictable and it seems like there is little left to learn, we become restless – a protest, perhaps of the plastic brain when it can no longer perform its essential task.

* * * * *

As we age and plasticity declines, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to change in response to the world, even if we want to. We find familiar types of stimulation pleasurable; we seek out like-minded individuals to associate with, and research shows we tend to ignore or forget, or attempt to discredit, information that does not match our beliefs, or perception of the world, because it is very distressing and difficult to think and perceive in unfamiliar ways.

* * * * *

One reason we can change our brains simply by imagining is that, from a neuroscientific point of view, imagining an act and doing it are not as different as they sound. When people close their eyes and visualize a simple object, such as the letter A, the primary visual cortex lights up, just as it would if the subjects were actually looking at the letter A. Brain scans show that in action and imagination many of the same parts of the brain are activated. That is why visualizing can improve performance.

* * * * *

We have seen that imagining an act engages the same motor and sensory programs that are involved in doing it. Everything your “immaterial” mind imagines leaves material traces. Each thought alters the physical state of your brain synapses at a microscopic level. Each time you imagine moving your fingers across the keys to play the piano, you alter the tendrils in your living brain….While we have yet to understand exactly how thought actually change brain structure it is now clear that they do, and the firm line that Descartes drew between mind and brain is increasingly a dotted line.

* * * *

When a person is comfortable, and muscle tension is as low as it can be, the brain is most available for learning.

* * * * *

REM sleep has also been shown to be particularly important for enhancing our ability to retain emotional memories and for allowing the hippocampus to turn short-term memories of the day before into long-term ones. It helps make memories more permanent, leading to structural change in the brain.

* * * * *

When psychotherapy changes people, it presumably does so through learning, by producing changes in gene expression that alter the strength of synaptic connections, and structural changes that alter the anatomical pattern of interconnections between nerve cells of the brain. Psychotherapy works by going deep into the brain and its neurons and changing their structure by turning on the right genes. The talking cure works by “talking to neurons’; an effective psychotherapist is a “microsurgeon of the mind’ who helps patients make needed alterations in neuronal networks.

* * * * *

When we learn, we alter which genes in our neurons are “expressed,” or tuned on. Our genes have two functions. The first, the “template function” allows our genes to replicate, making copies of themselves that are passed from generation to generation. The template function is beyond our control. The second is the “transcription function.” Each cell in our body contains all our genes, but not all those genes are turn on, or expressed. When a gene is turned on, it makes a new protein that alters the structure and function of the cell. This is called the transcription function because when the gene is turned on, information about how to make these proteins is “transcribed” or read from the individual gene. This transcription function is influenced by what we do and think. Most people assume that our genes shape us – our behavior and our brain anatomy. Our minds also affect which genes in our neurons are transcribe. Thus we can shape our genes, which in turn shape our brain’s microscopic anatomy

* * * * *

Neuroplastic approaches require the active involvement of the whole patient in his or her own care: mind, brain, and body. Such an approach recalls the heritage not only of the East but of Western medicine itself. The father of scientific medicine, Hippocrates, saw the body as the major healer, and the physician and patient working together with nature, to help the body activate its own healing capacities.

* * * * *

If you want to life a hundred pounds, you don’t expect to succeed the first time. You start with a lighter weight and work up little by little. You actually fail to lift a hundred pounds, every day, until the day you succeed. But it is in the days when you are exerting yourself that the growth is occurring.


This excerpt from Chapter 5, “Moshe Feldenkrais: Physicist, Black Belt and Healer: Healing Serious Brain Problems through Mental Awareness of Movement,” introduces the remarkable journey of a remarkable man and his learning about healing the brain through his intuitive, experimental style of healing.]

Escaping with Two Suitcases

In June 1940 a young Jew escaped from Nazi-occupied Paris, just hours ahead of the approaching Gestapo. He was carrying two suitcases. They contained French scientific secrets and materials, including two liters of a newly discovered material, heavy water, which was essential for producing nuclear energy and weapons, as well as plans for an incendiary bomb. His task was to prevent them from falling into German hands and his hope was to reach England. He was stout, barrel-chested, about five foot four, extremely strong, and an athlete of some repute. A decade-old soccer knee injury made it hard to for him to walk.

The man, Moshe Feldenkrais, just turned thirty-six, was a physicist who was completing his Ph.D. at the Sorbonne. He had worked on French atomic secrets in the laboratory of the young husband-and-wife team Frederic and Iren Joliot-Curie. Several years before, in 1935, the couple had been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for producing artificial radioactive elements. In March 1939 the lab was the first to split an atom of uranium, setting up a chain reaction that released immense amounts of energy that came to be called nuclear power. It was Feldenkrais who built the accelerator that generated the particles that bombarded the atom. The same year Albert Einstein wrote to U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt that “through the work of Joliot in France,” a new kind of bomb was possible; he warned that the Nazis were following this work and had begun to accumulate uranium.

A few days before his 1940 escape, as the Nazis were marching into Paris, Feldenkrais noticed that for some strange reason his injured knee was acting up. It became swollen so badly he could barely get out of bed to go to work. True, the recent mental stress had been extreme, but he could not explain how an event occurring in the brain might cause his knee to swell. Within hours of the invasion, the Gestapo would come to search the Curie lab and force the entire staff to go down into the courtyard. Usually, in these circumstances, they would separate out the Jews and the Communists and cart them off to concentration camps. Frederic told Feldenkrais that because he was a Jew, he would not be safe. Frederic quickly got him papers from the French government.

With his two suitcases, Moshe and his wife, Yonah, began a desperate cross-country dash to find a ship to England. But as they drove from one port to the next, they found that either the port was closed or the last boat had left. The Nazi Luftwaffe was bombing the roads, which were crowded with desperate people fleeing for their lives in cars, because trains weren’t running. Soon the roads were so damaged they were impassable. Moshe and Yonah began walking, but she had been born with a hip problem, and he had his bad knee. As she succumbed, he managed, by force of will, to push her in an abandoned wheelbarrow until they were able to join an Allied naval evacuation operation. It was commended by a British officer, Ian Fleming, who later wrote the James Bond novels. Fleming put them aboard the HMS Ettrick, the last boat to escape occupied France. Because the ship was so crowded, Feldenkrais had to throw his suitcases onto a large pile of baggage, to be reclaimed on arrival.

When Feldenkrais and his wife arrive in England in the last week of June 1940, he searched for the suitcases but could find only one, which he turned over to the British Admiralty. But he now had a new problem: the name Feldenkrais sounded German. The British, fearing the Nazis were planting spies among the refugees, detained him and put him in an internment camp on the Isle of Man.

One of Britain’s key scientists, J.D. Bernal, had been charged with finding scientists to help in the war effort. He had once visited Joliot-Curie’s Lab and now discovered that Feldenkrais was being held. Bernal got him released to help the British deal with a new vulnerability: Nazi submarines were sinking British ships. In France, Feldenkrais had done important research on sonar, a kind of underwater radar that could be used to detect submarines. After the British sonar project stalled, Feldenkrais was recruited to work with a strange assortment of scientists in Fairlie, an isolated village on the west coast of Scotland. In a matter of days, he went from being a suspect alien to being a scientific officer of the Admiralty, working in British counterespionage. By day, he worked on top secret projects. At night, he taught his colleagues judo.

In Paris he had helped set up the Judo Club of France, was among the first Western black belts, and had written books on judo, which showed, using physics equations, how it was scientifically possible for a small person to throw a much larger one. Word of his expertise spread when a commander took his judo course and asked Feldenkrais to train his home guard platoon, then a battalion. He was soon training British paratroopers in hand-to-hand combat without a weapon as they prepared for D-Day.

Origins of the Feldenkrais Method

Feldenkrais had shown a preternatural independence of mind and willfulness from a young age. He was born in the small town of Slavuta, in what is present-day Ukraine, on May 6, 1904. In 1912 his family moved to Baranovichi, in what is today Belarus. For decades, Jews in the Russian Empire had been victims of government-sponsored pogroms, murderous attacks on Jewish villages. In 1917, in response to the plight of the Jews there and elsewhere, the British, who controlled Palestine, issued the Balfour Declaration, which said, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of the object.” When Moshe was fourteen, he set out alone to walk from Belarus to Palestine. A pistol in his boot, a math text in his sack, and with no official documents or papers, he crossed marshes and endured temperatures of 40 degrees below as he traversed the Russian frontier in the winter of 1918-19. As he walked from village to village, other Jewish children, intrigued, joined him. At one point, to survive, they joined a traveling circus, where the acrobats taught Moshe tumbling and how to fall safely – skills he would one day perfect with his judo. By the time he reached Cracow, fifty children had joined the much admired boy on this way to Palestine, then more, until over two hundred young people were following him. Eventually adults joined his children’s march through central Europe to Italy and the Adriatic, where they boarded a boat. It arrived in Palestine in 1919, in late summer.

Like many new arrivals, Feldenkrais was penniless. He worked as a laborer and slept in a tent. In 1923 he began to attend high school and supported himself by tutoring children with whom other tutors and failed; he displayed an early aptitude for helping people overcome blocks in the learning process.

In the 1920s Arabs attacked Jewish villages and cities in British Mandate Palestine. Feldenkrais’s cousin Fischel was among those killed. The Jews requested from the British either more protection or the right to arm themselves – and were refused. So young Feldenkrais began to study how to defend himself without a weapon. Arab attackers usually came at their opponents with knives, striking from above, and directing their thrusts to the neck or solar plexus. Many Jews were killed in these encounters. Feldenkrais tried to teach them to block a blow, then grab and twist the attacker’s arm so that he dropped the knife. But his students were unable to resist the natural, anxious neurological reflex response of lifting their forearms up to protect their faces or tuning their backs to the blow. So instead of fighting these spontaneous response of the nervous system, Feldenkrais designed a block that used them. He now insisted that his students, when attacked, follow the instinctual tendency to block their faces, and he then sculpted that movement into a better block. He then photographed people being attacked from different angles and crafted blocks that molded their frightened, spontaneous reactions into effective defense. The method worked and would become a template for his future approach to the nervous system: work with it, not against it.

In 1929 he circulated Jiu-Jitsu and Self-Defense in Hebrew, the first of his many books on unarmed combat. It became the first self-defense manual used to train the armed forces of the fledgling Jewish state. That was the year he injured his knee, and while recuperating, he became fascinated with mind-body medicine and the unconscious. He wrote two chapters for a book called Autosuggestion, which included a translation of Emile Coue’s treatise on hypnosis. In 1930 he moved to Paris, where he completed and deree in engineering and began a Ph.D. in physics under Jolio-Curie.

One day in 1933 he heard that Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, was in Paris for a lecture. Kano was a very small, frail person who had often been attacked by others when younger. Judo, a modification of jujitsu, trained its practitioners to use an opponent’s own power to knock him off balance and throw him. Judo, which means “the gentle way,” was also a holistic way of life, both physical and mental. Feldenkrais showed Kano his book on hand-to-hand combat.

“Where did you get this?” asked Kano, pointed to a picture of the block Feldenkrais had developed to use one’s spontaneous, anxious nervous response to protect oneself.

“I developed it,’ Feldenkrais answered.

“I don’t believe you,” said Kano. So Feldenkrais asked Kano to attack him with a knife and Kano did. The knife went flying.

Kano took the book and digested it over months. Then he told Feldenkrais he’d train him to be one of the elite students whose distinction was that when Kano threw them through the air, they could always land in a controlled way. Kano soon decided he had finally found the person to help popularize judo in Europe. Two years later Feldenkrais cofounded the Judo Club of France. To finance his Ph.D., he taught judo to Joliot-Curie and other physicists.

During his time in France, his knee problem became serious. On holidays, he was confined to bed, sometimes for weeks. He noticed that some days were better than others, and wondered why this should be, and why this physical problem was worse in times of mental stress. Clearly, the cause of his knee problem wasn’t chiefly psychosomatic. His knee was injured so badly that his thigh muscle had nearly wasted away. X-rays showed that his meniscus, the cartilage inside the knee, was severely torn, and the knee ligaments were complete destroyed. He finally saw a senior surgeon, who told him he couldn’t possibly function without surgery. Feldenkrais asked, “Is there any likelihood that he operation will fail?” The surgeon answered, “Oh yes, it’s about fifty-fifty,” but even if the operation succeeded, his knee would always be stiff. Feldenkrais said, “Good-by. I won’t do it.”

Then one day he had a strange experience. He went out alone, hopping on his good leg, slipped on an oily patch, and hurt his good leg. He struggled home, fearing he’d be completely immobile, went to bed, and feel in to a deep sleep. When he awoke, he was surprised to find that he could stand on the leg with the injured knee. “I thought I was going insane. How could a leg with a knee that had prevented me standing on it for several months suddenly become usable and nearly painless.” His neuroscience reading helped him realize that his brain and nervous system were the cause of this seeming miracle. The acute trauma to Feldenkrais’s “good leg” led his brain to inhibit the motor cortex brain maps for that leg to protect it from further injury should he move. But when one side of the brain is inhibited, often the other takes over its functions. The inhibition of the motor cortex maps for the good leg caused the motor cortex map of his damaged leg to “fire up” whatever muscle he had left, so it could be more useful. This experience taught him that his brain, not solely the physical condition of his knee, was in charge of his level of functioning.

Later, on duty in the antisubmarine program in Scotland, Feldenkrais was frequently on wet, slippery decks, and his knee was often swollen. He had no choice but to deal with the problem himself. He needed to discover what triggered his brain and knee on his “bad days.”

He took note that while other mammals can walk moments after birth, humans learn such basic skills as walking over time. To Feldenkrais this meant that walking was “wired in” to the nervous system through experience and involved the creation of habits of movement – habits he was now going to try to change. He began by developing a kinesthetic awareness of how he used and moved the knee. Kinesthetic awareness is a sensation that informs a person where his or her body and limbs are in space and what it feels like to move. Feldenkrais had learned, both from judo and from his neuroscience reading, that when a human stands, a group of muscles – the antigravity muscles of the back and the quadriceps – holds a person up.

Each person has habitual ways of standing that are partially learned. Every time he stands, he enacts these habits unconsciously. Since bad postural habits exacerbated Feldenkrais’s problem knee on his bad days, he decided to observe himself lying down, so as to eliminate the action of gravity on his body and his need to use the antigravity muscles and standing habits he had acquired. He spent many hours on his back, moving his leg ever so slightly, many hundreds of times. He later told his student Mark Reese that he was observing himself “so that he could be all the subtle subconscious connections between all parts of himself.”

“No part of the body can be moved without all the others being affected,” Feldenkrais wrote. This holistic insight would later distinguish his approach from other forms of bodywork. Since the bones, the muscles, and the connective tissue form a whole, it is impossible to move one part, however slightly, and not influence all the others. Extending an arm and raising a finger, by even the smallest amount, requires muscles in the forearm to contract, and other muscles in the back to stabilize those muscles, triggering reactions in the nervous system and the body that anticipate how this movement will subtly alter overall balance. All the muscles, under normal conditions, even when supposedly “relaxed,” show some contraction, or “muscle tonus.” (Muscle tonus is not the same as muscle tone. Muscle tone often colloquially refers to the defined look or visual definition of a muscle on a thin person. Muscle tonus is a medical term, referring exclusively to the general state of contraction of a muscle; and tonus can range from high levels of contraction to low.) Altering the tension in any single muscle affects the tension of the others. For example, contracting the biceps requires relaxing the triceps.

Using his kinesthetic awareness of tonus and breaking his walking down into minute movements, Feldenkrais could now go weeks without knee trouble. “I was far more absorbed in observing how I was doing a movement than I was interested in what that movement happened to be,” he wrote, to describe his use of ongoing mental awareness of movement to give himself feedback, which would alter his functioning and his brain.

As he analyzed his gait he found that over the years he had made many adaptations to how he walked, and that these changes had made him forget some of the movements he could do before his injury so his repertoire of movement had become restricted without his noticing. Thus many of his movement restrictions were caused not only by his physical limitations but also by his habits of movement and habits of mental perception. He had learned from Kano that judo was a form of mind-body education, because mind and body are always related. “I believe,” Feldenkrais wrote, “that the unity of mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an indispensable whole while functioning.”

This insight helped explain to Feldenkrais the mysterious fact that his knee had swollen up when the Nazis occupied Paris. For the third time, after the Russian pogroms and the attacks in Palestine, his life had been threatened because he was a Jew. His physical problem, he saw, could be made worse by mental stress. Terrifying experiences and memories could trigger nervous system, biochemical, and muscular reactions throughout his mind and body – even swelling in his knee.

During the war, he wrote a book that began as a mediation on the work of Freud, whom he greatly respected; unlike many clinicians of his time, Freud emphasize how the mind and the body always influence each other. But, Feldenkrais noted in Body and Mature Behavior, Freud’s treatment, talk therapy, focused little on how anxiety or other emotions are expressed in posture and in the body, and Freud never suggested that analysts work on the body when treating mental problems. Feldenkrais believed that there were no purely psychic (i.e., mental) experiences. “The idea of two lives, somatic and psychic, has…outlived its usefulness.” The brain is always embodied and our subjective experience always has a bodily component, just as all so-called bodily experiences have a mental component.

When the war ended, Feldenkrais learned that all but a few of his relatives had been murdered by the Nazis. Luckily, his parents and sister had survived. He finished his Ph.D. dissertation and graduated. But on returning to France, he found that the Nazis, with the collusion of a French and a Japanese judo colleague, had written him out of the history of the judo club he had cofounded, again because he was a Jew. So he settled in London instead, pursed some inventions, wrote another book on judo, called Higher Judo, and began a book, The Potent Self, in which he developed his healing method, which he was now using to help fellow scientists and friends. As a physicist, he had met the greats: Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and Werner Heisenberg. He was deeply torn: should he continue in nuclear physics or, given the wonderful results he was getting, pursue healing? He chose healing. His mother said half-jokingly, “He could have got a Nobel Prize in physics, and instead he became a masseur.”

But his plans for staying put and pursuing his method were again interrupted. In 1948 the United Nations divide Palestine into two areas, one Jewish to be called the State of Israel, and the other Arab, called Palestine. Within hours, six well-armed Arab nations attacked the Jewish state. A stream of Israeli scientists went to London and persuaded Feldenkrais to return in 1951, to direct the Israeli Army’s department of electronics, in top secret projects, which he did until 1953. Only then, at last was he free to refine his life’s work. In Israel he met a chemist, Avraham Baniel, who became a lifelong friend. Baniel persuaded Feldenkrais to come and give classes in his and his wife’s apartment every Thursday night, saying, “We can be a laboratory for you.”

[The exercises below were developed by Anat Baniel, Avraham’s daughter, who grew up learning from Feldenkrais, becoming his senior assistant, then developing her own Anat Baniel Method to help children with serious brain injuries to use movement to recover brain functioning.]


Anat Baniel is an internationally recognized teacher of tools that use awareness and movement to heal challenging cases of brain and nervous system damage in children – strokes, Down’s syndrome, autism and speech delay, movement problems, cerebral palsy and nerve injuries – and help them move beyond brain-based limitations to greater brain integration, thus greater flexibility, strength, energy, and awareness in their bodies, often in the course of a few lessons.

In her quite fabulous book Move into Life, Anat devotes a chapter each to the Nine Essentials for Lifelong Vitality:

* Movement with Attention
* The Learning Switch
* Subtlety
* Variation
* Slow
* Enthusiasm
* Flexible Goals – Making the Impossible Possible
* Imagination and Dreams
* Awareness

Considering movement as the most fundamental language of the brain, Anat uses movement to prime the brain to perceive differences, organize information differently, and thus encode new neural connections, i.e., “learn” new behaviors.

Exercise 1: Movement With Attention

1. Stand comfortably, feet hip width apart. Gently, slowly lift your left arm forward from your side to over your head (No strain! Stay within your comfort zone) and lower it back down to your side. Repeat once or twice to get a baseline range of motion.

2. Focus your attention on your lower spine as you raise and lower you left arm twice again. Notice movement, sensation, expansion in your lower spine as you raise and lower your arm.

3. Focus your attention on your upper spine between your shoulder blades as you raise and lower your left arm twice again. Notice movement, sensation, expansion in your upper spine as you raise and lower your arm.

4. Imagine there is an invisible thread connecting your left hand with your navel. As you raise and lower your left arm, imagine this thread is slowly pulling your belly forward (and tilting your pelvis back) then tucking your belly back in (and tilting your pelvis forward).

5. Raise and lower your left arm again, noticing any change in range of motion.

What may not be so visible in the moment is the increased complexity of brain functioning this movement exercise has trained, which leads to increased capacities for clarity, concentration, creativity, problem solving and improved memory in the brain.

Exercise 2: The Transformational Power of Movement with Attention

With this simple, short exercise, you can experience firsthand the power of combining attention with movement to transform your performance and your whole sense of yourself. You can then to di in your yoga practice, sports, and everyday movements.

1. Sit at the edge of a chair with your feet comfortably flat on the floor and with about a foot of space between them.

2. Lift your right arm out in front of you, with your elbow straight but not stiff. Lift it to shoulder level and put it down two times. As you move, pay attention to how it feels. Put your arm down and stop.

3. Now do the same movement twice with your left arm, lifting it to shoulder level, with elbow straight, paying attention to how it feels. Then lower your arm and stop.

4. Select the arm of your dominant hand and to the rest of this exercise with that arm. If you are right-handed, do the exercise with that arm; if left-handed, use that arm.

5. Lift your dominant arm in front of you to shoulder level, with your elbow straight but not stiff. Keep the arm up and begin moving forward with this arm as if you were reaching for something about a foot or so away. Make sure to also move forward with your upper body as you do this. Then come back to your upright sitting position. Do these reaching-out and coming-back movements two or three times.

6. Stop, and come back to your neutral sitting position. Put your arm down and rest for a moment. Feel how you are sitting and how you are breathing.

7. Again, lift your dominant arm in front of you to shoulder level and reach out as you did above. Do this two or three times. But this time do something a little differently. As you reach forward and come back to your neutral sitting position, pay close attention to your lower back. Can you feel any movement there? If yes, is your lower back arching and rounding as you reach forward with your arm and come back?

8. Stop, come back to neutral, put your arm down, and pay attention to how your shoulders feel. Does the right one feel the same as the left? If not, how do they feel different?

9. Lift your dominant arm again and continue doing the same movement as you’ve been doing, two or three times. But this time pay attention to your belly. For example, are you pulling in your belly when you reach forward or are you relaxing it, or perhaps pushing it out? Then pay attention to your pelvis. Do you feel movement in your pelvis as you reach with your arm and come back? If the answer is yes, are you rolling if forward when you reach out and rolling back when you come back to neutral? Stop, put your arm down, and feel how you are sitting. Do you have the impression that one arm is longer than the other? Lighter than the other? More energetic and vital?

10. One more time, lift your dominant arm and do the same reaching-forward and coming back as before. This time pay attention to your ribs in your back, on the side of the arm you are lifting. Do you feel any movement in your ribs? Simply note in your mind any movement you are feeling.

11. Now, with your arm still raised and extended, reaching forward and coming back two or three times, do the following: Let your attention move, sort of like a flashlight searching the darkness, starting with your pelvis, moving to your lower back, then to your belly, then to your chest, then to your shoulder, then to your wrist, and finally the tips of your fingers.

12. Stop, put your arm down, come back to neutral, and take a few seconds to notice the sensations in your body. How does your dominant are, the arm you moved, feel? Compare it to the other arm. Do you feel any differences between the two? Feel the whole side of your body on the side you just moved – including everything from your face down to your feet. Compare these sensations to the ones of the side you didn’t move and see if the two feel any different.

13. Now simply lift your dominant arm in front of you and put it down a few times. Does it feel any different than it did at the beginning of this exercise? It may feel lighter, longer, may e larger, and perhaps you can lift it higher, with greater ease. You might fell a sense of having more energy in that arm. Now lift your other arm just one time and note whether it feels any different than your dominant arm. Does it feel heavier or clumsier? Does it seem to have less vitality?

You lift your arms many times a day, even as you are walking around and doing your usual activities. However, these arm movements do not bring about any noticeable change. In this exercise, however, which you took five minutes or so to do, you most likely are already feeling some clear changes. This is a demonstration of how the power of movement with attention can transform us instantly.

Exercise 3: Work Smarter, Not Harder

You may have noticed that whenever you experience limitation in your movements, your first reaction is to try to force your body past the limitation, often through “stretching.” The following exercise allows you to experience what it’s like to move beyond limitations not by forcing or stretching but by decreasing the force.

Reducing forces increases our ability to feel, thus brining you into the present and waking up your brain so that you can find new solutions. By reducing force and increasing your ability to feel subtle differences, you give your brain access to new information that allows it to upgrade the organization and quality of whatever you are doing. The improved organization allows you to live more efficiently, effectively, and creatively. You get things done with increased pleasure, and have more energy left at the end of the day.

1. Lie down on your back on your mat or other comfortable but firm, flat surface.

2. Raise your knees, drawing your feet toward your buttocks. Have the soles of your feet standing flat on the mat and approximately a foot apart.

3. Cross your right leg over your left.

4. Gently tilt your legs, still crossed, to the right. Without forcing them in any way, let the weight of your legs ring them closer to the floor on your right. Then come back to center. Do this movement three or four times and feel how far down toward the floor your crossed legs will go without any forcing whatsoever.

5. With your legs in the same position as in step 4, attempt to force (stretch) your legs to go lower than before, but make sure you don’t hurt yourself. Do this – stretching – once or twice. Then go back to center and allow your crossed legs to go down without forcing them in any way. Do you notice an improvement? Most likely not. Make sure for the remainder of this exercise to do the movements as gently as you can. Move only as far as it is truly comfortable and easy for you. As you continue, notice if this approach results in more noticeable changes than those you felt by forcing your body.

6. Uncross your legs, lengthen them out on the floor, and rest for a moment.

7. Now lift both your knees and place your feet in the position you had them in step 2. Interlace your fingers and place your hands behind your head. Begin to lift your head with the help of your hands – the elbows come closer to each other – and then lower your head and hands back to the floor and let the elbows open back to the sides. Make sure to lift your head only as high as it is comfortable for you to do. That means you might lift your head only a couple of inches. These are not crunches. Do this very gently four or five times. Can you begin to feel your ribs moving More softness in your chest?

8. Rest for a moment, and feel any changes in the way you’re lying on the floor.

9. Bend your legs, cross your right leg over the left, interlace your fingers behind your head, and then comfortably (without forcing) tilt your knees to the right. Stay with the knees tilted to the right, and then lift and lower your head as before, using your hands and arms to to do the lifting. Make sure to let your hands and head rest on the floor for a second or two before lifting the head again. Do this very gently four or five times. Stop, uncross your legs, and rest for a moment.

10. When you feel you are ready, cross your right knee over the left as before, and simply tilt your knees to the right. Are your legs going down a bit lower? At the same time, is it actually easier to do?

11. Rest and check out how you are feeling. Does your right leg feel different from the left? Does it feel longer? Lighter?

12. You may now do this whole sequence for your left side.

For more information on moving the body beyond pain and limitations and improve the mind and body at any age:


The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge, M.D. New York: Viking, 2015

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Science by Norman Doidge, M.D. New York: Penguin Group, 2007

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