What’s all the fuss about Feldenkrais?

Feldenkrais has fans in Hollywood and in professional sports teams around the world. But does it actually work?

Last month, the 31-year-old actor Edwin Thomas was named as one of Screen’s ‘Stars of Tomorrow’. The award for up-and-coming thesps puts him in good company (Benedict Cumberbatch and Riz Ahmed are previous recipients), but from the age of 24, Thomas was kept out of work for two years by a debilitating series of health problems.

On a recent Thursday morning in an Islington coffee shop, he explained that a ‘funky organisation’ of the bones in his feet, aggravated by regular sport and acting, worsened to the point where he could barely stand. ‘I shattered the function of both my feet,’ he said. ‘I had so many diagnoses. At the end, they were talking about fibromyalgia, because I had 11 or more points of pain in my body.’

Moshé Feldenkrais

Thomas was dressed in a dark blue jacket, mid-blue shirt, grey trousers, grey sneakers and, before I arrived, was sitting behind his Macbook, working on a documentary. The subject of the planned film is the very thing that has enabled his recovery – from living with a ‘chronic pain loop’ to being pain-free, playing football every week and moving with the ease required to play roles in films such as The Little Prince, where he appears alongside Colin Firth and Rupert Everett.

‘Feldenkrais is a form of mindful movement,’ he said. ‘It’s about becoming aware of how you move, your patterns.’ The ‘method’ was first developed in the Fifties by Moshé Feldenkrais, a Soviet-born Israeli engineer who intended it as a form of physical therapy. Outside of the acting fraternity, it is little known in Britain, but there is a significant following on the West Coast of America and in Australia. It is also starting to be used in professional sport. The Canadian national ski team uses it, and Newcastle United employ a ‘soft tissue therapist and Feldenkrais practitioner’ called Wayne Farrage.

The practitioner who worked with Edwin Thomas is Ryan Jansen, an Australian who sees clients at his practice in an office building near the Old Street roundabout. When I visited him one morning this autumn, he asked me to stand barefoot before examining the way I distributed my weight and watching as I twisted to look over one shoulder and then the other. For the rest of the hour-long session I lay on a low, cushioned bench. Jansen assessed my flexibility and put pressure on various parts of my foot to observe the chain reaction of movements it would cause.

‘It’s about becoming aware of how you move, your patterns’

I told Jansen that I was keen on sport in general but, having never been a natural runner, my goal was to improve for a planned half-marathon. He littered the session with friendly – but unfavourable – comparisons to professional sportspeople. ‘Look,’ he said, guiding my leg across my body as I lay on my back. ‘Your leg goes comfortably to here. Mo Farah’s would go all the way out here.’ Jansen has never worked with Sir Mo, he said, but has done so with several high-profile pros from a number of sports.

One of the first lines on the Feldenkrais Wikipedia page explains that ‘there is no good medical evidence that the Feldenkrais method confers any health benefits, and it is not known if it is safe or cost-effective.’ The observation seemed to exasperate both Thomas and Jansen. ‘I still get angry [about it],’ said Thomas, an Oxford graduate, who is now two years through the four-year-long training programme required to become a certified Feldenkrais practitioner.

At the end of the session with Jansen, I felt as though I was distributing my weight more evenly over my feet. I felt limber and supple. When I went for a run a couple of days afterwards, I felt more conscious of trying to move freely, rather than settling back into my old, flawed running style.

However, one session was never likely to be enough to break bad habits built up over a lifetime. When I spoke to him again afterwards, Thomas recommended that I go along to some group classes with a practitioner called Scott Clark and also use headphones to listen to Feldenkrais audiobooks specifically designed for running. He was hopeful that, one day, the benefits of the method would be recognised across the scientific community. ‘Look at me,’ he said. ‘I’m evidence.’