Interviews with Paul Voudouris

Interview on The Feldenkrais Method
by Vicki Chavis for Suite101.com

I’d like to start by asking you what drew you to the Feldenkrais method originally?

Anabel, the mother of my daughter, is a ballet and yoga instructor. She has suffered chronically from pain in her right hip articulation. At the beach one day, a woman commented to her that she should investigate the Feldenkrais Method as it had brought her relief when no other modality had been able to help her. I’d remembered reading about the method in a book, back in the late 70’s and, ever open to new experiences, made an appointment for a lesson (as the sessions are called) when Anabel went for hers. Mexico had just had its first group of practitioners certified and we visited one of them in Mexico City. I had a private lesson, called Functional Integration®. (The group lessons are called A.T.M.’s; awareness through movement®.) Amazed by the profound results I experienced from what seemed so little “manipulation,” I came out of the office, turned to Anabel and said, “I’m going to study this!”

Did you have an epiphany or strong sense of attraction to the field of healing? What, specifically, brought you to the Feldenkrais healing method?

First off, The Feldenkrais Method is not considered healing or therapy, though there are many therapeutic and healing benefits one may derive as a result of the lessons. At its heart, it is a method of learning (how we learn) and the attention and awareness to detail necessary to create changes in one’s behavior. I’d never had a strong sense of attraction to the field of healing from a practitioner’s point of view. I’ve been a songwriter all my life and very interested in alternative lifestyle and therapy choices, but not from the vantage point of a practitioner. Having lived for seven years in Sedona, Arizona, then the hub of alternative healers and therapies, I’d been exposed to some very interesting people. Some were amazing homeopaths and myopracters, but I also ran into some charlatan shamans and “energy workers” who, the week before, were waiters in Hollywood. I tend to view the field of alternative therapy with some skepticism. Just because someone says something, it doesn’t make it true. We generally expect truth in advertising and want seals of certification with our organic produce but, strangely, are willing to let someone with no official certification burn incense and adjust us because he/she says it will be good for us. When it comes to feeling better most people are willing to believe or do just about anything, no matter how incredible (literally) the concept is, and as long as someone else does it FOR them.

What brought me to the method was the desire to further my own growth, and to discover, or uncover, how I create my discomfort and how I could find my way out again. It had nothing to do with any desire or interest to become a practitioner. And, I was drawn to it because it was a method based on the brain and the central nervous system, and specifically because belief in some oriental religion or modality, or discussing healing energies from the Pleiades were not prerequisites. (There’s a joke that says, “How many Feldenkrais practitioners does it take to change a light bulb?” And there are two answers: “None, Feldenkrais practitioners don’t do energy work,” and, “Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.”)

Did you have a desire to help yourself or were you focused on teaching others this method?

As stated previously, purely egotistical reasons: my own self-growth and awareness.

Who really benefits from this therapy?

Everyone CAN benefit from the therapy but it’s highly variable and, as it’s a learning method, it depends on how each person learns; how each person “sees” things and, then, whether he/she has the discipline to change. Feldenkrais said, “I’m not interested in flexible bodies, but flexible minds.” So a twenty-five year old Yoga or Pilates instructor who is active daily could come in for years of lessons and not find a way out of his/her pain while a ninety-year old man or woman who does no exercise could come in for one (or a few) lessons and find a way out. Being active and exercising, or being young and with certain areas of flexibility is most definitely NOT a shortcut and can, oftentimes, be a hindrance.

Can our mental pathways really change bad habits? Will these changes make it possible to relieve pain? How?

The brain is an amazing thing. The last five books I’ve read this year have been about the brain and the mind, and the discoveries that have been made in the last twenty years, which have disproved prior concepts considered “concrete law” concerning the brain. Habits are very easy to form but a little more complicated to change or eradicate, and a great part of this has to do with the neural pathways that have formed to “service” those habits. The nerves that “fire together, wire together,” and become the efficient way that we go about doing things. But we surrender variability for efficiency and, commonly, have only one set of responses to various stimuli.

How many hours of training do you receive in order to be a Feldenkrais instructor?

800 hours over 3 ½ years.

Do people come to you in pain when all else has failed? How often can you bring these patients to a place of positive, pain-free living?

As most, if not all, of us would prefer a pill or injection, or pleasant massage to alleviate our ills, the last resort will be the Feldenkrais Method® and, at that point, it’s like looking for a miracle. One may as well be praying to the virgin of Guadalupe to get better! It takes work and discipline to see oneself and to not fall into the hypnotic sleep that is one’s life. It takes attention to detail and a changing of routines to create new behaviors. But many of us will continue to do the same thing EVEN IF we know that it is causing our problems. Many wear their dis-ease as a badge. “I have spinal stenosis,” or “I have sciatica”. But sciatica isn’t some ailment that indiscriminately rains down from the heavens to make our lives miserable. Sciatica is an inflammation of a network of nerves that is caused by improper use of one’s body. You can go to all the practitioners in the world for them to “adjust” you to the way they believe your bones or body should look, or take all the pills available to reduce the inflammation, but the minute you sit in your favorite chair, hunched, or stand with your knees locked, or unconsciously contract your buttocks each time some “idiot” passes you on the freeway, you’ll begin to exacerbate the situation once again, and then have to return to the “adjustments” and the promises of improvement you so dearly would like to believe another can give you.

I know that I brought myself to a place of positive, pain-free living, and that I no longer suffer from pain, OF ANY KIND. That, in and of itself, is a success story for me. As far as others, it varies; as I said earlier, with how much responsibility they are willing take for their improvement. I don’t touch someone and make him/her better. I’m not a healer. I’m not a shaman. I’m not an energy worker. I’m here to help someone see various avenues toward one’s own self-improvement. Feldenkrais said that when you learn how to learn you no longer need a teacher.

How can someone contact you or another facilitator for therapy?

Most countries have organizations with websites indicating the certified practitioners. In the United States it’s www.feldenkrais.com and in Mexico it’s www.feldenkrais.org.mx.

Is this therapy a long-term commitment?

Again, it depends on the capacity for learning and awareness of the individual and how chronic the problem. 

What is whole body learning?

I don’t know this term, so I can’t say. We use the body as a means to get to the brain. That’s why the group lessons are called Awareness Through Movement. In the end, it’s like that song I used to hear as a kid “the hip bone connected to the..” and so on… Everything is connected. So if someone comes in with a problem with his or her neck, I’ll most certainly be dealing with the ribs, the shoulder blades, the clavicles, the fingers, the jaw, and so on…

How is awareness connected to healing?

If one’s unconscious behavior is the root of one’s ailment, awareness of that fact can help one to change that behavior and, hence, to remove the cause.

Can you talk about being disconnected and how that relates to chronic stress disorder?

I think we’re all disconnected in one respect or another. Basically, we’re automatons that respond to stimuli with a predetermined set of responses. If being connected, or present, were easy then we’d all be illuminated masters. But the truth is we’re all asleep with the illusion of being conscious. Being connected, or present, is so supremely difficult that most will opt for watching television. Or they’ll drink or take medications to relieve the stress. As I said earlier, we usually know what it is that causes our problems but are too lazy or asleep to do anything about it. 

Can you express how the Feldenkrais method has changed your life, personally?

It has made me pain-free and has helped me to understand the importance of the brain and central nervous system and how it relates to physical well-being. It has taught me to discover elegant function on my own and to NOT depend on the plethora of modalities that require that I believe in someone else or something outside of myself to get better. Someone saying he/she is a teacher doesn’t make him/her one. Much of what we learned in the physical education classes of our school days has now been disproved. Yet we continue to hear “No pain, no gain,” we continue to go to spinning classes and mistake the release of endorphins for true health (and are then stupefied by the fact that we have meniscus damage in one of our knee joints). It’s not important what one does, but it’s important HOW one does things. If your brain thinks that the range of motion in one of your joints is limited then you will amplify that limitation each time you go to exercise. If you can’t get into the lotus posture without using your hands then you’re doing yourself damage. I think of the Groucho Marx and, later, Woody Allen joke, about those that “teach” us: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach physical education.” 

Can you tell us what happens in one of your Feldenkrais sessions?

There is a short interview with the student concerning ailments, bones broken, work, pass-times, hobbies, position of sleep, and other such details. I will also be noting the way the student sits, the shoes worn, the manner in which one speaks, the mobility of the head, the position of the pelvis and feet, and other countless behavioral habits. I’ll normally suggest at least three very important and general practices in which to engage, which include walking barefoot over uneven surfaces, differentiating the eyes from the movement of the head, and changing as many habits as possible (wear the watch on the other hand, open the door with eyes closed, after finding the key with the opposite hand, etc.). The student removes his/her shoes but will remain clothed and lies on a low, firm table (though a lesson can be given standing, sitting, kneeling, etc.). The position of the lesson will vary depending on the information derived from the interview. And the lesson will most probably change each time the student comes. In other words, this is not a massage that starts face down, and proceeds as it has each time prior. This is an investigation and has a high creative ingredient in that there is no ONE WAY to give a lesson. One works with each individual and goes where the lesson takes one.

Why should I contact a Feldenkrais Instructor rather than a massage therapist if I have injured myself lifting weights, yet again?

Massages feel good, and I’ve easily had more than a thousand. (While in Thailand, I would routinely have one or two massages a day. Two hour (THAI!) massages for eight dollars. Who could resist? And, hey, I could even have a happy ending if I wanted! (I hope you’re smiling.) But a massage won’t change behavior. It’s a temporary band-aid for something that you yourself have brought about. As opposed to a massage session, I would begin by asking you to stop all exercise until the pain has subsided. I would also question why you lift weights and in which weight-lifting routines you commonly engage. I would speak to you about your physical activities and the reasons that you have chosen those specific routines. I would then suggest various other options with which to engage or different ways to approach the same routines. Again, these are lessons and not therapies. I’m here to help someone become aware of something that will change one’s behavior. I’m not trying to take a temporary pain away, though there will almost always be a sense of improvement or easing of pain, as a result.