What, exactly, is the​​​​​​ Feldenkrais Method?

Residents find relief in gentle, slow, repeated movements

  • Fritha Pengelly leads a private Feldenkrais Method lesson called Functional Integration in Studio Helix in Thornes Marketplace. Contributed photo/Oliver Scott Photography

  • Fritha Pengelly leads a Feldenkrais Method class at Studio Helix. Contributed photo/Oliver Scott Photography

  • Fritha Pengelly leads a Feldenkrais Method class in Studio Helix in Thornes Marketplace. Contributed photo/Oliver Scott Photography

  • Fritha Pengelly leads a private Feldenkrais Method lesson called Functional Integration in Studio Helix in Northampton. Oliver Scott Photography

  • Victoria Ahrensdorf, owner of Feldenkrais Noho on Center Street in Northampton, says she found relief right away from using the Feldenkrais Method. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Moshé Feldenkrais demonstrates his movement techniques on Victoria Ahrensdorf, then 27, during a workshop at Hampshire College in the early 1980s. Ahrensdorf now owns Feldenkrais Noho on Center Street in Northampton. Contributed photos/International Feldenkrais Federation Archive, Jerry Karzen

  • Moshé Feldenkrais teaches his movement techniques during a Feldenkrais Method workshop at Hampshire College in the early 1980s. Contributed photo/International Feldenkrais Federation Archive, Jerry Karzen

Staff Writer
Published: 4/26/2019 1:56:21 PM
Modified: 4/26/2019 1:56:09 PM

When Victoria Ahrensdorf was 12 years old, her father dropped her from a second story window onto concrete to save her from a fire before diving out behind her.

They both survived and she didn’t break any bones, but Ahrensdorf said she lived with pain in her legs for the next decade — until she discovered an exercise method that helps practitioners rethink their movement patterns. Called the Feldenkrais Method, the guided exercises aim to improve posture and alleviate pain.

“I couldn’t walk very well. Right away, I found relief,” said Ahrensdorf, now 64, owner of Feldenkrais Noho on Center Street in Northampton.

After taking a few Feldenkrais Method classes during college at what’s now McDaniel College in Maryland, she resolved to study under its founder, Moshé Pinchas Feldenkrais, an Israel-based engineer and Judo-practitioner who suffered a severe knee injury while playing soccer in his 20s.

According to the organization’s website, doctors recommended amputation and a prosthetic limb, but Feldenkrais refused surgery, and instead, combined his scientific understanding of mechanical engineering with his martial arts background to address his injury. Eventually, his philosophies became the Feldenkrais Method — a series of gentle, slow, repeated movements not unlike stretching or restorative yoga.

Before he died from a stroke in 1984, Feldenkrais led three multi-year training programs. The first was held in Israel. The second was in Los Angeles. And the third workshop, which drew 235 people, was held from 1980 to 1983 at Hampshire College in Amherst. Among those students was Ahrensdorf.

“We met every day, all day long, for eight to 10 weeks each summer,” she recalled. “Those years were so exciting. We wanted to learn more about thinking and moving.”

Today, the Feldenkrais Method has more than 10,000 registered practitioners worldwide. Locally, there are a number of practitioners in the area in addition to Ahrensdorf. Ray Sylvester of Leeds, the owner of MoveIntuitive, focuses on outdoor movement, alignment and breathing techniques. Fritha Pengelly, owner of The Center for Feldenkrais and Movement Arts on the third floor of Thornes Marketplace, discovered the method after suffering a career-ending back injury in 2001 while dancing professionally with the New York City-based Doug Elkins Dance Company.

While there’s not a lot of medical data on the effectiveness of these exercises, the people who practice the Feldenkrais Method say it increases their mobility, alleviates pain and enhances their overall sense of well-being, among other benefits.

After injuring her elbow last year, Lynn Peterfreund, a local artist and art teacher with a studio in Florence, said she turned to Pengelly’s practice for relief. And while she recovered well, she didn’t regain a full range of mobility. This was a problem because she constantly reaches for paint and paint brushes in her work. Since starting with the Feldenkrais Method last summer, Peterfreund said she’s regained her mobility and is able to do what she loves uninhibited.

In her experience, “You don’t do Feldenkrais for an hour,” Peterfreund said. Instead, through the practice, “it’s integrated into how you live and move. It’s more of a way to sense your body, and correct imbalances.”

The Feldenkrais Method “is quite complementary to everything you do (such as) yoga or lifting weights,” said Sarah Young, an instructor at Pengelly’s practice. “These incremental movements help you to find your strength and power.”

Pengelly, who is from Portland, Ore. and holds a master’s degree in dance from the University of Washington in Seattle, said she found relief through the Feldenkrais Method. The method is comprised of thousands of gentle movement exercises and is usually taught either one-on-one or in a classroom setting, similar to yoga.

“If we’re not working against ourselves, we can generate a lot of power and move with more ease,” she explained, while leading an afternoon class of practitioners through a series of the method’s movements.

Pengelly studied at the Feldenkrais Professional Training Program at the Feldenkrais Institute of New York in 2013. In addition to running the Thornes Marketplace practice, she teaches dance kinesiology at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and periodic dance workshops through the Northampton Center for the Arts.

While each Feldenkrais Method class is different, she began this one by instructing her students to lie down on their backs and twist their outstretched arms slightly to the right. Then she had them push off the ground with their left leg to turn their entire torso to the right instead of just their arms. Throughout, Pengelly encouraged her students to pay attention to what each movement felt like.

On average, Pengelly estimated she sees about 16 clients each week, including one-on-one sessions, with about five or six participants in each class. Most of the people who attend come to find relief from some sort of injury or chronic pain. Others want to keep up their mobility and age gracefully, she said.

Once during the 1980s program at Hampshire College, Ahrensdorf said Feldenkrais used her to demonstrate his movement techniques to the class. When she got up from the table, “I walked right out the door, and it was this beautiful day outside. I walked around the campus, and felt wonderful,” she said.


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