Parkinson's, John Pepper &
The Feldenkrais Method

By: Fergus Wheeler, New Zealand Feldenkrais Practitioner

John Pepper's technique and the Feldenkrais Method both use conscious movement – so what's the difference and how do they work together?

A major component of John Pepper's method for reversing the symptoms of Parkinson's is the use of conscious movement. His technique has similarities with the Feldenkrais Method. Both focus on how you do things rather than the end result.

Normally, we think more of where we want to get to rather than what we need to do on the way – with good reason. Walking, or lifting a cup to your lips, is a very complicated process with multiple feedback processes. You can't live your life and think about all that.

But one can notice some of it.

Take a step forward – and then stop. What did you do? How did you do it?

Go back and do it again. What do you do before you take a step?

You might notice that in order to lift and step forward with, say, the right foot, first you had to transfer weight onto your left foot.

Both methods produce results by focusing on how you do things rather than the end result.

Now do it again but as you take one foot forward, notice the weight shift which has to happen. If you can notice it as you do it, that's awareness.

Do the same thing again, and as well as being aware of what you're doing, add intention. Deliberately shift your weight before you step. Don't exaggerate the act of doing this, but do it with intention. That's conscious movement.

With Parkinson's the ability of the unconscious, it is said, to string together all the things we normally do, to walk for example, is impaired. This seems to explain why P.D. people sometimes freeze up, and perhaps is part of why walking reduces to a stooped shuffle.

The good news is that to break through - or get around - these problems of Parkinson' Disease, one doesn't have to consciously do everything required to walk - just some it. In John Pepper's system, noticing and directing the transfer of weight off the leading leg to get going, then consciously pushing off your toes, stepping forward, heel to ground, is enough.

Of course, walking consciously takes some getting used to and often requires physical and moral support.

The Feldenkrais Method is a lot broader, and deeper, than John Pepper's specialised technique. Lessons for the general public might involve eyesight one week, breathing the next and the use of the hips in relation to the ankles the week after – they're all connected. The applications range from psychological health to high intensity activity.

Now, in the Feldenkrais Method one can train people to notice not just three things about walking, but dozens. However one isn't required to think about these myriad of things all the time, just in passing. While you're updating old movement habits you're paying attention to particular aspects of the way you move. Later, you integrate what you've learnt – which requires tuning in now and then. But after a time the new improved way of doing something becomes background habit again.

It's a far better tool for gaining motivation and efficiency than exercise because it speaks to the brain in a language it can use. Number one rule: as far as having a good relationship with your brain is concerned, make it easy, enjoyable and interesting.

The good news it that to break through, or get around, these problems of the condition, one doesn't have to consciously do everything required to walk – just some of it

Number two: be with the process. If you've ever had to brush your teeth with the “wrong” hand, or had to drive on the wrong side of the road, say in the U.S.A. or France, you'll know something of this. After awhile the new way of moving, which feels wrong to start with, gets to feel completely normal.

People who do Feldenkrais lessons soon become good at quickly and accurately working out much of how they do what they do. It also gives them the tools to come up with new ways of doing something. In this respect, John Pepper's work and Feldenkrais sit beautifully together.

Lessons might involve eyesight one week, breathing the next and the use of the hips in relation to the ankles the week after . . .

Maybe the reason people with Parkinson's do so well on a steady diet of Feldenkrais lessons is it becomes second nature to move into “process” rather than end-gaining mode whenever a difficulty arises, whether it be a Parkinsonian freeze, a sore knee, or a problem at home. Instead of simply trying harder, Feldenkrais lessons make one more inclined to notice and experiment.

This applies to posture too of course. Instead of using will-power to straighten one's back, one finds other ways. You could, for example, lie face down on the carpet and press the front of yourself, your belly, your ribs, gently into the floor using many intriguing combinations of instructions. Sometimes you press as you lengthen a leg slightly, another time with one eye closed so the two hemispheres of the brain wake up to each other's existence. It's both targeted and holistic. The belly and chest is freed up in such a way that the whole system supports it. More than any “weakness” in the back muscles, excess tone at the front may be responsible for slouching.

Or the problem may be one's own internal perception. Rather than relying on shop windows to tell you how you're doing, one might get really good going into the slouch – again by employing brain-friendly techniques. Having mastered slouching, people find they have also mastered reversing out of it without the use of any willpower whatsoever. It can feel like magic.

John Pepper's says his technique stops working as movement is taken over by the subconscious.

With Feldenkrais work, as we've said above, we unpack a movement habit, improve it and then reintegrate it so it becomes habitual.

Often-times the improvements in movement (and other parts of one's life along with this) just happen by themselves – unconsciously. Later on one may gain insight, but it's not always necessary.

Having mastered slouching, people find they have also mastered reversing out of it without the use of any willpower whatsoever. It can feel like magic.

This seems to apply to people with Parkinson's as well. And so in this respect, Feldenkrais may be working in a quite different way from John Pepper's technique which, of course, depends on maintaining at least some level of consciousness in action.

Most likely, for people with Parkinson's, Feldenkrais lessons are doing what they do for everyone else, stimulating new processes. If there is one thing everyone involved in neuroscience agrees on these days on one thing: the brain loves novelty. And in this respect the Feldenkrais Method is inexhaustible. There are thousands of lessons, each one a fascinating exploration of different facets of movement and behavior.

In a culture dominated still by the intellect, Feldenkrais work is riding high – it's brainy stuff and still miles ahead of the mainstream. For example, only now is it starting to be appreciated movement is in many respects our basic software. Improve movement and a wide cascade of benefits often follow.

Clearly, the two techniques complement each other – Feldenkrais improves people's ability to take notice of their movement, and to move intentionally when they need to, exactly what John Pepper's technique requires.

The next step with Parkinson's is to get somatic education trials going. Sadly, most neurologists are refusing to engage so trials may have to be launched from social research institutions. Physiotherapists, who as a group are far less threatened by patient-led approaches, might also be instrumental.


High Intensity Walking

John Pepper's technique of conscious movement for Parkinson's is both a means in itself, and a means to an end: the production of GDNF through high intensity walking three times a week.

Here again the Feldenkrais Method may prove crucial. Firstly, Feldenkrais lessons often dissolve psychological blocks, including resistances to doing exercise.

The work is also renowned for, in Feldenkrais' own words, making the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy graceful. It can help get people out of wheelchairs and not only walking efficiently, but with awareness. This way exercise becomes enjoyable. It also reduces the chance of injury and maintains mobility into old age.

But, as Woody Allan says, you have to show up.

If you have Parkinson's and want to “reboot” your movement patterns the payoffs are many. Apart from better balance and coordination, you can get a dividend of better immune function, expressiveness (yes, there are face lessons), continence and psychological health.

While the Feldenkrais Method should be on the syllabus of mainstream medical training – and is in Germany, it sits best, and most accurately within education. And this could be John Pepper's problem with the medical establishment. John is teaching people to help themselves.

A recently released study from Brazil has shown what has been obvious to many at the coal face for years, people with P.D. can benefit significantly from self education. We hope that study is just the beginning and John's pioneering work gains more of the recognition it deserves.

Fergus Wheeler MNZFG
04 905 8593