Functional Integration for Animals?

Video stills. Chris Lee’s Functional Integration. 2019 © Online Feldenkrais
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The Feldenkrais Method has been widely applied to human well-being for various needs and purposes, such as brain injuries, physical difficulties, mental remedies, performance art training, etc. How is the method equally relevant to animals and humans? My Feldenkrais training peers’ professional practices answered this question.

My Feldenkrais cohort and I met in New York City almost every month over four to five years to become certified Feldenkrais teachers. We came from different parts of the world along with our own personal stories, such as professional development and health improvements. My motivation was strong curiosity.

During the training, just like in other casual chats, we often started a conversation like “What do you do? Where are you from?” As we got to know each other better, we were from diverse professional backgrounds. What my peers did was such a long list: speech therapists, physical therapists, massage therapists, dancers, writers, lawyers, engineers, architects, artists, nutritionists, designers, musicians, actors, farmers, horse trainers.

Such a long list! I said to myself in my head, “Wait! A horse trainer?”

That was how I started a chat with an elegant, slim woman who spoke English with a French accent. She told me that she was a horse trainer in Pennsylvania and came to our training for her horses.

I paused a couple seconds.

During this pause unbeknownst to her, I tried very hard to find any connections between a horse and the method. In my over-analytical mind, I could not find any case studies or research essays. I could not find any references.

Then, I continued, “How do you use the method with horses?”

She answered in her lovely French accent, “The method can comfort horses, especially since they often overuse their legs.”

This conversation with the horse trainer made me chat with other peers to seek out other ideas during the training. I had several similar answers:
One peer relaxed her horses on her farm. According to her, horses did receive comfort from the method.

Others said the method was used for treating dogs in some veterinarian practice.

But, how?

Our training director, David Zemach-Bersin, would be the best person to resolve my puzzlement. I asked David, “Can we use Functional Integration on animals?”

David smiled and answered, “Yes, as long as it has a spine.”

That was a fascinating answer. Then, David continued: “Animals have a spine and a nervous system. The method can work.”

David’s answer was indeed helpful and more importantly connected to one of Moshe Feldenkrais’ core concepts: brain learning. A brain learns through a nervous system which relies on a skeleton to work.

What about my own experience of using the method with an animal?

Arriving on a cold and snowy winter night, in obvious distress, a lost Manx cat received a special treatment. As I was thinking about how to help this little animal, I recalled these memories from training days. Maybe I could comfort and relax this little cat by trying Functional Integration.

My Functional Integration strategy for this Manx, a tailless cat, was to reconnect her spinal cord nerve system from her head to the end of her spine around the pelvic area. As this cat was here to stay, I often started work on her spine with an emphasis around the pelvic area. Since the cat explored and hunted a lot with her fore legs, I also worked on her shoulder blades and rib cage.

Tailless Manx cats often suffer severe disease consequences due to their genetic mutation which results in a malformation of the spine and spinal cord. I did not find out if this cat’s natural deformity improved or not in a clinical sense. However, I did find that this little cat always took a deep, deep, deep breath after 5 minutes. Then, the cat changed her position as if she were a human being lying on her back in a relaxed way, in comparison to at the beginning of the session. About 10 minutes later, the cat’s breathing became slower and slower. She would often then fall asleep deeply.

Another interesting observation was that this tailless Manx sometimes twitched one of her legs, called hypnic jerks, when she began to fall asleep. This cat’s hypnic jerks were just like we humans experience before falling asleep.

In this case, it seems that the method was helpful to bring about some comfort.

Thank you, David and my Feldenkrais peers, for inspiring me to practice the method in such a creative way.

Thank you, little cat, for letting me work on you.

Chris Lee

Chris Lee

Chris Lee is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner and a Professional Member at The Feldenkrais Guild of North America. She practices internationally including North America, East Asia and Europe. Chris Lee received her Doctor of Education in Art and Art Education from Columbia University, New York City.