In 2011 Dr. Turner Osler, a retired trauma surgeon and research epidemiologist, began taking Awareness through Movement (ATM) group lessons and private Functional Integration (FI) lessons with me. He wanted to know if the Feldenkrais Method could help address his lower back pain. After a few ATMs and FIs, he freely admitted that despite a long surgical career he had little understanding of functional interrelationships of all the body parts: “They didn’t teach us this stuff in med school,” he confessed. The Feldenkrais Method provided Turner with a wholly new perspective – that pain could be addressed by learning to move more efficiently.
Turner is not alone in his struggle with back pain, a problem that affects millions of people and is a leading cause of chronic pain and disability. “Back pain is widespread in the adult population. Some studies have shown that up to 23% of the world’s adults suffer from chronic low back pain.” At any given time, over 8% of Americans have chronic back pain severe enough that it limits their activity, imposing an immense burden of suffering as well as an outsized cost for our health care system, $100 billion each year in medical care costs alone. Lost productivity adds to this cost. And the human cost is incalculable: back pain interferes with every aspect of life: missed walks in the woods, missed opportunities to play with your kids or go out to a restaurant. Nothing is enjoyable for those in back pain. As the proverb has it: “If your back isn’t right, nothing is right.”
Unfortunately, back pain remains poorly understood and therefore poorly treated. Strength training, stretching and improving flexibility, chiropractic work, aerobic exercise, and even surgery are treatment options, but the many alternatives simply underscore the fact that no single treatment exists. Or, as The Lancet put it in 2021, “For nearly all people presenting with low back pain, the specific nociceptive source cannot be identified.” Nociceptive pain is a process by which actual damage to body tissue is relayed to the brain.
In Western medicine, the treatment of back pain is often narrowly focused on the area of the body that appears to cause the pain. Since often people don’t improve, many people seek non-traditional treatment forms including somatic education such as the Feldenkrais Method; indeed, many people start with Feldenkrais because of their chronic back pain.
As Feldenkrais teachers, we take a somatic educational approach and work with the whole person in an integrative way. Central aspects in any Feldenkrais lesson are learning, the experience of how movement is proportionally and evenly distributed throughout the whole self, awareness, and our connection to the environment.
In 2015, Turner joined me in taking an FI lesson with Yvan Joly, a Feldenkrais Trainer living in Montreal. Little did he know how transformative this private lesson would become…
During the lesson, Yvan introduced a pedagogical tool, an active chair produced in Germany, into the lesson. He used the active chair to show Turner how movement from the pelvis influences the whole person in a seated position.
Turner was transfixed by the experience of a balanced posture; he immediately had a better sense of his sitz bones and became more aware of their relationship to his spine. As well, he sensed the support and transmission of force through his skeleton, another important aspect in the teaching of the Feldenkrais Method.
At the end of the lesson, Turner stood up and the changes in his posture were dramatic. Although more relaxed, he was visibly taller.
“Where can you buy one of these?”, he asked.
“This chair is called “MiShu” . I bought it in Germany as my 60th birthday gift to myself, but it was very expensive,” Yvan replied with a smile.
Once back in Vermont, Turner immediately ordered a chair from Germany and dealt with the custom forms, bank transfers, and exchange rate headaches required to get $1500 to Germany. It took a month, but when it arrived his MiShu chair immediately became Turner’s everyday work chair for the long hours at his computer.
And then about 4 weeks later Turner approached me with an interesting proposal.
“As an Epidemiologist, I know that a solution that is unaffordable for the public is not a solution. While I can afford a MiShu chair, most Americans can’t.” He continued, “So…, I wonder if it would be possible to build a much less expensive active chair that most Americans could afford but with the same qualities as the MiShu chair? I know some engineers and industrial designers in the area who are eager to get started, but we need a test pilot to help us with the design. Would you be willing to help us create an affordable active chair?”
“This sounds interesting, but how can I be helpful?” I replied.
“I’d like to approach this as a blinded crossover study. We will build multiple prototypes and ask you to be our “test sitter”, using your kinesthetic skills and awareness and give us feedback on our designs.”
I reflected on what makes sitting on this active chair so unique and how it differs from traditional chair designs. Most office chairs are designed to support the sitter, but in so doing inadvertently prevent the sitter’s body from moving. Also, the fronts of these chairs are usually slightly higher than the back of the sitting area. This forces the pelvis to roll backward and forces you to sit behind your sitz bones. Failing to find support through the sitz bones, people tend to rest against a backrest and find themselves in a static, rounded, “computer slouch”. Lumbar support and armrests are often added to try to restore a more normal posture, but because this is imposed from the outside this approach usually fails.
The MiShu on the other hand allows omnidirectional rocking while giving support through the sitz bones – this is something that’s missing in Yoga balls. The active–dynamic nature of the chair requires your nervous system to adapt and to constantly make the appropriate adjustments.
Furthermore, I came to realize that sitting on this chair promotes a quality that is central to Moshe Feldenkrais’s idea of good posture – “Acture”. You can move easily in any direction without preparation – a central idea of Moshe Feldenkrais that he used to define ideal posture! “.
A few months later Turner presented me with various active chair prototypes, each covered with a white sheet so I would not know what design I was testing.
I closed my eyes and described my experiences sitting on each chair. “This one does not allow enough movement in the sagittal plane” or “This one is too soft. I can’t feel my sitz bones.” “This one is interesting but it is missing some of the dynamic aspects.” Using the skills that I’d acquired and refined over the years as a Feldenkrais practitioner, I described my experiences while Turner took notes. We repeated this process for months until Turner presented a model chair that I couldn’t tell from the MiShu chair: the movability, stability and comfort were indistinguishable.
The rocking mechanism used in this new chair is a simple, if novel, shape that Turner discovered during this project. It needed a name, so the “Eccentric Bicylinder” was born. Because of its color and rocking quality, it is referred to as the “Red rocker” When mounted under the seat of a chair, this shape encourages, even requires, the sitz bones, pelvis, and spine to move continually in search of equilibrium. It does this by simply allowing effortless movement in all directions without preparation and or hesitation; the very embodiment of Acture.
We’d found a solution. But a new problem presented itself: “How do we get this under as many sitz bones as possible?”. Well, this was the beginning of a start-up company in Vermont in 2016 called QOR360.
By now 11,000 active chairs have been sold and the feedback from customers ranges from positive to ecstatic. Many people report rapid improvement in their back pain, posture, and a feeling of “being a connected whole” as a result of sitting actively.
Turner showed his commitment to the idea by educating the public via a TED talk, a free E-book, a blog, and by working to keep QOR360 chairs affordable.
Of course, none of this would have been possible except for the happy meeting of the Feldenkrais Method with rigorous research methodology. The Method provided a context to understand the origins of back pain and the pivotal role of balanced sitting (Acture in Moshe Feldenkrais’ coinage).
Then it was just a matter of a year or two of research, design, and testing. And getting the word out.
Afterword: And what of MiShu Chairs? The company is still making its wonderful, entirely wooden, chair in Germany. But they now also use the QOR360 Red Rockers that we provide so that they can offer a more affordable version of their chair.
 The Chair he sat on is called “Mishu” https://www.mishu.de/.
 – Full disclosure: I continue to work with Turner on chair projects for QOR360 and have the title of a “Movement specialist”. I give free counsel to customers on how to best use their active chair in their personal environment (offices most of the time)
 TED talk: “Active sitting – could we give our kids a future without back pain”, https://www.ted.com/talks/turner_osler_active_sitting_could_we_give_our_kids_a_future_without_back_pain
Uwe Mester took his first Feldenkrais® lesson in 1997 after recovering from lower back surgery. After unsuccessful rehabilitation attempts with both traditional (medical) and non-traditional methods, Uwe explored the Feldenkrais Method® His pain symptoms immediately decreased, and he developed a deeper interest in this form of somatic education.
In 2001, Uwe took his 4-year Feldenkrais training in Germany with Dr. Chav Shelhav (Israel). He has lived with his family in Vermont, USA since 2008. He has a
full-time practice near Burlington, VT. Additionally, he is doing some consulting work for the active chair company QOR360.
For more information, please visit www.vermontfeldenkrais.com