An Interview with Elizabeth Beringer, Feldenkrais® Trainer, GCFP
For November 2021 SenseAbility on Knee Health
Interviewed by Yulia Kriskovets
Elizabeth Beringer is a well known trainer and practitioner who created one of the first audio series on knee health following her own knee injury recovery. Her recording of “Embodied Learning: Focus on the Knees & Ankles Vol I Audio Set” helped improve knee health for thousands of people.
You were one of the first practitioners who created a successful audio series of Feldenkrais® lessons for the knees. What informed your choice?
The knee is the most commonly injured joint and this is especially true in sports. I often say to my clients that the knee is an innocent joint. Why do I say that? Because it’s very unusual that the knee problems originate in the knee. Usually it has to do with the ways we are moving or not moving that strain the knee. Problems with our overall movement organization leave us unable to deal with an urgent situation, like what happens in sports or a sudden loss of balance. I work with people who have knee problems frequently. It’s interesting to trace the history of the circumstances and physical organization that led up to their injury..
I was already interested in the knee and working with a lot of people with knee injuries, when I had a serious knee injury myself. I created the series after I recovered. I felt that I learned through my journey and had a lot to share. I have gotten a lot of good feedback over the years.
You have a lot of clients with knee injuries. What is a typical course of working with a knee injury?
First, I want to find out the circumstances of the injury and what’s happening at that moment. I enjoy being a detective. I try to imagine what led a person to fall, what led to this injury happening the way that it did. But even if you don’t know that, you can figure it out, because by the time someone comes to me they are favoring one leg. And you can follow the pathways of their history through their spine, their trunk, their hips, and get a sense of what has led to them being more vulnerable to the kind of injury they had experienced.
Dr. Feldenkrais used to talk about “accidents not being accidents.” What he meant by that was that the injury happened due to one’s pattern of movement: If for example I strongly favor one leg, it could be because I had an injury years ago and I am still not comfortable on the other leg. That gives me less options if I am in a dog park and a dog comes jumping at my legs. It’s actually one of the most common causes of knee injury in my practice: people being injured in dog parks because of these happy excited dogs! A dog jumping at you is an accident. What’s not an accident is the options we have for responding to the situation. Ideally, we will move equally to the right and to the left, forward and backward. We’ll be able to take a step and keep our balance. That’s what Feldenkrais lessons and classes aim at: resilience and ability to move in response to unexpected things. E.g. if a person can move easily to the right, but not to the left, and the dog hits them from the right, they are not as able to keep their balance in such a situation and fall down. Then on the way down they can plant the foot or twist and the strain goes to the knee.
What is the best course of action once you have injured a knee?
There are many different kinds of knee injuries. Any strain in a joint can be helped with resting and reducing the swelling. Usually people come to a Feldenkrais® practitioner after the most acute stage is over. No matter the situation we can work with the whole person so that less strain goes to the site of injury and help improve their functioning so they are less likely to re-injure the knee. Many of my clients come to see what is possible without the surgery being recommended. Others come after they’ve had surgery because either they are not satisfied with their recovery or want to avoid another injury.
Dr. Feldenkrais’ own knee injury is often mentioned. Can you share your personal injury story?
Dr. Feldenkrais’ central insight related to his knee was that his injury originated in the entire way he was moving. And that It wasn’t about the knee. Again, the knee is often an innocent joint! His experience recovering from his knee injuries is what led to his creation of his Method.
In my case, I was a serious practitioner of Aikido. At the time I injured myself, I was quite proud of how I was able to practice Aikido vigorously and frequently without getting many serious injuries. In my case, the injury to my knee was a result of hubris and a string of bad decisions. Again, accidents are not just accidents! In my case it was as much about an emotional context as something physical.
The first hands on Feldenkrais lesson I had after the injury was very moving and powerful. The Feldenkrais practitioner who gave me a lesson said: “ You are going to learn so much.” And I thought:”$@$@ you!”. Of course, he was right. I learned a lot through having that challenge and having to use my skills to rehabilitate myself. By then I had almost 20 years of Feldenkrais experience. I was able to improve up to a point and then I had surgery for a torn meniscus. Eventually I was able to return to all my activities including vigorous Aikido, mountain hiking etc.
What is the essence of Feldenkrais approach in rehabilitation of the knee as compared to the traditional medical approaches?
Let’s say somebody comes to my practice and they have already had a surgery. They most likely have gone through a rehab that involves stretching and strengthening, which in my point of view does not go far enough. (There are PT’s out there who go further and do wonderful work, usually with additional training.) First, surgery of any kind is a trauma. Even if you had an excellent surgery, there’s an element of trauma, not to mention the trauma of the original injury. Clients often come with shallow breathing and contraction around their hips, which interferes with the functioning of their knees. So this is the first step that I would address as a Feldenkrais practitioner to work with the physical trauma of surgery.
Next, we can look at any way that a person is moving that is bringing strain into the recovering knee. This would usually involve the organization of the head and the neck, spine, and the hip joints. A person should be able to shift to the inside of both feet, to the outside of both feet, etc. It should be easy and pleasurable to do, so that they can use it effortlessly in their daily life. It sounds simple, but it can take time because often people have asymmetries in their spine and asymmetries in their movements.
In the Feldenkrais Method, we make an important distinction between having asymmetries (which we all have) and being able to function symmetrically. We are born asymmetrical. Yet we should be able to move and function symmetrically. That’s what we work with. It’s important to have your options. Catching balance when you lose it. You should be able to shift your weight, so you are lined up over one leg and lined up over another leg. What we do instinctively as humans, which doesn’t help us, is moving completely to the leg that’s not injured. People then go to the leg that’s injured for a minimal time and this becomes a habit.. In this way, we create asymmetrical use and imbalance.
What about a gradual decline in the functioning of the knees?
Many people have discomfort in the knees even without injuries. And it’s even more evident that this comes from the way they are using themselves. I can offer an example from my practice. A young woman came to me with the complaints of bilateral knee pain. That tells you that it’s not about shifting weight from side to side. She had a big arch in her back and as we discussed, she mentioned back pain as well. Someone advised her to arch her back more and she took it to the extreme. So now the knees were hyperextended and they were hurting. Hyperextended knees are at much greater risk of injury. Through both Awareness Through Movement® lessons and Functional Integration® sessions she learned how to have to have more curves in other parts of the spine, more skeletal support, and softer knees. It’s very important to give people homework to do at home to remind them what they have learned through the work with Feldenkrais practitioners. She was very diligent and together we were able to rid her of the pain. The together part is essential!
Any parting advice for our readers?
A simple idea: have bouncy knees. Be ready to have soft and ready to go knees. People sometimes have an idea that the legs should be “straight.” The body is not really straight. You are ready for action when the knees are slightly bent. You shouldn’t need to change the position of the knees in order to move. That would mean you need to go through a two-step process to meet something unexpected. You want to be able to respond directly to a dog jumping at you in a dog park!
Elizabeth Beringer studied and worked closely with Dr. Feldenkrais from 1976 to 1984 in both Israel and the U.S. She has been involved with the practice and development of the Feldenkrais Method for more than 30 years, including founding and editing The Feldenkrais JournalTM. Elizabeth holds a 6th-degree black belt in the martial art Aikido, which greatly informs her Feldenkrais work. Currently she is the educational director of several training programs internationally. Her website: www.feldenkraisresources.com