Movement Therapies

Movement therapies are techniques aimed at “retraining” your body to move in a healthy way to relieve chronic pain and muscular tension. During a session, you may wear loose, comfortable clothing (except for Hellerwork massage, when you will want to strip to your underwear). Most of these techniques are quite gentle and accessible to beginners, and some are more widely available than others. Some types of movement may aggravate arthritis or other joint problems, so check with your doctor before trying any new therapy if you have a medical condition.


Hellerwork combines deep-tissue massage with emotional awareness and movement education. The tissue manipulation (known as Rolfing) is aimed at stretching and realigning your fascia, the soft connective tissue that intertwines with the muscles all over your body, so that you can move about more easily. During the session, which can be painful, your instructor will encourage you to talk about any emotional issues that arise in order to determine how your feelings may be affecting you physically. He or she will use this information to help you change the way you hold and move your body in daily life, which may help relieve tension, anxiety, or chronic pain. An instructor may videotape you as you walk or move so you can see for yourself what’s happening. A complete treatment consists of a series of eleven 90-minute sessions.


Dancers have been using the Pilates method to stretch and strengthen muscles, loosen joints, and improve balance for the last 80 years. During a class, you position yourself on various contraptions that look like a cross between weight-training machines and gymnastics equipment. You may secure your neck, shoulder, and feet in place with blocks and belts to provide support, ensure proper body alignment, and isolate the specific muscles you want to work on. Harnesses, pulleys, and chains create resistance and stability as you move your limbs according to your instructor’s commands. The exercise is meant to be meditative, but can be fast-paced and challenging. Injuries are rare since teachers work with students one-on-one. Pilates is often used in physical therapy and athletic training. It specifically strengthens the muscles around your middle, making it particularly valuable if you have lower-back problems. Classes usually last about an hour.


Rudolf Laban spent many years studying how people move before developing his own form of dance therapy and a system for describing particular movements (Labanotation). During a Laban class, the instructor may take you through a choreographed routine or ask you to improvise your own movements. The idea is to rediscover a healthy way of moving by reenacting the stages an infant goes through when first learning to walk. This exercise should help you become aware of how even seemingly superfluous motions can influence how your body moves as a whole. Classes typically last an hour but are not widely available.


Developed by Milton Trager, a physician, this approach uses rhythmic touch and simple exercises to ease tension and possibly relieve chronic pain. During an initial session of “Psychophysical Integration,” you lie on a massage table while a practitioner gently rocks, kneads, shakes, and stretches your neck, trunk, and limbs to induce relaxation and increase flexibility. Afterward, you are taught dancelike movements that can be performed at home or in “Mentastics” classes to reinforce the message to your body and mind. Trager practitioners, who must complete at least 409 hours of training and fieldwork to become certified, believe they can relieve pain by training your unconscious mind to release its hold on chronically contracted and inflamed muscles. An initial 90-minute session costs between $35 and $90. Follow-up classes can last 30 to 90 minutes and cost $5 to $25.

Alexander Technique

An Australian actor created the Alexander technique around the turn of the century, and it’s still a favorite therapy among performers today for improving posture, balance, and ease of movement. During a lesson, an Alexander teacher will give you verbal coaching and gently guide your body with his or her hands as you sit, stand, and walk. The goal is to help you identify and change unconscious mistakes in posture and improve the alignment of your head, neck, and spine in order to relieve muscular tension, aches, and pains. There are only about 300 teachers who are certified in the U.S. Alexander lessons can be done one-on-one or in a class setting. A lesson usually lasts 45 minutes and costs $35 to $80.


The Feldenkrais method aims to restore full range of motion to people who have developed inhibited patterns of movement in response to injuries, emotional stress, or long hours of sitting in the same position at work. A pulled muscle, for example, can cause you to hold your neck rigidly or hunch your shoulders, and these actions become bad habits that persist even after the injury is healed, setting you up for more pain and injuries in the future. During a session of “Functional Integration,” you lie on a padded table while a practitioner gently guides you through various movements to make you aware of subtle nuances that can have a big effect on how you move and hold yourself.

Undoing ingrained habits is a slow process; you may need 20 sessions at $50 to $90 each before seeing any progress. The therapy appears to be most helpful in treating chronic muscular pain. Group classes called “Awareness Through Movement,” in which a teacher directs you verbally, are much less expensive and may be helpful for mild problems. Both kinds of sessions last 45 minutes to an hour. Certified practitioners must have 740-800 hours of training over three to four years, but look for one with plenty of experience as well.


Steven Bratman, The Alternative Medicine Sourcebook, pp161-70, RGA Publishing Group 1997.

Feldenkrais Educational Foundation of North America. Frequently Asked Questions.

Massage and Other Hands-on Therapies can Help Reduce Pain, January 14, 2010.

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