If you know what you are doing, you can do what you want
I was in my late 30’s, at the height of my performing career, but my body felt like I was ready for the junk heap. My back hurt almost all the time. I was going to the chiropractor, massage therapist and acupuncturist just to be able to keep getting on the stage. I was convinced that I had something terribly wrong with me. One time, I peeked at the chiropractor’s chart to see my diagnosis. It said “Lumbago.” Wow. I was impressed. Then I looked it up. Lumbago means lower back pain. That’s it? Nothing was really wrong with me? Then why the pain?
One day, while sitting in yet another doctor’s office, I came across an excerpt from a book called The Elusive Obvious. I loved the title. It was written by some guy named Moshe Feldenkrais. I’d never heard of him, but as I read, light bulbs were exploding in my head. The excerpt talked about habit. Feldenkrais explained that most of our actions are governed by habits we’ve developed over the course of our lives. From the moment we learn to move as babies, we are creating habits that help us turn, reach, walk, drive, make coffee, fall in love, everything. In his book, The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg says that when we are learning something new, all different parts of the brain light up. Once it’s become a habit, the brain doesn’t work anymore. Instead, the basal ganglia, like some incredibly efficient secretary, delegates the way we accomplish our tasks, based on the habits that have developed. My brain lit up. What if my back pain was a habit?
I went running to the nearest bookstore and ordered The Elusive Obvious, devouring it like it was manna from heaven. Feldenkrais spoke about how we develop an anxiety pattern that results in tension and holding that affect our posture. Oh my god, did I ever have an anxiety pattern. Could that be the reason I was in pain? I went to a Feldenkrais class in New York. It seemed like we were doing virtually nothing. I raised and lowered my head. I breathed. I laid down. It was very relaxing, but really? After the class was over, I was chatting with someone as I bent to tie my shoes. I froze. Stood up. Bent back down. Stood up. “My, my, my back doesn’t hurt!” I blurted.
By the fourth year of my Feldenkrais Professional Training, my performing ability had improved so that I was more flexible and elegant than I had been in my twenties. Funny thing though. I was so in love with this work, I no longer wanted to be in show business. I wanted to share Feldenkrais with as many people as I could. This story is a common thread among many practitioners. Either it helped them, or someone close to them.
“It’s not flexible bodies, but flexible brains I’m after.” Moshe Feldenkrais
So how does it work? People ask me all the time, “If there’s no stretching, and no strain, how can we possibly improve?” I love that question. We have been totally indoctrinated into a culture that says, “No pain, no gain.” This “harder is better” principle operates on the assumption that the body is just a stupid machine that must be subjugated by the “mind.” Feldenkrais was one of the first people to propose that the body itself is intelligent. The French neuroscientist, Alain Bertholz, says in his book The Brain’s Sense of Movement, that we have forgotten our sixth sense: the kinesthetic sense. Without a kinesthetic sense, I wouldn’t know I’m touching the keyboard, exactly how far to reach to my teacup, or even where I am in the room. Our kinesthetic sense surrounds us so totally, it’s invisible, like asking a fish about water.
Feldenkrais said, “I believe that the unity of mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an inseparable whole while functioning. A brain without a body could not think.” So he developed a system using movement alongside the thinking mind and the kinesthetic sense. He called his lessons Awareness Through Movement®. These lessons, often done lying down, but also standing and sitting, use small, precise movements to help direct students’ attention to the way they move in order to discover easier, more functional options.
How you move is how you move through life. Your body/mind is completely governed by your nervous system’s response: to stress, pleasure, shock and your environment. The gentle movements of the Feldenkrais Method allow you to learn to develop new habits that can reduce pain, improve flexibility and as Feldenkrais put it, “…restore human dignity.”
How It Works
The Feldenkrais Method is not a magical mystery. It’s actually based on a very precise study of how the nervous system learns. When a baby is learning how to lift her head, or roll over, she doesn’t have a manual, a coach or even an idea about how to do it. The process becomes one of trial and error, experimentation and discovery. Every baby is unique. While one baby will roll over onto the stomach and be amazed and delighted, another will be so shocked she starts crying. This too is part of the learning process. When we learn, we are at the threshold of the unknown. After all, if you already know, then there’s nothing to learn.
Because our first learning experience, and all the attendant ways we approach life and think about things come from this original organic learning experience of movement, Feldenkrais lessons use movement to help us learn about ourselves. Many of the movements come from infant development patterns. Others are subtle investigations into function: how does the shoulder move, how does it relate to the muscles of the back, how does it interfere with easy breathing? Every one of the thousands of lessons comes complete with many questions for the nervous system to investigate. The process of paying attention to the movement is actually more important than the movement itself.
What makes Awareness Through Movement lessons unique is that there is no goal except your personal awareness and experience. The teacher does not demonstrate. Instead, the instructions are precise verbal directions that allow each person to explore according to his interest and ability. There is no “best” person in the class. There is no “wrong.” If someone has misinterpreted the movement instruction, the instructor realizes that that person has a different learning process. The suggestion is then re-phrased, developed and clarified. This helps people break the habit of thinking they have to be told “what is right.” Each person discovers how the movement is right for him.
Awareness Through Movement lessons can be done by anyone, because the work is with the brain. If a person has limitations (“We move according to our perceived self-image,” said Feldenkrais), she can work with the instructor to find greater ease, or simply imagine the movement. It’s now standard practice among athletes, musicians and others to “visualize” executing a movement. Research has shown that athletic performance actually improves more through use of imagery than physical drills. Feldenkrais introduced the process of imagining movement over forty years ago, stating that the nervous system interprets intention as action. This is why the work is so effective for people who have neurological damage, either through birth trauma, stroke or other illness.
Because each of us has a unique learning style, as well as personal goals and needs, The Feldenkrais Method is not just taught in groups. The one on one experience is called a Functional Integration lesson. Feldenkrais believed it was more important to be functional than to “look right.” And if your functions are integrated, then that means all the parts are communicating in an effective way and you can realize personal goals.
A person might choose a private lesson for a number of reasons. He feels more comfortable when not in a group setting, or has a specific goal, like improving his golf stroke or violin playing. She may be recovering from an injury or a trauma that requires individual attention. He wants to work with how an emotional issue has impacted on his posture and feels safer one on one.
A tennis player can learn a lot from a tennis clinic with many other people. But spending individual time with a coach can tailor the learning process. The same thing happens in a private Feldenkrais lesson. The big difference between Awareness Through Movement and Functional Integration is the approach. Instead of merely verbal instructions, the practitioner actually guides movement through touch. This profoundly increases the student’s sensitivity to holdings and habits that may be interfering with her optimal functioning.
Students remain fully clothed and often lie or sit on a Feldenkrais table that is lower and wider than a traditional massage table. This allows freedom of movement while affording a relaxing environment. Even though this experience has a therapeutic effect, it is still a lesson, an educational process. Feldenkrais believed that no one has the power to “fix” anyone. All a Feldenkrais practitioner does is teach a person how to pay attention in a way that allows him to live the life he wants.
“I don’t teach movement, I teach learning.” Moshe Feldenkrais
Some people want “homework”; ways to practice at home. Feldenkrais teachers often make recordings, recommend available recordings or provide notes for the self motivated. But we never say, “You should go home and do the following exercise.” And we certainly never tell anyone who has asked for exercises how often they should do it. In fact, Feldenkrais said, in his book The Potent Self, “Should means don’t want to.” Feldenkrais lessons are designed to invite pleasure, curiosity and wonder, not stress, anxiety or compulsion. Think of all the things you learned because of fear of punishment, or how you felt when someone told you there was only one way to do something and you had done it wrong. Maybe you learned the skill, but there will always tension around the activity. Learning can be fun, and what could be more fun than learning about yourself?
A mini-Feldenkrais lesson
You can do this lesson right where you are sitting. Sitting on the front of your chair, with your feet flat on the floor, sense your sit bones at the bottom of your pelvis. Slowly begin to roll your pelvis as if you were slumping. Your tailbone moves forward and your lower back moves backward. You may feel your heels wanting to lift, that’s OK. Return to neutral and repeat several times. As you tilt, notice your breath. Can you exhale as you round your back, and inhale as you return? What do you feel in head and neck? Try gently lowering your head as you tilt your pelvis.
Take a short rest by sitting back in your chair.
Return to the front of your chair and try the opposite movement. Tilt your pelvis so that your lower back arches slightly and your tailbone moves back. Does your chest move? As you tilt your pelvis, let your head look up toward the ceiling. Imagine your whole spine participating in this movement.
After a short rest, return to the front of the chair, and begin alternating the movement of the pelvis – rolling it forward and back. As you arch your back, your head looks up, as you round your back, your head looks down. Make the movement smaller and smaller, till someone walking by wouldn’t even see that you are moving.
As you return to your work, notice your posture and even your vision may have changed.