“Health is measured, not by the capacity to stay standing, but by the ability to be knocked down
and then return to standing.” – Moshe Feldenkrais
“If we always choose comfort, we never learn the deepest capabilities of our mind and body.” – Wim Hof
About a decade ago, I stumbled upon the Feldenkrais Method. It turned out to be the thing that I didn’t know I was looking for.
The only thing clear to me was that I wanted to improve my health. I had decided to focus on that because the rest of my life was a mess and, frankly, I didn’t think there was much I could do about it. But, I reasoned, “my health is something that I can change.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but that thought actually marked the moment when I really did begin to clean up my “messy” life and turn it around.
I started with what I knew. I would go running every morning after my night shift job in a DC meat processing facility. Eventually I ran distances of up to 10 miles. It was the best part of my day. I wanted more.
I’d heard about something called “yoga”, but didn’t know what it was. Later, another strange word, “Pilates”, entered my vocabulary. I took both classes and fell in love with the feelings of aliveness that resulted. Meanwhile, I kept running.
In my spare time, I Googled, looking for new ways to improve my health.
At some point, I learned about conscious breathwork and bought a couple of books on the subject. A few ideas from those books made an impression on me:
- mouth breathing is a bad habit
- breathing slower is a good habit, and
- manipulating the rhythm of your breathing can shift the overall state of your body.
I also came across two specific suggestion for runners:
- When you run, breathe in for three steps and breathe out for two steps.
- When you run uphill, breathe in for two steps and breathe out for two steps.
Suddenly, my daily run transformed into a deep soul practice, reconnecting me to feelings of power and creativity I hadn’t experienced for several years. I was particularly affected by the sensations that came from coordinating the rhythm of my breathing and my running feet. It activated a sense of musicality in my body that took me back to my past as an improvising musician and also connected me with a new interest of mine that required skillful breath control: learning how to beatbox.
All these things mixed together when I went running.
Breathing through my nose, I counted my breaths to the metronome of my feet according to what I had read. But one day I decided to slow my breathing down. Three and two steps became six and four steps. When I came to a hill, I inhaled for four steps and exhaled for four steps instead of two.
Then I got curious about the musicality of these cadences and exploring new cadences as well. I began to experiment with all kinds of number patterns to shift the balance of my inhalations and exhalations. For example, I invented a 14-beat breathing pattern: 7-2-3-2 beginning with an inhalation, followed by a 7-4-3 pattern before returning to the first pattern again, this time starting with an exhalation.
For patterns that always started over while stepping on the same foot, I made sure to test them on both the right and the left. I was creating musical problems to solve with my body.
When the rhythms got more familiar, I stopped counting altogether. I replaced the numbers by “singing” high and low tones in my head, relying on my musical sense to keep track of the durations. When I noticed that I was always breathing in with the high tone and breathing out with the low tone, I reversed that too. Once again, it changed the way I breathed.
It seemed that each new experiment led to another. I was thinking about breathing, rhythm, music, and movement in ways that I had never considered before. I was feeling sensations I had never felt before.
I couldn’t explain it, but every day running felt more like flying.
I seemed to have stumbled upon a set of controls deep inside myself that could be used to tweak my physiology (the phrase “nervous system” wasn’t in my vocabulary yet). I was slowly learning that I could upgrade my experience of being alive.
I hadn’t yet discovered the Feldenkrais Method. But without knowing it, I was already working with some of its key ingredients.
Fast forward to 2021:
I’ve been practicing the Feldenkrais Method for nearly a decade now and teaching it publicly since 2014. My training, experiences with clients, and a number of life lessons have expanded my understanding of what the Method is all about.
Like my experiments with running and breathing, the practice involves exploring novel motor tasks while listening deeply to what unfolds inside. It leads to more efficient physical and mental function, sharper senses, and the potential for greater spontaneity and creativity. Practiced with dedication, it opens up an entirely new realm of possibility for how you think about who you are and what you are capable of.
Meanwhile, in the past couple of years, I had also heard about an apparently crazy Dutchman named Wim Hof who meditated in the snow and ran marathons in the Arctic. He too had developed a method and was teaching other people to withstand the cold. As I learned more about him I was impressed, but I concluded that his practice was “for badasses only”, or “extreme athletes,” as he was often described.
Then, late last year, Wim Hof began to make his way inside the social media bubble I live in. He was interviewed by many podcasters I listen to and I read about him in a chapter of the book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor.
By this time the world had already been shut down for eight months. Like everyone, I was dealing with my own unique manifestations of pandemic stress.
From the beginning, my Feldenkrais practice had been a lifeline for me and the crisis had given me a new way to understand its value. But what Wim Hof was saying hinted at a different path to a similar goal, something that had the potential to significantly deepen what I had already learned. I was intrigued.
If there is one word that could sum up what I saw at the intersection of the Feldenkrais Method and what Wim Hof was teaching, it would be resilience.
At the time of this writing, I have been practicing Wim Hof Method daily for two months. I’m still in that wide-eyed discovery stage, amazed at the changes that have unfolded in my life in such a short period of time. It reminds me of how I felt when I first discovered Feldenkrais.
For example, last week I filled my bath tub with cold water, then dumped in 16 pounds of ice. I soaked in the 5°C water for 6 minutes (I’ve gone 10 minutes in slightly warmer water). I begin each day with four rounds of alternating deep breathing and breath holding. I’ve held my breath more than three minutes on a few occasions.
I’ve been running almost every day for the past two months as well. I go out in my t-shirt in the winter weather. On one occasion I stripped down to my shorts to make a snow angel.
I would have thought of these things as impossible just three months ago. But Wim Hof has a very strong track record of helping all kinds of people achieve these kinds of feats (not just “badasses”). The transformations often have the character of what Moshe Feldenkrais used to call “making the impossible possible.”
Two different paths to building new human behavior
On the face of it, Wim Hof and Feldenkrais practice would seem to be very different.
While Wim Hof practitioners embrace situations most people shy away from, Feldenkrais classes are known for their gentle and slow movements and an emphasis on not over-exerting one’s self. Reducing unnecessary stress is key.
But on closer examination, I find that, despite their differences, these two modalities share key underlying principles related to how we learn and change. A central idea in both practices is that you can create new behaviors by deliberately stepping outside of your comfort zone – if you do so gradually.
While overbreathing, breath holding and deliberate cold exposure might not seem gentle, in Wim Hof’s 10-week online course (which I have nearly completed), you are only asked to spend 30 seconds in a cold shower throughout the first week. Cold showers are 1 minute long in the second week. While setting specific targets to shoot for, Hof always tells you to move at your own pace and “without force.”
The more you practice, the more you discover what you are capable of. The shock of cold is intense at the beginning, but with just a little repetition, 30 seconds soon feels like nothing. Your own experience teaches you that there is no reason to be anxious: you did this yesterday!
It becomes easier each time to prepare yourself to confront the intentionally invited stress. You learn to inhibit the feeling of needing to tense. You learn to relax under circumstances that previously might have caused you to panic.
Switching back to the Feldenkrais Method:
As I’ve already mentioned, Feldenkrais might seem to be all about avoiding stress. The movement processes usually have a slow and quiet pacing that includes frequent rests. But in fact, Feldenkrais was teaching people to continuously confront their habits. His Awareness Through Movement lessons are filled with peculiar situations that often invite you into confusion before you arrive at clarity.
The reason for moving slowly and smoothly is to give you the opportunity to pay attention to small sensory details related to the efficiency of your action. This atmosphere also makes it painfully obvious when you are moving inefficiently. This experience is one reason why some people find Feldenkrais to be incredibly challenging. They are denied their normal strategy of pushing through and ignoring discomfort in order to “get this over with.”
But if you are willing to hang in there, the slow tempo gives you the opportunity to self-correct bad habits that you may have been enacting for decades. As you practice breathing freely – even while exploring unusual new patterns of behavior – you can become more skilled at remaining calm in unfamiliar situations.
In more advanced practice, you might apply this same ongoing self-observation to situations like balancing on one leg, doing the splits, moving the head and eyes in opposite directions, interlacing your toes, doing Judo rolls, or even standing on your head. In my current class series I’m using Feldenkrais processes to help students find more comfort in the unwieldy and asymmetrical shape of the yoga pose known as Trikonasana, or Triangle.
So while there is an emphasis on avoiding unnecessary strain in the Feldenkrais Method, it’s gentle nature is actually designed to lead you further and further outside your comfort zone – or, if you like, to bring new territories inside that zone.
Both Feldenkrais and Wim Hof aim to bring you closer to your natural potential as a human being. These practices can unlock capacities that dramatically exceed what most of us have learned to settle for.
When you expand in this way, you can create an entirely new image of who you are and how you move through the world. Not only can you experience greater physical health. You can also gain better control over your emotions, ward off anxiety, make better decisions, and experience deeper human connection.
These days it seems that the world as we have known it is radically shifting. It’s a circumstance that calls on us to reexamine who we think we are. It’s an invitation that could lead either to fear or curiosity.
We often make big choices in a single instant. That’s why it’s so valuable to regularly expose yourself to some measure of uncertainty. By doing this, you create opportunities to practice exercising greater conscious control over your actions. If you can learn to pause just one instant longer in the midst of chaotic events, you can make deliberate choices rather than acting compulsively.
When you hold your breath, the closer you come to the limit of your capacity, the stronger will be the feeling of “breath hunger.” Although you can teach yourself to ward this feeling off for greater periods of time, in my experience once it arrives in full force, this feeling is essentially impossible to fight.
(While longer periods of breath retention can be a sign of progress in Wim Hof practice, and many practitioners keep track of these durations, the directions in the workbook of Wim Hof’s Fundamentals course are clear: “Remember that this is not a competition. Listen to your body. When the urge to breathe arises, give in to that impulse.”)
If you could feel pure fear in your body, this is what it might feel like: the inability to breathe.
Feldenkrais repeatedly talked about another kind of primal fear: the feeling of falling.
Whenever you lose your balance, you tense yourself instinctively to try to prevent or break your fall. Your muscles contract to try to make up for the loss of skeletal support. Even if you don’t hit the ground, your efforts to stay upright will limit your ability to breathe freely, think clearly, or make any other voluntary action until you are stable again.
If you have poor posture, you might well be “falling” all day long. Feelings of “stiffness” might have less to do with a lack of “flexibility” than you might think. Instead, your limited movement range may well have to do with ongoing, involuntary muscular contractions that you rely on for stability. That engagement rules out using your muscles to perform other actions (hence the “stiff” neck, shoulders, or hips) and also restricts the movement of your diaphragm, limiting your ability to breathe.
In short, life feels less joyful and less spontaneous.
Another situation where your likely instinct will be to contract in on yourself is exposure to extreme cold. What does the “Iceman”, Wim Hof, say to do in this situation?
Basically, two things: 1) Prepare your mind ahead of time and 2) relax.
Wim often talks about creating an “inner fire” in your torso. He invites you to imagine the 125,000 kilometers of your vascular system’s internal pathways, and the possibility of opening and closing “millions of tiny muscles” all along its length. He talks about how the breathing exercises increase the alkalinity of your blood.
It reminds me of something that Feldenkrais once described as “perfecting the self-image.” By imagining your insides and painting a clearer picture of them in your mind, you can stimulate the reorganization of biological function. In Feldenkrais practice, you often imagine movements before you actually make them.
Because every movement you make begins in your brain. So if you aren’t clear on how to coordinate a particular action, it means the map you are working from is probably incomplete. For example, people that don’t know where their hip joints are located will walk awkwardly. But if they learn to locate their hip joints – both in their mind’s eye and through direct sensation – they can improve their coordination.
As Feldenkrais would say, “When you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”
In an Awareness Through Movement lesson, you investigate movement patterns methodically until the picture of “what you’re doing” gets clearer and clearer. You’re going somewhere, but your attention is continuously guided to the process of how you get there. During frequent rest periods, you observe the state of your body and its relationship to the floor. In these moments, you can watch your internal image developing piece by piece.
A common experience is that certain parts of your body – usually the places where your attention has just been focused – let go and rest more completely on the floor. One leg or arm can feel longer than the other. One eye can feel larger than the other. With ongoing practice, you learn to tune in more quickly – at any moment during your day – to where you feel longer or shorter, larger or smaller.
It’s this piece of Feldenkrais practice that I have found especially useful to carry with me into my approach to Wim Hof breathwork and cold exposure. In both situations, the more you can relax – despite the stress of not breathing or the shock of cold temperatures – the longer you will be able to remain comfortable.
In those moments, I move my attention throughout my body until I find a place that feels tighter or smaller. Then I imagine that part of myself expanding. I don’t ask myself to “completely let go,” but rather to “let go just one percent.” I have found that this idea is much simpler to enact, but often causes a ripple effect that is much wider.
If I feel persistently shorter on one side, I don’t fight it. Instead I might change my position to embrace the shape my body seems to want to make. Feldenkrais might have called this “going with the pattern.” Wim Hof might describe it as “following the feeling.”
The breakthrough that led to my longest breath hold to date happened one night when I decided to practice in bed just before falling asleep. After 40 rapid breaths, I clamped my nose shut with my fingers and propped my elbow under a pillow (to minimize the effort required by the arm position). Then I began the retention process, snug and warm under the covers.
I wasn’t using a stopwatch, but the time that passed before I felt the need to breathe seemed endless. It seems that I forgot what I was doing and simply fell asleep. I detached completely from the paradigm of “holding my breath” and drifted into dreamland. But somehow I still managed to keep my mouth and nose shut.
After that experience, I stopped trying to merely “relax” during breath retentions, instead inviting myself to “fall asleep” to induce a deeper state of letting go. A couple days later I held my breath for 3 minutes and 8 seconds. To this day, this idea of drifting towards sleep continues to be a part of my breath holding practice. It feels radically different than my first experiences of fighting losing battles against “breath hunger.”
Moshe Feldenkrais was a black belt in Judo. So he specifically trained himself to fall without tensing himself, overcoming that primal fear. Wim Hof, it seems, taught himself a similar thing by deliberately and repeatedly exposing himself to the cold – without contracting into himself.
Both men demonstrated that we can develop conscious control over bodily processes that we often think of as automatic. While these paths may appear quite different on the surface, in my experience, they overlap in many places and are mutually supportive of each other. I intend to continue pursuing them both.
Click here for series of short videos about how Feldenkrais Method can help improve the Wim Hof “wave breath”
If you have never tried the Wim Hof Method, click here for a great place to start.