I’ve been asked many times how one can make the Feldenkrais Method into a personal practice.
Quite often the question comes from a person who has just tried their first ever Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lesson.
Maybe you have this question too?
At the end of class, you notice a dramatic change in your sense of being. You reflect on what produced this shift: an hour or less spent doing small, slow movements with an emphasis on using minimal effort, and you want to know:
“What just happened?!”
“Where do I go from here?”
I think that the way I have often answered this question has been unsatisfying.
So now I will try to get more to the heart of the question.
Learning takes place when we notice differences.
The movements you just did in class were less important than the process of how you explored them. The difference you felt afterward was only partially due to those movements – which were mostly there to provide the context for you to use your attention in a particular way.
This new experience of yourself is the result of having slowed down enough to become aware of elements that are usually below the level of your radar. Something fresh emerged as you noticed new sensations making themselves distinct from their surroundings.
Blurred parts of you came into focus. One or two missing pieces of your puzzle were found.
Noticing what you’ve never noticed before helped you find new differences between places inside that you previously grouped together as being the same.
When you see a baby kicking her two legs together, it’s because her brain doesn’t yet notice the difference between these two limbs. When she senses that difference clearly, she will begin to use the two legs in a differentiated way – just think about how much will change for her then!
Likewise, inside the brain of an adult with a “stiff neck”, there might be very little difference between the head, neck, and shoulders.
Of course, if you asked this person, they could point to these different parts of themselves. But in their movement you might notice that all these parts of their body function like one block.
This is often because their history has led them to create a strong association between the movement of turning the neck and the experience of pain.
At some moment in the past, the pain served a very real purpose because something got damaged. Turning the head really was a bad idea. So at that time moving like a block was a very intelligent response to the situation.
But now it’s an incredibly limiting behavior based on a body memory rather than the real possibilities of the present moment.
(For those who experience chronic pain, the body may be sending pain signals when there is no actual danger of damage to tissue. More on this in my blog post Healing Pain 101:Understanding Pain is the First Step)
An Awareness Through Movement lesson that could benefit this person would consist of tiny, quiet and slow movements that didn’t set off alarm bells. Yet, with the safety of this approach, the instructions of the lesson might require this person to move their head and shoulders separately.
This process contradicts the habitual trauma-induced internal assumption this person always carries inside them that these parts must always move together. Instead, it demonstrates – through felt experience – that this motor pattern can be activated in the brain without resulting in pain.
Even if the new pattern is far from perfect right now, your primal intelligence recognizes its biological advantage over the old pattern and is strongly attracted to the new possibility.
Your nervous system is remarkably capable at this moment of immediately forming new patterns of muscular organization that will serve you better.
The change you feel after the lesson might show up in your muscles, but the shift that took place happened in your brain.
That’s why it happened so fast, and why you feel so different.
Creating the conditions for learning
What can be confusing about the Feldenkrais Method when you are new, even if you have a good experience, is that the process I’m describing here usually happens mostly below the surface.
Although sometimes the lessons produce insights that you can clearly articulate in words, just as often – especially when you are new – you don’t understand how these changes have taken place.
Your analytical mind dislikes that kind of situation and immediately pounces on any clues it can find to explain “the” answer.
Luckily, another part of you – let’s call it your body-brain – doesn’t have this same bias. It’s also much more directly the author of your transformation than the part of you that processes with words.
When you move into a state of self-listening that is much more caring than what you usually afford yourself, this more sensitive part of you wakes up and pays attention. It becomes easier to sense clearly the places where you habitually use extra unnecessary efforts.
This deeper body intelligence is quite capable of taking the insight one step further and releasing some portion of those extraneous muscular contractions.
That’s why you also have an entirely new experience of gravity when you return to upright action. You are now feeling yourself with a little bit less of the historical compensations you developed in reaction to past experiences.
So, let’s suppose that you came to class with a “stiff neck”, but now you discover that you have the freedom to turn your head without pain in all directions.
Even if you can’t explain what happened in terms of the process, what’s clear is that you have just spent time caring for yourself in a quiet state.
Quite apart from which movements you did that might have contradicted your habitual motor patterns, you also just related to yourself in a non-habitual way.
Think of all the time you were given, the non-goal oriented atmosphere of the class, the frequent rests you took, and all the repeated invitations to become curious about aspects of yourself that you usually ignore (or perhaps never considered in the first place).
All of these ingredients combine into a recipe that allows you to taste a state of being entirely different than the way you usually move through the world.
If you had treated this same sequence of movements as an exercise, repeating them quickly and mechanically with an emphasis on quantity over quality, you would not be experiencing this new version of yourself. Without deep listening, you would not have noticed the details that made such a difference for you.
But you did something different. You created the conditions for learning in your nervous system.
Understanding the “why” of Feldenkrais strategy
What I have described so far are key strategies of the Feldenkrais Method, and understanding their purpose is crucial to developing a useful and meaningful ongoing practice.
Feldenkrais strategies are both simple and complex. That is, they sound simple – but in practice, they aren’t.
Being gentle with yourself and orienting internally rather than using will power to attain external rewards flies in the face of just about everything you’ve been taught since infancy. Most of your life you learned to ignore or push aside everything standing between you and your goals.
So when you suddenly ask yourself to become curious about subtle sensations that never previously seemed important, don’t be too surprised if you run into a wall of resistance.
For example, perhaps an internal voice tells you that you are being “self-indulgent” or “wasting time.” (This can especially be the case if you are still mystified by how the Feldenkrais process works.)
This is why, indeed, practice is essential.
Being gentle with yourself can feel incredibly foreign at first, but it gets easier over time.
This is, perhaps, the “why” you were looking for in the first place.
Because when your internal voices no longer criticize you for taking care of yourself, it’s already immense progress. The internal pattern of nearly everything you’ve ever done in life has contained excessive striving.
Learning to rely less on will power when you are challenged will take time, but the more you learn to cook without that ingredient, the more rich and varied will be the flavors of life that you taste.
Strategies are not principles
The principles of the Feldenkrais Method are not the same thing as the strategies. This is crucial to understand because those who confuse the two will not get the same benefit from their practice.
For example, “going slow and small” is not a principle.
In fact, moving slowly in a Feldenkrais lesson can be a potent way to prepare yourself to run faster, jump higher, or even lift more weight.
If you find that practicing the Feldenkrais Method makes you less and less inclined to engage yourself in cardiovascular exercise, something is wrong – and it’s likely that you haven’t yet understood the principles of the Method.
The principles are the ingredients of the new, more efficient patterns of action you are discovering through your practice.
(A thorough and meaningful explanation of all the principles of the Feldenkrais Method is beyond the scope of this article – but it’s also more than what’s necessary to get you started in developing a personal Feldenkrais practice. Still, if you’d like a fairly exhaustive list, try this one.)
Ideal Human Movement
The essential thing to realize is that Moshe Feldenkrais was constantly oriented to the task of bringing his students closer to an ideal organization for action.
Feldenkrais was well positioned to understand how to do this. He had a master physicist’s understanding of the behavior of the skeleton in gravity and the direct experience of a Judo black belt in performing efficient movement.
So, you can rest assured that learning what he understood will not happen overnight.
It requires practice.
However, some of the principles are simple enough to immediately incorporate them into your daily life.
I will briefly outline three topics that I focused on in my recent online course, Finding Comfort In Your Own Skin.
In each case, remember that the Feldenkrais learning process is experiential. So, the goal is not to simply understand the principles of ideal movement but to learn how feel them.
Once you can recognize the sensations that indicate when you are moving closer or further from this ideal, there is essentially no limit to your potential for improvement.
In ideal action, the breath is free.
This means that whenever you are breathing easier, you are also moving better. Conversely, if you notice yourself holding or otherwise restricting your breath, the action you are performing contains unnecessary effort.
Furthermore, your resting breath reflects the overall state of your organization at each moment.
So regularly noticing the many different qualities of your breath – it’s volume, rhythm, and the places internally you feel its expansion – is one important way to begin sensing if you are moving towards or away from the ideal.
The more efficiently you connect yourself to the surfaces that support you, the greater will be your ability to distribute the efforts of your action evenly throughout your body.
This means that your ability to be balanced over your gravitational center is essential to efficient movement.
When you find clear skeletal support, your non-postural musculature will be free to engage in voluntary actions. Otherwise, if parts of your structure “fall” towards the earth, you will have to tense yourself in many places to stay upright.
These compensations limit your ability to move freely in any direction at any moment without hesitation.
Breath and balance interact such that if you are “falling” (and, consequently, straining to stay upright) you will find it impossible to have a full and easy breath.
In contrast to falling, ideal action is accompanied by a sensation of “weightlessness.”
This seemingly magical feeling becomes real when the lines of force produced by your contact with the ground move upwards through the middle of your joints, rather than shearing across them.
This means that in ideal action, there is always a sense of lengthening through the spine (even when it’s position isn’t straight) and a lifting away from the ground.
This is harder to explain than it is to feel!
But it’s precisely why you feel lighter at the end of an Awareness Through Movement class.
The more direct experience you have with these sensations, the more intentionally you will be able to look for them.
Ideal action involves the ability to respond spontaneously and effectively to meet the needs of the present moment, free of historical patterns of action formed in reaction to social conditioning.
This may be more difficult to measure than your relationship to your breath or the ground below you, but it can be done.
A good starting place to understand how your story shows up in each moment is to begin paying attention to the sound of your internal voice.
How would that voice sound if you were compromised in the two areas just defined as measures of ideal action?
Imagine you were walking on slippery ice near the edge of a steep precipice.
Now imagine you were lying on your back on a warm sunny beach.
One situation is difficult and dangerous. The other feels easy and safe.
If you couldn’t trust the ground under your feet, how well would you breathe? What state of tension would you carry in your musculature?
On the other hand, if you trusted the environment so much you could consider napping in the open, how would you experience your breath and body then?
Your self-talk also moves between these two kinds of metaphors.
At times you address yourself as if everything is a life and death matter with no room for error – the slightest mistake of any kind proves that you are surely doomed.
But on other occasions you speak with the voice of a happy child, open to possibilities and looking for opportunities to stretch your imagination.
One of these voices grows out of your past experiences. The other voice can’t be found anywhere except in the present moment.
If you just stop for a moment and listen, there are probably words running through your head right now. If your environment is relatively neutral, but your mental voice is not, it will likely distract you from efficient action.
It may become harder to quiet yourself. The noise dulls your sensitivity to internal sensations and cues from the external environment that you need to find clear support from the ground and an easy breath.
That moment at the end of a lesson – when you have shifted into a new relationship to your breath and the ground – also offers you the opportunity to step a little bit outside of the influence of that historic voice.
Not just “better movement”
When you put these things together, you will realize that what you are practicing when you practice the Feldenkrais Method is much more than movement.
As I wrote in another recent post, the fruits of this practice are a sense of physical integrity, mental clarity and emotional dignity.
The more you practice with this understanding, the clearer it will become to you that you are learning principles that apply not only when you are performing the movements of an ATM lesson, but in each moment of your life.
Because the road to the ideal is infinite, it is of vital importance that you are not discouraged by the new challenges you encounter as your awareness grows. Each obstacle is also an opportunity and does not have to be fully “conquered” in order for you to benefit from engaging with it.
Although it is not the way we have been conditioned, the more you can be gentle with yourself as you go along the path, the more you will learn. The more you engage in this practice with a clear understanding of what you are doing, the more that this attitude of self-care will become a habit.
So, how do you practice the Feldenkrais Method anyways?
Here are some concrete things you can do in your daily life. I’ve separated them into two categories:
Because the Feldenkrais Method is so different than what we are used to, it always helps to have the guidance of an experienced practitioner to get you started.
I’ve done my best in this post to be clear with my words, but even if I’ve succeed, reading what I’ve written is not the same as experiencing it in your body – and making that experience clearer over time.
I am a firm believer that you don’t need to be a Feldenkrais practitioner to have a meaningful Feldenkrais practice of your own.
However, each time you are guided verbally through the movements of an ATM lesson or guided through touch in the experience of a Functional Integration session, the clearer will be in your understanding of what you are doing when you practice alone.
So, if each time you work with a practitioner, you do so with an eye for what you can take with you when you go, you are setting yourself up for success.
So, not surprisingly, the basic foundation for your Feldenkrais practice includes the following elements:
- Attend a regular Awareness Though Movement class (in person or online)
Come to class ready to engage, be playful and learn. You are not there “be fixed” and you will not be graded on your performance. Ask questions if you are confused or curious.
Talk with your teacher and fellow students before and after class. Leave aside unstructured time after class to more fully process your experience.
- Attend Feldenkrais workshops
Take advantage of the opportunities that arise to dive deeper into different aspects of this practice by doing more than one ATM in the course of few hours. Find out more of what’s possible.
- Book individual Functional Integration sessions
Connect your nervous system to the highly trained nervous system of a Feldenkrais practitioner. Their craft is the art of asking questions and they can lend you a dose of their sensitivity.
The experience is tailored to your specific needs, allowing you to notice subtleties you might not detect in a group class.
- Read the writings of Moshe Feldenkrais
Hear from the founder of this practice what it’s all about – you’ll see confirmation of the point I’ve already made: it’s about way more than just “better movement”.
You might wish to consult with your practitioner about any of Feldenkrais’ ideas that you find difficult to understand.
- Listen to recorded Feldenkrais lessons
While a practitioner is still giving guidance, she is no longer talking directly to you – not even as one person among many in the room. So benefitting from a recorded ATM lesson requires more understanding of what you are doing.
For example, it’s very important to rest whenever you need to regardless of the pace of the recording.
In fact, you may wish to start and stop the recording, reviewing areas of interest or challenge, or breaking the lesson up into shorter experiences if that best suits your needs.
- Read text-based Feldenkrais lessons
This is more challenging, especially if you are new to Feldenkrais practice.
However, once you have more experience, text-based lessons also carries certain advantages. In particular, you can spend as much time as you like on each step of the lesson, which can be a very effective if you understand which aspects of the lesson are most useful for you to focus on.
You can also make notes in the margins of discoveries which will inform your experience the next time you practice the same lesson.
- Practice lesson fragments by memory
As mentioned above, when you are with a practitioner, you can be gathering material for your self-study. Many practitioners will give you “homework” based on what you do together and if they don’t, you can always ask for it.
Either way, it’s generally very effective to review just a few movements of a lesson you have previously done. You may not remember all the details the practitioner referenced when they taught you the original lesson, but your body will remember many things once you start moving.
In any case, repeating the exact experience you had before is not what you are after. Instead, you are always using the movements you explore to set up a learning experience.
Every ATM lesson contains multiple lessons within it and there is always more to discover. Exploring lesson fragments is a great way to do this.
The more you become comfortable with individual practice, the more you will find yourself having insights that go far beyond the key areas where your practitioner guided your attention during class.
You may recognize new areas you would like to explore and begin to form ideas about how to do that.
It’s very important to take note of your questions as they arise. Bring them back to your practitioner or into your next solo exploration.
- Apply Feldenkrais strategies and principles to another movement practice
Perhaps you already have a regular movement practice such as yoga, dance, a martial art, athletics, or any number of other disciplines.
The Feldenkrais Method, as has already discussed, helps you to become more potent in all areas of human experience, not only movement. But because Feldenkrais uses movement as a vehicle for improvement, once you understand what you are doing and why, you can begin to intentionally use any movement practice in a similar way.
It’s worth highlighting that a Feldenkrais lesson always implicitly involves some level of improvisation because while you are repeating movements, you are also continually being guided to feel and perform those movements in new ways.
There is always some trial and error involved and you are not being asked to copy a prescribed “correct” movement.
Instead you are guided to become increasingly aware of what feels”right” – to you.
This is entirely different than the way most movement forms are taught. Usually movements are demonstrated by a teacher and there is a “right” and “wrong” way to do them – whether it’s defined in terms of optimal function or loyalty to tradition.
But even if you really would like to perform a yoga asana, a martial arts technique, or a dance step to an exact specification (for example, to help a choreographer realize her vision) – when you are practicing, you can sometimes give yourself permission to “break the rules.”
When you to do this, you create the possibility of experimenting with multiple forms of doing what you are doing in order to notice and feel new things.
So, if your yoga teacher asks you move on an exhale, why is that? Perhaps there is a solid reason, but if you don’t know what it is, you could try the movement on an inhale once or twice in order to study the differences in your experience.
In fact, this is useful even if you feel that you do know why one coordination is preferable to the other – because that is only an intellectual understanding. If you give your body-brain the opportunity to feel and understand the difference as well, you will “know” what you “know” in a whole new way.
The strategy of coordinating movements to both the inhale and the exhale can be found again and again in Awareness Through Movement lessons. Why not apply it elsewhere?
Every time you practice ATM, if you are attentive, you can get new ideas for the essentially infinite number of variables of any movement experience that could be the basis for creating variations. Once you have more than one way of doing what you are doing, you can begin to pay attention and notice differences.
We’ve already talked about why that is important.
We have also talked about what makes that easy – do you remember what it means to “create the conditions for learning”?
Even though you are not directly practicing Feldenkrais in this moment, how can you adjust the tempo, the size, and the quality of what you are doing – even for just a few moments – to create a larger opportunity to discover something new about what you are practicing?
What about your mindset? Are you focused more on achieving something (“getting it done”, “getting it right”, “proving my skill”) or are you open to, and curious about, the process of what you are doing?
If you can be playful, give yourself permission to break rules, and find a willingness to sink into the kind of high quality attention where you can make distinctions, then you can attend to the principles of the Feldenkrais Method, summarized above in terms of breath, ground, and story.
As you engage with your movement practice, ask yourself:
– What is the quality of my breath?
– Do I have a clear sense of skeletal connection to the ground?
– Am I flexible in my thinking as well as my joints – or am I giving myself bad grades according to a previously learned prescription for “right”and “wrong”?
If you combine both the strategies and principles of Feldenkrais in another movement practice, you can create improvised variations on the traditional movements of that form. As you experiment, you can pay close attention to any sensations that indicate that you are moving closer or further from ideal human movement.
If there is one idea that best summarizes what the Feldenkrais Methodis all about, it is perhaps the famous phrase, “If you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”
If you apply Feldenkrais strategy and principles as I have described them here to your movement practice, you can apply this idea as well, with a simple test:
First, engage with your practice as you normally do.
Then, take some time to apply the Feldenkrais strategies and principles, playing and experimenting without worrying about moving “correctly” according to tradition.
Now, practice your form again – and notice if anything is different.
Have you learned something new that makes it a little easier to “do what you want?”
- Apply the strategies and principles of the Feldenkrais Method to daily life
The more you practice the Feldenkrais Method and become familiar with it, the more you will find that your daily life is filled with opportunities to use its strategies and principles to learn to do things more easily.
Whenever you encounter a challenge in movement – whether it’s reaching overhead, vacuuming the floor, squatting in the garden or any number of other tasks – you can break it down into smaller movements and play with them in the same way as you do during an ATM lesson.
Think of non-habitual ways to perform tasks that will create a new context for learning. As a simple example, brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand and find out what you learn in the process of trying to make that as simple as your normal action.
– What do you notice about your relationship to your breath, to the ground, and to your story?
– Does the action become easier if you attend to not holding your breath?
– Are you aware of the position of your skeleton in space?
– Can you invite more curiosity into the action?
What’s perhaps more challenging is to understand how to apply Feldenkrais principles to parts of your life not so clearly defined by movement.
Let’s use the example of social interaction.
Here you may need to substitute new principles to measure your experience. A useful starting point is to understand what your ideal is in this context.
So, for example, you might think of the relationship with your best friend as representing an ideal. You could examine the aspects of what makes that relationship so satisfying for you, then use them as a way to measure your progress in other relationships.
Interestingly though, you may well discover a relationship between these qualities and the Feldenkrais principles of ideal movement.
For example, if you alternately imagine spending an afternoon with your best friend and an afternoon with someone you dislike – can you sense two different qualities of breathing?
Now you can make small experiments in how you interact with others, deliberately including non-habitual elements.
For example, if you are always serious in certain situations, try making a joke. If you tend to talk a lot, try listening more (or vice versa). You could also play with the tone of your voice, eye contact, where the interaction takes place and any other variable you can think of.
Whenever you try something new, pay special attention to how your experience is altered.
You can also practice ATM lessons with the deliberate intention to find the clarity of mind you may need to enter into particular situations.
The skills of listening carefully to your comfort, being able to recognize multiple options in any given situation, not getting overwhelmed by the idea of “getting things right” or pleasing others, but instead, putting your attention on the process of things you are doing – these are all skills that will serve you well in many different situations.
- Make your own experiments with the strategies and principles
Do you think you could make up your own Awareness Through Movement lesson?!
Doing so isn’t necessary to building a personal Feldenkrais practice, but playing with the idea might well lead to new discoveries and insights. You might discover that you understand more than you thought.
If you have enough experience, you can lie on the floor and do one simple movement, slowly and mindfully many times, noticing as many aspects of the movement as you can.
Then pause, and while you rest, notice if anything feels different. What you notice might give you a new idea.
– How many other ways could you perform that movement?
– How many places could you put your attention?
– How does this movement impact your breath, your relationship to the ground, and the story you tell yourself?
– What other parts of your life could you break down into little pieces and play with in non-habitual ways, putting your attention on the process in order to learn something new?
What I’ve written here is a much more detailed treatment of the question of how one can build a personal Feldenkrais practice than what I could ever say to a person at the end of their first ATM class.
On the other hand, I am aware that there are many ideas expressed here that could be more fully fleshed out.
I hope that one thing comes through clearly – to gain long-term benefit from the Feldenkrais Method, the task at hand is not about remembering the ins and outs of every ATM lesson you do or even “mastering” any particular lesson.
What will profoundly change your experience in the world is gaining an ever deeper embodied understanding of the Feldenkrais process by learning how to:
- bring high quality attention to your experience of the present moment
- develop a tool kit of strategies to make meaningful experiments that test the limits of your ingrained habit
- sense the gap between your current state and your potential for ideal human movement, and orient towards the latter
Feldenkrais once put it like this:
“Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”
If you want to create a personal practice of the Feldenkrais Method, I hope that these ideas have been helpful to you. Regular practice will definitely help you to create the deeper and more lasting changes that are possible.
If you would like support in starting or continuing an ongoing personal practice of the Feldenkrais Method, I can help. I do hands-on work with clients in my Washington DC studio and online via Zoom.
Click here to book a free call today.