poise instead of relaxation

Photo by Jamie Waynick on Unsplash

unpolished thoughts 3/26/2019

Sometimes when we are inefficient, it’s because we are working too hard and sometimes it’s because we aren’t working hard enough.

Sometimes it’s both.

That’s because efficient movement isn’t simply measured in terms of quantity, but also in terms of how we distribute our efforts.

I try to lift a television set without bending my knees:

I’m working too hard with my back and not hard enough with my legs. The efforts are not well-distributed.

Our bodies are designed to work efficiently when the larger muscles do the bulk of the work and the smaller muscles carry out the finer actions. We don’t try to lift heavy weights with our fingertips, nor do we attempt to brush our teeth with our feet.

When our efforts are well distributed, the experience of  lifting our leg from the floor feels like the same effort as lifting our pinky finger away from a table top. The fact that one action burns more calories than the other doesn’t change that.

We don’t necessarily know how we do it, but sometimes we enter a state of flow – and this is precisely the way we function. We feel connected to ourselves and the surrounding environment and it’s all the same to us whether we turn to the left or the right.

We put down an apple on the table, then turn to reach for the salad bowl, internally adjusting for the change in weight, and sensing in the very first moment what state of tension is needed in the musculature – not only in our arms, but in every part of our body.

When we lift the weight, it doesn’t pull us down. Instead, we continue the process of growing taller, carrying the bowl upwards with us.

The practice of the Feldenkrais Method can help us this find this feeling of flow more consistently. Each Awareness Through Movement lesson is an opportunity to recalibrate imbalances in effort, for example, overuse of the neck or low back.

By investigating movements in small ranges with attentive curiosity, we can start to detect the places where we shorten ourselves, hold our breath, and make ourselves heavy.

When we are less concerned with immediate outcomes we can attend to the process of moving. We can give ourselves the necessary time and space to notice when and where our actions fall short of what is ideal.

Then we can pause, recalibrate and resume anew.

The challenge of recalibration lies in understanding that increased efficiency is often found outside of the familiar sensations we know. The movements that would make life easier involve using ourselves in a way that often doesn’t “feel right” the first time – even when we recognize that the result is better.

Letting go of extra work we don’t need can be a wonderful feeling, so we are often quite willing to adapt to new patterns by making that kind of adjustment. What can be more confusing though is discovering sleepy places inside of us that need to wake up and start doing their share.

It’s especially confusing if you were led to believe that practicing the Feldenkrais Method is only about “doing less”, that the goal is “relaxation.”

It isn’t.

There’s a story about Moshe Feldenkrais appearing on a television show called The Medicine Man and aggravating the camera man because the lights had been set with the assumption that he would want to lounge against the backrest of an overstuffed chair for his interview.

Instead, he preferred to sit at the edge of the chair with his feet firmly planted on the floor. Even the host of the show couldn’t convince him that he would be “more comfortable” if he would only lean back.

Feldenkrais replied by telling the host that he would be able to get to the exit faster than anyone else.

When you sit at the front of the chair, your skeleton holds you up, not the backrest. Your leg muscles will be be more strongly contracted and you are not likely to feel entirely “relaxed.”

But you might feel more poised, more present, and more available for action.

If you are used to letting furniture do the bulk of the work to keep you (marginally) upright, finding this kind of skeletal support will take some getting used to at first. It might even tire you out.

But it’s worth noticing that every time you slump back, you have created an enormous task for yourself whenever you want to climb up out of the tarpit you have been “relaxing” in.

If standing up from a chair feels like a major effort, it’s because in that moment of needing to lift your body weight, suddenly you have to turn on the lights in so many parts of yourself where the circuits were completely dark.

The first effort you have to make is the one to come to the position where standing would even be possible, rather than sitting in the place where standing can be the next movement.

Or you can work a little harder at sitting in order to work a little less at standing.

So just to clarify, while Feldenkrais continuously called his students attention to unnecessary efforts they were making, he never taught that categorically reducing effort always lead to efficiency.

He was trying to show us that our efforts could be more efficiently distributed – and that would lead to an overall feeling of reduced effort even when performing more powerful actions.

In his words, “I’m not teaching relaxation. Relaxation is for falling asleep, this is for waking up.”

To begin, you might try experimenting with leaning on backrests less often and discovering what it feels like to sit at the front of of your chair. You’ll likely discover that it’s more work.

You also might begin to understand why it’s more efficient.


Do you alternate between feeling sluggish and feeling overworked?

Would you like to learn how to more efficiently distribute your efforts so you can accomplish more of what you want with less energy, leaving yourself more time and space for the things you love in life?

That’s what my 2019 online program ¡Reimagine Yourself! is all about: 

How to make your movement practice into a vehicle for rewriting the story of how you move through the world.

Module 1, “Tapping Deep Body Wisdom” just started, but it’s not too late to join.

(When you enroll, you’ll receive the recording of our first class and you can easily catch up!)

To learn more about ¡Reimagine Yourself!, click here


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