Awareness, Movement and the Capacity for Change: An introduction to The Feldenkrais Method®

by Mark Keogh

The Feldenkrais Method is a technique which uses movement and deep awareness to improve the functioning of the entire human organism. It was developed during the 1950s by Moshe Feldenkrais, physicist, engineer and martial artist. The following is an introduction to the theory and practice of the method he developed which has come to be widely used throughout the world by people wishing to improve their capacity for action, thought and feeling.

Below I will outline ideas relating to the following  themes.

1. The development and functioning of the self-image

2. The notion of` “cross motivation”

3.  The role of movement and body awareness in relation to the whole person

4.  Propose an action based view of maturity

5. Give a flavour of how the Feldenkrais Method is used in practice

 The Self-Image: A unified whole

“Each one of us speaks, moves, thinks and feels in a different way, each according to the image of himself that he has built up over the years. In order to change our mode of action we must first change the image of ourselves we carry within us. What is involved here, of course, is a change in the dynamics of our reactions, and not a mere replacing of one action by another.” (Feldenkrais, 1972:10)

In the waking state there are four components to each action we carry out: Movement, Sensation, Thought, and Feeling. Each of these combines to a greater or lesser extent in everything we do. Indeed, if one of these aspects is missing from our lives our existence may be threatened. These components not only combine to allow us behave but through them we have the experience of being ourselves, that is they provide us with our self-image.

Thinking creates movement of the eyes, affects posture, produces sensations both pleasant and unpleasant and creates emotions upon which we may act. Emotion gives direction to thought, influences breathing and cardio-vascular activity which produce sensation. To have a sensation we must first be interested – which stems from thought and action and who has never been emotionally affected by some smell or the sight of a flower. These four components are abstracted ideas from one whole process – that of being a person in the world. It is central to working with clients in the Feldenkrais Method that we are aware of dealing with a whole person even when we are ostensibly using movement. In working with movement we are training the awareness of the individual and expanding the self-image.

Formation

The self-image is formed by three factors: Heredity, Education and Self-education. Of these three factors only self-education is, to some extent, in our own hands. For Feldenkrais it was of major importance that the individual come to discover those parts of their self-image which is amenable to change.

“Most of the difficulties we encounter in understanding ourselves are due to considering adult functioning and behaviour as intrinsic human qualities and forgetting that the history of the individual is indissoluble from him…Inadvertantly we continue to consider life as a series of static states in which we find ourselves and not as a process.”( Feldenkrais, 1985:63)

A great deal of our behaviour is habitual and, indeed, feels natural or instinctive to us, as if it could not be otherwise. This applies just as well for the way we hold ourselves in standing to the way we think or feel in familiar situations. Again, it is not just one part of the organism which is involved in producing habitual activity, but the whole of the self-image which is expressed in the actions of walking, thinking, feeling etc. Feldenkrais viewed Mind, The Unconscious and Will as being abstracted notions about activities  which are produced by the brain and nervous system. That is they are behaviours which have no more reality, as concrete entities, than velocity.

Habitual activity feels so familiar and self-evident to us because of the way the nervous system functions. The strong habitual impulses travel almost as quickly through the synapsis as reflex action, it is only through deepening ones awareness that one begins to learn how much of the self is being actively produced rather than being   given to us by nature, god, or  “character” and thus outside our control. Improvements in our awareness thus lead to increased responsibility for our actions and more possibility for spontaneous (non-compulsive) behaviour.

In infants the self-image begins its formation through the interaction of the body with the environment. The cortex of the brain begins the proccess of creating the self-image  which is represented by the cellular activity dealing with those parts of the body under conscious control.

“Were we to mark in colour on the surface area of the motor cortex of a month-old infant the cells that activate muscles subject to his developing will, we should obtain a form resembling that of his body, but it would represent only the areas of voluntary action, not the anatomical configuration of the body parts. We should see, for example, that the lips and mouth occupy most of the coloured area. The antigravity muscles – those that open the joints and so erect the body – are not yet subject to voluntary control; the muscles of the hand, too, are only just beginning to respond to will. We should obtain a functional image in which the human body is indicated by four thin stroes of the pen for the limbs, joined together by another short and thin line for the trunk, with lips and mouth ocupying most of the picture.” (Feldenkrais, 1972:13)

The self-image on the cortex changes as more and more of the body comes under self control. With speech the tongue occupies more of the cells , with the development of the hand the cells representing the thumbs become  the dominant group on the cortex. With every new learning the self-image is altered and grows.

As already stated the person develops as a whole. With each learning through the body there are associated thoughts, emotions and sensations. Thoughts, emotions and sensations direct and refine learning carried out through bodily movements. The fact that we grow up in a dependency relationship to the adult world and that this period of apprenticeship is the longest in the animal world is of great importance to what sort of relationship to the world we will have as adults.

Through our development as children the dependency relationship associates emotions and thought patterns with each new learning. We may, for example, learn to walk under the tutelage of a parent who is very eager for us to develop quickly because they wish to win approval from their peers. For this child the function of walking will have associated with it the feeling of wanting to please the parent (which in itself is unnecesary for the function). In more extreme cases the fear of not pleasing the parent will produce insecurity and fear which will remain associated with this period of growth and learning and, in this case, with the function of walking. Feldenkrais believed in the importance of dissociating the function from the emotional content or extraneous thought structures which  become linked through the dependency roles. For, he believed, in order for the further process of development to progress optimally function must be disburdened from extraneous emotional and mental processes which he regarded as “parasitic”. This dissociation is, however, left to chance in childhood so it is only as adults that we have the chance to take the reins of self-education and remove obstacles to our further development.

Obviously the parental environment is not the only external influence on our youthful development. Each society has structures, beliefs and systems in place which the growing individual will have to come to terms with. There is not time here to go into detail on this subject. The ideas concerning the development of the child in the parental environment will, obviously, also apply as the individual has a greater contact with the society at large. Ideas and emotions will continue to be associated with developing functions especially around the sexual function.

Cross Motivation and Spontanaeity

There are two kinds of actions – 1. Acts produced by external stimuli which do not necessarily involve the higher brain centres, called reflex actions. 2. Acts which involve the higher centres and of which we become aware, called voluntary actions.

In between these two types are habitual actions which we are no longer aware of carrying out. “Habitual acts in time become more or less independent of our volition and when they are practically automatic they function with the speed of reflex actions” (Feldenkrais, 1972:23). These habits involve movement, emotions, thoughts and sensations. When a habitual action is carried out contrary to our intended wish we experience this as resistance. Actions which we perform well are “mono-motivated”. Here both the voluntary and involuntary parts of the action work together to produce effortless, pleasing action. Actions which we carry out with some degree of difficulty are “dominantly motivated”. Here the intention rouses enough of the nervous system to overcome resistance. Such actions are experienced as tiring, and less fluid and pleasing than the first type because parts of the nervous system are carrying out work contrary to the intended wish. Those actions which we do not manage to pull off are “contradictorily motivated”. Here the habitual activity is the dominant factor,it runs contrary to our will and is outside of our current awareness. We seem unable to do anything about it and this is accompanied by a sense of frustration. We may over exert in order to compensate and in the end give up due to exhaustion or frustration.

If we look at the example of eating disorders we find that there are many possible motivations for the action which do not directly relate to the physiological need to eat.  We may be motivated by the craving for emotional security, or to be “big and strong”, to be loved, to be more attractive, or that food is wicked because it makes us fat. It is important to become aware of what we are doing, as long as we continue to carry out actions, patterns of thought or have emotional associations which interfere with our eating then food will remain a necessity surrounded with high emotional intensity.

If we look at posture in this regard we will find many cross motivated actions in the musculature of a person suffering from what are commonly seen as psychological problems. The self-image is the point of interest here. By enabling the person with “psychological issues” to influence their self-image through an education involving awareness and the body we hand them the tools to influence the whole of their sense of self and behaviour.

Maturity

“The feeling of security is linked with the image of self that has been cultivated in the dependence period. Thus for some people, their good looks – for others, absolute unselfishness, absolute virility, superman ideas, absolute goodness, and all kinds of imaginary, untestable notions, habits of thought  and patterns of behaviour – have served as a means of obtaining affection, approval, protection, and care…The aim of education should be to help the individual achieve the state of an evolving being, it should make it easier for the individual to sever habitual dependence links, or at least less painful to perpetuate them when judgement demands it.”(Feldenkrais, 1985:11)

Maturity is an ongoing process. Only very few, however, continue the process throughout their life. It was Feldenkrais` belief that this is not due to any innate incapacity in the human organism but due to a complex social structure which does not demand ongoing maturity in order for us  to be functioning members of society. For this reason many people become satisfied with a stage of maturity which is far below their potential.

 

“It is important  to understand that if a person wishes to improve his self-image, he must first learn to value himself as an individual, even if his faults as a member of society appear to him to outweigh his qualities”(Feldenkrais, 1972:19)

The difficulty we experience when attempting to learn something new does not lie in the nature of the new behaviour as such but in the changing of habits of body, feeling and mind from their established patterns. No matter what type of habit we are dealing with (emotional, mental or in movement) a person will not give up an old habit unless the one being offered as a replacement is in every way as good, or better, than the old one. It must also be experienced as such by the person. In this way problems of resistance can be looked at as part of the process of stabilising new learning in the nervous system. The new learning requires some repetition and clarification before it is fully in the awareness of the client. The client is active in becoming aware, sensing and finding out what is more satisfying – the old or new modes of behaving. The further advantage of this way of working is that the person has the sense of having learned something themselves and feels deserving of the benefits. At this stage the old habits can be discarded completely or used when one sees fit. That is they are no longer compulsive.

For Feldenkrais there was no bad posture in itself. Posture (as with thought and emotion) were only poor when compulsive. Until the individual has learned alternatives which are secure and can be called on in day to day living compulsion will reinstate itself.

Movement and Awareness

Much of our body lies outside of our awareness. (This is also true for the majority of thought and feeling.) As we sit and read we are probably somewhat aware of our lips but barely, if at all, of our upper back or toes, not to mention the parts if the spinal column. Areas of awareness will vary  from person to person depending on the self-image.

“The parts of the body that are easily defined are those which serve man daily, while the parts that are dull or mute play only an indirect role in his life and are almost missing from the self-image when he is in action” (Feldenkrais, 1972:21)

Awareness is an act of volition which can be directed. In the Feldenkrais Method awareness is used along with movement to improve the self-image, give more possibilities of movement, thought and feeling and make clearer the connection between the various “parts” of the person. Awareness brings to light habitual behaviour and begins the activation of parts of ourselves which are not, generally, in use.

 

Why Use Movement?

Feldenkrais provided an extensive list of reasons why, he believed, movement to be the optimal way for working with the whole person. Here I will give an overview of the main ideas.

1. By using movement we can bypass problems of language and interpration of meaning.

2. We can work with the person’s own body language. Resistance can be avoided as the person is actively learning to feel how resistance is produced in a way which does not intensely compromise their security. By learning alternatives the client is also given the means to dissolve resistance.

3. The nervous system is occupied mainly with movement.”Sensing, feeling and thinking are not possible without a many sided and elaborate series of actions initiated by the brain to maintain the body against the pull of gravity. At the same time we must know our position and where we are. The active involvement of the entire nervous system is a part of every method of self improvement.” (Feldenkrais, 1972:33).

4. It is easier to distinguish the quality of movement than it is to judge the quality of ones thoughts, feelings or sensations.

5. We allow ourselves a broader experience of movement than we do of thought, feeling or sensation. Certain emotions, sensations or thoughts may be unavailable to us because they compromise our security or are not socially acceptable.

6. The ability to move and the state of the body in general is important to self-value.

7. All muscular activity is movement. Seeing, talking and hearing, for example, all require muscular activity.

8. Breathing is movement.

9. Movement reflects the state of the nervous system. “When we refer to muscular movement, we mean, in fact, the impulses of the nervous system to activate the muscles. An improvement in body action reflects a change in the central control” (Feldenkrais, 1972:36)

10. Movement is the basis of awareness. Most of what occurs within us is dulled and outside awareness until it reaches the muscles.

11. Habit. The nervous system is so structured that we cannot carry out an action and its opposite simultaneously. The whole system is integrated at any given moment. Any change in the motor cortex will have an impact on thought and feeling. Any new learning in relation to body and movement will affect thought and feeling. Furthermore a change in the motor basis within any pattern of behaviour will “break up the cohesion of the whole and thereby leave thought and feeling without anchorage in the established routine”(Feldenkrais, 1972:39). Thus, habit has lost its chief support and the emotion-thought patterns can come into awareness.

The Feldenkrais Method® in practice

The work is taught in two forms: Movement classes (usually with groups) calledAwareness Through Movement and a hands-on modality called “Functional Integration.

Awareness Through Movement®: These are verbally guided lessons of enjoyable, structured movement explorations. The classes are carried out in lying, sitting or standing each one taking a particular function or group of functions of movement as its theme. The intention is to add new possibilities of movement, regain effortlessness and ease in movement, reduce tension, eliminate pain, and increase our own awareness of how we unconsciously act to bring on unwanted states.

Functional Integration®: FI is the one-to-one modality of the work. Here the practitioner can create sessions for the individual needs of the person. This is mostly hands-on work carried out in a respectful, gentle manner. The client is fully clothed and often lying down for a good part of the session. Through the interaction of practitioner and client new and improved modes of movement, action and thought can be discovered.

Mark Keogh has been a practicing teacher in the Feldenkrais Method since 2002 and has worked in the method in Ireland and Switzerland. www.markkeogh.com

Bibliography

Feldenkrais, M. (1972) Awareness through movement. Arkana: Penguin

Feldenkrais, M. (1985) The potent self.  San Francisco: Harper