by Sabine Volkmann
“If you know what you do, you can do what you want” is the most often quoted saying of Moshé Feldenkrais.
If you are sitting as you read this, what are you aware of about your sitting? Perhaps it’s your back against the chair, or your feet on the floor, or your buttocks on the seat. Ask yourself, “What is the back of my neck doing?” “What is my chest doing?” “Can I sense my shins?” What do you notice? Although our whole self is involved in everything we do, we often have little or no awareness of certain parts of ourselves and we tend to notice the same parts over and over. We pay attention to what we are doing, but not how we do it. Increased awareness of ourselves and a more even distribution of effort and force throughout our body can enhance our movements and actions and lead to an improved quality of life.
Moshé Feldenkrais was born in Russia in 1904. At the age of 13 he emigrated to Israel. After receiving degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, he earned his D.Sc. in physics at the Sorbonne in Paris, subsequently working a number of years with Joliot-Curie in early nuclear research. His interest in movement had deep roots in the Martial Arts. He studied with Professor Jigoro Kano, the originator of Judo, and was one of the first Europeans to achieve a black belt. A knee injury from his youth gave him a lot of trouble. A suggested surgery had at the time only a 50% chance of success. Feldenkrais decided to study the mechanics of human movement and teach himself to walk without pain. This led him to a lifelong exploration of ways to improve movement and human functioning in general. He was interested in the connection between human development, learning and movement. His investigations were informed by his various fields of expertise (physics, neurology, martial arts, cybernetics, body mechanics, and psychology). In 1951 he moved back to Israel where he taught and continued to develop the method. He started his first training programme in 1968, followed by two training programmes in the USA. In mid 1970s his work started to become internationally recognised. Moshé Feldenkrais died in 1984 in Israel.
In his most well-known book “Awareness Through Movement” Feldenkrais says: “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 change the image of ourselves that we carry within us.” (Feldenkrais, 1980:10). Through development, education and our personal history the self-image develops in a very individual way for each person. This self-image can be viewed as a physical representation of movement, senses, emotions and thoughts in the brain. All four components are always – to various degrees – part of any of our actions. Parts that we use often are more strongly represented and clearer in our awareness than parts we never use. This configuration, based on habits is deeply anchored in our nervous system and is mostly unconscious, is the basis of all we do and how we do it. A pianist for example has to train his fingers in a more differentiated way than a person who doesn’t use their hands so specifically. He will have a greater sense and awareness of his whole hand and a greater range of movement. The way we act, move, think, feel, talk, breathe and respond to our environment is always in accordance with the best possible option available to us for each situation and can therefore never be judged as right or wrong. The range of our responses depends on the possibilities that are available to our self-image. If we only have a small range of possibilities to apply, we can’t adjust enough to the different challenges in life. If we can change and enhance the self-image then according to Feldenkrais we can increase the range of possibilities or choices available to us.
Moshé Feldenkrais saw learning as our most important ability. The word “somatic” comes from the Greek “soma” and means the living body (without separation between body and psyche), the body experienced from within. The Feldenkrais Method is somatic in the sense that learning occurs within the individual as an internalised process. Change through somatic learning is always organic, not manipulated from the outside and is in relation to where the person is. Rather than working directly with the muscles or bones it addresses the nervous system and therefore the ability to regulate and co-ordinate movement. It increases the potential, through self-education, to grow toward more self-responsibility, self-awareness, flexibility, adaptability, and ease on all levels.
Early learning and movement patterns
When we are learning as children, movement is our most immediate tool. At the beginning of our life movement seems to be random and not goal-oriented. Through playing, the drive of curiosity and trial and error, the body becomes better co-ordinated so that our actions become clearer, more satisfying and we succeed in fulfilling tasks. The child increases not only its movement potential in this process; it also becomes aware of his body and its connection to gravity. He learns how to interact with the environment, and knows what it can do and how to do it. His self-image and world-image grow. This learning process can be disturbed or interrupted at any stage and on many different levels. We tend to stop learning when we have mastered sufficient skills to attain our immediate objective.
We rely on skills that have become unconscious habits and often live using only a small percentage of our potential. Whether due to interrupted learning as children, physical injuries, emotional traumas or repetitive movements learned in sports or work etc., we end up with unconscious, habitual movement patterns that limit us in many areas of our lives. However since learning is a lifelong process and not limited to childhood we have the possibility to relearn at any time. Bringing these patterns to awareness and learning that we have new, easier possibilities for movement brings the possibility of changing them and therefore improving the quality of our lives.
Here is an example. A man injured his lower back and was in constant pain. As a protection against the pain he developed an upright and rigid posture. The whole back was tense and without movement. He couldn’t bend forward and sitting in comfortable chairs was not possible. As he was in constant fear of being in pain he lost his confidence in all his movements. In a series of individual sessions we explored what he was doing and through moving him gently he could find ways how to move again without pain. His nervous system learned to let go of the tension in the muscles and his back became more flexible. After a while it was possible for him again to move his back in all directions, to sit in soft chairs and his confidence in moving returned. He also became more confident in life in general.
Changes in the whole self
Feldenkrais believed that a shift in any one aspect of the self-image – feeling, sensing, thinking and moving – has the potential to produce a shift in the whole self. He chose movement as a medium for this process because it is the most immediate and concrete. Movement combined with awareness and ease increases the sensation of what we are doing and how we do it. It helps to bring us into the present and we can experience differences in quality and range immediately. When we don’t just perform exercises but focus on the how of our doing, movement becomes the tool of increasing awareness and of teaching the nervous system new possibilities. All our experiences in this learning process are incorporated into our self-image. Once the self-image is reorganised we can use the new information not only in the same situation but can apply it to many different levels and situations. One example may clarify this: A woman told, after a few weeks in a Feldenkrais class that she had always walked a specific way to work. Suddenly she started exploring different routes and within a week she had found several possibilities and found places that she didn’t know existed. Once she had experienced that she has choices in her movements she began to apply this to other parts of her life.
There are two ways of applying the Feldenkrais Method:
Awareness Through Movement (ATM) consists of verbally directed movement sequences presented primarily to groups. The lessons consist of comfortable, easy movements that gradually evolve into movements of greater range and complexity. These precisely structured movement explorations involve thinking, sensing, moving and imagining. Many are based on developmental movements and ordinary functional activities (reaching, standing, lying to sitting, looking behind yourself etc.); some are based on more abstract explorations of joint, muscle and postural relationships. There are hundreds of ATM lessons, varying in difficulty and complexity, for all levels of movement ability. The movements are usually done lying down or sitting and at a pace and range that honours each participant. The major criteria for the quality of movement are comfort, ease and the development of each person’s inner authority.
Functional Integration (FI) is a hands-on modality specifically designed to meet the needs of an individual. The student is usually lying down or sitting and is fully clothed. A non-verbal dialogue takes place where the client experiences their patterns in a non-judgemental and accepting way. The practitioner, primarily through the use of moving the client with his hands, guides the student towards a new or more varied use of himself or herself. The quality of touch is non-invasive, informative and interactive in nature.
Application and benefits
The application ranges from reduction of pain and improvement of posture, mobility, and co-ordination of movement to performance enhancement of professional athletes, dancers, musicians and actors. It has shown itself to be effective with neurologically based movement difficulties like Multiple Sclerosis, learning disabilities, and is applicable to anyone wanting to improve the quality of their everyday life and activities. Everybody who wants to learns more about himself or herself, no matter what age or physical condition can benefit from the method. Benefits include increased awareness, improved functioning in daily life, regained curiosity, increased vitality, enhancement and shifts in one’s self-image, changes in breathing, posture, flexibility, range of motion, co-ordination and reduction of pain. By bringing our attention back to the process of what we are actually doing we feel lighter, more graceful, and our intentions are more accurately brought into action.
Going back to yourself and your own experience while reading this: How are you sitting now? What are you aware of in your body? And if you want to get up now how are you doing it? “If you know what you do, you can do what you want”.
Sabine Volkmann is a Feldenkrais practitioner in private practice in Dublin. firstname.lastname@example.org
Feldenkrais, M. (1980) Awareness through movement. London: Penguin
Feldenkrais, M. (1994) Body Awareness As Healing Therapy: The Case of Nora. Frog Ltd
Feldenkrais, M. (2002) The Potent Self. A Study of Spontaneity and Compulsion. Frog Ltd
Feldenkrais, M. (June 1981) Elusive Obvious. Meta Publications
Feldenkrais, M. (2003) Body and Mature Behaviour: A Study of Anxiety, Sex, Gravitation and Learning. International Universities Press
Hanna, T. (1988) Somatics. Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health. Perseus Publishing.
More information about the Feldenkrais Method