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Many times I’ve asked senior Feldenkrais practitioners what is currently sparking their interest in working with the method and I’ve been surprised to hear many offer variations of, “I’m still working with what comfortable means for me.” 

Comfort is a word we use and hear in the method so much. Only move so far as you are comfortable, stay in your comfortable range. I have to admit that I used to associate comfortable, comfy as we say in English, with sofas or reading a book in bed at the weekend.  

But the origins and the construction of the word reveal very different connotations. “Comfort” is derived from the 6-7th Century Latin word confortare meaning to “strengthen greatly”, from com-, with + fortis, strong. The first use of comfort in English is in the 14th Century, where to comfort someone is to offer them strength, support, hope and encouragement, with a connotation of relieving anxiety. 

We still use it in this sense today. It’s not until the 17th Century that comfort starts to become more associated with the feelings of relief and pleasurable feelings of enjoyment that one gets while receiving comfort. 

Fast cars

One context where we continue to use the word in its original sense is when we talk about cars. We say that a big luxury car can comfortably cruise at 120km/h. The implication is there’s no sense of stress or strain to reach that speed. We could drive it still faster if we wanted to because it’s a powerful car, in contrast to some old banger that shakes and rattles when it approaches 80km/h.

Returning to the Feldenkrais Method, we think of a comfortable movement as a well-organised movement that could develop to a wider range and higher intensity if needed. Equally important is the psychological feeling that goes alongside this of, “I could do more if I wanted to, but right now I’m not choosing to”. A feeling of power and potency, like driving a powerful car, since there’s this feeling of having plenty more in reserve.

Developing potency

Although there are signs that it is beginning to change, in the dominant exercise culture there is still this idea of “no pain, no gain”; that if we don’t push ourselves to the limits of our capacity, and beyond, then we won’t be doing the work necessary to increase our capacity for whatever it is we are training for.

So what of taking what we learn in the method into life? It’s worth remembering that Moshe Feldenkrais was an expert martial artist and keen footballer. One way of thinking of his ambition for his method was to bring about a similar potency for action that martial artists develop, but to a much wider range of people than would be attracted to actually study martial arts. 

When life makes demands

Although many first experience it as an invitation to relax, when we are invited to move comfortably in an ATM class, we are actually being invited into an experience of power and potency. Not only that, but in working with the small and slow beginnings of movements, we are invited to fine-tune what we can do, and create a range of alternative variations, so that we are better organised to meet the demands of life, most especially when they are extreme. 

I’m reminded of being told the story of a woman in her seventies who’d taken a Feldenkrais training later in life. She was cycling and someone opened a car door in front of her. She slammed on the brakes and flew over the handlebars and the door, and went into an aikido roll that she had only been exposed to during her Feldenkrais training. She had a few bruises but was otherwise unhurt.

Stop while it feels good

Moshe Feldenkrais had a further suggestion for approaching demanding tasks in life. When you have the choice, stop whatever you are doing while it still feels comfortable . Then the capacity to do it will increase of itself, without effort. This is the opposite of no pain, no gain.

The first time I attempted to put Feldenkrais’ theory into practice, I was dismayed at the results in the short term but amazed in the long term. As in many of my journeys into the method, it required patience and a suspension of disbelief. 

I like to swim lengths for exercise, and when I do that regularly then it’s normal for me to swim 60-80 lengths of a 25m pool before I get bored. But if I haven’t done it for a while, I can easily find myself straining to match this. I had a job teaching freelance somewhere where I got free use of a pool, so I could go swim at the end of every day. I hadn’t been swimming for a while.

Putting theory into practice

The first time I went into the pool, I felt somewhat surprised and ashamed to only manage six lengths before I started to feel like I was straining, and so I stopped. I was determined to be honest with myself. However, my feelings of shame and disappointment were tempered by the knowledge that I could have done more if I‘d wanted to, and I felt good in my body. 

The next day, I did 12 lengths with no strain. Still way below my capabilities, but nonetheless an effortless 100% increase over the day before. The next day I was up to 18 lengths and so on. And always when I left the pool, I felt good and knew that I could have done more. 

By the middle of the second week I was up to my usual 60 lengths, but with no feeling of straining, no feeling of pushing myself, always with a feeling of stopping while it felt really good, with the knowledge that I could do have done more if I’d wanted to. 

The wisdom of comfort

When we strain, when we push ourselves beyond our limits, then we are left feeling like we can’t do more and experience ourselves as weak. When we move in a better organised way, we achieve more, have more pleasure doing it, and do ourselves less damage in the process. We also cultivate this psychological feeling of power, this quality of I-could-do-more-ness. 

Whatever you are interested in doing – running, gardening or doing routines at the gym – then I can only encourage you to try this out for yourselves. To take care of your comfort is to embrace your power!

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