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Like many people, I came to Feldenkrais looking to improve how I moved. But from the beginning it was clear to me that the effects of the method went way beyond that.

My life at that time was focused on studying physical theatre, with a speciality in circus trapeze, a demanding physical discipline. As I began to immerse myself in the Feldenkrais Method, I experienced my psyche adjusting around the changes in my physicality. At least that’s how I perceived it at the time. I’ve written elsewhere of how it seemed to effect me.

My immersion amounted to taking all the classes that I could fit into my schedule with my Feldenkrais teacher Shelagh O’Neill. I sometimes skipped off from the circus school in order to do Feldenkrais instead, since I felt the method was helping me to achieve more on the trapeze than any of the dedicated trapeze training.

Reading Feldenkrais

As my curiosity about the method grew, I looked for things to read. Awareness Through Movement was the obvious book to start with. From that I understood that the method was about much more than movement.

The book begins with the simple assertion: “We act in accordance with our self-image.” What unfolds makes it clear that Feldenkrais was aiming for much more than simply improving how we move. “What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains. What I’m after is to restore each person to their human dignity.”

Connecting posture, mood and character

Franki Anderson, the movement and physical theatre teacher at the circus school, was a student of Monika Pagneux. Not only did Franki give me my first taste of the Feldenkrais Method, but she was also teaching us how to build characters through movement. We did this by identifying and exaggerating aspects of our own movement styles, and also through imitating and then inhabiting the physicality of others, real or imagined.

What struck me both then and now, is that playing in this way revealed experientially the connection between posture, mood and character. What started to become clear through Franki’s work was that not only were we working on the ability to play as many different characters as we could, but that finding neutral for ourselves was the key to expanding our repertoire. This is echoed in Feldenkrais’ idea that the ideal organisation is one from which we can move from in any direction.

Searching for neutral

This become especially clear when working with masks. For those that haven’t experienced mask work then what is fascinating, magical and somewhat uncanny is that when we put on a character mask, it starts to inhabit our minds and bodies somehow of itself. The form informs function.

Neutral mask kind of works in reverse. The mask is, as the name suggests, expressionless, but starts to take on a character from the performer’s physicality. Function informs the form. Mask work is a huge subject in itself and there are many ways to play with neutral mask. We were using it as a tool to identify our own habits and give us clues in our search for neutral.

In a way, the pattern of superfluous muscle contractions that we acquire through our personal history can be felt as a whole body mask that we wear no matter what we do; the latent muscle tone. There are also whole body masks that appear in specific situations.

Ego as unnecessary muscle tension

When asked to sum up what we are working with in the Feldenkrais method, I often simply quote Alan Watts in his identification of ”ego as unnecessary muscle tension”. For students in my classes that quote is often sufficient in itself; it raises a near universal laugh of self-recognition.

The next book of Feldenkrais that arrived in my hands was Body And Mature Behaviour. I found a first edition copy in the city library where I lived at the time. In the final paragraph of the introduction, Feldenkrais echoes Watts stating that, “the results of faulty habits are called character.”

According to Freud the ego is the aspect of personality that we rely on to conduct us though daily life. The catch is that the ego is constantly negotiating between the conflicting demands of the id – that part of the personality that seeks to fulfil primal desires without recourse to social appropriateness, morality, or plain simple reality – and the superego – that part of the personality that tries to get the ego to act in accordance with all the internalised morals and values we acquire from our families, religious influences and society.

Feldenkrais’ challenge to Freud

The internal conflicts between the ego, id and superego produce anxiety which can only be defended against though defence mechanisms. Body And Mature Behaviour as many have commented can be read as a radical challenge to Freud. Feldenkrais links anxiety in the mind to patterns of contraction in the body, “formed by … personal adjustment to the actual and physical environment”. Learned emotional habits of adaptation express themselves in compulsive, reactive behaviours that go together with mechanically inefficient posture.

He concludes that, “radical changes cannot be expected without reforming muscular and postural habits. Indigestion, faulty breathing, crooked toes and feet, faulty sexual behaviour, postural rigidity, and muscular tension go together with emotional disorders. The whole self, diet, breathing, sex, muscular and postural habits must be tackled directly, and concurrently with emotional re-education.”

A systemic approach

In Awareness Through Movement, Feldenkrais presents a more coherent systemic viewpoint on how his method, which addresses people at the level of action and sensation, can raise the level of function of the whole person. The work can offer, “many students … sufficient relief in this alone, and that helped by a clearer understanding of the process of habit formation, may be able to further their maturing process by their own means.”

The ideal of maturity he presents is one of a physical and emotional responsiveness and adaptability to the the demands of the present moment unconditioned by the past. Feldenkrais however doesn’t talk so much of maturity as a goal to be achieved, referring instead to a maturation process which is endless. What the method aims to do is radical; to give us freedom of choice, perhaps ultimately even moments when we might touch the ideal of dissolution of ego. 

Is Feldenkrais a wisdom tradition?

Maybe it’s more appropriate to think of the method more in terms of a wisdom tradition than merely a system of movement re-education. If Feldenkrais’ writings are not evidence enough, then David Kaetz’ Making Connections: Roots & Resonance in the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais further supports this point of view.

I’m reminded of the following story I heard on my training, sadly I can’t remember from who. On hearing that Feldenkrais was giving up his position as as a scientist for the Israeli government, his mother is reported to have said: “You’re giving up the possibility of a Nobel prize to rub people’s bottoms?!”

I’ve started to wonder what is it that I’m offering through teaching the method. And more importantly, how I have been pitching it to people. I wonder if I’ve been underselling it with workshop titles like Caring For Our Backs? If perhaps I’ve been unconsciously aligning myself more with Feldenkrais’ mum rather than the man himself! 

Cheaper and more fun than psychotherapy

For many years, based on my experience, I’ve joked in class that this work is cheaper and more fun than psychotherapy. What makes it more fun I think is that Feldenkrais is very clear that the path towards maturity through this work is not one of therapy but of education; a continual refinement of our ability to engage in the learning process. These days I feel there was more behind the joke than I was giving credit to.

What Feldenkrais identifies as our uniqueness among the animal kingdom, is the primacy of learning in human development. He argues that our neuroses are the result of our education, both formal and informal, and that generally speaking we are educated to be less than what we can be. At worst, we can even be educated out of learning, which finds a contemporary parallel in the thinking of the educationalist Ken Robinson. 

Biological optimism

The promise that Feldenkrais work offers, based as it is on what Ruthy Alon has referred to as biological optimism, is that we can learn our way out of our discomfort, both mental and physical, through this process of attending to movement and sensation.

Where Freud saw neuroses as a mental disease requiring a cure, Feldenkrais saw them as learned habits of the body and mind coupled together and regarded the way out of them to be a matter of education. He proposed that refining our ability to learn through attending to movement and sensation can in and of itself be enough to diffuse neurotic behaviours in many of us.

The method as a practice

On my training Myriam Pfeffer told a story of travelling by car with Moshe to attend one of his evening classes in Tel Aviv after a busy day. She asked him what class he was going to teach and he said he didn’t know. She then asked him if he was anxious about being unprepared to which he answered, “no, it’s always the same class”. To me that hints at the fact that it is the process we go through in an Awareness Through Movement (ATM) group class that is primary. It is less a series of lessons to be learned and more of a practice.

What we practice, no matter what the apparent focus of the class, is to notice relationships and make fine distinctions. It’s always the same, we dive deeply into movement and sensation while being fed with novel possibilities and variations. It is the process that we are learning through practicing.

In time we can bring more and more of what we learn of the process into the cognitive and emotional aspects of our lives. But what of the immediate physical results of a class? Having weeded out some of the parasitic contractions born of a lifetime of habit formation, what is happening in that precious moment when we stand and walk at the end of the class?

Sometimes I’ve stood up and laughed or cried uncontrollably with no story in my mind to account for it. Sometimes I’ve even stood up and walked and felt like I’m somebody else. Most often people simply report feeling lighter, taller, more grounded, more mobile, or just plain different in a good way. 

How are you feeling?

For years, I’ve framed my ATM classes by beginning and ending with two questions: How are you feeling? And what’s the emotional tone of this moment? After a suitable pause I follow this with, how are you enacting that feeling in your body? Working often in the context of the performing arts, these are not unreasonable questions to pose faced with a class of dancers or actors.

But as I work more and more with the general public, I wonder if I could expand that framing to employ it more intentionally? If, as people stand up and walk, I can draw their attention to any shifts beyond the physical, beyond how they are feeling in their bodies, and more towards any shifts that they notice in their attitude: that wonderful English word that encompasses both posture and mental outlook.

Form follows function

Jeff Haller asked an interesting question at the beginning of a class recently: where do you locate your past? It reminded me of the work of Alfred North Whitehead who proposed the relationship of mind and body to be temporal rather than spatial, as is more customary in contemporary Western culture. He locates the past pole with the body and the future with the mind. My image for this is that the body is the material accumulation of past choices, while the mind is oriented to the future, most specifically what comes next.

This in turn reminds me of the reported arguments at the Esalen Institute between Feldenkrais and Ida Rolf from which we inherited the term Functional Integration. Rolf argued that you can’t change function without first changing the form. Feldenkrais argued that if you change the structure without changing the function, then the form reverts to what it was before since it is the function that created the structure. To change the function is more fundamental since a change in form will inevitably follow.

Growing through time

David Abrams in Spell Of The Sensuous locates the past beneath us in the earth and Caryn McHose and Andrea Olsen in their Body And Earth training talk of the bones as the earth of the body. In short, the past is evident in our bodies through our habitual historical relationship to gravity. 

Bones acquire and change their shape according to how we let gravity flow through them. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen explains this metaphorically. Our bones are like river beds and gravity like the water that flows through them. If we change the flow of the water then the river bed reshapes itself… but it takes time.

We are not biological machines governed by computer brains into which an ATM class inserts a new programme, but living, self-organising, self-regulating, organisms that grow in time. In this there’s maybe more to say about what happens to the change we experience at the end of an ATM. It’s also why for me it’s helpful to think of the method as a practice, we change our minds but it takes time for our bodies to catch up.

Resources for uncertain times

My practice personally and in teaching the method is changing. I sense there is more potential in how I frame the method, in how I offer it into the world to attract students, in how I teach it and most specifically in that moment of standing up at the end of class. There is a delicate negotiation between our nervous systems, our minds – oriented to possible futures and reorganised through the experience of an ATM class – and the physical structure of our bodies that have grown into a form organised by our past use. The class sets up the possibility for us to inhabit our bodies differently.

What we are experiencing as we transition out of an ATM class is the potential for life to be different, to experience what it is like to be somewhat unburdened of the past and free from expectations, to feel less anxious as we face our future.

I think of this as a moment of creativity, to meet the demands of the present moment with all our resources and the freedom to act without compulsion; to be able to respond rather than simply react.  In this moment there is much to be valued.

And it seems to me that in the present moment, unfolding as it is into an uncertain future, the Feldenkrais Method is a valuable resource that goes way beyond “rubbing people’s bottoms”.

My current series of ATMs is entitled Developing Resilience.

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