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What I think Feldenkrais realised and many of us still struggle to integrate into our self images is that our bodies are not things but processes unfolding in time. We are not made but we grow ourselves throughout our lives.

He certainly wasn’t the first to propose this, but he did come up with a radically different way of working with ourselves that placed this concept at its core. And one which, within the cultures he was situated in, was and is in many ways still ahead of its time.

Part of the reason we are caught thinking of our bodies as objects is the language that we use to describe and analyse them. The anatomist and embryologist Jaap van der Wal proposes that, rather than material objects, we think of our bodies as actions or behaviours in time. 

Perhaps his most eloquent linguistic innovation is in his formulation of our bodies, or rather our whole selves, as performances. From the moment of conception onwards we are one body which we perform throughout our lives. We give ourselves form and the medium through which we do that is movement. 

Our bodies as performance

We grow ourselves by creating cells within our bodies. We are not made of cells but we are constantly “celling” in order to differentiate our inner structures. This process is at its most intense during the period in utero where our body folds back into and through itself in an incredible act of biological origami. Pockets of different densities form that appear to us linguistically and culturally as distinct tissues, organs and body systems, but are in fact just one continuous structure.

Many contemporary scientists question the primacy of the genes in shaping ourselves. Indeed, a diverse field of epigenetics developed from the mid-1990s that broadly describes other factors that work with the genes to influence the development of an organism. Theories of how organisms form themselves range from mainstream materialist science to more speculative approaches such as morphogenetic fields of Rupert Sheldrake (Morphic Resonance and Morphic Fields an … – Rupert Sheldrake), which caused considerable controversy.

Where there is agreement is that we grow in response to the environment. It has long been known, for example, that our bones grow and shape themselves in response to how we organise ourselves in gravity. Likewise what we eat, the air we breath, the water we drink, the professions and pastimes we choose, how we are educated to think and feel are all echoed in our physical forms. We grow into ourselves.

Growing ourselves

We can’t choose the family, culture and age into which we are born, and we can’t avoid being subject to accidents, political upheaval, or the forces of nature. However, we do have some degree of choice over how we respond to our environment, and to some extent can influence our environment through our life choices.

The question then becomes on what basis are we able to make choices both to adapt and navigate ourselves through the environments of our lives? The method that Feldenkrais developed offers that possibility first by drawing our attention to what it is we are doing, and then by presenting us with alternative variations.

“If you know what you are doing then you can do what you want.” The trouble is that much of what we do is habitual so that we are not conscious of what we are doing or that we could have other choices.

Differentiation and integration

We practice the method in the realm of movement and sensation but the process we learn can be equally applicable to our thinking and emotional processes. The process we learn is of noticing ever finer differences in sensation as we organise ourselves to move with ever increasing variation. What begins as a facility to move and sense ourselves in an ever more differentiated way, begins to propagate throughout our lives.

What we often notice, and I’ve been there many times, is that when we stand up and walk off into our lives after a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement class, is that we feel transformed in such a positive way that we want to hold onto that feeling forever. “I feel so good now that I just want to keep feeling like this for the rest of my life.” 

For me that often used to be accompanied by a sense of defeat as the feeling seemingly inevitably subsides. That somehow I’ve failed when I go back to feeling like my usual myself again, or worse, when I sink back into a familiar pattern of organisation that is uncomfortable and seemingly inescapable.

To feel defeated might make a certain sense if I thought of myself as a machine to be fixed, or my nervous system as a computer to be reprogrammed. But in my experience of the method I found it transformative when I began to think of myself as a self-assembling, self-regulating, self-organising performance in time. 

Nourishing our own growth

With this in mind I enjoy the sensation of change while it lasts but without trying to hold onto it. Sure, I try to live inside it for a while without doing things that I know will dissipate it, like plunging myself back into some kind of stressful or habitual situation. 

Instead I now enjoy the experience of a great class that really speaks to me more like a wonderful meal. It’s a pleasure to eat, it leaves a satisfying taste in my mouth immediately afterwards, a nice feeling in my belly as I digest it in the hours afterwards, and it nourishes me physically and emotionally in ways that linger even longer. What I am able to digest becomes a part of me, and in becoming a part of me it looses its sense of novelty . Then I expel what I can’t make use of and repeat the process again, and again, and again.

I think of the experience as food for my growth. An experience of “life can feel like this”. And over time, by repeating the process of feeding myself with classes, I can grow myself more in that direction of ease. Through practicing the method, I tend to myself much like I would tend a treasured plant that I’m growing. As I attend to how I function, my structure grows itself according to how I compose my environment and how I interact with the world. I am growing myself.

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