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One of my biggest struggles when I first met the Feldenkrais Method was in comprehending and accepting the value of small, slow movements. 

My first taste of the method came from a non-practitioner which, though somewhat unrefined, was nonetheless enough to grab my attention. Reflecting on that experience now, I think it was moving through unusual patterns of coordination that touched me. I don’t remember small and slow featuring much in that experience.

Playing with unfamiliar coordinations, or familiar movements in unfamiliar orientations, is certainly a strategy that we use a lot in the method, but it’s just one of many that serve the larger goal of waking us up to become aware of what we are doing.

Challenging beliefs

My disappointment when I found myself in a real Feldenkrais class for the first time had much to do with my total disbelief that working with small movements could have any useful effect. At the time I was studying circus trapeze. It took several classes to realise the relationship of small, slow and comfortable movements to the big, fast and powerful movements which were more my natural habitat.

One of the many ways of thinking of the method is that it is a way to become conscious of our learned habits of organising to act in the world. The method helps us develop a richer repertoire of variations around what we can do so that when life presents us with a challenge, we have many more possible ways in which to respond. That gives us a greater chance of acting more responsively and less reactively since we have more choices available to us. We study this in the realms of movement and sensation but the process also percolates into our thinking and emotional lives. 

Life is not a class

In life, we move with a full range of dynamics and our attention is most often on what we are aiming to achieve by acting. For example, we are more interested in what we are reaching for than sensing ourselves in the act of reaching. 

In a Feldenkrais class, there are no goals for our movements beyond giving ourselves some sensations to attend to. Unlike many exercise classes, doing more repetitions or bigger and faster movements won’t have more of an effect: it would actually have have less of an effect, which might seem counterintuitive at first.

Power and comfort

I’ve written elsewhere about the connection between power and comfort, and in a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM) class you’ll be asked to move within a range of movement which feels comfortable. When we are moving comfortably, which often means slower and smaller than in daily life activities, then we are better able to pay attention to ourselves as we move. And it’s this process of listening to ourselves as we move that causes the changes we feel after a class. (More about that in a future post!)

But there’s another reason why we often explore slow small movements. The smaller and slower we move, the more we are able to make fine distinctions between different pathways through which we organise ourselves to move and the accompanying sensations of changing muscular tone. In other words, the quality with which we move. 

Developing a taste for movement

Like wine or tea tasters, we develop great sensitivity to our own movements and sensations, becoming familiar with all the subtle flavours of our own experience. What we learn to consciously recognise as new or more comfortable possibilities, through the slow, small, comfortable movements during a class, become unconsciously and spontaneously available to bigger, faster, more powerful movements we make as needed in our daily lives.

What is important to realise, and it took me a while to figure this out for myself, is that small and slow isn’t an ideology that can be worked around if we are determined or smart enough. It is a physiological fact of life which is encapsulated in the Weber-Fechner laws that relates to human perception. 

The Weber-Fechner laws

Essentially they set out that our sensitivity to a stimulus decreases proportionally to the amount of the stimulus. With weight for example, the Weber Fraction states that we are only able to reliably detect a change in weight equal to, or greater than, 5% of the original sample.

An illustration of the Weber–Fechner law. On each side, the lower square contains 10 more dots than the upper one. However the perception is different: On the left side, the difference between upper and lower square is clearly visible. On the right side, the two squares look almost the same. (Image and caption from Wikipedia)

To put that in simpler terms, if you are holding a bag of potatoes and a fly lands on it, you can’t feel it, but if you are holding a feather and the fly lands on it you can. The less we do the smaller the differences we can notice.

Orders of magnitude

For me, the Feldenkrais Method started to make sense when I realised that all these small movements are in fact the beginnings of larger movements, and that the way we organise these small beginnings determines how the larger movements unfold. Every journey begins with a small step … and it’s good therefore to step in the right direction.

What it felt like to me that I was working at a different scale. I remember at the time thinking of this short 10-minute film that I’d seen called Powers of Ten™ (1977); if you haven’t seen is well worth watching. A similar metaphor, but one which the technology of the time didn’t offer, is that it is like being able to zoom in on a high-definition image; as we zoom in, rather than the image becoming a blur, more and more details reveal themselves.

Opening to a new world

Once I’d reconciled myself to small and slow, I discovered that once I had adjusted to the frame of reference, the scale, then moving a few millimetres felt immense; like moving many metres or even kilometres. Indeed, even imagining making a movement causes a subtle change in muscle tone which can be experienced as a pre-movement (more in a future post!). What had previously felt like nothing at all, suddenly opened up to feel like a vast, rich, infinite landscape.

And once that landscape opened to me, then I found it both humbling and reassuring to realise that the possibilities to journey through it would keep me busy for a lifetime. 

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