Feldenkrais & Mindfulness: Learning To Listen Within

Feldenkrais as a “method” is a most unusual process; the over-arching goal is to expand conscious awareness in such a way that new behaviour becomes easier to incorporate into daily doing and being, and new life possibilities of all sorts can become more available as a consequence. This aspect of the Method was encapsulated by Moshe as “knowing what you are doing” so that you can “do what you want”; here is a more detailed explanation of what he meant: 

“Even in our culture a number of us succeed in continuing their healthy life process into old age (…) The outstanding difference between such healthy people and the others is that they have found, by intuition, genius, or had the luck to learn from a healthy teacher, that learning is the gift of life. A special kind of learning: that of knowing oneself. They learn to know “how” they are acting and thus are able to do “what” they want–the intense living of their unavowed, and sometimes declared, dreams.”

On Health–Moshe Feldenkrais, 1979, Embodied Wisdom [Collected Papers]

Our core strategy of learning to move with heightened attention to the “how” of doing as opposed to the (more goal-driven) “what” was chosen because movement is fundamental to the structural organisation of the human brain. I have many great quotations I could paste here, but this is my current favourite, from roboticist Hans Moravec:

“Encoded in the large, highly evolved sensory and motor portions of the human brain is a billion years of experience about the nature of the world and how to survive in it. The deliberate process we call reasoning is, I believe, the thinnest veneer of human thought, effective only because it is supported by this much older and much powerful, though usually unconscious, sensorimotor knowledge. We are all prodigious olympians in perceptual and motor areas, so good that we make the difficult look easy. Abstract thought, though, is a new trick, perhaps less than 100 thousand years old. We have not yet mastered it.”

[The italics are mine]

Much of what people come to Feldenkrais for is actually a ‘side effect’ of this finely-tuned learning process. Our habitual behaviour – which includes our ‘default’ emotional responses – naturally generates sub-conscious muscular activity, and, as that behaviour becomes more robotic, the associated muscular tensions become a part of who we are. When we learn to let go of the habits of doing that maintain this high muscle tone, most of us experience the shift in sensation that we describe as feeling “relaxed”. Within this looser, softer self, our various vital fluids flow more freely throughout our whole neuro-muscular system, and our breathing naturally becomes, slower, easier, and more expansive

Mindfulness is the word the Western world has adopted for a secular version of an ancient Oriental spiritual practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn has popularised the idea of ‘quieting the mind’ as a tool for self-calming, and building emotional resilience, and encapsulated it in a simple phrase; according to him, Mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience, moment by moment.” 

This is such an accurate description of Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement there is no need to change a single word. The main difference for me is that Feldenkrais as a practise encompasses all the complexity of neuroscience and biophysics and distills it into a Method sophisticated enough to be an updated version of a life-long mindful-movement practice like Jujitsu or Tai Chi. I suspect a man who was in at the beginning of the science of radiation and accessing nuclear power knew that what the world needed was a way of peaceful self-development, rather than yet another way to fight.

I have identified all the elements of my Feldenkrais teaching that most immediately enable me to focus my sensory awareness internally in a way that is profoundly self-centring, self-quieting, and self-expansive, and collected them together into a Workshop Series called Listening and Sensing Within – all the information about the next online workshop can be found here.

Practising these sequences has enabled me to enhance all the classic benefits of Awareness Through Movement, and to reverse my chronic auto-immune issues, lessening pain and helping me to better manage my tendency to hyper-arousal. I am rolling out this course in 3 hour segments over the next few months, so do take advantage of my Lockdown discount scheme and book your place now.

These fundamental strategies – for very good reasons we avoid describing them as “principles” – non-striving, non-judging, self-acceptance, breath flowing freely throughout, the focus on allowing rather than pushing through resistance – are elements of Awareness Through Movement that are so interchangeable with secular Mindfulness that I realise I need to write an article specifically devoted to the subject – when this link is lit up you will know it is done.

Slowing our breathing and extending our exhalation is probably the most effective mechanism we have for consciously shifting out of a state of tension and arousal into our rest–and–recuperation mode (meaning out of sympathetic, and into parasympathetic nervous system ‘dominance’). Our pain lessens, our anxiety lowers, blood flows into our unclenching muscles, easing pain and freeing both external and internal motion: these are the benefits that convince many people to commit to regular Feldenkrais lessons. 

Even with regular practice, it can take a while to recognise that Feldenkrais strategies are not only useful for unlearning habits of moving that have outlived their usefulness, but that they are also highly effective for incorporating brand new skills, attitudes, and behaviours into our daily lives. We can learn to live in a manner that is less routine, less automated, less limited by ways of thinking we picked up from our families while too young to question them. We can begin to open our eyes and ears – and all our senses – to new possibilities that are revitalising, rejuvenating, maybe even exhilarating.

Listening is a skill that can be refined and enhanced through this well-honed awareness-enhancing process. Moshe Feldenkrais recognised that hearing is our primary sense; we come out of the womb already familiar with the sounds our mother’s internal systems make, and acclimatised to the frequency range of our “mother” tongue. Unlike sight, hearing is multidirectional and does not appear to come with any automatic switch-off mechanism. Blocking both ears with our fingers may lower the volume of the intrusive outside world, but it also opens up our inner ear, shifting our attention to a muffled, internal soundscape, more like the one we first experienced in the womb. If you listen intently to your internal soundscape you may even hear your own heart beating. I have been practising heart-awareness-focussed meditation for many years, but I have only just discovered how easy it is for me to hear my own heartbeat when wearing well-designed noise-reduction headphones – do give it a try if you have access to a pair; I am now finding it much easier to pick out the sound of my heart with just my fingers in my ears.

Listening is not a passive process; it is more like what we do when we focus our gaze on a distant something; or guide our nostrils towards the source of a fragrant aroma; or soften our finger tips to extract a tiny foreign object from our hair. Listening is fundamental to the way we teach Awareness Through Movement; our classes are led via verbal instruction, without visual demonstration from the teacher*. This is because the intention of Awareness Through Movement is whole-self sensory discovery, rather than the more familiar sort of movement training process in which students strive to reproduce a supposedly ‘correct’ version of a particular action, by observing and mirroring their teacher. 

As if to highlight this distinction, Moshe would often use “listen” as the guiding metaphor for this internal self-exploration–”listen inside the back, inside the head, inside the neck”. He was using language intentionally as a way to encourage the imagination, and open the mind and the senses to new experience.

During my training many of our Awareness Through Movement lessons were taught by Moshe Feldenkrais himself, thanks to the availability of recordings of his final training in Amherst, and particular trainers who felt it was important that we experience for ourselves what being taught by the originator of the Method was like. I developed the ability to fall asleep whenever he was teaching lessons for improving the functioning of the eyes, which at the time I put it down to the effect of his soothing voice.  It took me a while to make the connection between my own inner resistance and my tendency to drift off in particular lessons. My vision deteriorated when I was very young and, according to Moshe, I was exactly the sort of schoolchild who was most likely to have problems with my eyesight, staring fixedly at the blackboard, determined to be a really, really good student, and not attract any disapproval from the adults around me. It was only much later, once I had students of my own, that I realised how powerful these eye sequences can be. 

As a vocal performer and a lover of music I became interested in the possibility of improving the health and functioning of our ears in a similar way. In the last few years one particular field of neurological research has emerged that suggests exciting possibilities for doing just that.

Dr Stephen Porges’ book on his Polyvagal Theory includes a great deal of detailed research into the way that, as social mammals, we have evolved to communicate that we are friendly and that it is safe to approach. He suggests that it is for this reason we have mobile, expressiveness faces; prosodic voices, and the ability to focus our listening to pick out each others vocalisations over intrusive background noise. As a species we also tune into each other’s emotional states in a more “embodied” way, via our breathing and our heart rate (part of why his work is so fascinating is the way it explains how this ability may be negatively affected by both immediate stress, and ongoing trauma).

Current research into communal singing reveals that, when we vocalise in time with each other, our heart rate can also begins to synchronise. Porges’ research offers a mechanism for how this entrainment of our heart rate might be particularly easy to observe when we are singing together. Vagus ‘tone’ is not only improved by lengthening our out-breath – something that happens naturally when we sing. It is also positively influenced by actively listening to – rather than passively hearing – human vocal sound frequencies. In a choir, we are extending our exhalation, breathing in unison, sharing joyous melody, and listening intently to each other – all perfect strategies for improving vagal tone and positively influencing our heart rate.

I have always been rather socially awkward, and it does not help my tendency towards feeling overwhelmed in social situations that, in noisy, busy environments, I often cannot hear my companions voices over the high volume of background noise. I have always found this odd, as I am a singer and my hearing is pretty keen. Discovering Porges research into the effects of stress on our ability to tune our listening sense to human vocal frequencies was a lightbulb moment. In his book he describes my experience exactly, and after learning about the connection between anxiety and this kind of selective social ‘deafness’ I noticed that my hearing can revert to normal after a period of time in a friendly environment, even when the volume of background noise has actually increased. All this suggests that the self-calming process that Feldenkrais enables could be beneficial for easing the selective social deafness triggered by anxiety.

For all these reasons the lesson I have recorded for this year’s International Feldenkrais celebration incorporates three elements of skilled listening:

learning to listen more effectively via focussing attention; 

learning to listen better through self-calming; 

listening in a manner specifically aimed at improving our ability to hear. 

Thanks to the research of Dr Alfred A Tomatis, I am confident that the manner of listening required to master the ability to communicate using our vast range of potential vocal sounds is the very mechanism that builds and refines our individual hearing abilities. 

Dr Tomatis’ research was initially inspired by his father’s experiences as an opera singer, and his fascination with the connection between singing and hearing is what drew me to his work. His interest in the singing voice and the ear has been superseded by the focus of his successors on the benefits that his ear-training system can bring to children and adults with neurological issues. 

As we tune in to our own voice we are beginning to uncover and explore a soundscape as complex and rich with resonance as any symphony orchestra. I hope that, as you learn to embrace a greater range of the frequencies present in your own voice, you will begin to find that your ears are more open to the enormous range of frequencies out there in the world surrounding you.

Enjoy the lesson (here is the link – I am sorry the sound quality is rather poor, I will re-record it as soon as I have access to better tech). I look forward to any feedback you might like to share with me.

This article is a longer version of the one on the Guild website as I wanted to go into a little more detail, and I have included some links below, in case you would like to learn more about a fascinating subject.

*Now I am doing so much teaching online I have discovered how much I tend to dance along to my own instructions as I teach…

Sources and Resources

Jon Kabat-Zinn – excellent encapsulation of Mindfulness on YouTube.

Stephen Porges discusses Polyvagal Theory with reference to the importance of listening.

Dr Alfred J Tomatis: here is a review of the chapter featuring his work on The Conscious Ear, as featured in Norman Doidge’s excellent book on The Brain’s Way Of Healing – also a perfect introduction to Feldenkrais and Neuroplasticity.

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