Learning To Learn The Feldenkrais Way

At first glance the Feldenkrais Method can seem to be entirely aimed at helping our students to move better, with more ease and grace. In fact it is intended to be a tool for facilitating change in our lives; for enabling us to shift out of well-established habitual behaviours into a more responsive, more adaptable, more spontaneous way of being. Not just becoming light on our feet, but also light, flexible and creative in our thinking.

Moshe Feldenkrais designed his Method to offer a range of strategies for making “the impossible possible, the difficult easy, and the easy elegant”. He spent his adult life studying judo; he knew how a master of judo moved, and behaved; he recognised that a person with mastery makes what they are doing look both effortless, and aesthetically pleasing – he was using the word “elegant” in all its many shades of meaning. 

These ancient “martial” arts have skills for living embedded into their design; even our diluted westernised versions of Ju Jitsu, Tai Chi and Aikido still contain vital elements of the philosophies that inspired them. I suspect Dr Feldenkrais could see that humanity needed new tools for self-development; he recognised that learning how to learn – and how to keep on learning – was vital for our continuing survival in the complex artificial world we are building around ourselves. He saw that living longer and longer with less and less flexible thinking was a recipe for stagnation and decline, both for us as individuals, and for our species as a whole. He read everything he could about our human nervous system – he had an old knee injury to heal – and recognised that there was a version of his beloved physics that was central to how we humans function and develop. 

Neurobiology

Biophysics takes the strategies of traditional physics and uses them to analyse all aspects of biological phenomena. Feldenkrais could see how the concept of our “neuroplasticity” – the ability of our brain and nervous system to continue to develop and make new neural connections throughout our lives – could be organised into a set of strategies for self-development and self-healing. There are thousands of Awareness Through Movement “lessons”, and their essence is distilled into this deceptively simple set of instructions, entitled Learning To Learn, and written to accompany a set of recorded lessons in 1980, very close to the end of his life. No matter what movements we are exploring together, whether in class, online, or on my table, I am always teaching these learning skills in some combination.

I am keen to explore each of these learning strategies in more depth…

I do not think Moshe’s eleven headings constitute a formal ‘list’ so I do not expect this project will require such a large number of articles. If you download Moshe’s article you will notice that several themes seem to overlap somewhat. In addition, I am a little wary of numbers used in this way; 7 ways to do this, 8 types of that, the top 10 of whatever; these distillations must appeal to many people, because they are so ubiquitous, but they repel me slightly. Which is not to suggest these organising systems do not have value; Anat Baniel – one of my most inspiring trainers – has compiled her own version of ‘Nine Essentials [for] Lifelong Vitality’, and her book is highly recommended to anyone interested in how our brains develop and flourish throughout our entire lives.

There is a number that tempts me, and that is the number six. I have a memory of hearing Moshe say that if you can achieve an intended result six different ways, then you are a “genius” (he liked that word, and used it a lot – he also liked and used the word ‘idiot’ more often than would be acceptable nowadays). He was talking about something really important, that if you have only one way of doing something you are functioning rather like a robot. A popular saying on this subject is that “to a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. He suggested that as soon as you can do something two different ways you have a choice and are functioning less like a machine and more like a human – although recently I heard an alternative version of this theme that suggested instead you now have not so much a choice, as a “dilemma”. Until I chase down a written version I will not insist on that number six, but it does appeal to me. Six seems like a nice sensible number to aim for, so let’s see how it goes…

Here are the headings from Moshe’s booklet, in the order they appear, with a little snippet of his explanation, just to whet your appetite:

Do everything very slowly

Time is the most important means of learning. To enable everybody––without exception––to learn, there should be plenty of time for everybody to assimilate the idea of the movement, as well as the leisure to get used to the novelty of the situation.

Look for the pleasant sensation 

Pleasure relaxes the breathing to become simple and easy. Excessive striving-to-improve impedes learning. It is less important to learn new feats of skill than it is to master the way to learn new skills.

Do not “try” to do well

Trying hard means that somehow a person knows that unless he makes a greater effort and applies himself harder he will not achieve his goals.

Do not try to do “nicely”

A performance is nice to watch when the person applies himself harmoniously. This means that no part of him is being directed to anything else but the job at the hand. Intent to do nicely when learning introduces disharmony. Some of the attention is misdirected, which introduces self- consciousness instead of awareness.

Insist on easy, light movement 

We usually learn the hard way. We are taught that trying hard is a virtue in life, and we are misled into believing that trying hard is also a virtue when learning. We see, therefore, a beginner, learning to ride a bicycle or to swim or to learn any skill, making many futile efforts and tiring quickly. 

It is easier to tell differences when the effort is light

All our senses are so built that we can distinguish minute differences when our senses are only slightly stimulated.

Learning and life are not the same thing 

In the course of our lives, we may be called upon to make enormous efforts–– sometimes beyond what we believe we can produce. There are situations in which we must pay no heed to what the enormous effort entails. …Obviously, then, we must be able to act swiftly and powerfully. The question is, wouldn’t we be better equipped for such emergencies by making our efforts efficient in general, thus enabling us to exert ourselves less and achieve our purpose economically.

Why bother to be so efficient?

…energy cannot be destroyed; it can only be transformed into movement, or into another form of energy. What, then, happens to the energy that is not transformed into movement? It is, obviously, not lost, but remains somewhere in the body. Indeed, it is transformed into heat through the wear and tear of the muscles (torn muscles, muscle catarrh) and of the ligaments and the interarticular surfaces of our joints and vertebrae… If we have not learned efficient action, we are in for aches and pains and for a growing inability to do what we would like to do. 

Do not concentrate 

Do not concentrate if concentration means to you directing your attention to one particular important point to the utmost of your ability. This is a particular kind of concentration, useful as an exercise, but rarely in normal occupation and skills. 

We do not say at the start what the final stage will be

We are so drilled or wired-in by prevailing educational methods that when we know what is required of us, we go all-out to achieve it, for fear of loss of face, regardless of what it costs us to do so. …We will bite our lips, hold our breath, and screw up our straining self in an ugly way in order to achieve something if we have no clear idea of how to mobilise ourselves for that task. The result is excessive effort, harmful strain, and ugly performance.

Do a little less than you can 

By doing a little less than you really can, you will attain a higher performance than the one you can now conceive. Do a little less than your utmost while learning. You are thereby pushing your possible record to a higher setting.

That’s the whole ‘list’, so now…

…let’s explore the first strategy–Do everything very slowly…

Acquiring these meta-learning skills is not as easy as it sounds; in class we always quiet ourselves first, usually by lying on the floor, but, for ease, and for now, let’s experiment in sitting: 

Spend a few moments getting in touch with the sensation of your sitting bones on the seat (a firm chair will be more effective for this, a kitchen chair is ideal). 

Can you tell if your weight is central, or shifted a little over to one side?

When you are ready, begin to move your weight over to sit more heavily on one of your sitting bones – which one did you choose? 

Come back to the centre and then shift your weight in the same direction again, and play with doing this as slowly as you can manage; can you stretch the movement out until it takes you five seconds to arrive on that sitting bone? 

If you repeat the movement a few times, allowing some of your attention to be on your pacing, some on the freedom and fluidity of your breathing, and some on the movement of your head in space, you are already doing Feldenkrais. 

In class we practise observing the changes that simple movements like these can make to our perception of ourselves. If you are new to Awareness Through Movement you may not feel much difference at first, but that is fine, just focussing your attention whilst freeing your breathing as you move is already a useful practice. 

After a restful pause, explore this movement to other side; you may already be able to recognise that you do this somewhat differently, possibly even begin to understand why you “chose” the other sitting bone first. 

As we did before, repeat this new direction a few times, to allow your awareness to focus, and your ease to grow, and then rest. 

For our final step, begin to gently shift all the way from one sitting bone to the other, breathing freely as you move, and see if you can discover how to allow your head to remain in a more central position; this is already a nice lesson for your spine and your neck. For myself this movement enabled me to lessen and shorten my intermittent bouts of sciatica. 

Online classes now available 

I have been planning to teach more online classes for many months now, so I am a little embarrassed that it has taken an international crisis to finally get me started. I will be teaching workshops on specific themes, including Embodying The Voice and Sitting With Ease. Do not hesitate to email if you want to know more about any aspect of my teaching. I will also be uploading introductory videos clarifying the different learning strategies of The Feldenkrais Method onto my YouTube channel very shortly, so ‘watch this space’…

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