Every human being is a complex adaptive self-evolving system and any casual attempt to encapsulate our multi-faceted nature inevitably risks oversimplification and superficiality. Similarly, Feldenkrais is a complex method, and naturally so, because it was designed to maximise our ability to learn new skills and behaviours intentionally, at any stage of life, from birth to old age. In other words it is precisely the adaptivity of ourselves as a complex system that the Feldenkrais Method was designed to enhance. Our ability to purposefully adapt ourselves to the new and the unexpected at any moment in our lives is what distinguishes us from even the most intelligent creatures – except possibly the octopus!
The majority of the organisms on our planet are specialists, and consequently a change in the environment – whether permanent, like climate change, or temporary, like an influx of toxic material – can quickly devastate a population. Of course some of our fellow creatures are more like us – i.e. adaptable generalists – (orcas and chimpanzees come to mind), nevertheless we humans are clearly the most adaptable of all. This is not hyperbole, it is demonstrated by the huge range of different environments in which we can survive and thrive. We evolved to learn, to invent, to create, and to accumulate and pass on our knowledge – to self-evolve as both individuals, and as a species – and Moshe Feldenkrais intended his method to enhance and prolong our ability to benefit from this powerful aspect of our nature – to enable us all to learn how to learn, and to never stop learning.
Systems Theory, and the human brain & nervous system
When first I began reading about complex systems I noticed how often the written materials refer to “the human brain”, as if it could somehow exist by itself (here are a couple of examples: Wikipedia, and an “online book” by David Gurteen on The Challenge Of Complexity. In his online lectures Dr Dan Siegel sometimes mentions how his daughter teases him for referring to the “embodied brain”, however, as long as the general population has yet to fully recognise just how indivisible our various structural and functional systems are, the concept of ’embodiment’ remains worthy of clarification.
Fortunately, even as our biomedical measuring devices become ever more sophisticated so does our understanding of how life works. Neuronal networks keep turning up in unsuspected parts of our physical structure, and a quick Google search will easily unearth recent research ascribing intelligence to both our gut, and our heart. These organ systems have long been associated with emotional intelligence, however that is an aspect of human behaviour that is highly resistant to the kind of research that generates the most accepted type of scientific “evidence”, by which I mean the sort of evidence that provides easily-defined and replicable conceptual parameters, and that can take advantage of reliable strategies for effective double-blinding. I highly recommend Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s books and lectures if you would like to dive into this aspect of this discussion in more detail; here is a link to her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life Of The Brain (sic), and here is a TED talk that encapsulates her research:
Feldenkrais: boosting your awareness & learning power
In order to boost our learning power, Feldenkrais focusses on enhancing two interrelated abilities; our ability to expand our conscious awareness of what we are perceiving moment to moment, and our ability to integrate this expanded awareness into our everyday functioning. It should be obvious that regular practise is required, but what makes Feldenkrais so effective also makes it less easy to practise in the somewhat repetitive and robotic ways most of us are familiar with.
In an Awareness Through Movement class you are learning to repeat movements without being repetitive, and to move in new ways without copying anyone else, with the overarching goal of learning to become less compulsive (habitual/robotic) – and thus both more spontaneous and more innovative – in your behavioural choices. The shift in your physical behavioural choices is intended to encourage similar shifts in your thinking and feeling choices as well, however once you are back in the flow of daily life, without the benefit of your teacher’s vigilant attention, it is all too easy to slip back into a narrower state of self-awareness, and return to the physical habits and routines that leave your mind free to endlessly rehearse both your habitual thought patterns, and your well-practised knee-jerk emotional responses as well.
Practice is vital…
To emphasise the importance of regular practice I compare Feldenkrais to learning to play an instrument, or to mastering a martial art. I have chosen these particular comparisons for very particular reasons…
Learning to play an instrument is only one aspect of the vast field of learning to play music. Using the guitar as an example, becoming a guitarist; becoming a better guitarist; becoming a classical guitarist; becoming a jazz guitarist – these are all aspects of becoming a musician, but are by no means the only ways to produce, share, and enjoy music. Music is vast concept, almost as vast as human capacity is vast.
You can become a multi-instrumentalist, a composer, a conductor, a teacher, a performer, a maker of instruments – you might even invent an entirely new kind of instrument, or an entirely new kind of music. Feldenkrais is similarly limitless, as the process of learning how to learn can be applied to any aspect of human existence that you might wish to explore:
The most common feature of people who achieve indescribable and superb performance is the hours of daily practise they all undertake throughout their lives. Hours of repetitive practice is hard work; hours of practicing awareness in movement or action remain the most absorbing and interesting time in our lives. The feeling of being alive relates to the awareness of growing to be oneself.
The Elusive Obvious, Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais (1981)
Moshe Feldenkrais was a life-long lover of Judo, and it is easy to see the origins of our Method in his earlier books on the subject. I have come to believe that the Feldenkrais Method is a 21st Century updating of martial arts – here is an edited quote from Wikipedia, with added italics, to highlight what I believe was Moshe’s ultimate goal:
“Martial arts training aims to result in several benefits to trainees, such as their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.Through systematic practice in the martial arts a person’s physical fitness may be boosted (strength, stamina, speed, flexibility, movement coordination, etc.) as the whole body is exercised and the entire muscular system is activated.
Beyond contributing to physical fitness, martial arts training also has benefits for mental health, contributing to self-esteem, self-control, emotional and spiritual well-being. For this reason, a number of martial arts schools have focused purely on therapeutic aspects, de-emphasising the historical aspect of self-defence or combat completely.
…And according to Bruce Lee, martial arts also have the nature of an art, since there is emotional communication and complete emotional expression.“
I have shared my thoughts on both of these themes in earlier articles – here are links to those posts:
Recognition that our developing brain and nervous system have a huge reliance on learning – the shorthand for which is the term ‘neuroplasticity’ – is an important counterbalance to the “selfish gene” narrative, highlighting just how vital ‘nurture’ is for our adaptable human ‘nature’. It also explains the fundamental importance of consistent practice for embedding a new ability, whether that is a new manual skill, a new verbal skill, or a new intellectual strategy. In actuality very little about us is “hard-wired”, and even our most ingrained habits can be unpicked from their neural circuits – it just takes intention, and time; in other words, it takes…
It is commitment to putting in the time that enables you to make that shift from being a beginner and endlessly practising scales, or stances, kicks, and throws, into the fun part where you are learning new songs, and writing your own music, or actually using your fighting skills in competition with your class mates.
Once you have committed to Feldenkrais as a practice, time spent immersing your attention in the overlapping sensations flowing into your conscious awareness – all thanks to your highly-sophisticated human sensory system – is the perfect way to become a less robotic, more authentic, less constrained and more potent being – to begin to mature into the most fully realised and effective version of yourself. As an added bonus, this kind of practice makes it easy to find effective ways to practice any other skill you are interested in learning as well.
Even in our culture a number of us succeed in continuing their healthy life process to an old age—an age, that is, where the unhealthy are already dotty and sick. Some of our best and healthiest men—who by the way may be hunchbacks or have other deformities—are the sort of people of whom we think as artists. Most artists, be they cobblers or sculptors, composers or virtuosos, poets or scientists, like good wine, are best when they are old. 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 are thus able to do “what” they want—the intense living of their unavowed, and sometimes declared, dreams.
Moshe Feldenkrais, “On Health,” Dromenon Magazine, 1979, reprinted in Embodied Wisdom; The Collected Papers Of Moshe Feldenkrais, Editor Elizabeth Beringer, 2010)
New approaches to alleviating chronic pain…
This means that for some time now I have been looking for ways to make it easier to work with yourself continuously in between [semi] regular classes and [intermittent] private lessons. That is what my (marketing alert) Qi–Essensuality Consciousness Training is all about. Many of the people who come to me are looking for help with managing chronic pain, and often other chronic symptoms as well.* As modern pain research indicates, anyone who has been in pain for longer than the average six weeks it usually takes to recover from an injury may be beginning to habituate to being in chronic pain – one example of the way in which being so good at adapting – being ‘neuroplastic’ – is not always an advantage in every situation.
Once we have become accustomed to long-term pain our experience of it tends to become both more intense and easier to trigger, and this increase in sensitivity does not necessarily have any direct relationship to what is going on in our physical tissue. Unlearning pain can be a slow process, but a hugely valuable one, and, as we learn to liberate ourselves from the fear of current and future pain, it can become a genuinely empowering experience.
Feldenkrais as a form of [body]mindfulness meditation
Anyone who sets out to research alternative pathways to better health will quickly realise how many people embrace meditation techniques after experiencing the benefits for themselves, however many of us struggle to learn these techniques to an effective level. After several failed attempts to learn to “quiet” my mind I discovered Tai Chi (often described as a sort of moving meditation) and didn’t look back. My Feldenkrais training continued the process that Tai Chi and Qi Gong began, and the improvements were more consistent; my sensory-motor awareness improved, I began to inhabit my whole self more fully, my pain issues and my anxiety lessened, I became marginally less clumsy, and by the time I qualified as a teacher I had confidence in the Method and was very satisfied with my chosen profession. However, I was only in my early thirties and had little idea of just how deeply ingrained my negative habits were. A few years later, despite choosing a path so precisely focussed on learning to lessen the pace of life, I nevertheless contracted a mild form of Chronic Fatigue and had to return to my self-examination–and–maturation process, at a new, deeper, more emotional level.
I will cut what could be a very long story short by saying that fibromyalgia is my most lasting chronic fatigue symptom, and as my generalised all-over joint pains retreated I was left with one particularly acute stubborn area, a left upper arm so painful I could not lift it to shoulder height. Unlike the trapped nerves of my 20s and 30s, this more chronic form of pain did not respond well to movement (and much of my general improvement was down to intermittent fasting and other dietary changes), and consequently my Feldenkrais practice became more subtle and refined out of necessity (and as we all know necessity is always the most reliable ‘mother of invention’).
Despite my hypermobile structure and my generally hyper nature I was learning to be kinder to myself, and to pace myself in a way that suited me better. Nevertheless, the arm pain intensified and I remembered that I had never really mastered the quieting of my thoughts that is fundamental to most mindfulness practices. Tim Parks had written a wonderful book – Teach Us To Sit Still – detailing the way that learning how to meditate changed his life. I decided this time I was going to keep on going until I had achieved the ability to quiet my own mind at will. That journey is ongoing, but the process has been so thoroughly liberating, so life-enhancing, so useful, that I see no good reason to wait until I have fully achieved my own goals before sharing some of what I have discovered with you.
I am teaching regular weekly classes – Your Potent Inner Voice – and having a committed group of students has allowed me to develop a wide array or approaches, explorations, and self-quieting strategies, all based on the ‘learning how to learn’ strategies that Moshe Feldenkrais developed and with many of his lessons as their foundation. It has become a favourite segment of my week! I have now branched out into a longer more immersive daily course, built around awareness training for all our human senses, as an ideal form of “mindfulness centred on the body” – Qi–Essensuality – full details in this blog post. I do hope I get to see you at one of my online courses very soon…
*Feldenkrais can offer many different ways to improve your life, but – in my experience – right now it tends to be prolonged issues with pain that motivate people to come looking for this –still somewhat obscure –alternative to the more generally recognised and more medicinally-focussed modalities on offer, whether they are allopathic, such as physiotherapy, or complementary, such as acupuncture or osteopathy.