Feldenkrais: Enhancing Your Sensory Awareness

A human being is a complex system and any attempt to encapsulate our multi-faceted nature inevitably risks oversimplification. Similarly, Feldenkrais is a complex method, and naturally so, because it was designed to maximise our ability to learn new skills and behaviours on purpose, at any stage of life, from birth to old age. It is precisely this ability that distinguishes us from even the most intelligent creatures.

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 – adaptable generalists – (orcas and chimpanzees come to mind), nevertheless we humans are the most adaptable of all. We evolved to learn, to invent, to create, and to accumulate 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 never stop learning.

Systems Theory & the human brain & nervous system

When first I began reading about complex systems I noticed how often 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 systems are, the concept remains worthy of clarification. 

Fortunately, as our measuring devices get more sophisticated so does our understanding. Neuronal networks keep turning up in unexpected parts of our 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 – an aspect of human behaviour that is highly resistant to the kind of research that generates the most accepted type of scientific “evidence”, ie the sort that requires easily-defined and replicable conceptual parameters, and reliable strategies for effective double-blinding.

Feldenkrais: boosting your awareness & learning power

To boost our learning power, Feldenkrais focusses on enhancing two interrelated abilities; our ability to expand our conscious awareness, 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 ways most of us are familiar with. 

In 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 – and thus more spontaneous and innovative – in your behavioural choices. 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 chew over your habits of thought, and your well-practised knee-jerk emotional reactions.

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 – becoming a guitarist; becoming a fine 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, almost as vast as human capacity is vast

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 believe 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 his 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.

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:

Feldenkrais: A new take on Judo for the 21st Century

Feldenkrais is Jazz! Improvisation and the Artistry of Being

Neuroplasticity

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 new abilities. 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…

…Commitment

It is commitment to putting in the time that enables you to make that shift from the beginning slog of practising scales, or endlessly practising 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.

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)

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 in between regular classes and intermittent private lessons. That is what Qi–Essensuality Consciousness Training  is all about. Many of the people who come to me are looking for help with managing 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 adapt to being in chronic pain – one example of the way in which being so good at adapting is not an obvious 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 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. 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; 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 happy 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 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.

Unravelling Fibromyalgia…

I will cut what could be a very long story short by saying that fibromyalgia was my most lasting symptom, and as the generalised all-over joint pains retreated I was left with one stubborn area, a left shoulder so painful I could not lift my arm to shoulder height. Unlike the trapped nerves of my earlier condition, this pain did not respond well to movement, and my Feldenkrais became more subtle and refined out of necessity (which as we know is always the most effective ‘mother of invention’). 

Despite my “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 wrote 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 goal before sharing some of what I have discovered with the rest of 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. It has become a favourite segment of my week! I am now branching out into a longer more immersive course – Qi–Essensuality – full details in this blog post.

*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.

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