Is the Feldenkrais Method® the Missing Link in Mind-Body Fitness?
Efficiency and awareness are key ingredients in a movement practice.
Activity coupled with attention leads to efficiency. If we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing, there can be serious ramifications. Just think how important attentive driving is! In terms of movement efficiency, the Feldenkrais Method may be the “missing link” in the mind-body conversation. As a fitness or wellness professional, you may find that integrating elements of Feldenkrais lessons into your teaching can help your clients and class participants to move more efficiently and to make better progress.
Neuroscientists used to believe that the human brain’s structure and function were essentially fixed once we reached adulthood. Remember the old adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? It turns out quite the opposite is true. In fact, we now know that new neurons are created continually throughout our lives. This is great news for everyone—from the neurologically challenged to the elite athlete, and everyone in between—because it represents pure potential.
Moshe Feldenkrais, PhD, often told his students that if you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want. He believed his method could make the impossible possible, the possible easy and the easy elegant. For today’s fitness and wellness professional, this could mean helping clients become aware of habitual movement biases and patterns, and utilizing that knowledge to improve function.
Teaching Efficiency and Awareness
The Feldenkrais Method is based on the law of least noticeable differences (i.e., how much of a stimulus needs to be triggered to invoke a sense of curiosity). For instance, in a room with 100 light bulbs the room would obviously get darker if 50 bulbs were turned off. If, however, only 5 bulbs were turned off, would anyone notice? There is a point at which the brain registers a change in stimulus but is unable to identify what exactly has changed. Such minute levels of change invoke the most curiosity and are, therefore, fertile ground for learning.
In human beings, these subtle changes in stimuli occur continually, affecting all of our movements and our posture. In fact, Feldenkrais referred to “acture,” because even the act of standing still requires micromovements for balance. Add structural anomalies, accidents, injuries and surgeries, and the equation becomes exponentially more complex.
Our ability to sense changes in movement decreases as the speed or size of the movements increases. Consequently, when teaching choreography, instructors often teach in half time or slow motion to train participants’ brains to execute sequences safely. This gives the central nervous system the chance to sense changes, improve, and eliminate unnecessary movements that inhibit progress. It is for these reasons that, in fitness, we teach progressions and regressions, similar to the “successive approximations” used by Feldenkrais practitioners.
When exercising alone, clients tend to perform a movement in the way their memory tells them is correct, while, in fact, it is often an easier adaptation. This may be why clients commonly feel they work harder in class or one-on-one sessions than they do by themselves. When they work with us, we strive to help them progress. We do this by improving their movement patterns; eliminating habitual, counterproductive movements; and teaching them how to identify more efficient patterns.
Retraining Protective Patterns
Sensing habitual movement patterns is key to identifying efficient vs. superfluous movements. If a client has a physical malady, even a stubbed toe, he will naturally direct body weight away from the offending part, putting excess pressure on the opposite foot. This imbalance travels up the leg, training both legs and the hips unevenly, potentially leading to chronic injury. It has long been established that neurons that fire together wire together (Hebb 1949). Consequently, even after the toe has healed, an imprint of the new habit has been made on the brain. What started as a protective measure morphs over time into something that causes more injury. Add awareness to compensation and you can teach people how to make more efficient movement choices.
The mobility of each individual muscle or joint is essential to the broader movement, owing to the interconnectivity of our body parts. Their relationships affect one another. For example, what you do with your eyes affects your head, which in turn affects your spine, ribs and pelvis. To illustrate this, let’s look at a typical Awareness Through Movement® lesson. Turn your head to the right while making your eyes go to the left. Do it slowly and at the same time and pace. The eyes typically jump ahead; try to keep the movements simultaneous. It’s disconcerting because our bodies are designed for the eyes and head to work together.
Feldenkrais Method lessons remind the brain of forgotten patterns; things from in utero and infancy when movements were easiest to learn because they were broken down into such small increments. If an erroneous movement pattern has evolved in response to an injury or other stimulus, finding ways to vary the pattern can result in more efficient, comfortable and pleasurable mobility.
Instructors purposely don’t demonstrate during ATM lessons for a couple of reasons. First, it prevents a teacher from passing along his or her biases for students to emulate. Second, it means each student must find his or her own way. My Feldenkrais training taught me that confusion precedes all learning because we can’t learn something we already know. Copying the movements of a teacher is not, in fact, learning; it is mimicking, which often cannot be repeated, as it is not learned on a neuronal level. There must be some confusion or curiosity in order to learn. If nothing else, how can you encourage clients to be more curious?
Less May Be More
While Feldenkrais lessons can successfully complement a healthy training program, they are not exercise. They are, rather, a movement system that makes exercise, and all activities of daily life, more efficient. They are taught in two modalities: group classes and individual sessions. As such, they are easy to incorporate into any well-rounded fitness facility setting. The client either follows verbal direction in a class setting or is gently guided through movements in private sessions (Functional Integration®).
Less is often more, and these practices not only offer clients a way to recover from trauma; they can also help everyone—from elite athletes to those who are physically or neurologically challenged—to move with greater ease and comfort.
Baniel, A. 2009. Move Into Life: Nine Essentials for Lifelong Vitality. New York: Harmony.
Doidge, N. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Viking.
Feldenkrais, M. 1990. Awareness Through Movement. New York: HarperOne.
Hebb, D.O. 1949. The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.