By Derek Beres
In 1904, Moshe Feldenkrais was born in a small town in what is now Ukraine. At 14, he decided to walk from his home in Belarus to Israel, a journey of over 2,200 miles. Carrying only a pistol and math book, the poor Jewish wanderer made friends everywhere he went. At times over 200 people walked alongside him.
A crew of acrobats taught him how to fall and tumble during his epic travels, which left a profound impression on him. A few years later Feldenkrais began practicing judo, a martial art that became a lifelong passion and, for some time, source of financial support. The precocious young man was also wildly academic; he later worked as both engineer and physicist.
One harrowing life scene: on the night before the Nazi attack on France in 1940 he was tasked to deliver nuclear research material to the British army. During that stressful journey an old meniscus injury he first suffered playing soccer (and later re-injured on a submarine deck) flared up. Knowing that surgery was dicey, he set out to fix himself. The Feldenkrais Method was born.
The first time I took a Feldenkrais Method workshop we learned how to get up off of the ground. This seemingly pedestrian skill becomes more difficult as we age. More importantly, it wasn’t really about standing up in our full bipedal glory but the process of arriving.
Paying close attention to the inner workings of your nervous system is foundational to Feldenkrais. To heal his meniscus, Feldenkrais claims that he lied down for a half-hour subtly manipulating his injured knee; he then accomplished the same result with his other knee in two minutes. By priming his nervous system he was able to work much faster as he moved around his body.
Feldenkrais was as much philosopher as anything. Though considered one of the 20th century’s great somatic teachers, he did not believe in a separation between body and mind. He knew no soul is hidden inside of physiological processes. He was aware that transformation is possible through complete attention to breathing and movement, and that these required the mind. Attention is not developed in spite of the body.
Lack of attention creates many problems. Many ailments originate in poor movement patterns and bad posture. As he puts it, “In poor posture the muscles are doing a part of the job of the bones.” Thinking about movement is the antidote to poor habitual actions. This is why he taught while his students moved, so that they can learn from the inside out. They experienced his philosophy in real time.
Too often we settle for “good enough,” which then spirals into ineffective and potentially damaging motor habits. Feldenkrais knew that this process not only affected how we carry ourselves through the world, but how we perceive the world. “A drastic change in the motor cortex will have parallel effects on thinking and feeling.”
Feldenkrais railed against “parasitic” movement, excess actions caused by inefficient movement. Good bodily organization was his solution. This required a willful combination of thinking and action. He would have shaken his head in disgust at all the people walking around staring at their phones. Such ignorance of basic movements is certain to lead to chronic bodily and attentional problems.
How many times do we have to witness people nearly (or actually) run into objects and people before we admit to this mass addiction? Movements are strained; grace is impossible. His thoughts on extra effort required from poor movement is worth quoting at length.
“As long as superfluous effort is invested in any action, man must throw up defenses, must brace himself to great effort that is neither comfortable, pleasurable, or desirable. The lack of choice of whether to make an effort or not turns an action into habit, and in the end nothing appears more natural than that to which he is accustomed, even if it is opposed to all reason or necessity.”
Our terrible motor patterns and attentional difficulties make Feldenkrais more relevant now than ever.
In The Brain’s Way of Healing, psychiatrist Norman Doidge breaks down Feldenkrais’s 11 core principles:
• The mind programs the functioning of the brain
• A brain cannot think without motor function
• Awareness of movement is the key to improving movement
• Differentiation—making the smallest possible sensory distinctions between movements—builds brain maps
• Differentiation is easiest to make when the stimulus is smallest
• Slowness of movement is the key to awareness, and awareness is the key to learning
• Reduce the effort whenever possible
• Errors are essential, and there is no right way to move, only better ways
• Random movements provide variation that leads to developmental breakthroughs
• Even the smallest movement in one part of the body involves the entire body
• Many movement problems, and the pain that goes with them, are caused by learned habit, not by abnormal structure
On Wikipedia, the Feldenkrais Method is listed as pseudo-medicine. In one respect it makes sense: unproven medical claims ascribed to his method—Feldenkrais made a lot of claims—should not be championed. Other “treatments” in that section include vitalism, homeopathy, and phrenology, all methods that, if they “work” at all, is due to placebo.
That said, as a movement practice the Feldenkrais Method is an important and under-discussed modality. Few have the patience to properly implement his physical teachings which is exactly why they’re so relevant.
We pay far too little attention to how we move. Spending an hour in the gym or yoga studio doesn’t do much if we’re oblivious to how we carry ourselves during the rest of the day.
Feldenkrais wrote extensively about instinct, which is really just learned habit. We tend to assign the term a mystical status. This is wholly untrue. Instinct is the rapid processing of a lifetime of experiences. There’s a reason why instinct doesn’t always pan out: your individual experiences are not necessarily reflective of the moment you’re assessing. We make mistakes. There is no certain guide.
Applying instinct to movement makes it easy to recognize that we’re not instinctual movers at all. Every one of us is the product of how we’ve trained ourselves to move. As biomechanist Katy Bowman phrases it, no one is “out of shape.” Each of us is in exactly the shape we’ve trained for. Poor training leads to poor results.
Feldenkrais knew that good training leads to better results. This isn’t confined to time in the gym or physique. It is more all-encompassing. Training defines who we are as people. How we move is an integral component of our identity. As he puts it, discussing what happens when we attempt a challenging new movement and quit, “The limits that he thus sets for himself will stop his development not only in the fields that he has decided to abandon, but also in other areas; they may even influence his entire personality.”
We are how we move. Moshe Feldenkrais knew that we can always move, and think, and be, better. You just have to pay attention.
Derek Beres is a multi-faceted author, media expert, and fitness instructor based in Los Angeles. He has three new Yoga Wake Up sessions coming soon to the app, including Feldenkrais Flow, a twisting, rolling, floor-based movement session.