We humans are experts at learning. We don’t need to show babies how to learn. As soon as they’re born, they begin.
Movement is key to learning. The Feldenkrais Method® works by inviting us to attend to small differences between movements and assess which are preferable: which use less energy, are more direct, and feel better. At any age we can notice these differences, learn, and improve.
Neuroplasticity: More than Just a Buzz Word
Literally our brain grows new neural connections: dubbed neuroplasticity, this ability of our brain to change has become a buzz word. Buzzy or not, it’s still true we can learn and improve. It’s pretty darn cool.
Feldenkrais teacher Rich Goldsand just produced a nice video demonstrating with several clients how the method helps them. Watch it below.
So, after six years of teaching, I follow my hunches when planning what to teach. I listen to my private clients, to students in my classes. I continue with my advanced study. Patterns emerge. Something comes into the foreground.
Now it’s hip joints which keep presenting themselves to me.
Connecting with Your Strength
My ongoing interest remains uncovering innate strength. And clarifying use of our hip joints is key. The pelvis is our power center. Those bones are the biggest we have. The lumber vertebrae are enormous, compared to our cervical vertebrae.
The head of the femur is spherical, almost. It has the potential to rotate in almost any direction. Yet most of us use only a fraction of the potential. Watch a dancer or gymnast to see the hip joint exploited to its fullest.
Most of us don’t have hypermobile joints like acrobats. Yet we can still find more range of motion than we’re currently taking advantage of. We can find, for example, the top of our hip joint, that place around which we can pivot freely and discover what Moshe Feldenkrais called good posture: the ability to move in any direction without preparation.
Why Study Anatomy?
I’ve been going back to the transcripts of the lessons Moshe Feldenkrais taught years ago in Jerusalem. We have roughly 600 of these lessons, from the time he spent teaching on Alexander Yanai Street. I’m finding gems in his comments to students. He says repeatedly that we don’t know where our hip joints are. We can’t accurately locate them on ourselves. We think our hip joints are located where our pants crease at the top of our legs. They aren’t. Because we move from a faulty understanding of our anatomy, we damage our hip joints and low back. Moshe said that 60 years ago, and it’s still true today.
The heads of the femurs point towards your sacrum. Your hip joints are located where they can direct ground forces up and into your spine on either side to help you stand erect and move your spine freely.
When you stand using your skeleton clearly, without unnecessary activity in your core, you’ll feel support flowing up from your heels to your hip joints, all the way to the crown of your head.
It’s literally a heady feeling.
So why do so many of us lack or forget that connection? Many reasons: injury, prolonged sitting, inactivity in general. I also think the English language doesn’t help.
Basic Pelvic Anatomy
We have one word, “pelvis,” for what are actually three bones: the sacrum in the middle and an ilium/ischium on either side. To add to the confusion, we don’t have one word for the hip bones on either side of the sacrum. Each is composed of three elements, the ilium, ischium, and pubis. These are separated in newborns and become fused by adulthood. The three elements form a deep socket called the acetabulum where they meet. The acetabulum articulates with the head of the femur. In front, the pubic bone on either side is connected by cartilage. So each of these three parts of your pelvis has the potential to move independently. To see that potential exploited to its fullest, watch a skillful belly dancer.
Why isn’t study of basic human anatomy required? How we’re put together is fascinating. When kids meet my skeleton Heinrich, they can’t stop touching him, moving his bones around, asking questions. It’s absurd and a profound disservice to allow children to reach adulthood in ignorance of how their physical selves function. (Of course, public school would probably find a way to make anatomy boring. But that’s another story.)
The point is, understanding and clarifying function of our hip joints is key to improving our movement and self-use. This spring, that will be the theme throughout my classes. I hope you’ll join me.
Going Deeper with Anatomy
If you’d like to study human anatomy on your own, there’s no better place to start than Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain. Her analysis focuses on function, not the study of anatomy for its own sake. She’s a dancer and physical therapist. The book is full of great illustrations. It’s organized so you can easily pick it up and simply read the section dealing with the pelvis. Or go cover to cover, if you like.
Often we think of strength from the physical perspective. When I searched for stock photos showing “strength,” what came up were dozens of images of bulging muscles and effort.
We can certainly appreciate the skill required to evoke strength at an extraordinary level. Witness the remarkable weight-lifting of Taner Sagir.
Of course we all want physical strength. We want to be strong enough to lift our children easily, lift groceries, practice yoga, or garden. Some of us want to be strong enough to practice an instrument for three hours and then play a concert. Or to run a marathon.
That was the kind of strength I was expecting to investigate during four days of advanced training last month at IOPS Academy (Ideal Organization & Profound Strength). But in his first talk our instructor, Dr. Jeff Haller, spoke of emotional strength.
Jeff described a client who’d experienced abuse as a child and has been living with its emotional weight for much of their life. That client is discovering a different way to inhabit their body, from the ground up, with clear contact of their feet, open chest, and unrestricted breath. The client can now feel the difference between this new pattern and the former. He’s gaining the tools to choose consciously between living in the past, with all its weight, and in the present with its relative ease, based on being aware of these patterns.
Group investigations that week allowed us to experience how we physically express fear. As they progressed, we were guided toward finding different responses—becoming pro-active, rather than reactive, assertive rather than cowering, calm rather than wary. In other words, Jeff invited us to discover emotional strength in ourselves, and observe its physical manifestations.
Above all, he invited us to be kind to ourselves.
I realized that I’ve held back from articulating publicly that there’s an emotional component to the Feldenkrais Method®. When a new client comes to talk about relieving physical pain, I’ve thought—oh, they’re not expecting to talk about the emotional side. So I’ve left it unstated. But when you discover limiting patterns of movement, you’ll inevitably discover related patterns of thinking and feeling.
In Body and Mature Behavior, Moshe Feldenkrais writes: “Every emotion. . . is associated and linked in the cortex with some muscular configuration and attitude.”
As you learn new choices, you learn new ways of thinking and feeling. Instead of being at the mercy of your past, you can choose what to keep and what to discard. You might literally feel more buoyant.
Strength is an evolving idea for me. A goal to move towards, sometimes approaching via the physical realm, sometimes the mental: two possible approaches to the same goal. I think human strength is synonymous with maturity. As we move through our lives, at each moment we have the choice between falling into old patterns or choosing the new. We can choose to relish our ability to thrive in uncertainty. As we uncover our inner strength, we can trust that we have the resources to respond without hesitation. We can aspire to anti-fragility.
To learn more about the pioneer of the Feldenkrais Method®, Moshe Feldenkrais, D.Sc., there’s no better source than the recently published first volume of his biography, Moshe Feldenkrais: A Life in Movement.
At 566 pages (including footnotes), the book is a remarkable achievement. Author Mark Reese worked closely with Dr. Feldenkrais, and was himself a teacher of the method, as well as a scholar.
Describing Moshe Feldenkrais, Norman Doidge, M.D., writer of two bestsellers on neuroplasticity writes in the book’s preface: “Genius of the magnitude possessed by Moshe Feldenkrais, defies categorization. . . [it’s] a fastidiously researched, exciting, profoundly insightful story, that gets deep inside the mind of the swashbuckling, theatrical, brilliant integrator, as he lived through many of the greatest intellectual, political, and scientific events of the the 20th century. . . who in his struggle to overcome his own major injury, pioneered a unique way of teaching people to learn how to learn, and to change their brains, by increasing awareness of whatever they did. . .”
May 6 is Moshe’s birthday. I never met him in person, but am forever grateful to have discovered his work. Here he is teaching a public workshop, speaking about good posture and Campbell’s soup. Happy birthday, Moshe!
Moshe Feldenkrais: South Bend, Indiana Feldenkrais Method Workshop
Feldenkrais® practitioner Michael Cann wrote an excellent blog in response to a student’s frustration after a workshop. Other participants had found the movements easy and enjoyable. The man wondered what was wrong with him.
Michael’s response is that the way we teach Feldenkrais can be misleading, because we emphasize making small, gentle movements. Only doing what’s easy. Resting frequently.
He writes: “With all this talk about ease, effortlessness, and pleasure, you’d think every experience would be enjoyable. . . But here’s the uncomfortable truth: it won’t be. There have been times when I have hated Feldenkrais. And there may be times when you will too. . . . easy movement can be way harder — and way more rewarding — than you have imagined.”
How the Feldenkrais Method facilitates neuroplastic healing
1. The mind programs the functioning of the brain.
We are born prepared to learn. We can adapt our brains and movement to particular surroundings. Even when we damage our brains, usually plenty of brain remains to take on damaged functions.
2. A brain cannot think with motor function.
Just thinking of a movement triggers that movement, changes tone in that part of our body. Using our brains triggers four components: motor movement, thought, sensation, and feeling.
3. Awareness of moving is the key to improving movement.
Doidge writes: “It may seem ‘magical’ to think that movement problems. . . can be radically changed simply by becoming more aware of the movement, but it seems magical only because science formerly thought of the body as a machine with parts, in which sensory functions are radically separated from motor functions.”
4. Differentiation—making the smallest possible sensory distinction between one movement and another—builds brain maps.
5. Differentiation is easiest to make when the stimulus is smallest.
The less effort we use, the more we can notice. If you’re lifting a piano, you won’t notice if a fly lands on it; if you’re lifting a feather, you will.
6. Slowness of movement is the key to awareness, and awareness is the key to learning.
If you leap too quickly, you can’t look before you leap.
7. Reduce effort whenever possible.
If you are straining, you aren’t learning: if strain, no gain. No pain is gain.
8. Errors are essential, and there is no right way to move, only better ways.
If you don’t make mistakes, you won’t learn. No one speaks her native language perfectly from day one.
9. Random movements provide variation that leads to developmental breakthroughs.
Sometimes it’s useful to wander!
10. Even the smallest movement in one part of the body involves the entire body.
When you’ve got a ball of yarn, whichever part of the yarn you take hold of, the whole ball comes along eventually.
11. Many movement problems, and the pain that goes with them, are caused by learned habit, not by abnormal structure.
Often there’s nothing to “fix.” Improvement can come from changing your movement patterns.
About Norman Doidge, MD
Norman Doidge, M.D., is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher, author, essayist and poet. He is on faculty at the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry, and Research Faculty at Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, in New York. He is the author of two New York Times bestselling books on neuroplasticity. Learn more about Dr. Doidge on his website.
I just spent five days soaking up new knowledge and sharing insights with dozens of other Feldenkrais® teachers, at the 2013 Feldenkrais Conference for teachers of the method.
Barbara Abramson explores working with Stacy Barrows on a SmartRoller®. Barrows, both a physical therapist and a Feldenkrais practitioner, designed the SmartRoller.
Below is just a snippet of a workshop I took with master trainer Jeff Haller. Titled “Ground, Grounding, Grounded,” the workshop focused on stability and mobility. Dr. Haller is particularly interested in both how we begin movement and how, even as we move, we can stay free and available to change at any moment. Fascinating: I’ve come away with lots of ideas to explore, in both private lessons and group classes. (Yes, that is me demonstrating on the table!)
This is the first time I’ve attended our annual conference: I look forward to more.
Feldenkrais’ only extended case study, Body Awareness as Healing Therapy: The Case of Nora. Beautifully and simply written, the book describes Feldenkrais’ successful work with a woman recovering from a severe stroke. What emerges is his systematic, scientific approach. “Structure and function are tied so intimately that one cannot easily separate them nor deal with one without involving the other (p. 9). What also emerge are his compassion, patience, and respect for human dignity.