Awareness Through Movement: Health Exercises for Personal Growth

“I believe that this sort of education leads to a new period of personality growth with versatility ramifications.” M. Feldenkrais, Foreword to R. Masters book The Way to Awaken

In June 2019 I had my 70th birthday. The same month marked 41 years of studying Feldenkrais. Time to write something. Although I got down to business studying because the orthopedic surgeon had given me the prognosis of inevitable degenerative arthritis and a permanent limp (a crushed medial malleolus and torn Achilles tendon) I was also interested in Moshe’s version of personal growth.

At age 26, I had been given two books by Feldenkrais: Body and Mature Behavior and Awareness Through Movement. I eagerly read them and recognized in Awareness Through Movement hints of the teachings of Gurdjieff. However, when I tried to do a lesson (Flexions & Extensions) from the book I could not oppose my head to my shoulders. I threw the book across the room and said to myself, “I don’t need this. I’m a YOGI.” I did go to study yoga in India with BKS Iyengar, but after the accident and surgical repair, I was in a cast for 10 weeks and intellectually decided that Feldenkrais was my best chance to not fulfil the surgeon’s prognosis. A great proportion of my yoga practice was standing which I couldn’t do with a crutch cast. I read the “health exercises” (movement lessons) onto cassette tapes and began to practice from these tape recordings.

One month after beginning to practice, Robert Masters and Jean Houston came out with the book Listening to the Body – dedicated to Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais with a foreword by him. I recorded these exercises as well so that I had 24 classes to do. Variety is important. With the cast on my leg I could not tell whether the practice was helping my ankle.

The first experience of the effects of practice was what I called “gapping”. I had spent seven years as a hippie dropout obsessed with “awareness”, which was supposed to free me from the torment of the mind and emotions – the imaginative-emotive rumination. After that many years I felt a complete failure. There was no gap between the stimulus and my habitual response. I was “aware” enough to have noticed that. For a short time after doing a class from the tapes I’d made myself, I noticed that I was less reactive. I called that “gapping” because there was a gap instead of my habitual knee jerk response.

“A fundamental change in the motor basis within any single integration pattern will break up the cohesion of the whole and thereby leave thought and feeling without anchorage in the patterns of their established routines. In this condition it is much easier to effect changes in thinking and feeling.” Awareness Through Movement, Page 39

I had read the books several times because I liked reading and speculating even though I had only just got down to practicing. This was an example of chronic thoughts and feelings which were triggered by my social interactions or even my own thoughts being “more amenable to change.” Also, in general, my mind was clearer and quieter after following the instructions that I had ready myself onto cassettes, more so than after one and a half hours of yoga practice.

15 years later, a friend to whom I had given one of these tapes gave it back to me and said, “You should put this in your archives.” I listened to it while making dinner that night and was amazed to realize that that person I was 15 years before had no idea what he was reading. Yet it worked both in the psycho-emotional realm and the neuro-muscular realm. It took a year to stop limping; and I don’t know how that change came about. The classes changed my neuromuscular behavior below the level of consciousness. From my own experience, it is clear to me that the METHOD is so well designed that it worked without a teacher.

In the early months of my practice, I had no awareness of the differences after doing individual movements within a class, just a vague sense of ‘better’ at the end of a 45-minute tape. In retrospect, I realize that I was dissociated on account of being trapped in PTSD, a result of hundreds of asthma attacks and eight operations in childhood. When a situation calls for fight or flight and neither is possible (as in asthma and operations) you freeze and “leave your body”, actually just eliminate bodily sensation from the ongoing experience of your conscious mind – dissociate. It was only my intellectual conviction that this practice would, if anything would, result in my ankle healing that motivated me to continue until I did begin to sense differences in more detail. In his version of somatic education, Robert Masters continually repeated the instruction to move smoothly and easily; that helped me: smoothly without “getting a grip” and easily without being sloppy. To do so I had to pay attention indirectly in a way that led to being able to sense differences.

I planted trees 2½ months after the accident and operation, limping. When I had to get over an obstacle quickly (to make money) I would push off with my uninjured leg and land on the same foot. The next spring when I went back to planting after 8 months of practice I jumped over an obstacle and without thinking landed on the injured foot. There was no pain. With that I decided I was cured. Around the same time, I stopped limping. If I developed a limp now, I like to think I could analyze it and figure out how to do something different from limping. At that time the learning/unlearning all happened unconsciously, which to me demonstrates the power of the Feldenkrais Method.

The person, me, who had that accident, had pre-existing conditions that would interfere with a good recovery, although the surgeon didn’t think that way. He just predicted, on the basis of decades of experience, that a recovery from such an injury, with so many crumbs (visible to me on the X-ray) was not possible. My pre-existing conditions were: flat-footed, pigeon toed, bow-legged, sway backed, asthmatic and cross-eyed. The fact that I was pigeon toed and cross eyed makes me suspect that I was mildly cerebral-palsied. That opinion is reinforced by hearing that I was very delayed in walking and talking. All of these conditions needed to be reduced in dominance to some degree so that the forces going through my ankle would be such as to allow healing. This array of conditions resulted in a difficult relationship of mind and body, which I didn’t know because I’d never had any other experience.

Over time and prolonged practice, these conditions changed of their own accord – self-corrected. Of course, there were mental and emotional correspondences to these neuro-muscular issues that have changed over the decades. This long-term process can be understood as “personal growth.” “I believe that this sort of education leads to a new period of personality growth with versatility ramifications” (M. Feldenkrais, Foreword to The Way to Awaken). I did not take the Feldenkrais Professional Training Program until I had been practicing on my own for 11 years, buying recordings in the mail so that I had enough variety to be sure it would keep working. I came to call the training world the Feldencult because the students in my training (80 people) had a very different frame around the study and practice than I did.

Feldenkrais once said: “People will come to you and say, ‘Take away my pain, but don’t ask me to change.’” Just because a person does a Feldenkrais training doesn’t mean they want to change as a whole person. To keep the sensori-motor ‘compartment’ separate from the rest of the brain – thinking and feeling areas – enables a person to pursue Feldenkrais studies without changing much.

The student frames the work as buying a skill and an identity. This “compartmentalization” enables us to survive childhood in the less-than-ideal conditions that most of us grow up in. It can then be applied to going to the Feldenkrais school to learn a skill. I remember once in my training watching a trainer do the class because another trainer was teaching. I watched this man perform the class, which to me is not the practice of Awareness Through Movement. It is the performative set – doing what we already know – not the exploratory set – which is the intended set in the brain for Awareness Through Movement practice. Novelty, a great variety of classes (about 1000), is a major help to stay in the exploratory set.

My personal experience of that was practicing yoga. I was very flexible, young and strong. I could perform impressive looking asanas. Eventually, my Vancouver teacher sent me to India to do an intensive with the yoga master BKS Iyengar. On the first day, in the first asanas, a standing pose, he confronted me. I was 27 years old. With a fierce look he said to me, gesturing with his arm in a broad sweep: “Your practice looks strong to these others, but you get exhausted more quickly than any of them because you are empty inside.” Something in me was relieved and I thought: “He sees through me and will teach me anyway.” I was not offended.

Later in the intensive study when we were doing back arching, he kicked me in the chest, put his hands on his hips and glared down at me. He said: “This is not yoga. I cannot teach. This is showing off.”

Mr. Iyengar did say some positive things to me as well. Decades later I have understood that “empty inside” described the condition of no conscious experience of the spatial sensation of myself.

If a person wants to use the Feldenkrais Method in the way that he intended, it is a reliable path of personal growth. Feldenkrais’ model of human identity is: an integration pattern of thinking, feeling, sensing and moving. He writes:

“A fundamental change in the motor basis within any single integration pattern will break up the cohesion of the whole and thereby leave thought and feeling without anchorage in the patterns of their routines. In this condition, it is much easier to effect changes in thinking and feeling…” Awareness Through Movement, Page 39

Because prior to my beginning to practice Awareness Through Movement at age 29, I had been preoccupied with changing myself by what I understood as “awareness” I brought that frame to the kinesthetic-tactile effects of practice: how that changed my thinking and feeling and social interactions. I was very aware of my reactivity socially but it had not changed from being aware of it. I did several three month, 2-5 hours a day of practice. Being a treeplanter – seasonal work – I had time to do this. After practice, I would walk along the seashore, where there were few people, trying to get used to the difference in my body, emotions and mind. Then I would walk through the busy downtown: lots of people but nobody I knew. Lastly, I would hang out with my friends, who would trigger me to be myself – what I was trying to change.

Because my first experiences from practice (which I was doing in order not to be “crippled for life” – the orthopedic surgeon’s prognosis) were much more psychological than physical, I understood from the beginning that this self work was intended as personal growth. The simplest one-word answer to the question: “What does Feldenkrais mean by personal growth?” is neuroplasticity – “versatility ramifications”.

But that’s not how Feldenkrais practitioners make a living, and not even why most practitioners themselves use the work for their own benefit. Keeping it in the sensori-motor realm with blinders on enables a person to get some benefit without having to go through the process of personal growth. And yet, when a student/client in a Functional Integration lesson “allows” a change in their “behavior” – movement – it is only because their brain consented to change – neuroplasticity. So I begin my 37th year of teaching, 5 or more classes per week, 9 or more months per year.

One thought on “Awareness Through Movement: Health Exercises for Personal Growth”

  1. I have attended one class a week, for nine months per year, with three private Functional Integration sessions per year, for four years. No therapy, exercise program, or practice I have taken over my lifetime has given me as good a result. Feldenkrais’ brilliant method gave me my ‘birthright’ back, a pain free body that serves me more smoothly and naturally. What I got ‘for free’ is the opportunity to truly and permanently ‘let go’ of so much emotional and psychological fear, anger and pain. I didn’t expect such benefits when I started classes and I’m grateful.
    Thank you.

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