Defining the Feldenkrais Method

To explore issues around understanding the Feldenkrais Method we need some definition of what the Method consists of. I don’t believe a formal definition is feasible; instead I’m going to suggest somewhat loose and fluid boundaries to the territory that contains it. Not everyone will agree with my choices, and that is part of the problem we face in trying to describe and understand it. 

The obvious starting place is with the ideas and techniques that Moshe Feldenkrais specifically taught. I’ll refer to these as his direct teachings. They constitute, in some important sense, the core of the Method, but even this core is not well-defined and universally agreed to within the profession. Moshe did not teach a formalized system that can be clearly and unambiguously spelled out. Instead, he taught a broad and revolutionary way of perceiving and understanding human functioning, drawing on his own wide-ranging background and experience. People internalize and apply that way of understanding in ways that match with their own interests, experience, and cognitive styles.

Moshe’s teaching style was inconsistent — sometimes precise and sharply focused, sometimes rambling and metaphorical. He chose words to reinforce whatever point he was making at the time, so his record contains inconstancies and contradictions. There is general agreement on the broad principles that guide the Method, but considerable diversity in how those principles are understood and put into practice.

Moshe’s teaching was highly experiential; different students experienced it differently. As a result, they could learn very different lessons, depending on the interests and background they brought with them into their training. Even though Moshe often said he was more interested in producing flexible minds than flexible bodies, to take one example, his experiential teaching focused most directly on improving movement and body organization. Some students internalized that as the core of the Method and so see themselves primarily as movement teachers, embracing the Method as a sophisticated form of manual manipulation and teaching easier and more efficient movement. Others took the idea of “flexible minds” more literally and found their own ways to embody it in their practices. Some practitioners see the benefits of the work as coming primarily through the particular movements or manipulations performed, while others see the ineffable quality of connection between practitioner and client as more important than what is actually done.

Moshe saw himself as a man of science and wanted his work accepted scientifically. He sought ways of describing and explaining what he did in scientific terms, and shied away from explanations that scientists might see as “woo-woo.” He was particularly adverse to descriptions of what he did as “working with energy,” in the sense that term is used in Asian medicine and martial arts. I believe this was in large part because that concept of “energy” was not scientifically respectable in the mid-twentieth century. Yet what he did could certainly be described in those terms, by those comfortable with that frame of reference. Nothing in his teaching is inherently incompatible with an energetic worldview, nor would preclude seeing the work from that perspective. While this might seem incomprehensible to those who do not experience the world energetically, it can nonetheless be a fruitful perspective for those who do. Today some of Moshe’s students are quite comfortable describing the Method in energetic terms, while others find that an anathema and many fall somewhere in between.

Beyond Moshe’s direct teachings, the Method has been influenced by and incorporated relevant ideas from many diverse sources. Moshe’s students did not come to him as blank slates, but brought with them a wide ranging variety of backgrounds and perspectives. There were engineers and scientists, dancers and performers, psychologists, physical therapists, and other health professionals, a few mystics, and even a couple of horse-shoers. Each of these backgrounds shape the way its owner understands the Method. A civil engineer might find his understanding of somatic functioning enhanced by his knowledge of material structures, while a musician might find her practice informed by her sense of rhythm and harmony. This process of growth and evolution did not stop, of course, with Moshe’s direct students, but has continued with those who have entered the profession in the quarter century since his death and it will continue in the future. The common language used throughout the community can mask the diversity of understanding that exists about what that language really means. 

Feldenkrais Territory
Feldenkrais Territory

I see the Feldenkrais Method as a growing and evolving body of knowledge and practice, continually extended and refined by those who practice it. It encompasses not only Moshe’s direct teachings, but diverse interpretations of those teachings, other related ideas, and the natural extensions of the work that have developed over time. The outer layer in this territory might be be seen as encompassing the ways that practitioners trained in the Method see, understand, and practice the work they do. This territory can be depicted schematically as a series of concentric rings with Moshe’s direct teachings at its core, extending out to the work as it is practiced today.

So where within this territory does the Method lie? How much of this territory does it encompass? How do we actually define it? Some Feldenkrais practitioners and trainers would define it narrowly, in terms of their understanding of the Method as they believe that Moshe meant it to be. They would exclude differing visions as less than legitimate, and marginalize practitioners who hold those visions as “not doing Feldenkrais.” I prefer a more inclusive approach, starting from a loose provisional definition along the following lines.

The Feldenkrais Method embraces the collective knowledge and forms of somatic practice that have evolved from the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais within the community of practitioners who study and pursue his work.

Some will object to this definition as too broad, pointing, perhaps, to practitioners who they believe have gone “beyond the pale,” so to speak — into places that the community as a whole would not accept as being Feldenkrais. I believe it makes more sense to start with a very broadly defined territory like this and then see where it has to be shaved back, rather than to attempt to specify narrower boundaries of acceptability to begin with. The ultimately boundaries may be more like those that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart applied to obscenity in 1964 by saying, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . but I know it when I see it . . . ” And as is the case with obscenity, it’s doubtful that we will all see it the same way.

Moshe left us with a very large playing field, which I’ve described elsewhere as a “big tent.“ He laid out ideas that logically extend well beyond his basic teachings, that can be understood at different levels and in different ways, and that can encompass a wide range of interpretations and implementations. This is evident from the diversity of understanding and practice extant in the practitioner community today. I believe that diversity is not a weakness but a strength. As a community we should nurture and support that diversity, and resist the tendency to let it be throttled by narrower definitions that validate or invalidate understandings of the Method depending on how well they fit a particular preferred perspective rather than how usefully they reflect and build on Moshe’s teaching.

It seems obvious in principle that diverse ways of knowing and multiple perspectives have value, but this can be a hard idea to really get your head around in practice. It runs up against deep-seated beliefs that important questions of fact must have unambiguous “right” answers — that given different competing answers to the same question, it should be possible to decide between them in a way that everyone can agree on. This idea implies, instead, that important questions, even questions of fact, don’t necessarily have clear answers, and that people who see things very differently than you do can somehow be right without making you wrong.  In particular, with regard to the Feldenkrais Method, it implies that there may not be unambiguous answers to questions like “How does the Method really work?” and “What’s the best way to address a particular person’s particular problem?”

The deep-seated belief in the existence of unambiguous “right answers” rests on unconscious epistemological assumptions about the nature of knowledge and the nature of the underlying reality that knowledge describes. These assumptions are so deeply taken for granted that we never think to examine them, much less to seriously consider alternatives. In upcoming posts I will attempt to articulate and examine those assumptions, and propose alternatives that I believe better support the approach to understanding the Feldenkrais Method that I am advocating. These arguments at times may get somewhat formal and abstract, because I’m a mathematician trained in formal abstract argument, so that’s how I think. It will be OK to skip over those parts, if that makes for easier going.

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