Empowering Autonomy

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Understanding Feldenkrais.

The Feldenkrais Method serves many purposes. It can help you learn to move more easily and fluidly, to lessen chronic pain and discomfort, to moderate limitations created by neurological damage, to perform better at many different tasks, to heal old emotional traumas, and to understand yourself and your ways of being in the world more clearly. As a student of the Method it has served me personally, and as a practitioner I have used it to serve my students, in all these ways and others. The wide variety of perspectives and ways of understanding Feldenkrais that I described earlier come in part from the many different ways in which different practitioners spread their interest and attention across these purposes.

For me the real core of the Method, though, is none of these, but the potential it offers for empowering autonomy. I’ll try to explain what I mean by that. I’ve written elsewhere that I see life as made up of choices — big conscious choices like the choice of a mate or a career, small unconscious choices like whether or not to tense your belly and hold your breath when someone asks you a question, and myriad others. Autonomy has to do with the influences that control the way you make those choices, and with how well they serve you. It is the ability to make informed and uncoerced choices that serve your needs, based on your deep internal sense of what is right. It is not so much about the particular choices you make as it is about the way in which you make them, and the sources of authority on which they rest.

True autonomy is rare in contemporary society. Most choices, rather than being informed and uncoerced, are likely to be coerced and uninformed. I’m using the term coercion broadly here, to refer to the many sources of external authority in our lives that exert pressure toward particular choices. These include parents, teachers, religious teachings, general social conditioning, corporate or union rules, and the like. The lack of information comes from perceptual narrowing and shutting down of awareness, often fostered in large part by those same sources of external authority and coercion.

Think, for example, about being six years old. Most six year olds know — not intellectually, not in a form they could articulate to an adult, but deep within themselves, intuitively and viscerally — that sitting still too long is an unnatural act. So what do we do with our six year olds? All too often we bunch them in a room full of desks with an adult authority figure, who tells them “Sit still, don’t squirm, and raise your hand if you have to go to the bathroom.”

The urge to squirm that they are taught to ignore is the visceral knowledge that they are being asked to do things inappropriate to this stage of their biological development. Ignoring the urge to urinate for as long as possible is also a lesson in deadening self-awareness. They are being trained to submit to external authority rather than their own autonomy, and to suppress information that would help them make more autonomous decisions.

One larger lesson they learn has to do with diminishing their awareness of their bodies and how they move — with mimicking the patterns of effort and movement they see around them, rather than discovering what is easy and pleasurable by listening to the inherent wisdom of their own nervous systems. This lesson includes the idea, supported by various forms of external authority such as parents and teachers, that they should “work hard” and expend as much effort as possible, regardless of whether or not that effort contributes anything to what they are trying to accomplish.

Similar disempowerments occur in other aspects of life — as you learn to be guided by various external authority structures and to feel shame, guilt, or other feeling of inadequacy when you are unable to meet the standards they set. Young women, for example, are constantly bombarded with and urged to strive for cultural and commercial ideals of beauty that are unattainable for most. Wealth, power, and physical success are put forth as the pinnacles of human achievement. Religious institutions prescribe some behaviors and proscribe others, offering rewards and punishments in the afterlife that depend on your success in meeting those goals. Personal autonomy, in the form of informed, uncoerced choice, is discouraged.

I am not asserting that the choices dictated by external authority are necessarily bad and autonomous choices necessarily better. That is certainly not the case. Indeed, both mechanisms will often lead to the same choices, but for different reasons. But I believe that the reasons matter. Autonomy, as I’m using the term, isn’t easy; it isn’t just a question of doing what you want and to hell with anyone else. It is a way of being and acting responsibly in the world that can only be developed over time with dedication to achieving it. But for those who are so motivated, I believe it is a goal worth seeking. It is what Moshe Feldenkrais had in mind, I believe, when he said “If you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”

The ability of the Feldenkrais Method to empower autonomy in movement and body use is easy to see. Students often come to the Method initially with little sense of how they move and use themselves in the world. Their habitual lack of self-awareness makes their choices uninformed while their past social conditioning coerces patterns of stiffness, rigidity, and excessive effort. The Method encourages greater self-awareness, and use of the information thus gained to discover and adopt new patterns of movement that serve them better. As they do, their movement becomes more informed and less coerced, directed more by autonomous choice and less by conditioned habit.

Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lessons encourage students to adopt an attitude of curiosity rather than compliance, to explore rather than to precisely follow directions. This allows them to notice how they move and to discover easier, more satisfying possibilities. The teacher does not dictate the correct way to move, as is often the case in other forms of movement instruction. That information emerges from within the students themselves. The ATM teacher’s job is help them discover and let go of their internal barriers to that emergence, to allow it to happen.

Functional Integration (FI) uses one-on-one interactions between teacher and student. The form differs from ATM, but the underlying communication is similar. Through touch, the teacher encourages the student to greater self awareness, while subtly pointing out habits and actions that interfere with efficient functioning. As with ATM, the teacher job is not to correct, but rather to help the student find the means to better and more autonomous movement.

Beyond movement and body use, the Feldenkrais Method has great potential for empowering wider autonomy in other aspects of life as well. In practice, however, achievement of that potential can be somewhat spotty. Moshe’s intention was clearly to have his work encompass broad areas of human function. He often said that he was after “not just flexible bodies, but flexible minds.” The term “Awareness Through Movement” reflects the importance of awareness as the goal and movement as the vehicle through which to achieve that goal, rather than the other way around. But the degree to which practitioners actually understand these ideas and the ways they embody them in their practices vary considerably

Moshe’s ideas about movement and the tools he used to convey them — ATM and FI — were the most prominent parts of his teachings. They seemed concrete, understandable, and had clearly observable effects. The broader context within which he employed those tools — his understanding of awareness, learning how to learn, supporting discovery and self-correction, and the like, were more abstract and less clearly defined, subject to varying interpretations. Different students, then, internalized those aspects of the work in different ways,

It has been said that the meaning of any communications lies in the mind of the recipients. We each experience and understand the world through our own perceptual lens, which has in turn, been shaped by our past experiences and understandings. That lens determines the meaning we attach to out experience, and to the words we use to describe that meaning. New and unfamiliar ideas, in particular, can be understood in idiosyncratic ways by different people even though they describe their understanding in similar ways. What masquerades as shared understanding can sometimes actually be just a partial overlap of very different personal gestalts.

The themes of autonomy and freedom from the coercion of social conditioning stand out strongly for me in Moshe’s teaching because they were central interests of mine before I met Moshe and prime motivations in my decision to study with him. My perceptual lens was primed, as it were, to look for them in his teaching and to bring them into focus when I found them.

While Moshe claimed that his underlying message was not about movement and could alternatively have been taught through other mediums, such as mathematics, movement was the medium he chose. This choice placed the movement-related aspects of his work at center stage, making them prominent and concrete and relegating the deeper levels of his teaching to a fuzzier and less distinct periphery. Many of his students were drawn to him primarily as a movement teacher, and their perceptual lenses were primed accordingly, to focus on that aspect of his teaching.

What each student made of that periphery, then, depended on how their individual perceptual lens brought it into focus. Many came to internalize the work as being primarily about movement, even when they give lip service to the idea that it is much more than that. The result was a wide variation in how his students understand and practice what they learned from him, which has continued and perhaps grown wider since his death.

One aspect of autonomy, in particular, that is not understood as well within the Feldenkrais community as it should be, has to do with the difference between Moshe as the source of and Moshe as external authority for what we do as practitioners. He is the source of the Method, certainly, and must be respected as that. But he should not be the authority that dictates our actions as practitioners. Rather, that authority should be our own developed sense of what the work is about and how to do it.

I believe that some trainings do rely too much on Moshe as the authority for what they teach — prescribing particular ways of doing things because that’s how Moshe did or said to do them, and making students wrong for understanding or doing them differently. Even if what they are prescribing was the best possible way of doing whatever it is, I see this approach to teaching as disempowering and a violation of Moshe’s deeper teachings. A truer approach to his heritage, in my view, would encourage students to explore many possibilities and variations, and find for themselves what seems to work best for them.

I invite your comments and discussion.

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7 thoughts on “Empowering Autonomy”

  1. Hello Ralph,
    I will focus on your question/statement about the Source and Authority as quoted down here:
    “…the difference between Moshe as the source of and Moshe as external authority for what we do as practitioners. He is the source of the Method, certainly, and must be respected as that. But he should not be the authority that dictates our actions as practitioners. …….I believe that some trainings to rely too much on Moshe as the authority for what they teach….”
    As you wrote Moshe is the source – nothing I have to add to your clear statement. But I do not see how he can be authority in the trainings – he is dead for 25 years, and no way he can control the teaching – yes, it is that simple.
    The authority is in the hands of the EDs, Trainers and Others that are positioned in posts of influence on the teaching (and learning). But the discussion is how much they should present the source (Moshe) and how much they should meet the source in their teaching.
    First, it is their authority to decide it – Whether they would say this is Moshe, and those are the principles and techniques of the method as Moshe set – This and that is what I changed/added according my experience/knowledge. Or would they show the source just a bit, or not at all, or anything else.
    What I say is that it is not a question of Authority – it is the question of Responsibility to the learner, who invests time and money for his future as Feldenkrais practitioner.
    You see, Ralph. Authority goes with Responsibility. No one can have Authority without Responsibility to the outcome. Since EDs, Trainers and Others, hold the Authority they are Responsible to the training.
    Moshe does not have any Responsibility to the trainings in the present so he has no Authority.
    So, according to my understanding, your question is kind of a paradox in the present reality of the FM trainings. You must add Responsibility to your equation. Parts of the Responsibility are the knowledge and acknowledge of the source, then there other Responsibility elements that should be also discussed and taken care of.


  2. Moti
    I am very thankful for you comment about responsibility and that you are bringing in this concept in the matters Ralph touch upon. Certainly responsibility is not clear cut but it involves a dimension I have been looking for how to express and now find a new opening in my thinking and later verbalizing. I am looking forward to read Ralphs response.

  3. Ralph- I think you raise an important issue. I wonder though, how much the issue of Moshe as “authority” holds true. If anything I think it is a case of borrowed authority on the part of some teachers.
    In any event I believe that the trainings in the Feldenkrais Method because of limited time do not and can’t do justice to Moshe’s thinking and practice.

    Any learning involves an act of submission .

    That is, an apprenticeship either to a teacher or to a discipline or an idea. I believe this is where the notion of autonomy, as you present it becomes most important. That the decision to submit is voluntary and informed.

    This decision is or should be provisional but it is contractual. (for a great example of this read Eugen Herrigal’s book Zen in the Art of Archery). That is if the student withdraws his submission the teacher withdraws his teaching.

    This as Moti points out is a position of great responsibility both on the part of the teacher and the student. In a really great teacher , conveying the nature of this agreement, can become the central teaching.

    It is of course incumbent on the student to decide to terminate or change his or her relationship to the teacher. It is also the teachers responsibility to recognize when the relationship needs modifying.

    It is in our nature to take things superficially. We always have choice and frequently to take matters to the next level does not suit our purposes or whims. We are like schoolboys who steal the powerful magnifying lens just so we can go start fires.

    I have had the great opportunity to work and learn with a lot of great teachers in our community. I don’t feel I have met any one who I feel has plumbed the depths of Moshe’s thinking . I certainly know that I haven’t.

    This doesn’t mean that I don’t argue or question Feldenkrais’ thinking or how he presented it . I never even met him but find myself arguing with him all of the time. It also doesn’t mean that I think his thinking is the final word. In fact I think that Moshe had only glimmers of the possibilities inherent in the method that he laid out. This is the beauty in our work and what keeps me engaged in it.

  4. Hi, Ralph,

    Good stuff. Two thoughts.

    First, it seems to me you raise a slightly unfair point in your criticism of elementary school teachers. What is often left out, or at least suppressed in such discussions is the role of the group dynamic, and the relationship between the teacher and the “group identity.” Whether or not it is an ideal situation, there are many more children than teachers, requiring a different kind of relationship, with different “needs.”
    A child may have many reasons for requesting to go to the bathroom beyond urination and defecation. Nervousness about dealing with a new concept often causes children to express a desire to go, and when one six year old says they want to go, many of the others instantly want to follow suit. This quickly creates an impossible situation for the teacher because the level of chaos has gone up exponentially.
    It is even more difficult for a teacher to try to determine the actual reason for the bathroom request – real pee or nervousness or…?
    I agree with you that a student is asked to suppress a biological response, but a good teacher will quickly determine whether it is an emergency. If not, the student then is requested to put the needs of the group (sometimes, this is actually the need of the teacher, but let’s assume a more benign environment) before their own.
    The lesson is much more complicated than simply learning to ignore one’s inner authority. It’s about making a decision about a relationship. Some children refuse to relate to the group and the teacher in this way, putting themselves first. Sometimes they are punished, and sometimes they are accomodated.
    There are numerous opportunities during the day when a student is not under such constraints. Lessons of self-authority arise during social interaction with peers and with creative projects. Also, good teachers provide opporunities for them in lessons.
    Second point: I’m not sure everyone submits to Moshe as the authority for the sake of bowing to him. As we are no longer dealing with a man who can answer (or refuse to answer) our questions, then if we don’t understand what he said or wrote, we have a choice: assume he is right or assume he is wrong and go from there. Assuming he is right requires a temporary suspension of disbelief as we investigate his ideas. It really is temporary, though, because many of us release ourselves from this stricture once we are convinced of the relative truth or falsity of his ideas. Even those who say they are “bowing” to him are actually just using their own ideas and using him to add authority to it.

    Thanks for listening!

  5. Ralph, this remark of yours is interesting:
    “One aspect of autonomy, in particular, that is not understood as well within the Feldenkrais community as it should be, has to do with the difference between Moshe as the source of and Moshe as external authority for what we do as practitioners.”

    I have just looked at the first pages of each of his books. Consistently, I find a strong emphasis on ‘autonomy’, self-education and related ideas as being what his work is about, clearly making movement and other discrete purposes subordinate to this larger idea .

    You write: “For me the real core of the Method, though, is none of these, but the potential it offers for empowering autonomy.” It seems odd to me that you develop this theme without any clear references to the source of this idea within the Method, which is its founder. Rather, you focus on your perception of a wide lack of appreciation for this idea among practitioners.

    As with you, this idea of his got my attention and interest because I was already thinking this way. A friend read about him in 1981 and said: “You have to go see him. He says everything you say.” And I found he knew so much more what to do about it. It was his way of working that held my interest, his ideas around “correction of movements is the best means of self-improvement” [pp 33-39 in Awareness Through Movement].

    The point I would make about ‘source’ and ‘authority’ seems to be different from yours. There may be a lack of familiarity with the richness and complexity of his writing, and this is a problem precisely because his writing is an authoritative source about his method. I think we agree that it [writing/method] is useless if not and explored and reflected upon. I think this requires first a familiarity with it.

    You wrote: “I believe that some trainings to rely too much on Moshe as the authority for what they teach — prescribing particular ways of doing things because that’s how Moshe did or said to do them, and making students wrong for understanding or doing them differently.” Well, yes, but … this is a bit vague on the particulars.

    As Moti points out, the teachers in question are asserting their own authority, which is to say, the accuracy of their perception. Moshe did it all the time, as the Alexander Yanai transcripts show. Like George, I argue with him a lot. Typically, after I exercise my own ‘Responsibility’ I discover something that leads me to feel I’ve come to understand his point. Still, when I teach it, out comes a different ‘handwriting’ than his.

    I get the sense that you have some specific perceptions of your own; and disagreements not just with ‘some trainings’ or with his language in some ATMs but with Moshe’s Method itself. As you know, I am not convinced that ‘there is no method’. I would be interested in knowing how instructive and central [or not] you find his remarks on pages 33-39 in Awareness Through Movement.

  6. Ralph,
    Reading your statement:
    “I believe that some trainings to rely too much on Moshe as the authority for what they teach — prescribing particular ways of doing things because that’s how Moshe did or said to do them, and making students wrong for understanding or doing them differently.”
    I assume that you know that some trainings do not rely much on Moshe as for what they teach (I do not use the term “authority” you used, because I claim that Moshe as no direct authority).
    And I ask you why they do not rely on Moshe? Is it because they have developed so much above Moshe that showing Moshe means old fashion or low level of the training? Or is it because they do not know how to teach Moshe?
    When I say “Moshe” I mean the man and his Method.
    In Martial Arts as the development process we use the Shu-Ha-Ri. It is Keep-Break-Throw or Preserve-Change-Let Go. It is true for anything in life you take in your hand to learn and pass on to next generations. Now, the first thing is about Preserving Moshe – if you did not Preserve Moshe then you can’t Change the method and surely can’t Let Go of it (you can’t let go of something you do not hold).
    Now, in some discussions I read people that say that there is no method and no principles – this is easy way out because they do not have to go through the learning stages of the method. But they have the authority to teach it.
    Ralph – What do you say? Could it be better to rely on Moshe – in the true and honest way?
    I do not know the answer – Maybe my assumption is completely wrong. I based it on your writing. Actually those were not questions to be answered, just some ideas to think about.
    And I will not refer to your accusation: “and making students wrong for understanding or doing them differently”.
    I write from a good position, because I’m still at the Preserving stage of learning the method.

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