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.