I’m often asked what the difference is between what I’d do for a person treating them with physiotherapy compared to giving a person a FeldenkraisⓇ lesson.
Usually when someone asks me this I’ll talk about the difference between:
- A therapeutic model (physiotherapy) and an educational model (Feldenkrais MethodⓇ)
- Treating a part to fix or correct something (physiotherapy) as opposed to educating the whole person in regards to movement patterns so they can function well in the world, doing what they want, the way they want to (Feldenkrais Method)
- A somewhat mechanistic, linear point of view (physiotherapy) and a profoundly holistic, non-linear point of view (Feldenkrais Method)
But as I’ve been pondering this question, and preparing to write this blog post, it’s become more apparent to me that the truly remarkable and meaningful difference that sets this work apart and has kept me so deeply engaged for nearly 20 years has to do with enabling myself and others to live a deeply fulfilling life.
In the last post, Are You Letting Limiting Beliefs Sabotage Your Health & Well-Being?, I wrote about self-limiting beliefs.
It seems to me that self-limiting beliefs are basically self-limiting habits of thought.
What exactly is thought?
For years I’ve been pondering Moshe Feldenkrais’ ideas about thinking. A few years back I’d been unsatisfied with the quality of my own thinking. I’d love to use the excuse that it was just hormones and middle-age creeping up on me 😉 . But I know there was more to it than that.
Feldenkrais was adamant that every waking moment is a unity of thinking, feeling, sensing and moving. And he would say the most fundamental of these is movement. He would say things like, “Without movement, life is unthinkable”, and, “Without a body, you could not think.”
For Feldenkrais, everything about us grows out from the foundation of movement. A person can be affected from any one of these aspects (thinking or sensation or emotion or movement). But to loosen the habitual patterns of movement — the muscular element of the unity — was to get at the root of the issue.
By loosening the habitual muscular patterns, all the other aspects (feeling, thought, sensation) would “lose their chief support and [would] become more amenable to change” [Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement](Aff. Link).
Let’s consider emotions for a moment…
So much of our understanding of emotion is based on the changing tone of our musculature — skeletal muscles, heart muscle and the smooth muscles of our blood vessels and digestive tract…
Pause for a moment and imagine what it feels like to be angry? How do you know that what you’re feeling is in fact anger?
What does it feel like to be fearful? How do you know that what you’re feeling is fear and not anger?
How does an actor convey emotion to an audience? Fascial expression? Sure, that can be part of it. What creates fascial expressions? Muscles.
Could an actor convey an emotion if her face was in shadow and you couldn’t see her face? I think so. How? Through her body language and her movements? Sure.
Movement movement everywhere….
Because is doesn’t matter if we’re talking about moving through space, language, emotion or thinking, there is also always movement.
So let’s look at thinking….
Not too long ago I listened to an interview with neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinas. In it he says some very intriguing things like, “Nervous systems are for movement.” If we didn’t have to move, we wouldn’t have nervous systems. Plants don’t have nervous systems because they don’t change location.
Llinas gives the marvelous example of the sea squirt. In its “youth” this marine organism swims around in the ocean. It moves. It has a nervous system. A simple one, but a nervous system none the less.
Then, at some point in its life cycle it chooses a place to anchor itself and attaches itself to a rock in the ocean never to change its location again. Once it’s done this, it absorbs its own nervous system. It seems that since it no longer has to move through the ocean, it no longer needs a nervous system.
Neuroscientist, medical doctor, and engineer Daniel Wolpert gives a great TED Talk saying the same thing.
Llinas goes on to say,
…thinking may be nothing else than internalized movement. Why? …What is it that the brain does ultimately in all of us? What it does is generate premotor acts…all that we can do as human beings with our brain is activation of motor neurons, that is the only output. I tell my students you only activate muscles or you activate glands. To put it differently, you either move or drool, thats all you can do in life….So thinking is a premotor act. And therefore we are fundamentally moving animals that move intelligently. The more intelligent our movement, the more intelligent we are as animals.” [emphasis mine]
I think Moshe Feldenkrais and Rodolfo Llinas could have had some amazing conversations!
Using Movement to Change Self-Limiting Habits of Thought
Following these lines of thinking, if we want to change limiting beliefs, if we want to change self-limiting habits of thought, we can do so by changing our habits of movement, our muscular habits. Not only is this effective, but Feldenkrais suggests that such changes are deeper, more fundamental. This makes the possible change more substantial and lasting.
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, for the muscular part through which thinking and feeling reach our awareness has changed and no loner expresses the patterns previously familiar to us. Habit has lost its chief support, that of the muscles, and has become more amenable to change.”
Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement (Aff. Link)
Feldenkrais, although perhaps one of the earlier modern day thinkers in this area, is not alone in recognizing the profound impact of removing self-limiting habits of movement, and expanding ones repertoire of ways of moving. Entire fields have grown from such understanding such as somatic psychology.
So lets take a closer look at how we might root out self-limiting beliefs, and habits of thought using awareness of movement….
In the last blog post I suggested that a powerful anchor that seems to make us hold on to self-limiting beliefs is fear.
Fear is a funny thing. It seems to me that for fear to have persisted through eons of evolutionary selection it must have a useful purpose. Sort of like pain, fear must be protective. It can keep us from doing things that put our survival at risk. And yet, if you’re human 😉 you’ve probably experienced fear even when there is no apparent threat to your survival. So what could that be about?
Feldenkrais believed that the only fear humans are born with is the fear of falling.
It can appear as though infants are also afraid of loud nosies, but Feldenkrais suggests this is only because the vestibular (balance) nerve and the auditory nerve are not yet insulated with myelin (fatty sheath around the nerves that improves the conduction rate of the electrical signal as it travels along the nerve). Seeing as these two nerves are located right next to each other and are not insulated from each other in infancy, the stimulation of one can cause a stimulation of the other.
But biologically, the one fear that we inherit is that of falling.
All other fears are learned.
There are two important things to note about this:
If all other fears are learned, they can be unlearned.
If the only inborn fear is the fear of falling, then improving our sense of balance and our ability to regain balance when perturbed can reduce fearful feelings.
It can be surprising how well we can manage to function in spite of having fairly poor balance. Its a testament to our adaptability and that we don’t have to be functioning perfectly to manage to function pretty darn well. (Perfect functioning is a fallacy anyway – but thats for another blog post). 😉
“Pretty darn well” maybe isn’t enough if it keeps you from realizing your un-avowed dreams. It can sound terribly self-centred and a self-indulging luxury to live ones “dreams”. But I think this may be wrong headed. Because for me, a world filled with people living deeply fulfilling lives where they realize their dreams is a world that benefits everyone — immensely.
Learning to move with greater intelligence as a pathway to living a deeply fulfilling life
What I’d like to suggest is this:
By improving your balance and co-ordination you can:
loosen the foundations on which self-limiting habits of thought are grounded
begin to lessen the anxiety and fear that prevent you from taking actions that would move you towards discovering, and realizing your greatest dreams.
You might be thinking, “I can stand up just fine and balance on one leg. Just how good does my balance need to be?”
Well, let me share a remarkable story to help answer that question.
About two years into my Feldenkrais practitioner training program, I was having a great discussion with my now friend and mentor Julie Peck, the Assistant Trainer at the time. We were discussing the nature of emotions, and that although we both believed we are not our emotions, we also recognized that it was folly to deny that we have emotions. Emotions are an important part of who we are.
As the conversation developed, I shared with Julie that although there was no reason for me to be feeling the low grade sense of fear I was feeling, I felt it none-the-less.
I’d spent several years doing a mindfulness based meditation practice and knew myself fairly well. So I certainly knew the difference between feeling a low grade fear born of particular thoughts and emotions versus this background sense of fear that seemed to be present for no discernible reason.
Julie thought this was incredibly interesting and invited me to stand up. She stood in front of me and began to move me from my pelvis with very tiny movements in various directions. The whole while she seemed to be watching my feet.
Then, she took her hands away and asked if I could still detect that subtle sense of fear. I checked in and laughed a little out of surprise and said, “Yes. But I didn’t really realize that before I was feeling it in my legs. Now I’m feeling it in my throat!”
“Okay” said Julie rather excitedly. She began to move my pelvis again, watching my feet, then my head (and probably eyes), then feet, then head and eyes….then as she took her hands away this second time asked, “And how about now?”
I laughed again as I told her, “Nope. Its totally gone. I can’t find that feeling at all. I feel really good!”.
Moving, sensing, feeling, thinking is a gestalt/an indivisible unity. I’d heard the words many times. I’d read the words many times. I believed this idea. But now I had knowledge of just what this meant. I felt it so clearly and distinctly. I knew it because I’d experienced it. It was so obvious that the emotion “fear” was due to the way I was organizing myself muscularly.
The difference I’m trying to point out here between thinking something and knowing something is hard to overstate. The examples I use often, that I’ve borrowed from others but can’t remember who, are those of honey and sex…
You can know everything there is to know about honey:
- How bees make it
- It’s molecular structure
- How it behaves in different circumstances
- How different pollen produces different honey
- All about the bees that make the honey
- All about the hives that the honey is made in
- All about extracting honey….
But until you taste it, experience it, do you really know honey?
Same for sex, wouldn’t you say?
And the most interesting thing about all this is that I didn’t feel like my balance was all that bad. And neither would most others. Heck, my balance was probably far better than average.
It wasn’t until I felt how truly amazing my balance could be that I realized that I wasn’t all that well balanced after all. And so, the vast majority of us go through life working a fair bit harder than necessary to “not fall”.
What can you do to improve your balance and co-ordination?
The Feldenkrais way is through awareness of our self and our movements. In particular, Awareness Through Movement lessons, and/or if you have a Feldenkrais practitioner near by, Functional IntegrationⓇ lessons.
What Julie did for me was like a mini-Functional Integration lesson by which she:
- helped me feel the subtle ways in which I was working too hard in some parts of myself
- helped me feel more clearly exactly where my ankles were and how I could organize myself over different parts of my foot
- helped me feel how I could balancing my head on the top of my spine with greater freedom and clarity
Of course, I’m not just ankles, feet and head, but I think you get the gist…
As I became better organized and more balanced over my base of support, with better organization of my head (which houses the vestibular organs), I was no longer working as hard to “not fall”.
In other words, Julie helped me become more aware of myself, my movements, and the way I was organizing my musculature, while helping me discover better alternatives to how I was organizing myself.
Even though I hadn’t consciously registered that I wasn’t exquisitely well balanced, it was registered unconsciously, and my system was actively engaged in “not falling”… So there it was — that low grade fear.
Once there was no longer the risk of falling, there was no fear.
Don’t get me wrong. I can still feel a little fear when facing some of life’s challenges in which I feel vulnerable.
The difference is that I have a deeper understanding of the root of the feelings of fear and vulnerability. It has a motor/muscular component which is very significant. I now have more tools that allow me to organize myself in ways that lessen the sensations of fear, anxiety, and vulnerability, and so can act more effectively amidst those emotions.
Here’s an example of how I’ve learned to use the Feldenkrais Method to help me overcome self-limiting habits of thought.
For a whole variety of reasons, I’ve believed I am an absolutely horrible writer. I’ve believed this through most of my life. I’ve always gravitated towards science and math courses, and avoided courses that required papers and long essays as much as possible.
Several years ago I was asked if I’d write an article for an organizations newsletter. The theme of this particular edition was to be embodiment, and she thought a Feldenkrais Method article would fit in perfectly.
Personally, I did not want to write that article. But I couldn’t say no to my client, and felt it would be good for me, professionally, to do it.
No big surprise, I procrastinated. I put off writing that article until the deadline for submission was staring me in the face. I just couldn’t think of a topic. I couldn’t figure out how to start the article. And…I kept saying to myself, “I’m such a crappy writer! I suck at this.”
With the deadline a couple of days away, I couldn’t put it off any longer.
I sat in front of my computer staring at a blank screen for god knows how long — nothing coming…
Finally, I had the brilliant idea of getting down on a mat and doing a very basic, simple Awareness Through Movement lesson. I explored myself in movement until felt the quality of my movements becoming very coherent; until I had a much better sense of my self as a unity that was connected to the environment.
Then, I lay on my back, still, breathing…and gently brought the thought of writing the article to mind.
Wouldn’t you know it. An idea came to me. It wan’t totally fleshed out, but the basic premise was there as well as a clear beginning.
I got up, mindful of the quality of my organization, sat at my computer, and wrote the article, no problems at all. I just got into it.
Was it a good article? Was the writing great? Almost certainly not.
Writing is a skill, and I hadn’t been developing the skill at all. But that’s not the point…
The point is that I was able to loosen the grip of the self-limiting belief that was keeping me from taking action.
Here I am, years later, working on developing a skill I’d always thought I was incapable of. Week after week, I’m putting my writing out here for anyone to read. And I’m enjoying it. I’m finding pleasure in the challenge of learning to do something that is truly difficult and requires effort.
This is just one example of how the Feldenkrais Method can be used to overcome self-limiting beliefs.
You can learn to have even better balance in more circumstances, more positions, more variations. And I’m pretty sure you’ll start to feel more capable of doing whatever it is you want to do by doing so.
It’s a feeling of being more self-assured; a calm, relaxed alertness; a centred-ness…
Here, you feel more free to choose a course of action that suits you and you’re interests.
Join my Free Content Library and do the lesson “Rolling Side to Side” to see how it affects the sense of yourself in space, your balance, your ability to move in any direction with ease. And see if you don’t find yourself feeling just a little more “capable” with a “calm alertness”.
This FREE Content Library already contains 3 other lessons, and will continue to grow over time. I hope to see you there.
Buffy Owens says
What a WONDERFUL post. So rich and insightful. I just love how you explored movement, fear and then gently & effortlessly moving into action. Thank you for taking the time to write this. I look forward to reading more of your posts.
Gisele St. Hilaire says
Thanks so much Buffy.
It’s a constant work in process…this one I call “myself” ;-). And I keep practising this moving and balancing and organising for action — even when I feel fearful. And life is all the richer and fuller for it!
There’s a mighty feeling of gratitude for this Feldenkrais work we share.