What is Feldenkrais?
In ancient Greece, when the men returned from battle bloodstained and weary, the women would greet them with soothing words, feed them and massage them with olive oil to ease the fire and iron out of their limbs. Thus the men returned from warfare to domesticity, children and love. But what can the modern man or woman do as they return to their home and loved ones from the battles of the day in the business world? For modern-day corporate warriors, making the transition from fighter to friend (and back again) often doesn’t happen easily.
In my Feldenkrais work I help my clients improve their ability to shift more smoothly between different mood states. Drawing also on my martial arts training, I help them refine their movement skills so that they can easily and elegantly make the transition between one posture and another and hence between different emotional states. They avoid the trap of being stuck inappropriately and become more effective and satisfied as warrior or lover, or whatever role they choose.
The Feldenkrais way
The Feldenkrais method of movement education was created by Israeli scientist Moshe Feldenkrais (1904–1984). Feldenkrais "re-programs" the instructions the nervous system gives the muscles. Old habits of movement are replaced with new, more efficient actions. For maximum results the exercises are done slowly, easily and with minimum effort. By moving with awareness, paying attention to subtle sensations and details of the action, you can find more efficient pathways for a movement.
Try this approach when you do the accompanying "lengthen and turn" exercise: go slowly, look for the easier way, always alert to how you can reduce the work needed to move any body part. In this way you gradually reduce unnecessary tension and increase the gracefulness and power of your activities in all aspects of your life. The way of Feldenkrais exercise is very simple: go slowly, go easily, be aware!
”I’m feeling so stressed and tense – all knotted up!” My client, Bernard, was in the middle of a very challenging time in a treacherous corporate environment, waging political battles with a difficult and devious colleague. He was hunched forward, frowning, fists clenched, his body language expressing his stressed state.
Bernard was normally relaxed and confident. He’s a "high flyer", using his power and status to make a positive contribution in the world. Today, he was frustrated and tense. He could feel the battles taking their toll and knew he was becoming less effective. "And I can’t unwind," he said. "When I’m at home with my wife and kids I want to relax and just enjoy being with them, but the work worries are still there. I’m irritable, short tempered…"
"Yes," I observed. "Even though you’re safe at home, you’re still in ‘warrior mode’, still ready to fight and defend. So let’s do some work on that."
Bernard settled on my work table, lying on his left side and getting comfortable but still tense. I could feel this as I tried some preliminary small movements of his arms and legs. I felt resistance; the limbs were not moving easily and lightly in response to my gentle invitation.
I took hold of his right arm, which was bent and folded in close to his body, and tried some more definite movements. Since he was tense and contracted I wondered whether I could help him to lengthen out. Slowly I began to pull on his arm in the direction of straightening it away from his body. Immediately, I felt resistance; he did not move easily in this direction. If I wanted to straighten his arm I would have to struggle against him. Bernard’s nervous system was telling his muscles to contract, pulling him into a defensive, protected posture.
So, instead of fighting against his neuromuscular pattern, I decided to move with it. I reversed direction and gently moved his arm back towards him. Immediately, I felt the resistance vanish. I was agreeing with what his system wanted and the movement flowed easily.
Lightly, I pushed Bernard’s folded arm against his chest. As I pressed and held the arm there, helping his body do what he unconsciously wanted to, I heard him give a little sigh and felt his whole body relax a little. After holding this position for a few seconds, I again drew the arm outwards. This time the arm moved further than before. Slowly, I lengthened the arm a little more till, again, I felt the first hint of resistance. As soon as I felt this resistance I reversed direction, folding Bernard’s arm in towards his body, and repeated the whole process.
I went through the same cycle several more times, gently pressing his folded arm into his chest and then slowly lengthening and pulling the arm away so that, little by little, the arm loosened and lengthened away from his central body. Each repetition led to a larger range of movement and more overall relaxation. Next, I added movements of Bernard’s right leg and gradually led his body into the sequence of the "lengthen and turn" exercise.
Eventually, Bernard was able to move fluidly and effortlessly between a curled-up position lying on his left side, to lying on his back with arms and legs long, feeling very soft, open and relaxed.
We did something similar with Bernard lying on his other side and then in sitting and standing, developing further the skills of smoothly closing/opening, folding/lengthening.
Very few words had been exchanged between Bernard and myself during this whole procedure, which had taken about 35 minutes, but now we began to talk. He said he felt much freer — the knotted-up feeling had disappeared. Bernard could now move more freely between a folded, protected, defensive posture and a more open, stretched and relaxed posture, and he could be anywhere in between as well.
Bernard recognised that the postural states corresponded to emotional and mental states and he now felt he could more easily shift to the appropriate state required by the situation. His usual relaxed and confident air returned as he knew he could be in "warrior mode" when in a hostile environment and could relax into "lover mode" when in a safe, friendly environment.
Sharon was in the third week of assisting an intensive bodywork training program with a large group of students. "I’m feeling exhausted" she said to me. "It seems that all the students come to me with their questions and problems. I try to be helpful to each one, but I’m finding it hard to concentrate on my teaching. I feel like I’ve got no compassion left and no energy."
Her posture was consistent with her story. She sat on my work table slumping slightly, with tiredness and defensiveness showing on her face. As with the businessman, I had Sharon lie on her left side and worked her through the "lengthen and turn" exercise.
For Sharon I emphasised the turning aspects of the exercise and explained to her the similarity to a turning action used in the Japanese martial art, aikido. "In aikido," I said, "you develop the skill to deal fully with one opponent then turn quickly to face the next opponent or situation." Sharon made the connection with her teaching: "I can give my full attention to someone, then turn to attend fully to someone else or something else."
We completed the lesson with Sharon lying on her other side. Now when she sat up, she was more upright and alive. "I don’t feel tired any more," she said, "and I feel I have a choice now — to attend to a student or turn away." This choice was symbolised in her body by the ability to turn easily to face one direction, then another. She looked relaxed and free, her tiredness (which arose from a lot of energy being used up in being tense and defensive) was gone.
The massage therapist
During my training to be a Feldenkrais practitioner I received a session from one of my teachers, Russell Delman, that taught me valuable lessons about the shifting between modes, particularly the warrior/lover modes. At that time I was working as a massage therapist. I loved my massage work with its feeling of nurturing, healing and intense caring for my client, helping them to better physical and emotional health.
At that time, though, I was having to deal with some unscrupulous professional rivals and had trouble asserting myself to act as the situation required. The problem was I was spending a lot of time in the mode of lover/healer/teacher, trying to help and care for all the people I was dealing with. A very nice way to be, but quite useless in a situation that required me to simply stand up and fight.
I talked about this with Russell at the start of our session and realised that, posturally, I was stuck in a contracted, slightly collapsed position. Emotionally, this was as if I was stuck between a wish to rage and fiercely fight and a wish to collapse and feel sorry for myself.
We got into the movement work of the session, doing a version of "lengthen and turn". Russell helped me release from my "stuckness" and start moving between a contracted, defensive posture and a lengthened, upright stance. This was similar to my work with the businessman and the teacher. Russell helped me feel a greater ease in moving between states (physical postures and corresponding emotional modes) as, from being folded up, I lengthened and turned.
In my case, Russell also emphasised the upright posture. He pushed lengthwise through my skeleton, first from each foot and leg and then from my head and upper body. This gave me a clear feeling of connection and alignment through the skeleton: foot connecting to leg to pelvis to spine and head.
At the end of the session I stood up and felt effortlessly upright. The tension pulling me into collapse was gone. I had a sense of relaxed alertness, ready to be strong and stand up and fight for myself, but comfortable and at ease as well. I felt I could be hard or soft, fierce or fragile, as required.
Russell explained: "Any particular posture or emotional state is not of itself good or bad, right or wrong. But when you’re stuck in that posture or emotion, then there are problems."
You, too, can explore how to get yourself "unstuck" from deadening immobility by trying the "lengthen and turn" Feldenkrais movement exercise.
Lengthen and turn
- Lie on your left side on a firm but comfortable surface (a carpeted floor, for example). Make yourself as comfortable as possible, knees bent up, right leg resting on the left, arms bent in front of you, right palm downwards somewhere on the floor in front of your face. If you like, put a small pad under the side of your head so your neck is comfortable. (For clarity and brevity I describe this exercise for lying on the left side. However, if you’re more comfortable on your right side, do the exercise on that side, swapping all the left/right instructions as appropriate.)
- Observe yourself. Are you at ease in this position? Are you relaxed or tense? Notice your breathing.
- Slowly move your right knee towards your head and then return to the start position. Start with a very small movement (a millimetre or two), repeat several times, gradually increasing to a few centimetres, going only as far as is easy, effortless and pleasant. Observe yourself and see if you notice movement in other parts of your body (pelvis, back, abdomen, for example) as you move your leg. Pause and rest, still lying on your side.
- Move your right knee in the opposite direction, away from your head (and return), several times, slowly, easily, starting small and gradually increasing. Observe how other parts of your body move (or not) to cooperate with the movement of your leg. Pause and rest.
- Combine the two previous movements, taking your right knee towards and away from your head, several times, slowly and easily. Gradually enlarge the movement of your knee away from your head so your knee straightens and your leg becomes long. Pause and rest.
- Gradually move your right elbow down towards your knees (and return), several times. Next, gradually move your elbow away from your knees several times. Finally, move your elbow towards and away from your knees — slowly, easily, several times, observing other parts of your body. Gradually, have your elbow straighten as it moves away from your knees so your arm lengthens and your hand reaches up to touch the floor above your head. Pause and rest.
- Combine the arm and leg movements, your right elbow and knee moving closer to each other, then moving apart. Look for the most effortless way to do this as you repeat it several times. When your right arm and leg straighten away from each other, feel yourself as very long on your right side. Lengthen out as if you could draw a straight line down your body from your right hand through to your right foot. Return to a position with your bent elbow and knee close to each other and pause and rest.
- Repeat the arm and leg movements several times, this time adding a head movement: as your right elbow and knee move closer to each other, tilt your head forwards so you can look towards your knees; as your elbow and knee move apart, tilt your head backwards, looking up at your right hand, which is reaching above your head. Pause and rest.
- When your right arm and leg are long, pause there with your leg straight, your right hand on the floor above your head. In this position, slowly turn your head to the right and return do this several times. You will find your right arm tending to move with your head, sliding further to the right and rolling so your palm turns upwards. Return to the starting position, arms and legs folded in front of you, pause and rest.
- Roll from side to back and return: lengthen your right arm and leg away from each other again and, as your arm passes over your head, turn your head to the right, slide your right arm and leg a little further to the right and roll onto your back. Reverse this movement to return to lying on your side. That is, take your lengthened right arm and leg to the left, turn your head to the left, roll back onto your left side, bend your right elbow and knee towards each other so you are lying folded up on your side. Repeat several times, lengthening and turning to roll onto your back; turning and folding to lie on your side. Make it a very free, loose, pleasant movement. If you like, try going a little faster, but only if you can keep everything light and easy. Pause and rest.
- Observe yourself again. How do you feel? How is your breathing? What has changed? Slowly turn to rest on your back and observe any differences between your right and left sides. Which side feels longer, softer, heavier?
- When you’re ready, try the entire sequence on the other side. Also explore the feelings associated with the different positions. When folded up on your side you may feel protected and closed. When lengthened out on your back you may feel open and vulnerable. Or you may not — it’s a different experience for everybody and only you can find out what each position or action means for you.
- Slowly sit up, stand and walk around, noticing any changes and how you feel both physically and emotionally.