Category Archives: ideas

Brief descriptions of fundamental concepts and techniques in Feldenkrais. Excellent building blocks for developing your own experimentation with the process.

You are (where) your pelvis (is)

When we say that people in general (people in our culture) “live in their heads,” this is more than metaphorical. If you watch people moving from one orientation to another, or from one level to another (lying to sitting or sitting to standing), their action is usually organized around the idea of getting their head where it’s going. The pelvis is an afterthought. And then everything is difficult and challenging, because your pelvis is the center of you. You aren’t going anywhere your pelvis isn’t committed to being.

Depending on your position, your center of gravity will be more or less in the pelvic area. (Think of the dan-tien of the martial arts.) The biggest and strongest muscles in the body surround the pelvis. Many of you will have been finding with the “scanning” week after week that your pelvis lays most heavily on the floor, lying on your back.

Indeed, to achieve the ability to be agile–ready to move in any direction without preparation, Feldenkrais’s definition of maturity–while lying on the ground would be no mean feat. When we’re standing up, standing still is an achievement (it takes children a long time to learn to organize themselves so they don’t need to be in constant motion, because the position of standing is one of high potential–it takes virtually nothing to tip us and put us in need of shifting to regain balance). But when we’re lying down, we like to stay put. Getting up is work.

Does it need to be? What would it take for the whole of us to be as agile and available to act from lying as from standing?

Wasted effort shortens the body

Superfluous effort shortens the body. Efficient action involves growing taller, lengthening the limbs and the spine.

This is a fundamental idea in Feldenkrais. Scan your feeling of height as you sit in your chair reading this. Then clench your jaw–do you grow taller or shorter? Tighten you shoulders. Taller or shorter? Grip your stomach like you’ve just had a fright. Taller or shorter?

This theme is integrated into the lessons in many ways. In measuring lengths in the scans. In monitoring the maintenance of length (as we might monitor easy breathing) to recognize and modify superfluous effort when it arises during an action. In many lessons the question appears almost as an aside–where does the top of your head go?

Anxiety as fear of falling

Today when we hear about the mind-body link and the influence of emotions on health, we tend to think in the “stress” paradigm. We understand the stress response as the tendency of the organism to “flee or fight” when faced with a danger–or, if we keep up with the latest research, the “flight-fight-flock” response–to run away, fight, or seek to strengthen our social ties, since as social creatures we survive through group belonging and cooperation.

In an earlier and more Freudian era, the general form of emotional distress at the challenges and surprises of life was thought of as “anxiety.” Feldenkrais argued that the fear of falling was the primitive fear, and that the general form of anxiety that haunts us, compromises our health, and stands as a barrier to action and self-realization, was a survival and ossification (as it were) of this primitive fear of falling.

His picture was that when support is withdrawn (and the infant then feels that initial drop–which for all evolution knows is a sensation that might end with the infant on the forest floor far below the habitat of its tree-dwelling clan), the primitive reflex is a general contraction of all the flexors of the body–the muscles that fold joints closed and curl the spine. Think of the fetal position and the feeling of security that we describe as “returning to the womb.” Curled in a little ball like this, one is least likely to suffer injury to crucial internal organs when hitting the ground–with the spine in an arc, the force of impact is dispersed tangentially.

Fifty years of science have developed our thinking. The primitive falling reflex (Moro reflex) is not exactly as Feldenkrais described it; how that relates to the adult startle reflex is controversial.

Nonetheless today’s lesson can be illuminated by considering it in relation to Feldenkrais’s ideas of the general body pattern of anxiety.

Being curled up in a little ball isn’t useful for very much action in the world. The opposite overall pattern of muscle activition is extension: opening the joints, growing taller. This figure looks like it’s having a lot of fun, and like it could accomplish anything, right?

It isn’t really about one tendency being good and the other being bad. We could make up stories about “the sort of people” who are flexed and the sort who are extended. Or we could recognize that there are times in life when it’s appropriate to leap in the air with your arms flung overhead and face the world, and times when it’s appropriate to curl up and pull inside and make yourself comfortable that way.

While we may carry this heightened “tonification” of the flexor muscles as a habitual kind of anxiety, we also have more than that going on. (We are more than our anxieties!) We probably have to do all sorts of habitual work to counteract that flexion. We wouldn’t be able to stand up and walk around if we couldn’t let go of some of this flexor work, or counteract it with equally strong extensor work. So, for instance, your low back has to work hard to hold your chest up, your neck to hold your head up. Furthermore, the very contraction of the flexors prepares the extensors for powerful work. A runner starts a race from a highly folded position: both mechanically and neurologically the wave of flexor contraction prepares you for a strong action of the extensors.

Feldenkrais also argued that in situations of chronic anxiety and inability to exercise control or have an effect in the world, we calm that anxiety by controlling what we can control–by instituting our own personal forms of self-control by exercising some voluntary muscle activity that we choose more or less arbitrarily (perhaps imitating someone we admire, perhaps something of personal historical significance). It’s like (a favourite example of Wittgenstein for the ineffectual action we can’t help) pushing on the dashboard of a car when we’re in the passenger seat but want it to go faster; or like pressing the walk button for the tenth time. Since it really does give us the experience of exercising control, it really does calm the anxiety. A very familiar example would be the way we clench our jaws under stress, or tighten our shoulders. Some methods institutionalize this form of relief (tapping techniques in psychotherapy).

Feldenkrais said, why not increase your capacity for effective action in the world? Then you don’t need to tighten your jaw to give yourself the illusion of being in control.

Many “cousins” of the Feldenkrais Method in the world of somatic work are methods that directly treat emotional issues as embodied–and that can be a potent approach. Emotions don’t exist entirely in thoughts and words–they are actions and sensations of the whole organism. Some forms of somatic work interest themselves not so much in the specific stories (memories, thoughts, associations) that are living in the body, but in an underlying overall somatic dynamic of emotion. Feldenkrais’s specific story about that underlying somatic dynamic was this story I’ve been relating of anxiety as fear of falling.

You may then find yourself, because of all this rolling around on the ground and refining your sense of yourself in action in gravity, actually responding to life with less anxiety–less literal and figurative fear of falling.

Extension and standing upright

“Extension” is the use of the muscles that unfold joints. But the theme of lessons emphasizing extension is more than unfolding joints.

We’re always working within the system that stands upright on its two feet in gravity. That is, the human being. And the arrangement of the skeleton as we stand upright in gravity is somewhere nearer to the extended position of the joints than the flexed (notice in standing how much farther you can bend your hip joint, lifting your knee up in the air, than you can extend it, lifting your leg back out behind you).

Does that mean we need to strengthen those muscles in order to improve our upright posture? Feldenkrais approached the question in a very different way.

For many of us, those extensors (especially the small of the back, the neck, in the legs) are working so hard all day long against the unnecessary activity of the flexors that it’s fatiguing just to be upright in gravity. We don’t need to give them extra strength to work even harder against the flexors that don’t let go (extra strength to compress the discs between the vertebrae and cause other sorts of injuries). Instead, we need to find our balance on the skeleton itself, so all our muscles (flexors and extensors) are to the greatest degree possible freed of unnecessary postural work and freed for real action when we call on them.

In lessons emphasizing extension, as in all lessons, you want to do less instead of more, turn your interest first to ease and comfort and finding a small and pleasant increment of some new sensation that moves in the right direction, rather than focusing on effort and achievement.

A small change somewhere along the path from your feet to the top of your head can make a world of difference to your ease, balance, availability for action. We aren’t moving backwards in order to strengthen those extensors, but in order to find new options and freedom for the skeleton in a direction we usually spend less time exploring. With that greater freedom and new options, you can at last make use of the strength of those extensor muscles for action, instead of using them so much just to keep your head up.

Cheating

A very important resource for working on challenging lessons is the human capacity for disobedience and cheating.

After all, when faced with a choice between Obeying the Command of the Teacher and preserving your own well-being, why would you ever choose to do what the teacher tells you to do?

So if the lesson says “leave your knee on the floor,” try a few repetitions where you let your knee come off the floor. If the lesson says “lift directly towards the ceiling,” try lifting to 45 degrees from the ceiling, then 30 degrees. then… And so on.

You can also vary the configuration. Do the instructions say to place one knee on the floor in front of the other? Try placing the knees one on top of the other. (This is in side-lying.)

The important thing when you’re cheating is that you know you’re cheating. Do it with awareness. So that eventually you can come back and do the lesson closer to the given instructions. (Cheating in itself doesn’t matter, but if you don’t know you’re cheating, you can’t correct yourself over the long haul.) A given challenging instruction probably makes its odd demand for a very good reason. But that’s no reason to hurt yourself to uncover the secret. You’ll get there soon enough.

Clocks

We often use the image of a clock in guiding an exploration. The Pelvic Clock is famous lesson type that uses this strategy. Lessons based on the clock can be very slow and methodical. And very potent.

This kind of geometrical image, one that makes subtle distinctions in degrees of turning (not just turn left or turn right, but turn to 10:30), can really invite us to find the hidden spot that we would skip past for the rest of our lives if we were just doing free and open movement improvisation.

Take this classic [[Coordinating flexors and extensors]] lesson. When you tilt your knees to the side, to which hour on the pelvic clock does your pelvis roll? You can now do a whole lesson for yourself where you compare taking the pelvis deliberately one hour above, and one hour below. (I wouldn’t bother going much farther astray from your habitual than that.) Now imagine that same clock under your shoulders. Where does the centre of weight of your shoulders go on the clock when you take your arm triangle to the side? Do the same movement taking your arm triangle to the side, but direct it an hour up, an hour down; two hours up; two hours down.

Another option for working with the clock in a lesson: stop in a position, nothing extreme, and create the clock there. So do the clock under your pelvis with your legs crossed; then with your legs crossed and tilted a little to the side (keeping them tilted to the side).

You can take many different movements that we do in the course of building the image of an action in a lesson, and put that movement on a clock.

This kind of work on our own challenges us to be patient and methodical. It’s often easier with a live teacher to pace things and tell a few anecdotes to pass the time. But it’s worth the time invested to develop the skill to pace yourself and take rests and stick to one spot on the clock at a time in such an exploration. Check out again the posting on pacing.

Completing the self-image

When we act, we use only a small part of our capacity, and a small part of ourselves, to accomplish what we set out to do.

Feldenkrais would sometimes contrast his approach with Freudian theory: Freud said that maturation involved growing out of the anal or oral stages of development. Feldenkrais thought in terms of a global process of coming to make available for ourselves our whole person, without compulsion.

We all workhorses and blind spots. There are parts of ourselves we make great use of–doing everything with them. Maybe for you it’s your shoulders: you work 9-5 with your shoulders, prepare meals for your family with them, even watch TV with them. And it never occurs to you really that your feet have anything to do with these tasks. There’s an unequal distribution of work in the “household” of yourself, and and unequal distribution of injury, strain, exhaustion at the same time.

To some extent imbalances are built into us. The sensory cortex contains much more space dedicated to the lips than to the area between the shoulder blades or the back of your head. The motor cortex “has enormous fingers” (to speak of the homunculus) but much smaller toes. (Can you even feel all your toes or move them individually?)

These lessons are designed to “complete the self-image” by helping you reassemble all of yourself for use in action.

Doing the opposite or doing the same? Starting from the other end

Move your right shoulder forward. Now move your left hip forwards. (You can do this sitting in chair, or on the floor, or your back or side.)

Was that second movement the opposite of the first?

Or is it actually the same movement?

Let’s look at it very abstractly: think of the line of your spine, and imagine your shoulder girdle and your pelvis each as some kind of gear or steering wheel, perpendicular to the spine, that you turn to twist the spine. You can turn the top wheel left, and the bottom wheel right, and basically you’re introducing the same twist into the spine. You’re just doing it from the other end, and in the opposite direction.

Do the movements a few more times with that image superimposed on your experience, and see of you can sense the idea that you’re “winding up” the spine in the same way both times, but from opposite ends.

Now, you aren’t just a spine. You’re a whole torso with ribs and guts and muscles. So instead of just the line of the spine, you have something like a cylinder.

In every movement, you can attend to the line that lengthens or shortens across or along this cylinder. So take the line from your right shoulder to your left hip across the front of your body, and pay attention to that. Now take your right shoulder forwards. And take your left hip forwards.

Now we’re into the infinite variability of how each of us organizes him or herself for action. There are many options and variations we each do. But try this one: as you take your right shoulder forward, feel that the diagonal line to the left hip is shortening. And as you take your left hip forwards, feel that the diagonal line to your right shoulder is shortening.

Something similar happens with movements that are not twists on the vertical axis, but that are in one plane–bending forwards, sideways, backwards. Let’s approach the idea from another angle.

Sitting, tilt your head to the left. What way does that spine bend? Where does that cylinder lengthen and where shorten? Maybe you shorten all in the neck; maybe you shorten all down your left side. (And lengthen on the opposite side.)

Now lift your left shoulder. Maybe your spine bends or maybe it stays straight–but where does that cylinder lengthen and shorten? In the neck on the left it shortens–and maybe it lengthens in the torso on the left and in the neck on the right.

Now lift your left hip from the chair (but don’t let your head travel right–stay with your head directly above your pelvis). Where do you lengthen and shorten now? You shorten your left side, and lengthen your right.

Lifting your left hip, bending your head left, moving your shoulder–all these things can shorten your left side and lengthen your right side.

All fine and good. But so what?

In effect, you’ve now realized that you can do the same thing (the same “manipulation” in Feldenkrais’s terms) in different ways. The magic is that when you intend or receive the instruction to do it in different ways, your brain (surprisingly easy to fool) represents the movement differently. This is one method we use in Feldenkrais for bypassing familiar habits and creating new possibilities.

So you can take any movement you’re playing with in a lesson recorded on this site, and ask yourself how the spine twists or bends, or how the torso lengthens or shortens. And then imagine: how can I create that lengthening or shortening from the other end?

When you come back to the original conception of the movement, you find some of that Feldenkrais magic. You didn’t “stretch” in the classic sense, but suddenly your muscles lengthen much more. You didn’t “strengthen” anything in the classic sense, but suddenly your recruiting and coordinating that entire lengthening-shortening thing to make a much more powerful and easy movement. An example is the lesson [[Clock Hands]], but it occurs frequently in lessons, and you can do it with any movement you want to explore.