Feldenkrais & Learning To Learn

In the last few years there has been an increase in both scientific and public awareness of the value of the form of meditation known as mindfulness. You can imagine how delighted I was to come across this perfectly “Feldenkrais-y” quotation…

“There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? It is mindfulness centered on the body.

Gautama Buddha (Bold & Italics mine)

People may not often talk about these sort of goals when they are explaining how Feldenkrais can help people – after all, those who come to us are mostly seeking to improve their posture and their mobility and relieve their chronic pain. However, Moshe Feldenkrais himself had much bigger aims for his teaching process…

“Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”


“What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains. What I’m after is to restore each person to their human dignity.”
- Moshe Feldenkrais


The concepts he was championing (emphatically, to anyone who would listen) about the ability of the brain to continue to learn new modes of behaviour and to replace old, out-dated or damaged neural pathways with new upgraded ones throughout our livesthe now completely proven concept of Neuroplasticity – were based on his years of experience working with his own severe injuries, and the damaged nervous systems of hundreds of “pupils”. Moshe was a scientist by training, profession, and inclination, and he built this process of learning by experiment, self-observation and discovery into his Awareness Through Movement modality as a way of making his unique “teaching by handling” Method (known as Functional Integration) more available to a wider population. Currently however we live in an intellectual culture where this model of science – the gathering of data through observation and direct experience – is now seen as both hopelessly outmoded and hard to validate. Consider this however, when each one of us is so utterly unique, thanks to our possession of a human nervous system that is capable of constant self-modification and self-improvement, how else can any practitioner be flexible enough to adapt their teaching method to each new individual that comes through the door? That practitioner needs to be in possession of a teaching process that constantly upgrades as it meets each new challenge – and that is what Feldenkrais designed his method to do!

I have detailed at length the reasons why I developed my own BodyMindfulness course in a previous blog post – but in honour of this year’s International Feldenkrais Week (formerly Feldenkrais Awareness Week) I thought I would say a little more on the subject, particularly as the suitability of Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement for the alleviation of chronic stress is so relevant to the 21st century maladies that are engendered by the intensity and “unnaturalness” of modern life.

During my training to become a Feldenkrais teacher I was conscious of how easy I found it to accept Moshe’s ideas, and I realised that they overlapped with concepts I was already exploring as a student of Tai Chi and an avid reader of the books on Sufism written by Idries Shah. Like Shah, Feldenkrais has written at length about the process of learning how to learn – more about that to follow. Thanks to Alan Watts I had also been introduced to the concept of “the beginner’s mind”, and I was pleased that I had found a practice aimed at similar outcomes but with a well-developed scientific foundation. The exciting complexities of quantum physics were another favourite subject, and I strongly suspect Feldenkrais was making a humorous reference to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle when he said of his own method that “the principle is that there are no principles”!

“If you mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.  In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” -Shunryu Suzuki

This idea is fundamental to our teaching process. In Awareness Through Movement (ATM) we lie down, let go of the effort of striving, of achieving, of succeeding, of impressing, and of perfecting, and instead for the next hour or so we explore, and experience, and discover, and refine, and evolve new strategies for expanding our movement possibilities and – most importantly – play, steadily lowering our effort levels and unpicking our own unconscious habitual way of learning until we discover how to…

“make the impossible possible, the difficult easy, and the easy elegant”.

Movement is the tool..

…sensory-motor mind-body awareness is the process…

…and knowing ourselves fully in order to let go of old limitations and unleash our “potent self” is the intended long-term outcome.

Moshe completely understood the limitations of language, but that did not stop him attempting to put his complex new ideas into words (please note his writing reproduces his natural rhythms of speech so it is easier to read him once you have heard him):

Excerpts from Learning To Learn – A Manual To Help You Get The Best Results From Awareness Through Movement Lessons,  By Moshe Feldenkrais

Do Everything Very Slowly

Efficient movement or performance of any sort is achieved by weeding out, and eliminating, parasitic superfluous exertion. The superfluous is as bad as the insufficient, only it costs more.

Look for the pleasant sensation

Excessive striving-to-improve impedes learning. It is less important to learn new feats of skill than it is to master the way to learn new skills. You will get to know new skills as a reward for your attention.

Do not “try” to do well *

“Trying hard means that somehow a person knows that unless he makes a greater effort an applies himself harder he will not achieve his goals. Internal conviction of essential inadequacy is at the root of the urge to try as hard as one can, even when learning. Only when we have learned to write fluently and pleasurably can we write as fast as we wish, or more beautifully. But “trying” to write faster makes the writing illegible and ugly. Learn to do well, but do not try. The countenance of trying hard betrays the inner conviction of being unable or of not being good enough.”

(*Yes I know, but I think Yoda stole it from Moshe!)

It is easier to tell differences when the effort is light

[In short] the smaller the exertion, the finer the increment or decrement that we can distinguish and, also, the finer our differentiation (that is, the mobilization of our muscles in consequence of our sensations). The lighter the effort we make, the faster is our learning of any skill; and the level of perfection we can attain goes hand in hand with the finesse we obtain. We stop improving when we sense no difference in the effort made or in the movement.

…and he finishes:

“Therefore, do not concentrate but, rather, attend well to the entire situation, your body, and your surroundings by scanning the whole sufficiently to become aware of any change or difference, concentrating just enough to perceive it. In general, it is not what we do that is important, but how we do it. Thus, we can refuse kindly and accept ungraciously. We must also remember that this generalization is not a law and, like other generalizations, it is not always true.”

“I believe that the unity of mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an inseparable whole while functioning. A brain without a body could not think.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais – born May 6th 1904 – happy birthday Moshe!

Here is the perfect example of the sort of learning he is talking about…


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