Fill in the Gap
An athlete, engineer, and nuclear physicist, Moshe Feldenkrais developed his method in an effort to cure his own chronic, debilitating knee problems. The work eventually evolved into two components, both centering on self-observation which flows from gentle, guided movement. In Functional Integration, a teacher's touch provides the guidance; in Awareness Through Movement classes, a teacher verbally leads students through a small series of sequential movements. "Moshe Feldenkrais developed thousands of Awareness Through Movement lessons, and many of them were based around asanas," says Lavinia Plonka, a yogini and the director of The Movement Center in Morris Plains, New Jersey.
Oddly enough, beyond a few books in his personal library, there's no evidence that Feldenkrais ever practiced yoga. "I don't know if anyone ever actually saw him doing it," says Plonka. "Yet he developed all these lessons that obviously show a tremendous knowledge of how to get into these postures." Lotus, Frog, and Shoulderstand are just a few asanas that Feldenkrais broke down into a series of as many as five or six Awareness Through Movement lessons. "I've used those little sequences," says Plonka, "to help yoga students begin to understand how to connect with the movement necessary for a posture, instead of just working on the outer shape of the posture."
In her own yoga, says Plonka, "Feldenkrais gave me an anchor of self-study. By moving very slowly, by listening attentively to my habitual approaches to things, I was able to translate that to my own personal yoga practice. I began to be aware of ways that I used myself in my yoga that were counter-productive."
Inspired by Plonka's explanations, I booked a Functional Integration session with Ralph Strauch, who was trained by Feldenkrais himself in the early 1980s. As I lay on a low, padded table, Strauch advised me that it was more important to think about how I felt rather than any of the specific work he was doing, which involved gently bending my joints.
When Strauch finished with my left side and asked how I felt, I realized that I was aware of that entire side of my body. Not just in a broad sense: I could sense each fiber, each muscle, every bit of skin and bone. The sense of awareness extended from the bottom of my foot to the top of my head. I felt lighter and longer. In contrast, my right side felt lifeless. I could sense only portions of it, and my back and leg felt jammed up with sciatica.
"What you're feeling," Strauch explained, "are two different ways of organizing yourself. Right now, your right side is still organized more in your habitual way. The left side is another possibility. I didn't create it. It was there all the time; you just don't normally use it. The fact that you feel a difference in your face, which I haven't touched at all, indicates that we're working with not just the mechanical results of the movement, but with some deeper neurological change."
Much of the neurological repatterning in Feldenkrais work happens on an extremely small scale. It reminds me of my early experiences with yoga. I had no trouble understanding large-scale movements; when a teacher told me to bring my knee to a right angle I could see the intent and work toward it. But when a teacher asked me to turn my outer thigh in, or pull my kidneys down, or engage mula bandha, such subtle movements were much harder to grasp. I no longer had a connection to these places in my body. However, with time, effort, and instruction, my brain found a way to reestablish the links. Feldenkrais seems to work on similar principles.
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