Feldenkrais: More than Movement

Many people who do Pilates started doing it as an alternative to traditional workouts like going to the gym. Whether we couldn’t motivate ourselves to keep up the habit or we got injured trying, we decided to opt for movement that felt more intentional and healing.

We have this in common with students of the Feldenkrais method.

This past weekend, the Pilates Collective hosted a Feldenkrais workshop led by guest teacher Christy Cutler. After teaching dance to children for many years, Christy’s body was feeling resistant to many of the energetic, full-body movements her young students expected from her. One day a parent recommended she explore Feldenkrais. She gave it a go and has been doing it ever since.

What is Feldenkrais?

Feldenkrais, named after its creator Moshé Feldenkrais, is a method of functional movement that emphasizes the mind-body connection and strives to make moving painless and effortless. By becoming aware of the small, subtle movements our bodies perform every day, Feldenkrais practitioners are able to cut inefficiencies and move in the most optimal way possible.

If you’re familiar with Pilates, you’ll notice a few similarities. The most obvious is that both practices cultivate awareness of how the body moves and strive to make it perform at its best. But where Pilates tends to focus on engaging musculature, Feldenkrais emphasizes feeling movement initiated from within.

Like Joseph Pilates, Moshé Feldenkrais created his movement modality as a means of recovering from his own physical shortcomings. When a knee injury derailed his active lifestyle, Moshé began exploring the functionality of his entire body, not simply the affected joint. He applied knowledge of anatomy, physics, engineering, and child development, eventually creating a movement practice that he later codified and shared with the world.

Christy explains of Moshé, “His goal is to take what’s impossible and make it possible, take the possible and make it easy, take the easy and make it elegant.” The purpose of movement then becomes to explore how the body functions with the end goal of making a movement feel effortless.

Getting Down to What’s Essential

In order to make an action as effortless as possible, it’s necessary to strip away anything extraneous. Many of us subconsciously engage non-essential muscles when moving that don’t serve the function of the movement as a whole. The first step to increasing efficiency is to become aware of these habits. For example, say you grip your left toes every time you take a step with that foot. The action of gripping your toes—which might have developed as a compensation from an injury or a response to wearing shoes that were painful—doesn’t serve the action of walking and therefore makes the movement less efficient. It changes the way your foot hits the ground and how the rest of your body responds throughout the step.

In the Feldenkrais method, this is known as a “parasitic movement.” Once you’re able to walk without gripping your left toes, that foot will move in a more fluid and supple way and the rest of the leg will respond in kind.

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One way of achieving movement with less effort is by thinking of movement as coming from the bones. By imagining a movement initiating from the skeleton, you are likely to recruit only the muscles absolutely necessary, leaving all of the compensations and parasitic movements behind. This is beneficial for all people, even folks without injury or physical limitation. If dancers or elite athletes can hone their craft and find a way to use less effort, they can improve their efficiency, endurance, and longevity.

When describing an ideal state of physicality, Feldenkrais preferred the idea of “acture” over “posture.” This term, which Feldenkrais coined, describes the many minute adjustments we make each day to be ready to move in any way at any given time. Christy describes acture as “being ready to move without preparation, without thinking about it, in any direction at a moment’s notice.”

It’s a pretty abstract concept. It relates to being present and centered in your body, ready for anything. Think of a martial artist: when engaged in a fight, an expert martial artist is ready to react to anything their opponent may do, any attack their opponent may throw at them. The martial artist is on top of their center of gravity and adaptable. Feldenkrais seeks to cultivate the same readiness in its practitioners by encouraging them to completely connect with even the most basic of movements.

Christy paraphrased Moshé, saying “Our strength is in our ability to have all these different choices. Our strength lies in being able to put these things together.”

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Many Feldenkrais classes primarily take place on the floor. A lesson might focus on one pattern in particular, for example the relationship between the feet and the head. In order to explore this, you might find yourself doing strange movements over and over, analyzing how your spine responds to your foot moving closer to your head and vice versa. It doesn’t feel like much at first (it might even feel silly), but as the movements expand, your body starts to feel lubricated from the inside. It’s as if your joints are communicating with each other more clearly. You get to a place by the end of class where the movement does, indeed, feel effortless.

Christy talks about how acture relates to another Feldenkrais concept: reversibility, or being able to completely reverse a given movement at any time. If you are centered in your body and ready to move in any way, it follows that you should also be ready to reverse or “undo” any of your movements. For example, if you step forward onto your right foot and swing your left arm out in tandem, achieving acture means you are also able to immediately step back onto your left foot and drop the arm back down by your side.

Watching professional dancers, this concept becomes a little more tangible.

Before a dancer does a pirouette, like Misty Copeland in this video, she doesn’t whip herself in the opposite direction in preparation. She is ready to execute the movement from exactly where she stands, relying on a stable center of gravity and body awareness (as well as hours and hours of developing the proper muscles and technique).

A fall is a great example of a movement you cannot reverse. “When you fall by accident,” Christy says, “it’s because you weren’t able to reverse what was happening in that moment.” Of course, even professional movers slip from time to time. According to the Feldenkrais methodology, the best course of action when you feel yourself falling is to relax and let yourself slide. This seems totally counterintuitive—when we feel ourselves start to slip on ice, our entire body tenses in panic—but ironically, tension is often what causes injury. By gripping our muscles, we’re trying to control the movement in an uncontrollable moment. As we continue to slide, the tension causes us to bump and bonk our joints and head. If we train ourselves to relax, and to even lean into the fall, we’re working with momentum instead of against it.

“I think it takes a lot of practice,” Christy advises. In classes, she asks students to do a lot of moving and reversing of the movement. “I work on getting students to pay attention to the coming back as much as the going.”

Mindful Movement

As you might have guessed, “Feldenkrais is really not about training bodies, it’s about retraining your mind.” Christy iterates how people shouldn’t expect a “workout” class when taking Feldenkrais, but should be open to seeing how their body feels during and after class.

And as much as Feldenkrais is about engaging muscles efficiently, it’s also about learning to release them fully. This is a principle The Pilates Collective’s physical therapist Lea Klein talks about often related to the pelvic floor; the strength of our muscles depend on our ability to completely engage and completely relax them.

“It takes a level of patiences, takes a level of curiosity, and takes a level of acceptance of yourself,” she says. “I think some people may be become uncomfortable lying down on the ground because they then have to greet all the things that don’t work so well. It’s a mirror perhaps that they don’t want to hold up and see.”

If people are willing to hold up that mirror, however, they have the opportunity to tap into their bodies in a way that will benefit them for the rest of their moving life. Christy spoke about how, because of Feldenkrais, she now has an amazing toolbox for checking in with her body and taking care of herself.

In last weekend’s workshop, and in future workshops she may hold at the Pilates Collective, Christy offers students an opportunity to build a toolbox of their own. She teaches some of the basic principles and gets people moving, using some classic Pilates exercises as a bridge between the two modalities.

If you’d be interested in attending a Feldenkrais workshop, let us know! We’re currently talking to Christy about increasing her offerings at the studio. If you’re new to Pilates, contact us to schedule your free introductory session.

Ali Weeks