How to Do a Lesson: Foundations of Feldenkrais

The more we engage with our habits, the more we discover what we already know.
— Arlyn Zones, Feldenkrais trainer

Feldenkrais is not about limits. We are not interested in the limit of our range of motion or in stretching, pushing, forcing, or even listening to the teacher! I’ll explain in a moment. Rather, Feldenkrais is about how we know ourselves. Right now, at this moment, you may know that you are tense in your right hip, or you may be aware that your neck hurts. Your arm may be sore from the gym, or your heart might be racing because you are angry with your coworker or spouse.

These sensations are giving feedback to your nervous system, and they represent how you know yourself in this moment. Your interpretation of this feedback determines how you are going to respond to the next experience life throws at you. But you don’t decide what to do in a vacuum. At every moment, along with your current sensation, you are also experiencing your long-standing, habitual way of organizing your movement, your feelings, and your life.

Feldenkrais lessons challenge your long-standing habits of movement, feeling, and responding by activating a different, non-habitual way relating with your experience and sensations. By relating to your experience with awareness, you will become capable of knowing, sensing, and feeling more and more subtle forms of feedback from your nervous system, which will diminish your usual reactions and habits—habits of muscular contraction, strain, fatigue, or emotional stress.

Ease and fluidity in our relationship to ourselves and others arises from intelligent, well-organized movement, but first we have to discover how to use our intelligence in this way.

Foundation 1: Curiosity and experimentation

In Awareness Through Movement® we will contemplate knowing ourselves in a very different way. The goal is to engage our faculty to explore, observe, and be curious, rather like a baby does when it explores the floor trying to figure out how it can go from a static state to locomotion. We are going to use our sensory-motor skills in that very same way to rediscover our own baby-like ease. So be curious and experiment, notice new tremors of responsiveness in your own system.

What I offer is the possibility of increasing the intelligence and ease of your movement choices, and you can help bring that possibility to fruition by gently testing and exploring how these movement suggestions can be comfortable for you, in this moment. So when you hear an instruction, consider it an invitation to be curious, not a requirement. You don’t have to feel all the connections that I am suggesting, and you are not a failure if you don’t. Even an absence of feeling is valuable feedback if you are listening to yourself!

Foundation 2: Listening to your own comfort

In addition to curiosity, the second principle of Feldenkrais is to listen to your own comfort before you jump into action. This is hard for most people. Most of us have habitual, ingrained responses to responding to instructions, whether from formal schooling or long-term dance or athletic training. To listen to your own comfort before you plunge into the movement, you have to go very slowly, have a lot of patience with yourself and, most importantly, rest when you need to rest.

I would suggest that you do an eighth of what you think you can do. That’s right, an eighth. Don’t try to prove to anyone that you can swing your leg over your head or stretch your arm behind you. No one cares, honestly! You have nothing to prove, no need for ambition, no reason to use force.

“When you struggle, you take your habits with you,” is an apt phrase in defense of going slow. The learning process in a Feldenkrais lesson comes about through the quality, smoothness, precision, and, perhaps surprisingly, the lack of effort in your movement. Most of us over-use our muscles all day long, which only contributes to fatigue and long-term tension. These lessons explore the precise amount of muscular engagement necessary to accomplish our intention.

Foundation 3: Focused awareness

The third foundation is focused awareness. Throughout a Feldenkrais lesson, try to notice when you begin to wander off and your movement becomes mechanical. Just noticing that you’re wandering is a fundamental part of the lesson! It’s just a matter of recognizing what you are doing and then choosing either to refocus our attention or rest for a moment.

One reason to avoid becoming mechanical and distant from our experience is that we want to learn something, and awareness is crucial for learning to take place. Imagine a tennis player practicing their serve. They might hit a hundred balls, and with each hit they are noticing how their choice of swing impacts the ball. They are looking for something each time.

If you feel your awareness is flagging and you’re wondering what you’re going to cook for dinner, either wake your awareness up and refocus or take a rest. Rests are not a sign of failure, they are a sign of intelligence.

Throughout the Feldenkrais method we activate our natural curiosity, listen to our own comfort, and focus our awareness. Overall, the most important thing is to enjoy the lesson for yourself, in whatever way it is unfolding for you at this time.