Getting in touch with my body has been quite a journey. Who knew that my mind might have to turn off while I did it with Feldenkrais?
It has been a surprising journey, exploring the interrelatedness of my body/mind. I’m 60 years old as I write this and remember distinctly how out of touch I was with my body until the age of about 45 (the reason for the disconnect is based in childhood trauma).
Reading Eckhart Tolle did it for me: he wrote in The Power of Now about the feeling sense of having a hand – I got it! Finally, I knew what people in all those meditation and spiritual-personal growth classes I had taken were talking about when they identified certain types of sensation in their bodies. In the past, when they talked about ‘tingling in the legs’ or ‘energy flowing in the torso’, my inner response was: ‘huh’?
But I did not suddenly transform into a whole and connected body/mind. It’s a path, a process. One recent lesson that still surprises me is that the mind may not be ‘open for business’ when the body does not know itself.
Point in fact: although learning and writing about brain enhancement has been an interest of mine for several years, I simply could not ‘get’, or grok[i], how body work like the Feldenkrais method works to transform the brain, body and sense of self, despite having it explained to me by Feldenkrais practitioner Sandra Bradshaw.
Sandra found me through my website. We live in the same city, Kelowna, in the southern interior of British Columbia, Canada, and so decided to meet for coffee. She probably thought I had a brain at our first meeting, maybe even a pretty decent one. Sandra wrote a book -- Wake Up Your Body and Brain and so we knew from the start that we had something in common.
After we had known each other for a short while, Sandra offered me Feldenkrais ‘lessons’ (they don’t call them treatments) in exchange for writing this article about my experience. Was it obvious to her, sitting across from me at the GioBean café, that I was an assemblage of parts rather than an integrated person? Did she have any clue that it would take a full 16 months after the lessons for my brain to be able to fully integrate the work and write about it?
Why was I so ‘duh’? I think it was partly because Sandra taught me to relax quickly (first lesson) and so thoroughly (without words or instruction, just by moving my body for me in seemingly strange ways) that much of my cognitive capacity went into torpor. I fell into deep relaxation, akin to sleep during the first session, and in subsequent visits, became sleepy as soon as I lay down on the table (in fact, I felt sleepy just walking into the room and seeing the table). It is possible that such deep relaxation had eluded me most of my life and I had a lot of catching up to do. It could be because the brain might not work right when the body ‘has its day’, meaning when the body has the attention it needs to reorganize the nervous system. It’s not that I was unable to think during this period of many months but I wasn’t able to think about this one thing in particular. I found this very odd, and frustrating, as I wanted to keep my end of the exchange by writing this article.
What actually happens during a one-on-one Feldenkrais session? They are unlike massage, although some elements are similar. To further complicate the explanation, there is no single prescriptive way for a practitioner to address specific problems. I had eight sessions of Feldenkrais with Sandra and so can share my experience: after asking me what I would like to learn, she made me comfortable on the table (like a massage table but lower and wider), with supportive cushions and pads for my head, arms and legs. I’ve never felt so completely taken care of during a bodywork session. She began to very gently move my body in new ways; for example, she held my whole body in a sheet and rocked me, lifted an arm, asked me to let her totally support it, and moved it in ways that seemed strange and new to me. I fell into such a deeply relaxed state during many lessons it was almost like I was asleep. I cried during others, releasing tensions that I couldn’t name (and didn’t need to). Bradshaw taught me how to roll onto my side and then sit up while on the table (which translates to how to get out of bed more efficiently), and how to move from sitting on the table to standing on the floor with my head positioned for optimal balance and flexibility. It may sound crazy to think there was something to learn about how to roll out of bed or stand on the floor but indeed there was. She taught me how to use my whole torso to turn my head, how to walk with greater ease, how to remind my neck that arthritis isn’t a life sentence for pain. Bradshaw realized that I would benefit from a stronger sense of my own power and she coached me toward that. Working with her was a wonderful experience that I highly recommend to anyone.
The Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education was developed by Moshe Feldenkrais, a Ukrainian Jew, who was born in 1904. When he was just 14 he decided to leave the Russian-controlled region of what is now Belarus, where his family lived, and which was hostile to Jews, and walk to Israel. Yes – he walked almost 6,000 kilometers! (That’s the equivalent of walking from Moncton, N.B. to Vancouver, B.C). He brought other young people with him, and continued to thrive through many harsh life experiences, until his passing in 1984. Along the way he built a particle accelerator in the Paris laboratory of Nobel prize winners Frederick and Irene Juliot-Curie, worked in British counter-espionage, taught unarmed combat to soldiers in the Israeli military, and helped many people live vastly more fulfilling lives, thanks to discoveries stemming from his debilitating knee problems that he resolved without the recommended surgery. Feldenkrais repeatedly defied great odds in his own life and, interestingly, chose to focus on somatic education, despite the many other avenues of achievement open to him.
The success of the Feldenkrais method hinges on Moshe Feldenkrais’s very personal discovery that the brain is plastic and that one can create new neural pathways through subtle and repeated manipulations of the body, thereby teaching the body new ways of moving and the mind new ways of experiencing life. He was a pioneer in the fields of brain plasticity, mind-body medicine and healing.
Feldenkrais realized that awareness of what is happening in the body is necessary for transformation to take place. Tying his personal discoveries into what was then the pioneering work of brain mapping by Canadian Wilder Penfield, Feldenkrais conjectured that when body parts are injured, their representation in the brain’s mapping system diminishes. It is only by making and observing repeated, slow and subtle movements that the brain can rewire itself for improved functioning. He learned this by using his knowledge of judo, physics and experiences of stress related to profound threats to his personal safety, to resolve his knee problems.
How could a method of body-mind work that espouses subtlety, slowness, suggestion and incremental growth in awareness yield much in the way of results? A jaw-dropping account of some Feldenkrais success stories can be found in Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain’s Way of Healing. These include helping a girl with a diagnosis of profound retardation live a normal life that included receiving advanced university degrees, helping a blind man to see and a boy lame from cerebral palsy to walk. Feldenkrais began teaching others his method in 1969. Today, practitioners around the world are furthering his work and changing lives, sometimes subtly, as was the case with me, and often dramatically.
An elementary school teacher at the time of her Feldenkrais training, Sandra Bradshaw’s school board gave her a leave of absence every March for four years to attend one of two required month-long intensives (the other intensive was during the summer when she was already on vacation). When back at work, where she taught young children with serious physical and developmental issues, Sandra found many opportunities to help her students with the Feldenkrais method. “In the final year of my training we had miracles happen with those kids,” she says. “The most dramatic was a five-year-old boy who had no language, was not toilet trained, had tremors in his hands, and could not use his hands beyond the palming grasp of an infant. He waddled when he walked, like a toddler. By the end of the year he had a 60-word functional vocabulary and could climb the jungle gym. The tremors disappeared and he could use his fine motor skills to pick up things with a pinching grasp. Although he still wasn’t toilet trained, everything else he achieved was beyond our wildest expectations.”
The Feldenkrais method can powerfully transform the whole person, with its emphasis on using awareness, the mind and imagination to experience life differently. It was like that for Bradshaw during her four years of training, and as she has continued with the program, both as a student and as a teacher. “Feldenkrais has helped me to allow myself to be vulnerable and that has given me greater confidence and a feeling of being at ease in my own skin. I see similar transformations with many clients.”
While some clients come to Bradshaw with basic problems like a frozen shoulder or arthritis pain and are looking only for physical relief, others are seeking deeper transformation. “There may be emotional stuff around physical challenges but I don’t go searching for it. If a client wants to share and let the emotion out I am here, seeing them as having everything they need to feel safe and supported. I take people as they are and see them as already whole,” she explains.
As for my journey into somatic awareness and my consternation about not being able to ‘grok’ the brain-body connections as developed by Feldenkrais, the living proof that at least some integration has been achieved is the fact that you are reading this story, the article I promised Sandra when we first agreed to work together. I am learning that ‘thinking’, i.e. language-based thought, knowing, and expression, while often useful, is not actually required for personal transformation.
An over-reliance on the thinking mind gets in the way of an holistic experience of life, and can in fact arrest development due to the fact that it is intrinsically constraining: we so quickly assume that we know something based on our experience to date – our learning and conditioning. Feldenkrais wrote: “When thinking in words, even subliminally, we are logical and think in familiar patterns, in categories that we have thought, dreamed, read, heard, or said sometime before. Learning to think in patterns of relationships, in sensations divorced from the fixity of words, allows us to find hidden resources and the ability to make new patterns, to carry over patterns of relationship from one discipline to another. In short, we think personally, originally, and thus take another route to the thing we already know.”[i]
Such reliance on cognition is also consistent with a limited view of what it means to be human, a view that grew from Western notions of the body as only a physical thing that houses the brain/mind, and an unintelligent, sinful one at that!
Anticipating Western cultural trends by over 50 years, Feldenkrais observed that the body and mind are not separate. “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.”[ii]
Integration is a key word for me in understanding what I have learned and how I can now write about it. As Sandra points out, given that I am a meaning-oriented person and a writer (with a mission in this case), it has been important for me to feel that I understand and can express what happened to me in working with her, as well as the reason it happened, i.e. the context of the Feldenkrais method. “For people like you, this work constitutes a paradigm shift, and it’s a huge leap. Our work together was, I think, a visceral experience without an intellectual template to put it on.”
I approached Patricia Kyle, a gifted massage therapist and Somatic Experiencing practitioner, also based in Kelowna, to get her thoughts on the way Feldenkrais work had seemingly ‘taken down’ aspects of my cognition for a time. Patricia notes: “We are so indoctrinated into what things mean. I try to stay out of that with any work now, because thinking is part of the problem. I like to stay out of thinking and see what naturally arises within the body. It’s hard to explain cognitively what happens in a body/mind experience. We live in a culture of words and so we try to put things into words and feel stupid when we can’t find the words. But maybe there are no words to adequately explain the experience. Feldenkrais is nervous system reorganization, and while it is happening it can seem like cognition isn’t connecting. You need your cognition but sometimes that is the last piece to catch up.”
It was when I read Doidge’s account of Feldenkrais’s life, and the seeming miraculous changes it has wrought in people’s lives, that something clicked. I was excited. I got it! But then I wondered: ‘Have I really got it?’ I keep going back and re-reading, and the more I discover about Feldenkrais and his method the more intrigued I am. In fact, I have a new mission in life, which is to discover, in my own experience, the infinite intelligence of the body and the non-mind world.
As I said, it’s a process, a path, and sometimes I decide to just go for a walk and feel the new swing in my hips and notice that my head is attached to the rest of me – viscerally. I leave mind aside. I know that I’m better for it – but can I tell you how?
P.S. You can learn more about Sandra Bradshaw, and purchase her books through her website: sandrabradshaw.com.
 Grok: a word coined by Robert Heinlein (1907–88), American science fiction writer, in Stranger in a Strange Land. Definitions: 1. understand (something) intuitively or by empathy. "because of all the commercials, children grok things immediately". 2. empathize or communicate sympathetically; establish a rapport. From google search: ‘define grok’.
 Moshe Feldenkrais, “Elusive Obvious”, Chapter: “On Learning”, as found at: http://utahfeldenkrais.org/blog/moshe-feldenkrais-quotes/
 Moshe Feldenkrais, “Body and Mind”, 1980. As found at: http://feldenkrais-method.org/archive/feldenkrais-method/.