“The aim is a person that is organized to move with minimum effort and maximum efficiency, not through muscular strength, but through increased consciousness of how movement works.” -Moshe Feldenkrais
On the penultimate day of my Feldenkrais Training in Santa Fe, I had a Functional Integration lesson with Alan Questel, the program’s director. A few weeks before, Alan told us that someone once asked him why he didn’t develop his own method. He said he was not that kind of guy. And, what would he call his offering, anyway?
Still, Functional Integration, where a Feldenkrais practitioner teaches the student new ways of moving, can be considered as a joint quest (minus knights, swords, and the Holy Grail). Unlike massage or other bodywork, the Feldenkrais student is not passively receiving or being “done to”, but is actively participating in the adventure of discovering how her body moves in order to make distinctions. The practitioner, acting from curiosity and a spirit of inquiry, tests hypotheses about what might be impeding movement by gently adjusting the person, while being open to the information they’re receiving from that very adjustment. For example, it might appear that one leg is looser than the other, but testing it might reveal the opposite, prompting a new hypothesis. And rather than trying to “fix” what the student might consider a “problem”, the practitioner focuses on what is working well and tries to expand that while appreciating that the body likely had good reasons for moving a particular way.
Before we started, I told Alan about the injury to my left leg and a chronically tight left hip. I mentioned that in recent months my right shoulder had become problematic to the point that a fellow swimmer noticed that I was using my arms differently. Lying on the table, I realized that my left hip and right shoulder were along a diagonal. Could those two injuries be connected somehow? Prior to starting Feldenkrais classes last fall with Five Lines Boulder, I doubt I would have even had the awareness to either make that observation or take it seriously, believing the two joints to be so far apart they’d have nothing to do with each other.
After I lay on the table and he had made some preliminary investigations, Alan moved my shoulders up and down.
“Now, tighten your left hip,” he said. Being an overachiever, I squeezed it as hard as I could.
“Just tighten it slightly.” I had already forgotten about ‘small distinctions, big differences.’ I gently squeezed the muscles. “Now, see what happens when I move your shoulders.”
“Hmh!” Came a grunt, my expression of an “aha” moment. The range of movement in my shoulders had shrunk by around 25 percent, simply from the tiniest tightness in my hip.
“Now tighten it more, but slowly,” Alan said.
As I did, my hip became a clamp, squeezing the life out of my shoulders. To begin to experience my body as an interconnected unity, rather than a collection of misbehaving or troubled parts, seemed like a quantum shift. Alan stood at the foot of the table and had me push my right leg against his hand.
“Did you see how you did that?” he asked.
“No,” I said. I wondered what I had missed.
“Try it again, and watch your abdomen.”
As I pushed, I noticed my belly tightened, a reflex of which I had been unaware.
“Now, try again, but release your abdomen, lengthen your leg and push downwards with your foot.”
I did. Guess what? My push was far stronger with a relaxed belly. So much for the cultural, if not cult, worship of six-pack abs and core strength, which I likely internalized in yoga classes and as a citizen of this flab-fearing nation. Power is the result of using everything – muscles AND skeleton – efficiently and appropriately. Tightening the belly when it’s not called for diminishes power and freedom of movement (try it for yourself). Relying on particular muscles, rather than involving the skeleton in many common movements, eventually exhausts if not injures a person.
“Did you feel that your leg was more connected to the rest of you?” Alan asked.
I tried it again. Indeed, by relaxing my abdominals and lengthening my limb, it seemed as if it continued into my torso. It was no longer an appendage, connected by a bony joint, but seamlessly integrated into the whole.
At the end of the lesson, Alan brought me to a seated position at the edge of the table. As I placed my feet on the floor, he asked me what I noticed. Scanning my self, I realized nothing caught my attention. I couldn’t feel anything in particular. Even the contact between my buttocks and the table felt minimal, as if there was little force in either direction. Earlier in the training we had discussed that the characteristic of a “well-organized” movement is that nothing stands out, the body is working as a whole.
“Nothing stands out,” I said, marveling at how weightless I felt. Our quest had brought me a new measure of peace and possibility. I started to feel some hope that, one day, I would move through life with grace and ease, rather than tension and discomfort.