“Pain is the doorway to wisdom and truth” – Keith Miller
In a muscle culture that worships six pack abs, where grueling feats are glorified, where “no pain, no gain” is a mantra if not a secular prayer, the Feldenkrais Method might seem as unusual to Westerners as Hogwarts would have seemed to Muggles, had they been allowed to visit. While it would have been amazing to have received a handwritten invitation to a Feldenkrais training from a messenger owl, what beckoned me to immerse myself in the Feldenkrais Method was pain and a desire to feel more comfortable in my body.
What makes Feldenkrais seem magical is that the focus of attention is often not on externals but on the invisible and the barely perceptible: namely the skeleton, how small amounts of force move through it, and its orientation in space. For most of us, the skeleton is below our radar unless or until we break part of it or experience pain. In this Muggle world, fitness preachers chant “core strength”, as if we’ll live or die by our abdominals, when it’s largely the skeleton’s job to hold us upright. Tightening or bulking too many muscles can actually impede movement; as I wrote previously, it’s easier to move more powerfully with a relaxed belly. The Muggle tendency to isolate muscle groups to develop them for particular activities can have the unintended consequence of making less specialized movements more challenging, awkward or even painful. When the focus is on achieving a particular goal, rather than the process of movement, injury is more likely to occur. Moshe Feldenkrais said, “Painful learning is not learning,” yet many people use pain as a barometer of striving or proof that they have pushed past their “edge” and have, therefore, bettered themselves. In my Muggle moments, I did just that.
Rather than strengthening the will to deal with pain, the Feldenkrais Method creates the skill to avoid it while remaining active. Feldenkrais lessons create conditions for developing awareness and choice, the antidote to autopilot, on which much of the Muggle world runs. Slowing down, remaining far from any “edge”, and cultivating awareness can transform what was previously intractable; it’s as if someone had waved a magic wand to make the impossible possible, even though not much appears to be happening. Indeed, a random visitor to the training would have likely seen us lying on our backs, fronts or sides, moving slowly and gradually or, if we were imagining the movement, not budging at all. In a world that equates progress with vigorous and visible effort, that visitor might have been mystified by the subtlety and, at times, stillness. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, “Don’t get blinded by the glitter of the movement.” Indeed, it’s not what we do, but how we do it.
And the how, like some classes at Hogwarts, includes laughter. Perhaps you recall the scene where Harry Potter and his cohorts are asked to conjure their personal Boggart, something they are terrified of, point a wand at it and shout, “Riddikulus!” The Boggart, defeated by laughter, transforms into something silly. Moshe Feldenkrais understood how laughter facilitates learning and growth, especially when students are confronted with the unfamiliar. At one point during his large training at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, Feldenkrais contorted his face into different positions, the kind mothers discourage their children from making because “they might get stuck there”. As the college gymnasium filled with laughter, he said with a smile, “You are laughing and there is too much learning going on.” He encouraged guffaws, and his facial gymnastics had a point: most of us wear masks of some kind and if we don’t allow our faces to move every which way, it can become difficult to express who we are. Even if we can’t generate a laugh when trying something new, we can at least smile, relax the breath and signal to our nervous system that our task is pleasant, not grim, inviting it to learn. After completing my first year of training, I noticed the following changes.
- Better eyesight. About 18 months ago, I filled my first eyeglass prescription. After doing several Feldenkrais eye lessons, my vision is sharper, my eyes tire less quickly when I’m at the computer, and I have less need for my spectacles, funky as they are.
- Improved alignment. When standing, walking or kneeling on my meditation bench, my spine effortlessly arranges itself into an appropriate position, something that one decade of yoga failed to accomplish.
- Easier breathing. As an anxiety sufferer, I breathed inadequately for years, either without being aware of it or without being able to influence it. My rib cage has become more flexible and less rigid, creating a sensation of freedom instead of contraction.
The cumulative effect is that I feel about a decade younger, and I didn’t break a sweat. “Magical” and “miraculous” come to mind, even though none of this is hocus-pocus. It is, in Feldenkrais’ words, The Elusive Obvious. We have much more intelligence, skill and ease available to us than meets the eye. Our Western brains have been so deeply conditioned to equate achievement and even worthiness with effort and strain that it’s hard to imagine an alternative reality. And here’s a truth that seems to be even more well hidden than the Chamber of Secrets: although pain is a portal, you don’t need to be injured or feel anxious to benefit from Feldenkrais. You can use the magical tool of Google to find a teacher near you. Show up, try it, and see for yourself what is possible. You might unlock a hidden passage way to greater ease. Feldenkrais is ultimately about creating choice. It’s up to each of us to choose whether to approach life as a magician or a Muggle. Just remember, however, that Muggle rhymes with struggle.