In response to my recent article, Is Yoga My New Pork?!, a longtime reader and fellow Feldenkrais fan wrote, “I find it odd that yoga has moved from something you no longer do to revolting and hope you can learn to relax that perception.” Indeed, to put yoga into the bucket of “things I do not do” is simply reinforcing an ego structure and mindset that is defined just as much by what one doesn’t do as what one does; in my case, I often emphasize (in my own mind) what I’m defining myself against, a relic of my upbringing I’m trying to shift. Around the same time, a friend who recently launched her yoga teaching business invited me to one of her restorative classes, a donation-based fundraiser for a local charity. I attended to support her and the cause and to see how I’d experience such a class after a several year gap, during which I broadcast to the world Why I do Feldenkrais Instead of Yoga.
I immediately felt at home in the soothing space with its gleaming hardwood floors, a wall of windows, and candles arranged along the windowsill. I chose a mat and my friend suggested we help ourselves to props: blocks, straps, a blanket, and a pair of tennis balls. My spirits sagged as I surrounded myself with these items, which once offered comfort and reassurance. One of the things I appreciate about Feldenkrais is the absence of paraphernalia for Awareness Through Movement lessons. With just a blanket on the floor, I can more easily focus my attention internally without interrupting that experience to reach for, and fuss with, an external object. The props bothered me for another reason: they are there to help a person adapt to, or gradually move into, a specific pose, as opposed to allowing a person’s body to discover how it wants to move.
As the students settled in their mats, my friend began class in the customary way by asking people if there was something they wanted to work on or if they had an injury. Listening to one woman speak of various body parts (hips, shoulders) made me squirm, as it reinforces the fragmented idea of self many of us carry around, rather than an image that we are a singular system where everything works together. That a person’s shoulder hurts may have nothing to do with their shoulder muscle or joint, but with how they are breathing or walking. I experienced chronic hip pain for a decade, which thousands of yoga hip openers alleviated temporarily but didn’t resolve (instructors kept telling me to do more yoga). I learned through Feldenkrais lessons that my left hip was simply the point in my system where my inefficient “organization” was expressing itself. It turned out that my left hip actually has a wider range of movement than my more comfortable right hip. That the pain arose on the left side didn’t mean it originated there. I’ve also learned that fixating on an area of pain or discomfort can turn it into a problem that needs to be solved. Expanding our attention, or focusing on something else, often ameliorates the difficulty or creates the conditions for it to improve.
Another student said something to the effect of, “I like to be corrected,” giving my friend permission to adjust her body and help her get into the poses. I once enjoyed such personal attention from teachers, too. Her comment reminded me that I used to welcome “correction” out of desire to want to get things “right” as if doing things the “right” way would make me a better person for having met a standard. That’s when a little voice in my Felden-brain reminded me, “To correct is incorrect,” one of Moshe Feldenkrais’ famous phrases. His basic point is that each nervous system knows how it wants to organize itself and will restore itself to healthy functioning if given the appropriate conditions in which to do so (Feldenkrais called this process learning). To guide a person’s body, especially a child’s, into a desired position might interfere with the body’s own wisdom.
As we lay on the mat for the initial part of the class, I tried to shut off my Felden-brain. Yet, there it went, observing how the initial scan that my friend led us through was surprisingly similar to the beginning of an Awareness Through Movement class. She asked us to notice how our body made contact with the floor. We checked in with our breathing without trying to change it. She guided us through some, slow gentle self-massage to expand the reach of the breath into the upper chest. When she had us flex and point our feet and mentioned this movement’s effect on the quad muscles, I “Feldenized” my experience by focusing attention on my skeleton. Moving the feet back and forth rocks the skeleton and transmits the movement all the way through the spine and into the skull.
You might wonder: Why focus on the bones rather than the muscles? The skeleton is designed to hold us upright in the field of gravity and is built to move with grace, assuming the muscles are not gripping it too hard or working against each other. Through my Feldenkrais studies, I’ve learned to consider the muscles as places into which culture, society and identity inscribe themselves. How many bodies are built from the mantra “No pain, no gain”? How many quadriceps and biceps and six-pack abs have developed to fit the culturally reinforced image of “strength” or “sexiness”? How much tightness in the shoulders and hips stem from uptightness, or the anxiety produced by not accepting ourselves, or from the cultural norm of prioritizing achievement over our wellbeing? The list goes on and on.
It’s probably not an accident that the Zen author Natalie Goldberg chose to title her well-known writers’ guide Writing Down the Bones rather than Writing Down the Muscles. Bones form our solid, basic structure, what’s left when we strip everything else away. In Hebrew, the language in which Moshe Feldenkrais first taught his method, the three root letters of the word bone (עצם) are also found in the words for self, essence and independence. To make contact with our bones and joints is to begin to locate our essence and find our independence from society’s conditioning, including ideals about how our bodies “should” look and move.
Towards the end of the class we did a few more active yoga poses, including downward facing dog, plank, a bit of cobra and some lunges. In revisiting these movements I realized I didn’t miss them. We experimented with placing the tennis balls under our mid backs to ease tension in the muscles and, when a few of us grimaced, my friend immediately suggested we back off in the name of ahimsa, to do no harm. I liked her “no pain, no pain” approach, similar to the Feldenkrais ethos. While I felt relaxed and refreshed after class, when I swung my leg over my bicycle the next day, I noticed some of that long-gone pain in my hip joints had returned, even though I’ve cycled comfortably ever since I began my Feldenkrais training. That made me wonder if my body is simply not suited to yoga and if the asanas had, over the years, contributed to my discomfort, despite being sold as a means for obtaining relief. My experiment proved to be conclusive. As much as I appreciated my friend’s gentle and compassionate teaching style and wish her success, I won’t be returning to yoga.