Acclaimed writer Jane Brody recently published Trying the Feldenkrais Method for Chronic Pain in The New York Times. I read the piece partly as her mea culpa for having “refrained from writing about this method of countering pain because I thought it was some sort of New Age gobbledygook with no scientific basis.” I’m glad she had a positive experience, one shared by countless others.
Having written dozens of essays on the subject based on my immersion and ongoing practice, I was curious how she’d characterize it. Hers is a solid introduction to this amazing modality. Is her article comprehensive or exhaustive? No. She has dipped her toes in a vast ocean of possibility. That is not a judgment or criticism. I doubt a single newspaper article could do justice to the Feldenkrais Method given that it helps humans of all ages improve across a gamut of functions, from breathing to creative expression to running to regaining sight. The key word? Improve. Moshe Feldenkrais believed that there is no limit to improvement. That does not mean everyone can or should become an Olympic athlete or virtuoso violinist. But if we are attentive and open to exploration and growth, we can experience changes that surprise, delight and invigorate us, just as an infant is thrilled by discovering herself and the world around her through organic movement.
While adults applaud a baby’s organic development, we often stop ourselves from trying new things, or even doing the same things differently, out of fear of failure, making a mistake, looking foolish or wasting time. Or we become accustomed to academic learning and deferring to experts rather than exploring and trusting our experience. As Moshe Feldenkrais wrote in Awareness Through Movement:
“The education provided by society operates in two directions at once. It suppresses every nonconformist tendency through penalties of withdrawal of support and simultaneously imbues the individual with values that force him to overcome and discard spontaneous desires.”
I imagine Ms. Brody originally refrained from writing about the Feldenkrais Method out of fear of withdrawal of support (and risk to her reputation) or, maybe, because she valued peer-reviewed studies more than her spontaneous desire to investigate. If either possibility is true, it’s a shame she deprived herself and her readers for so long. I wish her article had cited Dr. Feldenkrais’ books and the “elusive obvious” rationale for his method: to free people from the shackles of conditioned thinking and behavior that might bring about pain in the first place. A cultural emphasis on achievement, rather than learning and growth, along with perfectionism, often contribute to emotional and physical distress. If we push too hard to prove ourselves, or to keep up with or get ahead of the pack, those beliefs and behaviors can create or exacerbate discomfort and even lead to injury. Often it’s pain that finally tells us that we’re overusing, or poorly using, ourselves. Moshe Feldenkrais understood through his own experience with duress and injury that the mind and body are one. That he figured out, through thousands of hours of trial and error, how to translate his insights so others could find greater physical ease and emotional renewal through gentle movement is one reason I consider him a genius.
It’s wonderful to obtain relief from pain, and I’m glad Ms. Brody’s article has encouraged many to seek out a Feldenkrais practitioner. But, what if we lived in a world that didn’t proclaim “no pain, no gain”, “work hard, play hard” and didn’t equate visible effort or certain behaviors with “success”? Indeed, I once received a promotion at a prestigious employer partly because of my energetic affect. I looked and moved in a competent manner, even though my heart was not in the job. Society’s emphasis on externals (“fake it until you make it“) can contribute to tension and self-neglect as we mimic others who look like they’ve “made it” even if they, too, are silently suffering and putting on a show. Contrary to the dicta of the culture at large, Feldenkrais teachers guide their students to move less, often far less than their full range in order to feel more and improve the quality of their experience. The ultimate goal? Not just to be free from pain, but to be free from another’s authority over one’s inner life.
As I wrote on this blog several years ago, chronic pain is a portal to Feldenkrais “magic”. It’s not hocus-pocus, but in discovering at mid-life that I no longer needed to wear glasses as much if at all, and I could move with an ease that eluded me for decades, and I found it easier to write, and was able to take up a martial art and experience the thrill of doing something outside my comfort zone, magic seems fitting. Once a person has stepped through the portal, there is more to discover, perhaps infinitely more if one is open to it. My favorite Feldenkrais treasure so far is learning to use my eyes more consciously. Broadening and sweeping my gaze has helped me tune into the environment rather than remaining caught in anxiety-producing internal dramas or tensing slightly in pursuit of a goal, even mundane goals such as getting to an appointment on time. If that sounds trivial, imagine what our world would be like if more people felt they were part of an interconnected web, rather than isolated bodies pursuing singular agendas. What if more of us interacted with an enhanced awareness of what is happening within and around us, rather than being on autopilot? If The New York Times article encourages enough people to try the Feldenkrais Method, perhaps a saner, more embodied world will arrive sooner rather than later. Once more of us are actually present and free from distracting pain, who knows what’s possible? May Ms. Brody live to be 120 so she can write about that, too.
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