Feldenkrais: Elegance Without Even Trying

“Sit up straight!” “Stop slouching and hold your shoulders back!” How many of us have been corrected by well-meaning parents or teachers this way? How many of us still carry around all those old tapes reminding us that we are considered flawed and unworthy? Most people do, judging by “straightening up” reactions whenever the words “better posture” are mentioned in conversation.

Why did our elders care, and why should we care about whether we have good posture? Does it make a difference in the way we function or are perceived inn the world? In truth, it may well have a great deal to do with our self-image and the image others hold of us. Holding your head high or standing up to someone are not just ways of standing, but ways of acting in the world. Just as animal predators recognize adult animal prey through noticing compromised movements and posture, we adult humans may be hurt by human predators when we are not standing, moving and acting with self-assurance.

Humans learn postural and movement patterns from our elders, and as children we were unconsciously mimicking the very people who were ironically attempting to correct us! So how did poor posture originate if it is passed down from each generation? If you visit an indigenous society living on and tending to the land, you will see some of the most elegant postures and graceful movements imaginable. These folks lift and haul great weights effortlessly, their daily lives are filled with movement for survival, they are rarely overweight, and the women nurse their babies and carry them on their backs. The key to good posture, it seems then, is easy and sometimes languorous movement in touch with nature, such as fetching water, farming, hunting, child-rearing and tending animals. Survival on the land demands uncompromised movements and creates balanced people with perfect posture.

Compare this easy elegance with the posture demanded of the military! Here we see people making themselves stand at attention, holding their head up, shoulders back, chest out, all very stiff and very little breathing allowed. This is the posture required to become an instrument of killing, for any attentiveness to their own humanity might allow them to see their enemy’s humanity, which would be counterproductive. Is this good posture? Although it’s straight, it’s certainly a posture of obedience to superiors and is just what those old tapes running on our heads tell us to do. It’s forced and unnatural.

So how do we gain some of that natural elegance we witness in the indigenous people despite the very different world we inhabit with cars, phones, television, computers and the pressure of financial obligations? We begin with a very easy attitude shift, of throwing out the old useless tapes in our heads that damage our self-image and make us feel flawed and unworthy. After all, these tapes in our heads have not worked, have they? We may remind ourselves to lengthen our spines, hold our shoulders back and poke out our chests, but when we forget, there we are slumping worse from all the effort at trying to straighten, and we feel even more flawed and unworthy! Do Indians and Africans with perfect posture have to constantly think about it? No, and neither should any human. There is something definitely flawed about those “straighten up!” messages in the old tapes that our brains cannot compute!

Language of the Brain

What are the messages that will compute properly in our brain to bring about lasting change? Some will say that conversing with the brain on that level is too impossibly complex, and anyone who claims they can do so is a hoax. If posture is really so involuntary and for the most unconscious and dependent on our motor patterns learned from childhood, isn’t it a huge task to change all of that? Yes, global brain changes are required to change all of that, and yes it has been tackled by extraordinary minds in the field of somatic education. Moshe Feldenkrais, for example, was the founder of a unique developmental movement science called Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® designed to reorganize our movements, posture and breathing. A favorite quote from Dr. Feldenkrais is, “We make the impossible possible, the possible easy and elegant.”

To understand how all this is possible is to understand how our brain and nervous system work, with an easy description. Basically there are two kinds of messages travelling through our nervous system, the outgoing and incoming messages. These messages are constantly conversing with each other and shifting to keep us stable. The outgoing messages send “move, stop, or hold that amount of muscle tone” signals from our brain to our muscles. These are the kinds of messages we are most familiar with, and the ones we have some voluntary control over. The incoming messages from the muscles toward the brain are the ones that are very unfamiliar to us and very underused. They send sensory input back to the brain, and we can make much more use of them than we do, by harnessing their power to shift how the outgoing holding and movement patterns respond to them. Naturally, when our holding and movement patterns respond differently, we stand and move differently.

For instance, if you want to improve something as involuntary as posture, you do not try to control the voluntary outgoing messages (those useless tapes!) but you can indirectly shift the outgoing messages through a shift in sensation and perception carried to the brain via incoming messages. Dr. Feldenkrais discovered this literally by accident. While figuring out how to heal a crippling sports injury to his left knee, he fell off a curb and injured his right knee. To his surprise, the crippled left knee immediately began to function normally to take over for the newly injured right knee. From this dramatic example, he understood that it was the shift in sensation and perception of his knees that caused the shift in his nervous system. He marveled at the ability of the nervous system to adapt its equilibrium for functioning and survival, and he began to make full use of those valuable sensory input messages back to the brain.

A Retraining Exercise

Of course, it’s not necessary to have an accident or suffer pain to make such dramatic shifts in the way we organize ourselves. Just exploring an unfamiliar sensation can bring about a marked change. As an easy experiment, you can sit comfortably (but not leaning into the back of the chair), interlace your fingers on your lap, and notice what it’s like to arch upward to look up at the ceiling a few times. Go slowly enough to notice when it feels easy and when it feels restricted. Then interlace your fingers in the non-habitual way, the other thumb on top and changing over all the fingers. With this unfamiliar sensation traveling back to your brain, notice again what it’s like to slowly look upward; often the “move it” messages change and looking up can feel very different, even after you change back to the habitual interlacing! It’s possible even after such a short experiment that your posture will have shifted slightly.

This unscrambling and re-learning of our habitual ingoing and outgoing messages allows us instant flexibility without the counterproductive and heavy-handed approaches of conscious correction, practicing and stretching. It is an especially controversial view to oppose the idea about stretching being effective and important since so many of us include stretching in our practice of good health and flexibility. However, being open to learning a simpler, more effective approach or discarding old practices that don’t work may lead us to discover that the process of sensory-motor learning is easy, pleasurable, relaxed and amazingly effective. In fact, one of the bases of Feldenkrais® work is simply to pay attention to our actual movements and how we sense them in slow motion, both while we are moving and during the many rests in between movement. Then we can start visualizing every part of the movement in our kinesthetic imagination. Visualization is a very important tool for re-organizing the way we move because as we imagine a movement, the synapses activate our muscles and tiny involuntary movements occur even though we are intending the movement only in our thinking. When more aspects of the body, breath and mind coordinate fluidly in our movements, our effort is distributed evenly with less wear and tear on specific body parts and movement magically seems easier.

These “magical” changes at first feel astounding and unusual, for when our brain changes its perception of how we put ourselves together, the resulting sensation is of being different without even trying. The most common question after such an experience is whether the change is just temporary (“magic”), or whether it is lasting and how to “make it stick.” The answer is that, yes, the changes are very real because changes in our brain are all about learning and adopting something different and new on an organic level. The way to make this learning permanent is to focus less on the new posture or movement, but to remember the sensations arising from them. Commonly, peoples’ sensations might involve a fuller feeling of their feet on the floor, or they may feel like their head or even their whole body is floating, or their vision may be clearer, or they might sense better what’s around them or have a great sense of well-being. The simple act of remembering any shift in sensation reinforces the learning, for it sends those incoming sensory messages directly into the brain and immediately accesses the same outgoing shifts in organization that are stored in the brain for future use. The brain’s motor cortex automatically remembers on its own.

Too easy? Why not?! The challenge lies in training our own awareness. Dr. Feldenkrais remarked, “What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains. What I’m after is to restore each person to their human dignity.” Sensory-motor re-education requires a vital, curious person willing to take responsibility for discovering and sensing their own improvements in a non-judgmental way. Some folks used to automatic pilot and not giving themselves permission to slow down and notice subtle sensations will take longer to feel differences in conscious awareness, even while outwardly their posture may be improving. One young woman didn’t realize her posture was different until she was repeatedly complimented on her elegance in a bridesmaid’s dress at a family wedding! Such profound change, when accomplished in a gradual and unconscious manner, can conveniently bypass all fear and self-consciousness.

Organic learning happens on a largely unconscious level and change is not always going to be clearly and immediately perceived, as in the case of the unknowingly elegant bridesmaid. We can enter this very subtle, gentle yet profound process of transforming ourselves into elegant beings without even trying on this refreshingly effortless and fascinating journey.

Joyce Kegeles is a Guild-Certified Feldenkrais® practitioner and host/producer of a cable TV program, “Your Body Works!” Her specialties/interests include stroke, minor brain injury and disc problems, and working with athletes and performing artists. She has a lifelong dance background and has lived in Senegal through a Worcester Art Museum grant to study traditional West African dance. 

Feldenkrais® is a registered servicemark of The Feldenkrais Guild®.