“Whereas health is conventionally thought of as a static state to be maintained, Moshe defined health as a dynamic condition, the ability to recover from shocks. Whether originating from within or without, from sickness or accident, from violence or social upheaval shocks perturb our balance; health is the capability of regaining balance and standing poised again on one’s feet.”
– Mark Reese, from Moshe Feldenkrais: A Life in Movement
“The ability to return to regulation is the essence of resilience.”
– Deb Dana, from Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection
What happens if we think about “health as a dynamic condition?” Perhaps if we think of life as a process, as Moshe Feldenkrais did, we can understand that stress and adversity are normal aspects of living and that we have the internal resources for recovery and healing. Feldenkrais said, “improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”
If we consider the flip side and think of health as something static – that any perturbation of the system degrades one’s health and capacity for health – we get stuck looking at symptoms and how to get rid of them, rather than looking at the deeper, underlying processes that lead to those symptoms. This approach may provide temporary relief, but rarely solves the dis-ease processes or leads to longer term healing.
Let’s explore the idea that health is dynamic and that living life necessarily means that we experience stressful situations and challenges. I believe that this gives us more agency, more choice, and more potential to bounce back.
Resilience is defined as our ability to regain our balance. This quality depends on the experiences we’ve had and what internal resources we’ve had the opportunity to develop. When we are in a constant state of stress, or dysregulation, it affects our physiology. Our nervous system can get stuck in a state of fear or anxiety. Feeling unsafe keeps our stress hormones circulating and reduces our body’s ability to heal. We are therefore less resilient.
No matter what our prior experiences have been, we all have the capacity to build resilience. Practicing the Feldenkrais Method can help us do so by increasing our ability to self-regulate. Dr. Feldenkrais understood that creating a sense of safety is necessary for self-regulation and learning. It allows us to shift out of fight or flight or a shutdown, freeze state and into a state of homeostasis. Only then are we ready to learn and open to change.
The slow, gentle movements of Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lessons help us to feel safe. We are invited to work at our own pace and within a range that feels comfortable and easy. There are no external demands, except the ones we’ve internalized. We are also invited to notice those internalized beliefs and question them, to do something that feels more congruent with who we are and what we want for ourselves.
As we continue to go through the movement sequences of an ATM lesson, we begin to regulate our own nervous system, unwinding existing habits of stress and overstimulation. Our breathing gets easier, our muscles relax, and our mind and emotions become noticeably calmer. We can then find a greater sense of having resources within. We learn that we have the internal skill to meet each moment. This means that when we feel stressed, stuck, or confused, it gets easier to find our way out of a state of being in which we feel we don’t have options or choices. The beauty of it is that as we begin to feel concretely in our own experience that we can change, a sense of agency develops and we feel more potent as we discover new possibilities in our ways of moving and being in life.
Therefore, we can begin to understand that The Feldenkrais Method is a practice of building resilience. In every moment in the lesson, we are invited to begin again, to make a new choice. We allow for a pause before we begin a movement to sense our habits. What can I discover in that pause as I start to prepare to move and before I mobilize myself to move through space? Maybe I clench my jaw or hold my breath. Perhaps I can sense that as I begin to bend forward there is some place in my spine that is habitually taking me in the opposite direction from where I want to go. When we begin to become aware of these habitual patterns, we have the opportunity to do something differently. We begin to build new neural pathways, building bridges from what we already know how to do to that which we did not know was possible.
Similarly, hands-on Functional Integration® (FI) lessons utilize the importance of safety and rapport by inviting awareness and attention through touch and movement explorations. The practitioner is not trying to do something to the student or fix something that is wrong – this would just create more resistance to change. Instead, the student is given space to discover on their own. The quality of touch is gentle and often supports what the student is already doing. The idea is not to push, force or strain the student to do something they don’t know how to do but to give their nervous system information about what patterns and habits are present and offer support. Again, when a sense of safety is felt, change can occur.
When we feel safe and our nervous system is in a state of regulation we can:
- Respond to our ever-changing environment with more ease
- Live with a sense of choice and agency
- Act without re-acting
- Feel at ease and peaceful with ourselves
- Resolve conflicts with respect and openness.
This practice helps reduce and manage stress. If we know we have the necessary internal resources, we can stay present in the moment and respond appropriately. We can also begin to trust that we can bounce back from stressful experiences. This in turn reduces our level of anxiety.
All of our emotional states are useful, including anxiety. They give us information about our current situation and our surrounding environment, all with the purpose of survival. However, sometimes we experience emotions that don’t actually seem relevant to the moment. Perhaps we are responding as if to a threat that is not actually present. We have all probably had an experience in which a friend or a loved one says something and our response is to freak out … when all they did was ask what was for dinner!
These disproportionate responses are habits. They are survival strategies that we learned early on, and we continue to act in these habitual ways even if the environment no longer requires it. Noticing our patterns of behavior is the beginning step towards living life with choice, rather than with compulsion. In his book The Elusive Obvious, Feldenkrais discussed anxiety from this viewpoint:
“Anxiety can be a positive, useful phenomenon. It assures our safety from risking what we feel would endanger our very existence. Anxiety appears when deep in ourselves we know that we have no other choice – no alternative way of acting… Without learning to know ourselves as intimately as we possibly can, we limit our choice. Life is not very sweet without freedom of choice. Change is very difficult with no alternatives in sight; we then resign ourselves to not dealing with our difficulties as if they were prescribed by heaven.”
Combining the Feldenkrais Method® with other modalities can provide further opportunities for learning about oneself and building resilience. The practice of EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), also called Tapping, is also a helpful stress-reduction tool and has been shown to be very effective for nervous system regulation.
EFT has been around since the mid 1990’s and practitioners and therapists using these techniques have witnessed its effectiveness at helping people to quickly and permanently resolve a variety of issues. Now, with over 100 clinical trials studying this approach, there is more clarity about why EFT works so well.
The tapping points used in EFT are acupoints on the head, face and torso. Tapping on these points while saying statements that focus on a specific issue, its roots in personal experience, and noticing sensations in the body has proven to reduce cortisol, calm the limbic system, decrease activity in the amygdala, affect brain waves, change neural pathways, and affect gene expression.
This process allows change to occur. If we tap on the points, which calms our nervous system, while thinking of a current or past issue that creates anxiety, we can have an experience of thinking of those stressful events without the physiology of stress in our bodies. Difficult events from the past can now stay in the past. We stay rooted in the present. This means we can think more clearly and respond more appropriately to the here and now rather than be triggered into fight or flight or freeze, enacting old reactive patterns.
Feldenkrais expressed his belief that the mind and body are one:
I believe that the unity of mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an inseparable whole while functioning. A brain without a body could not think…”
-Moshe Feldenkrais, “Mind and Body”
Tuning in to one’s somatic experience through tapping on the acupoints and noticing and trusting the images, memories and connections as they emerge allows for insights and cognitive shifts to take place.
For example, at the beginning of a tapping session someone may be feeling frustrated about an interaction with a coworker. By tapping and tuning in to this event, the specific emotion, and where they may feel it in their body, they create an opportunity for their nervous system to become more regulated.The emotional intensity begins to shift and insights can occur. Perhaps the intensity decreases, and they feel less frustrated because they were able to see the other side of the story. Or the emotion shifts completely to sadness because they realize the underlying trigger had to do with an earlier, unrelated event. Or perhaps the intensity increases as they get more in touch with the emotion and what other aspects it might be related to. This process effects similar changes as the Feldenkrais Method, allowing us to become aware of our habits and discover new possibilities through our own experience.
Both The Feldenkrais Method and EFT can help us learn to live spontaneously rather than with compulsion. We can respond to life with actions that meet the demands of the moment, rather than bringing forward reactions we don’t really understand or can’t control (e.g., an exaggerated fear response in a situation that is not threatening).
We know from various experts in the field of trauma therapy that past experiences which haven’t been fully processed can keep us in a physiological state of distress, influencing our health and well-being. Check out The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, When the Body Says No by Gabor Mate And My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem to name a few.
Neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity for learning and changing over our lifetimes, is now well understood by modern science. Feldenkrais and EFT utilize neuroplasticity to affect change and develop new patterns. Combining these two practices provides a potent space for learning and integration which offers the opportunity to explore one’s experience of posture, emotions, personal beliefs, and self-image and to see how behavior and habits are reflected in body and mind.
Ultimately, we can effectively influence our own health by listening to ourselves; by processing memories and experiences held in our bodies through safe and gentle practices. By going slowly, making connections between past experiences and current beliefs and behavior patterns, we can change our habits and live with more ease and joy. We can build our resilience and our agency.
This process of healing our past gets us closer to what Dr. Feldenkrais hoped for all human beings – that we can live our ‘unavowed dreams.’
Learn to listen. Learn to trust. Embody yourself.
Fritha Pengelly, GCFP, Certified IOPS Practitioner, and an Accredited Certified EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) Practitioner is based in Northampton, MA. Her practice is deeply informed by her background as a professional dancer and dance educator.
Fritha spent seven years (1994-2001) performing and teaching nationally and internationally as a member of the New York City-based Doug Elkins Dance Company. In 2006 she received her M.F.A. in dance with a focus on anatomy and physiology from the University of Washington and has taught as a visiting artist at various colleges and universities in the U.S.
Check out Building Your Emotional Resiliency Practice combining The Feldenkrais Method® with EFT with Fritha and Sarah Young. Sessions include EFT Tapping followed by Feldenkrais ATM® lessons.