Everyone loves that feeling of being “in the zone” or “in flow” when playing a sport, playing a musical instrument, creating a work of art, or solving a problem. When you’re in flow during an athletic activity, you feel confident and ready to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. You can clearly see all around you and anticipate what to do next. Your movements feel effortless and graceful. Your mind is creative and alert, yet relaxed. There’s no need for mind over body; your mind and body are one. You think of what to do, and it is done. When you’re in the zone while practicing your sport, you pick up new skills and refine old skills with ease. You have frequent breakthroughs; actions that were difficult become easy and feel almost effortless.

You’ve probably also felt the frustration of being off your game. You feel uncoordinated and not yourself. Has your performance ever plateaued for a long time? Have you ever slid into a performance slump, unable even to do what you used to do well? No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you practice, it doesn’t get better. In fact, sometimes the harder you try, the worse your performance gets. Maybe pain or injury are interfering with your performance. Perhaps you feel as though one wrong move could tear a muscle, a tendon, or a ligament or aggravate an injury you already have.

As an athlete who has struggled with debilitating injuries, chronic pain, and performance limitations, I understand the frustration and despair that can come with these challenges. When I first discovered the Feldenkrais Method®, I was seeking relief from severe chronic pain following my injury-plagued college volleyball career. At the time, I had no desire to ever again play the game I once loved; I hoped only to live with a more tolerable level of pain. With my first Feldenkrais lesson, I experienced incredible pain-relief. As I continued with the method, the familiar pain was replaced with nearly forgotten feelings of agility, spontaneity, speed, and power. Memories of the fun I used to have playing volleyball, before the game had become a job that was about hard work and pushing through pain, also returned to me. And I returned to playing the game. I came to the method for the pain-relief, but I stayed for the excitement of learning to move better than I ever had before! I continue to use Feldenkrais to prevent and heal injuries, relieve pain, and improve skills in sports, dance, and everyday activities. I also use it to rebalance my emotional state, which makes everything I do in life flow more smoothly.

Moshe Feldenkrais described his method as a way of “learning how to learn”, which can be applied to any human endeavor – physical, cognitive, artistic, social, or emotional. The Feldenkrais Method®  uses experimentation with variation and awareness, rather than relying on rote repetition and trying to avoid mistakes. I was so impressed with how effective this approach is that I decided to undertake a 4-year Feldenkrais practitioner training program. 

Because of my background in playing sports (with its pervasive and wrong attitude of “No pain, no gain”), I have particular interest in helping athletes improve their skills while preventing and healing injuries. I enjoy working with athletes of any age and ability who are ready to work smarter rather than just working harder. To help you improve a skill, I do not need to be able to perform that skill myself. I only need you to be able to describe what you want to do and demonstrate it as best you can. My skill, which I consider to be one of the primary skills of a Feldenkrais practitioner, is in detecting the habits that are getting in your way and designing Feldenkrais lessons (either hands-on lessons called Functional Integration® or verbally-instructed Awareness Through Movement® lessons) to help you get them out of your way. Then you can do what you want to do with much greater ease.

When you improve the efficiency of your movements, you improve the effectiveness of your actions, and you minimize possible harm to yourself. 

So, how do you improve the efficiency of your movements?

To improve performance, athletes often turn to training that increases muscle mass, endurance, or explosive power. But if you’re not also improving your efficiency, these efforts won’t help much. Think about it – if you increase your muscle mass, and therefore your potential strength, but you can’t harness that strength efficiently, your strength is wasted. And worse, you can hurt yourself with greater force! Endurance training or plyometric training can only help you if you’re also learning how to move more efficiently, so that you don’t waste your energy and power. Pushing yourself through endurance or plyometric training in an inefficient way can cause serious injury.

Repetition (practice, training, doing drills) is necessary to improve your athletic skill. But it’s not sufficient to improve athletic skill. And sometimes, ironically, practice can work against you. If you’re repeating a skill, without variation, in a way that is mechanically inefficient (and therefore ineffective and also harmful to your body), this will only help you get better at doing the skill in an inefficient, ineffective, and harmful way. However, you do need your trained movement patterns that are so ingrained that you don’t have to think about them. You can’t perform complex actions and keep your mind free to think about strategy without those well-trained habits. You can’t walk and talk without them. And yet, it is your habits (of thinking, feeling, and moving) that block you from learning.

So how do you resolve this conflict between the need for trained habits and the need to think and move outside of your trained habits?

Athletes often limit themselves with false beliefs that they just aren’t naturally good enough to improve beyond a certain point. They think that their disappointing performance limitations are genetically determined or determined by habits that are too strong to change. Or perhaps they think they’ll never be able to overcome the effects of injuries. Sometimes they think their decline in performance is an unavoidable result of aging. After all, they practice and practice; they have a great coach who runs them through excellent drills that are designed to improve their skills, but they just don’t get better. Well, some things are genetically determined to a great extent, and they may give you advantages or disadvantages depending on your sport (such as your height, your ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fibers, or the length of your ligaments.) Injuries do set limitations; but we can learn to move around those limitations to find new ways. And we can heal faster and better by improving how we use ourselves. We can learn to stop “limping” once our damaged tissues have been repaired. We can learn to quit creating the conditions that keep us from healing properly and may have led to our injuries in the first place. Aging also has its effects; but one of those can be an increasing ability to adapt to and circumvent new limitations.

And beyond all this, the limitations of pain and injury can provide an opportunity to refine old skills in ways that we might never have discovered without them. I offer an example of a high school-aged club volleyball player who was healing from a rotator cuff injury to his dominant right shoulder/arm. He wanted to practice hitting and serving again, but doing so would quickly aggravate his pain. His injury was similar to an overuse/misuse injury I suffered from in college. We also had similar patterns of movement through our torsos while jumping and swinging at the ball that were less than ideal. To our amazement, we were able to discover and feel how to alter those patterns, completely eliminating any pain in his shoulder and increasing the height of contact with the ball and the power and control behind that contact. (Had I only discovered this when I was playing competitively!) By doing lessons that constrained his strong habit of shortening on the left side of his waist when that habit worked against him, he was quickly able to make all of the needed changes in all planes of movement and in all parts of his body. Feldenkrais Practitioners don’t just tell you or show you how to do an action “correctly”; habits are difficult things to break in that way. Instead, we set up movement lessons with specific movement constraints and variations of movement patterns that help you feel ways to move outside of your habits.

So, the good news is that coordination is learned. Watch how fast babies and toddlers develop their coordination and adapt to their environment! Consider how fast adults who lose use of a limb, parts of their brain, sight, or hearing can learn to move or use other senses in ways they never would have imagined possible. Our brains are extremely plastic. If one neural pathway is blocked due to injury, another one can often be found. Or that pathway can be reestablished. This is neuroplasticity. You have learned an incredible degree of coordination already. You have been using neuroplasticity your whole life. But you can wire and rewire your nervous system more consciously to improve movement skills more quickly. Certain key things are needed: experimentation with a variety of movements, noticing subtle differences among those movements, and an emotional state that is conducive to learning. The necessary emotional state is one of well-being and wonder. You must be having fun, you must be  curious, and you must be willing to explore and make mistakes rather than trying to get it right every time. If your goal is to compete at a higher level, you need to temporarily shut off your competitive goal-driven nature and play!

This is what I teach you to do in a structured, systematic way with Feldenkrais lessons. This is also how you can improve your movement efficiency. By using the time you spend focusing within these lessons to move outside of your old habits and learn new ways of moving. Then you can practice your new movement options until they are easily available to you. But you also continue tweaking those patterns to fit the changing circumstances in which you’re performing them. This is how to resolve the conflict between the need for trained habits and the need to move outside of those habits – you go back and forth between exploring new movement patterns and reinforcing more efficient movement patterns. Over time, you may develop the habit of nearly constantly, on some level that is more or less conscious, exploring and refining your movement, your breathing, your way of thinking, and your way of feeling. You may become less set in your ways, and more open to change and improvement.


About Michelle

Michelle Drerup, who has been a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner since 2009, helps her students heal from and avoid pain, injury and performance limitations while (re)discovering the pleasure of easy, graceful movement. She works with children as well as adults. She particularly enjoys working with people who know they can greatly improve their function despite brain injuries and neurological disorders, as well as with athletes and performance artists who have any level of ability and a high level of curiosity. She finds that she can help people best when she appeals to their curiosity and their senses of wonder, humor, and adventure. When she observes a student becoming charmed by the magic of Feldenkrais and the magic of their own self, she knows that student will start to improve very quickly. She often needs to help her students learn to be kinder to themselves –  something the Feldenkrais Method continues to teach her to do after a misspent youth of being unkind to herself in athletics and academics.

Michelle provides online classes and private lessons, as well as in-person classes and hands-on lessons in Austin, Texas. She encourages you to contact her or any Feldenkrais Practitioner in your area with questions or to experience the magic for yourself.

Her website is www.michelledrerup.com