By Taro Iwamoto, GCFP
How do you describe someone who is fit? What’s your image of being fit? People often refer to someone being fit as being in a good physical condition. You might think of someone who works out regularly and appears lean and physically conditioned. The word “fit” (adj.) means “healthy and strong, especially as a result of exercise” (Cambridge Dictionary); and also means “adapted to the environment so as to be capable of surviving” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The latter definition sparked curiosity for me as it aligns with the Feldenkrais Method® approach. Instead of defining fitness from a perspective of physical functions such as strength, flexibility, and endurance, the Feldenkrais Method of somatic education engages the nervous system’s adaptability.
I’d like to share my thoughts on what it means to be fit from the perspective of a Feldenkrais® practitioner. Students often experience improved flexibility, strength and power, balance, and speed after a group class (Awareness Through Movement®) and/or an individual hands-on lesson (Functional Integration®), yet there is no stretching, there are no reps or crunches. Instead, these immediate changes reflect changes in the nervous system – improved functionality- rather than changes in the muscle length or size. Our nervous system is designed to optimize our functions at each moment so that we can survive and “fit” in the environment.
Fitness/being fit as a fluid and dynamic state
It is important to realize that the environment is constantly changing, and we are constantly interacting with the environment, which means we are constantly moving and changing, so we are never in a fixed state, both body and mind.
If you describe fitness as a fixed external state, your mindset is such that you exercise to fit that fixed external image you created. What if your image of being fit is when you were at your peak physical performance in your competitive sport, but you are much older now or had a traumatic injury that changed your physical functions significantly? You may feel that you’ll never be fit again. Describing fitness as a fixed state can be limiting. If you start to see fitness as a fluid and dynamic state, in which you are learning how to become more “fit” to be able to deal with the challenges life presents. Your potential for improvement is limitless and it’s not tied to someone else’s viewpoint of how things should be.
How you can apply Feldenkrais principles to improve function:
There are many ways you can facilitate learning conditions. Here are three simple strategies that I personally use for my own workout.
I pay attention when I exercise. You provide your nervous system with resources and information by paying attention to your sensations and movement. The quality of how you attend to yourself determines the quality of your experience. This is very important regardless of the types of exercise you do. Without this you wouldn’t be able to differentiate movement patterns, therefore, you’re more likely to stay within your habitual movement patterns, meaning no adaptation and integration of new movement patterns occurs.
While there are benefits in practicing the same exercise over and over, there are benefits in changing things up. If you do the exact same sets of exercises daily, you might get bored. Novelty is exciting and keeps your workouts sustainable. It will naturally get harder for you to pay attention to yourself with the exercises you’ve done so many times. Variability is very refreshing and stimulating for the brain.
If you do squats as your exercise routine, you can add variability by doing them with one leg, standing on an unstable surface, while tossing and catching a ball, reaching for targets, holding a glass full of water in one hand, balancing a book on top of the head, varying speed and tempo (coordinate with music), etc.
If you do good old biceps curls with dumbbells, you can add variability by standing, sitting on a ball, standing on one leg, squatting, lunging, one arm only, two arms together, alternating, varying speed and tempo (e.g., move right arm twice as fast as left arm or vice versa), varying weights (e.g., 5 pound weight on right side, 3 pound weight on left side), while tossing and catching a ball with one arm, etc.
You can easily add variability to any exercise by changing positions, standing surface, adding additional tasks, changing speed/tempo, adding resistance, adding additional movements, etc. These are just some examples I use. I still pay attention to my sensation and movement so I can move smoothly and comfortably. As I explore a variety of movements, I feed my nervous system more information. The more resources the nervous system has, the more we are able to adapt to various conditions and situations.
You learn most quickly when your survival depends on your learning and adaptation (for example, when you break your dominant arm, you’re forced to use your non-dominant hand for typing, writing, feeding, etc), or when an experience is so fun and pleasurable, you’ll naturally want to repeat that experience over and over. You’ve seen kids repeat the same game over and over because that is so fun for them.
While we don’t need to injure ourselves for the sake of learning, we can easily incorporate play into our exercise. The way I add this play factor into my exercise is by adding a rule or turning it into a game. Can you do this while doing that? Can you do this without doing that? In Feldenkrais Method, we call the term “applying constraints”. We use constraints to create a condition where you’re challenged to find a different way to move. I’d like to think of it as a game.
Here are a few examples:
If you want to turn a plank exercise into a game, I’d say something like “can you alternately lift your legs for 30 seconds while balancing a dowel/foam roll on your back?” If you want to turn a single leg balance exercise into a game, I’d say something like “can you balance on one leg for 30 seconds while juggling 3 balls?
Adding play factors can not only improve your ability to learn, but also can help you become more adaptable and fit!
In summary, we – our whole self – are constantly moving and changing, and so is the environment. We can incorporate the three strategies of Attention, Variability, and Play into our exercise and daily activities so we stimulate our nervous system to become more adaptable and fit. This way we can learn and improve function. What does it mean to be “fit” for you?
Taro Iwamoto is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais PractitionerCM in Seattle WA, where he lives with his wife and 5-year-old son. He is a 2018 graduate of the Seattle Eastside Feldenkrais Professional Training program. With a background in athletic training, physical therapy, and martial arts, he guides people to move through the world physically and emotionally with a greater sense of ease and comfort. His website: www.trans4move.com