At age 15 I found Richard Hittleman’s “28 days of Yoga” book in a local grocery store and began teaching myself yoga. Yoga felt so familiar to me, as if I had done it many times before. But 10 years later when I developed a severe lower back problem, yoga didn’t make a dent in the pain. But then nothing else did either.
My “lower back’ problem began when I started studying dance. I was taking one of my very first modern dance classes in an unheated, old church in the winter in Chicago. The teacher had us sit on the ground to cool down. Then he opened a huge window behind me. I felt that freezing air hit my back. That night I was in the emergency room bent over and unable to stand up.
For 7 years I had debilitating back pain including a solid year of sciatica. Traditional medicine offered cortisone shots and spinal fusion. Nope, not for me. I lived with that pain through graduate school in dance. I performed in pain. I took classes in pain. I taught dance in pain. Imagine the pain I felt waitressing!
Finally I found a somatic practitioner who taught me how to gently and effortlessly tilt my tailbone to the ceiling. I did that practice daily for 3 months and, viola, my pain was gone, never to return.
That was my introduction to the Feldenkrais Method and the power of doing less! By that I mean moving with less effort, valuing small, gentle movement and developing a deeper connection to my own body. I went on to become a Feldenkrais Practitioner in 1986 after seeing the difference the method made in my life.
At about that same time the yoga trend hit the country, I was making a bigger commitment to teaching and studying yoga. At my studio I offered two Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM) classes a week and eight yoga classes. Yoga was the trend. Yoga brought people in the door. Feldenkrais was not well known at that time.
Yoga had a 4,000 year history before being brought to America in 1918. At that time Hatha yoga (the practice of the poses) was not the focus. Now yoga students think Hatha yoga is the entirety of yoga— not so then and not so now.
Worldwide the yoga industry is valued at $130 billion annually and growing.
In 1994 the yoga trend was hitting the midwest and coming through my door. The West was reinventing Hatha yoga: aerial yoga, goat yoga, doga, yoga as a cure for every problem “in just 5 minutes a day” and more.
What our culture lacks in wisdom we make up for in enthusiasm and inventiveness!
In the West, yoga is part of the fitness industry. Many people focus on having the “yoga body” or having a yoga pose that looks picture perfect. I believe that yoga was meant to be about self study and mindfulness. The Feldenkrais Method offers a path inward and a system that teaches body awareness and the relationship between the body and the brain. The Feldenkrais Method teaches how to increase body awareness and connect with, explore, and enjoy movement.
Gradually I began incorporating Feldenkrais into my yoga classes and telling my students about the extra benefits it provided. I called my way of teaching yoga “Awareness based Yoga”.
Here’s how I do it:
We begin each class lying down, observing the body and the breath, enjoying the support of the floor and releasing the body weight to gravity. Being able to release weight to gravity is a major learning. We do 20 to 30 minutes of Feldenkrais-based floor work that includes the basic functions of the spine: flexion, extension, side bending and twisting. The emphasis is on sensing what is happening inside the body and how movement travels through the body most easily and efficiently. Many students come to my classes just for this floor time.
I have included a short lesson at the end of the article that you can follow along with to get a deeper understanding of some of the ideas I have been discussing.
I personally find the Feldenkrais way of looking at movement to be refreshing. My students have heard me say so many times that in the body everything is connected and that even the smallest movement connects to the whole that they begin telling me that “everything is connected”. Yay!!!
My hope is that this concept carries over to understanding that in the natural world everything is connected. If we learn to treat our bodies gently and respectfully, we may begin to treat our planet gently and respectfully as well.
The language we use with ourselves during a lesson also needs to reflect this gentleness and respect. Language can encourage curiosity, exploration and ownership. In an awareness based yoga class students are directed to validate their experience. I ask specific questions to help a student develop their own ability to self reference, such as, “What are you feeling in your shoulder?” or “Where in your body does your leg rotate?”, etc.
Here are a few of the many benefits of an Awareness Based Yoga class:
- Move smarter, not harder.
- Make progress without pushing.
- Develop skills of self observation.
- Feel more connected to your body.
- Reduce injuries.
- Improve balance.
- Learn the difference between aware action and unclear action.
- Changes you make in class carry over into your everyday life.
- Experience profound relaxation.
Take a look at my video below, it is a good example of how I incorporate the Feldenkrais Method into a yoga class. The lesson is teach is designed to give my students an experience of expansion in the upper chest. We spend a few minutes on the floor exploring this movement of dragging the arm in the direction of the head while side lying. The head and chest turn as the hand drifts over head. This simple movement opens the shoulder girdle and chest. This helps the student in any pose that involves back bending. In the video I apply it to the Proud Warrior pose.
My intention is that by the time the students come to standing they already sense how to do the pose comfortably and safely. And it works. I have watched this happen for thousands of students. For example, students know where and why the leg turns out. They learn the organization of the feet, knees and whole person in different poses. They don’t look awkward. They are not trying to look like some idea of the pose. They can feel the pose and simply enjoy expanding into it. I get to watch my students grow and improve and feel good about themselves, which is great fun and very rewarding for me.
Teaching people to move better has been Barbara’s passion and profession for 35 years. Holding a M.A. in Dance, Barbara currently teaches online yoga and Awareness through Movement classes. As a Feldenkrais practitioner Barbara is partial to the profound effects that slow, small and gentle movement can have in relieving pain and improving performance. Her clientele is mainly people over 60. Together they move younger every year.
You can see her class schedule and get her free booklet on Awareness-based yoga at bodyandsoulkc.com.