The Intersection of Yoga and Feldenkrais
by Didi von Deck
Down Under Yoga is now offering classes in the Feldenkrais Method. You may be thinking, Felda-what? Felden-who? What the heck is Feldenkrais?
Well, put simply, Feldenkrais is a way to rewire the brain. It helps people improve their way of moving and their way of being. The Method is named after Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984) who found that doing several repetitions of simple but unusual movements with awareness can change the brain so that the nervous system works more efficiently and all movement becomes easier. Habitual patterns of tension melt away. The Feldenkrais Method helps people performs at a higher level, prevent injury and heal from physical, emotional and spiritual injury. People of all backgrounds and ages have found the method miraculous including actors, musicians, dancers, athletes, stroke victims, trauma survivors, as well as children with cerebral palsy and developmental disorders. Yet, relatively few people have heard of it!
So, you might be thinking, is Feldenkrais a type of yoga? Or wondering, how is taking a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement class anything like practicing yoga? This blog post will answer those questions, but can never replace the experience of completing your first Awareness Through Movement class.
Movement is a means for transformation and healing in both yoga and Feldenkrais. The learning that occurs during both practices is experienced through the body. However, Feldenkrais is not yoga. The way the body moves in each practice is very different, and while both bring awareness of the body to the practitioner’s mind, the awareness feels different.
Feldenkrais does not involve stretching or strengthening, so no warrior II’s or downward dogs. In Feldenkrais, movement is what captures the attention. Holding one position is rare, and by doing small, slow, easy movements, the attention is drawn to the relationships between body parts and to the role each part plays in the movement. Playing with small movements and exploring different and unusual ways to move the body, muscle tension and “parasitic” movements may be released.
While some yoga asanas may require effort to achieve the pose, Feldenkrais asks that you take the effort out. You are invited to explore different ways of moving while slowing down enough to sense the process. Sensing and feeling are paramount; the actual movement is less so. Moshe Feldenkrais had great knowledge of yoga poses, and positions familiar to the yoga student can be found in many of his Awareness through Movement lessons. But postures are not held. You feel the body in movement, not through shape.
In yoga, attention is directed to the alignment of the bones and the work of the muscles. With Feldenkrais, attention is directed to the movement of the joints. The small movements almost magically release areas of muscle tension to allow the joints to move more freely. Tightness held for years in habitual patterns may be set free.
You likely will feel calm and relaxed after Feldenkrais as well as after yoga. The mindful coming-into-the-present that both practices bring can be wonderfully refreshing for our overworked, thought-generating brains. In Feldenkrais, the movements are designed to release held patterns of tension, allowing unnecessarily tensed muscles to let go. Releasing this tension can make you feel more fluid and less stressed. Yoga classes reduce stress by working the body and focusing the mind and perhaps accessing deeper dimensions of energy and mind.
Spirituality may be seen as a point of divergence in the philosophy of the two practices. Yoga is thought to help the seeker find the spirit within and perhaps unite individual consciousness with universal consciousness. Yoga allows access to the energetic realms of existence. Moshe Feldenkrais did not explore spirituality. However, many practitioners do feel that his Method does lead to a connection with the soul, a way to peel away the layers to find one’s true self.
Perhaps discovering new movement in itself is spiritual. It allows us to connect to ourselves is a whole new way. Uncovering new movement also uncovers emotions, emotions held in our muscles--hidden and stifled. As our bodies release these emotions, we can process them to learn, grow, develop, and become ourselves.
While both practices bring awareness to the breath, the use of breath is somewhat different. Many styles of yoga link the breath to movement, and pranayama, or breath control, is one of the eight limbs of yoga as defined by Patanjali.
In Feldenkrais, the breath and movement are again frequently coordinated. There is less emphasis on breath control, and by releasing tension in the belly and rib cage through Feldenkrais, the breath can become naturally expansive and free.
Both Feldenkrais and yoga help the practitioner become more mindful and present through the work of bringing attention to the body and the breath. In yoga, the comfort of familiar poses can help the mind relax, while challenging poses do not allow for extraneous thoughts. The challenge in Feldenkrais is often the task of bringing attention to areas that don’t normally attract it. The feeling between the shoulder blades, the movement of individual vertebrae. Feldenkrais’ use of unusual movements and surprising juxtapositions of movement draws the mind away from the repetitive worries and thoughts that would otherwise cloud it. By capturing awareness and focusing attention on bodily sensations, both practices keep us in the present moment.
Both yoga and Feldenkrais increase human potential. Moshe Feldenkrais believed that changing a person’s self-image allows improvement in all areas of living. By creating options for easier movement, he believed the impossible could become possible. He created environments for the student to learn as a young child does--with curiosity and joy and without fear of being wrong. Yoga, too, has the capacity to bring about great changes in a person’s ability to move. Through consistent practice, the body can change and the impossible also becomes possible.
By changing how we feel in our bodies, both practices change how we react to life. Yoga and Feldenkrais both create the means to explore, and perhaps change, our habits. These habits may have been adopted unconsciously as a result of the vicissitudes of life, but they affect how we hold ourselves, how we move, and how we respond to adversity as well as good fortune. Both practices can improve our posture and our ways of moving, and also help provide the space to explore our responses and then to respond intelligently to whatever comes our way.
Just as it is sometimes hard to express how yoga makes you feel, it can be very hard to express the change Feldenkrais brings about. For me, practicing Feldenkrais has been profound. I started the study of Feldenkrais after college to improve my dancing as a competitive ballroom dancer. It worked. But more importantly, the practice connected me to my body--the physical, the energetic, the spiritual--at a time when I was truly splintered.
Growing up, I had devoted myself mostly to intellectual pursuits and had a very warped sense of my physical form. My work with the Feldenkrais Method and later through my yoga practice connected me to my body in a way that has allowed me to thrive. I am so grateful for these wonderfully complementary practices, and I invite you to come to experience the change the Feldenkrais Method can create in your life.
If you’d like to read more about how Feldenkrais works, check out these articles in the New York Times and Washington Post. I look forward to seeing you in an upcoming Awareness Through Movement class!