I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience these days as I prepare to teach a class with my Feldenkrais and coaching colleague Cliff Smyth on Embodied Resilience. Last weekend, I accompanied a friend while she was at a conference for adolescent health. She was totally inspired by the idea of how to develop resilience in her teenage clients, as well as in herself while she tries to stay afloat in an extremely stressful job. Someone else to geek out with about resilience—perfect!! Because of my own bias, I was eager to talk about how to embody resilience. If you don’t feel resilient, will efforts to develop resilience be lost?
My friend was curious why I thought the Feldenkrais Method was specifically focused, more than other somatic modalities such as yoga, on building resilience. Moshe Feldenkrais, creator of the Feldenkrais Method, developed a rich method to give people an experience of abstract ideas so that they could move from a theoretical idea to an embodied experience. He looked at several different physical phenomenon and explained the emotional and cognitive effect of these physical experiences on the psyche.
Core to all of Moshe Feldenkrais’s teachings is the idea that all emotional and intellectual ideas have physical correlates that are experienced through the body’s contractions, sensations, bio-chemistry etc. Thus, to cultivate resilience, one must cultivate a felt sense of it in addition to the emotional and cognitive skills. Within this framework, Feldenkrais explained that many different phenomenon such as balance, neutrality, “acture” (as opposed to posture), as well as biomechanical and environmental support, contribute to one’s sense of themselves in relation to the world. More importantly, each of these components plays a critical role in creating the visceral experience of resilience. Or put it simply, unless the body experiences stability and support, is it possible to experience resilience?
Moshe Feldenkrais saw health not as the absence of disease, but rather that health is more akin to maturity. He proposed that health, on one level, is the ability to recover from illness and injury – in a word resilience. On deeper level, he felt that a healthy person is able to realize their ‘avowed dreams’ (their plans, hopes and visions for themselves) and their ‘unavowed dreams’ (the things we don’t dare to dream, dreams we have given up and our potential). A healthy person is able to bounce back, to recover physically, emotionally, in all ways – and continue to move toward their aims in life.
Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement Lessons are a presented as a set of movement puzzles that are solved through awareness of how you are doing an action, while challenging yourself to develop a sense of ease in the action instead of just powering through unaware and with strain. This awareness and lack of strain provides profound transformation, making you can feel more comfortable, relaxed, poised, and stronger.
Below are some core teachings of the Feldenkrais Method that are specifically addressed through the method, both in theory and practice. These concepts when embodied through the lessons, lead to a profound experience of greater resilience.
Being able to rebound and rebalance oneself is an integral part of mental, emotional and physical well-being and is at the core of resilience. From an embodied perspective, balance is a physical experience of being able to stand up and move around without falling over. What most people don’t think about, however, is that balance is not being rigidly fixated to a certain position, but rather entails falling off center and recovering as quickly as possible. For example, even in a simple activity like walking, we throw ourselves off balance and fall down for a moment until we catch ourselves with the leg swinging forward. The idea of being “centered” or “grounded” is all the rage these days. The great masters in the martial arts context appear not to move or lose center, but they admit that they lose center but they are able to recover so quickly that one never notices that they were ever off balance.
The Feldenkrais Method of Awareness Through Movement Lessons highlight the experience of falling off center and recovering. They bring awareness to the experience of balance as the absence of rigidity by constructing movement sequences in which students are called to catch oneself, steady and move on. Because of the type of awareness cultivated, students can also realize where they have mental and emotional rigidities that cause them to fixate in one place and fall down. When students can develop more optimal physical balance with detailed awareness of its sensations and components, it translates into more cognitive and emotional balance.
This is one of my favorite concepts that Moshe Feldenkrais developed. Parasitic contractions are contractions in the muscular system that are either not necessary to or actually in opposition to the intended action. Think about when you are stressed. Do you find yourself clenching your jaw or holding your breath? Have you noticed that your shoulders creep up towards your neck? These are parasitic contractions and they have a toll on the overall sense of well-being in the system. As a result, most people have an ambient tension in the body that is not necessary for the intended action. This constant clenching sends signals to the body that there is danger or distress. With this constant noise, it’s hard for the mind to feel calm. In short, it prevents a sense of resilience.
What’s worse, however, is that parasitic contractions can actually oppose the intended action. For example, when you are holding your breath and tightening your chest, it’s harder to bend the torso. Many people do things in their bodies that actually inhibit forward movement or even walking—e.g. tightening their stomach muscles or back. On a subtler level, when people try to do a task that they are dreading, many subtle parasitic contractions show up in the body. These counter intentions literally show up in the body. If you can learn to sense them, you can try to soften these contractions and you stop fighting yourself to do the intended action.
A related concept highlighted by the Feldenkrais Method is that of finding neutral — a sense in the body of minimal strain in the muscles in which the joints are not at their extremes. In other words, only those muscles that are necessary to the intended action are contracted and only the appropriate amount of effort is being expended through the musculature. Being able to sense neutral in your body, allows you to feel any increase in demand on your system. When you lose neutral, you are either over or under “efforting.” It is a clue that the demand is too much for your system and has triggered an extreme, or unproductive, reaction – rather than an appropriate response. Some things in life take some effort and force, but using more force than necessary can be injurious to ourselves or others. Not to mention that it is exhausting mentally. Neutral in this sense is not emotionally blank or disengaged, but involves a comfortable sense of ‘home’ in the body which allows an appropriate response to demands.
Acture is another flagship concept coined by Moshe Feldenkrais. It is related to the idea of having a sense of neutral, relaxed readiness for action. For Feldenkrais ‘acture’ is the ability to move in any direction without any additional preparation for action. In contrast, “posture” is usually an idea of how we should hold ourselves that is influenced by different trends and cultures. If you look back over time and across cultures, you will see different postures that are popular which have little relation to what is functional and prepares one for a state of readiness. For example, being able to jump and avoid danger without having to do all sorts of things such as bending, leaning forward etc to prepare to jump.
In life acture creates the ability to respond appropriately to whatever challenges come into our lives without needing to do a lot of preparation or being thrown off balance. It is also a powerful way of about being “centered.” When we embody acture we are able to respond with fluidity and grace– able to go in any directions as needed, with the appropriate amount of effort.
A central theme in Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons is how to develop a sense of acture. Many times parasitic contractions need to be reduced in order to attain acture.
Support: In Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons one of the things we explore is how to use the support from the environment (usually the floor, sometimes a chair or the wall) to facilitate effective movement. In the rest of life too we need to take support from our environment – our friends, family, groups, professionals, books, ideas – to deal with challenges. More importantly, in Awareness Through Movement lessons we also develop to rest on the structure of our skeleton in order to develop a visceral sense of trust and support. With a visceral experience of support, we are better able to deal with life challenges. From a solid base of support, wellsprings of resilience can manifest.
You can see that these visceral concepts are core to developing resilience. The Feldenkrais Method, targets the development of this type of awareness. By embodying these ideas, you can develop the maturity to pursue your ‘avowed’ and ‘unavowed dreams.’