Understanding the Method

How can small, even minute, gentle movements encourage neurological benefit? It is certainly not at first obvious, and may even seem implausible.

The ideas behind the Feldenkrais Method span multiple disciplines, and as such it is notoriously difficult to nutshell this broad subject into a sentence or two. This page will discuss  the rationale behind the method. Hopefully to explain some of the fundamentals and make clear the potential benefits of this approach.

There are many possible places to start this discussion, but we will start here by trying to reveal the fundamental nature of movement. That is, for this discussion, motion that starts with muscular contraction. Lets begin with accepting that we are animals existing in an environment. If we look to define what an animal is, there are several features that are considered.

  • It is multi cellular

  • Has specialised  sense organs

  • Feeds on organic matter

  • Responds rapidly to the environment in a meaningful way.

Both plants and animals can be multi cellular, so this feature is less unique than the others. Responding rapidly, clearly, is about movement! Feeding on organic matter can only occur by moving to a food source and then by the actions of eating. So this feature too, is movement! The use of specialised sense organs, when considered closely, also reveals movement to be at the core. Without movement, orientation of sense organs to sounds, smells or movements, even focusing of eyes, would not be possible. The three unique animal features are actually movement! 

It is not so much what animals do, but what they are as opposed to all other things!

" Genius, of the magnitude possessed by Moshe Feldenkrais defies categorization. He could function at the highest level in nuclear physics, as a martial artist, as an inventor, as a developer of  top secret counter espionage projects and as one of the most prescient observers of neuroscience.

- Norman Doig MD Author of " The brain that changes itself"

Lets now take this one step further! Movement is usually thought of as something controlled as if by an executor.  The first diagram shows an animal responding to the environment. First, sensory information is received. Cognitive processing then takes place, which includes emotion, thought and then intention/choice. In the end, a movement or behavior is expressed. Information comes in, behavior goes out ! It's easy here to think of movement as an end result.

The first diagram can describe behavior in certain contexts. But for explaining life and movement a little more fully, we must add two more features. To obtain the sensory information, animals must move. To orient the specialised sense organs requires nostrils to be flared, heads to be turned, eyes to be focused, all muscular movements! So movement permits the external sensory information to be received in the first place.

As well as providing the ability to perceive, movement also creates internal sensory information of its own. This information is looped in with  the external perceptions. It provides feedback and feed forward information to enable movement to be assessed and changed as it is being done. We can see now it is far from a hierarchical process. The capacity of movement has evolved in an integrated or co dependent way with sensory and cognitive functions. There is no thinking without sensing, no sensing without movement and no movement without thinking. Thinking, sensing and moving are actually all one neurological process and one is of no use without the others.

" I believe that the unity of mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an inseparable whole while functioning. A brain without a body could not think!"

- Moshe Feldenkrais

The internal feedback loop added to the second diagram now needs more investigation. This loop consists of all the sensory information that movement generates within ourselves. We have several mechanisms that send this information back to the central nervous system.

Vestibular - Balance and motion sensing apparatus in the ear that transmits signals in the eighth cranial nerve.

Proprioceptive - Sensory tissue in muscle fibres inform the position of the limbs, signals travel up through the spinal column.

Tactile - Sensations of contact, pressure and temperature.

For making the discussion easier we will call this source of sensory input, kinesthetic information.

The role kinesthetic information plays in our lives, our early development and the Feldenkrais method is crucial.

We are born with an immature nervous system that has the least amount of hard wired behaviors of any species. We start with little or no voluntary control of ourselves and no understanding of our environment. Our possible actions must be learnt individually as opposed to the hard wiring of many other species. Foals for example can walk soon after birth.  We more than any other animal must learn while we develop and this means experience is pivotal in our learning/development.

So young humans must learn. Learning requires information! This information is not conveyed through verbal instruction, as no human can speak at birth. It also isn't conveyed by our peripheral sensory apparatus. As we have touched on earlier, there is some apprenticeship to control the musculature that enables the sensory information from the world to make sense.

This leaves the kinesthetic input as our main source of early developmental information. It is with this information that we form the very fundamental constructs of what we are and what we can do. Early movements are random and uncontrolled. An arm twitches, the sensation is perceived. It twitches again, and again it is perceived. We are picked up, cuddled, cooed at. Uncountable sensations are experienced, perceived and cataloged. Slowly but surely, an internal picture emerges. One formed by feeling cause

and effect between sensation and outcome. We learn  what is us, what is not, what we can move and what we cannot, what feels pleasurable or not. As our peripheral senses begin to become useful, we start to express intention and choice. We turn to a sound! Reach for an object! The kinesthetic input is the initial driver of brain development. It is the language of the brain! This is especially true in infancy, but importantly for the Feldenkrais Method, this process remains active throughout life.

"I was totally awed by the amazing, sophisticated knowledge that this system uses"

- Esther Thelen PhD on the Feldenkrais Method

This internal picture, " self image",should be thought of as a neurological rather than a psychological feature. It is what  enables us to complete actions that express our thoughts, emotions and intentions. If we are sitting and want to walk across the room to get something, we get up, walk to the object and grasp it. We are not conscious of all the details that go into making the movements happen. We draw on a reference library of kinesthetic knowledge to allow the movement to occur somewhat automatically. This reference library or self image defines us and defines us to a much greater extent than most would realise. It is the information that forms the knowing of what we are, what we can do and what seems impossible.


To summarise

  • The self image defines our possible range of behaviors/actions and is integrated with cognitive and emotional functions.

  • Kinesthetic input is fundamental sensory information that forms the self image.

  • This " self image" is learned/formed by individual experience and therefore is developed to differing degrees in each of us.

This leaves us with some implications that are crucial for understanding the Feldenkrais Method and why it can be a potent agent for improvement. If we can convey high quality kinesthetic information to a person, then the human neurological apparatus is always prepared to "listen" to that information, no matter their age or condition. And due to it's integration with cognitive, emotional and sensory function, information that develops this sensory image can have profound effects on the the whole of a person.

" In order to change our mode of action, we must change the image of ourselves that we carry within us."

- Moshe Feldenkrais

There are of course technical details in the method that improve the quality of a lesson. Why Feldenkrais lessons use gentle precise movements is because of the way our sensory system functions. Our sensory systems work in a very interesting way. To discern a difference in a given stimuli, the stimulus must change by an amount of more than about 1/40th of the original intensity. As an example, if I hold a 40kg weight on my back and I remove 700grams, I will not sense the load being lighter. If, however I remove 1.2kg I will. If I then hold a 15kg weight and the 700gms are removed I will feel it immediately. We do not perceive the actual weight removed, we feel the change in magnitude of stimuli. This interesting feature occurs across all sensations. So when dealing with kinesthetic education, to allow someone to discern finer, and finer distinctions between one sensation and another, the overall stimulation must be reduced. It is a neurological imperative for maximum learning  and is key to creating "high quality information".

I hope these paragraphs have been written well enough to make some sense out of a very big topic. Indeed I could write many more pages to fully detail  the topics touched  on. This method is misunderstood by many, and put on the fringes in some ways. Part of the reason why, is because of the challenge of trying to condense it down for market consumption. I have taken the time here to give more than just a glib explanation  in the hope that it may show the substance of the method and its usefulness for those who desire to improve their lot. The Feldenkrais Method provides an education process that makes use of human neurological apparatus in a natural, safe and respectful way. It meets people where they are and helps them to get where they want to be.