June 9, 2020, 6:50 a.m.

What is a good beginner Feldenkrais lesson?

Alessandro Bombardi

The question of good lessons for beginners in the Feldenkrais method is a recurrent one amongst practitioners. This is a central question to ask ourselves and it goes beyond the "beginner" label attached to the customers. Is it even possible to write down a recipy and to filter Feldenkrais lessons against a set of predefined features and find only the lessons that will be perfect for a beginner? How do we fight the tendency to think that what is easy for ourselves will be easy for everybody else? Will easy be interesting enough for the nervous system to pay attention? 

From a Feldenkrais teachers perspective the main challenge faced by any of us can be summarized in a single sentence: 

To create the right conditions to facilitate or permit organic learning!

During an individual lesson we have a way to immediately address the issue by adapting our response to the movement feedback that we receive from the person in front of us and we are thought to maintain our attention open to that aspect. We can experience many responses and many reasons for the responses that we receive, ranging from boring, already done, this is really strange, to a desire to help or resist in various forms.

Even if the responses of the students during a group class can be similar, the same promptness to adapt does not apply to Awareness through Movement class. The classes are structured and individual responses are different, so How do we create the right condition for learning in a class in front of a mixed public or in an online teaching context? Let's imagine that in our class there is an old yoga adept who loves to do inversions, with a very active life, and a young person working most of the days in an office and suffering from repetitive strain injury. Appearances can be deceptive just to remind ourselves to avoid forming hasty judgement.

They are both beginning with Feldenkrais but they are in very different places in their lives and in the challenges that they will be facing during the lesson, so the original question can be transformed in:

Is it possible to create the right condition for learning for both these persons at the same time? 

The answer that Moshé Feldenkrais gave to this question is obviously Yes! He came up with a huge variety of lessons, some are like riddles in movement, some are extremely simple but require a lot of internal focus and attention, some can be physically challenging.

What are the common ingredients of all Feldenkrais lessons? 

Movement complexity, if present, is built through a combination of simple elements. This approach to complexity is common in physics. Creating a model of a physical phenomenon is to identify the minimal set of information needed to reproduce the main features of it and eliminate everything else. A refined movement is also obtained by elimination of all superfluous activity, neurons firing unnecessarily. In this way not only the exploration of a complex pattern is facilitated but the final goal of the movement is absent in the student mind. The students are only present to inquiring about how small variation of the simple element apparently unrelated can become easier and simpler, so that the final sequence appear as a surprising collateral benefit. This local approach is like an algorithm to research minima in fitting a dataset, the only potential issue is that such a search could miss completely different solutions to the same problem. To clarify this point we can think about high jump, which changed completely after Dick Fosbury started experimenting with different methods to approach it in a way simpler for him. In an ATM we lead people through a prebuilt sequence so in this respect they can be seen as refining a pattern, even if from the perspective of the student the pattern can be entirely new, whereas inventing new complex sequences of movements from zero can be seen as an attempt of finding a new "Fosbury" jump. 

Granting freedom! We insist on allowing the person to accept, reject and interpret our instructions. In a way we create a frame, we provide the pencils and a theme but the person will add his/her own interpretation of the frame that we are providing as teachers. Free exploration is encouraged through the absence of a comparative model, we create a non competitive context by the absence of a reference model like the teacher or the authority. For this reason, providing video Feldenkrais lessons is not making a good service to the method. This is different from splitting a class in half or quarters and asking people to compare or imitate different styles of performing an action or to clarify an unclear verbal instruction. 

Constant invitation to reduce the amplitude and the effort and to judge what is right for the individual, not for the world in general. Actively encourage rest as an essential aspect of learning. Sleep and rest are very important to transfer new knowledge from the short to long term memory, so an ideal time for a lesson as suggested by Moshé Feldenkrais is immediately before getting into bed or at least to create a mental association to remind the lessons before going to bed.  

An essential aspect of the exploration is the absence of value judgement, and in the lists of value judgement I include statements like judging on the efficiency of a movement during the execution, whereas recognizing the involvement of a skeletal part in a movement can be beneficial. We can be mistaken in thinking that a well known pattern is more efficient simply because it is more familiar. Learning is the ability to sense and detect differences, what makes it easier to detect differences is to create unfamiliar situations in a safe context. 

An image excessive or outrageous makes an impact on the brain that helps it to be retained so learning is facilitated by the introduction of mental images or mental movies. Mabel Todd and Ursula Sweingard used a lot of mental images in their Ideokinesis work.  Visualization of our body in action actually triggers the ideomotor reflex, and it is used for instance by mind reader when they ask to think of a word without telling it, then they magically guess it because we can't avoid performing minimal movements with our lips throat and tongue as soon as we think about a word or a number. Thinking in images and movement is also in use extensively in memorization techniques. According to Romans, the memory palace technique was invented by Simonides of Ceos about 2,500 years ago and it is based on the idea of virtually walking through a known or imaginary scenery and attaching bold images or scenes to elements of the memory scenery. Thinking in images requires a certain training so keep it short and simple and related to a simple action in a beginner class. 

Coming back to the original question, a good Feldenkrais lesson triggers questions and curiosity through changes experienced in a safe manner! A fast way to make a people experience changes is through the two sides, i.e. one side works and the other does nothing for a while. This is not common and usually generates a surprise. It is accompanied by a change of the general tonus on one side and is induced very quickly in many lessons, e.g. related with the feet. 

This sort of lesson can be beneficial for our two customers, but what about a third person with a vestibular problem or recovering from a stroke? Well if the lesson has a final part equalizing the two sides the lesson can be still a good one, but maybe it would be not so good if it ended dealing with one side only. In this respect it is important that the lesson will leave us at least as symmetric as we started.

When learning conditions are not universal? When they create a conflict with the personal history of the person receiving the instructions that the person is not yet ready to get in touch with, e.g. keeping the eyes closed for a traumatized person, triggering by a very slow ATM or verbal instructions the feeling of being constrained in a position that can trigger a strong emotional response. When the person is not psychologically ready to accept the change that the lesson is producing, if the cause of the emotional response that is causing the person to move and respond in a certain way is continuously present the lesson can create a conflict.  A permissive approach should be able to allow us to deal with most of these situations but it triggers immediately another questions:

How permissive are in reality the lessons? 


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Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash
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