Learning to Learn

“One has to set about learning to learn … with serenity but without solemnity, with patient objectivity and without compulsive seriousness … learning must be undertaken and is really profitable when the whole frame is held in a state where smiling can turn into laughter without interference, naturally, spontaneously.” (from The Potent Self, p. xi)

-Moshe Feldenkrais, D.Sc.


Learning something new is different from doing things in day-to-day life that you already know how to do. To learn something well and really integrate it, you need the right conditions. In a way, the Feldenkrais Method is about creating these conditions. These are beneficial in all learning settings, not just to learning movement. Here’s a list of a few of the conditions that promote learning:

  • TIME: going slowly and giving yourself enough time to understand new ideas and to organize yourself around them
  • REST: pausing from time to time, especially if you notice you’re not really paying attention anymore – this is a sign that you need time to absorb information before you can take in more
  • PROCESS: staying with the process of learning rather than focusing on performance or a final product
  • EASE: reducing effort to be able to make finer differentiations and adjust accordingly – read more about this in a previous post
  • SHIFTING FOCUS: maintaining the ability to be aware of the background or environment while also attending to more specific details
  • PLAY: letting curiosity, levity and experimentation drive the process
How is Awareness Through Movement playful?
The lessons are contemplative and usually quiet, but they also emphasize curiosity and experimentation. The challenging nature of the lessons can get in the way of play, but also invites you to maintain a light attitude and stay playful in the face of frustration.

We all naturally possess curiosity, wonder, and the ability to play. It’s easy to observe in children – and childhood is notably one of the most active periods of learning that we experience. One of Moshe Feldenkrais’ students, Anat Baniel, calls it the “learning switch.“, saying “Repetition, drill, and everyday stresses, as well as habitual patterns of thought, exercise, and emotions, all tend to turn the learning switch off.”

So much of our lives are spent in these kinds of play-suppressing activities, it’s important to do things that purposely counter them. Just as Awareness Through Movement lessons bring us through developmental movement and help us regain a more youthful way of moving, the playful, experimental qualities of the lessons help us regain our curiosity and enthusiasm for living.

Homework (if you want it!):

1. Are you learning anything new in your life right now? If not, find something you’d like to learn! See if you can approach it with these ideas of learning and find out if they do indeed make a difference.
2. Further reading:

Todd Hargrove has a great post about why play is important in motor learning.

Moshe wrote a Learn to Learn booklet to help people understand how to “do” Awareness Through Movement lessons – you can see the text here).

Upcoming Classes:

Class is held on Sundays from 6-7pm, at beautiful Studio Sol in NE Portland.

In April we’ll be exploring some lessons that invite playful attention. Some might be challenging enough to bring up frustration, and invite you to practice dealing with difficulty with a light touch, serenity, and an openness to turning to smiling and laughter.


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Skeletal Awareness

johnny_automatic_dancing_skeletons“…the skeletal structure should counteract the pull of gravity, leaving the muscles free for movement. The nervous system and the frame develop together under the influence of gravity in such a way that the skeleton will hold up the body without expending energy despite the pull of gravity…” (Awareness Through Movement, p. 68)

“What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains.”

-Moshe Feldenkrais, D.Sc.

“Feldenkrais is about posture, right?”

This is a common question I get when I tell someone I’m a Feldenkrais Practitioner. It’s a hard question to answer, because in a way it is about posture … but then again, it isn’t. “Posture” is an externally-evaluated, static concept, and the Feldenkrais Method is about a personal, dynamic experience; it’s about finding enjoyment and improvement in movement – and in life generally.

When we try to have “good posture” we usually put ourselves into a rigid, often unenjoyable position that’s painful to maintain – and ends up disappearing the minute we turn our attention to something else. In the real world, we are constantly moving, and a more fluid, responsive and satisfying stance can adjust to many different activities and environments.

Feldenkrais practitioners use the skeleton as a primary reference and understand principles of biomechanics. Your skeleton is the architectural support for the rest of you, providing leverage to move around. If this architecture is well-organized and aligned, there will be less wear & tear on the soft tissue, reducing the effort it takes to do any basic action, and reducing or preventing pain. But as the above quotes above illustrate, skeletal alignment is only half the story. The other half is self-awareness and the ability to choose from a variety of options – a flexible brain. Feldenkrais lessons can help you distinguish between different ways of organizing your skeleton and to discern which way is preferable to you in that moment, for a given activity.

Just as any posture – no matter how well aligned – becomes bad when it’s held rigidly, there’s no posture that’s inherently bad. Posture is emotionally expressive, so slumping your shoulders to express dejection or stiffening your spine to express indignance are both important in communication and expression of feelings. Also, almost every posture you can think of has some useful applications – rounding your spine can help you tie your shoes, inspect your bellybutton, or do a somersault.

Every body is different in its organization and ability, so it works better to start with what you feel internally than to compare yourself to someone else’s idea of what correct posture is. There are plenty of people who have major physical difficulties and yet live beautiful, creative lives. It’s important not to get carried away by the idea of moving toward some kind of physical perfection. I have found that when I get caught up in trying to “fix” someone’s pain or teach them what I think the “correct” movement is, the lesson is actually much less helpful than when I stay with the person’s experience and follow what’s actually happening for them in the lesson. Then they learn to distinguish for themselves what feels right for their body.

This month’s lessons will focus on finding support through the skeleton and moving toward more efficient movement. And since a connection to your skeleton in gravity also connects you to the ground, the lessons will also be a great way to stay grounded during these short, dark December days. See below for more details.

Homework (if you want it!):

  1. Seek improved skeletal alignment by using awareness: For example, if you’re sitting at a computer, instead of pushing your shoulders down and straightening out your back, spend a few minutes finding how your feet and pelvis can support your spine in a way that feels good to you. Standing in line at the grocery store, pay attention to your feet and ankles, and play with changing how your weight travels through to the floor. Then try the same thing while you’re in motion: shoveling snow, out walking, rolling over in bed. If being aware of your skeleton is confusing, come to class!
  2. Further reading about posture

    from Todd Hargrove, Feldenkrais Practitioner and Rolfer: on Posture, on Skeletal Awareness, and on Efficiency and Coordination
    and from Stacy Barrows, a Feldenkrais Practitioner and Physical Therapist who has a blog with the Huffington Post: on Posture
    and from Ralph Strauch, Feldenkrais Practitioner and philosopher: on Posture

  3. Is there really a connection between poor skeletal alignment and pain? (remember, we’re holding the principles lightly). Here’s one challenge to that belief, a research review that finds “Many postural–structural–biomechanical (PSB) factors have failed to show an association or to be the cause of lower back pain.” (Lederman, CPDO Online Journal (2010), March, p. 1-14.)

Upcoming Classes:

Class is held on Sundays from 6-7pm, at beautiful Studio Sol in NE Portland.

This month’s lessons will be about finding support through the skeleton, moving toward more efficient movement, and exploring other qualities of movement that may be considered “bad posture” but that allow you more freedom and enjoyment in movement. They will also help you to feel more grounded during these short, dark days.

12/8/13: Finding support from the ground up in standing
12/15/13: Finding support in sitting
12/22/13: Connecting through the skeleton (lesson done lying on the floor)


Less is More – reduce effort to notice differences

“If you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais, D.Sc.

If you’ve been to a Feldenkrais class, you know that “small, slow, less effort” is a primary focus of most lessons. And that’s not so easy, especially in our high-speed, high-achievement culture. One student once told me, “I’ve never moved that slowly in my life!” Another admitted that she had a hard time slowing down for the first few classes, but once she was able to do it, she was surprised at how much detail she noticed about herself.

Going fast is not a bad thing! In certain situations, speed can be important for safety; in others, it can be useful, or just plain fun. And the same thing goes for using power in movement. The question is when to go fast, when to use a lot of effort. When you are learning something new, you may be doing some major remodeling of your nervous system. From a Feldenkrais perspective, you learn something more thoroughly and with more enjoyment if you proceed slowly and mindfully than if you try to push and do it full-size the first time.

In part, this is because when we move fast and with a lot of power, we also go on automatic, using what we already learned in the past to make things happen…which gets in the way of the openness and curiosity that are important for learning. Learning a new skill or refining a familiar one both require the ability to differentiate between what works and what doesn’t, and the best way to improve your perception of difference is to slow down and use less effort.

Slow, mindful movement is really the “stock-in-trade” of a Feldenkrais practitioner. What makes a Functional Integration session so special (the individual lessons that usually involve hands-on teaching) is the practitioner’s ability to really “listen” to the subtleties of movement. This creates a sense of safety and trust. At the end of a session, people often express surprise at how much change they feel when it seemed like I didn’t really “do” anything.

This sense of safety is a major reason why the Feldenkrais Method is such a great tool for working with persistent pain. When you are in pain, less really is more. Pain is basically an alarm system letting you know you’re in danger, and we develop patterns of self-protection by restricting movement – for very good reasons. If you move slowly and lightly, there’s an opportunity to expand your ability to move in different ways without sounding the pain alarm. It’s as if you’re telling your body “it’s OK right now.” Then, when your nervous system is able to feel the enjoyment of pain-free movement, this further eases patterns of self-protection and persistent pain.

This principle can also create safety in areas outside of what we call “movement.” In my counseling practice, I use the idea of slowing down in the area of emotional regulation. When you’re being hijacked by an emotion or a thought, everything starts to move really fast, and sometimes it’s hard to know what you’re doing – or even remember what you did, later on. If you’re able to slow down enough to feel what’s going on, then you start to have a choice about how you respond to people and situations. To me, this is an important area for us to apply the idea that “if you know what you’re doing you can do what you want.”

Addendum 12/6/13:  Remember the first principle?  Be cautious with principles.  Here are some important exceptions, when effort or speed can actually help you to organize yourself in a more efficient way.

Homework (if you want it):

1. Do something slowly: Something familiar, or something new you’re learning. Notice the details about how you do it and find out if there’s any way you could make it more enjoyable. For some inspiration in this area, learn about the Slow Movement.

  1. The “Weber Fechner Law” explains why using less effort helps you sense more difference. Read up on psycho-physics and the Weber-Fechner Law:

  2. The Wikipedia description of Weber-Fechner is a straightforward introduction and even includes some mathematical equations!

  3. Todd Hargrove’s take on Weber-Fechner is down-to-earth and practical in his post Why Slow Movement Builds Coordination. Todd is a Feldenkrais Practitioner and Rolfer, and one of my favorite bloggers on issues having to do with movement and the nervous system.

  4. Feldenkrais trainer Dennis Leri has a more philosophical treatise on the subject. He further unpacks Fechner’s work and its influence on the Feldenkrais Method.

  5. And here’s another take on the subject by Stacy Barrows, a Feldenkrais Practitioner and Physical Therapist who blogs about Feldenkrais on the Huffington Post.

Upcoming Classes:

Class is held on Sundays from 6-7pm, at beautiful Studio Sol in NE Portland.

This month’s lessons will explore the range between slow and big, small and fast.

11/3: Working with the jaw – when small and slow really matter
11/10: Hands and feet – small and fast
11/17: Rolling – big and slow

Movement is Life

“Movement is life. Without movement, life is unthinkable.”
– Moshe Feldenkrais, D.Sc., on the cover of the Learn to Learn booklet

This principle is special to me personally – it’s the main reason I decided to enter a Feldenkrais training and study body-centered psychotherapy. The absolute worst times in my life have also been the most sedentary, and my involvement in dance and yoga have been lifelines for me.

But what is movement? Do we have to be dancing around or running down a basketball court to be considered movers? We are always in motion, even when we are “still” – our internal organs are keeping us alive, our eyes are focusing and blinking, air is pumped in and out of our lungs with a complex set of muscles (which we explored a couple of weeks ago in class). When we are sitting or standing, we constantly make tiny adjustments to keep ourselves upright in gravity. Our movement is smart, even when we’re not thinking about it.

Even one-celled creatures must move to live, toward things that will nourish them and away from things that will harm them. At this basic level, the cells in our bodies are maintaining the basic functions of life, and lack of movement interrupts our bodies’ ability to carry on these functions. Movement keeps blood flowing, bringing in nutrients and pumping out waste for every system in the body. You can feel this on a physical level if you get pain in the back of your neck or between your shoulder blades after you work too long at the computer – acidic waste builds up in the muscles that are trying to hold your head in one position for too long. Your nervous system identifies acid build-up as a threat and puts pain there to get you to do something about it. Rubbing your neck or moving your head and shoulders pumps out waste buildup and flushes the area with blood, and vigorous movement does this for the whole body.

“Movement is life” goes beyond issues of survival and physical maintenance: movement adds meaning to our lives. One of the great things that the Feldenkrais Method can do for us is to help us keep doing the activities we want to do. Playing with children, walking or biking to run your errands, working on DIY projects, art projects, gardening, dancing, doing sports … these are things that bring meaning to life and it can be a real loss when we aren’t able to do them. One of my clients once reported to me that she feels better and is able to do more now in her 60’s than she did in her 40’s! In a world where we increasingly go from bed to desk to sofa to bed again, always curled around our “devices,” it’s important to keep doing physical things, at whatever level you’re able. As they say, “use it or lose it.”

At yet another level, the Feldenkrais Method is not really about moving at all … it’s about learning to sense better.  That’s why it’s called Awareness Through Movement, and not Movement Through Awareness. Movement is associated with every area of our interactions with the world: our sensations, our emotions, and our thoughts. This means that when you have one kind of thought, you hold your body differently than when you have another kind of thought … and the same with different emotions. Our sense of our movement is much clearer and more concrete than our awareness of our thoughts and feelings, so it’s an easier area to make conscious change; if you change your movement, everything else will change too.  Plus, it feels good, so it’s more likely we’ll go back for more.

Homework (if you want it):

1. Love your movement: What are the active things you most love to do in life? What motivates you to be active? Do more of those things – Find a way to make time! If you are limited in your movement in some way, look for ways to enjoy the movement you can do. For inspiration, Here’s a link to my latest favorite video of an incredible mover, Kenichi Ebina.

10/9/13 – new additional inspiration!  Dance Walking with Ben Aaron.

2. If you spend a lot of time sitting in one place, find ways to get moving as a routine. Go talk to the colleague in your office instead of calling or emailing. Look around and give your eyes a chance to take in a wider perspective. Go get more drinks of water. There are lots of apps out now that will remind you to take breaks, if you tend to lose track of time if you’re in the middle of a project. There’s a great downloadable program for PCs called WorkRave that puts pop-up windows on your screen to remind you to stop and rest, and will even lead you through a little movement routine. Along these lines, here’s an interesting discussion about standing desks.
3. Notice what your body feels like as you go from one situation to another, from one thought to another. Do these observations help you learn anything new about yourself?

Upcoming Classes:

Class is held on Sundays from 6-7pm, at beautiful Studio Sol in NE Portland.

This month’s lessons explore different aspects of the importance of movement in life.

10/6: Finding softness and balance in the “core”
10/13: Reaching toward / shrinking away
10/20: Lengthening – one of those luxurious lessons that gets you feeling like a cat
10/27: TBA

The First Principle: Be Cautious with Principles

“Trust yourself to work out what is right for you.” – Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais

Feldenkrais® practitioners specialize in the study of how we move – how to make it more efficient, supported by the skeleton, freer, lighter, easier, coordinated, and pain-free. Moshe Feldenkrais was a physicist, engineer, and Judo master, and the lessons he developed are made up of small, specific movements that are created for precise anatomical reasons.

However, Feldenkrais practitioners are fascinated with the process of learning, and understand that telling someone how we think they should be moving does not lead to these qualities.  The way to get there is to be able to feel within yourself what kind of movement feels good and helps you do what you want to do.  The overarching purpose of Feldenkrais lessons – whether in group classes or individualized sessions – is to increase your ability to sense yourself and find out for yourself what good movement for you feels like, rather than trusting an authority to tell you if you have it right.

So, the first principle in this study of principles is to hold all the principles lightly (including this one!) – to know that there are always situations where they may not apply or we may choose not to follow them…and for very good reasons.

Homework:  Is there an area in your life that you rely too much on external authority?  Explore ways to explore expanding your trust in your own judgment.  If this is easy for you, try going against this principle, and practice letting other people influence you a little more.

Upcoming Classes:

Class is held on Sundays from 6-7pm, at the beautiful Studio Sol in NE Portland.

This month I have chosen lessons that are more self-guided, and that especially encourage a deeper sense of connection with yourself and your perceptions.

9/8: Centering  9/15: Eyes  9/22: Breathing 9/29: TBA


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Feldenkrais Blog and Classes 2013-2014

Hello – I hope you had a great summer!

Sunday night Awareness Through Movement®/Feldenkrais® classes are starting up again on September 8, 2013, 6:00 to 7:00 pm. I hope you can join us for some classes and I look forward to seeing you. Feel free to bring a friend too! This year we’ll have a theme again, like we’ve done the last two years; this adds to my teaching & learning and can bring additional meaning to the lessons (for more on past themes, click here).

This year’s theme will be Feldenkrais Principles. The Feldenkrais Method is a complex and elegant approach to thinking about the complexity and elegance of the human body and human development, and the concepts that are contained within it have a lot of potential to make positive change for people. Because I think these concepts are so important, and because they are complex and fun to write and talk about, I’ve decided to write a blog exploring these ideas. I’ll be posting once or twice a month; you can sign up from any page on my website (in the sidebar on the right) to be notified by email when I post something new. You can also choose to only receive class announcements, and it is easy to unsubscribe if you change your mind.

The concepts discussed on the blog will add to the learning of each of the classes as well as the overall learning that Feldenkrais offers. Some of the concepts, for example the concept of noticing or awareness, will likely sound familiar from past classes and discussions. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about these concepts as well as the blog.

“I really get a lot out of the classes. But I also love to learn and discuss the thinking behind the Feldenkrais Method and the interesting and powerful concepts that make Feldenkrais so unique. Johanna explains these concepts really well and is excited about sharing them.” – ATM class student.

Sunday night classes start up again on September 8th, 2013, 6-7pm. For a fee schedule, click here. The classes are still located at the beautiful Studio Sol at Conexiones, 3500 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Suite 200. The entrance to the second floor is through the side door on NE Fremont.