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Fitness, Exercise, and the Feldenkrais Method®

By Steven Shafarman, GCFP

Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais had strong opinions about exercise, and would surely condemn current conventional practices.

Moshe’s final visit to the United States was in 1981. I was his assistant that summer, and with him at his last public workshop, Labor Day weekend in Washington, DC. Jogging was very popular at the time, and as we drove through Rock Creek Park each morning we saw hundreds of joggers. “They think they’re doing themselves some good,” Moshe remarked. With his nose pressed against the car window, he described the harms of jogging, the damage to feet, knees, hip joints, backs, and overall. His unforgettable final phrase, “cardiovascular masturbation.”

The following week, he asked me to travel with him to Orlando, Florida, where he taped a series of interviews for the Medicine Man cable TV program. The studio was owned by Nautilus, manufacturer of hi-tech exercise machines, which were quite popular at the time, and two doctors gave us a tour of their research center. Of course Moshe wanted to see the machines with someone using them. “Steven, get on that one.” I’d never tried Nautilus, so one of the doctors told me what to do. As I began, Moshe noted that the machine constrained the movement of my trunk. It does that, the doctors explained, to target specific shoulder muscles.

While I was on a second machine, Moshe talked about the fact that muscles never work independently; the nervous system constantly coordinates muscles throughout the body. The doctors explained that Nautilus is a whole body exercise, because it works all the muscles when people use all the machines. The third machine was for the hip flexors. “Do too many repetitions with that one,” Moshe said, “and you’ll be an impotent man.” I stopped. So did our tour.

In similar ways and for similar reasons, he often denounced sit-ups, push-ups, and other exercises that seek to stretch or strengthen individual muscles. Real strength, he taught us, involves all of the muscles working harmoniously with relatively low even tone. Any muscle that’s tighter than necessary – six-pack abs, for example – impairs movement overall, and results in weakness, not strength.

People occasionally told him they did yoga, and asked for his opinion. “You’re ruining your hip joints.” That was not just arrogance. He’d studied yoga thoroughly, countless people who did yoga came to his classes, and he’d seen a lot of ruined hip joints. The problems with yoga, as he described them, come with the precision of the postures, plus the force and focus people apply in their desire to do it properly. When we set specific goals, we are less aware of everything else. When we use any excess effort, we are less able to sense differences, therefore less able to prevent or relieve discomfort; this is a fact of neuroscience that’s fundamental to the Feldenkrais Method.

Awareness must come first, Moshe insisted. It’s vital for fitness and healing. This is why I chose Awareness Heals as the title for my book about the Feldenkrais Method.

The world of fitness and exercise has changed significantly since Moshe died in 1984. Yoga today is more demanding, with a few exceptions, and vastly more popular. Gyms and health clubs were rather rare; now they’re everywhere, and full of equipment that’s more targeted and specialized than Nautilus. People typically exercise while watching TV, talking on cell phones, listening to music or recorded books; such practices are effectively anti-awareness. Many people now believe we can’t be fit and healthy, maybe don’t deserve to be, unless we exercise regularly.

These beliefs and practices became more common throughout the 1990s, and I was increasingly concerned, sometimes frustrated. My students improved significantly with Feldenkrais® lessons, often just one or two lessons. Frequently, however, those who went to the gym had a recurrence of their pain. Some realized that the exercise was a problem, but they wanted a vigorous fitness routine. Many asked for recommendations. Is there a fitness practice that’s consistent with Moshe’s insights? How can we avoid or prevent the problems he saw with yoga, jogging, stretching, push-ups, and such? Are there fitness activities that enhance the benefits of Feldenkrais lessons?

My answers start with asking my students, especially those with chronic pain, if they do any regular exercise or fitness activities, what type, how often, with what results, and if they enjoy it. This is critical. Exercise is often a cause or exacerbating factor with chronic pain, even when it provides temporary relief through endorphin production or increased blood flow. A key to lasting progress, I find, is to help my students modify their fitness and exercise practices. Based on what they tell me, I give them ways to use their exercise as an opportunity for learning and healing, and my advice is tailored to fit their specific concerns. Here are some all-purpose recommendations:

  • While you exercise, be extra attentive to your breathing, and breathe freely.

  • Sense and think about the way your ribs move as you exhale and as you inhale.

  • Actively scan and sense your whole body throughout the activity.

  • Seek to make every movement pleasant, which might be slower and smaller.

  • Protect any places that have been painful, while seeking to move more freely elsewhere.

I also encourage people to find fitness activities they truly enjoy, such as dancing, swimming, biking, hiking, or martial arts. The best activities are social as well, and involve learning to be more skillful. The social and learning aspects enhance meaning and intrinsic value, thereby making the activity more than an exercise.

More generally, I encourage everyone to exercise with a sense of curiosity, like a healthy child. What can I discover right now? How can I be more comfortable? More skillful? More aware? Are there ways to make this activity more pleasant?

By asking ourselves such questions, we can make any fitness activity more effective and more beneficial. This is the attitude of organic learning. As I teach these ideas and practices, I often imagine Moshe smiling and approving. I think he’d smile and approve of this article, as well.

Steven Shafarman was Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais’ assistant and appointment secretary in 1981. He lives and teaches in Washington DC. He is also the creator of FlexAware, which applies the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais to fitness and exercise. Steven is the author of six books, including Awareness Heals: The Feldenkrais Method for Dynamic Health.

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