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T'ai Chi and the Feldenkrais Method

By Ralph Strauch, Ph.D., G.C.F.P.

T’ai Chi and the Feldenkrais Method® both see natural human movement as involving the entire person in a smooth and flowing way, balanced without effort in the field of gravity, under a special kind of effortless control. Moshe Feldenkrais calls such movement “elegant,” while the Chinese speak of a body “so light that a feather will be felt and so pliable that a fly cannot alight on it without setting it in motion.”

Feldenkrais describes that effortless control as “reversible movement” - meaning that the mover is never committed to continue on a trajectory, but can stop, start, or change direction at any time. A man sitting down in a reversible way, for example, would not fall if the chair were pulled from under him. A woman hurrying along a hallway could stop if someone suddenly stepped in her path. The T’ai Chi master in combat cannot be bluffed or feinted into a compromising position. He has, in the words of the Chinese classic, Tao Te Ching, “no spots where death may enter.” We don’t encounter this kind of reversible movement much in our everyday lives. It’s far more common, it seems, to fall if a chair is pulled out from under you, or to collide with someone who steps in your path without warning. People normally violate this ideal in other ways, as well. Movement is often fragmented and choppy, with the body stiffly held in gravity and moving as a set of disconnected pieces rather than a smooth and flowing whole. For many people, “effort” is almost synonymous with “movement.”

Why is the normal movement we encounter in our everyday lives so at variance with the natural movement that both T’ai Chi and the Feldenkrais Method seek? Here again, both offer the same basic answer. We move so poorly they say, at least in comparison to the potential that exists within us, because we lack self-awareness. Unaware of what we do and how we do it, we cannot choose well, so we function less efficiently than we might. Moshe Feldenkrais summed this up in one of his favorite sayings - “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t do what you want.” Improvement depends on learning - learning more efficient possibilities for action, and incorporating them into your life.

T’ai Chi and the Feldenkrais Method focus most obviously on improving things like balance, flexibility, and ease of movement. Yet both have the potential to go far beyond that - to improve functioning in all aspects of life. The T’ai Chi master draws his effectiveness in combat from his ability to comprehend his environment and control his reactions to it, and those abilities are useful anywhere. Feldenkrais often spoke of the need to develop “flexible minds” as the objective of his work, and of the development of flexible bodies as a tool to that end.

Flexibility of mind and body are inseparable; you can’t have one without the other. Movement is a metaphor for life, and the lessons T’ai Chi and the Feldenkrais Method teach about movement have direct analogs in other areas. The converse of Feldenkrais’s dictum that “if you don’t know what you’re doing you can’t do what you want” is also true. If you really do know what you’re doing, you can do almost anything you want!

Ralph Strauch, Ph.D., Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm , has studied T’ai Chi for over 25 years. The longer article from which this is drawn can be obtained from Ralph’s website at www.somatic.com.

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