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By Diane Valentine, GCFP
Born with three fused vertebrae in my neck, by my early twenties I was beginning to experience pain down my spine and into my low back and hips. It was very difficult to sleep at night or to keep still for long periods of time without a rush of pain. By my early thirties the pain was enough to send me to see an orthopedic surgeon. He informed me that nothing could be done and that most likely, because of the arthritis already apparent in my spine, I would be in a wheelchair by my fifties.
With his words ringing in my ear I began a search for a solution and luckily found a yoga teacher who had also suffered from arthritis and had been able to successfully combat it through yoga practice. She helped me to begin accepting the possibility of health and I began the journey toward wholeness.
Yoga gave to me the specific tool of gentle movement for my arthritis-stricken body as well as the gift of hope. I began to feel more parts of myself and to move in ways that brought the pain under control. The more I practiced the more I became aware – not only of my muscles, joints and bones – but also of myself as a body, mind and soul. How I dealt with the challenges in my life took on a different meaning as I began to delve deeper into the “difficult situations” in the asanas (yoga poses). I began to question what my habitual patterns were and how I had adapted to carry myself through life. I discovered a microcosm of my own life in my yoga practice. With this increased awareness, my body and mind became more flexible. The daily cultivation of patience and a growing understanding with myself during the asana practice gave me the choice to move more freely in my life without the restriction of pain.
Several years ago, as I was driving to my yoga class, I was involved in an accident that left my elbow in severe pain. After trying many therapeutic methods (chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, etc.) the pain remained. One of my students suggested I try a Feldenkrais® Functional Integration® lesson and it was during that first session that the pain in my elbow disappeared and never returned. I was absolutely amazed at the results of just one session and continued to pursue Feldenkrais work. Six months later, within weeks of opening my new yoga studio, I enrolled in a four-year Feldenkrais professional training, knowing that this was something I wanted, not only to incorporate into my practice, but to share with my students.
With a strong foundation in yoga, the Feldenkrais Method was like another door opening into my adventure of self-discovery. The gentle, simple, inquisitive process of self-discovery in a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® lesson opened and deepened my kinesthetic knowledge of myself. The emphasis on small, pleasurable and subtle movements in these lessons gave me more insight into the way that I habitually moved. This improved my yoga poses and deepened my practice, guiding me to move more smoothly and easily. My yoga practice became more effortless, graceful and yet invigorating at the same time.
Both yoga and the Feldenkrais Method draw one’s attention inward away from distractions. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.2, ‘Yoga is the ability to direct and focus mental activity’ (the mind) with non-attachment (without distraction). 1.3 ‘With the attainment of focused mind, the inner being establishes itself in all reality’. Moshe Feldenkrais said, “What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains. What I’m after is to restore each person to their human dignity.” Both yoga and the Feldenkrais Method are based on finding pathways that connect and integrate the body, mind, and spirit.
While informed by science, Moshe Feldenkrais’ work parallels the Eastern path of acknowledging the oneness of mind and body, intention and action. “Body-mind integration shifted from being a medical or scientific concern to becoming a path toward knowledge and beauty,” said Feldenkrais Trainer Dennis Leri, in his article in Gnosis Magazine, “Learning to Learn,” Fall 1993.
The Feldenkrais Method is based on the idea that each of us develops unhealthy movement habits through years of going about life automatically, overusing the body in repetitive ways and accommodating to previous injuries. Our culture and socialization also play a role in how we use ourselves. In the need to please our parents, and subsequently our peers, we let go of our own natural and effortless ways of learning to adapt, rather badly at times, to the rules of others. In this way, we abandon our natural intelligence and develop ways of moving that do not work for us. We forget how to move with the ease and natural grace we had as children.
According to Dr. Feldenkrais, each person already presents the ideal body – the ideal way to move – chosen by one’s ability to perceive the choices of movement available. The Feldenkrais Method simply creates the conditions necessary for us to experience more choices. The lessons are introduced in a slow, gentle, and pleasurable way, allowing us to discover ourselves and become interested and curious. With a sense of safety and this increased curiosity, we can begin to shift away from our restrictive habitual patterns and begin to sense and feel new choices, new directions, new ways of moving more freely; gracefully developing awareness, flexibility and coordination. This new learning method becomes easy to meld into the practice of yoga. Over time, the intention of the practice is that it stays with us and becomes a part of our everyday living and moving.
The Feldenkrais Method brings us back into organic learning in a way that is easy, fun, and worth repeating. In order to learn we must go slowly and take the time to observe and to become aware of how or what we are doing. When we use minimal muscular effort, our brain is free to make important sensory distinctions.
There are two complementary ways to benefit from the Feldenkrais Method: Awareness Through Movement and/or Functional Integration lessons.
In Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lessons, the instructor verbally guides students through a sequence of basic movements in lying on the floor, sitting, standing or sitting in a chair. Functional Integration lessons, on the other hand, are learned through slow, gentle touch from a practitioner who guides the student gently through various movements to release tension and holding.
After a lesson, you may notice that you feel taller, lighter, breathe more easily and you may begin to feel a sense of grace and elegance in your movements. Feldenkrais says “make the movement pleasurable, easy, enjoyable – something you can do easily for five minutes without stopping.” These small minute movements, done slowly, make my experience of yoga an adventure, sparking my curiosity about how I move in relationship to space. During the beginning of my Feldenkrais training one of the trainers teased me about making such ‘large’ movements in the Awareness Through Movement lessons because of my yoga background. As I began to notice smaller and more subtle ways of moving I found that this brought a greater sense of joy to my yoga practice.
The Feldenkrais Method can help yoga students break asanas down into little sequences. By slowing down, we begin to sense and feel ourselves more clearly. By moving slowly and “listening” with attention to habitual patterns we become aware of how we are using ourselves in our yoga practice. While yoga poses are designed to create awareness, they too can become habitual in the way they are practiced. The Feldenkrais Method allows us to get in touch with our natural functional patterns of action, the ways that we learned to move as infants and children, when we were free from pain and the social constraints of our peers.
Although it is unknown if he practiced yoga himself, many of Feldenkrais’ Awareness Through Movement lessons seem based on common yoga asanas. From invigorating Upward-facing Bow Pose, to various twists, Lotus, Headstand and Shoulderstand, the Feldenkrais Method frees the body to more fully engage in the asanas. Just as my yoga practice gave me a strong foundation upon which I based my experiential understanding of my body, the Feldenkrais Method has allowed me a gentle entry into going ever deeper with ease and pleasure.
In my yoga classes I like to suggest that the student move into the pose while looking for easier and simpler ways into and out of the asana: moving slowly, with ease; making small delicate movements and then lengthening into and out of the asana with greater awareness. The movements become more about play and less about work. I will often encourage the student to look to see what is holding them back in the asana, where the areas of restriction are, and then suggest taking the asana into various ranges of movement. By going slowly and paying attention to their breathing and areas of holding, students can often breathe more easily in the pose and experience more enjoyment, flexibility, and aliveness. When teaching Functional Integration, I will often have the student move into an asana and, through slow, gentle touch, guide them into areas of holding that may be restricting the pose. They are then better able to let go of their habitual pattern.
Today, not only am I not in the wheelchair predicted by the orthopedic surgeon, I am leading a full and functionally active life. At sixty I enjoy many physical activities that my peers have given up due to discomfort and ‘old age.’ The pain in my neck and body has diminished greatly from what I experienced in my earlier years. Teaching yoga and Feldenkrais to others has fulfilled my dream – not only freeing myself from pain and discomfort but also helping others to find their own way into the ease and joy of life.
Diane Valentine, Teacher, author and practitioner, is the director of The Yoga and Movement Center in Walnut Creek and has been teaching the therapeutic aspects of yoga for 20 years. As a Guild Certified Feldenkrais PractitionerCM she brings to her students and clients the combined gifts of Yoga and Feldenkrais in a beautiful blend of movements. Diane teaches retreats both locally and internationally and conducts a yearly Advanced Studies/Teacher Training based on the therapeutic aspects of yoga.