Ethan Cowan

How Feldenkrais has influenced me emotionally and intellectually

October 13, 2020 - 12 minutes to read

A little while ago I got a question on Twitter from @daemonhugger about Feldenkrais. "Has Feldenkrais influenced you emotionally and intellectually even?" It wasn't easy to respond in 280 characters, so I asked him if he wanted to chat and he said yes! Here are some pieces of our conversation.

Setting the Stage

@daemonhugger: Has Feldenkrais influenced you emotionally and intellectually even? (original tweet)

Ethan Cowan: Yeah, so I was thinking a cool thing we could do is, I could answer and then I'd like to hear your impression, because I have a feeling that if you're asking the question, you've probably experienced some little shift yourself and I'd be curious to hear what it is.

But the thing that came to me this morning was, there's your body and you do these lessons. And theoretically you stand up the end, and you feel like, "Oh, my hips feel open," or "I feel skeletally stacked and I'm not using my muscles to hold myself up." So those are really amazing, notable after effects of doing these exercises. But I think the thing that I've gotten the most out of Feldenkrais is actually HOW I'm relating to myself during the lessons. And I think the simplest kind of most condensed way to talk about it is in terms of effort.

So, when when I get an instruction to lift my arm, at the beginning, when I didn't know very much, I would hear that and I would just do automatically, lift my arm without really considering what was going into that activity. And then as I did more Feldenkrais, what happened was, I would start to think, "what's going on in that moment between when I hear the instruction and when I enact it?" And when I started looking in that space, then I realized, "I'm super tense. There's a lot of stuff going on, before I even try to do the action." So if I try to calm down a little bit, and not do everything at once, and just do the small amount that's super easy, then there's space to feel, 'Oh, my breathing feels easy.' If I go past where it's easy, then I start holding my breath or doing other weird things. Noticing that leads to a more generalized awareness about what happens when I launch into some new activity. Questions start happening like, How am I feeling before I start? And how does that translate into the activity itself?

So at this point I might slow down and see what you're getting from that. But I think the takeaway is, doing Feldenkrais has shaped my relation to myself when I'm acting, because Feldenkrais is a way of practicing observing yourself in action. And I think that has emotional and intellectual ramifications. If I'm in a super stressful emotional situation, because of Feldenkrais I'm more likely to slow down like, "Whoa, I feel overwhelmed. Maybe I should just go a little slower." Intellectually, it's easier to tell when I'm just rambling. For instance, I should probably just stop and hear what you're getting from it.

@daemonhugger: Yeah, that's definitely something I also noticed last night and over the last two days, and I made notes about it on Twitter. I was way more aware of the kind of thing you're talking about. The movement was trying to basically do hip bridges, lifting my pelvis off the floor, but doing it by either pushing with my feet, or by squeezing my glutes. And it was incredible to notice how different approaching that movement in either of those two ways actually felt in my body, which muscles fired and stuff like that. What's going on in the moment of hearing the instruction and then doing it? That's interesting. I didn't think about that so much. But it's what impressed me so much. When I was trying to do it by squeezing my hip to lift my pelvis, if I wasn't hyper aware of what's going on in my body, I'm just like, "lift." But when I start paying attention, I notice there is one--without even moving yet--one strand of muscle in my butt just fired. And only that one. And I still have only barely acted on the intention to move. But there has been no movement yet. That is crazy to notice that kind of thing. And then you can like feel each additional muscle add as you move more. That's what came to me as you're describing that. I'm curious, in that moment, before the first firing happens, What the heck's going on there?

But yeah, being that sensitive to all of the little pieces of effort that occur in a movement, I can imagine, would change anything that you're doing.

Second Approximation

EC: I'm just bringing back to mind, the question about, emotions and intellectual activity. It's fun, because this is a great example. I have an intention to address those questions you asked because you asked those questions, right? So my first approximation of answering them was what I said. I just talked for five minutes, and it was okay, and some of what I said is related to your questions. But some of what I said was not related. Regardless, what I said is some indication of how my verbal self acted in the environment of your question. It's like, Okay, question from @daemonhugger... go!

Now in this moment, I'm thinking, "I have a second chance." So picture, if you're in a lesson. somebody gives you an instruction. You try a few times and then the teacher will probably say, "Okay, now just rest for a second. Just wait." And then the next time you do the movement, there's probably a different instruction even if it's the same movement, like, "Now do it by pressing your feet into the ground instead of activating your glutes." So in this conversation, in our social, intellectual activity, we have a framework, we're talking about Feldenkrais, and that gives me the chance to be say, "Okay, @daemonhugger. You and I both know what happened the first time I tried to answer your question. Now, let me just start again. But let me try to start from like a different perspective. I think, "Okay, what did he ask?" He asked about emotions and intellect. "Okay, Do I have another entry point into that question?" And for this variation, this version of this reply, my strategy has been to go meta for a second and just try to apply the framework itself to this specific situation as an example. At this point, if this were a Feldenkrais lesson, which in a way it is, then I would probably say, "That's probably enough." Like, I'm gonna stop talking again, and just see, what did you get from that one?

@daemonhugger: Well, what occurred to me was, one thing I've been noticing in my practices is, when I get an instruction to lift my arm, the goal isn't to get my arm as high as I can get it. It's more about noticing what's involved in moving my arm upward? Or with the glute example, I don't even have to move to notice that something's happening. So tying that in a conversation or trying to answer a question, one version is like, I'm just gonna answer, I'm just gonna do the thing. Versus reducing the scope. It's sort of like related to the consistent pause to ask, "Okay, what did you get out of it?" That's like letting one muscle fire and then seeing what you notice from that?

EC: I'm sure you've experienced this already in the Feldenkrais lessons, but there's a really interesting dynamic between acting and then waiting, pausing, stopping or resting. And the dynamic in a Feldenkrais lesson is, usually you're lying on the floor. You do a movement... Well, I should say first that usually you do some kind of scan to sense the contact you're making with the floor. And then you do some movement. You try to move in some way. And then you stop for a second and you go back and scan again. And you feel, "Okay, how did that affect me?" Like, what are the after effects of my activity with myself?

And it's a really pared down situation with Feldenkrais, because it's really just your own sensorium and the floor. And of course, you're working in gravity. But, the number of elements in play are relatively few. There's usually not a social dimension except that you're hearing somebody talk and kind of trancing out in the midst of their instructions.

I think this relates to the intellectual part of the question. When you're practicing acting and resting where it's really pared down, you can get familiar with that back and forth. Then you can take that approach into other contexts. Maybe because I've been doing it for a while, it occurred to me, "Oh, in this conversation, I could do the same thing. We could just stop for a second." And in this conversation, the feedback loop is between you and me. You'll say something, and we'll pause and then I'm the resting for you. And while you rest, you have more room to sense how this stuff coming out of my mouth cascades over whatever mental models you have. And then when I'm not talking and you're talking, it's cascading over me. And so there's a back and forth. We're constantly attuning to one another to feel like, "where's this going?" Did that work? Do I feel like more tense after that one? Do I feel more relaxed? In some places? Do I feel like there are new possibilities that were opened by it? Did I shut myself down somehow to achieve what I just did?


@daemonhugger: Oh, man. My brain is going in so many directions. One thing I thought was really interesting is that constant back and forth between acting then resting and reassessing your relationship to the floor.

I had been doing, a lot of somatic based meditation before really trying to build in Feldenkrais. Somatic meditation would always make me feel very relaxed. But what surprised me when I first did Feldenkrais was that I was so much more attuned to how my body felt on the floor. Afterwards, I noticed that I was relaxed in relation to the floor in a way that I had never experienced with meditation. I just felt like Alfons sometimes says, like a pancake or something. I just melted into it. Super cool to notice that.

EC: Okay, so when you first lie down, or if you were in a somatic meditation, and you're sensing your contact with the floor, let's say just for reference, you're getting a read on the state of your musculature. Certain parts of yourself are able to give their weight to the floor. And other parts are a little bit hesitant to do that. So there's some kind of ongoing muscular activity.

And then as you do the lesson, you get to that pancake place by getting certain parts of yourself to let go of unnecessary muscular effort. And how do you do that? You're doing something and then stopping, and then doing something and stopping and getting really clear about like the difference between "okay, now I'm doing something, and now I'm not doing something." So then those muscles are longer in the sense that they're only contracting in order to do the movement that you want to do. And then they're stopping.

I want to try to connect it to the emotional thing, but I think that might be like a big jump. So I guess the insight for now is that a big part of the practice of doing Feldenkrais lessons is learning to know the difference between doing something and not doing something.

When you start, you don't realize that you have a lot of muscular tension because it's below the level of your awareness. And so that feeling of being a pancake means that whether or not you know HOW you did it, you just stopped doing a lot of muscular activity that you're normally always doing.

Let's say there's tightness in your back. That means there's something that you're always doing in your back, and you don't know how you're doing it. You don't know how you started doing it. You don't know why you started doing it. But you're doing it. And then you spend 45 minutes on the floor, doing some other stuff that might seem unrelated. And then all of a sudden, at the end, you're not doing the tightness in your back that you were doing at the beginning. And you're experiencing that as, "Oh shit. I feel like a pancake." Which is cool. And that's an after effect, which is really noticeable in the moment. But the even more interesting thing is, How did you just stop doing something when you didn't know how you were doing it in the first place?

Power without Willpower

@daemonhugger: Most of the time you stopped doing that stuff without the intention to stop. Right? You do the movement. Then you stop and reassess, and you're more relaxed, but that wasn't the point of doing the movement.

EC: Well compare it to this: have you ever had a time when you know you're doing something you don't want to do and you TRY to stop doing it, but the stopping doesn't work. Like, "I always do this, I don't want to do it anymore."

A lot of approaches that use willpower to try to correct people don't work. And Feldenkrais does a really interesting thing, because he flips that on its head (or some way) and says, "Okay, maybe you don't even fully understand what you're doing that you don't want to be doing." In contrast to taking problems head on, his approach likes to explore all other things that might seem unrelated at first blush (which is nice because they're maybe less guarded). And then naturally (aka mysteriously), the thing that was a problem dissolves, but not because of willpower or direct approach. Because of something else.

Effortless Emotion? Effortless Intellect?

@daemonhugger: Yeah. The question of will power has been fascinating to think about through Feldenkrais. And world shifting!

To connect it to the emotions, or maybe one step in that direction is because Feldenkrais talks a lot about the fact that what goes on in the mind is always represented in the body. And so I remember wondering a year ago, when I started exploring this, What is the physical manifestation of thinking? What is that? Not the content, but what is going on?

That reminds me of last night, when I was doing my session, and the thing that stood out as being the most tense was my eyes and the strain in my eye sockets. That connected to several years back, when I read Thinking Fast and Slow, where Kahneman talks about an experiment that measured cognitive effort in problem solving by having a really close up camera on someone's eye. And when someone was trying to solve a problem that was really complex, their eyes, their pupils dilated extremely. And that's a very clear representation of effort going on in the eye.

EC: It makes me think of the phrases "intellectual effort" or "emotional effort." And then I can wonder, what would an effortless emotional experience be? Or what would an effortless intellectual experience be?

@daemonhugger: If there's a certain kind of thinking which is effort full, that leads to your pupils dilating a whole bunch, then what other kind of thinking might there be? If you relax your eyes or your whole body as much as you can, what might arise? Can you consider that thinking?

Speaking is not thinking

EC: Feldenkrais was pretty emphatic about not reducing thinking to stringing words together. I'm not saying that that's how you're presenting it. But I just remember being really intellectually excited about hearing Feldenkrais talk about that idea, and I thought, "Here's somebody who's made a very serious study of forms of thinking that are not necessarily verbal, but are still intellectually rigorous, and valuable."

He frequently pointed out that the most genius people in a field like mathematics don't solve problems by thinking with words. Usually they're having some kind of insight that comes after a lot of hard work. Then in an off moment, all of a sudden, they have some... There's some kind of mental state that you get into when certain things connect. And you have an insight. And it's not because you are grinding, it's more like some pattern emerged that you're set up to see because of previous work.

What's interesting to me is when it feels as though somebody else did it. We get that feeling with movement, too where it's like, "Whoa, all of a sudden this is so much easier." If I'm identified with the effort of doing something. And then all of a sudden, something happens through me that feels effortless, will I identify with that? Will a person seize the opportunity to think, "Shit, I just did something without trying and it was super powerful." Can I expand my image of myself to include the possibility I can do powerful things without willpower?

@daemonhugger: I'm thinking again about intellectual effort and insight that arises when you're not making the effort. The movement analogy would be that you lay on the floor, you're tense, and then you do some movements. As you reassess, you're no longer as tense. But the way that you got there did involve you. You had to move and engage and put some effort into strenuous movements to see where it was strenuous. Then you figure out how to make it less so. And then when you relax, that's the moment where you're no longer like trying to think through a problem super hard. Then you stand up at the end, and you notice your body feels so different. And you think, "I didn't try to make that happen." But little efforts throughout the past half hour enabled it.

Mysterious Core

EC: One way it gets talked about a lot in the Feldenkrais discourse is that your nervous system is selecting for movements that are optimal. "Nervous system" is a way of framing it.

But that's one of the big questions that Feldenkrais work raises. There's some part of you that's sorting through your various trials and errors and making new sense of it. And that part of you creates new self images. Sometimes I think of it as the Organizer, but in a specific sense of that word.

As you go forward with your studies, I suggest you keep oriented to this question about what that mysterious thing is and how it works. Historically, in this discourse, it's been talked about as the nervous system, and I haven't done enough reading to know how accurate that characterization is in relation to current scientific research. But keep asking that question!

To me, that's the juiciest part of Feldenkrais work. What is that part of you that organizes your experience? It's part of all of us. And it's been part of us the whole time, from the moment we came out. From before we came out! Feldenkrais work is largely about figuring out how to work with that mysterious deeper part of us that organizes our experience. It's not exactly graspable. You can't exactly make that part of yourself do certain things. It's suggestible, but it has its own way of working. Everybody finds their own way of working with it, and that's beautiful.

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