What Makes Any Feldenkrais Lesson Work? Newspaper Science Nr. 3

By Roger Russell, MA, PT

The Feldenkrais community needs to demonstrate that Feldenkrais lessons are safe and effective as well as provide an adequate theory.  Policy makers who might consider including Feldenkrais for their constituents will want to know what makes any Feldenkrais lesson work. Looking over various attempts to formulate a theory of the Feldenkrais Method we find several kinds of explanations. The picture that emerges is confusing and often contradictory. This leads us to a resource….

Roger Russell, M.A., PT,training with Moshé Feldenkrais in San Francisco, Amherst and Israel (1975- 1982). A movement scientist, physical therapist and Feldenkrais trainer he is co-director of the Feldenkrais-Zentrum in Heidelberg, Germany. Since 1975 he has been intrigued by the network of ideas which stands behind the practical methods that Feldenkrais developed.  He is one of the initiators of the Feldenkrais Science Network and a leading participant in the FGNA/FEFNA symposia Movement and the Development of Sense of Self (2004) and Embodying Neuroscience (2012) as well as presenting Feldenkrais in conferences in Paris, Berlin, Oxford and Heidelberg.

Photo: Barbara Hohenadl

In the last article I stated that the Feldenkrais community needs to provide research to satisfy three goals. First, that Feldenkrais lessons are safe. People who participate in Feldenkrais lessons suffer no adverse consequences including somatic and psychological injury or even death. Yes, every Feldenkrais teacher knows that people do not die in Feldenkrais lessons. However, a recent study of ATM for the Germany health insurance industry pointed out that we have not established this simple fact with correct research protocols. This is such an unexpected question that most Feldenkrais teachers have not considered providing the evidence. Second, that Feldenkrais lessons are effective related to the goals of the participants. Third, Feldenkrais lessons need to be explained by an adequate theory.  

This last point will be the theme of this article. Policy makers will look at scientific research concerning the success and safety of Feldenkrais lessons. They also want to know what makes any Feldenkrais lesson work. Looking over various attempts in the Feldenkrais community to answer this question we find several kinds of explanations. These include: 

Quoting Moshé Feldenkrais: One way to explain Feldenkrais lessons is to quote Moshé Feldenkrais. He made a variety of assertions and formulated explanations. These are often inspiring and thought provoking. He certainly knew what he was doing. However, Moshé did not publish a unified theoretical model that meets the requirements of a general theory of his complex body of work. 

Health Assertion: We describe the Feldenkrais Method as a sophisticated movement therapy. This requires that we accept the assumptions of the health care system as self-evident and sufficient. The medical establishment is concerned with diagnosing and treating deviations from the norm. The Feldenkrais Method is very helpful for people with health problems. But it is also helpful for people who do not have health problems. Reducing the Feldenkrais Method to serve the goals of the health care system would be a loss.

Performance Assertion: Many Feldenkrais teachers work with athletes, musicians or artists. Their goal is not to alleviate symptoms, but to improve a person’s skills and performance in an activity in which they are already successful. The descriptions of why Feldenkrais Method is successful varies from biomechanics and sport science to artistic metaphors. None of which cover the wide range of applications available for the Feldenkrais Method.

Educational and Developmental Assertion: Feldenkrais is a (somatic) educational system applied to improve a person’s coordination, and abilities for living in their social and cultural context. This leads to an assertion that the Feldenkrais Method is an approach to personal development within a life-span perspective. This is a promising approach, if it would go beyond the metaphors of humanistic psychology, appealing as they are to the clients and teachers, but not filled out as a theory in the formal sense of the word.   

Personal Growth Assertion: Many people feel calmer, wiser and more competent as a result of their experiences with ATM and FI. Here, we assert that mindfulness and non-habitual experiences enrich each of us as a person. These explanatory metaphors are poetic, inspiring, and often immediately obvious. However, because they seem so self-evident to Feldenkrais teachers, these descriptions have not been fully elaborated to serve as a Feldenkrais theory. 

Body Psychotherapy Assertion: It is argued that Feldenkrais lessons are embodied psychotherapeutic methods. However, hidden in many of these disciplines are two inconsistencies relating to the Feldenkrais body of work. First, these approaches make, what philosophers call, absolute presuppositions. These are unspoken, and often unrecognized assumptions that body and psyche are separate processes. This assumption is built into the conceptual genealogy of the language and methods of this discipline; hidden from view but influential. This is a fundamentally different from assumptions built into Feldenkrais lessons. Second, by accepting such a split in the person, many of these psychotherapeutic methods endorse applications of (unnecessary) force to the mechanical body as necessary for healing the mind. This is fundamentally different from Feldenkrais’s approach.  

Body Mechanics Assertion: This perspective on the Feldenkrais Method is the converse of the last one. Adopting the same Cartesian split of the person, but arguing for the person as a mechanical being rather than a psychological being. It is in line with everyday language of my/your body, bones, muscles, fascia, tensegrity structures, and so forth. Two assumptions are built into this assertion. First, a person owns a physical body with mechanical parts. And second, that forces applied to the mechanics will be sufficient to correct the posture, movement and even behavior of the mechanical body and therefore the person. The image of the person that is the foundation of the Feldenkrais Method is not predicated on these assumptions. A theory based on these ideas is inadequate.  

Wisdom Assertion: We associate the Feldenkrais Method with metaphors that find their roots in the wisdom traditions of humanity: Yoga, Judo, Meditation, Zen, Sufi, Tibetan methods rooted in Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu religious and mystical traditions. Their teaching stories, metaphors and methods have been “tested” by generations of experts. This is a valuable resource. But metaphors do not form a scientific theory in the strict sense.  

Belief Assertion: From reincarnation and chakras to ki energy and meridians, many familiar and emotionally charged hopes are held responsible for the impact of Feldenkrais lessons. No question about it, there are many surprising experiences in Feldenkrais lessons. But these kinds of explanations have many disadvantages. First, they are difficult to verify. Furthermore, the belief is presented as a statement of dogma by recognized authorities, masters and gurus. The persons who argue for these models are often hostile to intellectual reflection of their beliefs. They find their justification by serving a worldview that is personally important to the believers. As much as they may serve the persons of a community of believers, they do not represent a theory of the Feldenkrais Method.

It is striking that these assertions do not provide a unified picture. We can provide a suitable Feldenkrais theory for each individual field of work, which more or less fits that particular practice, as long as we avoid asking too many questions. When we try to bring the different explanatory approaches together the picture that emerges is confusing and often contradictory. What can we do if our goal in the Feldenkrais community is to enable policy makers realize that the Feldenkrais Method can be valuable for their constituents? 

One thing stands out in these descriptions: there are unclear distinctions between what is a metaphor, what is a theory in the scientific sense, as well as the differences between descriptions of experience, interpretations of experience, and explanations of experience. Looking for clarity leads us to a resource that is well camouflaged in the abstract and technical language of the philosophy of science. 

 Admittedly, the details can be confusing for those who are not initiated into the club that argues about these issues. Nevertheless, the argument about how we can be certain about our knowledge has been going on since Aristotle laid out the first explicit rules of engagement 2400 years ago. Since then, philosophers and scientists have focused the discussion on several central points about what constitutes a good theory (of anything). A short summary can help in our search for a coherent theory of the Feldenkrais Method.

  • A useful Feldenkrais theory will need to adequately describe and explain the extraordinary variety of experiences that people encounter in Feldenkrais lessons. 
  • The theory should be explicit and include clear definitions
  • It will need to cover a wide field of application. Feldenkrais lessons are applied across a broad range of human situations; from infants to seniors, for almost any kind of activity including high level performance in sports or the arts, for health issues and for personal development. It is unusual, that the same methods for moving are applicable to such diverse goals. This requires an informed and appropriate explanation.
  • It will simplify and unify background knowledge from many academic disciplines relating to Feldenkrais lessons. At the same time, it will demonstrate how diverse research results can be understood within that unified framework of ideas.
  • This web of knowledge will be logically coherent and be free of contradictions
  • A Feldenkrais theory will call our attention to connections between moving, sensing, feeling and thinking that would not be expected from other theoretical perspectives. 
  • This theory will suggest new applications and to predict new outcomes
  • Finally, a useful Feldenkrais theory will point to research methods for testing our predictions.

These requirements for a good theory of the Feldenkrais Method can be found in professional literature relating to the philosophy of knowledge, or by its technical name: epistemology. There is one problem. The details of the points mentioned above can seem very abstract, often tedious for anyone but the most dedicated student, and seem to have no recognizable connection to the everyday practice of ATM or FI. 

However, there are two very practical consequences for spending some time on this subject. First, policy makers consult experts trained to recognize clear thinking about complex issues. Describing the Feldenkrais Method to those experts in the way outlined above will get their attention and respect. Second, these characteristics of a good theory provides every Feldenkrais teacher with questions for reflection. We can ask how our own ideas measure up against this framework for clear thinking. We can question our conviction that we know what we are doing. Often, we believe that we understand our experience of a lesson when we give it a name. When we reflect upon our naming of our experience, we might discover that hidden in the name is an interpretation based on only one point of view. If we examine that interpretation, we might discover assumptions that are familiar but not necessarily clear. Digging a bit deeper into the source of those assumptions we will find unquestioned beliefs about body, brains and mind, posture and movement, learning and practicing, force, strength and information, development and its limitations, and any number of other everyday constraints on our thinking. By doing this we can clarify our thinking about the methods we are practicing and discover new, elusively obvious connections that make us more effective Feldenkrais teachers. That seems worth the trouble! 

In the next article I will look at something in the description of a good theory that can slip past us if we do not pay careful attention. “A useful Feldenkrais theory will need to adequately describe and explain…” So, the question will be: what is a good explanation?

Something to read:

Start with Wikipedia or Google “Theory”.

Okasha, S. (2016). The Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction, (2.ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website is thorough, but takes you into deep water. Nonetheless, you can take a look. For example: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/science-theory-observation/  

de Regt, H.W. (2017). Understanding Scientific Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2003). Theory and Reality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peirce, C. S. (1878). “How to make our ideas clear”. Popular Science Monthly, 12, 286–302.

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