I learned about the Feldenkrais method at a two-day workshop at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, in the mid-1970s. A hot spot for the human potential movement, Esalen featured nude soaking in co-ed hot tubs near a row of outdoor massage tables at which naked masseuses kneaded naked bodies. Also, mixed-gender volleyball games where everyone was, yes, naked.
In this seemingly “anything goes” environment, about twenty-five of us spent the better part of two days in comfortable clothes, lying on mats in a large room. Here we learned to do a series of slow, gentle movements. Israeli Dr. Moshé Feldenkrais developed this system during the mid-20th century, to reorganize connections between the brain and body, and improve both body movement and psychological state.
Tears Follow Feldenkrais Initiation
The night after the first day at the Feldenkrais workshop, I lay on my bed and cried and cried. Only now, decades later, do I have a glimpse of what the tears were about.
But before I found out, much time passed. Fifteen years after that first experience, I felt motivated to dive in again. I took a short series of Feldenkrais classes near my home. After each session, I felt relaxed and confident and didn’t cry.
Disappointed when the classes stopped, I filled the gap over the years with yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, and other classes at my local fitness center. I wondered why they seemed to be offering just about everything there from those classes to hula dancing, Zumba, Latin dance, body pump, and more — but not Feldenkrais.
A few months ago, I was thrilled when they hired Feldenkrais instructor Ruti Gorel to teach a weekly class. What’s different about my current Feldenkrais experience from earlier ones is my new awareness, fostered by Ruti’s teaching style, of how mental and emotional changes accompany physical ones.
Awareness is Key to Learning in Feldenkrais and Psychotherapy
Now, lightbulbs keep flashing in my head each time I sense parallels between Feldenkrais teachings and effective psychotherapy. Ruti encourages us to notice our different physical states before and after doing various movements, to relax in between each series of moves, and to tune into our different sensations. “Awareness is the key to learning,” she says. This is true also in psychotherapy, which promotes self-awareness.
Ruti kindly let me interview her for more understanding of key elements shared by the Feldenkrais method and psychotherapy.
“The way I teach Feldenkrais, it makes for a higher awareness of the self inside; it helps people to go within, physically and emotionally,” she said. “People get rid of physical pain or decrease it. Their breathing becomes freer; they get calmer and more relaxed in body and mind. So they feel less stress and experience emotional relief. It helps make a higher awareness.
“When muscle and tension are holding on in your rib cage, which is an area that contains lots of emotions, the Feldenkrais movements will allow you to release a lot of negative emotions out of the body. It’s like a detox.”
Releasing Pent Up Feelings Brings Relief
That sounds great, I thought, and like what a down-to-earth client of mine said, “I always feel good after coming here. I don’t know why, but I always feel good.”
The sense of relief from releasing pent up difficult emotions can be profound. At Esalen, I didn’t understand the source of my tears. Perhaps the understanding was then less relevant than the simple act of cleaning out whatever was clogging up my head and heart.
After doing Feldenkrais movements, I feel fine. Typically, when I get up and begin to walk around after a class, I sense having let go of something, often signaled by a burp or two (excuse me!), which Ruti says is good. Other people have different ways of sensing a release from what their body or mind might have been holding onto.
Many forms of exercise produce endorphins, those feel-good hormones. What’s so special about Feldenkrais compared to running, tai chi, yoga, Pilates, or something else? These bring calmness and a sense of wellbeing, and without burps, tears, or other signs of releasing tension.
How Feldenkrais Differs from Other Exercise Practices
Feldenkrais with Ruti is more like psychotherapy than these other ways of exercising, in several ways. She encourages us to:
- begin the session by checking in, noticing our breathing and how we feel emotionally, and physically.
- notice what parts of our bodies feel closer to or further from the ground.
- move no more or no less than is comfortable for us. Comfort is key.
- take time to rest in between each series of movements. “Let the brain take in what’s happening to your body and emotions,” she says.
- If it’s too difficult or painful to do a movement, make a smaller movement, or just imagine yourself doing it.
Q & A with Ruti Gorel
Here’s some conversation between Ruti and me:
Marcia: About resting between some movements and letting the brain take in what’s happening, a sense of wellbeing is probably typical, right?
Marcia: How useful is it to imagine yourself making a motion instead of doing it?
Ruti: The Feldenkrais method develops movements to give the brain more information to replace old habits. Unhealthy physical habits can result from holding on to emotions. Emotions or physical events can cause a limitation or constriction. The habits that are not aligned with our body’s optimal functioning cause physical pain and exacerbate physical and emotional pain.
Marcia: What do you think are your unique strengths as a Feldenkrais teacher?
Ruti: Every practitioner has uniqueness, and mine is I’m bringing in additional connection to mind and body like spirituality and emotional support while we’re working. I’m encouraging talk and also bringing in emotional support.
A lady with multiple sclerosis was shaking and crying while I was manipulating her. Lying on the table while I listened, she had a safe space to come out.
Marcia: I cried after my first Feldenkrais experience? Does that happen with many of your clients, and what’s that about?
Ruti: The crying is a physiological response and also a spiritual one. Emotions accumulate in our body, and some of it goes out and is released. Most of my clients who cry during a session with me are usually releasing childhood pain that was still knocking about.
Ruti’s last comment sounds like what often occurs in psychotherapy. People’s good mood after a therapy session often results from their having released pent up feelings.
Awareness is Key to Learning in Both Practices
Good couple therapists know that “it takes two to tango.” For a better relationship, each partner needs to practice interacting kindly, respectfully, and lovingly, until they do so naturally. Checking in with oneself should happen routinely as part of the therapy process. In therapy, this can mean being aware of one’s thoughts, feeling, and bodily sensations.
Similarly, Ruti asks us often to check into ourselves. She asks us to notice which parts of our body feel closer to the floor after doing a series of movements. Does one arm or leg feel longer than the other now?
Awareness of the Power of Words
What we say and do can quickly change our mood and our partner’s. During the first part of a marriage meeting, spouses express appreciation to each other. On hearing these words, both partners typically perk up, make eye contact, and smile.
We stand straighter and feel taller after a Feldenkrais session. Similarly, after a good couple therapy session, spouses usually feel expanded with positive feelings about themselves and each other.
The Strength of Imagination
Ruti says that by simply imagining yourself moving a different way trains your brain to let go of old constricting patterns and replace them with habits that reduce or eliminate pain.
Imagination plays a more significant role in psychotherapy than you might think. Therapy sessions for couples and individuals typically focus on resolving problems and challenges. Often, people start out thinking that someone else or something else needs to change to improve a situation. But the first step toward creating a better relationship is usually realizing that we need to change our own thoughts and behaviors.
But before that can happen, we need to imagine ourselves acting differently, for example, when provoked. Or imagine ourselves being proactive enough to prevent aggravating someone else. Only then, can we move toward letting go of an old pattern and replacing it with a relationship-enhancing one.
Both Feldenkrais and psychotherapy practitioners advise clients to be patient with themselves because change takes time. Feldenkrais movements start in baby steps as we extend our range of motion. I often tell my therapy clients that change happens in baby steps.
How Feldenkrais Differs from Psychotherapy
Differences also exist between the two practices. In Feldenkrais, comfort is essential; you shouldn’t push your body to move to the point of pain.
In psychotherapy, a trusting relationship between the client and the practitioner is vital. Comfort means feeling safe, expressing your private thoughts and feelings. You want to know: Can I be my true self with this person; will she or he accept the real me, flaws and all? When the answer is yes, the therapy is likely to go well.
Growing Pains are Positive
Yet, in therapy situations, a tension exists between staying in one’s comfort zone and stretching into better ways of relating to ourselves and others. The supportive therapy relationship encourages risk-taking. No pain? Yes, pain. But “growing pains” can happen when we stretch beyond our comfort zone.
Feldenkrais concentrates on the physical, yet emotional and spiritual benefits accrue. Psychotherapy emphasizes thoughts and emotions. Therapy clients benefit physically from clearing the air internally and in their relationships, and spiritually by tuning into their essential selves and expanded consciousness.
Different Guides for Each Practice
Psychotherapy and Feldenkrais. Each practice calls for a different kind of guide. Both methods offer a beautiful way, as Ruti puts it, to “take out a lot of emotions while feeling safe.”
In both systems, everyone goes at their own pace and is told: don’t compare yourself to others; it’s about respecting and honoring your capabilities. It’s crucial to be who you are, to have compassion for yourself. That’s where you need to be now, and you move from there and at your own pace.
I’m a fan of both methods, having seen their results personally and professionally. Similarities and differences exist, each offering benefits in their unique way.