How do we actually learn in a Feldenkrais lesson?

I was teaching the first part of a series of three workshops this weekend and someone asked me some very good questions. They went something like “How do you know what the movement you are being asked for is meant to be? What if you don’t feel what the teacher suggests you might feel? How do you know if you are doing the movement right?” They were timely and very valid questions asked in the process of a very genuine search and shared by more than one member of the workshop and I welcome and appreciate such opportunities to clarify what we are actually really doing in a lesson. Indeed it is part and parcel of doing the method to ask these questions of ourselves and our teachers at many stages.  But it was especially pertinent because it was asked in the light of the subject being explored in these three workshops which is entitled “How Did You Learn To Move?”

Not really knowing can be a very real frustration in Feldenkrais because while the teacher is in one sense going to give you a pretty clear instruction of what to do like “lie on your front with your forehead on your arms, bend you knees so the soles of your feet are to the ceiling and then lift one knee” there are in fact a variety of different ways you can use yourself to do that movement and to feel it and most likely the teacher isn’t going to tell you exactly how or what the ‘right’ way is. Instead the teacher is much more interested in asking YOU how you do it so you begin to feel your response (or variety of responses) to the question. Then they will probably offer you variations to try out and other movements related in ways that may not seem obvious until you begin to find more options and start to distinguish between the ways that make the original movement simpler and easier and the ways that don’t – or that simply make it different in quality. Now that journey of finding possibilities may be a very quick one and happen within minutes  – if there are possibilities reasonably easily available to you with a bit of facilitation or that you just hadn’t imagined – or it might be a much longer process over weeks, months, even years if there are pieces of the jigsaw that need to slot into place before certain options can become possible. It may take approaching the same question in different ways (or even asking different questions) to find how the movement of the knee lifting can be supported by a weight shift on the front of the pelvis which in turn requires an organisation of the spine all the way through to the head accommodated in turn by the back, ribs, shoulder blades and so on. It may take patience and an ability to hang out with the unknown for some time until enough is in place to make the shift. The teacher doesn’t avoid telling you exactly what to do out of perversion but because it wouldn’t help and might not even be possible. You cannot do what you cannot imagine or what is simply not available at the time. But by starting from a place where the movement is available and then playing in many different ways and slowly building the picture and developing possibilities from many varied angles, eventually you can get back around to the original movement that was perplexing and find that finally enough has shifted for it to become possible. There may of course be exceptions to the rule. There always are. But mostly it works.

And that is really how learning happens I think, and – to come back to the context of these questions in a workshop on development – how we originally learnt as babies. We didn’t learn in a linear fashion and no one taught us or told us what to do. Of course as humans we have a defining structure and physiology and an inherited species-specific history but within that we can also say we learn through basic drives (and reflexes) to stay alive, curiosity about ourselves and our environment and accidents that lead to motivation to repeat some activity that produced a good feeling or achieved an end we liked. Our learning involves a proccess of trial and error and a gradual integration and ordering of sensory (including, crucially, proprioceptive) experience. This is a very brief and rather inadequate snapshot but I hope it gives some sense that our development emerges out of a complex picture and not a fixed code.

A concrete example from a moment of video of a baby I filmed recently: The baby (3 months) lies on his back surrounded by toys but is really only interested in Mummy who he can see. In delight at watching her he gurgles and his whole body is convulsed in pleasure, his arms and legs waving wildly and randomly. In this random waving one of his arms hits a toy: a soft cuddly zebra. The touch is felt. His eyes switch from Mummy to the toy and while his attention will move from the zebra to Mummy several times in the next few minutes, the more he waves his arms and the more he hits the toy the more he starts to pay attention to the toy. He cannot control his arms well yet or direct them smoothly to the toy. It is not available to him. Nor can he help himself by rolling in its direction yet – he doesn’t have that idea. But he can focus on the toy and his arm waving gets wilder – as if it is more motivated perhaps – until ultimately he manages to actually knock it over. It is as much as he will manage today but it is a first step. By the next time I video him a month later he has learnt that he can stick his heels into the floor and push himself onto his side to reach a wanted toy more easily. Much will have gone into that discovery. Much random kicking and bashing the floor with his feet resulting in the sense of his pelvis rolling and that taking him more to one side. Maybe bringing his knees up over his chest and finding he unbalances to one side has also gone into the mix, until the reaching of his arms integrates with his pelvis rolling and the use of legs in some way to facilitate it. And then of course some relation of his arms and head to a new sense of extending in his back and neck and lengthening through his front allows his arms to reach forward more. In addition the random waving of the arms is giving way to experience of how to inhibit unwanted aspects of the movement and a growing experience of distance so that he can reach more clearly and directly. The movement has emerged out of accidents, motivations, trial and error and a developing experience of himself and himself in the world.

And that’s how my understanding of how learning in  Feldenkrais lesson works too. Trial and error, inhibition of unwanted aspects, exploration of useful aspects, feeling differences, the integration of many pieces and variations on those pieces – all enabling new discoveries. It involves exhilarating leaps forward, disappointing set backs, steady small steps forward, frustrating plateaux and then another wonderful jump but out of it all the picture emerges, the possibilities clarify and new ways to do things become more available, easier – and ultimately taken wonderfully for granted.

(for workshop details see

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