How Feldenkrais Helped Me Break Up With Yoga

How Feldenkrais Helped Me Break Up With Yoga
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Students doing one of hundreds of Awareness Through Movement lesson developed by Moshe Feldenkrais, D.Sc. Feldenkrais® teachers deliver verbal instructions but do not model movements or make adjustments, allowing students to discover them on their own.
© 2016 International Feldenkrais® Federation Archive. Photographer: Robert Golden
Students doing one of hundreds of Awareness Through Movement lesson developed by Moshe Feldenkrais, D.Sc. Feldenkrais® teachers deliver verbal instructions but do not model movements or make adjustments, allowing students to discover them on their own.

I first “met” yoga around 15 years ago when I hiked almost every weekend in the White Mountains. My left leg and hip stiffened after every adventure, making me feel like a 30-something geezer. I found a Boston area studio within walking distance that offered ashtanga yoga. The series of flowing postures offered relief and a chance to move in novel ways. Even though the full expression of most poses eluded me, I still wanted to love it. But the incense made me sneeze and I wasn’t wild about the Sanskrit chanting so I switched to Baron Baptiste’s more secular Power Yoga, characterized by 90+ degree heat and spraying sweat. I enjoyed the vigorous challenge and the focus on personal transformation. While I couldn’t always easily touch my toes, I convinced myself I’d become more “spiritually flexible” by evolving beyond squeamishness to exchange copious perspiration with strangers.

After relocating to Colorado several years later, I joined a Denver studio that offered Baptiste’s yoga. The familiar activity helped ease my transition to a new city. But when the spacious lobby morphed into a pricey clothing boutique and the teachers relentlessly pitched cleanses and workshops, the studio owner made me feel like a persona non grata for only taking classes. The snubbing impeded my quest for inner peace so I switched to an airy studio that taught Forrest Yoga. Thanks to the encouraging, caring teachers, I successfully did a handstand after years of being afraid to try. That breakthrough might have been the emotional climax of my relationship with yoga. While it wasn’t all downhill from there, I realized I was caught in a cycle of yoga dependency. The poses and stretching helped me recover from strenuous hikes in the Rockies and had a beneficial effect on my mood, yet I wasn’t in love with the practice itself. Yoga had become, shall we say, a friend with benefits. Hooked on the endorphins, I couldn’t walk away. Nor could I fully commit to a deeper yoga practice.

Something had to come between me and yoga.

That turned out to be a leg injury I sustained while walking the entirety of El Camino de Santiago in Spain. An inflamed tendon made weight bearing exercise difficult, if not painful, including standing yoga poses. I took up swimming again, stopped doing yoga and discovered I didn’t miss it very much, just the uplift in mood. Had we broken up for good or was it just a separation due to circumstances? Still, I wanted to find an activity to supplement swimming that also offered a brain boost.

I limped into a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement class during that time. All I knew from the Facebook announcement was that the class involved moving gently, which I could do. Like the beginning of many satisfying relationships, that first date with Feldenkrais was not love at first sight. We lay on heavy blue moving blankets rather than colorful yoga mats. Students wore street clothes, not trendy, form fitting attire. There were no props or accessories, no candles or crystals, no soundtrack to set the mood. More tedious than tantalizing, I wondered if I’d made a mistake.

My monkey mind, accustomed to larger and more vigorous gestures, protested the small, slow, and often repeated movements. I didn’t understand why the instructor asked us to rest frequently, since we barely budged. Frustrated, I couldn’t wait for the class to end. When the teacher finally asked us to stand and notice differences from the beginning of the lesson, my state change startled me. Despite my resistance, I felt refreshed, vital and uncharacteristically at ease. Even though my leg still hurt, the pain no longer dominated my emotional landscape. Something fundamental had shifted inside, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Had I just met the love of my life?

Intrigued, I returned. The more I went to class, the more magic I experienced and the more I fell for the Feldenkrais Method. I quickly and easily connected with the straightforward language of the lessons, a refreshing change from the ornamented and inspirational lingo that peppered yoga instruction. I stopped resenting the unglamorous, pose-less and pointless movements and appreciated that they helped me pay exquisitely close attention to myself. They were gateways to a depth of intimacy I hadn’t experienced before. Since the Feldenkrais Method emphasizes self-inquiry and the quality of movement, rather than specific positions or speed, the lessons helped curtail my habit of comparing myself to others, not just in class but in life. In observing the Feldenkrais principle, “To correct is incorrect,” the teacher neither modeled the movements nor adjusted students, a shift that felt liberating. That Feldenkrais focuses on how force is transmitted through the skeleton helped me feel more supported by my bones, allowing my muscles to remain relaxed long after I stood from the floor. Since each Awareness Through Movement lesson is unique, every class felt like a mini-adventure; because I couldn’t anticipate the next instruction, I had to focus fully on the journey. I left each class emotionally refreshed and more mentally alert than when I had arrived. There was no pain, plenty of gain and little to no sweat.

Still, prone to intense self doubt, especially when ending relationships, I bought a three class package for gentle, slow paced yin yoga to see if I could salvage my 10 year asana practice. What if I had simply been doing the wrong style all along? During that first class, while using blocks and blankets to prop myself during various seated postures, I knew it was over. These items, although meant to be supportive, drew my attention to what I could not yet do. The organic learning in Feldenkrais, by contrast, guided my attention to what my body could already do. I never returned for the remaining two yin yoga sessions. Instead, after reading most of Moshe Feldenkrais’ books, I enrolled in a Feldenkrais training.

In just over a year, Feldenkrais lessons, both in group classes and one-on-one with practitioners, resolved my chronic hip pain, something a decade of yoga hip openers didn’t accomplish. Feldenkrais, unlike yoga, even helped me around the house. Because this method teaches people how to organize themselves for efficient, pleasant movement in any context, not just particular poses, chores no longer felt like drudgery. They became experiments in awareness and opportunities to sense my orientation in space, make adjustments on my own, and practice moving skillfully and lightly. Subtle eye lessons improved my vision to the point that I rarely needed to wear my prescription lenses anymore. Feldenkrais made it possible for me to do an extended road trip on my own, with no aches or pains despite long days behind the wheel. Since my functioning improved so much, aging began to feel less daunting.

As my movement partner in life, Feldenkrais is delightfully low maintenance. I no longer schlep a mat to class or purchase, wear and wash special clothing. That there are no blocks, blankets or straps to fuss with during lessons helps keep me in the moment. The absence of allergy triggering candles, incense or sage is a relief. While other people I know have room in their hearts and schedules for both Feldenkrais and yoga, I’m the monogamous type. Now that Feldenkrais has made me feel much younger and more at home, I no longer wish to chant “om”.


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More personal essays about the Feldenkrais Method can be found here.

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An earlier version of this article was originally published on Elephant Journal.

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