Conversations – Mary Spire

Mary Spire, Feldenkrais® practitioner

Jen: How does gravity relate to the Feldenkrais Method®?

Mary: The skeleton supports us in gravity; our muscles “hang” off our skeleton. If the skeleton is holding our weight in gravity than the muscles don’t have to work as hard. So, we aim to use our muscles only to the extent of what’s necessary, calibrated by one’s awareness of one’s self, and how much energy one “thinks”, or perceives, they need to do that movement. For example, you will use very different effort if you’re picking up a stuffed animal vs. a heavy box of books. This is calibrated by a brain-body awareness that is both conscious and unconscious. In Feldenkrais®, we are playing with refining those awareness levels. In good movement, efficient movement, easeful movement, there is not much effort “the effort matches the task at hand. It’s all based on our ability to sense differences.

Jen: Why are Feldenkrais® movements generally done slowly and gently. What is the benefit?

Mary: The reason that Feldenkrais® movements are gentle has to do with the Fechner Weber principle* (see below) which essentially says: When you reduce the stimulus, you increase sensitivity. It’s important to discern differences in order to increase sensitivity “especially for the practitioner. Generally speaking, as we do movements, we are conditioned to effort. So in a lesson, in order to break a pattern or habit of over-efforting, the teacher first must help the student understand the action. Then, using sensitivity, the student learns to calibrate how much energy and effort they need to execute that action. It is our sensitivity that teaches us how much effort is needed. The movements in Feldenkrais® are slow so that you have time to notice things like: Am I breathing? Am I present? What’s happening? And, most importantly, we slow down in order to notice change. We reduce the effort in order to increase our sensitivity and our ability to pay attention. Slow and gentle moments create less “noise” for the brain so that more can be integrated.

Jen: Why it is that with Feldenkrais®, you usually only do a couple, maybe three at most, repetitions?

Mary: Yes, when doing a movement sequence, you only ever do a few repetitions. You do a few repetitions with total awareness though. Nothing is mindless. You notice that no two repetitions are the same. When we do repetitions over and over again, it’s not that it’s wrong, but it becomes more like exercise “not movements “which is fine, too. Feldenkrais® can be many things “an art form, palliative, preventative, rehabilitative. But fewer repetitions keeps it fresh in the brain and the brain can pay more attention.

Also, the movement lessons are often obtuse and intricate because it’s important that, as the student, you don’t know the outcome. It has to do with the novelty factor and how the brain learns. When a movement is new, there is a greater likelihood that it will be more explorative, especially at the neural/nervous system level. So it is encouraged that you do many different movement lessons vs. always doing the same one. If we always do the same one, the brain gets conditioned and stops learning.

One of the most relevant and essential points of Feldenkrais® is that it thinks of the brain as the most important way to work with your environment. In this way, the Feldenkrais® model is developmental. We, as humans, take nine months to a year, or more, to get up and walk. All other animals pretty much are born, and shortly after get up and walk. So for nine months, we go through a long, explorative trial and error period. Children explore how to be in the world “they fall down and they get back up and they fall again “and we never make them wrong for it. Children explore and develop in an environment, hopefully, that is 100% conducive to learning. So child development and environment are the foundations of the Feldenkrais Method. From a very young age, attitude and posture get reflected in each other. We study children to understand how we learn. Mosche Feldenkrais understood that children DO indeed learn; that there must be a re-genesis of brain cells occurring. Of course now, we’re finding out more and more about brain plasticity and the potential for growth. So this is a very exciting time for Feldenkrais® practitioners. As a neurologist once said to me after I’d admired how easily he spoke about the neurological events happening when the brain is learning, “Yes, Mary. I can explain it. But you can actually help people.”

Jen: Would you talk about the importance of “being present to what is happening” since it is a common thread between your work and mine.

Mary: Noticing differences is the key to changing patterns. When you get off the table after a lesson, it is important to take time to notice what’s happened, what’s different, because this is when the brain learns the most. This is when the brain is integrating. Ideally, lessons would be done every day to really change patterns. The greater the frequency, the faster the brain will change and so the faster the pattern will change.

Jen: I’m interested in this idea of working Core-to-Core. And I know this is an important piece of your work and taking care of yourself while you’re working. It’s a big part of your training. Would you say something about what Core-to-Core means to you.

Mary: As a practitioner, you need to be taking care of yourself, paying attention to your body, to your attitude, to how you are being. As a practitioner, you need to be really sensitive of yourself as a practitioner because you do not want to get in the way of the client being able to feel what they are feeling. Yet are present in a non-intrusive way that guides them at the same time. It’s a tricky balance.

Jen: Feldenkrais® uses the eyes a lot. I’m fascinated by this. I’d like to know more about this.

Mary: Use of the eyes and the carriage of the head effects the entire body. Period. This is the key to using yourself well. I work with people with Torticoulis, for example, and after doing soft and hard focus eye movement exercises, my clients’ nervous systems’ relax and the jerkiness subsides “or gets much better. How you use your eyes relates to the nervous system which relates to how efficiently the body does a movement(s).

Jen: I’m finding that I am less intertested in “correcting” people and more interested in guiding them. Your teaching very much reflects this. Why is this important to you?

Mary: There is no labeling and no correction in Feldenkrais® lessons. There are only suggestions. The key is to do less. Another key is not to speak in parts. It’s our nature to get stuck on the parts but we have to keep looking at who we are as a whole, physically and emotionally (because there is always an undercurrent of the psychological). So the way we speak to people, the language we use, is also key. Invite them to notice vs. telling them they are wrong. Help them make it their own journey. On the other hand, as much as I try to stay away from the negative, I am careful not to praise too much either because this is another form of judgement. I try to be neutral and to just keep encouraging the noticing. It’s also important to remember that you, as a practitioner, are not working “on” clients but rather “with” clients. It’s two nervous systems working together, connecting. So again, as a practitioner, you have to develop your own sensitivity, you have to stay clear energetically. Most Feldenkrais® teachers discourage questions along the lines of “What is the best way to stand/sit/walk/breathe/ do a movement? The goal is to help the brain realize that it has many choices for each movement, and to let the subconscious brain pick the best choice for each situation.

Mary gave me a couple of great handouts with the following quotes:

“We have all been the recipients of conditioning from the moment of our conception to this second in time. The mind-body habits that maintain the habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, and moving can be interrupted through awareness of physical movement in various simple, gentle, and effortless exercises or lessons. Dr.Mosche Feldenkrais has developed a method that is based upon releasing the conditioning of our nervous system. The body releases chronic patterns of body movement and muscular tension and learns that new, more pleasurable possibilities now exist.”

“The Feldenkrais® lessons begin with the earliest of infantile movements and proceed to recapitulate our developmental history in terms of movement. Thus, there is a breaking down of the motor/behavior patterns which began at the very earliest of ages. These lessons are for people of any age and allow each individual to learn at his own rate and within his own range of movement. “

February 2011