Interpersonal Neurobiology the Feldenkrais Way
By Donna Ray, M.A.
“Donna did an excellent job of demonstrating how she integrates IPNB,
Feldenkrais and Psychotherapy in this paper.”
Dan Siegel, MD
The Feldenkrais Method (FM) is named for its founder, the late Russian-born physicist, engineer, judo teacher, and inventor, Moshe Feldenkrais, Ph.D. Feldenkrais wrote five books describing his revolutionary neurosomatic training methods, Functional Integration (FI) and Awareness Through Movement (ATM).
The FM’s mindful movement practices sensitize or heighten the response of the brain/ nervous system and create every imaginable functional improvement. This movementbased training emphasizes a meditative attitude, although Feldenkrais promoted a philosophy of life based on coherent spontaneous action. I refer to this as “the Feldenkrais Way.”
“Know what you are doing, so you can do what you want.” All Feldenkrais practitioners are mindful of these words of Moshe Feldenkrais. They inspire us, and we put them to use in our own ways, encouraging our students along the path of self-discovery. Increasing self-awareness facilitates new patterns of thinking, moving, feeling, and behaving. Flexibility, coordination, and movement efficiency translate into well-being in social interactions, improved athletic undertakings, better problem-solving, and emotional and physical pain reduction.
Each learning experience, or lesson, is constructed like an experiment, with an outcome that is both predictable and unknown. This non-goal orientation and attitude of gentleness instills optimal learning. Feldenkrais practitioners guide attention orally and through touch to ignite self-awareness. Students discover that they can do more than they imagined and learn to break self-limiting habits. In his July, 1980 training in Amherst, Massachusetts, Feldenkrais said, “We make the impossible possible, the difficult easy, and the easy elegant.” Movements as simple as breathing fully and walking well feel delightful.
My own introduction to FM in 1982 changed my life, opening a doorway to greater selfawareness and creating a framework for acquiring new information. Attending my first ATM class, I was a psychotherapy intern who had become frustrated by what I perceived to be the limitations of “talk therapy” with my clients. The FM offered something unique, more comprehensive; it engaged me immediately because it was so different from my own early learning experiences. I probably would have been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity). Sitting still in classrooms was excruciating for me. I only wanted to learn what seemed practical and immediately applicable. Putting my hands on what I was learning made it come to life. During that class I received a Functional Integration lesson from Feldenkrais trainer Mark Reese, Ph.D. When I stood up at the end of the lesson, I felt the way I had always wanted to feel, though I hadn’t known how to describe it before that moment. I felt at ease, light, open, present, alert, effortlessly at home with myself. This was my first experience of a dramatic “state shift,” a deep change that had taken place in my nervous system. The experience was so profound I felt compelled to enroll in the next available Feldenkrais training program.
My early study and teaching of the FM developed my understanding of the nervous system. I imagined it as a big, web-like structure running through the body from the brain. I could sense the nervous system while touching and working with others and readily observed changes in my own nervous system during ATM and FI lessons. In a Feldenkrais lesson, the practitioner and student monitor changes simultaneously, joined together in subtle, co-regulated movements. With the special ingredients of curiosity, novelty, pleasure, safety, and trust, neuronal changes are made painlessly. The movements are slow, building from simple, differentiated movements to complicated, complex structures that relate to all human activities, such as laughing, shouting, speaking, reaching, rolling, walking, and so on. The brain recognizes and quickly utilizes the functional movements; they are the basis of all human learning, beginning in infancy.
Though I have been studying and teaching the Feldenkrais Method for thirty years, it was less than a decade ago that I began to truly understand why the FM works so well. When I was introduced to Interpersonal Neurobiology and, particularly, the writings of Dr. Dan Siegel, I discovered a map that illuminated the science and reasoning behind the practices I had learned and seen to be most effective with my clients. For example, I have long observed that the FM elicits significant change from the reactive extremes of the autonomic system to a kind of comfortable neutral state, where individuals become poised to respond to any novel or familiar situation in new ways. A remarkable feeling of calmness accompanied by simultaneous alertness may be one of the most dramatic experiences the FM offers. I believe this is what Siegel means by “Opening the Plane of Possibilities.”
Inherent in each FI lesson is the change that takes place in the brain’s regulation system. Both vertical integration and horizontal integration take place. In The Mindful Therapist, Dr. Siegel describes vertical integration as the intentional focus of one’s attention on bodily sensations. He goes on to say that we are able to access a full spectrum of senses from our body. Distributed circuits are brought into connection functionally with each other from head to toe. Input from the body is brought up through the spinal cord and bloodstream into the brainstem, limbic area, and cortex to form a vertically-integrated circuit.1 This bottom-up, streaming flow of information and energy changes what we do. “Bottom-up” refers to enhancing the senses, as with breath observation and other sensory focusing. Engaging in slow movements activates our senses; we experience a fullness in our awareness that includes enhanced seeing, hearing, tasting, and pleasure in our movement. As Siegel notes in Mindsight, “This focused attention permits us to use awareness to create choice and change.”
On this vertical integration axis we also make connections top-down from the cortex, giving us the ability to explain the experience to ourselves and others. This process changes our personal narrative, the way we view and describe ourselves and the world around us. We learn to recognize and regulate our arousal levels, which in turn alters the state we are in. This self-awareness subtly changes our behaviors.
Understanding vertical and horizontal integration has increased the specificity of my psychotherapy practice and the Feldenkrais Way in which I work with my clients. I am able to more accurately visualize and sense what is happening as both types of integration are occurring in my clients’ nervous systems and my own. Simply put, novel sensory experience activates the right hemisphere, the sensory motor strip fires, and the left hemisphere makes sense out of the new experiences from a more analytical, logical perspective.
Attention to sensory motor activity influences information and energy flow. Important distinctions are made by differentiating movements of the skeleton, by monitoring sensory activity in muscles, and by noting how the musculoskeletal system affects our emotional system, our relationship to gravity, and our thinking. This experience shapes neuronal connections and moves the person toward integration. In essence, it changes the mind. (To appreciate what this process entails, see the case study of Susie, included below.)
Each FM lesson is coherently organized; the experience is calming and revitalizing. The client’s sense of an improved self engenders feelings of being capable, hopeful, alert, aware, present, and refreshed. Old habits are broken while new ones are welcomed. Each learning experience exemplifies concepts of neuroscience that can otherwise be difficult to grasp. Though the concept of achieving integration may seem abstract, when experienced in a movement sequence in which we monitor and modify our movements, we concretely know what this concept of integration means by sensing differentiated movement, and are able to observe how integration specifically improves the quality of our movement experience.
From my study of the work or Siegel and Feldenkrais, I would venture to say that both of these brilliant scientists/visionaries have been on a mission to save humans from their own idiotic behaviors, to improve the cultures that we live in and not just the individuals in those cultures. They rigorously put to use scientific principles that focus on guiding people toward health. This represents a shift toward what Siegel refers to as “neural integration” and what Feldenkrais termed “maturity.” In his book Body and Mature Behavior: A Study of Anxiety, Sex, Gravitation, and Learning, Feldenkrais says “What I understand by maturity, is the capacity of the individual to break up total situations of previous experience into parts, to reform them into a pattern most suitable to the present circumstances, i.e., the conscious control effectively becoming the over-riding servomechanism of the nervous system.
Let’s have a closer look at the connections between the FM and this emerging field of IPNB.
- Both are based on the truth of natural learning and emphasize the importance of subjectivity (the individual’s point of view), science (rigorous examination of human behavior), and relationship (how relationships shape our self-image and our lives).
- Both approach human functioning from the point of view of integration versus chaos. In Siegel’s terms, every person’s mind is hard-wired to reach for integration and connection. He and other scientists use the word neuroplasticity to describe the brain’s response to experience, or the way connections in the brain are capable of changing or being changed. One’s experience changes the function and structure of the brain itself, helping one change rigidity and chaos into integration. For Feldenkrais this assumption is a given: “My way of looking at the mind and the body, if you want to understand it, is to help make that structure of the entire human being functionally well-integrated. To make that change you have to rewire the mind in a special way.”
- Both look at health and human functioning rather than pathology. Feldenkrais said “Our strengths are our weaknesses and our weaknesses are our strengths.” The FM is based on developing awareness and learning, not curing. IPNB shows us that inherent in all useful therapeutic process is the development of awareness. The FM is based on the continuous development of awareness.
Considering Siegel’s nine domains of integration in light of the FM helps us see more clearly how the FM stimulates integration in a variety of ways.
1. Integration of Consciousness: “How we focus our attention is the key to promoting integrative changes in the brain…….we actually build the skills to stabilize attention so that we can harness the power of awareness to create choice and change.”4 Feldenkrais’s method of ATM directs the student’s attention to promote integrative changes in the brain. We focus attention and amplify what is happening during movement lessons. Focal attention is placed on skeletal movement, muscles, thoughts, and emotions. It shifts here and there, acquiring multiple perspectives that we then integrate into a functional, holistic action.
2. Horizontal (or bilateral) Integration: “Our left brain and right brain have separate but complementary functions.”5 In the FM we access right and left hemispheric functioning. For example, during ATM we accentuate right brain activity by verbally guiding attention using imagery and movement as well as by developing holistic thinking. We activate left brain activity during ATM as well, by using logical language, by coherently developing functional movements, and by moving the right side of the body.
3. Vertical Integration: “Our nervous system is vertically distributed, ascending from the body proper through the brainstem and limbic areas, finally arriving at the cortex…Vertical integration links these differentiated areas into a functional whole.”6 The FM continuously integrates vertically. We attend to and alter breathing, tempo of movement, and muscular activation. We learn to reduce and redistribute muscular effort. We observe our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and actions, and discover how they are woven together.
4. Memory Integration: “We process and encode our experiences in layers of memory.”7 Implicit or embodied memory begins in the womb and continues until the hippocampus is mature enough to reflect on past, present, and future events. At this time, explicit memory begins. The FM includes developmental movements, from infancy to adulthood. The process of exploring infant and toddler movements through to the complex movements of adulthood activates implicit memory and integrates early learning into explicit, newly-formed autobiographical information.
5. Narrative Integration: “We make sense of our lives by creating stories that weave our left hemisphere’s narrator function with the autobiographical memory storage of our right hemisphere.”8 Within the FM we explore learning through movement. Sometimes the lessons are difficult and challenging, sometimes easy to do. There is often a surprise learning moment in the lesson. The learning experiences themselves change our personal narrative. As I said earlier, by practicing the FM, I learned that I was more capable than I imagined. This change in what Feldenkrais referred to as “selfimage” is reflected in our personal narrative. When the self-image changes, our personal narrative reflects the difference; the way we tell our story is altered.
6. State Integration: “Each of us experiences distinct states of being that embody our fundamental drives and needs: closeness and solitude, autonomy and independence, caregiving and mastery, among others…….With state integration, we can move beyond past patterns of adaptation and denial to become open to our needs and able to meet them in different ways at different times.”9 The FM trains the student’s ability to shift from one state to another. We become aware of our patterns of behavior and see that we can break unwanted patterns and develop new, improved ways of behaving.
7. Interpersonal Integration: “This is the ‘we’ of well-being.”10 The FM provides us with a context for safe, trusting, intimate learning relationships that shape new ways of relating with others. These relationships promote integration both within the practitioner and the student and between the two of them. In addition, the FM has created a supportive community of learners with common values and experiences.
8. Temporal Integration: “Temporal integration enables us to live with more ease and to find comforting connections in the face of uncertainty.”11 While this connection to the FM may seem obscure, in my view Dr. Feldenkrais built this into his teachings. In the Amherst training, he once said “Your skeleton will outlive your soul.” He also said “Move as if your soul is doing the movement, that is, if you have one.” I think he made statements like this to provoke thinking while his students were moving in optimal ways; coupling uncomfortable thoughts with humor and feel-good, confident movements engendered an acceptance of mortality rather than a feeling of uncertainty.
9. Transpirational Integration: Siegel notes that each of us has an inherent drive toward health, what he calls “a push toward integration.” He observes that his patients develop an expanded sense of identity, an awareness of being part of a larger whole. “In various research explorations of happiness and wisdom, this sense of interconnection seems to be at the heart of living a life of meaning and purpose. This is the promise of mindsight and integration.”12 I believe that Feldenkrais intended the same outcome. During his trainings he created an atmosphere of learning that pushed his students toward integration, one that demanded the development of personal awareness and awareness of others, as well as awareness of the environment. In The Potent Self, Feldenkrais talks about becoming free of our cultural upbringing, becoming fully ourselves.
As a hands-on learner, I immediately found a joyous connection in Dr. Siegel’s view of learning. My chosen process–doing, sensing, feeling, and being aware, implicitly combining science and subjectivity–is what Dr. Siegel calls “direct experience learning.” Utilizing this approach, I can now integrate many aspects of learning within myself and others. It has become more and more apparent to me that psychotherapists, as well as Feldenkrais practitioners and their clients, could benefit greatly from a coherent synthesis of the FM with the principles of Interpersonal Neurobiology; several years ago, I began teaching Feldenkrais practitioners how to incorporate IPNB into their work. Ultimately, in psychotherapy and in the FM, we join together in relationships to enhance selfawareness and to learn. The student relies on the teacher for guidance and direction. The feelings generated in the learning relationship shape the brain and impact self-narrative, how we talk about our lives and ourselves. And they change self-image, how we conduct ourselves based on what we believe we are capable of, thus impacting all behaviors and relationships.
As we create kind, compassionate, accepting, loving feelings in our relationships, we are affecting the limbic area, where our emotions are controlled, as well as the prefrontal cortex, where the self-awareness center is generated. Neuroscience studies reveal that prefrontal brain structures change when we practice what Siegel terms “Mindsight,” cultivating internal awareness and awareness of others. By integrating feelings, thoughts, sensations, and behaviors, change takes place in the brain and in the mind. Indeed, we use the mind to change the brain and the brain to change the mind.
The process of integration is approached by Siegel and Feldenkrais from different directions, yet both lead us toward not only greater personal well-being but a better perspective on the world in which we all live. Dr. Feldenkrais had the gift of creating learning experiences that exemplified important concepts of neuroscience, learning, and human development. Those experiences change the brain. Feldenkrais said, “I am not interested in flexible bodies; I am interested in flexible brains.” Dr. Siegel has the gift of making the underlying neuroscience comprehensible for psychotherapists and educators so we can deepen our understanding of what we do and share this information with clients in a useful way.
A master of turning scientific principles and observations into snappy acronyms, Dr. Siegel writes that one of his goals with a patient was to SNAG his brain, that is, to Stimulate Neuronal Activation and Growth. This active image can be useful for FM practitioners and psychotherapists: build the attunement, rapport, and trust with a student and you will be able to SNAG her brain and thus improve her life. Similarly, I believe introducing the Feldenkrais Method to psychotherapists and vice versa will broaden their ability to create positive change in themselves and their clients.
Here are two case studies: one, quite detailed to give a fairly complete picture of how I combine Interpersonal Neurobiology, psychotherapy, and FM in my practice; the other, a briefer look at a couple whose issues we can all too readily understand and see through the IPNB lens. As you read the case study of Susie, look for ways I open her Window of Tolerance and SNAG her brain.
Susie: A Case Study
Susie is forty-five years old. She is suffering from lower back pain and anxiety. This is interfering with her ability to care for her children, perform her gym workouts, and maintain intimacy with her husband. She says, “The gym keeps me sane.” She has two children, four and six years old. Susie describes herself as very conscientious; she is driven to parent correctly. She also feels that she is not the mom she wants to be.
Susie reports, “I often feel tense and overreact to my children and their frustrations. Instead of calming them down, I match their frustration and get angry. I usually make idle threats and we all end up scared and frustrated.” She is unable to regulate her emotional responses with her children.
Regarding her back pain, I ask her when she began working out at the gym. She says she has been doing so as long as she could remember, for an hour or two a day. She was a competitive tennis player during her childhood and adolescence and was emotionally and physically abused by her coach for many years. He used to yell and hit her with his tennis racket when she messed up. “I was afraid of him,” she says. She goes on to say her parents were unaware of this, and when she tried to tell them they did not take her seriously.
We began this first session by establishing rapport and building trust. I attentively listened, attuned to Susie, and watched her breathing deepen. She spoke rapidly; I asked her to take her time and tell me all that was important to her. I scheduled extra time on the first visit so I could get to know her well. After she was finished speaking, I summarized what she had said, so she would know that I had been listening and understanding her. I asked her if I heard her correctly, and if she had more to say. She said she felt understood. She sighed with relief, her shoulders and face softened, and she asked me how this process worked.
I established the groundwork of IPNB by describing in simple terms how the mind/body and the brain function. I noted the importance of the learning relationship, stressing that the ingredients for positive change and learning are safety, respect, trust, and acceptance, as well as physical and emotional comfort. I explained how this affects the limbic area of the brain (the emotional center) and the sensory motor cortex (the movement area) and that they integrate and change emotional response and movement simultaneously, creating physical comfort and improved relationships.
I related this to the way the FM gently changes behavior patterns by breaking old habits and introducing new, improved habits. The brain is in charge of the ways each person repeats her patterns of behavior, both individually and in relationships. Before giving more cognitive information I wanted Susie to sense herself and engage in the process of sensory motor learning.
I asked if she was comfortable continuing with a hands-on Functional Integration lesson. She nodded in agreement. I invited her to ask questions during the lesson and to report any feelings or sensations that felt significant to her. I organized the lesson around the functional theme of standing and turning. Asking her to stand, I faced her and placed my hands on her hips. I gently turned her while she was standing, sharing with her that I was sensing the quality of her movements, noticing what parts of her skeleton were participating in the turning movement. I began moving her pelvis, her center of gravity, seeking the place where her movement became effortless. When we guide attention through the touch and verbal directions of FI we are enabling the brain to sense the distinct parts of the skeleton and how they are working together, or not; focal attention is used to develop awareness. Coupling my attention with Susie’s, we created awareness that otherwise would not be achieved. Eventually, by sensitively focusing our attention in a non-judgmental way, she would learn implicitly to notice and sense everything efficiently moving together. With this improved movement, her emotional and physical pain could subside.
Next, I asked Susie to lie on her back and guided her through a self-scan. I asked her to notice where various parts of her skeleton made contact with the table and to note her emotional state. This would give her the ability to observe changes at the end of the lesson. I then asked her to lie on her side, the way she would if she were napping in her Page 9 Copyright Donna Ray© 2011 All Rights Reserved most comfortable position. I gently moved her, going toward the easiest directions first. This non- invasive approach creates trust and eliminates fear and resistance. By placing my hands in a variety of places on her body, differentiating and linking various parts of the skeleton, I provoked her awareness of her musculoskeletal movements, demonstrating to her how everything can act together harmoniously. Enhancing her interoception and her proprioception allowed her to recognize the new patterns of movement available. The nervous system is self-correcting when the student is handled gently and clearly. This enables them to feel understood and supported while they experience deep, integrative change.
I asked Susie to lie on her back again, and to notice how she was resting on the table compared to the beginning of the session. On her back she felt expanded, lighter, and calmer. Then I asked her to sit up. While sitting, she felt calmer, taller, and her pain had subsided. She stood and walked, further exploring the changes. She said she felt relieved and hopeful for the first time in months. I saw and felt the new state she was in and thought to myself how quickly she was able to move beyond the old pattern.
We shared this happy moment and then spoke of how this feeling would continue. I asked her to notice when she felt this way each day. This would train her attention to look for feelings of hope, wellness, calmness, and pleasure. Training a client’s attention helps her cultivate a new state of ease and begin to eliminate old patterns of anxiety, tension, and pain. From past experience, I knew Susie would begin to carry my voice with her. Remembering my gentle guidance would enhance her self-care.
I then taught Susie a small, mindful movement that would calm her and keep the changes ongoing. I asked her to simply place her left hand on her left thigh, and then to notice all the parts of her hand and fingers resting on her thigh. I directed her to slide her hand toward her knee and toward her hip, very slowly, noticing all the parts of herself involved with the movement. As she experienced this for the first time she took a deep, calming breath.
I shared with her that she was learning to shift her nervous system away from the fight/ flight of the sympathetic, and that she would learn to find this neutral state. She could do this movement at any time to calm herself, whether alone or with her children. She could simply place her left hand on her left thigh, sense all the parts of her hand, and notice her breathing. I assured her that this ability to shift the state in her nervous system would become easier and quicker.
Susie’s case is an example of cultivating a new state so that it will become a trait. Her response reminded me of the first lesson I received, and the hopeful new sense of myself I experienced, so long ago. Susie, her husband, and her children would all benefit from her new state. And with more lessons this new state would become a new trait that would help her become the mother that she is longing to be.
The following is a short Mindful Movement practice based on a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lesson. It is the lesson that I taught Susie in our next session. As you read, follow along and notice how it shifts your state.
|Sit comfortably with both feet on the floor–put a pillow behind your back so you can lean
back and rest upright.Place each of your hands on your thighs: right hand on right thigh, left hand on left thigh.
You may close your eyes or leave them open, with a soft gaze.Notice your feet resting on the floor: sense your legs, sense your pelvis, resting on the
chair. Notice your weight.As you continue scanning yourself moving your attention upward, notice your breathing.
Notice when you breathe in and when you breathe out.Sense your lower back, your belly, your chest, your upper back, shoulders, your arms and
hands.Now bring you attention to your neck, your throat and your face, Notice your breathing
once again.Sense your hands resting on your thighs. Bring your attention to your left hand and
slowly notice all its parts–the heel of your hand, your palm, your thumb, your index
finger, middle finger, ring finger, little finger.Begin to slide your left hand on your thigh toward your left knee. Reduce the effort in
your hand. Continue to sense your entire hand–slide it forward and then back to where
you started. Do this movement slowly, many times.Notice where you begin the movement of your hand. Does it begin with your shoulder,
your back or pelvis? Don’t try to change what you are doing, simply observe.
Observe your left shoulder, is it moving along with your left hand. Does your chest
move? How about your head? You may be notice that as your left hand slides forward
you turn your torso a little bit to the right. Let that happen, allow your whole self to
respond.The next time you slide your hand to the middle of your thigh, continue the movement
toward your left hip. Slide your left hand slowly and continuously toward your knee and
toward your hip. Sense the response in your thigh to the contact of your hand.
Observe the path your hand is making on your thigh toward your knee and toward your
thigh. Do you repeat the same pathway each time?Begin to vary the pathway, moving your hand slowly along the outside of your thigh,
toward your knee, then continue the hand movement in the direction of your left hip,
always slowly, and continue to reduce the effort. Vary the movement; slide your hand on
the top of your leg, sometimes on the inside sometimes on the outside.
Notice how you Page 11 Copyright Donna Ray© 2011 All Rights Reserved
do the movement, do it in a way that allows you to observe the details and how they
change with the different pathways you explore.
As you change the pathway of movement, you may sense your shoulder and neck
Rest and sense your left side, and compare it to the right.
By attending to the left hand we are activating the right hemisphere of the brain. The
By moving slowly and developing sensory awareness we are affecting the regulation of
At any time use this movement to create a sense of integration.
Reduce the effort in yourself as you move. Notice all the parts of yourself responding to
Rest your movements. While you are resting, imagine moving your left hand toward your
Now, notice how you are sensing yourself and how you are feeling. If you would like you
Joe and Karen: A Case Study
Joe and Karen have been married for eight years. Joe is forty-two and Karen is thirtyeight. They have a very aggressive communication style. Joe invades Karen’s personal space by grabbing her and pulling her towards him when she wants to move away. Karen criticizes him, tells him that he is simple-minded, and that he can’t even wash the dishes right. He says he tries to make her happy; she says he does everything his way and doesn’t consider what would make her happy. She says “You don’t understand who I am at all. You don’t know how to listen; it’s all about you.”
He says that when he walks in the door she never smiles, she just hands him a kid and starts telling him what to do. She says he walks in the door on the phone, ignores her and the kids until he is ready, then he plays with the kids while she cooks dinner. He never says a nice word to her. He says, “I fix everything around the house, I don’t have any friends left. What else am I to do?”
These kinds of accusations go on and on. I have to wonder why they are together. But of course this is not for me to decide. The important thing is that they are asking for help and they want to improve their family life. They both say that before having kids they were more relaxed and had fun together. The kids are three and five, so it is a long while since they had fun. The older girl wets the bed, and the three-year-old boy does not sleep through the night.
I learned that they each came from chaotic families. Karen’s father was an alcoholic and very tyrannical. Her mother was meek, but tried to shield the kids from her husband. Joe’s mother was an alcoholic; she worked during the day and started drinking when she came home in the evening. His father worked long hours and wasn’t around very much. Both Karen and Joe were dealing with either disorganized or anxious patterns of attachment. It would be important to help them understand how their early lives were impacting each other and their children. I recommended they read Parenting from the Inside Out, so we could discuss the material together.
We practiced communication skills. I slowed the conversation down and attempted to bring awareness to how they were speaking to one another. My goal of creating receptive listeners was quickly lost in their harsh accusations of one another. I became a referee instead of a communication facilitator.
On the fourth visit we practiced slow, gentle, mindful movement the Feldenkrais Way. I asked both of them to become aware of their physical response to the frustration and anger they expressed toward one another. Each one could sense the tightness in their guts, chests, faces, and hands. I asked them to exaggerate this pattern. They did so, by lowering their heads, contracting the muscles on the front side of the trunk, and clenching their fists. I asked them to hold the contraction, pause briefly, then to go in the opposite direction.
While going the opposite way, they breathed in, expanded their bellies and chests, looked up, and opened their hands. We went back and forth, expanding and contracting, each Page 13 Copyright Donna Ray© 2011 All Rights Reserved time making a smaller, smoother movement. As the quality of the movement changed, we focused simply on looking down and then looking up, moving everything simultaneously.
With some coaching they went from tight flexors (all muscles on the front of the body) to open, lengthened, non-contracted flexors. Simultaneously, their extensors, or back muscles, were lengthening and contracting in sync with the flexors, in other works we balanced the muscles on the front and back sides of their bodies. Their breathing became easier, their jaws relaxed and hands opened. We kept reducing the size of the movement and I shifted their attention to their left hands opening and closing softly. We brought that to a close, and I asked the couple to look at each other.
They saw each other in a new way. There was softness in their faces and they felt warmth and care toward each other for the first time in years. From this new place we began our conversation. Any time either of them became agitated, we would return to opening and closing the left hand. This sensory movement shifts the brain to the right hemisphere and vertical integration begins, altering the emotional processing centers as well as the prefrontal cortex, allowing the person to shift to a new state. As I said before, when the state is cultivated sufficiently, it becomes a trait. I knew this was going to take a lot of practice, but we were now engaged in a new beginning.
I told them that there were scientific explanations for how they were training their brains with sensory motor awareness. They were both interested in learning more, so I mentioned that Parenting from the Inside Out would explain Interpersonal Neurobiology and relationships. When they realized how this knowledge could improve their children’s lives, they became even better learners.
For Susie, Joe, and Karen, their newfound knowledge of the basics of interpersonal neurobiology, coupled with the mindful movement practices of the Feldenkrais Way and psychotherapy, strengthened their hope in their ability to change. They became highly motivated to break old habits and to embrace new ways of behaving.
With the mind’s intention, the organization of all of the human parts–the brain, nervous system, and musculoskeletal system–becomes greater than the sum of our parts. Intention translates to clear action when all of these parts integrate harmoniously. This organization evokes Siegel’s metaphor of ‘The River of Integration’: “The central channel of the river is the ever-changing flow of integration and harmony. One boundary of this flow is chaos. The other boundary is rigidity…Sometimes we move toward the bank of rigidity– we feel stuck. Other days we lean toward chaos–life feels unpredictable and out of control. But in general, when we are well and at ease, we move along this winding path of harmony, the integrated flow of a flexible system.”14 I first heard this metaphor used by the late dynamic systems theorist, psychologist Dr. Esther Thelen. She would describe the flow of the river, asking her students to imagine the water, the rocks, the earth, the, foliage, the twists and turns of the riverbed, the change of temperature causing evaporation and rainfall, pointing out that everything in the system counts and every part of the system affects all other parts, and that the parts create a dynamic system we call river. Siegel interchanges the term “complexity theory” with dynamic systems theory.
The brain can be considered as a living system that is open and dynamic. It has many subsystems that interact, that are constantly changing. A living system is open to outside influences and in order to survive it must be adaptable and changeable with continuously emerging properties. An open, flexible, dynamic system displays the ability to integrate its parts harmoniously, while in times of stress it appears to disintegrate or become chaotic. As Feldenkrais put it, “I hope to show that the human frame is essentially a dynamic organization, that human behavior is equally dynamic, and that therefore, “human nature” is a dynamic entity made up of some inherited features and of personal experience, and that most of the limitations we encounter are imputable to the personal experiences we are subjected to rather than to inheritance.”
Through the practice of the Feldenkrais Method we are able to recover and rediscover this state of balance, our equilibrium, a functional state of integration. Feldenkrais said our resilience is a direct reflection of our state of health. IPNB strengthens the practice of the FM by deepening the practitioner’s understanding of how what they do with students really works. In Dr. Feldenkrais’s own words, “Many people fail to recognize the true cause of their inability or failure. The cause is very often not lack of ability, but improper use of self—there must not be too little an urge to do, a desire to act, nor too much. Now, we may not be able to influence our inheritance, but we have a large measure of control over our urges and over the means of freeing them from inhibiting agents of which we are rarely aware.”
I decided to become a psychotherapist when I was sixteen; the notion that human behavior could be understood and that people could change captivated and inspired me. The current paradigm shift in psychology toward health and happiness and away from pathology changes the questions we ask ourselves and our clients. Drawing inspiration from these two true visionaries, Feldenkrais and Siegel, has given me a foundation that optimizes my potential to help my clients and to mentor psychotherapists and Feldenkrais practitioners to create integration in many areas of their clients’ lives. We seek to help them regulate the flow of energy and information in a harmonious fashion, away from rigidity or chaos toward integration, wellness, and harmonious living. Dr. Feldenkrais taught me that one’s strengths can be weaknesses and one’s weaknesses can be strengths, thus “opening the plane of possibilities.” By emphasizing neurosomatic training and the dynamic learning relationship we optimize healthy change in a unique way. Combining these modalities of FM, IPNB, and psychotherapy offers a whole new range of strategies for working with clients that incorporates utilizing the client’s own wisdom. Thus we are able to support people in becoming aware of what they are doing, so they can do what they want.
Donna Ray conducts her private practice in the greater San Diego area and she teaches seminars internationally. To find out more visit FeldenkraisWay.com and DonnaRayCounseling.com.