The Feldenkrais® Method of learning how to learn (short version)

“To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.”

                                                                            -Yiddish expression

What is learning?
What is improvement?
What is Feldenkrais?

by Edward Yu, CFP

The Feldenkrais Method could be considered the art of learning how to learn or, put another way, the art of learning how to improve. Feldenkrais is in this manner a radical departure from conventional approaches to learning and improvement because where Feldenkrais focuses on learning how to learn and learning how to improve, conventional approaches normally focus on trying to learn and trying to improve.

Cultural misconceptions
Our culture posits that trying harder, whether in academics, athletics, dance, artistic endeavors, work, spirituality, emotional growth, parenting, relationships—indeed any subject you choose—leads to improvement. Consequently, it is easy to assume that improvement is commensurate to the amount of effort you exert. In other words, the harder you try the more you stand to gain—“No pain, no gain,” as my track coach was all too fond of saying. According to this model, people who try harder improve more and are therefore more likely to succeed. Conversely, those who do not try as hard do not improve as much and are therefore less likely to succeed.

Of course, improvement alone doesn’t guarantee success. There is the added factor of talent, which supposedly plays a central role in the matter. We typically view talent as a head start or entitlement of sorts, which endows the “talented” with special abilities. In contrast, we see a lack of talent as a handicap which forces the “untalented” to work harder just to keep up. Unlike effort, which is a choice, talent is “God-given,” genetically endowed or otherwise immutable: we are born with some measure or lack of talent and there is nothing we can do about it.

Thus, the simple equation for success is as follows: Success = Talent + Effort. The assumption here is that highly successful people: 1) are more talented, 2) try harder or, 3) are more talented and try harder. Of course this also means those of us who are not as successful are either not as talented, not trying hard enough, or lacking both talent and willpower.

Learning versus talent

“If we believe talent is a birthright, then either we have it or we don’t. If we see it as a skill, then talent can be learned.” 
-Ellen Langer, On Becoming an Artist

How is it possible that I could share a classroom with the person who wins a Rhodes Scholarship or run on the same track team as the eventual state champion, yet still perform so far below their standards—even while working just as hard? Their relative success must be due to superior talent—unless we acknowledge all the learning and improvement that has taken place outside of the classroom and off the track.

The theory of talent assumes that those with superior ability were born with it and those who are less talented must exert more effort to acquire a similar stature. Unheeded in this assumption is the fact that without hours upon hours of learning, superior ability would not exist. This is to say, much of what we deem superior ability via talent is actually superior ability via learning.

That we overemphasize the role of talent and willpower may have to do with the fact that so much learning and improving occurs outside of conventional settings such as the classroom or practice field (in the case of organized sports), even though these are the arenas where most learning and improvement are supposed to occur. By focusing almost exclusively on talent and willpower, conventional approaches tend therefore to ignore what could be the most crucial factor in improvement.

Largely unacknowledged is the fact that every single human undergoes an enormous amount learning before reaching the age of 5. And while it is true that even young children exhibit differences in abilities that we often associate with talent, it is also true that such abilities could not emerge without the gradual refinement of sensorimotor skills—otherwise known as learning—that occurs during early childhood. This is of course not to say that learning and improving end on your fifth birthday. There are enormous possibilities for learning throughout our entire lives—all the way, in fact, until we die—and it is the great ones who capitalize most fervently on these possibilities.

Even child prodigies like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, aren’t simply born playing piano concertos. While they appear faster than their average counterparts, they must still learn in order to gain their abilities. Furthermore, prodigies who want to reach a master level must spend several more years crafting their skill. Mozart himself did not complete his first masterwork until the age of 21—that is, after having spent over 15 years behind the piano and over 10,000 hours meticulously exploring music.

Michael Jordan who was viewed as the NBA’s most dominant player for several years, put himself through a rigorous self-learning program just to make his high school varsity basketball team (he was cut the first year he tried out). Despite this, little press is given to the extensive and painstaking explorations he undertook in his teens—explorations without which he would never have dominated the world of professional basketball.
Thus, in two renowned masters, Mozart and Jordan, we see a world of learning that has occurred in at least two stages: 1) early childhood and 2) some time later in life. Neither stage, however, has been given much attention.

The Feldenkrais theory of learning

“He was just ordinary, and I doubt whether any scout would have thought much of him in his first year.”
-Joe Martin, Muhammad Ali’s first boxing coach.

All of this talk on learning is not meant to ignore the fact that upon our arrival into this world each of us exhibits innate propensities toward certain areas of development. It is also not to ignore external circumstances that are not under our influence such as who our parents are, where we went to primary school or whether or not our environment provided opportunities for composing music or playing basketball.

What our culture does tend to ignore is the enormous amount of learning so-called “talented” individuals must undergo in order to get to where they are. In contrast, Feldenkrais theory of learning emphasizes that no matter what innate propensities we are born with we must continue to learn if we are to improve anywhere close to our potential. So while it is true that Mozart and Jordan exhibited precociousness in certain areas of development, neither would have come close to achieving what they achieved without having spent countless hours exploring and learning—even well after their fifth birthday.

What is trying harder?

“If trying hard didn’t work. Trying harder is doing more of what didn’t work.”
-Charles Eisenstein

Ignoring talent, we could still say that over-achievers like Mozart and Jordan try harder than most people and that is why they are able to improve so much. Yet learning/improvement and trying to learn/improve are not equivalent. Ironically, trying harder often sabotages learning and improvement because it often means doing more of the same, or in other words, practicing old habits—whether physical, mental or emotional. From a neurological standpoint, trying harder can mean traversing already well-established neural pathways rather than creating new ones. In simple terms, trying harder often translates to doing more of what you are already doing. And while it may lead to some gain, your improvement will be minimal compared to what is possible. Trying harder then can be equivalent to trading the possibility of maximal improvement for the certainty of minimal improvement. It is in a sense, mortgaging your potential in order to experience instant (and often meager) gains. It is like stepping ever harder on the gas pedal while never leaving first gear: beyond a certain speed, adding more gas will do little but yield more strain on the engine.

What is learning?

“Intention governs attention, and attention exerts real, physical effects on the dynamics of the brain.”
-Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force

From a neurological standpoint, learning is the process of creating new neural pathways through play and exploration. Learning from this perspective, stands in sharp contrast to trying harder, which could be considered the act of strengthening already well-established neural pathways.

Learning, in contradistinction to trying to learn, is the act of bringing awareness to how you engage in any particular activity. Learning is, in other words, bringing awareness to the process, rather than simply focusing on the end result. From this standpoint, improvement is not so much proportional to the amount of effort you exert, as it is to the amount that your awareness increases each time you engage in a particular activity. By awareness, I am speaking of what you actually sense and feel in your body. I am speaking, in other words, of an increase in sense-ability. And because sense-ability generally increases with diminishing effort, improvement often occurs most rapidly when you exert less effort rather than more. You could consequently say that improvement is inversely proportional to the amount of (extraneous) effort you exert. And from this standpoint it would be more apt to say, “No pain, more gain.”

Of course, this does not mean you should never try harder, but rather that doing so as we are taught—that is, exclusively and therefore without attending to sense-ability—strictly limits improvement. And this brings me to the crux of the matter: if the greatest improvement occurs through increasing sense-ability, then it behooves us to make increasing sense-ability rather than increasing effort our main focus.

Learning can be involved in any activity

“Improve at what?” you might ask.

Anything. When you bring awareness to process, you instantaneously create new neural pathways. Over time, you will likely improve in ways that you never imagined possible and in places that you might never have considered (and by the way, imagination tends to be largely constrained by shared cultural values—but I’ll save this discussion for another article). It doesn’t matter who you are or where your talents reside.

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