Have you ever felt disconnected from your body, going through the motions of daily life without truly inhabiting your physical being? If so, you may find the practice of Awareness Through Movement (ATM) intriguing and transformative. This method, developed by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, aims to enhance self-awareness and improve movement patterns through gentle, guided exercises.
We live in a dynamic world. our bodies and mind are in a constant state of motion, perceiving and reacting to our complex environments. However, when we examine ourselves, we tend to picture a self that is constant. Our true self is not a fixed object but a complex vessel, retracting and expanding with each new experience. While Feldenkrais’s theory is typically utilized for treatment of physical ailments, it also opens awareness to greater movements within our bodies, giving understanding to the whole. Consequently, awareness through movement is a helpful way to mindfully observe ourselves in motion, learning new intricacies of our evolving being physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Awareness Through Movement is a treatment program designed in the 1970s by Moshe Feldenkrais. It brings attention to the variety of muscles movements in our body during various exercises to create a more integrated healthy whole.
What is Awareness Through Movement?
Awareness through movement is a mind-body practice that fosters self-discovery through intentionally and mindfully exploring movement. It is based on the belief that by bringing attention to our movements and habits, we can uncover new possibilities that improve functioning, enhanced coordination, reduced pain, and increase overall well-being.
Awareness through movement, first presented in the early 1970’s, typically is used by physical therapists and medical professionals to assist client’s improve functioning. However, after reading Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais book Awareness Through Movement, presenting his method, One understands that Feldenkrais was presenting a model of treatment for much more than healing the typical physical ailments associated with body.
Awareness Through Movement, in many ways, resembles the ancient practice of Tai Chi. Accordingly, research supporting the mind-body benefits of Tai Chi likely would also pertain to Awareness Through Movement practices. Notably, a recent study found that Tai Chi actually reversed cognitive decline in older adults with mild cognitive impairment (Li, et al., 2023). We can add this latest finding to the robust library of literature supporting mind-body connections and whole person health.
The Feldenkrais Method: Founder and Philosophy
Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, an Israeli physicist, mechanical engineer, and Judo black belt, developed the Feldenkrais Method as a way to address movement limitations and optimize human potential. Influenced by his background in physics and a deep understanding of human neurology, he believed that our movement habits are deeply ingrained in our nervous system and can be relearned and refined throughout life.
How Does Awareness Through Movement Work?
In an Awareness Through Movement class, a trained instructor guides participants through a series of movements and gentle exercises verbally. The movements are often slow and deliberate, focusing on different parts of the body and exploring the connections between them. The emphasis is on quality of movement, rather than quantity or intensity.
Through these guided movement explorations, participants can uncover habitual patterns, tensions, and restrictions that may have developed over time. By becoming aware of these patterns, individuals gain the opportunity to consciously choose alternative movement pathways that are more efficient, balanced, and free from unnecessary effort.
Feldenkrais believed prognosis of impairment through stagnant observations was ineffective. He explains, “this static approach turns correction into a lengthy and complicated process. I believe that it is based on wrong assumptions, for it is impossible to repair the faulty bricks in man’s structure or to replace those which are missing. Man’s life is a continuous process, and the improvement is needed in the quality of the process, not in his properties or disposition” (Feldenkrais, 1990).
Feldenkrais concluded that “correction of movements is the best means of self-improvement.” Accordingly, we should not examine our wellness journey from a static perception of self but through an examination of the self in motion.
Three States of Being
According to Feldenkrais, there are three states of being. They are sleeping states, waking states, and awareness states. We know from research the importance of the sleeping state to integrate information and rejuvenate the body. Consequently, the waking state is essential for gathering the information that we later must integrate. The awareness state brings attention to our movements, enhancing the benefits of the waking state.
The Waking State
Feldenkrais identifies sensation, feeling, thought, and movement as four key components of the waking state.
- Sensation: Sensations include the five familiar senses, but Feldenkrais notably adds the kinesthetic sense, which comprises pain, orientation in space, the passage of time, and rhythm. Kinesthetic sense is similar to the concept of interoception in psychology.
- Feeling: Feeling include all the familiar emotions of joy, grief, anger, and sadness but Feldenkrais adds to this list self respect, inferiority, super-sensitivity, and other “conscious and unconscious emotions that color our life” (1990).
- Thought: Thinking includes all functions of intellect. Basically, our cognitive functions such as “the opposition of right and left, good and bad, right and wrong; understanding, knowing that one understands, classifying things, recognizing rules, imagining, knowing what is sensed and felt, remembering all the above, and so on” (1990).
- Movement: Movement includes all temporal and spatial changes in the state and configurations of the body and its parts, such as breathing, eating, speaking, blood circulation, and digestion. Movement in Feldenkrais’s theory is comparable to the concept of movement in behaviorism. Movements comprise all large and small muscle movements, including the contraction of muscles in the organs.
Feldenkrais points out that dividing waking states into four components is helpful in theory but impractical in function. He explains, “in reality, not a moment passes in the waking state in which all man’s capacities are not employed together” (1990). Accordingly, to understand our waking state, we must view each moment through the lens of each of the separate functions.
A key point in Feldenkrais’s Awareness Through Movement theory is that aware states are not synonymous with awake states. Much of our sensation, feeling, thought, and movement occurs unconsciously. We operate in autopilot in a behavioristic stimulus response fashion. We sustain life without the need of awareness.
Three Structures of the Brain
Feldenkrais breaks human functioning into three separate brain structures. The first is the ongoing unconscious processes of breathing, blood circulation, and temperature regulation.
The second structure control the internal mechanisms that interact with the environment to satisfy basic needs. He explains, “this is done by the limbic system, a group of structures that deal with everything concerning the individual’s movements in the field of gravity and the satisfaction of all internal drives, such as hunger and thirst and the elimination of waste products. In short, it deals with all internal needs that intensify when not satisfied, but that are reduced or abated when satisfied, until the need increases and the cycle starts again” (1990). Behaviorism’s classical and operant conditioning operate within this realm.
The third structure, according to Feldenkrais is the latest evolutionary addition to the human brain. In the third structure, “the nerve paths in the third brain system are longer and more elaborate than in the two older systems.” He explains that under duress the two other systems take priority because of their more efficient and rapid response. However, under most circumstances there is a delay between what is motivated by the limbic system and “its execution by the body.” Feldenkrais explains that “this delay between a thought process and its translation into action is long enough to make it possible to inhibit it. This possibility of creating the image of an action and then delaying its execution—postponing it of preventing it altogether—is the basis of imagination and intellectual judgment” (Feldenkrais, 1990, p. 44).
None of this is uniquely Feldenkrais. The triune brain was common theory at the time. Physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean proposed the Triune brain concept in the 1960s. His functional model of the brain proposed three layers much like Feldenkrais. MacLean’s model referred to them as reptilian, mammalian, and the neocortex sitting on the surface of the other two. Functionally, MacLean’s model closely resembles Feldenkrais’s three structures (Sapolski, 2018).
Now, we understand there is no geographical location for specific functions and that the brain areas are intricately connected across domains. Robert Sapolski explains that “the circuitry connecting various limbic structures is immensely complex” (2018). Bruce Ecker and his colleagues wrote “the vertical structure of cortex, subcortex, and brain stem (the “triune brain”) and left–right lateralization are large-scale approximations describing this localization of function, which is extremely complex on smaller scales” (Ecker, et al., 2012).
Lisa Feldman-Barrett, PhD., a University Distinguished Professor of psychology at Northeastern University, flatly calls it silly. She wrote, “humans don’t have an animal brain gift-wrapped in cognition…” adding that “this illusory arrangement of layers, which is sometimes called the “triune brain,” remains one of the most successful misconceptions in human biology” (Feldman-Barrett, 2018).
The Power of Awareness
While the structure and functions are much more complex than a three level model, the theory, in a limited fashion, may be helpful as we try to understand the immense functions of the brain, especially in relations to Feldenkrais’s foundational concept of awareness.
Feldenkrais theorized that “awareness of our organic drives is the basis of man’s self-knowledge.” he continues, “awareness of the relationship between these impulses and their origin in the formation of human culture offers man the potential means to direct his life, which few people have yet realized” (Feldenkrais, 1990, p. 48). Accordingly, awareness interconnects the four components of the waking state (sensation, feeling, thought, and movement).
For Feldenkrais, awareness is the binding function in wholeness. He explains that through practice, we can gain awareness of the more difficult and hidden parts of our being. He wrote that “the changes that occur in the parts where control is easy also affect the rest of the system, including those parts over which we have no direct power.” Feldenkrais summarizes the work of Awareness Through Movement as “a method of training that converts this initial indirect influence into clear knowledge” (1990).
Benefits of Awareness Through Movement
Feldenkrais refers to harmonious development as the underlying goal of this therapy. By harmonious development he means, a coordination across the different structures and functions of the human brain. He wrote, “development stresses the harmonious coordination between structure, function, and achievement. And a basic condition for harmonious coordination is complete freedom from either self-compulsion or compulsion of others” (Feldenkrais, 1990).
Feldenkrais did not develop his system for a limited focus on healing the body of aches and pains but as a program for whole person wellness, bringing healing and interconnection of the organs, emotions, and larger muscles of the body. He saw the person as a interconnected being of many functions.
- Improved Body Awareness: With regular practice, Awareness Through Movement cultivates a heightened sense of body awareness. You become more attuned to subtle sensations, able to recognize and respond to the signals your body sends.
- Enhanced Flexibility and Coordination: By exploring different movements and expanding your movement repertoire, you can improve flexibility, coordination, and overall physical function.
- Pain Reduction and Rehabilitation: Many individuals find relief from chronic pain, muscular tension, and limitations resulting from injury or surgery through the gentle and mindful practice of Awareness Through Movement.
- Stress Reduction: As you delve into the present moment and engage in gentle movements, you can experience a state of deep relaxation and calm, helping to alleviate stress and promote overall well-being.
Awareness Through Movement Exercises
The Awareness Through Movement program follows twelve lessons presented in Feldenkrais’s book. These lessons include learning posture, healthy movement, stretches, mindful breathing, flexor and extensor muscle groups, head and neck stabilization, and eye movement. Each exercise or movement, of course, is to be accompanied by awareness.
“We know if we are in the stable position through the kinesthetic sense of our muscles. If control over the muscles is with the voluntary system, then we are in the stable position; if it shifts to the automatic system and voluntary control ceases for a moment, the position is no longer stable” (Feldenkrais, 1990, p. 74). Even when we purposely move our bodies, we often disengage from awareness. We go into autopilot. We can ride a bike without giving attention to the flexing and extending of the leg muscles, the increased breathing and beating of the heart. Feldenkrais’s method is to bring awareness to all the physiological changes occurring within the body during movement.
And this awareness of the obvious changes, impacts other areas of our functioning. Or as Feldenkrais explains, “the changes that occur in the parts where control is easy also affect the rest of the system, including those parts over which we have no direct power.”
Who Can Benefit from Awareness Through Movement?
The beauty of Awareness Through Movement lies in its accessibility to people of all ages and physical abilities. Whether you lead a sedentary lifestyle or are already engaged in physical activities, ATM can offer valuable insights and improvements. It is particularly beneficial for those seeking to improve movement efficiency, recover from injuries, manage chronic pain, or simply reconnect with their body on a deeper level.
Awareness Through Movement is a powerful practice that invites us to explore our bodies, movement patterns, and habitual behaviors. By cultivating a heightened sense of self-awareness, moving with intention, we can unlock the vast potential of our bodies. Consequently, we then experience a greater sense of well-being. Whether you are seeking physical improvements or a more profound connection with your body, ATM can be a transformative journey worth embarking on.
Remember, the path to self-discovery begins with awareness. We can engage in a new world of possibilities by exploring the continuous movements of our bodies. By embrace the practice of Awareness Through Movement we may see ourselves through a new perspective.
Ecker, Bruce; Ticic, Robin; Hulley, Laurel (2012). Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation. Routledge; 1st edition.
Feldenkrais, Moshe (1972/1990). Awareness Through Movement. HarperOne; 1st edition.
Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2018) How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books; Illustrated edition.
Li, Fuzhong Li; Harmer, Peter; Eckstrom, Elisabeth; Fitzgerald, Kathleen; Winters-Stone, Kerri (2023) Clinical Effectiveness of Cognitively Enhanced Tai Ji Quan Training on Global Cognition and Dual-Task Performance During Walking in Older Adults With Mild Cognitive Impairment or Self-Reported Memory Concerns. Annals of Internal Medicine. DOI: 10.7326/M23-1603
Sapolski, Robert (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.