The Feldenkrais Method as Practical Physiological Psychology
The Feldenkrais Method® is generally described as a form of somatic education or therapeutic practice designed to improve daily function. In this, my second, contribution to the IFF Research Group Newsletter, I continue to develop core conceptual issues on how to go about researching the Feldenkrais Method®. I propose here that the Feldenkrais Method® is a kind of practical physiological psychology. Formally, physiological psychology is a subdivision of behavioral neuroscience (biological psychology) that studies the neural mechanisms of perception and behavior through direct manipulation of the brains of nonhuman animal subjects in controlled experiments. This field of psychology takes an empirical and practical approach when studying the brain and human behavior.
Considering the Feldenkrais Method® as a form of psycho-physiology provides a deeper grounding of its embodied methodology into the relation between brain and behavior than does defining it as a form of somatic education or therapeutic practice. Moreover, conceptualizing the Feldenkrais Method® as a form of psycho-physiology has positive implications both in terms of developing appropriate methodologies for its study, as well as using the Method itself to generate research hypotheses. This approach presents a means of incorporating the Feldenkrais Method® into generating actual psycho-physiological research, and not merely in terms of studying the results of its practice as a terminus ad quem. This second Newsletter is part of a larger research article I am authoring, intended to be published in the IFF 8th Volume on Research that I am co-editing together with Cliff Smyth.
Arguably, the Feldenkrais Method® as developed by Moshe Feldenkrais is a form of applied physiological psychology in terms of influencing or affecting the individual psyche through moving with awareness. In his first theoretical writing into the work of Autosuggestion of French popular psychologist Emile Coué published at the age of twenty-five in a volume entitled Thinking and Doing, Feldenkrais demonstrated his abiding interest in the psychological underpinnings of human action. [1,2] Feldenkrais observed that for Coué the unconscious has an “executive power” in determining conscious action. For Feldenkrais this ability to “consciously” direct the unconscious for personal transformation, completely “inverts” Freud’s conception of the “mechanism of psychic life” [1, p. 4], and provides the single most important psychological principle upon which Feldenkrais developed his own form of physiological psychology.
Feldenkrais’ first structured book on his method, Body and Mature Behavior extended Feldenkrais’ initial insights into Coue’s popular psychology into the realm of embodied action.  In his magisterial biography of Feldenkrais, including in-depth attention to the writing of Body and Mature Behavior, Mark Reese that: “The time had been when Moshe used Coué’s techniques to address the mental aspects of problems: now he understood how the subtleties of mind and feeling could be addressed through a subtle attention to simple movements that brought awareness to how one acts. He would create a comprehensive system of lessons whereby we peel away our efforts and gain awareness of the hidden ingredients of our actions.” [4, p.275]
A close reading of Body and Mature Behavior reveals that psychological physiological concerns lie at the heart of the development of the Feldenkrais Method. Body and Mature Behavior is arguably the most scientific of Feldenkrais’ book manuscripts, detailing core concepts of the Feldenkrais Method, including, falling, balance, righting reflexes, muscle tonus, anxiety in relation with the most up-to-date laboratory scientific research (including physics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, psychology, child development) of the time. All of these themes could be taken out of physiological psychological research papers or the more contemporary field of behavioral neuroscience. However, Feldenkrais’ concern in Body and Mature Behavior, was primarily in relating the scientific data of the day to his personal discoveries elicited through his personal background in physics, and judo, in relation with his private somatic explorations – initially on himself, and then in relation with friends, colleagues, and others that he was teaching and helping in their journeys of recovery.
In numerous places in Body and Mature Behavior, Feldenkrais makes clear that his primary concern in terms of developing his educational somatic program was to provide a practical psycho-therapeutic modality that succeeds in unifying the body-mind relation without separating or focusing on one side of this relation at the expense of the other. For example, Feldenkrais notes that the, “arbitrary subdivision of life into psychic and physical” results in an “inextricable confusion of thought.” “Even by assuming that the two are only different aspects of one and the same thing is not gained practically.” [3, p. 5] Similarly, Feldenkrais notes that, “The most abstract thought has emotional-vegetative and sensory-motor components.” [3, p. 36] Thus, the whole nervous system participates in every act, including mental acts – thoughts, cognitions, memories, etc.
For Feldenkrais, the meeting point between physiology and psychology is in terms of the concept of the reflex, epitomized in the work of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, known for his work on temperament, classical conditioning, and involuntary reflex actions. Indeed, the Pavlovian concept of reflex came to define a generation of psychology, and continues to resonate with contemporary therapeutic approaches, particularly behavioral therapy. Yet, already in 1954 Feldenkrais saw and rejected the reductionist approach that conflated conscious experience into neurophysiological correlates. On the one hand, he writes, “Steadily the physiologist seems to encroach on the psychologist’s ground… The physiologists believe it is possible to account for all activity by integrated reflex action …, and adjustment or conditioned reflexes …, never referring to the testimony of consciousness.” On the other hand, “… while the psychologists recognize the physicochemical basis of all function in the organism, but never make any use of somatic evidence, even in theoretical work. In practice, when a physical cause is discovered or only suspected the patient is handed over to the neurologist or other appropriate specialist.” [3, p. 44] In the same manner, Feldenkrais rejected the attempt to found a new psychology purely on physiological functioning. [3, p. 59] The problem for Feldenkrais, was not in terms of the veracity of the concept of conditioned reflexes, but rather the application of conditioned reflexes as one aspect of human experience to the psyche as a whole. Rather, Feldenkrais posited the importance of habitual responses as a kind of learned behavior, embedded in physiological processes but not ultimately predetermined.
Feldenkrais realized decades before a whole generation of popular psychologists, that the space between physiological stimulus and behavioral response is open to human reflection and control. The tension between physiological processes epitomized in the reflex and conscious psychological experience is resolved dialectically through somatic educational practices, designed to help train an individual in becoming free from habitual responses. This is, arguably, the main purpose of the Feldenkrais Method, to provide a technique to expand the possibility of human embodied reasoning and choice.
Many Feldenkrais practitioners may miss the psycho-physiological underpinnings of the Feldenkrais Method for a number of reasons. Firstly, Feldenkrais practitioners receive a “finished” body of work in their trainings, and are not involved in the production and development of these lessons with the primal imprint in terms of the relation between psychological experience and physiological processes. Secondly, in the actual teaching of a lesson many Feldenkrais trainings do not explicitly focus on the psychological experience of doing the lesson in addition to the lesson’s neuro-physiological underpinnings. One exception is my own process that I term Neuro-Somatic Variations, bringing together an ATM Lesson, Integrative Neurobiology and Micro-Phenomenological exploration of conscious experience. (See, https://www.somaticwell.com/post/my-year-of-nsv-neuro-somatic-variations).
Returning the focus of attention to the Feldenkrais Method® as an applied from of physiological psychology helps open the original purpose of the method in terms of the relation between movement and awareness as a stimulus for personal improvement. At the same time, opening the “black box” of the correlations brain and behavior in the context of practical Feldenkrais Method® lessons provides a means of re-energizing the Method to its physiological psychological foundations, and provides a necessary stimulus for researching the Feldenkrais Method and using its techniques and insights as an important vehicle for research.
1. Feldenkrais, M. (2015) Thinking and Doing. Longmont, Colorado: Genesis II Publishing.
2. Hillel, D. Braude. (2016). “Between Psychology and Philosophy: A Review of Thinking and Doing by Moshe Feldenkrais,” International Feldenkrais Federation Journal. http://iffresearchjournal.org/volume/5/braude.
3. Feldenkrais, M. (1949) Body and Mature Behavior: A Study of Anxiety, Sex, Gravitation, & Learning. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
4. Reese, M. (2015) A Life in Movement. San Rafael, CA: Reese Kress Somatics Press.
* This piece was initially published as a Headline article in the recent IFF Research Network Newsletter: https://feldsci.net/2022/02/10/the-feldenkrais-method-as-practical-physiological-psychology/