Feldenkrais and Ideal Posture

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Many Feldenkrais students want to know what the ideal is. Where should the bottoms of the feet press the floor, more toward the heel or more toward the toes? How much curve should be in the lower back? Where should the arms hang? How should the spine move in reaching? What's the right way to breathe? How should I hold my shoulders?

Feldenkrais theory takes a very unusual view of the concept of an ideal when it comes to how we position ourselves, or any other aspect of human functioning. We do not endeavor to teach people what the ideal is, nor do we try to directly impose an ideal on our clients. This is because Feldenkrais theory does not separate the notion of correct or ideal posture from the questions of ideal for doing what, and ideal for whom, specifically.

To be effective, a Feldenkrais Practitioner must develop a clear sense of how an ideal body would move when controlled by an ideal nervous system. But no real person matches this idealized situation. I have worked with professional actors, dancers, models, and gymnasts, and I can attest to the fact that however ideal a person's posture seems from the outside, even those with so-called good posture, have a complex and substantial deviation from the true ideal.

We each have a history and a physical structure that makes us far from perfect. A person's posture is the result of the nervous system's attempt to organize the body in a way that fulfills the requirements of that person's life in a messy and chaotic world. Posture is therefore complex, strategic, and purposeful. There is an active intelligence behind it. Trying to override a neurological strategy that arose from a lifetime of experience with admonitions about good posture and notions of conformity with an ideal is generally a mistake.

But many people confuse parts of what we do in Feldenkrais for attempts to have people figure out what the ideal is. For example, we often conduct simple experiential experiments as part of our lessons as a way of exploring how different ways of moving compare. People, even advanced practitioners, often confuse this process with a search for conformity with a notion of the ideal. Here's an example: If we stand with the weight on the right foot, which arm lengthens more easily overhead, the left or the right? If a person was organized in the most ideal way, which arm would lengthen overhead with the greater ease while standing on the right foot? You can try it for yourself, if you like, and see if you can discover an answer.

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One case might help illustrate the difference between a Feldenkraisian approach and an attempt to have someone conform to an ideal. A woman in her late fifties came to me with a significant scoliosis that was causing her increasing pain and difficulty in her daily activities. She was active, did yoga, acupuncture and pilates, and had always worked to try to minimize the effects of the dramatic twist in her spine in all the ways she could find. Her condition was monitored by doctors and the severity of the irregular curve in her spine was increasing over time, as is the norm with significant scoliosis. She could no longer hike, sit for the length of a theater performance, or do many of her normal daily activities without significant pain. The idea of a spinal fusion, which she had steadfastly avoided for decades, loomed large over her future.

Think about the arm-lengthening experiment we did a minute ago. What use would it be for my client with the scoliosis to compare herself to the ideal in this case? Doesn't it seem probable that, whatever the ideal is, that's not what will happen with her? Her structure is significantly different from the norm, so we cannot expect that the same arm would lengthen more easily overhead for her than for an ideally organized person. If, by chance, she would find that the arm that lengthens more easily is the same as for the ideal it is not because the biomechanics of her system function the same way as that of the ideal. Not a chance. By the way, nor do mine, and nor yours.

How much luck do you think I would have had trying to make this woman's movement conform to the movement of an ideal skeleton organized by an ideal nervous system? Should I teach her what is the “correct” way to do that movement and have her practice it? I would have had zero luck with that approach. Instead, in Feldenkrais we always consider the specific history and structure of the person in question when establishing some notion of what would constitute improvement in a given case. We then work to help the person move more comfortably and more effectively within their capabilities. Improvements in posture often arise as a side-effect of this process, but not because we are teaching good posture.

My client with the scoliosis improved a great deal. She was one of the rare people who felt lasting improvements nearly right away, which is largely a testament to how keen her body awareness already was when we started. Then, over time, she became capable of doing things without pain or difficulty that had caused her suffering for years. It is true that after a particularly good lesson the twist in her spine is noticeably reduced, and I think that over time it is reducing more permanently, but her spine will never be straight. Nor should I endeavor to make it so. I have seen x-ray images of her spine and her bones are not symmetrical. If I tried to make her straight, that is, if I tried to have her structure conform to an ideal, I believe I would do her significant harm.

What difference does it make whether, when she stands on her right foot, it feels to her that her right arm lengthens more easily overhead or her left? It makes not the slightest difference of any sort, and there is no reason in the world why she should care about that. She moves differently from the ideal, but she moves now with more comfort and ease than she did when she was years younger, and she can now enjoy doing things that she thought were lost to her forever.

So, where should the weight be on your feet? How much curve should there be in your spine? Where should your arms hang at your sides? From a Feldenkraisian perspective, there is no answer to those questions that exists separate from the question of who you are and what you want to be able to do.

This is a challenging concept to understand and many Feldenkrais students (and a lot of practitioners!) get stuck in the belief that the method is some kind of means to correcting what is wrong in our posture and movement, but Feldenkrais discards the assumptions that underlie the usual notion of the ideal with regard to posture and movement. Moshé Feldenkrais thought the notion of posture–good posture, bad posture–was misleading from the start. From the point of view of being able to move with grace and ease, the question of the starting body position is only one of many factors, and not nearly the most significant.

Because we are accustomed to thinking of our structure from an outside perspective, we tend to think of ourselves as machines that either work correctly or have something wrong, and we want to correct it, but things are not so simple. Feldenkrais's radical idea was to discard this mechanical way of thinking and to approach the improvement of function not as a means of conforming to an ideal, but simply in terms of what could help a specific person in a specific context to feel that they can do what they want. The ideal is, for all practical purposes, discarded.

A Feldenkrais practitioner is never trying to straighten you out or force you to conform to a certain posture. We avoid that approach not only in cases where the client has an obvious deviation from the ideal, but in each and every case. You may now be wondering what difference this makes in practical terms. If so, stay tuned for more posts.