One group which is taking this concept to new heights is the practitioners of The Feldenkrais Method. Developed by Moshe Feldenkrais - a brilliant physicist - in an effort to rehab his own knee injury without surgery, the method relies heavily on a type of neuro-muscular reeducation.
Based on the tenet that humans have an almost infinite capacity to learn new movement patterns, but usually get stuck in a rut of inefficient and potentially harmful ones, the Feldenkrais Method encourages students to explore and learn potential new patterns in much the same way that a baby learns to use its body.
Because the method encourages self-exploration and learning as opposed to forcing preconceived notions about posture and movement on the body, Feldenkrais practitioners reflect this philosophy by referring to all of their clients as "students" instead of "patients," and their sessions as "lessons" rather than "treatments."
During his development of the method, Feldenkrais observed that most individuals, from commuters rushing to work to professional athletes, tended to learn how to perform a movement well enough to get by and then stopped their learning process. Those who were interested in improving performance after that initial learning stage turned solely to strength training and other conventional methods for improving their performance, often leading to frustration and disappointment. Feldenkrais hypothesized that these individuals were not lacking conditioning, they simply needed to develop better body awareness, and continue to learn different and potentially better ways of performing an action.
The ATM & FI Lessons
While attending a seminar in Montecito, California, I recently had an opportunity to experience the Feldenkrais Method first-hand. Lessons usually take one of two forms - the Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lessons and Functional Integration (FI). ATM lessons are done in larger group sessions while the FI lessons are more one-on-one, and usually are tailored to the individual's needs and concerns. The seminar was presented by Frank Wildman, Ph.D.. He gave a demonstration of both methods, with an emphasis on performance enhancement. Dr. Wildman is one of the leading Feldenkrais practitioners in the world, having taught countless students on several continents, and published several books, tapes and articles concerning the Feldenkrais Method.
Dr. Wildman began by doing a simple demonstration. He first asked the group to jump up and try to touch the ceiling in the room. It was a rather high ceiling and no one had any luck in making contact with it. Dr. Wildman then asked us to lay down on our stomachs and took us through an ATM lesson designed to improve vertical jumping ability, a critical skill in many sports. By systematically taking the students through a series of movements, he had them teach their own bodies to re-integrate the joints and muscles involved in jumping straight up. We were then asked to stand up and walk around for a little bit, paying attention to any little differences that we could notice in our body and the movement patterns we used to walk.
After a short period of this, we were asked to jump again to see if our vertical jump had improved. While I can not speak for the other students at the seminar, I personally noticed a marked improvement in height. While before I was well short of the ceiling I could now jump up and touch it with ease, an improvement of no less than 2 inches with nothing more than some lessons in body awareness. We experienced several more ATM lessons, but the first one and the demonstration of the potential of the Feldenkrais Method made the biggest impression on me.
Later during the seminar, Dr. Wildman demonstrated what a Functional Integration (FI) lesson would look like for the group. I was lucky enough to be chosen as the demonstration subject, and when asked if I participated in a sport, told him that I am a track athlete. He then asked me to walk around for a bit, while he observed my posture and walking style. He made a few observations about my gait, and asked me to lie on a table. He then took me through a series of lessons that served to re-integrate the joints and muscles used for walking and running.
While the FI lessons must be experienced to be fully appreciated, by the time we were done I noticed a marked reduction in the left hip stiffness I had not even realized I had until he pointed it out to me. I felt that I had a much more efficient gait, and found movement almost effortless after the lesson.
My interest was definitely piqued by the end of the seminar, and I was eager to learn more about the method. While I did notice some limitations to the method (I was unable to jump up and touch the ceiling upon returning from lunch, indicating either short term improvements or the need for several lessons for a more permanent result), I saw enough to influence the way that I view training and human movement and to encourage me to learn more. All too often gym goers are exercising in an almost zombie-like state with little if any attention being paid to what muscles are actually performing the work.
They develop little nagging injuries and blame it on the exercises or workout routine, when the real culprit is how they performed the exercise or routine. By employing body awareness techniques such as the Feldenkrais Method in your routine, you will take the mind-muscle connection to new heights. This in turn will lead to better gains in the gym, fewer injuries from the gym and less effort and pain in your everyday life. Those who are interested in learning more about the Feldenkrais Method, or finding a practitioner in your area, can visit Dr. Wildman's site at www.movementstudies.com or the Feldenkrais home page at www.feldenkrais.com.
What Can I Do To Make A Better Connection?
So what can you do in the gym today that will help you make a better connection with your body? Two things come to mind that will probably make a huge difference for most exercisers, especially men. While women can also use body awareness lessons, they tend to naturally be a little more in tune with their bodies and their abilities, making men the most susceptible to zombie routines in gyms around the world.
By cutting back on the weight being used and not training to failure, you can allow yourself to truly concentrate, and observe how your body is actually performing the exercise; what muscles are being used, what muscles are contracting isometrically to help stabilize the body.
Unless you are a competitive powerlifter or Olympic-style weightlifter, you are not being judged on how much weight you can throw around in the gym, and training to failure is a bad idea for several reasons that go beyond the scope of this article. So do not think that doing this will set your training back in the slightest. Quite the opposite, doing this will lead to better gains and a more enjoyable gym experience down the road. Remember that you should strive to work smarter, not harder. That is the essence of better body intelligence.
Author's Note: I would personally like to extend my gratitude to Michael Sanchez and The Dreaming Pair Corporation for sponsoring the seminar, and giving me the opportunity to experience the Feldenkrais Method first-hand. The Dreaming Pair is based here in Santa Barbara, and has been an integral part of bringing this technique to the area. The Dreaming Pair Corporation is also sponsoring the Feldenkrais Professional Certification raining program beginning July 2000. Those of you who are interested can visit their website at www.dreamingpair.com, or call 1-877-To-Dream (863- 7326) for enrollment information, or to find out about exciting upcoming seminars that they are sponsoring.
James Wilson, MSS