Thursday, July 21, 2005

Yoga Develops Body Awareness Too, Why ATM?

How is the practice of AWARENESS THROUGH MOVEMENT different from a yoga practice or tai chi or some other form of physical movement? One of it's main characteristics is that it improves your ability to learn. As a result, you become quicker at learning other skills - any other skills that interest you. Another characteristic is that it's primary goal is to develop the kinestetic sense intentionally. Other similar movement practices do help develop the kinesthetic sense, but to a much smaller degree. Yet, what you cannot see is not evident, especially in our culture, so, most people find it hard to comprehend why these two applications of the Method have the potential to change your life completely. Posted by Picasa

In this photograph, a woman is playing a piano with her whole self. The fact that the piano is not there only serves to emphasize that her entire self is engaged. Her posture, her mind, most likely her heart, not just her hands, are all organized to meet the keys in an expression of her internal experience transmuted into sound.

For most of us, as beginners at any skill, there is always a nagging part of ourselves that is complaining. Complaining about the position we have to maintain to continue. Complaining about not understanding where this is going. Complaining about why it isn't easier. It is only after one gains a modicum of skill that a new dimension enters the fray. Enter into the zone, where all thought is lost, all consciousness of time released, all senses are channeled into the task at hand. It is a place that paradoxically is timeless and yet has incredible presence. By many, it is called flow. When you are in it, your whole self is engaged.

AWARENESS THROUGH MOVEMENT (ATM) is a way to learn to enter into the zone of flow consciously, rather than via music, or drawing, or painting or acting, or singing, or writing, or sports, or study, or tai chi, chi gung, or yoga. By cultivating a sense of what flow feels like in general, it is possible to go there on purpose instead of by accident. ATM teaches us how to intentionally generate flow, rather than have it happen as a capricious accidental experience. For those who relentlessly chase the muse, ATM is an amazing boon, for this state, like inspiration, comes more easily to those who are open to it, rather than those who pursue it.

This has some really practical applications in addition to the airy fairy ones that appeal to people with a creative bent. Life is full of tasks that need doing, tasks that are not especially exciting, like doing dishes, taking out the garbage, or getting the laundry done. Oh, boy, let me jump out of bed now and get down to the brass tacks of living. If this is not your immediate response, how can you make chores more interesting for yourself? Once you know the principles of ATM kinesthetically, you can make any activity into an ATM. An ATM is just a form, like a kata in the martial arts, that teaches you how to be more present as a primary goal rather than a secondary goal as in yoga or martial arts, for example.

Working out of a yoga studio, I often run into students who figure they are already doing things to increase their awareness, why bother with ATM? When I first started doing ATM, I too, had a pretty good level of body awareness from years of receiving various kinds of massage to deal with the repercussions of multiple whiplash and concussion injuries. I was better off than the average person on the street, but still not comfortable in my own body. Ironically, I had just enough body awareness to realize that I was doing it to myself, but no clue what to do about it. For a while I tried to make myself relax whenever I noticed I was holding muscles tight without realizing it. I almost drove myself crazy. Let me save you the trouble. It cannot be done.

One of the major differences between Yoga and ATM is that ATM generates length in the resting muscles using movement rather than stretching. Stretching is a mechanical act that doesn't change how the nervous system sets the resting length of the muscles. If you stretch often enough, the muscle will change it's resting length and the nervous system will adapt and assume that to be the norm. If you only stretch once in a while, however, often you will wake up with muscles shorter than they were the day before. The alternative is to learn to use your consciousness along with movement in the way of ATM, and what happens is that your nervous system adjusts the resting length of your muscles. It's like hitting the reset key on your computer. The nerves that control the muscles recalibrate. Since that is usually how muscles function, via a response to nerve stimulus, it seems to a rather less invasive approach. It honors resistance rather than challenging it.

Having had my hands on several thousand people over the years as a body worker, I can attest to the fact that people who stretch a lot have much more dense muscle tissue than people who achieve that lengthening via ATM. Dense is not better in terms of muscle physiology. A dense muscle has to work harder to accomplish basic normal functions like receiving nutrients and getting rid of the by-products of energy production. A healthy muscle is soft, springy and has a lot of space and fluid circulating inside it. It requires lubrication, ease of nutrient and oxygen flow, ease of ridding itself of metabolic wastes (i.e. circulation).

The first series of five ATM lessons I did was enough to realize that my body held incredible levels of tension that I had absolutely no control over. It took longer than that, however, to learn the principles of ATM in such a way that I could apply it to anything that required movement. I slowly learned to make movement in any situation pleasant and comfortable. People who have little body awareness generally carry so much tension that it's amazing they can function at all because their muscles are fighting against each other. The extensors are contracted at the same time the flexors are trying to contract and vice versa. There is no off switch. Living in such a body is like living with an accident waiting to happen. Having a sense of body awareness merely let's you in on the fact that you carry too much tension. ATM teaches you what to do about it to learn to fix it yourself. This is the most significant difference between yoga and ATM. When you learn to unkink yourself, you are able to go places you wouldn't risk going otherwise. Thus, ATM can make the journey of yoga even more of an adventure.


  1. I really enjoy your blog, Gabrielle!

    I agree with your distinctions between yoga and Feldenkrais; I think they hold true for Pilates and Feldenkrais, as well. I am continuously impressed by what powerful motor-sensory learning experiences we can have during Awareness Through Movement lessons.

    Feldenkrais rocks my world!


  2. Anonymous3:28 PM

    Thanks so much for the writing -- I have (gratefully) been receiving FI's and exploring ATM's and attending Feldy residential retreats for more than 4 years now -- due to happenstance and pleasure first, then as a way to cope and find grace and health after a herniated disk/other complications. I have asked countless practitioners to explain the basic neurological and physiological foundation for Feldy work, have researched and otherwise spent a lot of time coming to dead ends. My experience is that human and written Feldy resources readily act as an advertisement for the ephemeral and fantastic potential outcomes of the work but seem unwilling or unable to response to queries for more down to earth and concrete info- plain, truth full, simple telling of the story of the method, without criticizing other healing methods or dramatize the virtues of this work. Though I understand the excitement and enthusiasm of practioners who have studied the work in the 4 year program. Many a creative and artistic person becomes a practitioner, I know. Of course. And how grateful we should all be to such people who risk and follow their loves and dreams! But, the over generalized, romantic and ephemeral telling of the Feldenkrais tale is sorely lacking. Endlessly I have been told "profound", "life-altering", amazing" and "miraculous healing" stories of of clients of Feldenkrais. Though for a time these stories provided me with hope and optimism -- it became clear to me that the these experiential stories, though moving, and perhaps entirely true -- created a sadly shallow foundation to invest and trust in when seemingly impassible neurological or otherwise mysterious physical experiences appeared along the my journey out of chronic pain. The answer I received often was that the magic of Feldenkrais could not be explained or described. The other response was - take a four year training. Surely, this is not necessary to have available the essence and substance of the work Perhaps I am an oddball among the folks who choose or find Feldenkrais -- I do delight in the ephemeral and creative, am a kinesthetic learner AND am intent on having answers that feed my mind and can be compared to other practices in full light of day. Thank you again. This is a promising new day in my journey with Feldenkrais - I am happy I stumbled upon your site.

  3. Anonymous11:25 AM

    This is the most thorough explanation for the difference(s)between ATM and yoga I have ever found. Thank you, Gabrielle, from my whole self!

  4. Amelia2:18 AM

    Gabrielle I love this post too. I really loved how you talked about how this is a conscious way of entering the zone. I am ALWAYS trying to enter the zone and I feel like it is always dependent on external factors, like if the song I am playing on my headphones is exactly what i need, or if an interaction with someone was positive. But I have really been looking for a way to have some sort of control over these things so that I am not always at the effect of the world around me.

  5. Amelia,

    You are bringing up some really important issues: many practitioners do not seem to relate to feldenkrais in this way. I have asked them and from some I get a blank stare; even though after any atm in a training, you can tell something has shifted in the entire room. It's what they call a 'state change' in neurolinguistic programming. It can effectively pull us from a state of anxiety, or disorientation into a state of calm presence and a feeling of being grounded.

    Your comment begs the question, 'Why is the experience so different for different people?' The obvious feldenkrais answer is because we are all different and all have different histories. Yet, there is more than that going on here. For me, it's definitely because I am a person who was an addict. And, furthermore, all addicts are different. Some like speed, some like to be slowed down. I am of the variety that loves nothing better than to nod. And feldenkrais takes me there without harm, while actively improving how I think, how easily I can remember things, and while helping me learn to find new ways to cope with life that are not dependent of escape.

  6. Anonymous6:14 PM

    i find Feld and Alexander tech to answer a few questions that appear within the yoga practice ... as one moves to stillness in practice ATM is the intermediate process that leads to that stillness ... muscle release and correspondingly mental release is necessary to enter that space ... it does take time for people to appreciate that space and see that space ... and all techniques at the end of the day are to find that space and be in that space of happiness and peace.


Comments and questions are always welcome.