Sunday, August 03, 2008

Understanding Can Move Mountains! - Feet Don't Fail Me Now!

Estes Park, CO.
- For those of you new to the world of FELDENKRAIS, this is an example of the kinds of moments of profound insight that rolling around on the floor can lead to. In this case, there was not actually much rolling around. As there are literally over a thousand of these strange movement 'lessons:' the particular lesson that lead to my experience of intuitive clarity was actually a standing lesson that would appear to be about the heels ('Dropping Heels'). Yet, like any awareness lesson in this method, appearances can be deceiving and the lesson can often be far more significant than mere physical improvement.

I just left the annual FELDENKRAIS conference for practitioners in Boulder, Colorado. Another fascinating aspect of this method, is that often you don't know what to make of it at first, and then it seems to all fall into place hours or days later. Going to the conference was a rich, amazing learning experience made buoyant by meeting so many people, extremely talented in such a wide array of fields in addition to our shared calling as somatic educators.

This is about what I learned not during, but after the conference. This 'Dropping the Heels' lesson was the last one I did there. It produced an expanded awareness of the way the 26 bones of my feet could move, in actual fact, but perhaps beyond a range that I usually engage in. This is a common experience in FELDENKRAIS.

What makes it really sweet is to connect this new awareness to something I do every day, like walking up and down stairs. Most people don't think of climbing stairs as an important function, but just imagine if you could not do it! How frustrated you would be, verging on depression, perhaps changing your living situation, or forcing you to move to some place with no stairs at great expense. Please consider that there might be another possibility: a possibility of functional movement. That is what FELDENKRAIS teaches you to find for yourself.

Finding greater range of movement is interesting, but it's not life-altering until you connect it in your experience to something really important to you.

For me, in this instance, it's my knees.
My spouse was visiting a close friend and colleague in Penrose while I was at the conference. Ironically, we decided to meet after in Loveland, Colorado after the conference. It was a joyful reunion. What was sad, however, was that he told me that his friend, Gene Ovnicek, is about to have a second knee surgery on his other knee. Gene is a brilliant horse shoer, and a specialist in the mechanics of horses' feet. He has been shoeing horses for almost 50 years. I was disturbed to hear this, knowing how demanding it is to work in that profession, (my spouse is also a 22 year veteran horse shoer). It requires sometimes fighting upwards of 1,000 pounds of live weight while bent over, using sharp implements and driving fine nails with a hammer into the bottom of a horse's hoof. This was all in the back of my mind as the journey unfolded.

We ended up in Estes Park, a great place to stay while visiting the great Never Summer Mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park. Our goal was to take the motorcyles on the highest highway in America. It runs through the park and goes as high as 12,183 feet into alpine tundra, vistas in all directions breathtaking in their wild, untouched beauty. When we got to the top, I could feel the pressure building in my head from the altitude. I noticed I kept yawning involuntarily, my brain activating the impulse spontaneously to increase the oxygen to my brain - always a welcome event! After lunch at the top, we decided to park the bikes and hike up to the outlook above.

The path amidst the wildflowers was a sandy steep slope reinforced by wooden poles every yard or so to keep it from washing away in the winter storms. There was a thin foot-wide path next to it for drainage, but it was very dry now and I noticed some people choosing to walk there rather that attempt the steps. Halfway up it was clearly hard to be that active at that altitude, but we rested, enjoyed the view and continued on up the mountain. It was on the way back down that I had my great insight into my own function that I hope to share with my clients when I get back to help them in their own discovery of how to stay healthy, active and alive for life.

I noticed that most people chose to descend along the drainage path, avoiding the wide path with it's small steps. Those that did take the steps often seemed to be jarring themselves in the way they moved down the slope. It was visible as a slight jolting when they landed after each step. Because of the lesson the other day, I found myself instinctively moving differently than I normally due. I had not been hiking down a steep slope in six months so it's not really something I do that much of. However I found myself reaching for the ground gently, tentatively touching first with my toes, then the ball of my foot, like a blind person testing the ground testing the footing before I put my full weight on it.

Suddenly I realised this was completely new for me. Usually I step down with a bit of a clunk I am not really aware of (often, you only notice the absence of something when you have a new alternative to compare it to!) sending waves of concussive pressure into my knee, prematurely wearing out the delicate structures there. The knee is said to be the most vulnerable joint in the human body.

I realized, out of this, that the toes, and the bones of the ball of the foot are designed to have a spring action, all 26 bones of the foot acting like shock absorbers to protect the knee from excessive concussion. This is why there are so many knee injuries out there, because people loose the functional mobility in their feet as they age, becoming slowly oblivious to the huge range of motion that is not just possible, but necessary for healthy limbs.

This is the action of the foot that should be 'normal,'
rather than the limited flat-footed way that most people use their feet, completely ignorant of what is really possible. Why is in not normal? It's a long story of diminishing returns. In some cases, it's due to a less active lifestyle; the same factors that have produced a generation of kids that prefer video games to the adventure of real life. In other cases it's due to habit that eliminates certain possibilities or overwork that prevents living fully. Workaholism has it's price.

The the magic of FELDENKRAIS is that it reawakens us to the fullness of our own ability. It can help us buy back the time we have lost by being unconscious!

This is how awareness can inform us with vital information that has the potential to be life-altering, given that we act on what we know and actively seek solutions based on the experience we garner from our lessons. Stay tuned for a version of this lesson online. I plan to record one as soon as I get home!


I don't mean to imply that people should always walk by landing toe first - I know what a big issue that is for you horse people out there! However, I do mean to state that there is a certain way the human foot is designed, in contrast to the equine digit, that when fully made use of, lessens the compressive forces on all the other joints. When walking on flat ground, this design - when fully activated - enables people to push off from the foot in a way that mimics the action of shock absorbers on a two or four wheeled vehicle (see Moshe Feldenkrais's book: Body & Mature Behavior, Chapter 8, Erect Posture & Action - but don't go there unless you have a solid sense of anatomy, because this is one of his more technical books, not easy for the layperson to digest.)

It's common sense, is it not? Pass the stress around and there is less stress locally on one specific joint. Mobilize all 26 bones in your feet, people!


  1. I too, attended the Feldenkrais Conference and also found some profound insights when I returned home. My observations were about noticing my body reactions when an emotional experience would come up, and to be an observer to it. I had to leave my son off to camp, and was saddened as well as happy that he was able to leave on his own nature journey. It was a very interesting experience to feel my sadness as well as observe it kinesthetically. I don't know what the ongoing result will unfold, but through the insight of Jeff Haller's workshop about living with our changing experiences was truly enlightening.
    Thank you for your comments,
    Stacy Barrows, PT, GCFP

  2. Hi Gabrielle - Good to see that you are still blogging and that you made it to the last conference. I missed this one, unfortunately.

    - Ryan


Comments and questions are always welcome.