MBS Program Director Leora Gaster discusses how Mind Body Studies and the work of Moshe Feldenkrais can offer a resource to overcoming emotional or physical trauma and recovering personal freedom and ease.
“Every emotional state corresponds to a person’s conditioned pattern of muscular contractions.” – Moshe Feldenkrais
We call our work “Mind Body Studies,” which doesn’t just mean that mind and body are somehow related, but that together they form an inseparable whole. Every emotional state we experience is also related to a physiological pattern, and these two aspects are completely interconnected. In other words, we can introduce change and growth to our lives from either direction. For that reason, MBS classes are not specialized to target individuals who have experienced specific emotional or physical forms of trauma. Rather, each lesson is designed to potentially help anyone, using simple movement sequences to reset the nervous system, restore inner balance and reduce stress, which in turn increases vitality, equanimity and the capacity to engage your life, from your center.
In an MBS lesson, as we discover new patterns of movement, we also find new ways of thinking and new ways of responding to situations. In its essence, we can understand trauma as a frozen or a stuck pattern in behavior, often triggered by an extreme situation from the past. A fear of heights, for example, may have its root in a memory from early childhood of being held aloft while feeling utterly powerless. In that moment, the fear and the rush of attendant physiological responses may have been perfectly appropriate to the situation. However, if twenty years later, the fully grown child cannot stand on a safe balcony without experiencing the same full-body fear response, the system needs rebalancing. In MBS lessons, we can learn to let go of unhelpful responses and to find new possibilities by rediscovering a sense of our center and of stability – emotionally and physically.
In an MBS training, the first thing we do is to reinforce that the floor is our “friend”. As we lie on the floor and do a scan, we find that it provides valuable feedback, letting us notice the differences in our contact before and after a lesson or between our right and left sides. This approach marks a radical difference from a widespread cultural aversion to the floor, especially in Western countries, where we constantly sit on chairs and wear shoes and, as we become older, become increasingly afraid of falling. Learning to appreciate the feedback of the floor and learning how to safely fall to the floor are both lessons directly related Moshe’s background in Judo. Imagine, for a moment, that you would like to keep yourself up and away from the floor. As you do so, you can actually notice your breathing move higher in your body, getting a bit shallower, and you can sense your center of gravity rise. Students of Judo and other martial arts learn to feel centered at the physiological center of gravity, below the navel (the area known as the hara, dantien or kath, in various cultures). The Judo idea is to remain in balance and centered, throughout your movements. You learn to move in any direction, regardless of what your opponent does, and still maintain your center – which is a really empowering ability to discover.
With regard to trauma, our fear of falling is a very strongly conditioned fear in people of all ages, a theme that Moshe explored at length in ‘Body and Mature Behavior’. We also have a deeply programmed “fight or flight” response. When we develop a habitual or a traumatized reaction to something, both this fear of falling and this ‘fight or flight’ response can influence our behavior at every level. In subtle but far-reaching ways, which we may not fully recognize for ourselves, we may restrict our patterns of muscular contraction and our overall sense of well-being – throughout every minute of the day.
Like any biological function, the “flight or fight” response can also serve us very effectively. When we decide to run away from a predator, we are not interested in planting ourselves firmly on the ground. We want to move away, quickly, and so our center of gravity is higher. We are less “grounded.” In those moments, it’s extremely useful that specific chemicals course through our bodies and trigger flight, as our self-preservation instinct kicks in.
In nature, though, after an animal has successfully fled from a predator, it slows down and the surge of hormones balances back out. If a human being becomes stuck in a flight response, even to a relatively minor degree, some form of rebalancing will become necessary in order to again feel fully free and spontaneous. From an MBS approach, recovering from trauma is not simply a matter of correcting an emotional response. It’s a self-directed process of learning to rebalance, to rediscover your own stability, your center, and the richness of your own resources.
Fear and helplessness, two core emotions of the traumatic response, translate physiologically to holding and freezing. This tendency toward “freezing” sometimes serves as a protective mechanism, letting us avoid the painful emotion related to trauma. One strength of our mind-body approach is that the self-directed learning lets each person explore their patterns just as far as they feel comfortable, and at their own pace. The MBS approach also doesn’t require us to verbalize or relive the particular emotions of the traumatic experience. The emotional content is embodied already, imprinted right in the body. By reorganizing our bodies and movements, we can directly transform the traumatic experience and bring about more positive and resourceful states.
Unlike many forms of therapy, MBS lessons do not rely on identifying or interpreting the initial cause of a problem. You can simply recognize the physical structure of your present patterns, instead of focusing on particular emotional content. One benefit of this approach is in its simplicity. It’s often far easier to notice a movement or a place physical discomfort than to speak about one’s emotional pain. Working with the physiological side also permits a far richer access to the pattern. With the increasing sensitivity that comes with regular MBS lessons, you can learn to sense movements with a fineness and detail that far surpasses words.
Group Classes are structured to introduce many complex and unfamiliar movements. Even when you interlace your fingers in the non-habitual way, you are visiting new patterns. As you bring your attention to a completely new set of movements, it’s easier to find new patterns and make new connections. The old reference points are gone, making it far less likely that you will fall into the old “loops” of unhelpful thinking patterns or movement patterns.
As you learn to explore completely new movements, that very activity serves as a reminder. It becomes possible to recognize how much bigger we are than the issue. Instead of letting one small area of pain monopolize all of our attention, we become reacquainted with our own resourcefulness and power. In situations of severe trauma, the experience may seem like constant spinning, stuck with the same problems, the same thoughts, the same things that haunt you. However, the movements of an ATM lesson give clear and concrete examples of how you can find a simpler solution by thinking differently. Simply recognizing this possibility can serve as a “tipping point”, as you realize how many other stuck loops or patterns may be opened up to change.
In at ATM lesson of bringing the foot to the head, halfway through, there is a movement of bringing the leg from side to side. In that moment, many people get really stuck. Then, suddenly, they realize that they can let their knee flip over to the other side. They were always able to do it, but they suddenly realize they have the option. Even that in itself marks an experience of, “Wow, I have so many more resources than I thought. And it’s so simple.” Once that type of connection is made, it’s completely reprogrammed. Nobody can take it away. These are the kinds of things which Moshe has devised in these ATMs. They are the ultimate reprogramming, because nobody can take them away from you. You had to find them out for yourself.
Embedded in these lessons you can also find this message, that there’s much more future than past. You can realize that a movement you are making or a connection you are noticing is completely new – you’ve never thought of it before – and you figured it out completely yourself. And, you realize at some level, there must be more of those.