Exercise vs Learning

Why did I start training to become a Feldenkrais practitioner? 

Working with people in their bodies, I intuit people want an answer something like this:  I have been interested in body-based practices for years – Martial arts like karate, Tai Chi and aikido, Pilates, gym workouts and physical hobbies like kayaking, hiking, swimming, walking.  So I wanted to become an embodiment professional. That is partially right. 

I want to age well and wisely.  Movement is part of that life plan.  Feldenkrais writes in Awareness through Movement, “The ability to move is important to self-value.”  As I age, this becomes more and more apparent – my choices to move and explore what I can do physically feels like a choice to value myself, a vote to become a rocking, lively older adult.  I don’t seek a fountain of youth; I do practice what brings a fountain of vitality.

What is truer is this –  I love learning.  I read voraciously as a child, I learned well in school, learned to play musical instruments, learned languages, learned my way through a Master’s degree in Education, learned software programs, learned about human development, learned to become a coach, I could continue this list.   I remember walking through fields as a child – forays through nature surrounding me – learning here included my senses, smelling, touching everything and listening to the wind through the wheat stalks. 

Feldenkrais is primarily a learning method.  Moshe Feldenkrais chose movement as a medium for learning because of the immediacy of the feedback loop from brain to body. Improvement in motor pathways, the connection from senses to nervous system to brain to nervous system to muscles can show up quickly.  He wrote in The Elusive Obvious, “Organic learning is essential,…,slow and unconcerned with any judgement as to the achievement of good or bad results.  Organic learning is individual, and without a teacher who is striving for results within a certain time, it lasts as long as the learner keeps at it.” 

This is the baby, the toddler who learns everything through play, persistent attempts, only taking in feedback on what functions more or less well. 

What is our purpose, our goals when we exercise?   

I started with a new student this week in my latest offering, Learn to Fall Well.  At one point during our first lesson she said, “This is like the opposite of going to the gym.”  She is active, doing several activities every week.  She is aware of herself and the movements she knows.  In the lesson, I asked her to do movement that was different from what she typically does in her workout classes.  I asked her to attend to strange moments and relationships, “Notice the moment when moving your R leg that your left leg is called to follow.”  Or “Notice the point of no return, when to go further means you fall onto your right side.”  I am not asking her to roll side to side 30 times, although we probably got to that number of repetitions by the end of the lesson.

What assumptions do we carry when we exercise?  How do we improve our performance?   In sports performance, athletes strive to improve skill, strength, endurance and recovery. In this context, exercise strives for an outcome.  I can do 50 lunges, I can play a whole game of soccer.  I can shoot accurately from a certain distance on the net.  I am strengthening my muscles, maintaining my bone density, improving my flexibility.   

In his teaching at Amherst, Feldenkrais talked about exercising and learning. He asked and answered: “[Do] You know the difference between exercising and learning? [Exercising] means that you know the final result, what you want, and you keep on doing until you obtain it”.  Learning, as defined by Feldenkrais, is a process, an inquiry into the quality of movement, into possibilities for how to move that supports how to function in the environment. 

Learning happens when you discover something you didn’t already know.

Before you jump to the assumption that I am for Feldenkrais over exercise or vice versa, what I am more interested in is how they are related to each other.   How do we improve our performance, our capacity to move? How do we move towards mastery? What is of interest to me, is when people decide to stop learning, when we decide we have mastered sufficient skills to obtain our objective. 

What satisfies you when you exercise?

Moti Nativ, a martial arts instructor and Feldenkrais teacher brings a lovely way to situate the relationship between learning, exercising and training.

In the context of a martial arts class, learning is often acquiring a technique, learning it until she/he has learned to perform it.  In my experience in aikido, I often watch, mimic, make errors and through several attempts come to approximate the technique I am being taught.  This is a kind of outside-in learning process – seeing a movement, being shown a movement by a teacher or trainer and attempting to replicate the movement. 

When do I own the movement? When can I say I have learned it? When is my task of learning the technique completed?   In many learning contexts, the teacher has the say for when a student has learned a movement.  In this context, exercise then is repeating what I have learned, until I can perform it competently with confidence, accuracy and speed based on a teacher, a coach’s feedback. 

When I have exercised enough?  When is my performance of a technique good enough? 

I can stop when I reach my goal – 50 lunges per day, enough stamina to run through a soccer game, adequate precision, strength and control to shoot accurately at the net.   If it is true today, I can assume it will be true in future games, in future workouts, yes?  No.  The problem with holding exercise in this way, is that we can assume success in one set of conditions will predict success for us in another set of conditions.

Moti distinguishes exercise from training.  This is another level of exercise – performing the technique in demanding conditions, in a more challenging and stressful environment.  Under attack from a partner, in the presence of a player on the defensive team, on uneven surfaces.   In training when is my performance good enough?  When I can perform the movement, the technique when challenged by my environment, the conditions?

In Feldenkrais, exercise means using my awareness, attending to my inner and outer sense of movement, of myself as I interact with my environment.  Exercise means attending to the process of the movement, not the goal.  How smoothly can I move?  Where do I encounter resistance, restrictions in my movement?  How can I find a possible, even easy way to carry out a movement?  How much of all of me can I attend to while doing the movement?  Can I attend to something in my environment and within myself at the same time?

One way to talk about what this difference is about is by looking at the question, “How do we build our capacity for quality movement?”  Exercise would answer – by repeating movements, sequences of movements so I can perform competently, with confidence, with accuracy, with speed.   Training would answer – by challenging performance of our movement in more difficult, more variable conditions.  Feldenkrais would respond by increasing the precision and consciousness of what I am doing, the ways I can move, exploring options for functional movement, finding ways to distribute work across more of myself.   I can become more functional because I know more ways to move, know more about how I can move, know more about how I work in different positions, different conditions.

At the end of one of our lessons exploring how to move from a chair to the floor and back again, my student said, “I feel lighter when I keep my head down.”  I could have had my student repeat a sequence of movements, created an exercise for getting down to the floor and back to the chair.  But I would have robbed her of this discovery, this way to find and own for herself a better way to move herself.  This was her process of learning, using her senses, using her own experience.   I am in it, this Feldenkrais gig, to create the opportunity to learn.

By finding a way to use the weight of her pelvis and her head in better relationship, she changed the perceived work of lifting herself up onto the chair and down to the floor.  We explored one better way to move from the chair to the floor and back again.  We could explore other ways as the medium to develop her capacity to discover and move for herself.

As an older person, I could ask her to repeat exercises to build leg strength, to maintain flexibility so she could get up from the ground after falling.  In working in this way, in this Awareness through Movement way, I also supported her to build her capacity to find the answer for herself. 

I am becoming a Feldenkrais teacher to support people to build their capacity to find the answers for themselves.  Through movement.  Through their bodies.  It’s one of the ways to support people to become more whole, more resourceful.  More able.


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