How Does Improvement Happen?

Cliff Smyth, GCFT

It is hard to change a habit. We all probably have made lots of resolutions and promised ourselves we would remember to do things differently. Sometimes it is a shortage of will, but usually it has more to do with working skillfully with ourselves. There are at least three ways that practices like the Feldenkrais Method can help you shift your habitual patterns of action.

One way Feldenkrais promotes change is by shifting the 'state of the organism'. We are less likely to change our patterns of behavior if our nervous system is highly aroused - when we are anxious and on alert for threats - rather than calm, engaged and open to possibilities. Reducing tension in our muscles and nervous system can allow new sensations, as well as new qualities of movement and action to emerge. Physical relaxation not only supports mental relaxation, and is good for our hearts and immune system, but also allows muscles to soften and lengthen and be available to work in more balanced and efficient ways.

Another way Feldenkrais contributes to change is through becoming consciously aware of our patterns of response and action. Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons, for example, are like experiments that can reveal what we habitually attend to (eg. pain, wanting to do it right), how we usually move or use ourselves (eg. forcefully, carefully, suddenly, smoothly) and how we deal with the new, unfamiliar or challenging.

Finally, we can put ourselves in situations where we can experiment with how we do things and learn new ways of doing what we do. With each experiment we can come closer to ways to move and act that are more consistent with our intentions and goals for our lives, even if the changes are not conscious. Feldenkrais lessons are a learning space where we can conduct just such experiments in how we move and act.

Feldenkrais Method uses each of these ways of moving us toward improvement.

Let's look at these three mechanisms in a little more depth.

1. Many of our students and clients report how profoundly relaxed they feel at the end of lessons - even how they have nodded off for a few moments during a lesson. Their breathing is slower and deeper, their heart rate slower, the muscles of the face are softer. Feldenkrais lessons often start with slow, small, light movements - very often done rhythmically. It has been shown that these kinds of movements cause inhibition in the nervous system. In addition, the slow alternation of using muscles on one side of a limb and then the other (eg. biceps/triceps), or one side other body and then the other (eg. front/back, left/right) lead to relaxation of the musculature on both sides of the limb or the body. In this way muscular imbalances - acquired though injury, illness, repeated activities or habit - can be relieved. The longer, softer muscles created in this process, can then be used in new, more comfortable ways as we stand and walk at the end of the lesson. We can take these new possibilities out the door and into our daily activities.

2. The structure of Feldenkrais lessons, provide lots of opportunities for becoming consciously aware of our selves, and our habits. The movement directions need to be interpreted: "What does it mean to cross my right leg over my left?" We are encouraged to move comfortably, "How can I turn my ribs to left without them feeling tight?"; to not cause pain, "Oh, if I go just so far with my hip it doesn't hurt"; to notice our breathing, "Can I lift my leg and not hold my breath?"; to move slowly, gently and smoothly, "I always start moving very quickly and stop suddenly?" There are many more possible examples.

A Feldenkrais lesson, through directing attention to these phenomena, generates awareness that can than be brought into everyday life - whether we are doing something practical, learning a new skill, exercising, or helping another person. We may even notice that some of these patterns - for example starting and stopping abruptly, or holding our breath - show up in other aspects of our lives.

3. Most of us think that to act intentionally is to act consciously. Yet, many of the things we do are consistent with our overall intentions for our lives, but we do not consciously decide on from moment to moment. We don't need to consciously think, "I will feed my child because it is consistent with my aim to be a good parent and nourish my child properly". We just give them breakfast. Hopefully we have also been acting consistently with our intentions for healthy eating when we selected the breakfast cereal! Yet, as many of us know, we find it harder to intentionally try to change a habit - especially when it is an everyday movement habit like, "I will remember not to slouch at the computer". Most of the time we don't think, "I will sit comfortably and use my arms well when I write this email". We just flip the laptop open and start typing. How can we change our ways of sitting and typing comfortably without having to be constantly, consciously reminding ourselves?

Feldenkrais lessons provide ways to learn how to shift our ways of moving, acting - and even being in the world - that are more consistent with our intentions. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty coined the term 'intentional arc' to describe the process whereby we can act generally consistent with our intentions for our life, even if we do not consciously decide how we will act from moment to moment. He used the idea of an 'intentional arc' to distinguish this from the 'reflex arc' used for reflex actions in response to stimulus from the environment. Reflexes are essential for action and survival, for example, when jumping out of the way of an oncoming bus, but are not adequate to describe all the actions of intentional beings like ourselves. Merleau-Ponty thought that the intentional arc reflected both the possibilties afforded by our physical bodies and the directions into which we had already live our lives. He suggested that as we take action we get feedback from the environment and can become more skilled in acting in ways consistent with the intentional direction of our lives.


Dreyfus, H. L. (1996). The current relevance of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of embodiment. Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy, 4(Spring). Available from:

Dreyfus, H. L. (1986). A phenomenology of skill acquisition as the basis of a Merleau-Pontian non-representationalist cognitive science. [unpublished manuscript]. Available from:

Feldenkrais, M. (2010). On health. In E. Beringer (Ed.), Embodied wisdom: The collected papers of Moshe Feldenkrais, pp. 53-58. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Cliff Smyth, 2011