The Ideal As a Compass

In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice.
In practice, there is.
— Yogi Berra

This month, on July 28-29, my colleague Anat Meiri and I will teach a workshop for practitioners and trainees called “The Ideal as a Compass”. 

Below are some of my thoughts on the image of the ideal. 



You need not be scared of the word “ideal”. 

It is neither a concrete reality nor an achievable goal. 

Just as a compass is not your destination. 

It is a navigation tool. 

And just as a compass cannot reveal how deep the swamp or how steep the slope, an image of the ideal will not determine the speed or the means of your improvement with yourself and your clients. 

It will however indicate its direction.


Why Bother Being So Efficient?

…Why go to such troubles as learning and improving? The trouble lies in that energy cannot be destroyed; it can only be transformed into movement, or into another form of energy.

What, then, happens to the energy that is not transformed into movement? 

It is, obviously, not lost, but remains somewhere in the body. Indeed, it is transformed into heat through the wear and tear of the muscles (torn muscles, muscle catarrh) and of the ligaments and the interarticular surfaces of our joints and vertebrae. So long as we are very young, the healing and recovery powers of our bodies are sufficient to repair the damage caused by inefficient efforts, but they do so at the expense of our heart and the cleansing mechanisms of our organism. But these powers slow, even as early as at our middle age, when we have only just become an adult, and they become sluggish very soon thereafter

If we have not learned efficient action, we are in for aches and pains and for a growing inability to do what we would like to do.

Efficient movement is also pleasant to do and nice to see, and it instills that wonderful feeling of doing well and is, ultimately, aesthetically satisfying.

— Learning How to Learn pamphlet, by Moshe Feldenkrais. 


 Principles as Ideals

Moshe’s image of the ideal is specified in the biomechanical principles. 

For example, “Good posture is the ability to move in any direction without hesitation or preparation,” and “the force should travel longitudinally through the spine, and not across it”.

These are statements of an ideal.

They state the ideal way posture should function.

They define not what good posture feels like or looks like, but what it does.

Posture measures your ability to shape the next act.

It upholds the dignity of choice.

Does the compass always tell you in the moment what you should do?

No. But if you get in the habit of reflecting on what you're doing, the ideal can be useful for orienting you in the process.

It helps you interpret you sensations.

It can help you organize your intention both in this moment, in this lesson and over the long winding path of many lessons.

Since the Feldenkrais Method is a practice of action and reflection, it is most suitable for using the image of the ideal as an instrument of learning and refinement.  Whereas, in a performance context, a notion of the ideal tends only to extort will power. 

Can a concern with "ideal movement” lead to a compulsive use of willpower?


Concern is the issue. 

You need not be concerned since you’ll never arrive at the ideal, anyway.

Understand it as a useful perspective for seeing and understanding function.

Under the surface, most of us, even Feldenkrais Practitioners, are insecure and dealing with performance anxiety: the fear of “doing well” or “being enough” or “succeeding in the lesson, or as a practitioner”.

Some of this is unavoidable.

Consider swapping out your performance anxiety for learning anxiety.

Guy Clayton defined learning as “what you do when you don’t know what to do.”

To enter the learning process is to assume and embrace a certain degree of uncertainty.

For a practitioner, performance anxiety is certainly misplaced or at least supererogatory (flapping your arms to help the plane fly), since the work is much less concerned with performance per se, than with the learning process itself.

Learning anxiety is more authentic and accurate and can be dealt with by clarifying what you’re doing and comparing how you’re moving against the images that the principles propose.

Why won't this concern lead to “willpower” in this workshop?

Because we are not abandoning the other strategies for learning that keep us out of that ditch: for example, going slowly, reducing unnecessary effort, looking for ease, lightness, and the use of variations and constraints.  This is still about exploration and compassion for ourselves and our clients. 

Just know that gentleness and ease need not be devoid of specificity.

I know this topic may elicit discomfort for the Feldenkrais community, which wears its anti-authoritarian ethos proudly.

For some, talking about the ideal conjures up a context where everyone will have to meet some impossible external standard, where a teacher seemingly has all kinds of power and permission to brow beat you into "do it this way", where students are essentially stewing in their own inferiority.

Doesn’t that sound fun!

Yet, after 15 years of full time practice, I am no longer stuck in my first interpretation of the method, acquired in my training program. 

I am, these days, more interested in some degree of rigor.

For me, refining my image of the ideal has been useful and practical in particular because it allowed those other creative aspects of the method to have a purchase on actual improvement.

It allowed the strategies of the method to reveal what was better in one way of functioning versus another, instead of just becoming an end in themselves.  I learned to author my experience, instead of sitting downstream of it, wondering what made the river run.

It may not always work like that, but I prefer it to wandering in an aspirational fog.

Subjective & Objective

One of Moshe’s goals for the method is a “narrowing of the distance between your subjective experience and objective experience.” This means knowing what you’re doing with a high degree of specificity. 

That idea is explicit in the Awareness Through Movement book during the pelvic clock lesson.

He goes from having you circle the pelvis over the floor imagining the hours on the back of the pelvis pressing the floor one by one; to having the numbers painted on the floor (reversing the orientation); to having you match the numbers on the pelvis to those you imagine on the floor. 

The whole idea is to escape the solely subjective “soup” of your experience. It helps you connect to the environment so you’re capable of not only orienting to hours on your pelvis (the subjective you), but how to match them with the floor (the more objective environment).

Think of it in more practical terms. 

In baseball, the batter is trying not only to have an aesthetically pleasing swing, one that feels strong and quick to him  (subjective), but one that actually connects to the ball being pitched (objective).

This is where the rubber meets the road.

A professional baseball pitcher has a very specific image of the ideal.

The difference between an untrained novice and a professional is not just the speed of the pitch. 

It’s the degree of predictable accuracy with which he can throw each pitch over the plate. 

A pro can stand at the mound, conjure an intention to throw a slider low and outside, just below the knees, and produce it. 

The amateur or weekend player has less predictive certainty.

Like a pilot without a working instrumentation panel, hope plays a much larger role.

The size of the gap between his subjective (where he meant to throw it, his intention) and the objective (where it actually goes) is wider. 

In the realm of posture and pain, the same notion of this gap can obtain. 

A person’s self image, in terms of the way he moves and supports himself, is always subjective.

To make the image functional, however, he must test and connect that image to the environment.

He must support himself better in one of the environment’s ultimate standards for function, the pull of gravity.

Until he develops control, accuracy, and a more functional image of how to do it, his own body weight remains a burden to itself.

His sensations remain mysterious.

The same way a person lost in the woods has their “sense of direction” disoriented from their actual destination. 

Using the ideal in your work with clients

If you’re lucky enough to work with clients that keep coming back, who invest in the long term relationship, it stands to reason that you should be a clear resource for them, a North Star for their journey out of pain and towards a more ideal function.

If the direction of your work together is clear, then the progress can be gradual, even glacial, and still provide a positive, ratcheting effect toward health.

This doesn’t mean you force them to strain and exert to meet some insane external standard.

It means they learn to be oriented in a standard.

It means they understand the direction that will lead to health, so that all their hard work, time, money and attention will take them in the direction they want to go.


Something to Consider

“Surrendering to your weakness, therein lies the path to greatness.”

This statement by Moshe is not an injunction to relax.

It is an exhortation to face that when you don’t have the skill to do what you are trying to do, to accept where you are, and surrender to making a plan, a goal even, and to acquire it. 

In Amherst, when asked “what about relaxation?”, Moshe replied, “Do you know what is relaxed?  A piece of shit is relaxed.”

Imagine a person who wants to be able to do science and engineering at a high level. 

As he attends his first physics lecture, he realizes he is both thrilled and in way over his head. 

He speaks only a little French, the language the class is taught in.

He can barely keep up with the professors words, much less understand how to approach the assignments which he will surely botch. 

What are his choices at that moment?

To soldier on?

To hide his weakness and pretend to be ok and to understand everything? 

Should he pack it up?

Take his ball and go home, forget studying this topic which he is authentically exhilarated by?

Or should he set about figuring out what to do; pull out a compass, get oriented, make a plan, and start anew, even though ego and expectations are, for the moment, crushed?

Is this the Feldenkrais Method?

Did Moshe heal his knees and regain his ability to walk by lucking into it?

Did he know anything about anatomy and function?

Did he earn his understanding?

Did he apply himself?

Should we?

“The map is not the territory,” Korzybski said.

But a well constructed map, combined with the ability to use a compass is incredibly useful for getting where you want to go.

If, as practitioners, we are stuck in mere strategies (variation, reversing the proximal/distal relationship, differentiating the head and eyes, etc) we are lost in technique.

Just as the biomechanical principles are means for measuring our quality of function, and the strategies are the things we use to evoke the sensations we lack and the changes we seek, an image of the ideal helps us navigate and tack and choose our response to the  changes.

So that we can get to where we want.

As my colleague, Anat Meiri, said:

“An image of the ideal also helps a person sense and understand what is not there.”

This one took me a moment, too. 

She meant that it’s possible for a practitioner to become used to attending only to the sensations that they have. This doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement.

With an image of the ideal, you can begin to sense what is missing.

Which aspects of the function are poorly organized, misguided, or simply lacking.

“The method is not only about self-awareness. It is also about self-improvement,” she said.