science, feldenkrais, and professionalism

I was reading recently the Introduction to Moshe’s Elusive Obvious, and I was struck by his description there of his fundamental procedure in developing the Feldenkrais Method. He said he reads science, and he takes hold of thousands of heads between his hands, and he explores that science in his practice of helping people.

This touching, handling, manipulating of living human bodies enables me to see in the books of these superb writers and turn into practice the science they teach. Probably they themselves do not know, how useful their knowledge is already when translated into the nonverbal language of the hands, i.e. Functional Integration, and the verbal Awareness through Movement. (p. 3)

I was struck by how distant that approach is to what I (or dare I say we?) do in learning and practicing Feldenkrais. The closest things I know are our current fascination with mirror neurons, and here, along with Tom Landini, I’m not sure that we aren’t just hopping onto a band wagon that isn’t really ours. I also recall some lovely advice from Yvan Joly about how to spend your year of teaching Feldenkrais as a form of research project. Pick a theme; think of it as you do and choose lessons for class or form themes for workshops; do some googling and other forms of research to pick up on current scientific thinking, and try to relate that to your teaching.

Of course, I can’t entirely discount that at this moment Moshe may be playing up the scientific roots of his thinking and downplaying his long study of martial arts as a source, for some political point.

But still–we aren’t reading Nature Neuroscience and thinking “how can I apply that in FI?” Or, to put it in another way, “how can I test that in my methodology?” If we scan the science, it’s with the eager but somewhat unseemly desire to find out that science has caught up to us and validated us…in our insecurity. Not to learn something from science that we use or test in our methodology. For the IFF Research Journal we did a small interactive poster study, trying to draw out from practitioners their understanding of the place of research in the work. We were fishing for something that we didn’t find: an awareness that every FI, every ATM, is an investigation. Sometimes I fear that we, like Big Pharma, understand research as a branch of the marketing department.

This week on Feldyforum, Bob Chapra in New York was looking for some info on the physiology of hot flashes, and the process of finding that info reminded me of one reason (among many) that I missed academic life in the few years I spent “on the outside” as a full-time practitioner.

The discussion on Feldyforum moved quickly, as it often does, to herbal remedies, experiential accounts, and so on. All of which was great–we don’t have all the answers and we should be curious about other solutions, and the experiential accounts are close to the heart of our work–but very little of it answered his questions about what the basic physiology of hot flashes is.

In my years out of academic life, one of the things I liked the least was not having access to an academic library. Now that I’m “on the inside” again, I was able to track down an abstract of a suitable recent review article for the practitioner, and through my library access download the pdf to read (and share).

I joked to him that I had access to the article only through my ties with “Big Learning” (like “Big Business” or “Big Pharma”). But it’s not so much of a joke. There’s a wall between us and this stuff, with pay-as-you-go access to academic research at $30 per article or more. Way beyond the budget of most any Feldenkrais practitioner. It’s even worse than the new higher cost of Alexander Yanai volumes!

When I was young, anyone could wander into an academic library off the street, and pick up a journal off the shelf or from the stacks. This is not true any longer. Most academic libraries check cards for access to the stacks; journals are increasingly on-line and you have to log in with your academic library card to read them. As in so many areas of our culture, the gap between haves and have-nots gets bigger.

Now, it turns out that after some more poking around I discovered the article (despite Elsevier’s attempts to hide this from me) is available for free (see here). Perhaps because the workshop for which it was commissioned was funded by NIH (i.e. public) dollars and the NIH has got active in the last few years about ensuring that what is funded by public dollars isn’t there just to line the pockets of private, for-profit academic publishers.

Nonetheless, I have a certain hobby horse, which I will take this opportunity to ride. A couple of years ago Chiropractic almost got itself into York University (in Canada). An “alternative health” methodology in a mainstream accredited university. What knocked it out of running at the end was its distance from mainstream science. This is not a stumbling block for Feldenkrais. One of the things that made Feldenkrais for me more than an interesting experience but something I could invest years in learning and exploring was, well, that it doesn’t present an alternative metaphysics. Some of my best friends are intuitive shamanic healers etc; but I’m not. I value deep experiential exploration; and I value the critical and rigorous intellectual engagement of my academic life.

We have heated debates about the right model for our work, craft or profession, avocation or vocation, hobby or gainful employment, and (related) its epistemological base: intuition or science. In North America it’s shaped by a fierce American “get the government out of my life” attitude, and endowed with enormous entrepreneurial energy.

There are no easy answers to these questions. If things go well, we’ll answer them with “both/and” or “neither/nor” creative solutions. I personally favour a future that sees somatic education as something taught in a graduate level program in a mainstream educational setting.

But we may not notice that our (most specifically, FGNA) hostility to professionalization, in the world as it is today, alienates us from what Moshe describes in the Elusive Obvious as an important source of his work: the best science of his day. The choices we make to maintain our private on-the-fly training program structure and not to attempt to play ball in an academic setting keep these sources of knowledge out of our hands. We’re in a chicken-or-egg situation too: we’ve attracted people to the work who aren’t comfortable in that kind of setting. That sets our culture and where we will go to a significant extent.

If you’re a practitioner who likes to work from science, you can do what you can if you don’t have academic access. You can always search pubmed for information, and often see at least the abstract. I know one practitioner who has good experiences in writing scientists directly and asking for copies of their articles or permission to post them. Many researchers expect emails asking for “offprints” and respond generously.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking eagerly about what it would really mean to take the latest thing I read in my “neuroethics” reading and process it through Feldenkrais. Maybe I’ll try something out and report back.

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