Self-help or holistic health?

I am reading a paper by Anthony Weston called “On the body in medical self-care and holistic medicine” that explores the difference between what you might call two kinds of challenges to medical authority: self-help movements (the Boston Women’s Health Collective and the book “Our Bodies Ourselves” would be a paradigmatic instance) and alternative health practices (chiropractic, traditional Chinese medicine, ayurveda, homeopathy etc. etc.).

(The essay is in a book edited by Drew Leder called The Body in Medical Thought and Practice. You can search it on Alibris or Powell’s but it’s a frightening price on the used book market–hopefully your library has it!)

He starts with a fairly basic observation, and one that was rich for me to reflect on in relation to Feldenkrais. He points out that some of the rhetoric surrounding CAM would have us think that CAM practices are intrinsically self-help practices, but this is not so: in contrast to self-help practices, CAM practices sometimes (not infrequently) replace the external authority of the mainstream physician with the external authority of another kind of practitioner, one whose authority is based in an esoteric system with an alternative metaphysic to the mainstream scientific metaphysic. As a first approximation, it seems plausible to say that the metaphysic can change and all the authority structures remain the same.

(The same can be said, Weston points out, of the so-called “holism” of such practices, but for me this is a topic for another day.)

I believe that by using the distinction Weston works with, we can focus a crucial question about the nature of the Feldenkrais Method (and perhaps related forms of somatic education, though I can’t speak for these), a question with deep implications for how we practice and teach, how we propagate our work in the world, what structure these “professions” (if that is what we will turn out to be) will have.

These questions are at the same time questions about the nature of expertise in the Feldenkrais Method. (And perhaps that question is one of many that stands behind the defining of “competencies.”)

It seems to me that in the Feldenkrais Method we have a practice that is in the deepest and most fundamental sense one of self-care as Weston describes it. For one thing, it fundamentally rejects the formation of an alternative esoteric metaphysics to underpin its practice. This is a controversial claim, I’m sure, but I would be commited to the view that Feldenkrais approached his work as a scientifically-trained engineer with an interest in scientific approaches to the nature and activity of the nervous system in human action.

For another thing, the process we teach is fundamentally one of empowerment, for people to develop the capacity to have a sense of agency in relation to facets of our embodied existence that otherwise we feel at the mercy of, in need of medical expertise to fix or manage. Like restrictions of back pain, for which we think we need MRI scans and surgery, for example–or for that matter restrictions in imaginative approaches to thinking and planning for action in the world, which we think are just our nature or character and nothing we can do anything about.

And for another — the Feldenkrais Method is a development of the natural functions of the human nervous system to learn and explore and experiment in the direction of maturity and growth.

In all these senses we have a practice of self-care.

And at the same time, I would argue, we have practices of teaching classes to the public and of maintaining our training structures that treat Feldenkrais as though it is an esoteric body of knowledge, to be grasped in awed silence. The public comes and lies on the floor; they go through this experience that seems astonishing and mystical in its powers and effects; we keep them passive and self-involved, quasi-sedated, on the floor while one and only one voice leads the lesson; after some time doing that, if you’re addicted, you go away to a training program for 800-1000 hours not infrequently spent doing a lot of more of the same. I’m not really trying to enter into those same old tired discussions we have about The Trainings (as though there is only one, and it’s run by bandits). I want to start to think in other directions, about how we teach our ATMs to start with long before anyone gets to the trainings.

What would it be like to start to teach the Method on Day 1 as though it were a natural extension of processes we all already carry deep in the brain and nervous system? As though from Day 1 it were something people could understand and use for themselves and amongst themselves? As though the first day you do an ATM, you also invent an ATM and take yourself through it? So the Method belongs to the student from the first day of learning it, the way that you start to write your own name the first day you learn how to write letters, and go on writing more and more complex text to express yourself and explore the world without having to go to a training program and get certified in it first. Not because I think training programs aren’t necessary for practitioners! Of course they are. But because I think our students should from the beginning have a more mature relationship to the work.

This is the question that occupies me now. I’m working on a book that takes this approach, and looking at piloting the content in the fall in a different kind of Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement class process…watch this website or sign up to the mailing list on the right for news.

(Weston says a lot of interesting and subtle things as his article progresses, about how entering deeply into the realm of self-care may after all take one to a different metaphysic than the mechanistic, though without the authority structures of esoteric or mainstream medicine, and I hope to return to the topic to write more about those thoughts soon. The question of the nature of expertise in practices of self-care is also a deep one in need of further reflection!)

2 Replies to “Self-help or holistic health?”

  1. “So the Method belongs to the student from the first day of learning it, the way that you start to write your own name the first day you learn how to write letters, and go on writing more and more complex text to express yourself and explore the world without having to go to a training program and get certified in it first.”

    This is a great blog Lynette, you touch on many important points.

    For me the notion of inner authority is becoming more and more important and you raise valid observations as to how the method is taught.

    I remember thinking a long time ago that Moshe had made a mistake in the way he set up the trainings or the method as he did, in that people would get lost in the atempt to learn the thousands of lessons rather than the principles behind it, or how they are put together.

    And what is it all about any way?

    It seems to me that the emphasis is on the physical and its complexity, rather than the development of awareness as a new stage in evolution.

    I find myself returning more and more to the basic, essential principles of Feldenkrais as a method of personal evolution.

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