When was the last time you gave any thought to walking? It is so easy to put one foot in front of another, yet this unique, underrated activity sets us apart from other species and can bring incredible advantages.
What has the Feldenkrais Method, especially the Awareness Through Movement lessons, got to do with walking?
I love walking and going for walks. For the fourth year in a row, I am engaging in a challenge set by the UK magazine, Country Walker, to walk a thousand miles during the year. The first three years were very successful as I replaced some car journeys with walks, and found alternative and extended routes to walk to the shops to include green spaces. I joined a local health walking group and volunteered to become one of the walk leaders, making new friends and expanding my social circles.
This year is going to be more of a challenge. As I write this, the UK is in lockdown with Covid-19, so my walking groups are suspended, all my other sporting activities are on hold and the final training segment of my Feldenkrais Practitioner Training in London is also on hold.
But one of the recommendations whether you are self-isolating or social distancing, is to go out for a walk. Why is this? There are many reasons — for example, walking maintains heart and cardiovascular health, enables you to get some fresh air and a change of scenery, boosts your mood and immune system and gives you time to reflect on your thoughts. You may even get inspiration and solutions to the problems in your day.
Whilst out walking last month, I was listening to a podcast by the GP and author, Dr Rangan Chattergee. Why is Walking the Superpower you didn’t know you had? is number 84 in his Feel Better Live More podcast series, released in November 2019, with Professor Shane O’Mara. Professor O’Mara is a neuroscientist and a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College in Dublin.
They shared some great ideas and stories. I especially like the idea that our unique ability to walk on two legs is what makes us human. Walking is what took the human race out of Africa to take over the world. What is also cool, is that everybody’s walk is unique to them, and it is possible to recognise at a distance somebody you know from their walk before you can even see their face. Having said that it is also possible to change how you walk and this is one of the ideas we will explore here.
The discussion also covered scientific experiments on the benefits of walking. In one year-long experiment, the residents of a care home were split into two groups. The first continued to live their normal lives and the other group were taken on a walk of about 1.5 miles, three times a week. The walking group showed improvements in memory and attention, increases in brain activity and good chemicals in the brain, together with a reduction in the functional age of the brain.
Norman Doidge, MD, a USA psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, has written two books on the neuroplasticity of the brain. In his second book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, he devoted two chapters to the Feldenkrais Method®. Following this he was asked to write a foreword to Moshe Feldenkrais’s book The Elusive Obvious when it was reissued in 2019. The tag line of the book is ‘the convergence of movement, neuroplasticity and health’.
I see clear parallels between the ideas expressed by Professor O’Mara on neuroplasticity and walking and those Moshe Feldenkrais developed in his Awareness Through Movement lessons. Professor O’Mara wrote about walking mindfully, paying attention, developing attention, experimenting, moving, all of which are key principles of Awareness Through Movement lessons.
How does the Feldenkrais Method help with walking? Awareness Through Movement lessons are concerned with bringing your whole self, your whole body, your whole mind, into every activity, with the goal of making the impossible possible, the difficult easy and the easy elegant. With elegance you get efficiency. To do this, we carry out many movement explorations to see where we are doing things that are unnecessary, such as holding our breath or clenching our jaw, and what we could do more of, such as engaging the arms and shoulders to walk better. We are looking to integrate all of ourselves.
There are hundreds of lessons, done in a variety of positions and even though it may seem that the lesson is, for example, about allowing your head to turn more smoothly or move further, you will hopefully find that to do that, other activities such as reaching, twisting, walking, sitting, breathing suddenly feel easier.
There are also specific lessons that are more focussed on the feet and the hips so may have a direct effect on how you walk. The brief audio lesson that accompanies this article gives a little sample of a lesson that focuses on the movement of your hips.
Secondly, the principles of the Feldenkrais Method learning modality include finding ways to do less, sensing differences between one side of the body and the other, one hand, one leg and the other, experimenting with different movement, basically playing as you did when you were a baby and trying not to achieve or do too much.
So when you are out walking, can you sense how your right foot hits the floor compared to the left, does it sound louder, or quieter, does it land more to the outside or the inside of the foot, more to the heel, more to the toes? Does your right arm swing as far forward, as far back, out to the side more than the left, are the arms swinging back and forth or across the body? Where are you looking, can you look around without changing your walk, how are you breathing, how do you speed up, how do you slow down?
The questions are many. What happens if you experiment with different walking styles? What happens if you swap your arms around so that both your right leg and your right arm move forward and backward together? How do you feel after doing this and reverting back? How about walking backwards? These little observations and experiments done with awareness may without doing anything else result in a change in how you walk.
Thirdly, when you have finished an Awareness Through Movement lesson or perhaps you have been working individually with a Practitioner in a Functional Integration lesson, how do you finish the lesson? You may have practised a specific reference movement directly related to the lesson, such as turning, reaching, twisting, but it is almost certain that the next thing you will do as you move into your daily life, is to walk out of the room. So walking is the test that is available for you to tune into after every lesson.
We said earlier that it is possible to recognise somebody from a distance by their walk. If this is so then can these lessons and experiments change our habit of walking? The simple, personal answer is yes. How do I know this? Firstly a clear measure is observing the wear patterns of my shoes. The difference in how the soles and more specifically the heels have worn over the last couple of years, due to the Awareness Through Movement and Functional Integration lessons on my training in London, is very clear. Secondly, when I start to become more aware of my walking, I can sense a clearer connection between my pelvis and my shoulders, I can feel the weight distribution shift from side to side and there is a fluidity and a feeling of more joy in the movement.
You can also see the change by doing your own regular practice of lessons either directly with a practitioner or with the vast amount of online resources that are available. Give it a go. Look for lessons with walking, hips or feet in the titles and see how they work out.
Details of a walking group near you with details of how and where you can walk for free, and how you can volunteer, can be found at www.walkingforhealth.org.uk.
I hope you found this useful and it inspires you to walk more, play more and have fun.
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