Feldenkrais® & Yoga: Complementary Practices

Feldenkrais and Yoga are generally considered to be two distinct approaches to health and well-being, with different understandings of movement, stillness and the learning process. As the Feldenkrais community continues to grow, however, more and more Yoga students and teachers have started to explore the Feldenkrais Method and, vice versa, Feldenkrais practitioners have become increasingly curious about Yoga. Erifily Nikolakopoulou and Annie Hoffman talk to the Boston Feldenkrais Training about their unique personal and professional experiences of Yoga and Feldenkrais as complementary movement awareness practices.  

Erifily Nikolakopoulou, Kripalu Yoga & Feldenkrais, Atom Yoga Movement Therapy, Athens, Greece

Erifily Nikolakopoulou, Kripalu Yoga & Feldenkrais, Atom Yoga Movement Therapy, Athens, Greece

Boston Feldenkrais Training: With all the various forms of dance and Yoga that you practice, what made you want to study Feldenkrais?

Erifily: There was never a plan, my interests rather grew and shifted organically. It’s only in retrospect that I can make sense of the journey. First dance, then Yoga, then Feldenkrais and now meditation. Performing has been a very creative and fun outlet for me but I never considered it my calling. It was when I started teaching dance that I discovered my passion of empowering people through education.

Body awareness is what first drove me to movement. Bookworm that I am, I was constantly reading on the subject, and one text led to the next - Eric Franklin’s imagery concept, Mable Todd, Thomas Hanna…. But it was when I read Awareness Through Movement that everything fell into place. Someone had put into words the very concepts that had been whirling in my brain as incoherent thoughts and images for years. I registered for the Basel 4 Feldenkrais Training before even finishing the book!

Unlike now, back then there were no available ATMs on the internet and no practitioners in Greece, so I read the rest of Moshe’s books and went to my training without having been to a single Awareness Through Movement lesson. It was somewhat a leap of faith and one of the best decisions I ever made.

BFT: How does Feldenkrais inform your Yoga practice?

Erifily: I have incorporated many different modalities into my classes, from Dance Imagery, Bowen, Yamuna Body Rolling, Hanna Somatics. I can clearly differentiate between them as they are all different and specific techniques. But with Feldenkrais, the lines get blurred. It’s a method, not a technique, and it has had a huge impact on the way I perceive the world, the way I think. I guess the most accurate description would be to say that I’m a Feldenkrais practitioner that teaches Yoga.

BFT: Who are your students?

Erifily: Both in Yoga and Feldenkrais my students are difficult to categorize. I have no specific target group. The only thing my students have in common is their interest in body awareness. Personally, I don’t believe in the idea of specialized classes - “for seniors” or “for kids” or “for dancers”. I prefer looking at people as individuals which is why I work with small groups which are formed based solely on each person's skill, awareness level and goals. This was the reason I felt I had to name my style of yoga - atom (atomon) which in Ancient Greek means the undivided or the individual. Working to find common ground for each group of students keeps me on my toes as each class needs to be custom made. I follow no recipes.

BFT: How do you find the practical side of organizing, designing and creating your own dance and movement curriculum? What are some of the challenges? Some of the joys of discovering new interdisciplinary dance and movement territory?

Erifily: Time is a huge issue for freelancers and especially multitasking ones like me. I have decided to let the organization to other people and have been blessed with amazing collaborators such as the Kabeiria Art House in Athens and Casa Yoga (casayogamilano.com) in Milano, which take on the load of organizing my classes and workshops.

Although I do love the process of designing workshops and classes as much as teaching them. Summer months and vacation time are when I plan the year’s curriculum for all of my classes. It’s also the time I work on my Yoga & Feldenkrais YouTube videos, read new books, reflect and generate new ideas. This year I got interested in video dance and will be attempting my first piece soon.

BFT: When you're performing, you sometimes look like you're moving through water. How do you do that?

Erifily: The dance style I perform and teach is called “tribal fusion”. Its aesthetics come from bellydance, flamenco and classical Indian dance (hence the “tribal”) and its technique from modern street dances (poppin’, locking, robotics). What I think you are referring to is a technique called “slo’mo” which is imitating body movement in slow motion video.

BFT: What's the relationship between stillness and movement in your Yoga and Feldenkrais practice?

Erifily: Life is continuous movement. What we think of as "stillness" is, in my opinion, just more subtle movement. The pause between two sentences is a breath. Even in the deepest states of relaxation we can sense movement - eye movements, breath, pulse, viscera…. The movement of our awareness from one minute to the next. Through my teaching I try to help people differentiate between finer and finer sensations.

BFT: Feldenkrais is in large part about connecting or reconnecting with an internal experience of action and behavior, which makes me curious about how the practice supports your performance work, your extroversion?

Erifily: On a practical level, Feldenkrais has helped me become more aware of my body. Understanding deeply the "tool of my trade" is always important. Creating differentiation in movement means creating more options to choose from and having the choice between using one move or another means acquiring creative freedom. On a theoretical level, Feldenkrais has also changed the way I perceive movement. Apart from visual aesthetics and technique, I am now much more interested in the breath/movement connection in my choreography, the flow quality found in Tai-Chi and martial arts.

BFT: Is there anything else that currently interests you at the intersection of Feldenkrais and Yoga? We'd be very curious to hear!

Erifily: Our brains are built to see patterns and make connections in order to navigate through the world. This is a huge asset but can easily become a limitation. With time, we tend to recreate the patterns we already know. Feldenkrais for me is what the chaos theory is to mathematics, an eye-opening set of ideas to discover endless new patterns and new layers of perception. What is next for me? Who knows... I do not like to make plans, I rely on my instinct and my deeply rooted curiosity to shape my path.

Annie Hoffman, Iyengar Yoga, Art & Soul Yoga Studio, Cambridge, MA

Annie Hoffman, Iyengar Yoga, Art & Soul Yoga Studio, Cambridge, MA

Boston Feldenkrais Training: Hi Annie. Thanks for taking the time to ruminate on your experience of Yoga and Feldenkrais. It’s always a pleasure to share and bear witness to your sensitive consideration when it comes to all things subtle and spiritual. To start out, can you tell us a little bit about what Yoga is for you?

Annie: For me, Yoga is the search for alignment, building vigour, connecting to a lineage of non-violence, community building, health and nutrition. My teacher’s teacher, BKS Iyengar, who I studied with twice in person, has conveyed the depth of the practice and set in motion the transmission of enthusiasm for the awakening of every cell. Visiting India furthered my understanding of the culture from which Yoga sprang. A culture that has integrated praise, devotion, humility and asks questions from a young age regarding what  prayer is.

Everyday my own practice is to find that rich interior vein of gratitude for life itself. Knowing that the body is a sacred vessel for the spirit, we better keep things clean and polished that we might attend to the guest of each and every breath.

BFT: And what drew you to Feldenkrais?

Annie: I found Feldenkrais after suffering a hip injury, the result of bad postural habits, which included sliding my pelvis forward. This, in combination with the instruction in Yoga to take the tailbone in while backbending, exacerbated the situation of a congenitally straight spine. I was constantly overstretching the front of the leg, lacking the proper strength through the buttocks in turn.

It was practitioner Deborah Lotus who first took me under the Feldenkrais wing. In between my first and second hip replacement, Deborah and I attended a week long Ruthy Alon Feldenkrais and Bones for Life workshop, which took place primarily in chairs and sitting. It was the perfect immersion for me. Among other things, my fear of darkness and being in the country and driving completely cleared by the end of the week. This might sound unrelated - what does sitting have to do with seeing in the dark! - and it’s true, I had no idea I was remotely working on this issue - but my internal confidence and newfound clarity of direction following Feldenkrais lead to significant improvements in many dimensions of my everyday life.

Following this breakthrough immersion, I studied with Deborah on a regular basis. I had several table sessions, took weekly Awareness Through Movement (ATM) classes and did more work with Bones for Life.

BFT: Could you talk a bit more about what kept you coming back to Feldenkrais despite your rigorous Yoga practice and teaching schedule? What do you enjoy about Feldenkrais?

Annie: What I love about Feldy work is how small the movements are, how slowly and smoothly we’re invited to move. I appreciate the invitation to rest often. I love getting to search for the origin of an action. I move into lizard (reptile) brain and get to play like a baby. The deconstruction of action and getting to the nervous system; the subsequent hydration of the body/mind; I feel refreshed and renewed.

BFT: So how does Feldenkrais enrich or complement your Yoga practice?

Annie: I have practiced and continue to practice Yoga daily, including daily pranayama and meditation, for 28 years now. For me, Yoga is a discipline, a practice and a path of liberation. Plus, I teach 14 classes a week so I am always ingesting movement awareness and translating that into my own classes. It took me awhile to reintegrate my asana practice after hip surgery and Feldy was helpful in coming back to Yoga with a fresh mind. I don't find the pursuit of the spiritual in Feldy, per se, but I do believe relaxation and bliss are synonymous.

BFT: Why might you consider participating in the upcoming Feldenkrais Training?

Annie: The thing that draws me most strongly to a training is being a part of a community of people who are so somatically oriented. I love the language of embodied anatomy and I don't have enough friends to talk to about the questions and the learnings. A training would be a great place to rejuvenate the sense of non-habit and choicefulness that Feldenkrais has brought into my life and movement.

Interview by Helen Miller