Self-Sensing and Effortless Action

Many years ago in a high school physical fitness and education class in the Midwest, our gym teacher had us practice high jumping. I had made a number of jumps, none of which was very successful, and my left forearm was becoming sore. It was clear to me that I was not landing properly after the jump and that continuing in this way was not only pointless but also dangerous. I told the teacher–who was also the school’s coach–that my arm was hurting and asked him if I could be excused from any further jumps that day. He said no, I “had to work through the pain.” On my very next jump, I broke my arm, and ended up in the hospital.

Many years later, in San Francisco, I was taking a tai chi class from a well-known martial arts master. I had been taking this class everyday at sunrise not only for fitness, but also to explore what it would mean to move in a more conscious way. As I was doing the recommended warm-up exercises, the master came over to me as I was attempting to touch my toes, and, taking my hands in his, suddenly yanked my hands down toward the ground. The pain I experienced was intense–especially in my right knee–and, in the middle of my groans, the master simply said, “pain is good.” It was many months before the pain went away, and my knee has never been quite the same.

Later, still in San Francisco, I went to my doctor to ask him about some chronic pains I had been experiencing in my neck and upper back. This doctor, well known in the community, said that I would probably have to learn how to live with these pains because they were an inevitable part of aging. Only through my insistence did he take some X-rays and discover that I had a minor arthritic condition of the cervical spine. He pointed out that this kind of condition was quite common at my age, and sent me off to a physiotherapist for cervical traction and physical therapy exercises. He was quick, however, to warn me that the physiotherapy might not help. It was some months later, through my own personal research, that I discovered that these pains did not have to be an inevitable part of aging.

What do these examples have in common besides pain and discomfort? Ignorance. The ignorance of educators, doctors, gurus, and others about the body and fitness. And, even more importantly, our own ignorance about our own bodies. Pain may be good, but only if it reminds us while we still have time to do something about it, that we have taken our bodies for granted and lost touch not only with the gracefulness in action that is our birthright, but, even more importantly, with the extraordinary capabilities of the human organism to sense itself and to learn new and better ways of functioning through the inner world of sensation.

What is unfortunate about our situation is that even those of us who are “into fitness” know almost nothing about these capabilities. This should come as no surprise, however, since as Alexander Lowen–the founder of bioenergetics and one of the pioneers in exploring the mind/body relationship–points out, our “fitness programs are not designed to enhance the sensitivity of the body but to hone it as if it were a machine. In so doing, they produce people who are fit only to run the race of life.”1

I would go even further and say that many physical fitness programs today are not even designed to run the race of life. If they were, they would be individually tailored to the particular needs of each person. To promote physical soundness and health, a fitness program must take into account a person’s everyday environment. What need, for example, do people who sit at a desk eight or ten hours a day have for building huge muscle masses in their arms, legs, or chests? Their real need is more likely that of getting enough aerobic exercise to keep their hearts healthy, as well as finding ways to keep their bodies supple and well toned. And perhaps even more important is the need to discover the sensation of dynamic posture, a way of sitting, standing, and moving in relation to gravity that supports ease of action and promotes overall well-being.

It is possible, however, even within the context of most fitness programs–as limited as they may be–to approach them in a more creative, skillful way. Some years ago, for example, while exercising on a stationary bicycle at the San Francisco Tennis Club, I was talking to a woman on a stair-stepping machine about the boredom she was experiencing working out in this way. As we talked, it became clear to me that she hadn’t considered trying to explore her own sensory capabilities as she worked out. I suggested that she experiment to find a posture on the machine that would enable her to continue with less effort and more sensitivity to the rich world of sensations in her body. Several days later, she came up to me at the club and said that my suggestion had changed her attitude toward fitness and working out, and that her boredom had disappeared.

One of the problems of most approaches to physical fitness–even those involving yoga and the martial arts–is that they do not take into account the generally impoverished functioning of our sensory awareness. They are based on will power, on doing, on mechanical repetition. They are based on the ego and its images of what fitness means. The slogan “no pain, no gain” is an extreme example of this approach to fitness. For many of us, it is only through intense sensations such as pain, discomfort, and resistance that we experience our bodies and believe that we’re getting somewhere in our efforts. We have little awareness or appreciation of the vast spectrum of subtle sensations available to us at every moment. Yet, as we will see, it is just this awareness that can help our bodies and brains learn and improve in action.

Except for traumatic injuries, most of the physical problems we are faced with–lower back pain, immobility of the pelvis, painful neck and shoulders, improper breathing, lack of vitality, and so on–have developed over a long period of time, and are inextricably linked to our postures, thoughts, feelings, and actions–in short, with the psychophysical image we have of ourselves. Moshe Feldenkrais, one of the pioneers in physical rehabilitation and body awareness, states that “The way a man holds his shoulders, head, and stomach; his voice and expression; his stability and manner of presenting himself–all are based on his self-image,” and this image, which is imprinted over time in the brain and nervous system, is generally incomplete and often fictitious. Feldenkrais makes clear that correcting the overall self-image is a quicker and more efficient approach to real change than dealing with problems on an individual basis.2

Correcting our self-image, however, is no easy task, especially since most of us are not even cognizant of its overriding influence in our lives. It is important, therefore, to become aware of this image in action–of the way it shapes our experiences and actions, including our approach to physical fitness. It is also important to begin to experience how the human nervous system actually learns new modes of perception and action. Fortunately, both requirements can be approached directly through “self-sensing.”

What is self-sensing? In simplest terms it is the turning of our attention toward our own organism in the midst of whatever we are doing–a kind of “sensory listening.” Though this definition may at first seem vague, it is possible, through simple experiments, to understand what I mean. As you read these words, for example, allow your attention to include not only the words themselves, but also the muscular tensions in your shoulders and neck. Don’t analyze, judge, or try to change these tensions; simply sense them. Now allow your attention to include even more parts of yourself–the sensation of your forehead, your feet, your hands, and so on. If you need to think about these sensations at all, think of them as sounds inside your listening, objects of your attention. As the sensation of yourself begins to come alive in a more global way, you will notice that you are also listening to your own thoughts and feelings–that these, too, can be included in your awareness. You will also notice that there are many parts of yourself where the sensation does not seem to awaken, or where your energy seems stuck. This, too, is an important aspect of sensory awareness. For a complete self-image ultimately depends on being able to “sense” every aspect of yourself.

In addition to the immediate knowledge it brings, self-sensing has a direct impact on the nervous system without any effort of will. The motor cortex, which controls our voluntary muscular system, depends on the sensory cortex to provide constant feedback for its operations. And the sensory cortex gets its information not only from our external senses, such as sight, hearing, smell, and touch, but also from our various internal senses. our kinesthetic sensations, for example, come from stretch receptors in the muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments; while our organic sensations come from the various nerve receptors in our viscera and skin. It is only when the motor cortex has the most complete, accurate information available to it from the sensory cortex that it can execute our intentions in the most efficient, balanced, and healthy way possible.

What’s more, through self-sensing we can also begin to indirectly experience and influence the so-called involuntary (autonomic) nervous system, which controls the smooth muscles involved in respiration, digestion, blood pressure, and other so-called “vegetative” functions. One way this is possible is through observing our emotional states and sensing their relationship to the body. For as Feldenkrais points out, “all emotions are connected with excitations arising from the vegetative or autonomic nervous system or arising from the organs, muscles, etc. that it innervates. The arrival of such impulses to the higher centers of the central nervous system is sensed as emotion.”3 Fear and anxiety, for example, are generally bound up with the sympathetic branch of the autonomic system, which readies the body for immediate fight or flight action by stimulating physiological functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and so on. Relaxing these functions is the domain of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic system, and can, according to one researcher, be approached through sensing areas of comfort in your body. “You simply close your eyes and tune into the parts of your body that are most comfortable. When you locate the comfort you can simply enjoy it and allow it to deepen and spread through out your body all by itself. Comfort is more than just a word or a lazy state. Really going deeply into comfort means you have turned on your parasympathetic system–your natural relaxation response.”4

It is clear, then, that through self-sensing we can not only start experiencing first-hand what is actually going on in our body and how this ties in with the self-image entrenched in our brain and nervous system, but we can also begin to transform this image and bring about appropriate experiential and functional changes. But this approach to physical fitness requires patience and sensitivity. It also requires skillful action and constant experimentation.

As we begin to learn how to sense ourselves in various ways and conditions, we will quickly see that the sensation of pain or intense effort in our pursuit of physical fitness usually signals a wrong relationship not only to what we are doing, but, perhaps even more importantly, to ourselves. The nervous system is so constructed that it learns best when effort is the least possible to accomplish a particular action. The Weber-Fechner psychophysical law shows why this is so, since it makes clear that the “senses are organized to take notice of differences between two stimuli rather than the absolute intensity of a stimulus.”5 Dan Millman, a world champion gymnast, national coach, and college professor, writes of “a legendary master of Tai Chi who was so sensitive to the forces around him that if a fly landed on his shoulder, he would sway gently, under its ‘impact’.”6 This is a telling example of the sensory differentiation that is possible for all of us. For it is only when we are relaxed enough to experience subtle differences in our sensations that our inner and outer senses can begin to guide our neuromuscular system toward finer, more spontaneous performance in whatever we are learning or doing.

As Moshe Feldenkrais has pointed out in his various books and workshops, the feeling of effort is really the overall sensation of our attempt to reorganize ourselves to perform a certain action, and has little to do with the work actually done. For example, observe yourself as you bend your wrist. Do it several times as gently as you can, without any expectation of what it should feel like. Next, bend your forearm in the same way. No reorganization of your body should be required to carry out these actions, and unless you have an injury of some kind to your wrist or arm you will experience the same sensation of effortlessness in both instances. Though your wrist weighs less than your arm, the ratio between the muscle performing the action and the action itself is approximately the same in both cases–thus the sensation of “no effort” is the same.

Unfortunately, because of our faulty self-image and the past conditioning of our bodies based on this image, most of us do not use our bodies in the most spontaneous, effective ways to carry out actions that are more complex than bending our wrist or arm. If, as we often do, we use our will to try to improve our actions we will usually experience “resistance” to our effort, and believe that this resistance is somehow a law of nature. Feldenkrais points out, however, that “The sensation of resistance is produced by conflicting impulses arriving at the voluntary skeletal muscles. The voluntary control is dictating one state and configuration of muscular contraction for the projected act, while the balance of the body is being maintained in a configuration incompatible with the act to be achieved.” The use of will to act simply shows that there is what Feldenkrais calls “unrecognized cross motivation,” conflicting motives from either the past or the present, in our behavior. For Feldenkrais, “only immature people need will effort to act. The mature person clears up all the irrelevant motivations, and uses interest, necessity, and skill unhindered by unrecognized emotional urges.”7

An excellent, easily verifiable example of the results of such cross-motivational behavior is when one undertakes physical fitness exercises while being angry, fearful, or upset. If one listens carefully to one’s sensation, one will see that the particular pattern of muscular tonus associated with the emotions taking place at that moment has no relevance to the muscular activity required for what one is doing. One may observe, for example, a clenched jaw, stiff neck, hands made into fists, disharmonious breathing, and so on–in short, excessive tonus just about everywhere. One may also observe an overzealous attempt to relieve one’s emotional discomfort through an intense sensation of the body by means of physical exertion. Unfortunately, carrying out physical fitness activities under the pressure of these conflicting motivations often brings about great tension and can sometimes lead to injury or illness. Unnecessary tension is ill suited to physical fitness.

Even the particular ways we sit, stand, and walk are usually ill suited for these functions. Let’s look, for example, at how we sit on a chair. Most of us sit slumped over or leaning back with our ankles crossed or one leg over another. Now observe yourself getting up from this position; try to experience through your sensation how much effort it takes to get out of the chair. You’ll see how much reorganization of your body is necessary to perform even this simple act. And you’ll probably find yourselves using not only your legs but also your hands, as well as straining your head, neck, and lower back to help get you up. Now try to sit in a more balanced way, feeling your two sitbones evenly placed on the surface of the chair. Don’t cross your ankles or legs, but let your feet rest squarely on the floor in front of you. To get up, bend forward from the pelvis and when your center of gravity is more or less over your feet simply allow yourself to rise, as though gravity itself were pushing you up through the sensation beginning in the soles of your feet. Note the almost effortless sensation of this action.

The experience of effortless action through increased awareness is one of the keys to physical fitness–to the right use of the body. Though this is readily accepted in sports, where athletes often use mystical terminology to describe their sensations, even referring to higher states of consciousness,8 it is seldom thought about in relation to physical fitness, where effort is believed to be the key to success. If, however, “the sensation of effort is the subjective feeling of wasted movement … of other actions being enacted besides the one intended”9, then it is clear that the experience of this sensation in our physical fitness activities is a signal that we are not using our body wisely. And this misuse of our body in doing physical fitness exercises–whether running, bicycling, stretching, lifting weights, yoga, tai chi, or whatever–can not only exacerbate the problems we already have, but cause new ones as well.

Real fitness, then, starts with sensing ourselves in action. Whatever we are doing, we can experiment and try to do it more simply and easily. By trying to reduce the amount of effort we put into an action, for instance, or by gently exploring other ways to perform it, we can begin to learn more about our own individual motivations, problems, and capabilities. And as we experiment with and observe our efforts at physical fitness, we will also see how the particular psychophysical image we have of ourselves constantly interferes with our body’s own innate intelligence, and that for true fitness we will have to find a way to transform this image, to make it more flexible and sensitive in accord with our real potential. If we can continue trying in this way over many months, we will begin to experience fundamental changes in both our self-image and functioning taking place as if by themselves. And we will begin to understand that real fitness–like real living–depends more on self-knowledge and awareness than on effort, discomfort, and pain.

Copyright © 1992-2008 by Dennis Lewis. A version of this article was originally published in Somatics Magazine-Journal (Spring/Summer 1992) under the title “Physical Fitness: A New Approach.”


1. Lowen M.D., The Spirituality of the Body: Bioenergetics for Grace and Harmony (New York: Macmillan, 1990),p. 123 Alexander

2. Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), pp. 23-24

3. Moshe Feldenkrais, The Elusive Obvious (Cupertino: Meta Publications, 1981), p. 61

4. Ernest Lawrence Rossi, The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988), pp. 173-74

5. Peter Nathan, The Nervous System (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 48

6. Dan Millman, The Warrior Athlete: Body, Mind & Spirit (Walpole: Stillpoint Publishing, 1985), p. 95

7. Moshe Feldenkrais, The Potent Self: A Guide to Spontaneity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 112

8. See Michael Murphy and Rhea A. White, Psychic Side of Sports (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1978)

9. Moshe Feldenkrais, The Potent Self, p. 111

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