Photography: Self portraits by Leonora Oppenheim, June 2021

Do Less

How the Feldenkrais Method is teaching me to create with less effort, tension, and stress.

Leonora Oppenheim
11 min readAug 6, 2021


I watch her through the screen, lying still, face down, on the floor of her room on the other side of the ocean. All I can see is the rise and fall of her breathing, but I know there is a whole world of activity going on in her body right now. According to the instructions I’m giving her over Zoom, she is working on bringing awareness to areas of her body that she isn’t usually aware of. She is tasked with imagining a heavy ball rolling up the back of her leg from the heel to the knee and back again. It is a short distance the ball must travel, but it requires focus to clearly imagine its journey.

This strange activity is part of a Feldenkrais lesson, a movement practice that optimises the organisation of the body for ease of movement. Every Feldenkrais lesson I’ve been in I have been instructed to do less, or variations on that theme. “Can you make it easier?” “Can you go slower?” “Can you use less effort?” “Can you stop before the end of your range?” As someone who’s been encouraged to strive to do more all my life, I find the practice of Feldenkrais utterly confounding. It intrigues me so much that I’ve started a four-year training programme to learn how to be an instructor of doing less.

“The aim [of the Feldenkrais Method] is a person that is organised to move with minimum effort and maximum efficiency, not through muscular strength, but through increased consciousness of how movement works.”

Moshe Feldenkrais

It started early on for me, this notion of striving. As a child I was a talented gymnast, always trying to jump higher and bend further. Then I got into other sports. Like swimming — can you kick more? Like tennis — can you hit the ball harder? Like fencing — can you react faster? While I didn’t compete at elite levels there was still an inbuilt message that to be better I needed to try harder. The sensation of never quite being good enough settled into my childhood brain. I remember my mother comforting me after a poor school report with the advice that, as I was not the smartest kid in the class, I’d just have to work a little bit harder than everybody else. It was a tough-love message that I took to heart.

As a young adult I went through the trials and tribulations that life places on our path with the attitude that if I just try harder to be smarter, stronger, faster, better, I could push away the unease and discomforts I was experiencing. Just one more Chaturanga would make me more worthy! I know I’m not at all unusual in taking this attitude of meeting life like a battering ram. What was unusual though, was arriving at 40 and meeting the practice of Feldenkrais only to have the instructor tell me, for the first time in my life, to do less. My internal monologue went haywire. “But don’t you want to see how far I can turn my body? Don’t I want to feel that delicious stretch in my muscles? How will I build strength if I’m not working hard? What happened to that old adage, no pain, no gain?”

I began studying Feldenkrais as part of my MFA programme at Trinity Laban. This was where I encountered somatic practice for the first time. This was a whole new world of movement to me and it took me some time to understand what it means to move directed by the internal sensations of the body. Along with striving, I had been programmed to reach for a goal. Being a novice dancer I had yet to learn how to roll in and out of the floor without hurting myself. I had bruises all over my body for the first year of my master’s programme.

I was rolling faster and faster to try and make it less painful. Instead of listening to my body I was trying to make my body do something uncomfortable. This mindset did not sit well in the somatic world of spacious emergence. My teachers gave me some simple feedback, “It doesn’t need to be painful, you know.” What it took me time to realise was rolling harder, faster, stronger was a goal that I had set for myself in order to keep up in my contemporary technique classes. Just like it was the goal I had set myself in my sports, in the classroom, and in my career. Take the hardest route for the most reward, Leonora!

“If you rely mainly on your will power, you will develop your ability to strain and become accustomed to applying enormous amounts of force to actions that can be carried out with much less energy, if it is properly directed and graduated.”

Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement, p. 58

Over the last four years or so I have been learning in various ways how to take, if not the easiest route, then at least the most spacious route. This analogy of doing less now spans several areas of my life. In my masters final performance I had too many ideas that I wanted to include, too many props and sound effects. At the eleventh hour I removed everything superfluous from the piece and trusted that I would be able to perform better while being fully seen. This was not easy, in fact, as I’ve written about before, having nowhere to hide gave me a panic attack before I started my performance. But what I learned is that all the work I had done up until that point had registered in my body, all I needed to do was explore the space I had created for myself.

“Gradually eliminate from one’s mode of action all superfluous movements, everything that hampers, interferes with, or opposes movement.”

Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement, p. 61

Moshe Feldenkrais grew up in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and lived variously in Israel, Paris and London. He trained as both a martial artist and engineer, until he injured himself and decided to design himself a rehabilitation programme. In the process of healing his injured knee Feldenkrais developed a whole new way to look after the body and the mind. He wanted to offer people the understanding that they have options. That they are not, in fact, stuck in a rut, that by moving your body in unusual ways, or just imagining moving your body, you can retrain your brain into thinking more broadly about what is available to you.

“My purpose is to allow people to move closer to actually being creatures of free choice, to genuinely reflect individual creativity and emotion, freeing the body of habitual tensions and wired-patterns of behaviour so that it may respond without inhibition to do what the person wants.”

Moshe Feldenkrais

Responding “without inhibition”, as Feldenkrais puts it, is the key to exploring the space we have created for ourselves. By moving with ease, without tension or straining, we find space. Having moved to Somerset just before the first lockdown last year I was expecting a different pace of life from London, of course, but I could not anticipate what living alone during a pandemic would be like, or just how much time I would have on my hands. My freelance work dried up pretty fast. Businesses were recalibrating their design needs and I was left in a wide open space.

I recognised when talking to my friends who are parents, run off their feet with multi-tasking, that I had a rare luxury, a lot of space and time. I quickly discovered, however, that doing less is not always the easiest choice. In Feldenkrais the movement sequences are so slow and incremental you can be easily distracted by the noise of your internal monologue, losing focus on the movement of the body. When we have a lot of space and time, feelings arise, memories arise, thoughts materialise that perhaps we haven’t encountered before, that we don’t really want to engage with. For this reason, bodywork, like Feldenkrais, can become quite an emotional space, where deep trauma can be processed. Sometimes my brain just wants and needs to check out of that intensity.

For me, when there is tension in focus, it’s like holding my hand close to a flame. There is only so much intensity I can stand. Whether it’s focusing on the movement of the body in a Feldenkrais lesson, writing an essay, or making art. Feldenkrais would probably call this tension that arises from focus, ‘resistance’. I have learned that my creative output is improved by having space and letting things emerge, but the resistance to the uncertainty produced in that open space can lead to me filling it back up again. I am guilty of numbing by constantly distracting myself from the task at hand. When I’m not patient enough to wait, feel or sense, I allow the space I’ve created to be flooded.

For instance, in the process of writing the first draft of this essay, I have checked Twitter at least a dozen times or more, I have helped a friend with house hunting, I have maintained at least five different Whatsapp conversations, I have also spoken to my father on the phone. I tell myself I’m giving myself a brain break when I jump to another browser tab, but really I’m just filling up my brain with more noise and drowning out my own fledgling thoughts. As you can see, I have a long way to go before I master the art of doing less.

“It is necessary to divorce the aim to be achieved from the learning process itself. The process is the important thing and should be aimless.”

Moshe Feldenkrais, Man and The World, Somatics, Spring 1979

Giving oneself space and time is a luxury, but it’s also an empty expanse that anxiety thrives in. There is uncertainty when the path forward isn’t clear. Feldenkrais lessons are, in fact, deliberately constructed so the participant doesn’t know what the end goal is. Every individual movement during a class is part of a sequence that only gets revealed at the end of the class. When I first started practicing, I would get very frustrated by this.

Like my sister who has to read the last page of a novel before she can peacefully proceed with its suspenseful plot, I wish the teacher would tell us what is going to happen. But the point, as I have come to learn and to use the ultimate creative cliche, is the journey. The point is to be present in the moment and in each element of the movement sequence without rushing to the end result. Staying with each step of the process, without anxiously projecting into the future, reduces tension and creates more space.

Very often when I have an idea of an artwork I want to make, I can’t start it because I don’t want to get it wrong. What if it isn’t good enough? What if I’m not good enough? This resistance needs to be overcome each time. So what I am getting down to here is the need for more self trust. Doing less, means trusting more. The hustle is based on anxiety. An anxiety that there’ll never be enough for everyone, or that we’ll miss out on opportunities, or we’ll be perceived as…. shhhhhh… say it very quietly… lazy.

“What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains. What I’m after is to restore each person to their human dignity.”

Moshe Feldenkrais

Studying Feldenkrais has me questioning the gospel that we need to push ourselves to the edge in order to achieve. Which is something great competitors like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles are also asking themselves of late. Sporting champions know they perform best when they are most relaxed and at ease in their bodies. When tension in the body builds up through high expectations then clarity is lost in the mind. As Biles commented on her withdrawal from competition at the Tokyo Olympics “My problem was why my body and my mind weren’t in sync. That’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around. What happened? Was I overtired? Where did the wires not connect?”

What if, as Moshe Feldenkrais advises, we don’t push ourselves to the end of our range? What if we allow some slack in the elastic band of our capacity? What will emerge in the space, if we decline to fill it? Will we just melt into a slump of inaction? Or will we have more options, better ideas, clearer strategies, more patience in our relationships? Feldenkrais discovered that incremental movements can create remarkable changes in the body and mind. Doing less is definitely not about doing nothing. Doing less is about giving ourselves space to do more.

“In order to recognise small changes in effort, the effort itself must be reduced. More delicate and improved control of movement is possible only through the increase of sensitivity, through a greater ability to sense differences.”

Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement, p. 59

I’m reminded of my time at the Buddhist monastery Plum Village where, when living at the nuns’ pace of life, I experienced time slowing down through increased attention. Everyone was active, but no one was rushing, or pushing, or striving. I noticed we all got a lot done each day, in taking care of the community, without stressing about it. It was a profound lesson which I find difficult to hold on to when back in the less organised bustle of my day-to-day life. Over time though I have learned to regain that sense of spaciousness, despite still not being very disciplined about my digital diet.

When I feel time speeding up, I remind myself that, no matter how busy I am, a 20-minute meditation creates space, an hour’s Feldenkrais lesson creates space, a half hour walk through the fields, with no podcast or music in my ears, creates space. Not checking Twitter for the past 30 minutes while writing this last section has created the space for these final thoughts to emerge. Which isn’t to say that I won’t check it again after I type the final full stop, but I do know how to slow down time when the noise of the world gets too much.

Doing less is creating space, and creating space is giving ourselves time to breathe. When we breathe more easily everything feels possible and we can start creating the next thing. Here’s to less hustle and more emergence.



Leonora Oppenheim

Visual artist & narrative designer. Body as a research tool — movement & mark-making.