How to Move Beyond Limitations While Staying in the Comfort Zone
“But in order to get more movement, don’t you have to go beyond what feels comfortable? Otherwise, won’t you just stay stuck in the same place?”
This question came from a student in my Awareness Through Movement (ATM) class the other night. In a Feldenkrais Method, ATM lesson, students are guided through a series of movements to become more aware of, and improve how they move. The lesson I taught was quite challenging, demanding a twist in the upper back and neck. I could see that some of the students were finding the movements difficult and struggling. Some were forcing themselves and I repeated my directions to do less until they found an easier way to do the movement.
It’s often hard to believe that doing less will bring more and I could see that some of the students didn’t believe me because they kept forcing themselves. I needed to find a different way of communicating this idea, so I decided to have them do an experiment. On the left side, I had them do the movement several times and notice how much improvement they made with repetition. On the right side, I had them visualize the movement in parts, and only do the actual movement once, in order to compare after visualizing. Much to their surprise, most of them found that they improved just as much by visualizing, without the strain and discomfort from forcing themselves.
By visualizing, they were able to stay in their comfort zones, yet still make improvement!
After they got up from the floor and noticed how they could turn to look from side to side more easily and freely, one student asked the question above: “But in order to get more movement, don’t you have to go beyond what feels comfortable? Otherwise won’t you just stay stuck in the same place?” This was an excellent question and reflects how we often think about improvement, even when experience had just shown that it is indeed possible.
With a challenging movement like the one from the lesson, if you force yourself to turn more, another part of your brain will try to stop you by letting you feel discomfort or even pain. If you try to overcome this with even more force or willpower, your brain will try even harder to protect you from yourself. Doing this sets up a downward spiral of limiting movement and possibly even pain and injury. Now I need to make clear that, “Staying in your comfort zone” doesn’t mean just doing less than you can. It means doing an unfamiliar or challenging movement slowly enough, and paying attention to how it feels so that you can sense when the quality changes and stop before you go too far.
Once you find that area, you can begin to sense other places in your body to find out if there are parts that can contribute to the movement without more strain. Some examples from the lesson in question were: using your eyes to look in the direction that you were turning, noticing if you’re holding your breath and/or clenching your jaw, which can limit the movement of your spine and ribs, making a twisting movement more difficult. And the most important example from that lesson, visualization. If you move too quickly and forcefully, you’re more likely to feel discomfort and pain and not the small but important details that could help you to turn further.
This idea can be applied to many movements and even situations in life. When you come up against an obstacle, do you automatically push harder, or do you start to sense how and where you push, searching for (or even visualizing) an easier, more efficient solution? Doing this, you begin to use your ability to pay attention, while moving. You can actually increase movement and become more powerful with less effort by using your awareness to work smarter instead of harder.
To answer the question above, yes, you need to stay within your comfort zone when learning new movements or refining ones you already know. However, the border between comfort and discomfort is usually not fixed (unless you have an injury or structural limitation), but rather an area in which the quality of experience begins to change. Leaning to recognize this area leads to greater improvement, prevents injury and, just plain feels better!