Road Sign: Slow Down
The Paradox: To learn new skills quickly, slow down

Some people relish the opportunity one of my movement classes gives them to slow down and pay attention to themselves. But some people find slowing down to be very difficult or just plain boring. “I like to move quickly and DO things,” I’ve had students tell me.

Feldenkrais® classes certainly don’t have the pumping cardio and music of a Zumba class. You may not get that feeling of really exerting your muscles like you do from lifting weights or holding a tough yoga pose. But the purpose of Feldenkrais® classes isn’t to exercise your cardiovascular system or a specific set of muscles. Instead, it’s about learning and improving your whole self.

Noticing Differences is How You Learn

Learning (at least kinesthetically) happens by noticing differences. When you’re going fast, hard or repetitively, it’s difficult to notice anything other than big, glaring differences. [Notice anything in the photo of stuffed animals?]

Dog hidden in group of stuffed dogs
When you slow down, you start to notice things that you’d otherwise miss.

I used to have a dance student who wanted to improve his spinning. He’d do one spin after another after another without stopping. He’d be completely off balance from one turn as he threw himself harder into the next. To him, all that energy and trying hard felt like he was doing something, but he certainly wasn’t improving much. While this example is obvious, we’ve all done this in less overt ways.

To learn or refine a skill, your nervous system needs trial and error, as well as noticing differences. Each time you do a spin (or throw a ball or speak a foreign word), you gain a lot of information about the nuances of how you use yourself. For example, where the weight is on your feet, where you look or how you breathe. You also get feedback from the result. For example, how much you turned, if you were on or off balance, or whether it felt easy or strained.

By slowing down and pausing between attempts, each new movement can be fresh, incorporating what you learned in the previous trials. Then you can start to reduce the intensity of what you’re doing—that is, to make it lighter and/or smaller. By going slowly and lessening your effort, you’re actually able to feel what the heck you’re doing!

It’s this process of sensing and becoming aware that allows you to make the distinctions necessary for learning (e.g., oh, I’m pressing more with my right foot than my left). We notice what works, both consciously and unconsciously, and begin to weed out what doesn’t. When we don’t take time to slow down and do less, we just repeat our poorly organized movement and excess effort over and over, as my dance student did.

Chart of How Little Stimulus Humans Can Perceive
Sensing differences will speed up your learning

This natural way of learning—by making distinctions and differentiating—is what I utilize to achieve optimum results. As humans, we have very acute senses capable of distinguishing surprisingly fine differences. But it requires development and practice most of us don’t get in today’s modern world.

Did You Know There Are Laws of Human Perception?

There are laws of perception about how subtle a difference we can detect when it comes to sight, sound, weight, etc. For weight or muscular force, the just-noticeable difference we can distinguish is roughly 1/40th. For example, if you’re carrying a 40-pound backpack, you won’t be able to detect a butterfly landing on it or even a small bird. But you will notice if a crow weighing one or more pounds does.

Man pushing car uphill
You can’t notice subtleties when you use a lot of effort

Now imagine you are carrying a 400-pound refrigerator. In order to notice a difference, there would need to be a change of at least 10-pounds. This means the more weight or muscular effort you use, the bigger the difference needs to be for you to notice it. Another way to say this is: the less effort you use, the finer distinctions you can make.

You can use this law to your advantage when learning a new skill. The less you do, the faster you’ll learn. Because if you can’t sense differences in your effort or movement, you’re not able to make the refinements necessary to improve what you’re doing.

So while it might not feel as though you’re “doing” a lot, you are actually achieving a great deal. Beneath your conscious awareness, your nervous system is digesting information, getting rid of what’s not necessary, and making a myriad of adjustments to get it right. This is the same process you went through as a baby figuring out how to successfully reach and grab an object, crawl and walk. Going slowly also gives you time to consciously focus on things you might be doing that interfere with your intention, such as holding your breath or fixing your gaze.

Don’t Worry—This isn’t a Recipe for How to Live Your Life!

But remember, I’m not suggesting you do this all the time in your daily life (although many of us could use more slowing down, myself included). Instead, I invite you to use this moving-slowly-and-doing-less business as a learning strategy for specific times you need to clarify or refine your movement or a skill.

Once your movement or skill feels well-organized and smooth, you can do it at any speed and with as much power as you like! Just think of how much better and more efficiently you’ll be able to do it when you’ve taken the time to slow down and learn it well first.