The Primary Image

by Cliff Smyth, Feldenkrais Practitioner

At LaTrobe University in Melbourne, the 'Oxford English Dictionary' (OED) was 54 or so very thick volumes - it is sure to be more by now. It took up much of the 3rd floor lobby of the library. I bought, at great expense for a student, the two tall and thick volumes of the 'Shorter Oxford English Dictionary'. The 'Concise' version was, however, only the size of a large paperback and could be carried in my backpack! Moshe Feldenkrais talks about some of his most intriguing Awareness Through Movement lessons as providing a 'concise' image of the body.

The idea of the 'primary image' in the Feldenkrais Method is that, while our whole self-image is complex, it is possible through moving, sensing and imagining. to clarify a small number of key physical and functional relationships that can quickly help us improve our action.

We are pleased to be able to bring some of these 'primary image' lessons to the public in Learning For Health's audio CDs, The Primary Image in our Lessons To Go! series.

Self-image in action

Our whole self-image is incredibly complex - engaging a large proportion of the enormous capacity of our nervous system, constantly changing, and the subject of extensive scientific and philosophical debate! The self-image and the body image are fundamental concepts in Feldenkrais' thinking and he drew on much of the contemporary literature on this topic in his work. He also developed his ingenious sensory-motor experiments, in the form of Awareness Through Movement lessons, to make these abstract ideas concrete for his students and for all of us.

Throughout these 'primary image' lessons Feldenkrais uses consistent language to help clarify the image. For example 'lines' for the bony connections that transmit force: spine, arms and legs. He also emphasises the 'directions' of these lines. 'Points' for the shoulder and hip joints. 'Widths', 'lengths' and 'distances' when mentally measuring spatial relationships in the body. He also uses very interesting imagery to aid our development of the image. Finally he emphasises that change in one part of the image, is a change in the whole image.

Five cardinal lines

Feldenkrais practitioners are familiar a number of lessons that explore the idea of the 'five cardinal lines' of the body: the lines of the spine, arms and legs. These lines approximate the main lines of force of the body in action: as we walk, push on a heavy door, or carry a heavy bag, forces are transmitted along these five lines - sometimes more efficiently than others.

Moshe Feldenkrais taught a series of lessons in Hebrew to the public in Tel Aviv over many years. They were recently translated into English and published as teaching materials for practitioners. Among them there are an additional series of lessons that further expand and explore this idea of the primary image.

Grand articulations

The primary image lessons clarify the 'grand articulations' of the body at the shoulders and hips. The places where the lines of the arms and legs meet at the torso and translate forces to the line of the spine. As a practitioner I find most - but certainly not all - people have an idea of where their arms start in the shoulder joint. Fewer people have a precise sense of where their hip joints are located. Many think of the widest part of the hips, as where the hip joints are. In addition, we know that in western cultures where thinness is an ideal, research (including by Feldenkrais practitioner Dr Marcia Hutchinson) shows that most women, for example, consistently estimate their hips to be wider than they actually are! In fact, in most people the actual hip joints are only a full hand span apart. Many of the primary image lessons help people find the hip joints more precisely in their sensation.

Geometry of the body and the importance of the diagonals

When we identify the specific geometry of the body, then relationships between parts can be clarified. Having identified the 'four points' of the shoulders and hips, then the widths and lengths between them can be clarified - and the diagonals are implied. The diagonal relationships between opposite shoulders and hips are some of the most important for efficient action. Very often Feldenkrais practitioners see that, when the movement in one shoulder or hip is inhibited by injury or habit, then the diagonally opposite joint is also affected. To be able to imagine the diagonals across the font and back of the torso and the diagonal space within the torso can make a real difference to how we connect movements.

The Sense of Lengthening

One of the elusive concepts in human movement is how to achieve the sense of lengthening. It is possible to physically lengthen the spine somewhat. For example, there can be some relaxing of deep muscles affecting the spine. In many people the natural curves of the spine can become exaggerated and the reduction of this exaggeration can help people be longer in the spine and stand taller.

Perhaps even more importantly, however, is that the sense of lengthening, as opposed to the sense of shortening, tightening, constricting and otherwise hunkering down, can make an important difference to the ease of our movement and our whole sense of ourselves. In his popular book, Awareness Through Movement, Moshe Feldenkrais writes, "This feeling of the spine lengthening accompanies most action of the body when properly carried out".

He goes on to explain, "Superfluous efforts shorten the body: In almost every case excess tension in the muscles causes the spine to be shortened. Unnecessary effort accompanying an action tends to shorten the body. In every action in which a degree of difficulty is anticipated the body is drawn together as a protective device against this difficulty. It is precisely this reinforcement of the body that requires the unnecessary effort and prevents the body organising itself correctly for action. The limit of ability must be widened by means of study and understanding rather then by stubborn effort and attempts to protect the body" (Feldenkrais, 1972, pp. 96-97).

When people exercise they often try to use maximal effort to 'get the most benefit' from the work out, but many times this is counter-productive, giving a sense of effort that can leave muscles and the body as a whole shortened, even when we stop exercising. Fatigue, anxiety and 'trying-hard-to-do-our-best' can also contribute to unnecessary shortening of the muscles. That often makes something feel a lot harder to do than it needs to be.

In fact, muscles that start out long, and lengthen again to rest, can deliver more physical power or 'work'. Along with an overall sense of lengthening in the whole body, we can make our all activities feel lighter and easier too!

Finding the Center

We can discover how organising around our 'core' can help us move with greater ease and power. Using the image of the line of the spine and of lengthening requires that we find interesting, and possibly new, ways of using the abdomen and chest - coordinating movement in the center of ourselves.

One Feldenkrais lesson that helps us to find the center of the spine in relation to the limbs is 'Lesson 3: Some Fundamental Properties of Movement' in Awareness Through Movement (Feldenkrais, 1972, pp. 91-99). Many of the primary image lessons also invite us to find this sense of the center of the spine. Using the image of the 4 points, and where the diagonals from the 4 points cross the spine, can help us find this place in ourselves.

Using the Primary Image

Learning to pay attention to what is happening in your body, by accessing the primary image, gives you a quick reference tool to use when something becomes difficult to do or to learn. You can use the primary image to overcome difficulties and find new options in movement, whether it's running, gymnastics, martial arts, or finding comfortable ways to walk, sleep, sit or stand. Many people find that paying attention to the primary image helps them to exercise without injury.

Students and teachers of Yoga, dance, or Pilates will find these lessons useful in their own discipline. The primary image readily translates to any movement system or practice.

When we teach these primary image lessons in our classes and workshops, our students often report feeling taller and lighter, that they feel they are using their legs with less effort and more like long levers, that their arms can swing to help them walk…


Marcia Germaine Hutchinson, Transforming Body Image: Learning to Love the Body You Have, The Crossing Press, Freedom, CA, 1985.

Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement: Health Exercises for Personal Growth, Harper San Francisco, 1972.

Thanks to Deborah Bowes.

Copyright, Cliff Smyth, 2007

Go to The Primary Image CDs page.