What Does it Mean to Feel the Sound of “Biological Optimism” in Your Bones?

What does it mean to look at your life with an attitude of biological optimism?

(I’ll explain the idea shortly, but for now, just notice how the words sound and feel.)

*  *  *

When I read something that really touches me, it often feels like the writer has put into words something that I have long been looking for, but couldn’t articulate for myself. I feel something release inside me when that thing is recognized and given a name.

When I began to practice the Feldenkrais Method, I began to have this experience over and over. My body was responding in fresh ways to the words I heard in Awareness Through Movement classes and in the new books I was reading.

One of the first books I found was Mindful Spontaneity by Ruthy Alon (just that title made me feel good!). I can clearly remember that there was a particular paragraph that generated a feeling in my body that I’d spent years trying to find. To put it into words, I would have said, “this is what I want to do with my life.” It was a strong enough feeling that I trusted it. That was when I decided to enroll in a formal practitioner training program.

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Ruthy Alon

In her book – which reads like poetry – Alon describes what she calls “the true gain” that comes from dedicating oneself to the Feldenkrais Method, a life perspective she calls “biological optimism”:

Can you imagine your feelings when you discover that you are an ever-changing live organism, capable of self-correction and advancement for as long as you live? The optimism which accompanies the learning process, people’s enthusiasm when they discover it, as well as their appreciation, are what make this method so attractive and inspire commitment in both students and teachers.

These words resonated very deeply with me because by now I could match them to sensations I had felt in my body. I had learned a reliable process I could engage whenever I needed to reduce pain or stress and find more lightness in my body. That knowledge created an entirely new image of my future where I was much more in control.

So, let’s flash forward a couple of years to an experience I had in my training, when one day we had a guest teacher, Julie Francis, a Feldenkrais practitioner from Chicago. As she guided us through a series of movements, she invited us to relate to ourselves in a particular way:

See how softly you can do the movement . . . Let it be soft . . . Let it be easy.
Do less than you know you can do . . . Let it be simple.
Why the struggle? . . . Why struggle?! . . . Why do we struggle?!
Life is hard ‘cause we make it hard, right? Movement is hard ‘cause we make it hard!
I was watching this little girl today doing these movements . . . I was having breakfast this morning and there was a – probably an 18-month old – and she had a stroller and she was standing outside her stroller and she was doing THIS lesson! . . .
. . . And she had this giant monkey on her bum-bum and she’s bending over and there’s that little monkey smiling at me. It was the cutest thing! And there was not an ounce of struggle in that body.
So where did the struggle come from?!  . . . Let it go!  . . . Be that little girl! . . . EXPLORE!
These are not lessons to be done correctly! These are lessons for learning. If we focus on doing something right we learn nothing (except to struggle and try to do something right).
But if we get curious and say, “Ah, what is that, what is that?!” – What happens? . . . Suddenly, it becomes play!

Now, when is the last time you heard something like that in your movement class?!

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Julie Francis

*  *  *

When I began to teach Awareness Through Movement, I decided that I would invite my students to “move like a child again.” I chose this theme because, like Julie Francis, I find a lot of inspiration in the joyful way that children move. And I like the idea that by rewriting the narrative of how we relate to our bodies, we can recapture some of that joy in our bodies that we all used to have. During our playground years, words like “right”, “wrong”, “must”, “should” and “correct” were less present in our vocabularies – and our movement.

Teaching this method has brought me to a deeper understanding of how the sound and feeling of our words reflects our ways of thinking, acting and making meaning.

For example, if a student come to my class and tells me, “I have pain in this shoulder”, and another student comes and tells me, “this is my bad shoulder”, these two student do not think about their shoulder in the same way. Likewise, they are to likely act quite differently when I invite them to investigate how they might move their shoulders without pain.

My job is not to judge that one student’s ideas or actions is better than the other, but to give them both more options for how they relate to their shoulder – and to their whole self. And one of the ways that I do this is by offering them new words.

As a student, I have experienced many new and wonderful feelings in my body by moving in response to the words of my teachers. Now that I teach, I have the amazing opportunity to watch others translate my words into physical movement.

What I have learned is that if you face some difficulty in life, whether you locate it in your “body”, your “mind”, or your “self”, it might be worth thinking about the words you choose to describe it. It also might be worth exchanging those words for different ones. The sound of new words can bring new meaning, a change that you can often feel in your bones.

Perhaps the most radical way to create a new mental narrative is by eliminating words altogether. Moshe Feldenkrais sometimes advocated this approach. The central concern of his life’s work was to help people find their full potential and he felt that language was one place that many people created obstacles for themselves.

He once put it this way:

When thinking in words, even subliminally, we are logical and think in familiar patterns, in categories that we have thought, dreamed, read, heard, or said sometime before. Learning to think in patterns of relationships, in sensations divorced from the fixity of words, allows us to find hidden resources and the ability to make new patterns, to carry over patterns of relationship from one discipline to another. In short, we think personally, originally, and thus take another route to the thing we already know.

*  *  *

Recently, I have been inspired to take a new look at my use of language by Daniela Picard, a Romanian-born Feldenkrais practitioner who today resides in Bat Yam, Israel. Daniela, who has been teaching for 27 years, once described our Method to me as “systematic playfulness.” (click here to watch a wonderful video of Daniela inviting her students to explore new ways to put on a jacket – you don’t need to speak Hebrew to understand!)

In one conversation I told Daniela that I had never understood why some people only seem to use the word “crazy” to describe negative things. “I’m known for my crazy ideas,” she responded, and went on to tell me a beautiful story.

Once, after a fall from a bicycle, Daniela’s knee had become very swollen. After a day of teaching, she went with some others to eat and on the way from the car to the restaurant she was “walking funny.” But this did not mean that she was limping. Rather, “it was like a dance or something – but there was no pain.”

Some among her company became embarrassed by the spectacle and a friend asked her, “how do you have the courage to do this?” For Daniela, the answer was simple:  “I told them it was more important to me to move without pain than what someone I will never see again might think about me.”

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Daniela Picard

I think Daniela’s story is a nice example of how words like those of Ruthy Alon and Julie Francis can be turned into action. If we live life playfully, we can find creative solutions that make us stronger.

Sometimes this process begins by changing the words we speak or opening our ears to hear something new. Sometimes it means following a feeling before we can explain it logically. Sometimes it means that feeling good is a good enough reason for what we do. Sometimes it means that learning can be fun.

Do you like the sound of that? 

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Refreshing the possibilities at the 2nd DC Feldenkrais Festival

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On January 3rd, nearly 50 participants rang in the New Year by learning something new about themselves.  The 2nd DC Feldenkrais Festival offered the public an opportunity to engage in as many as five Awareness Through Movement (ATM) exercises, and, for a lucky handful, to experience Functional Integration (FI).

ATM and FI are, respectively, the group and individual formats of the Feldenkrais Method, a unique form of exploratory somatic education that can help people of any age or background to discover new and more comfortable ways to move.

Just like the 1st Festival, this event took place in a preschool classroom, an appropriate setting to revisit the non-goal-oriented curiosity of childhood.  Led by Carol Regan, Seth Dellinger, Ingrid Willenz-Isaacs, Alex Devlin, Chrish Kresge and Arona Primalani, Festival attendees re-investigated the rich sensory experiences that correspond to such simple acts as rolling, twisting, turning, shifting weight and walking.

Those who came included people facing long-term challenges to their mobility, multi-tasking busy bees seeking to reduce stress levels, and several performing artists looking for new ways to express themselves creatively.

Following one of the morning classes, I had an interesting conversation with two members of the local contact improv (CI) dance community, a leader of a local Circlesinging vocal jam group and a former dancer seeking to regain some of the joy in movement that she felt she had lost in the process of aging.

One of the dancers said that, in his experience, connecting harmoniously with another dancer was not possible without having a deep inner connection with himself. Building on this idea, we discussed how the kind of self-knowledge gained through a process like Awareness Through Movement could provide a powerful impulse for many creative endeavors.

I later heard from a couple of different people that on the night after the event they slept better than they had in ages and woke up feeling refreshed. Now that is something that all of us could use a bit more of, isn’t it?!

These are just a couple of examples of how participants at the 2nd DC Feldenkrais Festival made discoveries about themselves that they could take with them to more fully enjoy the things that bring meaning to their lives.

Stay tuned – plans for the 3rd DC Feldenkrais Festival on March 21st are already underway!

Meanwhile, if you would like to find out what parts of your life could be refreshed by the experience of Awareness Through Movement, why not join a weekly class? (If you’re not in the Washington DC area, check here)

 

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Learning discoveries at the 1st DC Feldenkrais Festival

Awareness Through Movement® lessons can be done lying on the floor . . .

Awareness Through Movement® lessons can be done lying on the floor . . .

The first DC Feldenkrais Festival on Saturday, October 25, 2014 was a learning experience for all of us.

Six Awareness Through Movement® (ATM) teachers offered back-to-back classes to several dozen students who attended one or several sessions throughout the entire 7-hour event. Many of these students experienced ATM for the first time, while others had attended ATM classes for years. As the main organizer and contact person for the event, I had a number of interesting experiences observing and interacting with all of these wonderful people.

By chance, the room that was provided for us at the Chevy Chase Community Center that day was a pre-school classroom. It was the perfect atmosphere for the playful exploratory learning experience we hoped to share!

Before each ATM exercise, I spoke briefly about what the Feldenkrais Method is, and what it is not. Sitting next to a yellow diamond-shaped toy street sign that read “SLOW” (borrowed from the pre-school dramatic play area), I explained that this experience would be entirely different than what one usually encounters in an exercise class.

This is not about stretching, I said. It’s not about pushing your limits. It’s about learning. It’s about discovering habits you might not have known you had. It’s more about what’s happening in your brain than what is happening in your muscles. And it’s not about getting anywhere or accomplishing anything.

In fact, I said, it could actually be useful to take the attitude that what you are doing here is wasting your time!  If you have any goal at all, please make it that you are looking for a feeling of comfort in these movements, a feeling of pleasure.

One young woman told me that she had heard something about Feldenkrais from a friend and decided to try it out. “I have no expectations,” she said. “Perfect!” I replied. And throughout the day, I encouraged others to take a similar attitude.

Yet, this wasn’t always easy. More than one participant remarked after a session that they had to fight against an inner compulsion to do more!

For example, following one exercise where participants sat in chairs and explored the function of turning, a woman commented, “I kept noticing that other students were turning farther than me and I kept thinking ‘I need to turn more.'” She acknowledged that forcing herself to turn farther would have created discomfort, yet she said she still felt compelled to do so. She said she assumed there was something wrong with her if she did not turn as much as others did. Several other students nodded in agreement, having had a similar experience.

. . . or sitting in a chair!

. . . or sitting in a chair!

All the same, I was impressed by the way many students accepted the teachers’ invitations to slow down and listen to themselves. And, they made discoveries!

For example, they found out that strange movement combinations – such as turning the head to the left while looking with the eyes to the right – could provoke new and novel patterns of muscular organization. They discovered how a simple movement such as reaching one arm toward the ceiling could be connected to a global movement of the whole self. They discovered how focusing their attention on different individual aspects of a more complex movement could illuminate the overall pattern and help them perform it more smoothly.

And they discovered that, in a very short time, through their own actions, they were capable of change.

For example, one woman, a regular practitioner of Qi Gong, told me that she experienced a dramatic shift half way through the session in which she participated. “My entire upper back suddenly let go and sank into the floor,” she said.

A handful of these new participants decided that they wanted these changes to stick, and decided to sign up for regular ongoing Awareness Through Movement classes.

The students at the festival who already knew about the Feldenkrais Method played a vital role at the DC Feldenkrais Festival: they supplied the excitement! Despite already knowing the power of ATM, these Feldenkrais “veterans” jumped at the opportunity to dive into multiple lessons and many brought a friend who was new to the experience.

They spoke about how the Feldenkrais Method had changed their lives and expressed gratitude for an event that placed it more in the public spotlight. Their presence gave new participants a sense of the broader community of people who have discovered a greater connection to themselves and to each other through consistent practice.

The ATM teachers that day were Francine Bonjour-Carter, Carol Regan, Abby Becker, Matthew Kupstas, Hannah Vo-Dinh and Derick Carter. Each of these gifted teachers gave their students a unique introduction to the Feldenkrais Method through the lens of their varied personalities. A couple of moments from their presentations help to give a flavor of the unique learning atmosphere that can be found in an Awareness Through Movement class.

The first image that comes to my mind is of Abby Becker, also a musician and organizer of adventurous after-school programs for young people in Baltimore. Abby stood before her students holding a Hoberman sphere (for those that don’t know, this is a plastic children’s toy that looks like a geodesic dome, capable of folding on its myriad joints to a fraction of its size).

Transmitting a joyful child-like curiosity, Abby showed festival participants how the structure could expand and contract, yet never surrender its perfectly spherical form. “Where does the movement come from?” she asked. “You can’t tell because each joint moves simultaneously and equally.”

This image, Abby explained, was a perfect metaphor for the possibility of efficiently organized movement that exists in the human skeleton. And at several relevant moments during the lesson she taught, she reminded students of this flexible sphere as she urged them to look for a similar quality of graceful action, where no individual part does unnecessary work because the effort is equally distributed throughout the entire self.

I also smile when I think of the way that Matthew Kupstas oriented his class participants to take care of themselves as they moved – a simple idea, yet one that flies in the face of much of what we are in taught in this society, making it difficult for some to accept initially, as was noted earlier.

“No one else has lived in your skin as long as you have,” he said.  The individual acts most effectively when guided by the internal senses rather than by the attempt to fulfill others’ expectations, he explained. “You are the authority of your own comfort.”

After a minute, with a grin he added: “Y-y-y-ep! You guys are changin’ the world by bringing a little more awareness to yourselves . . . that’s what the world needs: a few more people with more awareness!”

The organizers and teachers at the DC Feldenkrais Festival all agreed that it was a lot of fun and we plan to do it again. We plan to return to DC, but are already thinking about other cities in the region, including Baltimore and Philadelphia.  We hope to see you there – and please bring your friends!

After a while, the floor feels more and more comfortable!

After a while, the floor feels more comfortable!

 

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Making “I” Contact at the 2014 Feldenkrais Method Conference

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You may have heard that the Feldenkrais Method can help you reduce pain, increase flexibility and improve your ease of movement. That’s all true, but it doesn’t stop there.

Since each Feldenkrais lesson is actually designed to help create new patterns in your brain, long-term practice often leads to surprising changes in other parts of our lives that we don’t immediately think of as having anything do to with movement.

In my own case, I have told different stories about how I found the Feldenkrais Method, but most of them are only partly true. For example, I sometimes mention that, as a musician who had been inactive for a number of years, I was seeking to reconnect with my body to cultivate the kind of rhythmic precision necessary for high-quality performance.

That’s true. But more to the point, I was a lost soul.

I was someone who had tried very hard at a number of different things, but felt that I had little to show for it. I was prone to thinking I simply couldn’t do anything right and I had very little clue where my life was going. I was looking for “something”, but I had no idea what. When I found the Feldenkrais Method I realized that what I was looking for was actually myself.

Fast-forward to earlier this week when, a little overstuffed with exuberance, I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

For the last 5 days, I have been at the 2014 FGNA conference (the national meeting of Feldenkrais Method practitioners in North America). My learning experience has felt like being struck by a loving and compassionate bolt of lightning. In every workshop and event, I had the sense of being handed golden keys and shown how to unlock doors to previously unknown regions that I had never guessed might be available as possibilities for human experience. Likewise, the cumulative impact of countless individual social interactions – in a community where creativity, humility, curiosity, compassion and experimentation are not only accorded the highest possible value, but are, in fact, recognized as the means to honing one’s craft – has given me numerous concrete examples of the unlimited potential in each one of us when we embrace the joyful approach to learning that is the hallmark of childhood.

If you were one of the people that read this, I could certainly forgive you if you wondered: Wasn’t I exaggerating just a little bit?

Perhaps. But perhaps not.

As I explained in my first post to this blog, the Feldenkrais Method has had an enormous impact on me in the last three years since I discovered it. At the conference I suddenly found myself surrounded by a couple hundred folks who have also been deeply affected by this work. Many of them discovered it not three years, but three decades or more ago. The experience of living for a week in this community was anything but ordinary.

Speaking very generally, a Feldenkrais practitioner works on herself over a period of many years to cultivate higher and higher levels of sensitivity to all aspects of her own experience. In verbal or hands-on dialogue, she is able to transmit a measure of that sensitivity to her students who, most likely, have not been working on themselves in this same way.

When there is clear communication, the student’s experience is not unlike that of the shy flat-footed man to whom the ballerina affords a warm smile before whisking him off across the ballroom floor. As his trust of her grows and he continues to look into her friendly eyes instead of down at his feet, the more he feels that he too actually knows how to dance.

I myself had a rare positive experience on the dance floor on the last night of the conference. I felt comfortable enough to express myself freely while whirling about – and still found my feet balanced underneath me!

But there were many other occasions during the week when I found myself fumbling – whether with my feet or my words. I believe that the difference was that in these moments I had turned inwards. I seemed to fail to see the others in my midst as models of my own potential for grace, but rather as mirrors that reflected my current lack of knowledge and experience with the steps of the dance.

Then, towards the end of the week, I made a startling discovery for myself about the dividing line between these two classes of experiences. The difference between the two seemed to have something to do with eye contact – or perhaps I could even call it “I” contact.

* * * * *

Even while enjoying myself immensely, a recurring experience I had in conversations with other conference participants was the distraction of something taking place either in my peripheral vision or the periphery of my thinking. For example, while talking face-to-face in a small group, I might notice from the corner of my eye a “famous” Feldenkrais person walking by, someone whose videos I had watched on YouTube or whose voice I had listened to on audio recordings – but was now right there in the flesh before my very eyes!

Wait a minute, what were we talking about?!

At this moment I had to refocus my eyes on the eyes of my conversation partner in order to rediscover the thread, not always sure how long I’d been “gone” and if my absence had been noticed.

A different kind of distraction seemed to indicate the positive nature of a conversational interaction, yet had the same disorienting effect. That is, I might just find someone’s comments so intriguing that, combined with some other pre-existing experiences or thoughts, my mind would immediately go racing off to see where the implications would lead. It wouldn’t be long before the excited mental narratives (“if that’s true, then it must also be true that . . . “) were drowning out the voice of the person speaking to me in real time. I was somewhere else, not “here”, not “now”, and therefore disconnected to the person I was with.

The most disconcerting thing about this pattern of social distraction and disconnection was that it was taking place among a group of people whose company I desired, who made me feel happy. But, of course, it was an old pattern.

At some point in this conference I realized that I have had a long-standing habit of not sustaining eye contact. I can remember for example, only a year ago, when talking to a very friendly man I know, that rather than holding his gaze, I suddenly lowered myself to sit on a sofa despite the fact that he remained standing. My action came in the midst of a discussion on a serious subject and only magnified the awkward feelings and voices in my head that had preceded it.

* * * * *

In practicing the Feldenkrais Method, we sometimes discover habits that we never even knew we had. We then have the opportunity to change these habits, but only if we are willing. While many of the changes and discoveries happen as we lie on the floor in an Awareness Through Movement (ATM) class or on the table of a practitioner who is giving us a Functional Integration lesson, sometimes doing this work sets us up for startling insights that surprise us at other moments when we least expect them. The changes that accompany these insights are rarely automatic.

In fact, we often choose another option: to ignore what we have learned and get back to the familiarity of business as usual.

One evening at the conference, in the midst of his presentation on Feldenkrais and the Brain, Roger Russell asked audience members to pick a stranger from the crowd, lock eyes and slowly walk towards one another – without smiling. People had different experiences, but most found that if we maintained a strict poker face then there was a distance where one or both of us would hesitate, a distance that roughly corresponded to the place where we could reach out and touch each other. It was a fairly predictable biological response, Russell explained, related to what any animal does as it surveys its environment for potential dangers.

Earlier the same day, in a workshop entitled “Potency through Uncertainty”, David Zemach-Bersin demonstrated that one way that Moshe Feldenkrais had found to capture the attention of the nervous system was by threatening it. In a series of ATM lessons where the student had to make increasingly more precise calculations to maintain his balance on one foot while assuming more and more precarious positions, we found that the fear of falling provoked a level of focus that made it possible to do things we might never have dared to try on our own.

Earlier that week, Jeff Haller taught a series of lessons designed to clarify how our relationship to the ground beneath us determines our ability to be light on our feet. Ideally, our experience of gravity is not that it is dragging us down into the earth, but, rather, we feel that the ground is growing up and through us. When we can experience this kind of support from the surfaces we are on, we are in a better position to comfortably navigate our surroundings.

Returning to Roger Russell’s presentation, the paired strangers were asked to approach each other a second time later in the same evening, but on this occasion, after having been led through an Awareness Through Movement lesson. In other words, we were the same two people, but now each one of us had just slightly re-organized our nervous systems. So, in fact, perhaps we weren’t the same two people at all!

In our second experiment, my partner and I found our selves much closer to each other than on the previous occasion – more like the distance one maintains in intimate conversation. And, having come this close, this was what we did: we talked at length.

At a certain point in the conversation I realized that our eyes were still locked on each other. I can’t remember for sure, but I think this may have been the moment when it occurred to me to experiment with the idea that this could be a normal state of affairs.

And, the more I spoke to different people that evening and the following day, the more I found that holding sustained eye contact was something that nearly every one of them did – naturally, it seemed. With a conscious effort I now did it myself because I was discovering that it seemed to create something new in the conversational dynamic, a sense of greater connectedness between us. I believe it resulted from a new message that my eyes were sending: “I’m here with you right now.”

However, new habits have to be cultivated if they are going to stick. I still found that just as often, I would allow my eyes to drift off to some other point than the eyes of the person attempting to communicate with me. It wasn’t yet a settled question.

Many Feldenkrais practitioners have heard their students complain that the improvements they feel at the end of a lesson “don’t last.” There can be different reasons for this, but the simplest one is that that if the heightened attention to one’s own comfort that is engaged throughout a lesson is immediately abandoned at its completion, it becomes very easy to slip back into the older habits that caused discomfort. A lesson can suggest new habits that may serve us better, but our old injurious habits don’t disappear – we have to deliberately abandon them.

In my case, sustaining eye contact in conversation is not yet a consistent pattern. It’s more of an intriguing idea that I’m now playing with, something I’ve become more conscious about. Now when I confront myself in the mirror of the other human beings in my world, not only do I recognize the moments when “I’m here” or “I’m gone,” but I’m also starting to notice the moments when “I’m going” and the moments when “I’m coming back.” More importantly, I can be more willful in these moments – I no longer feel like a passive recipient of the experience.

Perhaps, like me, you have heard the following quote from Moshe Feldenkrais a couple billion times: “if you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”

Normally, as with anything that seems very familiar, I wouldn’t pay much attention to these words. But at the moment, I find that something in me is different, and this simple phrase describes something I am experiencing. When you become different, sometimes you find that the seemingly ordinary elements of your environment that you have come to ignore are in fact filled with rich and vital information – and if you will stop and observe them, they are ready to teach you something new.

* * * * *

On the last day of the conference, I attended a workshop with Donna Blank entitled “Friendly Hands.” The presentation was dedicated to improving practitioners’ ability to communicate with their students through their hands, as is done in the practice of Functional Integration.

But there was no discussion of techniques, positions, or the ideal use of the skeleton. Nor, in fact, was there much discussion of the hand in particular.

Instead, Donna focused our attention on the fact that when we connect our nervous system through our hands to the nervous system of another human being, our place of meeting opens a channel through which all the information we are carrying at that moment in our system might be transmitted. So if we are angry, the person we touch will experience angry hands. If we are nervous, the person experiences nervous hands. Our hands could also be confused or ambitious or impatient or timid, depending on our internal state.

But in the practice of Functional Integration, the practitioner wants above all to clarify to the student what is going on inside the student. By her own sensitive listening to the student’s nervous system, the practitioner highlights internal dissonances and suggests new more harmonious pathways that the student might not find on their own. To make this possible, the practitioner would do best to have “friendly hands” that the student can trust.

Without being able to trust the tour guide, the student might instead experience the journey into the unknown as an unpleasant experience to be forgotten as quickly as possible. This is not the type of experience that leads to lasting positive change.

During the workshop, Donna led participants through a series of “attunement” exercises that drew on her study of Whole Body Focusing to help us find ourselves completely inside our bodies – completely “here” and in the “now.” We acknowledged how our surrounding environment affected us, from the sounds of laughter coming through the wall from a neighboring room to the color of the wall that formed the backdrop to everything else in our field of vision.

We discussed at length the different kinds of distracting thoughts that may come up as we are working with a student and how we can always take time to pause and reconnect to the essential elements of ourselves that transmit our energy: our relationship to the ground below us, our breath, our physical comfort, our emotions, and the state of our attention.

To conclude the workshop, we did a final exercise to make this connection with another, taking the time to observe all the same qualities in a partner. Rather than simply noticing (as I might normally do) where I thought the student before me might be unnecessarily contracting her muscles or how well her skeleton was aligned, I found myself noticing her style of dress, the visual patterns formed by the folds in her clothing, the rhythm and sound of her breath and the expression on her face. As another participant commented later, it was a different form observation than we often use. It was non-judgmental and non-quantitative.

I did not give my partner a Functional Integration lesson. I simply spent a couple of minutes with my left hand under her left shoulder blade. My intention was nothing more than to replace a friendly hand for the table and become the ground of support for the student in that part of her self. As I made this connection I did so knowing and feeling that both she and I were there together at the same time and place. Before I made contact with her, I had already made contact with myself and with my environment and thus, there were no distractions. Everyone was on the same page.

What happened? It was not the same as any previous experience of connecting my hand to a student’s shoulder blade. As I told Donna afterwards, it didn’t feel like “my hand” touching “her scapula”, but rather two rich landscapes, each filled with infinite points of energy that came together in a rich and dynamic dialogue. I felt ripples, shifts, pulses, explosions, changes in temperatures and tempos, melodies and many other things that I couldn’t possibly put in words.

What’s more, I couldn’t be sure if this information originated in her or in myself. Nor did it particularly seem to matter.

* * * * *

Moshe Feldenkrais liked to remind his students that what they were learning from him had everything to do with survival. The question of whether it would be easier for you to turn to your right or your left ceases to be merely academic if a lion suddenly walks into the room. You need to turn and run for your life and, in this moment, you don’t ask the question at all.

You simply turn to the easier side and run, because this is the only thing of importance and your entire nervous system organizes to do it in the most efficient way possible. Your attention is not divided.

Despite the fact that we don’t usually face death on a moment-to-moment basis, the feeling that we would know what to do if we did can spill over into the rest of our experience. If we are prepared (like a high-level martial artist) for what might happen at any moment, we can be more confident, more relaxed, more ourselves at any given moment.

Most conversations are not life-and-death situations (although every one of us can probably think of pivotal moments in our lives that transpired within the container of a conversation). However, the quality of our every day social interchanges may well have a lot to do with the quality of our life in general.

For example, if we always have the feeling that what we say is being dismissed, or that we can’t safely express ourselves when we are in disagreement, the cumulative impact of these experiences can profoundly affect our psyche and our image of ourselves in the world among others. Like any other habit, we might be blind to those things that we ourselves are doing that may be contributing to what makes the situation uncomfortable.

In a Feldenkrais lesson, new and unusual patterns of action are generally introduced step-wise, so that the student is not overwhelmed by unfamiliarity, and thus has a better opportunity to experience success, a pre-requisite for the nervous system to accept any improvements that are gained on a longer-term basis.

My discovery of the utility of sustaining eye contact in conversation took place in the friendliest of environments, in this conference filled with people for whom “creativity, humility, curiosity, compassion and experimentation are not only accorded the highest possible value, but are, in fact, recognized as the means to honing one’s craft.”

Since the conference concluded, I have had the opportunity to proceed to the next step of this lesson, discovering how the practice of eye contact can improve my communication with the members of my family, friends, fellow students at university, teachers at my daughter’s school or even strangers that I interact with on the street.

Whether or not the conversation is a friendly one, I am finding that if I sustain eye contact, I’m more likely to also be in contact with myself, to be “here” and “now” and less distracted by irrelevant environmental stimuli or my own peripheral thoughts. This is why I’m now thinking of sustaining eye contact as sustaining “I” contact.

* * * * *

Among the many Feldenkrais practitioners at the conference, I met wonderful gentleman (who will likely recognize himself if he reads this) who was patient enough to listen to me talk at length about some of the subjects I have treated here and to share some welcome insights.

For example, I mentioned that I felt overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information I was receiving during the week, which felt at times like more than I could process. He replied by offering a helpful suggestion that had never occurred to me before: try to sort the information into two categories – what is merely interesting, and what is useful to you that you can do something with.

Before we parted, I told him some of what I felt that I’d learned about the importance of the connection between my “I” and my eyes in relation to my fellow human beings. He encouraged me to expand the idea one step further and see if in addition to feeling the connection to your eyes as I speak to you, to see if I could also feel my breath and the connection through my feet to the ground.

In my mind, it made a nice summary of what I’d learned through the course of the week, an idea that I can bring both into my Feldenkrais practice as well as the rest of my life.

If you have made it this far with me and are wondering what it might have to do with you, I’d like to invite you to join me or another Feldenkrais practitioner for an Awareness Through Movement class or a private session of Functional Integration. These are opportunities to come into closer contact with yourself and, by so doing, come into closer contact with your world and the people in it.

 

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Learning to Learn to Move Like A Child Again

atm flyer 3

The natural joy exhibited by children is the secret to their flexibility and easy – non-goal-oriented – movement

I want to invite you to rediscover the experience of pure joy in movement and learning.

I’m talking about the joy exhibited by any child who is allowed to move freely and who has not yet been inculcated into one of the infinite variety of doctrines of what is “right” and what is “wrong”.

Babies that coo and goo have no concern as to whether their sounds are as melodious as other babies and experience more pure delight in a simple game of peek-a-boo with Mommy than many of us have known in any form in years.  The world is brand new every day, as new as yesterday, and as far as baby knows, it will still be new brand new tomorrow.  Learning isn’t part of life – it is life.

Is your world brand new every day?

Here is a small piece of my story of rediscovering the joy in putting learning at the center of my life.  I hope you will me help write the next chapter …

About three years ago I stumbled across the Feldenkrais Method, a unique form of guided exploratory movement that opens a doorway into our central nervous system and creates opportunities for us to re-wire it.  I was so blown away by the rapid and continuing transformations it produced in me that I soon joined a training program to become a practitioner of this method and share my experience with others.

As I write these words, I am just a few days away from my professional certification as a teacher of group Feldenkrais classes, known as Awareness Through Movement (“ATM”, for short).

To prepare myself, I have been offering free public classes for the past two months in a local community center where I invited participants to explore the idea that they could learn how to “move like a child again.”  It has been very exciting – my first experience (outside of practice with classmates from my training) in sharing this work with others.  Now that I find myself sitting at the front of the room giving instructions rather than lying on the ground and following them, perhaps technically, I’m no longer a “student” – now I’m a “teacher.”

But, given the way the Feldenkrais process works –  and especially given that I’ve just begun to teach – I think it’s more accurate to say: “I’m learning to learn how to teach how to learn to learn.”

What?!

To explain a bit more what that messy mouthful means, here is a short passage from an article by long-time Feldenkrais trainer, Dennis Leri, who studied directly with Moshe Feldenkrais, the extraordinary scientist, Judo master and all-around creative thinker who created the method that bears his name:

Rather than “fixing” the body, Moshe Feldenkrais taught how to expand its capacities and ranges of choice.  “I am going to be your last teacher. Not because I’ll be the greatest teacher you may ever encounter, but because from me you will learn how to learn. When you learn how to learn, you will realize that there are no teachers, that there are only people learning and people learning how to facilitate learning.” With those words Moshe Feldenkrais began his first North American training in June 1975. None of us were really prepared for this remarkable man or his method.

During an Awareness Through Movement lesson, the student follows simple directions from the teacher such as “roll your head to the left” or “reach your right arm forward.”  Usually, there is actually very little that’s special in these movements (in fact, Feldenkrais once even described them as “idiotic”!).  Rather, what is special are the insights into one’s self that the sequence of movements in an ATM lesson can provide.

As one simple movement follows another, gradually, the student discovers a clearer and clearer picture of how to coordinate the separate movements of her limbs into a single coherent image.  When we don’t know ourselves well enough (or, for example, when we don’t know how our hip joints function) we often set our different parts to work in opposition to each other.  Rather than an efficient coordination between our muscles, bones and joints, we have an internal tug of war – and, worse still, we often make a habit of it.  The unique experience of an Awareness Through Movement lesson shines a light on our habits and allows us to find out whether they truly serve us.

And it creates opportunities to create new habits that may serve us better.

The job of the Awareness Through Movement teacher is not only to direct the students in performing the movements, but more importantly, to help guide the students’ awareness of how they are moving.  What Feldenkrais discovered is that when we slow our movements down, try less hard to achieve our goals, and pay close attention to ourselves and the internal sensations produced by our movements, we open the door to learning things that may have always seemed out of our grasp.

It’s not unlike the disciplined musician who repeatedly practices a tiny snippet of a composition at half the tempo he will later perform it.  The rewards to be reaped from this approach, in my experience, are practically limitless.  However, there is a catch: for many of us, embracing the idea of “doing less” runs against the grain of everything we have been taught.

In my own personal history as a musician, unfortunately, I never quite learned how to practice.  As a teenage piano student, I would play a piece I’d worked out over and over, but rather than improving, it got worse each time.  In my efforts to prove to myself (and others) that I was “good at piano” I would play the piece faster and faster, not noticing that it only sounded sloppier and less musical with each repetition.

I was convinced that speed and playing the “right notes” was proof of “talent.”  At the same time, I feared working on new pieces, knowing that I would have to start over again in that uncomfortable space where I didn’t yet know how the music was supposed to sound or even where to put my fingers to begin … and I wondered why I didn’t improve!

When I discovered the Feldenkrais Method, I began the process of slowing down.  Since that time I have discovered a new depth of enjoyment not only in music, but also in running, in reading, in washing the dishes, in conversation, in human relationships – in short, in all aspects of my life.  Slowing down was not easy at first, but it gets easier each time I engage with it – and I intend to make it a habit!

A new Feldenkrais teacher faces many challenges.  One not insignificant challenge is to describe certain more complex movements in words without forgetting while facing the students that “my right is their left” and vice-versa!  The teacher has to learn how to create the image of the movement in words, and soon learns that, even if all the students speak the same language, the teacher’s intention is often “lost in translation.”

However, for myself as a teacher, the biggest (and most interesting) challenge has not been the translation of words into actions as such, but rather how to effectively communicate one of Feldenkrais most simple, yet profound ideas: stop trying so hard! Stop being so serious! Be kind to yourself!

When I started doing ATMs as a student, I certainly heard the instructions to do smaller movements, slower movements, and not to ignore discomforts.  Yet whenever I felt my range of motion increasing I also always heard an excited internal voice saying “hey, how much more can we get?!  Let’s find out!”  When a movement got more comfortable, the voice said, “This is great!  Let’s go faster!  Let’s cross the finish line first!”

The problem with that other voice isn’t that there is something wrong with large or fast movements, or even with a bit of competitive spirit.  Rather, the problem is that in true learning, there is no finish line.  There is always another layer of understanding to be discovered if you are willing to take the time to look.

But if you’re always in a rush to “succeed”. . . you’ll miss it!

One of the best compliments I received from my students was from a woman who told me that that she had gained a new appreciation in class for “the wonderful machinery we are lucky to embody.”  I think that statement summarizes quite well the way that young children relate to their bodies, the “wonderful machinery” that helps them discover a brand new world each day.

People come to Awareness Through Movement classes for many different reasons.  Some students are trying to regain mobility that was lost because of an accident or surgery.  Others may be trying to raise their level of performance as a musician or athlete.  Others are motivated more broadly to follow a path of self-discovery.  Whatever other motives bring you, I’d like you to consider joining an Awareness Through Movement class* for this reason as well: to reconnect with the joy of learning and experience how it feels to “move like a child” again!

*click link above for ATM classes in DC.  If you are elsewhere on the globe, please click here.

 

 

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