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.

ruthy 4

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?!

julie francis

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.”

daniela 2

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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Practice to Become Your True Self . . . Ideas from Moshe Feldenkrais and Shunryu Suzuki

meditator

Have you heard about the countless benefits of meditation?

They include:

  • better brain functioning and attention span
  • stress reduction and sounder sleep
  • improved functioning of metabolic and immune systems
  • more emotional control and optimism
  • increased sense of social and environmental connection

“That’s great,” you might say, “but I find meditation very difficult.” And if I asked you why perhaps you’d say:

  • “I can’t sit in that position comfortably for more than a couple of minutes.”
  • “My mind always wanders.”
  • “Meditating makes me sleepy”
  • “I have too many things to do to sit around and do nothing.”
  • “It’s so boring!!”

These statements may or may not resonate with you, but they do describe real challenges involved with regular sitting meditation. But more fundamentally, I think they describe the difficulties of practice, that is, some activity that you return to again and again to develop your self over a long period of time.

I recently began to meditate on a regular basis and I have found it immensely rewarding. I believe the main reason that this is the case is because of what I had already learned about practice, thanks to my immersion in the Feldenkrais Method.

I discovered Feldenkrais about 5 years ago and was astounded by the way it immediately opened up new pathways in my life. The method is a unique and fascinating practice of self-study carried out through a process of making gentle movements. By cultivating your awareness of increasingly subtle aspects of the experience, you can radically rewrite your possibilities. The Feldenkrais Method can help you discover better balance and flexibility, reduce stress and chronic pain and generally find more ease in your body and mind – in a lot less time than you might expect.

In my own case, I was so taken with it that I joined a training program and today I am beginning to make a living as a teacher of Awareness Through Movement. It’s the best job I’ve ever had because every day I get to share my own learning experience with other people who also want to improve their lives.

I don’t think I would be having such a fruitful experience right now as a beginner at meditation if it were not for my previous self-study through the lens of the Feldenkrais Method. The potentially difficult aspects of meditation that I mentioned at the beginning of this post would have likely derailed me. Luckily, my meditation practice has been informed by my Feldenkrais practice, giving me tools to understand what I am doing as I sit, how to sit comfortably, how to observe my thoughts patiently, how to stay focused on my breath without wandering, and how to discipline myself to return to sit again and again.

feldenkrais gesturing

Moshe Feldenkrais, somatic pioneer

The first time I tried meditation, some 20 years ago, I did not have these tools.

While I remember that the experience was a revelation to me at the time, it was also very difficult. My back hurt when I sat for long periods of time and I often found myself slumping. When I tried to “clear my head of thoughts” and only concentrate on my breathing, it often felt like a nearly impossible task. My brain kept generating new thoughts and my inner critic kept telling me that this meant I “wasn’t getting it.” I had heard that some people had great visions when they meditated, suggesting they were on the way to enlightenment. I kept hoping to have an experience like this myself, but never did.

Needless to say, I didn’t stick with it.

A few months ago a good friend invited me to an event that involved a guided meditation. It was a good experience for me. More recently, painful events in my personal life made me want to explore meditation further. I had the recurring feeling that there was “too much going on in my head”, that my own thinking was distracting me from connecting to people around me and causing me to make unnecessary mistakes that were hurting me. So I began sitting in meditation on a daily basis, eventually building up to regular sessions of 20-30 minutes in length.

For guidance, I reached back into my past for the one book I remembered about meditation, a work that I knew was highly respected, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. It was a good choice because, again and again, in describing the practice of zazen (sitting meditation), he emphasizes its simplicity and the many ways in which it can be adapted to fit the experience of the individual. He urges the newcomer not to be fazed by the difficulties that may be encountered. Instead he points out that facing these challenges is part of the process of growth.

As I read the book, I found that much of what Suzuki has to say about how we build self-awareness felt congruent with the ideas of Moshe Feldenkrais. So, in the remainder of this post I would like to draw on the words of both Suzuki and Feldenkrais, as well as a few of my experiences with zazen to offer some ideas about how to successfully define a personal practice of cultivating self-awareness. While I will talk principally about meditation and the Feldenkrais Method, I think that these ideas would also be relevant to many other practices.

Compared to my experiences years ago, the difference that struck me most immediately is that I am no longer distracted when I sit by physical discomfort. First of all, I have simply learned how to sit more comfortably and functionally, thanks to having done dozens of Awareness Through Movement lessons that teach this skill. But beyond this, when I experience physical discomfort as I sit – which still happens – I am able to observe my body position and make small adjustments or movements that help me find relief.

I am also greatly aided by the understanding the Feldenkrais Method has given me of what “good posture” means. First of all, it is not the same for any two people because each of us has a slightly different structure and a different way of using our bodies on a daily basis. Nor is “good posture” the same in all situations. In fact, Moshe Feldenkrais preferred a different term, “acture”. He sometimes joked that posture was good for posts, but not so good for living creatures.

I described in a previous piece how the experimental musician, John Cage, (who, by the way, was very interested in Zen practice) made a fundamental discovery about sound when he tried to discover total silence, but instead encountered the tones created by his own living body. He concluded that so long as we are alive, silence does not exist.

One day as I was sitting in meditation, concentrating on my breath, I became aware that with each inhalation I was shifting my weight a little bit more onto my left sit bone and returning to the right as I exhaled. In that moment, I remembered Cage and then had a parallel thought: that “sitting still” only proves that, so long as we are alive, in fact there is no such thing as total stillness.

(My idea wasn’t an original one. Feldenkrais described it succinctly when he said, “Movement is life and without movement life is unthinkable.”)

In the next moment I did something that I probably would have assumed was “against the rules of meditation” in the past. I allowed myself to become interested in how my weight shifted with my breathing and then did a deliberate experiment – not unlike an Awareness Through Movement lesson. After observing several times how I shifted left with my inhalation, I began to invite a different movement of shifting my weight to the right each time. After doing this many times, I then began to alternate shifting my weight once to the left, then once to the right.

Then I stopped, and I forgot about it completely. But in the meantime I had found a more comfortable sitting position, making it easier for me to concentrate again on the simple cycling of my breath.

This experience brought together several other important pieces of what I have learned from Moshe Feldenkrais. While Feldenkrais had very clear ideas about ideal posture and movement, he never taught people to place “the head here, the hips there,” etc. Rather, he would invite them do experiments just like the one I performed where they would be directed to notice their habitual biases in movement, explore new patterns and then, through this process, arrive on their own at a new state of equilibrium.

If Feldenkrais had one rule of thumb, it was simply that one should always look for the easiest path with the least strain. And what countless people have discovered through his work is that removing strain from the body also removes strain from the mind.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki does give fairly precise descriptions of how the body should be arranged in zazen, but he also makes clear that one can meditate in various positions. And, like Feldenkrais, he draws a connection between body and mind, explaining that the importance of posture is to create fertile ground for taming our swirling thoughts.

“Our body and mind should not be wobbling or wandering about,” he says. “In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it.” What posture is he talking about? Suzuki says, “The most important thing in taking the zazen posture is to keep the spine straight.” “You should be sitting straight up as if you were supporting the sky with your head.”

suzuki

Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki

Many Awareness Through Movement lesson include difficult puzzles where you are asked to do subtle or non-habitual movements. Many people find these situations frustrating and they push themselves harder to try to “achieve” what is being asked of them. Feldenkrais’ solution for this situation was always to tell his students to use less effort, to give up the idea of accomplishing anything. He sometimes even told them to “do it badly.” Feldenkrais knew that most of us chronically invoke will power when we don’t know how to do something and, ironically, by straining ourselves, we create more noise in our system that prevents us from gaining new insights and learning.

Shunryu Suzuki similarly cautioned his students against trying to achieve something when they sat in meditation, instead inviting them to cultivate a “beginner’s mind”:

“In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.”

As I continued my meditation practice and continued to read Suzuki’s book, I found that much of what used to appear so difficult to me about meditation was the result of my previous attitude. I used to think that one must sit still, sit straight, and only notice the “in-out-in-out” of the breath without thinking at all. Anything else was doing it wrong and meant I would never attain enlightenment!

But now, thanks to the teachings of both Feldenkrais and Suzuki, I am able to sit and simply allow whatever experience I have to transpire, even if it should seem that I am “doing it badly.” Suzuki says: “Even in wrong practice, when you realize it and continue, there is right practice. Our practice cannot be perfect, but without being discouraged by this, we should continue it. This is the secret of practice.”

My movement training has given me a heightened awareness of the subtle ways in which I am not sitting still, making the process of observing my breath anything but boring. Because I am able to become so interested in these small movements, I am much better than I once was at keeping my attention on my breath and a couple of times I have experienced what Suzuki describes when he says, “you should keep your mind on your breathing until you are not aware of your breathing.”

In a similar way, he says, “we must make some effort, but we must forget ourselves in the effort we make.” What I have learned from both Feldenkrais and Suzuki is that in order to be more at peace, I must learn more about myself and, in order to do that, I must strip away everything that is unnecessary. Yet, I don’t have to be a perfectionist. If I simply commit to continuing the process, the process will get easier by itself. And the more I know myself, the more I will be able to help others to know themselves and find their peace as well.

There is no single way to achieve this kind of peace, so there is no need to prescribe a uniform path that everyone must follow. If you are engaged in a practice that you hope will improve your life, it likely will – but not if you are always grading your performance or looking for results. You should take seriously what you learn from any teacher about the forms of your practice, yet not so seriously that you cannot conduct your own experiments or make your own adaptations.

According to Suzuki, “there is no particular way in true practice. You should find your own way, and you should know what kind of practice you have right now.”

When I teach my Awareness Through Movement class, I direct my students through a specific series of movements, but I do not demonstrate a “correct way to move.” My goal is to teach in the spirit of what Moshe Feldenkrais said to the students of his first training in the United States in 1975:

“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.”

And Suzuki:

“The moment you meet a teacher, you should leave the teacher, and you should be independent. You need a teacher, and you should be independent. You need a teacher so that you can become independent. If you are not attached to him, the teacher will show you the way to yourself. You have a teacher for yourself, not for the teacher.”

I have previously written about a conversation I had with some of my students who were trying to understand why the improvements they felt in class didn’t last as long as they had hoped. In that post, I pointed out that it can be hard to maintain the self-awareness that we have during an Awareness Through Movement lesson when we return to our normal activities. Yet, if you just continue to practice cultivating awareness on a regular basis – whether it be through the Feldenkrais Method, sitting meditation, yoga, martial arts, prayer, the expressive arts, or any other practice – I think you will find that the forms that define your practice will not confine you. On the contrary, they will help you to more clearly define your path towards living in harmony with your true nature in each moment.

Suzuki says, “Actually you will find the value of Zen in your everyday life, rather than while you sit.”

My Feldenkrais practice has fundamentally changed me and given me the confidence to now struggle with some larger life questions. There are a number of issues in my relationship to my self that I have carried around for years, but mostly avoided. (Perhaps you can think of something in your own life that also fits in this category). Expanding my self-study to now also include meditation is one way that I am now beginning to work on these questions – not by fighting them, but simply by sitting with them. And I am so glad I have finally begun!

I hope that these thoughts will give you some encouragement if you are exploring a new self-awareness practice, or even if you are continuing with a practice that you have had for many years. In the hopes of offering you further inspiration, I have included a few more choice words below from Moshe Feldenkrais and Shunryu Suzuki.

Good luck in your practice!!

* * *

Continuing your practice…

“It must be fully realized from the start that the learning process is irregular and consists of steps, and that there will be downs as well as ups . . . We must not become discouraged, therefore, if we find we have slipped back to the original condition at any time; these regressions will become rarer and return to the improved condition easier as the learning process continues.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

While you are continuing this practice, week after week, year after year, your experience will become deeper and deeper, and your experience will cover everything you do in your everyday life.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

* * *

Attitude towards encountering difficulties…

“You should not be bothered by your mind. You should rather be grateful for the weeds, because eventually they will enrich your practice.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“Focus on your difficulties and you have difficulties for life.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais   

“When you are sitting in the middle of your own problem, which is more real to you: your problem or you yourself? The awareness that you are here, right now, is the ultimate fact. This is the point you will realize by zazen practice. In continuous practice, under a succession of agreeable and disagreeable situations, you will realize the marrow of Zen and acquire its true strength.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“It is an illusion if the person, while he is listening, while he is thinking and looking, he is judging at the same time, saying, ‘This is good,” “This is not good,” “That’s it,” “That is not it.” At this precise moment he interrupts the ability of his awareness to see clearly and correctly.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

* * *

Not being bound by habits…

“As long as you have some fixed idea or are caught by some habitual way of doing things, you cannot appreciate things in their true sense.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“Nothing is permanent about our behavior patterns except our belief that they are so.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“To do something new, of course we must know our past, and this is all right. But we should not keep holding onto anything we have done; we should only reflect on it. And we must have some idea of what we should do in the future. But the future is the future, the past is the past; now we should work on something new.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“New thinking leads to new actions”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

* * *

Developing self-reliance…

“The object of this learning is to remove outside authority from your inner life and eliminate the old habit of listening to others about your own comfort and convenience.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“We should remember that the purpose of practice in a particular place is to study ourselves. To be independent, we study.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

* * *

Finding your own individual path…

“I believe that knowing oneself is the most important thing a human being can do for himself. How can one know oneself? By learning to act not as one should, but as one does.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“Each one of us must make his own true way, and when we do, that way will express the universal way. This is the mystery. When you understand one thing through and through, you understand everything. When you try to understand everything, you will not understand anything. The best way is to understand yourself, and then you will understand everything.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“As we become aware of what we are doing in fact, and not what we say or think we are doing, the way to improvement is wide open to us.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“Our way is not to sit to acquire something; it is to express our true nature.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

* * * 

Finding one’s place in the universe…

“Within the boundary of our body and in a restricted space and period of time around it, we are the most important part of the universe, but outside these limits we are of no importance or significance whatsoever . . . Recognizing our insignificance, the unimportance of what we think, do, or cannot do, we find ourselves in full mastery of ourselves to the potential limit of our ability.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“You are living in this world as one individual, but before you take the form of a human being, you are already there. We are always here. Do you understand? You think before you were born you were not here. But how is it possible for you to appear in this world, when there is no you? Because you are already there, you can appear in the world.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“It’s a question of becoming, of knowing himself, and using himself in such a way that he does not regret the past few years for what he hasn’t done, or the future for that matter. It means he feels the way a tree in a field feels – it’s part of nature. The tree by itself would not live, the earth without trees could not live, and a human being should feel the same way – that he’s part of this world.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“When we practice zazen our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer world”, but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

* * *

Connecting movement and life…

“Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“For us there is no need to be bothered by calmness or activity, stillness or movement. When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself. When you are concentrated on the quality of your being, you are prepared for the activity. Movement is nothing but the quality of our being. When we do zazen, the quality of our calm serene sitting is the quality of the immense activity of being itself.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

* * *

The rewards of regular, disciplined practice…

 “The instrument of awareness is an instrument of freedom for the human being.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“At first the effort you make is rough and impure, but by the power of practice the effort will become purer and purer.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“Do it slowly, slowly, so slowly that it will be boring. When you begin to become bored you will find that it really is not so boring.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“When your practice is calm and ordinary, everyday life itself is enlightenment.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

* * *

Learning without goals…

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the experts mind there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“To learn we need time, attention, and discrimination; to discriminate we must sense. This means that in order to learn we must sharpen our powers of sensing, and if we try to do most things by sheer force we shall achieve precisely the opposite of what we need.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“If you try to stop your mind or try to go beyond your conscious activity, that will only be another burden for you. “I have to stop my mind in my practice, but I cannot. My practice is not good.” This kind of idea is also the wrong way of practice. Do not try to stop your mind, but leave everything as it is. Then things will not stay in your mind so long. Things will come as they come and go as they go. Then eventually your clear, empty mind will last fairly long.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“One has to set about learning to learn as is befitting for the most important business in human life, that is, with serenity but without solemnity, with patient objectivity and without compulsive seriousness . . . Learning must be undertaken and is really profitable when the whole frame is held in a state where smiling can turn into laughter without interference, naturally, spontaneously.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

 

What is the Meaning of that Music in my Head?!

thinking music

In my previous post, I said I was trying to create a new habit: writing more often! I also promised to explore the theme of how practicing the Feldenkrais Method can bring benefits to your life beyond the realm that we typically think of as “movement.”

If you have found this blog, I’m guessing you already know something about the Feldenkrais Method and what happens in an Awareness Through Movement class. If not, I highly suggested you have yourself a first-hand experience!

What follows is not about what we do in class, but it is not unrelated.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the following story would never have unfolded if I had not been practicing the Feldenkrais Method since 2012 and become familiar with its highly potent strategies of self-examination and transformation. These strategies, enacted in the process of investigating skeletal movement, are, in my opinion, nothing less that a basic template for how to transform any problem in your life into an opportunity.

Simply put, in an Awareness Through Movement class, we do three things:

First, we observe ourselves in action in order to discover our habits.

Second, we explore new patterns of action that differ from our habits in order to increase our range of options.

Third, we listen inside of ourselves to try to determine which pathways – whether they be the ones we are familiar with or not – point most clearly towards goals we have set ourselves. This final step actually happens somewhat organically. We don’t usually have the sense of deciding on a new way of moving. Rather, we find that our explorations have made this new experience somehow inevitable.

Along the way, we also sometimes encounter unexpected surprises. Some days bring dramatic insights and we feel big changes while other days muddy the waters and we find more new questions than answers. But if we stick with the process – and make it a practice – we learn to become more and more curious about ourselves. Once that happens, whatever twists and turns the road may take, the more we cultivate this curiosity, the more we discover the true possibility of living the words of Moshe Feldenkrais’ most famous phrase: “If you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”

So here is a story about my own current struggles with a very, very deep habit. You may not relate to this story directly in the sense of having had similar experiences. However, I think you may find something useful in my account of how I decided to interact with my habit and what it taught me. Perhaps it will give you some ideas related to some habits of your own . . .

– – –           – – –           – – –

For practically all of my life, I have identified myself as a “musician”, a “music lover”, a “musical person”, or some other variation on this theme.

As a teenager, I discovered Bob Dylan and took my guitar to the Pike Place Market in Seattle to sing my own original (Grunge-influenced!) folk tunes for the passers by. In college, despite having very little formal musical training, I majored in music and briefly joined the Ghost Trance Ensemble of the genius saxophonist, composer and improviser, Anthony Braxton, playing the stand-up bass. I later led and co-led my own ensembles and even invented an imaginary language called Beeayboll to explore my interest in the musical sounds of human speech. While in the end I did not build a career as a musician, I still give occasional performances and continue to regularly turn musical ideas over in my head.

All along, I have also been a fanatical music listener.

When I hear my favorite music, I don’t simply “sing along”. If I’m alone or unguarded I will move my body in synch with each turning phrase and squeeze my eyes shut to relish the most magical moments. If I’m happy, I will celebrate with music. If I’m sad, I will turn to music for solace. Raised by devoutly atheist parents, I often thought of music as “my religion” as I was growing up and today I still see music as a vital piece of my identity.

So, for me it was a somewhat radical experiment when I recently decided to find out what it might mean to remove music from my life.

Why would I want to do this? Let’s just say that one day I realized that music isn’t only a passion for me. It is also a very, very deep habit.

Well, after nearly a month of this inquiry, I have concluded that it would be nearly impossible for me truly remove music from my life. Nor do I wish to do so. However, considering the idea has helped me to ask myself important questions that I had never previously considered.  I have begun to test long-held assumptions about myself, including the romantic notion that music has always played a beneficial role in my life.

To begin, I decided that I would not listen to any music at home, driving my car, or anywhere else. Then I decided that I would stop singing, something I usually do throughout my day. Finally, I gave myself my most difficult challenge: would it possible to remove music from my thinking?!

Two days into my first experiment (not listening to any music) I noticed that a favorite artist of mine had released a new video on YouTube and I clicked it. I watched half the video before I realized I had “broken the rule.” I decided to let myself go with a warning.   After that, I was disciplined for another couple of weeks before similarly forgetting and again clicking on a music video online. I have now gone another couple weeks without any further listening.

Interrupting the habit of perpetually filling my environment with music has taught me a couple of things. First, by noticing how often I had to inhibit the urge to press “play”, I learned just how strong my habit is. Second, by spending more time in “silence”, I began to more fully appreciate the rich sonic environment around me.

At first my apartment felt “empty” without the constant presence of a symphony or the joyful chorus of a favorite rock song. But as I accustomed myself to listening to the sounds already present around me, I became interested, sometimes even fascinated, by ticking clocks, the interaction of my footfalls with the creaky floor, the buzz of the refrigerator and the wave-like ebb and flow of traffic sounds on the street below my window.

I chided myself as I rediscovered the inherent music of the environment because it was not something I hadn’t previously known about.

It was more than two decades ago when I was first introduced to the composition 4’33” by the great American experimental musician, John Cage, often known as “The Silent Piece.” In the 1952 premiere performance, the virtuoso pianist David Tudor sat at the bench for 4 minutes and 33 seconds without playing a single note.  All he did was open and close the lid over the keyboard to denote the start and end of each of its three “movements.”  What the audience heard was the sounds of wind and rain outside the window and the uneasy sounds of their own lack of silence.

By exploiting the atmosphere of heightened attention in the concert hall, Cage focused our ears on the sounds that were already there, allowing us to begin hearing their musical nature. Cage considered 4’33” to be his most important work, and for many musicians – myself included – his illumination of the musical environment opened up new universes of possibility.

But the sound of a buzzing refrigerator is only interesting if you listen to it as music – otherwise you may just find it annoying. When I rediscovered the joy of listening to subtle environmental sounds, I noticed how quiet I had to become inside myself. The thought arose that my habit of always having music playing had also been a way of not allowing myself to find that quiet space. In fact, I wondered, was I trying to avoid that place by always covering it up with sound?

The second proposition, not to sing, was even more difficult than the first. I have always enjoyed singing my favorite songs, filling my chest with air and feeling the vibrations in my throat and in the air around me.  So I often sing to accompany a task like washing the dishes.

Furthermore, one of my particular interests when I was an active composer was to investigate the sounds of language and the wide range of expressive possibilities of the human voice. So, just as often as I sing songs, I also like to sing overtones, beat-box, sing while inhaling, invent novel phonetic combinations and other carry out other vocal experiments. (This is another realm of my life where the process of investigation of the Feldenkrais Method has enabled me to make exciting discoveries.)

But by deciding this past month not to sing, I discovered that there is also a certain compulsivity in my music making. Previously I’d already noticed  that I would often start to sing hardly before I realized what I was doing, surprising myself with the sound of my own voice. And, on many occasions, singing to accompany a task would derail it completely. There I would be, standing at the sink holding a dirty dish in one hand and a sponge in the other – and just singing!

Just as with the urge to listen to music, this past month I found myself having to actively inhibit the urge to sing. And on more than one occasion I actually did begin to sing before I was able to stop myself. I also noticed how often I would begin to drum my fingers or make some other percussive movement with my body without ever seeming to decide to do it.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with singing or drumming one’s fingers. But it a humbling realization when you discover a pattern of your own behavior that seems to operate outside of your control.

As I struggled not to listen to or make music, I uncovered my deepest musical habit: constantly listening to or making music inside my head. As I observed the sounds of my mental radio, I identified three general ways in which they manifest.

The first category, probably quite familiar to you, is the experience of having a song “stuck in my head” (eg., think of any of the Christmas tunes you have been subjected to repeatedly over the last month…).  In other words, some music that I know or have recently heard seems to play continually in my mind, whether I want it or not.

A second category, of a different character, might be called “musical inspiration”, where some creative impulse inside of me opens up and I begin to hear music that I have never heard before, a kind of spontaneous mental improvisation. This experience was something that I deliberately cultivated for years when I was a regularly performing musician.

A third category of mental music lies somewhere in between the first two: I hear some kind of repeating musical phrase or pattern that might not be identical to any music I have previously heard, but likewise, is something less than “inspired.” This last experience is like listening to a musician playing a couple of bars of a composition that she is trying to perfect over and over. While at times I find something interesting in the repeating figure, just as often, I feel like I’m listening to a broken record.

Over the past month, I have tried to develop a new habit: turning the knob on my mental radio to the “off” position each time I hear it playing. But what I have found is that sometimes, it seems to be stuck in the “on” position!

I may command my brain to cease the music it is playing, but moments later when I try to turn my attention to another thing, I find that it is playing once again. So I have had to dig deeper to try to understand why I turn my mental radio on and come up with new strategies for how to turn it off.

Many years ago, some wise person advised me that the best way to banish the annoyance of an unwanted song “stuck in my head” is for me to replace it with a different, more likeable tune. And that is what I have so often done. But the idea of my current experiment was to replace that song with “silence.”

To explain what this has meant in practice, perhaps it would be useful to return to the story of John Cage’s 4’33”.  Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry about Cage’s famous composition:

In 1951, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. Such a chamber is also externally sound-proofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he wrote later, “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.” Cage had gone to a place where he expected total silence, and yet heard sound. “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” The realization as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4′33″.

I certainly don’t live in an anechoic chamber, so in my own attempts to “silence” my mental radio, what I have discovered is that I am replacing the music in my head with the music of the environment. What this means in practice is realizing that I am doing something “in my head” and then consciously turning outward to reconnect to my surroundings.

A startling revelation has been that each time I shift my attention outwardly, I have the experience that the sound of the buzzing refrigerator, the traffic outside or whatever else I’m hearing, literally seems to get louder. In other words, when I play music in my head, I turn down the volume on the world around me. And I’ve also noticed that when I don’t have the experience of a mental musical interruption it is often at those times when I am socially engaged, looking another person in the eyes and sharing in conversation.

As I’ve said, I love music, and I have no wish to truly remove it from my life. But I have recently discovered that, perhaps because music is such a powerful force, if I don’t bring awareness to how I interact with my musical nature, it can become a stumbling block in my life. I have had wonderful experiences of connecting to other people through the plane of music. But now I have to also acknowledge the real danger that I can lose myself in music, removing myself from being present in the “here and now” with the people all around me.

When we practice Awareness Through Movement, we are always engaged in a similar struggle – how to connect to ourselves and our environment in the “here and now” so that we can choose to act in the way which serves us the best – rather than flying on autopilot with no sense of where we are going.

I don’t yet have all the answers to my questions about the role of music in my life, but I have discovered an improved quality in my relationship to music, to sound, to myself and to the people around me. I have a new awareness of my habits that gives me opportunities to choose a different way of being in the world at certain moments where previously I may not have seen a choice. This awareness gives me a greater sense of control over my life and greater confidence in the idea that I can reach toward my goals.

There is actually a lot more that I could have said about this investigation and what it has taught me, but I think I’ve said enough for now. But some time soon I will revisit some of these themes and another initiative I have recently undertaken (which also informed my experiments with music): starting a modest, but consistent practice of sitting meditation.

In modern life, too many of us have become disconnected to our bodies, which is why Moshe Feldenkrais thought that exploring movement was such a potent strategy for people to begin to realize their vast untapped potential. But he always made clear that the changes that could take place would extend far beyond the physical plane. As he once put it, “Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”

At the beginning of this post, I said that this was not a story about the Feldenkrais Method. But the more I think about . . . yes, it was!

 

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Habits 101: New and Improved vs. Old and Familiar

Habits - smoker

As a teacher of Awareness Through Movement (ATM), my job is to lead my students through a learning process that helps them recognize their movement habits and creates the possibility for them to form new patterns that may serve them better.

But changing habits is not so simple.

In class I always encourage students to make movements with a minimum of effort. But the fact is that changing our habits does require effort. Habits run very deep. So while your class experience can open up new horizons, it is just as easy for you to leave class and go directly back to your old patterns. If this always happens, it becomes difficult for real change to take place.

In my class today, we observed our habits of how we use our feet to support the rest of our skeleton. Which foot do we rely on more? Do we put more pressure towards the outside edge of the foot or the inside? Are we more over our toes or our heels? After noticing these things we explored a series of movements involving supporting ourselves in all of these various ways. The process was designed to highlight how seemingly subtle changes in the use of our feet could lead to quite dramatic differences in the quality of our movement.

The students discovered that some of the variations gave them more of a sense of stability and lightness in movement. Other variations made them feel less steady and more sluggish. That was simple enough to digest, but then there was this additional paradox – some of the least comfortable situations were the ones that felt the most familiar!

After class some of us discussed a question that Feldenkrais practitioners have heard a million times: “I feel great – but how long will this last?”

Of course, this question has many answers, but I told my class that I thought that there is one key point that makes the difference between temporary and enduring improvement. And it has to do with this distinction between what feels better and what feels familiar.  The failure to make this distinction – the same thing that may make it difficult for someone to quit smoking or end an abusive relationship – can be an obstacle to progress.

One student responded that she had felt very upright after the lesson, but noticed that a few minutes later she had gone back into a slumped posture that she guessed was similar to how she had arrived before class. I congratulated her on noticing this change because many people do the same thing, but don’t notice it at all. They stand up at the end of an Awareness Through Movement lesson and feel great – but they don’t quite “feel like themselves.” They say “hmm, this is interesting” – and then they go to the grocery store and start worrying about what to make for dinner. It’s not long before the changes produced by the ATM lesson are lost in the shuffle.

I told this student that that I thought her recognition of what had happened presented her with a great learning opportunity. “Try deliberately going back and forth between your old habit and this new sense of organization,” I suggested. “That will help you clarify the difference and give your system a better chance to incorporate the new possibilities.”

While you might think that it wouldn’t be helpful to revisit slumping, I’d argue that this student would stand a better chance of developing a more upright habit if she had the skill of being able to deliberately create both of these kinds of postures – the more and the less efficient.  That would make it less likely that she would absent-mindedly slip from one to the other without noticing, and thus having no opportunity to catch herself and make a conscious choice between the two.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with coming to class, feeling better and then going to the grocery store. But if you are also going to feel better in the frozen food aisle, in the check out line, driving home and after dessert, then there is something important that you shouldn’t leave behind when you leave class – your self-awareness. And there’s no question: it’s much harder to have awareness when you are in the midst of your busy life than when you are lying quietly on the floor contemplating the sensations that your Feldenkrais practitioner has carefully prepared for you.

As Moshe Feldenkrais discovered and always emphasized in teaching his Method, learning is easier when you slow down and don’t use unnecessary effort. That’s why most of the lessons are done lying on the ground and include nearly as much resting as actual movement.  But after class, the world keeps spinning its habitual speed and life’s responsibilities are still waiting for you. If you are going to maintain some of the self-awareness you found in class amidst all this noise and bustle, it’s going to take a bit more effort!

My current focus as I seek to improve my own teaching is to clarify the process of how you can take what you learn in class and integrate it into the rest of your life. Because while you might feel dramatic improvements with relatively little effort in a single ATM class, the longer term changes you seek – whether they be in your flexibility, balance, ease of movement, or even in your patterns of thinking and relating to the people around you – will probably require a deeper commitment.

In my own case, I was deeply impacted my first Feldenkrais lessons. So I continued to pursue the practice because I simply enjoyed it. But eventually my improvements led me to encounter new problems that I couldn’t so easily resolve. Four years after I began this journey, I am a certified Awareness Through Movement teacher and approaching full certification as a Feldenkrais practitioner. The reason I haven’t give up the practice is that it continues to help guide me to new ways to improve my life.

Today I am trying to develop a new habit that takes some effort: I am going to try to write more regularly here – at least once a month, but hopefully more – about the learning processes of the Feldenkrais Method and how this practice relates to the rest of your life.

I began this process when I wrote my previous post about gratitude. After months without writing anything new, finishing that piece felt good – and unfamiliar! A part of me wanted to put off writing anything new anytime soon. But another part of me, connected to the events and thoughts that led me to write it, was not satisfied with my familiar path. And luckily, I also received encouragement from many readers who appreciated what I had to say.

So I’ve decided that I’m going to try to build on what I’ve just learned, and put a little more effort into my dialogue with you. In my next post, I will describe an experiment with my self-awareness and habits related to my patterns of thinking that I hope will give you further insight into how you can take your Feldenkrais experience out of class and into the rest of your life.

And once again, I’d like to invite you to respond if what I’ve written resonates with some of your own experiences. You can leave a comment below or write to me at sethbdellinger@gmail.com

Furthermore, if you like these blog posts, please consider sharing them with friends who might be interested in learning more about the Feldenkrais Method. And if there are any specific topics you would like me to address, please let me know!

I continue to practice the Feldenkrais Method because I still want to improve myself. And teaching the Method is also a learning process for me where my students constantly help me discover the next steps forward in my own growth. In other words, I try to create an atmosphere in my classes where we can all learn from each other. If you like the sound of that, I hope you will join me in class some time soon so we can continue this conversation!

 

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Making Gratitude a Habit

Maria violin

My favorite girl on the whole planet!

Last night my daughter Maria and I celebrated Thanksgiving early since we won’t be able to be together on the official day. I was especially grateful that she liked the chili I made since I’m not generally known for my cooking! She also said she was grateful for her mom and dad and all her friends.

I told her I was grateful that she was my daughter, my “favorite girl on the whole planet” (she rolls her eyes – “you’ve told me that like a million times already!”) and also grateful to all the members of my family. Then I told her, “you know, on my next birthday, I’ll be 40 years old.”

“What?!!” – genuine shock and surprise this time.

So then I went on to tell her that I was grateful to some people from my past that she had never known. And I also tried to explain to her something I’d learned about gratitude – and something that I’m still learning now.

When you have the good fortune to be supported by people who truly love you, when exciting pathways of new experience open up before you, or when you make new connections to people who you discover you have something in common with, it is sometimes all too easy not to recognize how lucky you are. You get caught up in the moment, inspired by the sensations, emotions and insights that flood through you and you can forget that the events in your life sometimes have a very different meaning for the other people around you.

I tried to explain to my daughter that saying “thank you” is important, of course, but there is something deeper about being grateful. It has something to do with expanding your imagination to understand that each other human being has the same depth of experience as you do, through trials and triumphs, insights and confusion, loves and heartbreak, and the unending daily necessities of life. Being grateful means realizing that every one of these people around me is just as precious as I am.

I think that being grateful also means understanding and accepting things the way they are. Things are never perfect. There’s probably always something you’d like to change, but usually if you pay attention, you will find that you are surrounded by gifts.

What happens when you can’t see that your friends, your family, your teachers, your neighbors, your peers, and the other members of your community are actually gifts that life has given you? You can become so accustomed to these faces and the situations in which you encounter them that you stop thinking of them as being special. You may look for ways to alter these situations to make them more to your liking without considering that the consequences for others around you will be so much different than they are for you.

I told my daughter these things not because I think I am so wise, but rather because I know that I have failed too many times to be grateful for what I have. Too many times I have thought too narrowly and done things that I hoped would improve my life, failing to see that I was hurting the people around me. In the worst cases, I did know that others would be hurt, but acted as if the only choice was between loyalty to them or to myself.  I failed to see that there may have been a third option, perhaps to do a similar thing to what I wanted, but in a different way, taking others into account and working hard at the challenge of communicating.

When you hurt the people around you, in the end, you hurt yourself as well. This Thanksgiving I am trying to learn how to be grateful for this lesson at the same time as I see the unnecessary pain I have often caused the people I love, some of whom I have lost because of my blindness.

I tried to say these things in a way that my 6-year-old daughter would understand. Of course, she hasn’t lived through all the things that I have, so it probably didn’t entirely make sense. But I hope that she will remember something that will make it more likely that she will develop gratitude as a practice much sooner than I have and save herself some unnecessary grief.

After dinner, she showed me something that suggests she is well on her way. As we were eating slices of lemon meringue pie, she asked “why do they put all this whip cream on it? I just like the lemon-y part.” Shoveling frosting onto my plate with her fork, she said, “here, you can have this.”

Maria, who has been playing violin for two months now, had a breakthrough after her last lesson, announcing to me: “I just figured something out – playing the violin could be fun!” Last week, as part of her homework to “listen to any music by Mozart”, Maria and I watched a video of the world famous Hilary Hahn playing his 3rd Concerto. By chance, only two nights later, a friend invited me to the Baltimore Symphony on a night when Hahn was to be the featured soloist, this time playing the music of Antonín Dvořák. After the show, Hahn signed CDs.  After seeing a picture of Maria and her violin on my phone, she wrote a short, sweet message:

To Maria:

Enjoy violin!

Hilary Hahn.

After dessert I delivered the CD to my daughter. Upon receiving her gift Maria jumped up and down. “I must be the luckiest girl in the ENTIRE UNIVERSE!” she shouted. She said she would show the CD to her teachers at school, all her friends, her mom, and, of course, her violin teacher (“She is going to freak out!”). Then, after brushing her teeth, she had an unusual request before bedtime. “Can I please play my violin?  I feel so inspired!”

Gratitude is a beautiful thing when it arises spontaneously, but it’s not a bad thing to also remind your self of its importance in a more deliberate way.  Why not live your life in a way that makes the lives of the people around you better as well?  Perhaps making gratitude into a regular practice can be a step in that direction.

During this holiday season I am grateful for the opportunity to teach the Feldenkrais Method, a practice of self-study that has made it possible for me to reach closer to my true potential in life.  For me, “teaching” this method has always meant learning from my students as I share this gift, and constantly discovering the need to continue improving myself in order to serve them better.

I still have a lot to learn, but I’m lucky that life has not been short on lessons!

I want to wish you a peaceful Fall and hope you will be blessed with many, many gifts – most of them may have been there all along.

 

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How can your brain heal you? Find out at the 5th DC Feldenkrais Festival!

Doidge 5th Festival 2

Above: Dr. Norman Doidge and 6 of the volunteer teachers from the team of the upcoming DC Feldenkrais Festival.  Left to Right: Ingrid Willenz-Isaacs, Adrienne Penebre, Chrish Kresge, Norman Doidge, Seth Dellinger, Susanne Christov, Yulia Kriskovets (and baby Maya!)

Speaking at the National Book Festival last weekend, best-selling neuroscience writer Dr. Norman Doidge explained that Western medicine has long been handicapped by a mistaken idea: “the human brain can’t heal” – but this simply isn’t true. Just as new skin will grow back if we scuff our knee, Doidge said, the fact is that our brains have the “ability to form, un-form and reform circuitry.”

Doidge, author of the recently published book, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, has encountered many skeptics who think what he describes “seems too good to be true.” In particular, he pointed out, some find it hard to accept his stories of people whose lives were transformed by non-invasive interventions that made use of various forms of energy that communicate with the brain through sensory pathways.

Yet, while it may seem controversial in the West, in traditional Eastern medicine it is common practice to combine energy and mental awareness to promote healing. “This is a very Western book”, Doidge said, but expressed the hope that it could provide “a bridge to Eastern thought.”

Two chapters of Doidge’s book are dedicated to describing the discoveries of Moshe Feldenkrais, a physicist and Judo black belt who developed a method for “using movement to talk to the brain.” (click here to read an excerpt of this section of the book recently published on Salon.com) Later this month, at the 5th DC Feldenkrais Festival, a group of volunteer teachers will offer the public a free opportunity to experience group movement classes, a workshop for parents of children with special needs, and individual hands-on sessions that are designed to take advantage of the brain’s ability to form new patterns. So it was no coincidence that six of us were in the audience that night!

Addressing the question of why the notion that “the brain cannot heal” has been so persistent, Doidge examined several key ideas that are prevalent in Western medicine. First, he described what he called the “military metaphor”, the idea that doctors “fight battles” against diseases. The problem with this perspective is that “the patient’s role in their own care disappears.” At best we see our bodies as the battleground where two antagonists (the doctor and the disease) face off while we become passive, counting on our health problems “to be taken care of by someone else.”

On the other hand, in a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM) class, while following the teacher’s verbal instructions, all decisions about how to move are left up to the student. The teacher’s role is not to show what is “correct” or not, but simply to create a safe environment which offers the best possible conditions for the student to discover greater comfort through her own exploration. Likewise, even in a hands-on Functional Integration session where movement is guided by the practitioner’s hands, the key agent of change is the way that brain pays attention to the movement experience.

After experiencing their first Feldenkrais session, many people are amazed that a series of simple movements can help them to melt away habitual and unnecessary muscle contractions, creating new sensations of lightness and freedom of movement. The change is felt in the body, but also reflects a change in the brain where motor patterns originate before being communicated to the muscles in order to move the skeleton. This is neuroplasticity at work, or, as Doidge puts it, how “the structure and function of the brain can change according to mental experience.”

But while a change in the brain can be felt throughout the body, Doidge also cautioned against another common theme in Western neuroscience, the idea that “you are your brain.” The common belief that the body merely “serves” the brain is “spectacularly wrong,” Doidge said. As a matter of fact, evolutionarily speaking, the brain developed after the body. Doidge says that in the Feldenkrais Method and other interventions described in The Brain’s Way of Healing, the senses act as “transducers,” in other words, devices to convert one form of energy into another, feeding vital information to the brain.

As an example he pointed to the microphone that was amplifying his voice by converting the energy of the sound waves into electricity that passed through a wire to then be converted again into sound by another transducer, the speaker system. In the same way, he pointed out, our ears were transducing the sound of his voice from the speakers and creating electrical patterns in the brain that we used to understand his meaning and notice the tone of his voice.

In one treatment of children with autism described in Doidge’s book, gentle music with a controlled mix of frequencies, sometimes combined with the sound of the child’s mother’s voice, presents the brain with a novel pattern of electricity and associations that can help unlock limiting patterns in the child’s behavior. During a Feldenkrais lesson, the student makes a series of gentle movements, but more importantly, she uses her attention to notice subtle sensations caused by changes in pressure against a supporting surface or the way that the movement of one limb alters the feeling in another part of one’s body. This information, generated through movement, creates a new learning environment for the brain, which immediately has the opportunity to try new possibilities. The nervous system processes the sensations, then re-imagines how to create new possibilities in subsequent movements by sending new kinds of signals.

How does this happen? Doidge described the process in very Western terms. While we often think of brain cells being either “on” or “off”, it is more accurate to say that, unless they are dead, they fire at faster and slower rates. However, because the brain’s neurons are always in constant communication with their neighbors, a change in the firing rate of one neuron also changes the firing rate of other neurons. When some neurons fire too fast or too slowly, communication gets jumbled. Consequently, Doidge says, it can be useful to think of the disordered brain as a “noisy” brain.

Doidge book cover 4

In his book, Doidge describes several stages in the brain’s healing process. In the first neuroplastic stage, neurostimulation, a source of energy is used to wake up a part of the brain that is dormant. In a Feldenkrais lesson, this is often a novel movement pattern (such as turning the head to the left while taking the eyes to the right), that creates the need to form a connection that has not been used for a long time. This stage, Doidge writes, “is effective in preparing the brain to build new circuits and in overcoming learned nonuse in existing circuits.”

Next comes neuromodulation, a way of bringing balance to the nervous system that, when disordered, spends a disproportionate amount of time in a state of “fight-or-flight” alertness. While such a state is necessary for certain survival situations, it can become perpetually turned on, leaving less room for calmer states that make thinking and reflection easier. In a Feldenkrais lesson, one way that this is achieved is by the guideline that the student is never to move in such a way that she is forced to stretch or strain. Instead, movement is always kept in the range where breathing can remain soft and easy and there is no sense of unnecessary effort anywhere in the body.

Creating the conditions for the brain to quiet unnecessary activity naturally leads to neurorelaxation – or simply, rest – and this is another well-documented effect of practicing the Feldenkrais Method. At the 4th DC Festival, during a discussion between classes, one participant credited her practice with curing her insomnia of many decades. “I know I’m going to sleep so well tonight!” she exclaimed, a comment that we have heard from many others after previous Festivals.

The final stage of neuroplastic healing that becomes possible once the brain has quieted down is what Doidge calls Neurodifferentiation and learning: This is when the brain “is able to pay attention again and is ready for learning, which involves the brain doing what it does best: making fine distinctions.”

In a Feldenkrais session, the student is repeatedly asked to notice small differences in sensations between the two sides of the body or the qualities of two slightly different variants of a similar movement. The refinement of sensitivity that develops through this practice is a skill that leads to a richer sensory experience throughout the activities of one’s day, leading to tremendous health benefits. For example, a keener sense of the way that one’s feet connect to the ground makes it much easier to maintain easy balance. A more specific feeling of the location of key joints in the body and how they move creates better flexibility. Learning how to distinguish the onset of discomfort much more quickly allows for more movement options to accommodate injury or chronic pain and gives greater possibility for recovery and the reduction of stress.

In conclusion, Doidge spoke about his choice of words for the title of his book. Why “healing”? The etymology of the word healing gives us the definition of restoring health by making one’s self whole again. In talking to the people whose stories fill his book, who had directly experienced the benefits of interventions that built on the brain’s capacity to form new patterns, Doidge heard one thing again and again: “I got my life back.”

Like Oliver Sacks, the great neuroscientist and author who recently passed away, Doidge hopes that part of his legacy will be to bring the entire personality of the individual back into the story of how we approach health, to put directly into practice the holistic idea of the unity of body and mind.

If you are interested in improving your health, in taking more control over your life, you would probably find a lot of inspiration in the pages of The Brain’s Way of Healing. If you are in DC later this month, the all-day Feldenkrais Festival on September 26 is a great opportunity to directly experience how you can change and develop in amazing ways by bringing your attention to the interactions of your brain, body and surroundings.

Like Doidge and Sacks, Moshe Feldenkrais also had a very broad vision of human health. As he once expressed it, “I am not seeking to develop flexible bodies, but flexible minds . . . I am interested in the re-establishment of our human dignity.”

 

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Sights and sounds from the 3rd DC Feldenkrais Festival!

On Saturday, March 21, 2015, just over a dozen instructors from the Washington DC area introduced over 100 members of the public to the Feldenkrais Method. In group classes (called Awareness Through Movement or ATM) and individual hands-on sessions (known as Functional Integration), participants were offered the opportunity to slow down and listen to themselves in order to unmask the untapped potential of their nervous systems, the possibilities that are usually hidden from us by our habits.

The 3rd DC Feldenkrais Festival was truly a community affair, and we heard a lot of positive feedback from participants afterwards.  As we look ahead towards a likely 4th Festival some time this summer, here are some sights and sounds from the first day of spring:

crowd arms e

photo: Yulia Kriskovets

Led by Chrish Kresge, students discover how the weight of the arm gets lighter when its movement is connected to the sliding of the shoulder blade, the rotation of the spine and the direction of gaze of the eyes.

chrish b

photo: Yulia Kriskovets

“Now place your hand on your forehead and use it guide your face in the direction of the ceiling.  The arm does the work.  The muscles in your neck do not have to make any effort.”

Joni Eisenberg (in the tie-dye shirt, below), helped spread the word about the Festival to a broader audience when she invited Donna Blank and Seth Dellinger to discuss the Feldenkrais Method on her WPFW radio showTo Heal DC.  Note to music fans: the show also included some terrific tracks from Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Anthony Braxton and Cab Calloway!

(You can hear Joni’s show every Monday morning at 10am EST.)

crowd crossed legs b

photo: Seth Dellinger

By crossing one leg over the other and tilting the legs together to the side, we can gently and easily lengthen the entire spine.  By paying attention not to hold the breath and noticing how all the different parts of the skeleton can be carried along by the weight of the legs, we can learn to let go of habitual unnecessary muscular contractions.  This class was led by Yulia Kriskovets (below).

photo: Chrish Kresge

Adrienne Penebre (below) specializes in working with children with special needs. Here she leads a group of adults through a series of rolling movements that take them back to their first year of life.

Adrienne 1

photo: Chrish Kresge

crowd rolling b

photo: Yulia Kriskovets

Sometimes, in order to improve our adult posture, it’s helpful to roll like a baby!

crowd rolling a

photo: Yulia  Kriskovets

By revisiting our earliest developmental stages, we have the opportunity to strengthen the learning that is the foundation for every other skill we have learned since.

derick b

photo: Yulia Kriskovets

Awareness Through Movement is not only performed on the floor. Many lessons are offered in chairs for those who may have difficulty getting down to the ground, such as this exploration of side bending led by Derick Carter (above). Other lessons explore the transition between different orientations such as lying, sitting or standing.  There are also lessons that improve the organization of the entire self by exploring specific functions such as crawling, walking, hopping, reaching . . . or even standing on your head!

terence a

photo: Seth Dellinger

Terence McPartland (above), Feldenkrais practitioner and a leader of the DC Judo Association, guides participants to a new understanding of balance.  During the lesson, students did movements with the soles of the feet resting on small foam rollers to experience the challenge of finding stability on an unstable surface.  This exploration helps remind our feet of the flexibility that was a normal feature of our species before we wore shoes or walked on flat sidewalks.

During lunch, Feldenkrais trainer Donna Blank, who has done this work for over three decades, recounted some of her experiences of studying with Moshe Feldenkrais at Amherst College in the early 1980s.

“There were over 200 of us there. . . There are literally countless stories of people who changed their lives because they didn’t know what they were getting into – in terms of the profound effects it would have on their whole self image and their sense of possibility . . . There were people there who were artists, who were doctors, who were farriers, social workers . . . so many different disciplines . . . some people came because they were in a lot of pain and they wanted it for their own healing.”

“He started with the body, and he started also with the notion of discovery.  If you took lessons this morning, you would realize . . . we would do these funny little things. . . and by the end you would experience changes through your whole self, but you didn’t know how you were going to get there.  And there’s a good reason for that: most of us, when we decide that we’re going to do something with an intention, we mobilize the patterns that are already built into us in order to do the thing we want to do…”

“He was very interested in our habits and our self-image – that is related to our habits – and how . . .  our sense of self can change as we begin to discover what are habits are, and what the possibilities are beyond what we normally do.”

“He was very interested in the kind of awareness that comes when we step back from our habitual response and can find new possibilities.  That was his core interest.”

crowd reaching b

photo: Yulia Kriskovets

Following the discussion, Donna guided participants through an exploration of reaching with the arms on the backs, the sides and in standing in order to “gently bring our parts into the whole of reaching out from a grounded place.”

seth 6

photo: Chrish Kresge

At the beginning of an Awareness Through Movement lesson, students are often asked to simply lie on their backs and pay attention to the dynamic relationship between their body and the floor.  They return to this self-observation again and again as the lesson progresses, noticing how different movement explorations change the state of the musculature in different places.  In this lesson, led by Seth Dellinger (above), students were asked to consider the possibility that the rhythm of breathing would affect not only the shape of their chest with each inhalation and exhalation, but could create a sensation of the whole self pulsing against the floor.  By the end of the hour of expanding the ribs in a dozen different ways, this image made more sense to some.

crowd arms overhead 1

photo: Chrish Kresge

interlacing fingers

photo: Chrish Kresge

“Now interlace your fingers and bring them in front of your face.  Notice which thumb is on top.  Now interlace your fingers again with the other thumb on top.  How does that feel?  Kind of weird, right?  But the funny thing is, that might be the way your neighbor did it the first time.  This is a habit you might not have known you had!”

– – – – –      – – – – –      – – – – –      – – – – –      – – – – –

In addition to the 8 Awareness Through Movement classes offered at the Festival, over 30 participants had the opportunity to experience a session of Functional Integration.  In this format, the practitioner connects with her student through the medium of touch, listening to how he responds, and offering gentle guidance towards new possibilities . . .

jutta fi

photo: Seth Dellinger

Above, foreground: Jutta Brettschneider, Below: Arona Primalani

arona fi b

photo: Yulia Kriskovets

Feldenkrais often described Functional Integration as a kind of a dance between two nervous systems.  In his book, The Case of Nora, Feldenkrais described how these two systems could become unified to form “a new ensemble . . . a new entity. . . Both the touched and the toucher feel what they sense through the connecting hands, even if they do not understand and do not know what is being done.  The touched person becomes aware of what the touching person feels and, without understanding, alters his configuration to conform to what he senses is wanted from him.  When touching I seek nothing from the person I touch; I only feel what the touched person needs . . . whether he knows it or not, and what I can do at that moment to make the person feel better.”

jane fi b

photo: Yulia Kriskovets

Above: Jane Johnston, Below: Carol Regan

carol fi

photo: Seth Dellinger

heidi fi

photo: Yulia Kriskovets

Above: Heidi Menocal, Below: Derick Carter

derick fi a

photo: Yulia Kriskovets

Here are a few comments we received following the Festival:

“I really noticed a difference, even now, three days later.  I like the meditative style . . . Thanks for giving this to the community — it was great!”

“Great Experience.  Having sessions with four different instructors in one day helped me vary and intensify my practice.  Thanks for the experience and for your time and effort in making the Festival happen.”

“Thank you for a wonderful event. It was a very positive and encouraging experience. I’d like to stick with it and try a new class and do FI. Thank you all for the wonderful welcome, for providing this opportunity and for being there with these resources for us to follow up on.”

“Thank you for organizing such an awesome event. It was an amazing, rare and very interesting opportunity to experience variety of classes with different instructors. I knew ATM was fascinating and fun, I love it even better now. Looking forward for the next one!”

So are we!

It seems that slowing down every once in a while isn’t such a bad thing after all.  And, as it turns out, when you stand up at the end, you might just feel taller, lighter, and more ready for whatever life has in store for you next!

crowd taller

photo: Yulia Kriskovets

Were you at the 3rd DC Feldenkrais Festival?  Please use the comments box to share your experience!

 

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