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 . . .

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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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Let’s Build a Community of Learning: The 3rd DC Feldenkrais Festival will be a Celebration of Curiosity!

“Not only does the brain send signals to the body to influence it; the body sends signals to the brain to affect it as well, and thus there is constant, two-way communication between them.”

“. . . the brain has evolved, with sophisticated neuroplastic abilities and a mind that can direct its own unique restorative process of growth.”

– Norman Doidge, The Brain’s Way of Healing

 

Do you enjoy learning?

I mean the act of learning itself – not “gaining knowledge” or “getting smarter” – but the actual process of traveling over that bridge between confusion and understanding, even on the occasions when you don’t make it to the other side.

I mean the impulse to act to satisfy your curiosity whenever you ask yourself a question that you can’t immediately answer. I mean the process you go through when you ask that question and then stop to ask yourself if that is the most important question to ask.

Do you enjoy the company of other people that enjoy learning?

I mean curious people – not “smart” people, highly accomplished people – but people with questions like yours who don’t make you feel embarrassed for asking, the kind of people who sometimes even thank you for a question since they were wondering the same thing.

I mean the kind of people who are often more comfortable in the company of children than adults. I mean people who are never satisfied with the way things are right now, and are always wondering how things might be done differently tomorrow and what changes that might bring.

Do you enjoy moving?

(I mean every kind of movement you can imagine…)

If you’ve read this far and you’ve heard some bells ringing, I want to invite you to a gathering of like-minded people, the 3rd DC Feldenkrais Festival, Saturday March 21 at the Chevy Chase Community Center in Washington, DC.

This event will be a celebration of the Feldenkrais Method, which, in turn, is a celebration of the distinctly human process of learning through the experience of movement. During an Awareness Through Movement (ATM) class or an individual session of Functional Integration, you have permission to reconnect with the joy of learning by moving yourself through space with intense curiosity.

At this festival, you will be encouraged to think as you did when you learned the most fundamental properties of existence in the first year of your life: What is this part of me for? How does it connect to the rest of me? How can I use myself in order to do what I want? How can I make this fun, and not a struggle?

If you suffer from an injury or condition that limits your ability to move freely, it is worth your while to try the Feldenkrais Method. If you are performing artist or athlete seeking to develop a more efficient and spontaneous connection between your intentions and actions, it is worth your while to try the Feldenkrais Method. And if you are open-minded and naturally curious about the untapped potential in yourself and the world around you, it is definitely worth your while to try the Feldenkrais Method!

The way people experience this work can be highly individual, so it might be foolish for me to predict what kind of experience you might have at the Festival. But as one of the main organizers, what I can tell you is that our primary goal is to give you the opportunity to have this experience.

Following the example of Moshe Feldenkrais, whose discoveries about the human nervous system led to the method that bears his name, we are teachers whose primary goal is not “to teach”, but rather to create an atmosphere where you can “learn how to learn”, and find the answers to the questions that are the most important to you.

Before his death, Feldenkrais worked intensely to train the people who would carry on his work. But rather than trying to define every aspect of how it would be practiced, he instead insisted that each practitioner should develop their own individual “handwriting.” At the 3rd DC Feldenkrais Festival, we will also celebrate the possibilities embodied in this invitation to embrace our unique nature.  Festival participants will have the opportunity to experience the personalities of over a dozen different instructors throughout the course of the day.* (see below for a complete list)

After lying on the floor for an hour doing simple movements and using their attention, many people in ATM classes feel a dramatic boost in vitality because they have finally discovered how to let go of long-term habitual muscle contractions that serve no purpose other than to limit their freedom of movement. Some people literally experience disbelief at the improvement that they feel. At this moment, it’s certainly tempting to go into a sales pitch: “now you can see the amazing benefits of the Feldenkrais Method . . . ”

. . . But in fact, I think it’s more important to take this opportunity to recognize what is truly amazing: the capacity that each one of us has to heal ourselves by engaging our brains and bodies – our whole selves – in the restorative process of acting out our curiosity.

If what I’ve written here hasn’t brought you any closer to feeling that you understand the Feldenkrais experience, that’s OK – that wasn’t my goal. Indeed, most of what you can gain from this practice can’t be easily captured in words – so, if you’re curious, just come and give it a try!

But what I hope is a little bit clearer now is that the potential of the Feldenkrais Method to open doors for you is solidly based in those same unique qualities that make you human.

If you can keep your schedule free on March 21, you could discover a community of people who share your interest in living a richer life. The schedule of the day not only includes private sessions and multiple group classes, but also many unprogrammed blocks of time designed to allow you to meet the “teachers” on hand and many other enthusiastic learners like yourself.

That’s because we think that our community has something to offer that can benefit many more people than we are currently able to reach. So we intend to build it!

*Teaching staff of the 3rd DC Feldenkrais Festival: 

Heidi Menocal (Annapolis, MD) / / Carol Regan (Silver Spring, MD)

Donna Blank (Bethesda, MD) / / Derick Carter (Bethesda, MD)

Jutta Brettschneider (Brentwood, MD) / / Chrish Kresge (NW DC)

Yulia Kriskovets (Alexandria, VA) / / Adrienne Penebre (SE DC)

Francine Bonjour-Carter (Haverford, PA) / / Terence McPartland (NE DC)

Seth Dellinger (NW DC) / / Jane Johnston (Berryville, VA) / /

Susanne Christov-Bagarkiev (NW DC)

 

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Refreshing the possibilities at the 2nd DC Feldenkrais Festival

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

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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