science, feldenkrais, and professionalism

I was reading recently the Introduction to Moshe’s Elusive Obvious, and I was struck by his description there of his fundamental procedure in developing the Feldenkrais Method. He said he reads science, and he takes hold of thousands of heads between his hands, and he explores that science in his practice of helping people.

This touching, handling, manipulating of living human bodies enables me to see in the books of these superb writers and turn into practice the science they teach. Probably they themselves do not know, how useful their knowledge is already when translated into the nonverbal language of the hands, i.e. Functional Integration, and the verbal Awareness through Movement. (p. 3)

I was struck by how distant that approach is to what I (or dare I say we?) do in learning and practicing Feldenkrais. The closest things I know are our current fascination with mirror neurons, and here, along with Tom Landini, I’m not sure that we aren’t just hopping onto a band wagon that isn’t really ours. I also recall some lovely advice from Yvan Joly about how to spend your year of teaching Feldenkrais as a form of research project. Pick a theme; think of it as you do and choose lessons for class or form themes for workshops; do some googling and other forms of research to pick up on current scientific thinking, and try to relate that to your teaching.

Of course, I can’t entirely discount that at this moment Moshe may be playing up the scientific roots of his thinking and downplaying his long study of martial arts as a source, for some political point.

But still–we aren’t reading Nature Neuroscience and thinking “how can I apply that in FI?” Or, to put it in another way, “how can I test that in my methodology?” If we scan the science, it’s with the eager but somewhat unseemly desire to find out that science has caught up to us and validated us…in our insecurity. Not to learn something from science that we use or test in our methodology. For the IFF Research Journal we did a small interactive poster study, trying to draw out from practitioners their understanding of the place of research in the work. We were fishing for something that we didn’t find: an awareness that every FI, every ATM, is an investigation. Sometimes I fear that we, like Big Pharma, understand research as a branch of the marketing department.

This week on Feldyforum, Bob Chapra in New York was looking for some info on the physiology of hot flashes, and the process of finding that info reminded me of one reason (among many) that I missed academic life in the few years I spent “on the outside” as a full-time practitioner.

The discussion on Feldyforum moved quickly, as it often does, to herbal remedies, experiential accounts, and so on. All of which was great–we don’t have all the answers and we should be curious about other solutions, and the experiential accounts are close to the heart of our work–but very little of it answered his questions about what the basic physiology of hot flashes is.

In my years out of academic life, one of the things I liked the least was not having access to an academic library. Now that I’m “on the inside” again, I was able to track down an abstract of a suitable recent review article for the practitioner, and through my library access download the pdf to read (and share).

I joked to him that I had access to the article only through my ties with “Big Learning” (like “Big Business” or “Big Pharma”). But it’s not so much of a joke. There’s a wall between us and this stuff, with pay-as-you-go access to academic research at $30 per article or more. Way beyond the budget of most any Feldenkrais practitioner. It’s even worse than the new higher cost of Alexander Yanai volumes!

When I was young, anyone could wander into an academic library off the street, and pick up a journal off the shelf or from the stacks. This is not true any longer. Most academic libraries check cards for access to the stacks; journals are increasingly on-line and you have to log in with your academic library card to read them. As in so many areas of our culture, the gap between haves and have-nots gets bigger.

Now, it turns out that after some more poking around I discovered the article (despite Elsevier’s attempts to hide this from me) is available for free (see here). Perhaps because the workshop for which it was commissioned was funded by NIH (i.e. public) dollars and the NIH has got active in the last few years about ensuring that what is funded by public dollars isn’t there just to line the pockets of private, for-profit academic publishers.

Nonetheless, I have a certain hobby horse, which I will take this opportunity to ride. A couple of years ago Chiropractic almost got itself into York University (in Canada). An “alternative health” methodology in a mainstream accredited university. What knocked it out of running at the end was its distance from mainstream science. This is not a stumbling block for Feldenkrais. One of the things that made Feldenkrais for me more than an interesting experience but something I could invest years in learning and exploring was, well, that it doesn’t present an alternative metaphysics. Some of my best friends are intuitive shamanic healers etc; but I’m not. I value deep experiential exploration; and I value the critical and rigorous intellectual engagement of my academic life.

We have heated debates about the right model for our work, craft or profession, avocation or vocation, hobby or gainful employment, and (related) its epistemological base: intuition or science. In North America it’s shaped by a fierce American “get the government out of my life” attitude, and endowed with enormous entrepreneurial energy.

There are no easy answers to these questions. If things go well, we’ll answer them with “both/and” or “neither/nor” creative solutions. I personally favour a future that sees somatic education as something taught in a graduate level program in a mainstream educational setting.

But we may not notice that our (most specifically, FGNA) hostility to professionalization, in the world as it is today, alienates us from what Moshe describes in the Elusive Obvious as an important source of his work: the best science of his day. The choices we make to maintain our private on-the-fly training program structure and not to attempt to play ball in an academic setting keep these sources of knowledge out of our hands. We’re in a chicken-or-egg situation too: we’ve attracted people to the work who aren’t comfortable in that kind of setting. That sets our culture and where we will go to a significant extent.

If you’re a practitioner who likes to work from science, you can do what you can if you don’t have academic access. You can always search pubmed for information, and often see at least the abstract. I know one practitioner who has good experiences in writing scientists directly and asking for copies of their articles or permission to post them. Many researchers expect emails asking for “offprints” and respond generously.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking eagerly about what it would really mean to take the latest thing I read in my “neuroethics” reading and process it through Feldenkrais. Maybe I’ll try something out and report back.

What is the image, the feel, the thought, the action we want to capture?

My teacher Stephen Rosenholtz would say all the time, “You’re not in church! This is life! Teach ATM like you’re having a conversation.”

I was puzzled. Like a conversation about what? The Iraq war? Family gossip? It took me quite some time to figure this one out. But that’s a story for another day. It has something to do with the title of one of Moshe’s books.

I think at the beginning I taught more like it was a relaxation/awareness process.

Yochanan Rywerant has a section called “Modes of Control: Sedate, Aroused” (no. 13) in his book Aquiring the Feldenkrais Profession.

A tentative classification of the modes of control, not really exhaustive but pertinent to our subject, could yield the following: the sedate (or calm) mode, subdivided into apathetic (not interested) and inquisitive (curious, interested); then the aroused (or stimulated) mode, subdivided into euphoric (well being), alarmed (sensing some immanent danger) and distressed (sorrowful). For the purposes of Feldenkrais, you might prefer the inquisitive mode of control. (p. 12)

My favorite phrase from Feldenkrais for the mood of a lesson is where he admonishes people to do the lesson like they’re wasting time. Wasting time with a point, but wasting time.

I’ve got my eye out for somewhere in an AY lesson where he says more about this. I can’t put a finger on it right now, but when I do I’ll post it.

How do produce pictures that capture that feeling of wasting time? But with focus? And with the “inquisitive mode of control” as Rywerant puts it? It isn’t the same as relaxation; it isn’t the same as a spiritual awareness exercise.

Some photos around the web

One big question about photographing Feldenkrais is: to pose or not to pose?

The PR Kit photos are posed; the Swedish Guild recently re-did their website and posed the photos. This is a very understandable step. It would be challenging to create an image that’s attractive and that communicates something where there’s the typical Feldenkrais “chaos” in the room.

The typical Feldenkrais chaos I’m referring to comes from the fact that everyone is following their own pace and engaging in their own exploration. Yes, there are lessons where we all coordinate in the end, but these are rare.

feldenkraisteachersinseattle

I really like the website of Feldenkrais Teachers in Seattle for its sense of spontaneity and variety.

Feldenkrais Teachers in Seatttle Website: from www.feldenkraisteachersinseattle.com

Of course, this is only one person, so that’s another way of controlling the chaos. While using only one person in the photo is in a sense inaccurate, because the lessons are group lessons, it does capture the feeling I have of being alone (in a deep and pleasant sense) in my own exploration in an Awareness Through Movement lesson.

Photographing Feldenkrais

The FGNA Council of Regional Representatives did a lot for Feldenkrais practitioners in the last couple of years in getting a PR Kit produced for practitioners. (You can purchase it at the FEFNA bookstore or download it for free at the members site (off-line at the moment).)

Photos by dance photographer Rosalie O’Connor are among the gems of the kit.

I was recently using some of them to make cards publicizing our Wednesday evening class at the Yoga Loft.

Robert, the owner of the Loft, offered some advice that really made me think about what a good image for Feldenkrais would be.

You want to be able to take the whole poster in in a second or two. Assume that whoever sees it will be walking past it and may not stop unless something about the posters makes them. I keep coming back to this but in that moment they need to see the solution to some problem they have. That makes them stop and take a look. From there poster inspires them with the idea that Feldenkrais has the solution. But you never offer an idea of what that solution is. This part stays entirely within their mind. If you offer a solution they will start to question it. Its basic human nature and a lot of psychology…

457F.inpostReaching for something new: by photographer Rosalie O’Connor.How interesting it would be to explore what it is we’d want to give as a first impression of Feldenkrais, something that resonates for a person, even at a level below awareness, as speaking to their needs!

An interesting challenge in making Feldenkrais images is the cultural vocabulary available to us. There’s a basic cultural vocabulary around yoga at this point (as there might not have been thirty years ago). One can resonate with a sense of spiritual peace, or the sense of a quest that tests the limits, or connection with a community of conscious living, or the sense of taking time to come into touch with oneself, or relaxation, or challenge…. What vocabulary do we want for Feldenkrais?

242F.inpostA new angle: by photographer Rosalie O’Connor.

I particularly like the sense in this image of looking at things from a different perspective; maybe this gives people the sense of that characteristic Feldenkrais feeling of delighted but relaxed discovery of a possibility that never even occurred to one before.

I’m thinking now about exploring this topic in various modes, as a kind of “marketing research” in the best sense. A contribution to our on-going process of self-definition and development of our understanding of what our work is about. We talk and write about that a lot, but how about connecting those words with images? What experience, sense, thought, feeling, mood, possibility that you connect with through Feldenkrais would you like to communicate?

You can leave comments below, or on the images in the gallery here. The comment form lets you submit your own images of Feldenkrais or the “sense of” Feldenkrais!

Self-help or holistic health?

I am reading a paper by Anthony Weston called “On the body in medical self-care and holistic medicine” that explores the difference between what you might call two kinds of challenges to medical authority: self-help movements (the Boston Women’s Health Collective and the book “Our Bodies Ourselves” would be a paradigmatic instance) and alternative health practices (chiropractic, traditional Chinese medicine, ayurveda, homeopathy etc. etc.).

(The essay is in a book edited by Drew Leder called The Body in Medical Thought and Practice. You can search it on Alibris or Powell’s but it’s a frightening price on the used book market–hopefully your library has it!)

He starts with a fairly basic observation, and one that was rich for me to reflect on in relation to Feldenkrais. He points out that some of the rhetoric surrounding CAM would have us think that CAM practices are intrinsically self-help practices, but this is not so: in contrast to self-help practices, CAM practices sometimes (not infrequently) replace the external authority of the mainstream physician with the external authority of another kind of practitioner, one whose authority is based in an esoteric system with an alternative metaphysic to the mainstream scientific metaphysic. As a first approximation, it seems plausible to say that the metaphysic can change and all the authority structures remain the same.

(The same can be said, Weston points out, of the so-called “holism” of such practices, but for me this is a topic for another day.)

I believe that by using the distinction Weston works with, we can focus a crucial question about the nature of the Feldenkrais Method (and perhaps related forms of somatic education, though I can’t speak for these), a question with deep implications for how we practice and teach, how we propagate our work in the world, what structure these “professions” (if that is what we will turn out to be) will have.

These questions are at the same time questions about the nature of expertise in the Feldenkrais Method. (And perhaps that question is one of many that stands behind the defining of “competencies.”)

It seems to me that in the Feldenkrais Method we have a practice that is in the deepest and most fundamental sense one of self-care as Weston describes it. For one thing, it fundamentally rejects the formation of an alternative esoteric metaphysics to underpin its practice. This is a controversial claim, I’m sure, but I would be commited to the view that Feldenkrais approached his work as a scientifically-trained engineer with an interest in scientific approaches to the nature and activity of the nervous system in human action.

For another thing, the process we teach is fundamentally one of empowerment, for people to develop the capacity to have a sense of agency in relation to facets of our embodied existence that otherwise we feel at the mercy of, in need of medical expertise to fix or manage. Like restrictions of back pain, for which we think we need MRI scans and surgery, for example–or for that matter restrictions in imaginative approaches to thinking and planning for action in the world, which we think are just our nature or character and nothing we can do anything about.

And for another — the Feldenkrais Method is a development of the natural functions of the human nervous system to learn and explore and experiment in the direction of maturity and growth.

In all these senses we have a practice of self-care.

And at the same time, I would argue, we have practices of teaching classes to the public and of maintaining our training structures that treat Feldenkrais as though it is an esoteric body of knowledge, to be grasped in awed silence. The public comes and lies on the floor; they go through this experience that seems astonishing and mystical in its powers and effects; we keep them passive and self-involved, quasi-sedated, on the floor while one and only one voice leads the lesson; after some time doing that, if you’re addicted, you go away to a training program for 800-1000 hours not infrequently spent doing a lot of more of the same. I’m not really trying to enter into those same old tired discussions we have about The Trainings (as though there is only one, and it’s run by bandits). I want to start to think in other directions, about how we teach our ATMs to start with long before anyone gets to the trainings.

What would it be like to start to teach the Method on Day 1 as though it were a natural extension of processes we all already carry deep in the brain and nervous system? As though from Day 1 it were something people could understand and use for themselves and amongst themselves? As though the first day you do an ATM, you also invent an ATM and take yourself through it? So the Method belongs to the student from the first day of learning it, the way that you start to write your own name the first day you learn how to write letters, and go on writing more and more complex text to express yourself and explore the world without having to go to a training program and get certified in it first. Not because I think training programs aren’t necessary for practitioners! Of course they are. But because I think our students should from the beginning have a more mature relationship to the work.

This is the question that occupies me now. I’m working on a book that takes this approach, and looking at piloting the content in the fall in a different kind of Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement class process…watch this website or sign up to the mailing list on the right for news.

(Weston says a lot of interesting and subtle things as his article progresses, about how entering deeply into the realm of self-care may after all take one to a different metaphysic than the mechanistic, though without the authority structures of esoteric or mainstream medicine, and I hope to return to the topic to write more about those thoughts soon. The question of the nature of expertise in practices of self-care is also a deep one in need of further reflection!)

Dominant leg?

Robert Schleip has an interesting discussion at his website, The Dominant Leg, summarizing an article by Simone Kosog in the science section of the ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin’ (1999) on the fact that we tend to walk in circles to the left, when bereft of external cues to orient us to a straight line.

From our experience with our hands/arms, we create a certain idea for ourselves of what it is to be right-handed, to have a certain dominant hand, to be “stronger” on one side. And if I’m right-handed, am I right-legged too?

But is one side stronger, faster, better–or do they specialize, and typically play different roles, each doing some things more skillfully than the other?

One night, during my Feldenkrais training, with some irritation in one shoulder, I decided to wash dishes “the other way”–to use my left hand to wipe the dishes. To my surprise, far less challenging that using my “weak” arm to wipe was using my “strong” arm to stabilize the dish being wiped. It became evident quite quickly that one side was not so much weaker than the other as it was accustomed to, and skilled in, doing certain activities.

The same is true for our “leggedness”. If you want to know which leg is stronger, ask what for first. To hold your weight? For most people, the left leg. To kick a ball? For most people the right leg. Yes, this will have expression in muscular development among other things down the line.

Moshe’s instruments for teaching included a long thin stick, about the height of a human being. If someone lies on the table and you hold such a stick over him or her, parallel to and above the centre-line of his/her face, you will probably find that the continuation of the centre-line of the face comes closer to one foot than the other: it orients over one leg. Usually the left leg. Usually, then, the left foot is more pointed to the ceiling than the right foot; the latter has its toes turned out more to the side.

The drawing here is obviously very rough, and it exaggerates the phenomenon I’m pointing to! [[I just redid the diagram in 2011: improved the spine, and the tilt of the head. And I did it opposite to what I’m describing–because my own organization produces a more fluid tilted circle and the rest if I’m drawing the stick figured organized in a mirror way to that in which I am organized.]]

If you ascertain which leg this person would find it easier to balance on–the answer is likely to be “the left.”

The right knee might be slightly bent as well, slightly turned to the outside and/or lifted minutely more away from the floor than the left.

Schleip summarizes Kosog’s explanation to say that the right leg is stronger, and therefore we take larger steps with it. And all that hard work of the hard-working strong right leg wears it down, making it shorter.

This is actually a very funny view of walking! Wouldn’t I in fact push off more strongly with my stronger leg–and so take longer steps when the weaker leg swings forwards? Moshe, quoting Mabel Todd quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, says “legs are spokes” in walking…you don’t reach forward with your leg when you bend it, grab the ground, and pull yourself forward; you swing it to come under yourself just as you pass over it and come onto its support under you. How far you move ahead to pass over it depends more on the leg pushing off from behind–how far that takes your whole body forward; your leg going forward only needs to manage to get far enough forward to be in the right place to receive the weight of your body.

So if the question is “stronger at doing what?”–then the usual pattern is that the right leg is stronger in bending (flexion) and more agile in manipulations in flexion, and the left leg is stronger in stabilizing and pushing off (extension). The right leg carries this preference for flexing into rest–hence it typically lies shorter when I lie on the ground. And you can see that with that configuration, you may well rather stand on your left leg (stronger at standing) and kick with your right leg (stronger at kicking). But not because you’re “right-legged.”

But is it really fundamentally about strength? According to what I just said, I should walk in circles to the right, not the left, without those external cues to help me correct the line, because my left leg will push me off more strongly.

The next level of explanation is to consider the extent to which we, in action, are orchestrating a symphony of inertial forces. Looked at from a certain perspective, we don’t so much act as manage our tendency to fall in this or that direction in the course of carrying out our intentions.

Walking exploits the capacity of ourselves in gravity to act as a spiral pendulum. Take this figure lying on the table with the plumb-line through the centre of his or her face and continuing closer to one foot than the other. Now see this image as vertical, and see the green line as the pivot around which the spiral pendulum turns. Remember that this pendulum involves not just the legs swinging in the hip joints–that’s just the last finesse of walking–but the whole spiralling movement of the spine from the base of the skull down. The left leg swings a very small amount (taking small steps); the right leg swings a lot (taking large steps). The tendency, then, is to drift to the left.

Other explanations or considerations?

Thanks to Eva Laser, Russ Hall, Michael Krugman and Paul Rubin for our lengthy “legs as spokes” discussion on Feldyforum in 2003!

learn one CMS; use one CMS

I discovered open source content management systems a year and a half ago when the IFF needed something along those lines. I put Kinesophics into the first one I learned, phpwcms, a fine system.

The IFF, however, needed something more flexible, and I entered a year and more of challenge with drupal. Even with some pro help, it was a lot of learning. If only Lullabot had started those podcasts a year earlier!

Once you’re dealing with one system, best to stick with it. They all have quirks; they all need upgrades for security reasons. I just spent a couple of days putting kinesophics into drupal.

Smooth sailing indeed compared to my first go round.

I’m not just re-doing the technical basis; I’m rethinking the organization of the content and the conceptualization of my teaching and research in Feldenkrais. The “blog” expands; I separate out now “classes & events” from “learn more,” which gathers together resources for anyone wanting to explore Feldenkrais further.

Thoughts on Feldenkrais a month shy of my 40th birthday

I was walking across the Halifax commons last night, on my way to teach an ATM class.

The imminent 40th birthday is on my mind these days.

The whole thing that got me into Feldenkrais began at the age of 30. A quick shift from elation (a completed dissertation, a postdoctoral research fellowship in Toronto) to pain, and pain that lasted and lasted. At around six months you pass a magic point where what was once tendinitis becomes something else: “chronic pain.” The experience and sensations are the same, but (some) health care practitioners start to label and treat you differently. Funny thing about medical diagnosis.

At the time I would go to family gatherings and find myself with my aunts and uncles, in their 70s and 80s, swapping stories about aches and pains and medications or miracle cures. That generation really seems to believe in sharing prescription medications. If “it” works for me, then “it” will work for what you have too!

I thought to myself, “this can’t go on.” If I’m like this at 30, and I have 30-40 more years of decline ahead of me, what will life be?

Feldenkrais slowly and insidiously broke this cultural belief that aging means bit by bit getting worse. Instead, for the past ten years, every year has brought more feelings of ease and comfort in my body. Every year I feel more flexible than I did the year before. More able to do what I want to do. Every year brings less pain, less struggle, less tension. More ability to move out of and past the inevitable stresses and strains of daily life.

Walking across the commons, reflecting on the immanent 40, remembering this moment at the age of 30 when I thought “it can’t go on like this” — I realized it hadn’t gone on like that. “Improvement is endless,” Moshe used to say. And so far, it is.

Deconstruction of Movement

This is from the programme of a performance of La La La Human Steps’ Amelia–it sounds remarkably like a description of what we do in the Feldenkrais Method:

What is it in this description of Lalala’s dance process that reminds me of Feldenkrais? It has to do with the distinction Lock draws between the symbolic body and the real body, and the parallel distinction between the task of understanding and the task of recognizing.

When I first saw a clip of Lalala Human Steps in a video on creativity, I was drawn in by the revelatory artificiality of the transformations they impose upon human movement. Dancers dancing, all very lovely: and then a sudden shift. The timing of the movement of one limb changes, or the axis of the whole body’s turning–and the viewer suddenly realizes that the “normalcy” of the scene she has been witnessing depended entirely upon rules whose existence and form were invisible, unimagined, perhaps unimaginable. Who would have thought that altering the angle of the axis of a turn would so utterly transform a movement that it would go from being the most familiar–perhaps banal, perhaps expressive–gesture of dance, to being something completely alien, new, pregnant not with meaning (as the saying goes) but with meanings disrupted, expectations frustrated, questions posed and left hanging.

The transformations of movement that are the field of play in the Feldenkrais Method bring us into a similar kind of engagement with “nonsense.” There are many movement practices where one learns to do movement a, b, or c, and learns that such a movement means x, y, or z. You raise your arms to the ceiling — and offer praise to divine powers. This is chakra x which means y or z; this is the such and such meridian. I have no beef with any such practice — I’m simply looking to define a difference, and in what practice other than Feldenkrais do you reach one hand to the sky and at the same time turn your head first in one direction-yes, that feels “natural”-and then in the opposite direction — what unusual movement is that? What possible sense could it have for a human being to do such a thing? But never mind the “sense”-what an interesting and curious sensation! I think I’ll do that again! But what about this other possibility? — and so on.

At various points in the Feldenkrais training there are times of confronting the question of what it is you see when you see the human person in front of you. You look at someone’s posture and the thing you see there is “fear”. That filter of emotional significance is the lens through which you see the way the person uses him or herself in movement. That emotional lens might be all that you see — it calls up a certain response in yourself — sympathy, the desire to protect, memories or your own past fearful experiences, and so on. And now you’re perhaps in a state where you cannot even engage your eyes and brain to see any other aspect of that person at that time. This moment is familiar to anyone who has trained in a form of movement or body work — the stage in the training of coming to see rather more than one wants to see in people in general. Tuning into a layer of human expression that we ordinarily leave un-noticed and un-remarked upon is a little intense.

Developing a mature capacity in the Feldenkrais Method means developing the ability to see the person who is experiencing fear also in another light, one that is to some extent neutral to the possible emotional significance their action might carry. For this person right now in this situation — what experience of exploration, of coming to sense more and to experiment with possibilities of movement, would offer them the possibility of being as they are in the world with less struggle, and with more freedom to do whatever they might find themselves needing or wanting to do? And working with the Method we see this question particularly through the lens of our embodied grasp of the process we work with: the fundamental learning of being upright in gravity and available for action. But when we first begin to look, really to allow ourselves to look, at the concrete living bodies that are the people around us, we see them under the descriptions we know: the first layer we penetrate is to the emotional expression that’s always near-to-hand but politely allowed to be publicly unacknowledged.

I say this with the greatest of respect for the emotional content expressed in our movement. We cause suffering for ourselves more often, probably, by not realizing the emotionality and the symbolic weight of a situation than by wallowing in the feelings and resonances. It is not a matter of one or the other attitude being correct, but of having the capacity to recognize and respond to the situation at hand.

The intensity of this stage calms down; it becomes possible to make choices to see a person in this way or that, depending on the context, as client or as friend or as person walking down the street. It also becomes possible to see people with a lot of what might be called patience and generosity — seeing someone out of the knowledge of one’s own limitations and blindspots, out of fellow human feeling, without judgement.

In this quote Edouard Lock talks about moving from contemplation and symbol to recognization, and that is what is most striking to me about it. I would like to try to say something about what that means to me, against the background above of the familiar issue of emotional-symbolic content of movement. (The symbolic content of movement practices are sometimes also spiritual or cosmological or martial, as in yoga or the various martial arts.) Because it seems to me to capture something very peculiar and almost unique to the approach of Feldenkrais.

Moshe often emphasised while teaching an ATM that there is a peculiar type of “otherness” to the people around us that we are scarcely aware of (before we do Feldenkrais). It takes a whole different organization of the self and perception of the world to create the small detail that one person sitting and leaning back on their hands, without thinking, places their hands slightly closer to their body than the person next to them. This is a difference in the ground of being, the total kinaesthetic, sensorial, and functional situation of a person in the world, that is so obvious and universal — that it is invisible to us, and the slow pace at which it becomes visible to us over the course of a training is hard to believe.

Feldenkrais often jokes too about how we could elaborate that into a system: yes, these people who have this detail of their movement organization are such-and-such people (people who clench their hands into fists: they’re grasping people and don’t let go….), and it was probably caused by their mothers and fathers being such-and-such (or for us today we would say their genes being such-and-such). It’s a joke he likes to make.

Instead of elaborating it into a system, which would fix us in certain categories that we think we already understand, we have in Feldenkrais instead a process and the moment of discovery, the moment in which we discover something unimaginably different from what we had experienced before. Where the sequence of bizarre and meaningless movements we have explored move us into a place where, without thinking of it, we now put our hands, or hold our head, or align our feet, in ways we hadn’t realized we weren’t doing before. And all of us participates in our being that way–it isn’t an external “correction” where we rush over where we are now in order to put ourselves where we think we’re supposed to be. But a moment of all of us being committed to being somewhere new. And that is the moment where we have the opportunity to recognize ourselves afresh.

These moments and the strangeness of them is something we look for in Feldenkrais, and that is something quite unique to it. Sometimes we recognize ourselves in them; sometimes it takes months or years for some new particular possibility to be something we can recognize ourselves in, inhabit, act from. I remember so vividly the first few times I felt the absence of some of my characteristic ways of holding the muscles of my stomach and back rigid. I felt like a jellyfish. I felt like nothing. I could make no connection between that state and being who I was, with my personality, with my goals and plans and ways of acting in the world. I remember that moment when, now, I sometimes feel in the midst of something I’m doing, that aha! I have the choice to do it with my lower ribs held like this, or with them free for movement and breathing. Gradually that comes to be a state I can recognize myself in.

So in that sense now I think of Feldenkrais as being something like a process of embodied deconstruction, and while it feels like that deconstruction leaves us with nothing (“the first principle is that there are no principles”), in fact that “invisibility” is the feeling of recognizing ourselves in that reality, and that restless experimentation with options, that thirst to try first this, then that form of nonsense, is what sets the stage for revelation. And there is such ease and simplicity and freedom there.

An ambivalent athlete

I had always been a reluctant jogger. I was reluctant to do much of anything but read books from the moment I first was able to do so until the age of 30. Last one chosen in gym class, lagging behind even those who had walked half the annual 12-minute run in high school…. the whole classic nerd-girl story. The tribal identifications of adolescence followed me far into adulthood and long outlived their usefulness–if ever they had any.

Only the threat of constant physical pain (an RSI of my arms) that showed every sign of lasting indefinitely drove me to running. When you’re in mysterious and debilitating pain, people have all sorts of ideas for you: giving up coffee, or all cooked food, sleeping on magnets and buckwheat pillows, getting serious exercise.

I ran faithfully, daily, reluctantly, with teeth clenched. It seemed to help slightly with my overall pain. I would start at 3 minutes, slowly working my way to 4, then 5, then 6…. Never running more than 12 or 15 minutes, and feeling like I was pushing a dead weight every step of the way. I had to listen to books on tape to convince myself that I wasn’t fatally wasting time that should be spent learning something. I started with Beowulf–I have such a vivid memory of running around Withrow Park constantly having to stop and rewind the tape because I’d lost the line of the battle action or the thread of the speeches in the feasting hall.

A bout of foot pain (to add to the arm pain) put me off running, and I swore I wouldn’t begin running again until I could feel the pleasure of moving forward in space: using the power and strength of my own body to fly. It sounded like a great idea, a theoretically possible thing. But does it really exist in experience?

Meanwhile I’d begun a Feldenkrais training program. My foot pain cleared up; the original arm pain finally began to ease. I was slowly learning that the interior experience of my body and the experience of relating to the world at large could be every bit as engaging and rewarding as reading about things very far away, in foreign languages, in the past, in distant realms of philosophical abstraction.

Periodically, I’d try running again. Once or twice I’d go out, trying out a new approach–“what if I don’t care how far I run, as long as I run as fast as I can? Maybe only for a block?” “What if I chose a goal I could see visually, the top of the Broadway Bridge, and actually cared about reaching it?” I had a taste or two of really moving forwards in space, I began to be able to taste what it might feel like to run with the whole body cooperating in moving forwards instead of 9/10ths of it holding me back.   I could start at 5 minutes instead of 3. I noticed what a difference it made to run with my head up and free, eyes able to focus on a distant goal.

But it still wasn’t enough of an experience of moving forwards in space to convince me to run regularly again.

A couple more years of Feldenkrais went by and one day, after an intense month of training in Feldenkrais and at least six months of not having run once, I set out to run. This time in Regina, where there are no distant goals you can focus your eyes on (it’s that flat…). I started running, and I kept on running, and kept on running. I looked at my watch. Five minutes had passed. Ten. It was growing clear that I wasn’t going to have to stop. My body wasn’t going to make me. No exhaustion, no misery. A few mild cramps came and went in vulnerable places. I stopped after 15 minutes or so.

I didn’t really run again for about a year or two. What’s a person to do with running when she can just run as far as she wants? How did this happen? And what would I do now, if I didn’t want to run every single day (“because it’s good for me”) and if I didn’t have the structure of gradually pushing myself to add one more minute, and one more minute…?

At the end of July this year, I was doing a little “strengths survey” on the web. I found myself choosing “unlike me” or “very unlike me” for only one kind of statement: statements about setting and accomplishing goals. I saw the pattern, though the survey results were too polite to highlight this for me (choosing to feed me back what I’d scored high one, not what I’d scored low on)–and was not pleased. Time to have a goal and accomplish it.

A goal, a goal: any goal would do. I found a 10K race coming up Sept. 7 and voila–a goal.

I hadn’t tested my magic Feldenkrais running ability lately, and was nervous to do so.  Maybe I was only imagining that running incident in Regina. An experience you become familiar with in Feldenkrais is that one clear experience that runs contrary to the weight of received opinion (“runners don’t build up endurance by lying on the floor, rolling around, and never breaking a sweat!!”) is not enough to change a person’s way of thinking.

On my first run, I suffered a little to get to 12 minutes. The second a few days later I pushed to 15. For the third, the next week, I measured distances on a map and chose a route that would be 3K. The focus of getting to a goal helped, and the cramps that had set in at 3 minutes before now held off until 15 or so. It took me 22 minutes. I realized too that the first five minutes of this route were uphill (unlike anything in Regina)–so an explanation for why the first five minutes weren’t as easy as Regina, where nothing is uphill!

Despite years of learning to value the process and not the goal in Feldenkrais, I was still basking in the buzz that comes from doing at least 50% more every time I ran compared to the time before. I could simply decide before running each time how far I was going to run, or how long, and carry it out, not stopping because I had to, but because I’d decided to. Is this what that Feldenkrais idea of freedom from compulsion is?

In a sense it puzzled me. Like so much in doing Feldenkrais: it seems to go so strongly against the whole system of beliefs we’ve built about strength and endurance and training in physical performance. I wasn’t too surprised that it should be possible to run farther with less energy expenditure–after all, if movement is organized so that forces pass easily along a balanced and aligned skeleton, nothing getting caught up in a knee joint (for example) operating at an uncomfortable extreme, creating heat and injury to the tissues, then the biomechanical efficiency makes it possible to do more with less effort. Strength through alignment as it were. But then what is this feeling of being able to run however long I feel like it? How can hours of gentle movements on the floor improve cardio fitness or endurance?

I spent some time in running experimenting with altering the movement of my feet or knees, or the tilt and bobbing of my head, or the movement of the hips and shoulders. All that kind of stuff we explicitly experiment with in Feldenkrais lessons.  I also noticed my body seemed to be experimenting with some things I wasn’t so conscious of controlling: reaching and backing off of the moment of feeling short of breath, or the moment when the complex balance of heat exchange meant I had to pull off my T-shirt or put up my hair.

I also found a delightful feature of the organization of movement. I was used to thinking of the important category of timing of skeleton moved by muscle: a small difference in timing of the movement of knee and hip (for example) can make the difference between comfortable feet and sore feet, and I was fascinated in my Feldenkrais practice by the way a person’s musculoskeletal organization could make a whole pace or rhythm of movement natural to them, or compulsive, or invisible. I began to find a whole different level of coordination in timing: a particular timing or organization of movement could invite the softer-yet tissues, the fascia and fat and skin that the brain doesn’t control with motor commands, to function as a smoothly-operating part of the whole, not jiggling or jerking uncomfortably with clashes of timing. The vision of dollar signs that comes with inventing the true end of cellulite! If only those same people who are psychologically or culturally inclined to experience dread of cellulite could be induced into the years of patient and playful self-exploration that it takes to reach this point!

I read somewhere in Moshe’s writings the idea that timing is also a matter of timing the consciously-controlled movement to the timing of the vegetative processes. Timing movement and breath is the most obvious form of this, but my jiggling thighs were another example.

I had grand plans in the last week before the race to run an actual 10K on my own before race day’s required 10K. And one thing after another got in the way, and race day arrived with nothing longer than 8K in 64 minutes under my belt. I began to worry that my partner’s cautionary doubts were reasonable. Was I crazy to have decided that my tenth run would be 10K?? As we arrived at the site I considered switching to the children’s 1K fun run. I got down on my hands and knees and did some of the ATM moves that most quickly and directly create for me the feeling of light legs lifted with the cooperation of the length of the whole spine. Someone rushed over to see if I was ill. “No! Just warming up!” I found some women near the back of the pack who could fill me in on how badly I’d have to do to come in last. I decided that 1 hour 20 minutes was a reasonable expectation, based on my 64-minute 8K.

I quickly fell somewhere back in the pack. I was astonished at the speed other people had. I knew part of the drama of physical engagement for me was coping with coming in last. Last picked in gym. Last back after the mile run. And today I was sure to be last in at the end of the race!

At the halfway point, I commented to the water-people that I should get all the remaining water, since I was surely the last person by. They told me I wasn’t, but I didn’t believe them. I began to relieve the extreme boredom of doing the same thing over and over again for coming up on an hour by giving myself vivid memories of ATM lessons I’ve done, the most luxurious and powerfully organized feelings I’d remembered having. Anything so as to feel something in my body other than the monotony of the run.

This tendency to be easily bored with physical activity had long been one of the biggest barriers for me to having a physically active life. Feldenkrais has been the greatest antidote to this. Who knew there was so much to pay attention to, to experiment and play with, in the sensations of the body moving in space? As one of my teachers said in the training, standing in line at the grocery store is never again boring after doing a Feldenkrais training.

Once I passed 8K, I figured I was winning no matter what happened, because I was running farther than I’d ever run before. At the 9K mark I turned up the speed a little–I could do anything for 1K, I figured. The people who had finished the race 30-40minutes earlier were coming back to cheer us stragglers on. I sprinted with impatience the last stretch. 1 hour 12 minutes, 138th out of 155. Not last; not in the 99th percentile.

 

Postscript, Summer 2004

This bit of writing, and the whole idea and experience of running that is behind it, has always felt unfinished. In some sense, of course, that is life: narrative asks for beginnings, middles, and ends; life continues, carries on, cycles around to where it was before and moves on to where it has never imagined it might go, in ways that are only vaguely approximated by the pattern of a beginning, a middle, and an end.

But it feels unfinished in the sense that I feel always vaguely like I’m going to start running again, and never do start running again, and of course it would be too simple for my baroque brain to believe that that’s just because of something as ordinary as a lack of self-discipline.

Today in Kingston, Olga and I took our good friend Forest for a walk at Lamoine. Dogs are a joy – I mean quite concretely and literally, they embody and live out joy in a way we generally refuse to past the age of 6 or 8, when we’ve been disciplined and socialized into sitting still and not making too much noise. Dogs don’t mind feeling silly and childish and just running like mad in circles for no reason but that it feels really good to do it. So at the end of this walk I was inspired by Forest and ran in short bursts, for no reason, but that it looked fun and was fun.

In the car driving out of Lamoine, we passed someone jogging towards us on the side of the road. She was the very picture of running-as-tortured-obligation. From the slow, vaguely hopeless way she dragged herself along, to the unhappy expression on her face: this was the very picture of running as I’d once experienced it. It triggered the question for me: in what sense is “going for a run” ever something that makes evolutionary and functional sense for the human being? Is there any context in the evolution of our form, our structure, our psychology, in which just running for, say, an hour at a time is something it has made sense or that we have chosen to do? Perhaps the Masai migrate by running, unlike every other human group on the planet, who walk to migrate. The marathon was created by rather specific social and political forces, a necessity of politics and warfare that required communication as quickly as possible across long distances – but what is the story behind their not using horses for this?

Running is just one particular socially acceptable way we have now to counteract the evolutionarily novel situation we find ourselves in today by force of our economic and technical and cultural situation: most of us spend most of our time sitting and doing not much but thinking and talking for a living, in confined spaces, where we barely get up and hobble from our desks to the water cooler. And we feel desperately like we have to do something to counteract this. So in those precious few hours we have left after work at work and work at home, we lace up our running shoes and all try to replicate the achievements of the marathoner at Marathon. Despite everything I say here about what’s not natural in evolutionary terms, in the big picture, this is in a sense very evolutionarily normal: faced with novel circumstances unlike anything we have experienced before as a species, we try out novel techniques of dealing with them. That’s what evolution is all about.

I think I’ve particularly got into running at moments in my life when I’ve felt driven to change: something drastic has to shift, I have to move a great distance. Running is like a symbolic, or an expressive act. I create in my body and physical experience a perfect picture of the movement I need in my life. Each round has been shorter, sharper, more focused than the last, as I’ve become more efficient over the years at recognizing that aha, I’m at one of those moments when I need to make a drastic shift from one life project to the next one.

But now I feel ready to run like Forest. Because I’ve been cooped up inside for too long; only now am I allowed out for a walk. Because it feels great to get all those great big muscles working and to feel the day’s air rushing past. To wake up and tire myself out all at the same time. I can run for 10K if I want to; I don’t particularly want to. I think it’s time to take up sprinting!

P.S. There is an absolutely wonderful moment in a Carol Shields story somewhere, where she comments ironically on the apparent revelation, the intensely personal moment of self-discovery, that a young woman somewhere in rural Ontario (in her story) is living through — and how the character in the story is quite unaware that this moment of discovery is everywhere in the culture at large, is coming at her without her knowing it from New York, Los Angeles, via Toronto… I laughed then when, after writing these last paragraphs in the summer of 2004, I noticed something about the Nike ads in the subway. Last summer’s Nike event in cities around the world: a 10K run, featuring some plodding Joe who was chosen to show that anyone can run 10K in a casual kind of way, with minimal training. This summer’s Nike event: a sprint.

Ah! The illusion of individuality, of immunity from the winds of advertising culture. Are we all pawns in the end?