Walking on Volcanos

In Feldenkrais we engage in a very particular kind of play with having and not having goals. Mostly we play with abstaining from being goal-driven in a way that is completely unfamiliar to our achievement-driven, goal-oriented, “no pain no gain” culture. You might say that the right way to do an Awareness Through Movement lesson is to lie on the floor and feel vaguely curious about the rumoured possibility that the movement the teacher proposes to you might, contrary to all current evidence, be the most easy and natural thing you could ever imagine doing. It might be a movement of the standing knee tilting very slightly to the left and then righting itself again, or some crazy thing about putting your foot on top of your head, or (a lesson I was doing last night) lying face down on top of one leg folded up completely underneath me, trying to lift the other leg that is extended long behind! The way to go is an attitude of idle curiosity, a bit of incredulity, and some trust in oneself based on the experience that the impossible has become possible before, and so it might again.

Moshe describes it as doing the movement as though you’re wasting time. In the kind of reverie you inhabited when you laid in the grass and watched a butterfly at the age of 10.

Playing with this attitude in the context of doing a lesson isn’t the same thing as adopting the belief that having goals or trying to do something is in general a bad thing. It’s not. The process in Feldenkrais is more like developing our capacity for one feature of life with and around having goals, one that is under-emphasized for most of us most of the time: adapting, shifting, changing, and being flexible in pursuit of those goals. Such a capacity gives the space for play and truly novel possibilities and skills to be born, and those resources might be just the thing one needs to take the next step towards a cherished goal.

Because we emphasize the aimless side of the equation in Feldenkrais, there’s always the possibility that we might take it as a dogma, and go farther than we need to into the state of having no goal. The “goal-less” state can become a compulsion or “should.” You may have noticed such a disease if you’ve ever been with a group of Feldenkrais practitioners trying to decide where to go for dinner.

Falling over

Human beings are the most unstable creatures going. From the point of view of mechanics, the only thing we’re good for is falling down. We stand upright only because we’re constantly righting ourselves: a little sway in one direction triggers the response to come back up; we sway in the other direction and — zip — just like that, the ancient postural reflexes pull us back up to the center . . . and we continue past that centre to something else.

I have such a vivid memory of walking around the Zocalo in Colima (I did my Feldenkrais training in this lovely corner of Mexico), suddenly being able to perceive what I had learned intellectually some time before: that we’re so unstable that if we lift an arm, we would fall over, if that lifting of the arm weren’t in fact a movement of the whole body in which we shift in gravity and/or change the pattern of use of the whole musculature (the whole person, the whole brain) to keep from falling over. Yvan Joly tries to capture this kind of point in words by using phrases like “you lift yourself by the arm,” instead of “you lift your arm.” Yvan’s phrase gives all sorts of lovely and silly images (“Baron von Munchhausen”-style, one grabs onto one’s own arm and pulls it in a hopeless attempt to lift oneself from the floor). But really, why not? It’s no less inaccurate a form of verbal expression than the statement “I lift my arm,” which absurdly suggests that my arm is that thing over there which I pick up and lift, an action in which the arm is an object really quite removed from myself.

Philosophers tend to think that absurd and extreme questions sometimes provide illumination – for example, the way Descartes used the question of how it’s possible that we know anything whatever about our own existence and that of the world around us. So I like to ask myself extreme questions sometimes. Like “Why bother standing upright at all?–If falling down is so natural, why should the nervous system interest itself in standing upright at all, when it is such a costly endeavour?” Frank Wildman says that 90% of the human brain is involved at any one time in the simple task of keeping us upright in gravity.

Falling down — volcanoes


The question was given vivid expression for me by our first trip up the volcano in Colima. There’s a live one–el fuego–and a dead one–el nevado. You ascend the dead one, and have a great view from there of the on-again off-again eruptions of the live one, 12 km away.

Taking advantage of the luxuries of modern life, you can come almost all the way to the summit of the Nevado in a car. You drive and drive round hairpin turns, with logging trucks wailing past you going the other direction, and the vegetation passes from tropical plants to pine trees to the little scrubby plants that hang in above the tree line. From 500M above sea level to 3000, without stepping out of the car. And then something wonderful and vivid happened: I will never feel this in the same way again, because my feeling came partly from never even imagining that this would happen. I found myself stepping out of the car into a situation of no visual clues to the horizontal or the vertical. For someone who grew up, whose vestibular and visual system was formed, on the Canadian prairies, this was an astonishing sensation. I was standing on a slope, and it’s slopes going this and that way as far as the eye can see, with the horizon long lost in the haze around, and there’s nothing but my own vestibular system to tell me what’s upright.

It’s a popular thing to do with the kids when it snows on top of the Nevado to pile them in the car or the back of the truck and go up to the top to give them an experience of snow. I joked with people during this training module that we’d gone to the volcano instead of the beach because Rosa and I (the Canadians) hadn’t seen snow in three whole weeks and were missing it. For the Mexican kids, these trips to see the snow are apparently quite dangerous. They aren’t familiar with snow and how it behaves, and so they do fun things that people who live with snow all the time know not to do. Like sit down or stand on it to test its slipperiness. In some places, there’s not much to prevent you from falling down those 2500M you’ve just driven up if you do that.

So there I was on top of the volcano — a truly fantastic experience — and it’s the experience of having no visual clue for orientation to keep upright–and confronting gravity with its strong opinion that the proper place for a body with weight like my own is approximately 2500M down from where I am now. At 500M there’s some solid flat ground to stop my fall. On top of it all, there’s the most extraordinary soil at this height on a dead volcano: it’s old pulverized volcano dust, and it’s almost impossible to get a grip in it. Your feet just slip and slide, and the gravel cooperates with gravity and runs down the mountain. It would be very easy just to follow it! How–and why–to stay upright become pressing questions in this situation!

Beatriz Walterspiel was teaching that module, and she happened to have been talking about the Bedouin and what it takes to walk in the desert sand. Sometimes in Feldenkrais we get very floor-bound: we pay a lot of attention to feeling the floor, feeling the support of the floor, feeling how we push into the floor in one place to lift in another, etc etc etc. This is all fine and good but it’s just part of the picture: Beatriz spent some time that module asking to what extent we can organize ourselves to move in situations where the floor doesn’t push back, or doesn’t push back in an easy and predictable way. On shifting sands, the more force we push down with, the more we push the sand away from us, and that won’t get us anywhere at all. How can we organize ourselves in movement to make the floor more and more invisible and unnecessary to us? So we can leave it and leap into the air with the greatest ease, and in mid-air organize ourselves to change the direction and intention of the movement–although at that moment there is no floor to support us and to push here to lift there?

That’s where I really felt something new about the power of having a goal, on the top of the volcano, trying to get from point A to point B, with gravity and the volcano gravel, combined with the lack of any visual reference to the vertical and horizontal, and the inherent instability of the human body, and on top of it, the limitation of resources that comes with the altitude, where there is little enough oxygen that it’s essential to be efficient. I found that the only way to get anywhere (other than 2500M down, where gravity thought I should be) was by keeping my eyes and my intention on where I wanted to go. That, combined with having all the fabulous flexibility of all the fabulous Feldenkrais we were doing, made it possible to get from point A to point B without falling down the mountain.

I sometimes call this Feldenkrais flexibility “adaptiveness” instead, because it’s not about the contortions we usually associate with the word “flexibility.” “Flexibility” here meant that I could trust my feet and legs (and, well, everything else attached, including most importantly my brain and spinal cord reflexes!) to do whatever they had to do in the (literally) shifting sands, to adapt however they needed to adapt, in order to fulfill my intention to move forwards to wherever I was going. But without a clear intention on top of that flexibility, there was nothing to keep me upright and on top of the mountain at all.

Kind of like life. One extreme end-point of life. Normally we can be a little aimless and the situation around us conspires to support us and keep us upright. But the more and more we lose all the little supports, literal (biomechanical features like flat floors) and neurological (visual clues to orient ourselves to), the more and more the nervous system has to interest itself in what it wants: that sensation of being alert, and alive, and upright that goes with having a goal, an interest in the world.

The aimlessness of an ATM is a means to developing the flexibility that supports having and achieving goals; it isn’t a state of being that we generally recommend as a way to live. I went to one of those “go deep, deep into the process” kinds of training programs. (You know the kind.) Around the sixth month or so, people started talking about touching on death. One of the fringe benefits of training in Mexico. People go to the emotional core of the experience, and express it poetically. In Canada you learn young to guard against any such thing with sarcasm and dry humour. (Like I’m doing now.) I’m not sure I know what they were referring to, but I think it was something about how deep we went into this aimlessness.

The first principle, Moshe liked to say, is that there are no principles. Amazing results came from going that deep. But that doesn’t mean one is supposed to live in that state.