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?

What is “kinesophics”?

Kinesophics is a made-up word.

Kine-: from the ancient greek, meaning movement. As in kinesiology (study of movement), kinetic (relating to movement), or the kinaesthetic sense (the capacity to feel movement).

-sophics: from the ancient Greek “sophos,” originally meaning skilled, with that sense eventually extended to skill in matters of common life, and then into intellectual skill. As in philosophy (love of wisdom), or sophisticated (clever)–or sophism (said of a fallacious or invalid argument).

So the name “kinesophics” suggests something about intelligence and skill in movement. And Feldenkrais is all about improving the intelligence of how we move–which is not so much a matter of external intellectual mastery, as it is a matter of finding a balance between intellectual insight, play, and the flow of sensation in movement.

My invented suffix “Sophics” carries a lot of different connotations–from “wisdom” to “bad argument.” How did that come about? In the story of this word, there are other resonances for the practice of Feldenkrais.

The basic idea behind the word is skill, and its range of application spread from manual skills to intellectual skills, with connotations ranging from wisdom, to cleverness, to cleverness in the sense of mere cleverness, or too much cleverness. If you wanted to warn against confusing cleverness with wisdom in ancient Greek, you’d pun on the word: “that which is sophon is not sophia,” says the chorus at one point in Eurpides’s tragedy, The Bacchae.

The “soph-” root provided the name for the early itinerant teachers of ancient Greece, the Sophists, the first people in the European tradition to find a profession in teaching people how to be better human beings. At a time when an urban culture of business, politics, and the law courts was overtaking an older, family-based rural culture, the Sophists taught people primarily the skill that was becoming more and more important in their world: how to speak well. They encouraged thinking and curiosity beyond the handed-down wisdom of the traditional social structures, and taught rhetoric.

For this, the general culture at large was suspicious of the Sophists, and accused them of corrupting the youth, of inquiring into things beyond our ken, such as astronomy, mathematics, and the cultural variability of human morals. Their elaborate ways of speaking and arguing, their cultivation of paradoxes and verbal and intellectual play, made many people uncomfortable, and they got a reputation for being able to argue any side of an argument, to make bad ideas look good.

The philosopher Socrates was ultimately put to death by the people of Athens for being “one of them.” Socrates himself, despite his reputation for being a Sophist, was a critic of the Sophists. When the Sophists claimed to be able to teach people how to think and speak, Socrates asked “how to think about what?” If you want to speak about medical issues, you learn to speak well (that is, to speak the truth) from medical experts; if you want to speak well about warfare, you learn from someone with expertise in martial matters, Socrates said. His question to the Sophists was: What can it mean to speak well in general, about anything?

Apart from suggesting some combination of intelligence and movement, “kinesophics” conjures up this history. Socrates’ argument sounds like mere quibbling, but when we (Feldenkrais practitioners) explain that we teach movement, we run into the same surprise or puzzlement from people. What does that mean to improve movement? If I want to dance, I learn from a dancer; if I want to play tennis, I learn from a tennis coach; if I want to learn karate, I find a karate master. What does it mean to learn to move better in general? This surprise or puzzlement people feel is like the question Socrates posed: is there such a thing as learning good movement as such, as opposed to learning specific good movements, to do a good tango or have a good serve in tennis or a good throw in Judo?

Moshe Feldenkrais’s claim is that there is a process of learning good movement in general–not learning this or that right movement, but a way to improve the processes governing our evolution and adaptability as moving creatures. “Learning how to learn,” he called it.

He began with the study of Judo and came to see quickly that there was potential in what Judoki do for something other than a martial art. A master of Judo carries him or herself so that he or she can move in any possible direction without preparation–that is, in a state of maximum freedom from restriction. Moshe called this good “acture,” using a word he invented to replace the word “posture”. Moshe came to see this as something equivalent to full human maturity: The ability to respond afresh to the opportunities and demands of the present moment, without being weighed down by compulsive and limiting habits from the past.

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.