A hallmark of well-organized movement, according to Feldenkrais, is its reversibility. At any point in an action, can you turn around, go back, change your mind, do something else? An optimally-organized action would be one where you retain the freedom at any point to change your mind (or react to changing circumstances) and do something different.
By this measure, jumping out of a window is an action that would be hard to organize optimally. Once you’ve started, there’s no going back.
Lying on the side, sliding your hand forwards and backwards is a movement that is easy to do reversibly. You probably didn’t feel like you were falling in doing Sidelying, sliding hands and knees. But you may have felt slightly the first hint of non-reversiblity, which is simply that it takes more effort to turn around and go back than to keep going.
(Some people actually will more or less “fall” either forwards or backwards when lying on their sides.)
If you’re doing a somersault, head over heels, can you really organize the movement to be reversible? I bet you can. But let’s start with something a little less challenging. We were folding forwards, curling into a ball last week; can we roll ourselves in that ball between lying on the ground and sitting up and do that in a completely reversible way?
Orientation, manipulation, and timing are three facets of organization that have to come together for an action to be successful (doing the right thing in the right place at the right time).
You can create a new “manipulation” (the movement, considered as a configuration of the body in relation to itself) by altering the configuration of the starting place of the movement.
For instance, in the first rolling to sit lesson we altered the use of the arms at the beginning, feeling the difference it made to the ease of the movement and the participation of the core to let the elbows come towards the ceiling. There are lessons with similar folding/flexing the core movements where the arms are in the configuration of a donut-shaped circle around the head. How would that change things?
You could also vary the configuration of your head. What if your head were turned to the left or right, and in that turned position you lift, now your ear towards your knee?
What are some of the different configurations you could imagine for your legs, and how would that variation change the movement?
In order to catch a ball coming at you in the outfield, you have to be on the field, in the right place, facing in the right direction (the right orientation in space), holding out your hand with your palm in the right direction (making the right manipulation of your body), and at the right moment (timing it to be there when the ball reaches you). It could be Aristotle’s practical wisdom we're studying here: to do the right thing is a confluence of the appropriate action in the appropriate situation at the appropriate time.
So one way to think of creating variations of a lesson you've done is to vary it in one (or more) of these three ways.
- If you do it standing on your feet, you could do it standing on your head instead. Well, that’s a little advanced. So try sitting instead of lying. On your stomach instead of on your back.
- If you reach forwards with your hand, you could reach backwards with your leg instead. Well–that’s a little advanced again. A movement quickly becomes a completely different movement when you change the manipulation. You can try more subtle variations. Turn your palm in a different direction. Try (systematically) slight variations in the direction of a movement (using the image of the hours on a clock or movement around a circle can help organize that exploration).
- If you rub your stomach at the same time that you pat your head, you could pat your head first and rub your stomach second–or vice versa–instead. You can also vary timing extremely subtly–intend that the movement start with the rubbing of your stomach and let that lead to patting your head, or vice versa. See the subtle, and powerful, difference that intention makes via timing.
That is, you can vary your orientation in your environment (space, gravity); you can vary the action you do considered in a a specific manipulation of your body; or you can change the timing of the movement(s) you are doing. In that way, you can invent a variation, changing the orientation, manipulation, or timing of the lesson and teach it to yourself.
(If the distinction or nature of those three abstract ideas is not so clear yet, don’t sweat it. You can start the other way around: be creative in any way you like, and then analyze that creativity into these categories later if you find it useful to do that.)
Please share your variation with your fellow learners by posting as a comment on the lesson you were modifying. Then we can all try one another's lessons.
Our human capacity for learning is extraordinary. We go from tiny creatures who can barely manage our own digestion–and can’t manage our own elimination–to being able to play intricate musical compositions, perform acrobatics, paint pictures, form and express elaborate abstract thoughts. We spend months just figuring out how to stand up.
Our ability to learn makes us able to adapt to, survive and flourish in a wide range of environments. It goes on for life.
It also makes us able to learn to do things more stupidly than any animal acting on what we call “instinct.” If I go (like my cat) to jump up on a ledge, I’m sure to muff it up. In fact, what my cat does seems impossible to me.
This Method is fundamentally about learning. It isn’t so much about treating or fixing things, but about learning new capacities and options. And instead of learning by imitating, it’s about learning by teaching yourself. The instructions of the lessons are like a puzzle: the real instruction always is something like “notice what you do, how you organize yourself, in order to do the action described.” And what you have to do is something you have to create.
So in designing variations and creating new options for lessons, the ultimate challenge becomes to create something more like a riddle, a puzzle, and less like a roadmap.
It’s interesting to notice what sticks with you about a lesson and what didn’t.
If I sum up the Sidelying, sliding hands and knees lesson from my own memory (almost a week after teaching it), here is the “skeleton outline” I would make of it.
- Scanning: weight/quality of resting of the body on the floor; rolling the head left and right with attention to the quality of the neck muscles.
- Lying on the side, arms extended in front and palms together; legs together and knees bent up at a right angle, more or less. Slide the top hand forwards and back to starting place (we returned to this as a reference movement several times in the lesson). Rest. Slide the top hand backwards (keep elbow straight) and back to starting place. Rest. Slide forwards and backwards.
- Rest face up & scan.
- Same position, on the side, same sequence with sliding the top knee.
- Rest face up & scan.
- Same position: slide both hand and knee forwards and backwards.
- Same position: slide hand forwards and knee backwards and vice versa
- Then all together forwards and backwards again.
- Rest face up & scan.
For myself, remembering this sequence is less a test in the academic sense and more another chance to notice how my “nervous system” took in the lesson. As I wrote it out, I forgot the use of the reference movement and I went back to add that in after finishing the skeleton, and I don’t recall clearly when we repeated the reference. You probably notice that some things that stood out in your memory are absent from my account.
The most important missing stuff in this skeleton is where I directed your attention during these movements (and where you took your own attention when you taught yourself). It’s pretty essential to the lesson that I brought your awareness to your head participating or not in the movement. Or that I encouraged a spreading of your awareness to take in your back, your spine, your chest, your belly. Or that I brought your awareness to the balance of how far you moved forwards in comparison to backwards, or to how far you moved your shoulders in comparison to how far you moved your hips.
(Can you relate any of those points to the “principles” we discussed?)
The same sequence of movements can be a completely different lesson depending on where the person teaching (someone else or yourself) leads your awareness or refines that feedback loop of how you adjust and “correct” your actions in relation to your intention.
Do you recognize some of these elements as things you left out when you taught yourself? Do you remember some things that I’ve left out?
Moshe was fond of saying that the first principle of his work is that there are no principles.
Principles may organize our thinking and direct our attention and action, but they also tend to put us to sleep. We discount or ignore aspects of our experience that don’t fit the principles.
When someone asks what we feel, we answer instead with what we know.
Sometimes in Feldenkrais our acute awareness of how knowledge can bypass feelings creates an anti-intellectual bias. Sometimes when someone asks what we know, we answer instead with what we feel. But what would like really be like if we were confined always to the realm of feeling and had no epistemological capacities apart from appreciating sensation?
The claim that the first principle is that there are no principles is a paradox. It is designed to wake us up rather than put us to sleep. Neither the sleep of clinging to principles nor the sleep of floating in the endless sea of experience.
Principles are not to be banished but to be handled intelligently.
Moshe’s early work in Judo (the legend is that he was one of the first European black belts and helped found the French Judo association) showed him a quality of human action that one might call the somatic reality behind maturity:
The essential aim of Judo is to teach, help and forward adult maturity, which is an ideal state rarely reached, where a person is capable of dealing with the immediate present task before him without being hindered by earlier formed habits of thought or attitude. (Higher Judo, p. xiii)
The posture (or as Feldenkrais named it, “acture”) from which a person could respond with movement in any direction, based on the current situation as it is, and the needs and intentions of the agent, is the mature stance.
This is not posture as your Aunt Mabel defined it. Not about “standing up straight” or “pulling your shoulders back.” In fact, can you catch yourself adjusting how you sit at the very appearance of the word “posture”?
“Acture” is about having freedom to act unhindered by the past or by fixed ideas about how you are supposed to be. It is a dynamic, not a static, state.
Philosophical debates about the nature and possibility of freedom tend to leave out of the equation the kind of creatures we are. Whether we’re free becomes a question about whether anything in the universe can happen outside of the deterministic causal chain that we imagine science tells us exists. But what if we think of being more or less free in relation to our capacity as creatures who may be ignorant and who can learn?
Feldenkrais had one simple and concrete “principle” of freedom. If you know how to do something in three ways, then you’re free. Just one way–you’re stuck. Two–you’ve got an option now, but you’re still caught in dichotomies. Three and you’ve got choice.
Now that you’ve done the lesson that was recorded for just one side, and before too much time passes, teach yourself the lesson on the other side. It may help to think over some questions before you begin.
- Can you recall any landmarks of the lesson to guide yourself by?
- We started, returned during the lesson, and ended with a process of scanning. What did we do in those scans?
- What was the first movement? Did we return to it as a “reference” to check out how it evolved?
- Was there an order of movements–doing parts and putting them togther as wholes? Doing the same thing (undifferentiated movement) and then doing opposites? Moving with and from one part of ourselves and then moving with and from another?
- What were some of the processes of spreading awareness and participation in the movement that you experienced?
It is not your goal to answer these questions as though you were taking an exam. Reflect on them and see what comes to mind; if nothing in particular does, then don’t worry about it. Just lie down on the other side and lead yourself through what you remember.
When you’re doing the second side, proceed as though you might discover something new. You probably will! The movement is familiar, and new at the same time. The second side might well go by more quickly than the first, however.
I invite you to post below your comments on the experience. Was it easy to take yourself through the lesson? What was more challenging to do for yourself? Did you forget some of the movements? Forget the sequence? Cut short on the rests?
What are you associations for the word “stability”? What do you think you need to make yourself feel more stable?
We often think in terms of strength and fixed structures. Particularly these days the phrase “core stability” reinforces our view that the only thing between us and nirvana is strengthening our abdominal muscles.
A surprising message in the Feldenkrais Method is how much stability can come from freedom and finding new options, rather than from making ourselves rigid. The skeleton (not the muscles) have the task of carrying force. Literally the operation of forces makes bones; your skeletal structure can change through life depending on how you use yourself, how forces pass through you. And when you do use your skeleton well for support, all sorts of chronic muscle tightness goes away–your muscles no longer have to fill in as force-carrying tissue for bones that aren’t in a useful place, and they no longer have to work overtime to keep you from falling over.
You can massage a tight muscle or “release” it through imagery until the cows come home, but if that muscle is doing something it needs to do to keep you from falling over, given your use of your skeletal structure, it’s only going to get tight again.
So the correct alignment of your bones will free your muscles for action–right? But there isn’t one right alignment to find; depending on the details of what you’re doing and the environment you find yourself in, your skeletal structure needs to find a slightly different option for passing forces through.
If you wake up your ability to sense gravity, and increase the options you have available for how you can use your skeleton, all those automatic processes that govern balance in gravity will find the “right alignment” (for what you are doing in this place now). Effortlessly. And that’s where you find stability too.
Anything the human skeleton can do can be done effortlessly. That’s one of the more provocative claims that is made in the Feldenkrais Method!
In the midst of a challenging lesson, you may pause to recall that, if it weren’t for the effort of various muscles getting in the way, your skeleton could easily be configured in the position you’re looking for.
Of course without those very same muscles you couldn’t perform the action in question or any other action. So it’s all a matter of coordination. But The surprising thing is that the limitations, far more often than we imagine, are in our brains, not our joints – and not The muscles themselves, which generally do no more or less than the brain tells them to do.
But what we label (understand, feel) as effort is precisely that part of the muscular work going into the action that is counterproductive. Holding the breath, clenching the jaw or fists (or toes!). Tightening the chest and shoulders.
If we can get rid of the feeling that something is difficult, we can get rid of a great deal of the difficulty itself.