It is great to take courses and classes to build a skill, learna language, or gain a new professional certification. As adults, we tend to forget that learning is not confined to classrooms and pre-packaged subject areas. Learning – organic, experiential learning – happens in virtually every moment!
Some of the most powerful and influential learning happens when we revisit something that we already know well. In fact, those “second nature” habits can become less useful and efficient over time. Learning something old in a new way can be a revelation.
Our daily movements and actions, our sleep patterns, and the choices about the foods we eat are all deeply ingrained. Although not “hard wired,” they are well-learned. The basics of life – how you Move, Sleep, or Eat – can be improved to an astonishing degree. Whether you want less pain, better coordination, a good night’s sleep, or to reach your optimal weight for healthy and longevity, learning old things with new information can lead to new results, and full, dynamic living.
The New Year has started off busily, with several new and interesting clients and students coming for lessons and classes. I’d like to describe a recent lesson so that you, the reader, can better understand what happens in a Feldenkrais lesson.
A professional woman called from her office at a major oil company to make an appointment. She said that she had pain in her right hand, which had persisted and increased for more than a year. She explained that the fleshy part of her thumb, and also her middle finger were constantly numb and painful. She had been referred by a co-worker who is also a client, and she was eager to get some help.
She arrived at my studio, and after exchanging some pleasantries, I spent a few minutes to see what might be going on in her hand. What does she spend her time doing? I knew she worked in an office, with long hours at a computer. However, she didn’t think that her computer use was to blame. She said that often her hands are already hurting when she gets to the office. The computer probably doesn’t help, but might not be the cause.
I started to work, with gentle listening touch at her neck, shoulders, and low back, and asked an occasional question. I then moved on to her right hand and showed her the amazing dance of her radius and ulna, as they criss-crossed to turn her hand toward her and away. She was fascinated with the soft and tiny movements, her hand and entire forearm feeling lighter and less painful as we went along. She suddenly said, “You know when it really flares up? When I’m ironing.”
She is a woman who actually enjoys ironing — and I get it. There can be something very meditative (under the right circumstances) and calming about the repetitive task. She also spoke of the satisfaction of seeing immediate results from one’s work. Since her job is with numbers on long-term projects, she finds ironing to be relaxing, enjoyable, and therapeutic. We agreed that washing dishes can also be meditative and satisfying, especially if there is a kitchen window over the sink, for gazing and getting lost in thoughts. I drew her out a bit more about the ironing and household tasks, and when she talked again about ironing, I knew that we were at the heart of the matter. She was in too much pain to iron. I asked her to excuse me for a moment.
I went back to the bedroom, dug my iron out of the closet, and returned to the studio. Her eyes widened. I put up a small tray table, and set the iron upon it, while she sat across from it.
“This won’t be exactly like ironing, because I am not going to put up an ironing board in here,” I said, watching her as she smiled and then giggled. Then, I asked her to simply reach for the iron, but not to actually touch it. She made this movement several times. “My whole neck tightens up when I do that! Why?” she said with surprise.
“Good noticing,” I said. “I’m not sure why, and it doesn’t really matter. Make the movement a few more times, without any hurry at all. What do you notice about your breathing?”
“I’m holding my breath! Why am I doing that?”
This time I understood her question was rhetorical. “Good,” I said. “See if you can also breathe while you reach for the iron — but don’t touch it yet.”
She practiced the movement a few more times, and clearly felt when she held her breath, when she started it again. She quickly was able to keep her breathing even and continuous as she reached for the iron. She remarked that her neck was no longer working as hard. We paused for a moment.
“Now, please reach for the iron, and get ahold of the handle, as if you were going to pick it up — but don’t. Just hold the handle, and then return your hand to your lap.”
As she reached for the iron this time, we both observed that her hand was stiff. Over several more movements, we also observed that her fingers were straight and widely spaced. Her thumb and forefinger jutted out from the rest of her hand, and her wrist had a slight bend or kink in it and she reached and gripped. Again, she noticed that she was holding her breath. She also noticed that the reaching movement was much quicker, and hard to slow down. Gradually, we worked with allowing her wrist and hand to be in line with her forearm, which required another slight adjustment in her shoulder. This was much more comfortable. We continued to work with touching and holding the handle more and more softly, breathing.
The last stage of the process was to actually pick up the iron. I asked her to explore how tight her grip really needed to be. On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate the strength of your grip? “About an eight,” she said.
“See how it is at a nine,” I suggested.
“That feels like the way I usually hold my iron,” she volunteered.
So, we explored her grip. Could she grip at a level eight again? How about a four? How about a two? Now lift the iron. What is the least amount of force and strength you can get away with, and still hold and pick up the iron? She was engaged and fascinated. And then, she began to talk.
“You know, I was taught to iron when I was a little girl, and I used the same iron that my mother and grandmother used,” she said. “And I was taught that you had to press down as hard as you could, as you moved the iron across the fabric. That iron was heavy!”
“It sounds like an iron that was really made of iron.”
She nodded.”Yes, it was. It was heavy, and made of iron, and you heated it in the wood stove.”
She realized that, although now she had a fully modern and relatively lightweight iron, she was still using the same technique she learned as a small child, with a big, heavy tool that took every bit of her strength. She was excited, she said, to go home and practice with her iron, standing at the ironing board, finding an easier way. She was eager to update and upgrade her modus operandi.
As she left, she said that the pain in her hand and fingers was greatly reduced. It may take a bit more time, but I am certain that she will learn to use her hands, and her whole self, in easier and more efficient ways.
My task in each lesson is to find out what the client wants to be able to do, and then to explore ways that they could do it a little easier. It could be an iron, a golf club, a piano keyboard, a computer mouse, or simply walking to the mailbox. The possibilities for improvement are endless!
The bottles of bubbly are in the recycling, confetti, streamers, and paper tiaras are crammed into over-stuffed trash bags along with the efforts of the end-of-the-year cleanup. You may have even bought a few more vegetables in your first trip to the market, stepped on the scale, or visited the gym. Happy New Year, indeed. Now what?
I invite you to depart from conventional thinking about New Year and the whole “New You” mentality. After trying it out for — oh, let’s say 40 years — (I think that is giving it more than a fair shot, by the way) my observations of self and others reveal that this approach doesn’t work. The whole mentality around “New You” strikes me now as being completely counter-productive. It does not value the wisdom, learning, and value that have accrued over one’s lifetime to this point. If the “Old You” is banished, the “New You” is left without experiences and reference points for future growth. The New You is doomed to repeat all the mistakes of the past. No wonder most people’s resolutions don’t last through the end of the month.
Another flaw is that the New Year’s conversation is almost exclusively focused on perceived personal failure. I’m not thin enough, fit enough, organized enough, financially secure enough, smart enough, you fill in your own blank. The message is, NOT ENOUGH! Is it any wonder that most resolutions fail because people want more of something they are not getting?
Don’t get me wrong. I make my living in the self-improvement biz. The Feldenkrais Method values and promotes continuous self-improvement. However, this self-improvement is not narcissistic, nor is it driven by feelings of shame or unworthiness. We start in the present moment, and we just notice and acknowledge what is here, now. Self-improvement in the Method is based on getting something in life to work a little bit better. Our jargon for it is “improvement of function.” Something that wasn’t working, now works better. Something that was working well enough, is now even better. My own take on self-improvement is that, if I want to make the world a better place (and I do), I should start with myself.
Suddenly, the Feldenkrais Method takes on increased usefulness. While improving the obvious things that people always want for themselves — posture, balance, skill, calm — one learns a process, a method, for improving oneself with increasing relevance and scope. Coordination, intelligence, teamwork, relationships, community, creative thinking, all can flourish in the environment of improved awareness. The Method teaches a way of taking actions that move us consistently toward something that is better. Even just a bit better can be a lot better, both in the moment and in the long run.
So, I encourage you to abandon your resolutions early this year! Rather than re-inventing the self improvement wheel to make yourself into something you wish you were, I encourage you to acknowledge something in yourself, or in your life, that is already going pretty well. Focus on THAT something that actually works. Figure out HOW it works, and do more of that. If you are doing more of what works, you will automatically be doing less of what doesn’t work so well. Voila! You are on a path of improvement.
For example: in the last few months, I have stumbled into better eating habits and exercise opportunities that seem to be working well. No resolution for me! I’m going to build on my recent successes and stick with the program, easing confidently into the New Year on a path that appears to be leading in a good direction. I will keep tweaking and adapting the plan so that it serves me better and better throughout the year, and throughout my life.
To me, this is the essence of the Feldenkrais Method: identify what works, stay engaged with it, enjoy yourself, play to discover the improvements that emerge. Movement is our laboratory in which abstract concepts become concrete. If this makes sense to you, then I invite you to join us for classes whenever you can. We are about the business of exploring how to get life to work just a little bit better.
I’m told that the title of Moshe Feldenkrais’s book, Awareness Through Movement, is translated from the Hebrew, “Learning by Doing.” Learning and Doing go hand-in-hand. Another word for that which is learned by doing is “Experience.” Perhaps an “Expert” is someone who has had a lot of experience, or experiences, of this kind of learning.
Recently, I have acquired a new area of expertise. Learning by Doing, I have become an expert on professional and personal burnout. I know several excellent and effective ways to accelerate burnout, and I also have explored (and continue to explore) ways of coming back. The chronicles are recorded on a new blog, BurnoutBio.
As a fringe benefit of my journey to the brink and back, I have come to appreciate the value of the Feldenkrais Method as a tool for self-care. I recently realized that I fell in love with this work after emerging from an earlier difficulty. The Method was a way of rediscovering myself, finding new appreciation for my capacities, my resilience, my WHOLE SELF. It was a journey of self-exploration, with the entire teacher training rich with daily revelations. Somehow, some time during the past eight years, I had stopped doing Feldenkrais for myself. To clarify, I was a practitioner and teacher of the Feldenkrais Method for the benefit of OTHERS, no longer focused on receiving benefits myself. I was practicing a lot, “doing a lot of Feldenkrais:” teaching four to five classes a week, seeing a full client load, giving special interest workshops to groups. I was preparing lessons well in advance each week by studying and feeling the movements in my own body, but it wasn’t FOR me — it was for that week’s students.
Of course, I got some benefit. It’s impossible not to. However, with my newly earned expertise in the phenomenon of burnout, I have a new attitude. I will return to practicing the Method for my own benefit — the way it helps me to move, think, sense, and feel in every aspect of my life. I will return to the practice of developing myself through the Method. I will allow it to fill me. And then, I will share the “overflow.” My joking term for this new stance is that I am becoming a “Power User” of the Feldenkrais Method!
If you’ve been toying with the idea of booking some sessions or coming back to class, NOW seems like perfect timing. It’s not that “the old energy is back.” I think, and feel, and sense, that this is new energy, earned as a dividend on maturity and experience.
I grew up believing, “If you can read, you can cook.” That belief kept me going as a young bride and eager home hostess.
A sad period of my life spanned a a decade, when finicky children, a grueling work schedule, critical in-laws, and my own stretch of problematic digestive issues had sufficient cumulative influence to make me abandon cooking altogether. Although I had previously enjoyed cooking for dinner parties at home, one particularly traumatic Thanksgiving was the last straw. I gave up on cooking. I probably went for five, maybe seven years without cooking much at all. And, when I did cook something, it didn’t taste very good.
I came to realize two things about cooking.
1. The desire to cook is directly proportional to the appreciation of those for whom you are cooking. That includes cooking just for yourself.
2. Don’t serve it if you haven’t tasted it!
In the past five years or so, I have become an enthusiastic cook once again. I have an appreciative partner who gobbles up whatever I prepare, expressing admiration and delight at every opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to cook for someone like that?
During The Decade of Not Cooking, I was already worried about my weight, and had heard from my mother and numerous popular magazine articles that “tasting while cooking” packs on the pounds. I stopped tasting as I cooked, and so my results were — erratic. With a ruined dinner, a substitute run-out for fast food, or a quickie pasta dish would rescue the day. I am happy to say that I have changed my ways. Now I know that tasting during the preparation process is ESSENTIAL. I frequently experiment with new recipes and unfamiliar ingredients. When I have a small taste after I have added a few items, I can adjust the flavors with much more precision. Add a few more, taste again. I take a little more time during preparation, believing that the frequent taste tests are the way to add LOVE to the dish. Et voilà! No more kitchen disasters! (Not counting the life-threatening “Manhattan steaks” affair, flambé with bourbon. Let’s just say the experience brought us all closer.)
My Awareness Through Movement® students know I love to cook, for they frequently hear me say, “Pause. Taste the recipe!” Each movement exploration is full of interesting and unfamiliar variations. If you hurry through the lesson, adding movement after movement with no pauses for reflection and sensing, you have created the recipe for discomfort and confusion. Rather, after adding each new movement “ingredient,” students are encouraged to pause and discern. Add a little more next time if you like it, or use a little less when you continue. The student’s own learning through the lesson is tailored to his own abilities and “taste.” The new deliciousness in movement almost always leads people to want a second helping of the Feldenkraisian feast.
“If you never go anywhere, you never go anywhere.”
I was the kid who couldn’t wait to leave home. Any excuse! Preparation for vacations, trips to camp, performances out of town, continuing training, business meetings — always very exciting. I fully embraced the fact that I was going to arrive somewhere, and didn’t really dwell on the other side of the coin, which was that I had left someplace behind.
I was eager to head off to college, to move to a new state after I married, and then to make a home in Texas. I’ve left places when it was my choice, and I’ve left places when it wasn’t my choice. When it was my choice, it was better.
Some leavings were full of drama. Leaving a person, a situation, a lifestyle. A job, a relationship, an identity. Those instances probably make for juicier stories. But those are in the past, and I am content to leave them there. They taught me all they had to teach, and I learned. Sometimes, it is time for things to end. The show has closed. Next!
Nowadays, I love to be at home with sweetheart, cats, my lovely office, our artwork, and the life that is here for us together. I leave home almost every day, going to activities that I love, for work and play. These leavings and homecomings form a delightful and nurturing rhythm for my life now.
Music accesses a deep part of the brain. Music, along with fragrance, has the power to transport, through memory, to another time and space. One whiff, two chords, are enough to start the time machine and elicit a flood of feeling, sensations, and thoughts.
I’m classically trained as a singer and pianist. I spent several years as a radio announcer at classical music stations, and grew up in a household where music of all genres played constantly. To say that I have a “soundtrack” for my life is an understatement. And yet — do you ever really notice the wallpaper? Sometimes I think that since music was always “on,” I don’t have those auditory snapshot moments where an event, a person, a circumstance, is crystallized somewhere in the recesses, folds, and wetware of my cranium. Or perhaps I have too many, and so I take them for granted. It is hard for me to know.
Choral music, art songs, arias, jazz, show tunes. Pop music, much like furniture or appliances, is present but largely ignored. I do remember some epic concerts back in the day: Stevie Wonder, Joanie Mitchell, John Denver, Simon and Garfunkle. Strange that I remember what happened on stage, and I remember isolated events and people. But there is nothing like the archetypal love story or movie scene that some people can describe, recalled by a song. Not for me. Not at all.
I can hear the introduction to any chorus or aria from Handel’s Messiah and launch into a long riff of scripture quoting and singing. Messiah in toto is not so suited for solo singing, turns out. Same with Bach’s B-Minor Mass, the Beethoven Missa Solemnis, Brahms, Faure, Verdi Requiems — any of the major choral works or anthems, they are “in there.” I need only hear a snippet to remember a performance, a service, a festival, a rehearsal, singing the soprano solos, or conducting. I remember who sat next to me on the risers. Where is he now? I hear a few bars of Thelonious Monk and remember a curious and awkward date with a young man who was passionate about jazz, and about being at the hot spot with a pretty girl on his arm — and little else. I remember Chicago’s “As Time Goes By,” dancing at a high school Homecoming with my borderline-abusive boyfriend. I hear a song from “Fiddler on the Roof,” and remember a crazy night with about eight high-school friends, crammed into a red Corvair at the drive-in, singing along at the tops of our lungs through the whole movie. . .
One of my beginning voice students was singing Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” at her last lesson. I was suddenly plunged into a stream of memory, of the first date with my ex-husband, now, oh, 35 years ago? My little emotional canoe was heading toward the rapids, and somehow I managed to jump out and just remember the concert and the music, without drowning in the memory of all the bad and good of those years.
Does music bring me joy? Undoubtedly. But it also brings memories; and, I am not surprised to realize, many are rooted in sadness, sorrow. I let the tears flow, I feel myself breathe, I keep choking out the melody, dropping out when my sobs prevent the high notes.
The CDC identifies five major health risks associated with Mardi Gras festivities:
risky sexual behavior
I got to thinking about how the Feldenkrais Method could be useful for Carnival survival — whether you’re dancing the night away in Rio, letting the good times roll in New Orleans, or elbowing your way toward a second (or third) helping at the local church pancake feed. Here are 4 ways to outsmart the worst Mardi Gras health hazards.
1. Awareness. In the Feldenkrais Method, “awareness” is not an abstract or “woo-woo” ideal. It is practical, and always in service to improved functioning. Learn to pay attention: to yourself, to where you are, what is around you, how you plan to get out of there if you need to. To pay attention means that you are gathering information, and “intelligence” in several senses of the word. Better information in the moment means you can make better decisions.
2. Sensory sensitivity: This is an aspect of awareness, but distinct enough to elaborate upon further. We learn, and are encouraged, to ignore our own sensations of pain, and fatigue. We are also taught to ignore or distrust our sensations of pleasure. In short, we numb our unpleasant and vulnerable sensations so that our internal “calibration system” gets all out of whack. As Brene Brown says, the evidence for this numbing is that we are the most in- debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. We don’t just overdo it at Mardi Gras. We overdo it every day.
The Feldenkrais Method allows you to re-calibrate your internal system so that you can trust your sensations. You are less apt to overdo it (with eating, sex, or drinking at Mardi Gras; or exercise, arguing, computer time, spending) when you can feel when “enough is enough.” You will notice that the buffet food seems “iffy,” and you won’t eat it. You will sit down for awhile if your back hurts. Moderation is only possible if you can feel the difference between “enough” and “too much.”
3. Reversibility. In short, don’t do anything past the point of no return. Be able to engage, and disengage, with any movement, situation, or behavior, with ease. See #1, #2.
4. Recovery. Moshe Feldenkrais said that in the wild, the animal who survives is not the one who never gets injured, but rather it is the one who knows how to recover. The crazy, spontaneous, unpredictability of life is what makes it worth living, with good stories to tell about it in the bargain as well. We find our limits by exceeding them. If you overdo it, don’t keep overdoing it. Learn, rest, and recover.
Armed with awareness, sensory sensitivity, reversibility, and recovery, you can survive just about anything. Even Mardi Gras.
As a classically-trained singing teacher and vocal coach, it has been my privilege to teach aspiring performers at all levels. From career-track professionals in opera and musical theater, to church choir singers, and those who only sing in the shower — I’ve developed a good reputation (over 25 years, at this point) in my field for developing singers with beautiful, expressive voices. My point of view has always been a bit unusual, which is one of many reasons that I no longer teach at a university. I always thought of developing the person first, believing that the voice inside would emerge. I observed that employing the reverse order in that process produced undesirable results — unless you were in the business of growing an especially delicate strain of narcissist. To me, voice is an almost sacred form of self-expression. To help someone unleash that expression — or to find a self that has something to express — is interesting and wonderful.
And so, an unusual voice lesson last week sticks in my mind. A new client, E., has sought several Feldenkrais sessions to help him to deal with his symptoms resulting from Parkinson’s Disease. He is tall, slender, and in his late 60’s. He says he was diagnosed shortly after he retired, three years ago. His left hand trembles almost continuously. His walk is slightly stooped, with the characteristic Parkinsonian shuffle. His natural soft-spoken demeanor has been rendered wispy, weak, and almost inaudible. He complains of unstable balance, and fatigue when walking. This was his third session.
Previously, he and I explored how he senses and uses his feet, and how his center of gravity can be used for power and propulsion. We began this day with him lying on his back, with his right knee bent and right sole of his foot standing on the table. His left leg was long.
First, I asked him to hum a sustained pitch in a comfortable range. He made several attempts, each of them very soft, unsteady, and lasting less than two seconds. I asked him to review an earlier movement — to push, gently, into his standing right foot, and to experience again how the pressure from his foot can cause his pelvis to roll, as if beginning to roll onto his left side. We began to explore how his inhalation and exhalation could coordinate with the movement. He sampled inhaling while pressing with his foot, and then he tried exhaling with the pressure. For now, we settled on the latter.
After doing a few of these gentle movements on both sides, it was time for a rest. His breathing seemed less hurried, and his tremor had decreased noticeably. I asked him, once again, to hum. There was more sound, and he was able to sustain the hum steadily for a full three seconds. As I brought his attention to the vibrations he could feel by gently touching my figertips to his forehead, cheeks, and chest, his breathing deepened, and he was able to hum for over five seconds.
Next, I asked him to press the table with his foot and turn his pelvis as before. This time, we added a hum as he rolled his pelvis. His hum became stronger, and of longer duration, each time. And then, I asked him to open his mouth, and to make an “Ah” sound on the same pitch as before.
E. took a breath, pressed his foot on the table. His pelvis began to roll, and I heard, “AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Again, on the next press, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
“That seems a lot stronger,” he said.
His wife’s eyes were the size of saucers.
His voice was just as strong while pushing with the other foot. And then, I asked him to see what would happen if he bent both knees, stood both feet on the table, and pressed into both feet? He saw how he could easily lift his pelvis away from the table. Nobody would have guessed that this elderly man would be able to do a “Bridge.” And then, as he pressed the table, slowly lifting his pelvis, we heard, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
We paused so he could rest. I spoke to his wife.
“He’s going to be ‘talking back’ to you now. I hope you’re okay with that!”
She smiled broadly. “Oh yes! That will be just fine!”
He stood up, and walked. Standing tall, his gaze level with the horizon instead of down toward the floor. I asked him to take a breath, and to feel the pressure of his feet on the floor as he stood — and then to speak. “Honey, I love you!” he boomed. His wife beamed. His hand was quiet.
There is more that he can learn. Will we cure his Parkinson’s? Probably not. (Although E. would fight me on that. He is a man of faith, and believes that he will be completely cured. Let it be so.) Will his tremor disappear? Now, THAT is quite possible. Just as he discovered his voice, quite surprisingly, he will discover how to manage and keep a good quality of life where it most matters. Like ‘talking back’ to his wife.