Since returning from the Camino de Santiago with tendonitis, and vigorous, weight bearing exercise off limits, I’ve been asking myself a variation of that question: what opportunities have opened that I wasn’t available to in the past, either because I would have been hiking or because my self-image would have kept me from considering them?
I doubt I would have participated in The Vagina Monologues had I been able to hike, since rehearsals were on weekends. I might not have developed my swimming skills had I been able to dance. It’s unlikely I would have given Feldenkrais a look, either, had I been able to easily continue with yoga. It crossed my radar last September when I was bunking at a friend’s house, unsure where I’d be moving to next. Anxiety’s vise had tightened its grip. My body, once a vehicle for freeing my spirit, had become a trap.
The Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lesson, taught by Ethan Cowan of Five Lines Boulder, offered the possibility to “increase choice, decrease compulsion.” That landed for me. We lay on our backs on quilted black moving blankets, thick enough for cushioning, thin enough so we could still feel the wood floor pressing into us, and smooth enough to allow easy movement. He asked us to notice where our body was making contact with the ground, the distance between our heels, and whether one leg felt longer than the other. It’s as if he invited us to extend an imaginary measuring tape to investigate our personal geometry; not to judge or compare but to explore and befriend. He instructed us in various micro movements, the barest lifting or rolling of the head, small adjustments of the arms, and to direct our attention to the subtleties in each.
“Do everything slowly,” he said, sitting cross legged at the front of the room like a calm, slender Buddha.
Slowly? To move at a fraction of my normal pace felt like reining in a stubborn, galloping horse. That we repeated the movements several times felt so tedious my brain wanted to explode. Couldn’t we move on to the next thing? That I wasn’t able to discern differences created in me a sense of ineptness. The interior of my body seemed like an undifferentiated mass, not a vibrant, subtle network of tissue, bone and muscle. No wonder I wanted to press on, away from that feeling of incompetence.
“Do a bit less than you can,” he said.
Less? It seemed we were doing so little already. I have often pushed myself in life, doing more than I thought I could, stretching past my edge and comfort zone, to prove to myself that I was capable of more. Our society exhorts us to “work hard, play hard” and reminds us “no pain, no gain”. To do less is so counter cultural as to be radical, if not invite judgment. My mind resisted this invitation.
“Look for the pleasant sensation,” he said, in the midst of a sequence.
Pleasant? I found more pleasure in vigor and speed, thank you very much. I struggled to adjust my attitude so that I could feel pleasure in an activity that my mind had already written off. Could I simply appreciate the fact that I was breathing?
“Rest,” he said in a calm voice.
Rest? Seriously? I had barely moved my limbs more than a few inches. I was neither out of breath nor perspiring, my heart rate had not budged since I arrived. My mind, unable to rest, raced. It started harassing me: You should have gone for a short walk instead. This type of movement just isn’t doing it. And isn’t Feldenkrais meant for old or disabled people who can’t move normally at all? You’re not in that category. What time is it anyway? Wait, maybe it’s better to not know. What if only fifteen minutes have passed? Crap! I can’t wait for this to end.
With my mind hijacking my attention I’m sure I missed some instructions. At the end of class, he asked us to slowly come to a seated position, then carefully stand and walk around the room to see how we felt. Whatever had been gripping my body had vanished. My interior seemed airy. I walked much more lightly and uprightly, as if I had just shed my Camino backpack for the last time. The state change was so remarkable, despite my lack of full presence, that I wondered what, exactly, had happened in those dragging 50 minutes. The teacher packed up and left without trying to explain.
Curious if my experience was an outlier, I returned the following week. Again, I noticed a marked shift. Since then I have attended a class or two most weeks and taken workshops with Five Lines Boulder and other Feldenkrais practitioners. One of them, Erin Ferguson of Body Wisdom Boulder, offered a handout called How to Learn: A Manual, by Moshe Feldenkrais, ten bullet points containing a lifetime of wisdom. At home, reading through the first two points (Do everything very slowly, Look for the pleasant sensation), I noticed a deep sadness. Rarely have I taken pleasure in learning as I’ve often been too focused on the result, linking my worthiness to my ability to obtain that result. I teared up reading the third point:
Do not “try” to do well. Trying hard means that somehow a person knows that unless he makes a greater effort and applies himself harder he will not achieve his goals. Internal conviction of essential inadequacy is at the root of the urge to try as hard as one can, even when learning…..The countenance of trying hard betrays the inner conviction of being unable or of not being good enough.
His message echoed that of my Zen teacher Cheri Huber: How you do anything is how you do everything. She once offered a class called Learning to Love Learning, to help unravel the cultural pattern of learning as a means to an end and to help people be kinder with themselves when they make mistakes. While I understood her teachings intellectually, I hadn’t been able to consistently remember and apply them, let alone embody them. That Feldenkrais came to the same conclusion, through movement rather than meditation, made me consider his method as a spiritual practice, not just a healing modality. Having learned to harness my derriere onto the meditation bench most days, maybe it was time for me to regularly wrestle my ego to the Feldenkrais blanket so that I would, finally, tune into my body. Not just to the pain, but to everything else it’s been trying to tell me.
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