In Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, a character asks, “If your vagina could talk, what would it say? Two words.”
“Slow down!” bellowed the cast when I performed in it last February.
The audience burst out laughing.
It seems that many people recognize that quickies might not be the most pleasurable form of intimacy. Yet, we live in a culture that venerates speed and multitasking, doing things with our eyes on the clock rather than letting the activity, or life itself, guide our pace. Or we might choose to not do something because it takes “too” long. Whether it’s sex, swimming, eating, or writing, slowing the movement enough to bring awareness and attention to it can radically change our experience of what we’re doing.
Last winter, after taking a flip turn lesson, I returned to the swimming pool most days to practice. Without the instructor’s encouraging presence, I sometimes froze just before I needed to turn. Other times I flipped at a wacky diagonal, contrary to my intention. My breath seized up. Frustration set in. One afternoon, I warned the sinewy, black suited woman sharing my lane that I might accidentally kick her since I didn’t know what I was doing. She offered to watch me and diagnose the problem. Seeing my angled flip, she said I was afraid of smacking my feet against the wall and that’s why I turned 45 degrees at the last second. Except my body was doing that on its own, in a self-protective maneuver over which I felt I had no control. While I was grateful that my survival instincts were strong and intact, I wasn’t sure how to reassure my vigilant central nervous system that its services were not needed at that moment.
“Just stand in one place and keep flipping until you learn it,” suggested my lane mate. “That’s what I did when I was in high school; I was the only one on the swim team who couldn’t do it so I just kept trying. I banged my legs a few times but I got it.”
Her approach sounded exhausting, treating the body like a hammer determined to hit a nail. I wasn’t eager to create more frustration or pain for myself; my tendonitis offered plenty of both, thanks to my old habit of pounding on my body. I continued swimming and decided to back off the turn for the day, dropping my habitual sense of urgency. The next time I saw my Feldenkrais teacher, Ethan Cowan, I asked him how I might approach it differently.
“You could try to do it more slowly,” he said, which is the first bullet point in Moshe Feldenkrais’ manual How to Learn.
The next time, I tried decelerating as I approached the wall. That just gave the anxiety more time to build. Not wishing to give up, I figured there had to be a middle way between slowing down and overriding my nervous system by hurtling towards the wall. Would the second Feldenkrais guideline, Look for the Pleasant Sensation, help? I certainly knew how to avoid the unpleasant sensation; for years I hadn’t even tried to do a flip turn, afraid of getting water up my nose. But avoiding unpleasantness is not the same as seeking the pleasant. Could I make flipping fun rather than fraught? I remembered how, as a third or fourth grader, I loved tumbling along a thick red gymnastics mat at school. The mechanics of the flip turn were no different than a somersault. Could I find that excitement of decades past and bring it into the present? As I swam along, I focused on the happy, visceral memory of turning myself upside down. Shifting my attention transformed the movement. My flip became effortless, my breathing even. I could hardly believe I had been struggling at all, let alone paralyzed at the thought of a flip turn for years. Later, I shared my discovery with Ethan.
“You figured out how to work with yourself,” he said.
Which is the point of Feldenkrais, to learn to include the whole self in movement. While that might be understood to mean the entire physical body, it includes our emotional selves, those parts of us that have might have been ignored, shamed or hidden from view (sort of like vaginas before Eve Ensler came along). Slowing down allows us to feel more and exclude less, whether we’re in the bedroom, the boardroom or simply breathing on a Feldenkrais blanket. Slowing down, to really understand how we’re doing what we’re doing, offers the possibility of eventually moving faster. But then it will be by choice, not compulsion or clock-watching.
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