“What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains. What I’m after is to restore each person to their human dignity.” – Moshe Feldenkrais
When I began a month long Feldenkrais training in Santa Fe last week, I thought I’d suspend assessing changes in my self and my movement until the four weeks had passed. It turns out that I didn’t have to wait that long. I’ve observed three marked differences, and there are likely more subtle ones that haven’t yet come to my attention.
At the end of the first week, we did one lesson in which we experimented with habitual and non-habitual placements of the hands and feet. We clasped our hands in the familiar way, then relaced the fingers in our non-habitual way (we also played with other ways to connect our two hands). With repetition, the non-habitual position evolved from awkward to fairly comfortable in a short span. We even interlaced our toes in different ways, a task that evoked giggles and laughter.
What’s the point of all this fun and games?
To teach the body/brain other ways of doing things to (re)awaken sensation, create choices and enhance vitality. While habitual movements can be reassuring, perhaps reinforcing of a particular identity or self image, over time they might limit what we can do. During Memorial Day weekend, I decided to try eating my meals with my non-dominant hand, partly to consume food in a more leisurely manner, partly as a lark. As a southpaw, switching meant wielding a fork and spoon in my right hand. I had soup a few times, and I imagined I might spill some while trying to ferry it with a shaky hand from the bowl to my lips. To my surprise, my right hand served me soup almost as easily as my left. Ditto with forking food to my mouth. So much for eating more slowly. I thought about the implications of this seemingly inconsequential skill. When eating with a group, I often insist on sitting at an end of a table so that my left elbow is free and won’t bump into, or be bumped by, right handed companions. Being able to switch utensils from one hand to another opens more choices and greater social ease. It’s one less thing for me to be preoccupied about, freeing my mind for other things.
Being able to eat with either hand also creates the possibility of aging or facing illness or disability with greater grace and dignity. Remember the Beatles line, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” While 64 is probably the new 44, there could come a time (84?) when my habitual hand can’t do its job to feed (or dress) me and I’ll be grateful to have either access to my other paw or familiarity with the process of moving slowly enough to learn how to maneuver. The director of my Feldenkrais program, Alan Questel, told us that he visited Moshe Feldenkrais at his home following one of his strokes and watched him as he tried to raise a cup to his lips. On the first attempt, the trajectory was such that the cup would have missed his mouth by a large margin. But through successive approximations, beginning the arc of the movement at different places around him and then moving his hand towards his face, Feldenkrais was able to drink without assistance, maintaining his volition and independence.
My spine, too, seems to have softened a bit. While a strong, metaphorical, backbone can be necessary at times, backs are not designed to be rigid. Commuting to my training on a borrowed bicycle that lacks a mirror, and not having ridden for 18 months, I lacked the confidence to make left turns without heading to a crosswalk. Just last week, I feared that if I turned my head to spot cars behind me when switching lanes, I’d lose my balance for lack of suppleness. Seven days later, after a few Awareness Through Movement lessons that helped differentiate the vertebrae along the mid and upper back, I discovered I could peer behind while riding, move into the left lane and turn with traffic. The change felt effortless, arising organically rather than being imposed by my will or a sense of shame. Since I plan to ride longer distances, I bought a small helmet-mounted mirror as a back up, but knowing I have the capacity to twist, turn and see for myself offers me more peace of mind.
Finally, and most profoundly, the series of lessons so far appears to have dampened or inhibited a longstanding anxiety pattern that has made living in the modern world excruciatingly uncomfortable, if not unbearable, at times. While walking early one morning, I encountered two dogs, barking loudly. Normally, harsh, hostile or unexpected sounds create a startle reflex through my system, beginning with a pounding heart that, like a stone thrown into a still pond, sends ripples throughout my body. My muscles tense, my shoulders hunch, and it takes several minutes, if not longer, for my system to restore itself. This time, although my heart rate accelerated, my muscles remained relaxed. Somehow, the familiar reaction traversed a much shorter chain and, within seconds rather than minutes, the upset subsided. To experience such a shift felt like a small miracle. I am crossing my fingers, non-habitually, in the hopes the miracles continue.
[post updated June 2, 2014 with corrections]