Through awareness, we can learn to move with astonishing lightness and freedom at almost any age. – Moshe Feldenkrais
During my last Feldenkrais training segment, I had a Functional Integration (FI) lesson with Julie Casson Rubin, one of my new trainers. In an FI, the practitioner teaches the student new patterns of movement through touch and/or verbal instructions. It’s called a lesson because learning is involved. Much of this learning happens at the somatic level, and can’t necessarily be seen or described in the moment. As Ms. Casson Rubin’s training colleague and spouse Paul Rubin likes to say, observing an FI is like “watching paint dry.”
In the week preceding my appointment with Julie, she had led our group in a series of Awareness Through Movement lessons devoted to transitioning from sitting on the floor to standing, creating more choice on our movement menus. Each time, my injured left leg wobbled when it bore most of my weight, as if its connections to my brain were as staticky as those on an overseas phone call. Continuing to favor my right side would not have helped, so I tolerated the awkwardness and frustration of coming to stand on my shaky left foot. In one exercise, we observed each other doing some of these movements. My fellow trainees said mine looked smooth and easy, but my left hip had seized up in the process. I was not optimistic that my two legs would equalize anytime soon. I wondered if I was back at square one, again, after many different treatments and remedies.
When I met privately with Julie on a Thursday morning, I requested a lesson on walking, explaining that my left and right legs felt like they belonged to two different people. Since I’ve been working with this challenge for about two years, I’ve learned to keep my expectations in check. After all, it took decades for my legs to learn to move the way they did, even before they carried me along 520 miles of El Camino de Santiago. At the beginning of our meeting, Julie had me walk around. She didn’t tell me what she observed but had me sit on the edge of a padded table. She asked me to breathe while I curled my torso forward and then sat up. While I tried to turn off my analytical brain for my lesson, as I folded and unfolded my spine I couldn’t help notice that her starting point differed from that of many other practitioners I had encountered so far; those lessons typically began with me lying on my back. That this lesson deviated from my previous experience caught my attention.
As I continued to breathe, she placed her hand, or possibly both hands, at various points along my spine, sternum and ribs. Her specific but gentle touch was, I suspect, intended to bring those places into my awareness and restore them into what Moshe Feldenkrais called the “self image”, that melange of conscious and subconscious ideas of ourselves that shape us and our movement. To invite new movement possibilities also invites different feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and even a change in that “self image”. That Julie had chosen to first direct my attention to how I breathed reinforced my appreciation for this non-methodical method. Without checklists or protocols or specific sequences to enact, each practitioner uses observation, intelligence and intuition in the moment to create a unique lesson for each student. No two Functional Integration lessons are alike, even if they share common themes.
The connection between breathing and hip and leg pain was not a connection I would have made a few years ago. But her hands helped clarify that there might be a relationship between the two, given the lesson’s context. Now, two weeks later, I can’t recall with precision what happened next, after I lay down on the table and she asked me if I wanted a blanket to cover my torso. I remember that she worked with my feet and legs. Perhaps the situation was not novel enough for my mind to latch onto and record with exactitude. And that’s the beauty of Functional Integration lessons: the analytical brain does not need to remember for learning to take root in the body.
At the end, she had me walk again. Unlike other lessons where I experienced a radical state change after getting off the table, this time nothing huge drew my attention or elicited a “Wow!”. I did notice that my two legs felt more similar than they had 45 minutes before, but the difference was subtle. Julie asked me to check in with her later that day. In the intervening hours, I considered the connection between breathing and injury. I thought about how, without being aware of it at the time, I’d muscled through life, harnessing willpower to traverse episodes of depression. Clenching or constricting my ribcage, unintentionally, might have acted as a clamp on parts of my system, skewing my skeleton and creating the conditions for pain. It’s also possible that sitting for long stretches exacerbated pain in my hip, which altered my posture and, in turn, influenced my breathing. The point of my pondering was not to nail down cause and effect, but to bring awareness to how I operated as a system. In Feldenkrais, practitioners don’t diagnose or prescribe, which tend to invite fixated rather than diffuse attention. When movement is the means of intervening in a system, it’s hard to predict what will happen or even when. Sometimes change arises immediately, other times it appears unexpectedly, like a surprise letter from an old friend.
After the meal break, I shared with Julie my hypothesis about the possible relationship between anxiety and injury. True to the Feldenkrais Method, which neither diagnoses nor implies cause and effect, she cheerfully acknowledged my insight but neither agreed nor disagreed, since it was my discovery to make, not a problem to solve. That weekend, I didn’t notice much difference, either. Yet the following week in training, I experienced greater and greater fluidity and ease as I rose from the floor on either foot, as if I were floating rather than struggling. That this humble action now required so little effort astonished me. It was the closest I’d come to defying gravity, and I credited my lesson with Julie. I sat down and got up, again and again, simply to experience the joy of my newfound lightness.