When I practiced yoga, my teachers emphasized that if our lives weren’t changing off the mat, then we were just exercising, not doing yoga at all. It didn’t matter if we could get into complicated poses if we still cursed in traffic, blamed others, were highly reactive or otherwise kept repeating unproductive habits. Ideally, the calm, peace and connectedness that one cultivated in yoga postures would infuse less predictable situations.
Feldenkrais, unlike yoga, is not explicitly a spiritual path. Yet, the more I immerse myself in it, the more I become aware that many of the ideas that apply to movement are relevant off the mat or blanket. The other day I taught a friend an Awareness Through Movement lesson focused on even distribution of effort. That core Feldenkrais principle makes an explicit or implicit appearance in many lessons: to distribute effort evenly throughout the body, or part of it, minimizes wear and tear on particular joints and muscles that might, through habit, otherwise bear the brunt. Even distribution also makes movement feel lighter and smoother, at times effortless. If we don’t know how to use ourselves properly, we can overtax some parts while underutilizing others, creating pain, injury or simply a pervasive sense of awkwardness. Evenly distributing effort requires practice if we typically rely on strength, willpower or an inaccurate image of what a movement looks like to accomplish our goals (e.g. if you think the foot is an undifferentiated slab, you’ll use it differently than if you see it as dynamic and flexible). I notice that if I’m anxious or rushing I’m likely to default to strength or will, rather than skill, when I move.
Afterwards, my friend and I had a conversation about the lesson that meandered into seemingly unrelated realms. One topic that arose was how challenged I felt when people shared emotionally charged news without any preamble. For example, when someone I haven’t heard from in a while discloses out of the blue that they’ve been devastated by a breakup (or job loss), even though they never told me they were dating someone (or had a new job), it’s as if they’ve thrown me a heavy ball. To catch it, and receive their pain, disappointment and vulnerability, strains my highly sensitive and introverted system, which doesn’t shift gears quickly. Such unexpected revelations can be triggering, too. Earlier in life I caught too many heavy conversational balls as I didn’t know any better. Letting the ball drop felt rude if not callous, and I wasn’t yet aware that I just could acknowledge the ball’s existence, neither catching it nor letting it thud, and create a boundary so I could empathize without completely absorbing the other person’s emotional state.
In an ideal world, I’d receive an “even distribution” of information or communication, so that I can take in a person’s life over time, ideally in an even tone of voice, especially if they are not yet a close friend. Should something difficult arise, I would then feel more prepared and available to respond in a way that acknowledges them and honors my own needs (and, in an ideal world, my own communication would be more even, too. It’s a practice). To take this into the public sphere: most people, I imagine, would prefer to be notified in advance of layoffs rather than appearing at work to find either a pink slip on their desk or several of their colleagues permanently absent.
Even distribution, not necessarily in a single moment but over time, is at play in other areas of life. As a college student, I preferred “even distribution” of studying throughout the term so at the end of the semester I wouldn’t have to pull all nighters, something my body couldn’t handle. Financial advisers advocate “even distribution” of investments over time, investing even small amounts regularly rather than a large sum, once, in order to smooth out returns. Ditto for car maintenance: getting oil changes at even intervals will likely smooth performance and help avoid unexpected break downs or costly repairs. Whether we follow such advice or not, I imagine that many people might recognize the value of even distribution in assorted contexts, not as a hard rule but as a guiding principle towards which one can make successive approximations.
Of course, life can deliver difficult surprises without warning. But as practiced in Feldenkrais generally, and in the particular lesson I taught, by attempting to evenly distribute effort we learn how our nervous system and body feel when there is no challenge present, when no part of us is contributing more than its proportionate share, so that we are better equipped to handle a challenge when it does arise. To slow down and learn how to organize ourselves to walk or run more efficiently and comfortably makes it easier for us to make a dash to avoid a downpour or an oncoming car. To always be working at maximum effort, or to wait until a crisis arises to make a huge effort, is equivalent to catching heavy ball after heavy ball. Inadvertently, we condition ourselves for living with tension and unevenness, for a life that doesn’t feel smooth or pleasant, either on or off the mat.