Like water, teshuvah is both destructive and creative. It dissolves the person you were but simultaneously provides the moisture you need to grow anew. It erodes the hard edges of your willfulness but also refreshens your spirit. – Dr. Louis E. Newman
Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are. – Chinese proverb
In the Jewish calendar, it’s the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year and the end bracket of the Ten Days of Teshuvah, often translated as repentance. Teshuvah is better understood as return, a return to the original state. “Original state” is somewhat nebulous, reminding me again of the Zen koan: “What did your face look like before your parents were born?” How do we know or recognize our original state? What does it mean? Is it the human equivalent of restoring factory settings? Is it something we feel or sense or something we measure by objective deed (e.g., if I do the following things, I will restore integrity and be myself again)? What if it’s been so long since we’ve been in our original state that we can’t recognize it, or it feels too strange for us to acknowledge or welcome it?
When I met one of Moshe Feldenkrais’ earliest students, Ruthy Alon, in July, we had a brief conversation about the Jewish influence on the Feldenkrais Method, which frequently remains unmentioned in print, online and in classes. For me, there is something unmistakably Jewish about both Awareness Through Movement lessons (done in groups) and even Functional Integration (one one one), with its emphasis on inquiry rather than answers. Yet, it’s been challenging for me to put my finger on the connection, let alone explain it to others. For Ms. Alon, the relationship was clear.
“The whole method is about teshuvah,” she said over lunch one day. For me, her insight represented what Dr. Feldenkrais called “the elusive obvious“. Of course!
Every time we do an Awareness Through Movement lesson and lie on a mat, allow ourselves to make contact with the floor, we return to a more neutral, if not exactly original, state. By allowing gravity to take our weight, we allow the muscles, which might be tensed if they are reenacting old patterns and stories, a chance to release and reorganize. Perhaps the tension is the result of believing we should be someone other than who we are, so we adopt behaviors and physical stances that mimic what’s around us. Maybe we’re fighting the world and the “hard edges of our willfulness” show up in tight shoulders, a stiff neck, or a rigid pelvis. Maybe we’re at war with ourselves, caught in what Moshe Feldenkrais called “cross motivation”, when our intentions and actions are at odds, often so subtly that we ourselves can’t detect it. If we’re afraid of showing the world our true colors, we might close our bodies around ourselves, unwittingly creating chronic pain or uncomfortable patterns of movement. To release any and all of this to the floor, to gravity, is the first step of teshuvah, of return.
As we lie on our backs, we pay close attention to the breath as a teacher guides us through movements. As she calls out instructions, we move silently in response, neither anticipating what’s next nor doing more, or other, than what is suggested. That itself requires a return to the present moment, to listen to another without letting one’s mind interpret, filter or anticipate. While the mind might rebel against what can feel like inconsequential and incremental movements, they are exactly the right size to allow us to see how we might get our in own way. We might notice that we hold the breath when attempting an unfamiliar position or way of moving, as if a part of us is afraid of doing it wrong or believes that tension will somehow protect us or lead to a better result. In that moment of nonjudgmental observation, we can perform the teshuvah of returning to a more relaxed breath, like that of a curious child learning something new, and see if letting air flow in an out might allow for another possibility. We can let the breath guide us, rather than overriding it for the sake of achievement or simply doing what the teacher is saying. We can learn how we actually breathe or move, rather than trying to mimic another person or some idealized variation.
Contrary to what I wrote this time last year, about wanting to “uninscribe” muscular tension as part of the process of “At-one-ment”, Moshe Feldenkrais explained that the creation of new movement patterns doesn’t erase or delete the previous ones or alter our personal histories. We can always choose to move, think and act in familiar ways, just as we are free to try new and different habits, even if these leave us feeling a bit “dissolved”, perhaps unrecognizable even to ourselves. During the Ten Days of Teshuvah Jews often say to each other, “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life”, which is sealed at the close of Yom Kippur. The last hours of the holiday, after a day of fasting, are emotionally and spiritually climactic, with much hanging on those final prayers. Perhaps being inscribed doesn’t have to be so intense. In practicing Feldenkrais, by moving slowly and with awareness, we can inscribe our nervous systems and our selves with life affirming patterns, making successive approximations as we gently return to our original state.