Readers of this blog can spell Feldenkrais. As of last Thursday night, when it was one of two winning words in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, perhaps millions more can, too. Many of you know that I often write about it; crafting articles helps deepen my understanding, allows me share this unique modality with others and gives me an excuse to send bottles marked “Feldenkrais” into the ocean of the Internet where I hope Google’s algorithms will, like very specific waves, direct them onto the digital devices of searchers. Such has been my hope, and realists might dismiss my writings as drops in the ocean, rather than bobbing bottles of possibility. I am by far not the only one, nor the first, who is trying, in ways small, medium and large, to make Feldenkrais a household word if not a more familiar one. Some folks have been diligently spreading the word for decades. Still, no amount of plotting, scheming, masterminding, brainstorming and savvy behind-the-scenes public relations maneuvering could have produced the spelling bee’s jaw dropping finale. Indeed, several practitioners posted on Facebook that they nearly fell off their chairs while watching the event, which culminated in a completely unexpected step towards greater Awareness of Feldenkrais.
Somewhat akin to the film “The Gods Must Be Crazy”, in which a pilot drops a Coca-Cola bottle into an African tribal community, initially creating much wonderment, it was as if a whimsical universe had dropped a huge bottle marked “Feldenkrais”, sending ripples across the collective consciousness. Several news outlets featured the word in headlines, many others included it in their articles. Had “Feldenkrais” appeared earlier in the competition, it would not have made such a splash. But as one of the two final nouns in a suspenseful contest between co-winners Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar and Nihar Saireddy Janga (whose names are no piece of cake), Feldenkrais became a household word for a few shining moments, even if hardly anyone knew what it meant.
Perusing the Internet the next day felt like looking into a fun house mirror. Definitions mostly reflected a somewhat limited if not distorted view of the Feldenkrais Method, pointing to where its “self image” in the public eye needs to be further developed. The incomplete information was no surprise, of course. If everyone had heard of Feldenkrais, it wouldn’t be in a national spelling bee. ESPN wrote that, “Jairam’s winning word was Feldenkrais, which is derived from a trademark and means a system of body movements intended to ease tension.” Sort of. While Feldenkrais is a trademarked term in the United States (not worldwide), the modality is named after its founder, a Jewish man with a surname of German origin. “System” isn’t bad, although I rarely hear practitioners use that word. The Feldenkrais Method uses guided movement, not just of the body but also of attention, to generate awareness of one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings. It’s an organic process of learning, through specific but not systematic movement, of how one’s body wants to organize itself, rather than trying to shape it into poses, positions, or postures. While the Feldenkrais Method has a large oeuvre of movement lessons with specific instructions, the lessons are not in a rigid sequence and even following the instructions to the letter is not always necessary for a lesson to be successful. Tension is eased when the nervous system selects the comfortable over the habitual pattern, which might have developed decades before. The release of tension is a welcome and refreshing by-product of awareness. It’s the absence of a focus on a goal (including the goal of reducing tension), and instead a focus on the process, that allows tension to dissipate.
That the Feldenkrais Method, with its groundbreaking emphasis on movement as a conduit for learning and growth, has come to public attention via a high-stakes spelling bee is somewhat ironic. As Oliver Sacks wrote, “Much more of the brain is devoted to movement than to language. Language is only a little thing sitting on top of this huge ocean of movement. ” Yet, our culture celebrates and elevates that little thing. So do I, no question. Still, as much as I appreciate accurate spelling (indeed, poor or shortcut spelling makes me cringe), and delight in obscure words, at times there can be something a bit obsessive about a focus on orthographic correctness for its own sake. Unless located in a doctor’s prescription, in the instruction manual for a nuclear power plant, or in a passionate letter to a literary lion(ess), a typo or poorly chosen word is usually not a life altering matter, even if the existence of a spelling error bruises the soul. Does mastering such arcana improve human functioning as much as, say, learning how to breathe fully? Since I do treasure words, this is not a question that would have crossed my mind before I found Feldenkrais and began to understand, on a bodily level, the perils of perfectionism. The need to get everything right, to meet an external standard or to focus on being the best can turn some people into tightly knotted creatures with blocked or limited expression. Perfectionism is something Moshe Feldenkrais sought to counter in his lessons; he found it, and the often accompanying emphasis on achievement, to be distorting if not damaging of his own development. Now when I notice how my muscles tense or clench when someone sends me a sloppily spelled message, or I see a glaring typo in an otherwise great article, I wonder if my reaction serves me. I try to redirect my attention. While I applaud all the contestants, and especially the winners for hanging in there under pressure and, especially, for being supportive of each other, I hope they delighted in preparing for their big day and were not scrunching or hunching themselves over books, worksheets, flashcards or computers or holding their breath or squinting their eyes while familiarizing themselves with obscure words. Such habits, some barely perceptible, repeated unconsciously over time, can create physical pain or limited movement later in life. Luckily Feldenkrais offers an antidote, even for those who can’t remember how to spell it. If all else fails, just say “the F word”. We’ll know what you mean.
P.S. Should you find a misspelling in my blog, do drop me a line.