I’m so inspired by my Feldenkrais teachers in their 80s.
They continue to improve their movement habits even as they age – just as others their age seem to keep declining. Several years ago, one 80-year-old teacher of ours fell off his mountain bike and fractured his hip. He asked the doctors not to do surgery but to allow him to work on his own for a month and see if it improved. With gentle movements, curiosity, and continual fine-tuning, he was able to avoid surgery and his hip recovered beautifully. He had learned how to work with himself in such an effective way through years of Feldenkrais lessons. As Ruthy Alon (one of those inspiring octogenarians) wrote:
“Improvement of specific movements in the process of learning becomes merely a bonus, the real gain being that your life takes on a new, positive direction. This means that with the passing of each day and each year you are able to perform every act in an increasingly better way – more efficiently, more wisely, more precisely and economically – provided that you have not relinquished your determination to seek these qualities.”
Once you learn how to learn from your own movement, you can keep giving yourself finer and finer quality movement, even as you age, as long as you stay interested in doing so!
Tension and feeling have an inverse relationship. The more tension we carry the less we feel.
This can be useful! It can also feel awful and exhausting when it becomes a habit.
In general, the stronger a physical stimulus is the less sensitivity we have.
Imagine the subtlety of sensation you’d notice if a 15-pound kettlebell were resting on your abdomen. Mostly you’d just feel “ugh, that’s heavy.” Now imagine the sensations as someone stroked your abdomen lightly with a feather. Oooooo la la! A subtler stimulus = far greater sensitivity.
Why would we want to feel more details of sensation? Besides the fact that it helps us feel ALIVE (!) it’s also true that when we feel more, our smart sensory-motor cortex can take in the information and adjust our response accordingly. A personal story: When I slowed down my movements while doing Feldenkrais lessons and pushed myself only 10% as hard as I was habituated to doing in my yoga practice, I discovered, for example, that I didn’t have a “bad back” or “unstable S.I. joints.” I discovered I had a habit of moving in a way that injured my back every time I did it. Wow! Once I knew that at a bodily level – I could make a different choice. I’ve never had the kind of terrible back pain I’d suffered for years since making this discovery. Slowing down and doing less let me feel more so I could update my habits and make more intelligent movement choices. How empowering is that?!
Update your habits.
Habits are useful. And dangerous.
They allow us to not have to think about brushing our teeth or stepping into our pants – but just to do it. They may also allow us not to think about eating a quart of chocolate ice cream or downing 4 glasses of wine before bed, but just do it because that’s just what we do. In Awareness Through Movement lessons, we intentionally explore non-habitual actions and movements. It’s fun! And weird.
Try going through the day opening doors with your non-dominant hand. Try using your computer’s mouse with the non-habitual hand. When you approach a set of stairs, notice the foot you always step on the first stair with. What happens if you use the other one? Brushing teeth with your non-dominant hand? It’s good for your brain and can bring a freshness and presence to your day. What if no posture or movement is inherently bad for you, but rather it’s the compulsion behind the habit that can be harmful? For example, I believe keeping slouching in your repertoire is a great idea. But if you compulsively slouch all the time, you’ll end up with back and neck pain. What if it’s not about getting to the “right way” and then rigidly maintaining it? (Have you tried that as a life-tactic? It sucks, doesn’t it?) As Feldenkrais said, “Why would you want to get to “right?” You can’t improve on “right.” But if you’re present in your body, curious and engaged, you can keep refining your movement as long as you live. This kind of curiosity and creativity can’t help but spill over into your work life, your relationships, your parenting, your ways of exercise. How wonderful!
Learn to slow down.
As Bayo Akomolafe recently said to a group of us in a class, “The times are very urgent. We must slow down. The times are very urgent. We must slow down. The times are very urgent. We must slow down.” Why? When we go at our habitual speed, we can only do what we already know how to do. This is true neuro-muscularly, personally, and culturally. When we slow down, there’s a chance for something new and unprecedented (and perhaps far more wise) to emerge. When we slow down, we’re moving at a speed where we can evolve, not just charge forward in known patterns of behavior. To be honest, when you slow down you’ll end up discovering those sensations you’re busy avoiding all day long. This can be a challenging but worthy process which can allow you to return to a richly felt life. It’s also true that all good things are experienced at the speed of life – not just on the speed train of thinking mind or high-speed internet. Savoring a delicious bite of butter-slathered bread or sipping a perfect latte. Making eye-contact with a soul friend. Singing a favorite song at the top of your lungs in the shower. Embracing a beloved. Feeling your chest expand as you look up into a pink sky at dawn. Engaging in somatic practices like Feldenkrais lessons can help us recalibrate ourselves to the actual speed of life, feeling the richness of sensation, texture, temperature, nuance, and the shimmering beauty of real life, all present right here when we enter the living moment through our embodied experience.
Imagine having an energy auditor come to your home to examine the efficiency and sustainability of your energy usage.
Your old fridge, your uninsulated hot-water pipes, your old windows – they may be wasting a lot of energy. Once you know, you can make smarter choices. The kinds of somatic investigations we engage in invite you to do a similar energy audit with your movement habits.
Are you working harder than you need to be? Are you clenching your shoulders and jaw to “help” you do a movement that is in fact not helped by those exhausting actions at all? Are you squeezing your butt when you bend over and so overtaxing your lower back? Are you walking in a way that is wearing out your knee joints?
When you learn to weed out what Moshe Feldenkrais called “parasitic actions” – your movement and your life become more coherent. No longer working against yourself, you become more free to actualize your intentions in a streamlined and sustainable way. And your joints last longer too!
Become authentically intelligent
Our friend, the writer, Philip Shepherd, has created what I think is a brilliant definition of intelligence: He defines intelligence as “grounded sensitivity.”
Not groundedness without sensitivity. (Have you ever met heavy, dense, insensitive people?) Not hypersensitivity without the groundedness to bear it. (Have you known people who are deeply sensitive, but blown out and overwhelmed by their life?)
I love this working definition so much. It seems we have unlimited capacity to grow in both directions simultaneously. More grounded (in the body, in the moment, on this spot on the earth) and more sensitive (to any number of things: our ability to appreciate music, to move our body with greater efficiency, to make smarter choices with our money, to register the impact we’re having on our planet.) Awareness Through Movement practice helps us to grow both: More groundedness and more sensitivity. The harvest from such cultivation is infinite! We need more human beings with this kind of embodied intelligence.
Improve your brain’s map of your body.
Have you ever seen a sculpture of a homunculus? It’s a representation of the brain’s map of the body, where the sensitive lips and hands are huge, and the not-so-sensitive legs and back are tiny by comparison. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cortical_homunculus
Many of us don’t have very clear brain-maps of our bodies. Most students and clients I’ve met have misguided images of where their hip joints are located, and sometimes only a vague sense of their spine’s shape and movement potential. They may have no sense of the size, location and movement potential of the structures that support breathing – the respiratory diaphragm, the location of the lungs, the shape and mobility of their ribs.
The more clearly you experience your body, the more effectively and efficiently you use it.
Doing movement lessons with inquisitive awareness that help you experience your own anatomy from the inside can massively improve your brain’s map of your body, and so your capacity to use your body in better ways for the rest of your life.
Discover the gifts inside pain
Learning to relate to pain in a new and creative way can be profoundly liberating.
This past week I had the pleasure of teaching at the U of U’s School of Dance as part of their Wellness Week. My co-presenter was a Body-Talk practitioner and dancer from New York City. We bonded as we discovered we share a passionate perspective that our injuries have been some of the most profound gifts in our lives, offering the re-orientation of non-optimal life trajectories and inviting deep learning we wouldn’t have found in other ways. I know this can sound annoying as hell when you’re in pain. However, learning to relate to pain in a new and creative way can be profoundly liberating.
I think of one client who, after we worked together for a year, said to me, “I am SO grateful for my back pain! It led me to you, and then to changing my life in such amazing ways.” She has not only greatly reduced her back pain, she has blossomed in such an inspiring way and her life is so much bigger and more creative than when I met her.
I’m thinking of another client whose chronic neck troubles evaporated when he accepted his body’s message that he needed to break up with a partner who wasn’t a fit for him. It’s not always easy to delve into our pain as a creative learning process. Healing doesn’t always look healthy. But through the kind of curious, slowed-down, and infinitely kind investigation of ourselves we learn to do through Awareness Through Movement explorations, we can uncover the treasure buried under physical pain. (See above – Feel more.)
Grow your attentional flexibility.
How and what you pay attention to has a HUGE impact on your experience of your self, your body, your life, your world.
Most of us come with some well-established and not-so-life-giving neural grooves – we pay attention in ways that don’t support our capacity for freedom and well-being. I laughed out loud when I heard a mentor say last week that research shows that 80-90% of the thoughts you thought today are the same thoughts you had yesterday. And the day before. What a loop!
Our habits of attention powerfully impact our experience of pain, our relationships, our very experience of the world we live in.
While the somatic practices we offer are rooted in the practice of moving our bodies, the largest and most significant movements are those of your attention. Learning to pay attention to different aspects of yourself and in different ways is life-changing. How much information and experience are we missing due to our habits of attention? What aspects of self, world, body, and possibility might light up if we learn to pay attention in new ways? Growing your attentional flexibility is good for your brain, your body, your relationships, and your world.
Be mindful and spontaneous.
To sense, feel, think, and act all at once is integrated experiencing.
Years ago, talking to a friend, when I used the phrase “mindful spontaneity” (inspired by Ruthy Alon’s wonderful book of the same name) he said, “Wait – you can be one or the other but not both at the same time.” In fact, he’s wrong! You can be mindful and present and simultaneously be spontaneous. The training in being present in and through your body, noticing subtle details of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it while also listening and paying attention to the world around you is powerful learning. To sense, feel, think, and act all at once is integrated experiencing. It’s mindful and spontaneous.
One of my dear clients used the phrase, “I’m becoming habitually spontaneous” for the quality that is growing in her. Life can be so fresh when we show up to it with mindfulness and spontaneity! Taking a different route home, eating at a new restaurant, offering someone a sincere compliment hot off the press, noticing the birds we usually ignore. Moshe Feldenkrais said,
“If you can come to a state where you can register improvement every time you do an action, there is no end to what you can achieve.”
Feldenkrais lessons help you come into that ripe, ongoing learning state which is infinitely generative and healing.
I love Michael Meade’s essential question to reflect on at the end of life: “Did you become yourself?”
The learning that happens through Feldenkrais lessons can empower you and free you to do just that: Become your unique self. Our approach to movement and embodiment is not prescriptive. Let me repeat: It does not tell you how to do things nor what to do. (Some people find this disappointing. I find it respectful and liberating!)
The practice is invitational. It’s an opportunity for you to come into intimate relationship with yourself, with your body-mind, with your subjective sense of satisfaction, with your habits, and to do what your own guidance (which is ever changing!) deems is right for you right now.
Disclaimer: Once you learn how to learn in this way, you’ll be ruined as far as blindly following other people’s directions for you. You may, like me, become allergic to it!
This is not about resisting authority or ignoring information from outside, but rather is about honoring your own living, embodied intelligence and allowing that to be your most trusted guide. Freeing yourself from prescribed living and living YOUR unique life is a gift not only to you but to the world. As the Gospel of Thomas says, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Might as well become yourself! Learning through Feldenkrais can empower you to do so.
I’ve been surprised in conversations with friends recently to hear that for many people, they think mindfulness is a mental practice.
Perhaps the word itself is misleading. An open mind, (not a full one), available to experience the living moment with full presence is the essence of mindfulness. If you’re not present in a bodily way, I’d argue that your mindfulness is missing any real ground or roots. It’s ignoring the very foundation of your experience of life!
Mindfulness is not a conceptual practice. It’s a practice of being in this moment of life with presence and awareness, rather than lost in concept. When you learn to practice being present to the nuances of sensation in and through your moving body, while also being open to the moment around you, your mindfulness is far more rich and rewarding. The Buddha himself said,
“There is one thing that when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? It is mindfulness centered on the body.”
Elsewhere, Buddha said, “If the body is not cultivated, the mind cannot be cultivated. If the body is cultivated then the mind can be cultivated.” Growing a deeper relationship with your own body is a profound ground for authentic mindfulness.
Cultivate less effort and more pleasure.
“How can I make this less effortful and more pleasurable?”
People who take our classes hear this refrain like a broken record. It soon becomes repeated in their own inner life. “How can I make this less effortful and more pleasurable?” Please don’t misunderstand. This is not about becoming precious and avoiding any challenge. Quite the opposite. It’s about bringing our attentive presence to all our actions, however simple or challenging – whether bending over to load the dishwasher, running a marathon, skiing down a mountainside, or typing on a computer. How could you make it less effortful and more pleasurable? This intelligent impulse is inherent in babies learning to walk. They are learning sponges, continually noticing how to grow their skill through following what works, adopting the actions that have less effort and more pleasure. Asking this question frequently activates our innate bodily intelligence and our embodied presence. It’s a question to live into again and again. And one that can powerfully transform your life.
Decolonize your body-mind. Removing outer authority from your inner life –
There are so many invisible rules we follow, often unbeknownst to us.
This was one of Moshe Feldenkrais’s stated aims of this work, and one that is so dear to my heart as a teacher and student. There are so many invisible rules we follow, often unbeknownst to us. Whether it’s an instruction your father gave you in childhood about sitting up straight, or someone scolding you about holding your knees together as an expression of modesty, or a yoga teacher’s advice to pull your shoulders in a certain way they thought was “right” once upon a time – often we are walking around carrying loads of conscious or unconscious instructions about how to be in a human body. I believe in liberating us from these.
Choosing how we inhabit and move our own bodies from a place of conscious sovereignty and not because an “authority” told us to do it like this 30 years ago… I believe this is an essential facet of adult development. One definition of decolonization includes the “complete removal of the domination of non-indigenous forces.” This is important on a macro scale for indigenous peoples. I believe it’s also important on the micro-level of your own inner life. Regardless of your genetic and cultural history, one place you are indigenous to is your very own body. The slow, gentle, inquiry-based practices of Awareness Through Movement help you to remove the often invisible domination of non-indigenous forces in your own body, mind, and life. It doesn’t mean all advice from others is harmful. It means we get to choose, from our own embodied sovereignty, what is actually life-giving for us and set aside the rest. You can trust your naturalness.
Do what you want
As Feldenkrais famously said, “You can’t do what you want until you know what you’re doing. Once you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”
He also mused on the humbling fact that it’s much easier to do what someone tells you to do than to actually notice what you’re doing. Awareness Through Movement offers a powerful process for helping us to know what we’re doing so we can do what we want. This can be as simple as knowing that we’re clenching our jaw so we can choose to unclench it, or noticing that we’re holding tension in our shoulders, which we could choose to drop once we know what we’re doing. It can then translate into noticing we’re being an emotionally reactive jerk in our relationship and then choosing to do something different, rather than just indulging the not-so-conscious impulse. Many people would rather someone just tell them what to do than enter the long and exacting (and deeply rewarding!) process of knowing what they’re doing so they can do what they want. Feldenkrais can help you become much more free. As Victor Frankl famously said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” This is exactly the territory we explore in Feldenkrais lessons.
Learn to trust something other than your thinking mind.
There’s an intelligence in every cell in your body which reveals itself when we simply slow down and pay attention to it and through it.
A profound benefit of delving into this kind of somatic exploration comes when you make the powerful discovery that there’s something trustworthy and reliable and it’s not your thinking mind – it’s your feeling body when inhabited with awareness. What a relief to learn you don’t need to use your thinking mind to manage all aspects of reality! What a blessing to discover there’s an intelligence in every cell in your body which reveals itself when we simply slow down and pay attention to it and through it. Feldenkrais teaches us how to do this. It’s not about haranguing yourself with instructions of how to be and move. It’s about freeing yourself from that habit, and trusting your intelligent feeling body. No matter how long you’ve ignored it, the resilient body-intelligence is there, humming beneath the surface of awareness, waiting to welcome you home. Wahoooo!
End the culture of domination.
The practice of Awareness Through Movement offers a profound invitation into a radically new and non-objectified relationship with your own body-mind. It’s not only good for you, but good for the world at large.
When there are so many things deeply awry in the world – misogyny, racism, climate change, environmental degradation, sexual abuse, and more – could it really make sense to spend time slowly rolling around on the ground, moving your body with gentleness and precision? I would argue YES. Unequivocally. The kind of relationship you’re invited to cultivate with and through your body via practices like these is one of non-domination. It’s not about doing movements to your body but as yourself.
Kyriarchy and its philosophical underpinnings lives in our relationship with ourselves as well as the world at large. We can begin to end the culture of domination by ending the habit of being a mind dominating a body. Treating one’s own body and life as an object is at the root of all objectification, which is at the root of every problem I listed above.
Surprisingly, most fitness, exercise, yoga, and other modern physical practices serve to deepen this sense of domination rather than liberate us from it. It’s invisible and pervasive. Until it becomes visible, and we liberate ourselves from it. The practice of Awareness Through Movement offers a profound invitation into a radically new and non-objectified relationship with your own body-mind. It’s not only good for you, but good for the world at large.
Befriend yourself and embody lovingkindness.
Is it worth taking the time to slow down and learn from what poet Hafiz calls “the most insignificant movements of your own holy body?” I believe it is.
Loving-kindness is a lovely ideal. It’s even more potent when it’s embodied. Poet David Whyte says “start close in.”
What closer or truer place to start than your own body?
In any moment, in this crazy world, one thing you DO have control over is the quality with which you move your own body, whether you’re reaching for the salt, carrying the groceries in from the car, or busting a move on the dance floor. You can treat your body like a workhorse or choose to act in a more sustainable manner – moving today in such a way you’ll feel good tomorrow and beyond. How hard you push, how much you’re willing to sacrifice your moment-to-moment bodily well being to accomplish an action is not only a reflection of your relationship with yourself, it’s a way to influence and improve it. Can I just say? Martyrdom is so not sexy. Embodied self-respect is.
You can embody self-respect and lovingkindness in the way you move all day long. (See “less effort, more pleasure above!) Why not? You’re worth it. Feldenkrais can help you learn to do just this.
In closure, I must include this favorite quote from T.H.White’s The Once and Future King:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
About Erin Geesaman Rabke
Erin Geesaman Rabke has been in deep study of awareness and embodiment for more than 20 years. She is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner and Embodied Life Teacher. In the past she's also been a yoga instructor and teacher trainer, a tai chi teacher, and a health writer. Her work is about sharing potent practices to not only heal and befriend the body, but to enter into a radically new, non-dual, and liberating relationship with embodiment. Erin is a meditator and spiritual practitioner, blessed by many years of study in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions of Dzogchen, Lojong, and Somatic Meditation. She considers it her work to grow maitri – what Chogyam Trungpa translates as brave, unconditional friendliness toward what is – and to support her clients and students to do the same. This kind of brave lovingkindness is an embodied wisdom that can transform all that it touches – body, mind, soul and world.
This writing was originally published on www.embodimentmatters.com, where you can learn more about Erin and her husband Carl Rabke and all the amazing things they are up to!
All images on this page without credits are drawings/ photos by Tiffany Sankary
begins October 8
3 month live and online series with Tiffany Sankary + guest contributors weaving together Feldenkrais lessons, principles and related threads.
PART 1: The Process of Self Direction
PART 2: Thinking in Patterns
PART 3: Experiencing Beauty