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Move Well Dublin by Bríd O' Farrell - 8M ago
I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately! A few months ago, I was listening in on a conversation amongst a group of fellow Feldenkrais practitioners, happy to be carried along in the conversational flow, when I heard someone ask with genuine interest and surprise: “why the need to keep telling the story?” It’s a question I hear now and then, a question that makes me stop and think. Sometimes, the question even makes me feel uneasy, and a little defensive. It brings to mind something a friend of mine once told me, about being asked by someone they loved, to tell “that story” only once more, and never again. Maybe, you can imagine how this person felt? And, maybe you can also imagine just how ineffective this request ended up being?
We humans are story-telling creatures. We create and craft order and meaning from our experiences by telling stories. Our story-telling abilities are central to the formation of a coherent sense of self (an autobiographical self), and they facilitate us in expressing that self to others. Especially in crisis, in illness or pain of any kind, our ability to form a story, from the materials of our experience, meaningfully sustains us in navigating difficulty and challenge. Stories are the means by which we transform the random and chaotic nature of experience into order, so that, knowing where we have come from, we can orient to where we are, and decide upon our best means of moving forwards. We use stories to learn, we use stories to explain, we use stories to live with!
Yet, as Arthur Frank, a sociologist with a special interest in stories argues, not all stories are good companions to live with. Some stories are gifts, he says, but some are dangers. The dangerous nature of some stories is, I think, what makes some Feldenkrais practitioners (and they are not alone in this as my friend’s story reveals) so wary of “the story” that keeps getting told. Like over -worn shoes, these stories trample into class, soles paper thin, stitching ripped and letting in the elements. They bear the impression of the gnarled and hurting foot they house. They keep the pain in place. When the shoe fits…well, you know the rest of that story!
One of the things a story does, it appears, one of its powers, is to project futures. One theorist of stories, Frank Kermode, explains this effect as being like a clock; you hear the tick, you expect the tock. Another theorist, Harvey Sacks, proffers a story known the world over; the baby cries-the mother picks the baby up. In stories, specific beginnings set a chain of happenings into motion, and then, in the end, well…there’s an ending. The regularity and familiarity in the ending of these prototypical stories is somehow comforting. Our insecurity about futures unknown is appeased. But what are the consequences, a curious Feldenkrais practitioner is justified in asking, when these stories get stuck? What if chronically expecting the “tock” prevents us from imagining other sounds as our future response to the tick? Worse, what if we, as humans, are living within interrupted stories? What if, when the baby cries, no-one comes to pick the baby up? What then?
Many years ago, while lying on a clammy leather couch and having my bones cracked by an ebullient local Osteopath, I was offered the diagnosis of Scoliosis for my ongoing excruciating sciatic pain. I seized upon that diagnosis with relief and took it with me everywhere I went from that moment on. “No”, I would tell my Yoga teacher, “I can’t do that, I have a scoliosis of the spine”. “That”, I would say, pointing at the convoluted limb gesture my friend was moving into, “will hurt”. I took my scoliosis story into my Feldenkrais training too, and I managed (because I am a very stubborn person), to hang onto it most of the way through. There were many Awareness Through Movement lessons during the training, which saw me popping up from the floor half way through, like a jack in the box whose spring had just reached its wound up limit of tension. I would stare at disbelief around the room at others, some of whom were significantly advanced in years, moving in ways I thought would be impossible for my curly spine. “That”, I would tell myself, “will hurt”. “I cannot do that”. Continuously, over and over like a wild believer with a mantra or a set of rosary beads, I whispered to my spine “you cannot, you cannot, you cannot”. Naturally enough, my spine couldn’t help but hear. It responded by becoming even more stiffly set into its renegade curves, and by tightening all of its rib struts to a stiff Elizabethan corset. The more I whispered to my spine, “I cannot”, the stiffer and more immovable I became.
Now, as my family and partner would likely tell you with glee, I’m not very good at being wrong! Yet, one of the loveliest things I learned during my Feldenkrais training, is that being proved wrong can feel wonderful. In fact, it can be an enormous relief! “The only thing you need to do”, one of my trainers told me, both dauntingly and encouragingly, “is learn to sense yourself”. At the time, I think I might have slunk away from that conversation muttering something under my breath, but… that teacher was right, and I, thankfully, was wrong! My diagnosis of scoliosis did not need to be a story that braced me inside fixed limits. In time, the more I improved my ability to sense myself, the more detail I collected about my own unique configuration of limits and potentials, the less hold my scoliosis story had over me. In learning to sense myself better, I found that I could rest easy at the border of my limits, and instead of whispering, “I cannot, I cannot”, I could whisper to my spine and ribs, “what can you do???”. The more I did this, the more my spine and ribs softened. It’s an ongoing process in which I keep discovering ways of moving beyond what had once been a set in stone stopping place, fixed rigidly by my scoliosis story.
My scoliosis story is only one of the stories I brought into my training. I have a multitude of others, as we likely all do. Some stories, as Frank’s allusion to gifts and dangers implies, support our growth, others are not so useful in that process, although it could be true that we need them for other reasons such as self-protection and even survival. Part of what I did as a sociologist was to think about the different ways that people shape their self-stories as well as the narrative resources, and especially the canonical stories they draw upon to do this. We use stories that are handed down to us from powerful institutions like Medicine, for example, in order to craft and shape our own stories. A prototypical medical story might be: you feel unwell, take this pill, you’ll feel better again…but what, I wanted to know, if the Medical story was not a fit for your experience? What if your experience didn’t have a neat ending, or such a smooth progression towards its ending? For this reason, my sociological work was concerned with the crafting of stories that were not formed by the normal linear conventions with an ending that could be tied up with a big red bow. I wanted the sociological story I was writing (a story that’s a little too long for this blog post), to allow for complexity, nuance, multiple perspectives, and even some spirals into confusion.
Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais famously said: I’m not after flexible bodies; I’m after flexible minds. I also believe that the Feldenkrais method can help us to form more flexible stories, stories that are complex and nuanced, stories that are rich in vivid and sensual detail, stories that can “be with” and "wait with" the confusion and not startle and run, stories that are more concerned with an ever improving process rather than an ending that brings everything to a full stop. Learning to sense myself through the Feldenkrais method has genuinely helped me to change many more of my self-stories than just my scoliosis story. The good news is, there is a very simple place for all of us to begin making our stories more flexible. Just like many of the stories in need of change that you will come across in the world, the place to intercede is the beginning!. If you’re curious you could reach for something near to you right now and for a movement or three, study how you would ordinarily do that. This is the current beginning of your story of reaching. Then try a different beginning! If you noticed you held your breath, perhaps you could let breath be easy. Without interrupting this easy breath, reach! Or if you hitched your shoulder up towards your ear, perhaps you can first sense your chest there, ready to be a willing support for your shoulder. Maybe, just maybe, your shoulder could actually rest while your arm reaches. Or, in the very beginning, could you think of using more of yourself to reach than just the hand and arm- could you include your pelvis? Could you include your feet?…does this change the “ending” of your reaching story? Does it improve the quality of the entire process?
Over the last years, I’ve enjoyed watching footage of Dr. Feldenkrais meeting with people for the first time before he began to work with them. There were moments in this watching, when I cringed for the apparent lack of interest he showed in some of the “diagnosis stories”. But I’ve come to think, that in his actions, Dr. Feldenkrais was encouraging people to reflect on how, in Jerome Bruner’s words:
Any story one may tell about anything is better understood by considering other possible ways in which it may be told (Bruner, 1994:)
I firmly believe that Dr. Feldenkrais offered us other ways of telling our stories by teaching that we do not have to remain as we are, that we are capable of change, that we are capable of changing our pain stories, our potential stories, and more. I had a story for the longest time that change needed to be painful. Countless times, this story held me back. The Feldenkrais method has helped me make major revisions to this story. Now the same story reads more as follows: I am capable of change, and change feels good. Maybe, especially if you have a story around ageing and pain, chronic pain, or around your own personal movement limitations and limits, the Feldenkrais Method could help you change your story too! Maybe, in the words of poet Brendan Kennelly, you just need to "begin again" and The Feldenkrais method could be one of your places of new beginning:
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.
(from "Begin", by Brendan Kenelly)
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Move Well Dublin by Bríd O' Farrell - 8M ago
Escape through the me-shaped hole in the hedging at the front of our house, up the humpback hill, my wee legs all a-canter, past the collapsed stone wall shaded by rambling laurel, and finally through the bars of the cattle gate that was also very good for swinging on, and that kept my neighbour’s home safe from curious cows, stray sheep, or any other creatures incompatible with flower-filled gardens. That was how I would leave behind my strivings, usually unsuccessful, to be a "good girl", and find my way into the very different world that Mr’s Murphy, I called her Ma, created for me, where "being good" or "being bad" just never seemed relevant . Ma held no truck with convention and didn’t give a fig for keeping up appearances or any of the other absurd conventions of our local community. She wore oddly paired wellington boots, and tied her overcoat around her woolen-thickened waist with a piece of string. Her self-knitted hat was lumpy from scratching her head as she marveled at this sight or that. Cats trailed after her. She daily fed a fox with a handsome tail, and every child on the road knew and loved her.
I’ve been thinking of Ma because I’ve been thinking about play, combing back through time to my first memories of playing, and remembering how important the feeling of escaping and breaking with the ordinary is, and always has been for me. Playing with Ma was always outside ordinary time and space and almost always outdoors. As we hid and sought, she would help me to see things I wouldn’t have otherwise seen, a cheerful daffodil about to split its papery corset, a fox’s den, a wren’s nest in the parched hedging. Once, on a walk we took for no good reason, except perhaps to experience how wobbly legs can feel after a trudge through newly furrowed fields, we found a sycamore sapling. We begged its permission to bring it with us on our return journey, so as to re-home it in Ma’s garden. I think it’s there still. I sometimes wonder if there are children living in Ma’s cottage now (I think she’d like that), who have discovered how to climb up into the branches of that tree to lie like sloths there, or who have fashioned a swing to hang from the sturdiest of its branches, on which to spend hours becoming pendulums, powered by their strong legs and gravity.
It’s February now and already too late to mention this, but I repel New Year’s Resolutions. My skin’s not built to absorb or keep up with them. However, this year, at the year’s beginning, I wondered to myself whether or not life would be a little livelier, a little less grey and more vividly coloured, if I invited more play into my life. Feldenkrais practitioners often reference play. “Play with it”, “be playful”, you might hear in an Awareness Through Movement lesson, but what exactly does that mean, and isn’t it counter-productive to be commanded to play? Of course that’s doing disservice to your Feldenkrais practitioner, to figure their “play” as a command I mean. Your practitioner will of course be inviting you to “be playful” or to “play like a child”, but again, do you have a sense of what they mean? More importantly, what does it mean to you? When was the last time you felt yourself at play? Are you rusty? What would it take for you to brush off the rust and get yourself some of that play sparkle again?
“Man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every Man and Woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games… what then is the right way of living? Life should be lived as play?”
So said Plato, many years ago! Can’t you just see him pontificating in his robes from on high? I can, but I cannot picture him playing chase, or hide and seek behind those magnificent Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns of ancient Greece…. Maybe board games like backgammon? Maybe dice? Maybe, for him, thinking was a playful affair? Many years later, historian Johan Huizinga, would rename Homo Sapiens, a classification of our species which underscores the centrality of our knowledge generating abilities, as Homo Ludens. In doing so, he placed at the centre of humanity’s culture building capacities, the ludic or playful nature of our species. Societies and cultures are emanations of play, he argued, a thesis we’ve no cause to debate here. Yet, there is much of interest in Huizinga’s study of play, and perhaps it can shed light on the “how to” of developing the qualities of play in our Feldenkrais practices.
Huizinga offers the following definition of play. All play, he suggests, is voluntary, lending it an air of freedom. It involves stepping outside of the real world. Playing, to put it another way, is a means of transportation to another realm, the realm of semblance, pretend or make-believe. In this realm, familiar oppositions such as wisdom/folly, true/false, and good/evil dissolve. Play is fun, played for its own sake rather than to assuage an appetite or attain a stated outcome. Indeed, it can often seem frivolous and unserious (note, I said seem not is, since we can play very seriously indeed). Play is always played within certain limits of time and space, has its own rules and creates its own version of order. Play, Huzinga is at pains to emphasise, is tense, since a testing of skills is involved. Even if we are not in contest with another, then we are in contest with ourselves. Last of all, but not of least importance, play correlates with affect; “the really important thing is the mood”. For Huizinga, play’s qualities of order, tension, movement, change, engagement and rhythm are such that they lend themselves to intensities, absorption and even going a little bit bonkers! Just think of that time you couldn’t throw a six to start the game, never mind pass go!
So far, so very like taking yourself, of your own will, into the space of a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement class. Yes, I’m suggesting that the functional movement explorations in Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement potentially make a snap-happy match with Huizinga’s definition of play...under certain conditions! I don’t want to overlabour the analogy, but many of the elements Huizinga describes map very well onto our Feldenkrais movement practice. We are outside ordinary time and outside ordinary movement just by virtue of lying down, slowing down, and paring down functional movements such as reaching or turning, to their micro-components, and refining these. We are not in an imaginary or pretend world in the same way as a group of children playing pirates, although I have participated in some eye lessons wearing a dodgy eye patch! From an evolutionary perspective however, the “pretend” element in play entails exploring self-organisation options and strategies in conditions of safety that ensure we are prepared for future challenges. Kittens pouncing on a moving beam of light, for example, are preparing themselves for future encounters with zippy mice and hoppy rabbits and practicing their strategies for being their most effective selves when that real challenge arises. Similarly, in our lazy, but lazer-focused explorations of movement in ATM, we are preparing for future movement challenges. I’ve often instructed a class, exploring patterns of reaching overhead to imagine they are reaching to whack off their unwelcome alarm clocks, so that they can take those few extra moments of slumber, surely a most important skill to aim to refine!
Huizinga builds a picture of play by tracing its origins in language and its transitions through various historical epochs, their cultures and institutions. The picture he builds emphasises the ways in which movement, rhythm and the tension of testing oneself can absorb and enrapture the player. Unmitigated, direct participation in the movement or rhythm at hand is both the player’s best means of testing and improving their skill, and the player’s optimal frame of mind or mood. Could it then be, that the condition upon which play hinges (once the condition of total safety has been satisfied) is the mood, the attitude, the frame of mind? Diane Ackerman, writing in her usual poetic style, describes for us in her book on Deep Play the affective state I’m pointing to here:
"my mood was a combination of clarity, wild enthusiasm, saturation in the moment and wonder".
Admittedly, Ackerman’s book describes play writ large and for sublime emotional experience, play such as space travel, mountain biking steep ascents, or climbs up Mount Everest. In Deep Play, excepting a chapter on poetry, Ackerman describes going out into the world and facing its most testing elements. All the same, I don’t think Ackerman would disagree with me in thinking that an even more uncharted territory and more testing place for some people to be, is the interior, close to and in relation with themselves, and their often deeply buried habits of thinking and moving.
Ackerman insists that:
"The spirit of deep play is spontaneity, discovery, and being open to new challenges. As a result, it allows one to happily develop new skills, test one’s limits, stretch them and maybe refine the skills and redefine the limits".
Doesn’t this sound a little like Dr Feldenkrais’ hope that in each Awareness Through Movement lesson we are making the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant? Much in line with Dr Feldenkrais’ latent critique of modernity and the varieties of hunched, collapsed and feeble postures he saw it producing, Ackerman suggests that in play, we shed our culture’s limescale of preconceptions and haggard third-hand habits of responding, so that we can open to the world in a new way. Cultivating awareness to the near and interior, rather than what’s out there grabbing for our attention, is already a means of stepping outside of the social and cultural pressures of our terrifyingly speedy, terrifically busy and attention hungry world. When we risk coming closer to ourselves, when we slow down enough so that the details and subtleties of our moving and non-moving parts can reveal themselves to us, it is not really that difficult to be enraptured and filled with wonder at what we are perceiving. Is it? What we perceive after all is life and its sensations moving in us and through us. Is this what play is? Being open to being surprised and delighted by how life moves through us, and at the same time being open to trying out new options as to how we move ourselves through life?
All you brain lovers out there, please be at ease. Yes, play enhances the brain. Let me appease you with a quote from Intelligence researcher Scott Barry Kauffman who tells us:
"If there is one fundamental function of play, it is to contribute to the growth of a flexible brain that is primed for creative thinking or problem solving".
Just what Feldenkrais, in his own words was after, a flexible brain! Of course, you may know intuitively or otherwise that play is a fundamental and necessary part of the development and growth process. From very early on in life, we humans (and we are not alone in your youthful shenanigans), love play, live play, need play. The early months, what Piaget calls the “sensory motor stage”, can be characterized by seemingly playful (spontaneous, quick, light) movement of the spine, the limbs, the trunk and the head. These playful movements lead to complex co-ordinations and a detailed learning of the placements and positions of the various moving parts that make up an embodied self who has who deal with Mother Earth’s stern gravitational field. “Laurent seems to be content to play with his mouth and tongue muscles”, Piaget observes in one of his notebooks, and really why wouldn’t he be? Play helps the brain to wire in connections, by testing, experimenting and discovering. Discoveries made spontaneously, like flopping over onto the belly are repeated playfully until they are reproducible. This kind of activity is no chore, though it can seem difficult and arduous to begin with, but it is engrossing and all encompassing. A child’s attention is totally taken up with it.
A phenomena of the early years that I’ve been even more interested in, is the play relationship between an infant and its caregiver. Play, it is suggested, in the very early months, helps to teach infants how to regulate their emotion and connect to the world. Play does not just calm and soothe infants, disclosing to them the possibility of diffusing negative feeling states like fear, through rocking or gentle touch, for example. Play in these first months also reveals to the infant, how positive states may be attained and sustained. How do the infants know that their caregiver is willing to play? The caregiver wears a play-face! You know that face don’t you? It’s soft, the eyes have a light tricking through them, there’s a hint of a smile across the face, a smile that could at any moment break wide to let golden laughter come through. Now you know why your Feldenkrais practitioner sometimes asks you to try the movement with a smile on your face. Checking in with your face during your Awareness Through Movement practice might be a way to gauge exactly how playful you are allowing yourself to be.
Where there is play, there is meaning, Huizinga says. In the Feldenkrais Method everyone makes their own meaning of their movement, playful or not. I, for myself, think of Ma’s hand holding mine, her other hand gesturing or pointing at something new happening in the Garden, in the rookery at the end of the wheat field that backed onto her cottage, or somewhere else we were adventuring in. I take her as my model of play. She was so kind, so patient, and so lighthearted. Her face always had that smile ready to spread and be shared. She was always hunting that small thing that could bring delight. Now, in my micro-experiments in playing with movement, I would like to treat myself that way, to let myself be glad and even delighted for the small and large discoveries I make, to be absorbed by the rhythm, the trialing of options and the trialing for improvement. Perhaps the mood I seek is childlike, but it is not childish. I am very serious about this play that I’m engaging in as my study of the Feldenkrais method continues. It is childlike most of all because I believe there is always something new for me to discover and learn, and I am not afraid to go wrong or to fail. I was not afraid as a child. It was becoming an adult that made me afraid.
So, I begin this New Year (yes, I know I’m late to the party), with a pledging of myself to all things playful. Play begins with small movements, exploratory movements, spontaneous movements. Why not start there, maybe in a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement class, or maybe, right now, you could give yourself a playful shake and just notice how it makes you feel to do that. Or, maybe give yourself some time to time-travel. By the power of the memorieswithin you, send yourself back to the playful creature you once were as a child. Remember yourself as a player. How did you play then? Could remembering play’s powers help you to give play a larger part in your life? Would you like that? If nothing else comes of it, at least, the next time your Feldenkrais practitioner asks you to be playful, you might have an exact sense of what they mean. Then, since play can and must only be undertaken entirely voluntarily, in conditions of total freedom, and total safety, you can choose, whether play’s the thing for you, or are there better things to do? But let me be very firm here, the only command I will give you for now, chase all bullies from your playground, from your play time and your play space. Bullies spoil play. Be done with the bully in your head that believes you should look like this or that, or move like this or that. Give the bully in you a clown’s nose and clown shoes and laugh when they fall over as you chase them away with your play-vitalized self.
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Rhett Allain, Pysicist and writer, muses in this short but sweet blog post that “learning goes through the swamp of confusion” (http://scienceblogs.com/dotphysics/2010/02/03/learning-goes-through-the-land/) . I like this! I like it very much. It reassures me that at least I must be doing something right in my learning adventures, since believe me, I get confused a lot. There are days when I scratch my head so often, my hair stands on end! I positively crackle with static. I’m on tenterhooks for answers, infested with the fidgets, bogged down, fogged up, and very much in the swamp Allain speaks of.
It turns out though, that the swamp of confusion can be a critical emotional state to go through in the quest for a variety of learning, that is fully integrated and endures (the kind of learning we are seeking to cultivate in the Feldenkrais Method). In the field of research that aims to understand how integrated learning occurs, as well as to elicit the conditions which support such learning, a case is made for the introduction, and even the necessity of “productive confusion” (D'Mello, 2012) and “desirable difficulties” (Bjork & Bjork, 2009). Sidney D’Mello and his colleagues (2012) go so far as to suggest that confusion drives deep learning. It forces us to stop in our tracks and come face to face with the gap in our understanding that has suddenly appeared.
D’Mello and his colleagues make the case that excessively comfortable learning environments, and cushy learning conditions, those without challenge, those without confusion, lead to complacency. In such cozy conditions, knowledge skates performatively at the surface of our consciousness, failing to penetrate to the depths below. Choosing the path of ease in this light is not always the right choice. It may feel good- oh in the way that Dorothy felt it was just sooooo right to lie down in the field of poppies-but a chance will have been missed, would have been missed by Dorothy too- had she not had the tin-man’s heart, and scarecrow’s head to urge her onward. In a similar vein, I once heard that the great mythologist Joseph Campbell, he who incited a legion of “new agers” to “follow their bliss”, felt a certain amount of dismay about the way that his advice had been taken up. It would have been better, he supposed at a later stage, had he urged his readers to follow their blisters!
Now I ought to admit that I was brought up as a Catholic, in an Ireland with a penchant for martyrdom. What I mean to say is, I may be, for that reason and others more personal, more than a little attracted to hardship and difficulty. When I was younger I was constantly hearing my Father and Mother lament the fact that I had to make everything so laborious for myself. It was true. I would always find the longer way round, with the potholes in the road and the dangerous ditches. I was forever blackberry picking my way into the thorniest hearts of the brambles and getting trapped there. Couldn’t I just have picked the berries dripping over the walls surrounding our garden where there was a safe path to reach from? No! I was certain, the juiciest and best would always conceal themselves in the tangled centre, anywhere that was difficult to get to, anywhere that would hurt. God loves a trier you see, and I became really good at trying so hard that I would stiffen myself into a huge knot, un-doable by anyone’s deft fingers, least of all my own.
This is not the kind of difficulty or confusion that learning researchers advocate for. Not at all! The challenges and "desirable difficulties" they describe as “productive” are the challenges that shake us, and wake us up, in the way a kind friend might jiggle you free from your sleep, in the warm carriage of a hurtling train, as a stunning sunset breaks the night open. “You’ll want to see this”, your friend might say. So you bask in the details of the light, sense the sensations, feel the feelings, and think this could change you forever-or at least boost your mood for the morning ahead, even if it would have been easier to stay asleep! "Desirable difficulties", and the confusion they elicit are like this in their opening out of a new, as yet unexplored time-space replete with unfamiliar information. So different to, and in dissonance with your familiar world of understanding are these new time-spaces, that they demand of you your full attention, and engage all of your innate resolution seeking abilities.
D’Mello, and others in the field, ground their theory construction in experiments that are arranged to research cognitive learning. I think it’s fair though, to make some parallels between the integrated sensory motor learning which potentially takes place in a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lesson (ATM), and the deep learning D’Mello and others argue can be arrived at through “productive confusion” and “desirable difficulties”. This might seem unlikely at first if you know a thing or two about the method, most particularly its emphasis on pleasurable, easy and light movements and its aversion to effort. Yet, you may also know, that the movements you are invited to explore often make a stark contrast with the fabric of your ordinary, everyday, habitual movement.
In itself, the being different to “your ordinary” does part of the work of waking your brain up, and getting its full attention. The Feldenkrais method though, has more up its sleeves than that! You may start a lesson for example, with something deceptively simple, like the rocking of your pelvis towards and away from your head. “Ok”, you think, hiding a smirk, “I know this, I can do this!”, BUT…. Can you do the same movement, with the same ease, while sitting cross legged, or while lying prone on your belly? Can you pull one leg up to the side and do the movement easily? Can you do that with the other leg? With each layer of instruction, though the movement being explored (rocking the pelvis towards and away from the head) is the same, the puzzle has somehow shifted, exposing unfamiliar territory, making new demands on a discombobulated system that has to wake up to find the resolution.
Then, there is the whole business of constraints. Vestige of Moshe Feldenkrais’ genius, constraints in lessons create desirable difficulties by preventing us from moving in one area, so that we will learn to move in another, more sleepy, less willing to share in the movement, sticking-part of ourselves. “Keep your right foot planted and your knee pointed towards the ceiling”, your teacher might insist, while you’re there lying on your back trying to find a way to roll your pelvis to the left. “Absurd”, you inwardly remark to yourself in revolt. “It would be so much easier to let the right knee fall inwards, taking the pelvis with it”. If you stay with the instruction however, if you abide with the confusion inducing constraint, you will find a way of articulating movement in your well-hidden hip joint, which will have you gliding like a swan when you eventually get to your feet at the end of the lesson and begin to walk.
Most of us, in addition to the "desirable difficulties" structured into ATM lessons, have difficulties built into our own self-systems, that we meet while moving. Sometimes, these are the traces of old injuries, a once broken ankle for example, that is keen on keeping itself held stiffly. That it has forgotten how to move through its full range of motion becomes apparent in movement lessons that require free motion at the ankle joint, a squatting lesson for example. The ankle then, provides a kind of speed bump for a system that will only best be able to resume with its intentions when it has figured out what the ankle joint is asked for within the larger picture of the movement.
Our in-built "desirable difficulties", sometimes showing up in ATM at the most unexpected moments, don’t just come from physical injury. Our experience in the world may have led us to develop strategies of moving (or not moving) that can also end up being one of the "desirable difficulties" we meet on the path to moving with more freedom and ease. Letting go of the lower belly, letting breath into the belly, for example, can be a considerable challenge for some, and not as a consequence of any structural limitations in the spine or pelvis, but for reasons socio-cultural and personal. Two of my favourite sociologists, Gillian Bendelow and Simon Williams, in a book that sought to argue for an “embodied sociology”, suggested that bodies come to know themselves best when they meet their own resistance. ATM is a chance to meet this resistance, be it in physical or emotional form, and to develop a clear understanding of our present limits, so that we may learn to work with and expand them.
Rhett Allain, as you’ll have seen if you followed the link to his article above, let’s the cat out of the bag, not only about confusion being part of the learning process, but also about the swampy nature of confusion. In his evocative words, “the swamp is icky”. What’s worse, when his students reach the swamp, and sense its “icky” nature, they think they must be in the wrong place (the fearful ones surely run in the opposite direction, shouting get me out of here!). Even worse still, some students come to land on the notion that if they are in the right place, they must be very stupid, why else would they be confused? This, in a nutshell had been my unfortunate history and characteristic response with confusion until I met the Feldenkrais Method. I would get myself into the gloopiest, ickiest, stinkiest part of the swamp and feel so ashamed by my stupidity that I couldn’t even think of admitting I was there, never mind asking someone for help. If you can’t admit you’re stuck (even to yourself), you stay stuck.
That was then, this is now! Now I’m learning to be more comfortable with confusion. I don’t even think of it as swampy or icky any more. These days I hit my confusion like a bad fog, and for that I know I have strategies. First I slow down. Then I turn on my fog lights, or in other words, my attention. I make my attention very awake and very bright and I shine it all around me. I gather details I would never have seen had I been speeding past at my usual gallop. My senses are more acute than usual. Because I can’t see so far, I hear more, I smell more, I feel more. I’m conscious of my every step, of making it wisely, carefully. I can go like this for miles. I can even, in my more enlightened moments, have a sense of wonder for the fog, its mysterious, amorphous shape, the way it puts a lid on extraneous noise, and its specific shade of miasmic grey.
It was the Feldenkrais method that convinced me of the possibility that confusion could be profitable, and that it certainly did not mean I had something to be ashamed of, a sign of something missing, a sign of stupidity. By my reading of the work, Moshe Feldenkrais believed that every human being has the innate capacity to work their way to and through blind spots in their self-image, and to resolve the difficulties they encounter on their way. Perhaps he would also have agreed, it is just these difficulties precisely that make the learning stick and that lead to the kinds of understanding that empower us to move in the way that we want and in the direction of our own choosing, unhampered by pain, and unencumbered by obsolete habit.
I lived for a while, with a woman who would shout “hurrah”, when anyone in the house became ill. ”Something to work with”, she would say, “something for you to learn”. This is going a bit too far (she was delightfully bonkers, I later realised), but… maybe we could all do with a little bit of rejoicing when we get to our foggy, or boggy or swampy patches of confusion. If you stay with yourself. If you draw on the resources you have, most of all your senses and your attention, you may learn something that will stand to you and stay with you forever and in the end make life all the easier.
references:
Elizabeth L. Bjork and Robert Bjork (2009) " Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning" in Real World Psychology
Sidney D'Mello , Rick Dale & Art Graesser (2012) "Disequilibrium in the mind, disharmony in the body", Cognition and Emotion, Vol26(2)
Pages 362-374 | Received 14 Oct 2010, Accepted 12 Mar 2011, Published online: 23 May 2011
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Move Well Dublin by Bríd O' Farrell - 8M ago
On May 6th and 7th, a glorious weekend weather-wise and other-wise in Dublin, 13 eager learners gathered to discover something new about how their feet and legs could best carry them forwards (or backwards) in their daily adventures in moving, and therefore living well. I was among them, and couldn't help feeling very fortunate to be guided in learning by Günther Bisges again, a teacher with a considerable wealth of experience under his belt, not to mention his lyrical way of languaging lessons and his enthusiasm for all things anatomical.
The sun was streaming generously into the room as each of us, in turn, shared something of what brought us to exchange our weekend's shenanigans for quiet and slow explorations of how we, as embodied selves, choose to move around our worlds. Some, teachers of movement by trade, shared the desire to come back to being present with their own movement and learning process. Other's were lured by the workshop's title: Under-standing Legs: a workshop with the aim of exploring the interdependence of the legs and pelvis in connection with the trunk and spine. All of us were curious, a primary ingredient of any learning endeavour.
We began in standing, with a simple inquiry that you can join in too, shifting weight from one foot to the other, swaying from side to side, keeping the head suspended and free at the top of your spine, so that one leg has less load, the other has more, and visa versa. No need to unpeel a heel or a whole foot, stay small enough to only slightly unburden one side of yourself, as you ask the other side (and leg) to support you. As you do this, as we did this, one thing becomes astonishingly clear. One of your legs under-stands you better than the other! With one leg, the giving up weight to the earth and the corresponding rebound upwards, the uplifting, is clearer. With one foot, the spread of contact covers more ground. Something about this leg feels more stable, definite, reliable. Don't be alarmed, most of us have a dominant leg as well as a dominant hand. Don't be alarmed because with just a little awareness through movement, you can begin to share, more equally, the under-standing that both your legs are doing for you.
Maybe you know that feet can be just as prehensile as hands? They too can be articulate grabbers, reachers, pushers, gesticulators. After all, feet have 26 bones (28 if you include sesamoid bones), 33 joints and more than a hundred muscles and ligaments combined. That's a lot of movement potential! One way to wake up your feet (and your self) to this movement potential is to help your feet become sense-able. You can do this through touch, by taking a foot in hand, stroking or stretching out each toe, turning it, twirling it, helping it fold. You can feel then for the bones further in, finding out how easily they respond to your gentle inquisitive touch, how acquiescent they are to your tactile prompts for movement . If you're curious, you can take an anatomy atlas, checking to see if you can find all of the bones for your foot for yourself. You can name them: "cuboid, navicular, lateral cuneiform" etc..., or you can give them your own names: "Fred Astaire, Hairy Ginger, Twinkle toe or Billy the bulger (my name for my strangely shaped left little toe). If it makes it more fun, it really can't hurt.
Once you've made your foot more sense-able, that's a good time to begin moving, and as you are moving, that is a good time to pay attention to how you move, asking yourself and answering with a kinesthetic truth: "can I make this movement with more ease, can I find a pathway that clearly connects me to the ground and to myself" One of the movements we explored on the workshop was a simple inch worm with the foot, moving the foot forwards and backwards through a contraction of the muscles on the sole of the foot, as if you were going to pick something up off the floor by drawing the ball of the foot (foot pad) and heel together ( one foot a time please, be considerate about inch worm traffic jams). In another exploration, we woke up the foot arches by moving between pressing and lifting the pad of the big toe, the pad of the little toe and the pad of the heel. The effect, of all this inquiry was to find, when each of us stood, that our legs and feet had become a little more even in their willingness to share an under-standing of our weight. Feet that are more enlivened through movement with awareness, are feet that can feel the ground beneath and receive the support that ground has to offer.
Of course it didn't end with the feet. We had the chance over the course of the weekend to explore the movements of the ankle joints, the lower leg bones, and to feel how to come over the hip joint safely so that our spine was free, easy to move as it liked, our arms lifting lightly. We walked miles (please forgive the exaggeration on the grounds of poetic license) without going anywhere, lying on our backs, feeling how to lengthen one leg (and one side) and to let the other be bent. We asked questions together, got confused together, marveled about bones and movement together. As always one of the greatest gifts of these workshops, was the sharing of experiences and the mutual reinforcing and reinvigorating of joyful interest in all things related to being embodied . We learned together how articulate, easy movement can be a vehicle for an embodied self who knows how to choose freedom by having to hand (and foot) a wide(r) variety of movement options to choose from. Our next workshop with Günther Bisges is expected to be in September. This time we will be exploring the movements of the arms and shoulders and learning how to reach out for what attracts us and to hold it with care. It would be lovely to see you there too.
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Move Well Dublin by Bríd O' Farrell - 8M ago
You can find information about the Jeremy Krauss Approach and about Jeremy himself here:
http://jeremy-krauss.com/en
References for the blog posts are as follows:
References:
Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2005) A Thousand Plateaus, translated by Massumi, B, Minnesota: Minnesota University Press.
Deleuze, G. (1988) Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, translated by Hurley, R, San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Deleuze, G. (2003) Francis Bacon, translated by Smith, D.W., London: Continuum.
Macnaughton, G. (2004) “The politics of logic in early childhood research: A case of the brain, hard facts, trees and rhizomes.”, Australian Educational Researcher ,31(3).
Massumi, B. (2002) Parables For The Virtual, London: Duke University Press.
Osselot, L. (2009) Movement and Experimentation in Young Children’s Learning, London: Routledge.
Price, J. & Shildrick, M. (2006) “Deleuzian connections and queer corporealities: shrinking global disability”, in Rhizomes, Issue 11/12 accessed at http://www.rhizomes.net/issue11/shildrickprice/index.html
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Training in the Jeremy Krauss Approach
Let’s begin with morning, morning in Bad Wiessee, a town that is still sleeping under cover of thick cloud. Stern, grey and stubborn, this cloud glut has spiked itself onto the shadow-haunted, pine-bristling mountains and settled in for the long haul. It has rained all night, and as I set off for a wander by the lake, a roaring tumult of winter-melt is hurtling itself down the mountain, careless about the directions it takes on its vertiginous passage, pulling this branch, that root and any loose earth with it. For a while, earth (gravity’s anchor), becomes water, and flows. Water responds by dyeing itself a muddy, sludgy brown. As this admixture reaches the lake it forms a contrasting, widely billowing ribbon in the crystalline waters of Tegernsee.
Class begins at 10am, but long before we arrive, the room has been transformed from a characterless, if bright and spacious room, into a space that invites thinking about and exploring developmental movement at every turn about. Thick, wide mats, designed for comfortable relations with the floor await our eager bodies and surrounding these, covering the walls, and perched on tables, images of children, at various stages of development serve as friendly guides and teachers for what’s to come.
We are an international group, coming from far and wide to learn the skills needed to work with children using the Jeremy Krauss Approach. Jeremy Krauss, a student of Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, has further developed Dr Feldenkrais’ method as it relates to working with children, particularly through a comprehensive engagement with the field of child development, developmental movement, and inter-subjective neurobiology. From the outset, it is clear that we are being tasked with gleaning an in-depth knowledge of developmental processes, and to understand these as any series of changes associated with discovering and embodying new information about ourselves in the world, and with putting this information to use. Taking the exploration of the diverse movements of hands as an example, hands that through exploring movement become articulate enough to reach out and touch the face of the carer, grab a nose, or a fistful of hair, we can see that developmental processes refer us not only to motor-abilities and motor skills but to object-relational, social-relational and emotional skills also.
One of the ways we go about understanding developmental processes in the JKA training is through honing the skill of observation. “What are we seeing”? , Jeremy asks on the very first day, as we peer at picture after picture of child after child, each occupying and exploring space in a different way. In the beginning, I see what I have so-far been trained to see, which is little in comparison with what we, as a group, are guided towards noticing; the minutiae of children’s incipient, progressively and dynamically forming movement abilities, the relationships between the head and eyes, the variables and invariables of adventures in the field of gravity, the round-abouts and all-abouts of transitions-from front to back, from side to side, down to up, up to down, and much more (so much more!). In line with children’s education researcher Liane Mozere, we are not looking at children’s development from the adult down, but from the child up. And when we do, an astonishingly complex, thrillingly creative, open system of development emerges, one characterised by seemingly tireless experimentation and incremental change.
Of course we also go about our own movement experiments, not to reproduce the experience of a child (our own movement biographies are too firmly entrenched for that), but to gain kinaesthetic clarity about the effects of particular, developmentally significant, ways of moving in/through space. The effects are compelling. Leaning into different parts of my chest when on my belly for example, I rise from the floor some centimetres taller as my chest experiences itself anew as a clear support for my head. When looking, in the words of Gregory Bateson’s well worn phrase: for the “difference that makes the difference”, sensation is the key. For after all, how would you know the temperature of the water had become hospitable enough for you to swim in, if you were not able, through the temperature sensors of the skin, to sense the warmth that tells you now is the time of salubrious bathing? Isn’t this part of what coaxes you to get in the water? “Sensation”, Deleuze points out, “is that which is transmitted directly, and avoids the detour and boredom of conveying a story “ (Deleuze, 2003:26). Our movement experiments get under our personal stories of injury and insult. They strike us with an embodied understanding of the connection between clear sensation and the perception of difference. Without sensing difference, in our developmental trajectories, how would we ever know of the emergence of new and excitingly different paths to experiment in and follow? How would we ever have gone from lying quietly on our backs, to rolling onto our bellies?
Every part of the learning day is stimulating and holds my interest, but for me, it is when the children and their parents enter the room that an enchantment of the group’s attention occurs. Something in the entire room changes, a quiet falls, an intense mode of “being with” opens up like a door to another dimension. The context of the lesson is by now established in the principle that each child is unique, and in each encounter, the movements to be explored will be led by the child themselves, according to what they are currently engaged in developing, and motivated to explore. As Jeremy remarks in class discussion: “ we are looking for the possibilities that are possible”.
Now, in my riffling through the dictionary earlier, I left out my favourite part of the definition of development, development as it relates to a piece of music, something Deleuze and Guattari are also fond of referring to. That definition of development goes as follows: the part of a movement/composition in which themes are unfolded or elaborated by various technical means. The lessons with the children resonate with this definition of development, where the technical means of elaborating or unfolding a movement theme, such as rolling over, or crawling, proceed by making an affective connection with the child and by introducing movement possibility and variation via a gentle and precise touch. Deleuze himself notes:
It is not just a matter of music but of how to live: it is by speed and slowness that one slips among things, that one connects with something else…one slips in, enters in the middle; one takes up or lays down rhythms (Deleuze, 1988: 123)
On the floor, with the children, this is a lot like how the lesson looks. Slipping in where they are, connecting through touch and movement, taking up and laying down rhythms. Precise, technically adept touch delivers clear sensation in this meeting, which adds to the surplus of information garnered by the movement experiments that the child is engaged in. This touch is in the vein of the mutual affect I referred to earlier, where the body’s power to affect, and be affected, is drawn upon. The bodies of practitioner and child come into composition with each other, such that an adding to or augmenting of sensory experience, may push at the threshold of a child’s habitual movement patterns, leading them to adapt, create and explore something new.
Sensation, Brian Massumi claims (and I agree), is the direct registering of potential (Massumi, 2000: 97). This is particularly so, in the case of the super-plastic brains of children, brains forming more than 1 million new neural connections every second. As with any rhizomatic, dynamic, open system, change in the brain is catalysed in response to an encounter with something new in the local environment, a new force or intensity of touch (perhaps in a part of self that has never been clearly sensed before), a different point of stabilisation to move from. Each touch, by clarifying sensation, seems to explore the Spinozian question: “what can a body do”, a question enhanced in its impact by being asked within a relational environment. It is not just the practitioner who is present with the child, but the child’s carers,and at times , siblings too. Relationality and joining together, in this way, form part of the conditions for experimentation, creativity and the unfolding of the unique potential of each child to learn and to explore. This feeds the rhizomatic system’s ability to shoot out new roots (new lines of flight), feeds the embodied, embedded and extended brain, feeds the child’s sense of a self related through its body to the world.
Developmental movement sequences are themselves profitably conceived as sets of movement problems to be discovered and solved by each child, something that is achieved by trying out options, the more the better. It is for this reason that in watching a lesson with a child, you might be struck by the often fast-flowing nature of the work which follows an additive and accumulative logic along the lines of and…and…and…and… This, by the way, is a logic Deleuze and Guattari recommend. Indeed, Deleuze liked to add to Spinoza’s question “what can a body do?”, with “what else can a body do?” Deleuze and Guattari also insist that rhizomatic systems are maps not tracings. Similarly, in the lessons with the children, there is no intention for the imitation of ideals, but for the discovery and mapping for themselves, the “possibilities that are possible” for their own mind/bodies. Rhizomes go about map making, not tracing and so do brains. Our brains map our unique, body-specific experiences of the world and the cartographic lines are deeper and clearer where sensation is clear and where differences between the old and the new have been clearly perceived. Movement, developmental or otherwise, is part of this innate impetus to map the world and it can become the context and ground of what is patterned into our systems as possibilities and potentials in our future.
It’s significant that the children who come for lessons in the Jeremy Krauss Approach are children whose pathways into and through developmental movement are different to the majority. In the absence of a hierarchical, linear model of development, these are different pathways that may be gainfully explored, variations discovered, possibilities for sensing and moving in the world further elaborated. The work sits neither within the strict allocative function of diagnosis, where diagnosis and prognosis set limits on the varieties and styles of movement a child may develop, nor does it sit within a philosophy of cure which might insinuate that difference is something broken, needing to be fixed or restored to some illusory former state of wholeness. The Jeremy Krauss Approach instead is anchored in a respect of and deep listening to difference, while skilfully exploring the potentials and possibilities manifest in that difference.
The last definition of development in my online dictionary is related to mining: the work of digging openings, as tunnels, raises and winzes, to give access to new workings and of erecting necessary structures. This definition points me back to the ground, where, by moving myself with curiosity and attention I am, in a way, digging open the entrenched ground of my self, exploring new tunnels in the form of alternative brain pathways for movement and building new structures, new synaptic linkages, by sensitively exploring the qualities of this new terrain. There is something about the ground that loves a rhizome, something about a rhizome that loves the ground. Without the ground, a rhizome would have nowhere to wander, nothing to sense by way of changes, which might provoke it to explore and experiment with something new. Once out of the watery intrauterine environment, it is the ground, gravity’s anchor, which presents us our first set of movement conundrums. This continues throughout life.
All this is by way of suggesting to you that you too can get rhizomatic, go to the ground, move and explore your own lines of flight. Feldenkrais classes are, in my biased opinion, one of the best places to go to explore movement in a mode that is highly sympathetic with the way in which development is ignited, nourished and flourishes in children. I can share with you that, for me, this kind of movement really is the “difference that makes a difference”. I came away from the Jeremy Krauss Training this time, with more strength and sturdiness than I have ever felt. Maybe this was the result of an opportunity to revisit the question of keeping my head upright and free, even as the rest of me whirled around from my side to my belly. Or, maybe it was the result of being caught up in the joyous affect of the children as they discovered and explored new movement.
Perhaps these two aspects of the training experience bring together both movement and affect, and in these combined, the proposition that movement and affect are inextricably linked. Movement that joins with its ground harmoniously is joyous affect for me. It is the movement of being brought, by music whose rhythms and melodies you have never before heard or felt (or if you had, you have forgotten), into gestures you never knew you could make. I’ll leave you with Deleue and Guattari’s instructions as a last loopy thought:
Make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don’t sow, grow offshoots! Don’t be one or multiple, be multiplicities! Run lines, never plot a point! Speed turns the point into a line! Be quick, even when standing still! Line of chance, line of hips, line of flight. Don’t bring out the General in you! Don’t have just ideas, just have an idea. Have short term ideas. Make maps, not photos or drawings… (2000:25)
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Although I currently live with someone who loathes and detests any writing that insists on drawing on dictionary definitions (!); in defiance, I’ll rummage inside the dictionary, where, to develop, most simply, is defined as a verb meaning: “to bring out the possibilities of; to grow”. But how does this verb get kick-started into action? How does development occur? What are the conditions, environmental and emotional, that support development’s flourishing? What occurs to you when you think about your own development, from tiny embryo to the individual with values and desires that you now are? Along the way, manifold qualitative changes have taken place in the molecular organisation of you, such that development distinguishes itself from the mere fact of your having gotten older. Have you ever thought about how these marvellous changes happen, about how you slowly unfolded yourself from the newborn foetal position, to take and make the many forms that express who you are today, and through which you navigate your world? Have you ever thought about the part that movement plays in this becoming?
Obviously, development entails change. Indeed, oftentimes (though not necessarily) changes seen later are in part influenced by changes that have gone before, and have prepared the ground. As a student in the Jeremy Krauss Approach for working with children, I’ve been occupied with thinking about change, development and developmental processes for a while now, and I’d like to share a little about how that study is going. But, I also want to think a little about how our models for change, our modelling (unconsciously or otherwise) of how developmental change occurs, can influence our approach to these questions I raise above. Roused to thinking by Jeremy Krauss’s comments on the “becoming” of the children he works with, I also want to bring in some ideas from the brilliantly teeming minds of philosophers and social critics Deleuze and Guattari, to provoke dialogue and disrupt any ideas about linearity or normativity that we might have when it comes to development, especially when it comes to children whose body/minds are different and who need those differences acknowledged and listened to.
Why Deleuze and Guattari? Well, for a start, these are thinkers who include in their delightfully inscrutable A Thousand Plateaus the command to: “look only at the movements” (2005:311). Utterly enchanted by movement, they seek to open out the conditions for movement’s elaborations. One of their models for movement and change is described by the figure of the rhizome.A rhizome? What’s a rhizome? Currently ubiquitous-good for your gut-ginger is one example of a rhizome. Put this odd-looking, bulbous entity underground, even shallowly, and one of its bumpy segments may begin to sprout, shoot, and rootle, to reach around its new terrain. A Rhizome then, is a subterranean, horizontally organised root-like system, which responds to local changes in its environment, a stone in its path for example, or a slippage in the soil, by sending forth shoots which break free in new directions. As a veritable tangle, shooting away from here, meeting with and joining there, a rhizome is characterised by multiplicity and connectivity.
In a rhizomatic system we can identify modes of grounded-ness or fixity which Deleuze and Guattari call territorialisation (think of habits). Yet, when provoked by encounters with novelty, strange-ness, or constraint, a mode of de-territorialisation (un-grounding) opens up. This un-grounding is known as “a line of flight”, think of fanciful bouts of experimentation, where creative alternatives to the original fixed ground are sought. Eventually, there are modes of re-territorialisation, a settling back into the ground, but using a different pathway of becoming and exploring the world. As Glenda Mac Naughton puts it:
A rhizome is never finished, it is always “becoming” through crossovers between offshoots, through expansions of one form of growth into another and through the death and decomposition of outdated elements (2004:93)
The rhizomatic system is a system ajar, a system disposed to relationality, adaptation and the exploration of difference. Because it is laterally organised, it offers us a non-hierarchical model of developmental change. It is, Deleuze and Guattari insist, not a tree, trees having been used all too often to model change which proceeds vertically upwards in a linear and hierarchical fashion (think of classificatory schemas that might put man at the top branch and an amoeba at the bottom).
There are other reasons to bring in Deleuze and Guattari. Chief amongst these is their centralising of the body in their work. They, in opposition to received and influential models of body/mind (like Freudian psychoanalysis), refute notions of “lack”, where the obdurate experience of something missing, or incompleteness, is positioned as the anchor point of subjectivity. Where some would identify lack, they see an opening for connection with something new, they see possibility and potential, they see an invitation to create. Following Spinoza, they ask us to think, not about “what the body is”, but about the question of “what can a body do?”. This is a question which leads them to focus on the dynamics of relational affect, such that the question of “what can a body do” is answered by the capacity of bodies to be affected by and to affect others.
When bodies meet, when they come into encounter with one another (and a body need not be confined to human-species, it could also be a geological body, a body of water, for example), they enter into relations of mutual composition, such that they augment or diminish each other’s powers of action. A human body encountering a body of water for example, may be buoyed upwards, rocked by the rhythms of wave motions, pulled this way or that by its current, augmented in its powers to float or surf. As Deleuze puts it in his treatise on Spinoza:
When we encounter a body that agrees with our nature, one whose relation compounds ours, we may say that its power is added to ours; the passions that affect us are those of joy, and our power of acting is increased or enhanced. (Deleuze, 1988: 28).
I’m necessarily glossing the intricacies and manifold twists and terminologies in Deleuze and Guattari here, but the ideas I mention above did come alive for me in watching the work with the children during the last two training segments. Before, going there, I’ll just mention that Deleuze and Guattari’s theories are being taken up with great vigour in various movements for change. Of interest in relation to children is Liselott Olsson’s study of Movement and Experimentation in Young Children’s learning, a text which reveals the joyous affect circulated between children and adults who enter into the adventures of learning as equals. Amongst the many voices in the field of disability studies now drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, Magrit Shildrick and Janet Price believe the Deleuze and Guattarian theme of connectivity can be taken up to undermine the tendency towards marginalising people with disabilities and:
The impetus of those who are normatively embodied to shrink away from encounter with those who are not; a disinclination to literally touch people who are anomalously embodied-or to be touched- physically and metaphorically by them (Price and Shildrick, 2006: 3)
(continue reading in the next blog post, part B of this musing about rhizomes and movement)
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Creatures of habit?
Would you consider yourself a creature of habit? For myself, I would have to answer yes. Most of the time, I find pleasure and stability in routine, rituals and habits. In them, I have often taken refuge. Yet, one of the things I’ve been learning through the Feldenkrais method is the importance of taking the time to look a little closer, maybe understand the purpose in, and sometimes even revise, habits. If you’ve ever tried to change some of your own habits, you’ll know that process, while it may appear simple, is not always easy! What makes it so difficult? Well, how you might reply to that question would depend on where you are looking for your answers! If you had been born a hundred years ago, in the western world at least, you might have peered into the yellowed pages of your bible for answers, or sought help from a spiritual counselor: a priest, a nun or a brother of a holy order. These days, in the western world, you’re probably more likely to turn to certain strands of popular psychology, to learn about “effective habits” and different forms of “conditioning”, “neural pathways”, “neuro-chemistry” and “neuro-plasticity”.
Now, as a Feldenkrais practitioner, I have a certain fondness for this last concept: “neuroplasticity”. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change itself, is one of the hope-emanating cornerstones of the Feldenkrais method. Patterns of action (sensori-motor) that are wired into the brain are subject to modification and “re-wiring” throughout the course of a life-time; movement with awareness taps into this ability of the brain to change. In the historical development of Psychology, and of the neurosciences, habitual actions, patterns of routinised and regular behaviour carried out unthinkingly, were a subject of great interest. Think of Pavlov’s experiments with his dogs, and his foundational understanding about reflex arcs, where the stimulus (bell) eventually leads to an automated corporeal response (salivation). Yet life, as lived, is not as clear-cut as in the laboratories, and reducing habit to where it lives in the brain, or the causal reflex arc between environmental stimulus and response flattens out the lived experience and dynamic social formation of habits. If habits are patterns of action, they are patterns of social action and interaction, environmentally rooted parts of our selves and our ways of being and acting in the world alongside other creatures of habit, human, animal and planet!
Habit, as an idea with trade-value, gets tossed around a good deal these days, both in everyday speech and in popular culture where its meanings are often harnessed to a discourse of self-improvement, one that all too often implies, the self you have is not quite “good enough” yet (It is!). Quite a lot of this discussion hinges on the moralistic configuration of some habits as “good” and others as “bad”, or, in recent times especially, as “healthy” or “unhealthy”, for after all, health is the new measure of worth and value in our time! This way of conceiving habit of course has a long history, a history traceable in the world’s religions, where the practice of cultivating “good habits” is tied to salvation and piety. Yet, a cultural legacy of thinking about habits as either, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, doesn’t help matters when it comes to examining the details of habits we might want to change. So, for the moment, lets put those weighty judgements aside.
One of sociology’s best known contemporary theorists, Pierre Bourdieu, gave a great deal of theoretical space in his work to the discussion of patterned human action, or habits, which he reformulated and revitalised through the development of the term “habitus”. Bourdieu’s adoption of the term “habitus”, was not a pretentious semantic flourish, but a means of differentiating from, or at least expanding our understanding of habit, so as to emphasise the manner in which the socio-cultural time and space into which we are born, impacts and influences the kind of individuals we may become and the kinds of patterned action (habits) that we develop.
Habitus points to the historicity of each social milieu, to the fact that time layers itself on time, accruing possibilities and potentials, opening certain pathways of skilful practice, shutting others. Today, there is perhaps no better illustration of evolving “habitus” than the advent of smart technology. I can scroll unthinkingly through pixellated screens, tap out text with aplomb; capture a scene with my in-phone camera, which I can immediately admire on its high definition screen. My Mother however, born into a different social milieu, has not quite mastered these same skill sets! Her fingers blunder over tiny keyboards, stub out mis-spelled messages, she squints her eyes, purses her lips, only half of the time succeeds -but- she can leave a printed news paper she picks up in the doctor’s surgery pristine, its folds fully intact, ready for the next reader, while I make a crumpled, dog-eared mess of the same material. Habitus then, in a historically evolving manner, provides the scaffolding for and undergirds our practical sense of the world.
As embodied entities our “selves” have histories too. Bourdieu’s habitus is described throughout his work as the means by which the sediment of our past experiences and actions, especially our upbringing, our schooling and our positioning in society, is with us and gives shape to our action in the present moment, so that we can “do” without having to “think” and moreover that we can “do”, in such a way, that everyone concerned will feel agreed “there was nothing else to be done” (1972: 16). This taken for granted practical relation to the world is indicative of an important insight; that knowledge about the world is bodily knowledge, stored in the tissue; in the flesh, blood and bone. Contra Descartes’ rationalist characterisation of homo-sapiens by the phrase “I think, therefore I am”, a large amount of our knowledge is not stored as cognitions, as thought out plans and rules, but as spontaneous bodily responses to the logic of each situation. We demonstrate our understanding of table etiquette for example, by using our right hands to wield our knives and our left to hold the fork. This is unless we are in a fast-food restaurant, where we relish eating with our hands, or, we are brought up in Asia where chopsticks are the implements of choice.
Habitus, then is a variety of embodied know-how that is contextually specific and that generates the means by which we organise and regularly pattern our perceptions, thinking and acting.
Turning a very nice phrase, Bourdieu describes habitus as a:
Precondition not only for the co-ordination of practices but also for the practices of co-ordination (81: 1972)
An intertwining of self with the social world is encapsulated within this phrase. To understand it reverse-ways, we could think about the seemingly mundane sensory-motor habit of walking. It consists in a complex configuration of muscular-skeletal, orientational and intentional components. As a “practice of co-ordination” all these parts work together to give the effect of a co-ordinated whole. “Co-ordination of practices” on the other hand, could reference our habits of walking amongst others, on a crowded footpath say, where nobody wants to play (headless) chicken in the rush hour pedestrian traffic. Context means everything in this regard, as, if you’re anything like me, the way you walk a deserted beach, wanderingly, dreamily, will be nothing like the way you walk amongst those hard-nosed, home-rushing business folk!
Bourdieu, as an ethnographer highly attuned to context, adopted the term (social) “field” to delineate the different time/spaces in which social relations come to be organised and in which readiness to act in certain ways as opposed to others emerge. On occasion he used the game of soccer to explain this. Following his metaphor, you might observe how each player on a soccer pitch has stored up an embodied knowledge, “a feel for” rather than a “thinking for” the game. However, they each occupy different positions on the pitch- and this is important- because, as a result of these different positions, the ball arriving in their area will elicit different responses; a goalie saves, a striker strikes. Ideally, each player relates dynamically to the ball via a varied and creative repertoire of skilful moves. Many players can also be seen to have developed their own particular style of enacting such patterned movements (I am told Pelé’s footwork was distinctive!). The skilful play on the pitch is evidence of sedimented learning, gone underground, into the pre-reflective consciousness and emerging again in situated action. In fact, it may be all-important to the level of skill in the game that these habitus anchored actions remain free of the realm of cognitive thinking. Sports studies have consistently revealed that re-training skills by making action overtly self-conscious can be a serious impediment to success. When a ball lands at a player’s foot, they don’t go through a thought out sequence of: “pelvis turned right, knee pointed over ball, ankle flexed”; they just kick! There’s one other thing worth pointing out here: if the player is off the pitch, in the street say, on the way home, and a soccer ball flies over a fence and lands at their feet, they will not drive themselves nutty looking for a goal to kick it into, they may even yawn, ignore it, and walk on by.
In my silly sociologist moments (and not being a huge fan of soccer), I prefer to think of habitus as a kind of superhero cape or whole body suit, woven by and through the dynamic, embodied relationship I’ve been having with this world I’ve been born into. This cape of habitus gives me special powers, like being able to tie my shoelace in under 30 seconds, without having to think about it, and without having to run singingly through the rhyme about rabbit holes I was taught as a youngster either! Had I Supergirl’s cape, with its powers, I might be able to fly (without thinking about it). With Spiderman’s spidey suit, I might be able to shoot gossamer from sky scraper to sky scraper, building a silvery bridge to traverse the skyline (without thinking about it). Wouldn’t you say that the habitus capes are an enormous part of these super-heroes sense of their embodied selves and of critical mass in their negotiations with the evil megalomaniacs the world throws at them?
{Incidentally, you might know that habit is also a word for the vestments that are worn by holy orders. On another silly slant, this is one of the ways through which I think about how habits can sometimes hide weaknesses. I was schooled by one or two Dominican monks who hid beneath their flowing habits, a hip-flask of their very own “holy spirit”!}
Bourdieu’s ideas have a special appeal for me as Feldenkrais Practitioner because he understood that socially anchored habits of perceiving, thinking and acting are embodied posturally. They give rise to what he called “bodily hexis”: “a durable manner of standing, speaking and thereby thinking and feeling” (1972: 43). In Distinction, a text which has had an enduring hold on the sociological imagination, where Bourdieu provides an analysis of the means by which specific “tastes” are socially cultivated and class positions thereby produced and reproduced, he describes bodily hexis as: “ a basic dimension of the sense of social orientation (…) a practical way of experiencing and expressing one’s own sense of self value” (1998: 474). This is how we can recognise the low self-value of a long embodied depression via the crumpled collapse of a body. Of interest to Feldenkrais practitioners and students is Bourdieu’s claim that:
Body hexis speaks directly to the motor function in the form of a pattern of postures that is both individual and systematic because linked to a whole system of techniques involving the body and tools and charged with a host of social meanings and values (1972: 87).
The body hexis of smart-phone technology for example, where the head is forwards, the gaze down, the chest depressed, reveals the dynamic embodied relationship between selves and the material conditions of contemporary culture which include phones, tablets and laptop computers. Supergirl’s body hexis (by contrast) might include a readiness for powerful up-righted-ness, full-body extension and an ability to make herself aerodynamic for flight.
To be honest, Bourdieu’s “habitus” is a highly debated concept in Sociology; a swathe of those who seek to contest its value arguing that habitus overemphasises the strength of socialization processes and leaves little room for creativity, resistance and transformation. Others like Nick Crossley however, seek to emphasise and cultivate the insights in Bourdieu’s formulation of habitus, pointing out that “transformations are nothing without the power of conservation which prevents them from passing with the fleeting moment” (Crossley, 2000: 8). Our bodily habits, as knowledge, in this sense endow us with a kind of “power of conservation”. Habits (and habitus) can be sticky because they work so well in helping us function efficiently (and without a great deal of thought) in response to what life flings at us on a daily basis.
Habits, in other words, are the solutions we have found to the world that our lives, each of them different, has shown us and they are solutions that are not only stored up in our thinking and thought but in the flesh. AND- they should not be diminished for that reason! They are purposeful, meaningful and intelligent responses to the way that we have experienced the world and therefore long-lasting for a good reason.In a way this lays the ground for us to put aside the question (judgement) of whether or not a habit is good or bad and instead begin to look at how habits are meaningful for us and how, in that very human manner, they are meaningful in a multi-layered way.
It is for this reason, perhaps that Dr. Feldenkrais in his Amherst trainings declared: “habits in themselves are a wonderful thing and without them you couldn’t live at all”. Of course Dr. Feldenkrais talked a lot about habit because part of his vision was to create the conditions of learning which facilitate the discovery of “habits which make your life better”. At one point in the Amherst training, Feldenkrais likens cycles of habitual behaviour to the feeling of being a cork bobbing up and down in the sea “the cork goes up but has no means of acting on itself”. I am reminded here of Bourdieu’s description of habitus as a “conductor-less orchestra”. Yet Dr. Feldenkrais also shows the depth of his compassion and understanding about the force of habit when he advises his students that certain habits of posture “will solve all my feeling of anxiety”. Later on he returns to this point with:
The habit is the kind of thing which makes it for us possible to live. Therefore, you cannot throw it away, and you shouldn’t throw it away; but you should be able to relegate it at least for 10 seconds sufficiently away, so that in that part that remains, you are the most important thing to care about (Amherst, week 1-2 pg.35).
Dr. Feldenkrais gives us some important clues here in these passages. Following his thinking we can consider the space of an “awareness through movement” class, or a lesson in Functional Integration, as an opportunity to change the context for, the field of, habitual action, thereby creating the condition for something different to happen, like the soccer player in the street who doesn’t look for a goal post when the ball lands at his feet. Maybe you’ve noticed how your habits are more flexible when you’re away from home on holiday? What luck then, that even just lying down on the floor, a change of orientation, is also a change of context for movement. How you breathe, supported by the floor, if, that is, you have found the way to allow the ground to support you, will change the organisation of your breathing, giving you a new experience to attend to and explore.
Another point to consider however, and one of the reasons why I’ve come to write this post about habits, is that sometimes when you come to a new context, as in an Awareness Through Movement class, your habits show up waving big red flags or wearing gaudy outfits, glaring in a way that hurts your eyes. I like to call this “the cleaner’s paradox”. It is only when you begin the process of cleaning and tidying a room that you really begin to see the details of the dirt and disorder, the cobwebs hiding in corners like shy secrets, the dust on cornices, the inexplicable spatters and dribbles of mysterious substance on tiles, the smearing and streaking on glass. Looking closer, sometimes you really don’t like what you see! But, and I say this from experience, you’re better off not to throw anything at the dirty glass in frustration, you’ll only end up with another fine mess to tidy.
This is why, of all the habits that might be helpful to look at and change, the habit of judgement could be considered primary. I mean judgement with a gavel that you bang down on yourself in condemnation. Judgement like this is evidence that somewhere along the way you’ve picked up ideas about having to be always “just so”, or about limits as failures instead of places to begin. Consider a baby learning to connect to the world through movement. If left to move without interruption or intervention, they discover and map the terrain of their body’s potential without judgement. There is no language of judgement yet to apply, only the feeling of possibility or non-possibility, to which they will reply with accordingly engaged action. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the image of baby-movement and child-like playfulness is evoked so often within the Feldenkrais method.
I suppose what I’m saying is that if old habits really do die hard, then the task as students and practitioners of the Feldenkrais method, is not to show up with an axe, a gun and a plan for murder but rather to learn to bear witness as a habit is winnowed away and replaced with another. A story told to me when I was learning to meditate has always helped me here. Peace was always so fleeting at that time, and I had the kind of “monkey mind” that could have belonged to a young chimp let loose in a field of sun-roasted coffee beans, always skipping away from the way-station of peace and contentment. When would the peace stick, I wanted to know? My teacher told me about a plain cotton sheet steeped in the gold of saffron suffused water. When the sheet was hung out to dry, the gold would fade in the sun. Over and over the sheet was dipped and over and over hung out. Each time the fading would occur, but each time less. Eventually, the dye was fixed hard, forever golden. This is the way with growing a new habit and saying goodbye to an old one. It is why we repeat movements “many times” in a class, focussing our attention at the same time on details, manifold and meaningful, as they appear.
Bourdieu, reflecting on the role of the sociologist, once noted that “the difficulty, in sociology, is to manage to think in a completely astonished and disconcerted way about things you thought you had always understood”. Going to look at your habits in and Awareness through Movement class, is a little like this. As the habits you embody come to be prised away from the realm of “taken for granted” knowledge, you get to be astonished by the intelligent solutions that you’ve come up with for moving around the world so far. Befriending the habits you find, coming to know them well, may be all you need to allow you and your habits to move forwards in a new direction. Forget about being the murderer sharpening the knife to kill your old habits off, better to be a surgeon, sharpening the scalpel for the clear-sighted incision that comes with a well-honed awareness. Oh, and one last thing, the etymological root of habit is the latin habere, which may be translated as "to hold". Perhaps, the thing with habits then, is to hold them gently so that they may slip free in the times and places you least need them.
Poem to my habits
There you were
Your stuffed bags groaning at their seams
Ready to ride the tails of my next adventure
To see the new sights with me
While there I was
thinking I could sneak away
aiming myself to be
a woman without her history
shoe-less, coat-less and fancy free
I thought I could bind up
This old source pool of sadness
chord myself umbillically
to new stories, new friends
to a world without creeping shadows
But you my sweet
Follow me everywhere
It doesn’t matter what place
What planet
You are part of me
And I will learn to meet you
And take your tiny hand
When you show up
With your stuffed case
And your soulful eyes
with all your muddled truths
and all your fascinating lies.
References:



















Bourdieu, Pierre (1972) Outline of a Theory of Practice
Bourdieu, Pierre (1998) Distinction
Crossley, Nick (2000) The Social Body: Habit, Identity and Desire
Feldenkrais, Moshe: Amherst Training.
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Move Well Dublin by Bríd O' Farrell - 8M ago
Drifting to meet us on the darkening stage
A pattern shivered; whorling in its place
Another held us in a living cage
Then broke to its reordered phase of grace.
from Downstream by Thomas Kinsella.
Have you ever had someone plant a seed of thought in your head? A seed that somehow landed on a fertile patch of ground, to grow a giant beanstalk that tossed you upwards to the lofty heights of fledgling thought, seductive and distracting thought, fluttering by, demanding a follower thought, thought with some unknown purpose and intent? That’s where I’ve been the last month. Following a thought planted by one of my teachers! Sorry for the delay in the planned monthly posting, I was thinking! I’ve often been accused of being too much in my head, it’s one of the reason’s I’ve been drawn to the Feldenkrais method; it’s my perfect antidote!
I’ll have that teacher’s words inexactly now, time has fogged them a little in my mind, but I’ll have his meaning right (I hope). He was reminding our group, a small band of Feldenkrais practitioners, about the importance of respecting the personal space of our students. What he said made a lot of sense to me, especially after digesting Blakeslee and Blakeslee’s, The Body has A Mind of Its Own, where they clearly explain the specialised part of our brain that is busy with the work of mapping “peri-personal space”: the space that surrounds us and that we experience as forming part of our embodied self. The easiest way to explain this space is to imagine a kind of personal force field that you carry around with you everywhere you go. Any encroachment into this space, especially if it is unexpected, is sensed immediately and can be experienced as a threat. Culture of course plays a big part in this, as you’ll know if you’ve ever been to India and felt the press of people into you from every side, or been in the mosh pit at a death metal concert where proximity is expected and maybe even relished. If you’d like to read more about how the body maps space and maps itself follow this link :http://www.bettermovement.org/blog/2008/proprioception-the-3-d-map-of-the-body?rq=body%20maps
Enormously interesting, but that was not what got me thinking. It was rather something he said about the “state” that a person enters into during a lesson. The “being state”, I think he meant. An altered state of consciousness where, what is usual and habitual is put in suspense, so that new learning can take place. It can be a vulnerable place for people he reminded us, and also a place that is brimful of potential. This got me thinking about “liminality”, a concept I ended up mulling over quite a bit back when I was researching embodied sociology. Theories of liminality owe much to anthropologist Arnold van Gennep’s study of “rites of passage” in traditional cultures, those rites which accompany and facilitate people in transitioning from one state to another, from childhood to adult-hood, for example. In van Gennep’s accounts of these ritualised passages between states, he marks out three clear phases. The first is a separation from society and from the rules it normally applies to its citizens. The second is the liminal or marginal zone, a threshold or chrysalis state which allows for the dissolution of previous identities and social roles. The third is the re-aggregation phase, where the passenger in ritualised transition is incorporated back into society in a transformed state.
Away from home, “in training” as it were, it struck me that much of my experience of the “Feldenkrais method” has commonality with “rites of passage” and especially with the need, every now and then to enter into a liminal zone, to be “betwixt and between worlds” (Turner, 1969), where the commonsense of the everyday can be disrupted and questioned. On the surface of it, it is the commonsense of everyday movement that gets “liminalized” in the Feldenkrais method. Not only do we enter into a space that feels “different”, in part due to the emphasis on slowing down to sense the intricate kinaesthetic details of the moving self (something not usually facilitated by the mundane demands of life), we also involve ourselves with the exploration of movements that stand out to us as different, and that by virtue of this difference become novel stimuli for rethinking (through movement) the ways that we ordinarily comport ourselves and meet our life-worlds. This is why, a workshop with the ostensible aim of creating a learning space for walking with greater ease, efficiency and elegance might have you walking very oddly backwards and forwards with one leg crossed in front of the other, something you wouldn’t do to cross the road when the little traffic-light-man shines green. The jarring of the difference is one of the ways you help your brain to question the usual and find alternatives.
Victor Tuner, another anthropologist, urged scholars in his field to pay attention to “liminal” zones because he was so certain that these were “a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (Turner, 1967: 47). He also pointed out that those living in the realm of “liminality” are “divested of their previous habits of thought feeling and action” and encouraged to “think about their society, their cosmos and the powers that generate and sustain them”. “Liminality”, he said, “may be partly described as a stage of reflection” (Turner 1967: 105).
In the Feldenkrais method, the scene is set for this kind of divesting from the suit of habit which we all too often make of our movement. By moving slowly and in a way that disturbs the ordinary we can begin to feel that the snag and pull in the shawl of our shoulders is a habit, one that we can perhaps trace to the manner in which we respond to the stressors we meet in our daily lives AND one we can let go of. In the reflective space, we grow awareness, awareness about how we move and also about how we respond to the specific requirements of novel situations. We make connections we hadn’t thought about before. Sometimes these are of the more mundane variety like: “oh my thigh bone doesn’t like to rotate out in its hip socket because there’s still a residue of that time I broke my ankle on this side”. Sometimes the connections are more profound: “I keep my chest high and hard to defend against feeling my vulnerability”. Whatever the discoveries might be, large and small, they all contribute to clearing the way for an alternative “way of being” in the world, one that is more characterised by informed choice and ease.
Many times over the years I’ve heard it said that the Feldenkras Method is an “art of movement”. When pitched against Russian Formalist Victor Schlovsky’s assertion that “the end and justification of all art is that it defamiliarises things which have become dulled and even invisible to us through habit”, I think that argument is easily won. Like art making, the Feldenkrais method is on the margins of society and may serve to create spaces for the overturning, or at least challenging, of its conventions.
For myself, I consider the Feldenkrais Method as a personal/political tool for counteracting the different forms of embodiment that are over-valued in our society, the so-called “fit” bodies that only “fit” because they sufficiently mirror our capitalist society’s consumption and appearance driven values. That’s perhaps a discussion for another time and place. Instead what might be good to end with, for now, is the underlining of the fact that, although those nostalgics amongst us might lament the modern diminishing of varieties of “rites of passage” and their “liminal zones”, the truth is they are still there, now in a slightly altered form but certainly available to us if we seek them out.
Go to any Awareness Through Movement class, I’m suggesting, and you can create these experiences for yourself. Victor Turner was really insistent that we should think deeply about liminal states because they have an important function, a purpose, in the art of living. I know they’ve had a meaningful purpose in my life, maybe you’ll find they have a purpose in your life too.
References:
Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee (2008), The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better.
Victor Tuner (1969), The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Rituals.
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Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.
Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi ,13th century
I had in mind for this month’s blog-post, some further reflections on the connections between movement and emotion, but instead I’m going to let you into one of my not-so-very-well-kept secrets: my greatest talent has always been the unerring ability to make things a lot more difficult than they need to be! If there is a field such as the one Rumi describes in the poem above, and I hope there is, I would probably find the only tangle of briar in it and work myself into its thorny centre. Now there are benefits to my approach, I’ll concede; there’s a particular joy and satisfaction in unravelling a knot, or, teasing out a puzzle. Yet, in the last weeks teaching Awareness Through Movement, I’ve been reminded of another way, the path of least effort and the way of ease.
In class some time in the last weeks, we worked with an Awareness Through Movement lesson that is sometimes known by the title “reaching like a skeleton”. It was one, amongst the first groups of lessons taught on my training, and I have vivid memories of watching my class-mates reaching out in different directions with their arms and having their apparently fluid skeletons follow in the trajectory of their reaching. I also have vivid memories of my own felt sense of effort, a feeling of resistance, especially in my chest and belly, a feeling of being stuck or weighted in place by something terribly heavy. Perhaps you’ve guessed? I was trying too hard!
Reaching like a skeleton is on the one hand an artifice. Of course our bones are swaddled in muscle, nerve, ligamentous and fascial tissue and beneath the dome of our cranial bones there is a brain housing an intricate sensory-motor centre that is busy co-ordinating the movement of all these systems together. On the other hand, the image of the skeleton and how it might reach given the natural physics of a situation, provides us with a metaphor of how we might move if we were unhampered by any of the muscular habits of holding or protecting that we may have picked up in our encounters with our life-worlds. Metaphors and imagination are critical for we human-beings in our attempts to make sense of the world and our place in it. In Metaphors We Live By (Johnson & Lakoff, 1980), Mark Johnson and George Lakoff argue at length that metaphors play an extensive role in the way we function in the world, the way we conceptualise the world and the way we act in the world. For Johnson and Lakoff, there are certain kinds of metaphors that are capable of giving us new understandings of our experiences. I like to call these “metaphors that matter”. Reaching like a skeleton is potentially one of these metaphors, because it invites us into an experience of the weight and shape of our bones and the manner in which they respond to the gravitational force that pours through the skeleton as the arm reaches.
What is needed in order to begin to feel these kinds of experiences in ourselves? The answer is surely not the same for everyone. For some, it is enough to work with the image. For others, carrying through themselves the question of how to do less and where to do less is the task at hand. As with every Awareness Through Movement lesson, this is the process of slowing down and scanning through the entire self with a kind eye for the places in our being that need some softness. One of my students found that what helped her most was to imagine another person, taking her hand and supporting her in her reaching. For myself, back in those training days, what helped most (besides remembering to breathe) was tidying away my impatience and ushering in the unfamiliar figure of patience. Impatience had been giving me a hard time, telling me to hurry up and get it right, telling me to work harder against the parts of myself not yet ready to be involved. Patience opened up a space for something different. With its alternative relationship to time, patience had enough of those precious hourglass particles to take its time in listening to those parts of myself that seemed so unwilling to yield to gravity. Patience changed my pacing entirely; overseeing my making of movements small enough to be able to sense my weight shifting across my mat, without setting off any of my inner alarm bells.
The paradox of “reaching like a skeleton”, for me at least, is that although it seems simple, it is not easy. The contrary is also true, even when it seems easy, it is not simple. Movements in an Awareness Through Movement Lesson mirror life in this way. We can direct our awareness to sift out the fine details that are involved in an apparently easy movement or an effortful movement. Even without the details however, experiences of ease in movement are well beloved of the brain that seeks always to select the most efficient ways of self-functioning in the world, so that it can save its energy for other concerns. Experiences of “reaching like a skeleton” sink in. The more pleasurable you can make them, the deeper they sink. They can become baseline sensorial memories against which we may check ourselves when we begin to feel ourselves working too hard. Experiences on the floor in Awareness Through Movement, I mean to say, move with you out into the world. They are yours to keep, if you choose.
(I’ll leave you with a photo of bonie Emmie, my friendly skelly. I’m giving her a hand to reach here. Even though Emmie is full of all kinds of screws and metal, the weight of her head and pelvis still pour in the direction of her reaching. I hope she enjoys this feeling as much as I do!)

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