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October 25, 2009


A colleague recently reminded me of the Feldenkrais concept of reversibility (thanks N., it made my day). In a Feldenkrais context, reversibility is the basis of agility:

Agility is the ability to change the body’s position efficiently, and requires the integration of isolated movement skills using a combination of balance, coordination, speed, reflexes, strength, endurance,and stamina. (from Wikipedia)

In group Feldenkrais classes (Awareness Through Movement), we might explore reversibility literally – pausing a movement and reversing the sequence to return to the starting point – as a technique to clarify what we are actually doing. For many, sensing what ‘releases’ or ‘lets go’ on the return of a movement is clearer than sensing what habitually engages when making a movement. We might also use reversibility as a gauge of efficient movement: the less extraneous muscular engagement involved in making a movement, the less effort in disengaging and re-engaging to reverse. In other words, the less you are doing, the easier it is to reverse or change the action, and this is the key to agility.

Reversibility as a concept in common parlance seems, sadly, to have acquired a near pejorative flavour. A theme in Don Watson’s Bendable Learnings (sorry Don, I tried to finish it but couldn’t. It’s just too disheartening) is the current fervor for ‘going forward’. This equates to progress which, uncritically accepted as A Good Thing,  naturally implies that going backward, or reversing, must be A Bad Thing. And there’s plenty of linguistic evidence that this is the case (eg backflip as pejorative description to describe reverse of opinion, backward as pejorative adjective to describe a person).

In Tango, however, reversibility is highly desirable. Lead and follow take turns in going backward, both in the line of dance and in giros (turns). To travel backwards with confidence requires promoting proprioception over the visual sense (if you try to look where you’re going while walking backwards you’ll do yourself a nasty injury). Reversibility as a fundamental of agility is also essential – follows in particular need to be able to change direction in an instant; to suspend normative prediction and commitment, in fact to be doing as little as possible in order to respond swiftly and appropriately to the lead.

Likewise, in almost any martial arts, reversibility is desirable. Dr Feldenkrais (himself a Judo exponent) wrote a small volume entitled ‘Practical Unarmed Combat.’, and in Feldenkrais Method practitioner trainings a good week or so is dedicated to learning a Judo roll. The ability to transform the potential energy of a falling-to-ground movement into a rising-to-stand movement is a model of reversibility in all its proprioceptive, efficient, and agile glory.

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