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Learning: what to do when you don’t know what to do.

November 4, 2009

Before delivering an Awareness Through Movement class, I always do the class myself, at least a couple of times. This week, the class I chose to give was a classic, given by Dr Feldenkrais himself: Improving chest mobility, from the San Fransisco Evening Class series. I’m lucky enough to have a recording, so I put the CD on and settled onto the floor for what I thought would be an hour or so of delightful movement exploration.

All was going swimmingly, until about the halfway mark of the class, when the movements switched from being done lying on the back (supine) to being done lying on the front (prone). I ran into myself. I couldn’t do the movement. Specifically, I couldn’t do the movement towards the left. I tried to the right – yep, no problem. Back to the left. Nope.

Now, when this happens to students in my classes, I tell them to slow down, go gentler, do less, be satisfied with a tiny bit of progress, that the aim in classes is not to ‘achieve’ the movement in itself, that it’s ok to imagine the movement in detail if you can’t do it as that’s every bit as useful as actually doing it.

Did I follow any of the above sage advice myself? No, I did what most people do as a first response: I applied grunt. Effort. I muscled through. Repeatedly. Moments later, as I lay red-faced and panting on the floor, resting and listening to the lesson proceed on CD to the next sequence of movements, I knew I had a snowball’s chance in hell of making it through the next part of the lesson until I could easily do this part.

So I stopped the CD, and reflected. Even after all these years of Feldenkrais learning and practice, I can still strain and push and heave with the best of them when I find I can’t do something. OK, I thought, so here’s a lesson I can’t do. I can’t ice-skate either, or confidently handle a hammer-drill, or samba, or do a thousand other things, and that don’t bother me. So not being able to do this one lesson shouldn’t be a big thing. After all, I’m interested in helping people functionally – not being able to a funny movement on the floor makes not one whit of difference to my ability to walk or run or dance or sit at the computer, right?

I held that zen-like calm for about two and a half seconds. Then I was back on the floor, trying again. After all, I’m a practitioner, right, I should be able to do this. I applied the ‘Feldenkrais’ approach: doing the movement slowly, slowly, to the side which was easy. I sensed the change in my contact with the floor as I did it. I sensed the trajectories of limbs and pelvis and head. I sensed my breathing. Then I calmly switched to the other side, the difficult side, and suspending expectation, began slowly to…nothing. Frustration. I snarled. I used unladylike words. I probably did a bit of pushing and straining. But I also sensed some details of what was different doing the movement to this side and fairly quickly realised that a small but significant part of the necessary movement sequence was missing, and that I couldn’t consciously will it to happen. So I let it all go, lay on the floor for a moment, and then came up to standing. Incomplete as it was, the class had a profound effect: I felt taller and yet more planted into the ground; solid but light.

Well…I didn’t quite let it all go. Over the next day, and in my head, that one little movement I couldn’t do came to be the root of all the things I can’t do well or don’t like about myself: Anti-clockwise giros in Tango. Stepping back on my left foot. My slightly hunched right shoulder. Hell, even my inability to ice-skate or save the world from poverty. It could all be reduced to my inability to do this one little movement.

Fortunately I recognise my gift for fixations, and while I freely did the movement many times over in my imagination, I waited another day until actually doing the lesson again, this time with company (thanks K!). We didn’t even get to the halfway mark, to the difficult bit for me, but again when I stood up the partial lesson had made changes in the way I carried myself. I resigned myself, philosophically, to delivering only the first part to the class – only the part I could do – this week.

This morning, I put on the CD again, my final preparation for the midday class. When I got to the impossible movement, again I did it on the easy side first, slowly, slowly, …and …lo and behold …when I switched to the other side…. I could ….just ….do the movement. It’s not easy yet, or smooth, and I haven’t finished the lesson either. But the impossible has become possible, which is one of the more frequently quoted aphorisms of Dr Feldenkrais.

As a postscript, the two of the three students I’d chosen the lesson for weren’t at the class today. Perhaps they’ll come another time, and perhaps we’ll do the lesson again. And perhaps we’ll do all of it. Slowly. Without effort. In the imagination, if necessary.

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