Walking around Queens (NYC) early one Sunday morning, with a large coffee and tears running down my cheeks, I felt confused and overwhelmed by life. I was a young performing artist living and working in the city that never sleeps and, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was dealing with intense surfacing impacts of developmental trauma. There was a sign on the sidewalk with the image of a buddha and an arrow pointing to the subterranean level, marked ‘by donation’’.
A smiling face inside, kindly gestured to join the group. Everyone was sitting quietly with their eyes closed. I thought this might be just what I needed, though I had little idea of how to meditate. What unfolded as I sat, was a myriad of sensations in my body including tightness in my back and neck that got worse with trying to stay still. I didn’t know what to do with the continued inner tumult, the whizzing thoughts racing through my mind faster than I could even track, and a sense of malaise, like having shuttered myself in.
I next did what anyone might do in this situation where I’d been warmly invited and everyone around me seemed to be having a placid experience: I dissociated (leaving my bodily awareness and intense mind fog) and fell asleep. It was my neurological escape hatch.
Drowsiness or falling asleep can happen in meditation, especially when it’s a new process. Overall fatigue, nighttime sleep deficit, and stress, catch up to us quickly when we slow down. Thankfully, when I continued to experience sleepiness while sitting weekly with this group, I got curious about what else might be happening. Beginning with peeling away the layers of faulting myself or disappointment at not feeling instantly peaceful, I started to notice other places in my life where I was checking out or abandoning myself. Most importantly, I recalibrated to listen to my body through experimenting with opening my eyes (which can be helpful for trauma survivors), and shifting myself when my legs started falling asleep. I came to realize that this process was better than my thinking mind had grasped: it was an invitation to learn about myself, and sense my relationship with the world around me.
One year later in 2007, I began the extensive Feldenkrais® practitioner training. This choice was inspired by my challenging early experiences with meditation, and the growing awareness that some of my suffering was bound up in not knowing how to be kind and patient with my internal experience (which creates the possibility to learn skills to transform all forms of pain, with support). I had dabbled in Feldenkrais over the years, and found myself coming back to an interesting discovery, as I became a daily meditator: movement was my inroad to meditative stillness.
Nowadays, through all of this embodied self-learning and being in this generative and generous process with folks internationally, I have a deep well of healing that I can continually draw from. The foundation of this healing pathway is grounded in embodiment (mind-heart-body together in presence), and cultivating curiosity, choice and playfulness. In the growth that emerges from this fundament, I also live in the understanding that our embodiment, as individuals, is directly impacted by systems: family, culture, environment, educational frameworks, institutions, and more. Our lived experience, which shapes how we embody our lives (and also changes genetic expression, and more, inside of us), is affected by these systemic structures.
What’s the relationship between somatics and meditation, as two pathways of sensing embodiment?
Feldenkrais is not just about movement, and meditation is not just about working with the mind, and neither has a final destination or end point. Both involve forging space and time for a somatic reality that makes it possible to cultivate awareness of what we haven’t yet noticed in our patterns of moving, feeling, listening, thinking and expressing. I think of Feldenkrais and meditation as ways of life stewardship and enlivening growth patterns that transform us continually.
Somatics (derived from the Greek “soma-“, meaning “body” or of the body) is a field of attentional sensing that allows for an unfolding experience of aliveness in real time. Exploring presence, guided by internal slowing down, enables us to notice more of our sensations, anticipatory patterns, tensions, connections, pleasure, and other qualities. There are different forms of structured somatic processes, one of which is the Feldenkrais Method®. To me, Feldenkrais feels like an orientation of grounding, that I can always return to. It is a space to reset my attention, relieve my body (and mind) of patterns of tension or laxity or numbness, and reinvigorate a quality of balance.
The Feldenkrais Method of somatic education, in two forms (Awareness Through Movement® group lessons, and Functional Integration® touch-based 1:1 sessions), elegantly provides a dynamic way to reduce effort, increase the capacity for creative learning, and tune into emergent experience. In this flow, we’re invited to learn how we learn, and the possibilities that stem from this self-knowledge. When we understand that healing happens on a continuum, and we take the findings of recent neuroscientific research that our brains are neuroplastic (that we can learn throughout our lifetimes, and unlearn harmful or previously unconscious patterning), there is a kind of ease that now has space to enter.
In growing a personal and professional practice over these years, in complement with Somatic Experiencing® (a process for healing trauma at the neurobiological level), I have come to deeply appreciate the overlays between Feldenkrais and mindfulness meditation. Interestingly, I have also received direct feedback from several folks (internationally) that Feldenkrais feels like a “movement meditation.”
When we slow things down and reduce external stimuli, we seed the ground for meaningful change. What kind of changes are we seeking? Maybe it is learning functional ease in a movement for daily life, such as getting up from the floor without strain, or deeper sleep, or being more patient with our loved ones. Further still, when we begin to experience a sense of energy to live, choose, and delight in the unfolding of awareness and learning, we may notice a reduction in feeling we don’t have options, such as helplessness or hopelessness. We may more clearly sense our connection to the environments we inhabit. This all comes from integration (think: digesting experience), and support. We expand our whole capacity when we engage with our bodies, not just living “upstairs” in our minds, and this begins with attention.
Where we place our attention matters. The useful expression that “we never step in the same river twice” reminds us that there is actually no experiential repetition. Each new moment is filled with nascent qualities within us and around us. Just as no breath cycle is ever the same as the next, no moment of meditation or movement is identical. With this knowing, we can embody our lives with a sense of unending curiosity. This is the “beginner’s mind” that Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki offered up as an orientation for meditation, and for living.
Two of the cornerstones of both meditation and Feldenkrais are discernment and adaptability. Firstly, we direct our attention (we’re always paying attention to something, including when we feel distracted). As we flow deeper into this quality of attention, awareness arises (e.g. I notice that I’ve been holding my shoulders up following a tense conversation). From this awareness, an essential process can take place: discernment.
Like pruning a fruit tree, we decide consciously how to bring new growth (and just like pruning in a season of dormancy, we remember that fruiting happens in another season, so we can relieve ourselves from seeking instant change). By letting some branches fall away to be composted back into the soil, we remember we cannot pay attention to everything, all at once. As we attune to the fullness of our experience, we begin to discern what needs more of our kind attention to process and integrate in an unrushed and non-corrective way.
Meditation invites us to non-judgmentally sense the pattern that’s revealing itself (eg. anxiety or heart-centered connectedness), moving away from the analytical mind, thereby allowing a layer of tension to dissipate organically. Feldenkrais invites this learning through the body and behavior, including guided sensory movement (without demonstration or dictated form), and resting time for integration.
“The map is not the territory” – Alfred Korzybski
When we are open to exploring with discernment, we reignite playfulness through the creativity of choice. As we cultivate delight in the momentary and ephemeral (which are the moments that comprise a life), we create adaptability in our whole system. The cellular intelligence of us, including the nervous system, is stimulated by sensing differences between moments and qualities being unearthed. We may have learned that a roadmap for life is what’s needed or desired, but both Feldenkrais and meditation invite us into something else: discovering growth and possibility, integrating lived experience, and inhabiting more of ourselves.
There is no one way to be, to learn, or to grow. There are embodied pathways that work with many layers of ourselves at once and in this way, they enrich our lives. In my experience, Feldenkrais and meditation are like a forest: a whole community with underground and invisible life interdependent with the aboveground and the visible. We are a whole ecosystem of experience, and never in isolation from the rest of what we belong to. We are Nature, inherently relational, and somatics reminds us that our bodies are the great tending sensors of our lives.
Sandrine is passionate about sharing experiences of embodied presence, co-creation, playfulness and creativity, and connection. Throughout and beyond her career as a professional dancer and performer, she has been learning from people at far corners of this Earth, as well as drawing deep inspiration from the natural world we all belong to.
Along the winding (lifelong) journey of healing her own cPTSD from developmental trauma, Sandrine has trained in and become a practitioner of modalities she has personally benefited from, alongside witnessing others explore, grow and heal through these approaches. Collectively, the experiences and process she shares are Emergent Nature.
Sandrine continues to deepen her learning through consistent training, case consults and professional peer groups. In recent years, she has learned about the somatics of shame with Peter Levine; attachment traumas with Diane Poole Heller; social justice through somatic transformation with Staci Haines; neuroplastic pain syndromes with Dr. Howard Schubiner; the impact of systems of oppression with Nyaunu Stevens (NCCJ); trauma-sensitive mindfulness with David Treleaven; meditation with Sharon Salzberg; and so many others along this continuum of growth.
His website is: www.sandrineharris.com