By Erin Finkelstein, GCFP
After a recent class, one of my students exclaimed, “I was so confused during this lesson!” My response was, “I completely understand, and that’s a beautiful place to start.” I remember feeling confused as a student during my early Awareness Through Movement (ATM®) experiences, and yet enjoyed the profound difference in my body and mind after each class. In those early days, I first sat with the discomfort of confusion, until I eventually came to crave that very feeling. Why would we desire an experience we know to be confusing?
Moshe Feldenkrais was a scientist and his aim was to help people learn how to learn, in order to live with their highest level of vitality. ATM lessons are designed to challenge your brain, and to clarify the body’s connection to it. The lessons are generally not physically challenging for most people because they are not designed to provide “exercise” in the modern sense of the word. Many lessons, from a scientific vantage point, present an initial movement which will serve as the hypothesis in the learning process. The challenges to our habitual movement presented throughout the lessons might seed from a confusing place, but ultimately lead to a freedom and fresh perspective in our nervous system, body and mind.
We all take habitual movement for granted. Every single movement you make throughout your day that does not require a conscious thought is a habitual movement. It is the opposite of what we feel in an ATM lesson when a movement sequence becomes confusing. Imagine for a moment that you had to decide how to roll out of bed, how to stand on your two feet, how to take a step or how to pick up a toothbrush. (Try that one by brushing with the opposite hand for fun!) It would take you all day just to do the most basic functions. You couldn’t get through a day without the thousands of habitual movements!
Habitual movements are necessary, but they are also non-judgmental. “Neurons that fire together, wire together” is a common saying in the field of neuroscience. This tells us that the more you fire the same habit, the stronger the wire connection is in your brain, whether or not it’s in sync with your greatest intention. Everyone picks up habits that may not be as useful as other potential and available options, whether we realize it or not. For example, your brain does not decide to tell you that moving in one certain direction will cause more wear and tear over time than will a different movement. Even if it does, you have the choice not to listen to it. The only ways in which you can know the difference are by either studying it, or by having a really clear, direct somatic understanding of yourself as you go through your life. The baby version of your nervous system was a fantastic somatic learner. That part of your brain is still in there, wanting some attention!
“A somatic movement, generally speaking, is one which is performed consciously with the intention of focusing on the internal experience of the movement rather than the external appearance or result of the movement”.¹ I couldn’t have said it better! In other words, the theoretical movements I was describing earlier, having to stop and think about how you would roll out of bed, take a step, brush your teeth, etc., can become somatic movements if you slow them down enough to sense how you do them. By increasing the distance between a thought and an action, you can learn to choose slightly different ways of moving and thinking, resulting in novelty and, hopefully, ease.
Theme and Variations, A Musical Analogy
Moshe’s aim was to put your nervous system in a safe environment, focusing on going slowly and moving less than the extreme range in order to do something with clearer initiation and greater organization. Lessons have themes and variations, and the variations have different constraints and invitations. In the theme, he has you explore a habitual movement, whether you perceive it as habitual or not, then introduces non-habitual movements in relation to it. This causes confusion in your habitual organization, and gives your nervous system more options to “fire together” with new “wiring”. That’s why we say that you cannot do a lesson incorrectly, unless you are causing yourself pain. It’s also why it is not necessary to do all of the variations if you find that the confusion passes beyond being interesting into the realm of frustration. Stay within the boundary of what gives you joy and curiosity!
Language of Movement
For many of us, we are learning brand new words within these variations, and learning how our nervous system interprets them. It’s challenging at the best of times, but even more challenging over Zoom! Patience is the key, and acceptance is the door. Since this work is centered around your perception of your body in space, your soma, the words always relate to you. This applies no matter what your orientation is to gravity — sitting, standing on your head, or laying on your back, front or side.
Here are a few pointers to help clarify directions you may hear in an ATM lesson:
-Above you is always above your head, whether you are laying down or sitting up.
-In front and back of you is always oriented toward the front of you or behind you, relative to your own orientation in space.
-Left and right stay the same in all orientations, even though that might cause temporary confusion!
-Turning or rolling motions are like those of a ball. A point of contact on your body changes in gravity as you move.
-Sliding motion or translation movement is when a point of contact on your body does not change in gravity, but changes its point of contact on the floor. This relates to a bending movement.
-Folding or flexion movements are when two endpoints (distal) of the body come towards each other in gravity.
-Extending or extensor movement is when two endpoints (distal) of your body move away from each other in gravity.
It is worth remembering that Feldenkrais was developing his work during WW2 and dealing with the persecution and execution of his people on a scale most of us have not witnessed in our lifetime. The cultivation of the ability to pause and find presence, and choose your reaction to the world around you – rather than reflexively acting out of habitual programming, is truly what this work is about. How do you create vitality amidst challenging times? Do your habits run you, or can you sit with the discomfort of not knowing what’s going to happen next? Can you embrace the confusion in order to have a choice of moving in a different direction, towards a more peaceful existence?
As a clarinetist and practitioner for over 15 years, Erin has healed her own jaw issues and helped countless others find a new relationship with their jaw. Prior to becoming a practitioner, Erin taught herself a new way of moving the muscles in her own face after suffering acute jaw problems from practicing her instrument. With a strong in person and online practice, she has helped many people to have easier and more enjoyable movements. Her website is ErinFinkelstein.com.