The content of this article is an excerpt from Larissa Babij’s blog, A Kind of Refugee, where she shares reflections about her experiences living in wartime Ukraine. In an email to SenseAbility, Larissa wrote: “My Feldenkrais training prepared me well for living through the uncertainty and turmoil following russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine” on February 24, 2022.
Please see footnotes in the text for additional commentary from the editors.
May 15, 2023:
Moshe Feldenkrais, who created the method of learning in movement that I teach today, reminds us that “We cannot function satisfactorily if our thinking, senses, and feelings do not affect our acts or response.” 1 He was born 300 km west of Kyiv in 1904. 2
On Thursday, May 4, 2023, two days before his birthday, I did something that a year ago I thought was impossible. I taught an Awareness Through Movement 3 class during an air attack on Kyiv.
Three students are lying on the floor in a studio in the city center, tuned into their sensations. We’re barely halfway through the lesson when the air raid alarm goes off. I’m unused to it, since it’s barely audible from my apartment on the other side of the river. In this neighborhood it’s loud.
A siren is not enough to ruin a party, but this past week sirens have usually been followed by the arrival of missiles and drones—by the dozens and in unusually quick succession. The other night I was awoken by the sound of them being neutralized by the air defense (these too are explosions only in the air). It sounded like the finale of a fireworks show, or popcorn.
A siren is a call to ask: Do I stay or do I go? If I go, then where? If I stay, then where is the safest place in this building? (Even if you don’t go there now, you want to know where you will head the moment you decide to move. 4) And if we stay put, do we keep going with the Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lesson?
After February 24, 2022, I decided that it is impossible to practice the Feldenkrais method in a war zone. If my responsibility as a teacher is to create conditions for my students to learn through sensing themselves through movement, which requires feeling safe enough to listen to and process what they are feeling, then I cannot satisfy that requirement 5 when russia is attacking all of Ukraine with the intent to destroy every living thing on this territory.
When you live in a large country at war for a long time, you do find ways to keep living, participating in the war, and attending to matters that have nothing to do with war. As long as the missile explodes somewhere else, at a distance, you are, for the moment, safe. Safety is impermanent, but while it endures you are free to live as you wish. Knowing that it can end at any moment, you must also be ready to move when that moment arrives.
Three people have come to the half-basement of a 5-story apartment building this evening for me to teach them an ATM lesson. Heavy curtains cover the large windows—right behind the students’ heads. It’s not exactly a bomb shelter.
When the siren blares, slightly nervous, we discuss what to do. Nobody wants to leave the building; going outside is more dangerous. There’s a small supply room in the middle of the floor, which would provide the most walls between one’s body and the outdoors. I understand that my students want to keep going with the class.
Here are four adults in an unfamiliar situation and I remember the basic principle for acting in an emergency: you have to think for yourself. Every person responds to danger differently and to subordinate your own sense to somebody else’s is tantamount to making them responsible for your life (or you taking responsibility for theirs).
I continue teaching. We hear something fly past overhead. Sounds are information—about distance, direction, speed and type of threat. It sounds like a plane, strange. “Was that a missile?” I ask. “Probably an air defense rocket,” someone responds.
Unfamiliar sounds put me on high alert because I don’t know what made them. I suppress the urge to run to the windows or outside to see what it is.
The three people lying on the floor remind me that I am responsible for teaching the ATM lesson. Or deciding as the teacher that sorry, I’m cutting it short. They are adults who can make their own decisions but I cannot ignore that what I do and say (just like what they do / say) influences what the others may choose to do. Responsibility for my own safety and for that of the group means alertness to what is going on around us and not ignoring the potential danger we are in.
I ask them to stretch out and rest (while I take a deep breath and accept all of the above).
“Press your left shoulder into the ground. Press both your shoulders into the floor.”
There is a barrage of sounds. “Popcorn” again, only this is much closer than what I heard from my bed last week.
I’ve always understood that in teaching ATM it is my job to remind and affirm to my students that they are in safety. 5
Here I realize that my job is to remind them that even while they are lying on the floor doing small movements with attention to their sensations, we ARE NOT in safety. My job is to keep bringing all of us—myself included—back to the moment of what is really happening.
“Anxiety arises when your body signals danger even when you are in conditions that are safe and peaceful. Well that is not the case here. One really does need to be alert to both the sensory information coming in from outside and your body’s signals.”
I invite them to see where they can make less of an effort while pulling their stomach in and inhaling, then pushing it out while exhaling.
“We are practicing creating space between your conscious control of your movements and your body’s capacity to perform certain functions automatically, allowing it to take care of the things it does well without your interference. So that when you do have to act—and you never know when that will be and what it will require—you are better prepared to meet the challenge.”
A loud sound, like a long continuous whistle of wind, dominates the room. “That sounds like a Shahed,” says one student. I’ve never heard one before. Soon after—an explosion.
Yes, I let a few swear words slip out over the evening. And we finished the lesson, which was a lesson in sensing yourself in apprehension, in a situation that is threatening with no way to know what will actually transpire. It was neither safe nor injurious.
Class ends and we discover that the air raid alarm has too.
Feldenkrais, who left his family home in the Russian Empire at age 14, never returned to Ukraine. He grew up and developed his ideas about learning in various countries and languages, from Israel to France to the USA. Teaching his students, he always insisted that there is no single correct way to do something—only more or less appropriate to the given situation. He was never imprisoned in a concentration camp nor did he visit the Soviet Union.
Outside the air smells of something burnt, slightly metallic. My students chat excitedly while I’m still trying to grasp what just happened.
I had sensed that one student’s determination to keep going was related to distracting from the fear of awaiting attack. But I did not realize how terrified another student was while quietly following the rest of the group. The third remarked on the strange sensation of doing something other than scrolling her phone for news during an air raid alarm.
People carry their fear and regulate their relationship to the world around them so very differently. There are so many ways to distance yourself from danger psychically when it’s beyond your control to do so physically.
An unarmed individual cannot fight a russian missile attack directly. The best you can do is hide. But you can’t spend your life hiding. It’s the only life you’ve got.
- Moshe Feldenkrais, The Elusive Obvious, 1981, p. 37.
- Moshe Feldenkrais was born in Slavuta, Ukraine on May 6, 1904 when Ukraine was still part of the Russian Empire.
- Awareness Through Movement is the group format for teaching the Feldenkrais Method. Students are guided verbally through sequences of gentle, but novel movement explorations with a special emphasis on the use of attention to improve the quality of function.
- Feldenkrais taught his students to practice movement in the imagination as a way of improving physical action. The essential idea was that mental rehearsal that made a clearer “map” of the action in advance would lead to more efficient action.
- In an email to SenseAbility, Larissa filled in the story of how she came to be teaching this ATM class after originally thinking that she could not teach while Ukraine was under attack:
I didn’t “choose” to stop practicing ATM / the FM in February 2022 in the way that today I can choose whether or not to resume teaching ATM in October or not. The mode of having to take care of your survival and help others survive in a situation that is completely new and unfamiliar (and life-threatening) is absolutely incompatible with the “safe space” in which one can turn one’s attention to subtle shifts in sensation in controlled movement.
How is it that after some time (November 2022 to be precise) I decided (and was able to) resume teaching ATM? The short answer is that I had adapted and gotten used to living in a country at war . . . The sound of air raid sirens is familiar; the waiting for explosions and their sounds are also relatively familiar; the act of deciding where to stay / go is familiar; etc.
Larissa Babij has been teaching Awareness Through Movement classes since 2020. She has devoted countless hours since childhood to various forms of dance, ranging from Ukrainian folk to contemporary to the Lindy Hop. She began her professional training in the Feldenkrais Method in New York City in 2017. Born in the US in a Ukrainian family, Larissa has lived in Kyiv since 2005. She works as a translator and writes about her life in Ukraine following Russia’s full-scale invasion in her blog, A Kind of Refugee. Her dispatches from wartime Ukraine in 2022 will be published as a book by ibidem Press next spring.