How do you welcome beginners and newcomers to your classes?

In Members, News by MaryBeth Smith

Any successful enterprise needs a steady stream of new clients to be sustainable. Your Feldenkrais® practice is no different. We were curious about how successful colleagues create this pipeline stream for themselves, and so wondered about how they foster and nurture those relationships. After all, the old adage says “You never have a second chance to make a first impression.”

We asked three Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioners with thriving Awareness Through Movement® classes to share their winning strategies for how they welcome beginners and newcomers so they can attract and retain new students. Let’s hear from Frederick Schjang, LeeAnn Starovasnik, and Nick Strauss-Klein.

IT: How do you welcome new students to your class? What special attention do you give them, if any? How do you adapt your teaching when there are newcomers?

Frederick Schjang, New York City:

I ask who is new to the class and if they’ve taken Awareness Through Movement® classes before. I Introduce myself and find out their names if possible. I then use their name during class to establish a personal connection. Never to scold. Things like “Mary, is that pillow comfortable?”  or “John, what if you did that without bending the knee?” I explain that we are looking at HOW we create movement. We’re exploring; not performing. We’re creating more sophisticated internal software. Depending on the location and class size I may give some quick hands-on guidance to clarify the texture of the movement. Of course, I ask permission to touch. Always. 

We’re exploring; not performing. We’re creating more sophisticated internal software.

Frederick Schjang

In fitness environments I let people know that taking ATM® lessons is like hearing a new language. At first it may seem strange. In fact, today I had a lot of newcomers and it took a full 30 minutes before they slowed down and “got it” that they weren’t simply executing, but exploring. I asked questions which demonstrated my knowledge of what they were already experiencing, and was able to “connect” with them. At the end of the day they loved it. They governed themselves in a way that clearly demonstrated change. 

LeeAnn Starovasnik, Seattle:

New students usually email or call me prior to dropping in to an ongoing class. I like to talk with them beforehand to help them feel welcome; learn more about them, what they hope to gain and learn about in class and answer any questions they have about me and the Method. 

During the first call with a new student we cover their desires, expectations and questions. I review the logistics of parking, what type of mat/blanket to bring and layered clothing to wear for their comfort. I tell them what to expect in the class and explain that chairs are nearby and can be used for support in getting up and down from the ground as needed. I also encourage participation in a chair if that’s best for a student. I give them information about the makeup of the group they’ll be joining and assure them that every class begins at the beginning of the hour and ends at the end of the hour. Therefore, each week is new material, and we’re all “beginners” in each class.  

I. . . ask what my students are curious about embodying before leaving class that day. I invite them to speak it out loud. . .

LeeAnn Starovasnik

On class day, I do my best to greet them at the door and welcome them, review where shoes and coats go, mats, restrooms, etc. I see if they have any questions and be sure they’re introduced to a few of the students as they arrive. When there are newcomers, I usually explain some lingo – ATM, FI, how to pronounce Feldenkrais. I invite anyone in the class to help me catch lingo that someone new may not understand – bring your feet to standing?!? I usually review some of the Feldenkrais basic instructions. I note everyone can use reminders to go slowly and sense carefully how they’re moving, pause and rest when it’s useful for them – whether from fatigue, confusion, holding their breath, etc. I watch new students to see what they may need to clarify and support their ability to participate. I invite them to “cheat liberally”, if they are confused, and see what their neighbors are doing. I also note their neighbor may be equally confused, and there is no “wrong” way to participate as long as their movement is breathable and pleasant. 

In my classes, I generally start seated or standing (all students on the same level with me) and ask what my students are curious about embodying before leaving class that day. I invite them to speak it out loud, if they want to, or hold it for themselves. At least two or three of them will say something about a pain or strain. I help them to reframe and state their intention for what they want to walk out with – such as freedom in their hips, easy uprightness, lightness in their walk, grounded presence, etc. This helps me to “bake” these ideas into the lesson I create to support them moving in the direction of their intentions. I explain that we’re working with a closed system. That means no matter what is moving during the lesson, if they embody the quality/qualities they want more of, it may spread through the system and into more functions. 

Nick Strauss-Klein, Minneapolis-St. Paul: 

I like to greet newcomers personally and take some time to listen to their story of who or what brings them to Feldenkrais study. I ask if they have any movement or pain concerns. I always give them two basic guidelines, often shared with the whole group as we’re just beginning to come together, that “Keeping yourself comfortable as we sense and move is the most important thing, and you’re the highest authority in the room about that!” Then I’ll talk a little bit about freely altering the lesson to make it comfortable, no matter what I’ve asked the group to do, and to wave me down if they need help figuring out alterations.

IT: What follow-up do you do with your new people? What best practices have you adopted?

FS: I invite everyone to stay for a while after class to discuss the class and the philosophy of our work. I’m often surprised. Often people ask me how they can explore the work further.  Today one student recommended some new related reading material by Norman Cousins! So we have a conversation and learn from each other.

If appropriate, I send a thank you email. 

LAS: I check in with them at the end of class to see if they have questions, what they notice changed for them, and invite them to contact me in the next day or two to let me know how they’re doing after class. I make myself available. I encourage them to let me know if they discover some discomfort after the lesson. I explain that this helps us both know better how to work together; and that sometimes it’s hard to know how they respond to the lesson until later. If I haven’t heard from them, I try to reach out via email or phone to see how they’re doing by the 3rd day after class. I let them know I am on their “team.” I am available for Q&A about the lesson and their response to it. I set a reminder on my schedule to follow up with them or I might forget. I also encourage my students to write notes after the lesson so that they develop reminders of how to practice the lessons on their own. Some bring journals to class and gather afterwards to take notes together.

Keeping yourself comfortable as we sense and move is the most important thing, and you’re the highest authority in the room about that!

Nick Strauss-Klein

NSK: I’ll always ask some version of “how was that experience for you?” and listen, validate, and help them contextualize, whatever their experience. I also make sure I have some simple handout so they can attach some scientific understanding to their new sensory experience. For some people, if it’s hard to articulate or explain what they’re feeling (even if it’s very pleasant), it’s easy to discount changes they’re experiencing. I also always mention the The Feldenkrais Project for free-to-use home study!

IT: How have you developed a welcoming environment in your classes? What are the key elements, and how have you influenced that “vibe?”

FS: Ah. I love this. I arrive early. I play music before class. Often people are skeptical or terrified about taking a class in something they don’t know anything about. Ella Fitzgerald they know. And it’s not a spooky silence. 

It turns out that listening to sophisticated music prepares the brain to receive and integrate auditory information. I control lighting (dim) and temperature (74 degrees or so) and sound (silence- as much as possible: no phones or tablets- during class). 

I smile. 

I think a key element is to see this as a community-building class in addition to an awareness-building class.

LeeAnn Starovasnik

LAS: My ongoing students help new people to feel welcome. They introduce themselves and ask about the new person as well. They frequently share why they love the class, and some things they’ve learned. I think a key element is to see this as a community-building class in addition to an awareness-building class. I help it along by making introductions, and I encourage them to share past experiences and current experiences from the lesson. As they walk after the lesson, I invite them to say a couple of words about what changed for them, if they feel comfortable to do so. This helps them and others find language for sensation. I let new students know that since language is developmentally complex that one may not have words for a while when first entering this work. I encourage them to reflect on their classmates’ observations to see if that feels true for them or not, and to feel free to add their experience to the conversation.

NSK: By request of my longtime students, we now do brief introductions once a month. Just first name, location in the metro, and I’ve been asking them what their current interest is (as in this very moment or the last day or so!) in exploring themselves and their world through Feldenkrais study. The newcomers are always impressed by the wide variety of answers, and the longtimers who know each other are tickled by how the answers change over time.

I also like to make myself available before and after class to chat with everyone, especially newcomers, and when there are longtimers I know well enough I’ll loop them and their experience with Feldenkrais right into conversations with newcomers (with their permission, of course).

I also like to make myself available before and after class to chat with everyone, especially newcomers,

Nick Strauss-Klein

Finally, I like to build community by inviting people to call out something interesting they’re noticing about themselves as they walk around as the lesson is ending. I’m always sure to say “It’s hard to put these changes in words, so just 1 to 3 words or so.” It’s great learning for all and I think it helps segue the lesson time into the rest of the day. At the very least it starts conversations as the formal group time ends.

IT: If you offer “Beginner Level” classes, what are some of your favorite starter lessons for folks just wading in to the Feldenkrais Method?

FS: It really depends on the group. I’ve started some classes with “balancing a book” and some with pelvic clock/ side clock and shoulder clock variations.

I don’t advocate starting with a specific lesson or two without knowing the group. Just as I don’t have a “go to” Functional Integration® lesson for a client I’ve never met, I don’t like to prescribe or even suggest a specific lesson for a hypothetical group. I’ve done everything with newcomers: from spiraling to standing; to “dead bird” in a chair; to breathing lessons coordinated with micro movements of the head; to balancing a book or variations with clocks (pelvic, side, shoulder). “Feeling out” what would work best with a group takes experience. And I’m not always successful. 

A good resource for ATM Class teachers just starting out might be MIA and Gaby’s San Francisco classes. 

In fitness environments I let people know that taking ATM® lessons is like hearing a new language.

Frederick Schjang

LAS: I don’t have “levels” of classes, however when I have some beginners or begin a new 8-wk quarter with seniors at the Lifetime Learning Center, I often start with teaching one of my short “ABCs of Everyday Ease” seated lessons so that they can have a taste of how to participate. I teach the first week in chairs with my seniors so that anyone who may be intimidated or struggle with getting to the floor can see the benefits gained while sitting, and that each week anyone can participate in a chair or on the floor. I have been teaching seniors for 20 years and can creatively adapt countless lessons to be done seated or with some students seated and some lying on the floor. I want to include everyone in a respectful way.

NSK: I don’t teach different levels of classes, but I come prepared to teach more or less advanced versions of what I intend to teach (or even entirely different “back up” lessons to use if there’s lots of newcomers or I’m sure someone will struggle too much with what I’ve planned). I may choose to use a large, straightforward test movement (like some form of twisting) at the beginning and end of class to help newcomers feel the obvious difference of range. At the same time I’ll mention that range is just one of the aspects of self that may have changed, and hint at other possibilities they may feel.

Try this recorded Awareness Through Movement lesson: “A is for Ankles” (copyright 2019, LeeAnn Starovasnik, Next Step Consulting Inc).

Questions for reflection:

What do these stories have in common? How do they differ?

What did you find inspiring? Challenging? Encouraging?

What is one idea that you might include in your teaching this week?

Frederick Schjang

Frederick Schjang teaches in New York City. He is on the adjunct faculty of the Physical Therapy Doctoral Program at New York University, and the creator of Feldenkrais Festivals. FrederickSchjang.com

LeeAnn Starovasnik

LeeAnn Starovasnik teaches in Seattle, WA. She’s has created a series of seated Feldenkrais® ATM® lessons – “The ABCs of Everyday Ease,” now in production for commercial release. Learn more about LeeAnn at Next Step Consulting Inc.

Nick Strauss-Klein

Nick Strauss-Klein is the Director of Twin Cities Feldenkrais in Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, and the creator of  FeldenkraisProject.com.




Download this article