By Cheryl Whitelaw
I followed my curiosity into becoming a Feldenkrais practitioner. What I learned through the Feldenkrais Method transformed how I am able to learn and perform in aikido, a modern Japanese martial art. I started aikido at age 46 and the Feldenkrais Method at age 50. I came to both approaches with a background in karate and Tai Chi as well as a career in adult education with a focus on transformational learning.
When I first encountered the Feldenkrais Method, I realized that the transformational learning method I sought was found within the method. I had studied transformational learning as part of my Masters of Education degree and found the research literature essentially treated learning as cognition. In my own thesis preparation on the Teachable Moment, I also turned to study literature on learning from Eastern traditions, such as Taoism. I was training karate at the time and watched my Sensei Taka Kinjo observe, touch and guide students into transformational learning moments every class. I knew there was something more than the academic worldview of learning. I set out to find what that something more might be, using the opportunities that were available in the small urban center I lived in.
“The negative aspect of learning to achieve aims is that we tend to stop learning when we have mastered sufficient skills to attain our immediate objective” 1
My attraction to Aikido, at mid-life, had as much to do with the study of connection as with the study of technique. Aikido is not a system of fighting but rather a martial way of not fighting. In Aikido, the attacker (called uke) strikes or grabs and the defender (called nage) responds through a technique that is intended to both control the attacker and de-escalate the attack. Aikido can be translated to mean several things; one meaning is the “way of harmony.” It is a martial art that asks practitioners to create a refined quality of self-organization and a capacity to maintain connection while moving. As these qualities increase, the felt sense of harmony in Aikido also increases.
I found a very satisfying overlap between Feldenkrais® teachings and aikido. While aikido training supported an increase in my sense of calmness, flexibility and overall coordination, once I started learning the Feldenkrais Method, my aikido performance accelerated. When I started practitioner training with the Feldenkrais Training Academy, I had 5 years and 1600 hours of aikido training. Once I started Feldenkrais practitioner training, how I approached learning aikido shifted and my progress evolved in a way noticeable to myself and my Sensei Brad Schultz. This shift in the rate of change in aikido performance led to many post-training dialogues with my Sensei who I consider a self-taught user of learning through distinctions, and learning from thinking, sensing, moving and feeling.
Reflecting on what changed, I made an important distinction between 3 different aspects of the overall learning process which I will call:
2) practice, and
I define learning as acquiring knowledge and skill that I don’t already know.
In a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® lesson, learning takes the form of following verbal guidance to move my awareness as I move my body. I find there is a sweet spot in the learning zone, to bring attention to myself without trying too hard to make a move I don’t yet know how to make. This sweet spot of learning is a kind of lingering at the event horizon of my personal learning edge, attending to the possibilities that emerge. In an aikido class, learning takes the form of demonstration and exploration of movement in pairs or individually to learn a new technique or variation on a technique.
In both contexts, this part of the learning process requires patience, persistence and a kind attention that is curious. In both contexts, forcing my movement to achieve a goal misses an opportunity to discover a coordination that I don’t already know.
“Normally, one learns from experience, by correcting earlier patterns of behaviour. When a person continues to use a stereotyped pattern of behaviour instead of one suitable to the present reality, the learning process has come to a standstill” 2
One important capacity that developed from my Feldenkrais practice is sensory differentiation. Sensory differentiation includes the ability to sense the increase or decrease in muscle tone, pressure, weight and how force (gravity, ground force or applied force) is traveling through my body. In my Feldenkrais practitioner training sensory differentiation was cultivated with care through the organic learning process in Awareness Through Movement lessons. In aikido, sensory differentiation helps maintain an upright posture to move with a well-coordinated structure. A skeletally structured, balanced and integrated self is more likely to be a successful practitioner in both Feldenkrais and aikido.
Like in a Functional Integration® (FI®) lesson when a teacher’s nervous system is connected to the student’s nervous system, connection with your partner in aikido creates one system where you can use your own self-organization and movement to create change in your partner. In an FI, the change relates more to supporting your client’s greater freedom of movement and to fill in a more complete self-image. In aikido, the change relates to de-stabilizing your partner, making them more moveable with an easy yet directive force that takes advantage of biomechanical levers in the body and reflexes in response to the field of gravity. In both contexts, using brute force is considered a less desirable way to create change within the two-person system.
In aikido, developing my capacity for sensory differentiation gave me a greater ability to make moment by moment observations within myself, noticing when I was pushing to force a movement. My capacity to sense differences through touch within my partner allows me to more accurately sense how they are moving. Through touch, the nervous system to nervous system connection is more immediate and allows me to be more responsive. Compared to my sensory experience prior to Feldenkrais training, on the aikido mat, I am now flooded with more information that allows me to make more choices in how I use myself. This capacity alone gave me more skilled ways to learn what I did not already know how to do and allowed me to refine my own organization in both solo and paired aikido learning.
The second aspect of the learning process is practice. I define practice as repeating movements I have learned so I can strengthen my familiarity with them.
Practice can mean repeating learned movements to render them easier, more efficient, and eventually more elegant and freer in their expression. I practice to feel able and confident in what I know. This part of the learning process requires diligence, honesty and a self-encouragement towards improving, especially when extended periods of practice are needed to arrive into a confident, well-coordinated movement.
In aikido the practice stage happens most for me in my solo practice. On the mat, I identify specific movements that I want to refine through repetition. In my personal Feldenkrais practice, this often happens when I revisit Awareness Through Movement lessons to continue to explore what is possible in the movements, especially movements I initially found to be impossible or difficult. Greater familiarity and practice often enlarge what is possible for me. I find a greater spaciousness in myself with the movement and for the potential opportunities to express the movement. Practice also helps me to clarify auxiliary or parasitic movements that may be part of my habitual pattern of movement. In practice, I learn how to unlearn my movement habits.
“Every time we expand the limits of our knowledge, our sensibility and the precision of our actions increase and the limits of what is considered natural and normal also expand.” 3
In aikido practice, using motor planning preparation cultivated through my Feldenkrais practice, I can refine my movement by exploring different options. I can vary timing or explore different places to initiate the movement within a technique. I can sense how different choices in motor planning affect my balance, breathing or posture so I can make relatively rapid distinctions about which strategies yield a more promising movement. I can discover when I hold my breath to complete a movement or how I can make use of my eyes to find a higher quality movement. My capacity to move my awareness, cultivated so well through the Feldenkrais method, is useful to notice any absence of my awareness in parts of my body. I am growing my capacity to attend to a specific part of myself, for example where my partner has grabbed my wrist, as well as attend to all of myself at the same time. This use of my awareness helps me maintain my autonomy within my connection with my partner in the presence of forces applied through me.
The third aspect of the learning process is training. I define training as applying movements into different contexts and integrating an overall higher order of functioning.
Training includes repetition and variation to support a fuller embodiment of movement. This is a part of the overall process of learning that people can miss by becoming satisfied with the efficiency they can achieve through practice in predictable environments. For me this is about when I feel satisfied with what I have learned. To feel satisfied, I need to road test my technique.
Training is about taking what I have learned to do efficiently and applying it. In this aspect of the overall learning process, I am focused on extending the limits of how I can use what I know. This stage can feel exhilarating and difficult, facing how what I believe I know doesn’t work. I could stop when I feel confidently proficient in predictable contexts. Training helps me discover new learning edges, to expand, to become more embodied. I find that I develop a deeper inner spaciousness when I road-test what I have learned. I become resilient in my knowledge.
In my personal Feldenkrais practice, this is taking what I learned in a lesson and bringing it into functional movement in my life, seeing how I can bring my enhanced organization, awareness and knowledge of functional movement within different contexts, finding all of the different ways I can apply it.
One way my Feldenkrais cultivated abilities significantly aid my aikido training is in ukemi. Ukemi is the term used when I play the role of the attacker who is then subject to the technique my partner uses in response to my attack. In the ukemi role, after attacking, my primary goal is to stay connected and keep attacking. I may often end up rolling, falling with control or being pinned by my partner. Ukemi demands a dynamic expression of my base of support. As I maintain connection and continue attacking, my orientation to the ground might change several times before the interaction is completed. It is a dynamic relationship within the field of gravity and ground force, within myself and with my partner, where my own organization and coordination is continually seeking support as I attack and am changed by my partner’s response.
Reversibility, a concept Moshe Feldenkrais used as a marker for quality movement, is a particularly good movement marker in aikido. In any technique, there is the possibility to reverse roles, to take over the technique. Called Kaeshi Waza, it is the study of finding the windows of opportunity in an interaction to take over the technique and change the outcome of the attack. Part of the refinement of movement at a practice stage is to ensure your movement can be reversed, part of the self-organization that is necessary to allow you to take advantage of these windows of opportunity. In the training stage, I test my own self-organization with live, dynamic windows of opportunity to reverse the outcome of the attack. There are many contexts to train Kaeshi Waza and to know, resiliently, how to reverse my own movement.
My overriding goal in training aikido with these three aspects of a learning process, 1) learning, 2) practice and 3) training is to create myself, my body, as a supple instrument of my intention. I feel fortunate to have had a Feldenkrais trainer, Jeff Haller, who introduced aikido-based movements into our learning environment and a Sensei, Brad Schultz, who has welcomed this way of approaching training onto the mat. As I prepare for my black belt test in the coming year, I continue to apply this overall learning process to learn, to practice and to train. I continue to learn how to refine this overall learning process to improve it and my aikido performance.
1 – Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness through Movement
2 – Moshe Feldenkrais, Body and Mature Behaviour
2 – Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness through Movement.
Cheryl Whitelaw is CEO of Peace and Power Movement Services. Cheryl is a Move More without Regrets coach and is 3 months away from becoming a Feldenkrais Practitioner with the Feldenkrais Training Academy. She is an Integral Master Coach™ and a Being in Movement™ practitioner, an approach that combines Aikido and Feldenkrais to support people to regain their personal power following trauma. She teaches online classes weekly. You can learn more at www.kindpower.ca and www.peaceandpower.ca