Greetings and pleasant movement to you, my name is Alex Schaefer, I am a physical therapist and Feldenkrais Practitioner. After 22 years working in orthopedics, neurology, sports medicine, and geriatrics in a variety of locations across the country, I have recently moved back home to Illinois to start my own private practice incorporating physical therapy and the Feldenkrais Method together. It is my professional dream job and I’m excited to blend the concepts of motor learning, individualized self care, and neuroplasticity from the Feldenkrais Method to an audience looking for something more than traditional physical therapy.
Now that I have a schedule of my own making, I have the great pleasure of spending a full day once a week with my niece who will be 2 years old later in May. I do not have any children of my own, so this is the first time that I have been involved regularly in watching and shaping a young child’s development. After watching her learn rolling and crawling over her first year plus of life, now she can walk and run around well enough to be truly dangerous! She understands and communicates verbally (just words and phrases), and you can reason with her (when properly fed). She’s still a baby but on her way to becoming a kid.
As her uncle, I feel it is my role to take her on adventures and to instill confidence in her. I joke with her parents that I plan on putting her into controlled danger – not situations where she will get hurt, but to give her challenges with appropriate support. I provide enough guidance and encouragement to help her succeed, but enough freedom for her to make mistakes and some of her own choices. I hope that this approach helps her learn she can do anything she sets her mind to, provided she knows what she is doing and how to do it.
I have my own clinic, where I teach Awareness Through Movement classes, in addition to my work as a physical therapist. The space is full of mats, rollers, and balls and enough room for her to roll, crawl, run, throw, kick, negotiate steps, and just play. Her amazement and wonder at all the objects and sensations that come into her perception cracks me up. From a book, to a piece of lint, to her own toes – everything is interesting to her!
WOW is a popular word these days. For her, it’s all new and unknown and needs to be felt, tasted, smelled, seen for her to begin to contextualize what it is she is actually experiencing and what it may mean to her. She’s taking in the raw data, without a thick filter of experience to shape or shade it. As I continue my study of movement, this ability to just experience myself with less of my filters or shades on, continues to open opportunities for comfort, understanding, and potency for me in my life. It’s one of the many positive ways that the study of this method has helped me learn, grow, and develop.
From my perspective as a movement educator, watching her curiosity, experimentation, and problem solving in motor learning gives me hours of entertainment. It amazes me how quickly she picks up on things when given a demonstration, the mirror neurons dancing in her head to mimic what she has just seen. It’s remarkable to see her abilities to move in more upright ways over more challenging terrain improve in a one-week time span. As adults, change for us can be challenging and long, but for her, it’s rapid and responsive. In the Feldenkrais Method we explore the possibilities of change in how we relate to ourselves through the experience of movement, sometimes finding inspiration in another’s movement that we did not know for ourselves.
She is rarely content being inside all day, so we love to get outside. We go to one playground that has equipment made for people her age. It’s small and safe enough that she can explore by herself without too much risk of injury. It gives me a chance to just observe her without interjecting myself into her process. From my experience as a movement educator, I think it’s important that she has the time and space to experiment, fail, and learn without excessive oversight or judgment on success. This mode of learning opens her to try all manner of problem solving, keeping variety available. Variety and adaptability in our movements and response to challenges are hallmarks of the skills we study and develop through Awareness Through Movement lessons.
Her favorite part of the park is the slide. There are five steps to climb, with a handrail on one side to assist getting to the top. Last time we were there, as I watched her go up the steps, I saw her learn in real time. First she placed her foot up a step, but then, when she began to bring the rest of her body weight onto that leg, she recognized the leg was not going to support her full body weight. She took a pause to test, to see if she had things figured out in order to proceed. This particular time, she had to adjust her foot position because her leg was too twisted. Then, she got distracted by something, and completely let go of the task of the steps, entranced by the distraction. Once the cloud of distraction had passed, she adjusted her foot position on the step to create a better ability to transfer her weight, and continued up the step.
That little sequence of hers reminded me of the process of learning we explore in Awareness Through Movement lessons. In an ATM we experiment with a movement (her initial placement of the foot and attempt to shift weight onto it), then pause to assess what the sensory feedback of that movement showed us (her realizing she could not bring her weight onto the leg properly and the distraction acting as a pause for her to process the feedback). Then, based on the feedback received from the initial attempt, she tried another movement with a slight variation (the different placement of her foot on the step) which led to her learning how to adjust her movement to meet her intention.
We sometimes go to another playground where things are a bit more dangerous for her; clearly designed for people bigger and more coordinated than she is. I enjoy helping her do something she’s intent on doing that is way beyond her means alone, like crawling up a rock-climbing slide. With a proper foot placement here, and a little support of her center of gravity there, she can find her way up. Her willingness to trust, to accept the challenge, to try without fear of failure, and to look for help when needed endear her to me. I feel as though she is teaching me as much as I think I am teaching her.
Some of the ways we promote learning in the Feldenkrais Method, are: asking people to be more curious about movement, to explore without concern for success, and to be okay with making mistakes in order to learn. In some ways, this asks us to return to a younger time, when we didn’t know as much and the world was more open to interpretation.
I see my niece swim in those concepts all the time, being her natural self. It’s not a mindset she had to learn or set herself to do. It’s just how she is. The childlike qualities of curiosity, wonder, and openness to new experience are qualities that have served me well in my own self-study through the Feldenkrais Method. I continue to laugh at the idea that I wish at times to move more like her: The flexible, adaptable, curious, and always-in-the-moment sweetness that she is. It’s not to say that I want to be young again, but it feels good to engage with my own learning with a childlike, playful quality, and for that she is my perfect teacher.
Alex Schaefer is a physical therapist, movement educator, martial artist and Feldenkrais®️ practitioner. For the past 20 years, he has worked in a variety of settings including out-patient orthopedics, sports medicine, and neurology. His post graduate interests include: structural integration, pain neuroscience education, meditation, and visceral manipulation. He teaches live ATM classes 5 days a week at his office in O’Fallon IL.
More information is available via his website: Recovery Through Movement