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Monthly Archives: January 2019

I first read about Feldenkrais via that legendary Piano Forum/Piano Street contributor Bernhard. Just an off handed remark saying that the people with the best posture he had ever seen were Alexander Technique people and Feldenkrais people. At the time I had a little bit of an idea of what Alexander Technique was but no idea what Feldenkrais was. However, I didn’t pursue either as my obsession was with learning the piano. At a later point due to some wrist issues I did have one lesson in the Alexander Technique (a cheap £25 back then!) but unfortunately it wasn’t useful. Despite having the INTERNET at my beck and call I didn’t look into Feldenkrais.

Years later, the next encounter with Feldenkrais was with Alan Fraser. On his website he had a few text lessons that were interesting and useful but again I didn’t pursue further. But when RSI in my right hand tendons became increasingly worse I came across OpenATM.org and subsequently Lynette Reid’s lessons at Kinesophics. A bit before Kinesophics I was led through at least two ATMs (Awareness Through Movement lesson) designed by my impro teacher Remy of Imprology. During those ATMs the focus was very much about the tiniest and smallest effort one could do and subsequently I gained the impression that all Feldenkrais lessons were about tiny tiny movements and tiny tiny effort but this changed when I did Lynette’s lessons in earnest.

I was doing a lesson a day during this time, sometimes two a day. In the end it didn’t help me that much with my piano issues. My guess is that there was a lack of integration and translation of the lessons learned on the floor to the piano. But the process and pacing and teaching and learning of that time is something I take for granted now, and continues to benefit me as my learning and practise of Feldenkrais improves.

The next significant encounter with Feldenkrais was that my back ache/pain I’d been having for some years was preventing me from walking. In that time I’d walk for about half an hour and get significant back ache. The only way I knew how to resolve it was to lie down on the floor for about an hour. Stretching wasn’t helping. I decided to bite the financial bullet and take one to one sessions with Victoria Worsley, a friend of Remy’s and a friend of Pixie’s, the latter having received lots of lessons from Victoria. It’s dramatic but the back ache problem from walking was resolved in the first lesson. Looking back (hehe), I think the bulk of the back ache was fear of rotation, particularly in the pelvis and lower spine, and the session taught me that it was okay to move my body in this way. Subsequent lessons expanded upon this and translated it to walking.

That was in early 2018. More recently was the application of Feldenkrais to singing. Victoria mentioned Richard Corbeil and Robert Sussuma after one of her lessons. I had a little gander but again didn’t pursue it. Then I was interested in singing again and decided to have a proper look. Previously my explorations with singing and Feldenkrais wasn’t fruitful. Although I had gone in some depth with the book “Singing with Your Whole Self” I felt that it didn’t improve my singing or speaking much. Looking back, again I think the issue was the translation and integration from the lessons in that book to the action of singing and speaking. With the Robert Sussuma videos it really was a eureka moment as I began to understand how to integrate the whole process of Feldenkrais with voice. As I explored, re-explored and refined, my voice improved and felt more resilient. Previously I felt my voice was slightly deteriorating and was becoming more easily fatigued and those fears disappeared fairly quickly. A month after this I joined a jazz choir and felt a pressing need for more learning. Coincidentally Robert was hosting a 2 day workshop in London about a month and a half after I joined the choir. After humming and hawing I finally decided to attend. There was also a shorter three hour session in Guillermo’s house the day before the workshop.

Looking back on those three days I’m not sure what I learned. The two most interesting lessons were the unvoiced velar fricative lesson and what I call the Mission Impossible face lesson. The voiceless velar fricative lesson gave a very clear sensation and image of the back of the mouth/beginning of the throat without the need to stick a vibrator there to stimulate that part of the mouth/throat. The Mission Impossible lesson left everyone with droopy faces. There was also a lesson where I held Chris’s head stable while the rest of his body moved which reminded me of a car advert featuring a chicken. One reason why what I learned is hazy was because on the first day of the workshop I was going in with about 2 hours of sleep due to anxiety-caused insomnia. Also it was way way more Feldenkrais than I had ever done before in one day so there was an endurance aspect in terms of my attention span. My voice did improve and singing in tune was easier and remains easier since the workshop. My burning question about high notes wasn’t answered. I asked Robert after the workshop and he said there were clues there so I had to work it out for myself.

I wasn’t successful in working it out for myself so I ended up having a lesson with Robert. The answer? Swallowing. He guided me through lots of swallowing variations and high notes became easier. Swallowing became easier too. The reasoning is this: if you can improve lower functions, higher functions will tend to improve with it. All the structures and movements and muscles of swallowing are either the same or similar to that of singing and speaking. In Feldenkrais one of the aims of lessons is to allow the student to be able to find more options for movement and variations allows for this to happen. Through those swallowing variations, my nervous system found more options and more possibilities where there previously were few and found ways that helped me fulfill my intentions with more ease.

My current and continued enthusiasm with Feldenkrais is also due to having weekly lessons with my friend Helena who is in a Feldenkrais training and with my friend Pix who usually hosts the lessons. Doing lessons with other people is different compared to doing it alone, especially doing it with someone like Pix who has a great time during the lessons. Having some people to share my enthusiasm and nerdiness about Feldenkrais also helps. One of my more recent obsessions was how to solve the problem of an achy knee when sitting for meditation which led me to Charlie Murdach’s channel and finally going through Alfons’s feet lessons. I haven’t quite solved it but I’ve stopped meditating for now for other reasons.

As I am writing this I feel the effects of an online group lesson with Robert Sussuma. A large part of it was sensing the torso and how breathing occurred. Splitting the torso into three: lower, diaphragm, upper. Then splitting the torso into six. Then doing hiccoughing and coughing movements with awareness of the six segments. Sensing is my least favourite part of Feldenkrais lessons, I’m too eager to move and change shit. I find I have to take a breath and calm down in order to do the sensing part sincerely.

I feel conflicted sometimes when I see or hear others in pain and I know and have experienced the benefits of Feldenkrais. When I do speak and interact with such people, they appear not to be ready for it or never will be ready for it, at least in a group lesson setting. It requires an openess and a paradigm shift. When the dominant narrative is to stretch, strengthen, force, push through with a large separation of what one considers to be the body and mind, then it’s a huge chasm to be overcome to experience something that is the antithesis. If you’re the type of person who ignores bodily sensations particularly when exercising in order to push through the pain so you can acquire extra minutes/reps/distance, to go into a process where it’s about sensing details of the body and frequent resting at the slightest sign of strain will make it seem from the outside that the lesson will be of no use whatsoever. Bridging that gap may be the primary marketing problem of Feldenkrais. The name “Feldenkrais” doesn’t help either. The Alexander technique is more marketable because of this.

I’ve thought about and challenged myself to describe Feldenkrais in one sentence or in ten seconds or less. Let’s try:

“Feldenkrais or the Feldenkrais Method is like learning the technique of a sport but instead you apply it to things you do everyday such as walking, standing, sitting, breathing, posture, etc.”

“Feldenkrais is a modality in which you learn to co-ordinate your body so that all the things you do in your life become easier, smoother, lighter and more efficient.”

“Feldenkrais is a way to learn to move so that your movements don’t cause you chronic pain down the road and you can still move well and do the things you need to do well into your nineties.”

With the last attempt I am reminded of the thoughts I have when I see the elderly. To be able to walk unaided, not have a fear of falling, to be able to stand up from a bed or a chair easily, to have a bath without fear, to be able to pull and push heavy doors…all these things I take for granted but as I do more Feldenkrais I appreciate how important such “simple” things are. As we age we lose muscle so the options we always used for standing up from a chair may be ones that required a lot of strength. Use those same options in a body with less strength may result in failure or great difficulty. One option is to maintain as much muscle as one can as one ages and the other is to find more efficient ways that works with a weaker body. It’s best to have and do both.

I’m strongly considering training in Feldenkrais. The main obstacle is financial. Hmm…

There was a period not too long ago where I felt my life was becoming overly rigid. That feeling lingers to this moment. There is “legitimacy” to this rigidity: insomnia, tinnitus and anxiety. Deciding to break out of this rigidity I thought about some of the smaller, safer, easy things I could do. One of these, related to Feldenkrais, was the possibility that even in this rigidity I could stumble upon a new pattern of movement. Also related to was the idea of survival: if you were trapped in such a way that you couldn’t use your dominant side, could you use the non-dominant side to save your life? Martial arts has an emphasis on being able to use both sides of the body, if not to an equal degree but at least to a competent degree on the less coordinated side. There is also the idea of restrictions in Feldenkrais, restrictions that cause you to use your own resourcefulness in order to solve the movement puzzle the teacher has given you. This forces you to use yourself and move in unusual ways because the previous, automatic option is removed.

With all this stuff swirling in my mind, I conducted an improvised program with many of my habitual movement patterns. The most obvious was right becoming left and left becoming right. I’m usually a left leg first into the trouser leg, left foot first into the shoe person. The first forays into this were catching myself mid-lifting my left leg, putting my left leg back down and then lifting my right leg. To a degree I still have to do this, but more and more times I am able either to raise the right leg automatically or pause and be able to choose which leg I want to raise.

Other examples include pouring the kettle with my left arm (a little dangerous), switching which hand is on top to cup the water to splash my face with (left hand on top is still weird and not as able), left hand to brush teeth (I can do this with both manual and electric), left hand holding toothbrush right hand applying toothpaste (still weird), left hand with spatula to scoop rice into my bowl (this has become the default option), left hand using sponge to wash up (still hard), using right hand to hold and deal playing cards (I use the left because my older brother uses left and he uses left because of my left-handed Uncle)…I can’t think of anymore.

The most difficult changing of right and left are the fine motor skills such as writing and using chopsticks. Having done some practise I can write a little with my left hand but the chopstick situation is close to impossible.

Once you’ve jumped into switching right and left/left and right, then you can apply other Feldenkrais principles. Feldenkrais is often done with slowing down the movements, varying the range of motion, reducing effort, smoothing the movement, attempting to conform to straight lines or circles or some other shape (rather than jagged lines or contorted ovals), doing very quick movements, changing the trajectory of the movement, changing where your focus/attention is when doing the movement (e.g. focusing on the shoulder instead of the hand) and some other ones I probably don’t remember. An easier way to apply these principles is to simply ask oneself, “How many different ways can I do this?” In other words, you have an intention that wants to be fulfilled and you have various options in the way you can fulfill this intention. Some ways are easy, some are more difficult, some are weird, some are fun. These aspects can overlap. This starts to stimulate one’s curiosity and imagination.

By now you can begin to see that even though on a macro level one’s life may be rigid and the same but on the micro level there starts to appear massive variety. Things that were automatic, unconscious, choiceless become objects of enquiry and curiosity. And if you focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t do, then you may find yourself doing things that were previously impossible or, more interestingly, things that were always possible but you didn’t know you could do them. A lot of Feldenkrais lessons operate on the principle that your body can do the things that the lessons wants you to do but you’ve just never done them before or you haven’t done them in a long time. And the first time you use your left hand for something you’re never quite sure exactly what you are going to learn. You have an intention, you may know how it feels using your right hand to do the action, but that first excursion using the left hand always feels different. Then you have to adapt and improvise. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to say that true learning happens when you don’t know what you’re about to learn. Breaking out of the habitual in this fairly easy way engages you in a process that you may not have experienced in a long time.

When Dogen came back from China to Japan after having studied Buddhism there, people were eager to know what he had learned. After some pestering, Dogen said, “The eyes are horizontal, the nose perpendicular.”

Case 28: Nansen’s “Dharma That Has Never Been Preached”

Nansen went to see Master Hyakujo Nehan.

Hyakujo asked,

“Is there any Dharma that the sages of the past have never preached to the people?”

Nansen said,

“There is.”

Hyakujo asked,

“What is this Dharma that has never been preached to the people?”

Nansen said,

“This is not mind, this is not Buddha, this is not thing.”

Hyakujo said,

“You did preach like that.”

Nansen said,

“That’s how it is with me. How about you, Master?”

Hyakujo said,

“I am not a man of great wisdom. How am I to know whether there is a Dharma that has been preached or that has never been preached?”

Nansen said,

“I don’t understand.”

Hyakujo said,

“I have already preached to you fully.”

CASE 21. UMMON’S DRIED DUNG

A monk asked Ummon,”What is Buddha?” Ummon answered him, “Dried dung.”

[This occurred around 2008-9.]
Shall we talk about her? Or rather our fading recollections of her some ten years down the road?

She was hot. Big tits, blinging white smile, and an American accent. Spoilers: nothing ever happened between us. Normally I would say chalk it down to my usual timidity and risk-aversion but there were a few other factors involved. I ended up being an emotional sponge and defender from loneliness for her. In return I got to spend time with a lovely, gorgeous girl.

I can’t recall how we first met. I remember the usual circumstance: see a hot girl, figure out how on earth can I speak to her without having any mutual friends. I probably made some semi-public remark in a lecture, she turned around and responded and then it went from there. Couldn’t believe my luck.

She liked to drink. She had a table in her room just full of alcohol. A shatter hazard of Jack Daniel’s and tequila. She liked penguins. She had a picture of Jesus on her corkboard. She had Mexican parents. She had a boyfriend.

She was eager to be my friend because she was a transfer student with no friends. She had emotional and social needs and I was the one to fulfill them. She was likely having relationship problems by the time I met her and she confided more and more as time went on and the friendship grew. I took her out, she took me out.

Once again, I was hopelessly and helplessly infatuated. I was probably depressed on and off. Similar situations have happened before and since and the pattern is hilariously similar: not wanting to cross the line to spoil the friendship and terminate the companionship. Dithering on whether to say anything. Then do nothing and let things persist. Go out and do something with her and feel elated. Then back to depression and the cycle resumes. It should have a title like “Lovesick Samsara” or “The Serial Infatuator’s Almanac.”

As her relationship was ending her diet worsened. For some reason, “frozen chicken” has stuck in my mind. She put on a few kilos. Not that I cared since I was high and addicted on whatever hormonal concoction my body kept cooking up.

We should talk about the end. I was in a less easy-going phase, the kind that removes Facebook friends. During her last days in London she said she was going to come back to see me. Subsequent emails and my lack of response to them meant we never saw each other again. Thinking about this over the years I regret my immaturity. The reason for my ghosting isn’t a good one but here it is as best as I can remember: we had a conversation where I was being a bit weird and she thought I was being too weird and I thought this was weird since she had known me for a while now. The fact that she found this too weird disconcerted me and I felt that it was a strong and basic incompatibility between us. Since I was in this cutthroat phase influenced by various personal development material I had read, I concluded that it should be the end. And so it ended. And I feel I am the poorer for it. I have no contact details to apologise to her. And if I did, would it even matter?