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Monthly Archives: February 2019

After the subtle but powerful Feldenkrais lesson my friend Helena gave us, our host Pix wanted to do a breathing lesson for next week. Helena suggested I could teach the lesson so now my brain is going into overdrive as to what to do. Part of this overdrive meant I revisited lesson 4 from the “Awareness Through Movement” book, “Differentiation of Parts and Functions in Breathing.”

This revisit was way overdue. I was fairly familiar with the action of see-saw breathing but doing the lesson again, some years later with lots more experience, was almost an entirely different experience. I recall last time I did it it was difficult and again I found it somewhat strenuous physically and emotionally. I rushed through it a little again, really wanting to experience all the variations, but I think this lesson could be stretched to maybe 1 hour 15 mins.

This time I also went into the lesson having read a rather long article by a Feldenkrais teacher discussing the differences between abdominal/belly breathing and this see-saw breathing, as well as his whole paradigm shifting journey towards finding better breathing. The first instruction of Feldenkrais’s lesson is to observe while lying down the movement of the breastbone away from the spine (towards the ceiling) as you breath in. As a result of learning and habit, my default breath has almost no movement in the breastbone. In a way, there was nothing to observe with the breastbone! When one moves the breastbone as one inhales, the movement is similar to a slow hiccough, something which I learned from Robert Sussuma.

Its opposite, exhaling and expanding the abdomen was interesting. Here was a nuance I missed the first time round and now I paid close attention. The instruction is to aim to expand the stomach evenly on all sides, especially towards the back (floor) and the sides. I played with this many times attempting to get this movement more and more even. This movement is similar to a slow cough.

These movements are then done holding the breath. Inhale without breathing, exhale without breathing. Then when you inhale and exhale alternately in this way, you begin to do see-saw breath. You can do the see-saw movements while breathing, so you separate the function of breathing from the see-saw. Then in order to breathe you have to move in a way that is likely non-habitual. The instruction by Feldenkrais is to breathe normally while see-sawing but you can also have several see-saws to one inhale-exhale cycle. You can also do the opposite where you have several inhale-exhale cycles to one see-saw.

The subsequent variations can be fun. I found the variations on the front to be most difficult, especially when attempting to exhale while doing the see-saw movements. There’s something about the restriction of the ribcage in the front due to the floor that makes it more difficult for me, whereas I find this easy when lying on my back.

The side lying variation is not clear where the legs should be placed. So I alternated with knees bent (more stable) and legs long. In any case, the way the ribcage moves in this variation is weird and fabulous.

(Skipping the forearm variation here)

The kneeling head on ground variation I find to be genius. Reversing gravity’s effect on the lungs makes the way the torso reacts to the see-saw breathing reverse in a few ways. You could extrapolate this principle to a headstand, handstand, or standing and folding at the hips, head and neck and arms dangling down and see-sawing.

It’s an intense lesson at times. If you’re not careful, the see-sawing can be tiring. I find it takes some careful practise in order to make the see-sawing smooth and less effortful, particularly near and at the apex of the movements. Changing direction often happens quickly so I have to pay special attention to make it graceful and smooth. There’s a lot of breath holding too and forgetting to breathe sometimes makes it emotionally disturbing. Then there’s the upside down variations and the blood flowing to one’s head can be an unpleasant sensation.

As for the lesson I will teach, there is little point for me to teach the lesson as is. I will use the see-saw as a starting point but from there I will incorporate voice – speech and singing. Though the see-saw lesson can have profound effects on the voice, incorporating voice directly with the see-saw can make the connection between voice and breath clearer rather than something that will sort itself out. One interesting thing to note is that each half of the see-saw can be related to (apparent) schools of operatic breathing technique. The inhale/hiccough half is the Italian school and the exhale/cough half is the German school, as demonstrated and caricatured by Salvatore Fisichella here.

[a bunch of sleep cycles later]

In that video, Fisichella describes maintaining the elevation of the ribcage and having the action of the diaphragm go up and underneath (at least according to the translation and gestures of Jack Livigni). It occurred to me on the loo that in this elevated ribcage posture, you can do the exhale/coughing movement. I tried it and it was fairly clear and not that difficult to do. Its opposite, maintaining the exhale/cough position and doing the inhale/hiccough movement is more difficult. The movement is not as clear. Then you can initiate both inhale/hiccough and exhale/cough movements at the same time. Then you can do these movements in the variations listed above. Fascinating.

I’m not sure where this is leading because I lack the anatomical and biomechanical knowledge. I’m also not certain my intentions to do certain movements are actually creating those movements or something else. In any case they are unusual patterns of movements and worth further investigation. Hmmm…

Sometimes you get something better than what you thought you wanted.

The other week I was a guinea pig for my friend who is training in Feldenkrais. Feldenkrais is done in two ways: group lessons and individual lessons. This was an individual lesson, also known as FI (functional integration). The difference between the group lessons and the individual lessons is that in the group lessons you are using your own muscles to move your own body whereas in the individual lessons the work of moving is largely done by the teacher. This results in an interesting sensation of feeling the effects of moving without any of the conscious effort. If you are new to the work you are told to relax and let go and to let the teacher do the moving. But even if you do that consciously, there will often be areas where you will unconsciously contract. Part of the skill of the teacher is to enable the student to feel safe both consciously and unconsciously. Thus there is usually a period of “warming up” to do as both student and teacher become gradually used to the experience and the new and the surprising is no longer feels like a threat. The more familiar the student and teacher are with the work and with each other, the faster this warming up period will resolve.

My initial requests as to what the lesson would focus on were on my right knee and acquiring the flexibility to be able to sit crossed legged without feeling pressure and achiness in the knee. This changed somewhat as I arrived at her flat and I started to talk about my left lower back and standing. As of writing the left lower back feels almost fine but during the time of the lesson it had been achy for some days.

I did a few catwalk walks and some other actions I couldn’t remember so she could observe me visually as to where the lesson could go. She admitted her visual observation skill was one of her weak points. Having done several individual lessons before, I had no idea until that point that this was a skill to be developed. Thinking now, I have done this many a time in the other realms of running gait and piano technique.

We then moved to me sitting in a chair and Helena gradually, very slowly moved one of my knees left and right. It was weird, in an interesting way. We all move the way we do and so if I were to do the same movement she was doing to me it would feel normal to me. But her doing the movement, at the slow and gentle pace she was doing it was something I would be unlikely to stumble upon. Plus it was the first time both of us were engaging each other in this way so it was new and strange. This is one of the reasons why we need teachers because it’s very very difficult to surprise oneself. You have your own perspective and you can attempt to imagine what others would do or say about a particular problem of yours but it’s very different when someone else can see the obvious solution easily and you can’t. Often these solutions come out from a completely different paradigm and/or the lack of investment in the situation compared to your own. My current opinion is that real learning occurs when we don’t know what we are going to learn. Hence the need for surprise. More about that later.

There was some other sitting stuff that happened later but I’ll write it now. She lifted my leg so my knee came closer to my chest and as this was happening she asked me to round my back at the same time. With my left leg it was fine but it was more difficult with my right because I felt like I was going to fall. This is where the skill of the teacher comes in and keeping the student feeling safe is part of the equation. I’m not sure what she could’ve done to make me feel more safe in this situation.

Then there was some floor stuff, which constituted the bulk of the lesson. Three cool things happened for me. One: left leg rotating inwards and the pelvis rotates in an opposite direction. Two: while side lying, shoulder and pelvis can be independent of each other. And the main thing I learned that was a problem that I didn’t know was a problem Three: jaw tension and neck tension intimately related.

Number three was just part of the beginning diagnostic part of the lesson. There was this shoulder lifting thing that my other Feldenkrais teacher has done to me many a time, and then there was this head and neck stuff. Helena made my head turn left and right and showed me how easily my head turned to the right compared to the left. She paused, and then she told me as she was tilting my head (to nod upwards as it were) to open my jaw at the same time. We did this a few times and she returned to turning my head and oh my goodness the difference was astounding. What is relevant is that I had been having some neck ache that I hadn’t quite consciously acknowledged. I’d gone into the lesson expecting to learn and improve standing, lower back and hip and knee stuff but came out with a solution to improve my neck and jaw situation.

Since the lesson I have been playing and exploring this neck and jaw situation over and over again. I’ve essentially attempted to replicate what it would be like in an individual lesson but with myself. Lying down, instead of using my neck muscles to turn my head, I place one or two hands on my forehead and push/pull with my heads. This means there is little to no effort in the neck muscles but the movement of turning the head is done with my hands. Unfortunately I cannot exactly replicate the situation as I will still have to make an effort overall rather than being completely passive. In addition, the turning of the head is affected by which arm is used or if both arms are used. Still, it’s pretty good.

My current process is to turn the head very slightly and rest and hold and breathe with the head slightly off centre. Then I do a few things, sometimes simultaneously. The first thing to notice is if there is any activity in the neck muscles as I push/pull with my hand. Upon noticing any contraction, I consciously will myself to let go. The breathing helps with this. I return to the centre, turn the head with the hand again. Again, let go. I do this again and again until I can feel that there is no activity in the neck muscles as I turn the head. During each repetition I also visualise and feel the neck vertebrae turning as well as the points of the nose and the back of the head moving. Variation and interest is important so I also change the speed and range of movement to keep things fresh. If I have been doing this with one hand for a while I will switch to the other hand and notice any differences. Once I have done this for both sides, I then move to tilting the head. A similar process of letting go applies but the equation of opening the jaw at the same time changes things too. Tilting the head is easier with both hands but it can be done with a single hand. There’s also the variation of keeping the head tilted and opening and closing the jaw in this position.

The result of this exploration is not only the easier turning of the head and a softer jaw, but also changes in breathing and increased mobility in the thoracic spine. There are also changes in the shoulder. With the voice, it becomes more resonant and the vibrations can be felt in the bones more easily. Related to the voice, the previous paragraph can be done using the hyoid bone i.e. moving the hyoid bone with the hand to turn the head and neck, which will result in a more complete picture of how the head and neck relate to the voice.

There isn’t a way to wrap up this blog post except to wonder in what other ways I can apply this. Happy exploring!