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Category Archives: Feldenkrais

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!

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.