The original lessons of Moshé Feldenkrais (pun intended)

Which one is the original Mona Lisa? And which one is the most original Mona Lisa? Can you tell one apart from the other, at a glance? Which one do you enjoy looking at the most? Which one is the most inspiring to you? Which one has the freshest look? Which one makes you think, engage, and want to investigate, do more? Which one reflects the art and thinking of its time? And, would you say that it’s ok for all of them to exist? Is only the first version the real, the great, the valuable one – or do all of them have value?

Credits, left to right: Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci in 1503, Mona Lisa L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp in 1919, Mona Lisa by Andy Warhol in 1963

Consent form for comments

In the early days of Youtube the Youtube Comment Section was known for being a cesspool for the lowest sentiments and emotional rage humans are capable to put into words. On Youtube things got a lot better since then. Maybe the viewers noticed: Even in writing we are socialising with actual, sentient, fellow beings. We not only have the capacity to be aware of feelings and sensations, but we actually do live through our feelings and sensations.

No matter where you expose yourself to comments from others, be it a Q&A session, a tweet, an essay, an article, a comment, here’s a list of check boxes to let others know what you’re comfortable with – and what not.

Of course I’m writing this tongue in cheek, it’s not really a form to attach to. But I like my idea, this insight, the clarity of it. I got inspired to think, and then to write this blog post, after watching a Youtube video where an author – after his book presentation – was verbally attacked by a person from the audience. A Q&A session is not a feedback session. A comment section underneath another person’s sincere work is not a place to vent. Here’s the form:

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

In your comment I welcome you to point out the following in a disapproving, critical voice:

☐ my spelling and grammar
☐ the way I express myself, my choice of metaphors, adjectives, and figures of speech
☐ my findings, opinions, and conclusions
☐ me as a person
☐ my gender, name, family, or culture as a whole
☑︎ NONE OF THE ABOVE

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Turning the head in prone position – Starting position

Please come to lie on your front side. In this position the floor is directly in front of you, and the ceiling is in the back of you. The orientation is obvious, but these things might go unnoticed if not mentioned explicitly. Or maybe I’m just giving it a double stitch so to speak. In this way these light and elusive things hold together much better. Being wide aware of your orientation is part of the lesson and learning. 

Your shoulder girdle and your pelvic girdle are parallel to the floor, and at the same time they are parallel to the ceiling. If you are in a squared room, that is.

Extend your left arm downwards, alongside your torso. Park your left arm like this. Then stand your right hand next to your shoulder, so that your right elbow is pointing backwards, towards the ceiling. Your right hand should stand somewhat like in a push-up, the fitness exercise.

Then turn your head to the right, at least a little bit. I know that’s not comfortable for everyone. There’s no need to have your left ear fully flush on the ground, just turn your head to the right as far as it’s comfortable.

Place both your legs on the floor, extended, straight downwards, more or less, let them fall into place, and rest them too, relaxed.

So that’s the starting position.

Filming again

I need to giggle at the facts. How I’m filming in my living room, me on my own with you in my mind. I enjoy it, I grow with it. I find that the movements have so many aspects, psychologically, philosophically, worldly. I always discover something new. I really enjoy it.

I don’t have a production team. I’m not working in order to make the big numbers. I’m just grateful that I’m able to work, be my own boss, flow to my own rhythms, and do what I’m most interested in. I think that in itself is a miracle.

Finding an end, and a beginning

During the past three months or so, for 102 days to be precise, every day, I dedicated a couple of hours to writing. Every day I wrote a short essay, a commentary, a movement sequence, or a short story. It started out as a project of curiosity – a lot has been written about the benefits of daily writing, and I wanted to see where daily writing would take me – how it would change me, what would improve, what I would discover. I showed up every day and I did the work. I never had writer’s block. As long as I would sit down and start to write I would write something, and after two to six hours I would have something that I deemed worth sharing.

Even though I had no idea for how long I would keep going, or where I would eventually arrive at, right from the beginning I had a general idea of what I would want to write about, and what I would not want to write about. Within those limits I allowed myself to experiment with different styles and different stories.

Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus, linguist, educational researcher, and political activist, states what we’ve learned from science: „We write for two reasons. One is obvious: We write to communicate with others (letters, emails, reports) and ourselves (notes, lists, reminders). The second is less obvious but profound: We write to solve problems and to make ourselves smarter.”

I don’t know if I became smarter over the past 102 days, but for one I have the impression that my writing as well as my thinking have improved. And secondly, more importantly maybe, I have had many important insights, and I have made many discoveries crucial to my development as a person and as a teacher – which I would probably not have made otherwise. I have the feeling that these 102 days cleared up many things for me and set me on my path again. With confidence, cheerfulness, and bright optimism that there’s a wonderful world out there, that is open for and supportive of our personal development and sharing amongst each other. „Trust your head around, it’s all around you. All is full of love, all around you.” to quote a song from the Icelandic singer Björk.

One more thing. David Sedaris said that a story needs to end, and not just stop. He recalls himself being Live on Tour, where he would read his stories to a different audience each night, “Every night I had to say thank you to the audience and that means that my ending didn’t work,” he says. “You shouldn’t have to tell people that the story is over.”

The story isn’t over yet. Our story isn’t over. Maybe you too would like to sit down sometimes and write down a movement sequence in your own words, and add your own observations.

Maybe you would like to start with a few stick figure drawings, and a few arrows and annotations. Then add some comments or speech bubbles, and before you know it you will have sketched out an entire movement based story.

Or maybe you would like to start with a personal movement diary. Writing helps us to make sense of what we experience. You could use your challenges, victories, discoveries, your Instagram posts, or your favourite movement moments as seedlings that you then grow into text. Or copy an inspirational quote from here or there, add your thoughts, your movements, your moments. You could start a page with „Would you please come to lie on your back”, as a possible replacement for „Once upon a time.” And then observe where the story will take you.

Or maybe you would like to start with a super-mini-essay in the form of a comment somewhere, for example on one of my videos, like Tracy did a few days ago, on one of my Shoulder Circles videos called „Simple movements, powerful changes”: 

„I love that moment at the very end of a lesson when I realise, »Oh, it’s all been leading to THIS!« [..] Lovely! What I particularly noticed after this lesson was how easily my shoulders swayed back and forth as I walked, and how upright my pelvis is. Another piece of Feldenkrais magic – how does a lesson focusing on my shoulders reset my pelvis?! Thank you for another great lesson, Alfons.”

Writing down movement sequences is not so different from writing stories. We have some sort of a plan, a general idea or direction, and start writing.

„When I started writing that story, I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized it was inevitable”, excerpt from Flannery O’Conner, „Writing Short Stories”

As long as we start somewhere, we will be going places. A new journey begins. Thank you for reading, you have been wonderful. And, if you haven’t yet, where will you start your next movement-based lesson?

The work and genius of Moshé Feldenkrais

Yesterday I finished my day with two questions: „What are the equivalents to (1) reading and (2) writing in terms of physical movement?” and woke up to a third question: 

„When there is no benefit in studying grammar in regard to writing and language growth, why is there such an overemphasis on technicalities in movement studies?”

In his essay „Teaching Grammar: Why Bother?”, Professor Stephen Krashen writes: 

„Research has shown that there is no relationship between grammar study and writing. Perhaps the most convincing research is that of Elley, Barham, Lamb and Wyllie. After a three year study comparing the effects of traditional grammar, transformational grammar and no grammar on high school students in New Zealand, they concluded that English grammar, whether traditional or transformational, has virtually no influence on the language growth of typical high school students.”

My question remained, „What is the equivalent to reading in terms of movement?” Every baby is watching its parents attentively, and is learning from them rigorously. Furthermore we grow up to adopt very similar movement patterns from the people around us, which will make us walk and move like locals. People from Norway walk in a different way than people from Africa. Professor Roar Bjørkvold from the University of Oslo, Norway, made an entire documentary to this length, titled „When the Moment Sings – The Muse Within – With Africa in the Mirror, Oslo 1996.”

My question remained, „Is watching dance performances the equivalent of reading?” It isn’t for me. I can read for hours on end, but even the most gifted and dedicated dancers on Youtube can’t hold my attention for more than a few minutes. „Or figure skating maybe?”, I asked myself. What kind of movement based performances do people love to watch for hours at a time? In community, cheerfully, what do they write about, discuss, imitate, try for themselves, and can’t stop themselves from watching again and again?

  • Football / Soccer – 4 Billion estimated fans
  • Cricket – 2.5 Billion estimated fans
  • Hockey – 2 Billion estimated fans
  • Tennis – 1 Billion estimated fans

Source: Worldatlas.com, The Most Popular Sports In The World 

That’s something. But is it a lead? Does watching sports help with anything movement related? Does it help with playing sports? With becoming better at it? I googled, „Researchers say watching videos of athletes really can improve your own game.” 

Or maybe it’s enough to watch other people, how they move, walk, how they do things, to somehow copy or acquire their movement patterns? Maybe, if we love someone deeply enough, or if we feel that we belong to some folks, we will automatically start to imitate them, become more like them? Does watching „our team”, or „our group”, or „our students”, watching them move, lead to acquisition of new patterns in and for ourselves, does it lead to improvements, changes? I myself have experienced it on numerous occasions, and have account from my professional colleagues and students alike, „I did not participate in today’s Feldenkrais class, I just sat there and watched the other students move. Yet, after class I felt so good and could move so much better, as if had actually participated!” But how does that work, exactly? What are the necessary conditions? How experienced would such a „participating observer” have to be? Could this be quantified,  replicated? Could there be choice? How far could this be taken? Could it be taught?

Then I stumbled over the topic of sports journalism, and how professional writers describe movement, write about movement and the things they see, for example, on a tennis court or a soccer field, and how they see it.

And then I remembered the books of Moshé Feldenkrais.

„Lie flat on your back, slightly bending the knees, with the soles of the feet on the ground. Lift your head off the ground and look at your belt. This position of the head must be borne in mind at the beginning so that it becomes a habit with you”, is the beginning of the first lesson in Moshé Feldenkrais’ 1944 book „Judo: The art and defence of attack”. 175 pages of movement instructions and observations. That was almost three decades before he would conduct his first Feldenkrais teacher training. I flipped through that book a couple of times before, as well as his book from 1942, „Hakaka-Jime: The Core Technique for Practical Unarmed Combat”, and 1952, „Higher Judo: Ground Work”, but I never saw these books in this light. They are a documentation of Moshé Feldenkrais’ formation process. Right there in front of us, hidden in plain sight. It was a revelation to me, startling, fascinating, remarkable.

Moshé Feldenkrais had one more book published in which he wrote down movement lessons: His 1972 book „Awareness Through Movement” holds 12 lessons complete with his commentary, next to a good 50 pages of „Understanding while doing”, practical tips and theoretical background.

However, the majority of Moshé Feldenkrais’ expansive, outright enormous body of work exists mostly in form of audio recordings, which later were transcribed and translated. I’m neither a ghostwriter nor a bibliographer, I just want to briefly give account: There’s something like 550 audio recordings from his studio in Alexander Yanai Street in Tel Aviv, where he was teaching group classes from the early 1950s to the late 1970s. As I counted earlier, all volumes of Harry Potter add up to 1,084,170 words, the transcriptions of these  „Alexander Yanai” lessons (I counted over 544 unique lessons) add up to 1,767,682 words. There’s something like 278 audio and video recordings of unique group lessons from his two summers of training in Amherst 1980 and 1981. These are the two biggest repositories, next to his three summers of training in San Francisco 1975-1977. And then there were many more workshops.

Moshé Feldenkrais, the man who put his mark on all generations to come, was an engineer first, and then a genius. He solved the big problems in writing first: how to observe and describe movements. How to write down the intrinsics of movement learning and the acquisition of ability, the components of action, „moving, thinking, sensing, and feeling”. For this he used written instructions, short stories, essays, and commentaries. In this way he created a strong, technical foundation. This strong, technical foundation in a multitude of skills then was, if I may dare to assert so, the launch pad to his magnificent work and stellar career.