Saturday, October 20, 2012


As a new mother, I was taught to bring my baby to the breast rather than leaning my breast toward my baby.  But even when I'm fully aware of what I'm doing, there is a pull in my spine toward Annabelle's hungry mouth.  I can feel the weight of years of evolution pushing me in this direction--since the beginning of the human species, even the beginning of mammals, mothers have been offering a breast to their young.  Even when I'm consciously rounding my whole back, I can feel that a vertebra or two is resisting and arching forward.  I cannot change this.  In fact, trying to change it means I set up an internal struggle and get increasingly tense.

As a flutist, I was always taught that I should bring the flute to my lips rather than bringing my lips to the flute.  And I try to do that.  But the flute exerts a magnetic attraction, and I unconsciously lean toward it as I play.  Trying to keep myself from doing this means, again, fighting against myself.

I realized for the first time the other day that these types of attraction are really out of my control.  As are many others.  Watch human courtship behavior in a bar, for example:  couples begin conversations moving independently, and (if everything goes well) gradually begin to sync up their movements until they unconsciously imitate each other.  And infants, very early on, move in sync with their mothers.  These responses happen under the radar, in lower levels of the brain and so quickly that we can't monitor them.

Our nervous system is incredibly complex.  It has evolved over millions of years, in many different species, and the different layers of the brain have piled up one over the other so that many functions are redundant.  Feldenkrais compared it to an old phone exchange, where wires have been repurposed and unused wires are resorted to in emergencies. [1]  Benzon compares the function of the nervous system to the weather.  With so many possible neural states (more than 2 to the 27,400,000,000,000th power), it's hard to imagine having any will at all.  Instead of a linear chain of will-action-result, we have intention, emotion, sensation, and thought gathering together like clouds and interacting to produce a complex action, with no central control. [2]

And yet we think that we can manage this complex system and consciously resist something that is happening unconsciously.  Doing so sets up all kinds of antagonism inside--from two muscle groups pulling in opposite directions to emotional obstacles like cross-motivation.  Our modern world, where we're asked to behave so differently from how we've evolved, constantly creates situations where we're resisting attraction.

Addiction is an extreme example.  Years ago, Gregory Bateson wrote an article about Alcoholics Anonymous, in which he says the reason AA is so successful is that it helps the alcoholic to stop the internal struggle between willpower and attraction.  By putting themselves in the care of a higher power, alcoholics are stepping out of this deadlock entirely and into a whole different dynamic, where change is possible. [3]

Instead of a higher power, what about using awareness?  If you lie on the floor, and bring your attention to your breathing, it will change, much more effectively than if you try to breathe in a certain way.  If I think of the length of my spine before I pick up my flute to play, and notice how my head sits on top of my spine, I might lean a little less into the flute.  If I sense my weight on the bed as I'm falling asleep with Annabelle nursing, I'm likely to find an easier way to lie than if I try to put us both into the position recommended by the nursing manual.

I'm not trying to change my behavior directly.  That's the key, because trying to change sets up the struggle again.  I'm noticing, and then allowing change to happen.  It's a subtle difference, and not always easy to access, but so much simpler and kinder.

[1] Feldenkrais, Moshe.  Body and Mature Behavior, p. 18.
[2] Benzon, William.  Beethoven's Anvil, pp. 25-29, 54, 72-74.
[3] Bateson, Gregory.  "The Cybernetics of Self:  A Theory of Alcoholism," in Steps to an Ecology of Mind.
These images are from a google images search for "Attractors"--of course, strange attractors from fractal geometry came up, which seemed to tie in very well to a discussion of the complexity of the nervous system.  The upper drawing is actually not an attractor but a sketch of a new way to represent the periodic table that was next to an image of an attractor--but it works symbolically....

Monday, March 5, 2012

How to Go Back to Sleep after an Earthquake

Lie on your back in bed. 

Bend your knees, and place your feet standing on the bed.  Slide your right foot around on the sheet, and feel the texture of the sheet with your foot.  Slide your foot everywhere you can easily reach.  Then do the same thing with the left foot.

Lengthen your legs and rest for a moment.

With your elbows resting on the bed, place your fingertips on the border between your ribs and abdomen.  Feel the muscle tone there, and notice any movement that occurs when you breathe.  After three or four breaths, shift your fingers closer to the center of your abdomen, still keeping them on the border between your abdomen and chest.  Follow the movement of your abdomen--lift the fingers as you feel the abdomen rising, and let them sink down as the abdomen sinks.  Do this for as long as it's interesting.

Pause for a moment.

Bring your fingertips down to the lowest part of your abdomen, just above the pubic bone.  Follow the breath in the same way, letting your fingers lift gently as the abdomen rises and sink as it falls.

Leaving your hands where they are, begin to picture your spine.  Imagine that you could reach inside yourself and touch the front side of each vertebra.  Begin with your lowest vertebra, the large lumbar vertebra, L5, and count upward, imagining that you can place your finger on each vertebra in turn.  There are five lumbar vertebrae.  When you reach the border between the lumbar vertebrae and the thoracic vertebrae (the ones the ribs are attached to), sense how the lowest ribs move when you breathe, especially in back.  Continue counting and placing an imaginary finger on each vertebra, moving upward through the twelve thoracic vertebrae (don't worry if you can't sense exactly where they are--just pretend), and the seven cervical (neck) vertebrae.

Repeat this as many times as you'd like.

Rest and let your breath come at its own pace.  Wait for the inhalation, wait for the exhalation, notice if there are pauses in between.

By now you will feel calmer.  If sleep hasn't already arrived, choose your favorite exploration from above and repeat it again.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Losing your balance in order to find it

When she was 10 months old, Annabelle slipped in the bathtub.  I caught her and, since she was unhurt but a bit scared, said lightly, "Oh no!  Did you fall down?" She laughed, and decided to reenact the fall.  She tipped over on purpose and it was much more fun.  This became a game for the next few weeks, migrating out of the tub onto our bed.  She'd wake up in the morning, sit up, raise her hands overhead, and open her mouth in mock alarm.  "Oh no!" we'd cry, and she would fall into our arms.  Some falls were really just token falls, where she just leaned over quickly and patted the bed with her hands.  Others were melodramatic--head tipped backward, hands thrown in the air, eyes closed, she would collapse onto a pillow.  We started encouraging her to play the falling game whenever friends came over because it was so cute.

But, as with everything in childhood, play-falling faded away too quickly.  Annabelle stopped instigating it.  A week or two later, we were playing on our living room rug and I tried to get the game going again.  "Are you going to fall?"  She smiled, stood, put her hands in the air, and got ready to fall.  But she failed to fall for a long time--she took about 5 steps trying to lose her balance.

I should mention that Annabelle hadn't yet figured out how to walk at this time. And what better way to learn to walk than to try to fall down?  There's no stress, no ambition, no failure involved--it's just an accident.  The whole thing was a game, not a studied effort.

Walking came about a month later, after surfacing and subsiding a few times.  She played around with the idea for a while and then one day decided it was a useful way to get around, and walked.   We could use more of this kind of learning in our lives.

By the way, there's a great Feldenkrais lesson (posted here) which uses this idea--playing around with taking yourself out of balance in order to find your balance.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Immersion Learning

Back in June, Annabelle and I were sitting outside on our wooden bench one morning. It was my favorite spring weather--cool, windy, and bright--and the leaves of the plants and trees around us were all shifting in the wind. Annabelle played with the ivy growing behind the bench. She likes plants, especially when she gets to tear them apart. She pulled leaves off the ivy growing nearby and began to push leaves down between the bench slats. She carefully watched each one fall to the ground, then picked another, turned it in her hand, and pushed it through the crack between the slats.
Finished with the leaves, she crawled over to the edge of the bench and put a hand out into the air. If I hadn't caught her, she would have crawled right off the edge--she tried to lean on the air the same way her other hand was leaning on the bench still. Once she felt that there was nothing there, she could see that it was an edge and avoided it. Instead she crawled toward the armrest, but stopped and reached for it too early--it was still five inches away. She could see it and wanted to touch it, but couldn't tell that it was too far away. She moved a few inches closer and tried again, and again, until she was finally close enough to touch it. I could visualize the neurons firing like crazy in her head: she was using her sense of touch to map out her depth perception.

It's been fun, and very difficult, trying to imagine how Annabelle sees the world. My husband pointed out that her world probably looks a lot like a moving, color version of the photograph above--a barrage of visual data without much meaning. From her point of view on the bench, the edge was only a change of color until she put her hand out and felt it was an edge. Same with the bench slats, and the distance of the armrest. The visual experience didn't make sense until her sense of touch that gave meaning to what she saw.

The same is true for all of us. Maybe because we have language, and categorize or label the senses as separate, we don't see that it's really not possible to experience just one sense. The way we learned to see is not the way in which we're taught a subject in school, one at a time. It's total immersion learning. It's the way we experience the world as well, although with all of our adult filters, categorization, and labels, we think we experience the world in a much simpler way. I can get glimpses of my unfiltered experience watching Annabelle learn.

Image: Ronald C. James, photographer, from J. Thurston and R.G. Carraher, Optical Illusions and the Visual Arts.

And we're back!

Hello!  I'm returning from maternity leave with a couple new posts.  I've been meaning to blog more frequently, but since my daughter Annabelle's birth a year ago things have been very different and busy--in a good way, mostly!  Because life and my approach to it feel so changed, I've changed the title of my blog, and the name of my Feldenkrais practice, to The Art of Curiosity.  The old title (move well=live well), implied a little too much judgment for me, and one of the things I like most about the Feldenkrais Method is its inherent lack of judgment.  I also didn't want to emphasize movement as much, since the method is also more about learning than about moving.  I'm working on a couple of new entries inspired by watching Annabelle learn, as her learning experience seems very similar to the kind of learning Feldenkrais lessons elicit.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On a Personal Note: Change

I haven't written a post for a while because life has been in flux. Change and movement constitute life. Static states and stagnation are a condition of death. Why then do we all cling to the static? Maybe because it's safe, it's known, it feels secure.

I'm expecting a baby at the end of October. Her birth will be the culmination of years of decision-making, the roller-coaster of trying to conceive, conception, miscarriage, trying again. It will also be the beginning of a new movement into life, of a constantly changing being. Actually, we've arrived at that point already--I have a clear sense that she's here, moving and changing inside me. Although there are strong punctuation marks in life, like birth, there is no real point of arrival because that would be stopping the ongoing process that each of us is. There is no period until death.

Being pregnant is like a Feldenkrais lesson at the cellular level. My body's chemical, hormonal, and physical habits are disrupted daily. Each day I have to negotiate a new balance because my center of gravity has changed again. This is really interesting, and attracts my curiosity, but it's also disconcerting at times. I've had a strong feeling more than once that I don't know who I am. It's true on so many levels. I have 50% more blood in my veins. My belly is huge. Hormonally speaking, there is a bigger difference between me and my non-pregnant self than between me and my husband. He and I, a couple, are becoming a family of three.

Just to add more change, my husband and I decided to move from San Francisco, where I have lived my entire adult life, to Berkeley. Not a huge distance, but a big change for us. It's kind of satisfying to change everything externally at the same time that so much is changing internally. It's also interesting to notice how much I identify with my home--how difficult it was to take apart the San Francisco home, how in a hurry I am to set everything up in a familiar way in the new home. In the same way I identify with my body, and do double-takes when I look down at my big belly. That's me. This is my house. Not really believing it yet, still stuck in the old patterns.

If I lie down and breathe, let my breath find its natural rhythm, that rhythm has changed because my metabolism has shifted during pregnancy. I'm lying on the floor in my new home, looking out at the redwood tree in the front yard. All these indicators of identity are superficial, even the rhythm of my breathing. I cling to the old familiar indicators, but there is a core of myself that is deeper than these indicators, and when I can stop for long enough, when I look for it, I can sense it. I couldn't describe or locate it, except perhaps in the primary image, in my representation of myself as directions and lengths. I can sense myself at some points as a continual process--my history feeding into who I am now, but also able to shift and change. When I can sense this, I can also sense many new possibilities for how to be myself. If I can change this much, what else is possible?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Where to begin?

I just received an email from a young woman from Greece who is studying the flute. Her question:
"The thing is that I have tried so much to find a good balance, body posture and breathing that I am really confused at the moment and all the flute teachers tell me about it. It is about time for things to change! Could you please suggest to me a method and/or a place to begin?"

My response: Everyone has an opinion about posture! I'm sure you hear many confusing and contradictory things. What I like about the Feldenkrais Method is that there are no rules about posture, and there is no one good position. Feldenkrais sees posture as a point of equilibrium and uses going in and out of balance to find the place of balance, which can be different every day. My favorite flute teacher, Liisa Ruoho at the Sibelius Academy in Finland, says "You have to lose your balance in order to find it."

It's important to find your own balance and comfort from the inside, exploring different movements until you find what suits you. Everyone has a different shape and a different history and different habits, so one teacher's solution may not work for you. Also teachers tend to simplify and turn advice into rules. For me following rules takes me out of myself and causes more tension.

I recently taught the Feldenkrais lesson called "What Is Good Posture?" and recorded it. I'll post it now on my blog so you can do it if you'd like. It's also published in a book by Feldenkrais called Awareness through Movement. This book has 12 sample lessons which are a good introduction to Feldenkrais. There's another good one concerning breathing, which I have posted here.

Disclaimer: this is a recording of a live lesson, unscripted, and responding to the people who attended the class. It is not a substitute for a live class, where the teacher can observe your movements and respond to your pacing. But it's a good introduction to the method.