the art of asking questions

unpolished thoughts 1/23/2019

Today is the third day of the second meeting of the Feldenkrais Training Academy in Seattle.

I’m quite struck by how much we’ve already learned. But perhaps even more striking is how we are learning.

Jeff Haller, the educational director of this training, likes to make the point that the primary skill we are developing  is “the art of asking questions.”

It’s the bread and butter of what we focus on here every day.

What often seems so radical about the Feldenkrais approach is that the emphasis is not on “finding answers.”

This doesn’t mean that answers are never found in this work – never in my life before I discovered this practice did I find so many answers to my big questions!

What it means is that the work isn’t defined by that search. It’s defined by the inquiry.

During yesterday’s training, we explored the breath.

Our first question was:

Why is it important to study the breath?

We underlined a principle to guide our inquiry: the relationship of the breath to ideal human action.

In ideal action, the breath is free.

That is, when you are moving efficiently, you don’t hold or restrict your breath in any way.

But we don’t take this idea for granted.

In my previous post, I described how we deliberately explored more and less efficient ways of supporting our weight in gravity, listening each time to become aware how each one impacted our breathing.

I wouldn’t tell you that Feldenkrais practitioners never make assertions or point to one thing as being better than the other. However, the knowledge of this practice comes from embodied experience.

That’s why, although I sometimes ask my students to make a movement as they exhale, just as often I will ask them to do the movement twice, both on the inhale and on the exhale.

Then I will ask them:

Do you feel a difference?

The Awareness Through Movement lesson we explored yesterday was “Global Breathing.”

The name of the lesson refers to the possibility that when the diaphragm moves freely up and down inside of the torso, we are capable of making room for the breath in six different directions: forward, back, left, right, up and down.

In fact, if we don’t, the diaphragm can’t move up and down freely.

So this is an important question!

Of course, most of us don’t expand breath in an ideal way at all times. And if someone instructed you to breathe this way, explaining that it was “best way”, it wouldn’t likely help you much.

However, by spending a good portion of an hour paying attention to your breath and experimenting with movements of the floating ribs and breastbone, it’s possible to remind your body of how the torso can, in fact, shape itself to expand in each of those directions.

After such an inquiry, most people will find something much closer to a global breath than what they had before the exploration. That’s certainly what happened in class yesterday.


Another principle of human movement that we are operating with here helps supply the answer.

The human nervous system is self-organizing.

 (And I wouldn’t be so assertive about that if I hadn’t experience it in my own body countless times).

In other words, if you allow a person to experience many different possible ways to breathe, it’s likely that his/her nervous system will use that information to reorganize the action of breathing with a more ideal motor pattern.

In the midst of this inquiry, Jeff asked a particular question which illuminated something new for me. I doubt I would have considered if he hadn’t done so. He asked:

“As you breathe, pay attention – which is longer, your inhale or your exhale?”

In my case, the exhale was longer at the beginning of the lesson. But by the end it’s length was more or less the same as my inhale.

As I sit here writing though, I find that, once again, my exhale is longer than my inhale.

Oops –  looks like I just discovered a particular habit I have that I wasn’t previously aware of!

It became even more intriguing to me when I thought about this habit in relation to having a free breath.

I’ll try to give you some idea of what it got me thinking about by practicing the art of asking questions.

If you’re game, please try this:

Draw in a large breath, then hold it. Observe the shape that you just adopted with your chest.

Now exhale as much as you can, and hold the breath again.

Again, observe the shape of your chest.

Imagine that these two shapes of the chest might represent two different ways of living your life.

If you breathe 20,000 times a day and, like me, tend to have a shorter inhale and a longer exhale, which of these shapes would probably come closer to your habitual posture?

Which one would be closer if your inhale was longer?

In a conversation, between two people – one each of these types – who do you think might speak more? Which one might listen more?

Which of these two do you think might more easily swim twenty laps or sing an aria?

What other aspects of life can you imagine could be impacted by the habitual balance of your breath?

The final activity of our day was an embodied inquiry into one more vital question:

How much of the “global breath” that you just found in quiet exploration on the floor can you retain in upright action?

In yesterday’s post, I shared an exercise from class highlighting a variety of ways that many of us habitually disorganize our skeleton and impede our ability to expand in all directions as we breathe.

Following that exercise we drew on another aspect of the art of asking questions is used in the Feldenkrais Method:

We asked each other questions with our hands.

With a partner’s hands on our belly and low back, we each investigated our ability to breathe globally breath in sitting, while bearing weight, and while beginning to transition from sitting to standing.

This movement is a place where so many people, especially later in life, strain themselves unnecessarily. As they stand, they shorten their spine and hold their breath.

Over time, they gradually make this experience increasingly miserable for themselves by also bracing themselves in anticipation of pain.

But with our partner’s hands asking us “can you breathe globally as you do this?” – and providing us with direct feedback – our self-organizing nervous systems had the opportunity to find new answers.

None of us were perfect, but though our connection with each other, we all got a little more information, raising the possibility for all of us to move a little closer to our potential.

Here’s one last question for you:

How might your life change if you spent a little more time practicing the art of asking questions?


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