autonomy in the movement classroom

unpolished thoughts 2/22/2019

Last year, I invited movement teachers to participate in a free 5-day online challenge to stimulate creative thinking in their presentation to students.

Each day of the Magical Movement Teaching Challenge took up a different theme.

Next month, I will be running the challenge again, incorporating feedback from that first experience, and zeroing in on a single theme this time around: autonomy.


What does autonomy mean in the movement classroom?

I’m referring to the capacity of the individual student to take care of him/herself in class.

Of course, any good movement teacher is carefully observing her students, suggesting modifications that might be helpful, and engaging students individually as much as possible.

But there are always limits to how much personalization is possible in a group class. Especially when there is a wide range in students’ skill levels or physical fitness, the teacher has to compromise somewhere to make everyone feel included.

Teachers that regularly offer “all levels” classes can become quite gifted in handling this dynamic, but there is one thing that can make every teacher more effective.

The game-changer is when the teacher is training students to personalize their practice on their own.

Some students already have a gift for doing this, but, for others, guidance is needed.

The reasons why this is the case are deeply rooted in the experience of institutional education that we have all been subjected to in one way or another.

We have all had the experience of engaging in learning in order to pass tests, performing for external validation rather than focusing on what we personally need to improve.

While this is simply the world most of us have always lived in, it’s important to recognize how this approach to learning can be particularly dangerous in the movement classroom.

Even with the most gifted and empathetic teacher, it is probably best if the student tends more towards skepticism than obedience. “Trying to get an A” at all costs is a strategy that can easily lead to injury, demoralization and diminishing motivation.

Instead, it’s essential that every student learns to adjust for their own unique body, to measure success on their own personal scale, and to become engaged in the unique story of their own learning journey – without the need for external stamps of approval.

One basic thing a teacher can do to help is to lead by example.

While the teacher’s own sense of mastery is an extremely important asset to draw upon, if it is the sole basis for her instruction, it tends to emphasize the gap between what she knows and what her students don’t.

This leads right back to the typical pattern of striving that might work for a couple of “superstars” in class, but leaves everyone else behind.

Instead, the teacher who refers to her own journey, mistakes and setbacks included, opens up more space for her students to see where the road ahead may be leading. The teacher who talks about how movement practice impacts her own daily life helps clarify how students can make the same connection.

When Feldenkrais practitioners teach an Awareness Through Movement class, we normally don’t demonstrate the movements we are teaching. It’s a “rule” that we also break from time to time when a brief demonstration can illuminate something important.

Still, the basic approach of guiding movement entirely with words serves a particular purpose. It encourages the student to put together the image of what they are doing on their own, discovering what they do or don’t understand about a given movement.

Of course, the teacher must be attentive and give further guidance when it’s apparent that students are confused.

But what this model rejects is the idea that the students’ path to success lies in mimicking the teacher who models “how to do it correctly.”

One of Moshe Feldenkrais famous ideas was the “principle of no principles” – which he invoked each time that he wanted to go off script, for example, occasionally demonstrating a movement.

The more I teach, the more I see the value in also periodically offering visual demonstrations.

However, for teachers who always demonstrate when they teach, it can be similarly illuminating to experiment with guiding their students through words alone.

If you teach yoga, a martial art, dance, or any other movement practice where movements are usually demonstrated, I encourage you to experiment with this.

Likewise, if you attend movement classes where you have always learned by imitating your instructor, you might be surprised to discover what it’s like to try to verbally describe to yourself what you do in class in sufficient detail that another person could follow along without seeing you.

You’ll find out very quickly how complete your image of what you are doing is. That’s pretty crucial, since every action you make begins by forming a mental image of what you are about to do.

When students understand how their entire self participates in any given movement, they not only perform the movement more easily, but they are also more likely to catch any early warning signs of strain, and adjust to keep themselves safe.

There’s more to say on this subject, but I’m stopping here for today. If there’s something you’d like to hear more about, please leave me a comment below.

Here’s a question to get you thinking:

How much ownership of their experience do students have in the movement classroom where you currently teach or learn?


More information on the March 2019 Magical Movement Teaching Challenge will be available soon, but you can sign up now to participate (click here).

Please note, this challenge is specifically for movement teachers.

If you would like to work on your ability to be safe in any movement class as a student, check out my ¡Reimagine Yourself! 2019 online classes (click here)


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