Above: An illustration from Ruthy Alon’s Mindful Spontaneity
What does it mean to look at your life with an attitude of biological optimism?
(I’ll explain the idea shortly, but for now, just notice how the words sound and feel.)
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When I read something that really touches me, it often feels like the writer has put into words something that I have long been looking for, but couldn’t articulate for myself. I feel something release inside me when that thing is recognized and given a name.
When I began to practice the Feldenkrais Method, I began to have this experience over and over. My body was responding in fresh ways to the words I heard in Awareness Through Movement classes and in the new books I was reading.
One of the first books I found was Mindful Spontaneity by Ruthy Alon (just that title made me feel good!). I can clearly remember that there was a particular paragraph that generated a feeling in my body that I’d spent years trying to find. To put it into words, I would have said, “this is what I want to do with my life.” It was a strong enough feeling that I trusted it. That was when I decided to enroll in a formal practitioner training program.
In her book – which reads like poetry – Alon describes what she calls “the true gain” that comes from dedicating oneself to the Feldenkrais Method, a life perspective she calls “biological optimism”:
Can you imagine your feelings when you discover that you are an ever-changing live organism, capable of self-correction and advancement for as long as you live? The optimism which accompanies the learning process, people’s enthusiasm when they discover it, as well as their appreciation, are what make this method so attractive and inspire commitment in both students and teachers.
These words resonated very deeply with me because by now I could match them to sensations I had felt in my body. I had learned a reliable process I could engage whenever I needed to reduce pain or stress and find more lightness in my body. That knowledge created an entirely new image of my future where I was much more in control.
So, let’s flash forward a couple of years to an experience I had in my training, when one day we had a guest teacher, Julie Francis, a Feldenkrais practitioner from Chicago. As she guided us through a series of movements, she invited us to relate to ourselves in a particular way:
See how softly you can do the movement . . . Let it be soft . . . Let it be easy.
Do less than you know you can do . . . Let it be simple.
Why the struggle? . . . Why struggle?! . . . Why do we struggle?!
Life is hard ‘cause we make it hard, right? Movement is hard ‘cause we make it hard!
I was watching this little girl today doing these movements . . . I was having breakfast this morning and there was a – probably an 18-month old – and she had a stroller and she was standing outside her stroller and she was doing THIS lesson! . . .
. . . And she had this giant monkey on her bum-bum and she’s bending over and there’s that little monkey smiling at me. It was the cutest thing! And there was not an ounce of struggle in that body.
So where did the struggle come from?! . . . Let it go! . . . Be that little girl! . . . EXPLORE!
These are not lessons to be done correctly! These are lessons for learning. If we focus on doing something right we learn nothing (except to struggle and try to do something right).
But if we get curious and say, “Ah, what is that, what is that?!” – What happens? . . . Suddenly, it becomes play!
Now, when is the last time you heard something like that in your movement class?!
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When I began to teach Awareness Through Movement, I decided that I would invite my students to “move like a child again.” I chose this theme because, like Julie Francis, I find a lot of inspiration in the joyful way that children move. And I like the idea that by rewriting the narrative of how we relate to our bodies, we can recapture some of that joy in our bodies that we all used to have. During our playground years, words like “right”, “wrong”, “must”, “should” and “correct” were less present in our vocabularies – and our movement.
Teaching this method has brought me to a deeper understanding of how the sound and feeling of our words reflects our ways of thinking, acting and making meaning.
For example, if a student come to my class and tells me, “I have pain in this shoulder”, and another student comes and tells me, “this is my bad shoulder”, these two student do not think about their shoulder in the same way. Likewise, they are to likely act quite differently when I invite them to investigate how they might move their shoulders without pain.
My job is not to judge that one student’s ideas or actions is better than the other, but to give them both more options for how they relate to their shoulder – and to their whole self. And one of the ways that I do this is by offering them new words.
As a student, I have experienced many new and wonderful feelings in my body by moving in response to the words of my teachers. Now that I teach, I have the amazing opportunity to watch others translate my words into physical movement.
What I have learned is that if you face some difficulty in life, whether you locate it in your “body”, your “mind”, or your “self”, it might be worth thinking about the words you choose to describe it. It also might be worth exchanging those words for different ones. The sound of new words can bring new meaning, a change that you can often feel in your bones.
Perhaps the most radical way to create a new mental narrative is by eliminating words altogether. Moshe Feldenkrais sometimes advocated this approach. The central concern of his life’s work was to help people find their full potential and he felt that language was one place that many people created obstacles for themselves.
He once put it this way:
When thinking in words, even subliminally, we are logical and think in familiar patterns, in categories that we have thought, dreamed, read, heard, or said sometime before. Learning to think in patterns of relationships, in sensations divorced from the fixity of words, allows us to find hidden resources and the ability to make new patterns, to carry over patterns of relationship from one discipline to another. In short, we think personally, originally, and thus take another route to the thing we already know.
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Recently, I have been inspired to take a new look at my use of language by Daniela Picard, a Romanian-born Feldenkrais practitioner who today resides in Bat Yam, Israel. Daniela, who has been teaching for 27 years, once described our Method to me as “systematic playfulness.” (click here to watch a wonderful video of Daniela inviting her students to explore new ways to put on a jacket – you don’t need to speak Hebrew to understand!)
In one conversation I told Daniela that I had never understood why some people only seem to use the word “crazy” to describe negative things. “I’m known for my crazy ideas,” she responded, and went on to tell me a beautiful story.
Once, after a fall from a bicycle, Daniela’s knee had become very swollen. After a day of teaching, she went with some others to eat and on the way from the car to the restaurant she was “walking funny.” But this did not mean that she was limping. Rather, “it was like a dance or something – but there was no pain.”
Some among her company became embarrassed by the spectacle and a friend asked her, “how do you have the courage to do this?” For Daniela, the answer was simple: “I told them it was more important to me to move without pain than what someone I will never see again might think about me.”
I think Daniela’s story is a nice example of how words like those of Ruthy Alon and Julie Francis can be turned into action. If we live life playfully, we can find creative solutions that make us stronger.
Sometimes this process begins by changing the words we speak or opening our ears to hear something new. Sometimes it means following a feeling before we can explain it logically. Sometimes it means that feeling good is a good enough reason for what we do. Sometimes it means that learning can be fun.
Do you like the sound of that?