Habits 101: New and Improved vs. Old and Familiar

As a teacher of Awareness Through Movement (ATM), my job is to lead my students through a learning process that helps them recognize their movement habits and creates the possibility for them to form new patterns that may serve them better.

But changing habits is not so simple.

In class I always encourage students to make movements with a minimum of effort. But the fact is that changing our habits does require effort. Habits run very deep. So while your class experience can open up new horizons, it is just as easy for you to leave class and go directly back to your old patterns. If this always happens, it becomes difficult for real change to take place.

In my class today, we observed our habits of how we use our feet to support the rest of our skeleton.

  • Which foot do we rely on more?
  • Do we put more pressure towards the outside edge of the foot or the inside?
  • Are we more over our toes or our heels?

After noticing these things we explored a series of movements involving supporting ourselves in all of these various ways. The process was designed to highlight how seemingly subtle changes in the use of our feet could lead to quite dramatic differences in the overall quality of our movement.

The students discovered that some of the variations gave them more of a sense of stability and lightness in movement. Other variations made them feel less steady, more sluggish. That was simple enough to digest, but then there was this additional paradox – some of the least comfortable situations were the ones that felt the most familiar!

After class some of us discussed a question that Feldenkrais practitioners get all the time:

“I feel great – but how long will this last?”

Of course, this question has many answers, but I told my class that I thought that there is one key point that makes the difference between temporary and enduring improvement. And it has to do with this distinction between what feels better and what feels familiar.  The failure to make this distinction – the same thing that may make it difficult for someone to quit smoking or end an abusive relationship – can be an obstacle to progress.

One student responded that she had felt very upright after the lesson, but noticed that a few minutes later she had gone back into a slumped posture that she guessed was similar to how she had arrived before class. I congratulated her on noticing this change because many people do the same thing, but don’t notice it at all.

They stand up at the end of an Awareness Through Movement lesson and feel great – but they don’t quite “feel like themselves.” They say “hmm, this is interesting” – and then they go to the grocery store and start worrying about what to make for dinner. It’s not long before the changes produced by the ATM lesson are lost in the shuffle.

I told this student that that I thought her recognition of what had happened presented her with a great learning opportunity. “Try deliberately going back and forth between your old habit and this new sense of organization,” I suggested. “That will help you clarify the difference and give your system a better chance to incorporate the new possibilities.”

While you might think that it wouldn’t be helpful to revisit slumping, I’d argue that this student would stand a better chance of developing a more upright habit if she had the skill of being able to deliberately create both of these kinds of postures – the more and the less efficient.  That would make it less likely that she would absent-mindedly slip from one to the other without noticing, and thus having no opportunity to catch herself and make a conscious choice between the two.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with coming to class, feeling better and then going to the grocery store. But if you are also going to feel better in the frozen food aisle, in the check out line, driving home and after dessert, then there is something important that you shouldn’t leave behind when you leave class – your self-awareness. And there’s no question: it’s much harder to have awareness when you are in the midst of your busy life than when you are lying quietly on the floor contemplating the sensations that your Feldenkrais practitioner has carefully prepared for you.

As Moshe Feldenkrais discovered and always emphasized in teaching his Method, learning is easier when you slow down and don’t use unnecessary effort. That’s why most of the lessons are done lying on the ground and include nearly as much resting as actual movement.  But after class, the world keeps spinning at its habitual speed and life’s responsibilities are still waiting for you. If you are going to maintain some of the self-awareness you found in class amidst all this noise and bustle, it’s going to take a bit more effort!

My current focus as I seek to improve my own teaching is to clarify the process of how you can take what you learn in class and integrate it into the rest of your life. Because while you might feel dramatic improvements with relatively little effort in a single ATM class, the longer term changes you seek – whether they be in your flexibility, balance, ease of movement, or even in your patterns of thinking and relating to the people around you – will probably require a deeper commitment.

In my own case, I was deeply impacted my first Feldenkrais lessons. So I continued to pursue the practice because I simply enjoyed it. But eventually my improvements led me to encounter new problems that I couldn’t so easily resolve. Four years after I began this journey, I am a certified Awareness Through Movement teacher and I am now approaching full certification as a Feldenkrais practitioner. The reason I haven’t give up the practice is that it continues to help guide me to new ways to improve my life.

Today I am trying to develop a new habit that takes some effort: I am going to try to write more regularly here – at least once a month, but hopefully more – about the learning processes of the Feldenkrais Method and how this practice relates to the rest of your life.

I began this process when I wrote my previous post about gratitude. After months without writing anything new, finishing that piece felt good – and unfamiliar! A part of me wanted to put off writing anything new anytime soon. But another part of me, connected to the events and thoughts that led me to write it, was not satisfied with my familiar path. And luckily, I also received encouragement from many readers who appreciated what I had to say.

So I’ve decided that I’m going to try to build on what I’ve just learned, and put a little more effort into my dialogue with you. In my next post, I will describe an experiment with my self-awareness and habits related to my patterns of thinking that I hope will give you further insight into how you can take your Feldenkrais experience out of class and into the rest of your life.

Furthermore, if you like these blog posts, please consider sharing them with friends who might be interested in learning more about the Feldenkrais Method. And if there are any specific topics you would like me to address, please let me know!

I continue to practice the Feldenkrais Method because I still want to improve myself. And teaching the Method is also a learning process for me where my students constantly help me discover the next steps forward in my own growth. In other words, I try to create an atmosphere in my classes where we can all learn from each other. If you like the sound of that, I hope you will join me in class some time soon so we can continue this conversation!

9 thoughts on “Habits 101: New and Improved vs. Old and Familiar”

  1. Seth- Really enjoyed this. I appreciate your authentically describing very fundamental aspects of the Feldenkrais Method in a clear way.

  2. Thank you for the post and this specifically “And it has to do with this distinction between what feels better and what feels familiar.”

  3. Wonderful post Seth! Thank you for inviting us into your teaching and your learning— for creating a space (via your writing) to learn from one another. I look forward to attending one of your classes one day.

    Another another note…
    I also really like your answer to the question:
    “I feel great – but how long will this last?”
    It is such a wonderful dance to befriend the familiar and embrace “the better” …until one day the better is the familiar and the old familiar is simply another option.

  4. Great post Seth! I agree with Cynthia, that’s a very important distinction. Thank you for making that clearer.

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