Learning discoveries at the 1st DC Feldenkrais Festival

The first DC Feldenkrais Festival on Saturday, October 25, 2014 was a learning experience for all of us.

Six Awareness Through Movement® (ATM) teachers offered back-to-back classes to several dozen students who attended one or several sessions throughout the entire 7-hour event. Many of these students experienced ATM for the first time, while others had attended ATM classes for years. As the main organizer and contact person for the event, I had a number of interesting experiences observing and interacting with all of these wonderful people.

By chance, the room that was provided for us at the Chevy Chase Community Center that day was a pre-school classroom. It was the perfect atmosphere for the playful exploratory learning experience we hoped to share!

Before each ATM exercise, I spoke briefly about what the Feldenkrais Method is, and what it is not. Sitting next to a yellow diamond-shaped toy street sign that read “SLOW” (borrowed from the pre-school dramatic play area), I explained that this experience would be entirely different than what one usually encounters in an exercise class.

This is not about stretching, I said. It’s not about pushing your limits. It’s about learning. It’s about discovering habits you might not have known you had. It’s more about what’s happening in your brain than what is happening in your muscles. And it’s not about getting anywhere or accomplishing anything.

In fact, I said, it could actually be useful to take the attitude that what you are doing here is wasting your time!  If you have any goal at all, please make it that you are looking for a feeling of comfort in these movements, a feeling of pleasure.

One young woman told me that she had heard something about Feldenkrais from a friend and decided to try it out. “I have no expectations,” she said. “Perfect!” I replied. And throughout the day, I encouraged others to take a similar attitude.

Yet, this wasn’t always easy. More than one participant remarked after a session that they had to fight against an inner compulsion to do more!

For example, following one exercise where participants sat in chairs and explored the function of turning, a woman commented, “I kept noticing that other students were turning farther than me and I kept thinking ‘I need to turn more.'” She acknowledged that forcing herself to turn farther would have created discomfort, yet she said she still felt compelled to do so. She said she assumed there was something wrong with her if she did not turn as much as others did. Several other students nodded in agreement, having had a similar experience.

. . . or sitting in a chair!

All the same, I was impressed by the way many students accepted the teachers’ invitations to slow down and listen to themselves. And, they made discoveries!

For example, they found out that strange movement combinations – such as turning the head to the left while looking with the eyes to the right – could provoke new and novel patterns of muscular organization. They discovered how a simple movement such as reaching one arm toward the ceiling could be connected to a global movement of the whole self. They discovered how focusing their attention on different individual aspects of a more complex movement could illuminate the overall pattern and help them perform it more smoothly.

And they discovered that, in a very short time, through their own actions, they were capable of change.

For example, one woman, a regular practitioner of Qi Gong, told me that she experienced a dramatic shift half way through the session in which she participated. “My entire upper back suddenly let go and sank into the floor,” she said.

A handful of these new participants decided that they wanted these changes to stick, and decided to sign up for regular ongoing Awareness Through Movement classes.

The students at the festival who already knew about the Feldenkrais Method played a vital role at the DC Feldenkrais Festival: they supplied the excitement! Despite already knowing the power of ATM, these Feldenkrais “veterans” jumped at the opportunity to dive into multiple lessons and many brought a friend who was new to the experience.

They spoke about how the Feldenkrais Method had changed their lives and expressed gratitude for an event that placed it more in the public spotlight. Their presence gave new participants a sense of the broader community of people who have discovered a greater connection to themselves and to each other through consistent practice.

The ATM teachers that day were Francine Bonjour-Carter, Carol Regan, Abby Becker, Matthew Kupstas, Hannah Vo-Dinh and Derick Carter. Each of these gifted teachers gave their students a unique introduction to the Feldenkrais Method through the lens of their varied personalities. A couple of moments from their presentations help to give a flavor of the unique learning atmosphere that can be found in an Awareness Through Movement class.

The first image that comes to my mind is of Abby Becker, also a musician and organizer of adventurous after-school programs for young people in Baltimore. Abby stood before her students holding a Hoberman sphere (for those that don’t know, this is a plastic children’s toy that looks like a geodesic dome, capable of folding on its myriad joints to a fraction of its size).

Transmitting a joyful child-like curiosity, Abby showed festival participants how the structure could expand and contract, yet never surrender its perfectly spherical form. “Where does the movement come from?” she asked. “You can’t tell because each joint moves simultaneously and equally.”

This image, Abby explained, was a perfect metaphor for the possibility of efficiently organized movement that exists in the human skeleton. And at several relevant moments during the lesson she taught, she reminded students of this flexible sphere as she urged them to look for a similar quality of graceful action, where no individual part does unnecessary work because the effort is equally distributed throughout the entire self.

I also smile when I think of the way that Matthew Kupstas oriented his class participants to take care of themselves as they moved – a simple idea, yet one that flies in the face of much of what we are in taught in this society, making it difficult for some to accept initially, as was noted earlier.

“No one else has lived in your skin as long as you have,” he said.  The individual acts most effectively when guided by the internal senses rather than by the attempt to fulfill others’ expectations, he explained. “You are the authority of your own comfort.”

After a minute, with a grin he added: “Y-y-y-ep! You guys are changin’ the world by bringing a little more awareness to yourselves . . . that’s what the world needs: a few more people with more awareness!”

The organizers and teachers at the DC Feldenkrais Festival all agreed that it was a lot of fun and we plan to do it again. We plan to return to DC, but are already thinking about other cities in the region, including Baltimore and Philadelphia.  We hope to see you there – and please bring your friends!

After a while, the floor feels more and more comfortable!
After a while, the floor feels more comfortable!