Learning to Learn to Move Like A Child Again

I want to invite you to rediscover the experience of pure joy in movement and learning.

I’m talking about the joy exhibited by any child who is allowed to move freely and who has not yet been inculcated into one of the infinite variety of doctrines of what is “right” and what is “wrong”.

Babies that coo and goo have no concern as to whether their sounds are as melodious as other babies and experience more pure delight in a simple game of peek-a-boo with Mommy than many of us have known in any form in years.  The world is brand new every day, as new as yesterday, and as far as baby knows, it will still be new brand new tomorrow.  Learning isn’t part of life – it is life.

Is your world brand new every day?

Here is a small piece of my story of rediscovering the joy in putting learning at the center of my life.  I hope you will me help write the next chapter …

About three years ago I stumbled across the Feldenkrais Method, a unique form of guided exploratory movement that opens a doorway into our central nervous system and creates opportunities for us to re-wire it.  I was so blown away by the rapid and continuing transformations it produced in me that I soon joined a training program to become a practitioner of this method and share my experience with others.

As I write these words, I am just a few days away from my professional certification as a teacher of group Feldenkrais classes, known as Awareness Through Movement (“ATM”, for short).

To prepare myself, I have been offering free public classes for the past two months in a local community center where I invited participants to explore the idea that they could learn how to “move like a child again.”  It has been very exciting – my first experience (outside of practice with classmates from my training) in sharing this work with others.  Now that I find myself sitting at the front of the room giving instructions rather than lying on the ground and following them, perhaps technically, I’m no longer a “student” – now I’m a “teacher.”

But, given the way the Feldenkrais process works –  and especially given that I’ve just begun to teach – I think it’s more accurate to say: “I’m learning to learn how to teach how to learn to learn.”


To explain a bit more what that messy mouthful means, here is a short passage from an article by long-time Feldenkrais trainer, Dennis Leri, who studied directly with Moshe Feldenkrais, the extraordinary scientist, Judo master and all-around creative thinker who created the method that bears his name:

Rather than “fixing” the body, Moshe Feldenkrais taught how to expand its capacities and ranges of choice.  “I am going to be your last teacher. Not because I’ll be the greatest teacher you may ever encounter, but because from me you will learn how to learn. When you learn how to learn, you will realize that there are no teachers, that there are only people learning and people learning how to facilitate learning.” With those words Moshe Feldenkrais began his first North American training in June 1975. None of us were really prepared for this remarkable man or his method.

During an Awareness Through Movement lesson, the student follows simple directions from the teacher such as “roll your head to the left” or “reach your right arm forward.”  Usually, there is actually very little that’s special in these movements (in fact, Feldenkrais once even described them as “idiotic”!).  Rather, what is special are the insights into one’s self that the sequence of movements in an ATM lesson can provide.

As one simple movement follows another, gradually, the student discovers a clearer and clearer picture of how to coordinate the separate movements of her limbs into a single coherent image.  When we don’t know ourselves well enough (or, for example, when we don’t know how our hip joints function) we often set our different parts to work in opposition to each other.  Rather than an efficient coordination between our muscles, bones and joints, we have an internal tug of war – and, worse still, we often make a habit of it.  The unique experience of an Awareness Through Movement lesson shines a light on our habits and allows us to find out whether they truly serve us.

And it creates opportunities to create new habits that may serve us better.

The job of the Awareness Through Movement teacher is not only to direct the students in performing the movements, but more importantly, to help guide the students’ awareness of how they are moving.  What Feldenkrais discovered is that when we slow our movements down, try less hard to achieve our goals, and pay close attention to ourselves and the internal sensations produced by our movements, we open the door to learning things that may have always seemed out of our grasp.

It’s not unlike the disciplined musician who repeatedly practices a tiny snippet of a composition at half the tempo he will later perform it.  The rewards to be reaped from this approach, in my experience, are practically limitless.  However, there is a catch: for many of us, embracing the idea of “doing less” runs against the grain of everything we have been taught.

In my own personal history as a musician, unfortunately, I never quite learned how to practice.  As a teenage piano student, I would play a piece I’d worked out over and over, but rather than improving, it got worse each time.  In my efforts to prove to myself (and others) that I was “good at piano” I would play the piece faster and faster, not noticing that it only sounded sloppier and less musical with each repetition.

I was convinced that speed and playing the “right notes” was proof of “talent.”  At the same time, I feared working on new pieces, knowing that I would have to start over again in that uncomfortable space where I didn’t yet know how the music was supposed to sound or even where to put my fingers to begin … and I wondered why I didn’t improve!

When I discovered the Feldenkrais Method, I began the process of slowing down.  Since that time I have discovered a new depth of enjoyment not only in music, but also in running, in reading, in washing the dishes, in conversation, in human relationships – in short, in all aspects of my life.  Slowing down was not easy at first, but it gets easier each time I engage with it – and I intend to make it a habit!

A new Feldenkrais teacher faces many challenges.  One not insignificant challenge is to describe certain more complex movements in words without forgetting while facing the students that “my right is their left” and vice-versa!  The teacher has to learn how to create the image of the movement in words, and soon learns that, even if all the students speak the same language, the teacher’s intention is often “lost in translation.”

However, for myself as a teacher, the biggest (and most interesting) challenge has not been the translation of words into actions as such, but rather how to effectively communicate one of Feldenkrais most simple, yet profound ideas: stop trying so hard! Stop being so serious! Be kind to yourself!

When I started doing ATMs as a student, I certainly heard the instructions to do smaller movements, slower movements, and not to ignore discomforts.  Yet whenever I felt my range of motion increasing I also always heard an excited internal voice saying “hey, how much more can we get?!  Let’s find out!”  When a movement got more comfortable, the voice said, “This is great!  Let’s go faster!  Let’s cross the finish line first!”

The problem with that other voice isn’t that there is something wrong with large or fast movements, or even with a bit of competitive spirit.  Rather, the problem is that in true learning, there is no finish line.  There is always another layer of understanding to be discovered if you are willing to take the time to look.

But if you’re always in a rush to “succeed”. . . you’ll miss it!

One of the best compliments I received from my students was from a woman who told me that that she had gained a new appreciation in class for “the wonderful machinery we are lucky to embody.”  I think that statement summarizes quite well the way that young children relate to their bodies, the “wonderful machinery” that helps them discover a brand new world each day.

People come to Awareness Through Movement classes for many different reasons.  Some students are trying to regain mobility that was lost because of an accident or surgery.  Others may be trying to raise their level of performance as a musician or athlete.  Others are motivated more broadly to follow a path of self-discovery.  Whatever other motives bring you, I’d like you to consider joining an Awareness Through Movement class* for this reason as well: to reconnect with the joy of learning and experience how it feels to “move like a child” again!

*click link above for ATM classes in DC.  If you are elsewhere on the globe, please click here.