refining the upward spiral

Photo by Jonathan Weiss on Unsplash

unpolished thoughts 3/22/2019

As I sit here, I’m thinking about the width of my base of support.

It’s not exactly the kind of thing I would have thought about in the past, and when I say “past” I mean as recent as last week.

But two days ago, I was reviewing the recording of one of the Awareness Through Movement lessons taught in the last meeting of the Feldenkrais Training Academy (FTA) and this question was front and center.

The lesson, which can be found in Moshe Feldenkrais’ book – also called Awareness Through Movement– is known as “The Movement of the Eyes Organizes the Movement of the Body.”

The focus of the original lesson is, of course, the movement of the eyes – although that’s hardly the only important question embedded in this exploration.

The lesson is done in side sitting, in other words, with both knees on one side and both feet on the other. One knee rests on the floor just below the sole of the foot of the opposite leg.

(I say “below” because if the legs were in the same orientation as the head, which is upright, the knee would be further from the head than the sole of the foot of the opposite leg.

In an Awareness Through Movement lesson, all directions – “up”, “down”, “right”, “left”, etc. are given in reference to you – your head is above your feet whether you are lying on your side, your back or even, strange as it may seem, if you are doing a headstand.)

The basic movement of the lesson is to rotate around the base of support in order to see behind oneself. While doing this, one hand is on the floor on the same side as the knees, and the other hand is held out in front of the face so that the wrist is more or less at eye level.

While turning, you always keep the hand in the same position so that the head, shoulders and arm move as a unit.

Feldenkrais was extraordinarily creative when it came to constructing unique movement situations like this one, filled with unusual constraints that force you to discover knew connections inside yourself that you haven’t previously accessed.

He often joked as he taught that “You’ll learn whether you want to or not.”

Because the situations he created were so rich, the lessons open up a world of potential exploration. It was an incredible revelation to me when I began this practice how the exact same lesson I had already tried could become an entirely different experience the second time I did it.

In the beginning, I was listening to recorded lessons, so what I heard was literally exactly the same on round two. But later, I discovered that in the hands of different teachers, the same lesson could also change dramatically because of the emphasis with which the lesson was taught.

In the recording of the Awareness Through Movement lesson I described above, the teacher was Assistant Trainer Andrew Gibbons. Like the FTA educational director, Jeff Haller, Andrew is well known for the specificity of his teaching.

What I have personally enjoyed about Andrew’s teaching since I’ve known him is how he so often brings my attention to aspects of how we organize ourselves in gravity that I hadn’t previously considered.

The way he taught this lesson was no different.

To put Andrew’s contribution into context, first it’s worth asking an important question about the principle movement found in this lesson.

What are some of the elements that make rotation easy?

There are several things that could be mentioned, but I would submit that one of the most important principles of ideal movement that relates to rotation is the importance of keeping your center of gravity over the base of your support.

As soon as you go outside the center of that base, you will turn in a wider arc, which is antithetical to using all the range available in each of the joints along the length of your spine. Instead, the “tighter” your turn is, the more efficient it will be.

The way Feldenkrais approached this challenge was strikingly original. It’s right there in the title:

The Movement of the Eyes Organizes the Movement of the Body.

Feldenkrais himself taught this lesson again and again and employed all kinds of variations. But one of the consistent strategies he used was to invite the student to use her eyes in multiple different ways: looking near, looking far, eyes open, eyes closed, only one eye open, moving with the head, moving opposite the head, moving with the head, but opposite the shoulders, moving with the shoulders but opposite the head, etc.

By exploring rotation with all these variations in the movement of the eyes, your eyes become much more skillful. In addition, if you try it, you might be amazed to discover that the range of your turning doubles, triples or quadruples.

But getting back to Andrew’s version of the lesson, there are many other questions that are of crucial importance. In fact, I don’t believe that he gave any instructions related to the eyes when he taught.

Did he forget?!

No, not at all.

In fact, Jeff organized the curriculum so that this lesson was taught three times within the space of a few days, each time by a different teacher, and each time with a different emphasis.

That was the whole point.

Dwight Pargee, another Assistant Trainer, taught the lesson the first time, emphasizing the eyes and the spacial relationship to our surrounding environment, how this impacts the image we have of ourselves as we move.

Andrew’s lesson mainly focused on the question of how we support ourselves on the floor as we rotate.

Do we lift lightly from away from the supporting surface as we turn around ourselves or sink down into it?

Most practitioners will ask you to think of lengthening upwards, taking the top of your head to the ceiling as you rotate. But the question of how that is done isn’t always addressed in detail.

That’s why I truly appreciated it when Andrew asked us to make two specific movements. First he asked ourselves to deliberately make ourselves taller.

Then he said:

“Look at the horizon and slowly contract into yourself a little bit and pay attention to the space between your knees . . . Is it like you’re trying to spread your knees wider or it like you’re trying to pull your knees closer together?”

(Try this even in simple cross-legged sitting and you’ll feel it right away.)

Once the distinction was clarified we played with two ways of getting taller – by bringing the knees together . . .

“Is that possible? The answer is yes . . . Not terribly comfortable!”

. . . and

“Can you see how – even though you may not actually slide the legs apart – could you imagine that some mysterious force was trying to squeeze your legs closer together and you resisted this force?  

You actually try to spread the knees a little bit further apart or you at least exert a little bit in that direction. Watch what that does to the lift in your spine.”

Throughout the room, spines lifted more easily.

“And now just relax – great! What happened to your knees just there?!”

I assume that for most, like me, the knees moved towards each other again.

In all the dozens of times that I had previously done this lesson, never once had I thought about this particular question. But obviously Andrew had!

Even so, there were plenty more questions to ask. As we came back to the rotating movements again and again, Andrew asked us to notice the spiraling movements of each of our femurs as the pelvis turned diagonally through space.

He guided us to feel the qualitative difference in the sensation – and the actual movement – depending on whether we initiated the from the inside of the leg or the outside of the leg.

He invited us to test two different ways of using the side of our back heel against the floor – the one that led to a feeling of hardening in the soft palette of the roof of the mouth and the other one that led to it’s softening and spreading.

Can’t say I’d ever thought about that before either!

Still, when Jeff taught the lesson for a third time at the end of the segment, there were a whole new set of variables.

For example he asked us to consider a dot painted on the back of each vertebra and turn by moving each dot one at a time, both from bottom to top as well from top to bottom. Then he asked us to do the same movement – except imagining the dots on the front of the spine.

He asked us to move with our eyes focused as close to us as possible and then with our eyes looking out “to infinity’

Not to mention my own personal favorite:

“Would you please shift your attention to the back of your eyes as if you could sense the back of your eyeballs and as if you can look forward from the back off your eyeballs, through your eyeball and outward.”

Jeff pointed out that when we look to the left, the backs of the eyeballs move to the right.

OK, you might say – but why is that important?!

To answer that question, Jeff had us turn many times orienting from both the front and the back of our eyes, comparing the difference between the two.

“Make the movement one time and bring your attention to the front of your eyeballs and listen to the weight of your face . . .

Now for the moment, begin to turn, initiate this whole movement of going to the left by the way you turn the back of your eyeballs to the right. It’s almost like you’re going to look out of your left ear . . 

It focuses your head more closely to resting on your atlas, and if you pay attention . . . it’s almost like you can turn the back of your eyeballs . . . it’s like you can turn the cogs that make your neck turn, that make each vertebra turn down below.

. . . Turn as if the axis of the turning is closer to where your head joins the top of your spine.”

It’s an amazing feeling when you pay attention to yourself in a way you never previously did and you discover a potential inside yourself that you never knew existed.

That’s what I love about this work.

The endless possibility for variation in any Awareness Through Movement and what comes with it, the infinite number of ways that we can continue to refine the quality of our experience.


Do you want to discover the endless possibilities that are living inside you?

That’s what my 2019 online program ¡Reimagine Yourself! is all about: 

How to make your movement practice into a vehicle for rewriting the story of how you move through the world.

Module 1, “Tapping Deep Body Wisdom” starts next Monday, March 25.

To learn more about ¡Reimagine Yourself!, click here


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