taller or smaller?

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

unpolished thoughts 3/23/2019

Why do we do what we do?

Do we do it for ourselves or for someone else?

There’s a simple way to know when we do what serves us. (I don’t mean being “self-serving” – but this is the problem with language).

Does this action make you feel taller or smaller?

Recently I was practicing Awareness Through Movement where the distance between the knees was investigated in a particular sitting position. In that particular situation, it turned out that more distance between the knees (a wider base of support) made it simpler to maintain length in the spine while turning.

But in my private practice over the years, I have often had clients, usually women, who keep their knees close together – sometimes even touching – at all times when they sit.

Because I know the biomechanical importance of this question, I will often create situations that invite them to try something different.

However, the reason they keep their knees together often relates to something very deep in their history. The length of the spine is not the primary concern that led them to choose this manner of sitting.

Yet, they likely came to my studio complaining of back pain.

So now the question of whether their action serves them or someone else is an essential one. Is their action a reaction to the world, or a consciously chosen response?

Moshe Feldenkrais often talked about situations where people try to “say yes and no at the same time,” and how this creates internal tangles in the body. The more precise term he used to describe this predicament was cross motivation.

We are so often at cross purposes with ourselves.

As children, we adopted all kinds of defensive patterns that really did serve us – in the sense that they kept us safe in an environment where we were surrounded by unpredictable adults.

But even if we were spared the worst kind of experiences that we call “abuse”, most of us developed various habits that amounted to making ourselves intentionally smaller.

The idea that children should be seen, but not heard actually makes sense to children on a certain level if they don’t find reliably safe spaces for their true voices to resonate. Learning to be quiet and/or invisible was, at some point, a skill that most of us found valuable.

As children, we simply didn’t have the power to choose our own environment, so we developed the best survival skills that we could. As adults we are left to sort out whether or not the current tools in our toolbox are the ones that still serve us best.

Do we want to simply survive – or thrive?

This is why the way we use ourselves – often described in shorthand by the term “posture” – is so essential to the quality of our lives. It’s also why the search for “proper alignment” – as a purely biomechanical question – often falls short of fulfilling our true needs.

If I tell you exactly where to place your heels, hips, shoulders and head, I haven’t helped you much. All I have told you is what you can do to satisfy me. But I haven’t given you any useful tools to discover which among the infinite number of ways you could show up in the world, would serve you the best.

When he taught groups, Moshe Feldenkrais often remarked that, while people usually moved quite differently at the beginning of an Awareness Through Movement lesson, their movements tended to become much more similar by the end.

Sometimes he was more direct and other times more circumspect in how he guided the movements, but in one way or another, he was always asking his students, which of these ways of moving serves you best?

He often highlighted his relationship to the students and cautioned them not to do what he asked simply because he appeared to be the authority figure in the room. The essential question was always:

Are you acting in your own best interest right now – or not?

When you are cross-motivated, this is not a simple question to answer.

That’s why it’s so important that Awareness Through Movement is an experiential learning process. Rather than being told explicitly what to do, you are invited to use your movement as a vehicle of self-inquiry, to continually compare this and that, to see what feels better.

Feldenkrais’s observation about different students converging on similar movement patterns reflected his understanding that the human nervous system is self-organizing. Given time to focus attention on what feels best, most people tend to shift their movement patterns in the direction of more ideal functioning.

Along the way you begin to recognize some key principles:

What allows me to breathe feels better than what restricts my breath.

When I can keep my balance, I feel more secure than when I’m falling.

If I can evenly distribute my efforts so that I don’t feel any part of myself working harder than anywhere else then everything feels easier.

When my head and eyes can move freely, my surroundings feel safer.

Whenever I can maintain the option of choice – the ability to stop and change directions whenever I want – I feel more flexible.

With practice, we can learn to find clear answers to these questions in the very first instant that we begin to move. That’s why the practice of Awareness Through Movement so often involves small movements. If we are paying close attention, often that’s all we need to decide if our action truly serves us.

But one question often muddies the waters:

Is it better if I take up more space – or not?

As soon as we admit that for all of us there are moments where it would be preferable to have the attention of others and other times where we would rather be anonymous, we can see the dilemma.

“It depends,” might seem like the best answer.

But that’s not good enough in the moment when taking up space is what serves us best, when it’s time to step out of the shadows, voice our opinions, and stand up for ourselves.

That’s why this practice of listening to ourselves as we make small movements is more potent than many realize when they first begin. We can use these tiny little spaces to clarify an infinite number of possibilities – including how to claim our rightful place at the table.


Are you still carrying places inside you that are afraid to be seen and heard?

Would you like to create a new pattern of living where you don’t hesitate to take up space?

Click here to set up a free call where we look together at how to do that.