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?

Yesterday I wrote about an experience practicing Awareness Through Movement where the distance between the knees was investigated in a particular sitting position. It turns out that generally speaking, more distance between the knees – a wider base of support – made it simpler to maintain length in the spine.

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

Because I know the importance of this question biomechanically, I will try to 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. Whether there is action is a reaction to the world, or a consciously chosen response.

Moshe Feldenkrais often talked about situations where we 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 adopt all kinds of defensive patterns that really do serve us – in the sense of keeping us safe in an environment where we are surrounded by unpredictable adults.

Even if we are spared the experiences that we call abuse, most of us develop different kinds of habits that amount to making ourselves intentionally small.

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

As children, we simply don’t have the power to choose our own environment, so we develop the best survival skills that we can. 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 just want to survive – or do we want to thrive?

This is why the way we use ourselves – often described in shorthand as a question of “posture” – is so essential to the quality of our lives. It’s also why the search for “proper alignment” 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. I have told you what you can do to satisfy me, but I haven’t helped you sort out, among the infinite number of possibilities of how you could show up in the world, which one serves you the best.

When he taught large groups, Moshe Feldenkrais would often remark how differently people moved at the beginning of an Awareness Through Movement lesson, yet tended to move in an increasingly similar fashion by the end.

He was sometimes more directive about the movement and sometimes more circumspect, but in one way or another, he was always asking his students, which of these ways of moving serves you best?

On a number of occasions, he even highlighted the nature of 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, but to find their own way.

He was a complicated human like the rest of us and delivered this message many different ways, but the essential question was always there:

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

When we are cross-motivated, this is not always 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 that his students moved more similarly at the end of the movement lesson reflected his understanding that the human nervous system is self-organizing. Given the time to focus their attention on what feels best while doing a particular movement, a large group of people will all tend to shift their movement patterns in the direction of more ideal functioning.

A long the way you begin to recognize some key principles:

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

What allows me to keep my balance helps me feel more secure than what undermines it.

What allows me to evenly distribute my efforts so that I don’t experience any part of myself as working harder than anywhere else is the easiest way.

What allows me to move my head and eyes freely helps me feel safer in the environment.

What allows me to maintain the option of choice – to be able to stop myself and go in a different direction whenever I want – gives me the most flexibility.

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 such small movements – that’s all we need to make a decision that serves us if we are really paying attention.

But there is one question that often muddies the waters because we still aren’t entirely sure what serves us best:

Is it better for me to 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?

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


You can receive my unpolished thoughts in your email on a daily basis when you subscribe to my mailing list.

*New subscribers also receive a series of welcome emails which include two free full-length Feldenkrais audio lessons.*

Click here to subscribe

(and make sure to check the box to get the unpolished thoughts RSS feed just below where you enter your email address)