Awareness, Improvisation & The Artistry Of Being…

“Can you see that my lessons are…improvised, yet they are improvised with a method. That’s a funny thing. …It’s all the time improvisation but it has a method in it, therefore it’s jazz. …It’s playing music on certain notes, making variations on a theme, and therefore it’s a real learning. It’s a lived thing.”

Moshe Feldenkrais, 1975 San Francisco Training Transcript p.155

When was the last time you found yourself doing something completely spontaneously – just making it up as you went along, going with the flow, playing it by ear, winging it? Maybe you burst into song on a walk in the park; maybe you found yourself dancing to the radio; maybe you said something unexpected that made everyone laugh and took yourself by surprise – maybe you told your sister what you really think of her at a family gathering and are now in everyone’s bad books. For most of us, acting on impulse – unplanned, unprepared, and perhaps ever so slightly outside our normal self-control setting – is our most frequent experience of our own creative nature in action. Improvising is a natural aspect of creativity and you are being creative whether you are writing a song, conjuring up a meal out of leftovers, or fixing a broken machine with sellotape and toothpicks.

Here is a dictionary definition for you:

 

I am hoping to convince you that Feldenkrais is not only a practice, like mindfulness meditation or Chi Gung, but also an art, like playing jazz, with the same opportunities to develop your creativity and ability to improvise. The first time I consciously applied what I was learning in my Feldenkrais training to a predicament was while dragging a heavy bag around London on my way to the Edinburgh Festival. I had yet to master ‘travelling light’, and the adventure of exploring what is now my favourite town on my own for the first time was very shortly marred by severe sciatic pain. I knew that Feldenkrais could help me, because I had already experienced the pain disappearing completely during my first ever experience of the Method. Not quite sure what to do, but determined to do something, I arrived at Harrods and found myself a chair. It was such a relief to sit down, but sufferers of sciatica know well that simply resting is not usually enough to ease the pain. What could I do?

I was aware that my ability to wiggle was quite primitive – perhaps shifting from side to side on my bottom was worth a try? I gave it a go. It seemed to be a good sign that the movement did not make the pain any worse, and I began to feel some relief pretty quickly. After five minutes or so of gently shifting my weight side to side from buttock to buttock the pain had lessened enormously, and I was able to continue on my journey. Once I have qualified as a Feldenkrais teacher (London, 1990) this became one of the first mini-lessons I would teach to my clients to experiment with between hand-on Functional Integration sessions. I know now that not all sciatica sufferers benefit from the same movements that I did then, but I also know lots and lots of other self-help strategies to share, and always my underlying goal is to enable others to find their own solutions by learning to experiment in the same way I did.

It is only very rarely that an artist can produce truly unique work without committing hours of diligent practice to mastering the materials and techniques of their chosen medium. Although the fantasy persists that some people are “born” artists, this is just not how our neuroplastic brains actually function. Skills of all kinds are acquired by regular practice – the painter must practise handling pigment and preparing suitable surfaces to be able to convert their inner vision into tangible form; the dancer must develop a mastery over movement that is subtler and more individual than the precision required to develop acrobatic skills; the singer must learn to control muscular structures that normally function automatically (and thus outside our natural conscious awareness), and then harness that control to transform the whole self into a musical instrument.

Here is an film of Bobby McFerrin teaching a class-full of youngsters the principles of scatting, in under two minutes…

 

 

…it is a nice example of how mastering a particular technique can provide a foundation for improvisation. Mastering technique is the aspect of artistry that requires a commitment to regular practice, and it is often described as craft – and craft is a wonderful thing; work that is ‘well-crafted’ will always be valued and appreciated. However, when an artist or a performer is referred to as ‘a master of their craft’ it can mean that they are perceived as a skilled technician, rather than a distinctive creative voice.  This is one of the reasons that creativity is often categorised as something nebulous, a ‘gift’ that cannot be taught. It is easy to see that not being too focussed on what you ought to be doing and how you ought to be doing it is an ideal position if your goal is to produce work that is genuinely new and ground-breaking – too much focus on what everyone else is already doing can obstruct the possibility of developing a perspective that is distinctive and uniquely your own.

This is why one important aspect of the Feldenkrais Method is that we do not demonstrate the movement sequences we are teaching you in class – instead we aim to encourage you to trust your own sensory-motor perceptions, and to explore new possibilities as they occur to you, just as you did instinctively in the first five or six years of your life. Thus Awareness Through Movement (ATM) is taught almost entirely using verbal description rather than visual demonstration – which is why the growing number of mini-ATM lessons available on YouTube are an interesting, but also potentially confusing, development of our work. Don’t let this aspect put you off if it is in your nature to learn by visual observation. The whole point of Feldenkrais is to open us up to less familiar ways of learning, widen the array of choices we see before us, and encourage adults to try out new stuff, with the same lack of pressure to succeed that a baby feels as she is figuring out how to roll over onto her tummy.  If you ever need a little extra guidance in class you are usually surrounded by other people who are also exploring and experimenting with the same movements you are playing with. It is important that there is no authoritative “correct” version to copy and perfect, but instead a room full of varying possibilities for you to try on for size.  In the quotation above, Moshe Feldenkrais was using jazz as a metaphor to characterise the way Awareness Through Movement is intended to engender the ability to create new options and improvise spontaneous new behaviour in those who adopt it as a practice, and he was still honing this aspect of his teaching method right up to his death in 1984. Here he is at his final – huge – training at Amherst (California), telling one of my favourites of his stories, I will not give away the punchline, I will just say that sometimes the limitations of a badly-funded school can produce surprisingly empowering results:

 

The artists we venerate most are those that break new ground and produce work that is different enough to really stand out, but still meaningful enough to move us – and of course some are so far ahead of the zeitgeist that it takes the next generation to really appreciate their work, and to incorporate it into the canon of accepted genius in the field. Feldenkrais believed that those people are acting from a position of fully activated selfhood – a “Potent Self” that is unusually self-aware, and fully integrated emotionally and physically, so that intention and action are unified.  Unbounded by the need to conform in a compulsive way with “standard procedure”, they are people who know themselves and their own minds so well that they are able to overcome the constraints created by the pressures of social acceptance and approval in order to generate entirely new ways of being and doing – and thus of course to become the pace-setters from whom the next generation of innovators will have to break free!

What I loved about Moshe Feldenkrais was how he treated everyone who came to him for help as equally capable of learning, and equally capable of achieving this potency for themselves, no matter what age they were, or what functional difficulties they may have been in the process of overcoming.

“When thinking in words, even subliminally, we are logical and think in familiar patterns, in categories that we have thought, dreamed, read, heard, or said sometime before. Learning to think in patterns of relationships, in sensations divorced from the fixity of words, allows us to find hidden resources and the ability to make new patterns, to carry over patterns of relationship from one discipline to another. In short, we think personally, originally, and thus take another route to the thing we already know.”

Moshe Feldenkrais, The Elusive Obvious, Chapter: “On Learning”

Feldenkrais developed two related versions of his Method. Functional Integration is the hands-on teaching process, and it is ideal for tackling serious, acute or ongoing physical issues, such as restricted movement and chronic pain, and for injuries to the brain and nervous system, including Cerebral Palsy, Stroke, and Multiple Sclerosis. Awareness Through Movement is for self-maintenance and self-development, and although he produced hundreds of lessons suitable for teaching in classes, the goal is to enable the “pupil” (his preferred term) to begin to apply what they are learning in their daily thinking and acting, in order to continue to change and learn and grow throughout their lives. Awareness Through Movement is what we Feldenfolk ‘practise’; it is the technique we are honing. When you take that heightened ability to observe, self-regulate and integrate new behaviour, and apply it to something that is going to enhance your life, like taking up a sport, learning a language, learning to sing – or maybe learning to modify your impatience and irritability into behaviour that is more tolerant and nicer to live with – that is when all that body-mindful attention starts to really pay off, and you can begin to remake your life the way you always wanted it to be, and experience the true art of living well.

“Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”
-Moshe Feldenkrais

It is not easy to capture this improvisatory quality on film. In ATM classes that are being filmed there is usually too little giggling and too much concentrating going on, and people can often look a bit self-conscious – very much not the point, as what we are going for is playful! Here is a short film of a class one of my US colleagues, MaryBeth Smith, is teaching to some cancer patients – it shows the individuality and body-mindful focus of the participants very nicely, and is a sensible length if you have not been to a class and are wondering what I am talking about:

Upcoming workshops:

Awareness Through Movement Workshops In Brockley

The Sunflower Centre, Brockley, SE4

January 22nd, 2017

Febuary 19th, 2017

March 19th, 2017

1.30 – 5.30pm,  £60/£50

“There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? 

It is mindfulness centred on the body.” 

Gautama Buddha

Learning to move freely in all dimensions, with mindful self-focus and heightened awareness, is a wonderful tool for…

Self-healing

Self-awareness 

Self-development

- and lowering hyper-arousal/stress

Become the most self-aware and fully integrated version of yourself – use mindful movement to bring your whole being into unity and harmony. 

For more information call Maggy

07976 640737 – 020 7642 1457

Click here for details of classes, workshops, and private lessons in Feldenkrais with Maggy Burrowes.

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