Mind in Motion: The Bodywise Project - Foot on the Head

Foot on the head

Mind in Motion: The Bodywise Project - Foot on the Head

Lesson number eight in Awareness Through Movement, the book Moshe Feldenkrais wrote to introduce his method to the world, is called PERFECTING THE SELF-IMAGE. In the comprehensive collection of his teaching, the Alexander Yanai transcripts, you will find a different version with the less poetic and somewhat more daunting title of FOOT ON THE HEAD. 

Though not exact copies, these Awareness Through Movement® classes follow the same overall plan or score. They share many attributes as well, such as a unique manner of holding and lifting the foot, an unusual way of getting from sitting to lying and back to sitting, and the use of virtual — or imagined — motion to improve how you actually move. 

This last aspect, the use of imagination to improve ability, is one of the most striking strategies in Moshe’s method. Mind you; this is not quite what most folks call “visualization.” In Feldenkrais’ neurophysical approach to learning, imagination follows action. You start by moving and paying attention to what is happening, and then you employ your kinesthetic imagination

Perhaps this term — kinesthetic imagination — deserves some explanation because imagining usually refers to forming a mental image. That is a distorted and misleading limited definition, isn’t it? I mean, isn’t it possible to hear your favorite song in your head? Is that no less your imagination at work? 

Most of us can imagine more than images and sounds. Consider this: Can you imagine what you would notice moving from sitting to standing without doing the movement? 

Your kinesthetic imagination is quite a particular and, perhaps, peculiar ability. It does not have anything to do with seeing yourself in your mind’s eye, as if you are looking at yourself in a mirror. Instead, it’s a matter of imagining what you would feel if you were doing that action, sensing the motion physically, from the inside out, feeling it in your “mind’s body.”

For most of the lesson, you hold your right foot with both hands. You start by lifting your leg foot and figuring out how the rest of your body can help or hinder. Eventually, you find yourself rolling to the right to lie down and then rolling back up to sitting along the same trajectory while holding your foot all along. 

As is the case in most lessons, you are asked to move without effort or struggle, to find and follow the path of least resistance, and to notice the way your trunk and head coordinate with your limbs. Though you may come to realize that certain places are not cooperating, you are challenged to improve the coordination of what you can already do rather than try to force against resistance. 

Time spent exploring serves as preparation, neurologically speaking, for harnessing your imagination. After having gotten well-acquainted with the action, you are asked to imagine that anything you felt that had interfered with it gradually disappears. Can you sense the resistance fading until, in imagination, you can move more easily? After running this internal simulation just a few times, it turns out the ease and range of your physical motion had increased.

A little later, in an essentially Feldenkraisian twist, you are asked to sit in the opposite position, hold your left foot, and then imagine — only imagine — the movements you were just exploring in the opposite direction. Using the sensations of lifting and moving your right foot and then rolling to the right and returning to sitting, you imagine these same actions on the other side. Using what you noticed on the right, you fill in the details of what you would feel if you were lifting your left leg and rolling to the left in vivid detail. 

What’s happening is that moving in your kinesthetic imagination changes the firing of neurons. These neurological changes inevitably, but not quite instantaneously, alter the activity of your muscles. As your self-image (again, a visually biased metaphor for your “lived-in” kinesthetic experience) updates, your ability improves. Even though you put your kinesthetic imagination to work only for a few minutes, a mere fraction of the lesson, when you then, in actuality, lift your left foot and roll — spoiler alert — it is as easy as, if not much easier than, the right.

Decades before your brain’s lifelong ability to change was considered remotely possible, Feldenkrais created the FOOT ON THE HEAD lesson to give his students a direct experience of what we now call neural plasticity. Like the hundreds of his other ATM® lessons, it is not just about the joy of something difficult becoming much easier; it’s about hacking your neurophysical system. 

What better way to illustrate that changing how you move is not merely a matter of stretching or strengthening? What better way to demonstrate your brain’s capacity to change than to experience how imagining — albeit in this unique way — is enough to make noticeable, significant changes in your agility and flexibility?

Putting your foot on your head is considered by many an extraordinary accomplishment, a gymnastic move that’s out of reach for most everyone. The demanding nature of the movement lends a certain sense of drama to the situation. Feldenkrais was masterful at using a lesson’s challenge to create an opportunity to experience your learning potential. 

Unfortunately, this movement can seem so extreme, dangerous, or ridiculous that it discourages students from even attempting the lesson. That got me wondering. Does this perceived difficulty put my colleagues off from teaching the FOOT ON THE HEAD? While Feldenkrais was unafraid to offer the class to his students and propose it in the book he wrote for the public, I wonder if, perhaps, we have become timid in our teaching. 

After I had the opportunity to present this lesson to two separate groups of colleagues last month, I told them I was advocating for the ATM, for teaching it to our classes. Some folks talked about their reluctance to do so. So I asked how many had taught this lesson. Out of the two hundred plus who attended, 62 replied to the poll, which is quite a respectable response rate.®

Mind in Motion: The Bodywise Project - Have you taught Foot on the Head? voting data

Would you believe it?  More than two-thirds of the respondents have never taught this lesson. 

What does this mean? 

There’s too little information from one poll to draw any conclusions. However, the results of the survey do leave me wondering. Don’t we do our students a disservice when we avoid this lesson and others of the same ilk?

Both versions I taught are now available, for free, to anyone with a free account on the Mind in Motion Online website. The recordings are in the Library section under FREE LESSONS > ALEXANDER YANAI. 

If you have a professional Become a Better Teacher account, you will also be able to access the discussions we had after each lesson. 

(If you have yet to claim your free MIMO account, please click here to sign up now.)

Mind in Motion: The Bodywise Project - unlocked lock

Next weekend, I invite you to participate in Breathe Easier, a new public Feldenkrais workshop. A way to say thank you for all the incredible support I received through my cancer journey, this free online course is a chance to catch your breath, de-stress, and re-energize.

To give you a choice of when to join in, I am offering the workshop twice:

  • Saturday, 20 February 2021
    5:00 PM to 8:15 PM PST 

  • Sunday, 21 February 2021
    9:00 AM to 12:15 PM PST

To sign up, please click here

Your thoughts?
Please let us know your perspective! Add your comments, reactions, suggestions, ideas, etc., by first logging in to your Mind in Motion account and then clicking here.
Commenting is only available to the Mind in Motion Online community.
Join in by getting your free account, which gives you access to the e-book edition of Articulating Changes (Larry's now-classic Master's thesis), ATM® lessons, and more — all at no charge whatsoever.
To find out more and sign up, please click here.

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  1. Thanx Larry! This is indeed an amazing lesson and I did it from the ATM book at the beginning of my studies and I could put my foot on my forehead. The other foot with only the imagination however did not work at that time and I regret to say that I was not so successful after the initial expereince when i did this with another practitioner. With the AY lesson it was more difficult as is tha case with many of those. Highly appreciate your teaching, blog and not the least your contribution to the AYa a day. Yesterday’s lesson was fabulous!

  2. Dear Larry,
    Quoting below, your beautiful description of “kinesthetic imagination” for our ATM® students in Spanish (an improved translation may follow). Your writing adds to our understanding of Moshé’s teaching how we act in accordance with our “Self-Image”. Sending much appreciation for your excellent lesson and your superb writing!

    “Tu imaginación cinestésica es una habilidad bastante particular y, quizás, peculiar. No tiene nada que ver con verte en el ojo de tu mente, como si te estuvieras mirando en un espejo. En cambio, es una cuestión de imaginar lo que sentiría si estuviera haciendo esa acción, sintiendo el movimiento físicamente, de adentro hacia afuera, sintiéndolo en su “cuerpo mental”.”
    –– Larry Goldfarb, Foot on the head, 13 de febrero de 2021

    “Your kinesthetic imagination is quite a particular and, perhaps, peculiar ability. It does not have anything to do with seeing yourself in your mind’s eye, as if you are looking at yourself in a mirror. Instead, it’s a matter of imagining what you would feel if you were doing that action, sensing the motion physically, from the inside out, feeling it in your “mind’s body.”
    –– Larry Goldfarb, Foot on the head, February 13, 2021

    1. Hello Katarina –
      I’m glad you appreciated my description of kinesthetic imagination. That was actually one of the most difficult sentences to write in that post – I struggled with it for a few days.
      Thank you for the translation!

  3. Dear Larry, you are amazing, I don’t know what to say…. After the AF Workshop I got to work the ATM Book trough, because I didn’t do it yet and I always wanna to. So I did, with lot of pleasure, remembering them from the Training and being reminded in lots of basic Feldenkrais logic. Anyway, I totally stopped at Lesson 8 because I didn’t trusted my very own neurosystem and the ability to change, because I knew I had to do almost everything in imagination. I am extremely encouraged right now to try it, yeah!!! Thanks Larry, you’re the bomb

  4. Hi Larry! Oh shucks, I didn’t get the survey regarding teaching “Foot on the Head” and wanted to weigh in because I LOVE that lesson and try to re-visit the lesson at least once-a-year in my classes. People initially groan or newbies might look at me and shake their heads “no way” when I say “ok, today we’re gonna put our foot on our head”, but I’ve always found that once people get involved in the lesson and are attending to themselves, any sense of what they might have perceived as a “goal” swiftly recedes into the background, and the feeling in the room at the end of the lesson is always profound, as no one wants to get up. Because they are pretty much stuck to the floor like chewing gum. Can’t wait to re-visit this lesson with your recordings, thank you so much and… Happy Valentines Day! <3

    1. Hello Alice –
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience with the FOOT ON THE HEAD lesson! I’m glad to find out that you’ve been teaching it — though, tbh, I’m not a bit surprised! 😉
      Please let me know what you think of my interpretation!

  5. OK, so this is “positive feedback day”!!

    One of the things I love about you, Larry, besides of COURSE what you offer in the Feldenkrais experience is that it is always so new, always so personal or should I say “integrated”and as a student of an integrated lesson, one can better integrate it oneself. Don’t know if that’s clear. The lessons you give, even when they are Moshe Feldenkrais’ lessons always have like a brand new, newborn, newly-created taste to them. That makes the experience exciting and CREATIVE for a student and can only lead towards continuating the creative process.
    The other thing I love is that each time you write, each time you post or offer a discussion, there’s so much to take away as “intellectual” food… no, no, no! I don’t want to say it’s just intellectual!! Far from it! But these discussions are inspiring and nobody is against thinking! (thinking, feeling, sensing, moving…, n’est-ce pas?). I was so inspired by your series last summer and now, just having listened to the talk with the xeroshoes guy. Wow!
    Thank you for so generously offering the opportunity to tackle ideas, juggle them around, make them ours in our heads, in our bodies, in our personal and/or professional experience.
    Stay well.
    Tania from Avignon

    1. Hello Tania –
      Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your positive, encouraging feedback about my teaching and writing.
      It’s good to know that my efforts are proving useful and inspiring!
      Merci infiniment,