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.®
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.)
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.
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