Nothing worse than a good idea

Gaby Yaron graduated from the Feldenkrais® Teacher Training directed by Moshe Feldenkrais, the founder of the eponymous method, in Tel Aviv in the 1960s. She went on to become one of the method’s leading trainers, conducting programs in Europe and the United States. 

In the early 1990s, I had the good fortune to assist Gaby in the training she was directing in Evanston, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. We had met at my teacher training in Amherst, Massachusetts, during which I had the opportunity to receive individual hands-on Functional Integration® lessons as well as to watch those she gave to my classmates and to members of the public.  

Gaby was a dedicated teacher and someone who had an unerringly sunny disposition. That was why her bad mood stood out that long-ago morning. When I asked her, just before the course was due to begin, what was troubling her, she responded that it was time for her to start teaching. A true professional, she did so without a hint of her previous discontent. She once again became unusually sullen, even a bit grumpy, when we met up for our faculty and staff dinner that evening.   

I asked again, “Gaby, what’s bothering you.”   

After a long moment, she replied, looking cross as she spoke, “Someone had a good idea.

“You make that sound like it’s a bad thing.”

Sometimes, there’s nothing worse than a good idea.

That threw me for a loop. “Wait a sec. What on earth do you mean by that?”

Gaby sighed. “Recently I received a new set of Awareness Through Movement® cassette tapes that someone had recorded in the mail. As soon as I started doing the ATM® lessons, I started to wonder if this person had tested the lessons. I asked myself if they had listened to the lessons or tested them with students because if they had, they certainly would have discovered that some of the instructions were difficult to follow. Too many times, what they said was ambiguous and unclear; in a few places, it was opaque or just plain wrong.”

“They had a good idea for the series, I’m not saying they didn’t. The tragedy is that they did not test their ideas. They didn’t find out what works and what doesn’t. Having a good idea is not enough.”

The first time I experienced an ATM lesson I was 19 years old. I devoted the better part of the last 43 years to understanding Moshe Feldenkrais’ methodology. After graduating from my training program, I had to find my way from being an actor playing the part of a Feldenkrais teacher, reading the lessons as if they were scripts, to considering an ATM as a score that I could follow, improvise around, and responsively adapt to bring the lesson to life to those who were engaged doing it in front of me at that very moment. 

My ability to understand what lies behind the words of a lesson comes from observing Gaby’s after class FI® lessons during the summer of 1981. I will never forget the first time I watched, along with less than a handful of my classmates, as she gave four hands-on sessions in a row. There was something about the second lesson she gave that was . . . well, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It was not until somewhere in the middle of the third person’s sessions that I began to suspect that there was something hauntingly familiar. The fourth lesson confirmed my inkling; without so much as hinting at what she was doing, Gaby was, indeed, giving everyone the same lesson. I realized that she had stayed true to the lesson’s through line, all the while adapting her next steps to each student’s circumstances and responses. 

The ability to grasp the pattern of coordination that holds an ATM together freed me from inflexibly following a transcript — or my diligently detailed notes. Uncovering a sense of where the lesson was heading and having some idea of how it was getting there meant that I didn’t have to be incapacitated by the fear that I would mess things up, confuse my students, and only make matters worse. 

That’s when I began modifying instructions, changing the tempo, backing up to review what had just happened, and, eventually, adding stepping stones between instructions that I found had left too wide a gap for students to cross. My aim was to interpret the lesson in a way that made it more user-friendly. I did that by rendering a question more transparent and easier to understand, without giving away the answer and in a way designed to facilitate the students figuring it out for themselves

What guided me was the essentially empirical nature of Moshe’s method. Rather than being enamored with my idea, it was but a starting place that served as a working hypothesis about what might help a student’s learning. Each variation I added to the lesson, every hint I provided, was tested against its usefulness in the students’ response. What didn’t work was revised and what worked I folded into the lesson.

As I had more experience teaching the series Moshe had created, I began to compose what I imagined might be missing members of the ensemble, lessons that would serve as stepping stones in a sequence that I had discovered by teaching was too severe or too subtle for students doing it at that moment. Sometimes I created a prequel to a lesson that had proved despite the student’s best intentions and my best efforts too difficult for many to benefit from. Like creating contemporary classic music, each new lesson I came up with followed the style of the founder’s compositions. 

That was the beginning. Then I learned to hitch my wagon to the new ATM, apprenticing myself to it, exploring its ins and outs, and working out what it had to teach me. After getting to know the lesson better by working with it on my own, I was ready to put a new lesson to the test in my classes and find out where my ideas were not quite good enough. Occasionally, I returned to the drawing board to start over; more often, I modified instructions on the fly, adding a constraint to clarify or backing up and re-approaching a crucial distinction in a new way. Each time I taught it, I learned more about what the lesson had to teach. 

Over the years, I migrated from modifying existing sequences to coming up with a new series of classic ATM structures and, eventually, creating sequences of original lessons. After Gaby suffered serious injuries, including broken ribs, in a car accident, she created a series of lessons about breathing and balance based on what she learned during her recuperation. Again, Gaby’s example showed me the way.

The process of generating new lessons was guided by Moshe’s methodology and it’s essentially experimental ethic: I tested, modified, and then tested again. After investigating them extensively on my own — first out of curiosity and then, when I was recovering from surgery on a broken arm, out of necessity — I started teaching the lessons that would eventually become the series The Peculiar Power of Prayer individually. Only subsequently did I dare to begin teaching a few ATMs in a row, finding out how they fit favorably together and discovering where they didn’t . . . yet. 

The lessons in my newest series, The Human Frame, all of which are done standing or sitting in a doorway, started out as homework I gave students at the end of their individual sessions. These proved so effective that I began to experiment with doing entire ATMs in the frame of the door. My first steps explored how I could tailor archetypal themes to this new situation, which led to discovering the unique challenges and opportunities it offered. After surgery to my throat and neck at the end of last year, doing (and continuing to develop) these lessons became the key to recovering from the trauma of the operation, replacing persisting post-op numbness with the stirring of resuscitated sensations, and, gradually, finding more symmetrical and easy coordination of my head, arms, shoulders, and trunk. 

The lessons were finally past the test phases and ready to teach online this spring. Following in Feldenkrais’ footsteps, I taught them a few times over the course of a day, studying how each one landed, reflecting on when they resonated as well as when they missed their mark, crafting adjustments accordingly, and trying them out, both during that class and in the subsequent ones. I tracked the students’ reactions and responses, searching for other indications they might need. As we explored the intersection between orientation, balance, and coordination, I tuned into the meanings and metaphors, the resonances and reframes, that working in a portal was eliciting for the participants. I also listened carefully to questions and feedback, determining what was difficult for them as well as what was intriguing and what was most useful. 

After I’d taught the series three times through, I returned to the lessons, reexamining each one in light of what I’d learned, reworking their construction, reorganizing the elements, rephrasing instructions, and, eventually, revamping the progression of the program. As I continued to investigate, evaluate, and calibrate, missing links became evident and the series expanded from eight to ten ATMs.

On the last Tuesday of June, I start teaching The Human Frame (THF), the 2020 edition of my almost annual Awareness Through Movement® summer camp.  This year’s course features ten weekly innovative ATM® classes done in a doorway, a neglected and ubiquitous resource that is available to everyone, a natural laboratory for neurophysical learning. The early registration deadline is Tuesday, 23 June, at midnight Pacific time.

THF reveals blind spots, expands your movement vocabulary, and helps you take the possibilities you discover into your everyday life. By harnessing your brain’s inherent ability to learn and change, these contemporary lessons make it possible to retune and refine your coordination, equilibrium, and orientation. 

You have the choice of participating in traditional classes or in cutting-edge mini-workshops that utilize the advantages of online learning and provide individual coaching. To find out more, please click here.

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  1. Hi Larry, I have long worked as a singing teacher and find I understand movement when a person is standing far better than lying down. (So intrigued by the lessons using the door frame.) I also find myself doing far more feldie work as part of voice lessons with my student standing and recently developed an ATM based on our hands being in our pockets because the hall we were in was so cold. I love applying the principles, in the way you describe in the blog, to this exploration where I have the luxury of one student. The hands in pocket lesson taught my student and I a great deal about the way the upper torso moves, especially the shoulder blades. Its great to read how you approach the reviewing of a lesson and taking it further. Also the challenge of (bright shiny) new ideas as Gaby described, which I am very prone to and have to work hard to resist.

  2. Hi Larry
    I think you were reading my mind. I’ve been working with ATM’s from ATSO. and finding with one person she just can’t cordenate movement the way the ATM is laid out. So my learning continues with fun on how to get her to learn how to diferentiate the body parts to coordinate full body movement. What’s missing is bouncing my approach off of a mentor.
    Side note is Trilogy LB continuing

  3. Dear Larry,
    Thank you for this. A personal recollection prompted by your words (“I had to find my way from being an actor playing the part of a Feldenkrais teacher, reading the lessons as if they were scripts, to considering an ATM as a score that I could follow, improvise around, and responsively adapt to bring the lesson to life to those who were engaged doing it in front of me at that very moment. “): the reason why, back in 2008, I enrolled precisely in your training, although Amsterdam was so far away from the place where I was living and financially barely affordable to me, is that someone in Venice told me: if you wish to understand very early on and while still in your teacher training what the Method is about, you’ve got to go to Larry Goldfarb (by the way, it was the great Feldenkrais practitioner Paolo Camia!). So, thank you for forming your trainees in such a way that they can skip the “being an actor” phase and engage teaching as a responsive adaptation to their students’ circumstances and needs from the very start, independently of, or beyond, a script. Further (and I’m saying “further” on purpose, as opposed to “however”), I’d like to share a piece of my experience as a Feldenkrais teacher in a foreign country, whose language, German, I acquired in my late twenties/early thirties: using scripts (initially the ATM book… what a challenge, the AY transcriptions’ German translation, and more recently a collection of 18 lessons by Chava Shelhav and Dalya Golomb), helped me enormously build my own Feldenkrais language in German. Now I take it easy, but I had to struggle, in the first group classes I taught here, between the need to use precise and clear language on the one hand, and my wish to be more awake and present, more creative, more responsive, on the other. Whereas I knew what to say to guide my students, often I realized I still didn’t know how to say it in German! Having a written text as a blueprint helped me find my own way.
    Ciao and take care, Elisabetta