There’s one question I keep getting asked about the Peculiar Power of Prayer (PPP). PPP is a set of Feldenkrais® lessons that delves deeply into the nature of noticing, explores the relationship of action and attitude, and gives us new means for embodying mindfulness.
The question first comes up when people first find out these lessons use the modern flat hand, palm-to-palm praying position. I’m also asked it after someone first experiences these leading-edge lessons first-hand, finding out for themselves how meaningful and marvelous they are.
No matter who’s asking, nor when they ask it, the question gets asked in a strikingly similar fashion. Folks look at me, pause a moment, often taking a slow, unforced, deep breath before asking, “Do you think there’s something special about this position of the hands?” The emphasis is always on the word special. The look is the same: eyes peering directly into mine, searching for an answer behind the windows of my soul.
Believe me, I understand the question and from whence it comes. For my early experiments, I am both mad movement scientist and reflective lab rat. Before trying things out with others, I experiment with my own action first: on the floor doing Awareness Through Movement® (ATM®) lessons, exploring new ways of moving here and there at odd moments amid life’s activities, and in my imagination, daydreaming about architectures of action from the inside out. I sometimes sneak sections I’ve been refining into the other ATMs I’m teaching or add a fresh lesson to an old series. At some point, I just jump in and teach new lessons, like I did last summer with the first public workshop version of PPP.
Thing is, even way back, the very first rather rough, unrefined proto-praying lessons were impressive.
What I mean by ‘impressive’ is that as good lessons do, they served as catalysts, transforming the abilities of those who did them — me, the trainees in my first New York Feldenkrais Teacher Training, and in other courses at the time and after — in significant and meaningful ways. The depth of their impact was notable, by which I mean that all of us who did the lessons — me and the others — we were moved emotionally by how doing them changed us in extraordinary — sometimes long sought after — ways.
As if that wasn’t enough, nearly ten years later, these lessons again proved significant for me. When my broken arm hadn’t healed on its own, I underwent two surgeries, the first to screw the bone to itself so it could heal and the second to get unscrewed. The prayer lessons provided me with the means for rediscovering the intricacies and links that were the basis my former dexterity. These crucial patterns of coordination got buried by my instantaneous, unconscious, self-protective reactions to the trauma of breaking my arm and of the surgeries. I discovered the initial shock lingered on as up-until-then half hidden holdings — contractions around my shoulders and neck, the way my stance and my gaze were off-kilter, the annoying place under my right shoulder, and so on — and that perturbances, in turn, were interfering with the fundamental patterns of coordination I’d laid down in childhood. The prayer lessons proved to revivify these lost connections and refine the use of my arms . . . until it became better than it had ever been before.
Based on the personal benefits I derived from the lessons — and my professional experience of how remarkably well they worked for my students, the lessons certainly seemed magically effective.
The question is does this mean that the prayer position — hands flat or interlaced — is special, that it is imbued with some higher power or spiritual significance?
This question, whether its current form about the effectiveness of the position of the hands or about Moshe’s method, in general, calls to mind the famed science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law:
Ahead of his time (and ours, it seems), Feldenkrais combined his academic education in engineering with long-time physical training in martial arts to come up with a unique understanding of optimal human biomechanics: how we move when we move as well as we can. He deeply appreciated how perceiving and acting form the neurological basis of coordination and skill. The methodology he created, especially when compared to what other approaches have to offer, often seem miraculous.
Add to that the uncanny effectiveness of the prayer position and it’s easy to understand attributing some supernatural aspect to the position. Instead of the prayer position(s) being special for any religious reason, may I humbly suggest that, from a Feldenkraisian perspective, these lessons work because of other — biomechanical and sensory-motor — factors, each of which builds upon the other:
- One of the challenges in developing skill is finding out how to move in ways you’ve never moved before.
Keeping the hands together, especially when the elbows stay touching (or with them staying as far from each other as possible) alters the dynamics of the arms, shoulder girdles, chest, spine, pelvis, and head in unusual and often new ways of moving and sensing movements. What’s more, keeping the arms in one of these fixed configurations, holding the configuration still in space or against a wall, and then moving the chest, head, or pelvis around anchored your arms and hands closes familiar options for action while, at the same time, creating new possibilities for action.
- Another challenge is to break the sensory blindness caused by habit and find ways to notice anew.
We know that depth perception — our ability to see the world three-dimensionally — requires binocular vision. That’s because stereoscopic sight arises as a result of the brain comparing the slightly different visual perspective of each eye.
As infants explore their own actions by touching, caressing, and holding on someplace while moving, they combine internal kinesthetic sensation with external tactile sensation. These investigations play a decisive role in establishing the developmental definition of our boundaries of self and non-self. It’s not a big leap to consider how these moments play a role in harnessing our lifelong neural plasticity.
The palm-to-palm position multiplies sensory points of view as well: each hand can feel itself, each hand can feel the other hand, and they can feel each other simultaneously. I think that this, for lack of a better term, stereo-kinesthetic sense — experiencing an action from both the inside and the outside — creates a profound shift in how we attend to and sense ourselves.
- Finally, in his approach to the jungle of the brain, Feldenkrais thought about changes in the homunculus, the body-shaped (somatotopic) mapping of the body on the sensory cortex and motor cortex, as the physical underpinning for neural plasticity.
Consider the sensitivity of the hands, how richly innervated they are, along with the amount of real estate that they command across both sensory and motor cortexes. Doesn’t it make you wonder, even just a little, what kind of feedback loops and synergistic resonances are created within the brain by the hand-to-hand together position of modern prayer?
If you’d like to learn more about these lessons, I’ll be teaching the 2nd edition of the Peculiar Power of Prayer (PPP2), in Laguna Beach the first weekend in December. You can participate in person in Southern California or from wherever you are, via an online Zoom conference. Either way, this new, improved workshop gives you the chance to explore the connections between praying and doing ATM® lessons, find out what these practices have to learn from each other, and what you can take from this to improve both your well-being and your being with others.
Tuition for this workshop, Saturday and Sunday, 1 & 2 December 2018, is only $227. Save $40 by enrolling on or before 18 November 2018 and paying the early registration price of $187.
If you know you’d like to attend, online or on-site, secure your spot (and — if it’s before midnight Pacific time, Sunday, 18 November — save an extra $40 off the tuition) by clicking the button below:
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