What you take with you

One of the great mysteries of life is how learning seems so often to slip through our fingers. For instance, after a meaningful and effective Awareness Through Movement® lesson, you get up from the mat feeling particularly wonderful. You’re lighter, taller, feel more connected, and, perhaps, that persistent discomfort, the one that’s been haunting you for longer than you care to remember, has vanished. 

Sometimes, you’re different from that moment on. More frequently, the feeling fades. Inevitably, you return to the state you started in before the lesson began. Your habit has returned. You remember that you felt different, but have no idea how to refined that feeling. You’re left lamenting the loss of learning.

It’s so easy to decide that something went wrong, to feel discouraged or defeated. However, I’d like you to consider that this is deceptive, that this sense of failure is, in actuality, a diversion from the process of learning.

The return of the habit is not a sign of failure, it is the hallmark of success. You can and should count on it. The autopilot is working! Where would you be without all the things you do automatically, without thinking — or needing to think — about them? From breathing to walking downstairs to turning your head when someone calls your name, so much of what you do happens without deliberation or calculation. You just do it.

It’s all too easy to mistake the product of the lesson, that is to say, what happens at the end — how you feel and what you can do — for what the method is about. This is especially easy to do when the lesson is a success, that is, when you discover a new ability or recover an old one. Sometimes, you do something for the first time (or the first time in a long time), and it’s yours from that moment on. At other times, it vanishes almost as quickly as it appeared, you get only the first faint sign, a shimmering hint of what’s possible. 

The process of learning is anything but linear. 

Those times when a lesson’s learning happens like Punctuated Equilibrium in evolution: after a plateau, when it seemed like nothing was happening, a sudden change occurs, altering everything that follows. Plateaus are as much a part of learning as are detours, which, in leading you astray, help you figure out the which way you’re heading, and dead-ends, which, by letting you know what doesn’t work, teach you what does. 

To mistake a lesson as being about what you learned or didn’t learn, about the place you arrive instead of how you got there, is to miss the point. Okay, maybe I’m being too emphatic. Where you get to — what you get from the lesson — certainly is significant. I am not saying that the capability you discover or develop doesn’t matter, I’m saying it isn’t the only thing that matters. (I might suggest that, perhaps, it isn’t even the most important.)

Moshe Feldenkrais said that his method was about developing abilities a-n-d about learning to learn. That means it is at least as much about how your inborn ability to learn can mature as it is about mastering any specific aptitude or ability. Whether you’re happy you learned to do something or unhappy you failed to (or failed to retain it), you’ve missed a basic benefit if you haven’t learned anything about how to make learning easier, more enjoyable, or more successful the next time around.

Practice yourself, for heaven's sake, in little things, and then proceed to greater.

What does this mean? It means that Feldenkrais® lessons are as much about how you learn as they are about what you learn. That’s the promise of the method, that you can get better not just at doing, but at learning. 

Okay, that’s all well and good, theoretically speaking. What about the practical aspects? How do Awareness Through Movement classes help you learn better? The first steps are about shifting the gears of attention. They are simple to name, though not necessarily easy to do: 

Shift your attention from accomplishing the action to noticing how you’re performing it. How do you track how you’re traveling instead of being focused only on where you’re going?

Slow down because there’s lag in your (and everyone else’s) awareness system: it takes time for impulses to travel from the central nervous system down the spinal cord and out to the muscles, for those muscles, in turn, to contract, and for the signals to return to your brain. You need to go slow enough to register the feedback and you also, crucially, need to be going slow enough to be able to alter your action by changing course or the amount of effort and without throwing yourself off balance and off course.  

Is that all there is? Shifting the gears of your attention? 

Not by a long shot. 

The next phase is all about being able to tune into the aspects of action that you have the ability to change along the way — as they are happening. It’s more descriptive than prescriptive, more experiential than corrective, more noticing than doing. 

Observe the initiation. Once you reach the destination, it’s too late to do anything about how you got there. If you’re going too fast, flying out the gate or zooming out of the driveway, you miss the initial moments and, maybe, the starting place as well. The potential for change is greatest at the very beginning of an action because that’s when the trajectory is set. Are you ready to commence or do you have to change position beforehand? In what direction are you heading from the get-go? Where do your muscles engage? If you don’t change what you do when you start, you’ll most likely keep ending up in the same place. 

Track the quality of the action, honing in on moments of hesitation. When does the movement get more difficult? Before you get to the end of your range, can you detect when the motion gets thicker? Can you sense when the difficulty begins to ramp up? When do you change speed, either slowing down (and efforting more) or speeding up (to fly through the rough patch)?

Practicing is about quality, not quantity.
Yo-Yo Ma

Listen to your breath. Does your breathing continue unaffected? Or does what you’re doing interfere with how you’re breathing? (That’s a major warning sign that you’re not moving efficiently and may be putting yourself in danger of injury.) Are you holding your breath or breathing harder or faster? At what point along the way is your breathing affected? From the start? 

By developing your interest in what’s going on (instead of obsessing about what’s right) along with your curiosity about the quality of what’s happening, especially about the moments when something isn’t going smoothly or easily, you are preparing for the most surprising and rewarding part of practicing the method. The practices you’re engaging in so often surprise since, instead of fixing what’s wrong, you are acting to increase the number of choices. And this way of engaging with the lesson is surprising because you discover — because you didn’t, and couldn’t, have known — something you didn’t notice or that didn’t make sense beforehand. It’s most startling when, right up until that moment, you didn’t even notice that it didn’t make sense; you were just that way. It can also catch you off guard because the consequences are disproportional: a small change — altering, but only a wee bit, when you transfer weight, the place you start from, or where you’re heading — leads to a dramatic shift throughout. Noticing something here and altering it, all the while staying in the range of comfort and ease leads to a reorganization of your overall orchestration. 

This phase of practice is rewarding because, when you notice what’s not easy and explore what’s possible, it turns out you transform adversity into advancement. Learning to tinker with your neurophysical programming is figuring out how to update and upgrade the autopilot. Automaticity loosens its insistent hold, your ability to navigate becomes more nuanced, the way you carry yourself shifts, and, more often than not, your attitude re-adjusts (from “I can’t” to “I couldn’t. Now I can”; in other words, your coordination improves. 

Learning is as much about how you do a lesson as it is about which lesson you do. The composition of the ATM® provides a path to somewhere worth traveling. The lesson orbits around one specific, optimal orchestration of the human frame, which is the functional pattern that students are integrating for themselves. Deepening your practice is being on the lookout for the first hints of what can be improved and knowing what to do when you then find them. 

My upcoming winter 2020 workshop, Take it with you, takes a deeper dive into this next phase of how to benefit from each ATM lesson you do and how to continue improving between lessons. The workshop will also delve into what it means to practice the martial arts of daily life. 

Will you join me on the first weekend of the new decade to deepen your personal Feldenkrais practice? Enrollment is limited to 24 participants; there are no prerequisites. Take it with you runs from 9:30 AM to 1 PM on both Saturday and Sunday, 4 & 5 January 2020.

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  1. Thank you Larry, for posting such a concise, clear account of the journey of learning. Not only is this helpful for practitioners teaching the method, but it provides each of us the opportunity to constantly recalibrate and consider how we work with ourselves. Your generosity shines through the words- the future of the method is guaranteed because of acts of sharing wisdom like this. All the best for 2020.

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