Where do lessons come from

We have audio recordings, written notes, and videos of a couple of thousand of the group classes, known as Awareness Through Movement® (ATM®) lessons, spanning the forty-some years that Moshe Feldenkrais, the founder of the eponymous method, taught. While it’s often easy to identify the inspiration or theme of a lesson — be it the developmental movements of early infancy, the martial arts, or yoga — how Dr. Feldenkrais created these lessons is, as the saying goes, “shrouded in mystery.” He neither spoke nor wrote about his creative process.

The Feldenkrais Method® didn’t die when the founder passed away. It is a living project, a work in progress. One significant sign that the method is continuing to develop is that my colleagues around the world, like Alan Questel, are creating exquisite new ATM lessons.

To encourage the continued growth of the method and, hopefully, to spark conversation about the process of composing lessons, I’m interested in making this imaginative and essential process more transparent. I’d like to take you behind the scenes and tell you about how my Peculiar Power of Prayer (PPP) lessons came to be. These original lessons, part of a new project about considering prayer as a physical practice, had their start almost 15 years ago, in a totally unrelated way.

To be honest, I didn’t start by creating new lessons, indeed, doing that took many, many years. At the beginning of teaching ATM, I was like an actor playing the part of a Feldenkrais® teacher: I said pretty much everything Feldenkrais said when he had taught the lesson and in the order in which he taught. Not understanding the inner workings of the lessons, I was afraid to ruin them, so I dared not wander from the script.

My first forays into the design of lessons were about understanding how they worked. I studied ATMs as compositions, investigating how they fit together and applying the distinctions and conceptual models I’d learned from studying writing, choreography, music composition, and Neuro Linguistic Programming. The genesis of the prayer lessons was here.

At one point in COORDINATION OF THE FLEXOR MUSCLES AND THE EXTENSORS, one of Dr. Feldenkrais’ classic Awareness Through Movement lessons, from lying on their backs, students are asked to bend their knees and bring their feet to standing on the floor. In this position, students extend their arms in front of them and bring their hands together, palm to palm. Keeping the arms long and their hands together, they’re asked to tilt their arms to the side, doing such a small movement that theirs legs neither tilt nor waiver.

From the very beginning of the beginning of its slow sideward descent, the triangle formed by the arms and the chest rolls a point of pressure across the back of the chest, gradually calling forth what feels like long forgotten articulations deep in the chest — between the vertebrae of the chest and between them and their affiliated ribs.

Let’s call this fixed shape or configuration the Big Triangle of the arms, wherein the student’s arms kept long (with no bending at the elbows) and their hands held together. This shape creates a kind of structural rigidity, acting as a constraint that temporarily limits the movements of the skeleton. As I came to understand and appreciate, these kinds of configurational constraints are one of the central teaching devises in Moshe’s methodology.

I became curious when I encountered another version of this lesson where, instead of tilting the Big Triangle directly to the side in a lateral arc, Feldenkrais asked the students to move the Big Triangle in an elliptical trajectory — to each side and up above the shoulder. I Investigated these two different actions in my own movement and by “going for a ride” (touching without interfering when) others did it. I could sense and see that moving this particular configurational constraint — the Big Triangle — the same and changing the path, or trajectory, of the action altered how the student moved around it, that is to say, this changed the sequence of movement through the skeleton. Altering the directions of the arms slightly shifted where the resulting forces arrived in the chest and which joints moved, well, that was just so cool!

In retrospect, this moment of fascination with the Big Triangle was the starting point of the prayer project. As both experimenter and experimental subject, I put these ideas to work in my movement laboratory, that is to say researching my own action on the floor. I did this in two ways: by experimenting rigorously — changing one aspect of the action to find out the consequences, interlacing the fingers in the Big Triangle or bending the elbows — and by improvising — moving freely around what’s fixed to find out what else can happen.

For instance, I wondered what happened if I changed from holding the hands together flat to interlacing the fingers in the Big Triangle. Then I became curious about what would happen if I bent my elbows at 90 degrees and brought them together while keeping the arms bent. After exploring the effects of each of these constraints separately, I combined them, interlacing my fingers and bringing my bent elbows together, to make an even more limiting constraint. Keeping the shape constant, without straining in the least, I carefully investigated its effect, tracking where the motion of the arms arrived in the chest, which movements of the spine and ribcage vanished, and which others appeared or were highlighted. As I discovered which trajectories of motion in space were available, I couldn’t help but notice that these movements elicited articulations equally exact as the Big Triangle but in an adjacent section of the ribcage and spine.

One way I continued to investigate was by inserting this constraint, the hands interlaced with elbows-bent-and-together configuration, which I came to call Praying Mantis arms, into the hands-on Functional Integration® (FI®) lessons I was giving. Could I use this way limiting the student’s movement to clarify the movement patterns underlying these lessons?

When I’m giving an FI, I sense my own motion kinesthetically and, combining my tactile and proprioceptive senses, I become aware of how my student is moved. Employing the Praying Mantis configuration rigorously created a means to explore the linkage of the arm - shoulder girdle - chest - spine - pelvis. These investigations illuminated the details of local joint mechanics and global kinematic connections, which developed my ability to see — in the student’s movement and in the internal animations of my mind’s eye — and feel what was happening.

Understanding the movements of the arms in terms of the body’s global biomechanics helped me to understand the dynamic of the human framework, developing a kind of a 3D map, a topography, of possible action. This understanding is at least as much embodied experience as it is intellectual analysis, as much felt sense as thought and image. Developing this profound sense of the skeleton’s design for action also made it possible for me to appreciate how the ways we've learned to move ourselves diminish our innate potential.   

During the same — extended — period of time, I also began inserting the Praying Mantis hands into ATM lessons I was teaching where I thought it could help. Even though I had noticed, when introducing the Praying Mantis arms in FIs, that it took some preparation and maneuvering to bring the elbows and forearms to touch, I was bewildered and, frankly, astonished how difficult it was for many students just to get to this position during group classes. This is one of those blind spots where an action was so easy for me as the teacher that I didn’t even imagine it would be difficult for the students. Once I got past my initial disorientation, I started to be curious about what, specifically, was making it difficult for students to put their arms together like that. Applying what I’d learned about the linkage of the arm to the rest of the body, I could see how limitations in the shoulder girdle, chest, and spine were making the position impossible.

As always, it’s the difficulties the students experience that inspire me and drive improvement. In this instance I had to step backward, turning what I’d considered the starting point of the lesson — putting your arms in this shape — into someplace to approach and, eventually, reach. Shifting my focus, from the static position to the skill of obtaining it, from the noun to the verb, changed my perspective. As difficult as it is to get into the Praying Mantis configuration when lying on the back, I realized how easy it is for almost anyone to do so lying on the side. My next question was, “How could I use this shape in side-lying to address the restrictions in the trunk?”

(In case you’re interested, here is a link to the latest version of this lesson, from the PPP workshop)

You can see how new lessons emerge from engaging with the aspects and components of existing ones. The process starts when I find a place to pivot around, like the Big Triangle and Praying Mantis configurations in the example I just gave. Sometimes a lesson begins from deconstructing an existing ATM. Other times, it’s needing an antecedent or prequel to an existing lesson that is just too difficult. Or, I could start by recombining elements and ideas from preexisting lessons to derive a new ensemble.

As my example shows, for me at least, composing a score is as much about following the process to find out where it takes me as it is about logically and intentionally putting one together like pieces of a puzzle.

What’s more the process is iterative — that means, lessons are not finished products. The process of teaching contains all the rigor of a scientific experiment, meaning that I learn about a lesson — what kind of catalyst it is and what it’s capable of changing — each time I teach it. This makes it easy and natural to continue to improve an ATM.  

Central to this process is noticing what parts or aspects of lessons don’t work.  For instance, even though the PPP lessons have proven to be remarkably effective for so many, that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. From observing students while doing the lessons and from talking to then after class, I found out that holding the arms in the flat hand to flat hand position was difficult for some people, especially when they were lying on their backs.

Perhaps not surprisingly, figuring out how to make an ATM easier for folks who are challenged by doing it improves the effectiveness of the lesson for all students. So I went back to the drawing board, to reexamine the individual lessons — and the sequence I’d taught them in — to find out how I could make them even more user-friendly. This led to a revised, streamlined 2nd edition of the Peculiar Power of Prayer, which I’ll be teaching in Laguna Beach this coming weekend.



The recordings of The Peculiar Power of Prayer are available for sale.


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