The Feldenkrais Method and the real meaning of ‘breath control’ – part two
June 17, 2012
[continued from previous post]
Whereas last summer I was counting my breaths in coordination with my feet while running, experimenting with even and lopsided inhalation and exhalation patterns, imagining melodies and chord progressions that fit these durations, and cycling the music through my brain, today I am more focused on experimenting with physical movements. The “musical breathing” exercises seemed to have the effect of deepening my breathing, especially on a couple of magical days. However, now that I have directed more attention to the movement of my limbs and spend less time counting breaths, my breathing has become deeper and fuller than anything I had achieved previously.
On top of the dozens of Feldenkrais ATM lessons that I have already done (see previous post for overview of Feldenkrais Method and Awareness through Movement classes), and the resulting improvements in my posture and movement, with the warm weather and the chance to get out and run again, I recently selected the first book off my Feldenkrais reading list that is tailored towards accomplishing a specific goal, Jack Heggie’s Running with the Whole Body.
As I mentioned in part one of this post, my latest running milestone was a sprint that (without any proof) I am calling my “fastest ever,” an achievement which I primarily owe to what I learned from this book. Heggie systematically presents ATM lessons directed individually at the movement of each muscle or muscle group that is essential to running, from head to toe. I highly recommend it to any runner (or anyone who just walks around, for that matter). I am about half way through the book and have already improved the functioning of my lower back, shoulders, and hips. Running feels very different now, more like relaxation, less like exercise, despite the exertions involved.
On the day of my historic sprint, I started out by simply walking, and doing a series of what I think of as my “funny walks” (hmm, maybe I’d better come up with a better name…) That is, I do simple body movements while walking or introduce variations to the walking stride itself to place an accent on the work of a particular muscle.
For example, when lifting one leg off the ground, I might lift up my foot in an exaggerated way as if I was about to go on tiptoes, thus lifting my head up higher than would normally happen. I do the movement only on one side for several steps, then walk normally. Then I do the other side and, finally, later with both sides in alternation. All the while I try to focus my concentration on the sensations in my foot and ankle and also notice if the movement causes changes in the way another part of my body moves (the first simple observation I made associated with my tiptoe walking was the slight raising of the shoulder on the same side as I raise my heel). After doing a simple variation like this, normal walking feels a bit different. Later, I do movements like this while running as well.
A couple of the walking variations I use are taken from Heggie’s book, but I actually began my experiments with altered walking and running several months ago, based on ideas in books by Anat Baniel and Ruthy Alon, two of Feldenkrais’ original students.
Baniel, who prefers to describe her work today as the Anat Baniel Method, has defined “nine essentials for lifelong vitality,” designed to wake up and enhance the functioning of brain and body in her book Move Into Life. One of the essentials she identifies is variation (I don’t yet fully understand the reasons that Baniel no longer describes herself as a Feldenkrais practitioner, but in any case, the key themes that she emphasizes in her work are consistent with what I have found elsewhere in Feldenkrais literature).
In the chapter dedicated to this “essential,” she says that “brain research has shown that variation – actually increases the synapses in the brain. As synapses increase so, too, do the number of connections between nerve cells.” Later, she suggests, “any time we want to acquire a new skill, or improve on an existing one, such as how we speak to our children, how we cook, how we walk and balance, how we do yoga, or even how we drive our cars, our success will depend on our bringing in lots of variations – new information for the brain to work with.”
In her book, Mindful Spontaneity, Alon recounts one of Feldenkrais’s processes where, while walking, one twists the torso, shoulders and neck as far as comfortably possible to look backwards, while attempting to maintain a steady forward stride. Later, in the course of writing more generally about the method, and having already described numerous processes, she says, “the greatness of the Feldenkrais Method is that it applies its theory in practical experiences. You can, through your own independent experiments and personal sensations, arrive at meaningful insights, conclusions and changes.”
So my first experiment was trying the process of looking backwards while walking. Doing so successfully requires practice, of course, and adherence to the guidelines students are always given in Awareness through Movement lessons: move slowly and gently, start with small movements first, never strain, pay close attention to your movements. I found this difficult at first, but it has become a lot easier over time – and it feels wonderful. I do it all the time now, for example when I’m walking through the parking lot to my car after work.
This is movement that your body is capable of, but you generally never ask it to perform. Doing this and other apparently strange movements keeps you flexible – not only in the sense of range of motion, but also in terms of the range of options that your body may employ at any given moment. Most of us have formed a strong movement habit for the actions we perform most often, including painful ones. If the habit is strong enough and we aren’t aware of ourselves, the gritting of the teeth or tensing of the neck or shoulders just becomes a part of our routine, instead of the signal that we should try something different.
In any case, swiveling the torso backwards while running took even more practice (Alon does not suggest this, but I decided to try it anyway). Through my work with the method, I have reached a point where I can now just about look 90 degrees to the left by twisting to the right (no I’m not making that up, nor could I believe it myself at first, even as I was doing it). To do this while in motion teaches you how to balance yourself in a new way. Perhaps a larger challenge than the movement itself was overcoming the fear of falling or crashing into something. I had to learn how to orient myself by tracking the ground moving away behind me – actually by glancing with my eyes a bit to the left. This movement is now a part of my normal running routine.
Here are some of the other movements that I do while in motion: slowly lifting and lowering each shoulder, moving them forward and back, in circles, one at a time, in alternation, and together; lifting one hip further off the ground than the other in a sort of skipping run; kicking the heels up to the buttocks; focusing my mind’s awareness in different ways to see my feet tracing a circle – I imagine the circle actually dipping slightly under the ground as if I ran on a tread wheel rather than a flat surface; imagining (and trying to feel ) the circles traced in the air by the knees; imagining the circles traced by the elbows; letting the arms hang straight down to the sides as if lifeless instead of bending the elbows as one normally does; moving the eyes left and right; moving the lower jaw; closing the eyes and running blind for several paces…
At first, like with almost any kind of exercise, I make movements on one side, then the other, in an even alternation. Trying to be mindful, as Feldenkrais would instruct, I usually run normally for several paces between movements as a kind of a rest. This is important because non-stop movement is one way that we cease to think about what we’re doing and go into autopilot. When we do this it becomes harder to invent something new. Pausing and then starting over allows us to refresh.
Some of the movements I do are entirely my own invention, whether the result of random experimentation, selecting any body part and incorporating some new motion with it into my running stride, or perhaps by intuition, exaggerating a minute detail of my walking or running movement that I happen to notice. Others of the movements are lifted from ATM lessons I have done, the only difference being that I carry them out while running (most ATMs are done while lying on one’s back or side, although there are other variants). Most days when I go out I come up with a new one. Some movements seem to have a more immediate effect on my posture, breathing or feeling of lightness as I run. Others make an impact that is less clear to me. Either way, I’m always looking for ways to make the experience a little different than the last time.
After doing several movements of this type, I sometimes incorporate combinations of two or three different movements simultaneously. I usually look around to see if anyone is nearby before trying the most involved ones. After all, what would you think if you saw someone running by twisted around to the right, eyes looking to the left, mouth open and lower jaw swinging from side to side?!
I’m glad that Ruthy Alon set me free early on in my discovery of Feldenkrais. The movement lessons are absolutely wonderful, but these experiments are perhaps even more joyful. However, I wouldn’t want to suggest that carefree spirit involved in embracing movements that may have a silly appearance or any parallels to improvisational dance are the source of this joy. Being silly and improvising are, of course, important in a similar way – daring to do what is not normal, habitual, routine, pre-programmed. But the truly amazing part of this experience is the comparison of “before” and “after,” the realization that such simple playfulness, if done in a directed and conscious way, can actually produce tangible and useful results. It is not that every “funny walk” I do is some glorious sensory experience. However, when – as has happened more than once – I find myself deeply enjoying simply walking down the street the following day, then I become more interested in creating new experiments.
A couple of comments on this subject by Ruthy Alon: “You don’t know what you don’t know. Only when you allow yourself to experience a way of doing which perhaps until today you never tried will you be able to feel that something new is taking place.” Alon calls this process “organic learning.” In a beautiful passage, she describes this practice of experimentation, discovery and further exploration as a tool of refining the self, much as the musician refines his music. Organic learning, she says, has
the power to wrestle as an equal with your stubborn habits. When your self-righting mechanism sharpens, you are oriented to progress. You are not attached to the specific progress you make, either. Your appreciation is not for the credit which you momentarily own in your functional bank, but for the talent for earning it. You are actually training your sense of daring in the art of how not to cease striving towards more satisfaction, how not to relinquish vitality. Acquaintance with the [Feldenkrais] method of recovering choices encourages you to continue to refine your actions. Your corrections are made with more agility and ease, and are not perceived as a special event, which requires cessation of the flow of activity. When you develop your sense of hearing, you can correct your musical performance while playing your instrument. The motivation to refinement becomes a way of life.
One additional element that I have been thinking about is the timing of all these movements in relationship to my feet and my breath. As a musician, I tend to think about almost anything by default in units of sound and time. When running, the steady pulse of my feet on the ground tends to reinforce this experience even more. As my morning runs became increasingly a mental workout in addition to a physical one, I started noticing that I seemed to “hear” my movements inside my head. For example, there seems to be a mental glissando swooping upwards when I looked up and back into the sky, simultaneously pushing my pelvis forward and arching my back.
I have found that regular movements of any kind, even when one keeps mostly silent, seem to produce a palpable internal rhythm. Perhaps I am only “feeling” this rhythm, but my brain seems to interpret this as a sonic experience. That is, I seem to “hear” the movements. I swing my arms, apparently in silence, but somewhere in my skull (perhaps what is more significant than my brain being found here is that it is the place where my ears reside), there seems to be a sound. So I find it nearly impossible not to “hear” a steady pulse while running, even if I attempt to make my feet strike the ground in perfect silence.
In fact, this is another one of my processes. I run for eight paces as I normally do, then another eight paces trying to make as little sound as possible with my feet. This of course is accomplished by adjustments in the use of my muscles with my ears being the primary control mechanism, or, one might say, conductor. The sound – pitch, volume, intensity – of my breath is another element to play with.
This was another experiment that began almost by accident. I was doing a different motion, one I just mentioned – arching backwards, and alternating this by curving the spine in the opposite direction and bending forward in a sort of slump to look at my belly button. As I was doing this in the midst of the running stride, I noticed that the movement pattern also had an accompanying sound pattern in my feet, as the weight passage through my skeleton changed. At times my feet were light, at other moments, much heavier. Had I recorded it, one would perceive a clear rhythmic repetition (these types of experiences have already suggested to me the possibility that musicality might possibly be conceived as a manner of bodily control – but it’s a subject that I’m going to need to think about a bit more before I can claim any clear conclusions).
4/4 time signatures, call and response and four-bar patterns are so common in music since this is essentially the music that is programmed into our body in motion. Without thinking much ahead of time I will end up practicing my movements in this time signature: for example, twisting left for four paces, twisting back to center for four paces, running normally for eight paces, twisting right for four paces, twisting back to center for four paces, running normally for another eight paces . . . and repeat. The breath locks into a four-beat (four pace) cycle almost automatically.
For the time being, I do not fight this apparently natural pattern of breathing. As I said, earlier, my primary focus of experimentation right now is with my bodily movements. However, I can’t help but notice that patterns like this are what I always return to when I don’t think about them.
Some time ago, I was introduced to music that did not always vibrate predictably in multiples of four and this opened up new worlds to my ears. But producing this same music through my body was not such a simple task. It didn’t feel “natural.” Hearing and enjoying a perfected music created by another player is, after all, much easier than learning to perfect that music in your own body.
Much of what I have written here may seem to focus on running, but, in fact, I am not interested in running as end in itself. I am not interested in winning marathons or setting new world records. Rather, I am interested in making music – hopefully, it will be new, daring and beautiful music. I too would like to develop the talent for introducing to the listener something foreign to their experience, yet perfect it to such an extent that they will experience it as natural. But even, if I never create some odd hybrid of running and musical performance, I have increasingly felt that this basic human function is a perfect testing ground for the expansion of what feels natural in my body, particularly in terms of rhythm.
Last summer, before I had discovered the Feldenkrais Method and ever had the faintest inclination to try to look backwards while running or any other such tomfoolery, I was nonetheless already engaged in experiments with varying the functioning of my body in motion. The primary focus of this experimentation, as I have already hinted at, was the rhythm(s) of my breathing. While I am currently working more on what my limbs are doing than what my lungs are doing, I already look forward to the time when I feel I’ve reached enough understanding to begin combining these two different areas of experimentation.
One of the most rewarding aspects of discovering the Feldenkrais Method for me was the confirmation that the kind of experimentation I was trying out could be organized methodically and truly become the basis for an expanding field of discovery and learning. Or, one might say, that there can be value is improvisation and acting silly! In any case, now that I have a clearer picture of where I am going, I can now get back to something I left aside a long time ago and write more in detail about my experiments of last summer, running and breathing. This will be the subject of my next post.