Feldenkrais is Jazz! Improvisation & The Artistry Of Being

Can you see that my lessons are…improvised, yet they are improvised with a method. That’s a funny thing. …It’s all the time improvisation but it has a method in it, therefore it’s jazz. …It’s playing music on certain notes, making variations on a theme, and therefore it’s a real learning. It’s a lived thing.

Moshe Feldenkrais, 1975 San Francisco Training Transcript p.155

When was the last time you found yourself doing something so utterly spontaneous you surprised yourself? Making it up as you went along; going with ‘the flow’; playing it ‘by ear’, ‘winging it’? Maybe you burst out laughing while reading on the bus; maybe you found yourself dancing to the music in your headphones at the supermarket; maybe you said something unexpected that made everyone laugh… maybe you told your sister what you really think of her behaviour at a family gathering, and now you are in everyone’s ‘bad books’. 

For many of us, acting on impulse – unplanned, unprepared, and perhaps somewhat outside of our normal self-control setting – is our most frequent experience of our own creative nature in action. Improvisation is a natural element of creativity, and you are being creative whether you are making up a song to encourage a toddler to put their socks back on, conjuring up a meal out of random leftovers, fixing a broken device with sellotape and toothpicks, or adapting an Awareness Through Movement lesson because one person in the class cannot comfortably put their weight on their wrists.

Here is a dictionary definition for you:

I am hoping to convince you that Feldenkrais is not only a practice – like mindfulness meditation, or Qi Gong – but also an art – like playing jazz – with the same opportunities to develop your creativity, and your ability to improvise new possibilities in the moment. 

Practical application…

The first time I consciously applied what I was learning in my Feldenkrais training to a personal predicament was while dragging a heavy bag around London, on my way to the Edinburgh Festival. I had yet to master ‘travelling light’, and the adventure of exploring what is now my home town on my own for the first time was soon marred by severe sciatic pain. I knew that Feldenkrais could help me, because I had already experienced this sort of pain disappearing completely in my first ever Awareness Through Movement workshop.

Not quite sure what to do, but determined to do something, I arrived at Harrods and found myself a chair (this was 34 years ago – now I would have headed for the nearest coffee shop). It was a relief just to sit down, but sufferers of sciatica know well that rest alone is not usually enough to lessen the pain. What could I do?

From what I had discovered about myself in my training so far, I was aware that my ability to wiggle was quite primitive – perhaps shifting from side to side on my bottom was worth a try? I gave it a go. It felt like a good sign that the movement did not make the pain any worse, and quite quickly I began to feel some relief. After five minutes or so of gently shifting my weight side to side, from buttock to buttock, the pain had lessened enormously, and I was able to continue my journey. Once I was a qualified Feldenkrais teacher, this side-bending motion became one of the first manoeuvres I would give students to experiment with between our lessons, as ‘homework’.

I have known for some time now that not all sciatica sufferers will benefit from the same movements that helped me then. Feldenkrais teaching is a process of constant improvisation, as each person who comes to me for help is unique, and there is no simple formula that can be applied to everyone. Through constant improvisation I discover more strategies for generating improved wellbeing for both myself and others. Always my intention as a teacher of awareness and integration is to enable others to find their own solutions, by learning to improvise new possibilities for themselves, in exactly the same way I do.

Nurture Trumps Nature…

It is only very rarely that an artist can produce truly unique work without committing hours of diligent practice to mastering the materials and techniques of their chosen medium. Although the fantasy persists that some people are “born” artists, this is just not how our neuroplastic brains actually function. Skills of all kinds are acquired only by regular practice – the painter must practise handling pigment and preparing her canvas if she is to be able to transform her inner vision into tangible form; the dancer must develop a mastery over movement that is subtler and more individual than the precision required to develop acrobatic skills; the singer must gain control over respiratory structures that would normally function automatically (and thus outside our natural conscious awareness), and then harness that control in order to transform their whole self into a powerful and accurate musical instrument.

Teaching creativity…

Here is an film of Bobby McFerrin teaching a class-full of youngsters the principles of scatting, in under two minutes…

…it is a nice example of how mastering one particular technique can provide a foundation for endlessly creative improvisation. 

Mastering a wide range of techniques is the aspect of artistry that necessitates a commitment to regular practice. This aspect of acquiring a skill is often described as ‘craft’ – and craft is a wondrous thing. Work that is ‘well-crafted’ will always be valued and appreciated. However, when an artist or a performer is referred to as ‘a master of their craft’ it can mean that they are considered to be more of a skilled technician than a distinctive creative voice.  

This may be one of the reasons that creativity is so often represented as something nebulous, something that cannot be taught. In fact the evidence suggests that our confidence in our own creative nature is one of the things we ‘unlearn’ during our time at school. More than one study has revealed how our sense of our own creative capabilities steadily declines as we go through the standard early education process on offer to us in the West. If anything the situation is worsening, and not just because of our recent lockdown. All the opportunities for exploration, play, and self-discovery are being deemed surplus to requirements for our children – time to play outside, time spent on music, and poetry, time developing manual dexterity – all of these soul-nourishing activities are being removed from the syllabus, to be replaced with yet more learning-by-rote, with multiple choice tests to complete at ever increasing intervals, leaving our children both pressured and uninspired. It is hard to believe the intention is anything other than to churn out obedient, unadventurous, conformist worker bees. If I sound angry that is because I am – back in the 60s the UK was at the forefront of child-centred schooling, now we have gone so far the other way it is hard to see how we can even begin to reverse the damage.

Those who aim to teach methodologies that promote creativity – something that is fundamental to Feldenkrais – are faced with the task of undoing all that conditioning. It is easy to recognise that not being too focussed on what you ought to be doing, and how you ought to be doing it, is an ideal approach if your goal is to produce something that is genuinely new and ground-breaking. Similarly, too much focus on what everyone else is already doing can get in the way of developing a perspective that is distinctive, and uniquely your own.

This is why one significant aspect of the Feldenkrais Method is that we do not demonstrate the movement sequences we are teaching you in class – instead we aim to encourage you to refine your own sensory-motor perceptions, and to explore new possible movement strategies as they occur to you, just as you did naturally, instinctively, playfully and joyfully in the first five or so years of your life. 

Awareness Through Movement is taught almost entirely via verbal description rather than visual demonstration. This does mean that the growing number of Feldenkrais lessons available on YouTube might be an interesting development of our work, however, as they are almost always presented visually, what is naturally implied is that the version you are watching is the correct way to be performing the movement sequence the lesson is exploring.

In a class about a style of movement, it is natural for the teacher to demonstrate a well-crafted example of the movement being learned. In Feldenkrais classes we do not demonstrate. We are actively avoiding giving our students the idea that there is a correct or ideal way to perform any action, and if we as teachers demonstrate something, that can naturally imply that there is one right way to do it, and that the version we are presenting is the best and the most correct way for that movement sequence to be performed. This assumption is only natural when so much movement is taught via conditioning and imitation. Once a student is merely copying what the teacher is doing, they have surrendered their sense of inner knowing, and the opportunity to learn how to create something unique out of their own self-expression is lost.

The aim of the Feldenkrais proccess is to open us up to less familiar ways of doing, to new approaches to learning, to widen the array of choices we see before us. We teachers are in the business of encouraging adults to try out new stuff, with the same playful approach – the same lack of pressure to succeed – that an infant experiences as she is working out how to roll over onto her tummy, and then back over onto her back again. 

If you ever need a little extra guidance in a live class you are usually surrounded by other people who are also exploring and experimenting with the same movements you are playing with. This is the one thing about Awareness Through Movement that is often less available in an online class – however that feels like a minor issue when there is so much more potential to reach an international learning community online. I have regular students all over the world, it brings me enormous joy. Whenever it seems that it might be helpful for the group to clarify a movement possibility, I will sometimes do what my own trainers used to do, which is to ask two different people to show the rest what they are doing, so they are still experiencing the benefits of being a class environment, without being deprived of the opportunity for individual personal discovery.

It is fundamental to Feldenkrais that there is no one “correct” action to copy and perfect, but instead a room full of people exploring alternative possibilities together – you are expanding your own awareness, and sharing in that experience with the whole group, which can be a joyous bonding experience for all. We have hundreds of different movement sequences to draw on, with new ideas emerging all the time as our community grows, and with so many different sequences to play with, even the clumsiest of us can sometimes find ourselves the inspiration for others in the group learning space.

Can you read a book upside down?

In the quotation above, Moshe Feldenkrais was using jazz as a metaphor to characterise the way Awareness Through Movement is intended to engender the ability to create new options and improvise spontaneous new behaviour in those who adopt it as a practice, and he was still honing this aspect of his teaching method right up to his death in 1984. Here he is at his final – enormous – training at Amherst (California), telling one of my favourites of his stories. I will not give away the ending, I will just say that sometimes the limitations of a badly-funded school environment can produce surprisingly empowering results:

Artistry

The artists we venerate most are those that break new ground and produce work that is different enough to really stand out, yet is still meaningful enough to move us. Moshe Feldenkrais suggested that pioneers in all fields of human endeavour are acting from a position of fully functional adulthood – a “Potent Self” that is uncommonly aware, and fully integrated emotionally and physically, so that their intention and action are unified. Unbounded by the need to conform in a compulsive way with “standard procedure”, they are people who know themselves and their own bodymind so well that they are able to overcome both the constraints and the emotional pressure generated by the desire for social acceptance and approval in order to achieve entirely new ways of being and doing.

Watching Moshe on film as he was teaching members of the public, what I loved about him was the way he treated everyone who came to him as equally capable of learning; as individuals capable of achieving this potency for themselves, no matter what age they were, or what functional difficulties they may have been in the process of overcoming.

“Painters, mathematicians, composers, and everybody else who has ever done anything worthwhile, always had to learn to paint, think, and compose—but not in the way they were taught. They had to learn and work until they knew themselves sufficiently to bring themselves to the state of spontaneity in which their deepest inner self could be brought up and out.”

Moshe Feldenkrais; The Potent Self.

Unusually Feldenkrais has both group training mode and an individual touch-focussed teaching mode. Functional Integration is the hands-on teaching process, and it is ideal for tackling serious, acute or ongoing physical issues, such as restricted movement and chronic pain, and for injuries to the brain and nervous system, including Cerebral Palsy, Stroke, and Multiple Sclerosis. Awareness Through Movement is for self-maintenance and self-development, and although he produced hundreds of lessons suitable for teaching in classes, the goal is to enable the “pupil” (his preferred term) to begin to apply what they are learning in their daily thinking and acting, in order to continue to change and learn and grow throughout their lives.

Awareness Through Movement is what we Feldenfolk ‘practise’; it is the technique we are honing. When you take that heightened ability to observe, self-regulate and integrate new behaviour, and apply it to something that is going to enhance your life, like taking up a sport, learning a language, learning to sing – or maybe learning to modify your impatience and irritability into behaviour that is more tolerant and thus nicer to live with – that is when all that body-mindful attention starts to really pay off, and you can begin to remake your life the way you always wanted it to be, and experience the true art of living well.

“Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”
Moshe Feldenkrais

It is not easy to capture this improvisatory quality on film. In ATM classes that are being filmed there is usually too little giggling and too much concentrating going on, and people can often look a bit self-conscious – very unlike the atmosphere in a normal class. Here is a short clip of a class being taught one of my US colleagues, MaryBeth Smith, a beloved member of our community who is sadly no longer with us. She is talking about her work with cancer patients – it displays the individuality and body-mindful focus of the participants very nicely – and is a sensible length if you have not been to a class before, and are wondering what on earth I am talking about!

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