Cues and instructions in Somatics classes

So I went ahead to identify the types of instructions we use in Somatics classes, especially in the style that’s inspired by Moshé Feldenkrais, a pioneer of somatic education.

Each type of instruction has its reason to be there, its story, its rules, scope and limits, its pedagogical, bio-mechanical and neuro-scientific reasoning. The occurrence and frequency of the types is generally not fixed, but happen in response to the class, like in a lively conversation.

A lot could be said and written about each type of instruction. Maybe this could be worthwhile for a book; or for designing a study course for scholars of somatic education.

Here’s the list I’ve made. Types of instructions are in bold print, followed by one or more sentences as they could occur in a class, which typically might be called “lesson”:

Instruct how to move into the starting position, step by step

  • “Please sit on the floor.”
  • “Bend your left leg backward and bend your right leg closer to yourself.”
  • “With your right hand lean on the floor.”
  • “Place your left hand on your head.”

Describe how the position should look like

  • “Your left hand is on the top of your head.”
  • “You are leaning on your right hand with a straight elbow.”

Point out unintended positions and how they should be done instead

  • “Your left hand is not behind your head, but on top of it.”
  • “Your left elbow is not pointing forward in the same direction as your nose, but to the left, as is your left ear.”
  • “You are properly leaning on your right hand, and not just pointing it down to touch the floor lightly with your fingertips.”

Instruct the movement

  • “Move your head right and left.

Give alternative instructions for the same movement

  • “Bring your right ear closer toward your right shoulder and then your left ear closer toward your left shoulder.”

Point out which movement options you want to exclude, and what to do instead

  • “Don’t turn your head, but bend it right and left.”
  • “Don’t turn your upper body, but pay attention so that you bend exactly right and left.”

If there’s too many possibilities for students to go into unintended or irrelevant movements you might want to use clearer, more descriptive (for example “your left earlobe toward the tip of your left shoulder”), less ambiguous instructions, or introduce stronger constraints*, instead of loosing your cool.

(*) “constraints” is a technical term of somatic education. It refers to limitations introduced via postural choices, such as lying on the back, side-sitting, leaning on one hand etc, to guide movements in a particular direction. In somatic education, constraints are often used to help students focus their attention and movements more effectively.

Describe the quality of how to move

  • “Do very light movements.”
  • “Do not rush.”
  • “Don’t push yourself.”
  • “Don’t try to do a lot.”
  • “Do the movements clearly.”

Describe how the movement connects to other areas of the body, encourage students to observe and acknowledge that

  • “Notice that when you bend your head to the left, your left buttock lifts further away from the floor. Let it do that.”
  • “Notice that when you bend your head to the left, the left side of your chest shortens and the right side lengthens. The ribs on the left side move closer to each other, and the ribs on the right side spread further apart.”
  • “Allow your left buttock to lift when you bend your head to the left, and to return down toward the floor when you bend your head to the right.”

Give tactile cues and affirmations that could help with moving and understanding

  • “Sense and observe the movements of your left buttock in relation to the floor.
  • “All of your spine will bend and help your movements.”
  • “Slowly, slowly, your pelvis will move more, and more.”

Give explanations why something might be happening

  • “Your chest and spine are becoming more supple because you move as a whole, in all areas, gently and slowly.”
  • “Your left buttock will move up and down more, with ever more lightness and freedom, because your whole chest and spine, including your neck, are becoming more supple.”

Keep quiet to allow students time to explore and discover

  • “…”

Notify students about the end of this section of the lesson and tell them in which position you prefer them to rest

  • “Leave this and rest on your back.”

Reflections on written and spoken language in teaching movement

As you might know, I like to have a close look at the language used for instructing and describing movement. For example, the beginning of “AY1 Bending the head to the side when sitting” by Moshé Feldenkrais. I don’t have access to the original in Hebrew, but the English translation starts like this:

Please sit up.

Now that’s pretty ambiguous. But I assume that teacher Moshé Feldenkrais was teaching in an unfurnished room, like a Yoga room, where people were sitting or lying on the floor, or on their blankets and mats, and were waiting for the lesson to start. Maybe the following would be more specific:

➨ Please sit on the floor.

The lesson then starts like this:

Bend your left leg backward and bend your right leg closer to yourself.

Now, if you look at my picture (at the end of this post) or if you have studied enough of Moshé Feldenkrais’s lessons you know what this means. However, if this is your first lesson, it might not be that evident. This is the beginning of the theme of the lesson, and part of an instruction to get students to assume a certain body position. This position will then be used as the starting position for a movement exploration.

For a beginner, especially if there’s no picture or other students to copy from, the given instruction is quite ambiguous. We can’t know for sure where Moshé Feldenkrais is going with this, yet. We will need to listen for more. Does he mean to bend the left leg backward like in a pigeon pose, with the left leg fully extended backward? Or does he mean to bend the left leg and left knee, like in a side-sitting pose?

Therefore, I tried to rewrite the instruction to be more specific:

➨ Bend your left knee and place it on the floor to the left, with your left foot to the left and behind you. Bring your right foot close in front of your pelvis with your right heel close to your left hip joint and your right knee resting on the floor out to the right.

Now that sounds sufficiently specific to me. However, it’s quite long. Is that really necessary? How could I shorten it again? Isn’t there a name for this pose in English? Fortunately there is, it’s called side-sitting. I re-phrase:

➨ Sit in side-sitting with your left leg to the left, and your right foot in front of your pelvis.

This sounds better. I feel my re-writing is accomplished from a writer’s perspective, but I don’t feel happy from a teacher’s perspective. Calling it “side-sitting” might take away from the openness, and might put students on railroad tracks (of pre-conceived images and already deep grooved movement habits), rather than invite them to venture into the wide open; and thus calling it “side-sitting” might compromise the entire lesson.

So you see, this whole business of writing and choosing words and putting them in their right place seems to be all fragile, convoluted and difficult. Contrariwise, in a live class, in speaking to students who readily listen, move, learn, make mistakes and improvements… when teachers and students can see each other the speaking seems to be easy and light, swift, and direct.

Yet, in sum total the scrutinising look in writing seems to be beneficial. Moshé Feldenkrais himself started out in writing, as evidenced by his early books on Judo and self-defense, which he wrote early in his career. He formed his own language model, his base, in writing—before he started to teach regular classes in speaking. I think this in itself is a remarkable—and significant—discovery. And even though discussing movement instructions in writing seems to be a bit tedious, it indeed is making the speaking so much better.

Breathing is not just about word order

Psycholinguist Frank Smith wrote in Understanding Reading (2004):

  • The statements the man ate the fish and the fish ate the man comprise exactly the same words, yet they have quite different meanings.
  • A Maltese cross is not the same as a cross Maltese,
  • nor is a Venetian blind the same as a blind Venetian.

These (slightly) amusing examples illustrate the significance of word order. Putting words in order isn’t just about grammar; it’s crucial to convey your intended meaning, wouldn’t you agree? Not agree you would?

I recall another quote from Frank Smith, from his book Landmarks in Literacy (1995): “Dogs chase cats cannot replace cats are chased by dogs in any meaningful context. The first is a statement about dogs and the second about cats.”

But what about your body and breath? Is the difference between them as easy to observe as the difference between cats and dogs? The following instruction seems plenty ambiguous to me and could be interpreted in various ways:

(a) Lift your head and breathe in

Does this mean to lift the head and breathe in afterwards? Or should we breathe in while lifting the head, as in coordinating these two actions? What if we run out of leeway in lifting the head, and there’s still plenty of in-breath available? Should we stop the breathing short? And how should we deal with the disturbed breathing? Am I overthinking this? What are we supposed to do, exactly?

On the other hand, consider this instruction:

(b) On an inhalation lift your head

While the first example (a) might imply to breathe on purpose, the second example (b) suggests to wait for an inhalation to happen and then to lift the head together with the breath-in.

In my previous blog post I’ve used the image of a surfer waiting for a wave. The wave will come on its own, there’s nothing the surfer could or must do for the wave to arrive. He just need to be ready at the moment he starts to float onto the wave, in order to catch it.

If you like, the next time you’re resting on your belly, play with this idea of lifting your head, and wait for the next inhalation to happen. How does it feel like to let a breath deliberately go by, and how does it feel like to catch a breath and lift your head, to ride your breath like a surfer rides a wave? And how is that different to deliberately force a breath to happen when you lift your head? When would you lift your head anyways? Is it really completely arbitrary, that specific moment when you start lifting your head? See what interesting things you will discover!

Breathing lessons, definitely

I was just finishing up my Patreon post for my latest video, Day 7: Move surprisingly lighter and easier, working on the summary of the third main movement, when I wrote “add breathing.” Here’s the links to the sources:

  • https://youtu.be/ofG0FLXtmyA
  • https://www.patreon.com/posts/lifting-head-in-98629124

Suddenly, I found it odd to write “add breathing.” I was thinking, “Aren’t we breathing all of the time?” Therefore, I changed it to “become conscious of your breathing.”

However, it still didn’t feel right. This seemed better: “shine a light on your breathing, as if shining a flashlight in the dark, to bring your breathing into conscious awareness.” Much better. Thus I wrote:

Breathe in, when you lift your head. Breathe out, when you lower your head.

No. Once again, no, it didn’t feel right. I felt that this didn’t chime with the image of highlighting, the image of becoming conscious. It sounded more like manipulating your breathing, or trying to force it to comply with a command or exercise instruction. This seemed better: we wait for the breathing to happen, we wait for a breath, like a surfer awaits the perfect wave:

The next time when you breathe in, lift your head, then lower your head when you breathe out.

or, to use a noun instead of a verb, maybe to stay closer to the image of the oncoming wave:

On the next inhalation lift your head, then lower your head on exhalation.

Perhaps it’s my interest in detail and language that’s responsible for why it takes me 2 to 6 hours to write a simple post. Is it worth it? I like to think that my patrons appreciate my dedication. After all, it’s their support that makes my writing and filming possible in the first place. So, without a doubt: Worth it! Definitely!

The safety of brain tissue and somatic embodiment practices

“There are numerous reasons why a baby may have neurological dysfunctions. They can be due to genetic differences, in-uterine problems, birth trauma, trauma after birth, nutritional difficulties, and environmental /social factors.” — Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen

I was just reading an interview with the seasoned, famous and well-versed embodiment-worker and somatic education pioneer Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, when I came by the paragraph I just quoted. I was quite surprised to see her listing reasons for neurological dysfunctions but NOT mentioning vaccines. In fact, there was no mention of adverse vaccine reactions, even if rare, in any of her interviews that I’ve read (and none in the lectures of Moshé Feldenkrais either.)

It might be that some are convinced that adverse reactions from vaccines are extremely rare, however, there’s also people who are under the impression that such events are not as rare as one might think, and given the amount of cumulative shots administered nowadays, more likely to happen than in the past.

The truth may be one or the other, yet I’m surprised that such a big topic is excluded from discussion altogether. 

One of the reasons why I’m personally concerned, is the safety of my own brain. Aren’t the brain and nervous system the cornerstones of somatic education, of The Feldenkrais Method, and all related methods? I was especially shocked to read about a recent Review by Janet Kern, 2020, in Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology, “Examining the evidence that ethylmercury crosses the blood-brain barrier”: 

And further, 22 studies from 1971 to 2019 show that exposure to ethylmercury-containing compounds (intravenously, intraperitoneally, topically, subcutaneously, intramuscularly, or intranasally administered) results in accumulation of mercury in the brain. In total, these studies indicate that ethylmercury-containing compounds readily cross the blood-brain-barrier, convert, for the most part, to highly toxic inorganic mercury-containing compounds, which significantly and persistently bind to tissues in the brain and [..] degenerative, inflammatory, and necrotic alterations were seen [..]

In fact I was not just “shocked”, but was properly alarmed—as all of my doctors always told me that vaccine ingredients such as methylmercury or aluminium will be expelled by the body, without a trace, and I need not worry. So far the consensus was that after a fortnight at the very longest, there’s no such ingredient (adjuvants) to be found in the body anymore; not in the blood, not in the liver, not in the lymphatic circulatory system. It just never occurred to the researches to look inside the brain. That was, until recently (1971 apparently.)

Well, you might argue that most modern vaccines don’t use methylmercury or aluminium anymore. And that, either way, the topic of vaccinations doesn’t have a place in somatic education and embodiment practices. And I can’t argue about that, since vaccines are indeed not my field of expertise.

However, this here is a personal blog, and not a lifestyle magazine and advertisement platform. I want to be able to discuss the topic of somatic education, learning, developmental delays, et cetera, openly, without deliberately ignoring vaccines for whatever reason, and not be hushed and losing a good part of my clients when raising concerns or asking questions. After all, it’s for the safety of my own brain and my own nervous system. Shouldn’t I be aware of dangers, risks and consequences when making decisions? And shouldn’t I be able to think of my client’s past decisions (and consequences thereof) when working with them on their current problems?

Ignorance is bliss – but is it always?

“One of the main reasons that postural yoga itself gained popularity is the simple fact that it had visual appeal within modern society.” – Mark Singleton, Yoga Body : The Origins Of Modern Posture Practice

I really don’t know how they do it. I mean the people who keep telling the truth about history and medical interventions. How do they get up every morning still motivated to speak out? It seems like they try to speak next to a Boing 747 with turbines at full volume. Who will hear that? Isn’t it all futile?

For example, in his studies Mark Singleton found that there is little or no evidence that āsana (postures in yoga) has ever been the primary aspect of any Indian yoga practice tradition—including the medieval, body-oriented haṭha yoga. And that in spite of the self-authenticating claims of many (if not all) modern yoga schools and yoga fitness gyms. Posture practice is a new phenomenon that has no parallel in premodern times. Book recommendation: Mark Singleton, Yoga Body : The Origins Of Modern Posture Practice

Another example: in his studies, Paul U. Unschuld found that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in the West has little to do with the original Chinese medical tradition. TCM originated as a simplified version, incorporating select practices from the Chinese medical tradition, tailored for a communist society. It gained popularity in the West after a US journalist reported on acupuncture in China. Acupuncture traditionally played a marginal role in Chinese medicine and was even banned at times. A lack of understanding led to misinterpretations, such as the incorrect translation of “Qi” as “life energy,” when it actually meant “vapor of food,” which might have been similar to the concept of Pneuma in ancient Western medicine. It was the French diplomat and sinologist George Soulié, in the 1920s, who did not practice acupuncture himself, yet coined the word “meridians” (likely borrowing that concept from the longitudinal lines he saw on a globe) and interpreted Qi as “energy”. And a couple decades later, in the energy crisis of the 1970s, the idea of an invisible energy that can fuel a person was met with great enthusiasm. It was in this time that George Soulié’s interpretation of Qi as “energy” suddenly became the standard interpretation, which even transpired back into China. Book recommendation: Paul U. Unschuld, Traditional Chinese Medicine : Heritage and Adapation

I’m expected to ignore all that, and much more.

Or at least, regarding such things, most people around me seem to not care about history and how things really are, and will have none of it. And I can’t blame them. But sometimes we need to act on the truth, especially with these health-related things, and especially if we want to stay healthy; and be able to recover from challenges. Therefore, I think it’s important to at least know the truth, even if we chose to ignore it.

Reading is not a hobby

My Vietnamese friend told me that she doesn’t like reading. “I’m sorry that you didn’t have a successful reading experience just yet,” I replied compassionately. I think she didn’t understand.

Prof. Stephen Krashen said that if someone picked a book by himself (“self-selected reading”), and read it in his own account, finished and enjoyed reading it, this counts as a successful reading experience; and usually turns that person into someone who enjoys reading.

But which book to choose? And from where?

For example, if you’ve been to Vietnam before you know that there’s hardly any books to be seen; even less newspapers or magazines. People in Vietnam usually don’t read. There’s only very few public libraries (and even the largest ones are rather poorly equipped), and only few bookstores, and only in the major cities, and all of them seem to only carry the same, generic bestseller titles. In addition there’s small coffee shops (so called “book cafes”) and thrift stores that display a couple dozen used paperback books, oftentimes in poor condition. But at least there you might find the one or other interesting, off the mainstream title, left behind by a traveller.

The University of Science Library has only a few bookshelves with dated volumes, despite being one of the largest libraries in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam, with the city having a population of close to 9 million

“The research supports the commonsense view that when books are readily available, when the print environment is enriched, more reading is done. A print-rich environment in the home is related to how much children read; children who read more have more books in the home.” – Excerpt from »The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research« by Prof. Stephen Krashen

The availability of books is a major factor for any society. Just like the availability of transportation, or … clean air and water. And there’s a lot to be said about compulsory education, indoctrination and brainwashing, alignment of the population, the presence or lack of critical thinking skills and the striving for self-education, and so forth.

Just for example, in my home country, Austria, there’s many huge, beautiful bookstores, often two stories high or higher, with thousands and thousands of titles, and also many smaller bookstores with rare titles or a wide selection of local writers. But, just for example, in all those bookstores there’s usually no titles about Covid (other than mainstream titles that write about how stupid—or outright dangerous—people who don’t get vaccinated are) and certainly no titles about the history of the Covid vaccines and their political background. These books do exist, plenty, but they are not on the shelves; and therefore people usually don’t know about them, and don’t read them. However, contrary to Vietnam, in Europe there’s online bookstores with an extremely wide selection of books, and people can order those books online, and next to ebooks can receive actual paperback or hardcover copies within days of ordering.

So, to cut a long blog post short: according to Professor Stephen Krashen and what we know about reading there’s two things that make a child an avid reader:

  1. Children are provided with substantial access to books.
  2. Children read books that they select themselves.

As I see it, reading is not a hobby. Instead, reading is something we humans do, like listening or looking. But we only like to listen and look if there’s something interesting to listen to or to look at. Likewise, we only read if there’s something interesting available to read, actually.

And that’s one of the reasons I myself wrote a few books (three or so) in easy-to-read language about sensorimotor-education and Feldenkrais-inspired movement sequences. A book with pictures and speech bubbles on them, and easy to read blocks of text in between. And one book made from posts of this very blog. But of course, these books are a bit “different” than regular books. And they are not on the shelves in the bookstores either. Therefore only people who self-select books online can find them. Maybe one day I should produce a book that’s mainstream enough to be fit for mainstream media and will sit on the shelves in the big bookstores, too.