Finding an end, and a beginning

During the past three months or so, for 102 days to be precise, every day, I dedicated a couple of hours to writing. Every day I wrote a short essay, a commentary, a movement sequence, or a short story. It started out as a project of curiosity – a lot has been written about the benefits of daily writing, and I wanted to see where daily writing would take me – how it would change me, what would improve, what I would discover. I showed up every day and I did the work. I never had writer’s block. As long as I would sit down and start to write I would write something, and after two to six hours I would have something that I deemed worth sharing.

Even though I had no idea for how long I would keep going, or where I would eventually arrive at, right from the beginning I had a general idea of what I would want to write about, and what I would not want to write about. Within those limits I allowed myself to experiment with different styles and different stories.

Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus, linguist, educational researcher, and political activist, states what we’ve learned from science: „We write for two reasons. One is obvious: We write to communicate with others (letters, emails, reports) and ourselves (notes, lists, reminders). The second is less obvious but profound: We write to solve problems and to make ourselves smarter.”

I don’t know if I became smarter over the past 102 days, but for one I have the impression that my writing as well as my thinking have improved. And secondly, more importantly maybe, I have had many important insights, and I have made many discoveries crucial to my development as a person and as a teacher – which I would probably not have made otherwise. I have the feeling that these 102 days cleared up many things for me and set me on my path again. With confidence, cheerfulness, and bright optimism that there’s a wonderful world out there, that is open for and supportive of our personal development and sharing amongst each other. „Trust your head around, it’s all around you. All is full of love, all around you.” to quote a song from the Icelandic singer Björk.

One more thing. David Sedaris said that a story needs to end, and not just stop. He recalls himself being Live on Tour, where he would read his stories to a different audience each night, “Every night I had to say thank you to the audience and that means that my ending didn’t work,” he says. “You shouldn’t have to tell people that the story is over.”

The story isn’t over yet. Our story isn’t over. Maybe you too would like to sit down sometimes and write down a movement sequence in your own words, and add your own observations.

Maybe you would like to start with a few stick figure drawings, and a few arrows and annotations. Then add some comments or speech bubbles, and before you know it you will have sketched out an entire movement based story.

Or maybe you would like to start with a personal movement diary. Writing helps us to make sense of what we experience. You could use your challenges, victories, discoveries, your Instagram posts, or your favourite movement moments as seedlings that you then grow into text. Or copy an inspirational quote from here or there, add your thoughts, your movements, your moments. You could start a page with „Would you please come to lie on your back”, as a possible replacement for „Once upon a time.” And then observe where the story will take you.

Or maybe you would like to start with a super-mini-essay in the form of a comment somewhere, for example on one of my videos, like Tracy did a few days ago, on one of my Shoulder Circles videos called „Simple movements, powerful changes”: 

„I love that moment at the very end of a lesson when I realise, »Oh, it’s all been leading to THIS!« [..] Lovely! What I particularly noticed after this lesson was how easily my shoulders swayed back and forth as I walked, and how upright my pelvis is. Another piece of Feldenkrais magic – how does a lesson focusing on my shoulders reset my pelvis?! Thank you for another great lesson, Alfons.”

Writing down movement sequences is not so different from writing stories. We have some sort of a plan, a general idea or direction, and start writing.

„When I started writing that story, I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized it was inevitable”, excerpt from Flannery O’Conner, „Writing Short Stories”

As long as we start somewhere, we will be going places. A new journey begins. Thank you for reading, you have been wonderful. And, if you haven’t yet, where will you start your next movement-based lesson?

The work and genius of Moshé Feldenkrais

Yesterday I finished my day with two questions: „What are the equivalents to (1) reading and (2) writing in terms of physical movement?” and woke up to a third question: 

„When there is no benefit in studying grammar in regard to writing and language growth, why is there such an overemphasis on technicalities in movement studies?”

In his essay „Teaching Grammar: Why Bother?”, Professor Stephen Krashen writes: 

„Research has shown that there is no relationship between grammar study and writing. Perhaps the most convincing research is that of Elley, Barham, Lamb and Wyllie. After a three year study comparing the effects of traditional grammar, transformational grammar and no grammar on high school students in New Zealand, they concluded that English grammar, whether traditional or transformational, has virtually no influence on the language growth of typical high school students.”

My question remained, „What is the equivalent to reading in terms of movement?” Every baby is watching its parents attentively, and is learning from them rigorously. Furthermore we grow up to adopt very similar movement patterns from the people around us, which will make us walk and move like locals. People from Norway walk in a different way than people from Africa. Professor Roar Bjørkvold from the University of Oslo, Norway, made an entire documentary to this length, titled „When the Moment Sings – The Muse Within – With Africa in the Mirror, Oslo 1996.”

My question remained, „Is watching dance performances the equivalent of reading?” It isn’t for me. I can read for hours on end, but even the most gifted and dedicated dancers on Youtube can’t hold my attention for more than a few minutes. „Or figure skating maybe?”, I asked myself. What kind of movement based performances do people love to watch for hours at a time? In community, cheerfully, what do they write about, discuss, imitate, try for themselves, and can’t stop themselves from watching again and again?

  • Football / Soccer – 4 Billion estimated fans
  • Cricket – 2.5 Billion estimated fans
  • Hockey – 2 Billion estimated fans
  • Tennis – 1 Billion estimated fans

Source: Worldatlas.com, The Most Popular Sports In The World 

That’s something. But is it a lead? Does watching sports help with anything movement related? Does it help with playing sports? With becoming better at it? I googled, „Researchers say watching videos of athletes really can improve your own game.” 

Or maybe it’s enough to watch other people, how they move, walk, how they do things, to somehow copy or acquire their movement patterns? Maybe, if we love someone deeply enough, or if we feel that we belong to some folks, we will automatically start to imitate them, become more like them? Does watching „our team”, or „our group”, or „our students”, watching them move, lead to acquisition of new patterns in and for ourselves, does it lead to improvements, changes? I myself have experienced it on numerous occasions, and have account from my professional colleagues and students alike, „I did not participate in today’s Feldenkrais class, I just sat there and watched the other students move. Yet, after class I felt so good and could move so much better, as if had actually participated!” But how does that work, exactly? What are the necessary conditions? How experienced would such a „participating observer” have to be? Could this be quantified,  replicated? Could there be choice? How far could this be taken? Could it be taught?

Then I stumbled over the topic of sports journalism, and how professional writers describe movement, write about movement and the things they see, for example, on a tennis court or a soccer field, and how they see it.

And then I remembered the books of Moshé Feldenkrais.

„Lie flat on your back, slightly bending the knees, with the soles of the feet on the ground. Lift your head off the ground and look at your belt. This position of the head must be borne in mind at the beginning so that it becomes a habit with you”, is the beginning of the first lesson in Moshé Feldenkrais’ 1944 book „Judo: The art and defence of attack”. 175 pages of movement instructions and observations. That was almost three decades before he would conduct his first Feldenkrais teacher training. I flipped through that book a couple of times before, as well as his book from 1942, „Hakaka-Jime: The Core Technique for Practical Unarmed Combat”, and 1952, „Higher Judo: Ground Work”, but I never saw these books in this light. They are a documentation of Moshé Feldenkrais’ formation process. Right there in front of us, hidden in plain sight. It was a revelation to me, startling, fascinating, remarkable.

Moshé Feldenkrais had one more book published in which he wrote down movement lessons: His 1972 book „Awareness Through Movement” holds 12 lessons complete with his commentary, next to a good 50 pages of „Understanding while doing”, practical tips and theoretical background.

However, the majority of Moshé Feldenkrais’ expansive, outright enormous body of work exists mostly in form of audio recordings, which later were transcribed and translated. I’m neither a ghostwriter nor a bibliographer, I just want to briefly give account: There’s something like 550 audio recordings from his studio in Alexander Yanai Street in Tel Aviv, where he was teaching group classes from the early 1950s to the late 1970s. As I counted earlier, all volumes of Harry Potter add up to 1,084,170 words, the transcriptions of these  „Alexander Yanai” lessons (I counted over 544 unique lessons) add up to 1,767,682 words. There’s something like 278 audio and video recordings of unique group lessons from his two summers of training in Amherst 1980 and 1981. These are the two biggest repositories, next to his three summers of training in San Francisco 1975-1977. And then there were many more workshops.

Moshé Feldenkrais, the man who put his mark on all generations to come, was an engineer first, and then a genius. He solved the big problems in writing first: how to observe and describe movements. How to write down the intrinsics of movement learning and the acquisition of ability, the components of action, „moving, thinking, sensing, and feeling”. For this he used written instructions, short stories, essays, and commentaries. In this way he created a strong, technical foundation. This strong, technical foundation in a multitude of skills then was, if I may dare to assert so, the launch pad to his magnificent work and stellar career.

The composing process, first thoughts

In the past few decades linguists found out and published a lot about how good writers became good writers and also how they stay good writers. In this context science revealed that it’s very unlikely to become good at writing merely through writing. Maybe that’s similar to movement learning: nobody ever learned to walk by walking. Or at least… horses maybe did, humans certainly did not. Human babies need to learn orientation first, how to engage the back extensors, how to roll, how to get ownership on the limbs, how to balance the head, a plethora of mini-lessons and mini-achievements add up to the first – and brief – free standing experience. 100 years of research in the field of infant locomotion, researchers have described developmental antecedents of walking, improvements in the kinematics of walking gait, the changes in the neurophysiological correlates of walking, the laborious skill acquisition and mastery (for example of crawling) and the subsequent abandoning thereof to move on to higher skills, and new challenges, and yet it seems like researchers have barely touched on the field. While we already know a lot about language acquisition, there’s still a lot to be discovered for movement acquisition. I’m not sure how many researchers are strong on the topic already. Superficially browsing over the general literature it seems like many professors of biomechanics are not focusing enough on the fundamentals of learning but are busy feeling up weight lifters with their electrodes and charting out electromyograms.

To stay with what we know about language acquisition and writing: people become better at writing through reading. In several research publications Stephen Krashen has shown that writing itself does not contribute to language or literacy development. His findings are these:

  • those who write more do not write better;
  • increasing student writing does not increase writing quality or any other aspect of literacy; and
  • we do not write enough to account for the complexity of the written language.

Nevertheless, he has ravish reviews, a lot to say for writing. He states, with scientific backing, that writing makes us smarter. When we write, our mind automatically helps us solve problems, and in doing so, stimulates intellectual growth. The claim has been made, in fact, that writing is the primary means by which we get new ideas: inspiration is the result of writing, not the cause.

Stephen Krashen writes on: „The Language Arts profession, in the last few decades, has made tremendous progress in describing how writers do this, how they use writing to solve problems and make themselves smarter. The strategies they use are called »the composing process«.”

Now, the composing process. That’s a big topic. Highly relevant to me and my work as a teacher of movement. I just learned about it today through the paper „The Composing Process” by Stephen Krashen. It will take a while until I see myself through it. I wonder: What is the equivalent to reading in terms of physical movement? What is the equivalent of writing in terms of physical movement? How can „The Composing Process” help me shine a light into the dark abyss of movement acquisition? Can Learning Movement become as relevant and as popular as Learning Reading and Learning Writing?

Drawing lines with a shoulder and rolling the head

So here’s my latest movement sequence lesson. Or at least… it was my latest, before I sketched out two more of them. Quite a productive morning I have to say. I will try to word this one out as concisely as possible, while retaining intelligibility and more importantly not to bore myself doing so. So here’s my sequence:

Starting position

Lie on your right side, legs bent, stand your left hand in front of your chest.

Reference movements

For later reference: Move your left shoulder forwards and also backwards. See what you do notice about these movements while doing them.

Shift awareness to the components of the movement

Now bring your attention to your nose, the tip of your nose. Roll your head as if you would like to approach the tip of your nose closer to the floor. But don’t touch, just move into that direction. Lower your nose towards the floor and distance it from the floor again, a couple of times. Observe how you do it, observe what you can discover, comprehend, learn about this movement.

Then bring your attention to your mouth. Roll your head as if to approach your mouth closer to the floor. Even more so, do it as you would like to touch your tongue to the floor. Of course, don’t actually touch your tongue to the floor, just aim into the direction. The floor is ice-cream. Try to find the most simple, most straightforward way. 

Then bring your attention to the back of your head. Help with your hand: touch the back of your head with one of your hands. It’s not the top of the head, not the neck, but somewhere in between. It’s not  a small area. Find the point that you would name the tip of the back of your head.

Then, with your left hand standing in front of you, roll your head to the right, by lifting the tip of the back of your head further away from the floor. 

Combine movements and observe kinematic linkage

Bring your attention to your left shoulder again. Move your left shoulder forwards, observe whether or not your head is rolling to the right, your nose is approaching the floor and the back of your head is lifting away from it. Feel how your chest is rolling, how you roll over the right side of your chest. Observe whether or not your pelvis is rolling too, whether or not your left knee is sliding forwards or not.

Then reverse the direction, pull your left shoulder backwards.

Observe how changes in arm position influence the same movements

Then continue with these explorations of pushing and pulling and rolling, but rest your left arm in various positions: behind your back, downwards on your left side, upwards over or on your head.

Reference movements

Return to the reference movements from the beginning of the sequence: move your left shoulder forwards and backwards. Observe what has changed. Observe how your way of observing has changed. Going full blown meta here.

Rest on your back to give yourself the opportunity to perceive more differences, improvements, observations.

Now stand up and see how it is in standing.

Some notes

I put this sequence together from various building blocks, or elements. I have no name for them yet. Somatic elements? A simple, goal oriented, habitual rolling of the head becomes a mindful exploration, an experiment even: the attention is shifted to the tip of the nose, and bringing the nose closer to the floor, and at the same time the back of the head further away from the floor. This creates, or requires, a skilful process of observing several things at the same time, without reacting stressful over it. This is still a turn of the head, but now we have many things involved, including perceivable distances. How far is the tip of the nose away from the floor in every moment? We become conscious of how this movement is performed, and thus can improve the movement itself.

Could such an element be a lesson on its own? Should it be? Would this be the base for an extensive catalogue? What would the elements of such a catalogue be called? Movement-mini-games? Mini-lessons? Somatic elements? What would the criteria for inclusion and exclusion be? How would every element be indexed and tagged? What are the use cases?

On its own it would be a mini-lesson about how to turn the head. However, by connecting it to the next adjacent, significant structure, the shoulders, which in turn connect to the chest, which in turn connects to the pelvis… it becomes a lesson about turning the head in a more integrated way. „Integrated” means it doesn’t stand on its own but is part of the whole self. And thus the experience is deeper, more significant, more relevant.

This mini-lesson could be expanded even further. There could be additional elements in other, every day postures, for example in standing or sitting. It could be a build up to more functions such as reaching and pulling.

But then it’s not a small 10-15 minutes lesson anymore, then it’s a workshop with many lessons, maybe even an entire training course. My hypothetical questions remain: what does qualify as a somatic movement element? What are the brush-strokes, styles and colours of a lessons? When do we need to add more, and when should (or could) we stop?

A new carpet

Yesterday I got a new carpet. You can see it in my video „Drawing Lines with the Shoulder and Pelvis”, from May 23, 2021. „Big deal”, to quote Christopher Walken. I already wrote about the prime importance of a cozy and safe space to practice. A cozy carpet, a ready-to-roll safe space, no extra setup required, makes a big difference. It’s like an invitation to lie down on the floor and do more. „Come on down here Alfons, this feels so nice, how about some Shoulder Circles?”, says my new carpet every time my eyes catch sight of it.

Following movement instructions to the point

In sports and traditional dance and in most types of physical therapy and in strength and conditioning training and in most other such modalities, if you followed the given instructions to the point you did a good job.

In sports, if someone excels at following instructions to the point, and keeps doing so without breaking, he will be rewarded big, both emotionally and physically – with strong social integration, an expansive network of contacts, fame, and big money. He will fly private and will get to chose intimate relationships with whomever seems most attractive. #pronouns

Therefore, there’re legit questions for someone who would consent to such a submission: How does someone learn to follow instructions so successfully? How must such a child or person be furnished genetically, socially, psychologically – what is immutable, what can be altered, and how?

And is this limited to sports? Or would following instructions to the point – and being able to sustain the submission – lead to such a wealth of rewards in other fields too?

I came to that question because I was pondering the characteristics of cognitive structure, as defined by Frank Smith, and the term „lesson” in regard to movement instructions. I’m not sure if I find the word „lesson” a good choice. I will have to think about it some more. However, Feldenkrais practitioners – and professionals from similar fields – do call their material „lessons”, not „instructions”. 

In dictionaries a „lesson” is defined as a unit of instruction, a period of learning or teaching, an activity that people do in order to learn something.

„Lesson” sounds a bit broader than „instruction”. „Lesson” is shorter and therefore more handy than „guided learning hours” or „assisted time for discovery and comprehension”.

„Machine language instructions” is something for robots on the assembly line. I find the orchestra of robots shown in video clips of Tesla’s Gigafactories fascinating. Humans often are required, and do have the capacity, to follow step-by-step instructions as well. Even though humans will never fully excel at that – compared to robots. I’m looking forward in anticipation to the first Robot Olympics, and I’m curious to see how humanoid robots will nail upright walking, jumping, running, crawling, cycling, swimming, and skating… their movements free of love, hope, gratefulness, resignation, resentment, belongingness, emotional history. We have never seen this kind of organisation in a humanoid body before, and in terms of efficiency, and biomechanics, and in probably many more aspects, we will be able to learn quite a bit from them.

One challenge of writing is this: I can strip my „lessons” down to the point that they look like mere movement instructions. And yet they are not: the „lesson” is all the things that are not the movement instructions. 

But can there be a „lesson” – experiment, discovery, comprehension, and all that – without movement instructions? Can there be learning without movement?

Edible or inedible

I was reading how children learn to make sense of the world, how they learn about the world, how we learn about the world. How we know that Paris is a city, and a chair is a chair, and that we can sort postage stamps by – for example – country, size, colour, or type of illustration.

“Everything that a child can perceive—whether a piece of furniture, a dog or a cat, or a letter of the alphabet—must be represented by a different category within his cognitive structure. If he has no system in his mind that separates dogs from cats, then he will perceive dogs and cats as the same kind of animal.” – excerpt from Frank Smith, „Comprehension and Learning”

I felt so excited while reading this. Oh, this makes so much sense! Oh, this is so interesting!

“When the topic is the human brain, there is a natural tendency to talk about categories that have names. Categories that have unique names are often referred to in psychology as »concepts«. But it is not necessary for a cognitive category to have a name. We can distinguish many kinds of objects for which we as individuals do not have a name. Infants distinguish classes of objects from each other long before they have names for them; in fact it is generally necessary to have a cognitive category before a name can be learned.” – from the same book

I was thinking, „Oh! I know this one! Babies try to put everything into their mouths and they discover what is edible or inedible, that’s categories without names.” Edible items: banana, breast-milk, water, porridge, french fries. Inedible items: big toe, fist, blanket, mom’s nose. I guess: at some point early in our babyhood we had our first successful, sufficiently pleasant, sensory only „this is edible” experience. And shortly after an equally successful but disappointing „this is inedible” experience. And thus we found out about the existence of „categories”, something that doesn’t exist physically, but does exist somehow anyways, and that has the power to group items into edible and inedible. A powerful discovery. I guess that night we slept very well.

I was excited to write a commentary and relate this to what I know about movement. How would I categorise movement? Would I sort it by functionality? Or group it up according to adjectives? How could or would or should I do it?

I did a Google search to see what others have thought of so far. Planes of motion. Primary movement patterns. Rotation. Flexion. Extension. Anti-Rotation. Anti-Flexion. Anti-Extension. Anti-Lateral Flexion. Hip Hinge. Hip Dominant. Vertical Push. Rotational and Diagonal. The movement direction of an exercise. The primary joint lever.

Ok, there goes my motivation and excitement. Reading these technical descriptions in isolation, all by renowned researchers as well as strength and conditioning coaches alike, made me feel tired. I find these bland lists, even when connected to strengthening and stretching exercises, hardly exciting. At least not at a first glance. I find it immediately more exciting to read about apples:

„The primary products of the oxidation of apple phenolic compounds are o-quinones, and the resulting colour of the cut fruit surface will depend on the type of phenol oxidised. Use of a short heat treatment (70-90°C) to inactivate the enzymes, or ultrafiltration to remove the o-quinone products, are two ways in which discolouration can be minimised in commercial products.” – excerpt from Apple Facts by Quadram Institute

That’s how they do it! I wondered why stuff nowadays stays looking sharp on the shelves. Growing up on the countryside, 30 years ago, sliced apples weren’t like that at all.

So I found that out about myself. There’s something else, something deeper about movement, something that connects it to my soul. The soul. Maybe that’s why we have this »concept« of »the soul«, to know if something touches someone’s soul or not. How come Moshé Feldenkrais’s movement sequences touch my soul, but learning how to correctly lift a barbell – and name the muscles and primary movement patterns involved – does not?