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.