Shoulder Circles, a closer look

For the purpose of comment and criticism I transcribed a few paragraphs from the audio CD „Moshé Feldenkrais – ATM Lessons for the Elder Citizens”, Lesson 10, „Learn from your left side.” Even though most of Moshé Feldenkrais’s original audio (and video) recordings are inaccessible to the general public, a few have been made available. Much to my delight this particular audio recording is one of them. Even though not available for purchase through popular channels such as Audible, Apple Books, or Google Audiobooks (as of May 2021), copies can be purchased through the publisher’s website, „Feldenkrais Resources”. Therefore, if you would like to hear the original audio, this is possible through a single, paid audio mp3 download from the website just mentioned.

Copyright note, Section 107 of the U. S. Copyright Act: Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. Certain types of uses—such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research—are examples of activities that may qualify as fair use.  

Having that pointed out, let’s inspect the hidden treasures of „Shoulder Circles”, and have a look at Moshé Feldenkrais’s ideas and wording at the beginning of this particular recording. It starts like this:

The starting position: side-lying on your right side 

0:00 „Would you please lie on your right side . bend your knees . comfortably towards yourself towards your stomach . ”

„Would you please”, what a nice, classic, almost musical opening. I love it. I write a single period . for every time Moshé Feldenkrais made a short pause, for example to draw breath, gather a word, or emphasise a particular prominence. I write two periods .. for every time he made a longer pause of 1-2 seconds or so. Other than those there were no pauses in his speaking, whatsoever. He provided his students with a constant stream of words.

It’s impossible to say how many people were in the room and with what backgrounds and with which medical conditions, since the recording’s description doesn’t give this information. 

What I can guess is that there were people present. I don’t know of any recording where Moshé Feldenkrais was teaching ATM movement sequences alone on his own, without talking to students directly. Moshé Feldenkrais solitary in a recording booth with a microphone – this probably never happened.

The recording flows very smoothly, therefore it seems like all students have already had quite a few of Moshé Feldenkrais’s lessons before, or were trained in other methods such as Physical Therapy or dance.

There’s one thing that I do know, however, and what you couldn’t possibly pick up from my written transcript: this audio recording quite is, I have to admit, „Moshe Feldenkrais’s warmest and most personable recorded teaching”, as in „having a pleasant appearance and manner.” That’s something apparently so exceptional, that it is one of the few things said in the recording’s description.

Support your head with your right arm

0:10 „Put your right hand behind your head as if for sleeping . and organise yourself to lie very comfortably on your right side . ”

That’s a curious choice, to instruct The Elderly Citizens to rest their heads on their arms. But maybe 50 years ago (or whenever this class was recorded), the elderly were in great shape, could easily lift their arms up straight, bend their elbows, and rest their heads on their folded arms. Nowadays, quite a few of my clients wouldn’t be able to do that comfortably – but I know that my grandmother could. Maybe it was a big class in a big room, and there were no pillows and blankets, and it was still a better choice than having the heads hang down from their necks, uncomfortably.

However, I’ve indeed already had students in my classes whose shoulders were in near perfect, mint condition. Quite contrariwise, mine are not „double-jointed.” For me this posture creates a peculiar base for my head. It’s certainly not a neutral base. Resting on my arm, my head rolls easier to the right than to the left, and my chest does not roll as easily forwards as with my head resting on a pillow. How about yours?

These are small details, but the Feldenkrais Method is a method of acknowledging details, and not of muscling through movements with great force in order to overcome the unacknowledged.

Place your left hand in front of your chest

0:25 „And now .. put your left hand on the floor in front of your chest . left hand on the floor . near yourself on the chest near chest on the floor . in front of you . ”

Another interesting choice. The left hand on the floor in front of the chest – as opposed to resting it on the pelvis. On the floor the hand provides more structural stability, much like an extra leg for a chair. It provides a base for the left hand to push the left shoulder backwards, and in some way to also pull it forwards; or to catch the weight of the chest when rolling forwards.

Move your left shoulder forwards

0:41 „And now move your left shoulder . your left shoulder . move it forward . means in the direction of your face .  forward . and back . again to where you started with move it forward . and back again . move your left shoulder forward and back again . ”

This is the first movement in this movement sequence. According to the researcher and psycholinguist Frank Smith there’s only three ways in which human beings can learn anything about the world:

  • By actually doing something, learning through performance and experience (including thinking)
  • By watching something being done, learning through observation or by demonstration
  • By being told (by language)

On Youtube, in videos with movement instructions, I find mostly the following two distinct styles:

  • Someone explains an exercise and expects the viewer to watch attentively and practice on their own later, or
  • Someone walks the viewer through an exercise step by step, encouraging the viewer to practice along

For the first style, plain explanation, the instructions could be gutted and condensed down to one sentence, „Move your left shoulder forwards, and return it again.” And this one sentence could be supplemented with a cue for awareness, „See if you also roll your head and chest.”

But for an immersive, guided experience, these two sentences need to be expanded, and you can see how Moshé Feldenkrais did that.

By mentioning the left shoulder several times, we are invited to bring our attention just there. Which will lead to questions such as, „What is my left shoulder?” and „Where is the direction of forwards?” and „Am I really going forwards? How could I tell?” 

Shift more weight onto your left hand

1:09 ”And while you do that you will note that you lean of course on your left hand on the floor in front of you in front of your chest . ”

What are the things that happen during a certain movement? What are the things that will become perceptible, observable? We can’t possibly predict the emotions and thoughts that may arise, but we do know a lot about the movements themselves – because they are our common grounds. All humans have similar anatomy and physiology.

If you move your left shoulder forwards in side-lying on your right side, with your left hand standing on the floor in front of your chest, more weight will be transferred to your left hand. That’s as sure as the pull of gravity on Newton’s famous apple.

But what will you make of it? What is going on? Did you notice? Will you catch your weight with your left hand? Will you use your hand to control and direct the movements of your shoulder and chest? Or will your hand be a mere observer? Are you able to choose between these two options? What else is happening?

Your chest and head are rolling

1:18 „Allow while you move forward . you will roll also a little bit your body forward . and your head forward . your chest . observe . that while you move forward if you want to make the movement easier and simpler and your shoulder moves forward . your left clavicle moves forward . the shoulder blade moves forward . the whole chest moves a little bit forward . and back again and stop it . ”

Moshé Feldenkrais is moving this lesson forward in a steady pace, and one thing comes after the other. However, you may find that one minute is not enough to discover all the things you could (or should) discover. 

For example, did you notice that you can move your shoulder independently from your chest? And therefore, how much should you roll your chest? The sliding of your shoulder and rolling of your chest could be coupled in a ratio of 1:1, like the hand of a clock would move. But the ratio could as well be put together 2:1, which would make your shoulder move twice as far as the chest rolls. The ratio could also be 1:2, the shoulder lagging behind the chest; the chest moving underneath, faster than your shoulder.

And how does this whole movement happen altogether?

My dear reader, beware: a feldenkraised lesson is not a corrective measure. To notice the moving relationship between the shoulder and the chest is one thing, to try to correct it, is something else. Not just „something else”, but clearly „Not Feldenkrais”. Let the lesson work on you, or better: work for you. Let’s continue.

Rest your left hand on your pelvis

1:52 „And now stretch your left . arm . so as to put the left hand . on . the widest part of your pelvis . means you stretch your left arm and put your left arm limb as it is the fingers touching somewhere your left buttock . and this way . still lying with your right arm behind your head the knees bent comfortably . ”

And there goes the support from the left hand, the left hand is removed from the floor and placed limb on the pelvis. „Limb”, reminds us to balance the left arm on the left side, and not to hold the arm stiffly like a wheel lock clamp.

Why does Moshé Feldenkrais introduce this change in arm position? Is it really better for the upcoming backwards motion of the left shoulder? On what grounds does he instruct this? Where are the studies to support this new starting position? Should we agree to this without consulting Quality Control first?

Move your left shoulder backwards

2:24 „Move your left shoulder .. backwards that means in the direction of the floor behind you . move the left shoulder backwards .. and back to the middle . and back again and to the middle . to the neutral point where you started from . back . into the middle . and move your shoulder back and of course you will find that you roll your chest a little bit back . and in fact the head a little bit . and move your shoulder more than anything else . left . backwards .. but powerless . without strain without effort just as much as the shoulder will move . easily . comfortably . ”

It seems like we’re really doing this. It is happening. But to be honest, I miss the scientific nature here. We changed two things at once: the starting position AND the movement.

Back in the day when I was a Software Engineer I committed this petty crime often: instead of good practice and better knowing, that is to only change one thing at a time, I edited multiple things in the code and then just hoped that it would still run. If I saw such behaviour in co-workers I would utter an impressed, „Very courageous!” Sometimes the software really ran successfully, „Look ma, no hands!” But often enough it didn’t, and I wasted far more time and energy than if I had only changed one thing at a time.

Instead changing two things at once, we could (and maybe should) introduce one (1) intermediate step:

  • at first only change the arm position, and move the shoulder in the same direction like before: forwards, or
  • at first only change the direction of the movement: backwards, and keep the left hand standing in front of the chest.

In this way it would be easier to feel the changed mechanics, the change in constraint, and the lost – and gained – possibilities.

But does it really matter? Who judges this? Who could tell?

Move your left shoulder forwards and backwards

3:23 „And now move it also forward and backward as forward as you can without strain and as much backward as it will go without strain .. another two movements . and then stop it again . ”

At first this seems like a mere combination of the previous two movements. But it is far more than that: here we can see the engineer Moshé Feldenkrais, and how he shines in this role.

Where is the middle, the neutral position between forwards and backwards? By moving forwards and backwards we can make this inquiry through movement and sensory perception. We refine BOTH movement AND sensory perception. And at the same time learn something about ourselves. And others.

Place your left hand on the floor again

3:45 ”Move your left hand to the floor where it was before . in front of your chest . ”

The time for this exploration is up already, now Moshé Feldenkrais asks to place the hand on the floor again, as before, in the original starting position.

But is it still the exact same position? 

Maybe something in your shoulder has changed, maybe something in the wiring of your brain has changed, and a more comfortable, mechanically more advantageous position became apparent? Your left hand still is „in front of your chest”, but maybe the hand stands turned a bit differently, or would like to stand turned a bit differently, or a bit closer to your right arm, or further away, or maybe even on your right arm… what has changed, what has been improved, calibrated?

Move your left shoulder upwards

3:52 „And this time think of moving your left shoulder . up in the direction of the head . in the direction of your . left ear . ”

Moving the left shoulder forwards-and-backwards established a clear line of reference. Where is upwards? It should be perpendicular, at a 90 degrees angle, to the line drawn by forwards-and-backwards. But is it?

Our ability to observe is tightly related to our ability to move. And our ability to acknowledge and to create a process forms the basis for comprehension and learning. This stands in stark contrast to „judge and correct.”

Lift your head towards your left shoulder

4:05 „So that while you move the shoulder up . you actually lift a little bit your head . as if . to encounter to move to meet the shoulder with your left ear but the smallest movement you can . you move the shoulder up in the direction of the ear . and you move your head a little bit with your ear in the direction of the shoulder .. now they move as if the join as if to meet together . but you needn’t actually touch . you move the shoulder up only as far as it is pleasant to do . and you lift the head only as much as it is easy to do . now . you move the shoulder up and back to the middle .. means where it started from and perhaps . ”

Before exploring the opposite direction of upwards, which is downwards, Moshé Feldenkrais introduces a differentiation.

In fitness-industry terms the spine can move in several directions: flexion, extension, side-bending, and twist. To lift the head in side-lying through the frontal plane would clearly be identified as a side-bending motion. The left side shortens, the right side lengthens. Therefore, lifting the head and moving the left shoulder downwards towards the pelvis would mean „to go with the pattern.”

Moshé Feldenkrais created plenty of lessons that clarify this kind of side-bending in side-lying. For example, in order to not just use the neck but more of the whole self, he would instruct students to reach with the left arm over the top of the head and hold the right temple (or right ear) with the left hand, thus forming a constraint. This in order to help find movement in the upper thoracic spine.

Why does he instruct to lift the head and move the left shoulder towards the left ear, thus moving the shoulder clearly „against the pattern” of side-bending?

This is an example of what we call a differentiation (at least I do). A more self-explanatory term would be a smoothening-up, a harmonisation, or „a mini game that helps to improve the state of affaires in the brain, the bodily structure, the sense of well-being, and the original movement all at the same time.” That’s as far as I can reach for now. Explaining the neurobiological and neurophysiological foundations should probably be better left to neurobiologists.

Move your left shoulder downwards and upwards

4:53 „Next time move it also downwards . downwards in the direction of your left hip . so the shoulder goes up in the direction of the ear . and then down in the direction of the hip . and you move the shoulder . up . and down . up and down . as far as you can . effortlessly . comfortably . pleasantly . move the shoulder up and down .. now stop it .. ”

Downwards is not an „only child” in this recording. Moshé Feldenkrais introduces the downwards direction only in combination with upwards. This could be a teaching choice in order to meet time-constraints, or to acknowledge the learning speed of this particular class. Maybe the concepts involved and thus the movements seem clear enough, and there’s still many other things ahead.

„As far as you can effortlessly, comfortably, pleasantly”, emphasis is shifted away from the movements itself, and towards the movement quality.

Place your left hand on your pelvis again

5:41 „And if you’re not tired .. put your hand again .. your left arm long . stretch it out on your . left hip joint on your pelvis so that the fingers touch the buttocks somewhere . hanging down easily .. from your left hip .. ”

There’s no dedicated, singular pause in the first 10 minutes of this recording. Instead of saying „leave that be and take a short rest while lying on your side”, Moshé Feldenkrais introduces a soft, slower tone of voice, stretches out the pauses in between words for a wee bit longer. A sort of de-escalation. 

Instead of a dedicated rest he introduces something else, a change of arm position. This might be an interesting topic to discuss separately: what is a rest, a pause, a break? Is picking up the phone to check Facebook a pause? 

Move your left shoulder in circles

6:03 „And now move the left shoulder . forward .. as far as you can without strain . and circularly upwards in the direction of the left ear . and backwards . towards the floor . and downwards towards the hip . and keep on moving your left shoulder . round and round in circles . in that direction . it means forward . up . back . down . forward . up . back . down”

Establishing circles is a way of comparing the end-points of the four directions forwards, backwards, upwards, downwards. Is it even a circle? Where is the center of the circle?

Make the movements lighter, simpler, don’t hurry

6:41 „Easily . simply . comfortably . with no hurry . only make the movement simpler . and lighter . and of course move the body with it . to make it . more extensive . and easier . and simpler .. and now . that you’ve done a few movements . that you know the trajectory . you know the route . through which your shoulder moves .. ”

The movements are already defined clearly, Moshé Feldenkrais shifts his emphasis to movement quality, and all that which is not mentioned. It is a time for discovery, and allowing the unknown to be known, things to emerge. All the while he never leaves his students, his voice stays with them. He introduces more frequent stops and very short sentences, he drags out his words, pronounces them softly, but at no point does his flow of speech cease.

Make the movements nimbler

7:17 „See whether you can move it a little bit nimbler . just simpler . not bigger . not much faster just nimbler . make one little moment and another one . easier. a tiny bit nimbler . and stop it . ”

Suddenly Moshé Feldenkrais took up speed again. He started to talk faster, with more strength and firmness. And instead of instructing to move „Easier, simpler, with no hurry”, he asks for „nimbler”, which means agile, quick, active, fast, yet graceful. Maybe he tried to avoid putting his students to sleep? It’s a long road ahead!

Don’t hold your breath

7:39 „See whether you’re holding your breath .. indeed yes . well don’t hold it . ”

There’s a lot to be considered: shoulder movements, the movements of the head and chest, and how all these relate to each other in sensations as well as adjectives. And it has to be done nimbler. Does this lead to stress? Does the jaw tighten? Are you holding your breath? Just a gentle reminder.

Place your left hand on the floor again, and now counter-clockwise circles

7:48 „With your left hand on the floor . near your chest on the floor in front of you .. and now move that left shoulder .. the other way around . means you go forward . downwards . backwards . upwards towards your left ear . and again . forward . circularly move your shoulder the other way round . and now . keep on rolling that shoulder . forward downward backward upwards”

The arm position is changed, again. And again, two changes are made at once: the changed arm position changes the shape of the shoulder circles. Plus the center point of the circles might be in a different location now. You would have to try for yourself to feel what I mean.

And if that wasn’t enough, now the circles should run into the opposite direction, creating additional challenges. 

But wait, maybe the challenge is part of the lesson?! The challenge is to have to observe several things at once, to respond to novel requests, and to learn to handle all that with grace and fluency, without being overwhelmed, without holding the breath, and being able to integrate it with what we already know, and within our emotional capacity. This is more than mere movement instructions. Here again we stand in awe for the genius of Moshé Feldenkrais.

Further improve the quality of your movements, and clockwise circles again

8:26 „Easier . slower .. nicer . rounder . smoother .. until when it’s comfortable . and you know the . trajectory through which you move your shoulder . and you’re sure that it will be easy . you can make the movement a little bit nimbler . move it . forward downward backwards upwards . another few movements . and change the direction again . the direction of rotation . one or two movements . and stop it . ”

The lesson moves forward swiftly, there’s not much time given for any individual exploration. A few last words, a sort of review, a last look, before it’s time to say Goodbye.

Rest on your back, compare shoulders

9:10 „Lie on your back .. and rest a little .. put your hands comfortably . and observe . how does the left shoulder lie on the floor compared with the right one .. which feels . better . which one feels more like you would like it to be .. the left one or the right one . and lying on the floor like that which shoulder-blade touches the floor better .. ”

We can feel something, pleasure or anxiety, before certain movements, events, or activities; this is called anticipation. We can feel something during certain movements, events, or activities. And we can feel something afterwards. For example after overworking ourselves we might feel sore with delayed onset muscle soreness.

But who would have thought that after a few gentle, light movements we can feel exceptionally comfortable? Not just comfortable in the ordinary sense, but a very specific kind of comfort that spans physical sensations and emotions. It’s a feeling as if the world is in perfect order.

We need to take the time to actually feel this, and acknowledge it. It’s quite elusive, because it’s asynchronous: the movements and the sensations (and emotions) don’t happen at the same time. To experience this, for some this is the mere icing on the cake, for some this is the main reason they are studying this kind of work.

Comparing sides

9:55 „And by the way . can you feel any difference in your face . between the right side and the left side .. and your hip joint . doesn’t the left side . in general feel different from the right one”

You will find that the slow, light, and small movements in this lesson are sufficient to change the tonus of your muscles, that is, the state of their contraction while being at rest. Once the change of tonus in the area you worked with is effected, in this case your left shoulder area, this feeling might spread to the entire half of your body, making all movements on this side more easy and light to perform.

After everyday movements, and even more so after sports or strenuous physical work, excess tension might remain in the muscles – and cause them, as well as the spine, to be shortened. 

Moshé Feldenkrais writes in his book Awareness Through Movement, Lesson 3: „Unnecessary effort accompanying an action tends to shorten the body.” Whenever any degree of difficulty is anticipated muscles all over the entire body are contracted, the spine is shortened as a protective measurement against this difficulty. However, at the same time this behaviour prevents the body from organizing itself correctly for action. This lesson, the Shoulder Circle lesson, might help us with undoing this kind of excess tension and shortening, and with organizing ourselves better, and learning to ready ourselves for action and difficulty in a different, maybe in a much better way.

The lesson continues by drawing lines – forwards, backwards, upwards, downwards – and circles with the pelvis, and more counter-clockwise circles, and then combines the movements of the pelvis with the movements of the shoulder. Why would Moshé Feldenkrais combine the movements of the pelvis with the movements of the shoulder? And what else is there to discover? Well… that’s another story and shall be told another time.