I thought long and hard about what to post in a first blog. For my liking, I spent a little too long thinking with my mind alone and not enough time, as Yeats recommends, thinking with and in my bones! Yet, this little struggle, in the end, led me to decide to begin this blog with some reflections on what I believe is at the heart of the Feldenkrais method; and that is the learning of the skill of listening to oneself, of sensing oneself in movement.
As Maxine Sheets Johnstone is fond of saying, we are “movement-born not still born” (2011: 200). Our first sense of ourselves, she argues, is “a tactile kinaesthetic consciousness of our own bodies in movement”. Movement is a way of knowing the world, a way of thinking. It lends animation to our form. Without movement, we would not survive long. Without movement, we would not understand what it means to give or receive, to throw ourselves into life or love or to move away from the external world into our more restful ways of being. Isn’t it a funny quirk in life then that, for many of us, our ability to attend to the direct felt-sense of our bodies moving is less developed than our other sensory abilities?
In every society, in every historical period, a hierarchy of the senses is cultivated. In the western world, especially since the age of enlightenment, with its telescopes, microscopes and latterly its MRI and Ultra-Sound machines, sight-arguably- has been the most privileged of the senses. This is increasingly so since the advent of new media and the associated vast amount of time devoted to gazing at pixilated screens. Sight, in its privileged status, tends to be equated with knowledge or knowing (Synnott, 1999; Classen, 1997; Howes & Classen, 2014). Colloquially, we recognise this in phrases such as: “to see is to believe”, or, when we say “I see”, when what we mean is “I understand”. One of the disadvantages of privileging sight in the sensual economy however, is the reliance on what is apparent at the surface, on “the look” rather than “the feel” of a thing or experience. The trouble with hierarchies is their unequal and all too often unjust distribution of power. Over-reliance on sight, dwelling on the surface alone, assessing our bodies, for example, according to how they appear, impoverishes and flattens out the flesh, blood, brain, gut and bone dynamics of our embodied experience.
Most of us are aware of and accept that there are five senses, sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste. In recent years however, other senses are being highlighted and explored. Amongst these are nociception, our pain detecting sense, and proprioception, our sense of our body’s positioning in space. Less often talked about, excepting perhaps in the realm of performance and dance research, is the kinaesthetic sense. Joining the Greek words cineo: “to put in motion” and “aisthesis”: “sensation” or “impression”, the kinaesthetic sense is our means of gathering information about what our movement feels like. Like any of the other senses, it may be trained and refined. Just as a oenophile might spend years encouraging their taste buds to discern forest fruit from summer fruit notes in a particular wine, we can develop our kinaesthetic sense, learning to listen to our very own kinetic melodies, discerning the felt sense of a movement as jerky, thickened, buoyant or fluid, for example.
Why would this be valuable you might wonder? Certainly, kinaesthesia in the hierarchy of the senses seems to fall close to the bottom of its rickety ladder. Feldenkrais himself, alongside a host of social scientists and cultural theorists might venture that modern capitalist society requires that the vast majority of us engage in quietening our internal signalling systems of crampedness, discomfort and displeasure so that we may be able to sit for long hours, deskbound and sinking into our screen worlds. Kinaesthesia comes to be devalued accordingly and our ability to draw on this skill comes to be diminished. In such a socio-cultural environment, it is only the performers, dancers and athletes who gain the opportunity to train their kinaesthetic sense.
It need not be so however. Cultivating the kinaesthetic sense is not only a critical means of listening to, and coming to know, oneself better, it is also the means of interrupting habits that we have outgrown, that indeed may be causing us pain in the present. Our most functional movements, from crawling to walking, pushing to pulling, are learned initially, by trial and error. Actually, in those first years of life, kinaesthesia is probably close to that top rung on the ladder of the senses I’ve been pointing at here; before language, we think in movement. At a certain point however, the concentrated deliberation in the ways that we organise our movement recedes from the forefront of our consciousness and becomes habitual. We have, to put it slightly differently, embodied these functional skills; they become part of our movement repertoire and display our own stylistic expression of our moving selves. When we come to learn a new movement skill, skateboarding or parkour say, we go through this same process all over again, listening attentively to ourselves moving and nourishing, with our attention and focus, the qualities of movement that make us skilful in what we are doing.
Alas, life offers us other learning experiences too and often lands us with those unknowns and variables that cause us accident and injury. We develop strategies of organising ourselves to move in response to these events. If you think about it, it’s an intelligent thing to do. We need to know how to curl up around our shut down guts when danger is present. We also need to know how to uncurl when that same danger is no longer in place. The honing of the kinaesthetic sense is one of the places to begin the task of uncovering habits of movement that may have been mobilised to protect the self from experiencing pain, physical or emotional, but that are now defunct and limiting, or, worse, becoming a source of pain themselves.
In the Feldenkrais method, slowing down and focusing attention on the qualities of our movement is the mode of developing kinaesthesia. Maxine Sheets Johnstone advises that this turn towards the corporeal or bodily dimensions of self asks us:
to be mindful of movement. It thus asks us first of all to be silent, and in our silence to witness the phenomena of movement-our own self-movement-and the movement of all that is animate or animated in our corporeal world (Sheets Johnstone, 2011: xviii).
For me, the silence of the kinaesthetic attitude Sheets- Johnstone references here, points to the ideal neutrality of inquiring into the ways that we currently organize ourselves to move. Within the Feldenkrais method, we look, listen, touch, feel, taste our movement with a careful, curious, kindness. What we seek, especially in the beginning, is to really understand how we are and how we are moving right now, in the present moment. It is only by taking the time to chart and track what our true limits are in the beginning that we may begin to follow our experiences to improvement and true ease.
There’s more to say but I’ll keep my tongue in check for now leaving you with the invitation to try some simple self-sensing/self-listening for your self. One of the most accessible ways to start is to listen, without judging or trying to change anything, to your breathing. Feel for the place where breath begins in you. Find out where you sense your breath most clearly right now. Can you feel your body moving in response to your breath? Does one area of yourself respond more? Perhaps, right now, you feel the breath more in your chest? Or maybe, you feel the breath in your belly; more in the right side of your belly, or in the left, or central? Is there a sense of the breath filling out your back as well as your front? Is there an emotional quality to this breath that you are feeling moving through you? Maybe you’ll find other questions to ask of yourself as you explore…
Feel welcome to be in contact if you have any questions or comments. Before I sign off, here’s one last quote I’ve been carrying around with me for a while:
Learning to Listen to oneself might be seen to constitute a practice of direct action, a counter practice to a culture in which many of us learned to doubt ourselves, to believe ourselves lesser (or greater) than others.
Heckert, 2010: 192
Constance Classen, 1997, “Engendering Perception: Gender Ideologies and Sensory Hierarchies in Western History.” Body & Society 3(2): 1-19.
Jamie Heckert, 2010, in B. Franks & M. Wilson (ed.s), Anarchism and Moral Philosophy. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
David Howes & Constance Classen, 2014, Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society. London: Routledge
Maxine Sheets Johnstone, 2011, The Primacy Of Movement, Amsterdam: John Benjamin’s publishing company.
Anthony Synnott, 1993, The Body Social, London: Routledge.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!