The Feldenkrais Method and the Posture of Meditation Sitting
Welcome to the Challenge…
Call it a fascinating paradox: the Feldenkrais Method is often discovered as a last resort once the usual “practical” strategies are exhausted. Practical movement, either as a therapeutic or learning medium, is typically reduced up front to a mere exercise: displace something from here to here, enough times and with adequate form. To expect more than that isn’t “practical.”
Meanwhile “mindfulness” is becoming popular these days as a counter to the roteness of antic life. The “rat-race” stands for the futility of displacement: no matter how you move, you won’t get anywhere. If that is the case, better to head the advice: don’t just do something, sit there. Or as the mindfulness spin of modern capitalism often seems to suggest: keep going, AND if you want an edge, learn not to mind it.
‘Round and ‘round we go, between stillness and movement. Of course, Moshe Feldenkrais understood to an exceptional degree that awareness and movement were linked. It’s not enough to go through the motions. And even if it were, flexible bodies were not the goal. (But what is a flexible mind? And what, to be practical, is it good for?) Conversely, within meditation, despite a long history of indifference to the body, what are we to make of its emphasis on the practice of sitting? When we sit still well, that same history tells us, we can see changes in our attention.
What I would like to explore here is the potential resonance between the Feldenkrais Method and sitting meditation. To do so I would like to offer a few preliminary thoughts on the value of refining your sitting posture, or what Moshe might call “acture.”
What Feldenkrais saw well was that the apparent discrepancy between sitting still and moving hides a more essential affinity, what we might call the stillness within movement, or the movement within stillness… By taking up a practice of checking in with the posture of sitting meditation we allow this apparent paradox to teach us something. The paradox is a kōan….
Context matters. Also, it’s never the context…
Whether you’ve given or taken an Awareness Through Movement lesson, you’ll know the strange difficulty. How does one not just perform the movement as described? What is it, precisely, that we are doing? It’s not the movement per se. You can do that in your imagination. As is often suggested as a modifier…. In this case, the movement is the context, but not the thing. There are no bonus points for doing the thing. Instead, the challenge is to shake it off, to find a way to not do the thing. But not anything. Context matters! How can you create the conditions for exploring something around this movement while not simply “doing the movement…”?
There are many ways to think about the suggestion to “lie on your back” in an ATM lesson. It’s a physical break. A chance for sensation to integrate. A way to simplify the challenges of gravity and action. There is, despite anything, a tendency to look forward to or defer it. The instruction to “rest on your back” comes too soon or too late. This itself is interesting. The paradox of movement is never distinct from time. And yet we all have are preferences…
I never liked sitting still. My early awareness practice came through the martial arts (Tai Chi and Aikido), windsurfing, and flying planes. For me, learning to attend to movement was how I came to understand my world. (I used to try to skip out on mind-numbing classes back in high school to go practice sliding a plane through the air, if only to see if I could gently touch down once again!) When my Tai Chi instructor decided to include a sitting meditation practice, I was game. Movement and attention are the same, no? That’s what I was in it for.
Except I hated sitting. I would push the 20 promised minutes until the end of my practice, and then spend those minutes watching the clock. After a few ego driven months, I finally let the sitting slip. Some things are not for us. But here’s the paradox. It was only many years after I finished a Feldenkrais Training, that I finally started to understand the importance of coming back to sitting.
The Stillness within Movement and Movement within Stillness
I’m not saying everyone should sit and meditate. There are many ways to engage the intersection of awareness and embodied practice. And all too often aspiring meditators tough out agonizing postures in the name of respite, when they might be better served by a walk in the woods or some such. What I would modestly suggest is that there is often value in working interdisciplinarily. The Feldenkrais Method is, of course, itself a synthesis of different forms of knowledge, experience, and practice, and is often utilized in turn to speak to other domains (music, dance, sports, challenges of different ilk, etc.). Feldenkrais is so widely integratable because it is born of the interdisciplinarity of intelligent movement and learning.
Meditation, likewise, spills and seeps into the rest of life. The way you handle traffic, or enjoy tea, dance, or perform as an athlete. What we should glean from this is the way in which a practice situates itself with respect to larger contexts (which are often made up of other practices.) Working across practices like this can serve an important function, each providing a kind of feedback and rigor to the other.
Reversibility…. It is not simply the ability to go back from whence you came at any moment, but a kind of shimmering stillness, neither moving forward nor back, nor fixed. The stillness at the heart of movement.
Reversibility…. It is not simply the ability to go back from whence you came at any moment, but a kind of shimmering stillness, neither moving forward nor back, nor fixed. The stillness at the heart of movement. We see this embedded within every Awareness Through Movement lesson. How many times are we told to lie on our back and rest? Of course the point isn’t simply to rest, but to allow a still, resting position to help us integrate what we have just been exploring in movement. Interspersed in movement we find the value of stillness. If we attend well, we even find a kind of stillness within the movement itself. It’s not the displacement of body parts that we are looking for, but a kind of questioning quality, that keeps the movements alive and not merely a ballistic fait accompli, the thing already done right from the beginning. Reversibility, for example, is one way we test for this. It is not simply the ability to go back from whence you came at any moment, but a kind of shimmering stillness, neither moving forward nor back, nor fixed. The stillness at the heart of movement.
We could talk at length about why lying down is such a powerful context in Feldenkrais, eventually speaking to all the other orientations we find ourselves in. In Meditation this conversation would likely start with sitting, before also finding it’s way to standing, walking, lying down, etc., as possibilities. And yet, what was intended as a potent form for attention (sitting), all too easily becomes a rote and strained effort. The insight is, despite its challenges for modern bodies, nevertheless a profound one. There is much to be learned from sitting freely and balanced. Rather than a “posture” we could take a cue from Feldenkrais and call it a moment of acture. Movement that resided in stillness. From this perspective, everything is movement. The straining of back muscles to hold you still and upright is a moving tension. The capacity to move freely in any direction as you balance is the potency of movement expressed in ready poise. The thoughts that come and go mobilize infinitesimally across your tongue in words that aren’t uttered but still happen. The virtual is, we could say, actual. Something happens. (A Feldenkrais lesson done in your imagination speaks to the potency of this liminal level of movement.) If we think of posture this way, sitting becomes the backdrop for clarifying all the movements that emerge and live in this quiet space.
Getting stuck and unstuck
The problem that sitting meditation often poses is that we are typically not so good at it. We sit down to find a moment of respite from the exhaustive movements of the rat race, and instead of equanimity we find a pain in our knees or back. Or perhaps our legs go numb, and what we take with us into the rest of our day is a slightly uncertain step. Rather than being an opportunity to hone our attention in a balanced place of potent rest, sitting becomes a trap. Perhaps we push through, struggling to learn “detachment” from what is happening. Some meditators are able to sustain this and nevertheless draw something out of the process. Others are bounced out, feeling like failures. Some push through the suffering and become old meditators before their time, accustomed to the backdrop of discomfort. Instead of finding a full movement within stillness, any number of smaller proxies are made due with.
A decade (and a Feldenkrais Training) after quitting meditating, I came back to it. And this time I realized I had been approaching it wrong. Feldenkrais gave me the perspective to now find the movement at the heart of the stillness. My knees rested comfortably, my spine moved with my breath, my shoulders draped. I stood up at the end more spry than when I sat down. But most importantly, I learned to take any discomforts that came up as feedback for exploring the dynamic at play in sitting, rather than something to suffer through. And conversely, having sitting to come back to, letting me know how I’m doing, has given me an important touchstone in my movement practice. I learn more by coming back to the challenge of sitting than I would just lying on my back and feeling the difference lesson after lesson.
Feldenkrais for Sitting
Moving between Feldenkrais and meditation allows us to fruitfully engage with the movement within stillness and the stillness within movement without getting stuck. A meditation practice grounded in effortlessly poised, attentive sitting is a beautiful touchstone for exploring movement. Recently I have been exploring Awareness Through Movement Lessons specifically aimed at clarifying poised meditation posture. If you are interested in sitting, or struggle with it, I have learned that one of the most important things is setting up an optimal context for sitting. When you are able to set-up your cushions well for your own needs, this provides the conditions for learning. This is one of the practices that we learn in the context of ATM and FI, but is often overlooked in meditation. It is a relatively easy thing to do that is well worth taking the time to explore.