From my time at the Rising Earth Immersion, I've compiled and synthesized some intentions and agreements that you might like to use as a starting place to co-create agreements within your own community. None of these are my own original ideas. I've tried to cite sources as best I can. Many of these ideas come from Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. For terms like "connection", "belonging", "courage", "vulnerability", and "resilience", see the work of Brené Brown.
“Decolonization is a gentle but consistent process of interrogation.” (from Decolonizing Non-Violent Communication by meenadchi)
“The personal is political.”
Friday 21 August 2020
I had a wedding today. I didn’t know it was going to happen when I woke up this morning. I had at one point planned to get married today. He and I got engaged a little over a year ago, and then in February it fell apart.
But as my friend Addie reminded me, “Things fall apart so something else can fall into place.”
In February, with my life suddenly wide open and absolutely no plans, I enrolled in a program a friend recommended called the Rising Earth Immersion at The Eco-Institute at Pickards Mountain. First I spent a few weeks leading a backpacking trip in the Smokies, came out to covid, spent several months living with my parents during lockdown, and then on July 19, I arrived here at the Eco-Institute.
We’ve spent five weeks studying arts activism, learning to live in community, decolonizing the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, and developing deep relationships with the land and each other. We’ve developed a culture of care and consent in which we’ve found a deep sense of connection and belonging. We’re each able to be our unique and quirky selves and to be witnessed and held in our vulnerability.
Knowing today was the day I was originally going to get married, my friends suggested I do a little ceremony and marry myself. I had already gotten my would-be wedding ring resized to wear on my pinky finger, rededicating it as a symbol of my relationship with myself and my strength and resilience. I thought I might do a little something to mark the day, but didn’t think it would be much if anything and probably just by myself.
As I was eating breakfast, I looked back through the wedding ceremony I’d written, thinking I’d share some of it with my comrades. My friend Fian jumped in, suggesting a time and place and offering to write an invitation.
It didn’t seem like it would be much, but as the time drew near slowly everyone gathered around and began to add in their ideas and contributions.
We’ve been talking a lot about emergence—the idea that things emerge organically and spontaneously when unique individuals come together in time and space. And that’s exactly what this was. It became something greater than I could have ever imagined. It was so much better than the wedding I would have had and even more than I could have thought up in my wildest dreams.
Adreena offered to give me henna, which was a wedding dream come true. Addie offered to take photos. Topher offered to play my new favorite song, Wildflower, on guitar. Kasey dressed up as her alter-ego Zelda the clown, now Auntie Zelda. My best friend Jules asked if she could put my ring on my finger. Everyone gathered flowers to adorn me and each other and more joined in to put on their best wedding outfits. Fian went full goblin in frog green complete with their flute. Topher came out in colorful, eclectic pants with suspenders, no shirt, and a paisley tie. Addie joined in by changing into leather leggings with just a fur shawl on top. Adreena got her medicine woman mask from our puppet showcase, and Ellie changed into her phoenix outfit. It was such a beautiful expression of authenticity—no one trying to fit some “look” or standard proscribed by society. Everyone was quirky and eccentric, joyful, and uniquely themselves! They were so excited and so full of love.
I wore my nice dress, the one I probably would have worn had I not felt pressured to get a “wedding dress”. I wore the beautiful, wooden laser-cut earrings I had bought for my wedding. My friends adorned me in flowers and holy basil and amaranth. (I love amaranth!) I wore the amethyst bead from Fian’s necklace that each of us have, and I carried the now-dried bouquet my friends had made me for my birthday a few weeks prior.
We all processed together down to this spot that was calling to me in front of the sunflower mural. I began by sharing this video that has really touched me:
These things we talk about in romantic relationships or marriage are the same things that are important in community or any relationship. It’s the little moments that mean the most—waking up to Jules giggling, telling A-Ray how beautiful her curls look today, hugs from behind from Jack in the kitchen, holding Addie’s hand when she’s afraid. It’s about the small moments of love and attention. It’s the simple bliss of being curled up watching a movie together and the silly fun of dancing together in the kitchen. It’s choosing during Logistics Meetings to be kind rather than right. It’s about the stubborn loyalty, the stubborn resilience, being weirdos together, remembering even when we’re fighting that we’re on the same team. It’s about feeling deeply seen and valued.
I shared the story of the Baal Shem Tov, a story from the Jewish tradition that I know through the storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés. The story demonstrates that it’s not about having all the details of the traditions and rituals, but rather coming together with the pieces we have, being present with what is, and setting true and heartfelt intentions.
I then shared a few quotes that I’d had picked out, with two recent additions
All of these ideas are so fitting for the work we’ve been doing together around community and the relationships we’ve built with each other. The same themes keep coming up—the increased strength we have when we support each other, surrender to the process, autonomy, small iterative moments of attention…
I mentioned the Life/Death/Life cycle—that like capitalism (which we've been deconstructing), a model of exponential growth is not sustainable. The periods of growth must be followed by periods of death and rebirth—letting what is no longer useful die off and to give room for new life.
I invoked the support of community. I learned from Sobonfu Somé in The Spirit of Intimacy that a marriage cannot survive outside of the context of the greater community. The role of the community is to support the couple, holding both of them in love through all their struggles and keeping each individual accountable and honest.
My friends prompted me to reflect and share some sort of vows. Unprepared, I quieted, closed my eyes, and took a long moment. Then I shared: “I will come back to myself again and again. I will lose my way many times, forget my true self, and get off track. And again and again, each time, I will come back to myself.”
Jules placed my ring on my finger, and I invited everyone to kiss me (not on the lips!). I evoked the image of a tree in my ring, symbolizing my rootedness and resilience. Adreena and her ancestors shared with me a very special blessing, sharing, and teaching in a language I did not understand but nonetheless appreciated deeply. Kasey and Alegra-Ray also shared blessings and love. We sang Wildflower together while Topher played guitar and then we sang “We Shall Be Known” as we processed out. I walked into the kitchen to find that Addie had gotten two cakes, chocolate, and sunflowers!! Everyone fed me cake (some from their mouths, Lady & the Tramp style), and Dan even licked frosting off my nose (ew, wet and slobbery!).
It was all so surreal and magical and couldn’t possibly have come together without each individual and the gifts and ideas they brought to the group. All these ideas of commitment, turning towards each other again and again, and being seen and valued in marriage are the exact same ideas we talk about in community. As adrienne maree brown writes in Emergent Strategy, “Love is an emergent process.” It is iterative, resilient, intentionally adapting, interdependent, and decentralized.
I came here to find my people and myself, and that exactly what I’ve found. This has truly been a homecoming.
And now, after performing our place-based space-laced thematic arts activism puppet cabaret showcase this evening, which ended with us dancing and singing in the pouring rain, we’re sitting here in the living room together in pjs with blankets and tea playing guitar and singing “Halo”. And this is what I love about living in community. I feel so incredibly blessed.
Journal entry from that night:
“I got married today—to myself, my community, community as an ideal, and to truth. It is a surrender to truth, to forces bigger than myself, and a commitment to keep coming back to myself and my truth time and time again. I’m worried people back home won’t understand the significance of it and will think it was just silly, childish fun. I suppose it was. AND, it was very significant, intentional, and Real. I feel different. I feel transformed. I feel a part of something bigger.
I feel so blessed to be part of a community that came out for me in such a big way and witnessed me through something so beautiful and transformative.
I’ve entered something entirely new.”
Waking up the next morning I felt distinctly different—transformed. In the coming days, as we were all playing with the henna, I chose the words SOVEREIGNTY & SURRENDER to write on my feet. And on my hands, I asked Jules to write ROOTED & RESILIENT.
I am heartsick. I've been separated from my loves.
Yesterday I left my fellows—my comrades, my family. I carry with me our “thick, tattered web of bonds,” tied lovingly around my wrist. My phone has become a sacred tool, the one I use for reaching out, for seeking reassurance that they are still Real. I cannot help but worry that it was “just a dream”—that “in this world they too should turn out to be played by actors” (Morgan Hite, “After the Adventure”). But I sense that’s not true. There is something deep about our bonds. Our roots are intertwined.
We have become part of a living being. Like a beehive—a living organism bigger than ourselves that takes on a life of its own. We are a network or system, like a grove of trees or a web of mycelium. We work together seamlessly—changing shape and adapting to individual needs—supporting each other, taking space, handing off leadership, tapping in, and tapping out.
Separated from them my light is a little dimmer. I’ve left a piece of my soul in that web. Our tethers are now stretched far across physical distance. They saw my light and they encouraged it vehemently. “You have sunshine in your laugh,” they said. “You are so special.” “You are such a gift.” But I do not always laugh with as much joy and brightness, and I am not always so bold. “You are a true community-builder.” “You have a trickster spirit.” They brought out my brightness and my gifts.
We need community to shine. We need each other to bring out our light. To encourage our baby flames, the parts of ourselves we cannot see or recognize. We see ourselves in the mirror of each other. It is together that we can each be most ourselves—brilliantly unique—held in a web of diversity. So many of these parts of myself I could not see until they pointed them out. “Thank you for being you,” they said, “WE ARE SO GLAD YOU’VE COME” (Debra Frasier, On the Day You Were Born).
I cannot shake the knowing that this doesn’t feel right to be apart. To fall in love in such a way with my comrades, to build a community, a culture from the ground up, a family—it’s not something I can just walk away from and forget. Humans weren’t meant to be separated from each other. I feel like an infant being separated from their mother. In a deep, visceral way, it doesn’t feel Right.
And yet I know, that this is the way it must be. This is our Work. To hold this tension. To carry forth what we learned into the world. To “enrich this place with the distilled essence of that place, drop by drop.”
As so I write. “Whenever the aloneness comes now, I write. Whenever I feel the insanity, I pick up a pen and put it down on paper for one of the others. I do not write to some person I am supposed to write. I just write the person I long to write. I write all day and all night, whenever the pain comes.”
When I do our Heart of Activism dance, I can feel them. I practice and embody carrying forward the work we started together—the work of each individual bound together and carried by all.
I am ROOTED and RESILIENT. I practice SOVEREIGNTY and SURRENDER. It was a homecoming in the truest sense—coming home to my people, my place, my self.
♪ Loosen, loosen, baby / You don’t have to carry / The weight of the world in your muscles and bones / Let go, let go, let go ♫
Written by Brian Shircliff, originally published on vitalitycincinnati.org
grief: because to return to old ways of life only leads to death
i grieve the ill
those who care for them
for those who wish they did
i grieve for ones who have not yet awakened that this is a brand new day
but most of all i grieve my life, for what
long before the outbreak made us revisit mortality
(how stupid could we be to forget)
i grieve my old life, embarrassed by the clutchingness, the grabbiness, the overindulgyness
…all of it having so little to do with life
something in me knew it was false, though i played right along…
i mean, Gautama gave us the experiment to know it:
watch how each sensation comes, goes
yet how i ever wanted it to last…
so little to do with life
tears do come for it, being lost and apart from what ‘was’
which is to say,
i let my sail unfurl and take up a new wind
away from what was known, comfortable, always
i set sail for some place else
a birth (berth)
to leave behind the old dance forms for awhile — (square, flamenco, ball, etc.)
and free-form it
not to any old/recorded music
not to any live music either
but the rhythms in the air, the wind, the murmurs of neighbors, fellow creatures
the oldest music of time
to Joseph Campbell it in the woods (a new verb)
to read three chunks of the day and do whatever i want for the fourth --
allow the old patterns present in everything to announce themselves
(how the hero’s journey made foolish heroes of us all)
so i can choose a fresh, untrod path
a true adventure
it’s time to take up my life again
to take up living
even when all around us is death
— the ill, old structures, dependencies --
and be washed in new waters, dreams
where inner sails can finally sleep
— Brian Shircliff
My body is strong and healthy. My hips and shoulders carry my pack, and my strong legs carry me up and down hills. My fingers, hands, and arms are adept at setting up tarps and cooking dinner. I feel good in my body. It is a pleasure to move.
I take care of my body, especially my feet and hands, for I have learned I can do little without them. I attend to scrapes, bruises, circulation, and sensation. I eat when I am hungry, knowing I need the calories to fuel myself. I drink water plentifully, knowing dehydration is one of our biggest risks.
My clothes are functional. They keep me warm and dry. They are comfortable--never impeding my movement or breath, nor distracting me from the task at hand. I wear the same things every day, adjusting layers with the changing weather and activity levels. My hair is out of the way--something I think little about. I smell like a human. I could maybe use a rinse in the stream or to wash my clothes, but there is fresh air to air things out, and at least I smell uniquely and precisely like me.
People like me for my personality and my sense of humor. They trust me for my skills, my judgment, and my leadership capabilities. They care about me and look out for me because we are in this together, and because I do the same for them. They know my fears and frustrations, my strengths and weaknesses, and my medical information and menstrual cycle. They know what I eat and what I don't, and they are next to me when we sleep. They know when I poop, and they ask me how it was.
I haven't looked in a mirror in two weeks, but what does it matter? We're sitting on the ground in the rain and the mud, eating peanut butter with a stick and squeezing jelly straight into our mouths. We are having so much fun, and we are happy.
I recently led a backpacking trip for high school sophomores. Often we would catch up to the sophomores to find them sitting on the ground looking discouraged.
"What's going on?" we'd ask them. "What happened?"
"Well I feel like maybe we missed something or we passed it." Their reply always included something about the distance on the map to the junction or the campsite and their sense of how long and how far they'd hiked. (Often it had only been 15 minutes since they last stopped.)
But of course, they had no watches to tell time and no way to measure distances. Most of the time they were entirely on the right trail and just had to go a little further. Sometimes the campsite was just around the bend.
We chalked it up to youthfulness and inexperience. But how often do we doubt ourselves--doubt whether we're on the right path, whether we've missed a turn--only to find out that we just had to be patient and keep going?
The trails in the Smokey Mountains have a way of winding uphill in such a way that leaves one worn out and exhausted, muscles burning, seeing the top of the ridge, and thinking surely we must be almost there. It must be just around the bend, and if not that one, surely the next.
Through this experience, we learn to trust ourselves and our judgment. To rest when we need to rest, eat when we're hungry, drink when we're thirsty, and take care of ourselves along the way. But otherwise, we just keep hiking. We'll get there when we get there, and worst-case scenario, we'll realize we hiked the wrong mountain and have to go back down and start again on a different one. 😉😉
But we've always got each other, and we're carrying everything we need on our backs.
I'll talk about this more on my Facebook page, but I wanted to share some links to resources for what we're all navigating these days. Take what you need; disregard the rest. Don't try to do everything at once! Breathe. Just do what's easy.
I also want to acknowledge that everyone's experience with this is different. Some of us are luxuriously quarantined with nothing much to do, some are working more-or-less as usual, and some are very ill, worried about finances, food, safety, or on the front lines dealing with the virus. Again, take of this what's relevant to you, leave the rest, and please reach out if you need support!
- Connect with people!
Reach out to friends and loved ones. Pick up the phone, use Zoom or Facetime. Talk about what's happening. Talk about how you feel. Support each other, ask for help when you need it, offer help when you can. Start a support group for your community or organize an online happy hour for your friends or family.
Check out Deep Listening for a guide on organizing and facilitating.
- Do Feldenkrais!
Take care of yourself, give your stressed-out nervous system a chance to quiet down, and take this time to examine yourself and your patterns.
You can access most of my recorded Awareness Through Movement lessons for FREE on my Patreon.
My teacher also has some excellent lessons available for free: Feldenkrais Access Free Lesson Library. Or check out The Feldenkrais Project.
- Try the Wim Hof Method!
Strengthen your immune system, decrease stress and inflammation, ameliorate anxiety & depression, get more energy and better sleep, and get relief from autoimmune diseases and underlying health conditions.
Do this. It's easy and gentle and will make you feel so much better. They’re running discounts on all the online trainings to make it more accessible because of COVID-19, but you can also start simple and download the phone app for free, or check out Wim's YouTube videos, especially "Wim Hof's take on Coronavirus (COVID-19)"
- Get outside and get some exercise!
Strength and Conditioning Guide from Inhabit: Territories
Get a few free weights and try the Happy Body Workout
Find a local trail and go for a hike, go for a walk in your neighborhood, find a yoga video to do online
Bullet points, paragraphs, stream of consciousness... it doesn't matter how you do it or what you write about, just write!
- Try a sit spot!
Find a place in your backyard, balcony, or somewhere nearby and just sit outside and observe. Try it for 10 minutes a day or 40 minutes a day. Let your mind settle (or be busy), and notice how the animals come out as they get used to you. Observe the weather and the change of the seasons. Give yourself some time to rest, breathe, and notice.
- Tune into your menstrual cycle! (if applicable)
- Cook, bake, prepare food, and ferment!
Be creative with what you've got in your pantry. Try a new recipe with a loved one. See if you've got any wild foods growing nearby outside.
Read Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. The way he talks about how fermentation relates to our health & immune system, cultural homogenization & rehabilitation, and social change is mindblowing. “In a country almost clinically obsessed with sterilization Katz reminds us of the forgotten benefits of living in harmony with our microbial relatives.”
- Listen to music, make music, dance, sing!
- Read, listen to podcasts, take an online course!
There's a billion courses, museum visits, concerts, etc. now available online for free. Check out Krista Tippett and On Being Studio's “A Listening Care Package for Uncertain Times” or this free three-video series "The Power of Self-Compassion". The Movement Matters podcast with my friend Colin Kirts is one of my favorites on embodiment and social change.
But also, is there something to be learned from just being bored? Is there a gift to be had in all this free time? Is there a gift in the uncertainty?
I’ve also recently gotten into holotropic breathwork, which is known for it’s profound effects on releasing trauma and stuck emotions. I don’t have any online resources yet that I’d recommend, but I’ll update if I hear of some good ones.
And of course, stay updated on CDC guidelines and recommendations from the World Health Organization, as well as local guidelines and recommendations.
Articles to consider...
Here's a great message from a friend of mine living with ME/CFS: "In times of uncertainty, we have a defense mechanism to try to predict the future, because we think if we can predict the future we can be safer.... But we're sacrificing this present moment by worrying about what might happen.”
Noam Gamady: "Questions That Can Make a Difference in Your Life"
Shamama Group has an exciting new opportunity in Grand Rapids and a great message: "Out of the ashes, beauty will arise."
Writings, Quotes, and Poems...
Writings from Morgan Hite:
"Power’s hold over us is equally demonstrated by emergent forms of social control and by the utter disregard with which they cast aside our lives. Our inability to survive outside their broken system is rapidly being confronted by our dwindling chances of surviving within it. To resist their control has become inseparable from the urgent need to care for one another. How to treat illness, how to care for the vulnerable, how to overcome isolation, how to reinvent presence, how to live with dignity and perhaps how to die with it. These are among the revolutionary questions of our times." from Inhabit: Territories
“But the old Lakota was wise. He knew that man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; He knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too. So he kept his children close to nature’s softening influence.”
— Ola K’Te (Luther Standing Bear)
Is God’s most dangerous face--
Amorphous, roiling, hungry.
Alter the speed
Or the direction of Change.
Vary the scope of Change.
Recombine the seeds of Change.
Transmute the impact of Change.
Adapt and grow." - Octavia Butler
Cultivating A Movement-Rich Lifestyle
By Rivkah Moore
As I sat down at my sitting desk, computer screen on, blank page ahead, and ready to write, I could feel a rising resistance in my body. My awareness was telling me that my body wanted to move. However, my mind was telling me that I needed to sit down in order to write. Normally I would’ve listened to my mind, suppressing the resistance felt in my body, but because of the Awareness Through Movement classes that I’ve been enjoying biweekly there was no way I was going to stifle this new-found awareness that I’ve been cultivating. I wanted to respect my awareness and continue cultivating it, so rather than suppress it I decided to compromise. I grabbed my phone, headphones, fanny pack (I know their out of style but they’re so functional!), sunglasses, and off I went into the neighborhood with Siri as my trusty assistant. My process looked like this: walk and think until my ideas became clear, then I spoke into my headphones, using Siri to translate my words directly into a google document. My decision to walk while I wrote was inspired by the work of Katy Bowman, biomechanist and founder of Nutritious Movement. Nutritious Movement is a whole-body system that utilizes exercises, alignment adjustments and habit (lifestyle) changes to better move all trillion of your body parts. In Bowman’s work she quantifies movement and differentiates between exercise, physical activity, and movement. Her movement diagram is found below:
Exercise is physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive, with the purpose being to improve or maintain physical fitness. Physical activity is defined by all energy expenditure due to skeletal muscular engagement. Movement, therefore, encompasses everything that affects you on a cellular and whole-body level by creating local and systemic responses. Movement includes bodily actions like chewing food, looking at objects far away (movement deep within the eyes), handwriting, and more. Movement is literally sustenance to our cells. Similarly to how we need to eat diverse foods in order to make up a well-rounded diet, we need diverse movements in order to make up a well-rounded movement lifestyle. Bowman talks about how we can increase the nourishing movement found in our daily lives so we can provide all of our cells with the movement nutrients that they need to thrive. Bowman coined this idea of “stacking your life” for more natural movement. She suggests looking at your responsibilities and finding where you can combine or “stack” tasks in such a way that allows you to engage in more natural movement. (This is what I did when I decided to walk and write). If we consider Bowman’s concept of making lifestyle changes to better move all trillion of your cells through a Feldenkrais lens, Dr. Feldenkrais would say that all movement habits are rooted in self-image and come from dynamic personal action. In order to change our behavior or movement patterns, we must change the image of ourselves that we carry within us. Dr. Feldenkrais believes that our self-image consists of four components which are involved in every action: movement, sensation, feeling, and thought. Therefore, when we change our movement habits we are not merely replacing one behavior by another but we are changing the dynamics of our behaviors. Such a change involves our self-image, our motivation or intention, and the mobilization of all the parts of the body concerned. So as you move through your day to day life and responsibilities, how can you make dynamic changes in your movement lifestyle? How can you incorporate more nutritious and natural movement into your daily habits? As you reflect on your movement lifestyle and take action to create a more movement-rich lifestyle, do as Dr. Feldenkrais would suggest: start small, go slow, and look for the easy and pleasant sensations.
Bowman, Katy. Move Your DNA.
Bowman, Katy. Movement Matters.
Feldenkrais, Moshe. Awareness Through Movement.
Extra notes :
Dr. Feldenkrais says “Process is go well if there are many ways to influence them. We need more ways to do what we want Then the one we know even if it is a good one in and of itself.”
“When learning do not have any intention of being correct. Do not act well or nicely and do not hurry as this creates confusion.That ability to learn the skills such as the right left orientation. Needs a childlike state of mind.That ability to play while learning to pay attention without intention to learn. It also needs among other requirements the ability to feel differences. That is the ability to distinguish between one sensation in another very familiar one.”
Biomechanist Katy Bowman talks about movement in relation to nutrition . She discusses this idea that our movements provide certain nourishment for tissues and cells. She talks about this idea that exercise is A limited view on movement.
Katy Bowman has coined the idea of nutritious movement. Movement includes physical activity, exercise and all other nature and bodily movements. She likens movement to diet, claiming that although many people exercise often they are still movement hungry. Certain movements provide certain nutrients to the cells and tissues just like food. Individuals and physically active people alike are movement nutrient deficient.
People often wonder how I got into Feldenkrais or why it’s so important to me. So here’s my story:
I discovered Feldenkrais as a student at a chamber music festival one summer where it was offered as an elective. When you’re in a field that’s that competitive, you take advantage of every opportunity that might help. I enjoyed the classes and found that Feldenkrais was offered at the university I attended, so I signed up.
I was always stressed and anxious about school, and I slowly found that the Feldenkrais classes helped me feel more centered and on top of things. I learned to complete my schoolwork with less effort and to relate to school and my teachers differently.
During undergraduate, I was getting sick every semester, had migraines once for a month straight, and was feeling pulled around by other people and dragged into their dramas. I felt inadequate—like I always had to try harder. I would often not know how I felt about something until afterward when I could be alone. I was unclear about where I ended and someone else began. I didn’t feel strong enough to set boundaries or say no to people. I would lose myself in romantic relationships and not be able to separate my own feelings from those of my family members.
But slowly that all changed. Not through conscious effort, but gradually, as I continued doing Awareness Through Movement lessons and letting them permeate throughout the rest of my life.
I stopped getting sick so much, my migraines went away, I developed a clearer sense of self. The classes changed my relationship to school, helped me form closer friendships and connect with people on deeper levels, and I became closer with my family.
So I signed up again for the next semester, and the next, and the next. By the time I graduated college, I knew that this work was too important and made too much of a difference not to continue pursuing it, so I enrolled in a professional training program.
But the improvement didn’t stop there. I learned to enjoy playing bassoon again and to question and explore how that fits in my life. I learned to work in a way that feels sustainable rather than anxious and compulsive. My self-image began to expand and I became much less shy and afraid and more adventurous. I became able to see, hear, think, and observe more clearly and more impartially—with everything from music, to other people and situations, to myself. My bassoon playing improved dramatically and my sound began to open up.
I’ve by no means “fixed all my problems” or become my ideal self, but I continue to notice all the time as my life becomes easier, I become more skillful at all kinds of things, and my self-image continues to expand.
When I tell people what I do, I often get some variation of the question, “Why do Feldenkrais?”. It’s a tricky question to answer, because as much as marketing specialists will tell you to have a narrow focus and target a specific audience, Feldenkrais will help almost anyone.
Feldenkrais helps children and infants with neurological, developmental, and movement difficulties. It helps people with Parkinson’s and MS regain functioning. It helps mathematicians and writers think more clearly and creatively and look at their work from new perspectives. It helps seniors maintain their balance and mobility. It helps students complete their work with less effort and more creativity. It helps athletes, musicians, dancers, and actors to sense their bodies more clearly, perform better under pressure, refine their movement, and avoid or recover from injury. It helps people recover from trauma by feeling more empowered and embodied. It helps people with pain or injuries learn to move in a more comfortable and efficient way.
I was attending a class recently with one of my colleagues and mentors, and in answering this same questions, she replied, "If you have a brain, you're alive, and you care about something, Feldenkrais will help.” So how does that work?
Feldenkrais is about learning. Movement is the tool we use—it’s the vehicle for change—but the change itself is happening in the brain. By doing these gentle movements, your nervous system is able to take in sensory input and reorganize itself around what it senses. It’s able to sort out where your effort is useful and where you’re getting in your own way. Your brain is able to form new pathways, and you become able to act in ways that are more graceful, efficient, and effective. So whatever it is you do, Feldenkrais will help you do it better.
But here's the thing: you have to actually do the lessons. No matter how much you conceptualize or analyze it, it doesn't work if you just read about it.
One of the things I, along with my Colin Kirts and many others, are beginning to notice is that we, as humans living in civilization, are living in a way that is violating our own nature, creating excessive violence toward other humans and other life forms, and destroying ourselves and our home. What do we mean by violating? We violate ourselves by failing to comply with a truth about ourselves, denying our needs, failing to respect our boundaries, or acting as if we are separate and unrelated from all other forms of life. Violating ourselves has become so habitual that we no longer feel it--we are largely unaware that we are doing it. Another way to say this is that the way we live is not sustainable.
Myself and many others (and many who came before us) are engaged in a process of finding a new way to live and creating new cultures and paradigms. One of the crucial things that needs to happen for these new paradigms to work is for us to continuously engage in the process of unlearning. If we create new cultures without systematically investigating ourselves and our conditioning, we create a paradigm that may look quite different but has many of the same problems as this one.
What is the best tool I know for unlearning? Feldenkrais. Through Feldenkrais we learn to inhibit our habits. We learn to inhibit the compulsory excitation in the brain in a way that allows us to think and act in new ways rather than perpetuate our habits and conditioning. We see that we don't have to do things the way we've always done them. We start to be able to clearly see and question our underlying beliefs and assumptions. Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons give us a structure and framework to test reality, to experiment with our beliefs, and to find out what is objectively true for each of us as individuals (ontogenetic) and what is true for humans as a species (phylogenetic).
I've been struggling for a long time with understanding the distortion of yoga by our western culture, especially since I've begun teaching at a yoga studio and now begun my own Ashtanga practice.
One of the things I see most is people pushing themselves so hard that their yoga practice becomes a sort of masochistic pleasure. And then, of course, there are the other people who see this yoga culture and assume that they couldn't possibly do yoga--they're not fit enough, it's too hard, and they're horribly uncomfortable and exhausted when they try a class.
People tend to approach yoga in a goal-oriented way, because one of our cultural assumptions is that the only way to improve is through effort. Even if they understand the mindfulness aspect and focus on their breathing, they muscle their way through their practice using willpower.
What if you were to find genuine ease in your practice? Could yoga (and the rest of life) be about intentionally putting oneself into awkward, unfamiliar postures, and figuring out how to make that comfortable and enjoyable? When we're in difficult situations, how can we make those pleasurable?
I think a problem we have, though, is that we don't actually know what pleasure feels like. We spend so much of our time muscling through life--succeeding through sheer force of effort and willpower--that we don't trust that anything can come from awareness and attention alone. We act upon the assumption that we are not good enough as we are and that we must get somewhere else, be someone else, achieve a particular goal in order to be worthy of life.
What if we are good enough exactly how we are? What if we are exactly how and who we're "meant" to be? We improve organically by being aware, paying attention, and asking good questions--not because we have to improve or because we kill ourselves trying, but because we are wired for learning. Our nervous systems are wired to be constantly taking in new information, sorting through that, and adapting and improving based on that input. We only stop improving when we become complacent, stop asking questions, abandon our curiosity, and stop sensing and feeling ourselves.
We need to spend time cultivating this sense of ease though. We have learned to not sense or feel ourselves--it's an adaptation that we make to live in a world and in a way that's not congruent with our true selves. For example, when we're kids and we need to be outside playing but are made to sit at desks all day, we find that, from our powerless position, the solution to the problem is to stop feeling ourselves. But we're not powerless anymore--we're adults, and if we claim our power, we have the freedom to make our own choices. So we must begin to come back to ourselves and develop our sensitivity to we can know how we really feel, who we really are, and what we really need. And trust me, this is a lifetime of work in and of itself. There's a infinite amount of sensitivity to cultivate, and we have to keep coming back to it or we lose it. But this sensitivity--learning to sense and feel ourselves--is how we "restore each person to their human dignity" and begin to "live fully [our] unavowed dreams" (Moshe Feldenkrais).
So next time you're in a yoga pose--or an unfamiliar situation in life--can you sit with it, notice yourself, and ask good questions? Can you find a way to soften, to reduce the effort, and to genuinely enjoy it? Can you find ease and comfort and play? Because play, of course, is the real way we improve. Play and curiosity are how we're wired to learn. When something feels pleasurable and enjoyable, we want to come back to it, and it becomes effortless. When we make ourselves do something because we think we should, it takes a whole lot of effort, and we become stuck in an addictive cycle of self-denial and deprivation.
Also see "Illuminating Yoga" by Rebecca Roman, GCFP, ABM, E-RYT 500.
And now for a more personal post...
My friends started the Baby Picture Project in an attempt to help us all reconnect with our true and original selves--the one we uncover in Feldenkrais when we learn to sense and feel ourselves more intimately and peel back the layers of our masks. By acknowledging this Self and sharing it with the world, we begin to live with a little more authenticity and vulnerability.
So here is my baby picture. I feel vulnerable sharing this photo with you and it brings up such deep emotion in me that I was brought to tears.
I've chosen this photo of my dad and me because of the primacy of our relationship. He was my primary caregiver as a child, making that one of the first, most intimate, and most influential of my childhood relationships. That relationship, then, is where I first learned love--where unconditional love was first shared with me.
My father is holding me in his arms and looking at me in a way that says, "You're perfect exactly how you are. Everything you do and everything you are is amazing." I see in my own face a wide-eyed wonder, fully accepting of his love and his wholehearted faith in me.
That kind of love is transformative and life-giving, and the ability to fully receive love is one of the profound gifts of childhood innocence. Love of that kind is fundamental to human growth and learning. To be rooted in that kind of unconditional acceptance and adoration allows for infinite potential--room to play, explore, be curious, and learn. And from that love that exists between two people grows an ever-present cosmic Love that permeates throughout everything and connects all life.
It is that wide-eyed, trusting wonder and curiosity, grounded in Love and being held by the Universe exactly as I am, that fuels my life. My life-purpose is rooted in Love and reaching toward the infinite of human potential. And my dad still looks at me in that same way. So I express my immense gratitude to my father and sense within myself my trusting innocence and vulnerability and my innate curiosity and wonder.
For more on love, read "A Discourse on Love" by Ann Kreilkamp.
One thing I think many people misunderstand in Feldenkrais is the idea of doing the movements such that they're easy and comfortable. Our culture has a huge thing about pushing ourselves and never being good enough. If used in the right way, such as in environmental conditioning (e.g. Wim Hof Method), we can reach extraordinary human potential. But it's important to be clear what our intention is.
In Feldenkrais we do value becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable in the sense of becoming acquainted with the unfamiliar--finding places in ourselves we've never gone before. But our intention isn't conditioning, stretching, or exercise. Our intention is learning.
Rather than push through the pain, discomfort, dis-ease, and resistance, can we find away around it? Can we find a way to make things easier? Sure you could push through the resistance, but there's no improvement in that. How can we "make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant"? (Moshe Feldenkrais). Then when we come back to doing what it is we need to do, it becomes that much easier and we can do that much more.
It's important here, too, to make the distinction between what we do in the lesson and in real life. In lessons (and sometimes in life), the objective is learning, so we want to use as little effort as possible so we can sense ourselves and cultivate sensitivity (see Weber-Fechner law). We want to slow down and experiment with what we're doing and how we can improve the function. But if you're in a high-pressure situation and you have to do something now and it has to be done right, of course you're going to use effort! It might not be the most elegant, but it'll get done.
My best example of this is musicians performing. If you're on stage and you're nervous and there's no room for error, you're going to play exactly how you practiced. You're not going to experiment with that new fingering you just figured out, and you're not going to try a new interpretation you just thought of. But if in the practice room you spend your time experimenting, playing, and figuring out how to make things easier and use less effort, then when you get on stage, you're going to be that much more comfortable and have that much more freedom.
So in this way, we do want to become comfortable with the unfamiliar--to explore outside the narrow range of our habits and find new options. But pain or discomfort draws our attention away from the learning. Learning--the kind of neuroplastic change that results from having multiple options, experimenting, and sensing which one is more efficient and effective--happens best when we're curious and interested and when we feel safe.
So by all means, see what happens to you and how you react when you're really cold, hungry, tired, or in a position, situation, or configuration you've never been in before. That's a great place to learn. But be aware of what it is that you're doing. As Dr. Feldenkrais always said, "If you know what you're doing, you can do what you want."
Wim Hof: "How can we hone the skill of being comfortable with the uncomfortable and become more resilient?"
"Western culture has things a little backwards right now. We think that if we had every comfort available to us, we’d be happy. We equate comfort with happiness. And now we’re so comfortable we’re miserable. There’s no struggle in our lives. No sense of adventure."
--Dean Karnazes (The UltramarathonMan and Author of ‘Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner’ in an interview with Outside Magazine
After doing Feldenkrais all day for ten days straight, I am reminded of the profound transformational effects of Feldenkrais. My yoga practice became incredibly easy, my driving (stick shift) became smoother, sitting in a chair became more comfortable, I can go from sitting to standing with less effort, my breathing and my head are freer, my squatting improved, and I can stand up and sit down on one leg.
But most importantly, I came home with a very clear, in-the-moment sense of what I need and want and how to express that. I again have a clearer sense of who I am, rather than who society or others tell me I should be. I noticed how often I let go of my own ideas, opinions, feelings, and needs when they don't fit with what others want or expect. To me, this is most important aspect of Feldenkrais. When you know exactly how you feel and what you need, and you know this because you've calibrated your senses and proprioception through extensive testing and experimentation, it takes away anyone else's power to tell you how you feel or what you should do. In a culture full of so much information and so many different opinions, it's hard to know what to believe. But rather than trust what someone else says, why not test it out yourself and see what you find? When you can sense things that clearly, trusting yourself is inherent.
That intimate sensing of oneself brings a Realness to life--an integrity to Self and a depth and honesty to connection with others. Exploring new or forgotten movements and one's patterns of movement brings into awareness all kinds of things. This happens as a result of the interconnectedness of our feeling (emotions), thinking, sensing (proprioception), and acting (movement).
Of course, some of the changes fade and some of the differences become normal, making re-entry into everyday life a challenge as I settle back into mundane routine. But I've got some great ideas and intend to do Awareness Through Movement lessons myself with more frequency.
We spent a lot of time working with sitting in chairs, developing a better understanding of the relationships between the mobility of the hip joints, curvature of the spine, and carriage of the head. I have a better understanding of how to work with people through Functional Integration, as well as Awareness Through Movement. And of course I got to spend time with some wonderful friends and come back to a loving home reinvigorated and inspired.
I continue to think about agency--our sense that we can make a difference in our own lives. As I get deeper into nature connection and re-wilding, I see that one of the biggest problems with domestication is that we become lulled into complacency--trading our sense of agency for unfulfilling comforts and luxuries. I see that our power arises from our sense of agency and intimate self-knowledge.
But the great thing about the Feldenkrais Method is that you don't have to believe anything I say and you don't have to understand any of the philosophy. You can test it out yourself with your own body and see what you find. You don't have to try and you don't have to know where you're going--you just do the movements and it works. Try it for yourself and see.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEX
June 6, 2017
How did you become interested in the Feldenkrais Method®?
I was introduced to the Feldenkrais Method at Bay View Music Festival. They offered a class, and it seemed like it might be beneficial, so I started taking it and really liked it. I was always a little interested in how music related to other disciplines. When I went back to school at Arizona State in the fall, I saw that the dance department offered a Feldenkrais class, so I enrolled and ended up taking it for four semesters. The more I got into Feldenkrais, the more I liked it, and the more I realized how much there was to learn and how much of a difference it could make. It was like falling down the rabbit hole. By the time I finished my undergrad, I knew I just had to continue and train to be a practitioner. Feldenkrais had made too much of a difference in my life to stop.
Can you explain how Feldenkrais helps musicians?
The biggest thing I’ve heard from other musicians who do Feldenkrais is that it changes the way they hear the music. By putting musicians more in touch with their kinesthetic sense of themselves, it helps quiet some of the “noise” going on in the nervous system, which results in the ability to hear a lot more of the details in the music and for music to be not just an intellectual experience, but to feel it throughout the body. Hearing music then utilizes the entire nervous system, which is located throughout the whole body, not just the part of the nervous system in the skull.
Feldenkrais can also help musicians reduce pain, prevent and recover from injury, improve technique, and provide the musician access to parts of herself that she wasn’t aware of. For me, it really helped with my vibrato—to be able to locate the muscles used for vibrato and to learn to control them.
How do you apply the Feldenkrais Method to your teaching and playing?
Learning about neuroplasticity and other principles behind Feldenkrais has really furthered my interest in how learning takes place. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we optimize the conditions for learning when teaching a Feldenkrais lesson, and how I can transfer that to my teaching and practicing bassoon. This question could be (and is) a whole article in itself, but these are basic ideas I’ve distilled it down to:
Feldenkrais is an option for many people who suffer from chronic pain, but many times these people are afraid to try something new and unfamiliar. How would you encourage someone who is nervous about trying Feldenkrais?
Well, the first thing is to ask yourself why you’re nervous. A lot of times it’s because the process is going to involve change and the person isn’t sure what that will look like or where they’ll end up. To this, I would suggest that you trust yourself and your ability to know yourself and decide what’s right for you. No one can make you change in a way that you don’t want to or make you change before you’re ready. The thing you’re afraid about losing—either you don’t really want it in the first place, or you’re not going to lose it and it will probably improve.
Another thing that happens is people become desperate, especially if they’re in pain or their career is at risk, and they try everything without really investing in anything. There are a lot of different methods and therapies, and each has their value. If you try to learn Feldenkrais and Alexander technique and Reiki and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction all at the same time, you’re going to end up overwhelmed, stretched thin, and not getting anything out of it. Pick one thing that’s easy for you—that feels good and that feels like a good fit for you—and stick with it for a little while. If it doesn’t work for you, then move on to something different, but just try one thing at a time.
Feldenkrais is sometimes less accessible than other methods or therapies, but it’s very often the thing that works when nothing else does. I’ve found it can be a big investment, but it’s an investment in oneself, and it pays off ten-fold.
How has your life changed since studying Feldenkrais?
It’s overwhelming, really, how much it’s done for me. It’s changed how I relate to myself and the world around me. I feel better about myself—more secure, sure of myself, and empowered, and less stressed and anxious. I have better interpersonal relationships with my friends and colleagues, and especially with my family and my significant other. I relate to school and to music differently, which is allowing me to feel less pressure, become a better musician and a better student, and not burn out so much. I have a better sense of what I want and I what I need. Plus, it’s opened up a whole new possibility for my career.
 Alex Toenniges, “Creating Optimal Learning Conditions: A Practical Application of the Feldenkrais Method® in Music,” The Double Reed 39, no. 3 (2016): 77-82.