"Now I always know that I have an option"
Ross sought out the Feldenkrais Method when he could no longer bear the aches and pains in his hyper-but-unfortunately- dysfunctionally-trained Tai-Chi body: the sense of being all locked up inside what felt like a self-created prison of muscle tension; the useless efforts and straining as he tried to find release; the ominous clicking in his knees; the unpleasant sensation of tightness in his solar plexus; the feeling of seizing up in panic whenever something challenging came his way...
When Ross had his first Feldenkrais lesson in summer 2000 it became apparent that he had lost all sense of his natural support system, i.e. his own skeleton. Instead of relying on this solid structure, he never stopped making inordinate muscular efforts with everything he did, even just keeping himself grounded and aligned within the gravitational field.
At the beginning of 2005 we decided to take stock. We let a tape run as he looked back over four years of Feldenkrais learning (involving on average a lesson every four to eight weeks). During those four years a lot of positive change had happened in Ross's life, including giving up hours and hours of daily Tai-Chi training, becoming a father for the second time, leaving his back-breaking gardening job, and becoming a full-time music teacher. Maybe most amazing for Ross was the realization that he had imperceptibly come to positively enjoy that state of confusion which invariably hits him whenever he is faced with an unexpected challenge:
"I really enjoy that now because it's a real starting point for clarification and discovering alternative options and solutions."
Probably no other learning system matches the Feldenkrais Method in providing the learner with both plenty of opportunities for experiencing confusion when one's long established habits just don't seem to work, and enjoyable ways of exploring ways out of the dilemma by finding unsuspected new answers, skills, and inner resources. Before I was kind of imposing an idea on the body:
"Previous to exploring this Method - especially doing the Tai-Chi - I was trying to do things, but I was always in the dark about what I was doing... I was trying to force something into it...
Now, I always know that I have an option. That's the main thing I think: I have an option. Instead of doing something so-called "wrong" I have a way of investigating it. And that isn't so logical; the logical mind isn't involved so much. It's to allow the body to move - allowing the movement to travel in the body. That's a big thing for me. I recognize that before I was holding and stiffening certain areas, therefore being fragmented in the movement. Before I was kind of imposing an idea on the body rather than letting the body find a way how to move - especially following a formalized system which I probably misunderstood.
... I don't want to blame teachers. You know it's like you hear what you want to hear.
I probably was born with most of the problems I had, I certainly gained them early on in my life. Well, most of them have disappeared now. But if you remember, there was this tension in my stomach - maybe a residue of that is still there. The solar plexus area was tense, always tense; it was part of reality as long as I can think back. But that went within a year I would say. And that was amazing!
Then there was the arm, the limb-attachment problem. It came out in doing Tai-Chi (as pain in the shoulder and arm); it came out in playing the guitar, doing physical work as well...stiffening, hurting... I still haven't got completely past it, but it certainly has massively improved.
I am still working on that and find the little balls brilliant for that. Even now I sometimes get a bit of trouble in my hand playing the guitar. Then I just put my hand on the ball and the tension and pain disappears almost immediately; I don't even have to think about it and it's gone. I don't know why; maybe the ball is a vehicle towards allowing you to let go. You can't really say "Relax! Left, right, left, right...", you simply let it happen.
I am really looking forward to the "ball-bed", I want to explore that."
What about issues going beyond dealing with an aching body? Did you observe for instance certain changes in your attitude to life? Do you feel that something has shifted there?
"Possibly...Yeah, I think I have changed in that way, but it's such a subtle, slow change. It's almost like watching your hair grow; you don't notice it. Yet someone else might notice it more... Come to think of it, I'm sure something has changed! I think I have never told you about this, when I work on something - you remember last time I was here I was occasionally all jumpy, that night I was very touchy, emotionally...I actually realized later that there was anger coming out. It's kind of trapped in the body... So before I knew it I blew my top, I should have known better...
Yes, there is emotional movement going on. In that situation there something happened, but generally I manage to deal with it better, I find ways of letting it disperse which may take a couple of days."
Do you think with the gradual development of such awareness and the skills of dealing with emotional uncertainties and upheavals you are a better model to your kids?
"God help us! That's all I say for that. I don't know... I don't even think about my role as a model to my children. I suppose they get some good and some bad from me."
Where would you feel to be placed better, Sports or Music?
"I am both, that's the trouble. The thing is, my history of doing twelve years of Tai-Chi, that's a long time! I started playing the guitar much earlier, when I was fourteen, and Tai-Chi only when I was twenty four."
Why did you give up doing Tai-Chi?
"The main reason I'd say was the way it effected me emotionally. I am really sensitive to energy, I've always been. It was like being on a constant acid-trip. The only thing I can think of it was like being on a hallucinatory journey. I had to be so careful! If I overdid my training I'd be in pieces, I'd have to worry how to keep myself together. I was massively sensitive, I really was over-sensitised by the training. I got to the point where I thought I can't keep living like this. I can do it physically, probably all day, but the power of the blast I get isn't worth it. I'd either get a Yin-effect which is uhh! I feel fear, massive fear! Or I get a Yang-effect and I'd be aggressive, quick to bite back... During the class I'd sometimes feel really, really scared and I'd have no reason for it. I mean I wasn't actually scared, there was nothing to be scared of, but I'd get these massive fear feelings, and I'd wonder what's going on!"
Now Feldenkrais is working with very subtle energies. So what's the difference then? Moshe Feldenkrais who was a martial artist too said towards the end of his life: "Growth is painful. So if you want to grow your learning has to be very, very gentle". You are sensitive, but you are not allowed to be.
"Yeah, I was probably pushing myself. I am one of those people who want to be best at everything. I was pushing too hard in the Tai-Chi. By the end I was starting to realise that, hence I began doing things like this. I hit the brick-wall enough times to stop. That's my personality though. At least I have been a 'head-through-the-wall' person and now I am not like that. I learned, another person it might take five minutes to learn, but it's taken me twenty odd years to learn or more than that! Also I have to recognise that, because I am a sensitive person, that's where the music comes in. In fact there are a lot of martial artists who are musicians, I know a lot and they have been massively focused in the martial arts. Our postman is like that; he has got his own academy and all that, and he's getting back into his music. There is something there between musician and martial artist; there is something that doesn't work: the sensitive side doesn't add up to the male side. That's what I have been thinking about. You are sensitive but you are not allowed to be, therefore you want to prove that you are... a macho? Maybe, I don't know... or defend yourself because you are soft and you know it, you need to be able to defend yourself. I think that's what it is. I have met enough martial-artist musicians like that now, with that sort of insecurity. It's that insecurity, all those musicians and arty people they are all insecure - and in some way that brings out that creativity."
How does the enhanced capacity to look for options through Feldenkrais effect this whole balance between the defensive side and the creative, more resourceful side?
"I'd say that in the last two or three years I don't care about martial arts any more. I don't need it. I realised that a long time ago, I don't need it any more. I'm still interested in it in a way, but I don't need it any more and I feel an awful lot better. What I've been talking about is gone; maybe it's still in there at times, but I feel a lot more balanced without Tai-Chi. I am sure the Feldenkrais Method has given me that. I know it has; it's like a drip, a slow drip and it's gently balancing out"
Can you envisage teaching Tai-Chi one day?
"Never! ... I am interested in music, you can't teach someone something if you are not interested in it. You have to have passion, you know what I mean."
So there's been a clear shift to the sensitive, creative side in you?
"That's always what I was, I just didn't know it properly. Just to go from Feldenkrais to the music teaching, I get the kids to do something on the guitar and then get them to experience that they have options. So I tell them " This is a good way to do it, but if you do it that way that's fine too. Have the option! What happens with guitar players though is that certain things have been proven to be more efficient physically, but they may not necessarily the best way for you ." I suppose kids take such information for granted, but deep down they must also reflect that they are not being told exactly what to do."
(Transcribed and edited by Ilana Nevill - who was glad to learn less than a year after this conversation, that Ross had begun discovering new and more subtle ways of practising Tai-Chi)
Moshe Feldenkrais wrote in his book Awareness Through Movement:
'Lack of choice makes strain habitua. As long as superfluous effort is invested in any action, man must throw up defenses, must brace himself to great effort that is neither comfortable, pleasurable, nor desirable. The lack of choice of whether to make an effort or not turns an action into habit, and in the end nothing appears more natural than that to which he is accustomed, even if it is opposed to all reason or necessity.' (Penguin Handbooks, p. 84)
Fear in the martial arts:
Ed Hines teaches Tai Chi Chuan and Ba Gua Zhang in Paris. In one of the articles published on his website www.palmchange.com Ed tries to come to grips with a largely unacknowledged aspect of most martial arts training in the West: lack of awareness and/or denial of fear in the martial arts. Here just one quote:
"When I was training hard for competition, though I enjoyed the training a great deal, it also had an addictive quality, which I think came from a basic insecurity. Since I pretty much lived training I was so used to this that I didn't notice it, like forgetting that we breathe. After getting injured and being out of training for a while and coming back, this hidden quality became clearer. Though the atmosphere in the clubs was friendly, there was an undercurrent of competition that was based on fear of other people being better in some way, overtaking you in strength. Of course in contact competition other people being better has painful consequences, so it's normal to feel something like this. I think what I object to is the degree to which the emotion is unnoticed, denied, hidden."
A Martial Artist and Musician Discovers the Benefits of Learning the Feldenkrais Way