By Ilona Fried
If you’re a linguaphile and watched the Scripps National Spelling Bee at the end of May, you might recall that one of the two winning words was “Feldenkrais.” When the contestant, 13-year-old Jairam Hathwar, asked what it meant, he received an ambiguous answer at first. Then he was told that “It’s derived from a trademark and is a system of body movements intended to ease tension.”
For someone who has been studying the Feldenkrais Method and, simultaneously, writing about my experience, that definition fell short, and understandably so. The method is named after its founder, Moshe Feldenkrais, a Jewish physicist, engineer and judo master who developed his unique approach to somatic learning after severely injuring his knees. Rather than face risky surgery, he conducted numerous experiments with himself, using tiny, delicate movements to restore functioning so he could walk without pain despite damaged knees. He left behind an oeuvre of thousands of Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lessons that guide participants through mostly slow, deliberate, and unexpected sequences that allow their musculature to shed habitual patterns. While I resented the sluggish pace of my first ATM class, I felt astonishingly refreshed afterward, as if someone had hit the reset button on my nervous system. Fascinated, I began to read books, enrolled in workshops and, wanting to experience more of its magic, entered a Feldenkrais training program. Somewhere along the way, I read online that the training had helped a novelist become more productive. As a blogger and essayist myself, who often suffered anxiety at the keyboard, especially upon clicking “publish,” I wondered if immersing myself in Feldenkrais would help me, too.
Now a bit more than two years into my Feldenkrais studies, I can say that the movement lessons, mostly done lying on a thin mat or blanket on the floor, have made writing less fraught. There are a few reasons for this shift. First is the reduction of tension that I’d been carrying for decades in my jaw, neck, ribcage, shoulders and hips (so, almost everywhere!). Creativity can’t flow as easily if a person is not physically comfortable and, perhaps, has forgotten what comfort feels like. If one’s breath gets caught in their throat out of fear of making a mistake, being criticized or (worse) ignored completely, all of which can happen when one shares writing with the public, the words might not flow as easily even if one still manages to create. Secondly, my greater cognitive and embodied awareness of perfectionism helps me recognize its appearance faster and shift into a more productive frame of mind, rather than getting stuck in inhibition. In Feldenkrais lessons, the focus is on the process, on breathing easily and moving comfortably and pleasurably, rather than emphasizing a pose or end result. Even people who can’t do every sequence in a lesson might still find that their range of motion has improved by the end. Approximating the movement is, from a learning standpoint, just as good as doing it. Over time, small changes can lead to big differences in functioning. Translating that into writing, I can remind myself that focusing on my current, incremental task, while breathing easily and allowing thoughts, phrases, and connections to arise organically, is far more sustainable than banging out a word count, getting hung up on finding the perfect phrase, or forcing myself to write when I genuinely need a break. The concept of approximations, of coming closer and closer each time to the desired result, helps counter the idea of getting the writing right the first time around.
Writing, like a Feldenkrais lesson, is an iterative and highly personal process that allows us to know ourselves more deeply, both our strengths and idiosyncrasies, ideally without judgment. Just as we each have different handwriting, we probably each have a different way of approaching the act of writing. What works for some might not work for others. For example, certain writers swear by returning to the same place at the same time each day, invoking the muse. Joseph Conrad had his wife lock him in his room. Even though I’ve been a Zen meditator for years, I’ve been unable to sustain a similar, Zen-like writing schedule. Not only that, I don’t have a spouse to lock me in my room. My inability to translate my sitting practice into writing frustrated me until I saw this quote from the late Oliver Sacks, author of 14 books.
“Much more of the brain is devoted to movement than to language. Language is only a little thing sitting on top of this huge ocean of movement,” he said in a 2013 interview with the New York Times. The image of language bobbing on an ocean helped me reimagine and integrate physical activity into my writing process. If my body is moving, so is the “little thing” of language sitting atop my brain. Often the words, phrases, and even structure flow more easily when I’m walking, riding my bicycle, or swimming. With my body otherwise engaged, my creative brain is free to toy with a draft or idea without committing words to paper or screen. I eavesdrop with a generalized attention so as not to interrupt this process. When I return from my outing, I am more relaxed scribe than tortured creative.
Thanks to Feldenkrais, I now move more easily in general, and I’ve become more patient with my particular writing pace. If the words are stuck, chances are my body is, too, and it’s time to either get outdoors or lie on the floor and do an Awareness Through Movement lesson. In the words of one experienced Feldenkrais practitioner, I’ve learned to “stop stopping” when I encounter frustration or a block. Instead, I trust the process and keep moving.
Ilona Fried is a writer, nature lover, and student of the Feldenkrais Method. Her blog, alacartespirit.com, is dedicated to “bringing awareness to the menu of life.” She’s a regular contributor to The Wisdom Daily and has been published in Elephant Journal, Tiferet Journal, and Hevria.