The Feldenkrais Method® & Sitting Meditation

Photograph: Alamy

Photograph: Alamy

Feldenkrais & Meditation

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 natural 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 in turn often made up of other practices.) Working across practices like this can serve a critical and important function, each providing a kind of feedback and rigor to the other.

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.

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 sitting poorly. 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.

About the Author

Chris Moffett, Ph.D, teaches at Teachers College, Columbia University. A member of Aesthetic Relational Exercises and founder of Poised Meditation, he will be holding a workshop on Meditation Sitting the weekend of November 5 & 6 at the Storefront for Somatic Practice in Cambridge, MA.