Actions & Emotions: Deepening Our Somatic Dialogue
Friday, June 15, 2012
by: Sonja Sutherland, GCFP

Section: Recovery

My introduction to the Feldenkrais Method® began as it often does with many of my Feldenkrais® clients: an injury, unsatisfactory attempts at recovery, followed by a fortunate introduction to a Feldenkrais practitioner who had another perspective on my situation and healing.

A One-Armed Dancer
Through my adolescent years, I was a highly competitive gymnast, training seven hours a day. I trained with a doctrine of discipline and determination, raised on the “no pain, no gain” mantra, pushing my limits and striving to become better than the best I could be. Harder, faster, stronger. This approach took its toll.

After retiring from gymnastics at sixteen, I began dancing and choreographing. They became my passion and my full time occupation. While pursuing my Masters in Dance, I sustained a severe shoulder injury. After trying different medical options with no great success, I continued

"I wasn't just learning to move, I was 'moving to learn.'"
Fortunately, a curious Feldenkrais practitioner who was also a dancer in one of my classes, thought it would be interesting to work with me. Thus began my Feldenkrais journey, one that continues to influence how I dance through my life today.

I made a full recovery from my injury. The ease, grace and movement range in my dancing dramatically improved. Even more amazing was that I began experiencing myself internally as softer yet stronger, more receptive and effective. The experience of doing small, subtle, gentle movements that created powerful shifts in my ability to move with greater ease and comfort was deeply touching and empowering.

Moving to Learn
While attending Awareness Through Movement® classes, I was asked to engage in complex, and sometimes downright difficult movement sequences, yet to move only within a range of ease. No achieving by exerting willpower or force. Instead of ignoring my body’s signals of pain and need for rest and recovery as had been my habit, I was asked to slow down, reduce my effort and explore how I was moving. I wasn’t just learning to move, I was “moving to learn.”

Reaching toward the ceiling during an ATM® lesson, the teacher directed my attention toward how I was participating in the act of reaching itself. In the past, I would’ve focused on how far I could reach or what I could reach. Now, I paid attention to how different parts of myself were involved in the movement of reaching. I was making distinctions, variations and new connections in the pattern of my reaching. I explored and discovered new ways to organize my action. This approach of using movement as a means to learn and develop awareness was remarkable and interesting.

Lighter, Softer, Slower
I relished the fact that by becoming a Feldenkrais practitioner and starting my private practice, it was part of my job description to “do less” as a means to sense more. I was to slow down and not get caught up in trying to fix someone’s aches and pains. Instead, I was to curiously investigate how a person functioned and habitually moved and then help them discover and create unexplored possibilities.

This softer, gentler, creative problem solving approach was a welcomed, refreshing shift after my early competitive training. My mantra changed from “stronger, harder, faster” to “lighter, softer, slower.” As expressing myself creatively has always given me great joy, I embraced the Feldenkrais approach with gusto, whole-heartedly.

My ability to sense with greater acuity continued to grow, as did my ability to problem solve creatively. Ironically though, I was working very hard to “do less”: I was still struggling with my habitual attitude of discipline and determination.

Protected Yet Captive
As an athlete through my adolescent years, I sustained significant amounts of physical impact and was under a lot of pressure psychologically and emotionally. In some ways, I was trained to be very dense and compact, in other ways, very flexible. I encouraged extreme flexibility in my lower back and legs while holding my upper back and chest area rigidly. This way of moving and organizing became embedded in my identity as I grew into an adult. For the most part, I felt flexible, yet also strong, stable and able to endure. However, I also felt like I was trapped in my rigid, unyielding rib ”cage;” my lungs and heart protected, yet held captive.

Through the Feldenkrais Method, the mobility through my chest area increased greatly. I sensed a more malleable spaciousness inside my chest, as if my heart had more room to pulse. My breathing felt more comfortable and powerful. The changes invigorated me. I felt alive in a way that I hadn’t known before.

Yet, as the mobility and softness through my chest area continued to increase, I felt apprehensive and overwhelmed. The sense of security from my habitually held ribcage, the protector of my well-guarded heart and lungs, no longer felt impenetrable.

Theoretically and functionally, the benefits of this more malleable, soft spaciousness in my chest made logical sense to me. But personally, I felt vulnerable and unsafe. My emotional reactions were swift and strong. I panicked, tightened deep in my chest. I became short of breath and my heart beat rapidly. The functional advantage of my greater ease of movement now felt like a liability.

New questions arose:
• How did “how I hold” and “how much I hold” in my chest affect my internal sense of security?
• How could I recognize and participate in how I protect myself?
• How could I become more available, to myself and others, without being overwhelmed by feelings of vulnerability and helplessness?

Through my Feldenkrais training, into my private practice and through years of additional advanced Feldenkrais trainings, my interest and studies in the intertwining relationship between actions and emotions has continued to grow.

A Formative Approach
Soon after I became a Feldenkrais practitioner, I began ongoing studying with Stanley Keleman, a pioneer in the field of somatic psychology and founder of Formative Psychology®.

Formative Psychology is grounded in anatomy, biology and evolution. It is a somatic approach whereby we develop and form our emotional inheritance.

In his book Emotional Anatomy, Keleman explains that our human anatomy is dynamic, pulsatory and alive. “Pulsation is the in and out of all life and begins at the cellular level.” It is the underlying organizing principle of animate life, from single cells to complex human organisms, and it is the innate organizing pattern of all tissue. Upon this foundation, we grow, develop, and create how we behave, feel and function. Through using neuromuscular effort to assemble the shape and intensity of our behaviors, we can voluntarily influence this tissue pulsation, alter our anatomy and the experience and intensity of our actions.

When I began taking Keleman’s somatic practice classes, I felt like I was coming home – to myself. In some ways, I was reminded of my experiences during Awareness Through Movement classes: I lay down quietly on the floor in an environment of exploration, curiosity and discovery. I slowly investigated subtle ways I organized how I acted. I experienced a heightened sense of my inner rhythms and my quiet, intimate aliveness, which was always present for me during and right after Feldenkrais lessons. Yet the formative approach was different.

Instead of focusing on how I moved through space as a means to develop awareness, I was asked to hold the shape of my intended action and vary the intensity of how I was holding this shape. My attention was directed toward how I internally assembled and disassembled this shape as a means to give it an emotional content. For example, how do I assemble the shape of my reaching:
• As a determined striving toward?
• A longing for?
• As a cautious readiness to retreat?
• An urgent, hungry grasping?

And how does the shape and intensity of my intention to reach influence my experience of reaching? How does this internal feedback inform how I think, sense and behave?

I was born determined and then trained this natural tendency. To address my deeply ingrained attitude, I created a continuum of related, but very different internal attitudes of determination. Each distinct behavior, from relentlessly stubborn to playfully persistent, uniquely informed how I felt, thought and acted. This gave me the ability to vary how determined I approached my own learning. Specifically, I could recognize and influence how hard I was trying to “do less” in my Feldenkrais practice. This dimensionally shifted how I could perceive, receive and participate in my interactions with myself and others.

Through exploring and intentionally cultivating how I assembled and regulated the intensity of my motor acts, I created an internal somatic dialogue between my cortex and body, generating an aliveness and vitality in myself, growing a personal interiority and building a library of emotional behaviors. Instead of feeling vulnerable and helpless to my own anatomical changes, like I did when I gained mobility in my chest area, I grew my ability to be available, participatory and responsive to my changing self and circumstances.

The more I work personally with the formative principles and approach, the deeper it resonates with my Feldenkrais practice.

Just as we each create a habitual and unique movement signature that is recognizable by how we move through space, we also create our own personal way of habitually assembling the emotional shape of a movement.

When people come to my Feldenkrais office, I pay close attention to their habitual movement patterns. I also notice how they create and shape their emotional desires, delight, concerns, and excitement. I pay attention to how their anatomical and emotional inheritance and habits affect how they behave. How do they make meaning out of how they move and are moved? How does this inform how they function and feel?  I ask myself how I can empower them to actively participate in their approach to their personal growth and learning in their Feldenkrais sessions and in their lives.

Sonja H. Sutherland, MA is a Feldenkrais practitioner with over 12 years of ongoing studies in Formative Psychology®. She maintains a private practice in Berkeley and teaches workshops and retreats in the US and Europe. Sonja holds a black belt in Aikido and a Masters in Dance.
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