Norma Leistiko Talks SF1 and Finding One's Way
Friday, August 25, 2017
by: Ira Feinstein, MFA

Section: Practitioner Spotlight

IF: How did you first hear about “Feldenkrais®”?

NL: I traveled to Israel in 1970 to spend a year working on a kibbutz; I had many friends who had done this; it was an inexpensive way to see the world. I paid the round-trip airfare and got a free room and board on the kibbutz farm in exchange for my free labor. Mostly, I worked in the roses greenhouse and out in the avocado orchard.

I met lots of other young people there from America and also many Russian Jews whose mothers and fathers found work in the cities of Israel while the kids worked on the farms. Of the kibbutz members, I became friends with many young women and volunteered to teach exercise and modern dance classes; we had a good time together. I learned to teach most of the exercise and dance classes in Hebrew!

I was an actress and dancer in the United States and was interested in theatre and dance people in Israel. I had one day off a week and usually went to Tel Aviv, Jaffa, or Jerusalem (depending on my ‘rides’ and friendships) to see what I could see of the culture. I met Noah Eschol (movement notation) briefly for coffee one day. I visited an Arab village, accompanied by an American male I knew, and I had a wonderful, yes wonderful time, with the women in the home I was invited into that afternoon. The women stayed in the kitchen making food and drinks while the men visited in the main part of the home. None of the women spoke English and I certainly did not speak any Arabic, but we understood each other perfectly, laughing and giggling like women love to do when they are separate from the men. Towards the end of my year’s stay, a kibbutznik mentioned that I might be interested in meeting a Dr. Feldenkrais, who taught a unique movement system in Tel Aviv. I was leaving for Sweden to visit my family the next day, so I was unable to visit Dr. Feldenkrias’ classes. 

I was very touched by Israel. The first day I was there, I had expected to see radical differences between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine; instead, walking down the main drag of coffee houses, Dizengoff, I thought, "All these people look like they are from the same culture. This is a homogeneous culture! I cannot tell an Arab from a Jew!"

I felt so happy to land in Copenhagen, relieved really, however, I will never forget my experience with all the different people in Israel. When I got back home to San Francisco, I’d forgotten about Feldenkrais completely, until I received a flyer in the mail about Dr. Feldenkrais. The American Humanists were sponsoring him to teach in the US and he had already given several workshops in Berkeley that I had missed. I don’t recall what the flyer said, but I liked the American Humanists and I thought, “well, this might be interesting,” so I signed up then and there for the training. I wondered how I was going to get the $1,000 to pay for the first summer of our training—that’s like $10,000 today I guess!

IF: The first thing you signed up for was the training?

NL: Yes, without even knowing what it was. I signed up, had an interview--they interviewed everyone who applied--and I was in. I just had to get the money.

IF: Do you remember your initial impressions of the training?

NL: A few experiences really stand out to me. Two about Moshe, the other about the Method.

In the beginning of the training, many students were recording Moshe. After a few weeks, he said, “Stop it. You can't record my stuff.” He was pissed; we all stopped recording from then on. I’d been sitting in the front of the class with my tape recorder, so it was probably my fault that he noticed how many individuals were recording his instructions. Before we were told to stop recording, he came over to where I was sitting/lying on a break and he picked up one of my tapes. He looked at it in such detail: turning it around and around, opening and closing the tabs. I could see he was trying to figure out how it worked--that was the kind of mind he had. He didn't even ask me, “Who are you?” or anything. I was impressed with his focus and deep curiosity about how things worked. I got a strong sense that he was not so much interested in people in a humanitarian way, he just was interested in how things worked. I understood that trait. I admired it. 

The other memory I have occurred during that first year of our San Francisco Training in the summer of 1975. Moshe came over to me when I was looking out the window during a break. He wanted to speak French. I had crippling French, but I could see his love for France and its language while he tried to get me to speak with him “un petit peu.” I was moved by his sentiment and love of French, and imagined the good times he must have had studying physics there as a young man; this was an insight for me into his character.

My initial impression of the Feldenkrais Method® was that it was incredibly purposeless. I enjoyed purposeless methods because I could make up my whole story of what it was for. I was an experienced dancer, choreographer, creative dance improviser, and actress, yet Moshe was directing us to focus on such interesting details: move your hand, move your head this way, then that way. I was teaching human anatomy and kinesiology to other dancers, athletes, and actors at the time, but I had absolutely no idea where Moshe was coming from. None of the movements made any connective sense to me. I spent the entire first summer not understanding where it was all coming from but absolutely riveted to every nuance of this method. 

I knew immediately, even on that first day, that I wanted to continue to study the Feldenkrais Method because it brought out my own compulsion and my own curiosity. As I look back on it now, what’s most interesting, perhaps, is that I loved it for itself. I had no idea where it was going, even though when the American Humanists interviewed me, they said, “You know, you can make your living doing this” I’d thought, “What do I care? I don't want to make my living doing this. I just want to study this stuff.” I never thought about making a living from it. I just wanted to keep studying. It was like candy for my soul. I had no future in mind at all.

IF: What did you think when Moshe started teaching Functional Integration®?
When Moshe began demonstrating Functional Integration lessons, I could not figure out what he was doing. I could not even see what he was doing because there were so many of us (65) crowded around one table. I thought it was absolutely fascinating. Even though Moshe barely touched the student, it was obvious that something was going on. I was unable to see any profound changes physically in the “patient” but all the time Moshe was touching the person, they seemed to be very attentive to his touch. He’d spoken often about the Weber-Fechner law: that the lighter the touch, the more you'd feel. I believed there was change, improved movement because I wanted to believe, but I saw nothing I could describe concretely.

Everyone else in the group seemed to understand everything that was going on; I thought it was only I who was lost. During occasional discussions with other students in the training, they all seemed confident that they understood the Method, the one-on-one, Functional Integration, but I was lost. I would not confess to anyone that I did not understand. I felt ashamed and stupid. One of my closest Israeli friends, David Peleg, was in the training and he seemed totally confident that he understood the Method. All Israeli men I ever knew are totally committed to being confident and would never disclose their ignorance of anything. So when I talked with my friend David, he was able to make me feel like a helpless pig-dog. I was lost.

IF: How did you deal with feeling so lost?

NL: It was almost like you couldn't ask questions. If you asked Moshe a question, he'd give a two-hour lecture to tell you the answer. By the end of the two-hour lecture, I was drifting in my thoughts. What did I get out of the stories? Moshe was creating something he could not teach to anyone else! The stories were fascinating, but I wanted to be able to do the movement, the Functional Integration lessons. I knew that something was going on with his stories. They were a big part of conveying the Method. The other students were analyzing everything: did he push up or did he push down? “Who knows why he pushed one way and not the other!” I thought.

After four summers, I felt like I still didn't know anything, so I traveled to his clinic in Tel Aviv. I stayed with Israeli friends of mine who charged me ten dollars a night to sleep in the same room as their baby. They were very nice to put me up so cheaply. For three weeks, I went to Moshe’s office and watched him give Functional Integration lessons. I noticed that he had this instant knowing with people like he was picking up on their “vibes.” He spoke softly, listened intently, then went to work. I, of course, had not a clue why he did what with each patient. The patients didn't ask many questions, nor describe symptoms very often, and Moshe went directly to touching, pushing, and pulling. I concluded that Moshe was somehow listening and got the information he needed very quickly by observation.

A couple of times, he gave me one of his patients to work with. One of the men I worked with seemed extremely embarrassed because I was pushing through his foot and leg with a force through my hip bone. He might have thought I was pushing with my pubic bone; male-female awareness is extremely strong, from my experience, in Israel.

I really was in a state of not knowing. At the time I didn't have to rely on any logic; I had no logic to rely on. All seemed vague, cloudy, formless, yet I went on with the experience.

While I was in Tel Aviv, I also went to Moshe's apartment several times. He asked me to type some things for him because I was female, and of course, women typed (but not men!). I didn't type very well, however. Additionally, the keyboard was completely different than what I was used to. At one point, I made a mistake. Moshe was furious with me. He said, “You're using the wrong finger and now you'll never get it right.” I felt terrible, but he felt free to yell at me. Much later, I realized that he was telling me that if you if you try too hard to do any movement, like typing, and you make a mistake, that one mistake stays with you as deeply as if you made the perfect movement, so why not do the perfect movement first? If you interpret this differently, tell us all; my sense was that if you are too tense, (I certainly was in his apartment trying to be useful) you will make a mistake that cannot be corrected.

During a demonstration, if a person said, “Oh my back hurts.” Moshe would respond, “You aren't your back.” He had a way of getting right to people by saying that. You're not a bunch of pieces; you’re a whole thing. He seemed to always emphasize that you can't use logic: you don't push because you want to pull; it was not direct logic. When you push, there are a zillion things happening and that's what he was trying to tell the patient: it's not just in your back. Even though you do use logic, there is also something bigger than logic going on. If Moshe had been a martial artist from China instead of from Europe, he would have taught in a different way. How he communicated to us was unique to his style. Years later, I thought perhaps I could have learned more if I had had a different kind of communicator, but I am really not sure. The point I want to make is that the work he created could be taught in different ways, by different teachers, and I was stuck with an arrogant male--too bad for me.

Moshe didn't want people to get stuck in cause and effect. Some people did, which was too bad because they lost a lot a lot of training that way, but I was at the other extreme: I was just lost in the details – for me, there was no cause and no effect, just a continuous fog of experiences. Moshe was able to take all those details and assemble them as a whole somehow for himself. I came to the conclusion over the years that it takes a certain kind of mind to really be successful in this work. You have to be kind of innocent, while at the time always looking for threads. I don’t know if I am describing it well, but the only word I think of that might be useful is ‘intention.’ What do you intend to happen and what does the patient intend?

IF: Could you tell us about a time where you were working on somebody and the lesson took a turn that you didn't expect?

NL: The strongest experience and I had it several times, was working with someone and I had this feeling of impatience. I became totally disconnected and bored. I didn't want to stay there. I found myself leaving the person behind even though I was still there. I had the feeling that my hands were becoming—that I was becoming--like a zombie. It was a very strong experience. I thought, “Where am I?” It was a very big struggle for me to get back to the person on the table. I had to find some way to stay with the person. Although there's no pat answer to it, I think you have to find a way to remain awake with that individual. I had that experience several times. It was a big struggle.

IF: How is the Feldenkrais Method integrated into your life now?

NL: I’m still forever curious. I still do the movements every day on the floor. I'm still just as curious about every movement; it's forever fascinating. I still find myself watching people all the time. I watch people in public places out of habit I guess. I notice how they walk or gesture and I am aware of the rhythm of each detailed movement. I think of everyone as sort of a representation of some event in their life. I try to guess what the events are. My basic training was in acting, to me, everyone is in a role. Are they playing it well and could I help them play it better? It is what connects me to other humans and also animals like dogs and deer. I have a magical imagination that sustains me.

I've studied lots of different crazy kinds of systems, everyone thinks they are right and in their universe, they all are right. However, I believe the Feldenkrais Method is absolutely the best movement method I’ve ever experienced. Good for people into sports, dance, people back from the war, dog training, spouse training, friend training, physical injuries, theatre, and the like.

IF: What do you think about how the Feldenkrais Method has evolved since your training?

I don't think Moshe knew how to train. He really couldn't help you learn except through his storytelling and demonstrations. I think the trainers nowadays are doing a wonderful job making the Method more available to the ordinary, unbrilliant, uninformed person like me. They may sometimes explain too much because it doesn't leave enough of the figuring it out yourself, but who am I to say?

Moshe was a genius, I would certainly say that, but the most important thing is: can those learning now find their way? Can they learn to trust what they experience in their hands and in their hearts--that's what's really important. I say that because I'm more concerned with the world now then I used to be; I have more compassion for all human beings. During the time I studied with Moshe, I only cared about my own career. I want new practitioners, whether they just graduated or who have been practicing for a thousand years, to have faith in themselves and just keep finding their own way. I'm for being your own universe.

About Norma Leistiko, GCFP:

  • 1960s 1970s Actress in San Francisco Bay Area
  • 1980s Instructor Anatomy for Dancers/Actors; Feldenkrais Teacher; Choreographer
  • 1990s Feldenkrais Teacher San Francisco
  • 2000 on Oregon, Feldenkrais work and lotsa research and reading
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Comments (6)
wyatt getz
12/22/2017 8:40:12 PM
I enjoyed this commentary. Curiosity is what humans share with cats. It's such a wonderful and I mean thanks be to life ((!)) a gift to the soul to be curious rather more than assured at this great moment in Time.

Efrem Razumny
8/30/2017 7:56:29 PM
Thank you Norma, wonderful interview.

Peggy Downie
8/30/2017 11:36:17 AM
I loved what you said! I too felt mostly lost during my training with brief flashes of " Now I get it!" I had marvelous teachers. The friends I made during the training remain good friends. I think I became more curious about lots of things. I didn't feel confident and today remain ambivalent about teaching though I count the experiences as among the most life changing.

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