Refocus to Elucidate your Practice
When Ralph Strauch attended a Los Angeles workshop with Moshe Feldenkrais in 1980, he was already actively exploring the nature of perception and the interrelationship between sensing, feeling, thinking and acting. He was drawn to Feldenkrais's teachings, and decided to enter the Amherst training, “because Moshe seemed to have very good tools for exploring things I was interested in — the ways we put the world together, and create the experiences that we think come from the world out there.”
A mathematician with a PhD in statistics from UC Berkeley, Ralph had been developing a personal form of practice with a friend and fellow martial artist, Bob Nimensky. They called it Refocusing because it revolved around finding new ways of bringing stressful or demanding situations into focus. They had become fascinated with the abilities of an Aikido master who could do things that seemed almost impossible. “You could hold his arm and he'd just flop it, and you, around like you weren't there,” Ralph recalled. “So we started trying to understand how things like this could be possible.”
Bob and Ralph worked together from the mid 1970s until 2001, seeking to understand how they could use Refocusing to create possibilities out of seemingly impossible situations, such as learning how to move freely while being constrained. “We concluded that we were creating internal limitations that we were blaming on external causes,” Ralph said. “We found that we could dissolve these limitations by refocusing the way we perceived them,” These experiences significantly influenced how Ralph understood and embodied Moshe's teaching, and have been central to his practice of the Feldenkrais Method ever since.
He first wrote about what he learned from these explorations in his book, The Reality Illusion, published in 1983. More recently, Ralph has been working to build a conceptual framework through which to better articulate and share these ideas and experiences. He will present this framework and its connection to the Feldenkrais Method at this summer's conference July 7-10 in Asheville, NC.
In our phone interview, Ralph explained to me that his workshop will be organized around one of Moshe Feldenkrais's favorite aphorisms: “If you don't know what you're doing, you can't do what you want.” He believes that Refocusing can be a powerful tool for practitioners to enhance their understanding of this idea by offering new ways to embody it in practice.
What is the relationship between Refocusing and the Feldenkrais Method?
In the Feldenkrais Method, students get information about themselves from movement variations, from moving in ways that they don't normally move and noticing what happens. At some point they may find that “The boundaries of this movement are further away than I realized. These things are connected in ways that I hadn't thought about!”
And they make discoveries. For example, in an ATM® lesson, a rolling movement on the floor may suddenly bring you into sitting. We facilitate this process of discovery by encouraging our students to integrate and consciously use the information they have gained on a subconscious level.
What is the core of this process of discovery? How can we support and generalize it? It seems to involve a restructuring of experience, perceiving and understanding what's going on in a whole new way.
Refocusing makes that perceptual shift intentional by encouraging explicit deconstruction and reconstruction of the situation being explored. Instead of passively waiting to see what emerges, you deliberately seek alternative ways of viewing the experience that will support actions that didn't seem previously seem possible. You ask yourself, “what do I have to do to change how I understand what's happening, so that something different can happen instead?” That conscious shift of perception, which is somewhat more peripheral in the Feldenkrais Method, lies at the core of Refocusing.
One example of this, which I illustrate in my workshop video, involves getting up from a chair when someone is holding you down. ATM lessons can teach you to sit and stand with greater fluidity and grace. We've all done, and taught, ATM lessons like that. But ATM doesn't help you get up if someone is holding you down. It feels then like the holder has the leverage, and attempting to get up feels futile.
But if we look more closely at that interaction, we find that most people, as they try to get up, are lifting their feet into the air and pushing their butt into the chair. These actions don't really contribute to getting up, instead they strengthen and validate the experience of being held down. But if the person being restrained refocuses their perception away from the constraint and onto the action of just getting up, getting up is what will happen — easily and in spite of the restraint. This may seem unbelievable before you experience it, but when you do, you know it is real.
How can Refocusing influence the hands-on interaction between a practitioner and her client? What will participants at your Asheville workshop take away that they can use in their practice?
Trying to get up from a chair when someone is holding you down is an extreme example of how not really knowing what you are doing can severely limit what you are able to do, and how shifts in your knowing can open possibilities for doing that were previously unimaginable. My workshop will look at the mechanisms underlying phenomena like this, and explore lessons they have to offer us as Feldenkrais teachers.
We conventionally experience hands-on interaction as a physical interaction between two bodies, where communication takes place primarily through pressure and force. Even if you use very gentle force, this involves a subtle form of stiffening, of making yourself solid as part of your physical interaction with that other solid being. Refocusing offers a different experience of physical interaction in which not stiffening allows something different to happen. Just as you can easily get up from a chair when you stop pushing against the hands that restrain you, so can you consciously inhibit that stiffening as you do Functional Integration. You can then experience yourself and your client as a single conjoined system sharing a common experience, rather than as two separate beings, one doing something to the other.
Practitioners who I've worked with in the past have found that this experience opened up new possibilities for them. They say it makes them more sensitive to what's going on in their clients and in themselves, making their work effective in unexpected new ways.
One interesting aspect of our work is that we have the potential to help people to improve at skills that we ourselves don't possess. Normally, you think if you want to improve your golf skills, you go to someone who plays golf; if you want to improve your musical performance, you go to a musician; to improve your management skills, you see a management consultant. But we have the capability to work with all these things, and to help clients find a smoother pathway through life in general. The kind of approach we're exploring here magnifies that capability.
One example that comes to mind was a client who came to me because of a stroke. He was a high level manager in a major corporation, and an Orthodox Jew who went through a standardized prayer routine each morning. As we worked together, I realized that he did this pretty mechanically, more or less rushing through it. I was able to work with his prayer routine, and get him to slow him down and look at it more closely. This became the vehicle with which he could take the enhanced awareness that I was using to help him deal with his stroke into the rest of his life as well, giving him a more unified way of dealing with everything.”
This workshop will offer an expanded perspective on how the Feldenkrais Method can be applied, and how it can have an impact that goes beyond the physical experience, the neuro-muscular experience. These same ideas can be applied in non-physical situations. How do your clients deal with people at the office? How can they deal with different kinds of constraints that they come up against? Refocusing will help you respond to a broader set of needs, and open up your work in the process.
What do you think of the conference theme this year, “The Tipping Point”? How do you feel that your workshop fits in with this theme?
I think of a “tipping point” as a point of inflection in some ongoing pattern of activity — a point at which the trajectory of that pattern bends in a new direction — so the answer to that question depends on what pattern you're asking about. This workshop isn't directly related to “Propelling the Feldenkrais Method into the mainstream,” but I do see it as contributing to a different tipping that I believe could be significant for our Method.
What I found most significant in Moshe's teachings was the underlying theme of autonomy. He encouraged us to hone and be guided by our own personal sense of rightness, rather than by rules laid down by any external source of authority (including him). And he wanted us to develop the discrimination and judgment necessary to make that sense of rightness reliable. I believe that this is what he wanted us to learn, and that the specifics of what he taught were imperfect means to achieve that end. But we sometimes confuse those means with that end.
In teaching advanced trainings, I've run across many practitioners whose understanding of the Feldenkrais Method, and of what a Functional Integration lesson can be, was unnecessarily restricted. Somehow they'd internalized narrow boundaries about the Method and what's okay or not okay to do with a client.
Enhancing our overall sense of autonomy and internal guidance is an important direction for the Method, and I see this workshop as at least nudging us that way. Refocusing shows clearly that there isn't one right way of doing anything, but that bringing the world into focus in different ways can offer different possibilities. So being able to explore many options to find what works best for you – at this time, with this person, in this situation – is an important broadening of skill.
These ideas have played a central part in my life and my practice for a long time. I see Refocusing as a tool for investigating the nature of human experience, from which I've learned specific skills that serve me in my practice. I hope to share some of these skills with the participants in this workshop, but I think it's more important that I share the mode of inquiry that gave me those skills, because that's a tool that they can use to continue to deepen and their own skill and understanding.
Learn more about Ralph's workshop
Seth Dellinger is a certifiied Awareness Through Movement® teacher, a 4th-year student in the Feldenkrais Training Program of Baltimore with David Zemach-Bersin, central organizer of the DC Feldenkrais Festival, and writes a regular blog at www.MoveLikeAChild.wordpress.com.