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Does your Walk have a Future?

Andrew Gibbons is a Feldenkrais® practitioner with a full practice in New York City. A trained classical pianist, Gibbons has worked with world-class musicians and performers in venues like the Manhattan School of Music and at the annual Marlboro Music Festival in Marlboro, VT. In addition to his work with private clients and teaching group classes, he has presented the Feldenkrais Method® to many new audiences, including at a Tech Talk at Google's Manhattan offices, at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, and in public programs sponsored by the NY Department for the Aging. He is on the staff of Jeff Haller's IOPS Academy, a two-year graduate program for Feldenkrais practitioners.

This summer at the Feldenkrais Method Conference July 7-10 in Asheville, NC, Andrew will offer Feldenkrais practitioners, trainees and other somatic practitioners a full-day workshop, “The Back Leg Strikes Back: The Weightless Wheel of Walking.”

Another crucial detail of his bio was revealed as he explained the title: “The name was catchy. I'm a Star Wars kid - that's my favorite movie of the series!” In our subsequent discussion, Andrew spoke with me at length about his interest in walking, his ongoing study of this basic human movement, and why he feels that understanding the dynamics of walking is essential to the development of any Jedi Feldenkrais practitioner who wants to harness the Force (or, at the very least, ground forces...) to help their clients defeat the sinister elements of the Dark Side!

Why did you choose to focus on walking as the theme of your workshop at this year's Feldenkrais Method Conference?

I wanted to work with a very narrow idea involving upright functioning. The workshop will not be a general discussion of walking. We will examine what it means to have a really specific kind of power available to you when you walk. I don't mean ballistic power, but specificity in the way you use the foot, your contact with the ground, and the way you understand how the leg provides the support for as long as it does. Most people don't really have stability in standing and within the movement of walking. Most people are fairly easy to perturb.

The thing that really caught my attention as I started to study this was how little I understood about how to use the leg as it goes behind me. And the more I looked at it with my clients, the more I found it to be a very rich process to understand. A majority of our clients have tight quads, tight hip flexors, and they don't know how to use the hamstrings. Part of this is that when the leg goes behind them, they give up its contact with the ground very quickly. And they give it up just to fall into the other leg, because it's right there in front of them. But when you actually start to use the leg behind you on the ground behind you for longer, and with a specific criterion in mind, that support makes life a lot better!

In my experience mentoring practitioners, this is an idea that also isn't clear for many of us. Everybody has that lovely feeling of coming up after a lesson and feeling beautiful, but because there hasn't been a clear criterion in walking, it drains out of them pretty quickly. And there's no conscious way for them to maintain the gains of the lesson when they're upright. So the workshop is really about understanding how not to lose that power and internal connection with yourself when you're walking.

In the video about your workshop you describe the Feldenkrais Method as “a daily practice.” We see you practicing movement in various settings and often using props like weights, resistance bands, and sticks. During your workshop, participants will also use props and work with partners. Why do you take this approach?

Understanding the dynamics of walking is not a quick or easy thing. It's more like a life-long study. I've been studying walking for eight years now.

Sure, practice means doing ATM lessons, and as a beginning practitioner there was a stage in my understanding when I thought the most important thing was always to do another ATM lesson. I still study ATM lessons, but now I see how limited that idea was. Embedded in it was this expectation: “If I do the ATM, I'll get the benefits.” Today, I'd rather say, “You do the ATM, you get the benefits, and then - when do you lose them again?!”  

I have worked with enough practitioners over the years to know that many are not sustaining the benefit from the lesson. But it takes work to reach a new plateau of functioning where you don't slip back into the same problem. That's not effortless! I don't think it's responsible of me to tell my clients, “Don't think about it. Just feel it.” That's letting them off the hook!

My bent as a practitioner has been towards trying to train the client very specifically. I try to show them what they really don't understand and then show them the process by which they can acquire this safer way of functioning.

I got to a place where I wanted to test things out. Moshe was clear: the thing about the scientific method that is so much better than any other approach is that at some point you're going to have to develop a test for your idea: to see if what you think you know actually produces the thing that you say it does.

My use of props is simple – I just explore with them. I find them useful and I'm clear about why I am using them. They help me visualize what I'm doing better. In the video you see me holding a stick out in front of me while I walk. We'll use that in the workshop to get people to be able to see that the centerline has to be able to turn and line up over the axis of the feet. If it doesn't, you're going to sag and shear in your hip joints. You'll see, it's pretty clear how it works.

The Feldenkrais Method is great, but it's really hard to look at bodies and understand what you're looking at. In one of the lessons in Awareness Through Movement, Moshe uses the image of a rod that describes a cone. He used sticks and other props all the time during the Amherst training to illustrate his ideas.  

Sometimes when you just talk it's hard for people to understand what you're saying. Very few people are so kinesthetically developed that they can hear the words, imagine what you're saying, and feel the planes of action. The prop helps orient them to the thing you are talking about, and it has to be used very specifically.

In your video proposal, you draw a direct connection between working with clients in upright orientations and the idea of being “a tipping point practitioner.” Can you say more about that?

Standing, walking, jumping, dancing: the upright functions shouldn't be off limits for us, or left as just some area where the floor work “manifests.” 

I never used to be able to work with people in standing. I would avoid doing that because I didn't understand the dynamics in standing or what there was to work on. Now I give entire lessons in standing with people if it seems appropriate for them and I think that they can stick with it.

Often, as beginners, we just can't wait to get the person to the table. We think, “Now we can start the lesson!” But a really competent practitioner should have no problem working with a person in standing, in walking, in the activity that the person may be coming to you for specific help with.

Some people come to us with severe deficits. At some point a pretty deliberate conversation is in order about what it's going to take for them to really put this stuff to use after the lesson is over.  

For example, I have a client who had a faulty hip replacement, where the post of the replacement femoral head sank into the thigh bone, and he literally had one leg that was significantly shorter than the other. Just working with him on the table, giving nice lessons to make him feel better was not appropriate!  

This guy had a problem and he wanted to know how to deal with it. He had no clue how to walk, how to support himself, and he wasn't sure if he would get the revision surgery. What are you going to do? You have to teach him how to use his elevated shoe. He's going to be upright. He's telling you what he wants most: to continue walking as long as he can.

That's my pursuit here: you want a walk that has a future.  

Most people have no conscious or specific criteria for walking. The criteria that I'm going to present in the workshop are not fuzzy. It's going to be made very clear and I'm happy to discuss or debate it. I've had injuries myself and rehabbed myself through some difficulties and I feel pretty clear about my understanding at this point. And in five years, I hope that understanding will continue to evolve.

I've been a practitioner for thirteen years now, and I give an average of twenty lessons a week. I know what it's like to give many lessons and have my client walk into the next lesson with the same difficulty every time. That's part of the growth as a practitioner you have to go through. But at some point I realized, “I'm not showing them how to maintain this in their upright activities, their upright life. That's a real problem.” When you really start to study it, you can watch the lesson drain out of them as they go to pick up their keys off the bench!

My idea was to choose something that is super common, fundamental to everyone's quality of life, something that I personally enjoyed exploring. Walking is a very complex activity. It's difficult to study. There's all those moving parts over a very small base of support. But every client needs it, that particular aspect of what the Method has to offer.

And from a marketing point of view...it's a big audience!  

To go mainstream practitioners need to work more. More practitioners have to make a living at the work if there is going to be a tipping point. The rate of people who graduate but don't do the work professionally is a factor. There are 1100 Guild members – that's not a lot of people!

We have something absolutely amazing to offer. But the training we had in the work didn't necessarily give us the capacity to own and operate a business. There is another whole set of skills that we need to have to bring it to people.

The practitioner has to see that, for the clients that come to you - you are the Feldenkrais Method! If you're really doing it for a living, if that's your business, you have to have a quality of organization where you're able to demonstrate, you're able to speak about it, you're able to be corrective if you need to (in the proper context of  the way it can emerge in a lesson), and you can also give beautiful lessons where you don't talk at all, giving that beautiful nonverbal experience to the person. That whole package needs to be something that the practitioner is developing.

For example, if you've been practicing for ten years, you should be able to work successfully with a yoga teacher or student. When they say, “it hurts whenever I go into this asana,” and they show you, you should be able to see immediately why the right hip is so messed up. That shouldn't be a mystery. Our specialty is how the person learns. But if our learning strategies are not in line with how the physical function is actually built, that's a problem.

Over the years, I've worked with a few clients who were at the moment in their life where they could no longer walk. I feel privileged to have worked with these people. I didn't help them walk again, I couldn't, but it was personally important for me to understand. It's cruel what happens when people don't have any criteria. As a Feldenkrais practitioner, I'm paying attention to that. Do I want to be the guy on the subway car who can barely make it out in the ten seconds before the doors close?

Then there's some older people who can really move! Some of that is luck, that they never had illness or serious injuries, but there's also a discipline that's possible that can bring you to that place. That discipline that is available to me as a practitioner.

I've had some nasty injuries in recent years: I partially tore my shoulder, I had a bad fall on my sacrum, damaged my right knee stepping into a hole on the sidewalk. It was two and a half years before I got that back - and I got it back! It was actually beautiful. I finally understood the saying that with the right attitude, your injury will be your biggest teacher. That discipline was a real laboratory for me.  

Walking really requires that discipline, and it continually offers us the opportunity for refinement. And it's not easy...but it's fun!

Find out more about Andrew'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.

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