Touching Base

February is my least favourite month in the UK. It’s cold, and the winter always feels to me like it’s dragging its heels at this point. My January Blues are usually in February! But this month, lockdown has kept me busy working with some lovely people that I’ve been pleased to be working with.

In the past few months, I have had a similar conversation with a few clients, talking about how we deal with difficult people. We all have to do this at some time or other, and some of us seem to be blessed with endless patience and good humour. I’m sadly not one of those people. But I have learnt some useful tools through Feldenkrais. I can already hear some of you querying whether Feldenkrais is the panacea for everything (no, not quite everything of course!) but bear with me…

One thing that’s important in any relationship, any situation, is how you pay attention, how you take in information. 

How do you physically respond to different information? As we get more used to sensing ourselves, we can learn to feel how we respond to people in the body. 
Our physical responses to situations can amplify the emotions we feel. The first step in being able to respond better, is to learn more about your habits. What you do. When you do it…

Here’s a little exercise to try:

  • Think of someone you love, you feel safest with. Or it can be a place you feel safe in. Note your physical sensations, are you breathing freely, or do you hold your breath when you think of them? How relaxed is your belly? Are your ribs moving in your chest, or are you holding them still? Are you closing your throat in some way, or is it open, are your shoulders rising, or are they easily resting? All of these are common places we hold tension, your habits may be elsewhere, so scan your whole self. 
  • Think of someone who’s a colleague, someone you like, but don’t completely trust. Again, scan round yourself, and notice what you do: do you tighten anywhere, stop any part of the breath? Re-read the list above, check in with the places in yourself. Go back to thinking of your loved one, and notice the change in openness, in expansiveness.
  • The next step could be triggering, so give yourself permission not to do it, before you read ahead. 
  • If you’re feeling OK to go further, and only if it feels like it would be useful for you, then the next step is think of someone you find more challenging- perhaps someone who you find difficult to spend time with, perhaps has done you a disservice, and notice what happens in your body. Start with someone easy if you have any concerns. 
  • Notice where you tighten, you shut down, you close, you stop moving. And then one by one see if you can simply restart movement in those areas. For me, I tense around the bottom of the ribs, so I focus on allowing them to move out with the in breath. If that doesn’t work, I’ll generously shift my weight from one side to the other, sliding one side of the pelvis up and the same shoulder downwards, to bring movement back into the ribs. I tighten my throat, so I can think about breathing in through the mouth, and visualise anything that makes me think of openness. I shut my upper ribs down, so I can only breathe shallowly- I could visualise a cat allowing the air to ripple up and down the lungs and ribs to help me have movement there.
  • Or I can come back to my touchstone, and think of my loved one, to allow me to “re-centre”, to re-find a physical sense of being that brings me comfort and peace.
Peacock. Photo: Arnold Zhou @ Unsplash

Your body tension levels can literally push you into an amygdala hijack. When your brain sees a level of threat (real or imagined, its the same to your brain) which needs split-second response times, the amygdala takes over, and pushes any reasoning or cognition out of the picture. 
If you can unfold the physical responses and keep your breath and body moving, bring your senses into play – your brain doesn’t get pushed into an amygdala response.

If we learn our patterns of how we wind ourselves up, we can also learn how to wind ourselves down. 
Practise in non-challenging situations- notice when you get into low level conflict with others what you do in your body- and see if you can unwind physically. Take a moment before you verbally respond, and see if it changes your response. It takes time to get good at, so you’ll need to practice when you’re not on high alert, or challenging situations so its a resource at your fingertips.
Don’t give yourself a hard time if you fail. The first stage of learning anything is awareness. Our skill levels take time to catch up. And we all fail sometimes.

Being able to give yourself space before you respond, listening to your body. That is something I learnt on the Feldenkrais mat. It came from taking time to explore movements, how I add tension, when was it not necessary? How could I move more easily, with just enough tension, action, not more? And eventually I discovered something a little elusive, something I can’t force, a state I arrive in, which I call ‘body neutral’. Where my emotions are free to move around, I’m not holding them in my body pattern. And there I can sense which holding relates to which emotions. When I can release the physical tension, the emotional tone lowers too. It doesn’t vanish (this isn’t magic) but it lessens the height of the emotional colour, and I can engage with the issue more simply.

With others, I am more able to sort out what’s my emotional baggage, and what belongs to the other. Which in itself makes challenging discourse easier. (Of course, it’s a work in progress, I’m not perfect).
With an embodied sense of myself, it is easier to feel when I am being myself, and when I am taking on guises or cloaks of behaviours that aren’t mine, that don’t belong to me. The behaviours that I learnt as a child, or young adult that don’t fit me. 

I often think that Feldenkrais is about reducing the masks that we all put up. The armour that we raise to defend our egos, ourselves, is also that which reduces us, lessens us. When I am more myself, I am more relaxed, easier to be with in most ways. But less guarded, and more comfortable in my own skin. I am able to work out how I fit in my own skin, rather than trying to fit in a way that I think I should, that other people tell me I should.

Sometimes of course, we need defence, especially around people we find difficult, or who might wish us harm, but how can we make an armour that protects us, but doesn’t confine us. Often people describe their armour as something hard that they make of themselves. How could our armour be lighter, softer, more malleable from the inside out? And how can we take it off when we don’t need it more easily? Just what we need, when we need it, Not more, not less. 

If this was interesting or resonated, I’d love to know. I think this journey of looking after ourselves, and self care is one of the gifts that we get from a moving mindfulness practice like Feldenkrais.

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