by Rachel Hamstra, Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner
If you’ve never tried an Awareness Through Movement (ATM®) class before, they can seem entirely mysterious and strange. Even many classes in, they can feel mysterious. What are these small gentle movements doing? Why do I feel so much taller, more grounded, more mobile, when it seems like I barely did anything for an hour? The answer is in the name: awareness.
We all have physical, emotional, and mental habits. Some of them serve us well, but others get in our way. Many of those less useful (and sometimes damaging) habits are often unconscious. Small, gentle movements combined with awareness in ATM classes give us time and space to begin to recognize our physical habits, as well as the emotional and mental habits linked to physical habits. If you don’t know what you’re doing, how can you change?
For example, let’s say you’re someone with lower back pain. At the beginning of an ATM class, you’d likely be asked to lie on your back, check in with your lower back, and find out how far from the floor it is. The further from the floor it is, the more tension is being carried there. Habits on the floor are indicative of habits in the rest of life, so if your lower back is working hard while lying down, imagine how hard it’s working when you’re upright. Later in class, you might be asked to lift your leg while staying attentive to what’s happening in your lower back. By recognizing that your lower back tends to work hard all the time and giving it your attention, you can train yourself in a new way of moving that takes care of your back and only asks it to work when helpful. With enough time and practice, a new habit is born and your lower back pain is gone.
This method applies to more extreme circumstances too, not just aches and pains. The fact that I can walk, dance, and hike is proof of that. I was born with hip dysplasia, which means I have shallow, oddly shaped hip sockets. I have had many surgeries and spent a couple of years on crutches as a kid. My right hip was so unstable at one point that a surgeon talked about the possibility of fusing it. Thanks to many hours of ATM classes during my Feldenkrais® training, I’m not in pain these days and I’m hopeful for no surgery for many years.
The reinforcement of those hours and hours of classes taught me how to treat my hip joints as if they were healthy, round, and stable, even when they weren’t. 15 years ago my right hip joint had some squared-off painful edges—this year’s x-ray shows two shallow but beautifully round hip joints. Over time, not only did I change my habits, but I actually changed the growth patterns of my bones. Everything is changeable, but it all has to start with awareness.