The Kinesthetic Sense

In the series of allegorical paintings called “The Five Senses”, Rubens and Breughel the Elder depict the classic five: sight (the most dominant), hearing, taste, touch and smell.

Ruebens painted the figures in the foreground, Breughel did the sumptuous backgrounds. In each painting, a female nude reclines passively, luxuriating in the objects associated with each sensation.

But there is no painting for the sense of movement, what is called the kinesthetic sense. Yet it is arguably the one we need and use most. 
In the boxing ring, a jab is thrown at a fighter’s head, and by some miracle of space and timing, he ducks out of the way at the last moment. 

A wide receiver catches a pass, and manages to keep his foot half an inch within the side line, and scores the winning touchdown. 

A violinist draws her bow at the precise angle and speed to project a high, plaintive Ab to the back row. 

These are moments where highly trained skills of movement meet the demands of professional performance. 

Human movement is an endlessly refineable form of expression and intelligence. 

But often in the performance of our daily lives, where we are at our most habitual, our inattention to the actions we perform results in a different experience. 

The clumsy step, the pain in the neck, the shoulder that makes us wince, the back pain that keeps you from going to work or enjoying the family outing. 

What are these except signals from your body that what your doing, to yourself, has the potential for harm? 

Most of the time, these moments pass with a little rub, a pause to adjust. But if left unaddressed, they can become neurologically encoded and chained together until we are living with an uninterrupted hum of discomfort, stiffness and pain; one that inexorably moves out of the background to center stage. 

If we want to learn how to live comfortably, it makes sense to train our kinesthetic sense, our sense movement. 

And this is not the same thing as exercise. 

The difference between exercise and the practice of Awareness Through Movement is that in exercise, a person already knows what the activity is supposed to do for them. 

Yoga and stretching make you limber. 

Running and cardio build endurance and improve circulation. 

Lifting weights makes you strong. 

But it’s possible to engage in any of these activities, and hurt yourself.

I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. 

While the benefits of exercise derive from the fact that you move, the problems with exercise derive from the attitude with which you move. It is, for the most part, an attitude of performance and willpower, not learning.  The emphasis is not on how. Or, if it is, it’s short lived and prescriptive: keep your back straight, your shoulders down, etc. 

Exercise, for most people, is not a study. 

It is a performance, and sometimes, a grind. 

I am not knocking exercise. I do it and enjoy it. I’m just pointing out a few things. 

Awareness Through Movement is oriented completely different than exercise, in that it creates a context where you attend to the details, sensations and the relationships which are normally hidden in the experience of moving. You’re engaged with the process of movement, and not it’s product. 

You’ve heard of the phrase, “no pain, no gain”?

That’s an exercise aphorism. 

That’s a mantra that justifies the unpleasantness of your experience of exertion. But what if exertion, or rather it’s potential for amping up the nuerological noise, is masking the problem? 

The truth is : Accurate movement, demands accurate sensation. 

If you doubt this, all you need to do is spend 5 minutes with tap dancer, juggler, or ballet dancer. There is no “just do it” to these skills. Accurately perceiving the sensations you need is a necessary apprenticeship to the action itself.

People in general, for lack of training, are not very sensitive to the movements they are making. And it only gets worse as you dial up the effort. There’s even a law that demonstrates this, called the Law of Just Noticeable Difference, or the Weber Foechner law, named for the scientists who discovered it. In it’s application to movement, it says that as effort increases, especially poorly organized effort, your ability to sense differences in the details of movement diminishes. This includes, pressure, direction, speed, effort, and pain.   

The man who created Awareness Through Movement, Moshe Feldenkrais, puts it this way: 

“If I raise an iron bar I shall not feel the difference if a fly either lights on it or leaves it. If, on the other hand, I am holding a feather, I shall feel a distinct difference if the fly were to settle on it. The same applies to all the senses: hearing, sight, smell, taste, heat, cold.”

You will exert in Awareness Through Movement, but at a level that helps you investigate and inform your experience, not extort it. The context  may be movement, but the points you score are for awareness and compassion for yourself. 

The practice offers us an intelligent retreat from the noise of willpower and disorganized effort. 

And while this does mean slowing down, it does not mean spacing out. 

You’ll find there’s a whole new layer of richness, of specificity, and practical  understanding that can emerge when you distinguish between the haste of habit and the speed of learning.