01 March 2020 - The Feldenkrais Method
Maggy Burrowes, Feldenkrais Practitioner

Learning to Listen to Ourselves

This article refers to the lesson that can be heard here: Mindful Listening

Once a year, during International Feldenkrais Week, our teaching community comes together to share our love for our Method with as many of you out there as will listen. In our teaching process our stated intent is to expand conscious awareness in such a way that new behaviour becomes easier to adopt, and new life possibilities become more available as a consequence.

Much of what people come to us for is actually a ‘side effect’ of this learning process; our habitual behaviour — which includes our default emotional responses — can naturally generate chronic unconscious muscular activity. When we learn to let go of the effort that maintains this high muscle tone, most of us experience the lowering of arousal we recognise as feeling ‘relaxed’. Within this looser, softer self, our various vital fluids flow more freely throughout our whole system. In addition our breathing naturally becomes easier and fuller, and often adjusts to a slower pace.

Slowing our breathing and extending our exhalation is probably the most effective mechanism we have for consciously shifting out of a state of tension and arousal into our rest-and-recuperation mode (out of sympathetic, and into parasympathetic nervous system function). Our pain lessens, our anxiety lowers, blood flows into unclenched muscles, easing pain and freeing movement — and these benefits are the reasons that draw many people to commit to regular Feldenkrais lessons.

It can take a while to recognise that these strategies are not only useful for unlearning what has outlived its value in our habitual daily activities, but also highly effective for incorporating brand new ideas, attitudes, and behaviours into our ongoing ways of being. We can learn to live in a manner that is less routine. We can begin to open our eyes and ears — and all our senses — to new choices that are revitalising, rejuvenating, and which can even be even exhilarating.

Listening is a skill that can be refined and enhanced through this well-honed awareness-enhancing process. Moshe Feldenkrais recognised that hearing is our primary sense; we come out of the womb already familiar with the sounds our mother’s internal systems make, and acclimatised to the frequency range of our ‘mother’ tongue. Unlike sight, hearing is multidirectional and does not appear to come with an automatic switch-off mechanism. Blocking both ears with our fingers may lower the volume of the intrusive outside world, but it also opens up our inner ear, shifting our attention to a muffled, internal soundscape, more like the one we first experienced in the womb. If you listen intently to this internal world you may even hear your own heart beating.

Listening is not a passive process; it is more like what we do when we focus our gaze on a distant something; or guide our nostrils towards the source of a delicious aroma; or soften our finger tips to extract a tiny foreign object from our hair. Listening is fundamental to the way we teach Awareness Through Movement; our classes are led via verbal instruction, without visual demonstration from the teacher. This is because the intention of Awareness Through Movement is whole-self sensory discovery, rather than the more familiar movement training process in which students strive to reproduce a supposedly ‘correct’ version of a particular action by observing their teacher. As if to highlight this distinction, Moshe would often use ‘listen’ as the guiding metaphor for this internal exploration — ‘listen inside the back, inside the head, inside the neck’. He was intentionally using language as a way to encourage the imagination, and open the mind and the senses to new experience.

Dr Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory reveals the way that, as social mammals, we have evolved to communicate friendly approachability via calm, easy breathing, expressiveness faces, prosodic voices, and the ability to focus our listening in an attentive, engaged manner. We can also tune into each other’s emotional states in a more ‘embodied’ way, via our breathing and our heart rate.

Current research into communal singing reveals that, when we breathe in rhythm with each other, our heart rate can also begin to synchronise. Porges’ research offers a mechanism for how this entrainment of the heart rate might be particularly easy to observe when we are singing together. The functioning of our vagus nerve is not just improved by extending our exhalation; something that happens naturally when we sing. It is also positively influenced by actively listening to — rather than passively hearing — human vocal sound frequencies.

I have always been rather socially awkward, and it does not help my tendency towards feeling overwhelmed in social situations that, in noisy, busy environments, I often cannot hear my companions’ voices over the high volume of background noise. I have always found this odd, as I am a singer and my hearing is pretty keen. Discovering Porges’ research into the effects of stress on our ability to tune our listening sense to human vocal frequencies was a lightbulb moment. In his book he describes my experience exactly, and after learning about the connection between anxiety and this kind of selective social ‘deafness’ I noticed that my hearing can revert to normal after a period of time in a friendly environment, even when the volume of background noise has actually increased. All this suggests that the calming process that Feldenkrais enables can be beneficial for easing this stress-deafness, as well as for honing our ability to focus our conscious attention.

The lesson I have recorded for this year’s Feldenkrais celebration incorporates a third aspect of our listening skills; learning to listen more effectively via focussed attention, and learning to listen better through self-calming, I am adding listening in a manner specifically aimed at improving our ability to hear. Thanks to the research of Dr Alfred A Tomatis, I am confident that the manner of listening required to master the ability to communicate using our vast range of potential vocal sounds is the very mechanism that builds and refines our individual hearing abilities.

Dr Tomatis’ research was initially inspired by his father’s experiences as an opera singer, and his fascination with the connection between singing and hearing is what drew me to his work. His interest in the singing voice and the ear has been superseded by the focus of his successors on the benefits that his ear-training system can bring to children and adults with neurological issues.

As we tune in to our own voice we are beginning to uncover and explore a soundscape as complex and rich with resonance as any symphony orchestra. I hope that, as you learn to embrace a greater range of the frequencies present in your own voice, you will begin to find that your ears are more open to the enormous range of frequencies out there in the world surrounding you.

I hope you enjoy the lesson, and I look forward to any feedback you might care to share with me. This article is an edited version of a longer article on my website that includes more detail about some of the research I mention, and links for you to follow up this information if you would like to know more about a fascinating subject.