Embodied Teshuvah: the original class description

This article was originally written around 2004 or 2005 when I first taught Embodied Teshuvah. While the style might not be as compelling as my more recent writing, I believe there are still some ideas that I explore more clearly here, so I thought it worth re-posting now, in 2014, for those who might seek it out. ~jss.

The Shofar calls us to wake upAbout the class

I have always felt a connection between Jewish spirituality and the Feldenkrais method.  Maybe this is because Moshe Feldenkrais was Jewish (he spent his childhood in a traditional community in Europe, and came from a line of important Hasidic rabbis). Or maybe it’s because I discovered the Feldenkrais Method and Jewish spirituality at about the same time.  Over the past few years I have felt both this connection and some tensions between the approaches most keenly around the High Holidays.  This is hardly surprising, since on a certain level Yom Kippur and the Feldenkrais method seek to do the same thing: to provide a space for change in our habitual ways of living.

Effecting this sort of change through a single day of fasting, or even through the ten days beginning at Rosh Hashanah, is a tall order.  The Jewish tradition takes this into account, and the entire month of Elul is made special through the daily blowing of the shofar and the reading of special psalms.  This class will begin around the beginning of Elul (which this year falls on Labor Day, September 5th), and meet weekly until the Holidays.

Through text, ritual, conversation, and Awareness Through Movement lessons, we will explore such themes as: embodiment in the Jewish tradition, what it means to see ourselves and others as being ‘in the image of G-d’, finding an embodied sense of acceptance and support from which we can effect change, and more.

Some More Background

Alef: Teshuvah, The High Holidays, and the month of Elul

Much of the point of the High Holidays is to make a change in ourselves, as we seek to leave the old year behind with all its ‘sins’ (which we may understand as bad habits and bad experiences which weigh upon us) and free ourselves to move forward with a clearer image of our best selves. We call this change “teshuvah”, which, loosely translated, means ‘return’—traditionally referring to return to the ethical behavior and God, but also to living in spiritual harmony with God and the world in which we live.

This is a tall order, and the Jewish tradition is not unaware of that fact. The unbinding of vows at Kol Nidrei and the fast that follows are designed to take us out of our habitual lives so that we might return with a new perspective. Neither does this momentous day come without preparation: it is preceded by Rosh Hashanah and ten days of soul-searching.

But is that enough? Have you ever sat at Rosh Hashanah evening services and, perhaps at the sound of a certain prayer or comment from the Rabbi, thought ‘oh yea, that’s what this is about’, closely followed by ‘wait, I’m not ready! I have so much to change, I can’t do it in10 days!’ ? I know I have, and maybe that’s part of the point. Maybe that anxiety is an essential part of the process. I think this is why Rabbi Alan Lew calls his new book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (Little Brown & Co).

But even this productive anxiety could use some preparation, and our tradition does indeed provide space for that as well: from the first day of the last month of the year to the beginning of the new year a special psalm is read, and the shofar is blown every day to wake us up out of the spiritual slumber of our habitual lives. It is this process of laying the groundwork for the transformative journey of the High Holidays which I would like to support with this class.

Beit: The Feldenkrais Method® in the context of the High Holidays

Somewhat like the High Holidays, the Feldenkrais Method is concerned with changing habits. On the surface it might seem to be about habits of physical movement, but Moshe Feldenkrais recognized that there is less separation between the habits of the body and the habits of the mind than we might think. In fact, he felt that one cannot truly change without the other changing (cf. Body and Mature Behavior: a Study of Anxiety, Sex, Gravitation & Learning 1949/1996, International Universities Press, though this is a prevalent theme throughout his writing). This is so because, in a very real sense, there is no difference between a mental action and a physical action, as they both come from the same place—the human being, whose experience in the world is an embodied one.

The brilliance of the Feldenkrais Method is in the way it makes use of this understanding in order to create the conditions necessary for deep, genuine change to take place; that is, to create opportunities for people to discover change deep inside themselves. This change often comes as a shift both in physical self-use and in one’s relationship to oneself and to the world—in other words, a spiritual change.

Gimel: “Embodied Teshuvah”

In This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared Rabbi Alan Lew writes about teshuvah: “Every moment of our lives our suffering, our clinging to our lives, drives us out of our lives—away from home—and every moment, our awareness brings us back—returns us to ourselves, because we need to return, need to come back” (p. 28). If we see teshuvah as first and foremost a turning and returning to the self, then there is nothing like the experience of embodiment—of coming to recognize yourself in your embodied existence—to return you to the here and now of the essential self. From here you can begin to feel the possibility of change.

The class will give students a chance to explore what kind of change they feel they need in their lives this year and, through a combination of Jewish text study, ritual, and Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons (with a bit of influence from Taoist and Zen teachings) create the conditions necessary for these changes to begin taking place.

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