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Practitioner Spotlight with Jeff Haller: A New Definition of Strength

By Gabrielle Pullen, GCFP

In this month’s spotlight of those who trained directly with Moshe Feldenkrais, I spoke with Practitioner and Trainer Jeff Haller. Since 1993, the primary focus of Jeff’s work has been on teaching Professional Trainings in the Feldenkrais Method®. Jeff’s background includes an MA in Intercultural Education, a Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology, and over 20 years of study in Aikido. He was a university level basketball player at Oregon State University when he first encountered the Method. As a Trainer, he has worked around the world, been the educational director of eight graduating classes, and has plans to initiate several other trainings in the future.

SA: Jeff, how did you first encounter the Feldenkrais Method?

JH: In 1972, Moshe did a tour up the west coast. When he taught in Portland, Oregon, my speech professor, a guy named Sam Keltner, went to the workshop. Our speech class included dynamic group relationships so we often had a Charlotte Selver kind of sensory organization thing going on, or there would be some kind of relaxation process…So, he brought back maybe five to ten minutes of Awareness Through Movement® (ATM), and I was stunned by this stuff. In a very short period of time, it made a huge difference in what I could do, how far I could turn, how well I could see, and in the way I internally perceived myself. It really struck me profoundly. I read the AWARENESS THROUGH MOVEMENT book that came out in 1972 right after that.

SA: On your website it says that you found more potential for learning in those little five minute ATM snippets than in the previous five years of basketball training. What did you mean by that?

JH: Well, I don’t know about today, I haven’t been on a basketball court in years, but back then, the emphasis was on motor skills training through effort, continuous repetitions, gymnastic repetitions and doing things over and over and over until you reached either the coach’s satisfaction or his frustration. But there’s nothing in that process of motor skills training to play basketball that requires you to really, really pay attention to your internal experience, or to use your senses as a basis for improving yourself. Everything is done through effort. During those few minutes when I was directed to attend to myself in a radically different way, it made such a profound difference in my ability to turn and to use my eyes. As a result of that attention, it gave me a glimpse of a potential based on internal experience rather than the use of effort, the use of force, or the use of will that takes place in most athletic training. I was deeply touched. There were probably thirty people in the class and I was the only one who walked out of there and became a Feldenkrais® Practitioner!

SA: Right, and that’s a huge deviation from the way most people train: they don’t use the senses as a basis for self-improvement.

JH: I was very ready at that time. There was something inside me that was yearning for that. I had an internal inclination and affinity for it. It’s amazing that Keltner was able to teach fifteen minutes of ATM that for me was the catalyst that took me into the internal exploration that could improve my life.

Following that experience, I went down to Mexico to work on a Master’s Degree in Education. Afterwards, I came back and taught high school in a little town called Monroe, Oregon. As a result of that, I was still close to Sam Keltner. We helped put on a conference at Oregon State that brought up all the main teachers from Esalen. [considered the first ‘think tank’ that put the human potential movement on the map] It included George Leonard, Michael Murphy, Will Schutz, Betty Fuller and a number of other people. During that conference, I saw George Leonard give an Aikido demonstration and I literally turned in my resignation from teaching the next day to go to the Bay area to study Aikido. I was fascinated with it because in basketball everything is done upright, and there it was, right in front of me, this three-dimensional tumbling, and rolling and turning. And I just intuitively knew that for my own development, I needed to have that ability in my vestibular system [which governs balance] to be able to roll and go in every direction.

It was all synchronous. Sam happened to have a brochure on his kitchen counter about the California Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, as it was called then. And Moshe Feldenkrais was on the advisory board for the school. Feldenkrais classes were included in the curriculum as well as Aikido. By the fall of 1977, I was enrolled and taking classes with Marty Weiner who was teaching both Aikido and ATM classes there.

SA: You received your black belt in Aikido in 1981. Is there an overlap between Aikido and [the] Feldenkrais [Method]?

JH: Yes, I think there’s a huge overlap, if you look at the teaching of O Sensei (the founder of Aikido) and [the] Feldenkrais [Method]. One of Moshe’s tenets is that potent posture is the freedom to move in any direction without hesitation or preparation. If you look at one of O Sensei’s statements – and of course, it’s interpreted in many different ways – he says, “There is no technique, only unlimited creativity.” In the most refined form of either one of these teachings, the same outcome is taught, which is to be in the state of being free to move without hesitation. It’s about not being bound in any way, but to be as free to move as the ever-changing environment is. Aikido is more martially based but you can see the martial basis of fighting and Judo groundwork in the ATM lessons. But, there are preparations in ATM that go beyond what you find in any martial arts training process. If you study the materials from the training that Moshe taught in Amherst, [1980], you’ll see that Moshe has created the potential in that class for every student to be able to go from any position to any other position without hesitation, to change orientation from one position to another without hesitation. You won’t find many martial artists who have the ability to lie in a position on the floor and to change positions, come to standing and face in a given direction without hesitation.

SA: I often think of this in terms of balance, but you’re taking it up to the next level, into more dimensions, so to speak.

JH: Moshe was very clear on this. At Amherst he said, “I’m teaching you to be strong.” By this, I believe he meant for us to have the internal resources to meet the necessity of the changing moment.

SA: What did he mean when he said, ‘I’m teaching you to be strong?’

JH: He wasn’t speaking in terms of athletic power. He was speaking in terms of the ability to be in a quiet place and to have the flexibility to act with choice rather than compulsion.

SA: In other words, to respond to what’s in front of you.

JH: Exactly.

SA: of the criticisms I’ve heard of the Feldenkrais Method is that it doesn’t address core strength. I have lots of friends who ride horses and the big thing in riding right now is Pilates, because you have to become stronger.

JH: I have a different view of “strength.” In this context, I would add something to what Moshe said about being able to move in any direction without hesitation. I would add, ‘based on the way you find support from the surface you are on.’

In other words, in standing, your support is based on the way your feet make contact with the ground. Well, if you’re imprecise in the way you find support through your skeleton, you’re going to have to engage more of your musculature to maintain your orientation.

SA: And, you’ll be using muscles designed for fine motor control to stabilize yourself in space – which is not what they were designed for…

JH: Exactly. Now, if I train myself in any exercise system, and I’m sloppy in the way I provide support for myself, all I will do is train muscles based on supporting myself the way I am accustomed to. Until I’m able to fluidly change from position to position, and use the entirety of all the surfaces of my body with clear intention, I would say that I’m not strong. I wouldn’t be able to completely access my own muscles, or use them fluidly for any activity. Core strengthening exercises will NOT change the dynamic pattern with which you engage the environment. You’ll continue to maintain the faulty support.

Now eventually, you might have a particular body shape that is appealing to look at, but it’s not necessarily efficient. First of all, look at how many people go through these kinds of rigorous strength training regimens and end up with horrendous injuries. I’ve worked with many people who have ended up in my office as a result of taking these kinds of classes without understanding – or being able to feel, or attend to – where their base of support is coming from.

The endless succession of core strengthening exercises won’t necessarily improve the way a person rides their horse. It won’t change their understanding of their own balance, or their sensitivity. It won’t change their internal environment that governs their ability to sense their position in space. It won’t give them a more refined sense of what the horse is doing. It won’t give them a sense of moving on their horse so their hands can be soft. Nor will it give them the ability to sense what the horse needs. ATM lessons can bring awareness to the sense of effort, so that athlete, rider and martial artist can free themselves of bad habits that interfere with true strength.

SA: Using too much effort is like getting in your own way, literally. So, what motivated you to study directly with Moshe?

JH: I somehow knew that working with Moshe was of great personal importance to me. At the time, I was getting these nice lessons from Marty at the school and they were affecting me profoundly. My mind would be quiet, my body would be in a very different place. But Moshe was the fountainhead of these lessons. Being in the sphere of Moshe was to be in the presence of the genius from which all this stuff was coming. He brought no notes to the sessions. Each day he generated new material, all of which was intricately interrelated. I didn’t witness this myself, but I’m told he would wake up at 4:00 AM and work out some new ATMs then roll over and go back to sleep until it was time for the training. Jerry Karzen, the organizer, would ask if he wanted to record them and he would reply that no, he’d just make up another thirty tomorrow morning! It’s very rare that a person gets to experience the kind of alive, creative, spontaneous process that was flowing out of him.

SA: How does that inspiration relate to daily life for you now?

JH: It has certainly profoundly affected the way my mind works. If you look at the flow of the material that he put together at Amherst, it’s absolutely unbelievable. All the pieces that he put together are remarkable: all the structural work, all the functional work, all the background work, the philosophical work. It was a very full time. Over the years since my training, I was able to see that I needed to develop much more depth in myself if I was to help a person with their life. It spurred me to look deeper, work with a teacher to see how profoundly my past and conditioning rampantly drove me unconsciously. Moshe helped me make some basic distinctions about strength and choice that eventually needed years of study for me to integrate into how I work with and care for the people I work with today.

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