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How to Move, How to Breathe

IN THE FALL OF 1998, I received another letter from my mother asking me to return home to Chicago. She couldn’t understand why I was determined to spend my junior year abroad in Israel. She was worried about bus bombings and market explosions, of course, but I sensed her discomfort was also tied to something else.

My mom, who had attended Catholic school, converted to Judaism when she married my father. After their divorce, we hid a Christmas tree in the basement so my father wouldn’t see it when he picked me up for the weekends. He later remarried; his new wife had attended Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth group, and after high school completed their year-long program in Israel.

It was with my father’s and stepmother’s support that I chose Tel Aviv University, and I couldn’t help but won- der if that was what annoyed my mother about my being there. I had been caught in a tug of war between my parents for as long as I could remember, and I couldn’t even escape it halfway around the world.

As much as I hated to admit it, I too felt conflicted about being in Israel. Though I loved the study-abroad program and the new friends I made, every time I looked at the Mediterranean, I felt homesick for Lake Michigan. The truth was that I had no real preference for either Tel Aviv or Chicago, but the longing arose from the instability I’d experienced in my childhood. Bouncing back and forth between my parents’ homes, I lived in 11 different places by the time I left for college. None of them was my landing place. I felt this lack of ease mirrored in my body. I was ungrounded, and in between apartments and boyfriends. The conditions in Tel Aviv pushed my level of physical discomfort even further. It was so hot in the dorms that my roommate and I resorted to sitting around in our underwear, our twin oscillating fans on full blast. There were jukim (large flying cockroaches) everywhere, even in the showers. My stomach suffered from anxiety and an excess of pita.

It was also a particularly tense time on campus. That fall, Israeli university students organized to protest the government’s tuition increase. They demonstrated on campus daily, clashed with police, and dozens were arrested. Our program wasn’t connected to their strike, but my friends and I seemed like strikebreakers tryingto attend our classes. When we attempted to gain admission to campus buildings, sometimes the Israeli students let us pass. Sometimes they didn’t.

As I considered how to reply to my mother’s letter, a blue sheet of paper with classes at the university gym caught my eye. I tried to decipher the Hebrew sched- ule, hoping to find a yoga class to calm my stomach. Unable to read it, I headed to the gym, where I found several adults, many of whom appeared to be decades older than me, lying on the studio floor. Though I suspected that the class would be slow and boring, I was desperate for relief. I grabbed a mat and joined them.

When the teacher began speaking, I couldn’t understand anything but a few words of her Hebrew instruction. I gave up listening and began to imitate the movements of the others. Soon I realized that I was not in a yoga class. Instead of holding poses, the students slowly rolled from one side of their mats to the other in between long pauses of rest. I struggled to move gracefully like the other stu- dents, but I was clumsy, and humiliated. I wanted to quit and walk out, but a stron- ger urge refused to allow me to admit defeat. When the class ended and I stood up, I noticed that the ache in my lower back had disappeared. I felt good. The other students looked as blissed out as I felt, and we smiled shyly at one another.

I discovered that the class I attended was called “Awareness Through Movement” and is part of the Feldenkrais Method. It’s founder, Moshe Feldenkrais, once taught his famous student—then Israel’s first prime minister—David Ben-Gurion, how to stand on his head when he was 70 years old. Feldenkrais classes are as common in Israel as Pilates or yoga is in America.

I returned to the class. I discovered that I could breathe better once I realized I’d been clenching my jaw, and that my life-long habit of holding in my stom- ach had impeded the movement of my diaphragm. Releasing those patterns of tension improved my digestion. The more I relaxed, the more I could sense how anxious I’d been. In Feldenkrais class, I began to sense how different parts of my body connected to each other and con- tributed to the totality of myself. I learned to accept the divisions as I explored them, to realize that my identity is not a conflict, a problem that must be resolved. It’s not something that needs to be explained away to others. It is complex, it contains myriad implications. I am a kaleidoscope of shifting feelings, parts, limbs, a wonder to be appreciated, not deconstructed. I am Jewish, I am not Jewish, and I am so much more than this question and these concepts. I can breathe better outside of a box that has been stretched to expand and incorporate greater options, no longer just the sum of mother and father.

Lying on the floor with the others, I became increasingly aware of how I moved, where I could move, and when I needed to let it go. As I practiced and experimented with listening to my body by moving deeper into sensation, I also gave more thought to how I wanted to move through my life.

I learned how to navigate the grocery store and make dinner for my roommates. Other nights we ate sushi under the stars among feral cats that run as wild in Tel Aviv as the squirrels in Chicago. The cats ate the cockroaches. My new American friends and I hung out with our new Israeli friends, visiting their homes during the day and partying at night. The overseas program moved our classes to our dorms so we could attend class without crossing strike barriers. I studied too, a little.

My mother offered to meet me in London during my winter break. Together we traveled to places where my British ancestors on her side lived, and I learned more about my family history. When it was time to return to Israel for my second semester, she understood, and let me go.

When my year abroad ended, I returned home to Chicago and took every Feldenkrais class I could find. Almost twenty years later, in 2017, I graduated from a four-year training to become a Feldenkrais practitioner, and lead my own classes. Later that year, I traveled to Israel for the first time since I’d left it, returning with my husband and sons. We visited the campus in Tel Aviv, the dorms, and gym where I first studied Feldenkrais. I proudly posed for a picture next to a sculpture of Ben-Gurion on the beach, upside down, standing on his head, while my son held my leg as I tried to do the same.

A few months ago, I contracted the Covid-19 virus I had tried to avoid for almost a year. My Feldenkrais practice helped save my life, and my sanity. I used the breathing lessons I had taught others to expand my sternum, ribs, and lungs when Covid-19 made me short of breath. I listened to my body as I recuperated, made small steady advances, and tried not to push an unrealistic timeline of when things must return to “normal.”

During the long stretch of the pandemic, this Feldenkrais practice has cre- ated peace when there is no escape from the onslaught of bad news. I turn off the TV and travel inside, into my sensation. When I’m staring too intensely at my clients, whom I used to see in person but now only on screens, I recognize when it’s time to lighten my gaze, to encourage both of us to sit back, reduce our efforts, and allow peace to emerge. I remind myself to unclench the jaw behind my mask, relax the strained muscles behind my eyes, and lower my shoulders from their defensive position around my ears.

In isolation I have found new meaning for the word home, appreciating both the structure of my physical home, and body, inhabiting more of myself and finding the ways I can be kinder to its occupants—the people I live with, the entities that live within and outside of me, and the watery boundaries that separate them. It is a never-ending quest; this challenge to stay awake to my movement, present to what emerges in stillness, and to allow for what feels stuck, what feels heavy, for that too is part of my experience. I slow myself down, so I can feel what is possible in this moment, and the next. I listen to myself, which helps me learn to listen to others.

Sarah Leibov is a writer and Feldenkrais practitioner who lives in suburban Chicago with her husband and sons.