Borrowing my daughter’s tent (meaning I won’t have to sleep in the car for 3 nights – still not sure which is preferable), I set off for a ‘Walking with Awareness‘ weekend in Manorbier, on the South Pembrokeshire coast. Driving into Wales on the M4 over the Severn Bridge brings back long-lost memories and I’m enjoying the SatNav’s attempt to splutter out the Welsh place names.
She successfully navigates me to the closed gates of an MOD compound at Old Castle Head before she abandons me to venture further down the lane to the Manorbier Youth Hostel, a strange bunkerish shape in the landscape which began life as part of the nearby MOD unit.
The workshop is run by Fiona Wright and Simone Kenyon, both independent artists with shared backgrounds in performance and visual arts and both currently training as practitioners in the Feldenkrais Method. If you are wondering what the Feldenkrais Method is, here is a 10 minute video to explain a little of the mysteries of Awareness Through Movement that Feldenkrais advocates.
Of course, Fiona and Simone guide us through their own version of ‘body awareness’ based on their individual experience of somatic practices. In the community room I dub the Happy Birthday room on account of the frieze left over from a child’s party, our facilitators take us through a variety of ‘experiments’ to get us in touch with our physicality, either in a horizontal position lying flat on the floor, or through vertical body movement on two feet such as: finding where our bodies (bones) make contact points with the ground surface (something I can practice in my sleeping bag); alternating between an exaggerated ‘cat walk’ walk and same-shoulder-same-foot walking (difficult, you try it); making moving star shapes as a graceful way of bringing our bodies from a lying position up to a sitting posture (would like to have had an aerial view of this one) and working with the body as a ‘bag o’ bones‘.
This last experiment with bones particularly resonates with me. Apart from the fact that I have always referred to my whippets as a ‘bag o’ bones’ (and they will be wondering why I am feeling their bodies in a new way), the bag o’ bones experiment is the one I feel least prepared for because it is an experiment that involves working with other group members using the whole body, the idea being to bring a ‘dead-weight’ person from lying to standing with just two people using their whole bodies as levers to push and pull to bring about this complicated manoeuvre. To most of the crew this comes quite naturally because they are all performers, but to a mere visual artist, it is the one where I am left feeling lost and inadequate. Thus it becomes my own light-bulb moment, and turns my thinking completely upside down. I begin to appreciate that (as an artist) rather than viewing my hands (painting, making, healing), feet (walking), and eyes (observing, analysing) as being merely extensions of my body, my body is – in essence – an extension of my limbs, and my senses. It is the very centre of my being, a resonating chamber that nurtures all the essential ingredients for the functioning of that being. This is the ‘awareness’ I have travelled 300 miles to Wales to understand. A sobering moment of reflection between the internal and external influences on our bodies, and the realization that – up to this point – I have only been using a small proportion of the potential awareness of my body in my practice. I am beginning to understand the true meaning of embodied.
And more than ever, I am aware that moving with attention (walking) through nature is a means of finding metaphors for living. It is part of my practice to look for signs and signals in the landscape and this one below makes me smile……is it implying that the walking is always uphill?
We spend time on the beaches, some of us choosing to swim or just paddle in the shallows. This is a rocky coastline and beach pebbles here are slashed by quartz veins. I resist the temptation to fill my pockets, choosing to photograph them instead.
These two pictures above reflect the vertical and horizontal body positions we have been working with.
The only pebble I do pick up and carry away with me is this strange pock-marked one I found on Manobier beach where we sat and had an impromptu picnic.
Maybe a fragment that has been broken off from this strange anomaly on the beach at Church Doors, below the YH, (different from the more usual vertical sandstones) and in the same way a reminder that we too are also part of the larger mass of humanity and not the only pebble on the beach.
Only later do I realise why I have picked up this pebble, over and above all the possible ones I could have chosen to keep. It resembles bone tissue, connecting deeply with what we have been doing in the Happy Birthday room. It also gives me a visible connection to the bed-rock of the local landscape – as the bones of the earth – to the bones of my own body (and a slightly decaying one at that). I will take it home, treasure it and meditate on it to remind me of the lessons I have learned here and grateful for this poetic endorsement of my learning.
And what about the walking? Although walking cliff paths is familiar to me, lets face it, the landscape here is the real star of the show. We explore the notion of ‘edges’, and plenty abound: sea to land to sky to air to body and how pressures on our lungs, bones, mental processes might help to keep us safe;
group walking in silence as a collective experience of going on a journey together. Fiona has nick-named us the Meerkat Group on account of our habit of stopping at viewing points to scan the horizon.
From the beginning, it soon becomes clear that as a group we have gelled, and I feel surprisingly emotional when the time comes for us to say our goodbyes. Thinking about it, we have not done very much at all, yet it feels like we have been here for a week. These past 3 days have been packed with exploration, laughter, shared experiences and plenty of space for contemplation and reflection. More like a retreat than I had expected. Shrinkle Haven is indeed just that.