Movement in Chevruta
Partnership and Relational Ecology
By Yoshi Silverstein
Learning with different people alters and impacts the learning experience for each of you, both in relation to learning on your own and also to what the learning would be with someone else. What does it mean to purposefully learn in partnership (aka in chevruta) and what does this have to do with Jewish movement practices?
יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת:Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Ancestors) 1:6
Yoshua ben Prachyah used to say: make for yourself a teacher (rav); and acquire for yourself a friend (chaver); and judge every person with the scale weighted in their favor.
Canine Companion — AKA Canine Chevruta
Our dog, Norman Jellybean, will turn nine years old this year. In the 8+ years since we picked him up as a puppy from the kennel, he’s been my podcast-listening buddy for countless hours of walking, grad school studio companion, and exploration buddy in woods and mountains ranging from Upstate New York to down to the Shenandoahs in the South and even as far west as the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho. We’ve splashed, we’ve romped, we’ve rolled, and we’ve wrestled. Our forays into nature make up many of my favorite memories and, I’m quite sure, many of Norman’s best experiences.
Since we moved to the Cleveland area last August, we’ve been blessed to have quick access to the fantastic Cleveland Metroparks system where we get out when possible for good forest romps. On a day to day basis, though, it’s the typical walks around the neighborhood that get us by. The eastern suburbs where we are currently living are … a little different from the streets of Bushwick in Brooklyn where we lived for five years. Far fewer scent messages to read, exponentially fewer people, greater calm, quiet, and greenery, but less social stimulation for sure.
At first I thought he was just starting to show his age. But then it hit me: maybe he was just getting bored.
A few months ago we dug up one of Norman’s old balls and started bringing it on walks with us to play fetch, usually on a nice open and straight stretch of grass just off the road a little ways down the cul de sac. Initially Norman was as excited as a puppy to chase that ball down, trotting it back with a dopy smile on his face. After several weeks, though, I noticed that he seemed to be getting tired more easily. After just a handful of throws, he’d casually get the ball, return only halfway, and lay down to chew away rather than bring it back for the next throw.
At first I thought he was just starting to show his age. But then it hit me: maybe he was just getting bored.
After all, I had been basically throwing it at exactly the same distance, height, and speed every single toss. If anything, the only change was trying to see how far I could throw it once my arm got warmed up — far more in service of my own ego, I realized, than Norman’s interests and even needs. Who wants to just keep running medium length sprints over and over again with no variation?
So I started mixing it up. I’d throw fast side-pitches just over his head, rollers to the left and right, high tosses for Norman to follow and catch on the way down or after just one bounce, fakeouts and fades like a wannabe quarterback … you get the idea.
And guess what? Norman loved it. He kept going three or four times longer before slowing down for a break. He ran back after fetching the ball twice as quick. His *eyes* looked brighter. He was practically putting the ball in my hand to throw again. You can tell when someone is into something, whether they’re a human or a canine.
He got faster, too. Changing the stimulus, creating a greater diversity of movement patterns and challenges, seems to have pushed even his middle-aged canine body to adapt more quickly. He’s looking and moving better than he has in years.
And, by the way, I’m having a lot more fun too. I was already trying out throwing with my left arm every once in awhile (want to feel awkward? try throwing a ball with your non-dominant arm … though it’s improved a very tiny bit). I’ve started throwing in silly little spin moves and jump throws because why the hell not. But seeing Norman more engaged has also gotten me more engaged.
In a word, we’ve become true movement partners again. Chevruta.
Chevruta, which comes from the Hebrew word for friend (chaver), refers to a classic Jewish learning format of studying text in pairs. Considerable lore is written about the magic of finding the right chevruta partner. In some circles it’s almost given more weight than finding the right spouse. A true chevruta partner isn’t just a study buddy. It’s someone who pushes you, challenges you, sharpens you, and creates deeper and more effective learning than what you could do on your own. Generally speaking, anytime you’re learning in chevruta it should go to say that learning with different people alters and impacts the learning experience for each of you, both in relation to learning on your own and also to what the learning would be with someone else.
So it is with movement.
When I began to get more exposure to the movement pedagogy of Ido Portal and had opportunities to learn from Ido as well as some of his students (highly talented and respected movement teachers and practitioners in their own right, like Zack Finer of Boulder Movement Collective — now ApeCo Movement School — and then with ongoing study at Movement Brooklyn with Kyle Fincham), I was immediately struck by the emphasis on movement in relationship to other people. Whether for simple exercises like tennis ball drop and catch variations, or more intensive and intimate movement games and scenarios, a significant part of the practice emphasizes movement not in isolation but through the stimulus of another human.
This meant that with each different partner, the learning experience was a bit (or a lot) different. It also meant that your partner could be one of the most significant variables impacting your learning in a given session. Work with a partner who really got what was going on, who could read both your strengths and weaknesses, your needs and capabilities for that moment, and time flew by like, well, you were a puppy romping in the woods. Work with a partner who was aloof, or obstinate, or just didn’t really get it, and, well, the experience was less fun.
All of which meant not only that how you showed up not only as a mover and learner was important, but that as much or even more so how you showed up as a partner and as a community member was critical. What kind of chevruta partner were you prepared to be? Were you just going through the motions? Were you doing things more for your own ego than for the good of the learning? Or were you responding directly to the actual human in front of you, doing as best you could to play to the right level, challenging them without going overboard but also keeping it hard enough and interesting enough to keep them stimulated at their learning edge?
Though a humorously high number of the movement teachers I’ve worked with have Jewish connections of various sorts, none of them would use the terminology of chevruta to talk about their work. But as the pedagogy of Mitsui Collective started to take shape (and continues to evolve), chevruta-based learning has become a central tenet of the practice. Any extended session and even short sessions when possible involve some form of chevruta work. We believe it’s critical for both the learning process and for building community.
And for an added layer of depth, it’s really interesting to see how framing and exploring the concept of chevruta through an embodied movement practice helps to reframe and deepen our understanding of this learning modality in the context of text-based learning. I’ve had movement students come up to me afterwards and say they’ve sometimes struggled with text-based chevruta learning and couldn’t quite figure out why. Doing it in this way helped them figure out what was missing in those partnerships, what to look for and recognize when they were really jamming with a chevruta, and how to become stronger chevruta partners themselves.
Chevruta in a time of isolation
All that said, right now is a time when moving in community and in chevruta is particularly challenging. So how might we take the underlying value and intention of this practice and adapt it for our current reality?
Here is where one of my other favorite authors and movement practitioners comes into play: Katy Bowman, and the idea of Movement Ecology. In essence, movement ecology is the idea that movement doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is shaped by the environment in which we’re moving — ie the people or things we’re moving with or in relationship to — and in turn our movement shapes the environment in which we’re moving.
Much of the fitness world attempts to strip down as many of the variables as possible when it comes to movement, isolating highly specific patterns, standardizing weights and equipment, drawing lots of boxes around “perfect” form and accepted exercises. While much of this is useful to a degree, it’s also highly limited in its ability both to fully prepare us for the unpredictable world in which we live and move and to allow the space for creativity in our movement that many of us seek. And when we’re suddenly not able to go to the workout facilities we’re used to going to, or meet up with the buddies we might have been meeting up with and moving with before the pandemic hit, we may not be fully equipped to adapt our movement to work within what we do have available.
So: here’s where the recommendations come in. To take inspiration from the Pirkei Avot passage at the top, find and make for yourself movement chevruta in all shapes, sizes, and forms.
This could be your dog, or your child, or your spouse, or your roommate. Use this opportunity to spend quality time together as much as possible. While there are definitely times when we just gotta turn on a movie for the thousandth time so we can get work done, try to carve out some spaces when you can be completely and fully present, even for just a few minutes. Go deep and get seriously playful. Hopefully we can come through this with strengthened relationships that allow us to more fully understand and support each other.
This could be any number of random inanimate objects you have laying around the house. Think about what’s under the surface of your preferred movement practice and how you can adapt that. Maybe you like lifting heavy weights and just don’t have anything seriously heavy around but you can shift your focus to lower-weight high volume work. Maybe you stack a bunch of stuff to make a standing desk and pull stool next to you so you can move and stretch while checking emails or hopping on the 8th zoom call of the day.
This could also be nature and the outside world (I highly recommend this one in particular because it yields so many different benefits). To the degree that you are able to get out with low risk and maintaining proper distancing, nature makes one hell of a chevruta partner. In contrast to the straight lines and the perfectly smooth and flat floors and sidewalks that make up much of the artificial environments we spend most of our time in, nature is endlessly varied in shape, size, texture, and composition. Especially by going off trail, you can find yourself moving your body into all sorts of positions, climbing over rocks, ducking under fallen trees, navigating a steep slope, or crawling through a thicket of tunnels created by understory bushes. Heck, you’re even moving your eyes more just by having so many different things at different distances and scales to look at.
Our resilience as individuals, as communities, and as a society is being tested, in some cases to the extreme, right now. Let’s notice what we’re doing well, what needs work, and what we’re completely failing at so that hopefully we can move towards fixing it and creating a more prepared, more just, and more equitable world moving forward.
So yes, you’re probably going to need to set aside many of the fitness goals you may have had pre-covid19, for the time being. Especially given all the other challenges and obligations most of us are balancing, chances are you aren’t going to be hitting any new PRs right now, and may even lose capacity in certain areas. I don’t want to diminish how frustrating that can feel.
But I do want to encourage us both to adopt a mindset of kindness towards ourselves (ie let’s just get through this period, supporting ourselves and each other in staying as baseline healthy and well as we can) and to shift towards recognizing what different opportunities might present themselves during this time.
After all, the one chevruta you’re definitely stuck with for the rest of your life is … you. What does it look like to be a good chevruta partner to yourself? What does it mean to make yourself a teacher for yourself? What does it mean to judge yourself with the scales weighted in your own favor?
I look forward to finding out together. And please reach out if Mitsui Collective can be of any support in helping you to navigate this difficult time.