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On Becoming A Person

Carl Rodgers

Carl Rodgers

There’s an advantage in not understanding a word people say. My students for the weekend, all Japanese psychologists, after a good amount of preparation the day before, were getting ready to show me what it’s like for them when they work with their patients. The therapists who would be in the role of the patients had learned a lot about who they were and how they were to behave. One of the therapists works in jails with prisoners. Another goes to homes where depressed teenagers will not come out of their rooms. Another assists in a community center for poor, mentally vulnerable people who can’t find a place in the world. Another for victims devastated by domestic violence and sexual abuse.

I’m not going to know a word you are saying, I tell them. I don’t want to know. I can be of more help to you if I don’t. My job is to track what’s going on somatically, in a silent realm between body and being.

And so it begins….

The Boxer

Yoshie is sitting across from a patient who’s angry, and taking it out on her. I’m standing far away, as I often do, off to the side, in my students blind spot. At some point Yoshie’s torso collapses on the right side, the bottom of her ribs dropping down closer to the top of her pelvis. Her head has shifted over to the right too. She looks concerned. After about thirty seconds, Yoshie shifts her ribs diagonally up and over to the left, this time lifting them up away from the pelvis. She’s over straightening and pulling her neck back, and lowering her chin, appearing wary, perhaps skeptical.

This dropping down to the right, then shifting and pulling up to the left repeats itself several times. Suddenly I see it, a boxer dodging punches, ducking down to the right, pulling back to the left. Yoshie’s doing her best to avoid being hit.

Still in Yoshie’s blind spot I silently walk over, quickly but gently placing one hand over her hands and the other on top of her head as I quietly tell Yoshie to stay there for a minute. (If I don’t place my hands there before I ask a person to stop, invariably they immediately try to correct themselves.) Yoshie’s now frozen, sculpture like, ducking down to the right. Yoshie, this is where you spend a couple hours every day. Now where do you go when your body gets tired of being here? Without any hesitation she pulls up and over to the left. And here is where you spend another couple hours a day. She slowly nods her head. She’s getting it. Yoshie, why do you think you do that? I’ve no idea she says, but I can feel that I do this a lot.

Would you like to know what it looks like to me? Hai, she says. It looks like you’re a boxer dodging punches. I show her her movements with my arms up like a boxer. Then I show her the same movements again with my arms down. Yoshie covers her mouth with her hand, as most Japanese women do, and lets out a big laugh of recognition. She looks, at once, ashamed,  amused and relieved. Okay Yoshie-san, would you like to try something different? Hai, she says. Let’s sit smack in front of this patient. I get her hips back in the chair, get the chair to give her some back support, and bring her into her full stature. She looks about twice the size. Now, see what happens if you decide to look easily but squarely into your patients eyes, and no matter what your patient throws at you, you will remain in front of her, resting inside of this soft, powerful, fullness. Have you decided? Have you made a commitment to yourself? I wait until I can see she has. Looking at the patient I say, okay, let her have it. Everyone is waiting for the patient to explode. Nothing. We continue to wait. Nothing. What’s the matter I ask the patient? I can’t yell at her. She’s right in front of me and I can’t yell at her. She’s a person. I just can’t do it.

The Bead Maker

Kyoko’s working at a community center for poor, mentally troubled people. She walks over to a table where a couple patients are making necklaces. The patient on the right, frustrated, slightly hysterical, asks Kyoko to help her string a tiny bead. Keiko bends way over, rounding her back like a question mark, pulls the string and the bead very close to her eyes, looks over the tops of her glasses, her head just inches away from the patients head, and begins stringing the bead. Kyoko’s totally into what she’s doing, so she doesn’t notice me next to her. Softly, I place one had on the top of her head, the other on her upper back and quietly ask her to just be there for a moment. This is what you do, I say without judgment. Just sense it and take it in. How about we go about this another way? What do you think?  I get a nod, Hai. Consent.

Pull up a chair. Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. She rounds over in the chair much the same way as she does when she is standing up. At the same moment, both patients start asking her for help. I can see her panicking and feeling like she’s got to work quickly. Keiko, you’re doing well. Let’s take a little break. Follow my hands. I give a slight impulse around her neck and her spine uncurls. With my hands, I invite her shoulders to open apart, and I ask her just to look at her patients from where she is now. I’m so far away, she says. Well, yes and no, I say. You are sitting at the table with them. You’re on the same level with them. They’re right here. Let’s continue. They both start to talk. Keiko turns to the patient on her left and calmly listens, and looks at the problem. I’m not rushing, Keiko says. When there’s space, there’s time. It just works that way, I say. Let’s continue. The patient on the right is supposed to continually interrupt, but instead she’s just sitting there waiting.  I know I am suppose to give her a hard time, but I can’t do it. I just don’t want to do it.

The Prisoner

Ridiculing Makoto, making snide remarks, the prisoner sits there feeling superior. Makoto looks hurt, weak, helpless. It looks to me like they’re both behind bars, both imprisoned, both locked in their own worlds.

My eyes immediately go to Makoto’s legs, so lifeless. They look like the legs of someone who cannot walk, who hasn’t walked for years. Toes turned inward, knees fallen together, stomach compressed, chest hollowed out, shoulders curled and drooping forward. Her body almost looks like it’s sunken in a wheelchair, but there is no wheelchair. Above her caved in body is a beautiful face. Makoto’s mouth and full lips stand out, literally, pushed gently forward in space, while her eyes seem to recede back. There’s something almost overwhelmingly kind and tender about her. This large, beautiful, expressive face, and below a body deflated, without support, without structure.

It takes about fifteen minutes. Slowly, from the bottom up, I build her structure, as if I’m building a wall. Makoto, this is your left foot. We want it to live on the left side of your body, away from the midline. This is your right foot. It lives on the right side of your body, in another hemisphere. This is East pointing to the left, and this is West pointing to the right. And so it is with your ankles and your lower legs and your knees, living on different sides of the planet, with an immense ocean between them. (In reality her legs are now apart but not far apart, nothing that would draw attention. But for her it feels enormous.) My hands are touching each part of her body as I mention them, as if I am introducing her to her body for the first time. From under your feet up to your knees constitute 25% of your height. These are your knees. They’re the largest joints in your body. They’re huge. These are your thighs, from your knees to your hip joints. They’re big, made up of the most powerful muscles in the body, constituting another 25% of your height. They too live in separate hemispheres with the Pacific Ocean between them. This is your pelvis, sitting bones, hip joints, sacrum, iliac crests. This is your spine, lower back, middle back, upper back, neck, head, the remaining 50% of your height. This is your arm structure, clavicle, scapula, shoulder joints, humerus, ulna, radius, wrists, palms, fingers. Makoto, your outstretched arm structure, from finger tip to finger tip, your wing span, is as wide as you are tall. This is your body. This is the size of your body.

I touch her lips, ever so lightly, with the tip of my index finger. This is your mouth, your lips, and you have them protruding a little in front of your face. I place my other index finger on the corner of her eye. And here are your eyes. Can you feel how they are falling back in relation to your mouth that’s sliding forward? I can see her exact moment of recognition. Such a beautiful moment. The mind connecting to the body. Hai, I feel it. Great. Now this is likely to feel very strange but give it a go. Follow my hands. I guide Makoto’s head, as it seems to rotate around like a ferris wheel. Effortlessly, the mouth circles slightly down and under while the eyes rise up and over the top. I feel like a king on a throne, Makoto says. Not a bad thing, I say. You don’t look like that. You just look like a strong, kind person. Okay, Makoto, I want you to say something to this man, but I don’t want the words to come out of your mouth, I want them to come out of your eyes. Make a decision, and let that decision spread through your whole body, to leave your mouth, without effort, exactly where it is. As soon as Makoto even thinks about saying something I can see her mouth begin to protrude forward. It takes several tries, each time asking her to decide deeply. Let that decision spread through your body as if it were streaming through every vein in your body. I glance at the prisoner and notice that his body no longer looks rebellious. There’s no smirk on his face. Makoto is silent for a while. I can see it. She’s sticking with her decision against a fierce life habit. Then she says something. I don’t know what. But what I do know is that she spoke from a place of compassionate authority. And I do know that, at that moment, the bars were gone, both the therapist and the patients bodies were unlocked. They were free.

And so it went for the remainder of the workshop. After the workshop some of us go out for dinner.  Masako, the organizer of the workshop, tells me that psychotherapy in Japan is primarily founded on the work of Carl Rodgers. Listening and empathy. I smile remembering when I was 25 years old reading, On Becoming A Person, and feeling like Carl Rodgers was my Dad. On every page I could hear his voice talking to me from some deep place of love and kindness. I remember wanting to be like him. And maybe, 40 years later, I have become a little like him, sitting there, seeing the beauty in both therapist and patient, helping them to listen and empathize with their whole bodies, watching them, together, becoming who they really are.

Letters To A Young Teacher – Starting Out.

Rilke's Letter To A Young Poet

Rilke’s Letter To A Young Poet

I just recently graduated from an Alexander Technique Teacher Training Course.*  The director spoke of you. During school we watched your video, The Top Ten Myths About The Alexander Technique. I went on to watch your other videos. The myths were exceptionally enlightening. It sparked great conversations during school.

I’m currently starting my own Alexander Technique practice and am always looking to expand my education. I’m also currently returning to college, and in the process of finishing my science degree, as I started it before AT training.   

Do you believe AT can support one fully? Especially just starting out. I’ve had a very slow start and it’s becoming clear that it takes time.

Expanding your education is the best way to build a practice, because the better you become as an Alexander teacher, the more your students talk about you and recommend you to other people. Being able to teach well in groups, as well as individually, makes it possible to get more people interested in you, and in the work. Living in a place where there are universities and performing art departments can help, but it is not essential. Marketing skills are necessary for anyone who has their own business. A bit of charisma goes a long way. You have to love people, and love teaching. Sometimes finding a niche, some group that you are especially qualified to teach, like athletes in your case, distinguishes you from other Alexander teachers. Jeremy Chance, an Alexander teacher here in Japan has given a tremendous amount of thought to this subject. It might be worthwhile to see what you can learn from him. 

I would not hold on to the idea that it takes a long time to get a practice going. That thought might have a way of working against you. More than time, it takes a good strategy, some creativity, some guts, and particular skills. But there is nothing more important then becoming excellent at what you do. And you get good at teaching the Alexander Technique by teaching the Alexander Technique. So finding a way to teach, a lot, is essential to becoming good, and successful.

I landed two half-time positions in university theater departments when i was 28 years old. I sent out 200 resumes across the country. 198 rejections. 2 acceptances. This ensured me students every week, lots of them. I did this for 6 years. That got me off to a good start. But all the while, when I wasn’t teaching, I was studying with Alexander teachers, Tai Chi teachers, Aikido teachers, modern dance teachers, anyone I could learn from.

When I decided I wanted to teach introductory workshops in AT, I went anywhere to do them, even when there were only 3 students and I lost money. I knew I had to practice introducing the work to all kinds of people. I knew I needed to practice, that there was no substitute for practice, and lots of it.

If possible, assist on a training program. The graduates who did this over the years at the Alexander Alliance, and who are doing it now, are the ones who have become, and will continue to become some of the most talented teachers. Keep your heart and mind open to learning from Alexander teachers trained in other Alexander lineages. Marj Barstow, my main mentor, was my second teacher. I didn’t meet her until I had been studying for 5 years. Everything opened up for me when I met her. You never know.

When I first met Marjorie Barstow, I was a poor graduate student majoring in modern dance. What little money I had I spent on education. One night I told Marj that I wanted to be a full time Alexander teacher. That was my dream. I was 26 years old, almost 40 years ago. Marj told me that you can’t make a living as an Alexander teacher. I think she was trying to protect me. Maybe she didn’t want me to be disappointed when my dream fell through. Maybe she didn’t see that the times were changing, that interest was really growing in the Alexander Technique. Maybe she said it because she knew I was the kind of kid who would try to prove her wrong. Marj was tricky.

But I have made a living now as an Alexander teacher for 35 years, and a good living, enough to raise a family, enough to send two kids to college – in America!  And now, when lots of men my age are being forced to retire, I’ve got work, work I love. Every morning I wake up feeling grateful, grateful that I made my way as an Alexander teacher. And of course grateful to Marjorie, and to all my teachers.

So if making a living as an Alexander teacher is what you want, go for it, go for it full out. Give it your best. Don’t quit.

And remember, a successful teacher has many students, but a great teacher has many teachers. Aim for becoming a great teacher. The success will follow.

*For purposes of privacy, I’ve chosen to leave out the name of the training program and the particular graduate who wrote to me.

Striking Out In The Wrong Direction


To those who know me and love me, who have helped me over and over again to get to where I am trying to go. Ironically, I am likely to be remembered for my exquisite sense of direction within the body, and for my utter and complete lack of direction within the world around me. At last, I’ve found a kindred spirit, also “spatially dyslexic.” Paul Auster writes:

“Always lost, always striking out in the wrong direction, always going around in circles. You have suffered from a life long inability to orient yourself in space, and even in New York, the easiest of cities to negotiate, the city where you have spent the better part of your adulthood, you often run into trouble. Whenever you take the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan (assuming you have boarded the correct train and are not traveling deeper into Brooklyn), you make a special point to stop for a moment to get your bearings once you have climbed the stairs to the street, and still you will head north instead of south, go east instead of west, and even when you try to outsmart yourself, knowing that your handicap will set you going the wrong way and therefore, to rectify the error, you do the opposite of what you were intending to do, go left instead of right, go right instead of left, and still you find yourself moving in the wrong direction, no matter how many adjustments you have made. Forget tramping alone in the woods. You are hopelessly lost within minutes, and even indoors, whenever you find yourself in an unfamiliar building, you will walk down the wrong corridor or take the wrong elevator, not to speak of smaller enclosed spaces such as restaurants, for whenever you go to the men’s room in a restaurant that has more than one dining area, you will inevitably make a wrong turn on your way back and wind up spending several minutes searching for your table. Most other people, your wife included, with her unerring inner compass, seem able to get around without difficulty. They know where they are, where they have been and where they are going, but you know nothing, you are forever lost in the moment, in the void of each successive moment that engulfs you, with no idea where true north is, since the four cardinal points do not exist for you, have never existed for you. A minor infirmity until now, with no dramatic consequences to speak of, but that doesn’t mean a day won’t come when you accidentally walk off the edge of a cliff.”

Paul Auster from Winter Journal

The Physiology Of The Human Spirit

Last week, in Seoul, Korea, my workshop theme was, The Physiology Of The Human Spirit.

Leonardo daVinci set out to discover the seat of the soul. No small task. He explored an area of the body known, in his time, as the sensus communis. Here, he plots the site of the sensus communis at the intersection of upright and diagonal lines seen within the tilted plane, at a point that marks the proportional centre of the skull.

DaVinci's Sensus Communis

DaVinci’s Sensus Communis


Leonardo saw the sensus communis as a point of convergence, a center from which all voluntary action was controlled – everything from running, to walking, to lifting an arm, to singing a song, to the smallest details of expression like smiling, or raising an eyebrow. For daVinci, the sensus communis was the locus of the human soul. Leonardo writes, “The soul seems to reside, to be seated in that part where all the senses meet, called the sensus communis, and is not all-pervading throughout the body, as many have thought. Rather it is entirely in one part.”

The work, developed by F.M. Alexander seems, almost mysteriously, connected to Leonardo’s insights. But Alexander went a step further. He evolved a way, through touch, of helping others to experience this center in themselves.

Here, in these images, you can see people coming into contact with their sensus communis, you can see them residing in a place where the soul sits, in peace.


Eva Ehrenberg

Eva with her Alexander Alliance Quilt.

Eva with her Alexander Alliance Quilt.

For Eva’s family and friends, and for the Alexander Alliance,

As the years go by, it becomes ever clearer that the Alexander Alliance is more than a place where people learn about the Alexander Technique.

In 1982, Martha and I had no idea the Alliance would become a haven of deep support and love for so many people, in so many ways, over so many years. In a community the size of the Alliance something is always happening – relationships beginning, others ending, someone gets a new job, and another is losing theirs, someone’s life seems finally to be coming together, while someone else’s life appears to be falling apart.  A baby’s on the way into the world, and at the same time someone’s life is coming to an end.

But no matter what is happening to us, there will be people close by who will celebrate with us, or comfort us. There will be someone near who we can turn to, talk to, confide in, that will do their best to help us out.

When Eva Ehrenberg came into the school I remember her as a gentle, though frightened person, a person who felt wounded and vulnerable. A lone, scared deer in a dense woods. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, Eva began to change. By the time she graduated, four years later, Eva was lighter, less fearful, less fragile, willing to try new things. She laughed more, worried less. I remember how, when Eva first joined the school, she refused to practice tai chi, due to it’s martial underpinnings. It was against her non-violent philosophy. But on the last days at the school, she changed her mind, and started learning the form and was loving it. She’d become more flexible, more open, in a word, happier.

The journey each person takes through the Alliance is a different one. It’s not always the journey we expect, but it’s the journey life deems we need.

For many of us, even after we graduate, the Alliance remains a real part of our lives. It did for Eva. The Alliance helped carry Eva through until the end of her days. And in so doing, the Alliance became stronger.

Thank you Eva for being a part of us,

Bruce Fertman for The Alexander Alliance Community School

The Culmination Of Character

the culmination of character

According to Aristotle, the psyche, (meaning soul, breath, animating spirit, mind), is the form of the body, in that it forms the body, is the origin of its movements, and is the body’s final aim and purpose. The psyche sculpts the body, yet is itself without body, and therefore cannot be located in, or reduced to, a particular organ, or cell, or gene.

James Hillman, in The Force Of Character, compares the body and the soul to a sock.

Take, for instance, your favorite pair of wool socks. You get a hole in a heel and darn it. Then you get a hole in the big toe – and you darn that too. Soon the darned holes are more of the sock than the original wool. Eventually, the whole darned sock is made of different wool. Yet, it’s the same sock.

A human body is like that sock, sloughing off its cells, changing its fluids, fermenting utterly fresh cultures of bacteria as others pass away. Your material stuff through time becomes altogether different, yet you remain the same you. There seems to be an innate image that does not forget your basic paradigm and that keeps you in character, true to yourself.

If what outlasts the wool is the form, then a preoccupation with physical decay – with where the sock is wearing thin – misses a crucial point. Sure, the sock is showing holes, and stitching up its weak places keeps it functional. But our minds might more profitably be thinking about the mystery of this formal principle that endures through material substitutions.

There comes a time when we look into the mirror and wonder who that old person is staring back at us. It’s as if our bodies no longer reflect who we are. They don’t express who we feel ourselves to be, internally. There’s a distinct and disturbing mismatch. There’s a sense of being estranged from our own bodies. Then it hits us and the question arises, Yes, I need this body, but am I this body?

Ultimately, the body is not about the body. The physical is not exclusively about itself, not for humans. The soul is the body’s final aim and purpose. There lies within us a metaphysical dimension that seems not to wither with time. To the contrary, the soul seems to mature, to evolve, to become ever more vital. And thus, the mismatch. Outside we are becoming stiff, inside more flexible, outside, weaker, inside, stronger, outside, ragged, inside, refined.

As we become older the body can do less, but can empathize more, and not just with people. The senses become mediums of communion. Boundaries blur. It’s as if we become a host for the world around us. We open our sensory doors and welcome the world in; we let everyone and everything fill us. The emptier we become, of ourselves, the more completely the world can enter and fill us, sometimes to the point of total identification with the world at large. No longer identified with ourselves, we’re overcome with a joyful neutrality. We’re free.

Shortly before he died, Carl Jung wrote, I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am distressed, depressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once, and cannot add up the sum. I am incapable of determining ultimate worth or worthlessness; I have no judgment about myself and my life. There is nothing I am quite sure about…

When Lao-tzu says: ‘All are clear, I alone am clouded,’ he expresses how I now feel. Yet there is so much that fills me: plants, animals, clouds, day and night, essences of people. The more uncertain I have grown about myself, the more there has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things. In fact it seems to me as if that alienation which so long separated me from the world has become transferred into my own inner world, and has revealed to me an unexpected unfamiliarity with myself.”

When my dog Amy was old, so old that she could not walk, was incontinent, could not hear, or see, I still cared for her because when I held her in my arms and carried her out into the yard and lay her down on the green grass where she could feel the breeze blow through her fur, I knew her body was doing what it was intended to do, to bring joy to her soul.

Yes, the day came to put Amy down. She died in my arms, and the moment she did, she was gone. Her body had done its job, and done it well. Anyone who has held someone and felt the moment of their dying knows that a person is not their body. In that moment, immediately, the body becomes unreal, like a wax figure of someone who once was and will never be again.

So let us remember, especially as our bodies begin to falter, why we have them, why they outlast their beauty and their skillfulness. Bodies last beyond their usefulness to give us as much time as possible to reach their final aim and purpose; the maturation of soul, the culmination of character.



Most people don’t know I’m “half Korean.” They don’t know I spent hours feeding and staring into my Korean babies faces. They grew up feeling they looked like me, and I grew up feeling I looked like them. They became Caucasian, and I became Asian. Years back, I taught annually in Korea at Music Camps for kids. I felt right at home. Everyone looked like my kids, like me. It’s great to be invited back to teach again, this time for the general public. Thank you Sungwan Won for inviting me back to one of my homelands.


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