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PART II The Libyan Sybil – Revealing That Which Is Hidden

I am going to compare our Libyan Sybil to another figure, one of the Ignudo figures, one of the twenty naked, muscular figures on the Sistine Chapel. Let’s take a look.


What do you see?

Another androgynous person.

The ignudo is freaked out.


Dreading something.

Really sad.

Feeling hopeless.

Maybe he/she is hearing something scary, feels threatened, and wants to see what it is.

Images are like Rorschach tests. We project our inner life onto outer images. Why else would we all be interpreting what we see differently?

So what are the physical, the visual cues that tell you she’s feeling the way she’s feeling? What do you actually see?

Her eyes of way open, bugging out.

Her eyebrows and forehead are raised up.

Her mouth is open. Maybe she’s gasping for air.

Great. What else. (I say, what else, a lot.)

Her head is tilting back and jamming down into her spine.

Her right scapula looks like it’s bulging out and retracting in toward the mid-line and up a little.

Wow, you guys are getting good!

Now let’s compare the Ignudo to the Libyan Sybil.


The scapula’s moving down and out and around the ribs.

The spine looks long. The neck is not compressed or shortened.

The eyelids are lowered; forehead and eyebrows relaxed.

The mouth is closed.

The head, instead of tilting back, is tilting ever so slightly forward.

Yeah, instead of looking over the shoulder by flipping the head back, the Libyan Sybil is tilting the head forward and rotating around; two ways of looking over the shoulder, but they’re so completely opposite.

Go ahead. Try both ways and see if it changes how you feel emotionally. Do your best to do exactly what they are doing. And once you have them let yourself gently, slowly, softly transition between one and the other.

They get to work. I sit back and watch. Again, getting to know my students. Frank Ottiwell, a wise Alexander teacher I learned much from, once said to me, ‘Bruce, our job is not so much to help our students, but to get to know them.’

So what was that like?

It’s amazing. When I take on the Ignudo, I become scared. I start to panic. And when I become the Libyan Sybil, I grow calm, and I feel mature.

Many heads are nodding in agreement.

Now what Alexander discerned was that when this head poise is happening it has an organizing, integrative influence, a governing influence throughout the entire body/self. And when this head poise is disturbed, disturbance happens throughout the whole body/self.

So lets look one more time.

What do you see happening to the Ignudo figure’s body?


It looks really uncomfortable. The head is looking back to the right, but the right arm and upper torso is twisting to the left, and the pelvis is falling back and looks weak. His body looks stuck, disorganized, and confused.

His head is in front of his torso and his right arm too. And maybe that’s counterbalancing his torso falling back.

He looks really compressed in his chest and belly, and his mid-back looks like it’s pushing back with a lot of force.

When I look at him, I notice I’m holding my breath.

Why do you think I sometimes choose to teach people about the body through art instead of through strictly anatomical drawings?

Because they’re beautiful?

Because sometimes people get a little scared around pictures of skeletons?

For some people who are not academically oriented, it might feel like studying, like it’s going to be difficult, like there’s going to be a test.

They’re images of humans that are not alive, not whole, not living.

Yes. And because I want you, first, to see a person’s beauty. I haven’t seen a person who wasn’t beautiful in 35 years. And usually the more down and out, the more beautiful. And through that beauty I want you next to see a person’s humanity. And only then do I want you to drop down into the physical structure of a person.

Alexander’s work is not, as I understand it, primarily about how we use our bodies. It’s about how we are being in ourselves. So I want you to begin by seeing a person, how a person is, how a person is being, in their entirety. That’s what Michelangelo could do. Profoundly.

Perhaps now you may see why I fell in love with the Libyan Sybil, and why I chose her as our school logo.

It is said she has the power to “reveal that which is hidden.” Perhaps she ‘s turning toward us, opening the great book for us, and inviting us to read, and to learn.


Part I The Libyan Sybil – The Critical Moment

If you look closely at some of the large figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, you may notice something peculiar. A good number of them have books in their hands. It seems they want to read. Perhaps Michelangelo wanted to read too, but had no time.

When I was a modern dancer, I wanted to read too, but I was either in technique class, or rehearsing. I remember seeing a bumper sticker that read, I’d rather be dancing. I knew, straight away, that person was not a dancer. If they were a dancer their bumper sticker would have read, I’d rather be reading.





There was one figure on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that mesmerized me, that possessed me, that became my muse, and eventually the logo for the Alexander Alliance. She was the Libyan Sybil. When I began using her image as the logo for the Alexander Alliance, students wondered why, why her. And as I often do, and did then, I answered their question with a question.


Why do you think?

She’s beautiful.

She’s strong.

She’s poised.

She’s got a great back.

She’s spiraling.

Once I feel my students have seen what they are going to see then, if there is more that I want to direct their attention to, I will.

Notice how Michelangelo figures often appear androgynous. I like this. Often as men undo their culturally acquired masculine holding patterns, they feel more feminine. And as women undo their culturally acquired feminine holding patterns, they feel more masculine. I move people away from their acquired gender bodies and into what I call their mammal body, the body that men and woman share, their human body.

Of course, from an Alexander point of view, the Libyan Sybil’s got a great “monkey.” Often, when we think of Alexander’s monkey, we think about a synergetic flexion of the hips, knees and ankles. Of course that’s part of it. We want that happening, but we want it happening in conjunction with an expanding back that is emanating power through the arms into the hands, and through the spine and into the skull. And the Libyan Sybil has got all that going for her.

Something else I love about the Libyan Sybil is her upper appendicular skeletal system, her arms. They remind me so much of Marj Barstow’s arms when she worked with us. Marj’s scapulae were wide. Her shoulders were neither up nor down, more just out and away, one from the other. Her elbows and wrists were articulate. Her elbows were ever so slightly back and out, creating room between her arms and torso, while her wrists were going in slightly toward the mid-line,and forward. It all looked very natural and elegant. Her hands looked at once easy and powerful. Really, Marj’s arms were just like the Libyan Sybil!

Then there’s that exquisite spiraling throughout her body that you’ve noticed. Let’s look more closely at what is going on there. There’s a descending spiral, and an ascending spiral. The descending spiral begins with the head and eyes. Something’s got her attention; something’s turning her attention away from her book. The descending spiral is primarily concerned with orientation; when orientation begins to change. You hear something, or you see something, and your orientation to the world shifts. You can see this descending spiral happening in some of our other readers too. Go and take a look.

Now what about the ascending spiral? From where is that initiating?

From her hips.


From her left foot.


From the ground.

That’s what it looks like to me; from the ground, and then sequentially up through the body.

So if the descending spiral is about orientation, what’s the ascending spiral about?

Maybe action. It’s helping her to hold up the book.

Power to do what she’s doing.

That’s how I see it too. Maybe she was oriented more fully toward the book and then something got her attention, and Michelangelo caught her just at that moment of transition.

Why would he want to do that?

Because it looks cool.

For sure. The cool factor is very important. The Libyan Sybil is a super cool figure. Just imagine how cool the Sistine Chapel was when the first people ever to enter that room looked up and saw these huge three dimensional figures almost falling out of the ceiling. Painting was not Michelangelo’s thing. He was a sculptor. He was forced to paint the Sistine Chapel. So he discovered new techniques for making his two dimension figures appear three dimensional.

Maybe Michelangelo likes that transitional moment because some change is taking place. But you don’t know what she’s really doing or why. It’s mysterious. Is she opening the book or closing the book? What is she looking at? What’s gotten her attention?

Right. Something is going on. There action. She’s in motion. Maybe Michelangelo wants to make a static image move. He’s not just painting form, but motion, coordination, emotion, drama. He’s a motional and emotional anatomist. He’s a story teller.

Now when you really think about it, there aren’t two spirals. There’s just one. Imagine you are holding a wet towel. Get your scarf, or your coat, or a towel, and try this. Hold it in your hands and turn your top hand gently in one direction as you counter that action by gently turning your bottom hand in the other direction. Imagine turning it so gently that no water is squeezed out of it. When we wring out a wet towel our spiral turns into a twist. An area is created where both movements oppose one another and stop each other, creating torsion. But if the spiral is gentle enough, and if it moves through the whole towel, there is no conflict, there is no blockage, there’s just one integrated spiraling motion occurring in two complimentary opposing directions.

The Libyan Sybil, for me, is the symbol of a person who can gracefully transition, change direction, change opinion, adapt, without losing poise, without disturbance. This is what Alexander means when he refers to ‘the critical moment,’ that space between one action ending and another beginning. Imagine being a parent who is trying to do something, like read, or cook, or pay the bills, and your two young children have just started physically fighting with one another. How are you inside of that transition? How gracefully can you shift your attention? How do you adapt to changing circumstances?

To be continued…

In That Deep Place

Member of  Jeong Ga Ak Hoe, Traditional Korean Music Ensemble

Member of Jeong Ga Ak Hoe, Traditional Korean Music Ensemble

Erika Whittaker, the person who holds the record for studying Alexander’s work longer than anyone, almost 90 years, was one bright, honest, and kind woman. Long ago now, Erika said to me;

“I spent four years staring at Alexander’s hands when he worked, seeing precisely where he put them, and what he was doing with them, when all along I should have been wondering what was going on inside his brain. I had this revelation right before I was about to graduate. I decided then and there I’d best stick around for another couple of years. And I did.”

Bill Conable and I spent countless hours watching Marj Barstow’s hands. She was using them all day long, getting stunning results, one person after the other. Bill would lean over and whisper something like, “Marj has her hands, one on either side of his pelvis, to help center him over his hip joints because, as he went to walk, he began to sling his pelvis forward. See, she just felt him come back into his back and over his hip joints, but she sees he’s lowered his eyes and tucked his chin under so she’s going to place her left index finger right in his line of vision, and slowly, like Yoda, raise that long finger of hers up, bringing his gaze up with it, then she’s going to move that finger off to the left and his head is going to turn slightly. See, she’s going to guide his weight over his left foot and send him off for a walk, but just as this guy turns around to come back to her, I bet he’s going to drop down a little and Marj is going to say, “Eh? Did you catch that? Did you notice how you just dropped down a little bit as you made that turn?” And now she’s going to say…and so it went, a running commentary, usually right on the mark.

Bill and Barbara Conable, two of Marj’s first apprentices, taught me in this informal way for years. They could see. They knew what was happening and why, and slowly they helped me to see and to understand what lay behind Marj’s seemingly magical ability to lead people, without any effort, into a powerful and refined way of being and functioning.

For 30 years now, I have been helping my students see and understand why I, and other experienced teachers, use their hands the way they do.

Let’s use the photo at the top of this piece as a way in. Let’s imagine I’m teaching my apprentices, and you are in the class with us.

Okay. Why am I behind my person? (Why, I ask you my reader/apprentice, why would I use the word person rather than student?) Most often I ask my students questions, rarely do I give them answers.)

So why am I behind my person?

“You want the group to be able to see.”

“It makes you kind of invisible, maybe making it easier for her to attend to herself and her instrument.”

“Maybe you are supporting her back slightly with your lower leg.”

Okay? What seems to be working inside of my own coordination and what could be better? (I am the first to tell my students that my use, my level of organization within myself is often not great, that I am my slowest student.)

“Your right arm looks a little retracted, pulled up.”

Yes, thank you. Knowing that helps me. Where are my hands, how am I using them, and what are they doing?

“They’re under her clavicles, right at that place where the clavicles begin to curve up. It looks like you’re catching, kind of scooping up the left side of her body more successfully than the right side. And the fingers on your left side look like they are functioning more independently, each finger saying something distinct, whereas the left fingers look less differentiated. The left looks like a glove and the right like a mitten.”

“Her left hand looks easier than her right hand.”

”Your thumbs are soft and light.”

Good. So you’re seeing how I’ve chosen to orient myself around my person, where my hands are, and how I’m using them. That’s a start. How would you describe the direction I am inviting the person to go?

“It looks like you’re directing her attention in toward her upper ribs and up under her clavicles.”

“And, at the same time, up and out.”

What’s happening as she goes with me?

“Her head is finding its balance on the spine, and it’s almost like her eyes are settling back into her skull, and she looks like she’s looking down on her instrument from up on high.”

“She’s lengthening up the front without shortening down the back.”

“She looks focused and calm and strong, like a Buddha.”

“She looks like she goes to Berkeley and is proud of that.”

So from looking at me, what would you guess I’m thinking about, or feeling, to bring about that change?

“You’re thinking about your own use.”

Good guess, but no, I am not, though maybe I should be. I rarely think about my own use when I’m working. When I’m working I feel more like a musician who is in a live jam. I’ve done my homework. I’ve practiced a lot. But now I am playing music. I’m not thinking about the notes. I’m not trying to play well.

“You’re thinking about her.”

That’s closer. But when I am at my best there is no I, and there is no she. There is only an “us.” I’m not thinking about me, and I’m not thinking about her. We’re inside of one event, one experience. We are in an “overlap.” Our circles are intersecting, and expanding, each into the other, and away from one another. We’re together, inside of that shared space. We’re in meeting. We’re changing together. We’re changing each other.

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

How do you think I am feeling?

“There’s a kindness I’m picking up.”


Yes and yes. You see, I’m “in-forming” her, but at the same time I’m being a nurturer. I’m feeding her, and breathing her, through touch. I’m helping to make her strong and proud and capable. That’s why I like to think about her as my person. Sure, she’s my student, and she’s learning from me. But humans need more than knowledge to grow. Humans need to be nurtured.

On a deeper level, she’s not my student, and I am not her teacher. In that deep place, together, we are growing into ourselves, and at the same time, we are coming out of ourselves.

Can you see that?


Eleven Days


For eleven days, Rusty was nowhere to be found. Of course, we notified the local animal shelter, put up posters everywhere that made sense, notified people via Facebook. But it was disheartening looking out at 1.3 million acres of forest, a forest with mountain lions, and Coyote packs.

Officer M. Vigil arrived shortly after we ran off the road and Rusty had bolted. He looked to be about 40, slow moving, calm. The first thing he did was take down a lot of information about me, and just what happened. “I’m supposed to give you a ticket, but it’s been a bad enough day for you as it is, and the last thing you need on top of it is a ticket.” After a neighbor, Ernesto Trujillo, a generous man, came down and took Yoshiko and her mom, Masako, back to the house, and after all the kind people who had stopped to make sure we were okay had left, (some of them drove around looking for Rusty), there we were, just Officer Vigil and I, waiting for a tow truck to arrive. Given how far away we were from civilization, it would likely be a while.

Feeling shaky, after having withstood such a strong impact, I was a bit wobbly around the knees, and without thinking, I just leaned against the police car. When I noticed what I was doing, I said, “I hope it’s okay I’m leaning against your car.” “Some police officer’s are mighty protective of their vehicles, but no, please, go ahead, just rest.”

I don’t know why, maybe it was from all the training I had with Byron Katie, all that work we did on seeing through our prejudices, undoing all the beliefs we have about all kinds of people, about all police officers, or all republicans, or democrats, or about all Spanish, Anglo, Native American, African American, or Asian peoples, or about all gays and lesbians, or about all very overweight people, or about all people who live in the city or in the country, or about all old people or young people.

But whatever it was, I just saw this man next to me as a person, a person I knew little about, other than that, so far, he had been kind to me. And then again, it was as if I did know him, the way we know everyone, when we really see them.

“Where do you live,” I ask the officer? “I’m from Taos, that’s where I was born and raised.” “How was that, I asked?” “Well, Taos was a whole lot smaller when I was growing up. No Walmart, no big stores of any kind. No fast food chains. Everybody knew everybody.” “What did your parents do?” “They were both schoolteachers…’ and so it went for the next 40 minutes, as we waited by the side of the road, leaning on his super clean car, on a perfect sunny day, under a vast blue sky, with nothing around us but open space going forever in every direction.

The tow truck came. It wasn’t easy getting the car out of such a deep ditch. Officer Vigil stayed until the very end, just watching, making sure everything was going to work out. As I was hopping into the tow truck, I looked back, and called to him. “By the way, what’s the M. stand for on your badge?” “Matthew.” Looking at him in the eyes, I said, “Matthew, thank you for all you did for me. I won’t forget it.”

Eleven days later I get a call. “Is this Bruce?” “Yes.” “This is Matthew. I’m the officer that helped you out when you had the accident. Do you remember me?” “Sure I remember you.” “Have you found your dog yet?” “No, we haven’t.” “Well, I’m down by Abiquiu Lake keeping watch over things here in the campgrounds and there’s a dog roaming around. Is your dog kind of red in color, male, mid size?” “Yes,” I say, as I stand up looking for my coat.“I think this may be your dog. Take my phone number down. I’ll be here. Don’t rush.”

A half hour later, Yoshiko and I pull in next to Matthew. We shake hands. “I didn’t think I’d see you again Matthew.” “Good to see you too,” Matthew says with his straight face, unemotional voice, but sparkling eyes. I turn, whistle loudly. Rusty comes over. He’s thinner, but fine. We thank Matthew again. We drive by the campers who fed him that night and thank them too. On the way out we pass the gatekeeper. “I hear you found your dog. I’ll tell you, there’s something special about that officer. When he came in tonight he asked me if I had seen a dog roaming around. I hadn’t. He was driving around here for the past hour looking for him.”

Last night Rusty slept soundly. Sometimes his eyes would kind of turn back inside his head and begin to flutter, his body twitching. I would have given anything to know where he was, where he’d been, how he survived.

It’s morning. Rusty’s resting in the sun. Curious, I Google, “what does the name Vigil mean?” The Vigil surname comes from the word “vigil” which is from the Latin “vigila,” meaning “wakefulness.” Also, it may derive from the town of Vigil, in Asturias, Spain.

Then I Google, what does Matthew mean?

Gift from God.



ME AIKIDO STAFF KATA copySometimes it’s a matter of how you frame it, how you pare it down, where you make the connections, what you deem significant.

It took me a while to come up with a framework for my life that made sense, that rang true. I’ve chosen to piece it together in a way that lets me see my life as good, as blessed, as rich, and as mysterious.

It goes like this…

First life…I was young. I had parents. I married a good woman, raised two good kids, founded and directed a school in Philadelphia, bought a big, old house and fixed it up. In this, my first life, I was athletic. I lived, and I danced, full out, until I could dance no longer.

Bardo…My kids leave home, my marriage ends, my house is sold. I leave my school. My mother dies. My father dies. Seven dark, interminable years pass. 

One day, I wake up into the light of day and discover I am another person, living another life.

38 bruce smiling

Second life…I am old. I have no parents. I am married to a good woman, a different woman. I am not raising children. I live in New Mexico in a small adobe house, and in Osaka in a small apartment, both places where I have no school. I am a contemplative. I teach. I write.

Sometimes I wake in the morning, surprised. It takes me a second. Aha! I am not in my first life. And I am not in my Bardo. I am in my second life!

Yes, I know that in my first life I was born, and that in this life I will die. There’s a sweetness in knowing my days are numbered. More and more, I find myself savoring experience, lingering, slowing everything down.

Yes, in this second life the days feel shorter; the years too. But the moments, they last longer, much longer.

Small infinities. Ephemeral eternities. Momentary immortalities.

The Decision

Pottery by Dorothea Chabert

Pottery by Dorothea Chabert


While Eva prepares dinner, I am in the living room holding a ceramic pot in my hands. “Eva, tell me about the large brown pot by the window. It looks like it wasn’t made. It looks more like it was grown.”

“My friend made that, Dorothea Chabert. We lost touch a long time ago. I don’t even know if she’s still alive.” “Eva, why don’t we find out?”

Eva did find out. She called a number she had penciled into an old address book. Eva’s in her mid-eighties and never bothered with computers. It’s a relief to be in her world for the days that I am every year, a world with few distractions, few interruptions, where long conversations happen over long meals, sitting at a beautifully set table with spoons, and plates, teacups and pitchers enjoyed in her family for generations. A world where time moves at its own pace. A world of hardback books, framed photographs, oil paintings, and pottery, a world you can feel and touch.

In Eva’s little Fiat, on the Autobahn, BMWs, Audis and Mercedes Benz are passing us at alarming speed. “Eva, I say, tell me more about Dorothea.”  “Dorothea lives in Wolfsburg, she says. She used to live in Wolfsburg Castle. Now she lives in the coach house beside the Castle. That’s where we’re going, to Wolfsburg Castle. She was part of an artist collective back in the 60’s called Scholsstrasse 8. She taught ceramic art in a university for some years, I think in Braunschweig. She’s more well known in Japan than in Germany. It often works that way.”  “You can’t be a prophet in your own city,” I say, “sometimes not even in your own country.”   

Old wooden floors, huge wooden beams, large wooden work tables, and everywhere wooden shelves, like scaffolding, lined with pottery. A potter’s paradise. “Eva, I feel like I’m walking into a church.” “Me too,” Eva says. Dorothea sits at her wheel, looking out a large, open window. A soft Vermeer-like light illuminates her calm, weather worn face.

Hours pass in Dorothea’s company mesmerized by hundreds of bowls, vases, teapots, cups, containers, and large plates with glazes that look like galaxies. Being in Dorothea’s studio is like being in a scholars large, private library, entranced, surrounded by a person’s unpublished autobiography, written in clay.

In the twilight Dorothea’s pottery sits quietly, numinously. As if she could read my thoughts, Dorothea says, “You know, I don’t throw much anymore. I can’t sit for very long because of my back. But I spend time looking at my wheel. On good days I used to feel God sitting right there in the center of my wheel. On those days throwing a pot was like Creation, like Genesis, a world whirling itself into existence. I lived for those days, those meetings.”

Eva and I leave, each holding a simple cup in our hands, and Dorothea in our hearts.


Sitting in a room full of students, about to begin a workshop, I’m the opposite of nervous. I feel at home, in a place I know, a place full of warmth and comfort. Allowing the room to grow quiet on its own, listening for that poignant silence, I find myself thinking about Dorothea.

“I love pottery, I say. It’s the way it feels in my hands. One day I was in Italy. It was hot. I was thirsty. I spotted a water pump in a plaza. I primed the pump. Water spilled out. I squatted down, cupping my two hands together, filled my palms with cold water, and drank. I looked down at my wet hands and thought, two hands, the first bowl ever made.”

“When I came here to Japan, I knew I had landed in my artistic home. Your country reveres pottery, constructs entire ceremonies around a tea bowl.  The chawan is Japan’s holy grail, a sacred vessel with a sacred purpose; to commune with nature, with people, and with life itself.”

“Maybe that’s why pottery feels so quintessentially human to me. We unearth ancient civilizations and what do we find? Pottery. Where there are people, there is pottery. Like kanji, the word human is comprised of two images. The character hu, as in humus, meaning earth or clay, and the character man, as in main, meaning hand. So human could mean, an earthling made of clay who has hands.”

If we’re made of clay, then maybe potters have something to teach us. Maybe if we study their creative process we might learn something about transformation, about how to change ourselves into something beautiful and useful.


This essay will contain notes on teaching for those of you who are educators. They will appear in italics. When I teach a workshop where there are a number of trainees and teachers assisting me, which is usually the case, I will occasionally make a T-shape with my hands, indictating that I am about to take a “Teaching Moment.” Actors refer to this as “breaking the fourth wall.”  It’s as if I leave the workshop for a second and turn my attention to my trainees and teachers. The difference is, however, that I want the workshop participants to hear what I am saying to the trainees and teachers, because I actually want the workshop participants to understand my pedagogical choices. You can now officially consider yourself one of my trainees at the workshop!


The metaphor has now been established for the workshop. It serves me, as you will see, as an outline for the workshop. Within the metaphor lies a sequence through which I can allow the work to unfold. It’s a physical metaphor with metaphysical implications. That means while I am connecting the metaphor to their bodies, I am also connecting the metaphor to their lives, to what it means to be human. I’ve also set the stage for using my hands to do my work, for making physical contact with people.  I have revealed a little about myself as a person: that I like pottery, that I’ve been to Italy, that I love Japan, and by revealing a bit about myself I am indirectly giving them permission to tell me about themselves.

My strategy is to begin big, to create breadth. What it means to be human. I don’t want them reducing the work to their bodies. I want their attention on their lives, on how it feels to move through their days.


So where do potters begin? My friend, Filipe Ortega, an Apache potter from La Madera, New Mexico who speaks four languages and has a Master’s degree in theology, goes down to a nearby pit his relatives have used to extract clay since the early 1800s. It all begins there, in the ground. When Filipe calls the earth his mother, he’s not being poetic. That’s reality for him. He experiences the earth as his loving mother. It’s his source of life. From where doth thou support come, it cometh from the earth. What could be more obvious?”

“Matter in Latin, Matur, means Mother.  Physical life needs nurturance. Life cannot live without it.

But for a couple thousand years Westerns have lived in a culture where the spiritual has been severed from the physical; the spiritual elevated, and the physical debased.”

“If physical life is less valuable, then the nurturers become less valued; the mothers, the caregivers, the nurses and the therapists, the teachers, and the gardeners. Those of us who use their hands, their bodies to do their work, the manual workers, become deemed less worthy, of less worth, and thus are paid less, thought less of, less than those who make a living using their ‘higher’ functions, who live in a more sophisticated world, an abstract and symbolic world.”

“This is one reason why it is important for me to be an Alexander teacher, because first and foremost I am a nurturer, a person who cares for people. I am a male mother. Education is wonderful, but alone, education is not enough for humans to grow. Education and nurturance together make people grow. The Alexander Technique is not about learning; it’s about growing.”

“The mind did not evolve in isolation. Our brains, our voices, our uprightness, our ability to walk, and to use our hands all evolved interdependently. The Alexander Technique values these uniquely human abilities, equally, attends to them equally, continues to see them as interdependent.”

The physical is holy. The senses are holy. The body possesses wisdom that the mind will never understand. Coming to our senses is exactly what we need to be doing in this day and age.”

“Touch is an indispensable sense for nurturance. Infants cannot live without it. Certain primates spend up to 20% of their day in physical contact, grooming each other, huddling together when they are scared or need comforting, keeping themselves warm on cold nights, carrying their young on their backs as they go about their work.”

“I am a manual worker, an intelligent manual worker. I am proud of that. I am tactually literate. Alexander work, for me, heals this mind/body dichotomy. It helps make us whole. It helps restore our humanity. It brings us back down to the earth, to our mother. We all have the same mother. We mustn’t forget this. For Filipe and me, this is not just a metaphor; it’s reality.”


Before a potter begins to throw a pot, their clay must have a high degree of plasticity. That means it must be flexible, moist but not too moist, and strong but not dry or rigid. This is why potters have to wedge their clay. Once they get a homogenous distribution of tone through the clay, the clay ‘wakes up.’  The same is true for us.”

“There are two ways of wedging clay. Some potters wedge clay into the shape of a ram’s horn, but the Japanese, being islanders, wedge clay into the shape of a conch shell, both spiraling forms. Embryologically, bones spiral themselves into existence, and then muscles spiral themselves in the opposite direction around the bones. It’s a helical pattern. The heart itself is one spiraling muscle folded in on itself. The spiral is a primary pattern within us, and within the universe at large.”

I invite the group to huddle around my computer to watch a video of a master potter wedging clay. They look like little kids ready to watch some cartoons.  (Go ahead. Be a little kid too. Take the time and watch the video.)

It seems many of the students have never seen a person wedging clay. You can hear the occasional rising Ehhhh…….sound that Japanese make when they are surprised and impressed by something.

“Okay, let’s begin to learn how to wedge our own clay.”

I demonstrate a movement on the floor of what a baby does as it learns to roll over from its back to its front. I show them how it’s possible to initiate this spiraling motion from the eyes and head, from the solar plexus, or from the knees, thighs and pelvis, all creating spirals through the body.

I station my assistants around the room, placing them at the head of each student. They serve as a stimulus, something the baby wants to see, creating the impulse to initiate the spiraling motion from the eyes and head. I show them how to use their hands to assist the student in clearly initiating the movement from the eyes and head and insuring that the body follows sequentially.

I’ve now begun to physicalize the metaphor. I call these ‘movement metaphors,’ or moving ideas, ideas that move you.

I sit down and watch. I watch both the Alexander trainees and teachers, and their students. Where needed, I help. People are animated and enjoying themselves. When I see that everyone has improved, I bring the group back together.


“The clay is then patted into a sphere, another primary form within us and within the universe. A sphere is equally high, wide, and deep. This creates maximum volume, with minimum surface area. A sphere has neither sides, nor a top or a bottom. We have lots of sphere-like shapes within us, like our skull, rib container, our pelvic basin, and lots of ball joints; shoulders, elbows, knees. We’re full of bowls, and domes.”

The assistants and I go around the room showing them beautiful drawings of human spheres from Albinus On Anatomy. Then we go around gently enveloping all the heads, rib cavities, and pelvic basins in the room. Once I can see that everyone is sensing the roundness of their structure, I have them walk around the room.

“Is that how you usually feel when you walk down the street,” I ask? “Zen zen jigau, totally different,” several students say.

Everyone sits down, most of them looking somehow different, less collapsed, and less constricted.

“The sphere of clay is then dropped onto the wheel, as close to center as possible. But to get the clay truly centered, the potter almost always brings the clay up and down a few times, guiding it ever more finely onto center. If you know the poem Burnt Norton, by T. S. Eliot, you cannot help but feel the connection between what the potter does and to Eliot’s ‘still point in the turning world.’ Eliot writes, “…at the still point, there the dance is.’”

“So lets bring the clay up and down. Humans get up and down in many ways, for all kinds of reasons. Buddhists and Muslims bow. Dancers plié. Aikidoists roll. We get up and down from chairs. Here, lots of us sleep on the floor, and get up and down from Kotatsus.”

“I happen to know that, in this room, we have a Zen Priest, a professional ballet dancer, a couple Aikidoists, and people that get up in the morning from their futon and down again at night after a hard day of work. Lets make four groups and do some rising and lowering. Go into the group you want and bring your clay up and down.”

I sit down and watch. I watch everyone. I do my best not to intervene unless absolutely necessary.  And again, people are having a good time.  The bowers are having a great time. They look reverent and about to break out in laughter at the same time. When it looks like a couple good waves of learning have happened, I invite people to finish up and then sit down again.

Now a great potter doesn’t just bring their clay up and down in any old way, they do it in a way where they become that still point in the turning world. And we can learn to do that within ourselves too. Alexander found a way into this. He called it the true and primary movement. He discerned that there was an inner movement, an inner rising and lowering. This inner movement has a certain look to it. It’s effortless, it’s smooth. There’s a lightness to it. It seems to happen by itself. Let’s look at another video, this time of a potter making a bowl. The way the clay changes shape, the way it rises, widens, and spreads out looks a lot like Alexander’s true and primary movement feels.”  (Watching a master potter turn a lump of clay into a bowl is mezmerizing and magical. As you watch this make sure to imagine the movement you are seeing actually happening in your body. See what you are seeing kinesthetically.)

And so it begins. Everyone is now ready and excited about experiencing Alexander’s primary movement. Soon they will feel the effortless rising, the wetness, the fluidity,the stability, the spreading, the still point in the turning world. Soon they will feel themselves opening, sense spaces within themselves unbeknownst to them.

(If you just watched the potter throw the bowl, then you will see how much Alexander’s primary movement looks like the clay effortlessly rising and opening. I never get tired of feeling this motion under my hands.)


“Okay, what about using our pots? If they’re going to last, don’t they have to be glazed and fired? Here’s how I see it. The glaze is your personality, your color, your design, how you express yourself. We don’t want to change that.”

“And the firing? The firing is your life. Will you be able to withstand, endure, survive the pressure of life, its demands, hardships, disappointments, and ordeals without cracking, irreparably? If you can, if you do make it through this trail by fire, you will become useful, able to serve. And though you may, along the way, as I have, suffer cracking and chipping, and though you may even fall and shatter and have to glue yourself back together piece by piece, as I have, you will, with age, become beautiful.”

“So it’s now time to discuss among yourselves, in small groups, what situations in your life are currently stressful. It may be a situation at work, dealing with deadlines, with bossy bosses. It may be relating with your partner, or your children, or your parents. It might be the pressure of performance. But whatever the situation, take time now, find the people in the room who can help you set up the stressful situation you find yourself in, and let’s enter the fire together, let’s use Alexander’s work so that we can be made stronger by the fire.”

The stage is now set for the second part of class, for applying the work into their lives. The Alexander Technique is not about the Alexander Technique. It’s about an approach to living. When I asked Marj Barstow, my mentor, what my job was as an Alexander teacher she said, “Bruce, your job is to help people to become sensitive, and to help them to bring that sensitivity into their everyday lives.”  Almost 40 years later, that’s still my job, still what I am figuring out how to do, for myself and for others.

Scenes are enacted; an aging daughter caring for an aging parent, a teacher unable to motivate her students, an analyst stuck behind a computer all day, a singer with performance anxiety, a therapist listening to a suicidal client, a physical therapist having to help a stroke patient up from a chair and into bed. These are the kinds of situations that inspire me. The tough ones.


It’s time to bring the workshop to a close, always a delicate moment, like arriving at the last line of a poem.

“You are the clay. You are the material with which you have to work. You are the potter. You are the bowl. You are the person who shapes yourself. You are the person who has the potential to open yourself. You are the one who can make yourself beautiful, and useful.”

“And it is you who must, ultimately, ask the question and make the decision. With what do I wish to fill myself?”

The room is utterly silent. We sit in that silence together for a long time, in a circle that suddenly looks to me like one big bowl. I bow, thanking my translator of 27 years, my organized organizer, my dedicated trainees, my devoted teachers, and all the openhearted students. I am filled with gratitude.

Yes, I think to myself, that’s my decision.

The Lay Of The Land

Photo: Anchan Akihiro Tada

Photo: Anchan Akihiro Tada

In Japan people work late, often at jobs that have little to do with who they are. They finish work and desperately want to do something for themselves, something they care about. The scene in the Japanese version of Shall We Dance, when the woman rushes in late to her dance class, not having had time to eat, and proceeds to faint, on the spot, from exhaustion is not an exaggeration.

That’s how it was for some of my night students. They’d arrive, and there they were, not really standing, but ever so slightly wavering in the air, on the verge of fainting; famished, weary, drained.

There was no other way to work with them but lying down. My friend Anchan had just made new teaching tables for the Alexander Alliance Kyoto. They were low, about a foot off the ground, so that we could work in seiza. It was easier to work on these tables than to work on the floor. The tables were shaped vaguely like a person, which made sense. They were wider than a massage table at the upper end, providing plenty of room for the arms, while the middle was quite narrow, allowing the teacher to come in close to the student’s torso, making it really easy to reach over to the other side, and the lower end of the table widened out, slightly, for the pelvis, legs and feet. For me, it was perfect.

Our sessions were quiet, meditative, long, sometimes lasting for an hour. Strangely enough, rarely did a student fall asleep. Usually at some point, a student would begin to talk to me, and we, (my translator, Midori Shinkai, and I) would listen. There was little I gave in the way reply. I replied with my hands, helping them to become soft within themselves as they spoke to us of their hardships.

Sometimes, I’d sit there feeling like an old tree providing shade and shelter. Sometimes, I’d become so utterly silent, I could hear the ocean inside them. They would leave, rested and awake, as if they had remembered who they were and why they were here.

But that was years ago. I had fallen out of doing lying down work. I had moved on to other ways of working. For forty years Alexander’s work has led me to where it has wanted me to go, and I have followed like a faithful servant.

Yesterday Yamashita-san arrives, an Alexander Technique teacher.  He specifically requests that I give him a lying down lesson. “I’m so sorry, I say. I hardly ever do table work. It’s not what I am trained in, not what I practice, not what I am good at.” Apologizing is, however, something one practices a lot after living in Japan for a while. “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu, he says. Please teach me.” I tell him I will do my best for him.

“Okay. Let’s begin.” We open up a standard massage table. “Yamashita-san, without thinking, just lie down on the table any old way.” Like a high jumper, he does a kind of western roll onto the table, ending up on his back, legs outstretched and turned out, head slightly tilted back, his hands resting on his belly.  “That’s great. Don’t move. Don’t correct anything. Don’t arrange yourself. No Alexander Technique. Just hang out and rest.”

‘This may not be the conventional way to begin an Alexander lying down lesson, but entertain  me. I have my reasons, which I will share with you all along the way. I want you to understand my mind, I say, then if you ever want to, it will be easier for you to do what I do.’

“You look comfortable. I like being comfortable too. No point being uncomfortable.” I pull up a fairly high stool, (it’s what’s in the studio I happen to be teaching in), place it at the end of the table, just behind Yamashita-sans head, and sit down.

“Okay Yamashita-san. (Yama means mountain, and shita means under.) Here’s the first thing I do. I look. I look at my student, my person, without any desire to come toward them and help them, without any desire to change them in any way.  At the same time, I don’t pull back away from them and begin critically analysing everything I see. I call the way I practice seeing, beholding, holding a person’s being inside me. Beholding frees me. It’s as if I were far away, high on a mesa, gazing out over a vast, beautiful landscape. Yet, I feel strangely close to what I am seeing, almost touching it with my eyes, while at the same time, receding from it, as if I were on a ship leaving a land that I love.”

“Usually, when we see something the first thing we do is identify it. Our minds quickly name what we see. I look at you and my mind says, man.  And then the mind thinks that it no longer has any more to do. Its job is finished. But years ago, when I first started birdwatching, I read a book written by Donald and Lillian Stokes on bird behavior. They said that if you really want to go beyond identification, if you really wanted to see a bird, to see it’s behavior, how it lives its life, you had to watch it, at the very least, for three minutes. At some point, you begin seeing what is actually going on in front of your eyes, not the name, a red winged blackbird, not the symbol, not the icon of a red winged blackbird, but of what is actually happening in front of your eyes, of reality itself.”

“So that’s what I am going to do with you now, and I will share with you what I am seeing. This will begin to awaken your kinesthetic sense, as you will soon experience. This is important, as you know. You probably also know that when Alexander came to London in 1900, he stood out on a street corner handing out little pamphlets about his work. He didn’t call it the Alexander Technique. He referred to it as Kinesthetic and Respiratory Re-education. So that’s what we’ll be doing for a little while.”

“I begin by looking at the lay of the land. To do that I imagine a strong rain, raining down on the earth, which is you. I watch where it looks like the rain would seep into the ground, where it would collect, and where it would begin to run down, and the path that watercourse would take.”

“When the rain hits your sternum,” touching his sternum in the place I want him to sense, “I see the rain running down toward your left shoulder/boulder, collecting, and then cascading down into the pit, the arm pit.” I slide down his sternum following the incline toward his left arm pit. I return to the ridge of the sternum and slide my hand to the right, along land that I am sure Yamashita-san can feel is level.

“What’s happening kinesthetically, Yamashita-san?” I say, noting he’s wide awake.  “I can sense and see exactly what you are seeing,” he says.  We continue in this way until Yamashita-san has a vivid sense of his body’s landscape; the slope of his forehead, the bridge of his neck, the caves under his hands and feet, the pools of his eyes, his rib tunnel, the pelvic revine, the roll of his legs.

“Now, having awakened your kinesthesia, having got a sense of the lay of the land, I will begin to use my hands. If we extend this metaphor, my hands would play the part of external forces which change the shape of the earth; the sun, the wind, the rains, and time itself.”

As I work with my hands, I not only talk to Yamashita-san about what I am doing, I tell him why I am doing what I am doing, sometimes how I am doing what I am doing, and sometimes from whom I learned to do what I am doing. “That’s from Elisabeth Walker, that’s indirectly from Joan Murray, that’s from Robyn Avalon, that I made up, that too, that’s from Robbin Simmons, that’s from Walter Carrington, that move is from Nica Gimeno, that’s an image from Martha Hansen Fertman, that image is from Ethel Webb, this idea’s from Barbara Conable.”

Along the way I tell Yamashita-san why I don’t work symmetrically, why I don’t have a set routine, why I use myriad qualities of touch, why I work unpredictably, why I don’t talk about breathing, how I get shoulders to widen and settle, wrists to unset, ribs to soften, nostrils to open, organs to move, hip joints to un-grip, legs to balance themselves.

The hour flies by, and yet it’s as if we’ve traveled together for years, hiked up hills, rafted down rivers, climbed up cliffs, slid down slopes, camped out in caves, rested upon rocks.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll get back into table work again someday. Maybe not. It’s not up to me. I’m a servant. I listen to my master.


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