The Way Of It
On this particular day, in Japan, in a hospital, I am with physical and speech therapists. I have two days, fourteen hours. Two professors of Physical Therapy invited me because it has become apparent to them that two key elements are missing when it comes to educating physical therapists: how they use their hands, and how they use their bodies, when they are doing their work. They get a lot of theory in school. They learn a lot of specific techniques for a lot of specific problems. But they don’t have a class called Touch 101, or Movement for Physical Therapists 202. They just don’t, and these professors are beginning to wonder why. There’s about 35 therapists in the room, about 7 Alexander teachers. That should work.
Georges Cuisenaire, originator of The Silent Way, once said, ‘Don’t prepare your class; prepare yourself.”
That’s primarily what I do, but I also jot down a few ideas. Not many. I scribble them in a notebook, bought at a 100 yen store, a notebook I fill up, don’t revisit, and throw away once it’s full.
What I rely on is being where I am, awake to what is happening, to who walks into the room, to the room itself, and to the unexpected.
Just as I am about to begin, Kenji-sensei stands up and begins to talk. He’s telling his students how he took a four hour train trip to Kanazawa to take a workshop in the Alexander Technique for physical therapists.. There, he had an experience that he did not understand but knew was vitally important to being a good physical therapist. He knew he wasn’t going to figure it out in a weekend workshop. So he decided to organize some workshops for me at his hospital so he could study more. I could see how excited Kenji was about me being at his hospital, about the work, and about sharing it with everyone.
Before I speak, I don’t speak, sometimes for an uncomfortably long time, not uncomfortable for me, but for everyone who is waiting for me to say something. I’m not speaking because I am thinking. Kenji had just given me some new information, and I wanted to use it.
You all have a great role model here, and no doubt you know it, I begin. That’s how you learn, how you keep learning. You do what Kenji does. There’s a lot to learn inside your own profession. For sure. But think of how much knowledge exists outside your profession. Kenji went outside of the PT world to learn something new. He’s a very busy man, but he made the time, he spent a lot of money to do it. A four hour Shinkansen trip is expensive. When Kenji-san was there, he stood out to me because he was 120% awake, watching me like a hawk. He was asking questions, something that, inside a room of 60 people, not many Japanese people do. Kenji-san came to learn something, and he did.
He knew he had to study more, so he organized workshops where he lived and worked. If you haven’t noticed, Kenji is excited about learning. So that’s how it works. If you want to get a lot out of this weekend, you now know how to do it.
The stage was set. Everyone was awake.
I Don’t Know
The Alexander Technique is not a technique, not in the same way you guys learn techniques for working with adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulders or in Japan as it is known, the 50 year old shoulder), or hemiplegia (severe strokes), or dysphagia (swallowing disorders). The Alexander Technique is not a technique for anything particular.
The Alexander Technique is a field of study. It’s an inquiry into human integration, into what integration is, what restores it, and what disturbs it. It’s a foundational study. Integration underlies everything you do. The more of it you have, the easier it is to do what you’re doing.
So what is integration? You PTs help people a lot with strength, flexibility, and coordination, super important for everyone. Integration includes all of these but is, at the same time, something distinct from them. For example, a baby can scream holy hell for an hour and not lose its voice. Why is that? Why can’t a grown up do that? A baby will reach for something, but never over-reach for something. They will only extend their arms or legs so far and no farther. Why is that? Babies will work for a long time figuring out how to pick up a pea on their plate but will never distort their hands or bodies while they’re doing it. They just won’t distort themselves. They are somehow prewired, preprogrammed to remain whole, all of a piece, a flexible unit. That’s integration.
So why do we lose it? I don’t know. I don’t know a lot of things. How do we lose it? I don’t know that either, but I’ve got a few theories. What I observe is that in the process of our becoming coordinated, something happens. At some point we’ve got to learn how to button our shirt, tie our shoes, eat with hashi, (chopsticks). We’ve got to learn how to speak, how to ride a bicycle, how to write kanji. Did you ever see little kids trying to write kanji? There you can see it. Children disintegrating. Their tongues are sticking out of the corner of their mouths, they’re not breathing, their heads are hanging down, spines bent and twisted, little hands gripping their pencils for dear life. And the more pressure around learning, the more felt fear, the more the body just falls apart. There’s no preventing it entirely, no matter how great your parents are, or your teachers, or your culture. Sooner or later it’s going to happen, to everyone, more or less. The fall from grace. Somehow, we’ve got to find our way back to the garden.
Have you ever been to a rodeo? (I’ve now moved from standing in a big circle with everyone, into the center of that circle.) I haven’t, but sometimes when you walk into a bar in New Mexico, you might look up at the TV and see one. A rodeo’s a contest where cowboys and cowgirls show their skill at riding broncos, roping calves, and wrestling steers. These are practical skills ranchers need in order to roundup cattle, to count them, or brand them. (I’ve chosen this example for the PTs because its profoundly physical, strongly kinesthetic. It’s also exotic, and people like that.)
It so happens that Marjorie L. Barstow, the first person formally certified to teach the Alexander Technique, and my mentor for 16 years, took Frank Pierce Jones, a man she helped train to become an Alexander teacher, a classics professor at Brown University, an East Coast intellectual, a man who would never find himself at a western rodeo, except for on this day, when Marj wanted to show him what the Alexander Technique was all about.
Okay Frank, in a minute a big, mean, steer is going to explode out of that gate, and out of the gate next to it, a cowboy on a horse is going to burst out, and that cowboy is going to do his best to lean over, grab that steers horns, dig his heels into the dirt, and take that steer down. And that steer is going to do his best not to let him.
The gates open. Frank watches. He sees the cowboy lean over, take the horns, snap them back, jam the back of the steers skull into his massive neck while twisting that neck to the side and bringing that steers head to the ground. The steer, unable to stay on his legs, crashes to the ground.
What did you see Frank? Not too much. It all happened so fast, Frank says. Keep watching Frank. They watched, and as they watched, little by little Marj got Frank to see exactly what was happening. You see Frank, the cowboy snaps the steers head back, and jams it into his neck. That compresses his entire spine. Now the steer can’t breathe. His front legs begin to buckle. His pelvis tilts under. His hind legs can’t get any power, any traction. That steer’s got nothing left. The man’s in control now.
There’s one last cowboy to go. Looking down at him as he sits on his horse, Frank can see that this cowboy doesn’t look well. He’s slouched back in the saddle, the horse’s head is dropped way down. Maybe he was out late. Maybe he drank more than he should have. The gates swing open, the steer gets the jump on him, the cowboy catches up, leans over, grabs the horns but can’t seem to snap the head back. Rather than the horns going back, Frank sees them rotating slightly forward, the neck looks enormous, the steers ribs are widening as air fills his huge lungs. The steers body seems to be getting longer, his front legs are dropping under him, his pelvis is out, his tail’s up, his haunches powerful, his back hooves driving him forward like a train. Meanwhile, the cowboy looks like a flag flapping the the wind. This time around, the steer’s in charge.
Now that’s the way of it, that’s how it works, that’s what we’re after, Marj says. We’ve got that kind of organized power in us too. We’re just interfering with it all the time. That’s what Alexander figured out.
And that’s what I mean, I say to the class, when I use the word integration. I mean that naturally organized freedom and power that’s in all of us.
I can see I’ve got everyone’s attention. I’ve been telling this story as much with my body as with my words. I see that everyone’s been sitting for a while, so I say, Okay, enough sitting. Why don’t you stand up. The second they start to stand up I tell them to stop and just stay where they are. Don’t move a muscle.
Where are your horns? I mean, if you had horns? Are they rotating forward or are they rotating backwards? My eyes see one guy who’s head is pretty jammed into his neck. I walk over, and kneel down on one knee in front of him. I invite everyone to come closer so that they can see us. I scoop his head lightly into my hands the way my grandmother would do to me when she greeted me, and I gently tilt his imaginary horns forward. His spine surges up. Everyone can see the power filling his body. That’s the steer, I say. I guide his weight over his sit bones, then over his feet, and without any effort, he floats to a stand. How was that, I said? Smiling, dazed, he says, Zen zen chigau! Totally different! I floated up without any effort. Well, I say, that’s what happens when the cowboy is off your back.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. We’ve all got a steer inside of us. I call that your mammal body. And we all have a cowboy inside of us. That’s your acquired body. And sometimes our acquired body works against our mammal body. There’s a conflict in there. We’re fighting against ourselves. And it can get dangerous. The steer can get hurt, and the cowboy too.
Now our cowboy can’t take us down by our horns because we don’t have horns, and besides, the cowboy is not outside of us. So how does the cowboy within us bring us down? Well, instead of coming at us from on top of our heads, he comes at us from below our heads, from our necks. It’s like he’s hiding there inside our neck, looking up, reaching up, and pulling our skull back and pressing it down into our spines. That’s not the only place where he hangs out, but it’s definitely one of his favorite places from which to operate.
Here’s what’s very cool. Our mammal body has got a lot of energy in it. And our cowboy body does too. Now if they’re going at each other, they’re using up all of our energy, and that’s the energy we want to be using to get on with our lives. If we can get the energy of the mammal body and the energy of the cowboy body to harmonize, to work together toward a common purpose, if we can get them both working for us, not busy fighting against each other, then just imagine how much energy that would free up.
And that’s why it felt so effortless standing up. Not only was the cowboy off your back, the cowboy was actually helping you get up! So you’re going from having almost no available energy to stand up, to having a surplus of energy to stand up. Now, that’s exciting. Imagine what it would feel like to work with patients with all that organized energy, what it would be like to move through your day like that.
Over the next half hour, I do this with about ten students. I make a point of always catching a person unaware that their horns are pulling back. Don’t move, I tell her. You’re perfect just like that. Okay, I’m going to be the cowboy. I place my hands around her head, but this time I put a slight pressure with my little fingers against the back of her neck, and take her more into her “disintegration pattern”, gently getting her throat to bulge forward and down, which immediately tilts her head back, collapses her chest, and tucks her pelvis under.
Now, I’m going to have a change of heart, a conversion. I’m a cowboy who decided to change his ways. My new mission is to free the steer, free its power. Finding the potential spring in her spine, I guide her back into her “integration pattern.” (I don’t use any Alexander jargon. I find I don’t need it.)
Supporting teachers, I call out! It’s time to give everyone this experience! I can sense a bit of panic in the air. I know what they’re afraid of. Don’t be afraid of taking people down, I say to them. Do it. It’s good for them. It’s good for everyone. We want to get springy down there. When you buckle a person’s neck forward and press their heads gently into their spines, it’s an intelligent response for the body to go into a collapse pattern. If the spine is too rigid and can’t do that, there’s a problem. So take people down, softly, and get them to know what’s happening down there. Lead them down in a way that makes their spine springy. Load the spring. Fill it with potential energy. Then take the pressure off it and let it spring back up. Get to work. Have fun.
By the end of the first morning we are off to a good start. Everyone’s got a clear idea of what the works about, what the workshop is about. They’re beginning to be able to see what the cowboy within looks like, and what the steer within looks like. They’ve all felt the power of their mammal body when the cowboy is working for it, and the weakness of the mammal body when the cowboy is working against it.
Their Own Story
I want to tell them about their own countries story of the ox and the ox herder, about the boy who finds the wild ox and tries to tame it, and has a real hard time of it, how they both end up exhausted. I want to tell them how, if they just hang in there for forty or so more years, the ox and the ox herder will come to trust one another, like one another. The fighting will stop. But I decide not to go there.
Have a good lunch. Get some fresh air. Move around. Rest a bit. Come back ready to work.
Doumo arigatou gosaimashita, I say, bowing, grateful after all these years to still be teaching, that there are young people out there interested in what I know. Doumo arigatou gosaimashita, everyone repeats, happy and energetic.
Riding The Bull Home
The Zen Oxherd Pictures
Mounting the ox, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute floats through the evening air.
Tapping my foot to the pulsating harmony of the world around me,
In rhythm with the beating of my own heart.