The Lay Of The Land
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.