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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?


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