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Posts from the ‘Breathing’ Category

Just A Hunch

on innocence

photo: Bruce Fertman

Just A Hunch

Through the pressure generated between the growing head and the growing heart, the face is sculpted. Three ridges. One will become the brow, one the nose, one the chin.

Then suddenly the unfurling begins. The head floats away from the heart. Organs begin to form in newly available space. Space precedes substance. First there is nothing, then there is something.

The baby enters the world, C-shaped, one simple curve. Over the first few months, through olympian effort, the baby acquires the needed strength to lift its head and look around, gradually forming a flexible and stable cervical curve. The lumbar curve develops as the baby begins creeping and crawling, and fully establishes itself through the herculean task of learning to walk.

The head becomes the center of orientation, the pelvis the center of locomotion.

We grow, we evolve from zygote, to embryo, to fetus, to infant, to baby, to toddler, to child, to teenager, to young adult, to adult, to maturing adult, (young-old), and if lucky to very old adult, (old-old). 

Somewhere between young-old and old-old another spinal transformation begins, as natural perhaps as all the other spinal transformations. In Onsens, Japanese hot springs, I have spent hours studying the shapes of boys and men of all ages, the children with arching lower backs and rounded bellies, with soft, supple necks, their heads balancing loosely atop naturally upright spines. The young men, unbeknownst to them, but evident to me, already foreshadow how they will sit, stand, and walk as old men. And the now old men, some more, some less beginning to wilt, droop, sag.

Its as if the thoracic curve wants to re-incorporate the cervical curve into itself,  making the head, and with it the mind, the eyes, and ears orient inward, away from the outer world, toward the world of in-sight and hindsight.

Its as if the sacral curve wants to re-incorporate the lumbar curve into itself, tilting the pelvis under, making locomotion more difficult, venturing out more trying, increasing the impulse to sit, perhaps to read, perhaps to write, perhaps to listen to the stories of others, or to give counsel.

I have begun to feel the pull of my primary curves wanting to reclaim my secondary curves. Is it natural, inevitable? I dont know. Ive chosen, however, not to give in to this subtle, seductive undertow. I want my head above water. I want to continue orienting outward to the world. I want to walk onto dry land, feel the earth beneath my feet. Perhaps one of the reasons four out of five of my Alexander mentors taught into their mid to late nineties was because they knew how to feed and nourish their secondary curves. Perhaps those curves allowed their eyes to see and to care about others. Perhaps those curves provided more space for their organs, allowing for greater oxygen intake, better blood flow, good digestive motility. Perhaps those curves helped lengthen their legs under them, kept those feet firmly on the ground.

If our primary curves pull us back to the past and our secondary curves beckon us forward into the future, then having a balance between them might bring us into the present.

Yes, perhaps it was their secondary curves that kept them so vibrant, so engaged, so present, so here, here with us, for so long. 

Its just a hunch. But Im going to follow it.

Leaving Myself In Your Hands

Guan-Yin-Close up

Bill Coco

“Show me how to do that?” And I would. I would stop my own workout and teach someone how to do what I had somehow figured out how to do, like a front somersault, or a reverse kip up on the rings, or circles on the side horse. No wonder I missed making the Olympic Team. I was busy coaching. Looking back, it’s clear; I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to be learning how to use my hands to guide someone into balance, to indicate exactly from where to initiate a movement, in what direction, and with what quality of impulse; to punch it, or snap it, or swing it, or draw it out, or press it up, or let it go. I was supposed to be developing my ability to use language to facilitate coordination.

Unbeknownst to me, I was supposed to become an Alexander teacher, but when I was twelve, and first began using my hands to teach other kids how to move well, I had no idea what that was. As gymnasts we used our hands to help each other as a matter of course, and sometimes as a matter of life and death.

My first coach, Bill Coco, gave me my first experience of educative/nurturing touch. “Okay Bruce. You’re going to do your first back layout with a full twist. I want you to show me your round off. Remember no more than 3 preparatory steps, one back handspring, block with your feet so you transfer your horizontal power vertically, hands reaching toward the ceiling. Don’t look over your left shoulder until I say, “Look,” then wrap your arms quickly and closely across your chest, and leave the rest up to me. Got it?” “Got it.” My faith in Bill was total.

One step, round off, lightning fast back handspring, block, reach…”Look,” I hear Bill say! I look over my left shoulder, wrap my arms across my chest, and there’s Bill’s big hands, soft, light, around my hips. I’m suspended, my body laid out in an arch, weightless, floating two feet above Bill’s head. I’m ecstatic. Bill’s hands spin me to the left, and the next thing I know my feet have landed squarely on the ground. “There you go Bruce. Your first lay out with a full twist. You did 95% of it on your own. By the end of the week it will be yours.”

I guess that makes Bill Coco my first Alexander teacher. He taught be how to lead with my head and let my body follow. He used his hands exactly where, and only when needed, and only with the amount of force necessary. Bill looked like a boxer, more often than not with a fat, unlit, cigar in his mouth, disheveled, sported a sizable beer belly, seemed like a tough guy, and deep down was the softest, gentlest, hugest teddy bear alive. He died when he was forty. I was fifteen. But he passed on to me exactly what I needed, and no doubt he did for a lot of Philadelphia kids like myself.

Bill Coco

Bill Coco

And so it went. Teacher after teacher, teaching me exactly what I needed to learn to get exactly to where I am now; a person who knows how to use his hands to bring people into balance, a person who knows the language of movement, and pretty much a soft, gentle teddy bear of a person, minus the cigar.

But were my teachers only teachers? What else were they to me? How did they really pass onto me what I needed to learn? There are teachers, coaches, counselors, instructors, educators, professors, rabbis, priests, role models, idols, heroes, and mentors. We’ve got different names for people from whom we learn, people who pass on knowledge and skill to us, who bring out knowledge and skill from us. But what is the name for those teachers who pass themselves onto us?

It’s important for me to know what, and who I am to my students if I am to best serve them, if I am to pass on to them the best in me, if I am to leave myself in their hands. Sometimes I am teacher, father, friend, coach, holy man, enemy, sometimes mentor, advocate, adversary, role model. I am exactly, at any given moment, who my student perceives me to be, and needs me to be. I know I am, in essence, none of the roles I assume. I am the person who assumes them.

Marjorie Barstow

Marj Barstow was many things to me, which is why she made such an impression. Most importantly, she was a mirror into my future. She was the manifestation of my potentiality. I could see in her what was lying latent within me. And so I watched, and I listened as if my life depended on it, which it did.

She was not a holy person, not a guru, not a mother, Boy, did she not mother us. She was not a technique teacher, not a coach. She was an artist who showed us her art, over and over again, a kinesthetic sculptor. Humans were her medium. And sometimes horses. (Marj had trained world champion quarter horses.) Sometimes I think she really didn’t care all that much about us as people. She was not a person-centered teacher, as I am. She was a technique-centered teacher. She used us to work on her technique, on her art. That was okay with us. We benefited from her artistic obsession.

Marj inspired me. Her work was astoundingly beautiful, mesmerizing, like watching a master potter spin a clump of clay into a graceful bowl.

Marjorie Barstow working with me.  1977

Marjorie Barstow working with me.
1977

More than anything in the world, I wanted to be able to do what she did. I watched her work day after day, year after year, but I didn’t just watch her with my eyes alone. I watched her kinesthetically. I watched her with my whole body and being. I developed a kind of synesthesia. I was taking her in, at once, through all of my senses. It was like I was swallowing her whole. I “grokked” her.

When I was in college and read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, I knew that was how I needed to learn. “Grok” means water. To grok means to drink, to drink life. Not to chew it. Not to break it down to understand it. At the moment of grokking the water and the drinker become one substance. As the water becomes part of the drinker, the drinker becomes part of the water. What was once two separate realities become one reality, one experience, one event, one history, one purpose.

Marj didn’t break things down. Marj didn’t teach us how to use our hands. After we would watch her for a few hours Marj would say something like, “Okay. Let’s divide into smaller groups. Bill, Barbara, Don, Bruce, Martha, and Mio, go and teach for a while. (Or it could have been, Cathy, David, Diana, Catherine, and Pete.) The teaching just happened. We could do it. It was as if we were riding Marj’s wave. We were grokking her.

About a year before Marj died I had a dream. Marj was dying. She was in her bedroom, in her house in Lincoln Nebraska, a room I had never seen. “Bruce come sit next to me.” I did. Then slowly Marj pulled the corner of her bedcover down and asked me to lie down next to her. I was shocked, but I did as she asked and gently slid by her side and covered both of us. Then Marj said, “It’s okay Bruce. Now I am going to breathe you for a while, and she placed her mouth on my mouth and began to breathe into me. I could feel her warm breath entering and filling my lungs. I could feel my breath entering into her lungs. In total darkness, we breathed together for hours.  And then I woke up. I got out of bed, picked up the phone, and called Marj. “Marj, are you okay? I had a dream about you and got nervous.” “Bruce, don’t worry about me. I am fine.” “Okay Marj. Sorry if I bothered you.” “No, you didn’t bother me. Thanks for calling.” “No, thank you Marj.”

I’m still thanking her.

Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

What was he to me, a rabbi, a teacher, a spiritual father? Marj gave me my craft, my art, my vocation. Rebbe Zalman taught me how to teach, how to sit quietly with people, as if they were in my living room. He showed me that it was fine to be silent, that it was okay to take the time I needed to think, and to wait until I had something worth saying. He taught me how to tell a story. He taught me to be unafraid to look into people’s eyes. He taught me how to think metaphorically. He taught me how to listen to my still, inner voice, and follow it. He taught me how to listen to the inner voices of others. He taught me how to bless people, and how to be blessed by them. He taught me that I could never know one religion unless I knew two, and actively encouraged my interest in Zen Buddhism, in the Christian Mystics, and the Sufi Poets, and in the teachings of Lao Tzu.

Rebbe Zalman

Rebbe Zalman

One day Rebbe Zalman entered a classroom at Temple University where I was taking a graduate course on Martin Buber and the Early Hasidic Masters. Rebbe Zalman enters the room, walks across the room to the other side, stands in front of a large window and looks out at the day. After a minute or two he turns around, walks to his desk, sits on the top of his desk, crosses his legs, closes his eyes, tilts his face up toward the ceiling like a blind man, and begins gently rocking from side to side, bending like grass in the wind. He begins singing a niggun, a soft melody that repeats itself and has no ending. At some point we begin singing with him, singing and singing without end, until we feel as if we are altogether in one boat, floating upon an endless melody, down a endless stream. Rebbe Zalman’s voice fades out, and ours with his, until we’re sitting in a palpable silence. Eyes closed, his rocking slowly getting smaller and smaller. And there in the stillness, in the silence, we’d hear, “That reminds me of a story.”

And Rebbe Zalman would begin to tell us a story, and within the story there would be another story, and within that story another story, until we were transported, like children, into another world. And when we’d least expect it, at a particular point, the story would end. No commentary. No discussion. Class was over. We’d leave knowing those stories were about us, about our very lives. Rebbe Zalman didn’t have to give us any homework. He knew those stories would be working within us until next week. Marj Barstow and Rebbe Zalman were transformative educators, par excellence. They knew how to educe, how to lead us in, and then how to lead us out, out of ourselves, into places unknown to us.

A Modern Day Bodhisattva

Many years later I met a woman, another modern day bodhisattva, another person who inspires, who teaches through example, who knows how to bring out the best in people. I spent hours, years, watching her work, watching her lead one person after another out of their confusion; I spent years grokking her, absorbing her through my pores, into who I am now.

11th century Guanyin statue, from northern China

11th century Guanyin statue, from northern China

Again, I see there are no accidents. We meet exactly the teachers we need, exactly at the time we need them, so that we may become exactly the people we were meant to become.

Aaah, but that is another story.

A Wordless Whisper

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

 

Not many folks like the wind out here. Yes, there are times, in the late afternoon, when the breeze, like waves, comes rolling in from the west, trees swaying, branches bending, and you can hear the ocean in the wind, the way when, as a child, you held a conch to your ear and heard the ocean winds whistling, wondering how that could be.

Then, without notice, the wind builds, picking up dust and dirt, traveling like some brown caped ghost, it envelops you, takes you, knocks your hat off, throws sand into your eyes, pushes you from behind, hard, not letting up, for hours.

Why I don’t mind the wind, no matter how relentless, I don’t know. It’s the world breathing, beckoning. It’s like God’s hand, stroking, nudging, pushing me forward. It’s God’s wordless whisper, “Bruce, wake up, wake up, wake up.”

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.  – John 3:8

That’s okay with me. Hearing the wind is enough. Feeling the wind against my face is enough. My job’s not to know, but to be known.

Masters of Gravity – Kan Sensei and Michael Sensei

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Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “You cannot know one religion unless you know two.” I’d say the same when it comes to somatically-based practices as well. I forged a career as an Alexander Technique teacher, but I delved deeply into Tai Chi, Aikido, and Chanoyu. I became able to look at the Alexander Technique not only from the inside out, but from the outside in as well.

Two people I have learned a lot from were both trained in the Rolfing tradition. It so happens they also trained with me. But they went on to synthesize their knowledge in ways that have been illuminating and helpful to me, and to many others. I would like to introduce these two guys to you.

Kan-Sensei

Kan may be the only person in Japan who is a certified Rolfer, Alexander Technique teacher, and Feldenkrais Practitioner. He’s a hidden treasure that few people find. Twenty years ago, I trained Kan to be an Alexander teacher. Now I am happy to say that Kan is my sensei. Every week we exchange work. Every week I leave his studio feeling comfortable and free, full of fresh insights into how my body is designed to work.

Because Kan’s an Alexander teacher, his own coordination is excellent and he knows how to make deep contact without using excessive force. His hands are firm but at the same time very soft. Nonintrusive. Being a Rolfer, Kan gets in there and reorganizes my body into better balance. Then, through his Feldenkrais training, he knows what movement patterns I need to play with to re-enforce my new found integration.

If you live in Japan, and you want to get your body comfortable and back into better balance, and especially if you are an Alexander trainee or teacher, I strongly suggest working with Kan.

I love learning from my students. It’s kind of like a parent who raises a child, and then that child grows up and helps out his parents. That’s how it feels.

Kan is a real gift.

https://www.facebook.com/kan.nishioka?fref=ts

Michael- Sensei

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Michael-sensei took a workshop with me some 25 or 30 years ago and could not understand how I got the changes I did in people without using any force. Being trained in Structural Integration, he didn’t know that was possible. He made a commitment then and there to study with me. He would come to a 5-day event, stay for 3 days, come up to me looking overwhelmed, and then leave. For the next six months Michael would assimilate, on his own, what he had learned and then six months later return again for another 3 days.  He knew how he learned best. I respected that. He told everyone he wasn’t in a hurry. Said he was in the 20-year program. He was. Twenty years later he emerged as one of my most creative and talented students ever to graduate the Alexander Alliance.

Essentially Michael Mazur figured out how to give Rolfing sessions with people standing up rather than lying down. He learned how to harness gravity and get it dropping beautifully through people’s bones into the ground. And he could do this with hands that no longer needed to use force. He worked from the ground up and not from the top down, which was a revelation to us at the Alexander Alliance. Michael was tapping into ground support by working from the bottom up. When working from the top down, we were tapping into uprighting reflexes and mechanisms that created support through suspension. Both were invaluable.

Michael spends half the year teaching just outside of Amherst, Massachusetts, then in December he heads down to Palm Beach, Florida where he spends the other half of the year teaching, but mostly enjoying himself, which he is good at. Michael is fun. Oh yes, Michael makes his way to Germany once a year and teaches for Alexander Alliance Alumni and for others interested in his way of working.

So if you live in America or Europe I suggest making your way to Michael-sensei. And if you live in Japan, then I’d get on the Hankyu and get off at Nishinomiya Kitaguchi, and introduce yourself to Kan Nishioka.

http://www.alexandertechniquepalmbeach.com/about-us/
https://www.facebook.com/michael.b.mazur?fref=ts

Visceral Love

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Gravity. George Clooney was still Up In The Air, but this time he was way, way up in the air, and dressed in a space costume. Saundra Bullock was good, for sure. But it doesn’t matter at all because this film is not about any particular person. This film is not even about special effects. The film wasn’t about any thing, except one thing, one big thing.

For over an hour we vicariously experience what it feels like without the benefits of gravity. It’s not fun, not fun at all. It isn’t until Saundra Bullock, and all of us, reenter the earth’s gravitational pull, which we do not do, fully, until the moment Saundra Bullock drags herself onto the beach. Only then, do we understand what this film is about.

It’s not about the concept of gravity. It’s about the visceral experience of gravity, it’s about deep love, visceral love, the way a breath feels when you’ve been under the water way too long and your lungs are burning, really burning and you’re thinking that this time you may not make it, you see the light shining through the surface high above you, no you are not going to make it…And then you do.

That kind of love.

The film ends. I’m sitting, really sitting, in a chair, that’s on a floor, that’s resting on huge beams that rest on massive walls that extend deep into the earth. I look around. Everyone is Japanese. Right, I’m in Japan. I walk out of the black movie theater, into a modern white shopping complex, through hordes of teenage kids, by blasting, clanging, ringing video game parlors, thinking, of course, Pachinko for children. But none of it makes any real impression. It’s all superfluous, because all I can feel is the ground under my feet, how solid it is, how it’s pushing itself up under me, how substantial I am, how much my entire body and being is drawn to the ground, magnetically attracted. Visceral love. I feel like a glass and someone above me has turned over a full pitcher of water and is pouring that cold, clear water right through me. I feel wet. I feel like a waterfall. I am water falling. I’m a building being demolished, imploding in slow motion, caving in on itself, giving up, surrendering, finally coming down. It’s the avalanche. It’s the great avalanche for which we all long.

Through the endless white shopping mall into the night, down into the subway, into the train, up the steps, back out into the night, into the cold air, I can feel my body breathing like a bellows. I can feel the pressure of breathing, the work, the resistance, the effort the body makes to breathe. Love. Visceral love.

Almost home. The light turns red. I wait. One of those endlessly long red lights. I don’t care. I am in love, in love with gravity, in love with the air. My body is completely comfortable, profoundly comfortable. All is quiet within me. After the avalanche, an infinite silence, infinite space, infinite rest.

Life Is With People – Nov 2012 – Mar 2013 – Workshops in Japan

This video is in honor of all the bright, inquisitive, lively students who took my workshops.

It’s a thank you present from me, to you.

I’ll be returning to Japan, my second home, in the beginning of November 2013, and I will live in Japan until mid-April 2014.

I hope to give lots of workshops. And I will be giving individual lessons in Osaka and Kobe too.

I hope I will see many of you again.

Life is better when we’re together.

Yours,

Bruce Fertman

The Stampede

The Red Hats

There’s nothing quite like real life.

Helping people who come to our studio for lessons to become more physically and personally comfortable really does help. Sometimes a lot. It’s a beginning. Helping a person experience this newfound liveliness as they engage in an activity, like playing a violin, or doing the dishes, or working at a computer takes the work beyond the bodyself and into the world of action, and interaction, into life. My teacher, Marjorie Barstow, was masterful when it came to “working in activity” within a group setting. That stands as a major pedagogical contribution. Overtime, for me, “working in activity” evolved, transforming itself into “working situationally.”

It was some years ago, a workshop in Lubeck, Germany, an elementary school teacher wanted to work on teaching. I said, “Sounds good, lets do it. What’s the most stressful moment look like for you when you’re teaching?” She says,” When class is over and the students are running either out the door, or to my desk, while simultaneously, the next class is running through the same door and  into the classroom, or toward my desk.” “How’s that feel,” I ask?  She says, “ I feel bombarded”, and I observe her as she answers my question, her eyes wide open, her lips apart, her body arching back, her hands springing up in front of her like a shield, her breath held high in her chest.

To the fifteen other people in the room I say, “Okay, let’s make a classroom.” I ask the teacher where the door is in relation to her desk and the students proceed to set up the room, happy to be participating. I watch everyone move and interact. My job is to get to know people, so I sit back and watch as much as I can.

The room’s set up. The teacher is standing in front of her desk. Half the students are in their seats, the other half ready to stampede into the room. Everyone understands that they now are 9 or 10 years old. “Okay, go!” I watch the scene as it unfolds. I see what I need to see.

The teacher’s eyes are bugging out of her head, mouth open, body arching back, hands behind her, elbows locked, hands pressing down against the edge of the desk, knuckles white, body rigid. She’s virtually paralyzed, appearing much like she did when responding to my earlier question, though much more pronounced.  I get all the “kids” to pipe down and to prepare for “take two.”

I ask the teacher to sit behind the desk. She wondered why she had not thought of that. Once in her chair, I ask her to pull her chair forward, closer to the desk, and then to sit back, to let herself rest against the back of the chair, to let the chair support her body. I invite her to feel how the chair comes up under her and supports her pelvis and her thighs too. I have her rest her hands in her lap, and her feet on the floor. Gently, I use my hands to help her decompress her spine, I make her aware of her facial tension until she is able to release her jaw, let her tongue rest, which softens her breathing and her ribs. I encourage her to feel the weight of her eyelids until her forehead relaxes. I watch her arms disarm, her legs ungrip.

I tell her, even though a batch of kids may arrive at her desk in the near future, seemingly all at once, that one student will get her attention first. “Turn and look at that student and address only that student as if she were the only person in the room. Give her all the time she needs. When you feel finished, notice the next student who catches your attention and do the same. Just see what happens. You won’t know until you give it a go. Okay?”  She says okay. Getting that commitment is important.

I give a nod, the kids flock toward her desk. The questions are coming from everywhere. Resting in her chair she turns her head toward one student and says, “Hi, what can I do for you?” She listens to the child, thinks for a moment, then replies. The other kids are desperately trying to get her attention while she’s living inside of a private world with this one student.  She smiles, and tells the child she looks forward to seeing her tomorrow. She turns to another student and says hello. Suddenly, a breeze of silence fills the room. The teacher continues to give her undivided attention to the second child. Gradually the students at her desk decide to leave until only two are left. She finishes, turns to the two other students and tells them she really wants to meet with them and that she’d like to do it after class. They sit down.

Working situationally.  If you bring a person’s real life into the classroom, they will more likely be able to bring what they experienced in the classroom into their real life.

That has been my experience.