Skip to content

Posts from the ‘chair work’ Category

Patterns

My eyes can dimly see the pattern of my life and the puzzle that is me.

Patterns by Simon and Garfunkel

We often use the word ‘habit’ in our work. We are usually referring to unconscious habits that don’t serve us well. Our goal is to make the unconscious conscious, the invisible visible. We want to be free to choose what we want to do and how we want to do it. We also want to be free not to do something. We want the control to begin to do something when we want, or not, and we want to be able to stop doing something when we want to stop. Completely.

As Alexander teachers we can easily fall into the habit of looking primarily for postural and movement habits within ourselves and our students. That is fine but if our work is to be about more than posture and movement, if it is to be about how we relate to ourselves, others, and the world, if it is to be about the quality of our lives, then we need to open our parameters to include other types of habits.

Rather than using the word habit, I prefer using the word pattern. People tend to associate habits with being bad, shifting them into the world of right and wrong, a world offering too much judgement and too little information. The word pattern holds less negative charge.

Patterns are good because they are precise and they repeat themselves, making them recognizable to an observant outsider. And they are full of good energy. Patterns, whether helpful or unhelpful, use energy, and as William Blake says, Energy is Eternal Delight. Our energy, when well directed, imbues us with vitality.

When I teach I look for patterns other than postural and movement patterns. Any unconscious pattern, once identified and made conscious, provides us with good material for applying Alexandrian principles and processes. We can use any pattern to exercise our ability to stop, to become conscious, to develop and exercise our kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses, allowing us to see a pattern expressing itself through our entire body from head to toe and out through our fingertips. We can give ourselves the time to understand this pattern physically and emotionally. Then, once we know where we are and what we are doing and how we are doing it, we can choose to see what would happen without it.  Who would we be without the pattern? What would happen if we chose to unplug the pattern, if we left it out, if we left ourselves alone? Where would the energy fueling that pattern want to go, how would it redirect itself?

A person comes to me and I notice they say ‘you know’ a lot, or ‘like’ or ‘ah’ or that every sentence they utter has the inflection of a question. A verbal, vocal, communication pattern.

A person comes to me and as he begins to speak about his frustrations at work, I notice how he drops his hands and slaps them on his thighs in exasperation. A gestural pattern.

A person comes to me and every time they have a new and powerfully positive kinesthetic experience their minds jump into the future saying how they will never be able to do this themselves, or into the past saying how they have been doing everything wrong for so many years. A learning pattern. A thinking pattern.

I ask a person to quickly walk around the room and then to come back and tell me what they’ve taken in. One person says mostly what they saw, another mentions several things they heard, another what they smelled or touched. Sensory patterns.

I notice how a particular person always appears cheerful, optimistic and energetic. Another person’s clothes are always exceedingly neat and always worn too tightly. Another person always looks forlorn, often complaining about others. Another takes up a lot of space, spreads out and is prone to challenging, disagreeing and arguing with me. Another who is always trying to help me, complimenting me excessively. Another who continually cracks jokes. All patterns. Persona patterns.

It’s important for us as Alexander teachers to be able to distinguish between principles, processes, and procedures. Once we have a clear understanding of Alexandrian principles and processes, i.e., sensory consciousness, inhibitory choice, direction and redirection of energy, primary movement/pattern/control, critical moments, what I like to refer to as moments of opportunity, the relationship between means and ends, etc, we can choose, at times, to experiment working outside of Alexander’s classical procedures, i.e., chair, monkey, lunge, whispered ah, etc. and simply improvise with Alexandrian principles and processes within a larger arena, within the ultimate procedure, how we proceed in living our lives.

After eight years of study in Chanoyu, the Way of Japanese Tea, I informed my teacher, Mariko LaFleur, I would be traveling and teaching intensively for a month and would have little or no time to practice. She said to me, “Bruce, that’s fine. Essentially Chado is not about the form. It’s only about how we exist in this world as a guest and as a host. It’s about gratefully receiving what we are given. It’s about how we welcome, receive and serve others. Remember Bruce, the tea room is everywhere. Practice Tea everywhere you go, wherever you are, and with everyone you meet. Enjoy your trip.”

Working within formal structures is assuring, confirmative. It’s familiar. Within them we know the rules, we’re comfortable. We know what to do. We know where we are. We’re home. 

And then there is the wide world, the unfamiliar, unpredictable world where there are no clear cut rules, where we are at times uncomfortable and know not what to do or what to expect. It’s our first time around. We’re continually in a place we have never been and will never be again. 

We meet people along the way.  We want to welcome and receive them, in their entirety, as our guests. We don’t want to reduce our guests to their posture. We don’t want only to watch how they move. We want to see who they are, how they live, so we can discern how we can best serve.

The more we see and understand our students in their entirety, the more our students see and understand themselves in their entirety. And since, ultimately, we are all mirrors for one another, reflections of one another, we come to see and understand ourselves, the puzzle that is us.

Out On A Limb

01elis copy 2

Photo by: Anchan of Elisabeth Walker

I’m going to go out on a limb here.

Because I love Alexander’s work so much, and because over and over again I have seen people’s inner beauty unveiled through this work of ours, it has saddened me for forty years now to see so few images of Alexander’s work that are strikingly beautiful. When the work is working within someone I see a person who is peaceful and powerful, still and moving, relaxed and ready, light and substantial. But click here at Google Alexander Technique Images and see what you see.

https://www.google.com/search?q=alexander+technique&es_sm=91&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAkQ_AUoA2oVChMIkIDS_5m7xwIVy3Q-Ch0Q-Qon&biw=1468&bih=956

I see that the Alexander Technique is something medical, like chiropractic treatments. Next I pick up something about posture and body mechanics and exercise. Then I see photos of some old, dressed up guy with a smirk on his face. And yes, something about getting up from a chair the right way. That’s about it.

It’s easy to be critical, and it’s another thing entirely to take on the problem and offer something better. That’s what I’ve done my best to do. Whether I have succeeded in the eyes of our profession at large, I don’t know. It’s hard to know how others see. When I look at the photos below I see a dynamic relationship between student and teacher. Everyone is awake and energized. They are not void of emotion. No one looks stiff or unnaturally symmetrical. I see beauty that is not cosmetic. I see beauty that lies within the person and emanates from the person. I see this both in the student and in the teacher. This as one of the hallmarks of our work.

“Moses laying his hands on Joshua may be compared to one candle lighting another, no light is lost to the former.” -Rabbinic Midrash on Numbers 27:18.

Can you see it? The teacher is lit, and the student is lit. They are at once one flame and two flames. This is partner work at its best, be it Alexander work, or Aikido, or Contact, or Tango.

What do you see in these photos? Do they strike you as photos that give you a glimpse into Alexander’s work? It’s pretty much impossible to get photos like these of yourself teaching unless you are skilled at teaching the work in groups and in teaching the work through myriad activities. All the teachers in these photographs either were or are capable of imparting the work in these ways. It’s important to note that Elisabeth Walker and Marjorie Barstow, both first generation teachers excelled in these ways of teaching – both great group teachers, both great at working in activities. Of course one of my obligations as the director of the Alexander Alliance International, and as a ‘young elder’ member of our Alexander community at large, is to insure that these skills are not lost. We all have our jobs to do. This happens to be one of mine.

Perhaps the images that appear when we Google Alexander Technique are exactly the ones the Alexander community at large wants, images that convey a technique that is medical, corrective oriented, definitely about the body, about posture and body mechanics, and apparently a form of exercise, in which case my photos are way off base.

What do you see? What do you want? Tell me. I’d like to know.

lucia-anne copy

Photo by: Anchan of Lucia Walker and Anne Johnson

1 ballet barre1 copy 4

Photo of Robyn Avalon

01 Hands - 13 copy

Photo by: Anchan of Midori Shinkai

Marjorie Barstow

Photo by: Fran EAengel of M. Barstow and B. Fertman

13 copy 2

Photo by: Anchan of Akemi Kinomura

Photo by: Anchan of B. Fertman

Photo by: Anchan of B. Fertman

Photo by: Yoshiko Hayashi of Anchan

Photo by: Yoshiko Hayashi of Anchan

The End Of The Road

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

I think I’m getting it. The more we, as Alexander teachers go about waking ourselves and our students up to the true and primary movement, the primary control, inherent control, the primary pattern, the integrative pattern, whatever you wish to call it, the better. Whether it’s through Alexander’s procedures, Barstow’s procedures, (she had them), or other ways-etudes-procedures that talented teachers have evolved is not my main concern here. For me the key question is, for what are these procedures for? Imagine someone gives you a new tool; state of the art, top of the line. She teaches you how it works, but neglects to tell you what it’s for. That’s my question. What is Alexander’s work for? What does it offer us? What can it do for us? Why, 40 years later, am I still asking myself this question?

Phase One. We help one of our students, a singer, Maria, become beautifully poised, exquisitely organized. She now stands effortlessly, walks elegantly, and sings like a nightingale. People love watching and listening to her perform. Helping people with postural support, helping people to move well, sing well; it’s great. Phase one.

Phase two. Maria begins to notice how, not only her singing, but many things in her life are getting easier; doing the dishes, vacuuming the floor, riding her bike, opening jars, falling asleep. She’s getting increasingly curious about the technique. She begins to realize what still gives her trouble, what is still effortful; scrubbing out the bathtub; working at the computer, carrying bags of groceries up three flights of stairs, putting in her new contact lenses. You suggest she bring some of these activities into class. You tell her that if she brings her life into class, she will bring what she learns in class back into her life. You suggest having a lesson at her place to work on the site specific activities.  Phase two. As Marj once told me, “Bruce, our job is to help people become sensitive and to make good use of that sensitivity in their everyday life.”

Phase three. Maria comes into class obviously distraught. Her daughter is showing signs of anorexia. She sits at the dinner table and won’t eat. “It’s driving me crazy. I sit there angry, sad, scared. I have no idea what to do. I’m a nervous wreck.” You suggest that there’s no time like the present. “Let’s work on it right now. Remember, bring your life into class and you will bring what you learn in class back into your life. Be brave. I am sure your Alexander friends here will be happy to help you. Maria, what’s your daughter’s name?” “Jody.” How old is she?” ” Twelve.” “Where are you eating and who else is sitting around the table?” “Her sister, Laura. She’s nine.” “Is there anyone here that reminds you even a little of Jody and of Laura?” Maria looks around and finds two people. “Okay, will all of you help get a table, some chairs, go into the church kitchen down the hall and bring back all the stuff we need to set up a dinner table. Don’t dilly dally.” Off everyone goes, and in a flash everything is set up. “Maria where does everyone sit?” “I sit at the head of the table, Jody is on my right and Laura on my left.” “Great. We’re almost ready to go. I need to ask you a couple questions. Tell us what everyone’s day was like before getting to the table. See if you can do it in less than a minute.” Maria sums it up. “I drop off Laura at day care, rush to work, spend most of the day on the computer, pick up Laura, get home, throw together dinner, try to get my kids away from the TV, and sit down. Jody bikes to school, hates her school, comes home, does her homework. She’s super smart. She watches her favorite cooking show, which is funny now that i think about it, and then comes to the table and doesn’t eat.” “Okay. does everyone know who you are and what you are doing, I say to Maria, Jody, and Laura? Take about 30 seconds and just be quiet, and then begin.”

At first everyone is smiling a little but after about 45 seconds it suddenly becomes real. The triggers have gone off. The buttons have been pushed. Jody is curled over herself, sulking. Maria is off looking up to the left, away from Jody, her hands on the table, shaped into fists. Laura is eating as if she hasn’t eaten in a week. You can feel the tension in the air.

And so the work begins. “Maria, don’t move. Just notice what’s going on physically. Start from the ground up until you have a picture of what you look like. Does that position feel familiar?” “Absolutely.” “Now, I’m going to come over and, together, quietly and ever so slowly and gently, we’re going to undue this pattern and see what happens.” My role, primarily, is to be softer than soft. The first impression I want to give Maria is one of nurturance and kindness. This is what she needs most. I proceed how I often do; dissipating the tension in her neck region. Everyone can see what happens. As the neck ungrips, the shoulders drop and spread, the hands unclench, breath enters, and her head turns and she looks at Jody. “Maria, what’s happening?” “I’m getting calmer. I’m really seeing Jody. I can see she’s sad and lonely.” Maria starts crying. Jody looks up. Laura looks up.

And so it goes. The ice breaks. The melting begins.

Phase three, and where I believe Alexander wanted us to go with the work. For me chair work was Alexander’s movement metaphor, a metaphor for what happens to us in our lives. In chair work someone tells you that in a moment you are going to stand up, and you find that your neurological preset for reacting to that stimulus, and the stimulus itself, are coupled together, like two links in a chain. Chair work then becomes about decoupling the stimulus from the response, so that you can unplug the neurological preset which, when successful, creates the option, the possibility of a different and perhaps better response, a new response, a fresh response. As Alexander said, “You are not here to do exercises, (doing chair work), or to learn how to do something right, but to get able to meet a stimulus that always puts you wrong and to learn to deal with it.”

It’s one thing to be able to decouple a stimulus that doesn’t have a lot of charge to it, as in chair work. For sure, it’s a good place to begin. That makes sense. Consider playing with other simple, everyday movement metaphors: opening a door, (entering into a new space), eating an apple, (a famous metaphor, how much do we bite off? Do we swallow things whole or chew them over), tying our own shoes (doing things for ourselves; remember when you couldn’t tie your own shoes?).

But then comes the truly formidable task, the truly humbling task of encountering what Alexander aptly called our habits of life. Until we’re able to discern what triggers our disintegration pattern, every time, and begin to deal with those triggers, be they our critical thoughts about ourselves or others, or our grandiose ones, or our destructive emotions like anger, jealously, envy; or resentment, hatred, and greed, or our fears, we don’t get our black belts, we don’t get into the major leagues. How can we be integrated, how can we be free if we are holding a grudge? How can we be free when we are gossiping? How can we be free when we are busy defending ourselves, or rebelling, or retreating, or panicking? Can we learn to meet a charged stimulus, something that unnerves us, and learn to deal with it in a better, more humane way?

It’s dawning upon me how profound our work can be.

I haven’t been able to stay on every road I’ve begun walking down, but I’m staying on this one. Like Nikos Kazantzakis once said, “At the end of the road, that is where God sits.” And that’s where I’m going, where I’ve been going all along.

The Gift Given

Photo: Holly Sweeny

Photo: Holly Sweeny

 

The Gift Given

– In Memory of Marjorie Barstow

Marj didn’t teach us what she did. She showed us what she did, over and over again. We experienced the results of what she did. We walked away, mysteriously transformed, hearing Marj say, “Think about that.”

That was it. No instruction. No words of advice. Sentences were rarely comprised of more than five words. We hung on to her quips.

It’s not a position. It’s a movement.

There’s nothing to get; there’s only something to lose.

You’re all trying to do something, and that something is your habit.

It’s just a little bit of nothing.

This is not complicated. It’s your habits that are complicated. This is too simple for you.

No pushy. No pully.

No especially anything.

There are three kinds of strange: good strange, bad strange, and crazy strange.

If you’re up because you’re afraid to be down, you’re not up.

At some point you have to say, I’m tired of hurting myself.

Can’t you see yourself?

Can you leave yourself alone?

Through her hands, Marj let us know what was possible without major surgery. As if she was an eagle, she’d swoop us up and sweep us to the top of the mountain so we could observe the world from a vista, unknown.

Before we knew it, we had slide back into the foothills. What we felt was how far we had regressed. What we often failed to notice was that, each time, we regressed less. Step by step we were walking our way up that mountain. There was space, and it was vast. Our eyes were opening. The air was fresh and clean.

Marj was clear about us having to walk our own walk. She did not baby us. It was not in her nature. Those of us who, through Marj’s inspiration, turned ourselves into teachers found our individual paths up that mountain. Along the way we developed our own way of walking, had our own revelations, figured out how to best use our hands, hone our language, sharpen our seeing, refine our kinesthesia. We developed our own pedagogy. Our tradition was one of originality.

Each of us saw something in Marj that was latent within us. We saw in her our potential, what we valued, what we aspired toward, what we most needed. An educator par excellence, she educed from us that which was longing to come out. Like a skilled midwife, she led the gifted child within us out into the light of day. We had to do our own labor, but she was there to see us through.

If I were to choose three values of Marj’s that I want most to see kept alive and passed on to other Alexander teachers they would be – Delicacy, Naturalness, and Movement.

Delicacy

Delicacy is a tricky word. It has multiply meanings. It can mean carefully, which was not what Marj meant when she used the word delicately, which she did countless times in a day of teaching. She meant extraordinarily fine, texturally and structurally, like a spider’s web, strong, flexible, spacious, patterned, and yet delicate. She meant delicate like the scent of sweet alyssum, the faintest of pastels, the softest of breezes.

Delicacy also means something rare and delicious, something special.

Using the word delicacy was Marj’s way of bypassing the doing/non-doing conundrum. We’re after something that is not a doing and not a non-doing. It’s in between doing and non-doing. Or it’s both doing and non-doing. That’s getting closer. You see what I mean? Hmm….language.

Marj observed that often students who were working with the idea of not doing, only thinking, were not changing, not moving, not releasing into greater freedom, but subtly holding themselves still, one foot slightly on the break, afraid of forcing it.

With these students you’d hear Marj say something like, “Move. Why don’t you move? Don’t be afraid to move. No movement, no change.”

Then the next person she’d work with would be a person who was moving with too much force, and you’d hear Marj say something like, “Ehhh, wait a minute. You’re pushing from here, pointing the tip of her index finger on the center of the person’s sternum. No pushy. Ehhh, wait a minute. Now, you’re pulling from here, lightly touch the sides of the person’s neck. No pully. Can’t you just ever so delicately follow my hands this way?”

Marj would say what she had to say to coax a person into the realm of delicacy. Delicacy was more important than direction for Marj, perhaps more important than anything. Nothing real could happen without it. No matter what you did, if you did it within the realm of delicacy, well, that was a beginning.

When I teach I rarely use the word delicately unless I am role-playing Marj, which I love to do. It always gets students smiling. I use phrases like “ever so softly can you”, or “without any effort see what happens if you…I talk about deep softness, powerful softness, softer than softness.  The meaning and feeling behind words change from generation to generation. I use words that work for my students, now.

Marj’s delicacy was like the feel of air, like space itself. Deep softness  feels like water. You can put your hand right through it, there is substance to it, but a substance yielding and fluid. Water can take the form of a droplet hanging from the tip of a leaf, and it can take the form of a one hundred foot wave rising over an entire village. Both are soft. Both are fluid and moving. Power and delicacy are not mutually exclusive.

The realm of delicacy, that’s where our work lives. And only there.

Naturalness

Naturalness is the absence of artificiality. You can’t be natural, just as you can’t be confident. Confidence is the absence of fear. You can’t make yourself relax. But you can learn to release unnecessary tension. You can’t be yourself, but you can be less of what you are not. Absence. Presence through absence. You can’t be present. Presence is the quieting, the falling away of distraction and contraction.

So to understand naturalness, we have to understand artificiality. In the Alexander world artificiality has a certain look to it. When I was at the 3rd International Congress for The Alexander Technique in Engelberg, I overheard a conversation. “Do you know anything about the group that’s here?” “Not really, but it looks like they are here because there’s something wrong with their necks.” A good actor once said to me, “I can spot an Alexander teacher from a mile away. And then when I see them sit down, it’s a dead giveaway.”

Marj’s pedagogy was partly predicated on eradicating artificiality within Alexander’s work. She succeeded to some degree, but not entirely. We are almost programmed to hold on to what we like. So when we experience freedom and naturalness, immediately, we try to hold onto it. And it is this holding onto it that builds artificiality. When Alexander saw a person holding on to the newfound freedom they didn’t want to lose, sometimes he’d go over to them, put his hands on their shoulders and jiggle them about, telling them to give it up, to let it go. When Marj saw us all trying to hard, she’d say, “Why don’t you all just have a good slump?”

How can we hold a moonbeam in our hands? We can’t.

Marj perceived this look of artificiality in many Alexander teachers when they were working through Alexander’s procedures. I think she loved those procedures. She taught through them for many, many years. And then one day, she didn’t.

In the late 1960’s, Marj had been invited to Southern Methodist University to teach in their Performing Arts Department. She packed her big blue suitcase, put it in the trunk of her old Plymouth, and drove down to Texas. When she got there, the director of the program told her there were about 50 or so students who wanted to work with her. Clearly, it was going to be impossible for her to give individual lessons. She was forced to work with all these kids in a group. When she got in front of this wild horde of hippies, Marj knew that having them all watch her get someone in and out of a chair was not going to work. So she said, what do all of you like to do? These freewheelers were into juggling and circus arts, into acting, dancing, stage combat, playing music. Marj thought it would be a lot more engaging for them if they watched each other doing what they did. After all, they were performers. And so it began.

What Marj saw was that these kids were getting free and more organized within what they were doing, and it was all looking pretty natural. At the same time it was freeing Marj up too.

It was a beginning, a way of working that she pursued and refined for 27 years with the goal of bringing more naturalness into Alexander’s work, to ridding it of its ritualistic formality, its starchiness, to making it extraordinarily ordinary. She passed this ball onto me, and I caught it and have been running with it for 38 years. That’s 65 years of research. We’re getting somewhere.

Movement

Marj was a gymnast as a kid, and later studied modern dance with some of its pioneers: the Duncan Dancers, Ted Shawn, and Ruth Saint Denis. She rode horses all through her life, well into her 80’s. She loved to move. I remember seeing a photo of Marj in her 20’s seemingly floating in the air, high above the ground, suspended at the top of a high leap, and under her the inscription, The Wild One. In the photo her body was masculine, strong and muscular. Most of us met Marj in her 70’s and 80’s and saw a slender, petite, slow moving, slow speaking, elderly woman with an intense sparkle in her eyes.

After graduating from Alexander’s first teacher training program, Marj actively taught the Alexander Technique for eight years along side of A.R. Alexander, assisting him in Boston and Philadelphia. When Marj’s father died, she moved back to Lincoln, Nebraska to help run her family ranch. For over twenty years Marj rarely taught the Alexander Technique. She lived the life of a rancher. Marj told me that it was only after years of hard, physical labor that she really learned how to bring the technique into her everyday life. Marj was profoundly physical.

This brought something dynamic and practical into Marj’s work. She could see movement. She knew what good coordination looked like, in people and in animals. She trained world famous quarter horses. Alexander too was an avid rider, and began riding as a child. I think this contributed to their subtle ability to lead movement without force.

Marj preferred Alexander’s earlier description of “a true and primary movement in each and every activity,” rather than his later reference to the Primary Control. This inner control was a result of an effortless movement that reorganized the head in relation to the torso, and the head and torso to the limbs. So Marj focused, pretty much exclusively, on this primary movement.

Often she’d say, “It’s a movement.” And it was this movement, and what resulted from it, that we watched six hours a day, day after day, until we knew it inside and out. We saw that it had a particular quality, (ever so delicate), that it initiated from a particular area, (from the relationship between the head and neck), that it had a sequence, (there was a kind of rapid rippling response as a result of this subtle movement initiated between the neck and head), but that this rippling was so rapid, as to look and feel simultaneous with the initiation of this primary movement, hence Marj’s phrase, “the head leads and the whole body immediately follows.” And Alexander’s phrase, “altogether, one after the other.” So we discerned a particular timing inside of the sequencing. It was a bit like when you drop a stone into the calm surface of a pond, and rings form rippling out, one after the other and all of them widening and expanding at the same time. Then this primary movement had particular directionality; the head seemed to float up, rising like a boat resting upon the water as the tide slowly rose. Then we saw that the head had this tiny tipping motion forward, a rotational movement on a horizontal axis that happened at the same time the tide was rising, which we could see was the spine decompressing. As all this was happening we saw an omni-directional expansion of the body as a whole, almost like a sphere inflating in every direction, an overall increase in three dimensional volume, like bread dough rising, the whole body filling into its rightful space. At the same time we could see a gathering, strengthening movement within the expanding movement. It was similar to the dynamics of a vortex funnel, to centripetal and centrifugal force, the same force moving in opposite directions, one up and out and the other in and down. Maybe this was why Marj didn’t use the terms lengthening and widening, because of their two-dimensional connotation. Maybe this is why she spoke of the whole body rather emphasizing the back. She saw and we saw that everything was filling out: the back, the front, and the sides. Something was happening to the whole body in its entirety.

And out of this “true and primary movement”, this “easing up,” this “little bit of nothing,” we witnessed changes not only in the body, but in the person. We saw seemingly opposite qualities working in harmony. As the true and primary movement began to happen we beheld the person before us as stable and mobile, light and substantial, relaxed and ready, peaceful and vigorous, gathered and expansive, soft and powerful, open and focused, unified and articulate.

Essentially, we saw beauty. We saw people unveiled, people wholly themselves, authentic, honest. We saw integrity. It moved us. It moved some of us so much we decided that this was a good way to spend the rest of our lives.

This is Marj’s legacy to us. The gift given…the gift received… the gift given…the gift received…the gift given… from generation to generation.

 

House And Home

handwriting

Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet

Letters To A Young Teacher

Bruce, you write, “Aren’t there more direct, fun, practical, and effective ways to work with how we react to stimuli from within and without besides endlessly getting people in and out of a chair?” My AT teacher at school would probably say: “Chair work will indirectly affect their use in everyday life – let them make the transfer.” So how does that tie in with your take on teaching “activity work”, which to my mind is not indirect, but direct? 

Thank you for your good question. My understanding is that when Alexander spoke of working indirectly he meant that when a person comes to you with a specific problem, let’s say, a frozen shoulder, working directly would be choosing to work immediately to regain range and comfort in the shoulder, through working on the shoulder. A reasonable idea. The approach in Alexander Work, if we are sticking to the principle of working indirectly, is to attend to a person’s overall integration and coordination, and in turn that may, (and may not), resolve the shoulder issue.

It’s a bit like family therapy. Let’s say the whole body is the family, and the hurting child is the frozen shoulder. The parents are fighting, a lot. The kid begins developing asthmatic symptoms. The problem may not lie within the child, but within the family dynamics as a whole. By the parent’s shifting their way of functioning, their child may begin to function differently as well. That, as I understand Mr. Alexander, is what he meant by working indirectly. Indirectly, that is, getting to the part through the whole.

Once you begin to get this idea of working indirectly, you begin to see that Alexander stumbled upon a very big idea, one that, now, everyone understands. If bees are beginning to disappear, or tree frogs, and you start looking for the cause inside the bee world, or the tree frog world instead of backing up and looking at the entire world they inhabit, their larger body, of which bees and tree frogs are an integral part, you won’t see the whole problem, or find the solution.

Alexander discerned an ecology within people, an inner ecology – the study of our inner house and home, in relation to our larger house and home.  (You could say we are the overlap through which our inner and outer environments become one.) Alexander, seen in this light, was a holistic and ecological thinker and practitioner.

As for working through Alexander’s “conventional” procedures, that is, the procedures that have  become the norm within today’s Alexander world, I am not an expert. Yes, I have worked with lots of teachers, including most of the first generation teachers who employed these procedures and, to the best of my limited ability, I have taught through these procedures as well. But I have spent more time learning about Alexander’s work through his less conventional procedures – walking, going up and down steps (lunge work is beautifully woven within this action),  the performing arts, speaking, and everyday activities. These were the procedures that my mentor, Marj Barstow, enjoyed and explored. Consequently, these are the procedures I have taught through most successfully.

Over the years I began to sense that working through Marj’s procedures were, in a way, working too directly, too specifically, but for a very different reason than your teacher might think. I started to see that any activity happened within a larger context, and that I had to zoom both further in, and further out if I was to work holistically or ecologically. That’s why I no longer refer to what I do as “working in activity.” I call it “working situationally.”

For example, a young man is late. He jumps up from his desk, swings on his coat, hops in his car, squeals out his driveway, double parks, runs up three flights of stairs, knocks on his girlfriends apartment door, and waits, standing there, reliving that phone call, the fight they had that morning, feeling like a total jerk, wondering if she will open the door or not, whether she will ever speak to him again, whether she will call off their engagement, and what his parents will say.

Okay. You could work with this poor, distraught young man by taking him in and out of a chair, a la Alexander, or work with him driving his car, walking up steps, and knocking on a door, a la Marj Barstow. Still, are you really going to get to the precise inner and outer stimuli that cause this man to fall apart, to lose his psycho-physical composure, his integrity?

If I am going to work with this man in his entirety, in relation to his inner and outer home, then I may need to address such factors as his relationship to time, how he listens to his girlfriend when she is feeling insecure and starts criticizing him, how he reacts when he starts believing thoughts like his being a total jerk, or what happens to him when he starts caring too much about what other people think about him. But I am going to figure out a way to do this somatically and personally, not psychologically or clinically. I’m going to “stick to principle” and work as the Alexander teacher that I am.

Not our postural habits, nor our movements habits per se, (though they are part of the picture), but our habits of life, these are the habits we are attempting to unearth, and bring into the light of day, to be seen, felt, and known, accepted, and resolved. This is, for me, profoundly humbling work, both personally and as a teacher. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making any progress at all. I wonder if I will ever really be able to live and teach Alexander’s work. Forty years later, I begin to understand Marj when she would say, “I really don’t know how to teach this work.”

I really don’t.

Not knowing has for me become a good thing. It keeps me questioning, as you are questioning. It keeps me experimenting. It keeps the work fresh and alive in my soul, as it is in yours.

Let’s keep going.

Yours,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

The Four Questions

passover-5

One. Why is this night different from all other nights?

No, no, not the four Passover questions, the four Alexander questions.

Here are my Alexander questions for the Alexander community.

If we all know Alexander’s work is not about getting in and out of a chair, if we all know it’s primarily about how we react to stimuli from within and without, then why do we, as a community, do so much getting people in and out of chairs? (1) Stimuli from within are thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Sometimes tough thoughts, self deprecating thoughts, or judgmental thoughts, emotions like anger and fear, sensations like pain. Stimuli from without is stuff like, an audience that you are about to perform for, or five black belt aikidoists who are poised to simultaneously attack you, or a cranky boss, or your computer crashing, or a kid that won’t stop crying, etc. Aren’t there more direct, fun, practical, and effective ways to work with how we react to stimuli from within and without besides endlessly getting someone in and out of a chair?

We all know that Alexander would not be crazy about how much we, as a community, spend our time working with students lying down on a table, but we are doing it anyway. Why is that? (2)

And we know that Alexander’s work is not about movement for movement’s sake yet, as a community, we have been quite focused on how we move. Once my mentor, Buzz Gummere, a man who trained with F.M and A.R., with Marj Barstow, and with Frank Pierce Jones, told me I had become a great movement teacher, and then he asked me a pointed question, which was his job as my mentor, “But Bruce, does that make you a great Alexander teacher?” That question haunted me for many years, which was Buzz’s intention I am sure. So why are we so preoccupied with how we move? (3)

Now, I am not saying all this is wrong. Things change, and thank God. And I have been alive long enough to know that I usually really need that which I most resist, so some really good table work and chair work is probably exactly what I need now. Really.

The fourth question. This one is the big one for me.

Sometimes I get Alexander teachers coming to me for lessons. That’s an honor. I notice that many of them move self-consciously. They sit down perfectly, in the prescribed manner, and something in me cringes. I tell them straight away that I never watch a person get in and out of a chair, so not to worry. Usually they look at me wide eyed, and then laugh out loud. I can’t always do it, but if I’m lucky I can sometimes get an Alexander teacher out of this trap. If I can get it across to them that our job is to free ourselves, and that it is our bodies job, via increasingly accurate, reliable, and refined kinesthesia, to figure out how to move itself around comfortably and enjoyably, and spontaneously, without over deliberation, then something shiftsI tell them it is not our job to choreograph our movement life down to a tee, no matter how precisely and perfectly we can do it. A three year old kid with a healthy, conventional nervous system, moves so well and so spontaneously and so unselfconsciously, and that’s why it’s such a joy to watch them.

So my last question is, how do we learn to move, and more importantly, live consciously but not self-consciously? How do we occupy ourselves without becoming preoccupied with ourselves? (4)

Thanks for taking the time to think about these questions with me.

Bruce