Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Ground’ Category

For the Love of Pedagogy

Robyn Avalon and Bruce Fertman

 

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”  – Anonymous

Robyn Avalon and I, being the co-directors of the Alexander Alliance International, and collectively having taught for over a century, are joyfully obsessed with pedagogy, to the point where I think we would proudly pronounce ourselves as pedagogical nerds. We love continually experimenting, figuring out, and endlessly fine tuning how we can help people move toward an embodied understanding of what we now know, while giving them the tools to help others to do the same.  We are hoping some of them become nerdy pedagogues like us. We are true blue educators. We don’t so much train people to become teachers, like people train horses or dogs, as impressive as that skill is. Conditioning and education may overlap, but are not the same. We educe, that is, we draw out the bodily, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual clarity within our students. We inspire them to study together, and most importantly, to study on their own. Out of our love and enthusiasm for the work, we generate love and enthusiasm in our students. It’s contagious. As the years go by, our students train themselves.

Both Robyn and I were trained dancers, Robyn, a former professional tap dancer, and I, a professional modern dancer. We spent lots of time in well structured classes that created beautifully kinetic and kinesthetic educational experiences.

This was invaluable for both of us, as the Alexandrian pedagogues we were to become. I also learned a great deal about beautiful kinetically and kinesthetically structured classes through taking countless classes in Ballet, Tai Chi, Aikido, Chanoyu, Tango, and Kyudo. There are a lot of masterful teachers out there to be found. Robyn too studied modalities, too numerous to mention, within the healing professions.

Take the basic structure of a ballet class. You come early and warm up. My ballet teacher, Stella Applebaum, would lock the door at 8am sharp. Warming up was not a social event. The ballet studio was what I would call a sacred learning space.

Classes began at the barre, with plies, of course, our morning prayers. An organically logical barre sequence unfolded until we were pliant and centered, much like how a potter prepares their clay, by wedging it, putting it on the wheel, and bringing it up and down, until it is in a perfect condition to be thrown. In dance, the dancer is both the clay and the potter, both the dancer and the dance, whirling into existence a piece of non-material, ephemeral art, not for the keeping.

Then, class moved into the center of the space, where we now integrated many of the movements practiced at the barre, using them in combinations, much like how writers integrate their vocabulary into sentences, phrases, and paragraphs.

Then, an adagio sequence followed. Slower is not easier; it is harder, just like all my musician friends tell me when it comes to playing instruments. Balance, line, precision, strength, fluidity is all challenged.

Next, allegro. The body is now finely tuned, strong, centered. Time to work on small, rapid movement, and big movement, movement that gets us high into the air. And finally, these rapid, large, powerful, airborne movements are practiced moving boldly through space.

Finally, there was reverence; bowing, circling back to prayers of gratitude for ballet, for the accompanist, for our teacher. I’ve been in classes where after the group reverence we would get in line and approach our teacher individually, bow, and listen to particular criticism or praise, in preparation for the next class. Usually we’d leave class feeling great physically and emotionally, much better than when we walked in, energized, exhilarated and in love with dance.

Figuring out how, as an Alexander teacher, to structure an individual lesson, a 3-hour class, an 8-hour teaching day, a 9-day, 50-hour retreat, and 100-hour professional development program, a 200-hour post graduate training program, and a 4-year training program, is Robyn’s and my idea of a good time. How do we get our students, in the end, be it after a class, or after a 4-year training program to feel great physically and emotionally, much better than when they first walked in, leaving them feeling energized and exhilarated and in love with Alexander’s work?

It’s important to know of the pitfalls to structuring a good Alexander experience. One can do too much of something, or too little, or leave important things out entirely. One can make things too hard, or too easy, cover too much material, or too little, go too fast, or too slow, etc. What follows are some of the elements I consider important to track as an Alexander teacher when structuring and offering an Alexander experience.

Language

It is fatal to talk too much in a class. At the same time, if you don’t explain what you are doing and why you are doing it, your students walk away mystified as to what is going on, and this too is fatal.

I attempt never to use jargon. I search for simple words, common words, everyday language and expressions, understandable images and metaphors. Simplicity, clarity, succinctness, only speaking about what is pertinent to the subject at hand. Avoiding tangents. (Challenging for me.)  Rarely do they help. Stay on point.

Get your students to write about their experiences. Encourage them to read and search for Alexander’s principles within Alexander’s books, in books written about Alexander’s work, in books written about related somatic fields of study, within science, psychology, theology, literature and poetry.

Invite them to ask questions. Encourage them to express themselves in their own words, so that you can get to know who they are, how they think, how they perceive the work and the world. Include some time for students to talk inside of a large group, in small groups, and in pairs. Alexander teachers must be articulate, not just physically, but linguistically, not just physically fluid, but linguistically fluent.

Well timed humor is also partly a linguistic skill and priceless when it comes to teaching.

Silence

Sound arises out of silence and returns to silence. Alexander work is more about nothing than something. It’s more about what is going on in the background than the foreground. “All I want is to show you a little bit of nothing. You are all doing something, and that something is your habit,” I can hear Marj Barstow saying to us. If the silence within us and around us is deep and beautiful then, when we do speak, we will be heard. Silence before a sentence, and after a sentence. Using commas and periods when we speak. Not rattling on and on.

Allow for times when the whole room is working in silence, or when everyone is alertly resting together in silence. Ideas, sensations, new experiences often settle in at such times. Making time for reflection, contemplation, meditation.

Observation

Years ago, I was too full of myself as a teacher. I liked to talk, to expound, to embellish. I liked demonstrating, showing off a bit. When it was time for my students to do something, I often did it with them, and talked them through it, which meant I was not really seeing my students. But no matter. I would say things like, “Good, very good. That is coming along.” But honestly, I was not watching anywhere nearly close enough.

Fortunately, that changed. At some point, I decided to speak less. Now I demonstrate, making sure everyone is  watching only me, not doing anything with me. Then I sit down, (that is important), and sit back, close my mouth, relax my tongue, and do absolutely nothing but watch my students, each and every one of them. Then, I say the one thing they need to hear next, stay on point, answer a question succinctly if asked. I demonstrate once again, having everyone watch, in silence. I sit back down, lean back, and watch again. And so on.

Observation. Teaching people how to see. Find out what they see. Listen to them. Find out what they are not seeing. Teach them how to see what a moment ago they could not see. I remember Marjorie often saying, “Did you see that?” In the beginning, I didn’t. After some years, I did. It’s important for students to see themselves, for students to watch a teacher, for the teacher to watch the students, for the students to watch one another, and for teachers to watch other teachers. Teachers watching fellow teachers is an important element in Robyn’s and my pedagogy. At least once a year, all the directors of Alexander Alliance trainings will be in the same room together with all the students in the school, and we will watch each other lead the group. In this way, we see and appreciate how each of us is skilled in particular ways. We also see each other’s blind spots and can fill them in for one another. We become stimulated and inspired by watching each other. New ideas bubble up when we are team teaching. We are like a jazz ensemble who have been improving together for decades. We also encourage our students to team teach.

Non-Observation

There’s a time for not observing your students, a time for not looking over their shoulders, as we say. We want our students to become conscious of themselves without becoming self-conscious. In Marj Barstow’s summer retreats, which were large, Marj would sometimes break the participants into smaller groups, assigning each group to one of her apprentices. Then, Marj would casually make the rounds, poking her head in for a minute and then be on her way. Mostly, we were on our own. That was important learning time. It’s like raising kids. Sometimes you have to trust them and let them do things and figure out things on their own. Let them make their own mistakes, let them learn through their own successes and failures. After all, we want them to become self-reliant.

Cheng Man-Ching, my Tai Chi teachers’ teacher, used to tell her, (Maggie Newman), “When you come to my class, no matter how much you know, no matter how long you have studied, come to class like a beginner. And no matter how little a student may know, no matter how briefly they have studied, tell them that when they practice on their own, to practice as if they were a master.”

And, though much of the Alexander world disagrees with me, (That’s okay. I don’t take it personally.), I believe there is a time for us to lower our eyelids, quietly, softly, and drop inwards, which for me is like being part of the night sky, resting within my own inner planetarium. There’s a time to turn out the lights, to learn to see in the dark, to see what cannot be seen, only known. In-sight.

Movement

A class needs to keep moving. It can’t run out of gas. It can be beautiful to slow a class down, to even allow it to come to a stop, but the motor must still be running, the car must still in gear, never in park, alway humming, ready to move.

Too much sitting. Too much standing. Too much lying down. Too much watching. Too much talking. Too much listening. Too much of the same movement, over and over again, too much time in the same gear, going at the same speed, down the same road. Too much is too much.

Movement is how we stir the soup. How we keep a class fluid and flowing, so that stasis does not set in.

Not just mobility of body, but mobility of mind, of which Alexander spoke. Not only the students’ body, but the students’ mind and imagination must remain engaged. The heart also needs to be opened and moved. Tapping into the student’s inner child, into their sense of play, helps a great deal.

Posture is the antithesis of movement. It is frozen movement, movement under a spell.  How to give an Alexander experience that is truly a moving experience and not a postural experience. No small task. It has taken me a lifetime to figure this one out. I have made profound progress, but honestly, I am still not quite there.

Tragedy is when in the pursuit of something, we arrive at its opposite. Oedipus wants not to kill his father and marry his mother. Traveling toward Thebes, he encounters Laius, his father, who provokes Oedipus. Oedipus kills him. Continuing on his way, Oedipus finds Thebes plagued by a Sphinx, who has put a riddle to all passersby, destroying everyone unable to answer correctly. Oedipus alone solves the riddle. The Sphinx kills herself. As a reward, Oedipus receives the throne of Thebes and the hand of the widowed queen, his mother, Jocasta.

We want to free ourselves and our students into their inherent, naturally and fluidly organized coordination and support, and sometimes we end up with just the opposite, feeling bound, unnatural, artificial, and stiff. Just what we don’t want.

It’s not easy being an Alexander teacher. Marj used to say to us, “This work is too simple for you.”  She said simple. She didn’t say easy. True simplicity is more difficult than sophisticated complexity.

Stillness

And, there is a time to stop stirring the soup.

“Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?  Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?”

Lao Tzu/Stephen Mitchell

 

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.

And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

The inner freedom from the practical desire,

The release from action and suffering, release from the inner

And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded

By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,

Erhebung without motion, concentration

Without elimination, both a new world

And the old made explicit…”

(Erhebung: rising, uplift, ennoblement, elevation.)

T.S. Eliot: Burnt Norton, Four Quartets

Touch

Within our Alexander community at large, we have teachers who don’t use their hands when they teach. We have teachers who are physically in touch with their students through an entire lesson.

We have teachers that rarely talk, rarely explain, who choose to work in silence and let their hands do the talking.

We have teachers who rely a great deal on observation and language. Teachers who rely a great deal on movement. Teachers who work with people mostly in stillness, for example when giving a table lesson. We have teachers who teach through classical procedures, and others who work through what I would call modern or post-modern procedures. We have teachers who teach through writing about the technique, through just sharing their ideas. We have teachers who incorporate technology into their teaching, videoing and online teaching, and we have teachers who don’t. We have teachers who use mirrors and teachers who never use them. I had a ballet teacher who, four days a week, drew the curtains over the long wall of mirrors, allowing us to use them only on Fridays. He said there were no mirrors on the stage.

Personally, I have come to see this variety of teaching pedagogy within our profession as all good. When I was younger, and more foolish, and arrogant, I was convinced that certain ways of working were right and others wrong, some ways superior and other ways inferior. But now, I see it all as worthy research. After you have been around for a century of teaching, as Robyn and I have, you have seen people do all of the above well, and finally the heart and the mind open up to their being many doors into the holy city.

Our way, our research at the Alexander Alliance, (we consider ourselves, not a conservatory, but a research school), is to see what happens if we work for an integration, a beautiful and effective braiding of language and silence, movement and stillness, observation and non-observation, and tactual and non-tactual teaching. What happens if we work with the entire spectrum, the whole palette?

I see these ways of teaching as different channels through which we can receive and impart information, information absolutely unique to each channel.

What I will say here about touch, is that I am so grateful that Alexander began using his hands to teach, and that Marj too was masterful with her hands. She loved using her hands and did so morning till night for the many years that I studied with her. Yet, ironically, perhaps because she did not spend a lot of time teaching us how to use our hands, and because we spent so much of our study time watching her work, and describing what we saw, we got very good at seeing the work and speaking about the work.

But I was enthralled with Marj’s touch, with what she could bring about through her hands. I vowed to myself to have hands like hers, and to pass on this part of her work. And now, some 43 years later, I can say, this vow, I kept.

We live in a western world that for thousands of years has separated and ranked, from top to bottom, the spirit, mind, heart, and body, in that order. Working with one’s hands, manual work, is somehow beneath mental work. Part of what Alexander began to do was to reintegrate these aspects of ourselves into a non-hierarchical working whole. How apt that he began to touch people, that he developed and elevated touch, a touch that promoted healthy development, a touch full of knowledge and nurturance.

Non-Tactual Teaching

What Robyn and I often do first, is to see how much a person can do on their own. We observe. We then might make verbal suggestions, and then watch some more. Once we are clear on how their “kinesthetic compass” is off, once we can discern how they are kinesthetically a bit flat or sharp, we can help fine tune them, tactually, only as much as is needed. Then, it’s back to watching and seeing how they are doing on their own.

So, there is this weaving back and forth between working tactually and non-tactually. After all, we want people to be able to bring about all of these positive changes, without our help. They must learn how to work from the inside out, how to use their own minds to change their own bodies, they need to find their “inner hands”, their hands that guide them from within.

Sensory Integration

Part of our job, as I understand it, is sensory integration. For me, this means integrating our intra-senses, the senses that grant us awareness and information about ourselves, kinesthesia and proprioception primarily, and our inter-senses, that grant us awareness and information about our world, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. As intra-senses integrate with inter-senses, we become increasingly able to be simultaneously aware of ourselves in relation to our environment, that is, we learn to appreciate how we are being within ourselves and within the world as we are living our lives. Hildegard von Bingen said it like this. “Within, but not enclosed, Without, but not excluded.”

Tracking this integration of the senses throughout the course of a class, or through the course of a training, is important. We want our students leaving class with an expanded and unified field of attention. We want them not only more aware of themselves and the world; we want them to feel that they are within the world, and that the world is within them. This is what I mean by a unified field of attention. Ramana Maharshi’s deep understanding of this unified field is apparent when he was asked, “How should we treat others.” He replied, “What others.”

My experiences of sensory integration happened most often, and most dramatically, after a three-hour Chanoyu, or Japanese Tea Ceremony class. A tea class is centered around the making and serving of tea. So, scent and taste are part of the experience, the taste of Japanese sweets and matcha tea, and the scent of very faint incense evoking the freshness of pines and the feel of the forest. Movements are very specific; how one walks, bows, how one cleans, carries and uses objects. Great attention is given to moving easily, fluidly and clearly. There is much to see; kimonos, tea bowls, flowers, a hanging scroll, the play of light and shadow, steam rising out from the top of the iron kettle. And, much to hear, feet sliding along tatami mats, doors gliding within their wooden grooves, the whisking of vibrant, green matcha, the sound of hot water boiling reproducing the precise sound of the wind through the pines. Chanoyu is a pre-technological, multi-sensorial experience practiced and enjoyed by millions of people.

As I left that magic tea space and entered back into the world from which I had come, I found the world totally altered as if someone had cleaned it, put it into high resolution, and into finer focus. Also, it was as if the stereo system had been radically upgraded. I could hear omni-directionally and more distinctly. I could hear the different sounds that the wind made through different trees. I could feel the ground rising up under my feet. I could feel the beating of my heart. A harmony of the senses, another element to track in the creation of a good Alexander experience.

Indeed, there is much to track in order to teach a well-balanced Alexander class: the balance between language and silence, observation and non-observation, movement and stillness, tactual and non-tactual teaching, and intra and inter-senses. Still, there is one more element that I think important and would like to mention.

Systems of Support

One of my secrets for avoiding the tragedy of Alexandrian artifice, of postural stiffness, starchiness, crustiness, is to balance what I call, “tensegrity support”, the hallmark support system found within Alexander’s work, with other forms of support, namely, ground, spatial, and organ support. When this balancing of support systems appears, Alexandrian artifice disappears. We’re being supported from the inside out, and from the ground below, and from the world around us, so there is no need for a postural exoskeleton. It falls away. We molt.

I find, if and when I bring into an Alexander experience a balance of these support systems, my students leave the lesson or the class, or the program, or the school un-postured, with an embodied understanding of inherent organizational forces that are “in process and not super-imposed”, to use Alexander’s words.

To be able to do this, of course, you have to know what these systems are, and be able to access them in yourself, and know how to access them in others. That is a subject for another time, and best learned via a teacher well versed in all of them.

Glenna Batson, who graduated from our school, and who taught for our school for many years, once told me that, for her, composing a class was like writing a poem. She felt that the writing of the last line was often so difficult, and so wonderful when you found it.

Bread in the Pockets of the Hungry

“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

Mary Oliver

And so should an Alexander experience be, like a poem, not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calming Down/Waking Up – A Workshop In The Alexander Technique With Bruce Fertman, Zurich, Switzerland, Saturday, May 4, 2019

 

 

The way up and the way down are one and the same.

Heraclitus

Forty-five years ago, when I first began studying both Tai Chi Chu’an and the Alexander Technique, my Tai Chi teachers would tell me how I needed to let my chi sink down. They revered the ground and spoke of the importance of the tant’ien, the belly. My Alexander teachers emphasized the importance of the neck and head, and of lengthening up through the spine. “Gravity just keeps your feet from floating off the ground.” one of my Alexander teachers declared. “Up but not held up. Down but not pulled down,” Tai Chi teacher Ben Lo instructed me. “Above but not raised up; below but not depressed,” wrote Hildegard von Bingen.

Needless to say, I was utterly confused. But now I am not. Slowly, I found the solution to this problem, the answer to this somatic riddle.

Join me for a day of study and self-discovery. Experience the interplay between upward and downward forces. As these forces become ‘one and the same’, we experience what it is like to be calm and clear, soft and strong, light and substantial.

This workshop is for those brand new to the Alexander Technique and for current students of the Alexander Technique. The workshop is also for Alexander trainees and teachers who want to become effective in teaching the Alexander Technique in groups.

And when the slope feels gentle to the point that climbing up sheer rock is effortless as though you were gliding downstream in a boat, then you will have arrived where this path ends.

Dante

11a

He is the embodiment of his work. His touch is like a butterfly settling down on the very turning point of your soul. And then you know, “That’s who I am, that is who I could be.”

Tueshaus, Alexander Teacher / Tango Teacher/ Equestrian

Bruce has been using his hands, helping people to move well, for fifty-five years. He trained with five first generation Alexander teachers: Catherine Merrick Wielopolska, Marjorie L. Barstow, Richard M. Gummere Jr., Elisabeth Walker, and Erika Whittaker. Bruce brings a lifetime of training as a movement artist and educator to his work as an Alexander teacher, having trained in Gymnastics, Modern Dance, Ballet, Contact Improvisation, Tai Chi Chu’an, Aikido, Chanoyu, Argentine Tango, and Kyudo. In 1982, Bruce co-founded the Alexander Alliance International, an intergenerational, multicultural community/school. Currently director of the Alexander Alliance Germany and Switzerland, Bruce also teaches annually for Alexander Alliance training programs in Japan, Korea, and America. He conducts post graduate training programs in England and Switzerland. Author of the book, Teaching By Hand/Learning By Heart – Delving Into The Work Of F.M. Alexander, published by Mouritz Press.

Workshop Details:

No prior experience necessary.
People of all ages welcome.
Limited participants.

When: 04.05.2019, 10am – 5:30pm

Where: Feldstrasse 24, 8004 Zurich (close to stop «Zürich,Kalkbreite/Bhf.Wiedikon»)

Fee: CHF 160.- (Students CHF 125.-)

Workshop language: English (translation to German possible)

Individual lessons (CHF 110.–/45ˈ) can be arranged on Thursday, 09.05.2019, and Friday, 10.05.2019.

Organizer and assistant teacher: Magdalena Gassner

To register call +41 77 475 50 27 or write to m.gassner@alexanderalliance.de

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to write to me, bf@brucefertman.com or to Magdalena Gassner, m.gassner@alexanderalliance.de.

Hope to see you in Zurich!

Bruce Fertman

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.

Still Life

image001-1

Pare it down and youve got two things left: ground and space.

Ground is any object in the universe that has mass. Any object that has mass exerts a gravitational pull, or force, on every other mass. As far as gravity is concerned, humans are objects right along with refrigerators, and cars. Its all a matter a perspective.

Walking one day around New York City, I saw a Peregrine falcon perching atop a tall, swanky apartment building. To that falcon, that high rise, high status apartment building was but another cliff, another lookout, and a place to rest ones wings.

In New Mexico weve got these giant anthills. Some of them come up to my knee caps. To those ants traveling along their ant ways, that anthill is Manhattan.

But to me its just a clump of sand with some ants in it.

Looking around, what I notice is that every thing is touching some other thing. Look around. See for yourself. Nothing on earth is floating around, not even a speck of dust. The air to a speck of dust is like the ocean to some deep water creature, and when that speck of dust touches down, that creature is just resting on the ocean floor.

Continue looking at the objects around you. But do more than look at them. Sense them. Empathize with them. Objects excel at resting and receiving support. Objects know how to sit. They know how to meditate. They know how to be still and balanced, and often silent.

Objects dont try to be what they are not. They dont try. They dont rush. They dont wait. Theyre not neurotic, not over-emotional, not irrational. Sometimes they stop working, they wear out, they break down, but thats not a problem for them. They accept reality. Aging is not an issue. Nothing is.

When feeling distressed, look around. You are surrounded by peace, and stillness, and silence. Just let it in.

Space is everywhere where there are no objects. Theres a lot of it, much more space than ground. But ground, that is, every object that has mass, is made of atoms, but atoms are more than 99.9% space.

Quantum physics aside, even to the human eye, when we look around most of the time we see more space than substance. Just look around. What percentage of what you see is space and what percentage ground?

In New Mexico, where I live, about 99% of what I see is space. Basically, we live in the sky. One day I took a group of Japanese students on a hike up Kitchen Mesa at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian Retreat Center in Northern New Mexico. Its a good hike, a couple hours of pretty steep climbing. But the view is literally awesome. One of my students sat down and wept. She had spent most of her life living in Tokyo. Shed never seen so much space, so much openness. She was overwhelmed. There is so much confinement in a megalopolis like Tokyo, physical and social. So many rules and expectations. It was as if a lifetime of confinement, suddenly, fell away.

Where does the sky begin and where does it end? We look up at the sky and it looks like the sky goes on forever. But as we look down from the sky, all the way down to our very feet, at what point did the sky stop being the sky? Not until it meets the ground. The sky always comes all the way down to the ground. The sky not only meets the mountain tops. It meets the top of our shoes as well.

I call it heaven on earth.

Peaceful Body Practice

Sit on a chair, scoot your pelvis back, so that you can recline slightly and receive a light support from the back of the chair. Let yourself be easily and comfortably upright. Allow there to be a bit of room around your legs and let your feet rest on the ground.

There are two fontanelles on a baby’s head and they vary slightly in size. The soft spot on the back of a baby’s head is called the posterior fontanelle. It’s usually smaller than the other fontanelle and triangular in shape. The fontanelle on the top of a baby’s head is the anterior fontanelle.

Imagine, if you still had your anterior fontanelle, your soft spot that you had on top of your head when you were a baby. Toward the back of that spot, (go and google an image of that if it would help), imagine warm sand being finely poured through the soft spot. Imagine it falling down and forming a little pile on the ground under your chair. As the fine sand continues to fall, slowly but surely the small pile turns into a small mound, which turns into a small hill, rising through your body and spreading ever wider around you in all directions. Let it continue until the point of the hill is about a foot above your head.

Sense the angle of repose, the angle at which the hill all around you slops when all the sand rests and finds its stability.

Thats ground. Enjoy being ground for as long as feels good.

Then imagine that the centuries go by and winds gradually blow the mountain away from the top all the way to the bottom, so that nothing remains except space. Enjoy that for as long as feels good.

Then slowly open your eyes only as far as they want to open by themselves.

Ground and space. Thats all there is, and all that will ever be. 

Genesis Revisited

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

 There was once a little girl and she was terribly bored. There was nothing to do, and not only was there nothing to do, there was absolutely nothing at all.

On The First Day

Since there was absolutely nothing the little girl decided, quite confidently, that the first thing she needed was space. “Nothing is nothing, she thought, but space is definitely something. It’s open and it can be filled.” She was surprised how easy it was to create space. Just like that.

The little girl liked space. It made her feel free. For quite a long while that was enough for her. Until she felt the need for something else, something a little more substantial, though she didn’t want to lose the sense of space she loved so much.

On The Second Day

She created moisture. She was proud of herself for coming up with such a good solution. Her creation still felt infinitely spacious and yet now, it also felt full. She closed her eyes sensing the coolness of the moisture upon her skin, and as she did she saw darkness, a darkness as vast and as beautiful as the space she had created. The little girl rested within this moist coolness and safe darkness for a long time. She enjoyed being creative.

On The Third Day

Feeling mischievous, she awoke with a sparkle in her eyes. She wanted an adventure. She decided, in one fell swoop, to create every thing in the world that ever would be. She hadn’t realized that she had inadvertently created time, and she had no idea of just how many things that would be, but then again she had made a tremendous amount of space. To make sure she had indeed created all the stuff of the world, she made light to shine upon everything she created. It was turning out to be an exceptionally busy but good day.

Suddenly there was utter chaos, and it was exhilarating. She hadn’t as yet names for anything, and she hadn’t the foggiest idea of what all these things were for, but she loved watching them floating in her space. Some things were moving slowly and some things were whizzing by dangerously fast, so fast that sometimes things would collide into one another, creating loud sounds. She had never heard sounds before.

All this commotion was intoxicating. It was awesome. But after a while the little girl began to get dizzy. Nothing ever stayed in the same place! Something would appear that she loved and then, in a flash, it would be gone. Never to be seen again. Or worse, something would smash into what she loved and it would shatter into a thousand pieces.

On The Fourth Day

Her dizzy spells continued. She didn’t want to get rid of everything. She didn’t even know for sure whether she could de-create something. Then she came up with what she thought was a great idea. She decided to create gravity and ground, and the moment she did, everything, literally, fell into place.

She couldn’t believe how good this felt. It was as magnificent as her first experience of space. Everything was sitting comfortably. Everything was at rest. Everything was settled and seemed entirely happy exactly where it was, and exactly being what it was. There was some logic to where everything was but the little girl did not yet know what it meant for something to be logical.

After a while she realized that even with all the stuff that was now in her world there still seemed to be an equally infinite amount of space. This seemed mysterious to her. And there was still plenty of moisture. In fact, by creating gravity and the ground, some of the moisture had become more substantial and concentrated and had fallen, making oceans and rivers and waterfalls, which for some unknown reason made her feel quiet inside and happy.

Everything looked beautiful to her. All at once she realized that, since she started creating, she hadn’t been bored for a second! It was as if she had discovered the secret to happiness. Creativity. She was content for a very, very long time, for eons.

On The Fifth Day

The little girl was so utterly content, that is until she realized she had not had a really creative idea in a long time. And then she did. Out of the blue, (why the sky was blue she did not know), another idea popped into her head. She wondered where on earth these ideas came from. She thought, “What if I could create creatures who had entirely different ways of perceiving and experiencing this beautiful world I have made?” So she created creatures that could see her world from above, and creatures that could see under the water, and creatures that lived within the ground itself, and creatures that lived in the trees. She created creatures that lived where it was hot and creatures that lived where it was cold, creatures that could see, and smell, and taste, and hear and touch the world she had created, all simultaneously experiencing the same world differently. “Why, she thought, that would be like creating millions of worlds inside of the one world I created! That struck her as quite clever and efficient.

The little girl spent a long, long time just watching all these creatures and comparing one to the other. Again there was some kind of logic to the whole thing but still she did not know what that meant. Soon this was to change.

After a long while her curiosity got the better of her. What was making her world go round? What made the creatures in the air able to be up there? Why did some creatures eat other creatures? Most amazing to her was how these creatures seemed to come and go. New creatures would appear while older ones would disappear. Creatures tended to be small at first and then got bigger, and the trees too. What was that? The questions seemed endless.

Another idea popped into her head, but she was not sure whether it was a good idea or not so she did not act upon it right away, which she thought was very mature. She loved the world so much as it was, even if she didn’t understand it. “My world seems to understand itself, she thought. It knows exactly what to do. Maybe I should stop here. This feels complete. Everything works. It’s beautiful. It’s interesting. Who cares if I don’t understand it?” But the questions kept coming. They were beginning to make her uncomfortable, sometimes even unhappy.

On The Sixth Day

The little girl decided to take one of the creatures she had created and make them capable of thinking about her creation. Personally, she did not want to think too much about it. That wasn’t her thing. She didn’t feel very smart, just very creative. Besides, there were just too many questions. The little girl became very serious and thought, “If I were to make every individual creature of this particular kind able to think maybe, eventually, this creature would be able to answer my questions.”

And so even though the little girl felt a funny feeling in her stomach, she went ahead and did it anyway. She thought, “Well, how am I going to find out if this is a good idea or not if I don’t try?” There seemed to be something logical about that too.

She mustered up her courage and made it so this one kind of creature could think and then right away she realized these creatures would need to be able to communicate their thoughts to one another if they were to be able to figure things out together, and so she created a bunch of languages because she thought a bunch of languages would be more interesting than just creating one.

On The Seventh Day

Without noticing it, (she had been so, so busy), the little girl was growing older. She had seen a lot, and done a lot. She began feeling tired, something she’d never felt before. “Perhaps it would be good for me to rest for a while and spend a little time not creating,” she thought. The little girl spent a long while simply gazing at her creation. “It’s good,” she thought, “very good.” She loved her world. Sleep was coming over her as if she were being covered with a soft, warm blanket. She thought, “I think the world will be okay for a little while if I don’t watch it.” Again there was that funny feeling in her stomach, but before she knew it she had fallen fast asleep.

This brings us exactly to where we are now. Our little girl remains asleep. As she sleeps our thinking creatures have been busy trying to figure everything out. They’ve found a lot of answers to a lot of her questions. On this front, they are doing very well, even though there remain far more questions to be answered than the ones they have answered because each answer they come up with seems to create new questions. These creatures may be busy for a long time, maybe forever.

I say maybe forever because it seems that thinking as much as these thinking creatures do brings with it strange side effects, something the little girl could not have predicted. One of the side effects is that these creatures seem not to care very much about the other creatures or, for that matter, about anything the little girl created. The thinking creatures seem so busy thinking and trying to figure everything out that they don’t notice how beautiful everything is, how everything works together, how well it all takes care of itself.

As our little girl sleeps, the world continues on its own course without her. I know that sooner or later she will wake up, and when she does I wonder what she will find and what she will think about it. I am sure once she sees the lay of the land another idea will pop into her head.

After all, she is a very creative little girl.

Commentary

You might wonder how this story of Genesis popped into my head. Without my knowing it, it had been writing itself for a long time.

After many years I began to discern a sequence within my method for helping people create more of the kind of world they wished to live in. The story of our little girl, and the creation of her world, unfolds precisely in this sequence. It’s a story that contains within it my pedagogy, the genesis of one way of working with people.

First there is nothing.

There is nothing like the concept of nothingness to put life into perspective. The prospect of individual non-existence can have a sobering affect. And it can have a freeing affect too. Eliphalet Oram Lyte wrote a little ditty that expresses my attitude as a teacher, the mood I do my best to create within my workshops and classes.

Row, row, row your boat

gently down the stream,

merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

life is but a dream

 We’re all here rowing our own boats. We are all going down the same stream to the same place. It’s not our stream. We don’t know where the stream will carry us. Our boats don’t belong to us either, but we are responsible for taking care of them. We want to learn how to row our boats gently, that means to me, without excessive force. We want to develop the sensitivity to discern the undercurrents, and the perceptivity to read the river. And when we can, why not bring a bit of merriment to our little adventure…merriment, that is, buoyancy, liveliness, zest, lightheartedness, warmth, friendship, festivity, hilarity, and pleasure?

Life is but a dream. Could be. Who knows for sure? Can we know for certain that we are not being dreamt? Could it be we are but figments of one creative imagination, seemingly alive within a very realistic dream?

But whatever the case may be, best not to take ourselves too seriously. When something seems unimportant, that’s the time to take it seriously. When something seems vitally important, that’s the time to crack a joke, to smile, to have some fun.

Why? Because it just works better that way. When people are not trying too hard to get it right they have more fun, and when they have more fun, they learn more.

One the first day she thought, Nothing is nothing, but space is definitely something. Its open and it can be filled.

 That’s where I begin, with a person’s sense of space. For me, the sense of space is a sense, just like our other senses. There is essentially no space within our bodies, but with training we can come to sense a tremendous amount of space within us. We can be in a packed subway car, everyone pressed against one another, and feel a tremendous sense of space and relaxation. There is learning to see and sense the space all around us in such a way that it actually supports us like an invisible spider web, allowing us to sit comfortably in the center of our world. There is the lively space between, between us and our computers, between us and our food, between us and our thoughts, between us and those we love and those we don’t. This is where I begin.

One the second day she closed her eyes sensing the coolness of the moisture upon her skin and as she did she saw darkness, a darkness as vast and as beautiful as the space she had created. 

When I begin to use my hands to help awaken a person’s kinesthesia and propriception my hands have a way of getting under the skin, of finding fluidity within them, a kind of underground stream streaming throughout them. I am water touching water. This sense of moisture is new to most people and they find their eyes closing. They want to sense this moisture within a vast inner space.

On the third day some things were moving slowly and some things were whizzing by dangerously fast, so fast that sometimes things would collide into one another, creating loud sounds. She had never heard sounds before.

 The world sometimes feels like this when we’ve got lots to do. We’ve got to get to work, but first we have to make lunches for the kids, and drop them off at school, then pick up our coworker whose car broke down. I ask students to bring me the “stuff” their lives are made of, their responsibilities, their projects, their problems, their pain, and their pleasures. It’s easy to become overwhelmed. It’s as if the world we’re whirling around us. It’s as if someone were stirring things up. How can we allow the stirring to stop, how can we let the mud settle to the bottom until the water is clear?

On the fourth day she decided to create gravity and ground, and the moment she did, everything, literally, fell into place.

 Humans need mobility and stability. Objects are great at showing us how to be stable. They know how to sit, how to receive support from the ground, so they can rest, so they can just be where they are and what they are. They know how not to fidget, how to be still. Humans need to learn this too. As far as gravity is concerned there is only space and stuff in this world, and humans classify as stuff. Gravity treats us the same way it treats every thing and every one. Gravity is fair. It’s our responsibility to learn how to work with gravity. We live on common ground, shared ground. The same ground supports us all. We’ve got to learn how to come down to the ground. We must come to realize we were all created equal. From where doth our support come? It comes from the ground. But sometimes we must go down to get it.

On the fifth day the little girl thought, What if I could create creatures who had entirely different ways of perceiving and experiencing this beautiful world I have made?

 A big part of my work is re-introducing the sensory world to people. We have spent time becoming oriented, fluid, and stable. Now it’s time to enliven and refine our sensory life. It’s not about sensory indulgence. The senses can take us way beyond pleasure. The senses allow us to gratefully receive the subtle magnificence of the world in which we live. Paradoxically, through the senses we get a glimpse of something beyond the senses, we get a glimpse of the essence of life itself, of life speaking directly through its own language without interpretation. Through the senses we experience communion.

On the sixth day the little girl decided to take one of the creatures she had invented and make them capable of thinking about her creation.

 Once my students have had glimpses into another way moving, sensing, and being in their world, their curiosity awakens. The questions start coming. “How come we lose our mobility and stability?” “Are there cultures who don’t lose it as much?” How about other animals?” “Is there some structural flaw in our upright structure?” “What makes us able to be upright?” “Why is it so difficult to continue to sense ourselves kinesthetically?” Mostly I say, “I don’t really know for sure.” We begin to think about thinking? Are there different ways to think? Cognition. Meditation. Contemplation. Awareness. Consciousness. Intelligence. Sensory Intelligence. We begin to find language for our new experiences. Together we enter a world of wondering.

On the seventh day the little girl thought,Perhaps it would be good for me to rest for a while and spend a little time not creating, she thought. The little girl spent a long while simply gazing at her creation. Its good, very good, she thought. She loved her world.

 You can’t do anything forever. Obsessing doesn’t help. It’s not healthy. Sometimes you just have to forget about the whole thing. Take a break. Don’t think about yourself or your work. “You’re fine exactly the way you are,” I tell my students. I tell them, “Never change. I love you just the way you are!” Everyone smiles. I encourage people. I know people do the best they can. I don’t evaluate people. Through this work goodness in people rises to the surface by itself. I don’t know why. Goodness, and love too. Love for the world, love for others, love for themselves. And love for that little girl.

Masters of Gravity – Kan Sensei and Michael Sensei

62628_387773508002610_734458206_n

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

1_michaelhug_512x571 copy

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.