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Posts from the ‘Mobility’ 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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

Give Me Two Good Reasons Why…

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Masters of Gravity – Kan Sensei and Michael Sensei

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

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

Kan-Sensei

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

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

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

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

Kan is a real gift.

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

Michael- Sensei

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

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

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

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

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

The World In A Dewdrop

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

It’s uncanny. You start working with a person doing some simple activity, like eating an apple. You slow it all down. You give someone a chance to sense how they’re doing what they’re doing as they’re doing it. “Well, what do you notice,” you ask. They say, “I’m biting off more than I can chew.” The bell goes off. There’s nothing you have to say. There it is, his whole life in one action. He gets it.

A person walks to the door, opens it, and leaves the room. Simple enough. I invite her to return. “Well, what did you notice,” I say. She says, I don’t know. I saw the door handle, felt the door open, felt myself leaving. My eyes were cast down. Something sad about the whole thing.”

“Very good”, I say. “You’re waking up.” This time see the whole room you’re in before you leave, and everything and everyone in it. Say to yourself, thank you and mean it. Walk to the door, open it, and as you are crossing the threshold, linger there between two worlds. Sense how leaving is entering. Let your eyes take in the space you’re about to enter. Just this time, don’t look down and see what happens.”

As I make this suggestion to my student, the bell goes off, for me. Yes, every lesson is for me. Every life is my life. Everyone in everyone. The whole world in every dewdrop.

Sometimes movement is just movement, and sometimes movement is metaphor. Sometimes movement means something, something important. Something about our lives and how we live them.

This passage from Where This Path Begins is one example of how I have attempted to convey Lao Tzu’s insights through the workings of the body. The goal? Always, always to get to the heart, to the heart of the matter.

Twenty-Four

You’re Too Much

Arms are limbs for your hands.
Arms fold and unfold.  They raise and lower.
They don’t like to be stiffened or over-straightened.
If something is beyond your reach, get closer, or do without it.
Why strain?

Clutching, grabbing, gripping, grasping.
Why hold on to things so tightly?

Legs are limbs for your feet.
Over-stride and your heels will strike against the ground.
Your back will tire. Your feet will ache.
Why get ahead of yourself?

Puff up your chest, and your lower back will tighten.
Your shoulder blades will narrow.
Your nose will stick up in the air.
Look down on others, and they will not look up to you.

Talk too much and you will lose your voice.
Why over explain?

Too much is too much.

Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

Putting Your Foot In Your Mouth

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Passage 55 from Where This Path Begins…

Babies don’t interfere with themselves.
Babies don’t judge, correct, or evaluate themselves.
They can’t make a mistake,
Because they don’t know what it means to make a mistake.
Babies can’t fail because they don’t know what it means to fail.
Babies are moved to move. They don’t know why.
What does why mean to them?

Babies want what they want. They are happy when they get it.
What they don’t want, they don’t accept. They’re honest.
Babies are unselfconscious, unabashed, and unpretentious.
We love them because we want to be like them.

Babies sit on the floor, effortlessly upright,
Delighted to see the world from a new perspective.
Babies stop eating when they are no longer hungry.
They immediately throw up anything they don’t like.

A baby can scream for hours without straining their voice.
Babies express strong emotions,
And when the reason for doing so is gone,
They stop, and forget about the whole thing.
Babies cannot hold grudges.
They don’t know what it means to hold a grudge.

Babies can spread out all their toes, even the little ones.
Babies can put their feet in their mouth,
And they don’t care what anyone thinks about it.

Babies fall over and over again, don’t care, don’t get hurt,
And don’t take it personally.
They just get up.
We love them because we want to be like them.

As babies,
We did not identify ourselves as male or female, or even as human.
We had no identity.
We were uncoordinated, inarticulate, illiterate,
Uneducated, unskilled, and unsocial.
Appearing completely selfish, we had no self.

As we ceased being babies, gradually, we became more self-conscious.
Coordinated, articulate, literate, learned,
Socialized and civilized.  We gained impressive skills.
We assumed an identity, a false identity.
We lost, to a great degree, the inherent qualities we had as babies.

We yearn to become unself-conscious, unambiguous, uncomplicated.
We long to unlearn, not to know, to surrender control.
We no longer want to equate self worth with skill and accomplishments.
We don’t want to be dictated by what others think of us.
We want to be ourselves, without apology.

We want to experience our innocence, through our maturity,
To come around, full circle. We want to be able to play again.

We want to see the world, one more time,
Through the glistening eyes of an infant.

Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

The Stampede

The Red Hats

There’s nothing quite like real life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That has been my experience.

Every Step You Take

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

By Keiko Ishii*

I had an operation on my right hip joint nearly three years ago.  With a new artificial hip joint, my walking is fairly normal. Recently I learned that the cartilage around my left hip joint is wearing thin. My orthopedic surgeon warned me against impact. When I go down the steps and my left foot drops down onto the step below, I feel impact. Is there another way? In ten minutes I learned that there was another way. Here is what I remember.

Floating Up

After watching my usual way of going up and down the steps, Bruce quietly said, “Okay. I see.”

He had me place my right foot on the lowest step with my right hand on the handrail. I found myself looking up at the top step thinking, “I have to go all the way up there?” As if he could read my mind, Bruce said, “No need to look way up there. Just see right where you are. That’s enough.”

He gently placed his hands on my head and neck. My consciousness instantly dropped into what felt like my “inner body.” His hands touched my shoulders, my ribs, under my arms. Everything, my ribs, my entire spine, from my tailbone right up into my skull, was lengthening. Everything was getting bigger and lighter, and before I knew it, as if by itself, my body floated up the steps with no limp and no pain.

Falling Down

Bruce then asked me to walk down the steps. Immediately I tensed up. Bruce watched me take one step then said, “That’s fine. Keiko, pause for a second. Where are you looking? What are you looking at?” I was looking straight ahead. But I was not seeing anything. I was too scared about hurting my hip to see anything.

Bruce walked up the steps and joined me. “Watch me.” He faced the handrail, held it as if it were a ballet barre, placed his left foot on the edge of the step, his left leg straight, while his right foot dangled in space above the step below. He let his foot sway as if it were being blown by a gentle wind and with his soothing, rhythmic voice, I heard him sing, Yaa, yaa, yaa… Bruce asked me to do what he did. I did. I swayed my right leg in the wind. I sang, Yaa, yaa, yaa… I could feel my right hip joint freeing, and a relaxation coming over me.

Bruce then leaned every so slightly over his swaying leg, and fell. He landed quickly but softly onto the step below. He showed this to me a few times. It looked simple enough, but when it came time for me to do it myself I hesitated and pulled back my leg from the step. I was afraid of falling down, afraid of there being too much impact on my artificial right hip. Again, as if Bruce knew exactly what I was thinking and feeling he said, “Keiko you are safe.”

I was scared, but I took the chance. I leaned slightly over my dangling right leg and fell. But I didn’t fall. There I was standing on my right leg. No work for my supporting leg. No impact on my landing. I repeated this several times. All I was feeling was joy.

We then did this with my hands touching the wall on the other side, this time my right leg serving as my supporting leg. Bruce showed me again. Again he assured me it would be fine, and it was. No impact. Just comfortable. Facing sideways, I continued “falling down” the stairs until I was at the very last step when Bruce said, “Keiko, wait there for me.”

“I watched you fall onto that dangling leg ten times and everything was fine. That’s exactly what we are going to do now; the only difference is that instead of facing sideways, we’re going to face forward. Can you put your right leg forward and let it hang and sway, Yaa, yaa, yaa…just like this?” For some reason it was much, much scarier facing forward. But I was on the very last step before the landing. So I did it.  I fell onto my right foot. No problem. Then Bruce had me do it again this time landing on my left foot. No problem. It was easy, but…

“But that was easy because it was the last step,” I heard myself say. “Keiko, isn’t each step the same as every other step? If you can do what you just did, both on your right side and left side, easily, then what does that mean?”

I got it. I knew I could do it. I went up to the top of the stairs. I turned around. Suddenly I was afraid, staring into the distance. Below I heard Bruce’s gentle, firm voice, “Keiko, look down at the step just in front of you. You only need to see where you are going next.” I did and, when I did, it was as if everything I had learned from all my Alexander teachers came flooding back to me. My body was organizing itself. There I was at the very top of a flight of stairs, my right foot dangling as if over an abyss. Still I felt fear, the fear of impact, of hurting myself. And just then, “Keiko, you are fine. Really. Just fall. Waaaa…

I did. The steps were coming into my vision, one after the other. Waaaa…and there I was at the bottom of the stairs. I asked Bruce if I could do it again. He nodded and up I went, like a cat, like a victorious hero. Like water cascading over rocks, I almost ran down the steps. Everyone was there waiting for me, happy for me.

*I wrote this piece originally in Japanese, and later in English. I asked Bruce to do what he thought best to make my account read well for English readers.