From a new student at the Alexander Alliance Germany upon finishing her first Retreat…When I read letters like this I suddenly remember what I frequently forget. I remember why I first began studying, why I first began teaching. I remember that I have a job in this world, no matter how modest a job, something given to me, of value, to be given to others.
(Replies below, in italics, are mine.)
It has been a very intense week for me and I am very, very grateful for everything I experienced.
I now understand what you mean by “voice work”. I had a more technical understanding of voice work, resulting from my singing lessons. Somehow it clicked in when you were talking about it in another context, as you speak of “hand work”.
Yes, I mean it in the most basic way. Humans seem particular inside of the animal kingdom in four ways – our uprightness, our brains, our extremely articulate and versatile hands, and our extremely articulate and versatile voices. It turns out that Alexander Technique is about what is distinctly human. Humans use their voices primarily to communicate, and that means in social situations. So working with the voice is my way of entering into how we function socially. Social situations, relationships or the lack of them, are when we most often disturb ourselves, get ourselves off balance. So learning how to deeply dwell within ourselves as we interact and empathize with others, for me, is a big part of our work.
I’ve joined a workgroup which meets regularly on Mondays to practice and discuss everything we have learned in the school. That’s great and I enjoyed this first meeting very much.
I am so glad and moved that you guys do this. What a great bunch of students at the Alexander Alliance.
I have started observing myself and other people. Concerning myself, I now realize how much additional work I do in every day things like brushing my teeth, kitchen work, using the telephone and much more. I didn’t realize this ever before. It’s, on the one hand, surprising to realize what I have been doing for years to my body, and on the other hand, good to know that I can change it now.
This is perfect. It’s exactly what is supposed to happen. Suddenly you begin to notice all the little movement and actions that make up everyday life. You wonder why you never really noticed these things before. You start to sense them, become curious about them. This is what I mean by the Sensory World. You are not just going through the motions of life unconsciously, you are now consciously sensing your life, the little things, which collectively make up the majority of your time on earth. What could be more important? Felt existence. Experienced existence. Lived life. Letting it all in.
Concerning others, I am seeing them with different eyes. For the moment I often observe how they walk, stand, and move. That’s so interesting. I could spend hours just on this…
For me seeing is one of the great pleasures of the work. That’s why I studied Figure Drawing for some years. I just wanted to be able to look at someone for three hours until I began to see them, really see them. I would come home from those classes, after such a long day, full of energy, so exhilarated because my eyes were opening. My eyes were beginning to touch what they were seeing. Marj Barstow and Erika Whittaker both felt that watching people, not critically, not judgmentally, but just beholding them was an important practice for an Alexander teacher. When I sit in a train station, or at an airport and do this I begin to love everyone I see. I don’t know why. It just happens. You begin to see the precise relationships between a person’s emotional being and their physical expression. You begin to really see what they are doing physically – how they are holding themselves, how they move, where they hurt, how they gesture. It’s like you are beginning to study homosapiens. Oh, this is what we humans do!
I am also thinking about the question ‘What would the body be without the word body?” That reminds me of a book I read about Constructivism during my linguistic studies at university. I’ll let you know when I have come to a conclusion.
I don’t often come to conclusions! My life seems perpetually unfinished, in process, sometimes in limbo. So any conclusions would be most welcomed. Yes, I think language is very powerful for humans. We construct whole worlds out of words. Sometimes these words help us to better see the real world, but so often they can prevent us from seeing the world as it is. I look forward to learning more from you about language, and I hope you will share your insights with all of us at the school.
I hope you are having a good time in Japan.
I am. Thanks. And thanks for your good letter. Stay in touch. I love hearing from my students.
It’s crowded. The waitress finds us a corner table. I watch Erika quickly size up the situation. She sees there’s not a lot of room around the table and proceeds straight away to slide through a rather small space into one of the chairs, no small feat given Erika is in her mid-eighties. I squeeze, not quite as gracefully, into the chair next to Erika. Some pretty big, jovial people live in Australia, and a few of them happen to be sitting at the tables next to us. Still, we’re happy to have gotten what appears to be the last table.
Christine’s looking around too, but it seems she’s looking for where there is the most space. Sure enough she sits down in the one chair that is not butting up either against the wall nor next to a chair occupied by one of our large, husky fellows. Barbara takes the remaining chair.
Christine still feels as if she hasn’t enough space. She moves her chair back, further away from the table and proceeds to sit on the very edge of the chair, legs apart, perfectly upright, as if she’s about to begin meditating. Christine’s an Alexander Technique teacher, and a very skilled one at that. In fact, all of us teach Alexander’s work, Erika having begun studying with Alexander when she was eight years old.
In contrast to Christine, I notice that Erika’s chair is drawn up almost as close to the table as possible. She’s comfortably leaning back into the chair. Rather than taking the most space, Erika created the most space around her as possible.
Four tall glasses of water balance precariously upon a tray which a shy, young boy is carrying over to our table. He’s not sure how to get around Christine’s chair. He decides to cut left around the table, doesn’t see the leg of Christine’s chair sticking out, trips, miraculously managing to prevent the shaky glasses full of water from toppling. He feels terrible about it. I get this feeling it’s his first day on the job. He apologizes profusely. Erika praises him on his stunning recovery, coaxing a slight smile from his sweet face.
Christine pauses for a split second, perturbed that this boy had interrupted her account of an Alexander lesson she had recently given.
My eye catches Erika’s eye. She smiles at me. Silently, I thank Erika for her exemplary way of teaching without teaching. She heard it, I’m sure.
In the Alexander Work we sometimes speak of the relationship between parts of the body, the relation of the head to the neck, or the relation between the ribs and the arm structure, or the relation between the hips joints and the sacrum.
As Alexander teachers we rarely ask a person to notice a part of their body in isolation. We teach our students how to perceive themselves “relationally.” We’re after a harmonious orchestration of parts into a symphonic whole. This “unified sound” is the product of a myriad of instruments all attuned one to the other.
What if our work extended beyond our “little body”, into the world, into our “big body.” What would happen if we perceived our body/self as just one little part of a larger body/self? What would the operational principles be for integrating into the larger body/self? How do we help make our big body/self comfortable, peaceful, and lively? How can we distribute support and freedom equally throughout the entire body/self, so that no one part is given less attention than any other?
It might be worthwhile to extend Alexander’s concept of “use” beyond our individual selves. What if we were attending to our collective use, our immediate social body, as was Erika during our dinner together? Isn’t the waiter as important as anyone else? Wasn’t he part of who we were that evening?
Our souls dwell where our inner world and the outer world meet. Where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap. The soul is found, not within, but between.
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.
…a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; intuitive understanding and insight.
How are these two women feeling?
What do you actually see, what specifically tells you how they may be feeling?
I’d like to know what you see.
If you like, share your perceptions with me.
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.
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.
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.
…from A Body Of Knowledge – Letters To A Young Student
If the wrist is the “neck of the hand”, and the ankles the “neck of the feet”, (the literal translations in both Korean and Japanese for wrist and ankle), and if, in principle, the head leads and the body follows, then does it hold true that the hand leads, and the arm follows, and the foot leads and the leg follows?
It’s not quite that simple. Movement can, and is, initiated from many parts of the body, often simultaneously, and then sequences throughout the body in many ways, with an array of qualities. The head can lead the body, the body can lead the head, and one part of the body can lead other parts of the body. Any good dancer or physical therapist knows this to be true. The expression, “head leads, body follows,” a favorite among many who trained with Marj Barstow means, as I understand it, that your head poise “has a governing influence” over the quality of your coordination. You can see this at work in great figure skaters, or Olympic divers. But this is equally true in the simplest of movements that mere mortals make. If your true and primary movement is operating well and you raise your right hand in the air it will be light and easy and powerful, or it will be however you want it to be. Likewise, if your body’s true and primary movement is nowhere to be found, that same motion will be labored and your degree of control over it will be much less.
That said, when I stumbled upon this idea some 25 years ago, in the same way you did, linguistically, I found that applying the same notion of freeing my neck to freeing my wrists, ankles, and lower back as well, (it being the neck of the pelvis), worked. It felt like nothing short of a revelation. It freed the spheres to which these “necks” related, wrists to hands, ankles to feet, lumbar spine to pelvis. This was about when I started to question whether I could still rightfully consider myself an Alexander teacher. (Still haven’t been able to answer this question.)
When you gaze at the body innocently, without fancy words or concepts to get in the way, you see sphere-like shapes with longer narrow shapes in between these spheres. Vertically you see the head sphere, then a neck, then the rib sphere, then a neck, (the lumbar spine), then you see the pelvic sphere, then a neck, (the femur), then you see the knee sphere, then a neck, (the tibia/fibula/ankle), then you see the foot. The toes actually are not part of the sphere-like arch of the foot, but continue on to make further little spheres and necks. All these spheres and necks are not all stacked one upon the other, but flow together in elegant curves which resemble a meandering river. That’s why at times I refer to this as our Lengthening River.
Looking at our Widening River, we find an equally long river also comprised of sphere-like shapes and alternating long, thin areas, which is one definition for the word neck in English, as in, neck of the woods, or the neck of a violin. For me, the scapula and the clavicle, taken together, make up a sphere-like shape, followed by the end of the scapula, which believe it or not is called the neck of the scapula, followed by the ball of the humerus, followed by the humerus, the elbow and its small spherical joints, the long bones of the forearm and the little bones of the wrist, followed by the sphere-like hand which is one reason hands can catch a ball so well, or hold a rice bowl.
Within our various neck regions are large, powerful muscles. These muscles mobilize or immobilize the spheres depending on what they are up to, good or no good. That’s why having some say over these areas, at least having a vote, helps. And that is one good reason people study the Alexander Technique, though we by no means have a patent on this wisdom.
Circling back to your curiosity about hand leading and arm following. Sometimes it helps to think that way. When a baby wants something it’s not supposed to have, it just sees it and makes a beeline straight for it. It looks like the hand wants what it wants and just goes there, pronto, and the arm helps it get there before their parents have a chance to intervene. Same when the baby brings that object back to its mouth and considers eating it.
But when it comes to walking by leading with your foot and letting your leg follow, I don’t think you will get much mileage out of that one. A baby who wants to stick its toes in its mouth will lead with his foot, but once that baby moves on to crawling, and climbing, and walking other dynamics come into play.
However having a free ankle is really important when it comes to walking.
While there are similarities between the head/neck, ankle/foot, wrist/hand, lumbar/pelvis relationships, there are obvious differences as well. Best to look at both the similarities and the differences if we want to get a more complete picture.
Hope this helps. Great question as usual.