Parallel play. That’s when toddler’s play adjacent to one another without trying to influence one another’s behavior. Two kids, playing alone, in the same space with a peripheral interest in what the other is doing.
Tommy and I did not meet until we were quite a bit older, but this is what we did. Every once in a while we would begin to interact. Martha and I invited Tommy down to Philadelphia to teach for us. Tommy invited me up to Boston to teach for him. Together we helped with the conception and founding of ATI. Every few years we’ed bump into one another at International Congresses and talk. Life happened. Twenty years sailed by without much contact at all. Finding out Tommy would be in my neighborhood in Osaka, I make an arrangement for us to meet over dinner at a little French restaurant Tommy liked. There we were, two considerably older men, weather worn but the better for it, and under it all still sparkling, those little kids somewhere alive within us.
Shortly after that meeting, my book comes out, Tommy reads it and is kind enough to write a review. He says to me, “Now I don’t have to write my book. You said what I care most about.” But Tommy did write a book, with the expert help of Rachel Prabhakar and David Gorman, and I am glad he did, because while there indeed exists considerable overlap in what Tommy and I find important in the Work and in how we are as teachers, we are also different.
Gleanings from the Life and Work of Tommy Thompson
Reading Tommy’s book, Touching Presence, I hear Tommy speaking primarily to trainees and teachers and to advanced students of Alexander’s work. Given that, I will address this same audience.
This book is not so much about the Alexander Technique as it is about how Tommy uses the Alexander Technique as his vehicle through which he guides his students into living more compassionately conscious and self-embodied lives. Use is too narrow an arena for Tommy. He is interested in personal transformation.
In our profession, thankfully, we have many gifted teachers doing research into different aspects of Alexander’s work. Some of us are reductionists. Some of us are more physiologically oriented and want to zero in on the precise physiological mechanisms involved in bringing about improved use. This is exciting. At the same time, some of us, like Tommy, are what I would call expansionists. Tommy wants to expand Alexander’s work beyond the workings of the body into the workings of the heart and soul. That is where Tommy’s work lives. This too is exciting. For Tommy, Alexander’s work is a spiritual path, a way of life. I think this is true for many of us. Tommy is as much a healer and secular rabbi/sheik/priest as he is a teacher.
I am fine with this because when reading, Touching Presence, I feel in the presence of a person who is entirely himself, who teaches through who he is. He’s not imitating anyone. He teaches through his own personal ethical framework, expressing his own truth. He teaches through his own language. He teaches out of his own experience, sometimes painful experience. He’s real. He’s authentic.
Tommy often, like a Hasidic rabbi or Sufi sheik, teaches through story. He’s a good storyteller. He shares deeply moving stories with us of his birth, of growing up in the segregated south, of the love for and death of his wife, Julie. These are not just stories. The key concepts which Tommy holds dear about the Alexander Technique are clearly elucidated within these stories.
What are some of these key concepts? Here, I will not go into detail; for that I suggest reading Touching Presence and if possible, studying with Tommy.
1.) Perhaps the deepest and most far reaching of all of Tommy’s key concepts is that of “withholding definition”. This is his way of talking about Alexandrian Inhibition, of a radical sort, one that allows a persons’ fixed sense of identity to become unfixed, fluid, changeable. Tommy’s work revolves around the issue of identity, how we define ourselves and by doing so, how we limit ourselves from experiencing who we are and what we might become. In the words of James Baldwin, “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned.” Tommy’s work seems to be about loosening the garment.
2.) Seeing a students’ beauty. Appreciating a student for how and who they are and letting your lessons unfold from there. Tommy’s work is profoundly non-corrective.
3.) Restoring a supportive sense of being as we do what we are doing. Remaining a human being rather than turning into a human doing. Our culture judgmentally demands: “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Tommy’s advice might be: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” First get a sense of where you are, what you are in relation with, how you are being, what you are experiencing and then let your doing arise out of this fullness of being.
4.) What most influences our students and allows them to change depends not so much on what we do but on who we are when we are with them. Ram Dass says, “The only thing you have to offer another human being, ever, is your own state of being.” Maybe Ram Dass heard that from Tommy! Sounds like Tommy.
Touching Presence does not read like a novel, or a textbook, certainly not a manual. Reading Tommy requires some work and some time. I found myself reading just a paragraph or two and then having to stop, become still, quiet, and just think, reflect, meditate before reading on. Touching Presence reads more like a Buddhist Sutra, or like the Cloud of Unknowing, where something important is said over and over again. Humility…is nothing else but a true knowledge and experience of yourself as you are. (Cloud of Unknowing). Or, The word is not the thing. (The Diamond Sutra). Or, Form is emptiness, and emptiness, form. (The Heart Sutra). Ideas not for thinking once and then forgetting, but rather ideas you sit on, like a mother hen, until one day, CRACK, your mind opens, your heart opens, and new possibilities, ones you never could have imagined, present themselves.
If you are training to become an Alexander teacher, or if you are an Alexander teacher and if you are interested not only in The Use of the Body, but are really interested in The Use of the Whole Self, if you wish to go beyond teaching about the body and about movement, if you are interested in physio-spiritual life, in your physio-spiritual life, then this book may help you along your way.
To My Dear Trainees, Faculty, Grads, and Post Grads,
My childhood friend, Miles Orchinik, now a professor of neurophysiology once told me that, for animals, it appears fear has a real and positive function, whereas anxiety, something apparently unique to humans, does not.
Fear energizes us for action. Michael Gelb once gave a talk at one of our annual summer retreats in the Alexander Technique and said it something like this. “Fear gets all the butterflies flying around in your stomach every which way. It is up to us to know how to get them to fly in formation.”
The sight of a predator, for example, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight. It also triggers the release of stress hormones and the sympathetic nervous system. This leads to bodily changes that prepare us to react to danger more efficiently and successfully. The brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate, breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow and glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs not vital in survival such as the gastrointestinal system slow down.
Fear is short-lived, geared toward a clear and present danger, usually a specific danger. Anxiety is another matter. Anxiety is chronic, geared toward an often more diffuse future event. Anxiety promotes excessive caution and makes coping less constructive or successful.
Having worked somatically with so many people, my experience tells me that fear charges the muscles, creating a great deal of potential energy in the thighs, (kicking, running), in the biceps and hand, (punching, etc.) and in the jaw, (biting). Once released and redirected, a person is in a condition or readiness, free to fight or flee or in the case of humans, to choose neither, to just be where we are, not fighting, not running, not freezing, not feigning, not fidgeting, but rather relying on reason, compassion, and cooperation to resolve conflict.
A person suffering from anxiety tends to squeeze their energy toward their midline and up almost appearing tied up with a rope. It in no way prepares the body to fight or flee or be. Yet this pattern can be released as well and redirected more constructively. But first, the mind must stop freaking itself out about the future. The mind must be brought back into present time and into the world as it is now. Often, the immediate reality is less scary than dire possible realities our minds can create for us.
Thoughts that create anxiety for me go something like this…If I get covid-19, I will die. If I die in Japan, I may never see my children again. If the economy crashes, I will lose my entire savings. If covid-19 continues and other pandemics arise, my life as an Alexander teacher who uses his hands will end. If covid-19 and other pandemics arise, travel will be too risky, and my school will close. These thoughts make me anxious and do not help me. I spend very little time entertaining these thoughts because, thankfully, I know how to diffuse them.
This is when the work of Byron Katie becomes very handy. I studied with Katie for quite a number of years. I feel such gratitude toward her and her brilliant work. Her work is an ingenious synthesis of cognitive and meditative processes. You have to think, and you have to drop down deeply into your innermost being for the answers that are there and that will help you live your life, no matter what is going on.
If you do not know about her work, I suggest buying her book, Loving What Is, or going online and learning about what Katie calls, Inquiry.
Here is an example of my using Inquiry.
As an example, let’s take one of my anxiety producing thoughts. After I do this, I encourage you to write down a few of your anxiety producing thoughts and just ask these questions and go through the process. Make sure you write everything down. As Katie says, “All pain belongs on paper.” See what happens.
Here we go. My thoughts are in italics.
If covid 19 and other pandemics arise, travel will be too risky, and my school will close.
Question 1: Is it true? Be still and ask yourself if the thought you wrote down is true.
Of course, I can’t predict the future, but it is good to do your best to arrive at a yes or no answer, even if you have to use your intuition. My intuition says No. I let this answer sink into my body.
Question 2: Can you absolutely know it’s true? This is another opportunity to open your mind and to go deeper into the unknown, to find the answers that live beneath what we think we know.
This for me is definitely a No. I let this sink in. Ah, I can’t know this for sure.
Question 3: How do you react—what happens—when you believe that thought? With this question, you begin to notice internal cause and effect. You can see that when you believe the thought, there is a disturbance that can range from mild discomfort to fear or panic. What do you feel? How do you treat the person or the situation you’ve written about, how do you treat yourself, when you believe that thought? Make a list and be specific.
Okay. What happens when I believe this thought is true? I am going to write down the thought again, just so I can really take it in.
If covid 19 and other pandemics arise, travel will be too risky, and my school will close.
How do I react, what happens, when I believe this thought?
I feel sad, my chest sinks. It’s hard to inhale. I feel defeated, over the hill, hopeless. Other thoughts arise. All that work I did, for nothing. My work will disappear. I will die in Japan. Life is over.
Question 4: Who would you be without the thought? Imagine yourself in the presence of that person or in that situation without believing the thought. How would your life be different if you didn’t have the ability to even think the stressful thought? How would you feel?
For my Alexander trainees, this is Alexandrian Inhibition with a very creative twist. The stimulus is the stressful thought, in this case an internal stimulus. I react to it as described above. Now, instead of my unplugging the reaction, I am choosing to see what happens if I unplug or drop the stimulus. If the stimulus is no longer there, what is there to react to?
If covid 19 and other pandemics arise, travel will be too risky, and my school will close.
And if I didn’t believe this thought, if I could not think it, if I could let it drop, let it fall?
My whole body relaxes, widens, my breathing becomes full and smooth. I feel support from my chair. I feel peaceful. Right here, right now, I am okay. I am comfortable. I am fine.
Ah! So what is creating my suffering? Is it reality or is it my thought about reality? If I am no longer suffering when the thought falls away, then it would stand to reason that it is the thought that is creating my suffering, my believing that this thought is true.
Turn the thought around: The “turnaround” gives you an opportunity to consider the opposite of what you believe. We resurface from the meditative process back into a cognitive process. Once you have found one or more turnarounds to your original statement, you are invited to find at least three specific, genuine examples of how each turnaround is true in your life.
Here is an example of a turn around. You pick a statement and turn around only one part of it. For example.
My school will close.
My school will not close. Why might this be true?
I am part of a fantastic team of teachers, all dedicated to the school and to the trainees.
My trainees and grads love the school.
We are all learning how to learn and teach our work online and this will help us strengthen our community and help us as Alexander teachers.
My school will open.
Yes, this online way of learning is opening for us.
Alliance students and teachers from Japan, England, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Australia, and New Zealand are all getting to meet one another, opening up to one another.
I am writing another book for my students and faculty right now and this will open up new ways for them to think and work as teachers.
My book might be read by people outside of the school and they might become open to visiting or training with us.
I will close.
Yes, that is the more important thought to attend to. How do I remain open?
I open my heart to everyone in the world who is struggling and dying.
I open my heart to my family.
I open my heart to all the hospital workers.
I open my heart to my students and teaching team.
Now rather than being anxious, I feel empowered. I feel brave. I feel motivated. My butterflies are flying in formation.
To my friends, students, and trainees, as well as to my faculty and co-directors,
Here is an opportunity to listen and learn from very experienced people in the field of Somatic Education. I was honored to be invited to participate. Read all the bios and listen to the folks you are interested in. Out of this delicious menu, I am personally drawn to – Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Mia Segal, Martha Eddy, and Judith Aston. It is entirely free. You just have to register. If you want to purchase all the videos and podcasts and transcripts and get all kinds of extra goodies, you can Upgrade for under $100. Take a look.
Free Online Event Somatic Movement Summit
April 27 – May 1, 2020
Some of us become fascinated with the body, how it works, some of us specifically with how it moves, others with the natural grace and physical beauty inherent within our original design.
Some of us feel that Alexander’s work is complete within itself, all encompassing. Others of us enjoy interfacing Alexander’s work with other somatic disciplines such as Yoga, Tai Chi, Aikido, Feldenkrais, Somatic Experiencing, BodyMind Centering just to name a few.
Some of us devote ourselves to applying Alexander’s work to art, particularly the performing arts, to dance, acting, and music, and to the creative process. For others of us, everyday life becomes our art form, our vehicle through which we study and evolve.
Some of us become less interested in the body per se, but in consciousness, embodied mindfulness, and in sensory receptivity.
Some of us become intrigued with how we react or respond to myriad stimuli from within us and all around us, to our own thoughts, emotions, and sensations, and to the thoughts, emotions, and actions of others. We study the role habit and choice play in our lives.
Some of us become enthralled in the connection between Alexander’s work and physiology, psychology, philosophy, theology, sociology, gender studies. Some of us become intrigued by the relationship between movement and meaning, or between culture and coordination, or between physical and spiritual grace, or between science and sentience.
Some of us love and teach through procedures developed by Alexander and enjoy using his language when speaking about the work. Others of us teach through procedures developed by first and second generation teachers, or have chosen to teach through our own procedures, and prefer using contemporary language through which to get Alexander’s ideas across to others. Some of us enjoy using images and metaphors to help us when teaching, and others do not.
Some of us teach predominately through observation and language, others of us predominately through silence and touch. And many of us interweave all in the process of imparting Alexander’s work.
Some of us work more educationally and others more therapeutically. Some of us are interested in injury prevention and rehabilitation, others in learning how to be more open, open to new ideas, to acquiring new ways of perceiving and understanding ourselves, that is, in self-knowledge, in becoming freer and happier.
Some of us belong to this professional society or that professional society, others to no professional society. Some have trained within a training program structured in one way or within a training program structured in another way. Others have gone through apprenticeships, and a few of us, like Alexander himself, have trained essentially on their own. Some of us have trained through one lineage, others through another, others through multiple lineages.
Some of us teach a lot, some a little, some not at all. Some of us love Alexander’s books, and others of us find them tedious and convoluted.
This is who we are. This is our community at large. There was a time, when I was younger and full of hubris and just plain foolish, that I was convinced my training and orientation to Alexander’s work was superior to others, stemming from the one lineage that truly possessed the essence of Alexander’s work. But now, thankfully, I don’t feel that way. I have come to embrace the diversity within our community at large and to see this diversity as healthy and lively and creative.
It is so freeing to know that we can pursue our own approach to the work because so many others are pursuing their approaches to the work. For example, I can work more experimentally, procedurally and linguistically, because I know that others are preserving Alexander’s language and procedures. That is a great relief to me.
Now, after 50 years inside of Alexander’s world, I find myself for everyone and against no one. Finally, I am becoming freer and more flexible, acquiring some mobility of mind. Maybe this was precisely what Alexander was after. Maybe this was what Alexander meant by being but a signpost pointing all of us into unknown directions, and so, so many directions at that.
A good question might be, how can we transition from thinking in terms of some of us, to thinking in terms of all of us? How can we zoom out so far that, like an eagle high in the clear blue sky, we can see the finest of details and, at the same time, behold the entire field, the parts and the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, not just one facet of the diamond, but the entire diamond, and not only the entire diamond, but the light that shines from that diamond, outwards in myriad directions into the world, and inwards as well, illuminating who we are and what we might become.
A fellow Alexander teacher asked if I had a transcript of my little youtube video, Top Ten Myths about the Alexander Technique. It was somewhere in my computer. I found it and tweaked it just a bit. I added a few photos that support some of the ideas. This piece has also been translated into 17 languages. If your native language is other than English, you may find it here.
Hi. My name is Bruce Fertman. I’m the founding director of the Alexander Alliance International. Here are ten myths about the Alexander Technique that many people believe are true. After 50 years of dedicated study, and after training 300 teachers, I have come to realize that these ideas are not true.
The Alexander Technique is about posture. That’s a myth.
Reality. The Alexander Technique is about un-posturing. The problem is that we are continually posturing, most often unconsciously. The Alexander Technique is about becoming an un-postured person, that is, unheld, unfixed, flexible, movable, not only physically, but as a person in general.
Photo: B. Fertman
The Alexander Technique is about uprightness. That’s a myth.
Reality. The Alexander Technique has nothing to do with standing up straight. There is not one straight line in the body, or in the universe for that matter. The Alexander Technique has nothing to do with doing anything right, or correctly. It is about doing what we do well, efficiently, effectively, fluidly, comfortably, and pleasurably.
Photo by: Anchan of B. Fertman
The Alexander Technique is about how we hold our head on our neck. That’s a myth.
Reality. The Alexander Technique is about how we stop holding our head on our neck. It’s about not interfering with inherent balancing mechanisms that do that for us.
Photo: B. Fertman – Sherry Stephenson
The Alexander Technique is about the body. That’s a myth.
Reality. The Alexander Technique is about us, about how we are within ourselves, with others, and in relation to the world around us. It’s about the quality of our actions and interactions. It’s about the quality of our experience. It’s about how we are being as we do what we are doing.
Photo: B. Fertman
The Alexander Technique is about becoming more symmetrical because symmetry is balanced. That’s a myth.
Reality. Nothing in nature is perfectly symmetrical, including humans. Symmetry is a concept, like a point, or a line is a concept. Buddha might look symmetrical when he’s sitting peacefully on a lotus flower but take a closer look and we see one foot on top of the other, and one hand on top of the other. Look closely at any persons’ face and we won’t find perfect symmetry. We’re after harmony, not symmetry, and harmony is not related to the shape of our body at any given moment.
Photo: B. Fertman
The Alexander Technique is about balance. That’s a myth.
Reality. Balance for humans is impossible. We are inherently unbalanced, and this is what promotes movement. We waver toward and away from equilibrium. This is a good thing. When the wind blows, waves are generated upon the surface of a pond. The wind stops and those waves become smaller, approaching but never attaining stillness. Stillness is a concept, a beautiful one, but within stillness lies motion, however subtle.
Lucia Walker: Alexander teacher, Johannesburg, South Africa
The Alexander Technique is about learning how to breathe correctly. That’s a myth.
Reality. We don’t breathe. Alexander once said, “At last, I find that when I don’t breathe, I breathe.” I would say it like this. At last, I find that when I don’t breathe, I am breathed. We are breathed by forces deep within us and all around us. Do we breathe when you are sleeping? Do we breathe when we are eating? Yes, we can take a breath. But breath is not for the taking. It does not belong to us. Breath is a gift from the world. It’s meant to be received. Breathing is responsive. It responds to activity. It is not something we do; it is not an activity, like running up a hill. When we run up a hill, do we first stand there and breathe and get enough air, and then run up the hill? Or do we run up the hill and breathing automatically and faithfully responds to our wishes, without our even having to ask?
The Alexander Technique is about learning how to stand, how to stand on our own two feet. That’s a myth.
Reality. We do not stand on our own two feet. We stand on the ground.
The Alexander Technique is about learning how to relax. That’s a myth.
Reality. The Alexander Technique is about readiness. The Alexander Technique is about preparing for nothing in particular, while being ready for anything that may happen. The Alexander Technique is about effortlessly returning, again and again, to a condition of alert, calm readiness.
Photo: Anchan – Alexander teacher: Britta Brandt-Jacobs
The Alexander Technique is about proper body mechanics; learning the best way to get up and down from a chair, how to walk correctly, how to bend down without hurting yourself, etc. That’s a myth.
Reality. Human beings are not mechanical. We are not machines. We’re organic. We’re mammals. The Alexander Technique is about learning how we are best designed to function as Homo Sapiens. The Alexander Technique is, in part, about questioning cultural, gender, and cosmetic concepts of the body that interfere with the functioning and beauty of our natural design.
When I first saw her I did not know who she was. She was on stage, alone, dancing. Her movements were unusually clear, articulate, intelligent, lucid. Her phrasing and timing, unpredictable. “Who is that!”, I asked my new friend sitting next to me. “Do you know her name?” “Oh, that’s my daughter, Lucia, Lucia Walker.”
The year was 1994, the place Sydney, Australia, the event, the 4th Annual Congress in the Alexander Technique. Basically, I fell in love with both of the Walkers right then and there. For many years thereafter, Elisabeth and Lucia Walker taught for us once or twice a year at the Alexander Alliance in America.
Lucia Walker. Latin lucidus (perhaps via French lucide or Italian lucido ) from lucere ‘shine’, from lux, luc- ‘light’. She who walks lightly in the world. Lucid; to express clearly, easy to understand, cogent, bright.
That’s Lucia. She is her name. These are the qualities Lucia embodies as she walks in the world, and this is why I am very happy to announce that Lucia Walker will be our guest teacher in Kalamata, Greece this October 10-18, 2020.
To show you what I mean about Lucia living up to her name, here are a few of my favorite photos of Lucia, some taken almost 30 years ago, some taken quite recently. Then, I will tell you much of what she has done in her life as the international Alexander teacher that she is.
Movement is Lucia’s medium. Yet, she is more than a movement teacher. She is a life teacher. Long ago Lucia gave me a book to read entitled, A Life of One’s Own, by Marion Milner. It was one woman’s exploration as to how to live a satisfying life. Marion turns toward her everyday life for answers, discerning ways of being, ways of seeing, and ways of moving that bring joy into life. This is Lucia’s larger vision of the work, which Alexander begun.
Some details: Lucia qualified as an Alexander teacher in 1987, after 3 years of training with her parents, Dick and Elisabeth Walker, in Oxford, England, and spent many years assisting in her parent’s training program. Currently, Lucia teaches in South Africa, England, France, Germany, the USA, Argentina, and Japan.
A fascination in the relationship between vision and movement led to Lucia becoming part of ALTEVI, (ALexander TEchnique and VIsion.) Communication being essential to good teaching, Lucia has trained in Non-Violent Communication. She has been part of the Contact Improvisation community for 28 years. Since 2015, Lucia and Sharyn West have been co-directing Alexander Learning and Teaching Programs in Durban and Johannesburg.
It’s an honor and a pleasure for us to have Lucia join our faculty for our international gathering in Greece., October 10-18, 2020. If you have never studied with Lucia, here is a great opportunity to do so, along with all the directors of training at the Alexander Alliance International.
Very Early Bird Discount available until January 25, 2020.
What Alexander’s Notion of Personal Use Mean for us
at the Alexander Alliance International
Currently, our curriculum is two-fold, personal and professional.
First. Without having spent years integrating Alexander’s work into one’s personal life, it is not possible to become a teacher of his work. Personal transformation is the basis upon which a life as an Alexander teacher is founded. Therefore, I will go into some detail as to what this transformational process entails.
Throughout the entire training, we train somatically, that is, we work on attuning ourselves physically, and we explore the relationship this physical attuning has upon our lives personally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. Our physical attuning process is founded upon the insights and principles discerned by Alexander as to how we learn to function in accordance to our “original blueprint”, our inherent cognitive-neuro-muscular/fascial-skeletal design.
Regardless of our personal life situation, we share a common context in which our lives unfold. Alexander’s work attempts to shift for the better, our psychophysical relationship to the contextual framework in which our lives unfold. This shift in how we relate psychophysically to life’s contextual framework, indirectly but significantly, influences the content of our life, the way in which our lives unfold, and how we experience this unfolding. Our training is devoted to this contextual shift.
Our Common Context
Pedagogically, I divide our life context into nine facets: Structural Support, Ground Force, Spatial Freedom, Organ Capacity, Temporal Existence, Respiratory Restoration, Sensory Receptivity, Motoric Refinement, and Social Harmony/Inner Peace.
One. Structural Support
We share a common structure. We are all Homo Sapiens. At any given moment, we are using our structure in a particular way. At the Alexander Alliance, we learn how to respect and treat our structure according to its inherent design. This frees us into our natural support, allowing us to be at once, light and substantial, soft and strong, relaxed and ready, stable and flexible, peaceful and lively, receptive and generous, awake to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us.
Through Alexander’s work our personal relationship to our physical structure, to being consciously and appreciatively embodied changes, for the better.
Two. Ground Force
All of us are subject to gravity. Gravity derives from “gravis” or “gravitas”, and means heavy, weight, serious. For our purposes, gravity might best be thought of as “the law of mutual attraction” which states that bodies are drawn to each other through gravitational attraction. The strength of their attraction is greater if they are close together, and lesser if they are more distant. This force of attraction exists between any two bodies. Or, we might refer to Newton’s third law of motion, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” When we sit in a chair, our bodies exert a downward force into the chair, while the chair exerts an equally upward force through our bodies.
These forces are not grave, not serious. They are positive, interactive forces, I dare say, joyful. These forces allow objects, both animate and inanimate, to rest. The more we can rest, the more support we can receive. The more support we receive, the more grace and lightness we experience.
Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to gravity changes, for the better.
Three. Spatial Freedom
We all live in space.
There is space within. We all possess a sense of space, or a lack thereof. Sometimes, we feel trapped, or cramped, that we have no room to move or breathe. Sometimes, we feel open and free, that the future is open to us, that the horizon widens forever, that the sky is the limit, that life is deep and vast, like the ocean. Some of us seem to spread out, some squeeze in, some hold back, some thrust forward, some press down, some pull up. How to be spatially unbiased, spatially balanced, spatially omni-directional?
There is space between, between us and our smartphones, our computers, our steering wheels, our soup bowls. There is space between us and those around us, when on a crowded train, when waiting in line at the grocery store, when sitting at the kitchen table.
There is space all around us, above us, below us, before us, behind us, beside us. Unbeknownst to us, we live with blinders on, zooming in on what is in front of us, narrowing our worldview.
Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to space within, between, and around, changes, for the better.
Four. Organ Capacity
We are all organ-isms, creatures. Even though we have a sense of internal space, in reality, the space within our structural framework is fully occupied; the cranial cavity, thoracic cavity, abdominal cavity, and pelvic cavity. Again, unbeknownst to us, we impinge upon our organs, exert pressure against them, prevent them from moving. We ignore them. Sensing our organs, our organ life, reminds us that we are alive, human beings being, rather than only human doings doing.
Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to our organ life changes, for the better.
Five. Temporal Existence
We all live in time. A second is a second, a minute a minute, an hour an hour, a day a day, a year a year, a decade a decade, and yet our subjective sense of time varies. An hour can fly by in a second, an hour can feel like an eternity, for better or worse. We can find ourselves waiting, a temporal event, for an urgent phone call, for a needed document to download, for the train that is late to arrive. Then again, there is long-term waiting, for the kids to leave home, for the perfect person to come into our lives, or for when we will be earning much more money, or for when we finally retire and get to travel. Or we find ourselves rushing about, worried about being late, meeting deadlines, getting everything done that we have to do. Time pressure. Clock time.
Then, there is biological time. Pacing. Tempo. Right timing. Eating, walking, speaking. Time to think. Time to feel. Time to breathe. Time to let the beauty of the world sink in, into our bones, into our hearts. Biologically, we by nature, mature, age, die. Our lives are temporally finite. We only have so much time, so many breaths. “Number your days”, King David suggests to us in Psalm 90. Don’t waste them. Don’t miss them. Experience them. Enjoy them. Be grateful for them. Live them. Make the most of them. as he did so well. What does it mean to age gracefully? How can we best adapt to our aging bodies? What do we want to pass on, to give away?
Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to time changes, for the better.
Six. Respiratory Restoration
Unknowingly, we often interfere with breathing, without understanding how or why, or even when, we do it. It helps to become aware of the particular ways in which we interfere with breathing. This, it turns out, is not so easy. As soon as we begin to set about studying our breath, this very act of studying it begins to change it. Immediately, we want to breathe right, or well, or fully. Instantly, we superimpose our attempt to breath better, whatever our idea of that is, on top of our habitual way of breathing.
Seeing that breathing defies being studied directly, our only recourse, if we want a way into the mystery of breath, is to study it indirectly. This means looking at the conditions that surround breathing. Breathing responds to pressure of any and all kinds. External pressure, for example, altitude, pollution, over stimulation, under stimulation, danger, as well as safety, comfort, love, a cat resting in your lap.
Breathing responds to internal pressures as well, like exertion, hunger, fatigue, strain, disease, self-imposed standards, time restraints. Breathing responds to the entire gamut of thoughts, sensations, emotions – be they painful or pleasurable.
Breath is not an action; it’s a response. When we decide to run up a hill, we don’t stand there and breathe until we have enough air to make it up the hill. We start running. The air of the world, and our bodies reflexes, without our having to ask, help us to accomplish what we have decided to do. Just like that. Such support. Such kindness. Such faithfulness. And how often do we stop, and say thank you?
Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to breathing changes, for the better.
Seven. Sensory Receptivity
We all are endowed with senses, though some of us do not have all of them. We see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We also have less known, less educated senses that tell us about ourselves, our kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses.
There’s a very simple way of speaking about what happens to our senses. As our motoric activity increases, often our sensory receptivity decreases. The result is that our actions are not as informed as they could be, which often makes our actions less accurate, more effortful, and less effective. To add to this, a diminishment of sensory receptivity prevents us from experiencing how we are doing, what we are doing, as we are doing it, reducing our ability to delight in and appreciate life as we are living it. We don’t want to live an unlived life.
It is as if, within us, there is a doer and a receiver. There is the you who washes your hair, and the you who senses and enjoys your hair being washed, or the you who does not sense it being washed. There is the you who is feeding you a spoonful of soup, perhaps potato leak soup, or miso soup, or lentil soup, or split pea soup, or French onion soup. And then, there is the you who is aware of receiving this soup, tasting it, savoring it, feeling thankful for it, or the you who is unaware of receiving the soup and who is not tasting it. Reawakening the receiver within us, the one who is not putting out, not on output, but the one receiving, on input, keeps us from becoming depleted, allows us to be replenished.
Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to our sensory world changes, for the better.
Eight. Motoric Refinement
We all move. The question is how well, how enjoyably, how appreciatively? The more sensitive, accurate, and reliable our senses become, particularly our intra-senses, our kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses, the more refined our actions become, the more precise, the more efficient, the more effective, the more effortless, the more fluid, and the more beautiful. Everyday movement, everyday actions become interesting and pleasurable; walking up and down steps, riding a bike, folding laundry, cleaning the house, cooking a meal.
Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to moving through our life changes, for the better.
Nine. Social Harmony/Inner Peace
We are all social animals. Existence is co-existence. Even if we choose to live our lives as a hermit far away in a cave, in isolation, it is a social choice we make, a relationship we have with society. Most conflict that we experience happens in relation to other people. Being in social conflict is a physiological event. Fear and anger are physiological events. Everything is a physiological event. Likewise, being in social harmony is a physiological event. Love, kindness, empathy, joy are also physiological events. How we are physiologically, when in the presence of others, can dramatically influence, for better or worse, how we feel about others, and how they feel about us. Peace is a physiological event.
In a very real way, we also have a social relationship with ourselves. Are we our own best friend, and/or our own worst enemy? Do we respect and care well for ourselves, or do we disrespect ourselves and abuse ourselves? Inner peace is also a physiological event.
Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to others and to ourselves changes, for the better.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Healing the Rifts within Our Alexander Community at Large
“Now at first sight, all this evidence that the universe looks the same whichever direction we look in might seem to suggest there is something special about our place in the universe. In particular, it might seem that if we observe all other galaxies to be moving away from us, then we must be at the center of the universe. There is, however, an alternate explanation: the universe might look the same in every direction as seen from any other galaxy too. We have no scientific evidence for, or against, this assumption. We believe it on the grounds of modesty: it would be most remarkable if the universe looked the same in every direction around us, but not around other points in the universe! The situation is rather like a balloon with a number of spots painted on it being steadily blown up. As the balloon expands, the distance between any two spots increases, but there is no spot that can be said to be the center of the expansion.”
A Rift Resolved
At the 11th Congress in Chicago, I decided it was time to apologize to Yehuda Kuperman for what I now perceived as my arrogance at the 4th international congress in Sydney in 1994, and for my having, most likely, offended him at one particular gathering. So, I did. A 68 year old man apologizing to an 81 year old man. It’s not over, until its over.
Watching Yehuda at the 3rd international Congress in Engelberg in 1991, I was impressed with the way he moved, with his naturalness, so at the 11th congress, I encouraged Alexander Alliance students to take his classes, and they did. They were moved by Yehuda and by his work. They invited him to Santa Fe, that they might continue to learn from him. He accepted. He was moved by them, by how open they were to learning. Yehuda invited them to Israel. Robyn Avalon, Margarete Tueshaus, and Roselia Galassi, Alexander Alliance faculty members, accepted and went to Israel to study further, and also to share with them some of the way in which we work. Yehuda was moved. The Alexander Alliance is celebrating its 40th anniversary as a school in October 2020. We invited Yehuda. We hope he accepts. A rift resolved.
The Grand Illusion
I wonder. How did all these rifts within our community at large begin?
Perhaps our 1st generation teachers were each on their own planet, perceiving the illusion that each of them stood at the center of the Alexander universe. This grand illusion was so convincing, perhaps the 1st generation teachers passed their assumption onto their students, and most of their students, assumed, without question, this assumption to be the truth.
Of course, it stands to reason, that if my teacher stood at the center of the Alexander Universe, and if I stood next to them, then I too would be standing at the center of the Alexander Universe. If my teacher was special, then I too must be special. And since there is only one center to the universe, no one else, but us, could be standing at the center of the universe.
This leads to the unverified conclusion that our way is the best way, the only right way. As we know from Alexander’s findings, there is no more rigid position than the right position, no more position as inflexible, dogmatic, blind, and potentially destructive than the right position. Once we have established our position to be the only right position, we hold onto it with great gusto. And if we alone are right, then it seems only logical that everyone else is wrong. Our profession is not alone in this delusional thinking. We see this delusional thinking operating politically and theologically all over the world. We see it in every institution, in every business, in every family, within each and every soul, all over the world.
But even though Alexander recognized this universal problem, he seemed blind to it when it came to how he perceived his own work. In Alexander’s writings, I perceive a sense of superiority, a hubris, self-righteousness, a lack of humility, and I believe that, insidiously, we absorbed this attitude. Somehow, without exhaustive evidence, we continue to see our work as superior to Yoga, Pilates, the Feldenkrais Method, Gyrotonics, the Rosen Method, Somatic Experiencing, BodyMind Centering, and to every other study within the somatic field of education. We’re both inter and intra-professionally snobby. We do not stand on the ground of modesty.
The First Act of War
A person with whom I have had the honor to study with for many years was Byron Katie. Her work goes to the heart of this problem. It’s a powerful tool that cuts through self-inflation, grandiosity, egocentricity, and superiority complexes. It begins with the acceptance of the fact that we all judge other people, groups, professions, etc. The question arises, “Is it possible that our judgements are untrue?” We practice asking questions like, “Can I absolutely know that what I am believing is true is, in fact, true?” Likewise, when people judge or criticize us, we practice asking questions like, “Could they be right?” Do we really want to know the truth, or do we just want to be right?
God exists. Can I absolutely know that is true?
God does not exist. Can I absolutely know that is true?
We are in a climate catastrophe. Can I absolutely know that is true?
We are not in a climate catastrophe. Can I absolutely know that is true?
The Democrats should move to the left to defeat Trump. Can I absolutely know that is true?
The Democrats should move to the center to defeat Trump. Can I absolutely know that is true?
A human life begins at conception. Can I absolutely know that is true?
A human life begins at six weeks. Can I absolutely know that is true?
A human life begins at birth. Can I absolutely know that is true?
We discover that, not offense, but defense is the first act of war. When someone attacks us, there is, as yet, no conflict. Perhaps this could be the idea behind, to turn the other cheek. “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.” The conflict begins when, instead of thinking about what they are saying, instead of inquiring into whether or not what they are saying could be true, we reactively defend our right position. If one person is hard, and we are hard, that person will feel hard. If one person is hard, and we are soft, that person will feel soft. If the bed is hard and our bodies are hard, the bed will feel hard. If the bed is hard and our bodies are soft, the bed will feel soft.
Making room for the possibility that we may be wrong. “Let’s hope something goes wrong,” says Alexander. Immediately, as soon as we allow a little room for doubt, for not being sure, for the I don’t know mind, the body becomes freer and more flexible. We become freer and more flexible.
One of my favorite films is entitled, Doubt. Here is the plot from Wikipedia.
In 1964 at a Catholic church in The Bronx, New York, Father Brendan Flynn, (Philip Seymour Hoffman), gives a sermon on the nature of doubt, noting that it, like faith, can be a unifying force. Sister Aloysius, (Meryl Streep), the strict principal of the church’s parish school, becomes concerned when she sees a boy pull away from Flynn in the school courtyard. She instructs her Sisters to be alert to suspicious activity in the school.
Sister James, a young and naive teacher, receives a request for Donald Miller, an altar boy and the school’s only African-American student, to meet Flynn in the rectory. Donald returns to class visibly upset, and James notices the smell of alcohol on his breath. Later, she sees Flynn placing an undershirt in Donald’s locker. She reports her suspicions to Aloysius.
Aloysius and James confront Flynn. Flynn denies wrongdoing, claiming Donald had been caught drinking communion wine and that he called him to dismiss him as an altar boy. James is relieved by Flynn’s explanation, but Aloysius is not convinced. Flynn delivers his next sermon on bearing false witness and gossip. James later asks Flynn about the shirt he put in Donald’s locker, an observation she kept from Aloysius. Flynn explains that Donald had left the shirt in the sacristy, and that he put it in his locker to spare him additional embarrassment.
Aloysius meets with Donald’s mother regarding her suspicions and is shocked by her seeming disinterest in Flynn’s alleged abuse. Mrs. Miller admits that she would turn a blind eye to the abuse, if it existed, in order to keep Donald in a school that will better his socioeconomic situation and to further protect him from his physically abusive father; Mrs. Miller confesses that she knows Donald is gay, and she fears that his father would kill him if he knew about what happened with Flynn.
Aloysius confronts Flynn and demands his resignation. She claims to have contacted a nun from one of his previous parishes who corroborated her suspicions and threatens to visit his previous appointments and contact parents. Flynn agrees to request a transfer and delivers a final sermon before departing.
Some time later, Aloysius tells James that Flynn has been appointed to a more prestigious position at a larger church. She admits to having lied about contacting a nun at Flynn’s former church, but believes his resignation is proof of his guilt.
She then breaks down in tears, saying to James,
“I have doubts…I have such doubts.”
This last scene is, for me, one of the most powerful moments I have ever seen in film. This moment when, a person who was absolutely sure she was right, and who acted on her rightness, finally realizes she is unsure, very unsure, that she could be completely and utterly wrong, was life changing for her, and for me.
From Generation to Generation
Our 2nd generation teachers are now our elders. Already there are 3rd, and 4th generation teachers, and soon to be 5th generation teachers. Some say, it takes at least three generations for the families of those traumatized by war to recover. Genesis teaches us this as well.
Adam and Eve experience a major trauma.
1st generation. Cain kills his brother Abel.
2nd generation. Isaac and Ishmael reconcile, but never speak to one another.
3rd generation. Jacob and Esau reconcile, and do speak to one another.
4th generation. Joseph and his brothers reconcile, speak to one another, and Joseph invites all his brothers to live with him.
We learn that healing is possible. Family unity is possible.
Blessed are the Meek
Meek, that is, unassuming, soft, pliant, gentle, humble.
We know, as Alexander teachers, that softness, gentleness, and pliancy is not weakness, but strength. Blessed, in old English, means bliss or happiness.
Isn’t this, in essence, what our work is about? Strength through softness. This most delicate and deep refusal to use force? This great and utter undoing. This becoming unfixed, unbraced, unblocked, unmasked, unchained, unassuming, unaffected, unshielded, unforced, unadorned, untied, untangled, unpretentious, unbiased, unburdened, unbroken…
It is an honor having Dr. Galen Cranz as a member of our worldwide Alexander Community. Professor of the Graduate School in Architecture at UC Berkeley she is a sociologist and designer, as well as a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. She studied in San Francisco, but was certified in Thom Lemens’ four-year training course in New York City. Having specialized in how the body meets the environment, she advocates Body Conscious Design. She is the author of The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design.
Teaching By Hand, Learning By Heart: Delving into the Work of F.M. Alexander
By Bruce Fertman
Reviewed by Galen Cranz
Bruce Fertman was many things before becoming an Alexander teacher: gymnast, swim coach, martial artist (tai chi and aikido), tango dancer, movement educator, and movement artist. He brings those skills to his Alexander teaching, but he himself writes that he has transcended movement teaching to something else. In Teaching By Hand, Learning by Heart, he calls himself a metaphysician who “attends to people’s subjective sense of time and space, to their felt experience of being and becoming.” He introduces the concept of “movement metaphor” to show that people learn more deeply if they can physically experience a principle. To demonstrate the principle that we make ourselves tense rather than a situation makes us tense, he crowds students into a subway-like space to get them to experience that they tighten their own feet, legs, pelvis, shoulders arms, throat and jaws –and that they have choice about whether or not to continue the tension.
Bruce is a skillful writer, who shows the same poetic artistry throughout his book that I have enjoyed in his blog/facebook essays. This book is not an introduction to the Alexander Technique and its 5 –or 10– basic tenets. Instead, in Part I, “The Work at Hand,” he describes how he uses paintings and the arts in his group classes to show how specific physical traits express emotion. In each short chapter he shows how he creates psychological insight regarding sport, nature, anatomy, sensory life, social biology, theology, mysticism, pottery.
Bruce believes in the importance of emotions in changing one’s physical patterns. He focuses on establishing emotional rapport, or creating emotional well-being in this clients/students before seeking to create structural alignment.
Like other skilled somatic therapists, Bruce emphasizes listening –with hands– and receiving rather than fixing a problem. Once witnessed, a problem has a way of solving itself. Open, listening hands witness and receive information, and solutions present themselves—in new feelings, images, movements, words, and concepts.
The second half of the book, “Student-Centered Teaching,” offers stories about profound and poignant moments of transformation in his teaching practice. Examples include a frustrated math teacher, a blind singer, a man with ankylosing spondylitis, a woman suffering for her sister, tango partners, a yoga teacher, a 70 year old caretaker learning to ask for help, a child custody hearing in front of a judge, and more.
Bruce has offered story after story of insight, transcendence, hope, and healing that might inspire other teachers. That is the ultimate measure of the success of this book: does it stimulate and educate other teachers —or is each instance too particular to Bruce or his students, or too local to Japan or Germany or Santa Fe to bring out the best in us? Thanks to one of the teachings in this book, I personally learned to think of freeing not only the top of the neck where it meets the head, but also the bottom of the neck where its muscles connect to the torso, the way a tree trunk has roots. Thus, while his synthesis of philosophy, psychology, the arts, and motor skill is unique, I choose to believe that this book encourages us to develop our own personal signatures in the way we work.
If you would like to purchase, Teaching by Hand/Learning by Heart, and you live in America, write to Jessica Rath. If you live elsewhere, write to Jean Fischer.