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Posts tagged ‘erika whittaker’

Just Between Us

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

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.

Commentary.

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. 

Novalis

More Than The Eye Can See

A photo/essay on touch. Touch is my primary sense. I live like a blind man who just happens to be able to see.  When teaching  Read more

Jiro’s Hands


Photo: B. Fertman

Jiro’s Hands

Perhaps you have or have not seen the film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. If you have, what I say here will likely make you want to see it again. If you haven’t, you’ll be trying to find out where and when this film is showing.

Not because it’s about sushi, because it is about Jiro. If you’re an Alexander teacher, or if you are someone who uses your hands in your work, which is pretty much everyone, Jiro has a lot to teach you, a lot to show you.

Jiro is 85 years old. Growing up was difficult, not easy. But Jiro made it. Jiro became the embodiment of Bushido, the samurai code of honor.

Jiro’s hands do not look 85 years old because of the way he has used them in his work for 75 years. Nor does his body. Watch how he stands. Watch how he walks. Watch how he works.

You will see much in Jiro’s hands. You will see how free they are. You will see how there is no distortion in his hands. Most people, half Jiro’s age, already have what physical therapists refer to as “natural hand distortion.” Natural hand distortion may be normal, but it is not natural. Jiro’s hands are natural. When Marjorie Barstow, my primary Alexander teacher, was 92, (the last time I saw her), her hands looked just like Jiro’s hands.

Jiro’s hands often curve in a kind of semi-circle. His fingertips gently curl over as the center of his palm floats back, creating a recess in his hand. His wrists are relaxed, the underside of the wrist, the fair skinned side of the wrist lengthens slightly and opens. When his hands are working they are also resting.

Jiro’s hands are flexible. They assume any shape they need to, without undue effort, as he sculpts his ephemeral works of art to the delight of his patrons. My friend and teacher Erika Whittaker would have loved Jiro’s soft, sensitive, supple hands. No doubt.

Erika began studying Alexander’s work when she was eight years old with her aunt, Ethel Webb. She kept studying for another 85 years. Erika was smart, astute, articulate, unassuming, and truly kind, yet not the least bit sentimental. Her memory was sharp, and she was not afraid to say it as she saw it.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQ_j0ksWRN0

Once Erika told me that the way Alexander taught students how to use their hands, and how Alexander actually used his hands were as different as night is from day. Erika said Alexander hands were strong and flexible, and non-formulaic. She said it looked and felt as if he was sculpting you from the inside out. There was no technique, no method.

Elisabeth Walker, currently our oldest living teacher, and another woman who brims with kindness, once gave me a photograph of Alexander working with a student’s ankle. She wanted me to understand that Alexander didn’t just work with a person’s head and neck. He went wherever he needed to go, did whatever he needed to do. Alexander was not bound by any “technique.” Everyday he just did his work. He worked on his craft, in a state of divine dissatisfaction and deep joy, like Jiro. That’s what masters do.

People who know me well feel my devotion to Alexander’s work. That is exactly the reason why I am, at times, saddened by what I see in the Alexander world. Erika was too. I remember sitting next to Erika watching a room full of lively Alexander teachers working together. She leaned over to me and whispered, “Look at those pancake hands! How are you supposed to be able to feel anything or communicate anything with hands like that?” Erika was a kind person. Obviously Alexander did not have pancake hands. She wasn’t being mean or critical. She was concerned. That’s all. She wanted us to have hands like Jiro.

Early on, 51 years ago, I learned how to use my hands functionally. By ten I defined myself as a gymnast, working out six hours a day, six days a week. As gymnasts we taught each other, and sometimes saved each other’s lives, by using our hands. We knew how to bring each other back into balance. Later, studying Aikido and Tai Chi, I learned more about using my hands functionally and sensitively, ironically so I could lead people off their balance.

But it was studying Chanoyu, Japanese Tea Ceremony, that taught me most about my hands. In Chado you learn how to prepare and serve food, and tea. You learn how to use an array of utensils. Every little movement becomes vital. You learn the simplest, easiest, most functional, and most beautiful way of doing every little thing. You learn how to serve. You learn more about a person through the way they use their hands than you do by looking at their face.

So when I see hands like Jiro’s, I bow deeply. I am moved. I weep without knowing exactly why. Perhaps from my sheer love of beauty, perhaps from witnessing such unwavering dedication.

May we all learn from Jiro, and from his hands, and one day, like Jiro, may our method become no method, our teaching no teaching. And may we become free, like Jiro, through a complete, lifelong, and joyful commitment to our work.

Gambatte. Courage.

Quipping Away At The Truth – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Quipping Away At The Truth 

December Retreat 2011

In

The Work of F.M. Alexander

Santa Fe, New Mexico

USA

 

Anything organic takes its own sweet time.  (A reference made to the learning of this work being an organic process, not exclusively conceptual.)

Student:  What are you looking for?

Bruce:  Nothing.

Your job is not to help your student but to know your student.

You get students curious by being curious.

When you feel for a person (love, care, empathy) that feeling is actually inside your body, inside you.  Getting physically closer does not necessarily get you any closer.

We are bringing touch into the process of learning.  We are not teaching through touch exclusively.  We are integrating touch into the use of other educational tools, into our use of language, and into teaching through example.

What Alexander referred to as “inhibition” is not stopping an action, it is stopping a habit inside an action.

Inhibition is a word that is not useful to the “subjective” experiential self.  If you use words people don’t understand then you are not communicating.  Jargon is not needed when you know what you are talking about.

The way you get control is through surrender.

The way to touch time is through becoming more spacious.  If you want to slow time down, don’t try to slow time down.  You can’t do that. Release into the space within you, and around you.

Awareness, on its own, can change the nervous system.

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(Quoting others.  Some of my favorites.)

You want the mind of a sober man, and the body of a drunk.

Tai Chi Classics

Tension doesn’t happen in places, it happens in patterns.
Barbara Conable

Confidence is the absence of fear.

Krishnamurti

I spent 4 years watching Alexander’s hands, and then I realized I should have been trying to understand what was in his brain.

Erika Whittaker