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Posts tagged ‘movement’

For the Love of Pedagogy

Robyn Avalon and Bruce Fertman

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language

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

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

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

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

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

Silence

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

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

Observation

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

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

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

Non-Observation

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

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

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

Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stillness

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

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

Lao Tzu/Stephen Mitchell

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The inner freedom from the practical desire,

The release from action and suffering, release from the inner

And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded

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

Erhebung without motion, concentration

Without elimination, both a new world

And the old made explicit…”

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

T.S. Eliot: Burnt Norton, Four Quartets

Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-Tactual Teaching

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

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

Sensory Integration

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

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

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

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

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

Systems of Support

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

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

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

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

Bread in the Pockets of the Hungry

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

Mary Oliver

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making The Invisible Visible

“Anchan, I will pay for all your expenses, travel, room and board, training, film, everything, if you travel around with me and take photos.” That’s how it all began, the making of a man able to catch that elusive moment when a person opens up, frees into who they really are, revealing their intrinsic beauty, their fundamental dignity.

That’s not easy. In the first place you have to be able to see, to see people. You have to be able to feel the instant before a person lets go into a space unknown to them. You have to remember what’s most important; to draw the viewers eye to the inner life of the student.

Now videography, something Anchan taught himself how to do, poses formidable challenges. Movement can be distracting, and words too. Photographs have power. Catching a moment, one moment, the moment of transformation, within stillness, within silence, suspended there in front of you with all the time in the world to enter into what you are seeing, and to be moved by it.

Anchan had an idea. He thought, “what if I could make a wordless video that showed not only the transformative moment, but the transformative movement, without losing the beauty and the stillness of photography?” And with that question Anchan made, The Touch.

But Anchan’s much more than a photographer. He’s an Alexander Teacher in his own right. And a good one.  Not only does he have a better eye than most Alexander teachers, he knows how to teach what he knows. It’s moving to watch Anchan with his kids, how he gives them the time and space to figure things out for themselves, and only interjects a suggestion when needed. He knows when and exactly how much encouragement to give, and he knows when it’s not needed. 

Anchan’s always there. He’s ready to serve. He makes things work. He’s generous. He overflows with generosity.

We were young men when we met, and though Anchan is a good ten years younger than I am, we are both decidedly older, no longer young. But rather than growing tired after all these years of dedicating ourselves to making the invisible visible, to making people see the power of touch, the beauty of Alexander’s work, we’re becoming ever more engaged in this undertaking. We keep getting closer, and closer.

In this short video, made by Anchan, entitled The Touchyou get to see how Anchan sees, and what Anchan loves. You get to see what the students are seeing.  And you get to see the students seeing what they are seeing.  See that, and you will see why I have faith in young people. Those students are delighting in the power and beauty of teaching through touch, something Marj Barstow passed onto me, that Alexander passed on to her,  and that I will continue to do my best to pass on to my students for as long as I am able.

I could tell you much more about Anchan, but I won’t. Let The Touch speak for itself.

Watch The Touch.

Tell us your impressions.

We welcome any and all feedback.

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The Gift Given

Photo: Holly Sweeny

Photo: Holly Sweeny

 

The Gift Given

– In Memory of Marjorie Barstow

Marj didn’t teach us what she did. She showed us what she did, over and over again. We experienced the results of what she did. We walked away, mysteriously transformed, hearing Marj say, “Think about that.”

That was it. No instruction. No words of advice. Sentences were rarely comprised of more than five words. We hung on to her quips.

It’s not a position. It’s a movement.

There’s nothing to get; there’s only something to lose.

You’re all trying to do something, and that something is your habit.

It’s just a little bit of nothing.

This is not complicated. It’s your habits that are complicated. This is too simple for you.

No pushy. No pully.

No especially anything.

There are three kinds of strange: good strange, bad strange, and crazy strange.

If you’re up because you’re afraid to be down, you’re not up.

At some point you have to say, I’m tired of hurting myself.

Can’t you see yourself?

Can you leave yourself alone?

Through her hands, Marj let us know what was possible without major surgery. As if she was an eagle, she’d swoop us up and sweep us to the top of the mountain so we could observe the world from a vista, unknown.

Before we knew it, we had slide back into the foothills. What we felt was how far we had regressed. What we often failed to notice was that, each time, we regressed less. Step by step we were walking our way up that mountain. There was space, and it was vast. Our eyes were opening. The air was fresh and clean.

Marj was clear about us having to walk our own walk. She did not baby us. It was not in her nature. Those of us who, through Marj’s inspiration, turned ourselves into teachers found our individual paths up that mountain. Along the way we developed our own way of walking, had our own revelations, figured out how to best use our hands, hone our language, sharpen our seeing, refine our kinesthesia. We developed our own pedagogy. Our tradition was one of originality.

Each of us saw something in Marj that was latent within us. We saw in her our potential, what we valued, what we aspired toward, what we most needed. An educator par excellence, she educed from us that which was longing to come out. Like a skilled midwife, she led the gifted child within us out into the light of day. We had to do our own labor, but she was there to see us through.

If I were to choose three values of Marj’s that I want most to see kept alive and passed on to other Alexander teachers they would be – Delicacy, Naturalness, and Movement.

Delicacy

Delicacy is a tricky word. It has multiply meanings. It can mean carefully, which was not what Marj meant when she used the word delicately, which she did countless times in a day of teaching. She meant extraordinarily fine, texturally and structurally, like a spider’s web, strong, flexible, spacious, patterned, and yet delicate. She meant delicate like the scent of sweet alyssum, the faintest of pastels, the softest of breezes.

Delicacy also means something rare and delicious, something special.

Using the word delicacy was Marj’s way of bypassing the doing/non-doing conundrum. We’re after something that is not a doing and not a non-doing. It’s in between doing and non-doing. Or it’s both doing and non-doing. That’s getting closer. You see what I mean? Hmm….language.

Marj observed that often students who were working with the idea of not doing, only thinking, were not changing, not moving, not releasing into greater freedom, but subtly holding themselves still, one foot slightly on the break, afraid of forcing it.

With these students you’d hear Marj say something like, “Move. Why don’t you move? Don’t be afraid to move. No movement, no change.”

Then the next person she’d work with would be a person who was moving with too much force, and you’d hear Marj say something like, “Ehhh, wait a minute. You’re pushing from here, pointing the tip of her index finger on the center of the person’s sternum. No pushy. Ehhh, wait a minute. Now, you’re pulling from here, lightly touch the sides of the person’s neck. No pully. Can’t you just ever so delicately follow my hands this way?”

Marj would say what she had to say to coax a person into the realm of delicacy. Delicacy was more important than direction for Marj, perhaps more important than anything. Nothing real could happen without it. No matter what you did, if you did it within the realm of delicacy, well, that was a beginning.

When I teach I rarely use the word delicately unless I am role-playing Marj, which I love to do. It always gets students smiling. I use phrases like “ever so softly can you”, or “without any effort see what happens if you…I talk about deep softness, powerful softness, softer than softness.  The meaning and feeling behind words change from generation to generation. I use words that work for my students, now.

Marj’s delicacy was like the feel of air, like space itself. Deep softness  feels like water. You can put your hand right through it, there is substance to it, but a substance yielding and fluid. Water can take the form of a droplet hanging from the tip of a leaf, and it can take the form of a one hundred foot wave rising over an entire village. Both are soft. Both are fluid and moving. Power and delicacy are not mutually exclusive.

The realm of delicacy, that’s where our work lives. And only there.

Naturalness

Naturalness is the absence of artificiality. You can’t be natural, just as you can’t be confident. Confidence is the absence of fear. You can’t make yourself relax. But you can learn to release unnecessary tension. You can’t be yourself, but you can be less of what you are not. Absence. Presence through absence. You can’t be present. Presence is the quieting, the falling away of distraction and contraction.

So to understand naturalness, we have to understand artificiality. In the Alexander world artificiality has a certain look to it. When I was at the 3rd International Congress for The Alexander Technique in Engelberg, I overheard a conversation. “Do you know anything about the group that’s here?” “Not really, but it looks like they are here because there’s something wrong with their necks.” A good actor once said to me, “I can spot an Alexander teacher from a mile away. And then when I see them sit down, it’s a dead giveaway.”

Marj’s pedagogy was partly predicated on eradicating artificiality within Alexander’s work. She succeeded to some degree, but not entirely. We are almost programmed to hold on to what we like. So when we experience freedom and naturalness, immediately, we try to hold onto it. And it is this holding onto it that builds artificiality. When Alexander saw a person holding on to the newfound freedom they didn’t want to lose, sometimes he’d go over to them, put his hands on their shoulders and jiggle them about, telling them to give it up, to let it go. When Marj saw us all trying to hard, she’d say, “Why don’t you all just have a good slump?”

How can we hold a moonbeam in our hands? We can’t.

Marj perceived this look of artificiality in many Alexander teachers when they were working through Alexander’s procedures. I think she loved those procedures. She taught through them for many, many years. And then one day, she didn’t.

In the late 1960’s, Marj had been invited to Southern Methodist University to teach in their Performing Arts Department. She packed her big blue suitcase, put it in the trunk of her old Plymouth, and drove down to Texas. When she got there, the director of the program told her there were about 50 or so students who wanted to work with her. Clearly, it was going to be impossible for her to give individual lessons. She was forced to work with all these kids in a group. When she got in front of this wild horde of hippies, Marj knew that having them all watch her get someone in and out of a chair was not going to work. So she said, what do all of you like to do? These freewheelers were into juggling and circus arts, into acting, dancing, stage combat, playing music. Marj thought it would be a lot more engaging for them if they watched each other doing what they did. After all, they were performers. And so it began.

What Marj saw was that these kids were getting free and more organized within what they were doing, and it was all looking pretty natural. At the same time it was freeing Marj up too.

It was a beginning, a way of working that she pursued and refined for 27 years with the goal of bringing more naturalness into Alexander’s work, to ridding it of its ritualistic formality, its starchiness, to making it extraordinarily ordinary. She passed this ball onto me, and I caught it and have been running with it for 38 years. That’s 65 years of research. We’re getting somewhere.

Movement

Marj was a gymnast as a kid, and later studied modern dance with some of its pioneers: the Duncan Dancers, Ted Shawn, and Ruth Saint Denis. She rode horses all through her life, well into her 80’s. She loved to move. I remember seeing a photo of Marj in her 20’s seemingly floating in the air, high above the ground, suspended at the top of a high leap, and under her the inscription, The Wild One. In the photo her body was masculine, strong and muscular. Most of us met Marj in her 70’s and 80’s and saw a slender, petite, slow moving, slow speaking, elderly woman with an intense sparkle in her eyes.

After graduating from Alexander’s first teacher training program, Marj actively taught the Alexander Technique for eight years along side of A.R. Alexander, assisting him in Boston and Philadelphia. When Marj’s father died, she moved back to Lincoln, Nebraska to help run her family ranch. For over twenty years Marj rarely taught the Alexander Technique. She lived the life of a rancher. Marj told me that it was only after years of hard, physical labor that she really learned how to bring the technique into her everyday life. Marj was profoundly physical.

This brought something dynamic and practical into Marj’s work. She could see movement. She knew what good coordination looked like, in people and in animals. She trained world famous quarter horses. Alexander too was an avid rider, and began riding as a child. I think this contributed to their subtle ability to lead movement without force.

Marj preferred Alexander’s earlier description of “a true and primary movement in each and every activity,” rather than his later reference to the Primary Control. This inner control was a result of an effortless movement that reorganized the head in relation to the torso, and the head and torso to the limbs. So Marj focused, pretty much exclusively, on this primary movement.

Often she’d say, “It’s a movement.” And it was this movement, and what resulted from it, that we watched six hours a day, day after day, until we knew it inside and out. We saw that it had a particular quality, (ever so delicate), that it initiated from a particular area, (from the relationship between the head and neck), that it had a sequence, (there was a kind of rapid rippling response as a result of this subtle movement initiated between the neck and head), but that this rippling was so rapid, as to look and feel simultaneous with the initiation of this primary movement, hence Marj’s phrase, “the head leads and the whole body immediately follows.” And Alexander’s phrase, “altogether, one after the other.” So we discerned a particular timing inside of the sequencing. It was a bit like when you drop a stone into the calm surface of a pond, and rings form rippling out, one after the other and all of them widening and expanding at the same time. Then this primary movement had particular directionality; the head seemed to float up, rising like a boat resting upon the water as the tide slowly rose. Then we saw that the head had this tiny tipping motion forward, a rotational movement on a horizontal axis that happened at the same time the tide was rising, which we could see was the spine decompressing. As all this was happening we saw an omni-directional expansion of the body as a whole, almost like a sphere inflating in every direction, an overall increase in three dimensional volume, like bread dough rising, the whole body filling into its rightful space. At the same time we could see a gathering, strengthening movement within the expanding movement. It was similar to the dynamics of a vortex funnel, to centripetal and centrifugal force, the same force moving in opposite directions, one up and out and the other in and down. Maybe this was why Marj didn’t use the terms lengthening and widening, because of their two-dimensional connotation. Maybe this is why she spoke of the whole body rather emphasizing the back. She saw and we saw that everything was filling out: the back, the front, and the sides. Something was happening to the whole body in its entirety.

And out of this “true and primary movement”, this “easing up,” this “little bit of nothing,” we witnessed changes not only in the body, but in the person. We saw seemingly opposite qualities working in harmony. As the true and primary movement began to happen we beheld the person before us as stable and mobile, light and substantial, relaxed and ready, peaceful and vigorous, gathered and expansive, soft and powerful, open and focused, unified and articulate.

Essentially, we saw beauty. We saw people unveiled, people wholly themselves, authentic, honest. We saw integrity. It moved us. It moved some of us so much we decided that this was a good way to spend the rest of our lives.

This is Marj’s legacy to us. The gift given…the gift received… the gift given…the gift received…the gift given… from generation to generation.

 

Every Step You Take

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

By Keiko Ishii*

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

Floating Up

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

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

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

Falling Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Direction Unknown

Photo: B. Fertman, Coyote, New Mexico

Photo: B. Fertman, Coyote, New Mexico

from Letters To A Young Student…

How do I know when I am moving in the right direction?

It’s simple questions, like this one, that lead us in the right direction. This is what I mean by a heartfelt question. Questions asked from the heart don’t have intellectual answers. Ultimately a question like yours is about how to live one’s life. Living a life is not intellectual, not even for an intellectual!

So I will reflect on this question, not only for you, but for myself as well.

You are asking this question in the context of the work of F.M. Alexander, so let’s begin with a famous quip of  Alexander’s. “There is no such thing as a right position, but there is such a think as a right direction.”

Let’s first zoom out and get the big picture and then work our way into the center. Alexander implies here that what you want is not a posture, not a place, nothing fixed. So if we feel held, placed, or fixed in any way then we are off. He seems to be saying that it’s about “the way” rather than “the form.” Taoism immediately comes to mind as it did for Aldous Huxley who referred to Alexander as the first Western Taoist. Lao Tzu’s references to “wu-wei”, translated non-doing, effortless effort, or harmonious activity, his reverence for water, the watercourse, his love of the valley rather than the mountain, of space over substance, his praise of softness over hardness, his desire for less rather than for more.

Ironically the best book on Alexander’s work may have been written 2400 years before Alexander was born, and may still be the best guide for pointing us in the “right direction.”  That’s why I’ve spent the last eight years studying and writing my own interpretation of Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching, because my experience tells me this text is the predecessor to Alexander’s work.

I would however go a step further. I would say not only is there no right position, I would say there is also no right direction, no one right direction. Being on “a way” is important. In Japan, where I live half the year, people study such disciplines as Kyudo, the way of the bow, Aikido, the way of harmonizing energy, Sado, the way of tea, Shodo, the way of calligraphy, etc.

But being on a way, doesn’t mean we don’t lose our way because we do. Sometimes we have doubts about the path we are on, whether we are getting anywhere, whether it is the right path for us, whether or not we took a wrong turn somewhere along the way, whether we are ever going to get where we are going.

Perhaps a certain amount of doubt goes with the territory. Alexander asked us not to try to be right, not to try to feel that we are right. Not even to care whether we were right. In fact he’d sometimes begin lessons saying, “Let’s hope something goes wrong.”

When we don’t know for certain where we are, we sometimes begin to see where we are, to experience where we are. We open to what is around us.

Yet still, something in us wants some confirmation that we are moving in a good direction. There must be signs, and if there are, what are they?

Alexander gives us a hint when he says,

“When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing that we are doing is exactly what is being done in nature, where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously.”

What does Alexander mean by “right conditions?” I’m not sure, but maybe it’s similar to Aldo Leopolds’s definition of right. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Perhaps Alexander is telling us that the way we know we are right, is when we are conducting ourselves in accordance with nature, that is, when we are tending toward the preservation of our integrity, stability, and (inner) beauty. And we are out of balance when we are not.

Let’s zoom into the biotic community within us and return to the question of knowing when we are moving in the right direction.

If we are a fractal of our larger ecosystem, then we too would be moving in a right direction when we are tending toward integration, stability, and beauty. I would add the complimentary opposites to these indicators: integration and differentiation, stability and mobility, and beauty and functionality. Complimentary opposites work with one another. Opposing opposites work against one another. My experience tells me that when we are experiencing an integration of complimentary opposites within us, we are moving in the right direction.

When we are feeling unified and articulate.

When we are feeling stable and mobile.

When we are feeling functional and beautiful.

When we are feeling light and substantial.

When we are feeling still as a mountain and moving as a river.

When we are feeling rest and support.

When we are feeling gathered and expansive.

When we are feeling within and without.

When we are feeling open and focused.

When we are feeling connected and independent.

When we are feeling committed and free.

When we are feeling spontaneous and deliberate.

When we are feeling soft and powerful.

When we are feeling relaxed and ready.

When we are feeling near and far.

When we are feeling time and the timeless.

When we are feeling gravity and grace.

When we are feeling self and others.

When we are feeling self and no self.

When we are doing less and receiving more.

If we decide to use the word direction in the strict Alexander sense of the word, and then ask how do we know when we are moving in the right direction, the answer may be hiding in The Use of the Self, one of Alexander’s books I read some 40 years ago. Somewhere, I believe in a footnote, Alexander mentions that a direction is a message we send to a part of the body. If the message is correct, if it is a right direction or order, it will conduct the energy within that part of the body in a way that will result in a general improvement of one’s overall integration.

The metaphor I use to get a picture of this is that of a lock and key. A joint in your body would be a lock, the key, its direction. It’s necessary to examine the lock to find out its structure. Then you can make a key to fit the lock. When the key fits the lock, the lock opens. This opens a door which allows you to enter into your house, your body, where you reside, your abode, your dwelling place, your refuge, your sanctuary.

Eventually, through study, whether that is on your own, or with the help of a teacher or teachers, you come to discover and learn about many of the doors and their locks, and you construct ever more precise keys to these doors which lead you through the gates into the holy city.

You learn, in Alexander’s enigmatic term, how to free into your primary control, or your true and primary movement, or as I sometimes refer to it as, your primary pattern, which is a fluid, moving, organizing pattern.

You learn how to enter into this fluid organization, into this knowing river within us, and it is the river who knows where to go, knows what a right direction is. Our job is to surrender to the river, to let the river take us to a place known to it, forever unknown to us.

Deeper Than Rest

 

From Conflict to Confluence

Every action has within it something you do and something you don’t. If you try to bend and straighten your arm at the same time, you will find yourself unable to move that arm. You won’t be able to bend it or straighten it. What you’ll be doing is using half your effort to bend your arm and the other half of your effort to keep your arm from bending.

Sort of like the American Congress.  Nothing moves.

When you flex your arm, whether you know it or not, your nervous system has “chosen” not to straighten it. Not bad. It sounds like a strange thing to “consciously” choose not to straighten your arm at all, but when you do, your arm is totally free to flex, without the slightest resistance.

When all the muscles are firing away, indiscriminately, in every which direction, in opposing directions, you get over efforting, sometimes to the point of paralysis. You get chaos. You get conflict. You get a body fighting against itself, and therefore losing. Fight against yourself and you will always lose. Any semblance of grace will be gone.

Lao Tzu, the famous Chinese philosopher/pragmatist/mystic had a word for grace. He called it “wu-wei”, often translated as non-doing, effortless effort, or harmonious activity.

Grace happens when everything that is not needed in an action is not engaged, and everything that is needed is. This requires a person with a discriminatory nervous system, a nervous system that knows when to say yes, and when to say no, and not only when, but how, and how much, and where. We have, within us, a potentially brilliant binary system, capable of virtually infinite nuance.

Knowing what not to engage, knowing what to leave be, knowing how, what, where, and when to cease firing, and being able to do so at will, is part of the skill Alexander referred to as inhibition. My guess is that Alexander chose the word inhibition because he wished to place his work within a scientific context, but it turned out that a contemporary of his, Freud, already had domain over that name. How unfortunate for Mr. Alexander, and for all of us who follow in his footsteps! How many people when they hear the word, inhibition, think of an inhibitory postsynaptic potential (IPSP), a kind of synaptic potential that makes a postsynaptic neuron less likely to generate an action potential, the opposite being an inhibitory postsynaptic potential, an excitatory postsynaptic potential (EPSP), which is a synaptic potential that makes a postsynaptic neuron more likely to generate an action potential?

Not many.

Yet, despite the confusion over this word, what Alexander was directing us toward was, I believe, nothing less than grace, both physical, and I dare say, spiritual.

You might look at physical and spiritual grace as two circles. Sometimes, for we kinesthetic types, these two circles overlap. We’re like raindrops touching down upon the surface of a pond. Have you ever seen two ever widening rings as they overlap, each moving toward the other, each becoming the other until, for an instant, they are one?

Below that fluid oneness, still and moving, a peace, deeper than rest.

Peace is not just the absence of war. Peace is what happens when war is absent. It’s the re-forming of swords into plowshares. It’s the conversion of conflict into confluence. 

Energy is freed, now able to be redirected toward nurturance, education, experimentation, service, art, and recreation.

In one word, I’d say that is what Alexander’s work is about.

Revitalization.

Meditations on Physical Life by Bruce Fertman

Chapter III

Oh, I Forgot Something!

from the forthcoming book – The Slightest Shift – Meditations on Physical Life by Bruce Fertman

In Japan, people often have to take their shoes off and put their shoes on, many times a day.  If you have just stepped outside and realized that you forgot something, you can’t just run through the house with your shoes on. No, first your shoes must come off, and quickly. Then upon leaving you must manage, at the same time, to walk and wiggle into your shoes!  This takes many years of practice.  You must get good at this if you want to live in Japan, because people in Japan are on the go, and being late is not good, not good at all.

You would think that everyone would be wearing shoes that are really easy to take off and put on, like clogs, or uggs, but most people don’t. Most people wear shoes with laces, laces you are supposed to tie and then untie. But there is simply no time for such details. This means that the part of the shoe, technically referred to as “the heal collar”, the back rim of the shoe, undergoes severe abuse, especially as everyone tries to get back into their shoes as they are walking, or even running!

Because of this “shoes off” custom in Japan, which I find extremely sensible, you can often see shoes, all in a row, just standing there waiting for their people to come back. It’s easy to anthropomorphize about shoes, because they record how we stand and how we walk, how we put them on, and how we take them off.  Old shoes strike us a very human. In Japan, most of the shoes, standing there next to each other, look pretty sad, wiped out, and beat up.

One day, I saw a particularly unhappy row of shoes.  They looked miserable. I started feeling bad for them. It was as if, for a moment, they were alive and I could feel what their poor bodies felt like, all busted up, battered, and broken.  If they were alive, and if they could talk, and if they had rights, they would all be on their phones calling the domestic violence hotline for battered shoes.

That’s when I had this idea. What if objects could feel?  What if objects had nervous systems? What if objects, every object could feel every little thing we did to them?   To be continued…

第三章

あっ、わすれものしちゃった!

ブルース・ファートマンの近刊予定著書 “The Slightest Shift – Meditations on Physical Life” より抜粋

一日に何度も何度も、靴を脱いだりはいたりしなければならないのは、日本ではよくあることです。ちょうど出がけに忘れ物に気付いたら、靴をはいたままで家の中に走り込むことなどできません。そうです、まず、第一に、靴をぬがなければなりません。それも急いでです。そして、再び家を出る時には、靴の中に足を突っ込みながら歩きださなければならないのです!これができるようになるには、すこしばかりの歳月が必要です。日本に住みたいと思うなら、これが上手にならないといけません。日本では、みんな本当に忙しくてよく動きまわって、おまけに遅刻するのは、絶対にご法度なのです。

もしかしたら、「簡単にはいたり脱いだりできるくつを日本人はみんな使っているんじゃないの?」と思っていませんか?クロッグとか、ソフトブーツとか・・・。ほとんどの人たちは、靴ひもつきの靴をはいているので、しかるべき時にひもを結んだりほどいたりしなければなりません。でも、そんなちまちましたことをしている時間は、はっきりいってありません。靴の、いわゆる「かかと」の部分、つまり足がはいる場所の後ろの淵の部分は、特に、歩きながら、時には小走りの状態で靴をはきなおすときなどは、かなりひどい扱われ方をされます。

この「靴を脱ぎはきする」習慣(私としては、分別があることだと思います)があるために、たくさんの靴が一列に並んで、自分のご主人が戻ってくるの待っている光景によく出くわします。靴は、人に置き換えることができます。なぜなら、靴は、私たちの立ち方、歩き方、靴の履き方、脱ぎ方を記録しているからです。古い靴をみると、老人を思い起こさせます。日本でみかける互いに横並びになって靴の大部分が、憂いを帯び、疲れ果て、くたくたになっているように見えます。

ある日、私はとりわけ悲しい顔で一列に並んだ靴の一団に出会いました。靴達はくたびれきっていましたので、私はかわいそうだなと感じはじめていました。一瞬、私にはまるで靴達が生きているかのように思えて、彼らのかわいそうなからだがめちゃくちゃにされて、ずたずたのボロボロになったときと同じように思えました。本当に靴達に命があり、しゃべることができて、さらには彼らの権利が守られていたならば、全員がぼろぼろ靴専用の家庭内暴力ホットラインに電話をかけまくっていたでしょう。

私には、この出会いのおかげで、思いついたことがあります。

「もし、モノが感じることができたらどうなる?」

「もし、モノに神経組織があったら?」

「もし、すべてのモノが、私たちがする、どんな些細なことでも感じることができたら?」

この続きは次回までのお楽しみに・・・。

Without Thought or Calculation

Photo: B. Fertman

“A welcome breeze suddenly caresses his back. A summer rain. Gradually, his movements are freed from the shackles of his will, and he goes into a light trance which gives his gestures the perfection of conscious, automatic motion, without thought or calculation, and the scythe seems to move of its own accord.  Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will.”

…from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery 

Thank God for good writers.  I often encourage my students to delve into art for the most beautifully articulated examples of physical and spiritual grace.

This passage reminds me of the definition of Sentience, which, basically, is what t I teach.  An athlete might call this, being in the zone, but it can happen to anyone, at anytime, doing anything.  And it can be cultivated.

SentienceThe immediate, accurate, and inclusive perception of reality, received through a harmonious use of the senses, free from the intervention of language, thought, or analysis.