It’s that time of year when the beauty to be found is spare and muted, yet compelling. The bare trees branch out much like the neurons of my brain. This is the earth, and I am in it; I am of it.
The hill gave its gifts as it always does, this time on a blustery day that didn’t know whether to be sun-drenched or cloud-covered. As I collected bittersweet for the Thanksgiving table, the wind went soughing through the white pines. A couple of sweet wrens hopped through the fencerow bushes, their backs tawny smooth.
We gather at the holidays, in part, to push away the darkness of the short days. This year, with concerts cancelled, Open House events not happening, shopping excursions nixed, travel bagged, we are feeling keenly the lack. And then there are all those empty chairs at the table, not only due to everyone staying home, but because loved ones have died.
May the season bring you comforts, as simple as trees etched against clouds. Wishing you well this Thanksgiving——–
A morning walk through the neighborhood. Heading south on Foster, the earth became the one moving beneath me as the sun rose higher in the sky.
The Pacific Coast, somewhere between Los Angeles and Monterey Bay. Crashing waves on rock cliffs, the light bold bright, and an unexpected peace. All the while I had been grieving, these waves were in motion.
Malabar Farm State Park, Christmas Day. Mike and I awake to snow and lots of it. Bundling into our warmest layers, finding the backpacking stove and freeze-dried meals, pouring hot chocolate, and off we go. Well-being suffuses us as we trudge up hills and into valleys, the snow enclosing all in its beauty and quiet.
Erica Bauermeister has this to say in her recent memoir, House Lesson: ‘….if you are stuck in the middle of writing a book or trying to figure out your life, perhaps the best thing you can do is walk.’
‘if you are stuck.’ Yes. Erica and Amelia Nagoski, in Burnout: the Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, encourage movement, allowing the ‘flight or fight’ response to express itself in motion, any kind. I prefer walking. So many memories. So many miles.
And as I said to students yesterday evening, as Alexander Technique practitioners, we get to walk well, to walk knowing that we walk, allowing our heads to move up and away, our spines to lengthen, and our torsos to happily widen.
Wishing for you in the long winter days ahead, a few (or more!) walks-
There is much talk, study and thinking in Alexander Technique Land about balance. An AT course begins with the balance of head-on-spine. The premise of Good Use is that the body can be naturally at ease when the head-spine relationship is balanced. So true.
However, we get off-track when we equate balance with ‘the correct position,’ or with ‘getting it right.’ That’s the fallacy, that we can somehow arrive at perfection.
In terms of life balance, I spent years trying to get that right; the proper mix of work, leisure, personal life and community service. Can’t say I ever achieved balance. Instead, I was busy attempting to control things and keep the chaos at bay.
As John O’Donahue* wrote, ‘we live every moment in the condition of contingency.‘ We prefer to forget and repress this fact, but there are those who got up this morning (maybe you), and something happened that will change their lives from this day on. Balance can be truly precarious.
But here’s what I have learned. Balance is movement. Balance is not a monolithic thing, an arrival at stasis. The daily schedule adhered to, the body accurately mapped, these alone do not give me balance. I must move.
All is in a state of flux, and our flexibility and on-going curiosity about our ever-changing inner and outer worlds is what will provide us the balance we wish for.
* O’Donohue, John. Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World
An Alexander Technique maxim: ‘As we think, so we move.‘
First and foremost, have an accurate body map of the breathing structures. Amazingly, after an extensive search on pixabay for a correct depiction of lung placement in the torso, the only one that did not mislead was this X-ray. Other sketches, drawings, and graphics placed the lungs much lower in the torso. No wonder breathing is a performing artist’s struggle, with our knowledge of breathing so limited, or worse, inaccurate.
Study the X-ray above. Of primary importance to note is the location of upper lung lobes. They are slightly ABOVE the clavicle. What does this mean for Use of Self? For one, there is no need to ‘dig deep‘ for a good breath. The lungs are right there, close to the airways of nose, mouth, throat.
If we think of our ribs as ‘The Ribcage,’ this will also hinder our Use of Self. Cage bars are immobile. Ribs move. Simply drop off ‘cage,‘ and you can say ‘ribs‘ to your heart’s content, with improved Use a result.
Ribs move at joints, 24 of them. Where each rib meets the spine, there is ‘give;’ there is movement. So, too, where ribs meet the sternum. Ribs travel out and up with an inhalation, down and in with an exhalation.
Ohio, today. Mike and I toured Union County covered bridges and out-of-the-way cemeteries. Discovered a bike path unknown to either of us, and enjoyed a long walk alongside soybean fields. A downy woodpecker kept us company.
‘I allow my head to move forward and up, that my spine may lengthen and my torso widen.’
I confess to a conflicted relationship with Mr. Alexander’s Directions. Much of what I find useful in the Technique is to be found in the other two components of an AT practice, that of Sensory Awareness and Inhibition. With the kinesthetic sense invited to join the other five senses, and the person engaged in non-doing (i.e.–merely stopping a habit of use), the best Use of the Self will emerge without any further fuss and bother.
However. In yesterday’s office hours, Yildiz was describing a recent dance technique class, strenuous and demanding. She found herself repeating an AT Direction, ‘My neck is free. My neck is free. My neck is free,’ with no small amount of irony, as her neck was NOT free. She simply continued with the directing, and her neck did indeed become free. I responded, ‘That was a neurological event.’ Yildiz went on to say, ‘Yes! It was not psychological.’
The words were few and the realizations many. Slowly, it was dawning on this long-time practitioner of the Alexander Technique that perhaps Mr. A’s Directions are not about The-Brain-Bossing-the-Body. Yildiz did not need to convince herself that her neck was free, nor have positive feelings about it. She simply gave herself the Direction. It was her intention that mattered.
Directing, in Alexander Technique terms, ‘is not to train the mind or to train the body, but rather to cultivate and refine the connection between what you think and what you do.’ (Tommy Thompson, with Rachel Prabhakar, Touching Presence.)
That’s what Yildiz was up to! Much different than bossing.
On the hill, Saturday, September 26, 2020. The light. The life. The beauty. Pausing in the unspooling of the days to rest here for a moment.
Years ago, attending a meditation workshop, the facilitator asked each participant to name a location nearby where peace could be found. A densely populated historic district, just blocks north of the Ohio State University campus, the streets were packed with cars, jets roared overhead on their landing approaches, and raucous late-night parties were the rule rather than the exception.
Surprisingly, several places were lovingly described—a small shrine next to the Catholic Church with a statue of the Virgin Mary, a certain tree whose canopy sheltered several Victorian homes, a walking path along the Olentangy River.
A farm is not required. Although grateful to Mike’s parents for bequeathing the land to us, I am also a city dweller, and know that a pause can be found anywhere. May you find refreshment and peace today, wherever you may be.
‘Inhibition unlocks the entire process of self-discovery that we call the Alexander Technique. It makes the Technique a far-reaching method of change, since it affects every facet of an individual’s life. It also makes the Technique difficult to learn. As Alexander wrote, to inhibit is to delay the instant gratification of a desire. In this sense inhibition is a form of self-denial; when you inhibit, you deny yourself your wish to react in your habitual manner. Most people find this a struggle, despite the immense rewards inhibition offers. Further, Alexandrian non–doing goes right against our long-established patterns to get results by doing something, and by being seen to be doing something.’
‘Inhibition consists not in doing something new, but in not doing something old.’
The traditional five senses, which we all study in 3rd or 4th grade Health Science classes consist of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. What is missing from this list is the internal sense of our body’s dimensions, position, and movement—kinesthesia.
This 6th sense has been suppressed in western cultures, which is where we find ourselves living. Without reliable kinesthesia, we are unable to perceive potential poor use of the Self, or enjoy the sensory delights of good use.
Do this simple sequence to explore the kinesthetic sense:
Close your eyes. Raise your right arm above your head.
Move your arm to the right and to the left. Wiggle your fingers.
Note that you could tell where your hand was in relation to your body. You knew where it was moving without looking at it. This internal sense is kinesthesia. Receptors on the muscles and joints report your hand to you.
In the study of the Alexander Technique, you are re-educating your kinesthetic sense, and inviting its participation in your daily life and in your artistic endeavors. Mr. A. was fond of saying that we come to the Technique with ‘Debauched Kinesthesia,’ meaning our felt sense of self is faulty, mostly from lack of use. And so we enlarge our kinesthetic awareness in service to optimal Use of the Self.
Here’s to a well-lived day, fully resident in the body, and receiving the world from all six of our senses—–
It’s longer than usual, readers, topping out at 430 words, rather than the typical 250. The opening lecture for an AT course, and often the starter for a workshop or master class, here’s the script:
Who was FM? What did he discover?
FM is shorthand for Frederick Mathias Alexander, born 1869 in Australia, where he grew up loving Shakespeare and the theatre. In his 20’s, he toured with performances of one-man shows, developing recurring vocal problems, including hoarseness and laryngitis. Consultations with medical doctors did not resolve the vocal difficulties. He decided to attempt helping himself. Through his self-observation, he made this discovery—–
There exists a primary coordination of the body which affects the use of the entire Self.
You may ask, ‘And what was this primary coordination?’
Well, let’s have ourselves an expedition, hopefully finding our heads in the process. You see your head when you look in a mirror. You know it’s up there. But do you really know where your head is right now? What I mean is, do you have a ‘felt‘ sense, a kinesthetic sense, of your skull– its size, its position, and its movement?
Lightly tap your head with the pads of your fingers, acquiring a felt sense of the dimension and heft of your skull. Are we in agreement that we find ourselves with skulls? Excellent. I’ll take those nodding heads as a ‘yes.’
Next landmark——-the spine. Like a favorite winding road through the hills, our spines are curvy. Four curves, to be precise: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and the tailbone. Cervical curving slightly in, thoracic curving outward to accommodate the lungs, the lumbar, a deep inward curve providing us with its core of support, and outward again to the tailbone.
As you sit, include in your thinking the structural fact of a multi-curved spine. Notice how this thinking alters your experience of sitting.
Find the meeting place of head and spine, and you have arrived at FM’s discovery—–head/spine is the place of the body’s primary coordination.
Gather your search party! Finger pads assemble, thumbs in front of ears, middle finger pads touching. Travel around the circumference of your head with your hands, arriving at a bump at the back. It’s your occiput, found at the base of your skull. Travel back with your hands to your top teeth, which are the bottom of your skull in the front. Go back and forth a few times with your hands. This is what balances on spine. Between your ears, and behind your nose is where head happily meets spine, if only we can stay out of the way, and not impose Downward Pull on the beautiful design.