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.
‘Use‘ as defined by FM is: ‘the working of the organism in general, bringing into action the different psycho-physical mechanisms.’
‘Self‘ means your body and your mind. Indivisible.
Example: You are talking to someone, perhaps utilizing hand gestures. Instead of referring to this as the way you talk, it would be more accurate to say, ‘the way you Use Your Self while you are speaking.‘
The Use of the Self, then, is the way I react, with the whole of myself in any given situation.
Explore Use of the Self the next time you are in a conversation. Note your habits as you talk and listen. Do you gesture frequently? How do you indicate you are listening attentively? Do your eyes crinkle up when you smile? Is there a part of you that tenses when in conversation?
No need to change anything. This is the start of being an observer, honing self-awareness, integrating mind with body.
(Mr. Alexander’s book, The Use of the Self, is the one I would recommend you read first, if interested in the Technique as described by its creator. For a general introduction, read Michael Gelb’s, Body Learning.
Bill Conable, Alexander Technique teacher and Ohio State University cello professor for many years, developed Body Mapping. He observed that students moved while playing their cellos according to how they thought they were structured, rather than moving by the anatomical facts of their structure.
His wife, Barbara Conable, also an Alexander Technique teacher, designed a course of study around the body mapping concept, title, ‘What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body.’ She trained teachers, called Andover Educators, to disseminate the information. Barbara was adamant that anyone could benefit from Body Mapping, without the traditional hands-on Alexander Technique instruction. An important insistence, especially in this pandemic year of online learning and teaching.
A Barbara quote: ‘the Body Map is one’s self-representation in one’s own brain. If the Body Map is accurate, movement is good. If the Body Map is inaccurate, movement is inefficient and injury-producing.’ In utilizing Body Mapping, we can alleviate the misery of body mis-use. With an accurate body map, we can then choose movement in keeping with our elegant design.
(A cautionary note: We can all go happily down the rabbit hole of anatomical studies, traveling farther down into the many details, at the expense of our inclusive awareness and whole Self coordination. So. having given your thinking, as we do in Body Mapping, to parts, always return to Mr. Alexander’s discovery, the primary coordination of head and spine. )
I’m listening. Monday, at the OSU Dance Department Meet-and-Greet, faculty member Susan Petry encouraged us to be gentle with ourselves and each other as we negotiate a pandemic semester. And at the closing session of a recent Alexander Technique workshop, Bob Lada, professor at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, stated his intention to teach with a quality of gentleness this fall.
What a lovely word. I commend to you the efficacy of simply speaking it, or thinking it, and then noting the changes—–perhaps to your breath, your head/spine, your clenched toes. Gently as we go—–
*In Disney’s 1942 animated film, Bambi and Flower the Skunk become fast friends. Gentle creatures, both.
Poise and Presence. This is how it’s done. Feast your eyes on such beauty and ease. We have for a teacher this exquisite fawn, who was photographed courtesy of the hill’s wildlife camera. And the image will suffice. All energies and time this week have ended up being dedicated to semester preparations, and so I rely on the natural world to provide you and me with some visual inspiration—–
That’s a phrase from Resmaa Menakem,* author of MyGrandmother’s Hands. Merely speaking these lovely words——–‘a settled body‘——- finds me resting back into the chair, no longer leaning forward as if preparing for a dive into the computer screen.
As participants in a pandemic and citizens of a country rife with systemic racism, Americans are experiencing ‘collective trauma,‘ a phrase used by the Dance Department Chair during a recent online meeting in describing the faculty, staff, and students. I concur.
Now what? For starters, settling the body. And so we shall, bi-weekly in Alexander Technique class. With settled bodies, vitality is more readily available, and action can be taken with conviction, whether it be to make oneself a cold brew, to engage in activism, or to get that course assignment started.
For Settling:Notice the places of contact between you and any surfaces. Right now, that’s my right heel on smooth wood floor, backs of thighs and sit bones on the chair cushion, the left hand palm resting on the keyboard, all fingerpads in contact with the keys. Eyeglasses can be felt on the bridge of my nose.
I’m settled. That was easy.
It isn’t always. And when it isn’t, be kind and patient with yourself. There’s no end-goal to achieve; even a slight shift in perception and kinesthetic experience is enough to calm, and yes, settle.
*Menachem is a social worker/trauma specialist in Minneapolis, MN. His work is based on the premise that racism affects not only the mind, but is embedded in our bodies. The Alexander Technique being a somatic endeavor, AT teachers are meeting in study groups to explore his ideas for healing and change.
(Thanks to Stephan Schweihofer for the use of his watercolor, courtesy of Pixabay)
What’s itgoing to be? A report on last week’s Alexander Technique workshop? (It was wonderful to be with colleagues from around the world. Thank you, Bob Lada, Debi Adams, and Tommy Thompson, organizers/presenters of, In the Company of Support.) Dismay at fellow citizens ignoring the pandemic? Missing summer vacation(s)? Preparing OSU course?
Questions.They are featured in the semester’s first presentation. What do I say about the question mark? ‘We will cultivate a spirit of inquiry, in the fine tradition of Frederick Mathias Alexander.‘ I add that it’s not so much about finding the ‘right’ answer or the ‘perfect’ posture, and more about exploration and discovery.
Well. I sure have lots of questions going into fall semester. Will the students be challenged by online delivery of the course material? Can we build the community which I consider to be essential for the learning of the Alexander Technique? Will OSU remain free from virus infections and subsequent shut-downs, or will we be confined to online-instruction-only within a couple weeks? (That’s the prediction of several colleagues—)
To all who are anticipating the return to school—-teachers, students, parents, and support staff, I send my best wishes for your safety and for the negotiating of this uncharted territory.
*And with a nod to Mrs. Whatsit, that remarkable creature found in Madeleine L’Engle’s, A Wrinkle in Time. If only we could all fly away on Mrs. Whatsit’s back, as did Charles Wallace, Meg and Calvin.