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)
An angel, perhaps. Or dancers with the legs of goats.
No, I didn’t see either. but only, I think, because
I didn’t stay long enough.
Morning coffee in the garden. Mike and I are about to move inside and get our respective days up and running. We pause, and here comes the hummingbird, whom we had been hoping to see. Settling back into our chairs, a pair of songbirds light in the dogwood which wraps the gazebo’s west side. One of them explores the latticework along the screen, a mere 2 feet from us, the gazebo serving as a blind. Its throat trembles with a melody, and Mike says, ‘If you wait, they will come,’ a twist on a line from Field of Dreams: ‘If you build it, he will come.’
And next, three goldfinches. Following their swooping and chirping path above the garden, the moon about to set comes to our attention. Glory be.
Stay long enough today. Practice the Alexander Technique Pause.
Have yourself a walk-about, and travel as if you did indeed have eyes in the back of your head. Notice what this thinking does for your inclusive awareness. Cultivation of one’s kinesphere* is integral to utilizing the Alexander Technique, and OSU’s AT class recently did so with a practice I call ‘Find Your Six.’
Include the six directions in your thinking as you move through the day: Below, Above, Beside, Beside, Before, Behind. Or, you could call the six directions: Earth, Sky, East, West, North, South.
*kinesphere: the sphere around the body easily reached while standing, and that moves with the person’s trace-form in space, (trace-form being the spatial consequences of our movement), as defined by movement theorist, Rudolf Laban.
‘The first stepin learning how to work on yourself is to observe others. Looking at the world around you with Alexandrian eyes is extremely instructive, and pleasurable too …….and if you search carefully you will find admirable instances of good use around you.
I drawenormous inspiration from looking at….great athletes and dancers and musicians, at animals both wild and domesticated…such models of good use are worth imitating.’
Pedro De Alcantara, Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique
Morning on the hill. Feast your eyes on this elegant form. To know a fawn was lightly treading the meadow around our little cabin as Mike and I slept snug inside is to know there’s astonishing beauty all around us, always. The wild world does provide us with inspiration—-
Clothes washed, dried, folded and returned to closets and drawers, all while composing a blog post, writing Pelotonia donation thank you notes, reading student assignments, finishing up today’s class preparations, and making travel plans for a September Pittsburgh trip.
And while a busy day benefits from a few minutes (or more) of Constructive Rest, we cannot remove ourselves from the day’s business for very long. That leaves us with the challenge of being at ease even in the midst of crossing off items on the To-Do List.
This is the very place where the practice of Alexander Technique principles are to be practiced and applied, right in the middle of it all.
Example: I’m standing at the open washing machine, trying to get the last little squidge of detergent out of the bottle. To that end (End-Gaining, indeed!), I catch myself leaning my entire body to the side, along with the over-turned bottle, as if shifting my weight will coax out the last dribbles. I’m uncomfortable. This is when I could mentally slap myself on the wrist, but no. Instead, it’s a rueful laugh, and back to weight on both feet. Now at ease, I can wait for the remains of the detergent bottle to empty.
Learning the Alexander Technique is not about acquiring perfect posture, or flawless Use of Self. No. It’s about observing Self, and either choosing to continue as we are, or to make a new choice for how we wish to respond and react to the present moment.
‘Learning about something, staying with what engages our attention, staying beyond the naming of it, is like the layering of sediment.’
Susan Hand Shetterly, Settled in the Wild: Notes From the Edge of Town
An Alexander Technique class to plan, syllabus to outline, course requirements to determine. With a 14 week semester and two classes each week, I’m hopeful the students and I will have plenty of time for ‘staying beyond the naming of it,’ adding multiple layers to the sediment of our Alexander Technique study and practice.
Shetterly uses ‘staying’ twice in one sentence, so it must be important. I can’t imagine it’s an oversight. In editing my food memoir, I’m keen to locate words or phrases used more than once. Just yesterday, I caught ‘have always figured‘ in two essays. Not ok!
Why twice? Certainly, for emphasis. It’s good advice. When singers were discouraged, or struggling with a new skill, I encouraged them to get through the challenging phase by ‘staying with‘ their daily practice routines and the weekly lesson.
And so this Alexander Technique teacher and her students will stay put. We will show up at the studio door two days a week, learn AT principles, practice AT procedures, ‘stayingwith what engages our attention,’ a primary practice in the Land of AT.
‘There is a certain kind of heaviness and insulation we can grow used to. The body can feel strange when it inhabits the world in a lighter way, when it encounters a form of happiness or fulfillment for which it has no apprenticeship. A lightness and litheness that gives us a sense of ease, movement and potential….‘
David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea
Where are you on the light-to-heavy scale? And what are your preferences? Do you like the feeling of heaviness and insulation? I sure do in the winter time. After last weekend’s snow/ice storm with below-zero temperatures, venturing out required two layers of socks, a hefty pair of boots, lined pants with leggings underneath, multiple pullovers, coat, hat and hood. Completing this ensemble with bulky black gloves, the total effect reminded me of Ralphie’s brother in A Christmas Story, lurching down the sidewalk on his way to school.
I look forward to summer days of warm breezes, arms and legs bare to the sun, when getting out the door requires nothing more than sliding on a pair of flip-flops. Until then, it’s heavy on the insulation and light in spirit!
Car trips, domestic tasks, writing at my desk, reading a book, laughing in a coffee shop with a friend, all these daily activities are experienced differently when giving some attention to my physical self, inviting length and space. In the midst of this cold snap, as we welcome the heaviness and protection of our winter layers, include a light heart and a few Directions for good use. The phrase I found myself using yesterday was, ‘Lengthened, widened, grounded.’
Glenna Batson, faculty member at the 2017 Myrtle Beach Alexander Technique Workshop, encouraged participants to pose questions in place of stating absolutes. As an example, she defined the Technique with the question, ‘How do cognition and the senses become one?’
Questionsshe asks herself in the course of a day: ‘Am I moving towards pleasure or pain?’ ‘What am I doing that’s excessive?’ ‘Who am I blaming for my current condition?’
This asking of questions is a relief from the futile attempt to have all the answers. Asking, instead of stating, allows for ease in my thinking, which then allows for ease in my physical structure as well. We cannot separate the two, mind and body, thought and structure. One of my most-used one-liners when teaching is, ‘As we think, so we move.’ And when we lighten up on our insistence for absolutes, and opt for questioning, mind and body benefit.
Inquiry is at the heart of the Technique, and the asking of questions invites curiosity and playfulness. May your day include a question or two about your Self, that glorious integration of mind and body. And as you inquire, may you be light of heart—
Nephew Evan is graduating high school today. And it is also the day the baby wrens took flight on the hill!
The baby wren, its outsized feet clutching the perfect circle of the bird box opening, lengthens out to look up, down, and all around. ‘Wow. Just wow. There’s a world out here.’ And still those talons hang on to his known universe; the fusty nest of his hatching, complete with bright white fecal sacs.
One of his parents is latched onto the side of the bird box, a novel approach. Typically, they fly directly in, a marvel of precision and speed, bringing the next feeding. But now, as Mike and I watch from our perch inside the cabin, the parent seemingly cajoles the baby into emerging just a bit more. There is a tease of a food offering, but no, the parent flies away, making cries of encouragement.
With a call of surprise? celebration? wonder? the baby bursts out of the box in a flash and makes his inaugural flight into a nearby oak. Cheers all around! And there’s another one! This baby is smaller, but bolder, and quickly takes flight, landing in the meadow grasses. The wrens have fledged! So has the nephew. Congratulations, Evan.
The grand world awaits. Stretch those wings and fly—-
True confession time. I am a teacher of the Alexander Technique, and I have poor use of Self at the office computer. Pulling down the longer I type and read and scroll, I catch myself correcting with what I call ‘The Puff’— jutting out the chest, resulting in an over-arch of the spine. It’s an archaic understanding of what it means to be upright, a hold-over from my pre-Alexander days of life in a body.
In addition,my feet invariably will cross at the ankles and my legs draw back under the chair, applying excess pressure to the toes in contact with the floor. Unaware of this for a length of time, and, voila! Toe cramps.
As a long-time Alexander Technique student, and now teacher, I have not been ‘fixed.’ The AT study and teacher-training merely (and profoundly) provided me with the ‘means-whereby’ to coordinate mind and body in service of ease and poise. And this is an essential distinction for anyone interested in the Technique. We do not study to perfect ourselves, we study and practice to give our selves choices and options.
Quick fix?Nope. Useful tools for the business of being in a body? Yes.