Today we could think about how we use ourselves when drinking a cup of tea. (Or other beverage you like to drink) When you reach out for the tea, is it your shoulder that is leading you? Suppose instead you pause, think of the space round you, ‘direct yourself’ to reassert or continue a beneficial primary control and allow the hand to lead. As you take the cup to your mouth does your head tilt back unnecessarily? Are you thinking about how you drink a cup of tea, savouring the pleasure of the warm liquid passing through your mouth? Or does tea generally accompany another task, writing, watching TV, chatting. If the latter is true, then experiment with widening the attention so you can give some thought to the action of drinking tea.
‘Stop doing the wrong thing and the right will do itself.’ F.M. Alexander. What could be the wrong thing? Collapsing ourselves, bracing ourselves, trying hard to get things right, narrowing our attention, concerning ourselves only with result, not process. Stop doing our old habits and something will take their place. And it may be quite surprising. The Unknown.
Sleep is the last refuge of our habit. We are unconscious and our old ways will return. Lying down in semi supine before we go to bed may assuage the tensions so we sleep better . A pillow lain against our back may stop us turning if needed.
A question I ask my students is what keeps you upright? Some may say muscles, or legs, or even gravity. Or if they are mature students of Alexander, “The way my head balances on the spine.”
My answer is consciousness. When we faint, when we fall asleep, if we are standing up, we fall over.
So if we want to stand up right let us explore our consciousness, our wakefulness.
When people practice Chi Kung or Tai Chi, there is a sense of energy between the hands, or rising up through body. I wonder if this is the contact force of the earth that is being felt?
As you stand, pay attention to how everything is hanging, suspended. Spine from head, breastbone from head, shoulder girdle from head, arms from shoulder girdle, ribs from the spine and the breast bone, pelvis from ribs and the spine, legs from pelvis. The feet do not hang but interface with the earth. And instead of falling through the earth’s surface, the natural oppositional force to gravity flows up through our very bones through the top of our head. To stand thus is to stand without effort.
When will I not have to think of this anymore? When will I gain a new more constructive habit so I don’t have to think about it? Not thinking is the habit. When you have woken up why do you want to slip back to an unconscious life?
The spine has 7 vertebrae in the neck. The same as a giraffe. They are just bigger in a giraffe. A giraffe has the biggest heart in land animals. I like the giraffe, extraordinary creatures. They don’t know they are extraordinary, they are just busy being a giraffe. I like that too.
When I take a lesson for myself in Alexander, I still find it mysterious, and miraculous. This week my lungs felt like they were being rearranged, where they sat in my thorax; my spine untangled, and oh the joy of having my head held. Finding a way for my arm to move without effort, without pulling or pushing, so nearly there, but the old symptoms of mis-use arriving. They too are a stimulus to which I can inhibit reaction to, allow myself to learn by not doing what I normally do. To not understand with the logical brain but trust my intuitive brain will learn and lead me. A cloud of unknowing.
Arthur Rubenstein tinkling the ivories in his early 90’s was asked ‘why do you still keep practising?’ ‘I think I may be getting somewhere’ he replied.
I was getting my students to play with feeling grounded and coming into their back as they were reading poetry aloud today. The reciter stood to read the poem, standing back to back with another, another knelt at the feet and placed her hands on her feet. Someone fed her the lines of the poem. Beautiful verse flowed out with strong confident voices. I thought this is poetry, this work is poetry. Getting to the heart of things.
This is one we played with, A poem of inhibition. The gap between stimulus and response.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost.
Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep
We cannot control the stimuli that the world throws at us but we can control our reaction to it. Stay present today, create a gap between the stimulus and response, it is our strength, a portal to something other than what we know.
I am out of pain
I did not take pills
Nor stretch myself to unusual shapes
Nor heave great weights in the air
Nor lay sacrificial on an altar to my spine
Nor pray to an unknown god
Nor hypnotise it all away
I simply used my own free will
To consciously change my ways
And learned to walk
Long-limbed in grace
To stand head rising
Rooted in the earth
To sit gently
In the presence of the world.
How many Alexander teachers does it take to change a light bulb? 5 . One to change the light bulb and the other four to say that’s not how we did it in our training…..hahaha!! Maybe we don’t need to change the lightbulb we could pause, say no, think back and up, up, up, and wait till someone else changes it, or decide to enjoy the natural light, do it later and instead have a cup tea, go for a walk, chose an eco light instead of replacing with tungsten bulb, or nit change it until the neck is free enough that the head rises up as it also tips back to see what you are doing, and stop again and redirect so Wrists lengthen away from the fingers, your elbows can lengthen away from the wrists, the shoulders away from elbows, the back away from the shoulders or ……shoulders away from the back, elbows away from the shoulders, wrists away from the elbows, fingers away from the wrists lightbulb away from the fingers…oops!
At a dinner party I was introduced as an Alexander teacher. One if the young men told me he d had lessons at drama school but had stopped rating it when he was crossing the road with his teacher. His teacher had dropped his wallet and had spent so long picking it up he had nearly got run over. But sometimes it is nice to sit in a room watching the natural light from the window change the shadows .
When I ask you to think of he distance between the front of your eyes and the back of the head, the distance between the top if your head sad the roof of your mouth and the distance between the left ear and the right ear ( via the final frontier!) and suggest it may be possible to think of the whole volume of your head, I am asking you to pay attention to the space that is there. We usually pay attention to matter but the distance between atomic particles is in ratio the distance between planets. There is more space than matter. We don’t usually think in this quantum way, we certainly don’t perceive the quantum universe, but experience the more Newtonian vision. But as we do focus on space, on nothing, our brains start to calm down, become closer to the alpha wave, the state of relaxed alertness we need for optimum learning, the place beloved of our system. So add a bit of space to your life. Even if you feel you are stuck in a broom cupboard.
We adjust ourselves to a habitual space. I had a musical theatre student once who was very tall. We were working together in a very small room at the college. I didn’t seem to have much luck getting him going up. The ceiling wasn’t very far from his head. Inspiration came from somewhere or maybe it was Fate. It was a beautiful sunny day and I didn’t want to be stuck in a tiny room as the birds sang and the meagre herb garden for the kitchen perked up. So I took Olly outside…..and it was magical.. I put my hand on his neck and he expanded up up into the blue yonder, no longer unconsciously ducking, or trying to make himself small, his head rose skywards, he breathed fully and came to his full stature. IT was as though he had been trying to fit into a doll’s house.
So we can think of the distance between our head and the ceiling, or we can think of the distance between the top of the head and the blind stars in the sky beyond the ceiling and the roof of a building. We can think of the distance between the back of us and the wall or the space beyond the wall, the distance between the left side of us and the wall to the left, or the space beyond the wall……..the right side of us and the wall or further space beyond the wall to the right, and the distance between us and the wall in front, or the garden beyond the wall. And let the feet spread out onto the floor directed into the foundations of the building, the crust of the earth to the boiling centre of our planet. Imagining beyond the usual limit will take us to the limit. Asked to think of 5 funny things and maybe we will manage 3 things. Asked to think of 3 things maybe we will think of 2…..
I looked at myself in a new mirror I had bought. It was much taller. I looked a midget. I filled the glass before. And I realised that I had got into a habit of looking slightly down to see myself. With this tall mirror I can look straight ahead and stay well up. My tall students will be happy. When I first meet a tall student who is drooping to accommodate my height I often get a low stool and stand on it so I become taller than them briefly. Then I droop towards them. There is an ‘aha’ moment when they realise what it is they are doing and the effect it has. Usually they are doing this to be kind to us shorties. When they stop shrinking and come up to their full height they realise they give us shorter beings space in which to grow, no longer overshadowed by a looming giant. Changing the belief system, changes the use. And we can all go up together.
It is nice to stop and look at the world around. A hiccup, a train is cancelled and I can sit at the cafe with some Rock music from the 50’s playing and eat a sweet potato donut with a filter coffee and out of the window take in the concourse of people flowing up and down the escalators and with some anxiety looking at the train times , or talking on their mobiles or standing guarding suitcases staring into space in their own world. It is like a rest in musical notation. My journey is halted for a short while. Instead of fretting, I can have a rest. Fretting can’t change a thing. but sometimes it’s nice to fret and feel that annoyance and be justified and mutter ‘bloody trains!’ It’s being human. But how marvellous that we can begin to choose our reactions and not be totally bound by them. Freedom!!!
So there it was, I had hurt my spine doing some stretchy exercise too vigourously after my run on the treadmill. Oh, deary, deary me. Surely not. After all these years ! I lie down in semi-supine, I rest, I am mindful of my movement , keeping my attention out….and slowly the back heals again. Then I go for a power walk , to save the back, but can’t resist breaking into a run now and then. ‘if I use my Alexander directions I will be fine’….Back was fine. Knee hurts. Oh dear. Back to the drawing board. Inhibit! Allow. Give the tortoise some space, honour the tortoise!
“Waiting for the lift, will it never come?
waiting for the lift , sitting on my bum
waiting for the lift ,think I’ll phone my mum,
why? ………Cos it rhymes “
The lyrics from a community theatre show touring East London in 1980’s.
Waiting. Waiting for Godot
Waiting for a train.
Often we are rushing forward and won’t wait. We miss the bus, and all fired up from running, we decide to run to the next stop for the next one ….and miss that one too. More exciting and adrenalin fired than just waiting. Calmly. More endorphins. And there’s always the chance we might catch it…I always had a lot of sympathy for the hare in Aesops fables. I know it’s very Alexandrian to stop, wait and allow the bus to arrive. Rushing for a bus and missing it is not sensible, not considering the means whereby, not grown up.,,,very habitual, end gaining and slightly smug. Let’s all be hares today dancing and rushing about for the fun of it, to hell with the consequences…..come and see me tomorrow if your back is sore and be happy . For one day you chose to run like a hare! And maybe that too is being out of habit.
It takes time and space for someone to understand Alexander. We all find our own pace with it, our own journey. It cannot be rushed. Here is an extract from a piece on ‘Working with Actors’
‘Another student, a very good young actor, uses too much effort and tension, and we experimented with him doing less, but still keeping the truth and driving intention. His confusion was that the physical theatre teacher expects him to take on different shapes to accentuate character, and then he has Alexander and singing and voice classes that are teaching him his ‘neutral’, balanced state…how can both be right?
He felt so relieved when I said he could take on any shape at all that’s appropriate for the character, as long as it’s a conscious choice and done with direction. ‘Doesn’t that become untruthful?’ ‘It’s a technique – you have to apparently cheat it- make a fist, now keep the same shape but release some of the tension….’ Then we experimented with this on his Coward character who is frightfully angry at one point. The first time he was making his voice crack with the tension, then he played with keeping the truth but ‘doing’ less – o my goodness, his voice powered out! He broke into a big smile and understood how FM he speak truth. So pleased – I had been aware of his tying himself up in knots for a while, and so good at last for him to express his beliefs and to have his own realisations.’
Today the moon is full, pulling a tide out east, so people are evacuating their homes. There is cold and rain and a light spattering of snow.
I had a wonderful sensation of letting myself find the ground through the suspension system, I directed myself to let go any holding, and went through everything hanging off everything else – the faced dropping forward from the spine, jaw hanging from the head, the spine hanging from the head, the shoulder blades hanging from the collar bones which are hanging from the breast bone which is hanging for the back of the head, the upper arm hanging from the shoulder blade, the lower arm from the upper arm, the hands from the lower arm, the ribs from the spine and from the rib above, the pelvis from the ribs and from the spine, the upper leg from the pelvis, the lower leg from the upper leg, the foot not hanging, but interfacing with the earth from which comes the opposing force to gravity that leads us up.
Until I thought this, I had no idea I had been holding myself up. In letting go to the ground, I was using gravity not trying to oppose it. I have no need to oppose gravity. The earth has that job. The opposing force that ensures I do not sink into the earth. Exactly equal to the force of gravity, is this up direction , a contact force that rises up through our bones. Normal force. We don’t often pay attention to this. We think of gravity attracting us ‘down’ and forget about the Normal Force. Let’s remember it and maybe we will never have to hold ourselves up again!
Resting is really important. And sleep. Space to dream.
What we believe to be true may not be. We believe we are standing up straight and then look in the mirror and find we are tipping forward, or we pulling backwards, sticking our chest up and arching our lower back. An Alexander teacher may reorganise our standing and it feels like we are crouching forward, like a monkey. But we look in the mirror and find we are perfectly upright. Faulty sensory perception Alexander called it.
So don’t assume because you think it is true that it is. Self-righteous anger is the worst. I am always alert to that one. If I feel that way, I best not take any action, let it pass, until I have a cooler outlook and can perceive things from a different perspective. Not always so easy to inhibit. But in my experience essential.
Paying attention. It behoves us to pay attention. We then live presently and can respond fully in the moment to what he world offers us. Our mind likes to chatter away and so often we pay attention to that. Staring back at my thoughts I began to notice how repetitive it is, the same clouds of thought I get involved in – something about work, plans for the future, the journey I am about to make, worry about my husband’s health, my sister’s health, my own health…..To inhibit that attention, that attention to the chatter is freeing. Our sanctuary from such repetitive thinking is to pay attention to the world outside, to consciously receive the world whatever it is offering. There is something new, there is something fresh, there is something to learn from. I am on-line. I am connected. Joy in my heart. Refuge from the relentless churning, my brain’s way of ordering thoughts and memory. I don’t have to be conscious of that. I choose instead to be aware of the light the sounds, the touch and the smells around me. I allow my eyes to sparkle.
Today I noticed two people with a giant gong. They had just finished gonging a homeless man who has been beggng on Old Street for some weeks, mostly lying propped up in a sleeping bag. One was taking photos. He waved them away and they were moving off as I came by. When we keep our eyes open and receive the world it is often surprising what we find, and not what we expected!
Walking deliberately slowly in a City is unusual. It is not idling, meandering, strolling, spending time looking in shop windows, a distracted sort of walk. No, it’s having a clear intention and going there, but going at a slow pace. It gives time and space to the action. Time for the muscles to lengthen, to release, for the heart rate to slow, the breath to slow. To be aware of the action of walking. Have fun. Try it out.
Another way of walking is to imagine the destination coming towards you. You can watch the trees and walls go by, as if you are not doing anything but being carried along on a travellator, the event, the destination coming towards you. Try it out. It stops the rush. The future is coming. The end of this piece of writing will arrive without my having to do anything. My corridor outside my front door is good to practice this in. I call it a space time continuum. My nod to Star Trek TNG.
On the train I heard a young woman on her phone. She had left the speaker phone on without realising so her whole conversation was laid bare. She was laid bare. Her father was in hospital and she was going down to see him. She had cried last night. This morning he had texted her to say he had got up and had some breakfast. But she told her friend life will never be the same. He can’t walk – maybe a step or two. Her brother was going to meet her near Worthing and they were going straight to their Nan’s house and take stock, and see what there was to do. Her friend was supportive and sympathetic. Later I heard her again on the replacement bus service. ‘Tom can you pick me up from Brighton, I am on a bus and it isn’t going to Worthing.’ There was panic there, and I thought how public events like disrupted train services crash in on personal events like death and illness. And I knew there was nothing I could do except witness this young woman’s distress.
It reminded me of my travelling down to see my mother who had almost died from septicaemia one Easter. I was 20 and experienced a curious separation of living what was happening, the dread of it, and observing what was happening at the same time. Witnessing without interfering. Like I do with my habits. Oh there am I doing that again. Acceptance and not trying to change anything. That’s the beginning of the change.
I silently wished the young woman and her father well.
Sometimes things don’t work. Last night a burger bar nearby was on fire. It affected al the electricity supply to our block of flats so the lights started dipping until everything was off. There was nothing to do without the electricity. So we went to bed. Today the lifts were still not working. Going down is not so bad –I remembered to think of the space above me and that it was the stairs that were going down, not me. Going up is not so easy. This was a great time for me to put in my ‘stepping into cardboard boxes’ trick. I used to teach this to my drama students. I think along with the magic lemon it is the thing they remember most about Alexander lessons and still use years after I taught them.
It is very simple: Find a cardboard box or two – or you could use plastic wash basins – something that is easy to step into. And you walk around stepping in and out of the cardboard boxes, thinking your directions, and keeping your balance best you can. It is easy, if a strange Monty Python thing to do. Then you go the flight of stairs and as you go to place your foot onto the step and lever yourself up, inhibit! And imagine instead you are stepping INTO it, just as you did when stepping into the boxes. You will find that in comparison to your usual heaving of self up stairs, you will tread lightly and easily, the emphasis of support being on the back leg, rather than the front. Its like marching on the spot, except you are travelling up.
I managed my 19 flights of stairs in relative comfort.
January 6th 2017
Epiphany. I asked an esteemed colleague this morning what his take was on Inhibition and he thought a lot about this before he said. ‘Seeing, A lot of people think it is a doing. Or it is suppression. But it’s nothing of the sort……It takes a long time to understand inhibition and it isn’t understood through the intellect. .‘ Of course that is a very short piece of his answer. But that is the gist of what I remember. I have lessons myself. I go to a master teacher and lie on his table and sit on his chair and enjoy the Mystery of it all. I enjoy the journey to his teaching space – the tube journey, the walk to his house, knowing it is a journey to the Self, And our encounter together, is an encounter with the absolute. Beyond the pleasantries. He teaches me things and I don’t remember it all. I sense my physical body being taken to a new place. My head tilt disappears for a moment, The left hip joint is rotated which has an effect up the spine to my neck…all these kinaesthetic observations.
And I have no idea how this is happening. Why is he tapping my shoulder? How pleasant to have my head held. I feel I know less and less about the work. He takes me off the table and I stand in front of the chair. Tiny precise monkey ensures, ‘Not the legs pushing, but knees forward and let head lead you up.’ I inhibit something. I hope my wish to obey these instructions will happen but I have no idea if it will and whether I am going about this the best way. I think of my own spatial direction , the shape of the air changing to stop me doing anything. Is this ego-less. Or am I wanting to please the teacher, to get it right to be a star student? I feel well oiled. Not tall or light but easier, that left hip moving more easily and I feel at peace. Practice monkey he says. This new easy movement stays with me as I journey home. I am tired. I eat some lunch, I prepare my talk for the 6 people coming over tonight for a talk on inhibition. It goes well.
January 5th 2017
The Magic Lemon.
I learnt about the Magic Lemon from Paul Hobbs in a Quantum Reading workshop I attended way back in 1990’s. He asked us where we were thinking from. Some of us pointed to behind our eyes, or our temples; I was one of those who pointed to our heart. He then asked us to imagine we were holding a lemon cupped in our hands. We imagined the colour, the texture, the smell of the lemon zest, and then he asked us to take it up and place it on the crown of our head, end-on, where a wizard’s cap would be. It was stuck to the top of our heads with magic superglue, so we could take our arms down and it would stay there. The next step was to let our personal thinking space rise up to the lemon. Wow! It certainly produced an effect of seeing the world from a different perspective and improved our reading skills. But as an Alexander Teacher the thing I noticed most was how everyone’s alignment had improved – their head neck and back were in a good dynamic and all were sitting up. (Maybe that was an added reason as to why we were able to read more clearly…?)
I have been teaching this to good effect with my students ever since. It’s particularly helpful for actors and artists – those who are kinesthetic and visual thinkers. Alexander’s traditional directions to let the neck be free to let the head rise, to let the back lengthen and widen and the knees go forward and away are not so easy for these thinkers. They are verbal, auditory commands. Often people will try to do these directions pushing the head up from their spine. When we are thinking from the lemon, we are already up. There is no ‘up’ to go to and no strain. Instead of a puppet, we have become the puppet master, moving and thinking from a higher consciousness, looking down on ourselves and the world.
January 4th 2017
To me Rothko’s paintings are a portal to the Other, the human potential, before action is made manifest. the Unknown, the Mystery, devoid of the human ego. When we inhibit our reaction to a stimulus we create this portal for ourselves, the gap between actions, between stimulus and response, timeless and immense, a momentary pause before taking up the neural pathways again , reclothing ourselves again with the garments of our known self, hopefully allowing new neural pathways to guide us down a different road, the unfamiliar. And in that gap perhaps the goal our aim or intention is changed , the first no longer important , the ambition gone, so we can raise our arm or not, or speak instead clearly and strongly. That’s all Alexander wanted – to speak without losing his voice. He discovered in this simple way of inhibiting his reaction to speaking, a deep philosophy of consciousness, of touching the unmanifest, the unconstructed self.
January 3rd 2017
Nothing. Sometimes it is good to do nothing. To take no action.
January 2nd 2017
Watching an actress this evening I noticed however excellent her performance, and no matter her character, her neck stuck out from her shoulders, misaligned with the rest of her spine. I wanted to write to her and offer her lessons in the Technique. It is a body map I too had. My neck ended just above my shoulder blades and then there was this thing called the head and neck that were stuck together. I dropped neck to look down. Sometimes I sense this old body map returning. I remember the joint between my ears, the atlanto-occipital joint where my skull rests on the first vertebrae. I look up to the ceiling or the sky from that joint thinking of the length up my spine up from the sacrum and allow my jaw to open. It’s so opening . I get taller. I allow the top and back of my head to rise up and over to meet the jaw. I come to my full height and find the unity of my spine .
January 1st 2017
Lie down in semi supine everyday for 10 -20 minutes. It’s easy. Like some people need to watch East Enders or listen to the Archers every day, it become s a pattern, a pleasure and it doesn’t stop the rest of your life, but perhaps enhances it. It’s certainly more useful that EastEnders in my opinion. Maybe not The Archers….it’s what I was thinking about today. Lie down, refresh, restore. Lie if you’re a musician you play your instrument every day, and it feels weird if yo don’t. Something like that. So we can lie down everyday and have a meeting with ourselves. Practice playing ourselves. Paying attention to the Self. It doesn’t hurt. It helps the spine. It will change your life. If you haven’t lain down every day, then lying down is a change of life. Its not so easy to do this when travelling, or in hotel rooms that aren’t very big. It does need some space. But not a huge amount.
So there’s a resolution for you at the beginning of the year, lie down.