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Archive for July, 2008

Yesterday, I got to be a substitute teacher for a class of singers who were part of a workshop that included Alexander Technique. In common with most A.T. teachers, I agree that to be able to use A.T. principles for oneself after only a few lessons is very, very unusual. It usually takes at least ten private lessons to gain an appreciation, and most commonly, up to forty private lessons to be able to use the discipline confidently. This is because of the tricky nature of so many of our habits. My challenge was to present Alexander Technique in an hour and a half!

Got the idea of using the action of nodding “Yes” as an activity to illustrate what the motion of “Forward” is in the Alexander Technique lexicon of – “Forward and Up.”  Saw an additional value in using this action partly because of a study I read about in a book called “The Tipping Point.” In this book, Gladwell surmised that receptivity to an idea (even one at odds with the personal interests of the subject) is more often accepted if someone is told to act and move as if they do agree. I saw this study as proof that external mannerisms connect with internal thought processes, whether people are aware of it or not. It seems to verify that change works from the outside in, as well as from the inside out.

It also made sense to me that doing this head nodding was a useful activity to illustrate how the almost unnoticed “accident” happening in nearly everyone almost of a very slight compensation for balance could act as a way of effortlessly launching any more overt motion or intention. I used the example of how a car’s clutch is used to start the car moving, noting how slipping the clutch will wear out the mechanisms prematurely.

Wouldn’t want to make it difficult for the resident A.T. teacher, having to deal with all this head waggling I had the class doing! However, the experiment seemed to be mostly a success, undoubtedly because it was a very intelligent group who seemed to be quite excellent at paying attention. From the comments they made, it seemed many of them had the ability to abstract A.T. principles from specific examples. They seemed to realize that we were using an overt motion as a beginning training-wheel; as children are first learning to write are taught with large motions of fat chalk before they are expected to gain the digital control of using smaller writing instruments.

One woman in particular had a very impressive and disciplined concentration of thinking ability that I could see would allow her to continue to rapidly grasp A.T. strategies. (I hope she can continue with A.T. study.) She had been instructed, along with the group, that during this “head nodding” motion, she was to watch for the tendency of her body to “come loose” as her head rounded the top of the arc of the apex of a “tipping” point of balance. As she experimented with my help with hands-on, she naturally chunked down the nodding movement of her head into ratchet-like increments, extending the mechanical metaphor of gently letting out the clutch to start motion. I believe that this thinking strategy was an expression of her attention seeking in each increment for the tipping point to occur. What a splendid idea that was!

Working with her, I was immediately struck how a sense of rhythm would be very handy in using one’s power to choose beyond habit. The more choice moments are created during a motion, the more choices become available. This process of incrementally pausing during a motion turns out to be very handy. In fact, pausing to re-decide against habit during motion is codified into A.T. as way to practice it, in a term called “inhibition.”

Selecting a rhythmic moment during a motion to add in the suggestion of “head moves, body follows” would be very useful. Perhaps focusing on teaching a sense of rhythm or timing would make progress learning A.T. faster? Maybe the effect of playing a metronome or music in the background to the pace of a skill would enhance learning ability? Perhaps the crucial moments of choice would be marked by the rhythmic beat instead of be slipping away in a blur of goal attainment.

It also got me thinking of the teaching style of Patrick MacDonald, who used to have the nickname of “The Mechanic.” It was not until I had lessons with MacDonald that I really experienced the meaning of the directions of both forward and up. With his hands on my head and neck, he also directed movement in increments; each motion was very clearly, forward…and then up, forward, then up; like clockwork.

It was fascinating, the common thread between MacDonald’s sophisticated body of hands-on work that had evolved during his whole lifetime and this singer’s first insight of how to use her attention in one of her first few Alexander lessons she was having with me.

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I’m thinking back at what attracted me to Alexander Technique…a very loooong time ago, in 1976. Strangely enough, it wasn’t to improve my terrible twisted posture, which had to have been a very, very depressing sight in someone who was 23 years old.

I’ve assumed that the spiritual reasons that had motivated me to continue learning Alexander Technique probably wouldn’t motivate others…but maybe that’s my erroneous assumption. So that’s why I’m about share my experience here.

I wasn’t thinking about my terrible posture at all when I got to know this guy as boyfriend material. He was fascinating to me because I thought his easy posture and challenging mind meant he could naturally experience changes of consciousness. To me, this indicated the capacity for enlightenment. It’s true that he moved much lighter and easier than I could – he still does. He was studying Alexander Technique; eventually he was invited to join the teacher training class. I often accompanied him to class, and students there used me as a “body” for their practice lessons.

Still now, I often recall how he would reach up to smooth away the crink in my forehead that I didn’t realize I was doing to myself. For not having that line in my forehead thirty years later, I still quite often feel affectionate gratitude towards him, even though we only spent nearly four years with each other. What a wonderful gift to have given someone!

What convinced me to continue to study and train to teach A.T. on my own and what made it fun was the attraction of being able to change my own consciousness. AT didn’t use the coercion of an Iron Will to affect change, but something else. Mysteriously, indirectly this something else made my analytical ego attachments go away and my sense of wholeness would return.

These all-points-awareness experiences were a signature state of my Alexander Technique lessons. The potential in me that they could evoke was very exciting. Sometimes I’d have a creative flash of insight. Along with a new awareness of my body, my perceptual sensitivity would ever so slightly wake up. Sometimes there would be a leap of new awareness and insights that transformed how I thought about myself, my past and my potential power to choose my actions that I had not previously possessed. My motives to keep learning A. T. were now driven by having a means to address a split I saw between my intentions and how I mostly floundered around to bring about change in my own behavior, talents and my ability to learn.

Later, I realized my whole body was a lot happier too. I wasn’t getting worse and more limited as I got older, but I felt easier, freer. My body unwound, as did my worries and my ability to fall asleep whenever I wanted to sleep.

As I applied the Alexander Technique to learning to sing and continued to observe myself and ask questions, it gave me a significant insight about why I kept half my throat was closed. When I was a baby I had been told that I had been born with a very slight birth defect; my ear gristle grew unattached that would have allowed me to wiggle my ears. In the 1950’s doctors thought the remedy of tying off the gristle with a rubber band was preferable to holding down a squirming child and cutting off the tiny offense. Unfortunately, this choice of treatment trained the baby to tense its neck. Without realizing it, I did this to the side of my neck and also shut off half my voice. Keeping my neck tensed as I learned to walk and talk affected how I grew as a toddler. I unknowingly kept doing this extra tension, accommodating and adapting to the posture it dictated to me.

Everything was fine for me as a child, but as my hips became one piece in my late teens at 17, I began to have a mystery problem with my knee. No doctor could tell me why my knee became damaged when there was no external injury; I had to seek out a third opinion before I could even find a doctor in that era who would admit nobody knew why!

As my hip had become one piece, my body was finally forced to assume the posture of a twisting torque. This was dictated by the tension I customarily trained myself to do as a baby on one side of my head-neck. This continuous reaction had been put into place in that three week period of having an irritating rubber band on my ear as a baby!  There was even a picture of me with this squint on my face as a baby that shows what I had trained myself to do in a constant reaction to this irritant. Of course, as a child, my unformed bones were able to accommodate this tension without affect. But as I grew into an adult, there came a time when the structure must reflect the cause; this time was when my hips matured at 17. Then my knee took the brunt of this posture I had trained myself to do – and forgotten about. After 17 years old, my torqued posture actually stopped the blood flowing to my femur at my knee and caused the bone to crumble – and surgery didn’t help. I still had the limp at 23 until I began to study Alexander Technique. If I hadn’t “stumbled” onto Alexander Technique, I have no doubt that by now I would have had to have my knees replaced before my forties!

All this came clear when I talked to someone else younger who had the same rubber-banding-to-crop done to their ear when they were an infant. They had later been informed by their doctor that this barbaric practice was the cause of many back, neck and hip problems for people that only showed up in their late teens.

So you see, that although I was attracted to Alexander Technique for spiritual reasons, it had a significant benefit for the longevity and quality of my health that was not, at first, apparent to me. With my sights set on a spiritual path, I did not really realize the significance of what it meant to have an operating manual for my coordination. From my point of view, the inside state affected my outside state. I never realized that changing one’s external manner of moving could affect the inside in such a powerful way. But there it is.

Sometimes a person doesn’t know what they have to gain from a course of action until they do it and find out for themselves what they are getting from it. Sometimes this finding out takes time, especially when the course of action involves loss.

When you are giving up something, you know well what you are giving up. What you may have to gain can feel like only a promise; an uncertain elusive conviction of faith or a whisper of potential. Often, you can’t have both – you must choose either the old comforts you know well or the leap of faith; because you can’t go in two directions at once. I have experienced that myself leaping into the unknown feels like a complete willingness to risk everything. In my case, the advantage of learning A.T. was a “noh”-brainer!

I’d love to hear about your story of attraction to studying this Alexander  Technique.

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