Changing Breath

Lately because I’ve been helping a saxophone player change the way he uses his breathing,  I’ve been noticing how people breath when they talk. Often when someone has a problem during a specialized task, they do a less exaggerated version of the same habit when they are doing less challenging activities, such as talking or walking. This is why your Alexander Technique teachers makes such a big deal about little quirks.

Noticing other people can be used as a means of remembering that NOW! is the best time to practice what you do know how to do for yourself. As humans, we have this tendency to notice what is going on outside of ourselves, without realizing that this moment is an opportunity to make changes for ourselves.

Changing a breathing pattern is actually a very tricky habit to influence.  Ideally, speaking directly after taking a breath, at the top of a breath allows a singer to sing longer, increases resonance, and has many more advantages. In common with my students now, at first I could not even get myself to speak using a full breath intentionally! Motivated by intending to appear less intimidating, I used to limit my own voice by letting out most of my breath and then beginning to make a sound – every time. Having done what I’m advising, I know how tricky and challenging it is to change breathing patterns.

One comfort is that nobody notices a person who is practicing such a different way of speaking, even though it takes a big effort for you to change at first. They do notice increased resonance, the lack of a sense of urgency in your voice, and other interesting improvements. But they have no idea what you’re doing to bring the change about, (so it can remain your little secret.)

For me personally, a habit that was very challenging to learn to undo was closing down the back of my throat on one side, which shut off part of my voice. I had trained myself to shut this part of my voice pre-verbally due to having a rubber band put on my ear as a medical procedure as an infant. So, the reason that habit was tricky to learn to undo was that I used my voice all the time to shape words, so I was constantly reinforcing the wrong thing I did not want to do every time I made a sound.

This gives some insight into the fundamental level of change that is possible using Alexander Technique.

If you had a tool this powerful, what habits about yourself would you change?

What very challenging and persistent habit have you changed and how did you do it?

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Attractiveness

Learning A.T.  made an interesting change in my sense of my own attractiveness. At the time this happened for me, I was attending daily teacher-training classes. I was learning to see postural expressions of qualities of thought and mannerisms of character in other people. I suddenly realized that others had been seeing and responding to my own postural attitudes too!

Even if they didn’t know what my body language meant in as much detail as I was learning, I had to admit that my own body language expressed who I was on the inside of me – not just my external appearance. As I realized that people were probably responding to what was expressed inside my internal character and sense of self, (as well as the fact that I was a tall, young woman at that time,) my whole picture of attracting attention from men I needed to consider in this new light. Even if these guys who wolf-whistled at me were not conscious how they could discern this information of attractiveness, that didn’t matter. I had to give them credit, whether they knew exactly what it was about me that was attracting their attention or not. I realized they were noticing how I was acting as I walked down the street – where my attention went, how I walked and moved. As I understood that, I began to be able to “turn it off” and on – so that when I did not want to attract attention, I could control being available. The broadcasting of attractiveness and charisma can be deliberate, not accidental.

I don’t think that most men really know what it’s like to get unwanted sexual attention from strangers. Perhaps if a guy is hetrosexual and finds himself getting sexual attention from homosexual men, it is a bit similar. Pretty much, every young woman must figure out how to deal with getting this attention from an early age, and it’s difficult. My strategy was to wear baggy clothes and hide as best I could, but it did not really work. Knowing more about what and how my body language projects the way I am inside made a big change for me concerning this challenge. Getting this sexual attention that I was forced to deal with because of being born in the culture was difficult for me. But with this new insight, it suddenly became an insight. I realized that attention from strangers was happening because of how I moved, how I paid attention, instead of it being an accident of birth and physical appearance. For me at the time, it was quite a turnaround.

Respecting Patrick MacDonald’s Legacy

I’ve been lucky to have experienced the late Alexander teacher Patrick MacDonald’s work first-hand a number of times. It was because of my having been connected to (and later a trainee of the teacher-training class of ) Ottiwell/Pincas where MacDonald was a visiting master teacher.  MacDonald was the one to personally determine that I was “ready” for the hands-on part of my training. Before MacDonald, I never knew what forward and up was until I got to experience the rachet-like precision in MacDonald’s ability to direct for me. The presence in his awareness was a pleasure; it inspired complete trust from me.

Possibly because my significant coordination problems began before I learned to walk, I had little resistance to following MacDonald’s clearly indicated Directions, even before I became an A.T. trainee. In my first lesson with MacDonald, (probably my fifth A.T. lesson!) he “took me” much farther than I probably should have been taken. He probably assumed my experience level to be much higher than it was, because of my ability to follow his lead. His mistake was that this ability of mine to follow his Direction reflected in my ability to maintain on my own what he could show me. Sustaining a new coordination beyond ten or fifteen minutes was a skill which I did not possess at the time.

But at the time, I did not want to be the one to set him straight! I wanted to kick out all the stops and go for getting what I could about A.T. on the innate insight level. I had experienced enlightenment before and I had complete faith that further enlightenment was possible.  I considered A.T. to be another form of enlightenment at the time. (As a working description of A.T. for a beginner such as I was, “a form of enlightenment” was not too bad of a description.)

I managed to walk out the door of the hotel after this fifth lesson of mine with Patrick, and as soon as I looked down to the descend the steps – I fell down, unable to balance at all! As I sat there, I reluctantly realized that I had to allow my “old ways” to reassert themselves if I was going to get up again – which of course I didn’t want to do because it seemed as if I was “wasting” the lesson. I had intended to go for a really long walk to see how long I could sustain this new way of moving I’d just been doing for the last 45 min. with this amazing master teacher.

If a Danish teacher had not been there to frog-march me to my car, figuring out how to walk after that confusion would have taken me quite a bit longer…but I probably would have gone for that walk even if I had to crawl down the stairs. Perhaps it was better to have help, I might have hurt myself.  I later decided that perhaps MacDonald removed my coping compensations which was how I had learned to walk as a toddler.  But at 25 years old as I was at the time, a person feels as if they can’t hurt themselves.

Fortunately, I knew enough about what had happened to willingly welcome the strangeness of that paradoxical state. I really wanted to rely on my ability to Direct myself, dammit! I had gotten such a clear experience of what Direction was, I just knew I could sustain it.

Later I realized that I had to write off my experience with MacDonald as being a case of what had happened to me in almost every skill I had ever learned:  I would get a tantalizing flash of inspired genius, and then I would have to traverse the long road like everyone else to actually learn the skill from scratch. At the time I had no idea about how long a way I needed to come, as my misuse was congenital and had been set into place when I learned to walk oddly as a baby while tensing the side of my neck from a medical procedure.

Being able to welcome that experience of being taken “too far” didn’t do much to help me sustain it. It really wasn’t until I stumbled into Marj Barstow’s style of teaching that I was able to sustain my tolerance for such unfamiliarity as I could willingly imagine – and do something with my own sense of knowledge that worked for me to continue learning indefinitely without the help of a teacher.

My own later understanding of the MacDonald style is this: In any art form, (and each style of teaching A.T. is an art form) there are a number of objectives that evolve. In classical AT style, (besides being in concert with FM’s principles,) one of the objectives are to prevent a pupil from moving down on themselves for the period of time the lesson lasts.  The idea is that if a pupil can surrender their own sense of “self-control” and allow the teacher to assume control, the teacher can be trusted to fittingly demonstrate what is desired to be emulated by the student. This is motivated from intending the student to directly experience it in their own coordination first-hand. Then with enough constructive kinesthetic experiences, by the time a student learns to Direct for themselves, (not willfully do them,) the experience of moving easier that they had with the teacher will work a state of “do-less-ness” in the student. That’s how the process from 1.) teacher guided to 2.) student self-initiated movement was meant to be practiced via that style.

This plan didn’t work for me, but at the time I thought it was my own shortcoming and perhaps I merely wasn’t done yet on that plan when I ran into Marj Barstow and learned that language was an important piece of my learning process that needed to be satisfied.

Then, I remembered that these objectives were evolved for a somewhat Victorian and British sensibility of culture and educational style, not an American, Canadian, Australian, etc. Times change and cultures are very different. Just because we all speak a version of English gives the mistaken meaning that we are also able to surpass our cultural conditioning of how meaning and conclusions are arrived at.

In fact, MacDonald style does all this in superb ways – and these “strange” antics you see in his style of working are demonstrations of how primary control can be maintained even under odd circumstances of movements that look as if they might hurt. In a sense the teacher is “proving” to the student that they can do extraordinary, inconceivable movements. I remember one MacDonald-trained woman showing me how I could step up onto the seat of a chair without effort…with my “weaker” leg leading the step. That I could do this was unbelievable and “blew my mind” at the time.

After some experience, I believe this ability to Direct oneself works in relationship to how far you have come and in measure of your willingness to welcome and sustain unfamiliarity. Directing oneself clearly is not based on an absolute state of being entirely free or possessing “good use”. This is why someone who is twistedly shaped can “use themselves well.” This is why MacDonald could complain about how bad his own use was, and why he also could make the mistake of taking me “too far.”  Of course, one’s own standards also rise in relationship to one’s own inability to surpass one’s own standards.

This ability to surpass one’s own conditioning and refuse to habitually react is something which I have found to be quite rare out of the A.T. teaching room, even for those trained in A.T. People would rather be outraged at others for inciting or “making” a reaction happen in them …rather than suspend and reflect that their own reactions have valuable information to offer them personally. June Chadwick’s enlightened attitude I see to be a reflection of the spirit of A.T.

The other issue is one of dominant senses. I suspect the classical A.T. approach which MacDonald people have preserved appeals to a “research”  sensibility. The pieces of information in the MacDonald style are assumed to arrive and make sense gradually as the habit stops its control bit by bit. That was not true for me personally. I would become a sponge if I trusted the source, completely soaking up the information whole, without question, and then deal with the issue of figuring out what to do with it later.

For me, my experience of the MacDonald style was that it was as if a house is being built and the pieces of the construction were arriving haphazardly; then once enough essential pieces are present, they could suddenly “congeal” in a sort of insight that here was a “house” that was being built – by finally being able to perceive what all the pieces were. In a sense, MacDonald builds from the ground up new perceptual assumptions that do not need to have linguistic names.

It turned out that I’m naturally a conceptual learner who must integrate language. This may be partly why, (no matter how innately I could surrender my habit,) the MacDonald model worked for me in a limited way. Learning works much easier and more completely for me to have the idea of a “house” structure in place first in the form of any structure that could be removed later (like training wheels.) Otherwise, I have nowhere to put the (kinesthetic) information that arrives out of sequence. No matter how much information arrived, it couldn’t mean anything to me other than in that specific, literal action. I could not hold it in my awareness in the moment using the process of A.T. Partly this was because there was no process in the way A.T. was taught in that era – there is only present-tense awareness in the interaction between student and teacher. The way it was taught in that style was designed to completely bypass language and respond directly to what was happening in the moment, applied in a codified movement actions between teacher and student. I couldn’t apply this example to other movements except by having a lesson using those movements specifically, (in spite of being quite an abstract thinker by nature.) In a sense, I was at the mercy of a “literal” sort of thinking style that relied on rote animal training, rather than an abstract ability to think for myself…which I knew I had, but was deliberately being put aside during A.T. lessons.

For me it was the paradox of “non-doing” that confused me. In A.T. we’re told that this inability to duplicate the results of lessons is a result of “trying to do” (which I knew wasn’t the case with me, because I could readily suspend my “doing” during a lesson with an innate ability I possessed before I knew what A.T. lessons were.) But I knew there was something missing here for me in how A.T. was being taught, so I was intrigued enough to stick around to figure this out. Mystique was the attraction that kept me interested. The answer (for me) came when Marj Barstow taught that non-doing had a very different quality of action with specific, identifiable characteristics that were very different from habitual back-and-down doing. After Marj Barstow’s point of view, feeling was something that was useful and sometimes offered valuable insight about your suspended goal – once you had, in fact,  made a head/body move in a factually new direction as you clearly intended.

I still believe teaching any skill is a “different strokes for different folks” sort of thing. There may be as many learning styles as there are learners and teachers. There is no doubt of the absolute value of the MacDonald style in itself for others, even given its limitations for application to my own learning style. The preservationists deliver that amazing, tantalizing flash of inspired genius that motivates students to carry through the long road of learning – no matter how long it takes. I gained quite a bit from my education in it and I still admire it as a form. The field of A.T. needs it’s preservationists as well as it’s innovators.

What Attracted Me To Alexander Technique

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.

Noting My Style of Writing Down Ideas

Since I’ve been spending time with an eight year old lately, I’m beginning to think about how I would teach her age group Alexander Technique.

Since I’m writing my ideas that follow on the fly from here on out to get them down, I’m going to apologize in advance for the disconnected way these ideas may be presented. The first part of this is far and away my philosophy of why chose certain means to teach more flexible mannerisms of choosing to respond. My own innate way of organizing my thoughts for the purpose of communicating to others requires me to go back and compensate for the time of arrival of my ideas, even choosing which sentence follows the next sentence. My ideas innately usually do not follow a presentation sequence that makes sense to other people when these ideas first emerge, so this may be a little confusing to read. I will do some editing to group my ideas together, but it may not be enough. Please tell me your impressions.

Addiction and Emotional Reactions

When I first began to study AT, I was living with a person who was in Frank Ottiwell and Giora Pinkas’ first training course named Kenneth Feld. Kenny used to live in Chicago and had lessons with Goddard Binkley; Kenny told me that Binkley dealt with addiction, anger, etc. by encouraging students to shout reactive phrases while he worked on them with A.T. I assumed it was so the student could refuse the reaction while they were doing the activity, but later I realized that doing this uncovered assumptions for the student about emotion at an alarming rate! At the time, I thought that Binkley wanted his students to shout the words emphatically without the associative reaction behind them, but I wasn’t sure. So I decided to try this some time.

When another visiting AT teacher came out to Bolinas to visit us, all of decided to try this idea out. The way it transformed the point of view of the emotion sort of sucked the obcession out of the act and made the shouting devoid of the usual emotional motives, content or certainty of righteousness in a way that must be experienced to really be believed.

Since the comments shouted out in this manner were entirely void of the stimulus for becoming angered, hurt, self righteous or defensive, many questions from experimenting in this way followed.

What am I up to here and how does it work?

I seem to be making a jump into reacting despite there being no external stimulus; when does this jump happen and what is going on with my wanting to do it?

Is there an assumption I am making underneath the sudden need for the reaction?

Do I know where, the history or why this particular reaction come from in me? Do I need to know the history first in order to trace it back to when it happens and sense what is going on with me there at that moment?
It was also sort of a scary experiment; freeing up the expression of reactive anger, for instance, made a person seem to those witnessing as really, really crazy and unpredictable and actually angry. As in acting, there were many other things going on that nobody could guess at, proving that there is no way to determine projections without checking with the person who is their own only authority on the subject. You can often witness how most people have some part of their reactions under control, even though the anger is poking through uncontrolled. Take away that degree of control by providing ways to free expression as Alexander Technique provides, and the power of the raw emotion comes out first.

This practice allowed me to “show my anger” when I had deemed it to be effective for a certain communicative purpose without being trapped by the loop of the emotion itself shutting down my abilities to problem solve and observe on the fly. I was now also able to drop the anger at a moment’s choice.

Class on A.T. in Kamuela, Hawaii starts Sep.24-Oct.8,’07!

This old guy in the picture here is the guy who invented Alexander Technique. Mr. Frederick Matthias Alexander was his “Nicholas name.” Merely the initials “F. M.” was his nickname.

In these past few weeks, I managed to make it down to Hilo, (about an hour and a half drive) to trade work with the only other Alexander Technique teacher I have met on the Big Island named Michael Joeseph. His work with me was very much like Patrick MacDonald’s work (MacDonald was one of the last students of Alexander’s, he was nicknamed “the mechanic.”) Michael Joeseph had never actually met either character, having been trained after the death of both of them, but one of Michael’s other talents was in mechanical engineering. Because of this, it is very curious to me to experience how the quality of Alexander’s work is being passed on so accurately.

I’m happy to announce that near the end of the month starting on Monday evening Sept. 24th at 6pm and continuing on Thurs at the same time and place, I am teaching ten twice weekly classes on Alexander’s principles through www.waimeaeducation.com The classes are a real deal if you have never studied Alexander Technique before for reasons of the cost of private lessons which cost from $65 – $100 each; these introductory classes are only $10. each! Because Alexander Technique takes some time to learn, required attendance is for at least three weeks of class, (six classes.) So for less of the cost of one private lesson, you can get six classes in Alexander Technique! What a deal!

If you have any questions about the classes and ended up here, please feel free to ask your questions in the comments section. I’ll come up with some answers, we can put them together and we’ll see if they work for you!