Chairwork

The desire to do something that matters in an enjoyable way seems to be at the core of learning Alexander Technique.  – Jean Louis-Rodrigues in 1982

Today I wanted to write a bit about why “Chairwork” became a classic way of teaching Alexander Technique.  Classically, Alexander Technique was taught to me by having me sit in a chair and stand again over it, over and over and over…for years. The priorities of chair work are to rise from the chair and sit in it again while being effortlessly in balance within any part of the motion.

Now that I am the teacher, I don’t choose to teach using that form as a teaching activity. For me, this was because there are good reasons I discovered later to not repeat anything over and over.  Plus, having the student choose the action was more fun. It matched F.M. Alexander’s motive to make a hobby, art or passion of his possible and to continue learning what he wanted to be doing indefinitely, despite his serious problem issues that came from his own breathing issues and misunderstanding his teachers.

Alexander Technique is an indirect, abstract discipline. It is meant to be applied to whatever you’d like to improve by making anything you’re doing easier to do. For instance, people who are far from being able to look anywhere near “normal” posture can be doing A.T.

One of the misunderstandings that students have with chair work is to mistake the content for the activity, to think Alexander Technique was “sit up straight school.” There is no “ideal posture.” Anyone can do Alexander Technique well, even if they are physically bone-twisted from multiple other injuries or chronic diseases. A.T. teaches how to make happen an intentional response to change oneself. This is usually for the goal of moving effortlessly, but for an actor that priority would be “to be in character.  To do this, we need to use some sort of physical example so it can be shown factually we did as we intended…even if that outward action is lying on the floor to take a break, to solve a maths problem, dig a hole or to gimp across the street while the light is still green.

The classic A.T. teacher’s selection of the action of sitting a chair and standing as the medium for teaching is pretty much arbitrary. It was probably selected from having limited space for teaching originally.  It was preserved as a form for teaching probably because of the tremendous respect of students for their first generation Alexander teachers.

But in fact, any movement will do for an A.T. teaching example. It’s best to choose an action that deals with changing balance. (This is mostly why rising from sitting and sitting in a chair qualifies.) Any action that requires balance to change orientation will exhibit all of the personal strategies involved in movement decision-making on a fundamental and often hidden level of physical coordination. In the tiniest microcosm of movements are the metaphors for the preferences of habit. My favorite staple for teaching using a mundane activity is walking. 

Plus, it’s a useful thing to study sitting in chairs. It’s been scientifically proven that sitting for long periods is hazardous to health. If we can sit actively with poise, grace and stamina, we can do demanding and additional activities with a high degree of repetition without the potential for cumulative injury.

Because of the dangers of the lack of the ability to suspend a goal, having the teacher pick the activity they’re most familiar with is a good thing too. For many reasons, it doesn’t matter what motion that gets chosen as a medium for learning A.T. This is because the action is merely an example, an experiment.

It helps if what you choose as a goal is an activity you don’t care about. This is because then your desire to “attain the goal” won’t be so strong and you’ll be able to practice it without intense desire getting in the way.

But it’s also really useful and fun to pick a very challenging situation for using Alexander Technique. Otherwise, you’ll not know if you will be able to suspend a passionately held goal. You might not know whether or not your intent for excellence may be playing out as you imagine is possible.

Wright or Rong?

In schools these days, kids are being graded depending on if they are wrong or right. Many times this has to do with how well they read the mind of the teacher – not if they responded to the question. In my era of education, it was O.K. to misunderstand the question – it was the response that mattered, not the content of the response. Now students get graded on whether they understood the question itself!

Guess that it’s an advantage to understand the intent of the questioner. Then your boss doesn’t get mad because they told you to do something inarticulately. But where is the creative misunderstanding that generates new solutions?

How can adults imagine they are preparing kids for the future by not allowing creative responses that often come from misunderstanding the nature of the question?

In practicing Alexander Technique, we deliberately make a point of putting aside sorting for wrong and right. This is because a person can only sort for wrong or right based on what they know. Sometimes we call that intention to avoid “right & wrong” as a deliberate act or prevention or suspension. If we do not stop automatic urges to conform and “do the right thing,” then nothing new has a chance to happen.

In using and learning Alexander Technique, exploring and noting what is new that might happen is the point. We want to put off coming to a conclusion before we’ve gotten more information. How much information is enough? Enough to use in some way. What we’re after is to have some new experiences so there are many interesting pieces of perceptual information availble to interpret with. We note the ones that don’t fit our previous experiences more carefully than what is expected. We like to think about what has happened that was unexpected. We would come to conclusions about the new information as a separate action from experimenting.

Generally, the idea is that, so you can have more freedom, you must move. The directions you can move in are somewhere different from the other direction your habit wants to take you when you curl up, twist, collapse or tighten. Sometimes you find that this “somewhere different” is also a habit – so you choose a different response or motion. We’ve learned from Alexander Technique that more room to move is created if the motion starts headfirst – so you can experiment with that.

Given the pervasive quality of sensory distortion that getting used to states of being gives us, we know that a person registers kinetic changes rather than a state of being. This means that as you improve your freedom of motion, you’ll feel a “catch” where you are stopping the motion. So if you feel yourself moving the most from your ribs, then it is probably your ribs that are the most tight and set by your habits. As you undo the habit, something must move – so include whatever has jumped out at you that seems to be stuck with your intention to move again. Eventually you’ll be able to do this more often for yourself with only a thought and a very subtle opening out in response to your intention.

Everyone sets themselves into their habits a little differently – but, as you noticed, there are common themes of misuse. Get familar with your “themes of misuse.” Practice forgiveness. Appreciate the reasons you know about for doing what you do. Acknowledge that in some way, this misuse of yours must have answered a need in the past. It’s still appropriate at some times, nothing is “bad”. Over time a habit can “go bad because repeating anything can swing to extremes. Things get “bad” if you stay stuck in them. To the extent that you can come “unstuck,” then you will not suffer any possibly extreme, painful effects. Of course, as you can move easier in general, then you will be better off over time. Of course, we get better at whatever we practice. So practice what you want to do. Minimize and leave behind what you don’t want.

Try laying down on your back with your knees up on something comfortable and talk yourself through your experiments about freeing motion and see what happens. If you then notice another part of yourself getting stiff – see if you can stop that by including the stiff part of yourself into your slow motion experiments.

Once you start re-distributing your dynamic capacity for movement, the tendency is to try to “keep” yourself in that “better” position. You can hurt yourself doing that, so it’s better to go back into your habit and then move out of it again, doing what you did before… and describe what happens. Then rest before you try it again.

Try taking yourself into an action with that new way of moving as a beginning to start the movement. Think of this new way of unfolding as a way to “launch yourself” into motion. You can tell what happened by the quality of the motion – the sound of your voice – how heavy your feet hit the floor, etc.

So – the next time you’re experimenting like this – ask yourself, “what happened before I noticed this?” …and, “what did I do just before that?” and keep asking the questions…as far back as your awareness was awake enough to sense or remember. Your memory will get better – and, since habits are usually so repetitive, you’ll be able to trace your attention back to what you did, further and further.

The ability to sustain your perceptive attention is key. Leave out ‘trying’ to ‘make’ yourself do something you already have in mind. When you consider it, you don’t really know what will happen as you move toward freedom. You don’t know how far you’ll go, you don’t know what the effects might be. You don’t know what your experimenting is going to tell you – it may be something you’ve never noticed before.You merely can ask questions – move in a new direction – with easy qualities, with new timing, perhaps in new sequences, and then find out what happened and describe it to yourself.