Poise and Presence – Life with the Alexander Technique
This blog posts once-weekly on topics related to the intersection between daily life and the practice of the Alexander Technique. Join in the exploration of Mr. Alexander's principles and a look into their everyday use.
Recovery from Monday’s eye surgery has been slow, thanks to a cold virus exacerbating irritated and swollen eyes, and an allergic reaction to antibiotic ointment. The itch so itchy it’s painful? Here’s what I did to get through the week. Alexander Technique students, you know the Procedures—
First, observe habitual response. This week’s responses were a minute-by-minute attempt to get away from unpleasant sensations. Eye drops, dabbing and rubbing of eyes, and a good dose of catastrophic thinking—‘This will never end! I’ll be in misery the rest of my days.’
Having observed responses, Pause. Or Inhibit, if you prefer Mr. Alexander’s terminology. How does one pause when hurting? Watch the discomfort with a dispassionate mind. ‘Oh, yes, there’s a streak of pain along the outer rim of left eye.‘ Noted. Mere observation is often enough to restore a bit of ease and comfort, and so it was for me and my eyes.
Continue with Directions. Having acknowledged that all my attention was with one detail of my physical experience, i.e.–unhappy eyes, I chose a prompt, often ‘Whole body, whole world.‘ With inclusive awareness, I noticed the space around my body, the room in which I was writhing, and the garden beyond, where the stargazer lilies were blooming in profusion.
On several occasions, with this practice, I was able to rest deeply and even to fall asleep. And other times my eyes just itched more, and it was on to the eye drops. Keep in mind, Alexander Technique procedures are not about fixing what’s wrong, but doing what we can to integrate mind with body, in service of greater ease and optimal function.
No need to wait for agony. Perhaps there’s a slight crick in your neck from reading this post. Practice the principles!
The annual Drama of the Fledglings is underway. This past weekend, it was a tree swallow soon to fledge, but not quite ready. Her beak opened to bright orange-yellow on each fly-by of the parents. Landing on the box, the pair peered over the edge, chirping to their offspring, offering encouragement, but nothing doing.
On the porch for an afternoon of cloud watching, I periodically checked on the swallow’s progress through the binoculars. She began to extend farther out of the box opening, her neck lengthening (yes, Alexander Technique students, birds do it, too!) looking up, down, and all around. Still in the nesting box, however.
End-gaining was not in evidence on the hill. Mr. Alexander would be pleased. He observed in himself and his students the common habit of gaining an end, i.e.–striving to achieve a goal, by disregarding how we use ourselves to get there, and mindlessly pushing to complete a task. He was adamant that instead of trying to please, get it right, and get it done, we would benefit greatly from pausing (what he termed Inhibition), and considering the ‘means-whereby‘ any task is best performed.
The task of flying awaits the young tree swallow. Not responding just yet to the stimulus of cajoling parents, she pauses. She waits. We do ourselves harm when we push through our daily lives, using force of will and grim determination. Try a pause. Be kindly toward yourself in all that is required of you. The swallow will fledge. You will complete your tasks. Maybe tomorrow.
Alexander Technique colleague, David Nesmith, includes the topic of rest in his Denison University AT class. On behalf of my blog readers, I requested his insights into the practice of sleeping well, and he graciously obliged:
‘I see going to bed as an activity, just as getting up out of a chair, typing on the computer, and chopping vegetables are all activities. We can use ourselves poorly or well in any of them.’ He went on to list the components of rest preparation: kinesthetic awakeness, monitoring primary control, directing varied movements, cooperating with the lengthening and gathering of the spine, and facilitating free exhalations. In combination, these practices, in his words, ‘yield deep rest.‘ He concludes with, ‘It is this deep rest that allows sleep to arrive much more easily.’ His Constructive Rest Sleep Constellations is available on iTunes, and can be found by title or by searching SmartPoise. Also, check out David’s website.
In the meantime, finding yourself in the day-to-night transition, wiggle your toes. Note where your body is in contact with the bed surface. Give yourself a few prompts: ‘head resting lightly on pillow,’ ‘long spine,’ ‘arms wide,‘ ‘free breath.’ Revel in your altered relationship to gravity. Following a day of uprightness, being horizontal is restful in and of itself. When sleep eludes me, I remind myself of this fact.
Singers! So much to learn. Start with a wren in song. No better example of full embodiment and whole-body singing exists. The wren serenades were an on-going feature of last week’s visit to the hill. A wren pair were even attempting to build a nest in the front porch rafters, but with little to no overhead space in their chosen spot, project was abandoned.
The cabin is surrounded with young oaks, and their boughs are a favorite song perch for the wrens. Petite creatures that they are, I recommend a pair of binoculars nearby for quick access when the piercingly sweet melody begins. Bring binocs to eyes and follow the sound. With magnification, you will see the wee body lengthen just prior to the tiny beak opening for the first salvo of sound. Take note. That’s precisely what we need to be about in preparation for our singing.
Stay alert, and you will observe the wren’s throat pulse with the trills, its entire body engaged in singing, much like a baby who responds to your voice with arms and legs akimbo and in motion. (3-month-old Vivi visited yesterday with her mother, doing this very thing.)
Life is our teacher each and every moment; availing ourselves of the lessons, our choice. Let beauty and amazement teach you today—
Mike and I, along with my father-in-law Dick, are planting pine seedlings on the hillside. It’s a perfect and sunny day. Dick announces it’s time for a break. We stretch out, the three of us, in the field, Dick’s hands behind his head as he leans back, surveying the countryside.
Time folds in on itself.
I’m walking through pine woods, the ground a soft carpet of pine needles. Rounding the path down the hill to Watercress Gully, a breeze kicks up and ripples the pine boughs to my right, with a sound like gentle ocean waves.
I was there then. The hills were pasture fields. I am here now. It’s a forest. Fully present. Then. Now. Then gives me now. Because of then, there is a now.
Madeleine L’Engle called it A Wrinkle in Time, and as a 10-year-old avid reader, I devoured this fantastical tale. I never imagined experiencing a ‘tesseract in time,’ as L’Engle coined it, but on the beloved hill, time travel did happen, courtesy of two words, ‘fullypresent.’
On the hill, and nowhere else, planting seedlings. Walking the hill, seedlings towering overhead as full-grown pines, time becomes elastic. Alexander Technique students report this altered sense of time in their lessons, and as a teacher, I have learned to have a timepiece close by because I, too, lose the quotidian sense of time when immersed in the work.
There are many paths through the woods. Find your path to full presence, and be refreshed. The tyranny of time will subside, and aliveness will be yours to savor.
Diane Ackerman, in her 2008 book, Dawn Light: ‘Here only this once and never again, I want to stop ten times a day, stop whatever I’m saying or doing, and behold the human pageant with its uncountable dramas…’
Stop. Behold. And in the pause between, something new can happen, in our bodies and in our minds. That pause, termed Inhibition by Mr. Alexander, is a primary practice of the Technique. When Ackerman stops, the world expands beyond her words and actions; she includes in her thinking ‘the human pageant.’
Here’s a way to work with The Pause, courtesy of Barbara Conable, from her book, How to Learn the Alexander Technique:
‘Whenever you notice that you have cut out half your experience by losing awareness either of yourself or of your world, simply open attention to the other half.’
Example: Tornado sirens sounded several times around midnight as rain pounded on the roof and lightning lit up the bedroom ceiling. Our little corner of the world was spared, but nearby, in the Dayton area, tornadoes caused extensive damage in the night. Scrolling for news feeds and watching videos of the aftermath, I finally noted my attention was exclusively on the computer screen and entirely with the anguish of those being interviewed. Hmm. ‘Open attention to the other half,’ Barbara advises. In this example, the ‘other half’ is me. Sit bones contacting chair seat. Right foot crossed over left. Cork floor in contact with sole of left foot. Returned to myself while also taking in the dramatic reports of the storms.
Your turn! It goes both ways. Ackerman opened her attention to the world, and I needed to open mine to myself. Ten times a day is her wish, but I’d be happy for you and me to stop and behold just once or twice today. Be safe, heed those sirens, and practice The Pause–
Sidi Hessel’s 1978 book, The Articulate Body, was a serendipitous find at yesterday’s library book sale. For $1.00, a treasure came home with me, and its first section, ‘Articulations,’ is precisely what was needed to supplement content for this fall’s Alexander Technique class. Where are the joints, how do they work, and how can we restore their full mobility? Questions for me and the students to explore.
And the first stop on that journey? Finding head on spine and moving from this primary joint. The head leads and the body follows, or, as Barbara Conable specified in How to Learn the Alexander Technique, ‘the head leads and the spine follows in sequence.‘ Watch a cat get up from lying down. You will most certainly see a demonstration of head leading, what Mr. Alexander termed Primary Control or primary movement. And with ease at the joints comes vital expression of body and self.
Hessel sought to convey this dual understanding of jointed-ness with her use of the word ‘articulate,’ as ‘having to do with being jointed,’ and also, ‘skillful, fluent self-expression.’ We only move at joints. The articulate body is a physical structure able to move easily and fluently and expressively. Here’s to articulation!
Poise and Presence is three years old. With the exception of a hiatus in 2018, weekly posts have been the norm. Readers appreciate knowing there will be a little something from Poise and Presence on a regular basis, and the routine of getting a post ready each week provides me with an on-going opportunity to practice Constructive Use. Three Alexander Technique principles are required: Awareness, Inhibition, Direction.
First, I cultivate an awareness of my physical self, a kinesthetic sense of what it is like at any given moment to be living in a body. Secondly, having noted I am more than a mind, I practice Inhibition, which requires me to pause, observe a habit of use, and see what might emerge if I just quit doing what I habitually do to write a post, (i.e.—pull legs back and under the chair, applying undue pressure to my toe joints, contract my arms in toward my torso, thereby reducing my width and diminishing breathing capacity.)
Having activated my kinesthetic sense, pausing/stopping to note a habit of use, I can then give my Self what Mr. Alexander termed Directions. His: ‘I allow my head to move forward and up, that my spine may lengthen and my torso widen.’ Mine: ‘long spine,’ or ‘length and width.’
This is Constructive Use of the Self, a way of thinking in activity which benefits our well-being. And when you find yourself with a few unscheduled minutes, I recommend Constructive Rest. It’s the practice of resting thoughtfully, altering our relationship to gravity by lying down in semi-supine, lengthening and widening.
Constructive Use AND Constructive Rest are essential components of an Alexander Technique practice. Take your pick!
Not to be confused with iced coffee. That beverage is on purpose. Cold coffee is not. Looking up from Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, I see my cuppa, sitting forlornly on the end table, cold yet again, having been warmed up not once, but twice. ‘Words will do that,’ I say to myself, Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s words in particular. Love this quirky memoir.
Published 14 years ago, it’s one of those titles that came to my attention when first out, and then got lost in the shuffle of too-much-too-many. Books that is. But the book found me, as books often do. I have learned to rely on this mysterious phenomenon, knowing that an oh-so-special book will appear when needed.
And then this: padding around the studio, returning chairs to their places, picking up anatomy tomes from the floor, tidying up after last evening’s Alexander Technique student, I linger at the poetry shelf, pulling out Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems, opening randomly to:
‘Like a mad red brain
the involute rhubarb leaf
thinks its way up
A fitting conclusion to an Alexander Technique lesson, yes? Plants are ‘thinking their way up’ all over the place right now, inspiration for us to do the same.
Wishing for you good words in a good book, good enough to cause your coffee to go cold—
Paul Simon, backstage with Stephen Colbert, tells him the tune is ‘naive,’ and not appropriate for 2017. ‘I don’t like it,’ he added. And having watched a 1982 Central Park concert video of Simon and Garfunkel performing The 59th Street Bridge Song, I believe him. They were tepid at best, seeming to force themselves through it, while the crowd roared. I’m with the crowd.
‘Slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last, just—skippin’ down the cobblestones, lookin’ for fun and feelin’ groovy.’
Feelin’ Groovy takes me back to days when all was new and fresh and everything was possibility. I’ve been hearing it in my mind’s ear this spring, most likely due to thinking about haste vs. hurry, and perhaps as antidote to a sobering American political era. Colbert changed-up the lyrics, and a few belly laughs later, I was glad to have found this present-day twist on an old favorite.
‘Slow down, you move too fast.‘ That was me years ago, and not much has changed with age. Now, although fingers will not zip those zippers nearly so quickly, and opening cans is a monumental chore, I still strive mightily for speed. Anything less is an annoyance, an affront.
Taking to heart the song lyrics, I’m choosing* to make my way through this day reveling in spring glory in the midst of tasks, pausing** between each one to sing, ‘Life, I love you. All is groovy.’
*Choice: a primary practice of the Alexander Technique. Having observed our habits of use, we can choose what to keep and what to change.
**The Pause: Also called ‘Inhibition,’ it’s the space between stimulus and response. In the interval, the AT practitioner has options, i.e.–choice, much preferable to a ‘knee-jerk reaction.’