The Alexander Technique offers skills to respond to life’s activities with awareness and choice. These skills require time, dedication and ongoing inquiry. We learn to know our habitual responses so we can relinquish them and allow new modes of response. We give up old pathways to forge new ones.
We can apply Alexander principles to how we move through life on many levels, not only our “postural set”. We can extend the co-ordination of self to life’s many challenges and opportunities. We bring the entire instrument of self into every activity.
I received a summons for jury duty some months ago. My initial response was one of dread and resistance; how could I manage my teaching practice and life with the unpredictable outcome of being chosen for a jury? My neck tightened and my back narrowed and my mind became noisy with anxiety.
On the morning of jury call, I decided that a new experience awaited me, and that using my self with refinement would likely result in a better experience than being limited by fear and dread. Expectation of experience pre-sets us on neural, muscular, mental and emotional levels. We prepare, often unnecessarily, for what we fear will happen instead of remaining open to what might be possible. This is why, as Alexander teachers and students, we explore a dynamic pause, an overall quieting, so we can have a more reasoned response and a new experience.
I went along to the jury pool (hours of waiting with hundreds of people in bad lighting) with the intention to relinquish expectations, hopes and dreads, to attend primarily to my field of attention, and to allow new experience to inform me. After adjusting to very collapse oriented seating and the aforementioned terrible lighting, I began to observe myself and others with a happy curiosity. Jury duty brings a wide cross section of humans into shared time and space. I watched people, read books, waited and quieted myself. It was rather entertaining, really.
After some hours, I was called to a jury selection. The solemnity of entering the court room sharpened my observation. This was serious, and needed to be taken seriously.
In order to request dismissal, I had to explain to a very stern judge that as a self employed person with a private practice; a long trial would be a hardship. Explaining the Alexander Technique to the judge, two attorneys and a room full of potential jurors was rather fun. I was calm and clear because I had no set outcome in mind. The freedom of my neck and the breathability of my back were more important than “winning” dismissal.
The judge, after some commentary about the Technique being “a new one on me”, let me go.
No desired outcome was key. If I had been fixed on my own way, I may not have been adequately calm to be convincing. My neck would have been constricted and my voice ungrounded. And, if I had been selected for a jury, I hope I would have brought my best use of self to the task. No bad outcome was really possible if I was using myself well.
Our only choice is in the use of ourselves. We can learn to react less and less to fears so that we can respond more and more with possibility and ease. This learning is incremental, cumulative, ongoing. No desired outcome except continued learning, as long as we are willing to learn.
As an Alexander teacher, my intention is to apply Alexander principles, such as dynamic non-interference and thinking with the whole self, to the activities of living. Especially in response to emotionally charged activities, it is deeply difficult to refuse habit and allow a new response. The more important an opinion, activity or belief is to me, the more my use deteriorates. I fix, I tighten, I revert to my same old worst case defensive me. I am right, I am scared and I am over-stabilizing myself. No elastic response is possible in such a condition.
The campaign to retire local zoo elephants to sanctuary is hugely (no pun intended) important to me. I felt called to advocate and act on their behalf some years ago, and will continue until I can watch them happily adjusting to their more humane sanctuary conditions on a web cam.
It is very easy in this sort of politically overwhelming and dauntingly complex campaign to divide thinking into “us” and “them”, “us” being elephant advocates, “them” being the zoo industry. This enemy thinking is hard to shake the more I know about the zoo industry and elephants. I have hardened but not become more effective.
Suddenly, after years of fighting the zoo industry in thought and action, of feeling frustrated, hopeless, defeated, I realized that I have to think bigger, just as I would while teaching a lesson, or recovering from a major injury, or attending to a conversation. I can insist on being right, or I can have a free neck. A free neck generally indicates I am using my entire self more easily and clearly, and that I can allow solutions to occur that my habituated enemy response would have obscured.
How to shift the dynamic from division and blame to shared interests and co-operation? Or at least a productive conversation? All I can really shift is my own use of self. If that is the sole change I can make, I will endeavor to do so ( with recognition that I may fail repeatedly). My interest is in effective means-whereby for the elephants. In order to attend to them, I must attend to my instrument of self with clarity and quiet.
I’d like to give up being right or defining enemies for a free neck so I can allow the means-whereby to free the elephants. Stay tuned for how this goes along.
Let’s face it, the glowing screen is so addictive and ubiquitous that we all take it as a given. We check the weather on our devices instead of looking out the window. We check websites on our smart phones about dogs while walking our dogs. My doctor gazes intently at a screen instead of looking at me. We can touch a screen or press a button and get instant results. Outcome rules, process recedes. We are confined to our craniums as experience becomes ever more virtual.
More and more frequently, I get inquiries about Alexander lessons expressing hope that all aches, pains and limitations will be resolved in just a few lessons. This assumes that aches, pains, limitations are “fixable” in a mechanical manner, when their development was not only mechanical. We may use machines with increased dependence and frequency, but we are not machines, nor is any animal on the planet. Addressing our aches, pains and limitations requires a non-mechanical set of skills, including tools of intention and attention, as well as the mysterious and valuable skill of dynamic non-interference.
The concepts of an entirely integrated self, a unified field of co-ordination, and a process of undoing habitual reactions become ever more arcane. We use ourselves as our devices demand, rather than choosing a new response in the live moment. We think less with our whole selves and allow our devices to think and sense for us.
I composed this post using pen and paper because I enjoy the connection between brain and hand, the feel of the pen contacting paper, the way narrative thinking proceeds in this activity. The experience of typing these words is a very different experience than the more manual process. Hearing birds outside is different than hearing them on a website. Talking to a friend on the phone or in person is different than texting. All possibilities have their merits, but if we lose the use of the self, our conscious response to stimuli, and our value of the means-whereby as we accomplish our ends, it seems to me we will be losing the point of being alive and present on the planet now.
As has been noted previously in posts, I am dedicating time, attention and intention to a campaign to re-home local elephants drearily confined in the zoo to much more humane sanctuary. The zoo industry brings huge political and financial resources to bear in preventing this compassionate outcome. Our campaign faces enormous resistance.
The task I have agreed to complete in service to the campaign involves viewing and documenting zoo keeper records of many years. The information in these records is deeply upsetting. It is one thing to imagine Chai, Bamboo and Watoto’s discomforts, and quite another to see all their continuously serious health issues (mostly due to lack of space for movement) spelled out in black and white. They have suffered and are suffering terribly.
Initially, as I began this task, I became so depressed that sleep was disrupted and daily energy was diminished. The details haunted and hounded me, and a furious anger at the zoo industry overwhelmed me. This was a bad combination for living fully or remaining effective in the project!
So, I have begun to apply AT principles of attending to the whole use of self, and prioritizing the means-whereby. I am in no way suppressing or repressing emotional response, as that would be both impossible and also personally disastrous. Instead, I attend to the larger picture of self with an intention of being effective in my task.
I ask my ribs in back to continue moving while I type out distressing information. I take breaks to walk and cook and play with my cat. I stop viewing the records when my neck tightens and my jaw clenches and attend to the spring bird songs, the weather moving through the skies. I widen my view so I can attend to specifics. I attend to my self, allow time, so I can bring my own instrument to bear in a refined manner. I balance dismay in a momentary fashion. I sink into despair, then rise again with my only hope: bringing my best use of self to the task at hand
Nearly 4 years ago, I fractured my patella in a sidewalk injury fall. This injury required emergency surgery to install pins and wires so the patella could heal. A year later, I had another surgery to remove the hardware so that I could live without the continuous pain of hardware. (Please see previous posts for all the details on both surgeries).
Recovery required far more time and dedication than I had believed was necessary, but as I had never before broken a patella, what did I know?! After 3 years of physical therapy, Gyrotonic exercise, and applied Alexander principles, I was able to move much more like my previously vigorous self. Recovery has required yet another year before my knee pain quieted consistently. (My knee still hurts when I am confined into a sitting position for long airline flights, but that may be a permanent condition). Although I can no longer run as I used to on hard surfaces, I can run with great joy barefoot on the wet beach sands of Kauai, and I no longer limp for hours after waking.
Thus, 4 long years of many set backs and frustrations and incremental victories. Depression and defeat taunted me at many points. It was a long road.
Alexander principles of dynamic non-interference, allowing the means-whereby, and attending to the whole entire Self made the journey endurable. I learned a tremendous amount of lessons, often painfully and on deep levels, that have enhanced my understanding of students who arrive with chronic pain, serious injuries, and all the associated distress of above. Patience in recovery is so very challenging, and injury and response to injury is complex. We aren’t who we thought we were when injury limits our way of being in the world. The entire Self is questioned and challenged.
However, injury also presents tremendous opportunity. In the long endurance test of my own recovery, I learned to seek appropriate assistance from skilled professionals whose approach was consistent with Alexander principles. I also learned a much more nuanced and sensitive way of experiencing my instrument of Self. I can listen to myself, quiet my crazy chatter, engage less non-productively with disturbing sensations, trust the bigger picture, and know, deeply, that dynamic non-interference is an effective and thorough means of recovery from injury.
In life, as in Alexander lessons, we bring our entire self and manner of use to all activities, be those activities primarily mental, emotional or physical. F.M. Alexander viewed all aspects of self as inseparable and integrated. Alexander principles are clear in the gentle, continuous, indirect process of change that attending to the unified self involves. In the Alexander Technique, we don’t directly change a part. We use the tools of intention and attention to improve the entire self. Then, the parts all shift accordingly.
During recent months, I experienced a deeply uncomfortable and distinctly unpleasant set of physically expressed symptoms. Of course, discomfort on any level brings the entire self along for the ride. I was uncomfortable about being uncomfortable, a state of distress deepened by the fact that my symptoms were visible for all to see. Oy, the spiral of discomfort!
In order to resolve not only the ugly painful symptoms but the cause (read, condition of self), and with welcome expert advice, I made many changes in life habits. In simple terms, everything that inflamed my system had to be relinquished: many foods, overuse of media, hyper-activity, overstimulation of any sort. Pain and distress were tremendous motivations to follow given advice, just as injury, pain or performance issues are often motivations for people to seek Alexander lessons. My symptoms were not immediately reduced by my new choices, and in fact came and went with frustrating frequency. However, my mind and spirit became calmer. I became less “inflamed”, more patient, less easy to rile up, less aggravated or fearful, more at ease. My thinking clarified and a sense of inexplicable ease and quiet became “normal”.
The journey back to full health has become much more about the process than the desired result, although I welcome the desired result with great joy. I got the outcome I wanted plus so much more. If I had gone a more “medical” and end-gaining route, I may have experienced reduced symptoms more quickly (and thus less evidence of my unwitting interference), but no sense of process or the resulting joy of improved overall condition of self, and no notion of my participation in health improvement.
This experience has deepened my confidence in the value of the “means-whereby”, the integrity of self, and the rewards of relinquishing a narrow life dictated by invisible habits for a larger, more connected life of conscious choice. I am still learning, of course, but I can still learn. That’s the reward, being able to still learn and having the “means-whereby” to continue to do so.
Patella fracture has required years of dedication to recovery. Happily, I can report that all the dedication has resulted in nearly full recovery in function and ease. As pictured here, I can once again ride a horse, one of my great joys in life. I can also run barefoot on the beach on wet sand as dawn tinges the surf pink. Running on hard surfaces continues to challenge my injured knee.
Alexander principles contributed hugely to my recovery. I had to continuously (and not always successfully!) inhibit pushing to a desired end. Being attentive to process meant choosing professionals to assist me who were Alexander compatible in their approach and thinking. Thus, I was expertly assisted by a terrific Physical Therapist, Heidi Gans, as well as by several incredibly skilled Gyrotonic instructors, Lindsey Burke and Magali Massac. Lessons with Senior Alexander Teachers, especially John Nicholls, aided me tremendously in making the best use of my self even with diminished conditions of self. My extraordinary Osteopathic doctor made a huge difference in his mysterious and effective manner as well. I am deeply grateful for all the highly skilled assistance!
I learned that even with less than ideal conditions, such as one leg in a full brace, I could respond elastically and spring up from the ground, and that I could remain effective as a teacher despite serious injury. In fact, my injury improved my teaching, as my attention to use became more urgent and clear.
It was a rough journey, but a journey of incredible education in the use of my self. Despite predictions to the contrary from my surgeon, I resumed most of my desired activities fully and joyfully. I have a slight reduction in flexion in my injured knee, and the above stated limitation in running on hard surfaces. Given the nature of the injury, these are minor complaints.
The opportunity to work with highly skilled professionals in the interest of my recovery resulted in valued connections and relationships. I not only learned skills that I can convey to my students in terms of applying Alexander principles to injury recovery, but also gathered a bank of professionals to whom I can refer my students with confidence.
Recovery was long and arduous, but yielded many gifts, not the least of which is my deepened patience and understanding of the global personal effect of injury, and the nature of the journey of recovery.
In addition to my own injury and long term recovery, my husband has been very health challenged for many years. There is no need for me to communicate the details of his condition; suffice to say that I have been in a caregiver role, to lesser and greater degrees, for a long time.
The Alexander Technique provides skills for conscious response to stimulus. Although the Technique is typically perceived in terms of “posture”, F.M. Alexander described his work as “the use of the self” as applied to life’s activities. He viewed the self as an integrated and inseparable whole, and his Technique as applicable to any stimulus.
Caring for an ill partner over the long term requires good use of the self on a continuously changing basis. Sleep may be minimal, worry may be large. The necessary tasks of daily life that were previously shared may be primarily shouldered by the healthier partner. During times of health crisis, the caregiver handles communications with friends and family, medical information and interaction with doctors and nurses, home maintenance and financial balance.
Since use of the self is primary in the Alexander Technique, the challenge for the caregiver becomes how to remain fully effective while also attending to personal well-being. End gaining to care for someone else would result in diminishing the health of the person giving care. The balance of attending to the means-whereby instead of leaping to react to stimulus is delicate and challenging and constantly shifting.
Intention to create conditions for good use of the self as a caregiver must be constantly renewed. This does not mean self-absorption, but a recognition that the demands of caring for an ill partner require best use of the instrument of self for the outcome of clarity and calm. Emotional excess is an indulgent luxury in times of health crisis. A choice must be made for bringing reason to bear with the entire self. Suppression of emotions is also not implied, but, instead, a prioritization of going up more and pulling down less, of dynamically refusing to interfere, of including the entire self with curiosity and attention.
Walter Carrington said that even if the house is burning down around you, it is imperative to request your neck to be free. I would humbly add that it is the sincerity of the request that counts, not our limited notions of success. If we can include the instrument of self in the scenario of caregiving, our conditions for effective response may productively improve.
Frustration with delays and lack of strategic effectiveness for the intention of releasing Woodland Park Zoo elephants from horrible zoo conditions to much happier elephant sanctuary continues. Applying principles of dynamic non-interference (requesting internal quiet, allowing the activity to do itself, dynamically remaining present and not determining means in advance of clarity) has not yet resulted in progress for elephant release. How to apply best use of my personal energy and enthusiasm to the intention of elephant release is my current question. The obstacles are enormous (zoo’s political and financial power) and the means of overcoming these obstacles are as yet unknown. Dismay and discouragement are potential outcomes, but then the elephants await some action on their behalf.
Whenever humans gather for an intended outcome, the stimulus for habitual response increases. My own habit is to do something, especially when animal misery is indicated. I had thus become involved with some very dedicated people in hopes of bringing my energy, extensive contacts, and sincere interest to bear on behalf of the elephants. But human groups being what they are, and me being a flawed human with too much doing energy, I have been shushed and dismissed, despite all my good intentions.
And so, I seek other ways and means to serve the worthy intention of elephant release to sanctuary. The means are as yet unclear, but intentions and ideas remain active. If I can’t contribute to an existing campaign, what is my new means of contribution? How can I help build a campaign for political and public support for elephant release while attending to the means-whereby? How do I not pull down and end gain when so very much is at stake?
Meanwhile, on the running and knee recovery subject, I am now able to run several mornings per week with some ease and speed. Relinquishing urgency resulted in success in intention to run again. For the elephants, it is so very deeply challenging to relinquish urgency and allow the means-whereby to reveal itself.
The elephants suffer while the means are discovered.
Just to catch people up who may be reading this blog for the first time: I fractured my patella in a sidewalk fall in February 2009. My recovery from this very serious injury was long and arduous, and included two surgeries, extensive Physical Therapy, Gyrotonic exercise, application of Alexander principles, Osteopathic assistance, and more patience and endurance than imaginable for me previous to injury.
My goal of resuming treasured morning runs has included many bumps and non-starts. Although my recovery has exceeded the expectations of my surgeon, I sought, and continue to seek, full functional recovery. Meaning, I want to run again with ease and joy and good use of myself!
Because my knee was not too happy about running (nerve damage from surgeries, plus structural issues), I took most of the summer off even attempting an activity that was clearly beyond my current condition of self. End gaining to run resulted in numbness in my knee and foot that was distressing. There was no point in pushing beyond these clear signals. So, I have been pursuing vigorous activity via Gyrotonic exercise, a system that is very Alexander compatible. Of course, I also walk miles every day as my means of transport, and teach a very full schedule of Alexander lessons.
Yesterday and today, I went out for desired morning runs just to see what was possible in my current condition of self. The air was fragrant and fresh, numerous birds chattered and called, and the light was gloriously rich. I warmed up by walking with attention to my entire elastic self and to the world outside my self. My intention was to spring up from the ground with ease, and as I accelerated into a rhythmic, gentle run, my injured knee was only mildly challenged. I still can’t manage much distance or speed without pushing use beyond reasonable limits, but was thrilled to be able to run about 1/2 mile without distress or after effects.
Time taken for recovery has clearly had benefits. My entire coordination and overall strength has improved by not running until my whole self was ready and willing. My hope now is to conscientiously increase distance and time with a clear intention to the overall condition of self.