The Alexander Technique provides skills for response to stimulus, and the potential for consciously considered response in any situation. F.M. Alexander viewed the individual as integrated and inseparable in mental/physical/emotional use. He viewed the self as a whole, and the use of the self as an entirely integrated response.
In my current involvement in effecting release of zoo elephants to sanctuary, many of my habitual reactions are challenged. I am required to shift my use to a new level. The urgency to assist the elephants stimulates my habitual reaction to push, rant, and insist. My habit of response, however, is quite ineffective in achieving my desired results. Thus, I am learning to inhibit (allow a dynamic pause and an internal quiet) to welcome a new, as yet unknown means-whereby.
Today, I went to the zoo to observe the elephants and their keepers. I had the opportunity to engage a zoo docent in conversation. Rather than impose my habitual mode, based in urgency, of confrontation, I quieted and listened, asked questions and listened, engaged instead of confronting. This yielded much information that would have been inaccessible if I was doing my habitual confrontation mode on a subject of urgency. I learned of the docent’s sincerity, and she learned of my sincerity. I did not present myself as an adversary, but as a person who is informed and deeply interested in elephant well-being.
Believe me, I had to step back and quiet myself numerous times during this conversation, but since my priority (like the priority of having a free neck, a long wide back, etc) is in the elephants’ release to sanctuary, it was a necessary choice. Do I want to be right or do I want to be effective? Clearly, being effective is my choice, and thus the best use of myself is required.
Is this easy? No, it is not! Just as in my long, arduous recovery from patella fracture which required 2 and 1/2 years, this project requires patience, willingness for the means to reveal themselves, and a continued dedication to applying Alexander principles to activity.
I learn new ways to quiet and to endure emotional distress, and find new skills in response for a larger priority.
The campaign to release the elephants confined in the zoo to happy sanctuary involves tremendous opportunities for applying AT principles. My own habitual emotional guarding from any upsetting information about animals has yielded to a new painfully open and more wide ranged emotional experience. Going beyond my habitually closed response has opened my heart, and changed my use of self. In Alexander terms, I have begun to explore the discomforts beyond habitual response. This is not easy, but necessary, as my priority is to make the best use of myself and explore new means-whereby on behalf of the elephants. I could continue to guard and not be effective, or refuse to guard (narrow and shorten) and have a new more effective and satisfying experience.
My more open painfully aware heart requires me to make choices in response that are new to me. The campaign to free Chai, Bamboo and Watoto (not just “elephants”, but individuals with their own needs and preferences as intelligent beings) involves huge obstacles. The Zoo has financial and political resources that far outweigh those of us who advocate for elephant release to sanctuary. The urgency is great, as Chai, Bamboo and Watoto endure miserably limited conditions. My habitual response would be to push, scream, urge and activate, but this reaction is not useful. I have to quiet myself, and look for the means-whereby to reveal itself, while also remaining dynamic in myself. My constant question has become: how can I use myself best to benefit the elephants?
My broken heart has become a surprisingly expanded heart. The habit of avoiding distress was based on fear that I could not survive upsetting information about any animal. Now I have too much information that is deeply disturbing. The fear of too much pain has been vanquished by the necessity to act despite pain. This is a far preferable experience to guarding and not acting. Better to effect change and suffer the emotional distress (and learn to ride that river with new response) than to wait passively for productive change and suffer from not participating.
How to go up more and pull down less in response to an overwhelming set of obstacles is my current challenge. This requires a total response of self on all mental/physical/emotional levels. How to face a wall of resistance without diminishing the instrument of self is my new subject and obsession.
Meanwhile, the elephants suffer, and I can only make my own choices in response to help them. I am writing, speaking, giving a benefit day of teaching, requesting help from many sources, hoping for the means-whereby to reveal themselves in an active fashion.
Thank you to all who have offered help, checks, support! You have also risked heartbreak by knowing enough to act and participate with your entire knowing selves.
This blog has been thus far dedicated to applying Alexander principles to recovery from injury. Since my recovery has proceeded to a satisfying point, and given that life provides continuing opportunities to learn and grow, the focus of this blog thus changes, with Alexander principles as the primary ingredient.
I live literally across the street from the Woodland Park Zoo. I have been aware for many years that the three elephants confined in the zoo (Chai, Bamboo and Watoto) are unhappy and unhealthy. I have been reluctant to become personally involved in this situation because of my habitual mode of avoiding emotional distress in reaction to animal misery. But, I woke up one night and knew that I must assist the elephants. It was not a decision, it was a knowing. The following day, I emailed one of the very dedicated people who have been advocating for elephant release to sanctuary and offered my help.
The Alexander Technique is about exploring the unknown in our response to stimulus, and finding the means-whereby to accomplish any intention without diminishing the instrument of self. The Technique offers skills in using the instrument of self in a new and unfamiliar manner, and in responding to stimulus consciously.
The stimulus of the project of effecting release of the elephants from zoo to sanctuary immediately evidenced an end gaining response in me. I wanted relief from my extreme emotional discomfort related to the knowledge that Chai, Bamboo and Watoto were suffering. I desired quick results to relieve my own discomfort. But, as an Alexander teacher and student, I recognized that a process, a means-whereby was necessary, and that this was an opportunity to apply principles to activity in an entirely new way for me. A wider view than my own was needed, and a willingness to explore beyond my habit of emotional guarding was key. A trust in larger co-ordination, beyond my own flawed psycho-physical organization, was essential.
And so, I am learning, very painfully, new coping skills. I had avoided heartbreaking details because I thought I could not survive them. The temptation to narrow and shorten in response to very upsetting information has eased somewhat as I recognize the bigger priority of the elephants’ dreary reality and the need to help them with all the energy and attention I can bring to bear. My heart is shattered, and I am learning to live with a shattered heart, and to use myself well even with a very broken heart. Not easy, but necessary.
Thus, remaining open to new experience, having a clear intention, and refusing to end-gain my way to a desired result has provided a wider field of means and awareness. Help has arrived from previously unknown sources. Writing on the elephants’ behalf and speaking on their behalf has required me to make the best use of myself, despite the daunting aspects of this project. I can’t afford to let fear and emotional dismay narrow or shorten me. I am learning new skills in accommodating extreme emotional distress, to communicate clearly without the end-gaining urgency of anger, to accept that a political process requires a frustrating amount of time, and to know that my only choice of any consequence is to use myself well.
The means to achieve my intended goal of elephant release to sanctuary are as yet mysterious. There are many other dedicated people who have worked hard for many years to effect this elephant release to sanctuary. My determination is only deepened by the incredibly daunting obstacles. If I can remain open to new experience, be active without end-gaining, relinquish the need for desired outcome right now (this is the most difficult aspect as the elephants are, again, suffering), and trust that the means will reveal themselves, then perhaps I can be effective in contributing to this productive change.
During the recent meeting of AmSAT teachers in Las Vegas, I had the wonderful opportunity to experience workshops devoted to the activity of running given by AT teacher and running coach Malcolm Balk.
Malcolm filmed each of us at the start and finish of the workshop. The camera doesn’t lie! We each saw the eveidence of how we were running with inefficient and overly effortful means. It was both dismaying and informative to view how I have been interfering with elastic ease in my running, and needlessly impacting my back and knees!
Malcolm put us through a series of warm-up procedures to get our brains into a new cadence and co-ordination. Working with Alexander principles, and based on his long experience as a running coach, he gave us all an opportunity to re-think running as an activity in a comprehensive manner.
The result, for me, was that the recent disturbing numbness in my injured knee relented to near invisibility. I was able to move vigorously and quickly on level ground and in bare feet without any evidence of undue challenge to my injured knee.
This experience demonstrates, yet again, that finding expert assistance that is consistent with Alexander principles is key to full and vigorous recovery from a serious injury.
I will be trying out this newly refined running and report on my neighborhood morning runs!
A few weeks ago, I happily flew to NYC (with far less knee inflammation than previous trips) for a visit with friends and some lessons with John Nicholls. Previous to this trip, I had been struggling with the painful effects in knee and foot from even limited hill runs. Despite all the dedication of two and a half years in recovery from patella fracture, the long term impact of injury on desired activities continued.
After my lessons with John, I was much more elastically connected to the ground. I also had the marvelous experience of being breathed from my feet to the top of my head and beyond. There is no way to adequately describe this experience of breathing with the entire self, but trust me, it is utterly wonderful. Mind you, I have been taking lessons from John for over 20 years, teaching for 24 years, and dedicating myself to continued learning since I began teaching. This is not an overnight sensation, in other words!
Once I returned home with my newly refined elastic connection to the ground, my morning hill runs shifted into an entirely new gear. A springy response from foot strike to the top of my head became far more accessible. My perception of “enoughness” became more accurate, in that I knew quite quickly when to tone down vigor to avoid any injury. And my post hill-run condition was less aggravated and inflamed.
It’s the same old deal here, from an Alexander perspective: improve the entire use of self; then, vigorous activity strengthens the improved use of self.
I am only running a few hills, but I am learning a lot!
Since injury well over two years ago, I have struggled to become more fully active without hurting myself. In other words, how do I use myself intelligently given my current condition of self?
My Osteopathic doctor recommended that I only run on softer surfaces. The beach in Kauai, where I can run barefoot with ease, is ideal, but since I don’t live in Kauai…. Although I respect, value and deeply appreciate my excellent Osteopathic doctor, and have every intention of using myself well in all circumstances, I just have to experience the exhilaration of a morning hill run with all the bird songs and fresh breezes from Puget Sound, as well as the resulting endorphins that inform the rest of my day.
So, what do I do? I go out for my morning run with a request for an overall elastic response to the ground. I intend for my breath and my use to be mutually supportive. As my breath proceeds through my entire length of spinal curves, my legs release into the ground, and all impact translates in a spiral up and out of my head. Running becomes an experience of invisible effort and spiraling ease. I pay attention to any pain signals and walk when running is not easy. I listen with joy to the morning bird songs, enjoy the breezes from Puget Sound, become a rhythm, and discover a new narrative beyond previous experience.
Balancing urgency for activity with current conditions of self is an ongoing exploration.
During recent morning hill runs, I have begun to notice inflammation pain signals in my left foot again, after many months of reprieve from same. Past experience of this indicates a disruption in my overall elastic response to the ground, and a potential challenge with increased demand in activity. It is of interest that foot pain diminishes while I am teaching (when my use of self is at its hopeful best), but increases with vigorous walking or running. Thus, I will sadly hold off on morning runs until I can see my Osteopathic physician for assistance in structural integrity.
The ongoing consequences of patella fracture thus continue. The challenge for me is to not push beyond current limits of self (end-gain), to use my self with dynamic non-interference (attend to the whole picture rather than parts), and to allow time, once again, so that I can explore desired activities with good use and an elastic response. Do I like having to take time again? No, not in the least! But taking time is clearly necessary. More lessons to be learned!
Today marks two years since I fractured my patella in a sidewalk fall. The urgency in dedication required for my recovery has been balanced by the necessity for patience in progress.
The expert professional assistance that made recovery possible has been described in this blog. Suffice to say, I could not have come this far and this well without the help of deeply skilled professionals.
Key points in recovery:
*working with a Physical Therapist whose approach is creative, comprehensive and Alexander compatible
*removing the knee hardware! Huge difference!
*exploring activity within limits of pain via Gyrotonic exercise
*learning to rest (very difficult lesson for me)
*and to go slowly (torture!)
In Alexander parlance, I had to stick to the means-whereby, attend to the entire use of self, and seek assistance from others with a similar point of view. End-gaining was not only undesirable but completely unproductive. Pain was the clear and likely consequence of end-gaining toward a specific result in recovery. The entire condition of self had to improve for my knee to improve and pain to lessen.
And look at me now! I can run (with some frustrating imitations), pain is infrequent, kneeling is difficult but possible, and I can mount and dismount a horse again. Sleep is not disrupted by discomfort, I can descend stairs with ease, my legs are reasonably balanced in strength, and I can manage air travel without excruciating pain.
There is room for improvement, but I am grateful and pleased for how very far I have come!
In the initial, very depressing months of recovery from patella fracture, I had little hopes of being able to resume daily activities beyond teaching and basic daily pursuits. Just walking was hard going, let alone dressing without assistance or descending stairs. It has been a long road of dedication requiring expert help on many levels, but current evidence indicates that hard work, expert help and application of Alexander principles has paid off.
I do still have limitations that may be ongoing, or may resolve with time and more dedication. My left (injured) knee cannot bend as my right (non-injured) knee can. Kneeling remains difficult. ”Child’s Pose” (resting back on folded knees and head on folded arms on the ground) is not, sadly, an option. Sprinting full out on level ground (other than on the wet, firm sand of a Kauai beach, barefoot) for any distance is very difficult. But, recalling that I couldn’t even sit comfortably for any length of time about 6 months ago reminds me of how far I have come.
Today, I deeply enjoyed a private Gyrotonic session with Magali Messac, my dear friend and Master Gyrotonic instructor. She challenged me to explore much more vigorous and refined movement in a whole person manner than I have attempted since injury. To say I was thrilled in the exploration barely states my exuberant response. After nearly two years of limitation in activity, I can now experience new movement learning and strength more fully again.
In fact, my use of self is probably better than previous to injury, as I have had the opportunity to re-examine habitual responses, old patterns, and long-held compensatory systems on all levels of self during this long, arduous recovery. My Alexander skills of pausing to allow a new response, refusing to narrow or shorten, allowing new experience, and insisting on a wider field of awareness were not only deepened but key to recovery.
I had to take the time that healing required, welcome expert assistance, and allow a bigger and unfamiliar coordination than previous experience and pain indicated. I am grateful, happy and relieved!
A year ago, with knee hardware still in place (thankfully removed subsequently), I experienced many frustrating limitations in mobility while visiting our beloved Kauai. At that time, I could not swim, walk on the soft sand, or ride a horse due to lack of function in my knee and painful inflammation.
Much has changed since then, thankfully. Although the long flight to Kauai with cabin pressure and imposed hours of sitting are not in any way comfortable for my knee, the discomfort is manageable now after hardware removal.
On my first pre-dawn barefoot walk on the beach in Kauai, with incredible stars overhead, I accelerated into a run, just to explore possibilities. Nearly two years after injury, I not only ran but sprinted full out on the wet sand with dawn tinged surf chasing my heels! Oh, delight, joy, relief and happy fulfillment of desire! I ran with ease and total absence of pain every morning for several miles!
I was also able to swim in the warm rhythmic ocean waters, and to ride my equine friend, Paddy, without any structural difficulty. Of course, riding a horse with even a minimum of skill requires many challenges to use of the self! My excellent riding instructor, Eileen, directed me with skill to attend to a larger view and to send my legs away from my torso. The guarding of my knee after injury, in addition to life long habits of use, potentially diminishes contact with the horse and the unified field of awareness that good riding requires. Still, there I was, happily on a smart and sensitive horse, viewing the tropical world from a different perspective and awareness. There were brief moments of unity with Paddy that yielded tremendous joy.
But back to running on the beach on my own two feet: I noticed a new coordination in running due to all of the work I have done since injury. There is a spiral relationship between pelvis and legs that feeds from the ground impact, up through my legs and torso in a manner that I have not previously experienced.