It is not uncommon for new students to have three or four lessons with me and then to stop coming, perhaps to return some time later, often not. There can be many reasons for this decision, but one common motivation involves, I believe, a combination of an increase in consciousness with raised but unfulfilled expectations. The first few lessons often bring an exhilarating sense of release and freedom. The student can enjoy being a beginner, with no expectations, and without the consciousness that easily becomes concerned with success and with trying. One of the basic attitudes of the Alexander Technique is to not mind being wrong, to not be concerned with performing well. Beware these negatives! What is the positive which warms the beginner’s heart? First, I think there is a place for letting go into full-blooded activity without a thought for getting something right, if the activity is not going to be dangerous. The other positive replacement for trying to be skilled is – the stopping, the not reacting, that is the core skill of the Alexander Technique itself. This stopping is not freezing: you live into the planned movement, into the environment in which the movement would take place. But you don’t move. Confidence is about feeling trust, about feeling bound together with something outside one’s point of awareness. Once you allow connection, you can also step back from it and enjoy the pause, enjoy the quality of the connection. That quality of enjoyment, I think, is the key to getting through this period when consciousness brings disappointment, and I know that I as the teacher have a big responsibility to keep the atmosphere light and open to laughter and fun. If the student’s consciousness is directed towards interesting problems which the teacher is presenting, then, actually, a new sense of personal trustworthiness, of confidence in oneself, can emerge out of this trying time in which one can get caught up in not being able to get it ‘right’. You observe yourself and you place your own specific movements in a wider context of you as a whole, in the wider context of where you are. You get interested in yourself in a sufficiently detached way to give yourself some room to move. Self-conscious frustration will always return but it becomes less concerning, less interesting.
Recently I was watching a boy of about eighteen months whom I know quite well and who is now established on his feet. He was playing with an older child, still about his size, an unusual situation for him, and I think her confident and competent movement led him to be more adventurous. As he moved there was a wonderful slightly gyrating interaction between his head, pelvis and feet. You could describe what was happening as the boy protecting himself from falling. That is accurate but, I think, does not touch the more basic need or orientation of the child to be vertical, or to remain in relationship to the vertical. In an obvious, slow-motion way he was using what Tristan Roberts, an expert on balance, calls ‘anticipatory pre-emptive action’. He is learning to match his movement intentions with changes in the environment, all the time with reference to what Roberts calls ‘the behavioural vertical’, which boils down to being the direction in which I must push against what is supporting me in order to cope with what is happening, and in order to try to fulfil my intentions, without falling over. So ‘the behavioural vertical’ is a living, intelligent direction, although not usually our conscious concern. So the static vertical direction we recognise in relation to the ground and gravity is only the basic reference for our experience of uprightness and of the vertical spine. In his experience of space, the child is intent on moving things in space, picking them up, placing them, handing and receiving things from his playmate. He is finding himself in earthly space. But his coming upright, and the interaction with his companion is already taking him into a different realm of behaviour in which you could say that the two young people are starting to live as forms which are not side by side, but creating a shared space in which they each thrive as an individual. As the two children play they are finding themselves both in this space of life and also in the other space which has more to do with substance and static distance. The ‘behavioural vertical’ expresses the interplay between inner and outer realities. This explains, I believe, why, even when the human being, the human spine, is not actually vertical (when we bend, or even lie down), we are able to keep a connection with, an awareness of, this inner uprightness, which is what our certainty of the continuity of the self, as we move through space and time, depends on. At root the Alexander Technique is about remembering to embody that inner spine of self-awareness. It begins with play, and perhaps ends with play too.
Life goes on, and our mental life goes on, and on. Where and how are we most usefully able to stop the flow? Rather than bringing life to a grinding halt, I want to ask you to explore the skill of pausing. A pause is a break or rest in a course of action. If you think of speech or drama or music the value of the pause is revealed. In these forms of expression which are laden with meaning and impact, then pauses become essential to allow for expressive communication. What has gone before, and what comes after, emerge clearly thanks to the pause. A pause allows transition even if it is not deliberate, even if it expresses doubt or hesitation. In relation to the practice of the Alexander Technique the pause is not only a basic discipline but also that element which confirms that what we develop with the Alexander Technique is not outward physical grace or prowess. We use and love our physical selves but the work is not about physical skill. It is of the body but not for the body. Pausing has a strong connection to thinking in that thinking is a reflective activity, living in the looking back and looking forward that belong to the pause. I want now to describe five qualities of pausing which form, for me, a loose sequence or series of transitions which give shape to my Alexander Technique practice.
There is the pause we bring about by actually stopping what we are doing, and then standing still, sitting, lying down. This has in it a primary response to stress and hurry. This physical stillness (though you are still breathing, still alive), as an achieved act is more interesting, and difficult to do than you might imagine.
There is the pause of not starting again, of not reacting to the stimulation that I become aware of.
The third quality of pause may happen on its own or may develop out of the conscious non-reacting. It is the pause of openness, of taking in what is new or unfamiliar, of being alert to what is original in yourself or your experience.
These three kinds of pause belong to that phase of the Alexander Technique process which is called ‘inhibiting’. The fourth quality of pause I wish to identify belongs more to the activity called ‘directing’. The mood shifts from openness, recognition, to welcoming, accepting, enjoying what has come into your experience, thanks to the power of the pause.
The fifth stage, or quality, relates, for me, to the deep need I have to find the world reliable and to experience common positive values and feelings in others. Out of pausing comes a deepened sense of responsibility for oneself (this is still an experience grounded in the physical) and this presence with oneself allows the outwardly directed faith in other people and the world to shine. Trust becomes an act of the self. The pause is not a self-sufficient state. It helps the movement from some kind of inner or outer excitement to some kind of inner or outer action. Thought becomes pause and pause becomes response.
Ribs are a familiar yet unknown feature of our structure. The same root-word is found in many languages; the image of the rib has been employed in describing the structure of everything from roofs to leaves to boats. We know we have lots of them which is perhaps why one could be spared for creating Eve – though it is also true that many people have an extra pair, ready for transformation. The ribs protect the heart and lungs but the term rib-cage is so unfortunate, so fixed and rigid, when the essence of the rib is liveliness. A snake uses its ribs to help with movement, enhancing the basic rhythms of contraction and release which allows the soft earthworm or simpler leech to move laboriously over the ground. Our limbs have opened out from the middle of the body and left the chest with the rhythm of breathing. A rib is sculpted in movement. Each rib is twisted along its long axis and also has an angle which means that you cannot lay a rib flat on a table. In life its middle portion, at your side, will be lower than both ends, though the front end is also lower than the back. It lives under twisting torsional tension, ready to spring out, to move apart. The higher ribs, lifting and rotating as you breathe in, move more at the front: the longer lower ribs as they are lifted move more out and up at the sides. I want to direct you to your sides, a place we lose underneath our arms and the tension in our shoulders. The human chest is wide rather than deep from front to back, but it’s still the case that you have wide, elastic sides, with a criss-cross of muscles from your head to your pelvis allowing flexible support through this forgotten region. If you find your sides then you can more easily connect front and back and find the space inside. Wislawa Szymborska writes a poem, ‘A large number’ about how crowded the world feels, how insignificant the individual, and yet she still feels alive and large and singular:
Why there’s all this space inside me
I don’t know
The mystery is in the imagination – and the ribs.
A diaphragm is a partition; we often associate it with a membrane of some kind dividing one part, say, of a pump or filter from another part. Sometimes the pelvic floor is called the pelvic diaphragm but the diaphragm in the human body is the division going across the whole ‘tube’ of the body below the heart and lungs, and above the soft bag of the abdomen. This diaphragm has the oesophagus passing through it, taking food to the stomach, as well as major nerves and blood vessels. This diaphragm moves; it is a muscle, but a very strange muscle. It is attached to the inside of the lower ribs and the lower part of the breast-bone and to the sides of the front of the lower vertebrae. The fibres of the muscles all radiate in towards a tendon which is the centre, like the bull’s eye, of the circular partition which the diaphragm is. Imagine a dome, probably much nearer the top of your body than you might imagine. It is most domed before you breathe in, an important connection in your thinking, because the diaphragm is the muscle of breathing, not the only one but the main mover. So, I repeat, this domed partition, going across the body in a sense horizontally, is a muscle. It will be flattest after you have breathed in, the radiating muscle, as it contracts, drawing the domed central tendon area down. As this happens, the ribs also expand to the sides especially, and to the front somewhat. The thoracic cavity, in which the lungs and heart are found, becomes larger as the diaphragm contracts. The soft spongy lungs, which are attached to the inside of the thorax, are expanded by this movement of the walls caused by, principally, the diaphragm – and the air, through its inherent pressure, flows into the space within the lungs that has been created. In this basic picture there is no need for sucking in air, taking breaths, using the muscles around the shoulders. All these extra elements can be used, but need not be. The diaphragm together with the ribs and their associated muscles work together, in breathing in and breathing out, to maintain a rhythm which is using elastic stored energy in both phases. Volumes have been written on the part various elements play in this process, particularly the muscles of the abdominal wall (the muscles which you can use to pull your ‘tummy’ in) but I suggest you try to live simply with this rhythmical dome. An experienced conductor of choirs said to me recently that the best tonic for a long rehearsal is to get the whole choir to laugh. Laughter is infectious and it moves from one person’s diaphragm to the next. The diaphragm, uniquely in close contact with the heart in the human being, is the organ of empathetic responsiveness – which is just another way of describing breathing.
Acknowledge your diaphragm – then, go back to the head and the lengthening of your back, to the responsive support which your diaphragm can work from. Then let it get on with enabling you to laugh and to sing, to breathe and feel. With breathing, the first thing we need to learn is not to interfere.
I live in Scotland, the home of golf, and a country where golf is a sport for all and part of the national culture. It is therefore not surprising that I count several players among my students. But there is more to it than that. In F M Alexander’s third book, The Use of the Self, he devotes a chapter to “The Golfer who cannot keep his eyes on the ball”, one main concern of which is to explore how end-gaining, the determined desire to get the ball where you want it, and our inability to stay aware and in control of how we are approaching the act of hitting the ball (what F M Alexander calls misuse of the self) – how these two reinforce each other in a vicious circle in which neither can be prevented before the other one is. If things don’t go well, we tend then to become more and more drawn in to trying harder and harder to get rid of an even more focused-upon ‘defect’.
With the Alexander Technique we break into this tightening spiral by, first, preventing our reacting. A round of golf – seventy or so moments of precise and often powerful co-ordinated movement in which you hope for a fluent expression of technique and in which there are libraries-full of possibilities for minute errors to be identified and cured: this is a great opportunity, and possible quicksand, for the Alexander Technique with its discipline of staying whole, and staying with the next step. This is the basic psychology, if you like, but it comes back to the body and here I want you to work with your golf balls – the rounded heads of the thigh bones, the femurs, which fit into the deep sockets of the pelvis. It is of course only about 3/5 of a sphere, as it becomes the angled neck of the femur which then becomes the long shaft which eventually expands into the rounded condyles which help form the knee joint. This joint at the top of the femur is the place where you are designed to lift your leg, as in walking, or lean forward, as in beginning to get up from sitting down, or to lean forward and let your legs fold, as in bending to pick something up. It is a joint which combines stability with freedom and range of movement, through its physical ball and socket structure, and all the ligaments and muscles and cartilage which surround and connect the actual bones. In the Alexander Technique we work a lot with the head and also with the feet – our relationships up, and down, with the ground. In between are these big significant joints which, if we live with them, will help to keep us alert and responsive. But so many people don’t know about this golf ball and its pivotal role in movement, usually because the thousand other golf balls, the tasks we try so hard to do well, absorb out attention. Useful self-monitoring is helped by a clear understanding of the anatomy of movement. You ‘see’ the golf balls within and the golf ball without. You gain some clarity, connecting self to task.