Way back in the early 1940s ‘good posture’ as an item valued and encouraged by society first came to my notice I would have been about fourteen. My straight-backed school friends were one by one awarded ‘posture badges’ at the end-of-term assemblies, watched enviously by me. So one term I tried really hard to put my shoulders back and stop slumping, to sit up, walk properly and all the rest of it, 110 doubt tensing all the more in the attempt. End of term arrived and found me ready to leap up and claim what I had surely earned - my Posture badge. They were not impressed by my efforts and my name was not called. So I gave up, tried to forget it and pursue the more interesting things that were crowding around me.
In 1953, I was attracted to a small advertisement appearing in the New Statesman, the left wing weekly, for re-education. Something to do with posture and poise, and the re-education aspect put it well clear of failure and posture badges. Cheap, even free for deserving cases, it was sponsored by the Wife of Sir Stafford Cripps, the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer. They were both devotees of FM. Alexander and felt that something so good should be available to anyone who wanted it.
I got myself and my son, a baby at the time, to Holland Park. My teacher sat me down and stood me up many times and then put me on a table and pulled my legs. It seemed strange but rather pleasant and she was unfazed by my posture and humpy, rounded back. She remarked that I was a rather tense person; tensely and meekly I agreed, seething within! At the end of the lesson I remember saying 'you make me feel like a princess', because what she had done was so good. But I was a little bit frightened of her and remarked, probably rather aggressively, that she reminded me of gym teachers. ‘No,’ she said tersely, ‘I am an Artist.' I was greatly surprised and felt I had put myself in the wrong, good and proper!
It was disappointing that my great adventure should end on this note. They offered me, I think, three free lessons which, regrettably, I never took up for various practical reasons. Maybe, too, there was a fear of taking the problem really seriously and I felt I had gained so much in that one lesson in spite of my ambivalence about the teacher. Perhaps, in retrospect, it was as well, as the centre was run by someone who, I understand, had rather distanced himself from Alexander’s pure method.
During the 1960s, Jungian analysis enabled me to change a great deal and discover more of who I was by working through some of the early-childhood emotional problems which were affecting my adult relationships for instance with the Alexander Technique teacher. As therapy came to an end I set fair to ‘de-stoop’ and stand tall. But it seemed I could not: even then it took too much effort (of course, as I now realise) and, unable to keep up the impetus, determination dwindled. ‘Trying’ was a different kind of wrong way to express myself in all the movements of daily life, and just did not work. Meantime, I had changed my job from teaching young children to working with student teachers. Thirteen years later, I taught in schools again, at which point I really felt the strain of stooping and bending in the wrong places and my shoulders became more stressed, although I loved the work.
In the early 1980s and now living in South Buckinghamshire, I must have been ready for another encounter with the Alexander Technique - there is a destiny which shapes our ends!
Responding to an advertisement in the local press, I came to have lessons with a young teacher. She lived about five miles from my home and I think of her with affection. I remember her holding one of my legs off the table and asking in her gentle American accent, ‘Are you going to give me your leg?’ I think I had fortnightly lessons with her for about six months before she moved away to Cambridge.
She put me on to a friend of hers, a very good teacher she said, living in Aylesbury. 50 lessons continued. He was indeed, I thought, Alexandrian to the core and a very committed teacher. It was a long drive after school from Old Windsor but he would give me a cup of tea in his kitchen before lessons. He taught me that the Technique involves total coordination of the parts of the self, brain and nervous system, muscles, thought and emotions -the lot. Some of what he said, for instance about spirals, was hard to grasp and I felt constantly challenged. More than once he remarked that I was ‘on beam’ and I realised that all the transcendental meditation that my husband and I were practising, with its notion of ‘doing less to accomplish more’, probably helped.
He suggested that I might like to have the odd lesson with his own teacher in London. Again I did not take advantage of the offered opportunity I certainly had no inkling of what I was missing and in any case I was very satisfied with his teaching. But alas, as he began to work more and more in London, in preparation for opening his own school in Aylesbury, he no longer gave lessons at home and put me on to another teacher who was, he assured me, very able and nearer to my home. I think I had been with the second teacher for about a year. The third knew what he was doing alright, but I did not feel in any way challenged, and knew I was not learning as much from him as from the first two. After a few months he too moved away and I did not seek out another teacher.
Why not? I was rather dispirited at that point and still, I think, felt the loss of the second teacher. I suppose I had a glimmering of ‘leaving myself alone’, but that dwindled as time went on. Not one of the teachers had stressed the importance of lying down in semi-supine position on a regular daily basis, so I did it less and less often. From time to time I thought the directions, but I had no notion at all of permanent primary control. I just did not realise that one needs to devote serious time and attention to the matter, that the Alexander Technique is a discipline.
Running a home, teaching full time, meditating regularly twice a day, gardening, going to art classes and concerts, socialising I was busy, busy. So, gradually, I lapsed. At first I would sometimes rest in semi-supine during the lunch hour or after school, and even had the children doing it after movement lessons. But that was it; a little Yoga and a lot of meditation constituted my self-improvement programme for the next quarter century or more. No more moves on the real re-education front from the early 1980s until 2006.
By now, widowed and settled into a different way of life, the prospect of reaching my eighties was only two years away, and I was beginning to feel ‘past it’, prematurely so I now realise. I was increasingly stiff, bent over, less and less able to straighten up, and very quickly tired: simple exercises from a do-it-yourself Pilates book seemed to cheer me up for a while, but they took so much effort. Old age was looming.
Then a few things happened which brought Alexander to my attention again. A couple of my friends remarked independently how much they were gaining from the Technique, one of them a good deal older than me. Then there was an article with photographs in the Guardian, about an Alexander teacher in St Andrews, in her nineties, still working and every morning doing yoga and walking the coastal path. Inspiring. Nearer to home a teacher in the next village advertised in the parish magazine I’d often seen it but, was she any good? A friend who had met her told me she was, at any rate, a very nice person and people spoke well of her work. Here, I felt, was a last chance, and within walking distance. I rang, liked her response and knew straight away that I was being handed something good on a plate. Now or never. This was IT. What luck!
She seemed to combine warmth, enthusiasm and concern, with just the right amount of rigour. In the kindest possible way she made it clear from the outset that to lie in semi-supine every day for about twenty minutes was more of a necessity than an optional extra, and produced an instruction sheet with illustrations. Pretty soon I got the message about the importance of inhibiting and directing as an all-day, lifelong commitment. But no chiding when, of course, I could not do it very much. She had been through all the problems herself, knew just where I was at and offered wonderfully firm yet light-hearted support -just what I needed.
After about sixteen months of weekly lessons I realised I had changed. I was slightly less crooked, more ‘up’, with greater mobility, energy and joie de vivre - almost young again. I could not have believed it possible, but it was happening. Every lesson was full of interest, and I read extensively and felt more and more drawn to the Technique. At my teacher’s instigation I had the occasional treat of a lesson with her’ own teacher, in London. (No more passing up of great opportunities!) I attended a couple of courses, which broadened my experience of the Technique and made me want to learn more and more. Both my teacher and her teacher seemed to be offering me the option of doing some teacher training; no pressure, just a suggestion.
It was a big decision. I knew it would be taxing, especially at my age (seventy-nine) and that there would be neither time nor energy for much else. The journey would take at least an hour, incurring a change of trains -this in itself was tiring, especially on the way back after a morning of intensive work. But it was only for a term. Start in January and be finished by Easter, so I envisaged, as I decided to take the plunge. I had made preliminary visits and was wonderfully accepted and encouraged by the students. One youngish man said, ‘the best thing I ever did), and a delightful American women in her sixties and near completion of the course made it clear that age was no barrier. It was irresistible, and on January 2nd, 2008 I began at the school.
After the first day I wrote, ‘I am exceedingly tired. So much input from teachers. I experienced such lovely welcomes from teachers and students alike that I am thoroughly happy about it all.’
That first term was a revelation so many ‘turns’, so many trained hands at work. At first I felt a complete novice, trying hard to do the right thing, but no one seemed to despair about me. It will come, was the message, direct up, will, wish and want, let the teacher do the work, use the eyes and so on. I was privileged to have the benefit of the co-head of training’s care and expertise, but for only a little while as the cancer was advancing fast and he died on April 10th, having been absent for most of the term.
On 7th January I wrote that he was ‘back, and he taught me about “monkey”, very slowly and deliberately after he had had me standing, then sitting and standing once or twice. It seemed easier today or perhaps I am losing the need to “do it”. He is so gentle and understanding. He stressed throughout “neck to be free”, not to pull
the head back and not to pull down in the front. I mentioned that l had realised over the weekend that my tummy muscles were tense" He said “think neck free, head forward and up first, and then tummy release, adding that the overall use is always more important than the little details - treat the whole and not the parts .
His untimely death was a tremendous loss to the school, and the atmosphere was very sombre and sad as students and teachers alike mourned him.
Before the half term break, teachers were telling me that things were changing and I sensed it myself. Quoting again from my diary, one of the teachers ‘got me standing in a way that seemed new. I said it did not feel like standing, it felt like something else. Why is all this so exciting and good? Because I think it is something I have never dreamt was possible, a true re-education, and at eighty!’
One of the students asked me what new things I had discovered in this first half term. I found it difficult to separate things out but later in my diary I wrote:
By 28th February I had decided I definitely wanted to go on to a second term.
I often wondered what caused the difference between the two sides of my back: the right scapula was almost hidden in the stoop and my round shoulders, and the shoulders were at different levels. I am sure that my response to an almost perpetually tense atmosphere at home during my earliest years was to withdraw into a protective hunch. Also, I had an attack of pneumonia when l was eight. No antibiotics were available in those days and the illness caused a build up of pus around the affected lung that had to he removed surgically - an empyema. A drainage tube was inserted under the right shoulder blade, causing displacement which became a permanent feature of my anatomy -helped no doubt by my poor use, my hunch. A remark made to me by one of the teachers during this second term, and recorded in my diary, put the whole matter into perspective. She said, ‘the aim is never to change shape but only(!) teach good use. One of my legs is shorter than the other and it’s never going to grow.’ In point of fact, a good deal of change of shape had taken place, but indirectly. As so often during my training, this was exactly what I needed to hear at the time, and it changed my attitude permanently.
During term two, the joy of learning about the soft placing of hands on the students in my group opened up another vista of the Technique - directing one’s use not merely for one’s own benefit, but for others. Of course I stayed for a third term, during which I wrote in my diary:
I seem to be taking the Technique into my everyday life much more often. To begin with, it’s a novelty and one does it very occasionally. Then I started feeling guilty at how rarely I did it. I think it takes quite a while for the Alexander Technique to become really established in one’s brain/mind/intention. I was feeling over the long weekend of snow etc. that the Alexander Technique is just undoing my lifelong way of going about living, and that only when having a lesson is one able to experience something else in its place. These last few days seem to have been an experience of ‘Help!’ I am stranded neither here nor there but almost suddenly today, I feel grounded again, with the Alexander Technique more firmly part of me.
During my fourth term (I had decided to stay on for as long as I could cope with it), I attended a weekend course and it was after this that I realised that I wanted to teach. So I completed nine terms, but because of increasing tiredness gradually cutting back to four days a week, then three, then two thus allowing plenty of recuperation time. This meant that I was short some sixty days, which takes a long time to accomplish at only two days a week! The school was moving temporarily and I could not face an even longer journey. To stop was a very painful but realistic decision and that is what counts. I can go in for the odd morning feeling totally welcomed by all and I exchange work on a regular basis. My home teacher, in the next village, and I work together every week, to my huge benefit. And I have a pupil! An old friend who is interested and knows I am not fully qualified, comes weekly for a lesson and this always energises me no fee of course. So all is very far from lost. In fact, it feels just right.
Recently I have realised that if I let up on trying to inhibit and direct, my body does not like it and begins to hurt, proof that it appreciates better use, so one just has to go on living the Technique, willy-nilly! Apart from other benefits, it helps to keep me living in the present moment, neck free now, and maybe that is the beginning of wisdom.
Those nine terms working in close contact with younger students of many nationalities, taught by inspiring teachers, each with his or her own slant on the Technique, have constituted a wonderfully mind broadening experience. Such a privilege at my age. I feel a never-ending love and gratitude toward them all for enabling me to experience the truth of Alexander’s work, and for doing it with such humour, warmth and care. It was all such fun!
Now I am eighty-six, and old age has kicked in with its diminished energy and pains. I find balancing and walking rather problematic. But two things are tremendously helpful: daily Buddhist mindfulness meditation and practising the Alexander Technique with weekly lessons. Awareness of body and mind. I am fortunate to have had so much AT training Whilst I was still able. Now it is simply essential for continued wellbeing.
I read somewhere that once, when EM. was bidding an elderly pupil goodbye after her last lesson, he gave her this advice: to keep her neck free and to make sure she always had something to look forward to. Brilliant!