Twelve pounds? Really? As in 12lb!
That’s almost a stone, I think, as I am handed the heavy cake tin full of metal kitchen weights. That is the approximate weight of a human head, this lady tells me. Turns out she is a teacher of something called the Alexander Technique, and so I begin without even knowing it.
Looking back after twelve years, one for every pound in that tin, it is easier to chart my journey, but at the time it just sort of unfolded. I am a teacher of the Technique now, and this is my story.
So there I am, in 1998, standing in a school hall at a local practitioners’ event, hearing about this Alexander Technique. I am an active mum with a young daughter, part-time job, and home and garden to run. So busy, busy, busy. As I hold this really heavy tin, I am struck by the idea that maybe carrying and balancing this heavy head of mine might have something to do with my continuous back and neck pain? Hum, sounds plausible to me.
I am used to pain: old injuries from training as a classical ballet dancer with shin splints and bloody toes from pointe work, considered normal and dismissed. Years of working as a stage manager in theatres, pushing heavy scenery around and working very long hours. I’ve loved it all, but the cost has been Visiting chiropractors to ease the pain in my back when it gets too bad. That works for a while, until the next time I can hardly move.
Then there are new injuries from rushing around, carrying kids, bikes and groceries. My gardening and vegetable growing become increasingly difficult as the pain in my back and neck intensifies, as do my Visits to the chiropractor.
I consult the medics, and eventually MRI and X-rays reveal that I have Structurally damaged my sacroiliac joints and some of the vertebrae in my neck. Uh-oh, I think, I’m only thirty-eight years old for goodness, sake and yet I can’t do a lot of things I want to, simply because I hurt too much. I am offered pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs. This really worries me: what will I be like in ten, twenty or thirty years’ time? There is talk of surgery in the future to fuse vertebrae to reduce the wear and tear on my spinal nerves. I really do not want to sentence myself to a life of pain and restricted movement, but what else is there?
I realise I have vaguely heard of the Alexander Technique, in passing, as I work in theatres. I thought it was for actors only, not me, as it was something to do with improving voice protection or posture, wasn't it?
Apparently not, as it turns out, or perhaps I should say that those outcomes may be by-products of the Technique over time but they are not the core - more of that later.
Suffice it to say, I am sufficiently intrigued by what I am hearing about the Alexander Technique to take up this teacher’s offer of an introductory course she is going to run locally for a small group of us mums. Great, I think, I can squeeze that into my schedule too.
We have a good time. It’s fun to learn about something new, and to begin to see and accept that the way I am using my body, every day, is linked to how well or not I am able to function and do things. So I am excited, as the Technique seems to be offering me a way to help myself and it does. I have lessons on and off for the next five years. They help with pain reduction and a freer range of movement and I love it. However I feel as if I am missing something important, and slowly I understand that I am using the Technique to enable myself to do more and more and more. Great, you might think, but really, I am just pushing myself harder and harder. I haven’t understood that what I really need to do first is to stop.
I know that I want to train to be a teacher of the Technique but how can I fit it in and afford it? I have my part-time job, teaching stage management to drama Students during the week. I am in the middle of of my PGCE in post-compulsory education. So, I start by doing an Alexander training course that is run over a weekend once a month. Sure, I can fit that in. I manage most of the first year, and it is interesting and valuable stuff, but I realise that I need a different approach. I allow myself to be easily distracted by my busy life and I am not disciplined enough to practise by myself. I need the structure, time and self-permission that training every day will give me.
It dawns on me that I need this to be my life, not something I squeeze into it. This is a personal choice to change my part-time training to a full-time course. It takes time for me to finish my PGCE and negotiate with my family and employer to make this possible. I really enjoy my job and need it to help pay for my training. My teaching timetable is changed, freeing up my mornings, and I am now able to start a three-year course in September 2005. Hurrah!
So, here I am on my first morning, standing in another hall with a group of fellow students and our head of training. I’m keen as mustard and ready to learn. It is very quiet in this lovely, spacious room. In fact, it is unnervingly quiet. I glance around and everyone seems very composed, but when will we start?
Now, I am the first to admit that I am a great ‘doer’ and a pragmatist through and through. I always want to know what something is for or how something is going to work. How it is going to make a difference to something or someone, preferably for the better? And, you know what, I want to know now, so can we please get on with it? My poor teacher, he is infinitely patient with me as I fight to be a good student for a very long time.
I slowly discover that this learning is so different from what I thought learning was. I actually have to do less, very bizarre for someone with a Strong work ethic. I find myself thinking, what do you mean when you say ‘less is more’? That just doesn’t make sense, perhaps if I try harder? Nope, that really doesn’t work, as I get tenser and tenser. But I want to get it right, to be a good student: that’s the way I was raised.
To start with I am easily frustrated with myself, with the Technique, with my teachers and with the writings of EM. Alexander. It all seems so dense, so opaque, so wordy and takes a lot of digesting. Over the three years I eventually relish becoming a detective about myself and F.M.’s books. Reading, discussing, arguing with colleagues and going back to his book The Use of the Self, and myself - again and again.
I begin to understand that I need to give up my preconceived ideas not only about myself but about how I function. It turns out that my internal body-map is anatomically incorrect. I am not made the way I thought I was. Where does this heavy head of mine actually attach to my neck? Knowing structurally how I am constructed, Where my joints really are and how they are designed to work helps me to function better. I enjoy the changes that our studies in anatomy bring to my thinking and moving.
I often find myself laughing as I come up against myself and all my powerfully ingrained habits. What do you mean you expect me to be able to walk from here? Are you kidding? I can’t do that, as I am not starting from my familiar place nor getting ready in my usual or habitual way. I walk anyway and learn that it is possible after all. So there is not a correct position for me to be in, but only a correct condition of being consciously present. I love being in class, finding myself sitting down or standing or walking with no familiar idea of how I got there. How exhilarating that so little effort was involved, how scary that I don’t feel like me anymore help! I am beginning to learn to stop interfering with my system. When I am able to do this, my system can function the way it is designed to without all the extra interference I unconsciously like to add in.
This work seems full of paradoxes, and I find I am often surprised by how inaccurate my feelings are. I can feel like I am leaning forwards when a quick glance in the mirror shows me the opposite. How strange, talk about faulty sensory perception, so often the opposite of what I feel is what is actually happening. My desire to feel things out, and then make a judgement call as to how well I am doing, is a difficult thing to give up. After all, my senses are constantly giving me feedback and it is hard to simply notice without reacting. I want to follow my thoughts, my directions into my body, but in doing so I realise I am interfering with myself rather that getting out of my own way.
Talking of feelings, I am occasionally ambushed by my release of emotional tension as I let go of a physical one, and find myself crying. Somehow they got stored together in my musculature and movement. I am beginning to understand why EM. called them ‘emotional gusts’, and gusty they can be. I learn not to panic or feel embarrassed. They will pass. I recognise that here is yet another stimulus, yet another opportunity to inhibit and direct. Or not. In the end, it is always my choice.
Finally, I understand that it all comes down to my freedom to choose how I react to What comes at me, either from the outside or the inside. I find that inhibition is a real gift, especially to a workaholic like me. As far as I know, it is distinctive to the Technique, and for me inhibition is at the core. I think it is tricky to describe inhibition in words, as it is an experience unique to each individual, and each of us will make our own meaning. I will have a go anyway. I would say inhibition is when I consciously make a space between a stimulus and my response. It is very creative, because in that space, between noticing and doing, I am able to make an informed choice instead of reacting automatically. I get off the treadmill of my unconscious habits for a while.
Staying with the subject of definitions, I find I am often asked, 'What is the Alexander Technique?’ I have come to appreciate that it is quite hard to answer this question, because the Technique is so experiential. However, for what it is worth, I think the Alexander Technique is the Study and conscious experience of thinking in relation to movement.
Now I am fifty years old and rarely experience pain, despite my active life and burgeoning vegetable garden. I am a teacher of the Technique; I still go into class once a week and I also have a new part-time job which I’ve organised around my Alexander life, rather than the other way round.
Was it easy? Yes and no. There were considerable costs involved. Costs in terms of money, certainly more than twelve pounds. Costs in terms of of time and balancing my commitments to family, work and life in general. Then there were costs to myself in learning to accept, and eventually delight in, the unknown, the uncomfortable and the sometimes downright terrifying experience of change. Luckily I had great companions along the way: encouraging teachers, other supportive students and eventually pupils. It is a privilege to be and work alongside them all.
In the end, I want to say thank you to Frederick Matthias Alexander for his Technique and especially the gifts of inhibition and direction. I have learnt to endgain less, to be more reflective and not such a ‘doer’. Oh, I have aspirations and goals, it’s just that now I care about how I reach them, rather than rushing blindly without paying attention to the process. I realise this work is not a quick fix, but it can be a lasting one if I am willing to do what Alexander did and begin again every day, starting afresh with those basic principles of stopping, thinking and choosing. And so this has become a life sentence after all, one that I welcome, one that I enjoy.