Author Archives: user

Frames get in the way

Memories of training in London come alive and bring me joy whenever I meet up with Julia Messenger again.  We trained together in the very early nineties, and still have so much to talk about, not least regarding the Technique, but also about everything else. Frequently, ‘everything else” turns itself back to the Alexander Technique.

We were walking through London last week and she described her experience of the Bonnard exhibition that was on. One of the things she discussed were the frames on the pictures: “There was more than one unframed canvas – there is a single small room dedicated to five of them, nailed to the wall as he would have painted them in his studio. These artworks, unencumbered by heavy, clumpy frames do seem to hit you directly in the eye and the experience was perceptively different from the other paintings.”

This got me thinking how often people frame the things that they do and say, and how this gets in the way of direct experience. As if reality were not enough, we go about ‘framing’ who we are with stylised gestures, turns of phrase, facial expressions or postural shifts. These are matters of habit, usually, rather than the creative animation of what we say. It would be like dressing up nature. As if we we need a little help, we put on a smile, feign some interest, or maintain some subtle pretence or other. But it’s a question of ego, and it makes us false, alienates us from ourselves and others from us, and keeps peace and self-acceptance at bay.

And this is where the Alexander Technique comes back into the picture – through it, we learn to face up to things as they actually are, let ourselves be as we actually are, and present ourselves to the world as we actually are; that is to say, unadorned and free of the myriad habitual patterns of being to which we get so accustomed that we don’t even know they are there.

All this is not to suggest, however, that there isn’t tremendous value to be gained from reframing the way we understand or approach matters. Reframing gives us a different lens or understanding of ourselves, and enlarges our understanding.

We might see something as a problem, for example, but on a second look take a larger view of it, and see how a problem may be the result of the choices that we have made. This may suggest a new course of action that we might otherwise not have considered.

I was fortunate that my concern about my rounded shoulders led me to lessons in the Alexander Technique. It helped me reframe my problem and I soon learnt that my shoulders are not an issue of real concern, and certainly not the issue regarding my posture. I was misunderstanding posture and not taking a holistic view of myself. If I had tried to “fix” my shoulders, as a result of poor insight and lack of understanding, I would have caused more problems for myself, and never have redressed my personal difficulties in the way that the Alexander Technique has made so easy. Instead of seeing my shoulders as a problem to be solved, I see them as a pointer to the development of a new relationship with myself.

Life is an ongoing exploration, a rediscovering and enlarging of our frame of consciousness. So I am not attached to the conclusions that I come to. There is always scope for reframing things. And let’s be clear, reframing is an art, something Alexander Technique has helped me achieve. But dolling ourselves up with the interfering frames of artifice leaves us greatly worse off.

Your ego footprint

Think about your ego footprint

I recently got new neighbours. They live in the house adjoining mine. I can’t hear them talking unless they are very loud, but I can hear if they knock things over, walk in high heels, play loud music, or reorganise their bookshelf up against our common wall.

The last neighbours, Fabian and his girlfriend, were very quiet; one hardly new if they were home. They moved away without saying goodbye, which is a shame, but the point is I never realised they had gone until I spoke to the movers who were hauling their things onto a removal truck. Fabian had moves “several days ago” they said.

Now I have new neighbours, and I know when they are there, from the time they unlock the door with a grunt, a sigh and a tumble inside. They are especially noisy on the weekends. They park on the pavement, leave their door open while they smoke out in the yard, continue chatting from outside to anyone still inside, and play music that gets louder as the Sunday afternoon wears on. They seem to knock and damage things quite a bit, and generally stomp about.

We speak of “footprint” to describe the impact that our way of life has on the environment; and the difference in my two neighbours led me to think about whether we each have our own individual “ego footprint”. Am I a bull in a china shop, or am I quiet as a mouse? Sometimes, it is true, I can be like the former, and other times I am more quiet, but generally I am somewhere in between, shifting dynamically as to my mood or the occasion – or how much I’ve had to drink.

Consider reducing your ego footprint

We each have our unique ego footprint, which determines the range within which we normally operate. Some people are filled with bombast and others show great humility. Some have little and often no awareness of themselves, while others show care, understanding and restraint, thinking before they do something and sensitive to how they are doing them. They are in touch with what is appropriate to the place and occasion and do not assume that everyone around them wants to know they are there. Some people bump into things, hoot and jump lanes, generally irritating those around them – if not causing actual damage. Others have a softer impact, glide through life announced, and use their energies more effectively.

Not that I want to spoil anyone’s fun. And because I don’t, I aspire to ‘taking up less space’. The Alexander Technique is my route to getting there.

The present is infinite

I overheard the late Marjorie Barlowe, an Alexander teacher who trained many teachers of the Technique, and who happens to have been Alexander’s niece, say to a young guy she was working with on the table, “yes I know we have other things to do in five minutes but let’s remember that in a certain sense we have an infinity of time”. This was back in 1991 and I have often recalled those words when I find a pupil rushing or getting anxious.

Nowadays I often say to my pupils “we have infinite time” and one questioned me today by asking what I mean. So I tried it on my next pupil. But he correcting me by saying: “well, perhaps we can have an experience of infinity”. No doubt he is right, but time is but a construct and we can imagine living without past and future, without a word for “when”, and without being ruled by the might of time.

And it occurs to me that since we can only be alive in the present, only live right now, there really is no such thing as time, and we experience infinity if we stay in the present. And so, in a certain sense, we too are infinite. And in a very practical sense, if we remember this we can relax more, feel more expansive, and enjoy more freedom then if we are governed by the pressure of time.

Now sorry to be difficult, and to honour a Buddhist teacher I once had the great privilege of meeting, named Arnaud Maitland, I am going to be paradoxical and say that without a sense of time we will never get anything done. And indeed, by aligning ourselves in time, as Arnaud taught, we can accomplish a great deal. The trick is to stay in time, with time, but not forgetting that we ourselves are infinite, with infinite time, and that to stay in the present in that sense of infinity can help us be efficient rather than spiral out of control like the Road Runner, or Speedy Gonzales. Then time opens up and we can move more freely, think more creatively, and meet our deadlines with great efficiency.

Life is all about doing, manifesting, creating. Even relaxing on a Sunday afternoon under a tree with good friends, when we are especially able to enjoy the freedom of a sense of the infinite, as if free of time, we are up to something, whether it only be lying down, talking, eating grapes, having a snooze.

We can harness ease by having spacious awareness of where we are. At the same time, we can have an awareness of when we are, with a clear sense of the time we have, no more and no less, yet without being harassed and contracted by rushing. Yes, we can be clear about what we are up to, clear about our intentions to accomplish something or to simply arrive somewhere. And so we can live full and fruitful lives, get to our appointments in time, and do so with easy grace.

The world is designed for us

“Wow, look at the size of that tree!” said Brian. “Come on, let’s climb it,” said Julia. It was one of those rare summer days, perfect in every way, when you are with friends in the country, with time to do nothing. And you feel like you are 10 again.

We’d had lunch, toured some wine estates, and were now exploring a public garden, filled with indigenous fynbos, and that one giant Ficus tree. Within moments, Julia had climbed the enormous trunk and was making her way up a side branch. Responsive as usual to Julia’s enthusiasm, I spied a branch that looked just right. It curved off another making a gentle angle, a back-rest against which to lie. I climbed up and settled myself down along the branch, only to find it was anything but comfortable. It had nobbles all over that stuck into my back, the angle of the branches was wrong, it was too narrow. Nothing about the branch was fit for my purpose. And it had looked so wonderful from below.

The others had by now climbed up and were sitting in various spots around the tree, some more precariously than others. I was too lazy to move myself and chatted with the others until we all fell silent. Within about five minutes of having climbed up I found myself falling asleep. I realised with surprise that my branch was in fact after all the most comfortable spot in the world. It fitted me perfectly, was smooth as can be, and the angle was faultless, just like a beach recliner.

How often do we rant against the difficulties of life, the peculiarities of others, the discomforts of our living arrangements?

That tree taught me something so valuable: if you relax and don’t fight against the world, it becomes exactly what you want it to be. We can be amazingly flexible and adaptable but instead find ourselves chafing against the world by tightening, holding ourselves stiff, taking up an attitude, sticking to our opinions, expecting things to be different … all to suit us!

The Alexander Technique teaches us how to be responsive rather than reactive, to allow rather than push. The result is that we become easier, in fact more human, as I did after those few minutes of letting go in that tree.  Normally I would have jumped down in protest, but because of the day, my friends around me, my laziness, I stuck it out and found myself giving in to the shapes of the tree. How easy life can be if we remember this.

Life is enounter

The essence of every aspect of real life is encounter. We encounter things all the time. We meet others, and we live in close encounter with ourselves. There is no getting away from it: we are built for the purpose of encountering. And that makes us – and life – interesting, because there are always so many responses possible.

Unfortunately, we develop worn-out patterns in the ways in which we encounter others, in how we respond to them and to our own needs, and this limits our potential to enjoy life.  Think of how you relate to “boss”, to politicians, to friends, and even to members of your own family. Most of these patterns are habitual, and do not fit the individual purpose of any specific encounter. Understanding our responses in the way we engage with the infinite encounters that make up our lives is therefore the key to understanding life, and hence vital to any possibility for improving things.

The Alexander Technique sensitises us to our responses in any encounter – how we deal with objects, how we engage with others, how we attend to our needs. It gives us access to how we move, how we relate, and even to how we think. It teaches the skill of change, of taking charge of our responses in the moment, and this re-awakens our choice, flexibility, variability, and creativity.

Alexander Technique and self-acceptance

I sometimes say that the Alexander Technique comes down to a practice of love. The Technique is based on non-doing, which results in self-acceptance, without grasping or reacting. And this enables us to be with another free of judgments and expectations.

So what do I mean by love?

Love is:

  • I seek to see you as you are
  • I accept you as you are without judgment or wanting to change you
  • I give you the right to be here with all of yourself – as well as the right to choose not to be
  • I give you time and attention
  • I respect you and your choices
  • I believe you have the right to take up space
  • I connect with you, am available, am prepared to be moved by you
  • I am serious with you, and take you seriously
  • I choose to be with you
  • I accept and respect myself, and am willing to share feelings and thoughts openly with you
  • I show up in this relationship with all of me

Love is not:

  • I’m not jealous of you
  • I’m not in competition with you
  • I don’t have anything to prove to you
  • I don’t judge or resent you
  • I don’t anticipate judgment or rejection from you
  • I do not avoid conflict with you, any more than I shy from an emotional connection with you
  • Love it not soppy, or ‘nice’; I don’t pander to you – it takes guts and risk

Compare passion:

  • I can’t get enough of you
  • I need you to complete me
  • I idolize you
  • I am turned on by you, get excited just thinking about you; long to meld physically

A friend of mine, an artist, paints portraits. She says that no matter who she is painting, by the time she has finished the portrait she feels love for her sitter. For me this applies to my Alexander Technique students. Love is active, a giving of non-judgmental attention. It is not just a lucky happening.

How many lessons do I need?

This morning, a new pupil reminded me of myself when I was 24 years old and learning the clarinet.

Life events took me to Windhoek in Namibia for a year soon after finishing university. I decided to take up the saxophone, which is something I’d always wanted to be able to play. The Windhoek Conservatoire had no saxophone to lend me, so I settled on the clarinet – “it’s a similar instrument,” I was told.

After a couple of weeks I told my teacher I planned to be able to play Mozart’s clarinet concerto by the time I left the country. She looked at me nonplussed but was too polite to set me straight. In a few more weeks I realised how naïve my expectations had been.

So this morning, my pupil asked me: “What’s the longest-standing pupil that you have?”

“Over 5 years in a couple of cases,” I replied, “and there is one pupil whose recently returned after I first taught him over 20 years ago.”

“What?” she asked looking over her shoulder at me. “What can there possibly still be to learn after all that time?”

I smiled remembering my own assumptions about the clarinet – after all, I’d thought, you only play one note at a time, it couldn’t be as difficult as the piano which I’d played as a child.

Pupils can make extraordinary progress in just 10 Alexander lessons and really enjoy surprising benefits in that time. But like any skill in life that is really worth learning, it may take a good deal longer to get good at. Socrates said something like: ‘The more I learn, the more I realise how little I know.’ And how much more true is this when it comes to learning about ourselves!

Becoming a teacher of the Alexander Technique takes three years of full-time training. Even after that, novice teachers frequently don’t feel up to the job. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers wrote that it takes 10,000 hours to become seriously good at anything. While one doesn’t need anything like that to benefit hugely from the Technique, I must admit it was only after I’d been teaching for about 10,000 hours that I really did feel like an expert at teaching it.

My story: A Reawakening

I used to feel dulled, clouded and veiled in most of my daily life. Or at least that’s how I now perceive it, after my experience of the Alexander Technique. Days that embarrass me to look at photographs of that time – round-shouldered, pulled into myself, down and heavy.

‘Out of touch’ best describes it. Out of touch with my body, myself and the world around me, to say nothing of others. It is hard to explain this difference to anyone who has not had this dramatic shift in perception and awareness. I suppose that I didn’t realise what my state of being was like. It was so much part of me and I had no clear mirror on what was going on. The way we feel and think governs the way that we see things; and it is difficult to get an outside perspective on ourselves.

In those dull days I would often get frustrated and angry. I would react to small things, and lacked patience. I would always be rushing. Sometimes, I would get into arguments before I knew what was happening.

At the same time I was working as an attorney in a hectic office with five secretaries and could not possibly monitor all their work. The strain was enormous. I was also unfit because I had no time and frankly used to hurt myself when I rushed into exercise. Also, my coordination was bad; I could never see the ball let alone hit it. To make things worse, I was painfully insecure.

One day a friend suggested that the Alexander Technique would help me to straighten my back. I had always found that straightening up meant painfully holding myself up and I could never sustain it for more than a few minutes. I thought it would be wonderful if this Technique could work. My first lesson meant very little to me. I could get no sense from the teacher what I was supposed to do. I felt very little happening. I went again just to make sure. In my second lesson, while my teacher was working with me on her table, I was surprised to find myself becoming emotional. I knew that something important was happening. Out of touch with my emotions as a rule, this felt like the softening of a lifetime.  Over the next few lessons I became aware that my posture was changing very slightly and I made the connection between how I was reacting unconsciously out of my emotional state and my physical condition. Mostly, at first, I found I was beginning to let my shoulders drop – I’d been unaware how I’d been holding on as a result of tension. I became aware of the possibility of changing my posture but also aware of how difficult this was going to be. I was told very little by my teacher and felt that I was being kept in the dark. The whole process was a complete mystery to me and I regret now that my teacher couldn’t give me a clearer idea of what was happening. What was clear was that Alexander Technique had to do with a lot more than just my posture.

After about 20 lessons I went abroad trying to forget law. I spent the next year in a campervan in Europe and thought a lot about this new technique that I had learnt. Life became easier and I had a great time. But I was still not at all happy about my posture.  Nevertheless, I did feel that I had a tool to help me to improve it.

When I got home I found that I still had no solution to my dreadful work life. I went back to law and after several months of time-wasting delay, back to Alexander lessons. Now the hard work really began. I felt so wonderful after a lesson but by the next day I needed another one. This cycle continued for several years before I found the courage to admit that I did not want to be a lawyer. Instead I wanted to conquer my indecisiveness, become more true to myself in everything that I did and sort out the physical problems that I had had all my life – poor breathing, lack of coordination and shocking posture. I had already discovered that my posture was a reflection of the way in which I saw myself rather than the way I was born. The solution, to study to become an Alexander Teacher was already there, and eventually I found the strength to act on this insight.

Meantime, I had already met a visiting Alexander Technique teacher from London, who had visited Cape Town to give Alexander workshops. His work inspired me so much, he explained so much more, my response was so much more vivid. I sold everything I had, cashed in my insurance policies and borrowed the rest.

Soon I was living the life of a student again, but learning from a deeper place than purely a mental one; where I was embodying my learning. I found, for a change, that I was a good student . I cannot give a fair account of the joy and hope with which I began this venture. It was heaven. Starting at the Centre for Training in Holloway Road was like starting at the bottom. The school was a fascinating playground for exploration, with visiting teachers from near and far, and our wonderful trainer with his magical skill. Soon enough, I was part of a lunch group, and enjoying afternoon teas with my fellow students. These times were important meetings where we discussed the Technique at great length – so the learning day was much longer than the four hours of actual formal school practice.

This continued for the full three years of the course and I greatly missed the sun and the beaches and the space and the friendliness of home. The compensation of feeling that I was on the threshold of mastering the greatest discovery of the century was enough for me. I was growing taller and broader and my shoulders were dropping permanently and moving wider away from each other – my neck emerged like a tortoise’s. I was becoming physically lighter in myself and enjoyed the occasional games in the park with my schoolmates with a ball or bat. I began to cycle to and from school through the wet, gray streets, dodging aggressive, cycle-hating drivers. I began to feel alive and human. I began to enjoy the people around me, learnt to inhibit my negative reactions to perceived sleights and cancelled trains, and was less bothered by things that would have irritated me in the past.

A few experiences at school were especially significant. There were lessons in which I felt completely connected to the whole of my environment and not at all separate from those around me. I was completely flexible and movable and fluid. Time opened up into infinity. Running and other activities were joyful and effortless. I had found my self.

There were of course many occasions when I would feel frustrated with my progress, aware only of how far I still had to go and locked into certain habits that I couldn’t even properly appreciate let alone begin to avoid.

I left London by and large a new person and keen to return to Cape Town to share what I had learnt.

There are times when I feel light and easy. There are times that I am aware of the effortlessness of things compared to what they would have been years ago. There are moments with my pupils when I am in awe of the grace and openness that we are capable of as humans. I feel deeply privileged to be able to work in a caring way, helping others become more mindful, less stressed, calmer, more ‘choiceful’, and with fewer aches, pains and frustrations. My struggles with myself, and the difficulty with which I learnt the Technique, especially in the early days in Cape Town while still practicing law, are now something my pupils benefit from. They seem to learn so much more quickly than I did.

Know yourself, and take control of your life

Do you have clarity in how you go about things, in your daily tasks, your movements, your thinking? Or are you like most people at the mercy of your reactions, a prisoner of your habits. These can be habits of thought, of posture, and of personality. They are more honestly called your idiosyncrasies or eccentricities. And not all of them are endearing or helpful. You may like to think that this is what makes you you, but actually these habits hide you from yourself.

We seldom see our own quirks; though they are obvious to others. They can see our walk, our way of talking, our habitual phrases and ways of thinking. But we are mostly blind to ourselves and the causes behind our actions. They are elusive because they have become too familiar for us to notice. As a result, we fail to notice all the stumbling blocks to our happiness, ones we have ourselves created. These get in the way of our making the changes we wish for ourselves.

“Know thyself”

Alexander Technique opens up an avenue to gaining clarity into your functioning.  It offers a tool to “know thyself”. This tool helps you be in control of your own reactions, giving you the ability to monitor, prevent, moderate or change your functioning – moment by moment. This develops real self-control, meaning that you learn to do what you choose and only what you choose to be doing.

The result will be that your self-confidence grows, giving you gravitas and sincerity. It will help you to be real with yourself, and offer you real choices, a freedom few of us understand and can exercise.

Without this skill, we are compelled to live half-blind to our present reality, to the self who should be in control of our life. We have little choice to be who we really can be, and are captive to our past and our emotions. Without this rational skill, we are overwhelmed, our happiness frustrated, our lives undirected and unlived.

Alexander Technique teaches a way out of this conundrum, bringing our lives and ourselves back into our own hands.